May 20, 2024

Liberalism – Is This The End, My Friend?, Part 1 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

Are we currently experiencing at a global level a political apocalypse that signals the catastrophic end of liberalism?  It is very possible. Or at least that is the thesis of Patrick Deneen’s much-discussed recent book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (New York: Penguin Group, 2023), which has been the talk of Twitter ( “X”) this past summer.

As I commented on Twitter when the book first became available, it is probably the most significant work in political thought to appear since Francis Fukuyama mistakenly proclaimed the “end of history” in the early 1990s just about the same time the Soviet Union collapsed.   My hunch has already been proven accurate. Yet both Deneen as well as his antagonists and admirers are missing something very important, which is not so obvious. 

Deneen’s deficiencies seem to be different from Fukuyama’s, who drew the wrong inference about the future from contemporary happenstances.  Deneen appears to have grasped exactly what is going on right now and what it portends. Yet instead of boldly envisioning the imminent future we are all most likely facing, he squanders his intellectual capital with some rather funky and airy-fairy ruminations concerning how Aristotle might hook up with non-thinkers like the political base of Donald Trump to give us some curious “mixed regimes” he denotes as “aristo-populism”.

Deneen had already gained notoriety from his razor-sharp critique of modern liberalism in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed.[1] Even the quintessentially liberal former president Barack Obama was decidedly moved by it.  In the book Deneen argued rather persuasively, if we may trundle out a well-travelled cliché, that liberalism’s success over the past three centuries was the precise cause of its downfall.  It would be impossible in this extremely limited space to encapsulate Deneen’s intricate analysis. 

But suffice it to say that, for Deneen, the most telling, self-induced “contradiction” of liberalism is that from the early modern era forward it has promoted personal autonomy without self-discipline as well as a momentously vacuous idyll of the “pursuit of happiness” that can only be guaranteed by coercive forms of governance wielded by entitled elites. These elites, Deneen writes, “increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy.”

Deneen’s vision of what might offer the world hope beyond the present apocalypse of liberalism, nevertheless, falls rather flat. Deneen refers to it in Regime Change as “common good conservatism”, which unfortunately has all the stilted overtones of George W. Bush’s “compassionate” counterpart.   Deneen believes that such a common good conservatism can be shepherded through the creation of a new political elite (an aristoi) that somehow preserves the best in our culture while staying attuned to the half-articulated discontents of the less educated populus – hence, the term “aristopopulism”.

It is a noble, but artlessly contrived as well as profoundly naïve version of how both political economy and garden variety politics actually function in the contemporary order. The tectonic forces that are inexorably and violently reshaping the outer and ever fracturing political crust of the planet we inhabit cannot be easily tamed and their impact somehow re-constituted through the alchemy of what he refers to a kind of neo-Aristotelian or a “post-liberal “strategy of “integration”. 

In the final chapter of the book Deneen insists that such integration, or a change of political “regimes”, simply comes down to reversing “the disintegration of most forms of relationality that is a major aim and realization of the liberal order.”   Furthermore, it amounts to a political effort “to reintegrate the aims and ends of the leadership class with ordinary people; to the ontological—overcoming the narrow ideals of progress that animate human beings in favor of the shared goal of flourishing.”  

One could, of course, read his project through the jaundiced eye of our progressive neoliberal mandarins – Deneen’s “laptop class” – as a somewhat funky makeover of historic Catholic “integralism”, indeed as a kinder and gentler (but no less invidious) alternative to Calvinist Reconstructionism and its sinister cartoon twin on which pseudo-academic ideologues have recently bestowed the moniker of “Christian nationalism”. 

But Deneen is not by any mental stretch a political theologian. He should be better described as a retro-style communitarian, or as a sort of sociologist who genuinely values the values that hold societies together.  On reading Regime Change I was immediately reminded of a book that was both similar in its approach and popular among the thoughtful commentariat, albeit half a century ago.  That would be Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, which both advanced – implicitly – a comparable critique of liberalism and can be regarded as something of a doppelgänger in its vague affection for traditional solidarities minus tradition.[2]

And therein lies the problem.  Any renascent form of “community” cannot be engineered by any sort of political apparatus – along with its apparatchiks – that might be laid out before the electorate. After all, isn’t the mystical vibe of a restored, primordial, organic demos (in German das Volk) what set the human race on the road to disaster with the elections of 1933?  One could argue that Stalin’s brutal and terrifying version of “state socialism” merely mirrored the same “totalitarianization” strategy implemented by Nazism with the terminological sleight of hand that converted ancient agricultural collectives (kolkhozes) and worker councils (“soviets”) into a Communist hyperelite.

One dimension of historical liberalism that Deneen tends to overlook is the very subtlety of the ruthless ideologic by which it dissolves and discards the social sinews of “relationality” in what turns out to be a somewhat haphazard production of what the French philosopher Pierre Manent (whom he cites) “organizations of separation”.  For Marx, the division of labor was the original sin of liberalism.  For Deneen, this “fall” from political paradise multiplies into every conceivable disorder from the mad scramble among parents to ensure their children are admitted to the most prestigious institutions of higher education to the digital siloing that fosters extreme personal anxiety and depression through social media.

Deneen seems to think paradise can be regained through some kind of political force majeure that entails changing our constitution from a liberal to a “mixed” one as well as a kind of conversion experience among cultural elites where they miraculously and abruptly become devoted to the “common good” instead of their own self-aggrandizement.  In true “apparatchik” fashion he implies that can be accomplished through a redesign of the political apparatus itself.

Deneen writes in Regime Change that he has in mind a “beautiful definition” of politics that depends on “the integration of a working-class ethos of social solidarity, family, community, church, and nation, with the supportive requisite virtues of those blessed by privilege.”  He also believes this “definition” applies to the “pre-modern” form of “liberalism” which “predated the arrival of its corrupt liberal form not only historically, but even arriving first on the shores of America.”  In other words, he wants to re-Puritanize America, which would involve celebrating Thanksgiving as something more memorable that Turkey Day.

This “beautiful definition” of what Deneen regards as the proper answer to Lenin’s question of “what is to be done” smacks more of a “beautiful mind” than an elegant solution. It signifies the abject failure of the educated elites – even those with conservative leanings – of our much vaunted “knowledge society” to address the root causes of the crisis.  In many respects it is just one more example of these elites, as Marx put it in the 1857 to the Grundrisse, who are constantly peddling “the fantasies of a locus communis.”[3]

The “ideologic” of liberalism comes down to  its own hard-wired, constituent semantics, as I have argued, which compels the endless authorization of individual “rights” (which turn into entitlements) and sensibilities, which must be endlessly refined and differentiated from previous norms.[4] Liberalism, therefore, becomes its own Sorcerer’s Apprentice that constantly “normalizes” through its own internal reasoning what was once considered marginal or abnormal.  It has no concern whatsoever for how this logic affects the larger social order.

The fact that gender issues have now today inundated almost the entirety of political debate In the United States as well as certain advanced liberal democracies is a case in point. The fact that what some theorists have called “expressive” as opposed to “natural” rights now dominate discourse underscores the undeniable endgame of modern liberalism’s internal logic. In response to the critics of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen does in Regime Change offer a skeletal answer to the what-is-to-be-done type of question.  But if one really wants such change, the actual historical mechanisms by which it is instigated and unfolds requires far more trenchant analysis than we find in Deneen’s latest book. 

The “Original Sin” of Liberalism

In order to essay such an analysis we must ask a profound and even primordial kind of question: did the tradition of liberalism itself emerge with a fatal kind of “birth defect” – an “original sin” – that now in the late modern era is hastening its senescence and leading up to a catastrophic climax?  Such a question is neither impertinent nor merely speculative.  From Marx forward both conservative and progressive figures have in various formats entertained such a proposition, even while liberalism, broadly conceived, has won skirmish after skirmish in the ongoing war of political ideas and ideologies.

Evaluating both the heritage and the indwelling flaws of liberalism have been compounded by many factors.  But the basic problem is what we mean by “liberalism” itself.  The second is the past and present confusion of liberalism with even more diffuse notions such as “democracy” and with the equally fraught economic binary of “capitalism” versus “socialism”.  The third, of course, is the relatively recent association of the word “liberalism” in the popular mind with left-wing politics in general, which in response has garnered the familiar moniker “progressivism”.

The last two questions do not require our consideration here.  But the first one quite recently has drawn unprecedented attention, and it is by going back to beginnings that we may shed some serious light on why liberalism after all these centuries is so patently floundering. Deneen’s anatomy of early liberalism depends in many respects on the brilliant study of French political thinker Pierre Manent, who in An Intellectual History of Liberalism traces the theory back to the political turmoil in England during the seventeenth century and the controversy between Hobbes and Locke over the relationship between “civil society” and the “state of nature”.[5]

The controversy is, of course, quite familiar to political philosophers as well as political scientists.  Hobbes envisaged the state of nature as a “war of all against all” and posited the need for an all-powerful “sovereign” in the person of a Stuart monarch to establish “artificially” a regime of law and order.  Locke, who in contrast advocated for curbing the powers of the Stuart monarchs in the overthrow of James II during the Glorious Revolution of 1689, developed a theory that literally turned Hobbes upside down.

Ironically, both Hobbes the absolutist and Locke the “republican” can both be considered “liberals”.  Liberalism, therefore, in Manent’s eyes has little to do with the axiom of limited government so much as it consists in a durable hypothesis concerning those configurations of power within the natural order of things from which political arrangements spring. 

Both Hobbes and Locke lay down as the bedrock precept of modern governance what C.B. Macpherson termed the “political theory of possessive individualism”.[6]  Such a theory rests on the supposition that human beings are first and foremost self-seeking as well as self-preserving creatures.  The original state in which one individual “naturally” wars against another entails that there are only three features of human existence that genuinely matter in the conduct of our daily affairs.  They are, as Locke put it, “life, liberty, and property”, which also should be construed as fundamental “rights”.

In such a schema the right to “life” is self-confirming. All sentient beings naturally aims to preserve and protect itself from the predations of other creatures. But if such a “right” is to have purchase, such beings must be allowed the “liberty” to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves. Finally, says Locke, the right of self-defense guarantees the right to “property”, which is vested in one’s own body and whatever else one can extract from nature through labor.

Governments, according to Locke, exist primarily for the protection of property.  As Manent notes, ”the purpose of the political institution is to preserve property endangered by the inevitable disorders of the state of nature”.[7]   

So far as the conventional academic wisdom is concerned, Locke’s preoccupation with the right to own and use property in a productive manner gives rise to what is often considered the most extreme type of liberalism, which nowadays we know as “libertarianism”.  But all the many varieties of liberalism, Manent insists, hold in common the baseline assumption that the human animal is neither a political nor even a “rational” animal a la Aristotle, as the whole of classical and Medieval political thought took for granted.

The human animal, on the contrary, is an avaricious and acquisitive creature that only admits of political society so long as it serves his or her own “selfish” purposes. Manent attributes this discovery to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century in tandem with the chaotic mess that sophisticated thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke believed to have been wrought during the same period by the aggressive pursuit of statecraft in the name of revealed religion.  Think the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Thirty Years War that devastated Continental Europe.

Modern Europe in the seventeenth century gave up on any effort at anchoring politics in theological, or metaphysical, principles. It resorted instead, as Mark Lilla pointed out in his selling books from the 2000s, to grounding the idea of political order in “anthropology” rather than theology – in a doctrine of human nature in place of divine design.[8]

Implicit in this intellectual gambit was the naïve notion that human beings could establish their own binding set of moral laws – derived from what the Scottish Enlightenement referred to as their natural “sympathies” – that would serve as a communitarian counterweight to their unsocial predilections wired into them at birth.  In other words, homo avarus (“greedy” or “grasping” humanity) in the state of nature could be transmuted into homo politicus through the “enlightened” policies of intellectual elites who wielded the reigns of political power. 

These elites shared a tacit belief, according to Lilla, in a new kind of all-powerful immanent deity – a Promethean one – that replaced the divine judge and lawgiver that monarchs and theocrats previously had cited as their warrant to govern. But refractory human nature – the kind of “original” orneriness endemic to the Hobbesean state of nature – proved to be no match for this wavering and indecisive “stillborn” secular God (in Lilla’s terminology).  The reign of homo avarus has persisted, Manent intimates, into even the most “generous” or “progressive” forms of liberal political economy.

One of the most blatant ironies of the modern epoch, as various “critical” theories have harped upon, is that some of the most savage and inhumane collective human practices in the whole of human history (e.g., black chattel slavery and the eradication of indigenous peoples) have coincided with the ascendancy of “liberal” political philosophy.  In his provocative work Liberalism: A Counter-History the Italian historian Domenico Losurdo  maintains that this glaring fact cannot simply be explained by the inherent “hypocrisy” of liberal elites.[9] Losurdo makes the case that the logic of liberalism with its subtle identification of liberty with the proprium (or “property”) that is one’s own right of self-defense and control over their own  body underwrites a prolonged legacy that makes the well-being of other human beings inconsequential for our destiny.

S. Adam Seagrave has emphasized that prior to the emergence of the liberal version of “natural rights” theory in the 1600s the notion of “right” (ius) itself did not distinguish itself from the view that certain “duties” were simultaneously imposed upon the human condition.  In short, human rights could not be disentangled from natural law.[10] The abysmal gap between Catholic and liberal Protestant, or secular, ethics concerning abortion is a case in point.  The former adheres to a late Medieval position that the fetus as a potential “ensouled” human being must be situated within the same web of reciprocal rights and duties as that of the mother.  The latter insists that the fetus, insofar as it is confined to the womb, remains mere bodily “property” of which the mother has the “inalienable” right to dispose as she sees fit.

Another example is the late twentieth and twenty-first century preoccupation with sexual identity and sexual behavior as a “right”.  Sexuality has everything to do with how we view and manifest our own bodily autonomy and has minimal bearing on our relations with others other than the “responsibility” to perpetuate the species , or our own genomes.

Thus modern liberalism comes down to the triumph of privatism over politics, even though previously it implied, as Helena Rosenblatt puts it, “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen” as well as “understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good”.[11]  It is the replacement of this more “generous” ontology of liberalism (as hinted in the very etymon of the word) with the “avaricious” counterpart pioneered by Hobbes and Locke that buttresses the ubiquitous hauteur of our present day governing global elites, even those among the “woke” who clamor for justice so long as it does not infringe upon their sense of entitlement.

[1] Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] See Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Regnery, 1953).

[3] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin Group, 1993).

[4] See Carl Raschke, Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

[5] See Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[6] See C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Manent, op. cit., 48.

[8] See Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).

[9] See Dominco Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2014).

[10] S. Adam Seagrave, The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and Natural Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[11] Helen Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 4.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion and University Lecturer (2020-21) at the University of Denver. He is senior editor of The New Polis and author of Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). His new book Sovereignty in the 21st Century is scheduled for release by Bloomsbury Academic some time in 2024.

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