Patrick Deneen: Why Liberalism failed

Yale University Press, 2018

This is a fascinating book for anyone trying to diagnose our society. The word ‘Liberalism’ in the title is a bit misleading: the author means individual personal freedom, which has emerged as the highest good of our society since the Enlightenment. Deneen argues that in pre-modern society, whether Greek or Christian, human freedom was conceived as freedom from slavery to one’s base passions: true freedom was found in self-control that was a necessary basis for virtue.

Enlightenment philosophers redefined human freedom as personal liberation from all constraints whether religious, cultural, moral, or natural. The highest good was personal freedom to follow one’s own desires and indulge one’s own appetites – the very thing which the earlier conception of freedom was against.

The modern idealization of personal freedom has led to the loosening of all social bonds. In one of his many insightful asides, he comments that technology and social media do not make us lonely. They latch onto and feed loneliness, which is our chosen lifestyle.

Instead of seeing ourselves as stewards of the natural order, the Enlightenment saw nature as another constraint to be overcome. Deneen cites Francis Bacon in the 17th century using the language of warfare to describe humanity’s relationship with nature: we must suppress nature, and torture it to reveal its secrets.

This book will doubtless irritate many. It does not adequately address the upsides of modernism – the startling improvements in living standards and medical care that modern science and free enterprise have brought about.

But it does offer some fascinating insights into questions in contemporary culture. Why do right-wing parties, who claim to favour less government, always in fact increase the size of government? Because liberalism’s idealization of personal choice, supported by the political left and right, needs an ever-growing state to regulate the conflict between everyone’s personal desires.

Why do left-wing parties focus so much on identity politics and LGBTQ issues, and make so little noise about the appalling levels of destitution in our society? Because one’s sexuality is seen as a given, a constraint that has not been chosen, and which therefore should be changeable; whereas the poor are perceived (unfairly) as suffering for their own choices, or failure to make the right choices.

Why are we so resistant to the obvious dangers to the environment? Because we care so little about the past that we assume the future will care equally little about us. We live in a continual bubble of the present, characterised by personal choice and consumption, with no ingrained concern about a continuing culture for our progeny. Indeed, children themselves are often represented as one of the greatest threats to personal liberty: they can’t be bought off, or solved with technology. Hence our falling birth-rates, and newspaper articles that repeatedly tell how much children cost us over a lifetime, as if that is a rational calculation that parents would make.

Deneen’s primary theme is that liberalism has failed because of its own success. Its achievement of ever-growing levels of personal freedom is at the root of the current high levels of personal unhappiness, state control, inequality of wealth, and environmental degradation.

Deneen is strong on generalisations, short on specifics, and vague on solutions – but that is the consequence of writing a commendably short, provocative, and very readable book. Highly recommended.

[This review was first published in Evangelicals Now, December 2018]


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