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Why Liberalism Failed, a Review

Do you feel like your vote matters? Why do we trumpet equal rights yet look on at incomparable material inequality? What is rape culture? Do you feel like you can hold politicians to account? Why do we talk about individual freedoms when we have the most comprehensive state system in history? The answers to these questions, and the questions themselves, all stem from the one dominant ideology to have survived the 20th Century. While Communism parasitically devoured itself and Fascism neurotically attacked perceived outsiders until it was beaten and uprooted, Liberalism survived and flourished. Patrick Deneen, a conservative writer in the US, wrote a book in 2016 called Why Liberalism Failed. In it, he tries to tackle the questions raised above and poses that perhaps the problems we see today are not a product of Liberalism failing but rather it succeeding too well

You might think that as a conservative from the US, his beliefs lean towards bigger military budgets, fewer taxes and backward views towards Supreme Court decisions. Yet to Deneen, the Republicans and the Democrats are just two sides of the same coin. To some, the word ‘Democrats’ conjures visions of fluorescent-coloured hair, gender studies undergrads and an assortment of piercings. To others, ‘Republicans’ summons apparitions of red-neck and red-faced gesticulating old men throwing out bible quotes. In the UK, the equivalent might be that one side is full of “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokeratis” while the other side is “nasty, Etonian” Tory scum. In Deneen’s book, he basically says that as wildly different as they may seem, they’re both fundamentally liberal. They both care about freedom but that word means different things to them. I wrote in a previous article that our definition of freedom had changed over time, and it was Deneen who made that point. Before the discussion goes any further, it’s worth looking at what freedom means.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans as well as Christians believed that to be free meant to have control over yourself. ‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants’ wrote the Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. As history creeps towards the modern day, however, and we stumble across the Enlightenment, the definition of freedom changes from having control over your impulses and desires in order to become a better person – in whatever sense that meant – to the freedom to do whatever you want (so long as you don’t hurt anyone). This is where the modern Right-Left split stems from. The Right, generally, sees freedom as economic freedom. That means lower taxes, less regulation and often less involvement of government with the economy. The Left, on the other hand, sees freedom as the freedom to be whoever you want to be. In this camp, we see causes like LGBTQIA+ rights, being more tolerant of immigration (since you should be free from national identities/biases too) and more intervention from the government to protect minorities. 

There are a number of other tenets that Liberalism stands by, but this newer idea of freedom is the defining feature. Deneen begins his criticism by pointing out that politically, people are disenfranchised. There’s a lack of trust and dissociation with the political class and the so-called ‘limited government’ of our liberal world has the surveillance and regulatory powers to make even the most autocratic country of the 20th century jealous. More often than not, we’re referred to as ‘consumers’ instead of ‘citizens’ and today’s young people are both more anxious and depressed than they ever have been before. As Deneen writes, Liberalism ‘makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operating system goes largely unseen – until it crashes’. The issues and challenges we see in our country and broader society today aren’t because of a lack of liberalism, they’re caused by liberalism being true to itself.  

Deneen’s book is relatively small but it certainly packs a punch and doesn’t lack philosophical thinking. Because of this, it’s hard to do a review that breaks each chapter down since there are too many nuanced points and they’re written succinctly enough that it’s hard to reduce them any further. Nonetheless, there are a few points that are worth sharing because they speak to our daily lives as well as our society more broadly. One of the more interesting chapters, in my opinion, was on culture. These days, the word culture usually comes attached to something. Sometimes it’s ‘multi-’, other times it’s ‘pop-’ but suffice to say, it’s hard to pin down what exactly we mean by culture. Part of this is down to the word itself being stretched to mean so many different things that it has lost its character. More importantly, Deneen argues that Liberalism actually creates an ‘anticulture’. If an individual is meant to be free then customs, practices and beliefs that place limitations on what a person does need to be scrapped. The flip side of this is that there are fewer ‘institutions’ that stop a person from playing out their worst impulses. Instead of feeling the societal pressure from the people around you, or the threat of divine disproval, the state now has to write more and more laws to stop someone from inflicting harm (the one limit to individual freedoms that Liberalism can accept). When social movements spring up around rape culture on university campuses, isn’t this exactly what they’re getting at? In the case of someone like Brock Turner, isn’t that exactly what happened? It seems a bit meta but instead of having a cultivated personality and character, he indulged in his desire at the expense of someone else’s freedom and the state, the legal system, stepped in. Perhaps it’s not so much rape ‘culture’ but rather an anti-culture that leaves space for weeds to grow as much as it does exceptional individuals. 

This idea of freedom – in the modern term – being the problem pops up in a number of places when we look at them more closely. Take money for example. Throughout the feudal and medieval ages, there was a clear and defined peasant class. Things were rough and they had few privileges. They often had to rise up to make sure they weren’t getting pushed around too much. Yet, to an extent that seems strange by today’s standards, there was a certain dignity and respect for those below. Knights would take vows to protect the weak. The Eltham Ordinances were a set of rules brought in for the nobles that included their need to provide charity and alms for the poor. This was because hierarchy was a religious institution. If you were dirt poor, it was because God had planned for you to be there. With the advent of liberalism, such a way of looking at the world was disregarded as backward. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer to be poor now than poor in the 1500s but the difference is that today, there’s a sense that those lower down on the economic ladder are ‘benefit-scroungers’. If we celebrate those who get rich on their own merits, then the implication is that those at the bottom are there because of their own failings. Our anticulture has removed dignity from common yet necessary work. During the pandemic, we clapped for the NHS and referred to shop assistants as ‘essential workers’. It was a step in the right direction but will it last? I’ve got friends that work in BCG and studied at the best universities in the country yet undoubtedly the most hardworking friend I have is a bricklayer who has spent most of his adult life as a hospitality worker. Until the job titles of those different friends are regarded with the same sort of dignity, we still have a problem. 

When freedom is held as the gold standard, it means that qualities like money and income are lauded above traits like a person’s character or attitude. The freedom to do whatever you want comes at the expense of social institutions and a culture that tries to support you on your way to excellence. When Liberalism asserts that a person should be free to do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t harm someone else, the question left hanging is “What’s the best use for that freedom?”. It’s on us to answer that question. You can spend your time smashing off double pints at Happy Hour before a trip to Fame – and don’t get me wrong, I love a good sesh – but if all you do with your free time is indulge, what are you really left with? Ultimately, the grass is greener where you water it. If you can spend the time to cultivate and create instead of just consume then you get to feel a sense of accomplishment and celebration when you have fun instead of hedonistic escapism from the trials of the week. Why Liberalism Failed is a provocative and fascinating little book. If you’re up for a more philosophical read, it’s well worth your time. The takeaway I got from the book is that while liberalism may have failed, that doesn’t mean liberty has to fail. 

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