The first thing that Deneen usefully recognises is that Western politics is dominated by two variants of the same liberal philosophy. He calls them classical and progressive:
Camosy: When you say that “liberalism has failed,” you don’t mean that liberalism-as opposed to conservatism-has failed. Can you say more about what you mean by liberalism?
Deneen: By “liberalism,” I mean the political philosophy and the resulting political institutions, practices and beliefs that dominate the governments and societies of much of the western world. Its founding fathers were philosophers like John Locke, and in the United States, the architects of our Constitutional order. But I also include in their number those considered to be “progressives,” such as John Stuart Mill, or in the United States, John Dewey.
Most of our political debates pit “classical” against “progressive” liberal visions, holding the two views as diametric opposites and thus circumscribing the whole of our political imagination.
He also believes that liberalism has gradually unfolded over time, but that its very success has led to its failure:
What I seek to describe is a gradual but accelerating “realization” of a set of philosophical beliefs that have transformed practices, making us more fully liberal over time, and as a result, giving rise to a slow realization that its success leads to its own set of systemic failures. My thesis is that liberalism has failed precisely at the moment that it has succeeded
Deneen recognises that liberalism is not just a neutral position but an ideology based on a view of man as being an atomised, autonomous individual:
Camosy: Why do you think so many liberals fail to understand that liberalism, rather than a neutral political and ideological space, is a particular ideology and worldview?
Deneen: Liberalism has shrouded its substantive commitments behind a veil of neutrality, although some of its classical and contemporary philosophers and defenders are forthright about those substantive commitments...
...liberalism advances by positing the belief that humans exist in a state of nature as autonomous, disconnected, wholly free and rights-bearing creatures.
But what is claimed to be merely a description of human nature over time becomes an aim and goal of liberal society itself, gradually but ineluctably shaping people in the image of what it merely claims to describe. Thus, we increasingly see a liberal people defined by absence of interpersonal commitments, whether marriage, family, children, or memberships in longstanding cultures or a religious community.
Further, where commitments are taken on, they are subject to perpetual revision - whether through divorce in the matter of marriage, abortion in regard to children, or church shopping or the rise of “Nones” in the case of religion. Such people are driven above all by demands of consumption and money-making, claiming the right to self-definition while abandoning any longstanding cultural practices of self-limitation, which become increasingly regarded as unjust and unjustified limitations upon one’s freedom and autonomy.
More ironically still, a massive growth of the state is required to make this experience of individualism possible, thus enthralling purportedly free subjects to a pervasive political order.
He believes that Roman Catholic culture in the West is no longer clearly an alternative to liberalism, but tends to divide along classical vs progressive liberal lines:
Camosy: How have Roman Catholics-and even Roman Catholic moral and political theology-accepted certain aspects of liberal ideology? What might this mean for the Church as liberalism fails?
Deneen: Tragically, at least in America but perhaps more pervasively in the West, Catholicism has come increasingly to be defined by and experienced as the two political iterations of liberalism, whether “classical” or “progressive.” Rather than offering a distinct alternative, many Catholics have come to understand their faith through the lens of these dominant expressions of liberal philosophy.
...Catholicism rejects both anthropological individualism and collectivist statism, but today we are divided into Catholic tribes who by default advance one or the other as a central political project.
Deneen holds that liberalism has destroyed genuine cultures, which then have to be replaced more formally by state organisation, which then means that politics becomes a matter of contesting for the levers of the state. He wants in the longer term to return to more traditional, non-statist ways of life:
I argue in my book that liberalism advances an “anti-culture”: whether through blandishments of the market or the power of the state, it seeks to weaken and eviscerate culture and replace it with a homogenous anti-culture of “free” people who consume pre-packaged, monetized “popular culture,” but no longer live in actual cultures of memory and tradition.
Inasmuch as we see deep instability and forms of systemic failure in our politics, this dysfunction occurs not in spite of an otherwise healthy culture, but to a great extent because of the destruction of culture and its replacement with an anti-culture. As cultural norms, practices and forms of belonging are eviscerated, informal codes must be replaced by legal systems and state enforcement of legalized directives.
From what I've read so far, it is possible that Deneen will not go beyond the concept of "cultural communities," but I'll have more to say on this once I've read his book.
Regardless of this, I am hopeful that the book will have a very positive effect in breaking down the liberal hegemony within academia. It's so timely as well - there is an audience out there now for intelligent and principled criticisms of the liberal ideology.
Deneen describes his "liberalism", in quotes, as "the political philosophy and the resulting political institutions, practices and beliefs that dominate the governments and societies of much of the western world." No mystery there.ReplyDelete
He says that "most of our political debates pit 'classical' against 'progressive' liberal visions... thus circumscribing the whole of our political imagination" between them.
This pretty much covers everything: "beliefs that dominate the governments and societies...", and "circumscribing the whole of our political imagination".
He adds, though , that (liberal) "beliefs that have transformed practices, making us more fully liberal... to our realization that its success leads to its systemic failures", as he suggests that it already "has".
Deneen lists claim after claim affirming "liberalism's" successes.
"Liberalism has substantive commitments... liberalism advances... gradually but ineluctably shaping people in the image of what it merely claims to describe... we increasingly see a liberal people defined... where commitments are taken on... divorce... abortion... church shopping or the rise of “Nones”... all by demands of consumption and money-making... self-definition...unjust and unjustified limitations upon one’s freedom and autonomy."
"a massive growth of the state... enthralling purportedly free subjects to a pervasive political order."
"Roman Catholic culture... no longer an alternative to liberalism... Catholics have come to understand their faith through... liberal philosophy... divided into Catholic tribes."
"liberalism has destroyed genuine cultures... replaced... by state organization... liberalism advances an “anti-culture”... it seeks to weaken and eviscerate culture... people who... no longer live in actual cultures of memory and tradition."
"we see deep instability and forms of systemic failure... dysfunction occurs... because of the destruction of culture... As cultural norms, practices and forms of belonging are eviscerated... replaced by legal systems and state enforcement of legalized directives."
He says "My thesis is that liberalism has failed precisely at the moment that it has succeeded."
I may be obtuse. I'm happy to listen. He doesn't say, and I don't see where "liberalism has failed", not yesterday, not today, and I doubt it will fail tomorrow.
I have no idea what Deneen is claiming.
To me this is Al Gore to George Bush: "Everything that's up is down, and everything that's down is up."
Buck, you are correct to point out that liberalism still has a firm grasp on things. I expect that Deneen will discuss in his book the sense in which he believes liberalism has failed - I'll let you know in my review. But from some of the pre-publicity he is suggesting that it is generating contradictions that will lead to it unravelling - it has therefore failed as an ideology, even though it still holds power.Delete
Buck, as Mark says, liberalism is certainly in power, but its prime policies seem, if continued, to be leading us to financial collapse and inter-tribal warfare. How can societies continue indefinitely to be run on perpetually-increasing debt? If it's possible, why wasn't it done before? Is it possible to continue to maintain a complex technical society while simultaneously diseducating people to a state of expectant imbecility while importing replacements of even lesser accomplishment and ability?Delete
This import policy will inevitably lead to ghettoisation and fragmentation (it is already well under way) which will have the inevitable outcome of war between these entities once the liberal state loses its ability to keep the lid on things-which won't be long, if current efforts are any guide.
The Catholic Church has rightly (at least in the sense of its many members who have become contaminated by various degrees and strains of the liberal toxin) come in for criticism, but in the event of a future reduction to ground zero, its ancient knowledge and traditions provide the best resources for constructing whatever kind of revival of civilisation may be possible.
As Mark says, he hasn't yet heard what he expects to hear from Deneen. We can only hope it's in Deneen's book. I'm more than a little skeptical. But, this isn't the format. I get that.Delete
Mr. Leahy, I appreciate your sense of optimism. I simply find it of no practical use. It's all I ever hear. Hope and prayer and the promise of a better afterlife.
I'm still alive, and only somewhat brain dead.
A guy is doing business in India. Back and forth to his hotel each day. Same guy (stereotypical cognitive mystic humming for nirvana) is always sitting, cross-legged, on the same spot, along the way. He's apparently doing nothing while this earnest business man is hustling and bustling. Finally, the business man has to ask.
"I speak the truth, as I sit out this life, watching closely all that I see. I'm preparing for the next life, when my truths will be valued and shared and all things will finally be right."
While I hope for an eternity contemplating the Beatific Vision, I mentioned nothing of such matters in my post above and am at a loss how you managed to extract the idea at all.Delete
Only a few days before this post I came across this, also by Deneen:ReplyDelete
Well worth reading and with some uplifting ending thoughts.
It's a terrific piece. Brilliant. It's actually exciting for me to read this kind of thing. I can only hope the book is as good.Delete
Mark, this is a good example of left vs right liberalism in action.ReplyDelete
For background, the supposedly conservative woman is a replacement for Tomi Lahren. The network is to the right of Fox News, but cannot bring itself to say that Islam has no place in our society.
So the first guy's point of view is that there is nothing either good or bad in the wearing of a hijab. What matters is that women are "empowered" to choose either way. The good is in the power to choose in any direction.Delete
The "conservative" woman supports women in Iran not wearing the hijab and criticises Western feminists for suggesting that the hijab is empowering. She doesn't spell out why she is against the hijab but presumably thinks that it doesn't fit in with women's lib.
Tim, you are correct that the point for trads here is not to choose either the left or right option but to insist on something else altogether.
The way a woman displays herself in public does matter. If a woman chooses modesty, femininity and beauty, then she is directing her powers in a certain direction - to a culture in which women reserve themselves for family; to the cultivation of womanhood; to the inherent goods embodied in female beauty and elegance and modesty and so on.
Contrast this with the woman who wears tiny shorts, has a body covered with tattoos, and who has short spiky dyed hair. Is this really a neutral statement about what she is oriented to, or to the state of her inner life?
And to completely cover women in the more severe way that takes place in some Islamic countries? There is a statement there too about social relationships - it is not neutral.