Is Liberalism a Victim of Its Own Success?

One doesn't even know where to begin in reviewing the book Why Liberalism Failed: What Happens When a Political Philosophy and Ideology Becomes the Victim of Its Own Success by Patrick Deneen.  It is a tour de force that will make people look at the sad state of our current political, social, and economic messes in an entirely new light.

The following and somewhat lengthy quote early in the book is a good start:

Liberalism has failed – not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.  It has failed because it has succeeded.  As liberalism has "become more fully itself," as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology.  A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.  Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.  Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism's ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success.  To call for the cures of liberalism's ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.  It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

When Deneen says "why liberalism failed," he's talking about not just modern liberalism as embodied by the far-left Democrat Party, but also classical liberalism along with modern conservatism that includes the founding principles of the United States.

Basically, his thesis is that the all-encompassing liberalism of today is failing paradoxically because of its successes since the founding of the country as described in the quote above.  Essentially, the seeds of its destruction were planted at the founding of the country, and now that liberalism has come into the full fruition, the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions are leading to its decline.

Oswald Spengler's classic book The Decline of the West is an appropriate precursor to Why Liberalism Failed.  Spengler argues "that a culture blossoms from the soil of a definable landscape and dies when it has exhausted all of its possibilities."  Why Liberalism Failed also seems similar in many ways to Alasdair MacIntyre's  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, where the primary value of the country is to be successful and wealthy rather than to be good with strong character – i.e., virtuous.  They are not one and the same, as most believe them to be.  Allan Bloom echoed this as well in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, where he laments that the focus and objective of a college education now is to get a specialized degree in order to maximize one's income upon graduation rather than academia's original mission hundreds of years ago.  Then, it was to pursue truth and strong character of its students rather than the goals and values of today's consumer culture that is reflecting the evolution of the country to where we are today.

Deneen covers similar ground, but where he takes it to another level is his insights into how modern liberalism and the focus of conservative economic growth actually have worked in tandem over time to remove limitations on individual behavior.  There is a connection between the instant gratification of meeting one's sexual satisfaction, whether straight or gay, and that of going out and being convinced you need the latest iPhone whether you need it or not. A sexual addict or deviant and the compulsive shopper are one and the same, according to Deneen.  "Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress."  The instant gratification that a liberal society encourages diminishes if not destroys the virtue of delayed gratification when the limitations promoted by all of the variations of liberalism are removed.  What were once taboos and bad behavior become inverted and normalized.

Deneen additionally argues that the American experiment, which values being successful over being good, is the end product of modern hyper-individualism, which, again, both the left and right are guilty of promoting and which has led to the largest government bureaucracy in history despite a country where autonomy reigns supreme.  Its heavy hand of regulations has grown exponentially over time in making sure neither the individual nor the corporation steps out of line with its arbitrary and at times capricious oversight.  Ronald Reagan's farewell address at the end of his second term appropriately describes what happened and is continuing to happen: "[a]s government expands, liberty contracts."

Deneen suggests that this is an untenable position.  Eventually, either the anarchy of pure selfish individualism or the tyranny of the nanny state has to be victorious.  He says it is also the inherent contradictions that are embedded in the thought of the Founding Fathers that contained the seeds of the potential destruction of American liberalism now that it has fully matured.  From the inside cover of the book:  

[L]iberalism 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 history.

Why Liberalism Failed is a unique study that stands out above all others in its perceptive depth of analysis of where the country came from and where it's going with ominous overtones that should be worrisome to all.

One doesn't even know where to begin in reviewing the book Why Liberalism Failed: What Happens When a Political Philosophy and Ideology Becomes the Victim of Its Own Success by Patrick Deneen.  It is a tour de force that will make people look at the sad state of our current political, social, and economic messes in an entirely new light.

The following and somewhat lengthy quote early in the book is a good start:

Liberalism has failed – not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.  It has failed because it has succeeded.  As liberalism has "become more fully itself," as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology.  A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.  Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.  Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism's ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success.  To call for the cures of liberalism's ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.  It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

When Deneen says "why liberalism failed," he's talking about not just modern liberalism as embodied by the far-left Democrat Party, but also classical liberalism along with modern conservatism that includes the founding principles of the United States.

Basically, his thesis is that the all-encompassing liberalism of today is failing paradoxically because of its successes since the founding of the country as described in the quote above.  Essentially, the seeds of its destruction were planted at the founding of the country, and now that liberalism has come into the full fruition, the ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions are leading to its decline.

Oswald Spengler's classic book The Decline of the West is an appropriate precursor to Why Liberalism Failed.  Spengler argues "that a culture blossoms from the soil of a definable landscape and dies when it has exhausted all of its possibilities."  Why Liberalism Failed also seems similar in many ways to Alasdair MacIntyre's  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, where the primary value of the country is to be successful and wealthy rather than to be good with strong character – i.e., virtuous.  They are not one and the same, as most believe them to be.  Allan Bloom echoed this as well in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, where he laments that the focus and objective of a college education now is to get a specialized degree in order to maximize one's income upon graduation rather than academia's original mission hundreds of years ago.  Then, it was to pursue truth and strong character of its students rather than the goals and values of today's consumer culture that is reflecting the evolution of the country to where we are today.

Deneen covers similar ground, but where he takes it to another level is his insights into how modern liberalism and the focus of conservative economic growth actually have worked in tandem over time to remove limitations on individual behavior.  There is a connection between the instant gratification of meeting one's sexual satisfaction, whether straight or gay, and that of going out and being convinced you need the latest iPhone whether you need it or not. A sexual addict or deviant and the compulsive shopper are one and the same, according to Deneen.  "Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress."  The instant gratification that a liberal society encourages diminishes if not destroys the virtue of delayed gratification when the limitations promoted by all of the variations of liberalism are removed.  What were once taboos and bad behavior become inverted and normalized.

Deneen additionally argues that the American experiment, which values being successful over being good, is the end product of modern hyper-individualism, which, again, both the left and right are guilty of promoting and which has led to the largest government bureaucracy in history despite a country where autonomy reigns supreme.  Its heavy hand of regulations has grown exponentially over time in making sure neither the individual nor the corporation steps out of line with its arbitrary and at times capricious oversight.  Ronald Reagan's farewell address at the end of his second term appropriately describes what happened and is continuing to happen: "[a]s government expands, liberty contracts."

Deneen suggests that this is an untenable position.  Eventually, either the anarchy of pure selfish individualism or the tyranny of the nanny state has to be victorious.  He says it is also the inherent contradictions that are embedded in the thought of the Founding Fathers that contained the seeds of the potential destruction of American liberalism now that it has fully matured.  From the inside cover of the book:  

[L]iberalism 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 history.

Why Liberalism Failed is a unique study that stands out above all others in its perceptive depth of analysis of where the country came from and where it's going with ominous overtones that should be worrisome to all.