Notes on “Why Liberalism Failed”

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was one of the most widely discussed political books last year. In a crowded field of authors addressing the future of liberalism, Deneen stood out like a lightning-rod for his withering, full-frontal attack on the core principles and assumptions of liberal philosophy. And yet, when I recently went back and read the many reviews of Why Liberalism Failed, I came out feeling slightly dissatisfied. Critics of the book seemed all too able to shrug off its most interesting claims, and to argue in stead on grounds more comfortable to them.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Deneen’s book is not all that well written. His argument is more often a barrage of polemical statements than a carefully constructed analysis. Still, the objective is clear enough. He is taking aim at the liberal doctrine of individual freedom, which prioritises the individual’s right to do, be, and choose as he or she wishes. This “voluntarist” notion of freedom, Deneen argues, has shown itself to be not just destructive, but in certain respects illusory. On that basis he claims we would be better off embracing the constraints of small-scale community life.

Most provocatively, Deneen claims that liberal societies, while claiming merely to create conditions in which individuals can exercise their freedom, in fact mould people to see themselves and to act in a particular way. Liberalism, he argues, grew out of a particular idea of human nature, which posited, above all, that people want to pursue their own ends. It imagined our natural and ideal condition as that of freely choosing individual actors without connection to any particular time, place, or social context. For Deneen, this is a dangerous distortion – human flourishing also requires things at odds with personal freedom, such as self-restraint, committed relationships, and membership of a stable and continuous community. But once our political, economic, and cultural institutions are dedicated to individual choice as the highest good, we ourselves are encouraged to value that freedom above all else. As Deneen writes:

Liberalism began with the explicit assertion that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision making. Yet… what it presented as a description of human voluntarism in fact had to displace a very different form of human self-understanding and experience. In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships.

Liberal society, in other words, shapes us to behave more like the human beings imagined by its political and economic theories.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on what is being argued here. Deneen is saying our awareness of ourselves as freely choosing agents is, in fact, a reflection of how we have been shaped by the society we inhabit. It is every bit as much of a social construct as, say, a view of the self that is defined by religious duties, or by membership of a particular community. Moreover, valuing choice is itself a kind of constraint: it makes us less likely to adopt decisions and patterns of life which might limit our ability to choose in the future – even if we are less happy as a result. Liberalism makes us unfree, in a sense, to do anything apart from maximise our freedom.

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Reviewers of Why Liberalism Failed did offer some strong arguments in defence of liberalism, and against Deneen’s communitarian alternative. These tended to focus on material wealth, and on the various forms of suffering and oppression inherent to non-liberal ways of life. But they barely engaged with his claims that our reverence for individual choice amounts to a socially determined and self-defeating idea of freedom. Rather, they tended to take the freely choosing individual as a given, which often meant they failed to distinguish between the kind of freedom Deneen is criticizing – that which seeks to actively maximise choice – and simply being free from coercion.

Thus, writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai didn’t see what Deneen was griping about. She pointed out that

nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things

Meanwhile, at National Review, David French argued that liberalism in the United States actually incentivises individuals to“embrace the most basic virtues of self-governance – complete your education, get married, and wait until after marriage to have children.”And how so? With the promise of greater “opportunities and autonomy.” Similarly Deidre McCloskey, in a nonetheless fascinating rebuttal of Why Liberalism Failed, jumped between condemnation of social hierarchy and celebration of the “spontaneous order” of the liberal market, without acknowledging that she seemed to be describing two systems which shape individuals to behave in certain ways.

So why does this matter? Because it matters, ultimately, what kind of creatures we are – which desires we can think of as authentic and intrinsic to our flourishing, and which ones stem largely from our environment. The desire, for instance, to be able to choose new leaders, new clothes, new identities, new sexual partners – do these reflect the unfolding of some innate longing for self-expression, or could we in another setting do just as well without them?

There is no hard and fast distinction here, of course; the desire for a sports car is no less real and, at bottom, no less natural than the desire for friendship. Yet there is a moral distinction between the two, and a system which places a high value on the freedom to fulfil one’s desires has to remain conscious of such distinctions. The reason is, firstly, because many kinds of freedom are in conflict with other personal and social goods, and secondly, because there may come a time when a different system offers more by way of prosperity and security.  In both cases, it is important to be able to say what amounts to an essential form of freedom, and what does not.

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Another common theme among Deneen’s critics was to question his motivation. His Catholicism, in particular, was widely implicated, with many reviewers insinuating that his promotion of close-knit community was a cover for a reactionary social and moral order. Here’s Hugo Drochon writing in The Guardian:

it’s clear that what he wants… is a return to “updated Benedictine forms” of Catholic monastic communities. Like many who share his worldview, Deneen believes that if people returned to such communities they would get back on a moral path that includes the rejection of gay marriage and premarital sex, two of Deneen’s pet peeves.

Similarly, Deidre McCloskey:

We’re to go back to preliberal societies… with the church triumphant, closed corporate communities of lovely peasants and lords, hierarchies laid out in all directions, gays back in the closet, women in the kitchen, and so forth.

Such insinuations strike me as unjustified – these views do not actually appear in Why Liberalism Failed– but they are also understandable. For Deneen does not clarify the grounds of his argument. His critique of liberalism is made in the language of political philosophy, and seems to be consequentialist: liberalism has failed, because it has destroyed the conditions necessary for human flourishing. And yet whenever Deneen is more specific about just what has been lost, one hears the incipient voice of religious conservatism. In sexual matters, Deneen looks back to “courtship norms” and “mannered interaction between the sexes”; in education, to “comportment” and “the revealed word of God.”

I don’t doubt that Deneen’s religious beliefs colour his views, but nor do I think his entire case springs from some dastardly deontological commitment to Catholic moral teaching. Rather, I would argue that these outbursts point to a much more interesting tension in his argument.

My sense is that the underpinnings of Why Liberalism Failed come from virtue ethics – a philosophy whose stock has fallen somewhat since the Enlightenment, but which reigned supreme in antiquity and medieval Christendom. In Deneen’s case, what is important to grasp is Aristotle’s linking of three concepts: virtue, happiness, and the polis or community. The highest end of human life, says Aristotle, is happiness (or flourishing). And the only way to attain that happiness is through consistent action in accordance with virtue – in particular, through moderation and honest dealing. But note, virtues are not rules governing action; they are principles that one must possess at the level of character and, especially, of motivation. Also, it is not that virtue produces happiness as a consequence; the two are coterminous – to be virtuous is to be happy. Finally, the pursuit of virtue/happiness can only be successful in a community whose laws and customs are directed towards this same goal. For according to Aristotle:

to obtain a right training for goodness from an early age is a hard thing, unless one has been brought up under right laws. For a temperate and hardy way of life is not a pleasant thing to most people, especially when they are young.

The problem comes, though, when one has to provide a more detailed account of what the correct virtues are. For Aristotle, and for later Christian thinkers, this was provided by a natural teleology – a belief that human beings, as part of a divinely ordained natural order, have a purpose which is intrinsic to them. But this crutch is not really available in a modern philosophical discussion. And so more recent virtue ethicists, notably Alasdair MacIntyre, have shifted the emphasis away from a particular set of virtues with a particular purpose, and towards virtue and purpose as such. What matters for human flourishing, MacIntyre argued, is that individuals be part of a community or tradition which offers a deeply felt sense of what it is to lead a good life. Living under a shared purpose, as manifest in the social roles and duties of the polis, is ultimately more important than the purpose itself.

This seems to me roughly the vision of human flourishing sketched out in Why Liberalism Failed. Yet I’m not sure Deneen has fully reconciled himself to the relativism that is entailed by abandoning the moral framework of a natural teleology. This is a very real problem – for why should we not accept, say, the Manson family as an example of virtuous community? – but one which is difficult to resolve without overtly metaphysical concepts. And in fact, Deneen’s handling of human nature does strain in that direction, as when he looks forward to

the only real form of diversity, a variety of cultures that is multiple yet grounded in human truths that are transcultural and hence capable of being celebrated by many peoples.

So I would say that Deneen’s talk of “courtship norms” and “comportment” is similar to his suggestion that the good life might involve “cooking, planting, preserving, and composting.” Such specifics are needed to refine what is otherwise a dangerously vague picture of the good life.





Invisible Lives: Ethics between Europe and Africa


In the afternoon our house settles into a decadent air. My sisters’ children are asleep, there is the lingering smell of coffee, the corridors are in shade with leaves moving silently outside the windows. In my room light still pours in from the electric blue sky of the Eastern Cape. There is a view of the town, St Francis Bay, clustered picturesquely in the orthodox Dutch style, thatched roofs and gleaming whitewashed walls hugging the turquoise of the Indian Ocean.

This town, as I hear people say, is not really like South Africa. Most of its occupants are down over Christmas from the northern Highveld cities. During these three weeks the town’s population quadruples, the shopping centres, bars and beaches filling with more or less wealthy holidaymakers. They are white South Africans – English and Afrikaans-speaking – a few African millionaires, and recently, a number of integrated middle-class Africans too. The younger generations are Americanised, dressing like it was Orange County. There are fun runs and triathlons on an almost daily basis, and dance music drifts across the town every night.

But each year it requires a stronger act of imagination, or repression, to ignore the realities of the continent to which this place is attached. Already, the first world ends at the roadside, where families of pigs and goats tear open trash bags containing health foods and House and Leisure. Holidaymakers stock up on mineral water at the vast Spar supermarket, no longer trusting their taps. At night, the darkness of power cuts is met with the reliable whirring of generators.

And from where I sit at my desk I can make out, along the worn-out roads, impoverished African men loping in twos or threes towards the margins of town after their day of construction work, or of simply waiting at the street corner to be picked up for odd jobs. Most of them are headed to Sea Vista, or KwaNomzamo, third-world townships like those that gather around all of South Africa’s towns and cities, like the faded edges of a photograph.

When I visited South Africa as a child, this ragged frontier seemed normal, even romantic. Then, as I grew used to gazing at the world from London, my African insights became a source of tension. The situation felt rotten, unaccountable. But if responsibility comes from proximity, how can the judgment that demands it come from somewhere far removed? And who is being judged, anyway? In a place where the only truly shared experience is instability, judicial words like ‘inequality’ must become injudicious ones like ‘headfuck’. That is what South Africa is to an outsider: an uncanny dream where you feel implicated yet detached, unable to ignore or to understand.



Ethics is an inherently privileged pursuit, requiring objectivity, critical distance from a predicament. If, as Thomas Nagel says, objective judgment is ‘a set of concentric spheres, progressively revealed as we detach from the contingencies of the self,’ then ethics assume the right to reside in some detached outer sphere, a non-person looking down at the human nuclei trapped in their lesser orbits.

In his memoir Lost and Found in Johannesburg, Mark Gevisser uses another aerial view, a 1970s street guide, to recollect the divisions of apartheid South Africa. Areas designated for different races are placed on separate pages, or the offending reality of a black settlement is simply left blank. These omissions represented the outer limits of ethical awareness, as sanctioned by the state.

Gevisser, raised as a liberal, English-speaking South African, had at least some of the detachment implied by his map. Apartheid was the creation of the Afrikaner people, whose insular philosophy became bureaucratic reality in 1948, by virtue of their being just over half of South Africa’s white voters. My parents grew up within its inner circle, a world with no television and no loose talk at parties, tightly embraced by the National Party and by God himself through his Dutch Reformed church.

It was a prison of memory – the Afrikaners had never escaped their roots as the hopeless dregs of Western Europe that had coalesced on the tip of Africa in the 17th century. Later, the British colonists would call them ‘rock spiders’. They always respected a leader who snubbed the outside world, like Paul Kruger, who in the late 19th century called someone a liar for claiming to have sailed around the earth, which of course was flat. Their formation of choice was the laager, a circular fort of settlers’ wagons, with guns trained at the outside.

By the time my father bought the house in St Francis in 1987, the world’s opinions had long been flooding in. Apartheid’s collapse was under way, brought about, ironically, by dependence on African labour and international trade. My family lived in Pretoria, where they kept a revolver in the glove compartment. We left seven years later, when I was three, part of the first wave of a great diaspora of white South Africans to the English-speaking world.



From my half-detached perspective, the rhythms of South African history appear deep and unbending. The crude patchwork of apartheid dissolved only to reform as a new set of boundaries, distinct spheres of experience sliding past each other. Even as places like St Francis boomed, the deprived rural population suddenly found itself part of a global economy, and flooded into peripheral townships and squatter camps. During the year, when there is no work in St Francis, these are the ghosts who break into empty mansions to steal taps, kettles, and whatever shred of copper they can find.

This is how Patricia and her family moved to KwaNomzamo, near the poor town of Humansdorp, about 20 minutes’ drive from St Francis. Patricia is our cleaner, a young woman with bright eyes. She is Coloured, an ethnicity unique to South Africa, which draws its genes from African and Malay slaves, the indigenous San and Khoikhoi people of the Cape, and the Afrikaners, whose language they share. This is the deferential language of the past – ‘ja Mevrou,’ Patricia says in her lilting accent.

I have two images of Patricia. The first is a mental one of her home in KwaNomzamo, one of the tin boxes they call ‘disaster housing’, planted neatly in rows beside the sprawl of the apartheid-era ‘location’. This image is dominated by Patricia’s disabled mother, who spends her days here, mute and motionless like a character from an absurdist drama. Beside this is the actual photograph Patricia asked us to take at her boyfriend’s house, where they assumed a Madonna-like pose with their three-month-old child.

These memories drive apart the different perspectives in me like nothing else. The relationships between middle-class South Africans and their domestic staff today are a genuine strand of solidarity in an otherwise confusing picture. But from my European viewpoint, always aware of history and privilege, even empathy is just another measure of injustice, of difference. This mindset is calibrated from a distance: someone who brings it to actual relationships is not an attractive prospect, nor an ethical one. Self-aware is never far from self-absorbed.



The danger usually emphasised by ethics is becoming trapped in a subjective viewpoint, seeing the world from too narrow an angle. But another problem is the philosophical shrinking act sometimes known as false objectivity. If you already have a detached perspective, the most difficult part of forming a judgment is understanding the personal motives of those involved. ‘Reasons for action,’ as Nagel says, ‘have to be reasons for individuals’. The paradox is that a truly objective judgment has to be acceptable from any viewpoint, otherwise it is just another subjective judgment.

In Britain, hardship seems to exist for our own judicial satisfaction. Ethics are a spectator sport mediated by screens, a televised catharsis implying moral certainty. War, natural disasters, the boats crossing the Mediterranean – there’s not much we can offer these images apart from such Manichean responses as blind sympathy or outrage, and these we offer largely to our consciences. Looking out becomes another way of looking in.

The journalist R.W. Johnson noted that after liberation, foreign papers lost interest in commissioning stories about South Africa. Just as well, since it soon became a morass of competing anxieties, the idealism of the ‘rainbow nation’ corroded by grotesque feats of violence and corruption: I am not unusual in having relatives who have been murdered. Against this background, the pigs and potholes among the mansions of St Francis are like blood coughed into a silk handkerchief, signs of a hidden atrophy already far progressed.

Alison and Tim are the sort of young South Africans – and there remain many – whose optimism has always been the antidote to all this. They are Johannesburgers proud of their cosmopolitan city. One evening last Christmas, I sat with Tim in a St Francis bar that served craft beer and staged an indie band in the corner. This is not really like South Africa, he said, pointing to the entirely white crowd. Then he told me he, too, is thinking of leaving.

South Africa’s currency, the Rand, crashed in December after President Jacob Zuma fired his Finance Minister on a whim. You could not go anywhere without hearing about this. Everyone is looking for something to export, Tim said, a way to earn foreign currency before it becomes impossible to leave. He has a family to think of – and yes, he admitted several drinks later, it bothers him that you could wake any night with a gun to your head.

‘More often in the first world / one wakes from not to the nightmare’, writes the American poet Kathy Fagan. There is such as thing as a shared dream, but even nightmares that grow from the same source tend to grow apart. They are personal, invisible from outside.

This article was first published by The Junket on 29 Feb 2016