Has the Operating System for the Western World Crashed?

Has the Operating System for the Western World Crashed? By Park McDougal.

Perhaps the most influential book to emerge so far from this anti-liberal ferment is Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, published in January by Yale University Press.

In it, Deneen, a conservative Catholic political scientist at Notre Dame, delivers a scathing condemnation of American political culture, arguing that our current troubles may signal the final collapse of liberalism under the weight of its own contradictions. The rot is in fact so deep and fundamental, according to Deneen, that “we should rightly wonder whether America is not in the early days of its eternal life but rather approaching the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespan of all human creations.” …

At the core of Deneen’s critique is what he sees as a liberal redefinition of the ancient and medieval concept of freedom, or libertas.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Christians, understood freedom as the learned ability, cultivated through discipline and education in virtue, to properly govern one’s self. The freedom to do what one desires is a false freedom, in this view, because the world is limited but our desires are not, so that in pursuing them we ultimately become their slaves. Becoming free, then, is the process of achieving mastery over our “base” impulses. There is a circularity, too, between good politics and good individual conduct. A society can only govern itself well if it comprises self-governing citizens, and citizens can only learn self-government within a well-governed society.

For Deneen, liberalism’s big innovation was to reject this classical understanding as unrealistic, unscientific, and oppressive. Seeking a more scientific basis for politics, liberals and proto-liberals such as Locke and Hobbes stripped humanity down to its bare essentials — self-interested individuals unmarked by culture or history. Writing in a religiously divided and perpetually warring Europe, they argued that civil peace could be assured by allowing individuals to pursue their private interests free of the irrational restrictions imposed by custom, religion, and popular prejudice, with the modern state there to prevent them from taking advantage of one another. Freedom, that is, was redefined from self-government to lack of external restraint — a notion that was extended to the natural world, where humans, now armed with reason and modern science, no longer faced nature as a fixed limit on their desires, but something to be conquered and transformed. To legitimize the whole structure, liberal theorists projected this state of affairs back into a “state of nature,” a mythical past in which individuals had come together and consented to be governed out of their own shared self-interest. …

Humans … are not naturally isolated individuals. Everyone is born into a specific time, place, and cultural tradition which, however restrictive, is also the source of their identity and connection to other people. Yet modern liberal society, through the action of both the state and the market, erodes these “natural” social bonds, creating in their place the cultureless, isolated individuals that liberal theory claimed to find in the state of nature. And as individuals are stripped of the cultural norms that formerly governed social conduct, the resulting anarchy requires the state to step into the breach by threatening to punish those who violate the rights of others — retroactively coming to play the role that, in Hobbes’s story, it was consciously and consensually created to fulfill. The general trend is that people are freed from old restrictions only to be subjected to the more abstract, alienating powers of capitalism and bureaucracy. Yet liberal ideology masks its own origins, presenting as natural conditions those that is has in fact created. …

For Deneen, American conservatives, many of whom consider themselves “classical liberals,” prefer a relatively limited state but endorse the scientific conquest of nature and the pursuit of self-interest through the market, both of which act as solvents on the traditional cultures and values they claim to wish to preserve. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, wish to use the state to reduce market-generated inequality — which they recognize can practically limit individuals’ freedom — but vigorously attack pre-liberal cultural norms and institutions, such as organized religion and normative monogamy, that Deneen argues temper inequality and preserve social solidarity. …

Deneen charges liberalism with having created, under the guise of representative government, distant, arbitrary, and unresponsive rule by technocrats who despise the ignorant populace and are despised in turn. Culturally, he argues that liberalism has eviscerated actual cultures and replaced them with a pervasive, homogenous “anticulture,” in which identity is reduced to a sort of private, consumer good.

hat-tip Stephen Neil