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Patrick Deneen and the apocalypse of liberalism
"Regime change" is never "paradise regained"
Are we currently experiencing globally a political apocalypse that signals the catastrophic end of liberalism?
Toxic polarization in America and the riots all over France may be only the start. But let’s look at the bigger picture.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading alongside Patrick Deneen’s myriad reviewers and critics his new book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. As I commented on Twitter when the book first became available, Regime Change is probably the most significant work in political thought to appear since Francis Fukuyama mistakenly proclaimed the “end of history” in the early 1990s just about the same time the Soviet Union collapsed.
My hunch about the importance of Deneen’s book has already been proven accurate, given the attention it has garnered in such a short period. Yet both Deneen as well as his antagonists and admirers are missing something very important, which is not so obvious.
Deneen’s deficiencies seem to be different from Fukuyama’s, who drew the wrong inference about the future from contemporary happenstances. Deneen, unlike Fukuyama, looks to have grasped exactly what is going on right now and what lies just over the horizon.
Yet instead of boldly envisioning the imminent future we are all most likely facing, Deneen squanders his intellectual capital with some rather airy-fairy and off-putting ruminations concerning how Aristotle might hook up with non-thinkers like the political base of Donald Trump to give us some curious “mixed regimes” he denotes as “aristo-populism”.
Deneen had already gained notoriety from his razor-sharp critique of modern liberalism in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. Even the quintessentially liberal former president Barack Obama was decidedly moved by it. In the tome Deneen argued rather persuasively, if we may trundle out a well-travelled cliché, that liberalism’s success over the past three centuries was the precise cause of its demise.
It would be impossible in this confined space to encapsulate Deneen’s sophisticated analysis. But suffice it to say that, for Deneen, the most telling, self-induced “contradiction” of liberalism is that from the early modern era forward it has promoted personal autonomy without self-discipline as well as a momentously vacuous idyll of the “pursuit of happiness” that can only be guaranteed by coercive forms of governance wielded by entitled elites. These elites, Deneen writes, “increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy.”
Deneen’s vision of what might offer the world hope beyond the present apocalypse of liberalism, nevertheless, falls rather flat. Deneen refers to it in Regime Change as “common good conservatism”, which unfortunately has all the clunky overtones of George W. Bush’s “compassionate” counterpart. Deneen believes that such a common good conservatism can be shepherded through the creation of a new political elite (an aristoi) that somehow preserves the best in our culture while staying attuned to the half-articulated discontents of the less educated populus – hence, the term “aristopopulism”.
It is a noble, but artlessly contrived as well as profoundly naïve version of how both political economy and garden variety politics actually function in the contemporary order. The tectonic forces that are inexorably and violently reshaping the outer and ever fracturing political crust of the planet we inhabit cannot be easily tamed and their impact somehow re-constituted through the alchemy of what he refers to a kind of neo-Aristotelian, or “post-liberal“, strategy of “integration”.
In the final chapter Deneen insists that such integration, or a change of political “regimes”, simply comes down to reversing “the disintegration of most forms of relationality that is a major aim and realization of the liberal order.” Furthermore, it amounts to a political effort “to reintegrate the aims and ends of the leadership class with ordinary people; to the ontological—overcoming the narrow ideals of progress that animate human beings in favor of the shared goal of flourishing.”
One could, of course, read his project through the jaundiced eye of our progressive neoliberal mandarins – Deneen’s “laptop class” – as a somewhat funky makeover of historic Catholic “integralism”, indeed as a kinder and gentler (but no less invidious) alternative to Calvinist Reconstructionism and its sinister cartoon twin on which pseudo-academic ideologues have recently bestowed the moniker of “Christian nationalism”.
But Deneen is not by any mental stretch a political theologian. He should be better described as a retro-style communitarian, or possibly as a hobbyist or gig-employed sort of sociologist who genuinely values the values that hold societies together.
On reading Regime Change I was immediately reminded of a book that was both similar in its approach and popular among the thoughtful commentariat, albeit half a century ago. That would be Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, which both advanced – implicitly – a comparable critique of liberalism and can be regarded as something of a doppelgänger in its vague admiration for traditional solidarities minus tradition.
And therein lies the problem.
Any renascent form of “community” cannot be engineered by any sort of political apparatus – along with its apparatchiks – that might be laid out before the electorate. After all, isn’t the mystical vibe of a restored, primordial, organic demos (in German das Volk) what set the human race on the road to disaster with the elections of 1933? One could argue that Stalin’s brutal and terrifying version of “state socialism” merely mirrored the same “totalitarianization” strategy implemented by Nazism with the terminological sleight of hand that converted ancient agricultural collectives (kolkhozes) and worker councils (“soviets”) into a Communist hyper-elite.
One dimension of historical liberalism that Deneen tends to scant is the very subtlety of the ruthless ideologic by which it dissolves and discards the social sinews of “relationality” in what turns out to be a somewhat haphazard production of what the French philosopher Pierre Manent (whom he cites) refers to as “organizations of separation”.
For Marx, the division of labor was the original sin of liberalism. For Deneen, this “fall” from political paradise multiplies into every conceivable disorder from the mad scramble among parents to ensure their children are admitted to the most prestigious institutions of higher education to the digital pathology of social media siloing that fosters extreme personal anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Deneen seems to think paradise can somehow be regained through some kind of political force majeure that entails changing our constitution from a liberal to a “mixed” one as well as a kind of conversion experience among cultural elites where they miraculously and abruptly become devoted to the “common good” instead of their own self-aggrandizement. In true “apparatchik” fashion he implies that can be accomplished through a redesign of the political apparatus itself.
Deneen writes in Regime Change that he has in mind a “beautiful definition” of politics that depends on “the integration of a working-class ethos of social solidarity, family, community, church, and nation, with the supportive requisite virtues of those blessed by privilege.” He also harbors the conviction that this “definition” applies to the “pre-modern” form of “liberalism” which “predated the arrival of its corrupt liberal form not only historically, but even arriving first on the shores of America.”
In other words, he wants to re-Puritanize America, which would involve celebrating Thanksgiving as something more consequential than Turkey Day.
This “beautiful definition” of what Deneen regards as the proper answer to Lenin’s question of “what is to be done” smacks more of a “beautiful mind” than an elegant solution. It signifies the abject failure of the educated elites – even those with conservative leanings - of our much vaunted “knowledge society” to address the root causes of the crisis. In many respects it is just one more example of these elites, as Marx put it in the 1857 preface to the Grundrisse, who are constantly peddling “the fantasies of a locus communis.”
The “ideologic” of liberalism comes down to its own hard-wired, constituent semantics, as I have argued, which compels the endless authorization of individual “rights” (which turn into entitlements) and sensibilities, which must be endlessly refined and differentiated from previous norms. Liberalism, therefore, becomes its own Sorcerer’s Apprentice that constantly “normalizes” through its own internal reasoning what was once considered marginal or abnormal. It has no concern whatsoever for how this logic affects the larger social order.
The fact that gender issues have now today inundated almost the entirety of political debate In the United States as well as certain advanced liberal democracies is a case in point. The fact that what some theorists have called “expressive” as opposed to “natural” rights now dominate discourse underscores the undeniable endgame of modern liberalism’s internal logic.
In response to the critics of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen does in Regime Change offer a skeletal answer to the what-is-to-be-done type of question. But if one really wants such change, the actual historical mechanisms by which it is instigated and unfolds requires far more trenchant analysis than we find in Deneen’s latest book.
In the next installment I’ll make such an attempt.