by Frederick Blonigen
Archbishop Charles Chaput describes Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed as "one of the most absorbing political philosophy books of the past decade. No one who reads it, no one who considers its substance, will be able to think about the dynamics and consequences of the American democratic experiment in the quite the same way." Dr. Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, proposes there are foundational contradictions of the dominant Western ideology: liberalism.
His principal thesis: "Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. 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 yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralistic tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success… Liberalism’s success today is most visible in the gathering signs of its failure. It has made the world in its image, especially through the realms of politics, economics, education, science, and technology, all aimed at achieving supreme and complete freedom through the liberation of the individual from particular places, relationships, memberships , and even identities— unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will. The autonomous self is thus subject to the sovereign trajectory of the very forces today that are embraced as the tools of our liberation. Yet our liberation renders us incapable of resisting these defining forces—the promise of freedom results in thralldom to inevitabilities to which we have no choice but to submit."
Liberalism, fascism, and communism are modernity's three major ideologies. Only liberalism still seems viable. We live in a society and nation transformed in every respect by this ideology: politics, economics, education, culture -- all have been deeply influenced by liberalism. But an ideology based on a false understanding of human nature will eventually collapse. Professor Deneen contends that liberalism has reached that point.
In politics, Alexis de Tocqueville's famous warning in Democracy in America about the danger of democracy being transformed into a "soft despotism" is becoming a reality.
In economics, too, there is great discontent. The widening gap between those who are super-wealthy and the "forgotten ones" is an indictment of liberal globalism. More and cheaper consumer goods cannot replace meaningful productive work for men with a living wage to support a wife and kids at home. "The economic system simultaneously is both liberalism’s handmaiden and its engine. Like a Frankenstein monster, global democratic capitalism has taken on a life of its own …but its processes and logic can no longer be controlled by people purportedly enjoying the greatest freedom in history. The wages of freedom are a bondage to economic inevitability."
In education, it is no irony that this devastating critique of modern liberalism without God comes from a great Catholic University. Catholic institutions in general and Notre Dame in particular came late to the modern liberal project in education that divorced the best American universities from their Christian roots. Deneen, like his colleague Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, reminds us that while the liberalism of hyper-autonomy and intellectual hyper-specialization predominates in academia, there are still free men and Christian universities renewing a more ancient tradition of learning and scholarship.
Deneen warns that the collapse of the liberal ideology cannot be saved by a more advanced liberalism. Advancing more liberal measures is tantamount “to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.” The appeal of liberalism from the beginning was its commitment to liberty and human dignity and its rejection of tyranny and oppression. Since its inception five hundred years ago, liberalism appeared to share certain continuities with both classical and Christian pre-modernity. But this is a deception, says Deneen,because from its origins liberalism has espoused, albeit at times in language that sounds congruent with pre-modern thought, a world view and an anthropology incompatible with a classical or Christian understanding of human nature and the human condition.
The revolutionary nature of liberalism is seen immediately with how it reconceived the meaning of the word "liberty" itself. Liberty, in both the classical and Christian traditions, has long been understood to mean "self rule," the ability to control one’s desire, to discipline one’s passions, to achieve an ordered life. In fact, self rule was thought to be the foundation of political self rule. As the Christian president Harry Truman said, "Our American heritage of human freedom is born of the belief that man is created in the image of God and thereby capable of governing himself." Only a society whose citizens are willing to govern themselves can hope for a government that governs its citizens with justice. Because man is by nature a political or social animal, he can only achieve true freedom as a member of a community or social order greater than himself. Liberty in pre-modern theory is a means not an end: the end is a life of virtue, a life that is good. Modern liberalism, however, defines freedom as the pursuit of one’s appetites to the greatest extent possible, with a deep antipathy to any limitation on the limitless desires of the autonomous self.
The profound irony of modern liberal theory is that in order to enjoy an ever expansive liberty the autonomous individual has to rely on an ever increasing centralized state. Liberal individualism and statism are intimately connected. In liberal theory, the individual having been "freed" from the norms and conventions of restrictive pre-modern communities and intermediate associations, must turn to the state to defend his self proclaimed rights. Liberalism rests on this vicious cycle of the deracinated individual relying on an ever expanding state to protect and enhance his freedom. The individualist philosophy of classical liberalism and the statist philosophy of progressive liberalism are reinforcing each other. The statist individual is the result.
One man who saw most clearly the bankruptcy of this kind of liberalism was the great Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. According to Deneen, Solzhenitsyn "clearly perceived the lawlessness at the heart of liberal orders—a lawlessness that rose most centrally from liberalism’s claims to value 'rule of law' as it hollowed out every social norm and custom in favor of legal codes. In his controversial 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, 'A World Split Apart,' Solzhenitsyn criticized modern liberal reliance upon’legalistic’ life. Echoing the Hobbesian and Lockean understanding of law as positivistic 'hedges' constraining otherwise perfect natural autonomy, liberal legalism is posed against our natural liberty, and thus is always regarded as an imposition that otherwise should be avoided or circumvented. Delinked from any conception of ‘completion’—telos or flourishing—and disassociated from norms of natural law, legalism results in a widespread effort to pursue desires as fully as possible while minimally observing any legal prohibition. Solzhenitsyn cut to the heart of liberalism’s great failing and ultimate weakness: its incapacity to foster self-governance." It was also in his famous Harvard address that the prophetic Solzhenitsyn enraged the liberal intelligentsia in America by daring to proclaim that the West’s only hope to avoid total moral collapse was a return to God. The howls of derision could be heard from spiritually empty secular leftist intellectuals all over America.
|Natalia Solzhenitsyn kneels by her husband's coffin (2008)|
While Professor Deneen’s analysis of liberalism is largely persuasive, one can ask if the author has provided an adequate account of the interplay between Enlightenment liberalism and Protestant Christianity in the American founding. He is right about the modernist project of the godless West, but is he right about America? Locke’s political philosophy was an important influence on the Founders but so was the Bible. America was founded by men who believed in God and who believed in the sovereignty of their Creator. The Puritans of New England came to this country to build a New Israel, a shining city on a hill. They defined their polity as a sacred covenantal union with the God they worshiped. The Founding Fathers, though men of the Enlightenment, were even more men imbued with a Roman republican understanding of government and a Christian view of human nature. The foundation of this country and our universities was deeply religious. From its origins we were to be a people under God. This may not be obvious in the University Office For Diversity but over a hundred years ago it was underlined in a favorite national song:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law!
Catholic scholar Michael Novak was certainly a champion of Liberalism when he wrote his immensely popular The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Novak’s Christian sensibility eventually led to a religious and patriotic tempering of his earlier enthusiasm. In 2001 he published On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. "The most important thing is this: the founders saw themselves laboring within a community of inquiry, at home simultaneously in the world of biblical and classical examples and in the practical world of the eighteenth century. For most of them the Bible and plain reason went hand in hand, moral example for moral example. Even for those few (such as Thomas Paine) for whom common sense and the Bible were antitheses, plain reason led to a belief in God. Paine ridiculed the Bible but he was not an atheist."
"In one key respect, the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong. It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies, her compact with the God of the Jews—the God of Israel championed by the nation’s first Protestants—the God who prefers the humble and weak things of this world, the small tribe of Israel being one of them: Who brings down the mighty and lifts up the poor; and Who has done so all through history, and will do so till the end of time. Believe that there is such a God or not—the founding generation did, and relied upon this belief. Their faith is an indispensable part of their story." That strong faith of the Founders is the antithesis of modern liberalism which is in full rebellion against its Creator.
Polish philosopher Ryzard Legutko says in his recent book The Demon in Democracy, "Christianity is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal- democratic anthropology." The anthropology Christianity provides is one that sees the human person not as an autonomous individual endlessly pursuing his insatiable desires in a joyless search for joy, but as a person made in the image of the Incarnate Logos, the Eternal Son of God, and a member through baptism of His Mystical Body and who if faithful to his Savior is destined to live eternally in God‘s Kingdom, under the Kingship of Jesus Christ.
Professor Deneen believes that the five hundred year philosophical Enlightenment experiment called liberalism has run its course. It has failed because of its enormous success. What will follow its demise, the author does not predict. He does, however, believe in freedom after liberalism. Deneen does not explicitly say that our abandonment of God and His sovereignty has led to our present predicament. Our Founding Fathers would not be surprised that a world dominated by secular liberalism has become morally and spiritually bankrupt. John Adams warned his fellow Americans in 1798: "We have no government armed with power of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is made only for moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." America does have a future after ideological liberalism just as clearly as we have a past informed by sources much richer than the Enlightenment. We must draw from those deeper springs and rediscover the American liberty that need not fail -- of one nation under God.
| Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow (1685) -- |
the oldest surviving church in New York