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The Problems of Liberalism

Contemporary Western culture sees itself as broadly liberal, a value framework which has given us democracy, the rule of law, toleration, human rights and a market economy – all things to be grateful for. With the collapse of Communism, there was an air of self-congratulation.  Some spoke of the ‘end of history’, since we in the West had the best system and nothing could improve on it. But then came Islamic terrorism, the financial crash, Brexit and Trump – the rise of populism, and much elite angst. To address this, Patrick Deneen, an American academic at Notre Dame, has written Why Liberalism Failed and it became the basis for one of our lunch discussions. Deneen’s project is interesting, since his thesis has gained traction on both the political left and right, with many agreeing across party lines that there is a crisis afoot. 

Deneen first describes how the crisis of liberalism has come to the fore. First, there is the economic insecurity and inequality brought on by globalisation – factory jobs lost to China, for example. Then we see social dislocation brought on by family breakdown and immigration. There is then a need to deal with the consequent distrust in government. Ironically, at the same time we have seen the rise of a greater dependence on the state. Another key trend is greater reliance on technology which is seen as a solution to life’s problems but which also produces anxieties about a wide range of issues: the environment, our mental health, political civility and the unknowns of ‘A.I’.  Lastly, as an academic, Deneen laments the decline of good liberal education in the universities, as STEM subjects and business studies are pushing out the study of the great books of Western culture.

As a political philosopher Deneen wants us to realise that, despite liberalism’s achievements – democracy etc – which he values, there are acute weaknesses in its intellectual foundations. But these fractures have been hidden. His big point is that in the classical and Christian tradition, to be a free man – libera hominis, from which we derive the word liberal – meant having a commitment to virtue and the common good. Freedom was predicated on the discipline of the self, embedded in and responsible to family, community and place. But in the chaos and trauma of the 17th century wars of religion this view was lost and rejected. The virtuous self was replaced by one dedicated to rational self-interest and working within a social contract. The philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were mostly responsible for this and had dreamed it up out of an imagined ‘state of nature.’ This vision of an essentially amoral self, driven only by self-interest, didn’t initially cause problems.  In fact, it was associated with the rise of the liberal democratic state because the implications of this view of the self were disguised by the moral capital of a Christian culture.   

Now that our culture has shed its Christian capital, and the supporting family and community structures that went with it, there are deepening problems. The autonomous individual finds itself exposed. Ironically, it is increasingly dependent on the state, the market and technology, which all both give and take away. The state gives welfare but requires high taxes, the globalising market gives cheap goods but takes jobs, and technology gives wealth and ease but often degrades the environment. So, this modern conception of the amoral self doesn’t actually give freedom but rather, dependence and powerlessness – all the ingredients of an angry populism. It seems therefore that modern liberalism becomes dysfunctional, as its inadequate basis of mere self-interest is exposed. For the Christian, Deneen’s book is a salutary reminder that real freedom has to be shaped and supported by virtue and that a successful society cannot do without the civic virtues that promote family, community and the common good.

Photo Credit: by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

2 Comments
  • John Bauer
    Posted at 15:39h, 21 November Reply

    I find it curious that academic writers like Deneen, Charles Taylor, and (reaching way back) Allan Bloom focus on the ethical and moral basis for democratic civics but fail to fully investigate the spiritual basis. To be a free, virtuous individual one must overcome the spiritual dilemma of the soul. There is only one way this can be accomplished, and that is through Christ. It takes the collective salvation and transformation of individuals to change a culture and make it sufficiently virtuous to govern itself. As Duneen appears to recognize, geographic, economic and technological influences are certainly influential but they are far less deterministic than our moral-spiritual condition. Thus, while there is always a healthy and vibrant dialogue between the two schools of classicism–secular and “religious”–about the foundational qualities of democracy, the discussion is incomplete without acknowledgement of the need for the work of Christ in the redemption and sanctification on an individual level.. Even classical humanists like Thomas Jefferson acknowledged this foundational truth at one time. How did we lose it? Politics is certainly downstream from culture, but culture is downstream from spirituality. It is a link that deserves more exploration.

    • Ian Cooper
      Posted at 09:58h, 24 November Reply

      Many thanks for your response John and you make an essential point – redemption precedes reformation. However, I think you have to recognise that Deneen is an academic political scientist who first needs to make the intellectual case that modern liberalism is fundamentally flawed, in its basic anthropology. That the idea, going back to Locke and Hobbes, that human beings are essentially and only agents of self interest without a commitment to virtue, is a useless basis for society . In fact the irony Deneen draws attention to is that the modern liberal is pathetically dependent on the state, the market and technology and is not really free at all, as he/she likes to think. In all this he does an excellent job. Now he is a Catholic and he would no doubt argue theologically on the need for salvation but that would I suspect mean going beyond his academic remit and need a different book. As it is he has had the secular world paying attention to him.

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