Has liberalism failed? In a new book from Yale University Press, Patrick Deneen says yes, (and how).
“Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.”
I’ve been writing about the “end of history” recently in relation to contemporary Christian theology. It’s important to note, as this blurb about Deneen’s book does, that so often, we really do “tend to forget that [Western liberal democracy] is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution.”
We forget it because we’re meant to. We forget it because for most of the founders, liberalism was the natural end-state of human political evolution. It was observable and empirically true, Jefferson said, written by the laws of nature and nature’s God. The founders knew that the US Constitution was not the end-point, but most believed that political evolution in this vein would continue until all people everywhere were free.
That western liberalism is built on inherent contradictions isn’t breaking news. It’s a scion of the Enlightenment, after all. But Deneen’s juxtapositions seem particularly timely.
I’m afraid that he’s wrong about fascism being dead, and neither am I certain that non-fascist communism was ever on the table in any 20th-century regime. With those caveats, this looks like a good read.