Why Everything Failed

Bradley C.S. Watson

Patrick Deneen is a man without a country. In his much discussed recent book, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018), the Notre Dame political theorist argues that liberalism is promethean. Having existed for a half-millennium and having reached its practical apotheosis in the American regime, it is now reaping the whirlwind of its scientific hubris. As liberalism has lived up to its full potential—having built a vast edifice of individual autonomy divorced from a shared conception of the good life, and of individual rights at the expense human duties—we see that its foundations were never designed to support it. Liberalism, according to Deneen, is an ideology, an insistence that all human life be remade according to a political plan. Liberal politics, economics, education, and science are each oriented to liberating the self from the constraints of custom, culture, and nature. In this sense, the project of early modern “classical liberalism” and late modern “progressive liberalism” is the same. Liberalism amounts to a comprehensive “anticulture.”

Making a Tocquevillian point, Deneen highlights the fact that as individuals become increasingly atomized and their connections to alternate sources of authority attenuated, they become the playthings of the political sovereign, which ironically wears the label “limited government.” Meanwhile, liberal economics alienates workers from their labor, and geographically separates the winners from the losers in the global economy. Liberal education is no longer liberal in the old sense, but oriented merely toward ensuring that its student products—who themselves see they have no real choices—are prepared for employment in a deracinated global economy. For Deneen, even study of the Great Books, if they are modern, is problematic insofar as they teach the lessons that prevent our liberation from the modern project. Finally, liberal science rests on the shifting sands on which it was originally built by the likes of Bacon and Hobbes: dedicated to human control of the human and non-human environment, it undermines the possibility that we might recognize, let alone submit, to obligations beyond human control. Nowadays, liberals even approve the application of technology to liberate individuals from the reality of their own biological natures.

Although Deneen runs these liberalisms together, he seems most concerned about the last—science, or technology in particular. In this, he descends from a long line of philosophers and cultural critics that has included Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, and George Grant, though Deneen is inclined to say technology is the handmaid of political philosophy, rather than vice versa. Deneen is a better political scientist than any of his predecessors, though his political science is partial and tendentious. He insists that “The precondition of our technological society was that great achievement of political technology . . . our Constitution. The Constitution is the embodiment of a set of modern principles that sought to overturn ancient teachings and shape a distinctly different modern human.” Our res idiotica, abandoned by God, is the inevitable result.

Deneen goes too far in reducing modern political thought to the false anthropology of self-creation, against which he repeatedly inveighs. Defining, nay, reducing, liberty to the complete freedom to pursue one’s desires is unfair even to the originators of modern liberalism and, a fortiori, to the American founders, who were morally grounded statesmen, not philosophers. Is it self-evidently false that all men are created equal? The founders meant this in an obviously political sense, i.e., that no man is so naturally superior to another to be entitled to rule the other without his consent. This rests not on a dangerous voluntarism, but on a recognition of moral, political, and theological reality. Certainly none of the founders believed in “unfettered and autonomous choice.” Instead, they believed, and acted as if they believed, in self-government, which presupposes the taming of the passions through custom and law. A century after the founding, American progressives, far from being of one mind with the founders on the project of liberating the self, wrote voluminously against what they saw as the founders’ anachronistic, natural-law thinking—and against the Constitution that was its product.

The alternative to liberalism, according to Deneen, is smaller-scale democracy along with the reinvigoration of a counterculture of care and sacrifice—for the sake of others whose inherent relatedness to us liberalism masks and distorts.

Without question, modern liberalism is a target-rich environment. But so is Deneen’s alternative. Ultimately, it is Deneen’s anthropology that is false—borrowing from, yet at the same time masking or distorting, Christian doctrine, including Christianity’s insistent universalism and its recognition of what stands in the way of God’s will being done on earth, as it is in heaven. The impulse toward autonomy and mastery long predate modern political philosophy: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” Modernity did not seek to unleash the dangerous passions that constitute the soul, but to tame them through new modes and orders. Deneen would unleash them again, in service of the gods of new marketplaces.

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