Both Samuel Moyn and Bryan Garsten turn Tocqueville, an abiding presence in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, against Deneen’s own conclusions. Both are generally more sympathetic to liberalism than Deneen, and believe that, as Moyn puts it, “remedies are possible within modern liberalism to bring out its virtues and contain its vices.” Finally, both Moyn and Garsten pick up on the book’s curious ambiguities. Moyn insists that Deneen doesn’t seem to actually believe his more extravagantly pessimistic claims. After all, at the end of his more or less unrelenting polemic, Deneen admits that whatever replaces liberalism will have to acknowledge its achievements, though he is rather vague about how one might separate these from liberalism’s vices. Garsten expresses pointed concerns about the favor shown to “relatively closed communities of meaning”; and while Deneen admits we can’t go back to the Middle Ages, it’s also true that his chief criticism of liberalism is that it undoes traditional habits and ways of life and the virtues that supposedly support them. He also occasionally concedes that liberalism is a richer tradition than his rhetoric sometimes suggests—that it is the inheritor of ideals from both the classical and Christian traditions, and that its aspirations have often been quite noble. By the end of Why Liberalism Failed, I confess that I was frustrated that these nuances were mostly tacked on to the beginning and end of the book—why not actually have them inform the main argument?
It’s important to realize, however, that this is typical of anti-liberal polemics from the traditionalist right. It’s easy to rail against an amorphous thing called “liberalism,” to which you attribute much of what’s wrong with the world; it’s significantly harder to specify which features of liberalism we should reject and to grapple with the consequences of doing so. Which rights and freedoms associated with liberalism—or more precisely, whose rights and freedoms—should be curtailed? What sacrifices will have to be made, and by whom? Far safer to leave it all rather vague, expressing dismay about “the sexual revolution” or “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” than to specify just who would bear the costs of finally putting liberalism behind us. We know who suffered in traditional communities, and the inequities and prejudices that the past can hand down to us. We should not forget the injustices that have been all too traditional. I wish more anti-liberals would think harder about what defending “tradition” against the claims of equality meant even just a few decades ago.
Why Liberalism Failed is also a surprisingly abstract book. It portrays a world in which almost no one makes actual political decisions; liberalism just inexorably works itself out, a magical, corrupting essence. In its very first pages, Deneen invokes “a political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago,” before noting that “some 70 percent of Americans believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction”—thus drawing a straight line from Hobbes and Locke to our present discontent. In one of the book’s most telling features, liberalism is consistently assigned a peculiar agency: liberalism does this or that, demands this or that, and so on. As someone who writes about ideas, I admit it’s easy to slip into that kind of shorthand. But in this case it’s not just shorthand: the device is actually essential for the book’s conception and execution.
If Deneen were to attribute agency to real people who make decisions about how to live together, rather than making them the mere plaything of ideas, then he would need to be more specific about where we went wrong. Instead of (not unreasonably) lamenting the role of “technology” in our lives, he might have to decide whether we should blame liberalism for antibiotics as well as for the smartphones to which we’re all so addicted. Is the former part of the sinister, Promethean desire to seek “mastery” over nature that sprang from the mind of Francis Bacon? If not, why? Instead of conflating liberalism and unbridled capitalism, Deneen would need to tease out their complicated relationship in history—and decide whether or not the recent “populist” revolts were fated centuries ago (from Locke to “Lock Her Up,” one might say) or have more recent causes, such as four decades of neoliberal economics. In short, Deneen would have to grapple with specific choices in the history of recent politics—choices that were never inevitable—instead of making sweeping claims about the unavoidable consequences of “liberalism.” Of course, it might turn out that all these slopes really are quite slippery; maybe we can’t have antibiotics without also expecting smartphones, or maybe once we move beyond a world of yeoman farmers we are destined for the most rapacious forms of global capitalism. But rather than proving that liberalism has a destiny—that it always will grow more destructive over time—Deneen simply assumes it.
It’s not surprising, then, that he doesn’t have much to say about what might come after liberalism. How could he? It would require a totally different style of analysis. He does endorse Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” and recommends more robust “home economies.” But if liberalism is as pervasive and destructive as Deneen says it is, I doubt such experiments in localism will be an effective response. Won’t the supposedly jealous god of liberalism cut them down before they can gain a real foothold? I understand the impulse to avoid constructing just one more “ideology,” but surely setting forth political principles and suggesting what institutional arrangements might sustain them is not too much to ask. I want anti-liberals to describe what the world they want to live in would actually look like.