Where liberalism meets capitalism: a Barclays float at Pride. Photo: AMER GHAZZAL/SHUTTERSTOCK, PACIFIC PRESS SERVICE/SHUTTERSTOC

A liberal interpretation

To sustain a properly functioning society we need more than just social freedoms and the free market
September 17, 2018

Not a day goes by without further frontline despatches from the war between our established liberal ideology and the strange new realities that body-forth from the future. Taking today—the one on which I sat down to write this article—as representative, I found in my morning bulletins a report about how the US Constitution’s vaunted separation of powers—personified by Special Counsel, Robert Mueller—was leading inexorably to the indictment, and hence removal, of “rogue” President Donald Trump. Then there was an item about the minister for women, whose public musings about the rise in the numbers of young people applying for gender-reassignment therapies were being taken as prima facie evidence that she doubted the authenticity of trans people’s claims to be gender dysphoric.

Also trending was an opinion piece bemoaning the fake polarisation of British politics. The writer pointed out that the issues surrounding our imminent departure from the EU are being inadequately debated by our main political parties. Both Labour and the Tories, argued the writer, would prefer to concentrate on internal power struggles as different factions attempt to tar each other with illiberalism, whether that be anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.

As for news of liberalism that could be summarised without the prefix “ill,” there was little that was reassuring. Only an item suggesting that the Liberal Democrats’ revolving-door leader, Vince Cable, would probably exit for good once the UK had left the EU, given that the party’s commitment to remain—its sole raison d’être since the 2016 referendum—will no longer be relevant.

And yet the only terms within which we seem able to discuss all this news are those provided by liberalism itself. The dark vortex of Labour’s stormy political summer has revolved around whether or not it is “racist” to call somebody else’s country “a racist endeavour.” It’s taken as read by both sides that “racist” is the most terrible epithet you can attach to someone or something; and while the combatants seem to be reverting to pre-liberal (as much as illiberal) attitudes, the bricks they sling are still moulded from liberal mud.

Certainly, Francis Fukuyama may have incorrectly predicted, in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” that the fall of the Soviet Union would herald an era of world-girdling liberal democracy, but he may have been right in at least this respect: it remains impossible, despite liberalism’s obvious failings, for those of us in the west who neither cleave to older gods nor more revolutionary sodalities, to think—or even act—outside this particular box.

It’s on to such turbid waters that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has been launched. Deneen’s book—a surprising hit, considering it’s by a Notre Dame professor of political science—offers us a way forward to a future in which liberalism’s purported failure can be turned to good account. Deneen’s charges against liberalism are succinctly stated: “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has ‘become more fully itself,’ as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realisations of liberal ideology.” For Deneen, chief among liberalism’s ills are “privatism”—by which he means its privileging of the private over the social space—and scientism, which to him entails not only the view that science can liberate us from all natural limitations, but that it can also remedy any of the collateral damage it causes.

There’s a burgeoning number of such self-flagellations by recusant liberals. The first edition of Edmund Fawcett’s hefty Liberalism: the Life of an Idea was published in 2014, but such is the accelerating pace of events, he and his publishers deemed a new edition—with a new epilogue—to be germane. Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism is, on the face of it, a still more scholarly study than Fawcett’s; however, her basic contention—that liberalism is doomed to repeat its mistakes, since it cannot recall its own past—speaks to the same febrile atmosphere.

But discussions about what “liberalism” (or “liberalisms”) actually are have been going on for time out of mind. Semantics and history do not fit together neatly: liberality—in the ancient sense of generosity of spirit and action—goes far in advance of our narrow contemporary understanding of “freedom,” as the mere ability of an individual to do what the hell she likes. Unlike communism, liberalism has no well-established assemblage of prophet-and-disciples; and unlike its rivals on the right—variously, conservatism, demagoguery and fascism—it can have no recourse to mysticism, or genealogy-as-ideology. As Fawcett points out, liberalism tends towards the philosophically realist: there are real people, they have real competing objectives, there needs to be a real way of compromise.

There is, nonetheless, overlap on the term’s meaning: Deneen speaks of “three basic revolutions” in human thought that underpin it: the rejection of tradition and custom as inherently divisive, and a block to human development; the repurposing of liberty as human freedom from just such traditions and customs; and the conception of science as a means of explaining and exploiting the natural world.

In slight contrast, Fawcett identifies four fundamental “elements” that are ever present in liberalism: “recognition of conflict, resistance to power, belief in progress, and civic respect for everyone.” Rosenblatt observes that the standpoint a thinker takes on liberalism’s origins will probably determine their perspective: “someone who begins with Machiavelli or Hobbes is likely to be a critic of liberalism, one who begins with Jesus Christ a defender.”

Deneen also has plenty of time for liberalism’s prehistory—Christianity and classical learning—but he does indeed finger Machiavelli and Hobbes for what he terms a “pair of deeper anthropological assumptions,” which undergird liberalism’s conception of the human.

The first is an “anthropological individualism,” by which the human subject is assumed to be the primary constituent of social reality, and its choices are conceived of as essentially free. The second is a view of humanity as fundamentally separate from, and in opposition to, the rest of nature. We can quibble about the latter—arguably just as present in the Abrahamic religions as it is liberalism—but what seems indisputable is that the entire liberal project would be a non-starter were we to view ourselves as objects of determination (by biology, by environment, by deity) rather than self-creation.

For Deneen, the claims that humans are self-determining subjects who choose the social forms they manifest are not only false, but destructively paradoxical. “Modern liberalism,” he argues, “proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist.” Why? Because as we compete with our fellow citizens for bigger slices of everything that’s available, we inevitably turn to the state—the only institution left standing when all the churches have gone—to achieve temporal, if not eternal, justice.

Deneen argues that the evidence of this ideological schizophrenia is all about us—as exemplified by my morning news-go-round: appalled US liberals look to their federal judiciary to bottle the orange-skinned genie unleashed by their own inability to manage popular expectations; while British liberals berate the state for failing to prioritise the rights of a trans minority constituting approximately 0.1 per cent of the population. Underlying it all, from Deneen’s perspective, is the inability of liberal democracies to effect sufficient wealth redistribution in order to justify their own ascription.

For Deneen, the main culprit is the thought experiment most recently modified by John Rawls, in his 1971 A Theory of Justice. Rawls’s so-called “veil of ignorance” would mean individuals somehow “choose” their political constitution while in ignorance of the station they’ll occupy in the society it founds. Deneen quotes Bertrand de Jouvenel on the idiocy of such social contractarianism, describing it as a philosophy conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.” I agree with Deneen’s refusal to accept that anyone shorn of social and biological contingencies can really be understood as a person at all—yet I found his critique to rest on a form of the very diallelus he’s so keen to debunk: surely only an individual standing outside of all human culture is in a position to assume the objectivity required to demolish this form of… um, objectivity?

*** Identity politics is seen by Edmund Fawcett as an extreme liberal tendency emerging, post-1945, from a neo-Hegelian philosophy of recognition: “History, in that picture, became a struggle for recognition. The metaphor electrified neo-Hegelian liberals, who likened the impersonal respect owed by power towards people to the personal recognition that people owed each other.”

For Fawcett the civil rights and feminist movements of the post-war period were legitimate children of a liberalism of rights—whereas the liberalism of recognition foments a strange sort of separatism, one he sees as destructive equally of “common citizenship” and a “shared political morality.” He also observes that while left-leaning groups may be grabbing the headlines over identity, it is right-wing campaign managers, both in the UK and the US, who have been most effective when it comes to activating white resentment.

Deneen’s problem with identity politics is more pointed. He views the current obsession with forms of “sexual autonomy”(his term, not mine)—the smorgasbord of “identities” available when multiple genders are factored by multiple sexual orientations—as evidence of contemporary liberalism’s commitment to the Frankensteinian project of mastering nature entirely, including human reproduction.

Deneen sites this obsession in the academy. A considerable part of Why Liberalism Failed is dedicated to demonstrating how, under neoliberal conditions, a liberal arts education is being transformed into a “servile” one—while what he adjudges “anticulture” is being palmed off on us in lieu of the genuine article.

For Deneen, liberalism’s evermore concipient—nay connubial—embrace of capitalism has resulted in a comprehensive commoditisation of knowledge and sensibility, deracinating all our arts and traditions so as to render them fungible. Further, so relentlessly does the Moloch of consumer-driven “growth” draw on the bank of the future (in the form of irreplaceable natural resources), to satisfy its ravening appetites, that we’re all obliged to retreat into a permanent “now,” lest the looming future of environmental devastation overwhelm us and our institutions.

It’s these aspects of Deneen’s thinking that I found most congenial—both as a corrective to liberalism’s more obviously Promethean follies, and as an evocation of what it actually feels like to be alive now. He labels this latest—and most destructive—iteration of the progressivism inherent in liberalism, as “presentism,” which also nicely expresses the curious temporal cul-de-sac our supposed technological advances have led us into. This has been well captured by Peter Thiel—the billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur: “We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters instead.”

I’m convinced by Deneen’s take down of the contemporary academy, which does indeed seem to be sacrificing the genuine cultivation of the individual on an altar consecrated to identity politics and neoliberalism.

Convinced, because I witness this every day in the university where I work, as academics and students scrupulously avoid non-discriminatory social practices, while engaging with a system purpose-built to divide wealthy winners from destitute losers: “Let’s all go for a coffee, so someone on a zero-hours contract can serve us while we discuss the baleful effects of heteronormativity!”

I also appreciated Deneen’s grasp of how, under globalised conditions, place itself also becomes interchangeable—a process ably assisted by technological virtualisation—such that all movements and situations become subject to a calculus of profits.

But whether or not Deneen succeeds in converting any true-yellow liberal to his viewpoint, will depend on their maintaining their own liberality in the face of his ideological Trojan horse. Deneen defines real—as opposed to anti—culture as “a set of generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular settings.”

For him, it is culture’s vertical transmission that cements societies together, rather than liberalism’s bogus forms of “consent.” He believes in virtue, by which Deneen means the acknowledgement by the individual precisely that her own personhood is constituted by an adherence to a supervening moral code.

It’s the v-word that gives him away: Deneen is an arch-Augustinian Catholic, who wishes to damn liberalism for the way it replaces a deep-level telos for all humanity, with the merely contingent ends of individual humans. What’s bracing about his critique is that he doesn’t dodge its millenarian tendencies—I picture him crying “We’re all doomed!” as he’s overwhelmed by a tidal wave of pink plastic packaging.

For Deneen, to look to liberalism for a way out is the height of folly—it’s all over, bar the shouting about pernicious heteronormativity. The best humanity can hope for is a retreat into smaller social forms—monastic communities, private universities, semi-Simonian phalansteries, perhaps—in which to continue cultivating tradition and virtue, while the rest of us go to hell on a Pride float sponsored by Barclays.

Deneen’s strategy is nothing new: such Nietzschean and even Marxian tactics have been used to duff up liberalism for centuries. His most obvious inspiration is Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), which argued that contemporary moral and ethical discourse is effectively meaningless under modern liberalism.

MacIntyre’s criticism of liberalism involved him in an ideological transit between Marxism and Catholicism. Other notable recent critics of liberalism, such as John Gray, have emphasised the bounded and environmentally-dependent nature of human beings.

But as if to confirm the impossibility of evading liberal consciousness—whether false or not—Fawcett beats Deneen to the punch, by lumping the latter’s anti-liberal critique together with that of Gray et al, and damning them all, albeit faintly, as: “too general to provide a grip on practical disputes.

At best they offered confirmation in new guise of what had always been believed about flawed humanity, at worst excuses for treating political conflict as beyond control.” Furthermore, “Such tales left little or no room for argument or negotiation, and to the liberal mind without either there was no politics.” Fawcett, somewhat feebly, offers up flash-mobs and clicktivism as correctives to the impoverishment of polis and civitas under late liberalism.

But I’m afraid, given the populist forces unleashed, it may well be that in the age of Twitter it is parliamentary democracy that’s strictly for the birds.