In the summer of 2018, Barack Obama published a list of books worth reading. One was Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Obama’s assessment: “I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.”
Liberalism, according to Deneen, founded itself on the notion of securing liberty by granting rights, a free-market system, and space for individual initiative. But, as he takes stock of liberalism, he sees the liberal state as expanding in ways the founders of liberalism would have found frightening. Rights seem to be limited to the rights that the rich and powerful, the oligarchs, define as rights. Individual initiative and the free market system are more for the oligarchs, and those the oligarchs choose to enable, than for the average citizen in the liberal order.
For Deneen, this set of circumstances is a logical result of the philosophical ideas that the founders of liberalism embraced. They represent the inner logic of liberalism as it has worked itself out over the centuries. Liberals operate according to a feigned objectivity, an objectivity that turns out to be a mask that conceals the liberal’s desire to seize power for himself and his elite group of friends. This posture reveals itself in politics, economics, education, science, and technology.
From the 1770s to the present, liberalism has had a control on American political discourse. Beginning with the American Revolution, liberal American oligarchs sought to take power from their English liberal counterparts, but whether one follows Madison, Adams, Jefferson, or Hamilton, we see that each implemented or hoped America would follow a paradigm within the liberal umbrella. Take, for instance, debates between Adams and Jefferson. At the time of the American Revolution, they were united as part of the most liberal faction pushing for revolution. They knew, along with their fellow revolutionaries, that they would need to implement an intense propaganda campaign in order to convince the majority of the population, against their desires, to revolt against the British. The propaganda campaign succeeded.
In 1790, both Adams and Jefferson praised the opening events of the French Revolution. They ended up disagreeing over the constitutional mechanisms that they thought ought to be put in place in France. But they did not disagree about the liberal principles that ought to guide revolutions. In the 1820s, as both Adams and Jefferson ended their days, they patched up whatever quarrels that they had during their lives, and became united, enamored and full of hope at the future prospects of liberal revolutions in Europe as represented by liberal Greek revolution of the 1820s.
Deneen feels that the liberal state is no longer liberal. It has become, instead, more like the illiberal state of the French Revolution than the limited state for which early liberals hoped.
One sees the same trends in economics, education, and science. Liberal institutions are becoming the increasingly exclusive preserve of an elite that could care less about the middle class or individual freedom. They also seem incapable of promoting anything other than a system in which there are an elite few with an incredible amount of wealth and resources, and the many who are trending downwards towards subsistence living. Liberal educational institutions, rather than creating an environment for promoting the truth, have become instead high-priced vocational training programs which inculcate the “correct” sentiments in students who will be granted the privilege to enter into the elite economic, political, and social institutions.
Liberals place excessive emphasis on science and technology in education. They inculcate a mentality in which man is the master or the controller of nature. Beginning with Francis Bacon, liberals seek to torture nature to reveal her inner secrets. But even torture has its limits. Liberals for centuries inculcated a scientific mentality of man dominating nature, without regard for virtue, happiness, or the common good, and now they fear that nature, in the form of climate disasters, poses one of the largest potential threats to human existence.
According to Deneen, beginning with Shelley’s Frankenstein, we can see the constant oscillation between ecstasy, and anxiety over science and technology that takes place in liberal society. We now have movies like Contagion that deal with potential disasters caused by the environment or science gotten out of control. From 2001 a Space Odyssey, to Terminator, to Her we have movies that treat us to the Android or AI problem of technology and the human person. Rather than the practice of the virtues leading to freedom, in modern liberal society we live under the myth that technology will enable our freedom, and freedom is often understood as becoming free from any coercion or influence of our family or local community. This freedom, of course, is the freedom of the oligarch to manipulate and control the masses while enjoying his freedom to suck the life blood from the economy. For Deenen, modern technology has sapped us of our potential for virtue or self government.
Before we enter into a full assessment of Deneen’s argument, it would be good to outline a positive treatment of liberalism opposed to Deneen’s. This treatment can be found in books like Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age. This Taylor is not the revolutionary from Africa who came to the US in the 1980s, groveling for money and arms. Instead, he is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, who, in the 1960s groveled for money and arms for the Marxist Separatist in Quebec. We chose Taylor because his ideas currently hold much sway in intellectual circles around the Vatican, both at what are thought of as liberal or conservative Ecclesiastical Universities in Rome.
This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the March, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.
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