When I first heard about Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed, I assumed it was one more version of the standard reactionary talking points. Over the decades and centuries, the illiberal bill of particulars is pretty consistent, making up a by now dog-eared breviary dusted off for mass consumption in moments of crisis. This one, I assumed, would narrate a declension, after high medieval plenitude, from William of Ockham to the opioid crisis.
This now-hoary countertradition bowdlerizes liberalism, and then compares it with some allegedly superior alternative, past or future. And there is a paradox about the critique of liberalism. It is probably most relevant and useful at times of complacency, precisely when nobody is paying attention to its exaggerated complaints and admonitions. Even then, the totalistic bent and utopian solutions of most such critiques miss the point of any authentic reckoning with liberalism’s current situation. And then the breviary of illiberalism risks becoming noxious when crisis allows it a new look—precisely when even thoughtful and well-meaning opponents of liberalism risk becoming defenders of the worst outcomes, or at least paving the road to hell with their good intentions. Something like this occurred in the 1930s, and there are lessons there.
But I had to give up my assumption that Deneen was merely recycling this illiberal countertradition yet again—though that is a large part of his agenda—when I read Adrian Vermeule’s review of the book for American Affairs, which weirdly gave me a kind of hope. Like revolutionaries, reactionaries police one another for impurity, and because Vermeule found Deneen’s critique of liberalism still too liberal for his taste, I suspected there was something more in Deneen’s book to work with. And there is. Deneen mounts his case in a way that ultimately saves it from becoming the boring rehash of reactionary memes one might otherwise fear.
But it does have to be read with an admittedly large squint to reach this conclusion. “Panicked responses from people who are so unnerved by the things we point out,” Rod Dreher wrote in a blog post about Deneen’s book, “resort to wildly distorting, even lying, about our books to keep the chaos they portend at bay.” Possibly, but it is also fair to read an argument that strays into reactionary Kulturkritik against its own purposes, if it can serve better ones. After all, today stands in need of a measured and sober critique of dominant forms of liberalism, rather than either an unthinking defense or rejection of them.
Let me advance my reading by scrambling the expected roles of this author and this reader. For it turns out that Deneen’s errors are due mostly to Karl Marx, while the most beneficial truths in his book are due to Alexis de Tocqueville—and there are more truths where these came from. Swapping out Marx for more Tocqueville allows the baby to be saved from the bathwater of Deneen’s argument. For those who want to celebrate their Christian roots, it is nonetheless possible to defend some embattled liberal ideals, and even to denounce how many liberals have allowed those ideals to be compromised. If my rereading of Why Liberalism Failed is convincing, Deneen will have written, not yet another tedious screed against liberalism, but a valuable contribution to our common future.
Deneen’s Marxist errors consist in three premises—first, that there is something called liberalism that is a take-it-or-leave-it system, and second, that it has dug its own grave to make way for some allegedly beneficent successor. Neither of these first two premises (I’ll get to the third later) is credible.
Amazingly, there is something valuable left in the book once you give up these first two dubious premises. In fact, for what it’s worth, I don’t think Deneen really believes them anyway. He not only concedes that liberalism conserves some good things from the past, but also that is a permanent bequest for any future. And while arguing that liberalism has self-destructed, in the end Deneen, unlike some other critics of liberalism, is sensitive to the high costs of many foreseeable alternatives, starting with our current leader’s politics. For both reasons, it turns out that Deneen is an advocate of saving liberalism from its own worst tendencies. Once you drop his incredible premise that there is some unified system producing these pathologies through its own workings, a system that will stand or fall as a unit, it turns out that he recognizes the real challenge of today as to isolate the bad and replace it with the good.
Which is where Tocqueville comes in. There is a lot of Tocqueville in Deneen’s book, but mostly the wrong parts. Repeatedly invoked are the bad claims about the freestanding genius of local community—since Tocqueville understood localism to make sense only in relation to non-local ideologies and structures. Even more unconvincing are the Cold War platitudes about the lurking threat that arises when atomized individuals submit to governmental tyranny, as if the contemporary neoliberal state were not a dysfunctional and shambolic mess. Gone, meanwhile, is Tocqueville’s clear sense that modernity is a providential event that realizes God’s plan on earth by recognizing the freedom and equality of individuals in a way Christendom itself had failed to do. (Sadly, Deneen is a touch—or more—euphemistic on this point, writing that the Middle Ages canonized freedom and equality but did “not always consistently recognize and practice” them. I suppose that is one way to put it.) Lost, too, is Tocqueville’s belief that remedies are possible within modern liberalism to bring out its virtues and contain its vices. Missing, above all, is Tocqueville’s Romantic commitment to individual self-creation as the chief good contemporary life allows to more people than ever, a goal that can be reconciled with democracy, and around which the latter ought to be organized.