The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

The Tragedy of Liberalism

Patrick J. Deneen

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

America is a nation in deep agreement and common belief. The proof lies, somewhat paradoxically, in the often tempestuous and increasingly acrimonious debate between the two main US political parties. The widening divide represented by this debate has, for many of us, defined the scope of our political views and the resultant differences for at least the past one hundred years. But even as we do tense and bruising battle, a deeper form of philosophical agreement reigns. As described by Louis Hartz in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, the nature of our debates themselves is defined within the framework of liberalism. That framework has seemingly expanded, but it is nonetheless bounded, in as much as the political debates of our time have pitted one variant of liberalism against another, which were given the labels “conservatism” and “liberalism” but which are better categorized as “classical liberalism” and “progressive liberalism.” While we have focused our attention on the growing differences between “classical” and “progressive,” we have been largely inattentive to the unifying nature of their shared liberalism.

While classical liberalism looks back to a liberalism achieved and lost—particularly the founding philosophy of America that stressed natural rights, limited government, and a relatively free and open market, “progressive” liberalism longs for a liberalism not yet achieved, one that strives to transcend the limitations of the past and even envisions a transformed humanity, its consciousness enlarged, practicing what Edward Bellamy called “the religion of solidarity.”1 As Richard Rorty envisioned in his aptly titled 1998 book Achieving Our Country, liberal democracy “is the principled means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence.… Democratic humanity…has ‘more being’ than predemocratic humanity. The citizens of a [liberal] democratic, Whitmanesque society are able to create new, hitherto unimagined roles and goals for themselves.”2

In the main, American political conflicts since the end of the Civil War have been fought along this broad division within liberalism itself. We have grown accustomed to liberalism being the norm and defining the predictable battlefield for our political debates. Largely accepting at least the Hartzian view, if not also Fukuyama’s claim that liberalism constitutes the “end of history,” we have been so preoccupied with the divisions and differences arising from these two distinct variants of liberalism that our debate within the liberal frame obscures from us an implicit acknowledgment that the question of regime has been settled—liberalism is the natural order for humanity. Further, the intensifying division between the two sides of liberalism also obscures the basic continuities between these two iterations of liberalism, and in particular makes it nearly impossible to reflect on the question of whether the liberal order itself remains viable. The bifurcation within liberalism masks a deeper agreement that has led to the working out of liberalism’s deeper logic, which, ironically, brings us today to a crisis within liberalism itself that now appears sudden and inexplicable.

What is especially masked by our purported choice between primary allegiance to classical liberalism’s emphasis on a free market and limited government, on the one hand, and progressive liberalism’s emphasis on an expansive state that tempers the market, on the other, is that both “choices” arise from a basic commitment of liberalism to depersonalization and abstraction. Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism seems most likely to secure human goods—the space of the market, which collects our seemingly limitless number of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding any specific thought or intention from us about the wants and needs of others; or the liberal state, which, via the mechanism of taxation and depersonalized distribution of goods and services, establishes standard procedures and mechanisms to satisfy the wants and needs of others that would otherwise go unmet or be insufficiently addressed by the market.

The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of the state’s efforts to redress injustices masks the reality that the two grow constantly and necessarily together: Statism enables individualism; individualism demands statism. The creation of the autonomous individual, that imaginary creature of Hobbes and Locke, in fact requires the expansive apparatus of the state and its creation, the universal market, to bring it into existence. And, as Tocqueville predicted, once liberated, the individual no longer has reliable personal networks to which to turn for assistance, and instead looks for the assistance of the state, which grows further to meet these insistent demands. While the battle is waged between liberalism’s two sides, one of which stresses the individual and the other the need for the redress of the state, liberalism’s constant and unceasing trajectory has been to become both more individualistic and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other achieves (and fails) in the opposite direction; rather, both move simultaneously together, as a matter of systemic logic that follows our deepest philosophical premises.

The result is a political system that trumpets liberty, but which inescapably creates conditions of powerlessness, fragmentation, mistrust, and resentment. The liberated individual comes to despise the creature of its making and the source of its powerlessness—whether perceived to be the state or the market (protests to the former represented by the Tea Party and to the latter by Occupy Wall Street). The tools of liberalism cease to be governable and become instead independent forces to which disempowered individuals must submit—whether the depersonalized public bureaucracy or depersonalized globalizing market forces, aided and abetted by technology, from surveillance to automation, that no longer seems under the control of its masters. Much of our common response to liberalism’s triumph today is a celebration of our completed liberty, but it takes the form of discussions and debates over the ways in which we can lessen the unease accompanying our powerlessness and dislocation as we submit terms of surrender to ungovernable forces in politics and economics. The movements that resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump suggest that some will reject the terms of surrender altogether, even at the cost of considerable political and economic disarray. Across the world today, liberalism’s moment of triumph is being marked not by the tolling of victory bells but the sounding of air-raid sirens.

Liberalism is failing not because it fell short but because it was true to itself. Liberalism is failing because liberalism succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims and realizations of liberal ideology. But because our normal politics have led us to operate entirely within the liberal frame, we assume that the various ills of our politics can be cured by applying a better liberal solution—whether a classical or progressive solution to an ill that is viewed as arising from the ills of the opposite. Rather than see the accumulating evidence of rolling systemic blackouts as a failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need to see clearly that the ruins liberalism has produced are the very signs of its success.

To this end, I want to offer three areas for consideration where one can see liberalism’s two opposing parts advancing a consistent and uniform end by effectually engaging in a pincer movement from two different directions, and in the process destabilizing the very possibility of a shared political, civic, and social life. These areas are, first, liberalism’s hostility to culture, with preference given to a pervasive and universalized anti-culture (to borrow sociologist Philip Rieff’s term); second, liberalism’s assault on the liberal arts and humanistic education; and third, liberalism’s creation of a new and fully realized aristocracy, or what I call a “liberalocracy.”

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Endnotes

  1. Edward Bellamy, The Religion of Solidarity (Boston, MA: Concord Grove Press, 1984). Written 1874, posthumously published 1940 (Antioch).
  2. Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 142–43, note 12.

Patrick J. Deneen is associate professor of political science at Notre Dame University. His many books include Democratic Faith and the forthcoming Why Liberalism Failed.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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