August 2023

Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

I read this book prompted by a story in Politico to get a sense of what this new intellectual darling of conservatives had to say.

To Deneen, liberalism is an ideology with three main projects: stripping individuals of all customs and traditions that restrict their innate liberty, relying on a powerful state to enforce the order that had been enforced by those customs and traditions, and dominating nature to pursue material progress, which he deems catastrophic.

He then goes on to examine what he feels are the pathologies of liberalism, which he states again and again are not the result of liberalism's failures but of its successes.

His antidote to this damage is a change in regimes that moves the United States toward a post-liberal order based on small communities with Catholicized notions of universal humanity (whose leaders may or may not be chosen democratically – unclear at the moment).

These communities would rebalance life toward valuing civic and personal virtue, restraint of appetites (especially sex – he has a lot of worries about sexuality), and organic rather than legalistic social control, what he calls a culture of "generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular meanings." (64)

While I agree with some of Deneen's critiques regarding the American version of the liberal state, I find fault in his sourcing and descriptions. He blames figures like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes for peddling a false "anthropology" of a war of everyone against everyone to justify a strong state. However, Deneen presents his own idealized "anthropology/mythology" of humans embedded in cultures that curb appetites and encourage virtuous behavior, which comes across as nostalgic and not thoroughly researched. (It would have done him good to delve into some actual anthropology, of the kind done by David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity or Graeber's Debt.)

Deneen's arguments are further weakened by what I perceive as deliberate obtuseness or cynical attempts to "own the libs."

As one example among many, he speaks of the financial collapse in 2008 not as a success of the way America's capitalist system operates (if trashing the world economy can be deemed a "success") but that the "mortgage industry rested upon the financial equivalent of college 'hookups,' random encounters of strangers in which appetites (for outsized debt or interest) were sated without any care for the consequences for the wider community … the training at dorm parties and the fraternities of one's college were the ideal preparation for a career in the mortgage bond market, and the financial frat party of Wall Street more generally." (87)

This is just one example of many that demonstrates, to me, that he is not serious about what he says or about deeply investigating the discontents he compiles. He just gums together standard canards about the decline of American society so that he can pulp out a book that will garner him attention: the crisis in families is because gays want marriage and children; identity politics, with its pronouns, is the reason why elite universities are intolerant of free speech; citizens are really just consumers; the "deep state" (the quote marks are his, though he doesn't source the phrase) is surveilling us to death; the "liberalocracy" (149) hates the common folk; and so on.

His portrait of American society is equally cartoonish: humans automatoned by technology and shorn of all social obligations go about satisfying their growling appetites in complete disregard for the wellbeing of their fellows or ecological health of the world, abetted by a state (both deep and shallow) that does everything to keep them free while also keeping them in order.


Challenging these generalities and cartoons feels like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. For instance, he constantly says that liberalism does this or that, as if it were a sovereign with a sword and purse, which relieves him of digging into facts and histories to document who did what to whom and when, a complexity that would certainly slow down his ascent by forcing him to be an actual scholar instead of playing one on TV. How can one review and refute gelatin?

His well of sources is shallow, he goes for long stretches making this and that assertion without any support, and he will insert words or phrases in quote marks (as with "deep state" above) without indicating whether these are quotes or just a stylistic tic.

Why Liberalism Failed seems to me a grumpy essay plumped to book length so that Deneen can ride a wave of conservative adulation from people who are feckless and on-the-make (e.g., Marco Rubio, J.D. Vance) but who know that in Deneen's post-liberal regime, they would be given prime seats at the table. They have no real interest in his imagined Eden of communitarian, Amish-like, Catholic-themed, small-scaled societies – by all means, bring them on. The levers of power won't change, the hands on those levers won't change, and the grift won't change: let these communes exercise small-d democracy and grow gardens in their new commons while we consolidate our power and bring into being the autocracy we crave (what Robert Higgs, who borrowed it from Charlotte Twight, has called a "participatory fascism").

There are ways within liberalism (which contains more than Deneen gives it credit for) to address the discontents that plague us, but doing that does require a regime change, just not the one that Deneen wants to engineer. And I think there is value in what Deneen says about smaller scales and closer ties to the people around us, though his cartoonish view of modern America society doesn't allow him to acknowledge that what he says he values does take place on a daily basis in thousands of places (doing "neighbor labor," as our neighbor Alane would say it): that hasn't gone away.

It is not hard to imagine what a good American society could give its citizens, but we've engineered a system that makes Sisyphus' work look like a breeze when it comes to changing things: even with heroic efforts and blood sacrifices, the injustices and unfreedoms persist. That is not liberalism's fault, and I assume that Deneen knows that. Too bad his bent at the moment is not to hold the powerful to account (to cast a pox on all their houses) but to take up residence in one of those houses in exchange for adulation and compensation.

He can't be ignored, but neither should he be taken seriously.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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