The elitism of the post-liberal right
Patrick Deneen is nostalgic for a time when the working classes knew their place.
The publication of Why Liberalism Failed gave its author, Patrick Deneen, something he’d previously lacked. An audience.
This was only partly down to the polemical merits of Why Liberalism Failed. After all, when it came out in 2018, its ideas were not substantially new. For the best part of three decades, Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, had been making the same argument. That the world has been going to hell in a handcart since at least the 16th century. That liberalism, the dominant ideology of modernity, is a socially corrosive force. That it has given rise to a uniquely selfish and smug ruling class. But beyond his fellow conservative intellectuals, few paid it much attention.
That all changed with the populist revolt of 2016. First Brexit and then Donald Trump’s election victory called liberal-elite hegemony into question. The complacency of the ‘end of history’ years, when technocratic neoliberalism appeared to have conquered the future, had been shattered almost overnight. This was Deneen’s moment. The kind of apocalyptic diagnosis he had been dishing out for years suddenly resonated beyond the warren of religiously inclined conservative intellectuals. As he himself put it in his 2019 preface to the paperback edition, the publication of Why Liberalism Failed was ‘impeccably timed’.
Self-flagellating liberals and emboldened conservatives lapped up Deneen’s dark vision, re-heated for Why Liberalism Failed. His portrait of a society broken by economic and social liberalism, featuring an atomised, impoverished mass at the mercy of a ‘distant and ungovernable state and market’, played on liberal elites’ bruised consciences. And his talk of the ‘degraded’ citizenry’s response, of their ‘inarticulate cries for a strongman’ to protect them from the state and the market, played to their anti-Trump prejudices. Bastions of liberal-elite ideology, like the New York Times and the Guardian, dwelt at length on Deneen’s jeremiad. Populist-minded Republicans, such as JD Vance, sought out his counsel. And Barack Obama even put Why Liberalism Failed on his end-of-year list of ‘favourite’ reads. The former president said he didn’t agree with Deneen’s conclusions, but appreciated his ‘insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril’.
In the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, Deneen was able to win himself a hearing. But what was missing from Why Liberalism Failed, as he virtually admits in the 2019 preface, was a blueprint for what might come next.
Now, five years on, Deneen has come up with an answer, in Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future. This is his Lenin moment, complete with a chapter titled ‘What is to be done?’. This is his attempt to take down liberalism and advance his dream of a conservative revolution. Regime Change retains the force of Deneen’s attacks on the hypocrisy and moral decrepitude of the Anglo-American political and cultural elites. But it also exposes the limits and fatal contradictions of his brand of reactionary conservatism. For what emerges is an appeal to populism without any real faith in the people. A promise of a post-liberal future that pledges to return to the pre-modern past. An attack on the new elites in the name of restoring the old elites.
A caricature of freedom
Regime Change reflects Deneen’s deep animus towards the expansion of freedom that is at the heart of modernity. He sees the emancipation of man from religious and feudal authority as a wrong turn, and our increasing control over nature as an error. Indeed, he effectively blames freedom for all of today’s ills. These include, ‘climate change, soil exhaustion and erosion, species extinction, the depletion of natural resources, hypoxic zones and massive areas of oceanic pollution’, which ‘arise directly from industrial progress’. ‘On the social and political side’, he blames liberalism for the ‘breakdown in family stability, declining levels of participation in civic institutions, increased loneliness, [the] waning experience of friendship, the domination of wealth and money in our electoral system’. The list goes on. It would be easier to list the things that Deneen doesn’t blame on liberalism.
His determination to conjure up the modern liberal era as one of ‘accumulating disaster’ makes for a remarkably tendentious argument. Deneen asserts that up until the dawn of the modern era, largely Christian societies held fast to what he calls the classical view of liberty, which can be found in Plato and the Bible among other places. Deneen claims that his idea of liberty rests on a notion of ‘self-government’ or ‘self-rule’. That is, individuals become virtuous through the act of ruling over what Deneen calls elsewhere the ‘slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desire’.
But self-rule doesn’t come naturally. People have to be forced to rule over themselves, argues Deneen. They have to be ‘habituated’ in virtue. They have to be ‘given guardrails’ by the ‘institutions of family, religion and government’ in order to ‘constrain the tyrannical impulse that often animates the actions of both individuals and entire societies’. Classical liberty, he says, involves the subordination of impulse and appetite to a higher authority.
Deneen argues that this classical idea of self-rule has been replaced by the modern idea of liberty – the cornerstone of today’s failed liberal regime. He delineates two key sources of the modern idea of liberty as he sees it, elsewhere called ‘personal autonomy’. There’s the ‘libertarian economism’ of John Locke. And then, later on, there’s the social and progressive liberalism of John Stuart Mill. As distinct as these two strains of economic and social liberalism are, they are united in promoting the absolute freedom of the individual. His freedom to own property. His freedom to express himself. His freedom to become whatever and do whatever he wants.
As Deneen sees it, this amounts to an entirely negative freedom, in every sense. It is a freedom from ‘unchosen commitments’, a freedom from all obligation and responsibility to others, a freedom from the authority of tradition and custom. Everyone is to be his own self-made island, his relationship to others reducible to a market transaction. Self-government, self-rule, is no longer cultivated. In many cases, it’s frowned upon, the mark of ‘repression’. Desires and appetites are to be sated, not suppressed by church or family. As Deneen puts it, ‘What had previously been considered as “guardrails” [have come] instead to be regarded as oppressions and unjust limitations on individual liberty’.
What’s more, he claims that ensuring that all individuals are similarly free has become a state-led mission. This is where John Stuart Mill – Deneen’s bête noire – comes in for the severest criticism in Regime Change. Usually Mill is championed by liberals for defending freedom of speech, opinion and expression against state power. As Deneen notes, his ‘harm principle’ is traditionally seen as ‘the redoubt of libertarian freedom, a minimalist appeal that would mostly be deployed to prevent exercise of political power in the moral domain’.
But here Deneen takes Mill’s idea of liberty and presents it as an authoritarian ruse. Mill becomes a precursor of woke authoritarianism and elite culture warriors. Deneen takes Mill’s promotion of ‘individuality’, his defence of ‘non-conformism’ and his attacks on the ‘despotism of custom’, and argues that Mill is in fact waging a war on custom, tradition and every other limit on the individual. Therefore, those who want to preserve certain customs – those, like Deneen, who hold traditional views – are presented as doing harm to non-conformists. Their beliefs and actions are limiting individuals’ freedom not to conform, and therefore they must change their harmful beliefs and actions. They must adhere to liberalism’s ‘radical expressivist’ creed. Mill’s harm principle may look defensive, argues Deneen. But in liberal practice it has become increasingly aggressive, a justification for individuals to use public powers to punish others for their traditional views.
This is how Deneen sees modern freedom. He sees liberalism as an ideology grounded on the sovereignty of the self-making individual. An ideology that constantly and forcefully remakes the whole of society in its own, increasingly woke image. And it does so all in the name of progress. The classical idea of self-rule is long gone. In its place stands the freedom to do as one as one pleases. The freedom to consume and indulge and give into hedonistic desire. The freedom to disregard all limits, be they moral, environmental or even biological. And this freedom is backed up by state or public powers determined to impose it on everyone.
This hellish ideology has given rise to a hellish society, argues Deneen. It’s a liberal Babylon. Economic liberalism has enriched a few at the expense of the many. And progressive liberalism has ruthlessly and aggressively dissolved the social glue of tradition and custom, family and friendship.
And then we come to the ‘culminating realisation of liberalism’ – namely, a new liberal ‘power elite’ that dominates business, culture and education. Forged and credentialled in prestigious universities, liberal elites justify their ascent by the ideology of meritocracy. They believe they have earnt and deserve their superior status and wealth. Their own self-congratulation is matched only by the condescension with which they view those below. Deneen calls today’s liberal rulers the worst elite in history, so alienated are they from the rest of society. They rule and make society in their own image and for their own interests. And they stand in the way of developing any notion of the common good.
It’s seductive but misleading stuff. Deneen has powerfully denounced a dominant form of freedom that simply doesn’t exist. Yes, Regime Change’s fulminations against liberalism contain portions of truth – his portrait of the smug, condescending liberal elite certainly hits home. But too often he spends his time knocking the living daylights out of straw men.
Take his treatment of John Stuart Mill. It’s true Mill attacked the ‘despotism of custom’ in the chapter in On Liberty that explores individuality. But that doesn’t logically generate a war on all customs and traditions. Rather, Mill was concerned with ensuring that the customs and values by which we live remain vital. That requires challenging and questioning them, which is what non-conformism does. As Mill argues, if a custom or belief is not ‘fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’. Mill wasn’t advocating the constant abolition of custom or rules in the name of progress. He was simply trying to ensure that the rules by which we live are the best rules – and that they are never put beyond question.
More troubling still is the way Deneen tries to pit the classical idea of self-rule against the modern, liberal idea of individual freedom, treating them as polar opposites. But this simply doesn’t stand up. He’s right that the idea of individual autonomy, advanced most powerfully during the Enlightenment, is central to modernity and liberalism. But it’s not antithetical to pre-modern, classical notions of liberty as ‘self-government’. Indeed, the very modern idea of autonomy itself literally means self-legislating. It doesn’t mean the freedom to act according to one’s desires, and screw everyone else. Rather, it means rising above one’s immediate desires and freely acting according to a moral law. It is the freedom to reason, judge and act for oneself. Exploring the potential of autonomy lies at the very heart of the work of key Enlightenment thinkers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Immanuel Kant.
What modernity promised, beginning with the Reformation (which Deneen notably doesn’t mention once), was a freedom from arbitrary authority, not a freedom from morality. It was premised on a real social demand for more self-rule, more self-government. At an individual level, it promised moral autonomy – the freedom, in Rousseau’s words, to stop living according to the opinions of others. At a collective level, it promised more self-government – the freedom of a political community to legislate for itself.
Self-government is tough. As Rousseau writes in Emile, developing autonomy is a ‘struggle’, requiring, as it does, an individual to ‘reign over himself’. And judging, reasoning and acting, and then taking responsibility for one’s actions, is always a challenge. It’s far more challenging than a life lived surrounded by ‘guardrails’. As Kant put it in What is Enlightenment?, ‘If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on… then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.’
This isn’t a matter of mere pedantry. Deneen’s wilful mischaracterisation of modern autonomy – his attempt to reduce it to ‘self-making’, or even just simple selfishness – is a testament to his deep aversion to freedom. He refuses to recognise the promise of and struggle for genuine self-rule which has inspired so many popular movements, from the English Civil War and the French Revolution to Brexit in the 21st century. People don’t feel that they’ve had too much freedom. They feel they haven’t got enough. They are challenging contemporary liberal regimes precisely because those regimes thwart autonomy rather than promote it.
Deneen cannot see this. He is determined instead to demonise freedom. To reduce it to little more than self-gratification. He is convinced that all the problems we face in society today are the product of being too free. That allowing people the freedom to think, act and judge for themselves is the root cause of our malaise, resulting in environmental collapse and societal disintegration. He assumes, in effect, that people are incapable of self-rule. And that to think otherwise is to hold to a ‘false anthropology’, in which people are deemed to have capacities that Deneen apparently knows they do not.
A new paternalism
This pessimistic view of freedom is reflected, above all, in his view of America’s working class. Blue-collar workers have been ravaged by too much freedom, he says. And as a result, they are now ‘far more likely to exhibit various measures of social pathology such as divorce and out-of-wedlock marriage than “the elites”’, he writes. ‘They have become susceptible to the pathologies of various addictions, ranging from marijuana and opioids to… pornography.’ They ‘lack discernable virtues’, he says. They have swapped religion for social media and drugs.
And yet, at the same time as saying the working classes have been degraded by the forces of liberalism, he still thinks they could be useful as a socially conservative bulwark against modernity. He claims they don’t want change or instability or freedom, because they know its folly. That human nature, this ‘crooked timber’ as Kant had it, cannot be changed. Their world, he writes, is grounded in ‘the realities of a world of limits and natural processes, in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of seasons, tides, sun and stars’.
This is telling. When Deneen waxes lyrical about the working classes, they sound closer to the rural peasantry of the Middle Ages than they do the urban proletariat of the past few centuries. Not only does this feel bizarrely out-of-step with the reality of working-class life today, it also reflects his broader, paternalistic thesis – that ordinary people were much happier in the pre-modern era, when they knew their place and were expected to defer to the sound moral leadership of the elites.
Deneen conjures up this mythical working class, these horny handed sons of toil, as the battering ram of the conservative revolution, the gravediggers of liberalism. But this revolution isn’t about empowering ordinary people, giving them more sway over how society is governed, it is about installing a new conservative vanguard at the top. This view of the working class, as an object to be used by conservative regime-changers, speaks of a condescension towards the working classes every bit as insulting as that of today’s political establishment.
Deneen proposes using the populist revolt to replace today’s liberal elites ‘with a better set of elites’. They will be capable of placing restraints ‘on damaging acts of freedom’, of limiting people’s ‘passions’. ‘The project at hand is the combination of two seeming opposites – a better aristocracy brought about by a muscular populism, and then in turn, an elevation of the people by a better aristocracy.’ This Deneen calls ‘aristopopulism’ – a government by the virtuous aristoi, for our own good. There’s more than a whiff of tyranny about all this.
For those looking for more concrete proposals for this post-liberal order, Deneen says that the new aristocratic elites should support and shore up marriage and the family. Perhaps there could even be a family tsar, on the level of the US National Security Adviser, he suggests. Beyond that, detail is scant. But given Deneen’s complaints about the liberal promotion of ‘sexual identity’, one can assume that homosexuality might take a bit of a battering after the regime change. It seems certain abortion rights wouldn’t be long for this world, either.
This is the problem with Regime Change, and indeed much of so-called post-liberalism in general. This critique pitches itself as the solution to all manner of problems, which it blames on ‘systemic liberalism’. But dig deeper and it turns out that post-liberals are really just opposed to freedom itself. All of their energies are therefore directed at limiting freedom, at restraining it. It’s an absurd, sisyphean task. It’s an attempt to turn back the tides of modernity.
This post-liberalism, then, is little more than anti-freedom. It doesn’t look to the future so much as yearn for a pre-modern past. A past in which everyone knew their place. Nobles at the top. Labourers at the bottom. All living in perfect harmony. This is the semi-feudal reality of what Deneen calls ‘common-good conservatism’.
Patrick Deneen may have ridden the populist revolt on to the bestseller lists. And he may tear into liberal elites with enjoyable relish. But his vision of a post-liberal regime is no less elitist than the one it would replace. And it would be a darn sight less free, too.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future, by Patrick J Deneen is published by Forum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Pictures by: Getty.
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