It is not surprising to learn about a crisis in liberal democracy, given that, as politicians, commencement speakers, and clergymen so often tell us, the liberal-democratic system depends on maintaining a critical attitude toward each generation’s worthiness to maintain self-government. But Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale UP, 2018) repeats its message from cover to cover without offering a single piece of quantitative data to substantiate either what precisely he means by liberalism or what constitutes its failure. The object of his condemnation appears to be in fact less a mode of political thought than the liberal-democratic state itself, the political-economic system of all the world’s advanced countries, with the exception of a few Asian dictatorships. This judgment is supported by generalities about “titanic” inequality, Club-of-Rome-style environmental depletion, sexual license, and cultural coarsening, combining extracts from the PC handbook with elegies for liberalism’s—or is it capitalism’s?—breakdown of traditional communal bodies that might have been taken from the Communist Manifesto. But where Marx had insisted on the dominance of the economic sphere over the ideological, Deneen, inverting infrastructure and superstructure, relies wholly for his analysis on political thinkers, from Hobbes to Wendell Berry, treating liberalism as a programmatic ideology comparable to communism or fascism.
Clearly there are problems in the liberal polity today, and the naïve version of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, that the apparent elimination of the “socialist” alternative to liberal democracy means that we are at the end of history, is easy enough to demolish. Not so clear, however, is the refutation of a more intelligent version of Fukuyamism: of course we’re not at the end of history, but there is a fundamental truth in the claim that the liberal-democratic system, less an ism than an operating and self-correcting political-economic entity, is without a rival as an advanced social order.
Perhaps China, with its disciplined population and high-tech proficiency, can indeed one day surpass the West both economically and even in “happiness,” without liberalizing its politics. Xi Jin-Ping’s emphasis on holding onto power seems to me the means of implementing a deeply held credo. Xi’s authoritarianism stems from his faith in his own, if not others’, ability to resist the force of corruption that always haunts authoritarian systems, absolute power corrupting absolutely. He apparently believes that an uncorrupt authoritarian system (in obvious contrast with Putin’s mafia kingdom) can lead his people to a promised land inaccessible to the messy least-worst liberal order.
But we are not there yet, and China’s need for an “indispensable man” is certainly a key vulnerability. For the moment, life in the US is not only far freer than in China, but richer and healthier. If and when this changes, we might start talking about the “failure of liberalism.” Deneen is not waiting for anything of the sort.
There is a legitimate place for Spengler-like prophecies of the Untergang of our civilization, but a civilization is one thing and an “ism” is another. Whence the necessity for the purposes of Deneen’s argument that “liberalism” be defined both as broadly and yet as ideologically as possible, so that this generation’s difficulties are not problems to be solved but demonstrations of failure. In science, paradigms don’t “fail”—they stick around until they are replaced by better ones. And this is all the more true of social systems, which cannot be discarded while waiting for something better to come along. One would think that a book published by a major university press would be required to exhibit a more judicious reasoning process.
I think we should consider this book more as a symptom than a diagnosis; it is pointless to offer counter-arguments to its relentless denunciation of “liberalism” as the scapegoat for everything the author finds objectionable in the modern world. The challenge is rather to define what it is indeed that the author is (legitimately) complaining about, and then to offer one’s judgment about what liberal democracy, whose greatest virtue is precisely its capacity for both political and economic self-modification, can do to repair the situation.
Let us begin with the simple dichotomy, inherited from the originary event, between moral reciprocity and firstness. The moral model is as close to an instinct as exists in the cultural sphere. It is implicit in language, but only because language itself did not emerge as a means to transmit information (in which case it might well have served as the foundation of Brave New World rather than a model of human equality), but to defer conflict and permit equable distribution. Yet the moral model itself would not have come into being had these proto-humans had to rely on their shared reflexes. The originary conversion of the gesture of appropriation into a sign was a conscious innovation that must have been first conceived by one or a few before spreading to the group as a whole. The right-left dichotomy of political parties that characterizes most democracies reflects this originary tension between respecting our fundamental moral equality and allowing firstness to operate, most critically in the economic sphere.
That Deneen is able to downplay this difference is a reflection of the times. Evidence from recent French, Italian, and German elections of the decline of recently dominant “socialist” parties, as well as of those of the traditional center-right, suggests a breakdown of the standard left-right division, with the most significant point of contention becoming the defense of national/local culture against a globalist elite. French president Macron’s effort to build a neo-populist movement around pan-Europeanism is a unique variant on which the jury is still out.
To my mind the most revelatory feature of Deneen’s discussion is its avoidance of what I consider the key problem in democratic politics today, certainly the main factor in Trump’s election and a major one in Brexit: victimary thinking. Deneen is clearly more a conservative than a progressive, and his denunciation of left-right complicity is largely justified—as revealed since Trump’s election in the strange-bedfellow partnership between “Resistance” on the left and “Never Trump” on the right. But precisely, as I have pointed out from the beginning of the campaign (see Chronicle 508, from February 27, 2016), with the exception of Ben Carson, Trump was—and remains—the one significant politician to reject and denounce PC, even to the point of allowing himself such “fascistic” actions as expressing a moderate sympathy for the protesters against the plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville. None of the other dozen-plus candidates dared to take a forthright stand denouncing PC, Black Lives Matter, or the various campus AntiFa outrages.
That the victimary, which is unambiguously a “left” phenomenon, is, if not actively promoted, nonetheless treated as a sacred cow by the (traditional) right, justifies Deneen’s point about bipartisan complicity, yet his book avoids making this justification. On the contrary, by avoiding the victimary phenomenon altogether, Deneen is himself tacitly complicit in its enthronement. Indeed, in one particularly revelatory passage, Deneen dismisses the two qualities defined by Locke as leading to success in modern society in nearly the same language as the self-parodying denunciation of mathematical competence noted in Chronicle 563:
The same arbitrariness that affords aristocrats position and status in an aristocratic society also applies to the unequal distribution of “rationality” and “industriousness.” The criteria for the ruling class change, but their arbitrary distribution remains.” (137)
The use of the word “arbitrary” as a synonym of “unequal” is striking. The old aristocrats became rulers because of their military prowess, which was hardly an “arbitrary” matter back in the Dark Ages. Even more so, the “rationality” and “industriousness” needed in the modern age are about as close as one can get to the “virtue” that Deneen so admires in the classical philosophers (at least the first, since slavery-based republics did not put a premium on “industriousness”). Society, meaning all of us, benefits far more from the “rational” and “industrious” than from the lazy and irrational.
I submit that the word “arbitrary” is in fact a (probably unconscious) euphemism for PC terms like “racism” and “classism.” The only thing scandalous about this “unequal distribution” is that some groups have more of these qualities than others, and the point that Deneen avoids, probably also unconsciously, is that the breakdown of family and community values that he deplores in “liberalism” is precisely what does not take place in those groups that succeed.
The classical virtues of self-mastery, whose disappearance from the self-indulgent “liberal” world Deneen never ceases to denounce, are found in good measure in the efforts of those “rational” and “industrious” East (and South) Asian students who do so disproportionally well in school that UCLA has been called the University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. It is obvious that whatever “unequal” genetic advantages these groups may have, they have the enormous cultural advantage of parents who impart to their children the virtues of hard work and postponement of satisfaction. This is about as un-arbitrary as it gets.
Like all significant historical developments, the current wave of victimary resentment has its roots in the originary constitution of the human as well as specific historical determinants. The latter can be traced to the French Revolution and more specifically to the reaction to the Holocaust, but the real pathology of PC emerges after the postwar triumphs of decolonization and desegregation, and has only intensified since the end of the Cold War. What is often called “identity politics” is simply victimary politics. It has nothing to do with the celebration of ethnic/racial/gender pride a la New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and everything to do with encouraging members of less successful groups to vent their anger at statistically determined disparities by claiming that they result from discrimination.
This phenomenon has infected the body politic, certainly not because racism is a bigger problem now than in the past (a point black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have been making for decades), but because it provides a welcome distraction from the problems of meritocracy, problems that have been considerably exacerbated by the digital era’s emphasis on skill in symbol-manipulation over more widely distributed human abilities.
When Christian Europe gave birth to modernity, it encountered in heightened form the contradiction between moral equality and firstness that had been humanity’s challenge from the outset. The role of black slaves in the US was doubled by that of colonials in Europe. But what is essential at present is that, just as subsidizing an item on the market will result in an increase in its supply, anti-discrimination laws, while sharply reducing discrimination, do not lead to fewer but more complaints of discrimination, notably in the irrefutable form of “disparate impact.” It was the hope of the heroic Civil Rights generation that Civil Rights legislation would lead to judging people by “the content of their character.” But the more efforts that are devoted to effacing racism, and the more successful they are at eradicating abuses, the more racism and racism-like forms of victimization we tend to discover, as we observe in the ever-lengthening lists of “phobias” and “privileges” that campus radicals—and university presidents—pride themselves in working to eradicate.
The effectiveness of this fundamentally nihilistic activity is an excellent example of what Girard liked to call méconnaissance. The billionaire techies pay their dues to the anti-discrimination industry as a tax to permit them to continue to profit from the reality that human beings vary widely in skills, and that not just “liberalism” but the entire modern world would collapse if we really did away with meritocracy, however “privileged” it be denounced as being.
Why then don’t the Sowells and the Williamses get their message across? Lots of blacks have in fact joined the “rational” and “industrious” middle class. But focusing our attention on racism and inequality provides benefits, emotional if not economic, not just to those who can take advantage of “affirmative action” that is really a barely disguised quota system, but to the entire population. Virtue-signaling and shaming become the latter-day versions of donning hair shirts and putting sinners in the stocks. All this venting serves the indirect purpose of focusing resentment away from the real problems of meritocracy, thereby permitting its relatively untroubled perpetuation.
It is difficult to discover light at the end of this tunnel. It is surely too early to speculate on the unexplored possibilities of genetic modification, let alone cyber-implantation, in ending the “coming apart” explored by Charles Murray in 2012. But I would simply challenge critics of “liberalism” to explain, assuming that China’s one-party system is not their ideal, what new politico-economic system other than a plausible modification of the present one they consider both should and can substitute for it.
Here is one point of light we tend to overlook. Demography is destiny. I was impressed when Erdogan, not someone I particularly admire, advised Turks in Europe to become successful and have lots of children—a formula for success rather more constructive than decapitating those unwilling to convert to Islam. But Erdogan’s advice applies equally well to those within Western civilization who care about its survival in the long run.
Israel has no demographic deficit, in large measure because Orthodox Jews have many children. The same goes for the Mormons. What these groups have in common is a strong, religion-focused sense of community. Today we (fortunately) have no way of enforcing religious policies on the general population. But as we observe in Europe, people who make enjoyment of this world their primary concern, who want to retire at 50 and take cruises for the rest of their lives, are not the ones who will be populating the next generation.
Those of us who share Deneen’s affection for the community values whose decline he deplores have at least this reason to take heart: the children of close-knit cultural and religious communities will become proportionally more numerous in each succeeding generation. Children from these communities grow up with the kind of “family values” that should give them the mental discipline to succeed in the cyberworld of the future; certainly this has been the case in Israel as well as at UCLA.
No doubt this process takes place at biological speed when we would like it to become digital. But Deneen should take hope from the recent political trend in the Western world, which his book itself reflects, that resists the abandonment of religious identity and the breakdown of intermediate communal structures between the individual and the state. This trend has demography on its side.