Tag Archives: individualism

A New Book Takes On 500 Years of Modern Liberalism

Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen, uses “liberalism” in the oldest, broadest sense of the term. Deneen’s sweeping, severe assessment of all that has gone wrong in our time attacks modernity’s entire package-deal: individuals possessing inalienable rights; representative, accountable governments that exist to secure those rights; the separation of church and state; the commitment to progress, prosperity, and self-determination.

Deneen, a University of Notre Dame political scientist, calls liberalism a “political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago,” a project set in motion by Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes before John Locke, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill elaborated and systematized it. Though launched with lofty aspirations to promote equity, pluralism, dignity, and liberty, it turns out that liberalism “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” Liberalism failed because it succeeded, Deneen argues.

Its “inner logic” culminated in crippling contradictions becoming manifest. Communism and fascism, the “visibly authoritarian” ideologies liberalism vanquished, were “crueler,” but less “insidious.” Liberalism’s power to shape our expectations and standards is so great that only as humanity is “burdened by the miseries of its successes” do we begin to realize that “the vehicles of our liberation have become iron cages of our captivity.”

Our existence within those cages is harrowing and false. Democratic politics has become a “Potemkin drama meant to convey the appearance of popular consent for a figure who will exercise incomparable arbitrary powers over domestic policy, international arrangements, and, especially, warmaking.” Purportedly republican governance really consists of “commands and mandates of an executive whose office is achieved by massive influxes of lucre.”

Our economic lives, based on the assumption that “increased purchasing power of cheap goods will compensate for the absence of economic security and the division of the world into generational winners and losers,” are equally fraudulent. And equally malign: “few civilizations appear to have created such a massive apparatus to winnow those who will succeed from those who will fail.” Because of these forces, we are “increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.”

That’s one assessment of life in the 21st century. Here’s another:

Many people around the world feel insecure and oppose the spreading of insecurity and war….

The people are protesting the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots and the rich and poor countries.

The people are disgusted with increasing corruption.

The people of many countries are angry about the attacks on their cultural foundations and the disintegration of families. They are equally dismayed with the fading of care and compassion….

Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems.

The latter passage does not come from Why Liberalism Failed but appeared instead in an open letter sent to President George W. Bush in 2006 by Iran’s president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad. The striking similarity of the two jeremiads is, at the very least, awkward for Deneen. We know that Ahmadinejad belongs to a broad Islamic movement that, loathing and dreading Western liberalism, wants to extirpate the encroachments it has made in Muslim societies. He offers a critique and a remedy, blood-drenched but nevertheless clear.

There’s no evidence that Deneen favors an American counterpart to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, but also very little evidence about the solution he does endorse. Like most authors of books on politics and social conditions, Deneen is a loquacious pathologist but tongue-tied clinician. Why Liberalism Failed follows the template: half-a-dozen vigorous, detailed chapters that explicate and decry what’s broken, and assign blame for our dilemma, followed by a single concluding chapter—slender, tentative, vague, and unusable—on how to fix the problem.

Given the depths and urgency of the crisis he deplores, Deneen’s reticence about how to find our way out of it is particularly disappointing. At one point he suggests the difficulty of explaining what comes after liberalism is yet another thing to blame on liberalism since its hegemony over our discourse makes it hard to imagine and describe a post-liberal future. At another, he contends that the absence of standards defining that future is a virtue.

Since one of liberalism’s inherent defects is an excessive reliance on political theory, the remedy must be a firm reliance on political practice. More specifically, he endorses “communities of practice,” such as the Amish or those envisioned by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. In them, “people of goodwill” can “form distinctive countercultural communities” that create “new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and [a] civic polis life.”

Authors can be revealing without being forthcoming, however, and the suggestions Deneen gives about these communities of practice point to larger defects in his argument. His book relates a conversation he had while teaching at Princeton, about the Amish practice of giving young adults a year-long sabbatical from the austere communities where they grew up, so they can sample modern life before deciding whether to eschew it. “Some of my former colleagues took this as a sign that these young people were in fact not ‘choosing’ as free individuals,” he writes. “One said, ‘We will have to consider ways of freeing them.’”

Deneen treats this chilling Rousseauian remark as exposing liberalism’s malevolent essence. It is not one tenured radical, but all of liberalism, that denigrates “family, community, and tradition.” Deneen does not consider the alternative possibility that his colleague was not a representative liberal but a deficient one, severely lacking in the accommodating spirit of live-and-let-live that characterizes liberal societies at their best.

Elsewhere, Deneen anticipates demands for laws to prevent communities of practice from becoming “local autocracies or theocracies.” Such demands, he warns, “have always contributed to the extension of liberal hegemony,” leaving us “more subject to the expansion of both the state and market and less in control of our fate.” This dismissal does not refute a legitimate concern: the people who form distinctive countercultural communities will not necessarily be of goodwill. Nor will the results of their efforts always be “lighthouses and field hospitals” that guide us through the liberal storm and cure us of the liberal sickness. Sometimes they’ll produce Amish communities, but other times they’ll yield Jonestown, Branch Davidians, or the Church of Scientology.

The “most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism,” Deneen argues, “is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.” For the time being, while operating in “liberalism’s blighted cultural landscape,” the communities of practice will avail themselves of liberalism’s “choice-based philosophy.” They can invoke voluntarism to resist it, issuing a defiant “Don’t Tread on Me” to liberalism’s encroaching state, market, and “anti-culture.” After liberalism has collapsed under the weight of its contradictions, however, the voluntarist communities of practice might someday produce a “nonvoluntarist cultural landscape.” In it, presumably, individuals will no longer be burdened by the possibility and necessity of making so many choices, including whether to join or leave a community of practice.

These hints that Deneen is something of an anti-anti-theocrat lead us to Why Liberalism Failed’s most serious lacuna: how did a philosophy he portrays as monstrous and anthropologically absurd not only catch on but come to dominate political thought and practice for five centuries? He emphasizes the guile, malevolence, bad faith, and hidden agendas of liberalism’s architects, but doesn’t account for their astounding success in peddling what sounds like a solution in search of a problem.

By way of not explaining what we should do now, Deneen says that we can only go forward, not back to “an idyllic preliberal age” that “never existed.” But an age can be pretty good without being idyllic. Deneen says that none of liberalism’s ideals—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, and constitutionalism—were innovations. All of them were “of ancient pedigree,” carefully elaborated over centuries in classical and Christian philosophy.

Since liberalism brought nothing new to the table, the only reason for its success appears to be that people were fooled into thinking it would hasten the process of making political practice conform more closely to the standards laid out by pre-liberal political theory. Still, why humans made such a big bet on such a bad pony remains a mystery, as does their needing 500 years to start realizing the gamble hasn’t paid off.

One wouldn’t know from Why Liberalism Failed that the dawning of the liberal age coincided with the beginning of savage religious wars that devastated Europe. Over doctrinal differences, Protestants slaughtered Catholics, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and Protestants slaughtered other Protestants. After two centuries of this madness, people were both exhausted and receptive to the idea that it was more urgent to end than to win the religious warfare.

The liberal philosophy took shape, largely in response to these traumas, and offered a way out of them. Politics would be about some things but not everything, and especially not about God and how to regard Him. Liberalism created a political space in which people would agree to disagree. When first put forward, his approach struck many people as a good idea and continues to appeal today.

Liberalism remains problematic for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty of drawing the boundaries between those things we must agree on, and those where agreement is unnecessary and seeking it dangerous. There are other challenges. Liberalism prevents religion from becoming a threat to civic peace by “privatizing” it, turning it into a kind of hobby. The resulting secularization of the public realm trivializes both public and private life, however, producing what Leo Strauss famously called the “joyless quest for joy.”

Furthermore, and as Deneen makes clear, liberalism draws upon civilizational inventories it does not replenish. Immanuel Kant was wrong: sensible devils cannot sustain a liberal society, no matter how shrewdly ambition is made to counteract ambition. The character of the citizenry is crucial, but the cultural contradiction of liberalism is that the experience of living in a liberal regime turns a great many of its citizens into people lacking the nobility, virtue, and discipline needed to defend and preserve that regime.

It may be, then, that such serious problems mean liberalism is inherently precarious at best and untenable at worst. Nevertheless, liberalism arose in response to the genuine problem of finding a way people of diverse creeds could live together peacefully. Getting rid of liberalism will not get rid of this necessity. Ahmadinejad’s solution is to banish the diversity liberalism presupposes, to hasten the process whereby “the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.”

Deneen’s solution, so far as he has one, sounds like solving diversity by increasing it through an archipelago of micro-polities, different from one another but each committed to its internally unifying vision of the good life. Neither solution sounds plausible or enticing. If, as Deneen contends, we got into our difficulties with liberalism and its attendant difficulties by not asking enough hard questions, there’s no reason to believe we’ll get out of those difficulties without asking hard questions about what comes next, questions for which Why Liberalism Failed offers no answers.

Jordan Peterson and the Lobsters

Not many academics use lobsters as a stepping stone to fame, but Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson just did. Last week, he was being questioned by a British journalist named Cathy Newman in what may have been one of the most maladroit interviews in the entire history of journalism. Every time Peterson made a point, Newman would aggressively mangle what he said, and throw it back at Peterson as an indignant accusation. (Here, Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic smartly analyzes this bizarre interview.)

At one Newman says, “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?” Peterson hadn’t suggested that we all should grow claws, live on the ocean floor or consult crustacean tradition on political organization. Peterson denied a popular leftist idea that hierarchical structures are sociological constructs of the Western patriarchy.

Here’s what Peterson said: “That is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. I use the lobster as an example: We diverged from lobsters’ evolutionary history about 350 million years ago. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. They have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin just like ours. The nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.”

The Lobsters Live On

A long and laudatory article on Peterson’s rebellion against PC and the leftist cast of higher education ran in the Guardian with a photo of Peterson in a jacket and tie holding a lobster in each hand. Another photo has Peterson sitting on a pile of books with a black cat in front. Floating by are a chair, a skateboard, a book, and two lobsters.

Peterson came to heavy attention in Canada and the U.S. last year when he refused to use the made-up pronouns of the transgender movement in his classes, though his employer (the University of Toronto) and his province(Ontario) insisted that he must.

Since his pronoun rebellion, Peterson has been increasingly visible on YouTube videos and has had attention from other intellectuals. In fact, he is now being regarded as one of the more significant campaigners against the domination of the campuses by the left. And his work in psychology has drawn a good deal of attention. Camille Paglia estimates him to be “the most important Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan.”

Tim Lott reported in the Guardian:

“He believes most university humanities courses should be defunded because they have been ‘corrupted by neo-Marxist postmodernists’ – particularly women’s studies and black studies. This has led him to be branded a member of the alt-right – although his support for socialized healthcare, redistribution of wealth towards the poorest and the decriminalization of drugs suggests this is far from the whole story. He defines himself as a ‘classic British liberal.’ But he also says – when challenged for being a reactionary – that ‘being reactionary is the new radicalism.’

Peterson has largely been in the news for his blazing, outspoken opposition to much of the far-left political agenda, which he characterizes as totalitarian, intolerant and a growing threat to the primacy of the individual – which is his core value and, he asserts, the foundation of western culture.”

He has also taken on Google, reporting that it blocked one of his YouTube videos in 28 countries as extreme.

Peterson combines a good sense of humor with a dark view that life is a catastrophe and the aim of life is not to be happy. HHHHe is a gifted and entertaining teacher whose videos have been watched more than 35 million times, and he is a passionate individualist: “Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.”

He is also willing to use apparently frivolous chapter headings in his most recent book, Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos

Peterson’s 12 rules

Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping

Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today

Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Rule 10 Be precise in your speech

Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Universities, Individualism, and David Brooks

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks raised an interesting and important question. Drawing on a recent book (largely neglected) by Hugh Heclo entitled On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks critiqued a report on education that a Harvard University faculty committee issued a few years ago. According to the report, “the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them find ways to reorient themselves.”
Brooks observed that this logic “is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness.” The problem is that this way of living neglects the important role that tradition and institutional custom play in providing order and a sense of duty that give meaning and form to life. Brooks quotes Heclo: “In taking delivery, institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
Brooks points to the erosion of obligation and responsibility in the banking profession as one example of the problem, among many. “Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation… Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like ‘Mary Poppins.’ But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.”

Continue reading Universities, Individualism, and David Brooks