An Autopsy: Why Liberalism Failed

June 14, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: North America Tags: PoliticsAmericaLiberalismTrump

An Autopsy: Why Liberalism Failed

To hear a number of liberals themselves tell it, the United States has already abandoned liberalism—at least until the 2020 election returns history to its right path. 

But one of his methodological weaknesses is that Deneen doesn’t make fair comparisons between moral ideals; he prefers to compare a preliberal moral ideal—and a whitewashed one at that—to certain tenebrous realities of liberalism. Deneen argues that ancient philosophy, chiefly as found in Aristotle, had a nobler idea of freedom than the modern world does: freedom as self-control rather than as liberation from the bounds of nature. Deneen gives liberalism a degree of credit for having been an attempt, at least at an earlier stage, to fulfill some of Western civilization’s moral intuitions that were dormant in ancient philosophy; in particular, Deneen has much that is favorable to say about equality, and in praising Aristotle he in no way excuses the Stagirite’s acceptance of slavery. But Deneen is trying to have it both ways—more work than he undertakes is needed to make Aristotle safe for modern notions of equality, and to make equality safe for Aristotelian philosophy.

The primary meaning of freedom for Aristotle and other ancient Greeks was not self-control. It was avoiding being a slave. That included not being a slave to one’s own appetites, but the control that the free man exercised was not merely over a “self”—his freedom also entailed control over his wife, his children, his slaves, his livestock and his property. His powers of command, and the responsibilities that came with them, were essential to the exercise of virtue—and the leisure that arose from other people doing the dirty work was an invaluable means to support philosophical contemplation. Aristotelian virtue was built upon inequality.

Try to reconstitute Aristotelian virtue in an environment of equality, and you get something that looks at least as much like liberalism as like classical Aristotelian virtue. In order to have leisure, suddenly you need a voluntary division of labor, producing enough surplus to support the contemplative life. Deneen, following Strauss, despises the idea of a social order built upon self-interest. But self-interest is the social principle that corresponds to equality: if you can’t simply order your slaves, serfs or tenants to work for your upkeep, you have to persuade them to do it—and an argument from self-interest is always more persuasive than mere moral exhortation.

Students of Strauss find the revolutionary beginnings of modern self-interest in Machiavelli and later Hobbes and Locke. Tocqueville, by contrast, believed that modern politics and economics had roots in Medieval Christendom, with equality beginning to become a salient feature around the twelfth century. If Tocqueville is correct, Deneen and Strauss do not go nearly deep enough. Then again, perhaps he goes too deep—into the abyss of philosophy when modern history and politics would provide him with surer answers.

The liberalism that is in decline around the world is Anglo-American. It has its roots, as Soviet Communism did, in a widespread nineteenth-century vision of the scientific secularized future. But the reality has been modeled upon the American experience and underwritten since the First World War—if not before—by American military and commercial might. What Deneen attacks can be called Americanism as justly as liberalism. While the self-described liberals of the nineteenth century were not, on the whole, believers in a social contract, Americans, on the whole, are. And America has an actual social contract: the U.S. Constitution. The nation’s founding, unlike that of any European state, includes an element of explicit Lockean philosophy as well in the Declaration of Independence.

But the consumerism and individualism that trouble Deneen are not products of Madison’s or Jefferson’s pen. They are ramifications of the way Americans have actually lived since colonial times, their life experience characterized by ceaseless growth (first across the North American continent, then through economic and demographic development of this continental-scale country, and finally through the projection of a global Americanism) and a thirst for equality (which, as Tocqueville understood, entails a culturally leveling tendency).

Deneen sketches in only the faintest of outlines what his nonliberal America would look like, relying heavily on Tocqueville’s description of the self-reliant communities he encountered during his sojourn in America, as well as on the novels of Wendell Berry. This America would be a country defined by localism and strong civil associations, in contrast to an overweening federal government and global market, both of which produce loose and sensualist individuals. Yet there is a reason this romantic vision of virtue does not exist.

Deneen treats everything as unconstrained moral choice. But the virtues that Americans found in civil association in the nineteenth century were the products, in many cases, of material constraints. They did not choose to rely on community to raise barns; they had no choice because there was no federal government or free-market barn-raising service. Once the market and the state are able to provide the things that formerly only community could provide, community’s function is vitiated. For Deneen’s dream to come true, it would not be enough for Americans to reclaim the strength of character they may or may not have had in the nineteenth century. They would actually have to be far more self-sacrificing and virtuous, to choose what nineteenth-century farmers frontiersmen were forced to accept.

The localist dream fails in strategic and economic terms. Classical history and its lessons must always be remembered alongside the rather different lessons of classical philosophy. The Founding Fathers were no admirers of the actual city-states of Greece because they were proverbial for their internecine warfare and tendency toward internal revolutions. The ancient world itself perceived the Greek political experiment—the polis—as a failure, one overtaken first by Alexander and the Hellenistic kingdoms that emerged after his empire’s collapse, and later by the supreme political form of the ancient world, the Roman Empire.

When Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson and Madison turn away from Greece and Rome in their political theory and instead embrace social contracts and self-interest, it is not because they hate the virtues of the ancient world. It is because they aspire to neither the unstable polis nor the universal Roman Empire. If the Roman Empire is out of the question—because conquering the known world and reuniting with the Catholic Church is out of the question—and if the polis was a failure in the most concrete of terms, what is left? Modern political philosophy has been an attempt to find an answer starting from an abstraction of the social conditions that already existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century— conditions which included an already high degree of individualism, commerce and contractual relations.

The problems of the polis and the empire are real perennial problems of Western politics, not merely historical lessons. Small states, like the Greek poleis, had inadequate means to defend themselves. (Even if a Singapore were to have nuclear weapons, it would be overawed by the resources of superpowers.) The existence of local Tocquevillian communities of the sort that Deneen cherishes depends upon national power wedded to a liberal, pluralist ethos; without that power, they would be swept away into somebody else’s empire. Too many localists are characteristically American in their inability to consider the fate that awaits small, weak and only modestly wealthy states. Either they grow into larger, strong and wealthy states—or they are conquered.

Yet simply because the image of a virtuous small-town America insulated from the corrupting necessities of national power and prosperity is unrealistic does not mean that there are no alternatives to liberalism as we know it today. The political alternative is the one now being explored by leading nations of every civilization except the West: the reaffirmation of political community, specifically the nation, and a core faith. The faith of the West is not a sectarian Christianity, but a broad and pluralistic one—as is clear as soon as one looks at the beliefs of America’s own Founding Fathers.

Christianity in any form is not by itself a political force. Like a vine, it needs a support structure. This was the role that St. Augustine identified for the Roman Empire. From the end of the Middle Ages until now, the nation-state has provided the scaffolding in the West. But beginning in the twentieth century, liberalism came to be the scaffolding—with its apparatus of more-than-national institutions and aspirations of worldly universalism. Yet liberalism is a competing universalism; combined with Christianity, it does not give Christianity the worldliness and political realism that the faith otherwise lacks. On the contrary: liberalism further removes Christianity from the world. For decades, religion and liberalism were allies against Communism, implacable foe of both God and the market. Over time, however, liberalism severed Christianity’s relationship with the nation-state—even on the right, where Christian conservatives came to be enlisted in globalist crusades under George W. Bush.

Nationalism provides what religion by itself typically does not: concrete answers (which is not necessarily to say correct answers) to strategic and economic problems. Just as importantly, it provides a worldliness without which Christian ethics and the ancient virtues become too perfectionist for their own good. The irony is that liberalism itself may find salvation in the West’s return to faith and nation, in that those provided the context of security, prosperity and moral strength in which liberalism arose in the first place. But if the West is to endure, liberalism must remain an effect, not a substitute, for the cause.