I read /Why Liberalism Failed/ so you don’t have to

Nick Geiser
11 min readJul 25, 2019

Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed is making the rounds as a book “intelligent” people should read on the present moment. If both Ross Douthat and Barack Obama can favorably blurb a book, then it must have something going for it? In this case, however, you’d be wrong. Why Liberalism Failed is a bad book in so many ways. In this post I focus on Deneen’s poor intellectual history with a brief discussion of two other points: his confusion of liberal political philosophy with liberal political practice, and his provocative claim that liberalism produces an “anti-culture.” I’ll discuss further problems with Deneen’s book in a future post.

Let’s start with intellectual history. Deneen’s introduction begins: “A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later, was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing.” On the face of it this is anachronistic — the name “liberalism” wasn’t coined until the early 19th century and the first “liberales” were Spanish MPs who supported constitutional monarchy. At other moments, Deneen is more careful to say that someone like Thomas Hobbes is a “proto-liberal” to avoid the anachronism and absurdity of identifying a defender of absolute monarchy as liberal. But this label doesn’t stop Deneen from generously helping himself to Hobbes’ political philosophy as the key to understanding liberalism. From the beginning there is slippage between liberalism and the foundations of liberalism.

Deneen tells us that early modern thinkers including Hobbes, Bacon, and Descartes accomplished three important intellectual tasks in laying the foundations for liberalism (24–26). The first is the search for find “low but steady” foundations like fear of violent death for political order as opposed to “high but precarious” ones like the achievement of virtue. The second was the application of new techniques of reasoning — specifically the deductive methods associated with geometry — to political philosophy, in explicit opposition to techniques that emphasized custom, religious doctrine, and history. The third was a new view of the relationship between human beings and the natural world in which the latter was regarded as an obstacle to human freedom and social stability. While none of these figures was a “liberal,” Deneen argues that liberalism built on and extended these accomplishments — especially the first in the process of re-defining liberty as the absence of impediments as opposed to a capacity for virtuous self-government. We might say that these three accomplishments describe forms of thought we associate with “modernity.”

Deneen says that liberalism is “fundamentally constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions… 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature” (31). To defend 1) Deneen turns to the proto-liberal Hobbes’ theory of the social contract and Hobbes’ “philosophical successor” John Locke. Deneen calls Locke “the first philosopher of liberalism” in another case of anachronism, given that liberalism as a political movement was more than a century away. Again, he turns to two figures only indirectly associated with actual liberal practice to find the philosophical essence of liberalism — a further example of Deneen’s confusion between liberalism and the foundations of liberalism. Elsewhere Deneen says that “liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences…. the first wave of this revolution — inaugurated by early modern thinkers dating back to the Renaissance — insisted that man should employ natural science and a transformed economic system to seek mastery of nature” (35). Here he seems to want to say that liberalism was responsible all along from the beginning of the 16th century. His suggestion that Descartes and Bacon wanted to “transform the economic system” is transparently ridiculous—where exactly is the economic program in Bacon’s Novum Organum or Descartes’ Discourse on Method, may I ask??

Deneen switches causally between the liberals and liberal predecessors without recognizing the stakes in distinguishing the two. This wouldn’t be a problem if Deneen had written a book called Why Modernity Failed. But instead, he claims to have provided an account of why liberalism — a specific political movement with a history over the last two centuries — has not lived up to its promise and requires replacing. What he actually gives us is a distorted intellectual history that mistakes the whole (modernity) for the part (liberalism).

One effect of Deneen’s transformation of the history of modern political thought into a history of liberalism is that it obscures disagreements among even major figures. Take his suggestion that Locke is Hobbes’ “philosophical successor.” This claim obscures numerous, significant philosophical and political differences between the two authors. Locke had a completely different theory of natural rights than Hobbes. Hobbes defended absolute sovereignty, while Locke defended the separation of powers. Locke defended (limited) religious toleration, while Hobbes wanted state control over churches and universities. Locke defended a right to revolution, while Hobbes rejected it. Locke believed that law did not infringe liberty, while Hobbes believed that law always infringed liberty. Locke believed in natural human sociability, while Hobbes was skeptical of it.

To take one specific example from his problematic Locke exegesis, Deneen writes:

A main goal of Locke’s philosophy is to expand the prospects for our liberty — defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites — through the auspices of the state. Law is not a discipline for self-government but the means for expanding personal freedom: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” We accept the terms of the social contract because it will actually increase our personal liberty by eliminating customs and even laws that can be thought to limit individual freedom, even while expanding the prospects for human control over the natural world.(48–9)

Locke does not define “liberty” as a general capacity to satisfy our appetites. . In fact, he distinguishes the “freedom of Men under Government” from the “Freedom of Nature.” The former, Locke says, is:

to have a standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; a Liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the Rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another man” (§22, Second Treatise of Government)

One way to put the problem is that Deneen equivocates between “law” and the “state.” Locke thinks that laws extend freedom only when they protect us from the “inconstant, unknown, Arbitrary Will” of other people. Locke does not think just any state protects and extends freedom, only constitutional government (“Legislative Power”) constrained the rule of law (“standing Rule to live by, common to every one”) and with the effect that we are not dependent on the arbitrary will of another person. . This view of freedom underlies the “republican” reading of Locke’s political philosophy. When Deneen takes Locke’s references to “law” to mean “the state,” he overlooks the particular way law protects individual liberty for Locke.

In an influential 1969 article “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” the historian of political thought Quentin Skinner identified and criticized a number of “mythologies” in intellectual history that lead to misleading or incorrect interpretations. One is what Skinner calls the “mythology of doctrines,” in which the intellectual historian mistakes a number of remarks made by a given writer for their ‘doctrine’ on a theme with which the historian is familiar. Closely related to the mythology of doctrines is the “mythology of coherence” — the mistake of assuming that an author must have had a single, coherent doctrine which the interpreter must uncover. Apparently disparate, contradictory remarks indicate that the investigator must discover the inner unity of the author’s view. The danger here is that the interpreter substitutes her own reconstruction for the author’s own view especially in light of the need to simplify for the interpreter’s own audience. A third is the “mythology of prolepsis,” in which the interpreter ascribes retrospective significance or meaning to an event or text that it may not have had for the agent at the time. The interpreter may then confuse the historical effect of some work, or the work’s “reception” by future readers, with an account of what the author meant.

Deneen’s breezy intellectual history of liberalism falls victim of each of these mythologies. Take his claim that Locke was a defender of a new aristocracy of the industrious and rational, with all the inequalities that would result (135–9). This commits each of the three mistakes Skinner identifies — Deneen reads his view of social inequality in 21st century America back into Locke’s Second Treatise (prolepsis), he assumes Locke offered a unified philosophical defense of rule by an emerging liberal middle-class (coherence), and he assumes that Locke puts forth a theory of “liberalism” — a term that did not exist and a doctrine that Locke could not have articulated in his time (doctrine).

Deneen’s intellectual history has no surprises. Every writer plays his (and yes, it’s all men) part in bringing about liberalism’s inevitable, destructive triumph over community, culture, and religion. His sweeping, breezy journey over five centuries has only one inevitable ending, with no sense of contingency or possibility that political ideas could have been otherwise. While he may rightly complain that the “Whig interpretation of history” is fatalistic and falsely portrays liberal democracy as the inevitable culmination of human history (27), Deneen’s own history of liberalism suffers from the very same problem. It is the worst kind of just-so story.

A final problem with Deneen’s intellectual history is that it conflates the intellectual history of philosophies of liberalism with the intellectual history of the practice of liberalism. As a result, Deneen takes his criticisms of various political philosophers to be criticisms of liberal political practice (which is his real target). This is a mistake, however, because philosophical arguments are reconstructions and rationalizations of political practice. Political philosophers try to understand and bring out logical relations, inconsistencies, background assumptions, and other features that are more or less explicit in actual political argument. To use a familiar analogy, philosophical theories are maps while politics is the terrain. Maps, however, are not the terrain — they are representations of the terrain. As an example of this problem, Deneen has little discussion of the ideas or writings of liberal activists and reformers. The closest he gets is his brief discussion of the progressives John Dewey and Herbert Croly (54–6) and their criticism of the “old” individualism of 19th century classical liberalism, but the result is a telling inconsistency.

Deneen argues in chapter 2 of his book (“Uniting Individualism and Statism”) that both conservatism and liberalism (in the US at least) share a common goal of liberating the individual from community through the expansion of the state. Deneen claims that conservatives in the US are heirs to “classical” liberalism with its emphasis on limited government and economic freedom, while “liberals” (again in the US sense) are descendants of “progressive” liberalism as represented by Dewey and Croly, who called for active government policy to address the challenges facing an interconnected, urban, industrial society. At one point, Deneen says that it is an open question whether classical and progressive liberals are part of the same “liberal project”:

what is clear from these central and formative arguments of the progressive liberal tradition is that only by overcoming classical liberalism can true liberalism emerge. The argument still continues over whether this represents a fundamental break with, or fundamental fruition of, the liberal project. (56)

As evidence that the new liberalism broke with the old, consider this quotation Deneen provides from Dewey:

‘a stable recovery of individuality waits upon an elimination of the older economic and political individualism, an elimination that will liberate imagination and endeavor for the task of making corporate society contribute to the free culture of its members.’(56)

Earlier he describes Croly’s commitment:

Democracy could no longer mean individual self-reliance based upon the freedom of individuals to act in accordance with their own wishes. Instead, it must be infused with a social and even religious set of commitments that would lead people to recognize their participation in the “brotherhood of mankind.” (55)

Yet elsewhere, Deneen claims that both old (conservative) and new (progressive) liberalism are two sides of the same coin, joined by “individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship” (47). So which is it? Is there a break between the new and old liberalism or isn’t there? I think one reason Deneen doesn’t recognize the inconsistency is that he fails to distinguish between political philosophy and political practice. By assuming that all liberal political thinkers have the same goals — to liberate the human being from all possible constraints — he misses the possibility that someone like Dewey or Croly might have been responding to different challenges (perhaps the same ones Deneen has raised) and the possibility that liberalism is not a single ideological program.

One possibility, for example, is that someone like John Dewey saw the need for new traditions, culture, and relationships to support democratic society and replace the ones that had been swept away by urbanization, industrialization, and the other dislocations of the 19th century. Unfortunately, Deneen has such a tendentious and loaded conception of “culture” that he doesn’t even admit the possibility that culture might be consistent with liberalism. In fact, he defines culture such that it is inconsistent:

The dual expansion of the state and personal autonomy rests extensively on the weakening and eventual loss of particular cultures, and their replacement not by a single liberal culture but by a pervasive and encompassing anticulture…. Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience — nature, time and place — form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.(64, 65–66)

Deneen’s argument is a well-worn pattern of trying to make a normative point through a conceptual argument. For example, some people argue against the concept of self-ownership on grounds that self-ownership is conceptually incoherent — a self is not the kind of thing that can be owned. In Deneen’s case, he wants to say that liberal culture is bad because it’s not even a culture. But this relies on a tendentious concept of culture and an inaccurate statement about our attitudes toward nature, time, and place in liberal societies. On Deneen’s view modernism is an “anti-culture,” which seems like a silly implication when you could just say that modernism is an unsatisfying or defective cultural form. I wonder what Deneen would say about something like Afrofuturism — would Deneen call it an “anti-culture”?

One final point for now: Deneen’s book seems written entirely for an audience who already agrees with him. There is no good faith effort to convince skeptical readers, just polemic. His book is unnecessary right-wing culture wars talking points whose primary effects are to annoy the unconvinced and sate the appetites of true believers. We learn that liberalism is responsible for “hook-up culture” on college campuses (39, ignoring the fact that the hookup culture is a myth)and that “diversity” in college admissions actually leads to discrimination against Asian students and rural whites (122, ignoring the fact that Deneen doesn’t even support diversity in admissions). He offers fig leafs to liberals such as Nancy Fraser’s arguments that equal opportunity for employment in capitalism is a questionable victory for feminism (187), but these passages are disingenuous in the extreme. Compare what he says about race — Deneen offers the usual pieties about the importance of slavery’s abolition (185), but consistency would have him say that freedom for newfound slaves was simply the freedom to be another cog in capitalist production (a point often made by slavery’s Southern apologists). The fact that Deneen doesn’t acknowledge this tension suggests bad faith.



Nick Geiser

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.