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Liberalism, Self-Governance, and Culture

Posted in All Posts, Political Philosophy

I’ve decided to start leaving reading reflections on my website to help me build the habit of writing reflections on the things I read. I hope that whoever comes across this might find some value in it. That said, these are incomplete thoughts that I’m choosing to publish on the Internet, so I reserve the right to change my mind in the future.

“The heart of liberalism’s great failing and ultimate weakness [is] its incapacity to foster self-governance.” (83)

My previous reflection on the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Why Liberalism Failed can be found here. The feedback loop Deneen discusses is given more explicit form in Chapter 3. I’ve delineated this cycle into six stages as a summary.

1. Individuals appeal to authorities to loosen cultural restrictions in the name of autonomous liberty.

2. These pressures dissolve long-standing informal norms over time.

3. Individuals pursue liberalized liberty, do what they want, so long as it is not bound by law.

4. Without guiding standards of culture, liberated individuals come into conflict.

5. The only adjudicator of these conflicts is the state.

6. Individualism requires more cultural dismantlement and leviathan waxes while responsible liberty recedes.

In Chapter 2 of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen describes the philosophical underpinnings, from both classical and progressive liberal sources, that introduces the liberal individual as a creation of the state, supported by both sides of the political divide. Classical liberals (conservatives) use “the expansion of commerce to [liberate] embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships” (50). In contrast, progressive liberals seek to commit to a set of social and even religious set of commitment to benefit the brotherhood of mankind, that is, that truly inviolable individual freedom means economic and social equality guaranteed by the state (55-56). Regardless of these differences, Deneen points out that ultimately

“individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas.” (46)

In Chapter 3, he builds on the state implementation of the abstractions present in liberal ideology by describing the source of greatest resistance to liberalism’s feedback loop, culture. Deneen then describes how liberalism’s success at ensuring individualism and statism is only possible if culture is a choice. Since it is often extremely local, the liberal state must replace it with an abstract, standardized anti-culture. He describes three areas of culture that must be altered to fit the liberal paradigm.

1. Conquest of nature - Liberalism assumes that humans, by nature, have no culture: “The fundamental premise of liberalism is that the natural condition of man is defined… by the absence of culture, and that… the presence of culture marks existence of… the simultaneous effort to alter but conform to nature [i.e., in a manner that takes into account the realities of nature]” (67). So, the liberal state must enable measures to make it by dissociating both the nature of the human being and his coexistence with nature from culture since “a core ambition of liberalism is the liberation of such appetites from the artificial constraints of culture” (69). It’s not easy to understand what he means by nature, but he does touch on this:

“A culture develops above all in awareness of nature’s limits, offerings, and demands… a lived reality that often can not be described until it has ceased to exist.” (71)

It’s not easy to talk about nature and culture in this manner, a point which I’ll come back to a bit later. I think what hit me most from this section, though, is the concept of continual progress: advancing short-term priorities rapidly, without understanding the long-term effects, means accumulating societal debt. This debt leads to more effort and resources needed by future generations to resolve these long-term issues left by earlier generations (69). Deneen is saying that liberalism has built a house of cards. Each successive generation will need increasingly rapid economic growth and technological advancement to simply keep up with the interest from the financial and technical debts of previous generations. Those generations may have chosen to take on the debt as a means of expanding their liberties as they desired, but future generations are chained to paying down those debts at the expense of their own desired liberties. Deneen gives examples from a wide array of domains, from climate change to agriculture to how consumers are impoverished and abandoned to the state for basic needs.

2. Timelessness - “Like classical liberalism, progressivism is grounded in a deep hostility toward the past… While widely understood to be future-oriented, it… rests on simultaneous assumptions that contemporary solutions must be liberated from past answers but that the future will have as much regard for our present as we have for the past” (73). This ties in well with the topic of debt that is passed onto future generations. Deneen writes that

“culture educates us about our generational debts and obligations. At its best, it is a tangible inheritance of the past… [a] trusteeship.” (77)

But the anti-culture produced by liberalism has little such sense of trusteeship. Taken to its extreme, individualism leads to focusing on one’s own needs in the now. A lot of this comes back to the concept of self-restraint and virtue, in my opinion. The people of the past were undoubtedly less technologically advanced than modern humanity. But in terms of what makes us human, our ethics and our virtue, no such claim can be made. We have no guarantees that we are “better” in any way than someone who lived centuries ago. Despite this lack of a guarantee, it is not uncommon to hear implicit assumptions that we are somehow better (e.g. “I can’t believe this thing is happening in 2020!”).

On an less related note, I’m curious at how many politicians care so openly about their legacy and to “be on the right side of history.” Is this focus on matching and exceeding the deeds of past greats something that we want in public figures? The sentiment has been around for a long time, but I’m curious how it has been shaped by the concept of liberal timelessness and not wanting to be lowly regarded by future generations simply for existing in the past.

3. Placelessness - “Liberalism valorizes placelessness. Its ‘state of nature’ posits a view from nowhere: abstract individuals in equally abstract places… Our default condition is homelessness” (77-78). This component of culture makes it hyper-local in a way liberal anti-culture can never be since it is a standardized form of culture.

Much of what Deneen describes in this chapter is that the abstractness of the philosophy of the state requires it to smooth over local differences using a centralized legal code as a hammer. Deneen argues for a different approach, that every effort should be made to allow changes to happen from the inside: “Traditions… if [to be] altered or changed, [the community] must be given the presumptive allowance to change internally, with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices” (81). One of the problems with liberalism is that there is no real adjudication that can happen between two locales that choose to value guaranteed liberties to different extents to allow the discrepancies. It’s worth noting that every culture has its negative components that may even need outside force to be changed. Liberalism at its most extreme, however, does not have the flexibility to do this in situations where two different rights are in conflict. In such a situation where certain communities focused on providing different liberties to different degrees of fullness, any dissident within a community would require an intervention from the central state.

The concepts Deneen discusses are very fluid, especially as they relate society to the implementation of the liberal order. It’s hard to nail them down concretely, and much of what he discusses is in these extremes. He even writes in the preface that he didn’t imagine that these weaknesses would be exposed in his lifetime. In my opinion, a liberal society would cease to be “liberal” long before reaching some of these extremes. In reality, these extremes aren’t clean cut because virtue and culture still exist (despite liberalism not replenishing them) to uphold these unwritten social norms.

There are many examples in the history of liberal states where despite rampant corruption (i.e. unrestrained greed, inequality, and other vices), people stood up to do what was right. Their motivations varied, but included senses of justice, needs of their communities, and survival of their families. These people used the liberal framework as a means and not an end in itself and succeeded in improving conditions in the society. Through use of the liberal framework, they still advanced individualism and statism, so they were part of this feedback loop. But it’s not easy to separate the desirable and the undesirable solely based on the influence of the liberal feedback loop. In many cases, the feedback loop was a desirable mechanism that improved the human existence by some measure. In my opinion, the openness of these questions always come back to the human factor.

It is also well-researched that liberal democracies fail without strong civil societies. The hidden text here is that these organizations maintain culture and virtuosity outside the philosophical liberal framework, but within the liberal society. I wonder if this just means that liberalism is the ideal system for a hypothetical society in which it could be guaranteed that social norms and virtue would not erode.

There are many inherent contradictions of liberalism, among them that

1. it provides an abstract formulation of society that tends to erode local cultures and yet depends on the norms and structures these cultures provide and

2. it guarantees rights that may conflict with one another while providing the state as the only real adjudicator in its philosophical framework.

As I read more of Deneen, I’m more convinced that working to build virtue and self-restraint is the underlying solution to the problems of any system that implements liberalism. But that doesn’t directly address the feedback loop that liberalism provides that is the source of many of the problems we see today. It’s worth noting here that Deneen doesn’t put forward a better alternative. This is a common criticism of this work, but does little to prevent a reader that accepts his explanation of this intensifying feedback loop from disappointment. I look forward to what else Deneen says on the top of self-restraint and virtue and wonder what he might say on the topic of civil society.

[1] Deneen, Patrick J, 2018. Why Liberalism Failed.

[2] Cover image from*lwOezQxnAslnPbwL.jpg

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