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  1. Ideas
31 July 2023

How do you purge an elite?

Patrick Deneen’s hostility to liberalism has made him a leading intellectual of the “New Right”. But his aristocratic populism is one that most Americans would rightly reject.

By George Scialabba

The end of liberalism, like the end of history, capitalism, religion and the novel, has often been foretold. Such prophecies will probably cease only with the end of reading and writing – which, come to think of it, may not be so very far off.

The University of Notre Dame, Indiana professor Patrick Deneen achieved an unlikely success with Why Liberalism Failed (2018), a work of political philosophy that deployed serial abstractions – “liberalism”, “tradition”, “individualism”, “timelessness”, “progress” – with an air of moral urgency and predictions of civilisational collapse. The book’s evidentiary texture was thin, but thanks to three decades of identity politics and four decades of incessant right-wing political messaging, an unreflective dislike of liberalism is widespread in the United States. A book entitled Why Liberalism Failed can draw on a considerable reservoir of sympathy.

What is liberalism? The word has two roots: liber, meaning “free”, as in “not under compulsion”; and liberalis, meaning “generous, open-handed”, as in “free with one’s time, money, advice, etc”. These two facets of liberalism find expression in two broad areas of social policy: the protection of equal rights for racial and sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups; and generous public provision. It follows that a coherent critique of liberalism should, upon identifying some political or social problem, plausibly connect it to one or the other of liberalism’s two main purposes.

This was not Deneen’s method in Why Liberalism Failed. His liberalism was an ideal type, almost a Platonic form. Deductively, without much in the way of history, sociology or economics, he blamed a myriad of ills – alienation, isolation, consumerism, elitism, inequality – on liberalism’s allegedly relentless undermining of traditional practices, customs and restraints. He was sometimes right about effects; rarely, however, about causes.

Isaiah Berlin used to admonish polemical opponents whom he thought were ignoring important distinctions: “Everything is what it is and not another thing.” Liberalism is liberalism, and not capitalism. Liberalism, to repeat, is the commitment to secure equal civil and political rights to all citizens; and to provide sufficient material help to allow needy citizens to live a dignified life. Capitalism is an economic system based on competition in a market, the realisation of a profit, and the reinvestment of that profit back into the production process.

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To confuse matters, however, there is (or was) also something called “economic liberalism” or laissez-faire, whose three classical tenets, according to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944), are: “A labour market, the gold standard and free trade.” That does not sound much like political liberalism – perhaps because it isn’t – and today few (except the Economist) refer to economic liberalism as “liberalism”, as Deneen does. Many Americans call it “neoliberalism”, which emphasises privatisation, shrinking government and subjecting public enterprises to market criteria. Their names notwithstanding, neoliberalism and economic liberalism are mainly championed today by conservatives (and centrist Democrats) and opposed by the few egalitarian liberals remaining in American public life.

Why, then, did liberalism fail? Because it succeeded, Deneen replies, and so revealed its fundamental incompatibility with human nature. Humans fall naturally into two classes, he informs us: the “few” and the “many”, who used to know by instinct their station and its duties, though occasionally they needed the “guardrails” provided by narrow but deep “natural” institutions such as the family, community and religion. In the modern era, when we are supposedly emancipated from traditional restraints by such unnatural delusions as egalitarianism, technology, abundance, self-expression and – most sinister and seductive of all – progress, the many (now called “the masses”) find themselves a prey to the few (now called “the elites”).

Well, that is Deneen’s explanation. I prefer a less metaphysical one. Liberalism certainly succeeded – for a time. Between 1945 and 1975, virtually every social and economic indicator in America was positive compared with today: union membership was higher, economic inequality was lower; membershicatp, both civic and religious, was higher; suicide, depression and other mental health conditions were lower; self-reported happiness was higher; and so on. The French call these decades Les Trentes Glorieuses; they were America’s Golden Age.

What happened? Even before the New Deal reforms that rescued American capitalism from the Great Depression, a new ideology emerged, devoted to protecting business from even minimal government interference. The new creed, market fundamentalism, was promoted through books, pamphlets, magazines, advertising campaigns, lectures, documentary films, radio and television, research institutes, academic programmes and appointments, and of course ceaseless congressional lobbying. This campaign (exhaustively chronicled in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent new book, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market) was largely financed by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Foundation for Economic Education, the American Liberty League, the National Electric Light Association and many other industry groups, right-wing foundations and wealthy individuals.

Initially concerned with opposing child labour laws, workmen’s compensation and trade unions, these groups shifted into a higher gear to portray the New Deal as “socialism”. All through the long liberal decades they never let up, and their efforts were crowned with the success in the 1980 election of the Great Oversimplifier, Ronald Reagan. At which point they began to sabotage the New Deal’s legacy. In full control of one of the US’s two national parties, most state governments and the Supreme Court, this wrecking crew is still hard at work. Trying to understand the decline of liberalism without reference to this decades-long business-sponsored propaganda blitz would be like trying to understand the decline of literacy without reference to advertising, television or the internet. Liberalism did not fail; it was assassinated by a large and open conspiracy.

[See also: The New Age of tragedy]

Deneen’s unwillingness to discuss or even mention capitalism may have contributed to the popularity of Why Liberalism Failed among conservatives. But it also lent the book an air of unreality, as though it were a series of extended rhetorical exercises – a mere trial run for a more substantive critique.

His new book, Regime Change, promises “a positive and hopeful vision of a post-liberal future”. It is certainly more ambitious and programmatic than its predecessor. Its critique of liberalism is more trenchant, dividing it into right-wing or classical liberalism, especially concerned with economic freedom, and left-wing or progressive liberalism, mainly concerned with racial and sexual equality. The two are nevertheless united in championing meritocracy, at once the chief engine of economic inequality and the primary mechanism of social control. Deneen makes good use of Michael Sandel’s and Michael Lind’s recent books on meritocracy and the “new class”, driving home the point that those who succeed in a competitive, credentials-based system tend to believe that those who have not succeeded deserve their low status. This is a recipe for the kind of resentment that now disfigures American politics.

If this critique of liberal elites is the leitmotif of Regime Change, the ground bass is: ordinary people are conservative. They want stability, order and continuity, unlike flighty progressive or greedy classical liberals. They are indifferent to ideologies; custom and common sense are enough for them. Most people in the West were satisfied until the Enlightenment challenged ancient beliefs and the rise of commercial society disrupted ancient lifeways, sowing envy and new appetites, displacing traditional elites and setting up the false idol of Progress.

To regain our former happy condition, Deneen prescribes “aristocratic populism”. The key to stability is balance – in the case of society, between the few and the many. The ideal is a mixed constitution, with distinct orders or estates: great and small, noble and common. But the new elites will not be irresponsible, like all past and present elites. They will share the many’s tradition-based common sense, presiding over the common life and protecting its customary institutions: family, community, religion. And the many will not be passively ruled. They will not be like Burke’s rustics, contentedly chewing their cud in the shade of the great English oak; they will be a multi-ethnic, multinational working class, able to constrain and discipline their elites when necessary. It is an appealing picture, though much too lightly sketched.

Deneen’s emphasis on “custom” and “common sense” raises an obvious question. Didn’t custom and common sense keep women, dark-skinned people, homosexuals, lower castes and many other unfortunates – probably amounting to most of humanity – in their places for millennia, whether they were satisfied there or not? Don’t custom and common sense need to be criticised? Democracy is, after all, as much about arguing as voting.

Deneen is a little bit equivocal about democracy. He would replace the negative liberty and procedural equality of liberal democracy with a “common-good conservatism” based on “classical or Christian liberty”: “A condition of self-governance… requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites.” Only virtue, he instructs us, makes true liberty possible.

But does it? Saints have been tyrants, again and again: the Christian Roman emperors who persecuted unorthodox Christian theologians; the medieval Catholic prelates who exterminated the Cathars and Albigensians; the inquisitors who burned Jews, scholars and hapless peasants; Geneva under Calvin; the ascetic Brahmins who for centuries have treated the lower castes with barbarous contempt and cruelty; the Iranian mullahs, obsessed with female modesty and homosexuality. Virtue may be a necessary condition of political liberty, but it is hardly a sufficient one.

Deneen appears untroubled by this appalling history. Again and again, he invokes the Puritan John Winthrop’s “beautiful definition of freedom”: “The proper end and object of authority… is a liberty for that only which is just and good.” This is exactly the principle on which the above persecutions, and all other persecutions, were conducted: liberty only for what the state (community, party, church) defines as just and good. Deneen’s “beautiful definition” flatly contradicts two of the most authoritative – and beautiful – statements of America’s political philosophy: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s, “If there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” I expect most Americans would (if we can put our phones down long enough) fight in the last ditch to defend that philosophy against Deneen’s regime of virtue.

Religion occupies a somewhat shadowy place in the argument of Regime Change. It is frequently invoked, declared foundational and indispensable, and even identified with Christianity – no milquetoast “religion of humanity” or “ethical culture”. But troublingly, in discussing religion as an essential means of integrating society, he remarks:

“Liberalism is a denial that there can be any objective good for humans that is not simply the aggregation of individual opinion. Liberalism claims that any justification based upon ‘the common good’ is ultimately nothing more than a preference disguised as a universal ideal.”

Liberalism claims no such thing. Like everyone else, liberals believe that some things would be good for all humans, even if many of them don’t agree: reduced carbon emissions, nuclear disarmament, universal healthcare, and many more. But liberals believe that the only thing that would give them the right to change those things using the power of the state is the “aggregation of individual opinions” known as voting. In humanity’s unenlightened past, many religious (and secular) leaders have believed that their “objective” knowledge of the common good entitled them to ignore the opinions of the ruled. I hope Deneen, in his next book, will warn the religious and political leaders of common-good conservatism against claiming any such authoritarian prerogative.

Modernity has its problems, and Deneen has identified many of them: overspecialisation, spiritual desiccation, technology-worship, cultural vertigo. His proposed solutions will strike most people as far-fetched or eccentric, but they deserve to be debated – a prophet is not required to supply all the details and necessary qualifications. His writing is often formulaic and abstract, but occasionally it takes flight. Compared with the greatest writing about the dilemmas of modernity, from John Ruskin and William Morris to DH Lawrence and TS Eliot, Lewis Mumford and Ivan Illich, Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, Paul Goodman and Wendell Berry and Alasdair MacIntyre, Why Liberalism Failed and Regime Change, though sincere and impassioned, are decidedly minor. But they will find many enthusiastic readers among those who are – for good reasons or bad – hostile to liberalism. Undoubtedly John Stuart Mill, always eager to canvass arguments against his most cherished beliefs, would earnestly recommend both books to his fellow liberals.

[See also: Dangerous minds]

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