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.
“In our remaking of the world… we embrace and deploy technologies that make us how we imagine ourselves being… in this quest to attain ever-more-perfect individual liberty and autonomy… we increasingly suspect that we might fundamentally lack choice about the adoption of those technologies.” (Deneen 2018, 107-108)
My previous reflection on Chapters 2-3 of Why Liberalism Failed can be found here.
Many of the ideas that Deneen describes in Chapter 4 of Why Liberalism Failed are not surprising to anyone paying attention to news cycles in recent years, but he provides novel ways to connect them with the ideas he discusses in previous chapters. He references studies (Carr 2010; Turkle 2011; Ellul 1954; Postman 1992; Lee 1997; Marche 2012; Boorstin 1978) that suggest that
- the internet negatively affects our ability to focus (although he says it has improved our ability to make decisions),
- social media fails to rebuild the strong in-person, investment-based communal bonds it has begun to replace,
- and, among other areas of impact, that “technology erases everything in its path in the name of utility and efficiency… [because it] has its own logic, which tends to destroy the practices and traditions of a community” (Deneen 2018, 96).
Deneen opens the chapter with a collection of references to movies (such as The Terminator and The Matrix) where technology is either the source of humanity’s destruction or the solution to a new challenge. He explicitly describes how artistic works display a deep connection with technology to an extent never before seen in human history. Furthermore, Deneen describes a sense of how we increasingly view technological progress: as both inevitable and sure to change us.
Deneen then digs deeper in connecting these issues back to liberalism. Under liberalism, a person is maximally “free” when they are independent of any other person or responsibility. Much of the technology that has been developed over the last century has increased the ability for individuals to be independent of one another in previously unthinkable ways: “in contradiction to our contemporary political discourse, which suggests there is some conflict between the individual and centralized power… ever-expanding individual liberty is actually the creation of a sprawling and intricate set of technologies that, while liberating… leave us feeling increasingly powerless, voiceless, alone – and unfree” (Deneen 2018, 108). It is worth noting that this concept of liberty, although extreme, is antithetical to the core of what forms a community – mutual dependence. Deneen lingers on this observation to note the increasing anxiety tied to technological development.
“Our anxiety arises from the belief that we may no longer control the technology that is supposed to be the main tool of our liberty… an inevitability to technological advances that no amount of warnings about their dangers can prevent.” (Deneen 2018, 98)
This quote brings to mind a realization of how liberal societies are interwoven with the feedback loop that liberalism creates between the individual and the state. So far, Deneen has focused primarily on how statism and individualism advance together, but these aren’t the only forces powering liberalism. He briefly discusses how a loosely regulated market economy also inflates state power, but he doesn’t explicitly discuss how the success of liberalism in creating economic growth and subsequent military might stir natural human competitiveness. Human nature, manifested as competitiveness between countries, also powers the liberal feedback loop. A country’s reputation in the liberal international order is built by whether it is “developed” or not, or whether it can develop the next generation of technology. As it develops, countries improve standards of living for their citizens and grow their military might. A country which does not participate in this system of power politics simply gets left behind in the global race for power and prestige. Thus, human competitiveness grows between nations and feeds the feedback loop in liberal nations. It is worth noting that illiberal nations (i.e. dictatorships and kingdoms) have also prospered in such an international environment, but have no commitments to liberal principles for equal rights beyond those due to peer pressure from powerful liberal nations who demand those commitments. As such, those countries don’t have to reconcile the contradictions inherent within liberalism to the same extent. Yet all of these points just show how well liberal systems have used human nature to fuel their own development. As countries further tie their economic prowess and military ability, this trend will only increase.
The Pandora’s box of technological competition has been opened. Forcing the box shut may be a worse idea than leaving it open. In fact, there is little we can concretely say about the best way forward because it’s hard to see the extent to which liberalism affects every aspect of our lives. This thought leads to the question as to what, if anything, could possibly break the feedback loop that is formed between the state and individuals by liberalism and supported by human nature and the market economy (each has powerful incentives on its own).
To even begin to answer this question, we might consider something Deneen brings up many times: the weakening bonds and responsibilities between people. Atrophying connections are easily driven by our acceptance of liberty as the ability to follow one’s desires. Any slowdown of the flywheel of liberalism must, in the long term, redefine liberty in less individualistic terms. But how can we redefine a concept that is so ingrained in today’s idea of freedom? I suspect that the answer lies in religion, one of the few forces strong enough to successfully push back against the forces of liberalism. My thoughts on why are a bit scattered as I write this, but I intend to return to this topic in more depth in a future blog post.
In practice, no nation even tries to give its citizens completely “liberal” liberty (total autonomy) – the most successful nations extol those who sacrifice for the public good. Liberal nations’ histories contain plenty of examples where elements of liberalism have failed the society and led to systematic problems (e.g. free markets leading to trusts in the United States). Ultimately, affected citizens have assumed responsibility for these issues and have pushed their communities forward to eliminate these problems. Eventually, these movements gained formalization in the centralized legal code, which served to prevent the original problems from recurring. The motivation to take responsibility has come from a variety of sources, including damage to communities and moral outrage that stem from community culture and morals. Liberalism does not replenish the sources of the morals and cultures that lead individuals to forsake the “liberal” definition of liberty and sacrifice in the hope of improving conditions for others.
Perhaps one policy idea that may help is a national service program. Mandatory public service has been a way of tying people to their communities and their nation for millenia. The Spartans in particular had one of the earliest military service programs in which the state sponsored a military education for boys in exchange for a few years of service before returning to civil life. In fact, to date the military draft is the most common mandatory public service program around the world, although there are many voluntary public service programs (i.e. PeaceCorps, Foreign Service, public offices, etc.). The idea had moments in the public spotlight during the 2020 Democratic Party primaries, and then later when it was rumored that President Emmanuel Macron was considering proposing such a program for France. A mandatory civil service (not necessarily a military draft) program, one that guarantees every citizen the opportunity to serve their fellow citizens, might have the effect of tying people to a greater purpose – the defense and maintenance of their nation and community – and breaking free of the idea that one’s life is solely their own. The idea of a civil service program is not new. Early 20th Century American pragmatist philosophy strongly argued that the strongest democracies are able to keep their citizens involved with civil life. Revisiting how liberal societies approach civic engagement will be key to protecting them from themselves.
Obviously, this isn’t a concrete solution to any of the problems that Deneen has discussed so far, but I’m curious where these thoughts might go in the future. I look forward to keeping them in mind as I continue to read Why Liberalism Failed.
 Deneen, Patrick J, 2018. Why Liberalism Failed. https://www.amazon.com/-/en/Patrick-J-Deneen/dp/0300223447
 Carr, Nicholas, 2010. The Shallows.
 Turkle, Sherry, 2011. Alone Together.
 Ellul, Jacques, 1954. The Technological Society.
 Postman, Neil, 1992. Technopoly.
 Silver, Lee, 1997. Remaking Eden.
 Marche, Stephen, 2012. Is Facebook Making us Lonely?. The Atlantic.
 Boorstin, Daniel, 1978. The Republic of Technology.
 Cover image from https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/villains/images/d/d2/The_Skynet.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20191109000025