Patrick J. Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed (2018) is divided into 7 chapters.
Ch. 1 Unsustainable Liberalism
Ch. 2 Uniting Individualism and Statism
Ch. 3 Liberalism as Anticulture
Ch. 4. Technology and the Loss of Liberty
Ch. 5. Liberalism against Liberal Arts
Ch. 6 The New Aristocracy
Ch. 7 The Degradation of Citizenship
Deneen’s thesis is that political liberalism has run its course, having been wildly successful for humanity but now collapsing in on itself. The concept of Liberty was deliberately altered 500 years ago for political purposes rendering liberalism a completely unsustainable pursuit. This is true even though capitalism/liberalism conquered the competing ideologies of communism and fascism – as Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history when the Berlin wall fell.
The notion of Liberty was developed in ancient Greek, Roman and Christian thought as fostering the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation and self-limitation of desires. This definition of liberty was then undermined starting with Machiavelli (1469-1527) who rejected aspirations to “the high” or good as paternalistic and ineffective and instead based politics upon the reliability of “the low”. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) viewed the cultivation of self-limitation as a source of oppression and arbitrary rule from unexamined tradition and religious belief. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) began a new philosophy of modern science overturning ancient emphasis upon stoic “acceptance” in favor of a belief in the potentially limitless human capacity to control nature.
Liberalism was a revolution based on two assumptions about humans: 1) individualism with a focus on personal choice; and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. The idea of voluntarism means that all relationships from governmental to familial ones are a matter of choice. John Locke (1632-1704) acknowledged that the relationships between children and parents are not entirely voluntary but eventually they are subject to consent, even if that consent is tacit. This broke from ancient philosophy because the basis for evaluating all institutions and personal relationships were now to be based on individual choice and calculations of self-interest, without the broader considerations of duty and obligation.
What’s wrong with the world today? Deneen writes: In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification… hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distractions, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society… no truly hard choices need be made. There are only different lifestyle options.
The War Chest moves from Hedonism on to Chapter 2 of Deneen’s book next week – the specter of Statism.