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.

 

 

 

 

What was Romanticism? Putting the “counter-Enlightenment” in context

In his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Steven Pinker heaps a fair amount of scorn on Romanticism, the movement in art and philosophy which spread across Europe during the late-18th and 19th centuries. In Pinker’s Manichean reading of history, Romanticism was the malign counterstroke to the Enlightenment: its goal was to quash those values listed in his subtitle. Thus, the movement’s immense diversity and ambiguity are reduced to a handful of ideas, which show that the Romantics favored “the heart over the head, the limbic system over the cortex.” This provides the basis for Pinker to label “Romantic” various irrational tendencies that are still with us, such as nationalism and reverence for nature.

In the debates following Enlightenment Now, many have continued to use Romanticism simply as a suitcase term for “counter-Enlightenment” modes of thought. Defending Pinker in Areo, Bo Winegard and Benjamin Winegard do produce a concise list of Romantic propositions. But again, their version of Romanticism is deliberately anachronistic, providing a historical lineage for the “modern romantics” who resist Enlightenment principles today.

As it happens, this dichotomy does not appeal only to defenders of the Enlightenment. In his book The Age of Anger, published last year, Pankaj Mishra explains various 21st century phenomena — including right-wing populism and Islamism — as reactions to an acquisitive, competitive capitalism that he traces directly back to the 18th century Enlightenment. This, says Mishra, is when “the unlimited growth of production . . . steadily replaced all other ideas of the human good.” And who provided the template for resisting this development? The German Romantics, who rejected the Enlightenment’s “materialist, individualistic and imperialistic civilization in the name of local religious and cultural truth and spiritual virtue.”

Since the Second World War, it has suited liberals, Marxists, and postmodernists alike to portray Romanticism as the mortal enemy of Western rationalism. This can convey the impression that history has long consisted of the same struggle we are engaged in today, with the same teams fighting over the same ideas. But even a brief glance at the Romantic era suggests that such narratives are too tidy. These were chaotic times. Populations were rising, people were moving into cities, the industrial revolution was occurring, and the first mass culture emerging. Europe was wracked by war and revolution, nations won and lost their independence, and modern politics was being born.

So I’m going to try to explain Romanticism and its relationship with the Enlightenment in a bit more depth. And let me say this up front: Romanticism was not a coherent doctrine, much less a concerted attack on or rejection of anything. Put simply, the Romantics were a disparate constellation of individuals and groups who arrived at similar motifs and tendencies, partly by inspiration from one another, partly due to underlying trends in European culture. In many instances, their ideas were incompatible with, or indeed hostile towards, the Enlightenment and its legacy. On the other hand, there was also a good deal of mutual inspiration between the two.

 

Sour grapes

The narrative of Romanticism as a “counter-Enlightenment” often begins in the mid-18th century, when several forerunners of the movement appeared. The first was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract famously asserts “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau portrayed civilization as decadent and morally compromised, proposing instead a society of minimal interdependence where humanity would recover its natural virtue. Elsewhere in his work he also idealized childhood, and celebrated the outpouring of subjective emotion.

In fact various Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant in particular, admired Rousseau’s ideas; he was arguing that left to their own devices, ordinary people would use reason to discover virtue. Nonetheless, he was clearly attacking the principle of progress, and his apparent motivations for doing so were portentous. Rousseau had been associated with the French philosophes — men such as Thiry d’Holbach, Denis Diderot, Claude Helvétius and Jean d’Alembert — who were developing the most radical strands of Enlightenment thought, including materialist philosophy and atheism. But crucially, they were doing so within a rather glamorous, cosmopolitan milieu. Though they were monitored and harassed by the French ancien régime, many of the philosophes were nonetheless wealthy and well-connected figures, their Parisian salons frequented by intellectuals, ambassadors and aristocrats from across Europe.

Rousseau decided the Enlightenment belonged to a superficial, hedonistic elite, and essentially styled himself as a god-fearing voice of the people. This turned out to be an important precedent. In Prussia, where a prolific Romantic movement would emerge, such antipathy towards the effete culture of the French was widespread. For much to the frustration of Prussian intellectuals and artists — many of whom were Pietist Christians from lowly backgrounds — their ruler Frederick the Great was an “Enlightened despot” and dedicated Francophile. He subscribed to Melchior Grimm’s Correspondence Littéraire, which brought the latest ideas from the Paris; he hosted Voltaire at his court as an Enlightenment mascot; he conducted affairs in French, his first language.

This is the background against which we find Johann Gottfried Herder, whose ideas about language and culture were deeply influential to Romanticism. He argued that one can only understand the world via the linguistic concepts that one inherits, and that these reflect the contingent evolution of one’s culture. Hence in moral terms, different cultures occupy significantly different worlds, so their values should not be compared to one another. Nor should they be replaced with rational schemes dreamed up elsewhere, even if this means that societies are bound to come into conflict.

Rousseau and Herder anticipated an important cluster of Romantic themes. Among them are the sanctity of the inner-life, of folkways and corporate social structures, of belonging, of independence, and of things that cannot be quantified. And given the apparent bitterness of Herder and some of his contemporaries, one can see why Isaiah Berlin declared that all this amounted to “a very grand form of sour grapes.” Berlin takes this line too far, but there is an important insight here. During the 19th century, with the rise of the bourgeoisie and of government by utilitarian principles, many Romantics will show a similar resentment towards “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” as Edmund Burke famously called them. Thus Romanticism must be seen in part as coming from people denied status in a changing society.

Then again, Romantic critiques of excessive uniformity and rationality were often made in the context of developments that were quite dramatic. During the 1790s, it was the French Revolution’s degeneration into tyranny that led first-generation Romantics in Germany and England to fear the so-called “machine state,” or government by rational blueprint. Similarly, the appalling conditions that marked the first phase of the industrial revolution lay behind some later Romantics’ revulsion at industrialism itself. John Ruskin celebrated medieval production methods because “men were not made to work with the accuracy of tools,” with “all the energy of their spirits . . . given to make cogs and compasses of themselves.”

And ultimately, it must be asked if opposition to such social and political changes was opposition to the Enlightenment itself. The answer, of course, depends on how you define the Enlightenment, but with regards to Romanticism we can only make the following generalization. Romantics believed that ideals such as reason, science, and progress had been elevated at the expense of values like beauty, expression, or belonging. In other words, they thought the Enlightenment paradigm established in the 18th century was limited. This is well captured by Percy Shelley’s comment in 1821 that although humanity owed enormous gratitude to philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire, only Rousseau had been more than a “mere reasoner.”

And yet, in perhaps the majority of cases, this did not make Romantics hostile to science, reason, or progress as such. For it did not seem to them, as it can seem to us in hindsight, that these ideals must inevitably produce arrangements such as industrial capitalism or technocratic government. And for all their sour grapes, they often had reason to suspect those whose ascent to wealth and power rested on this particular vision of human improvement.

 

“The world must be romanticized”

One reason Romanticism is often characterized as against something — against the Enlightenment, against capitalism, against modernity as such — is that it seems like the only way to tie the movement together. In the florescence of 19th century art and thought, Romantic motifs were arrived at from a bewildering array of perspectives. In England during the 1810s, for instance, radical, progressive liberals such as Shelley and Lord Byron celebrated the crumbling of empires and of religion, and glamorized outcasts and oppressed peoples in their poetry. They were followed by arch-Tories like Thomas Carlyle and Ruskin, whose outlook is fundamentally paternalistic. Other Romantics migrated across the political spectrum during their lifetimes, bringing their themes with them.

All this is easier to understand if we note that a new sensibility appeared in European culture during this period, remarkable for its idealism and commitment to principle. Disparaged in England as “enthusiasm,” and in Germany as Schwärmerei or fanaticism, we get a flavor of it by looking at some of the era’s celebrities. There was Beethoven, celebrated as a model of the passionate and impoverished genius; there was Byron, the rebellious outsider who received locks of hair from female fans; and there was Napoleon, seen as an embodiment of untrammeled willpower.

Curiously, though, while this Romantic sensibility was a far cry from the formality and refinement which had characterized the preceding age of Enlightenment, it was inspired by many of the same ideals. To illustrate this, and to expand on some key Romantic concepts, I’m going to focus briefly on a group that came together in Prussia at the turn of the 19th century, known as the Jena Romantics.

The Jena circle — centred around Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich and August Schlegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and the writer known as Novalis — have often been portrayed as scruffy bohemians, a conservative framing that seems to rest largely on their liberal attitudes to sex. But this does give us an indication of the group’s aims: they were interested in questioning convention, and pursuing social progress (their journal Das Athenäum was among the few to publish female writers). They were children of the Enlightenment in other respects, too. They accepted that rational skepticism had ruled out traditional religion and superstition, and that science was a tool for understanding reality. Their philosophy, however, shows an overriding desire to reconcile these capacities with an inspiring picture of culture, creativity, and individual fulfillment. And so they began by adapting the ideas of two major Enlightenment figures: Immanuel Kant and Benedict Spinoza.

Kant, who spent his entire life among the Romantics in Prussia, had impressed on them the importance of one dilemma in particular: how was human freedom possible given that nature was determined? But rather than follow Kant down the route of transcendental freedom, the Jena school tried to update the universe Spinoza had described a century earlier, which was a single deterministic entity governed by a mechanical sequence of cause and effect. Conveniently, this mechanistic model had been called into doubt by contemporary physics. So they kept the integrated, holistic quality of Spinoza’s nature, but now suggested that it was suffused with another Kantian idea — that of organic force or purpose.

Consequently, the Jena Romantics arrived at an organic conception of the universe, in which nature expressed the same omnipresent purpose in all its manifestations, up to and including human consciousness. Thus there was no discrepancy between mental activity and matter, and the Romantic notion of freedom as a channelling of some greater will was born. After all, nature must be free because, as Spinoza had argued, there is nothing outside nature. Therefore, in Friedrich Schlegel’s words, “Man is free because he is the highest expression of nature.”

Various concepts flowed from this, the most consequential being a revolutionary theory of art. Whereas the existing neo-classical paradigm had assumed that art should hold a mirror up to nature, reflecting its perfection, the Romantics now stated that the artist should express nature, since he is part of its creative flow. What this entails, moreover, is something like a primitive notion of the unconscious. For this natural force comes to us through the profound depths of language and myth; it cannot be definitely articulated, only grasped at through symbolism and allegory.

Such longing for the inexpressible, the infinite, the unfathomable depth thought to lie beneath the surface of ordinary reality, is absolutely central to Romanticism. And via the Jena school, it produces an ideal which could almost serve as a Romantic program: being-through-art. The modern condition, August Schlegel says, is the sensation of being adrift between two idealized figments of our imagination: a lost past and an uncertain future. So ultimately, we must embrace our frustrated existence by making everything we do a kind of artistic expression, allowing us to move forward despite knowing that we will never reach what we are aiming for. This notion that you can turn just about anything into a mystery, and thus into a field for action, is what Novalis alludes to in his famous statement that “the world must be romanticized.”

It appears there’s been something of a detour here: we began with Spinoza and have ended with obscurantism and myth. But as Frederick Beiser has argued, this baroque enterprise was in many ways an attempt to radicalize the 18th century Enlightenment. Indeed, the central thesis that our grip on reality is not certain, but we must embrace things as they seem to us and continue towards our aims, was almost a parody of the skepticism advanced by David Hume and by Kant. Moreover, and more ominously, the Romantics amplified the Enlightenment principle of self-determination, producing the imperative that individuals and societies must pursue their own values.

 

The Romantic legacy

It is beyond doubt that some Romantic ideas had pernicious consequences, the most demonstrable being a contribution to German nationalism. By the end of the 19th century, when Prussia had become the dominant force in a unified Germany and Richard Wagner’s feverish operas were being performed, the Romantic fascination with national identity, myth, and the active will had evolved into something altogether menacing. Many have taken the additional step, which is not a very large one, of implicating Romanticism in the fascism of the 1930s.

A more tenuous claim is that Romanticism (and German Romanticism especially) contains the origins of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, and of Western civilization itself, which is so current among leftist intellectuals today. As we have seen, there was in Romanticism a strong strain of cultural relativism — which is to say, relativism about values. But postmodernism has at its core a relativism about facts, a denial of the possibility of reaching objective truth by reason or observation. This nihilistic stance is far from the skepticism of the Jena school, which was fundamentally a means for creative engagement with the world.

But whatever we make of these genealogies, remember that we are talking about developments, progressions over time. We are not saying that Romanticism was in any meaningful sense fascistic, postmodernist, or whichever other adjective appears downstream. I emphasize this because if we identify Romanticism with these contentious subjects, we will overlook its myriad more subtle contributions to the history of thought.

Many of these contributions come from what I described earlier as the Romantic sensibility: a variety of intuitions that seem to have taken root in Western culture during this era. For instance, that one should remain true to one’s own principles at any cost; that there is something tragic about the replacement of the old and unusual with the uniform and standardized; that different cultures should be appreciated on their own terms, not on a scale of development; that artistic production involves the expression of something within oneself. Whether these intuitions are desirable is open to debate, but the point is that the legacy of Romanticism cannot be compartmentalized, for it has colored many of our basic assumptions.

This is true even of ideas that we claim to have inherited from the Enlightenment. For some of these were these were modified, and arguably enriched, as they passed through the Romantic era. An explicit example comes from John Stuart Mill, the founding figure of classical Liberalism. Mill inherited from his father and from Jeremy Bentham a very austere version of utilitarian ethics. This posited as its goal the greatest good for the greatest number of people; but its notion of the good did not account for the value of culture, spirituality, and a great many other things we now see as intrinsic to human flourishing. As Mill recounts in his autobiography, he realized these shortcomings by reading England’s first-generation Romantics, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is why, in 1840, Mill bemoaned the fact that his fellow progressives thought they had nothing to learn from Coleridge’s philosophy, warning them that “the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole.” We are committing a similar error today when we treat Romanticism simply as a “counter-Enlightenment.” Ultimately this limits our understanding not just of Romanticism but of the Enlightenment as well.

 

This essay was first published in Areo Magazine on June 10 2018. See it here.