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Finding A Home

March 19, 2019 (3,431 words)

When the book Why Liberalism Failed by Notre Dame associate professor of political science Patrick J. Deneen was published by Yale University Press in January 2018, it was immediately reviewed in all the best places, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The American Conservative, and The Economist.

Predictably, none of these name-brand publications could bring themselves to fully endorse Mr. Deneen’s basic premise – that modernity is not the unmitigated success of popular legend. In my reading of the situation their reservations can be said to center on the fact that Deneen’s perspective is a bit “too Catholic.”

Now over a year later, a review of this same book appears in the current March 2019 issue of Culture Wars magazine, provided by frequent CW contributor the Reverend Jeffrey Langan. Father Langan is also less than thrilled with the cultural analysis offered in Why Liberalism Failed, but on the grounds that he apparently finds Mr. Deneen’s thesis “not Catholic enough.”

Before exploring the source of Father Langan’s discontent, there is value in clarifying that the title of this book refers to the ideology known to academics as “Classical Liberalism,” rather than the contemporary left-leaning political persuasion the general public is so familiar with.


…celebrating the emancipation of the individual


Its major tenet is a complete emancipation of the individual in all areas of public and private life, in both the political and economic realms. In the pursuit of liberty and equality, it celebrates the rejection of authority and law, custom and tradition. It rose to prominence some 500 years ago, supplanting Christianity (aka Catholicism) as the preferred operating system for Western society.

The resulting breakdown of social norms has been an undeniable boon to individual expression and acquisition, but a certifiable bust for the shared culture once referred to and understood as the common good.

It’s critically important to note how classical liberalism encompasses both sides of the liberal/conservative dialectic we think of as being diametrically opposed to each other. That is to say, today’s conservatives and liberals both draw their inspiration from classical liberalism.

And while it may be awkward to insert the word “classical” in front of the word “liberalism” in every single sentence, failure to consistently stipulate accordingly can lead to the popular confusion that “liberals” are the despicable bad guys, and “conservatives” are the undisputed good guys.

Such as when Mr. Deneen writes:
“Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one who will take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self- governance.”

Or when Father Langan opines, early in his review:
“For Deneen, this set of circumstances is a logical result of the philosophical ideas that the founders of liberalism embraced. They represent the inner logic of liberalism as it has worked itself out over the centuries. Liberals operate according to a feigned objectivity, an objectivity that turns out to be a mask that conceals the liberal’s desire to seize power for himself and his elite group of friends.”


… helping the general reader decipher the scholars


Scholars such as Deneen and Langan may know exactly what they are talking about, but the general reader has a hard time deciphering from such excerpts that those we commonly stamp as “conservative” are in fact the perfect embodiment of classical liberalism.

It is their commitment to “economic freedom,” under the guise of what is euphemistically referred to as “ordered liberty” – sort of the political/economic equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too – that earns conservatives the Deneen designation of “classical liberals.” This group has always pursued personal aggrandizement without regard to the broader community or the common good.

Mr. Deneen does get around to pointing this out, but I for one wish he would be less nuanced and more overt in the process. The difference in our styles can probably be attributed to the fact that Patrick J. Deneen is a 54 year-old academic at the height of his powers, writing for a rarified audience. Whereas I am a washed-up, 64 year-old working stiff.

But since there are a lot more working stiffs walking around than there are academics in the ivory tower, and since those working stiffs could all benefit from a little edification, there is something to be said for each of us retaining our respective styles.


… “classical” liberals and “progressive” liberals


The folks Deneen describes in his book as “progressive liberals” are the people I think of as initially focusing their efforts on battling the widespread injustice created by self-interested conservatives. Over the last century or so, however, that social justice message has been diluted by the adoption of a radical version of human flourishing, achieved through alternative (and until recently, universally condemned) forms of sexual expression.

Per his review, the Reverend Jeffrey Langan does not find any of the above to be the least bit controversial. So what is it, exactly, about Why Liberalism Failed that leaves Father Langan feeling less than satisfied?

It’s clear both men agree classical liberalism came to the fore and ushered in the modern era, with the United States being its pre-eminent vehicle in the world today. Both men acknowledge this ideology has actually been around since the beginning of Western Civilization, starting with Ancient Greece.

But then Father Langan announces: “before we enter into a full assessment of Deneen’s argument, it would be good to outline a positive treatment of (classical) liberalism opposed to Deneen’s.”


… but everyone is already well-versed


I’m not sure why Father Langan believes this to be needed, let alone helpful. Everyone, it seems, is already well-versed in the “positive treatment” of classical liberalism, especially the smart people who have reviewed Mr. Deneen’s book.

Be that as it may, as an exemplar of this positive treatment, Father Langan introduces us to one Charles Taylor and his big book The Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Mr. Taylor has been chosen for this theoretical comparison “because his ideas currently hold much sway in intellectual circles around the Vatican, both at what are thought of as liberal or conservative Ecclesiastical Universities in Rome.”

At this juncture Father Langan’s review morphs into a broad summary of Charles Taylor’s heterodox ideas and nefarious influence within Catholic intellectual circles.

He focuses on a 2004 presentation that Taylor made to the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, before an audience that included many Catholic professors from Midwestern universities.


… far-ranging implications of a 2004 Lumen Christi presentation


“During his talk, Taylor wagged his finger at the ‘hard-headed’ Thomists in the audience, and told them it was high time they admit they were now part of a political, economic, military, and social system (i.e. classical liberalism) that was superior to any set of historical Catholic conditions and any potential conditions they could think of. Their lot, Taylor wagged, was to accept the superiority of the system and live with it.”

With this anecdote Father Langan convincingly establishes that Charles Taylor’s views are indeed antithetical to those of Patrick Deneen. But in what way does Taylor’s effrontery undermine Deneen’s orthodoxy?

Because “professors with whom (Deneen) collaborates were (at this 2004 talk), kept quiet (during the Q&A that followed), and (then) got invited to lunch with the guru.” Gosh Reverend, that seems like a pretty flimsy chain of causality to me.

We would probably all agree with Father Langan’s terse description: “Taylor’s vision of a practicing Catholic is more macabre and more laden with compromise with radical (classical) liberalism…” But why does that then prompt Father Langan “to wonder where, in the end, Deneen stands?”


… the dreaded de Tocqueville influence


Mr. Deneen’s well-known admiration for the work of Alexis de Tocqueville may be responsible for at least some of Father Langan’s skepticism. One might be inclined to dismiss a large swath of Deneen’s analysis outright, if one presumed it hewed too closely to the conventional Tocquevillian logic that attributes the success of our heralded pluralist-democratic-capitalist order to vaguely “pre-liberal” forces and habits.

Here I would take Father Langan’s point, if this is indeed one of his points: Does de Tocqueville, or any other historian or political theorist for that matter, ever get around to properly identifying these generic, uncredited “forces and habits” as emanating from two thousand years of Catholic anthropology?

Maybe the young Ross Douthat comes closest to making this positive ID, when he explains in his own New York Times op-ed how such “unchosen obligations and allegiances” include “the communities of tribe and family, the moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion, the aristocracy of philosophy and art.”

Father Langan tells us he would like to see Why Liberalism Failed be more explicit in spelling out, as he writes, how “the conflict between the Catholic version of the moral order and the (classical) liberal one is the most essential distinction to make when considering (classical) liberalism.”


… the unity between faith and reason, or faith and science


“The Church,” Father Langan continues, “has always held (there is a) unity between faith and reason – or reason and science – because truth is one. Understanding this unity depends on Catholics in their respective fields acquiring a requisite level of theological understanding that enables them to see that unity.”

The good Reverend may not think Mr. Deneen makes the “Catholic distinction” argument emphatically enough, but the many establishment scribes who have found fault with the book appear to grasp the underlying theme of Why Liberalism Failed quite well. David Brooks of The New York Times may be representative of the dissenters, when he wrote on January 12, 2018:

“Deneen’s book is valuable because it focuses on today’s central issues… Nonetheless, he is wrong… The difficulties stem not from anything inherent in (classical) liberalism but from the fact that we have neglected the moral order and vision of human dignity embedded within (classical) liberalism itself.”

This is the modern conceit in a nutshell, is it not? While celebrating liberty and equality, we casually dispense with authority and law, custom and tradition, and confidently think we can still somehow retain moral order and a vision of human dignity.

Patrick Deneen may not bring enough fire and brimstone to suit the Reverend Jeffrey Langan’s taste, but he is prophetic enough for Ross Douthat. Again, from Mr. Douthat’s NYT op-ed of January 14, 2018:

“Deneen comes as a Jeremiah to announce… where it once delivered equality, (classical) liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich culture to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an ‘anti-culture’ from which many genuine human goods have fled.”


… the wish for cultural analysis that is more concrete


Look, there is nothing wrong with Father Langan wishing “Deneen (would) write more concretely about how (classical) liberalism uses sexual revolution and debt in order to break up the moral order, enslave the citizens, and establish its agents in positions of power.”

And it’s okay by me if Father Langan considers paragraphs like the following from Deneen’s book to be not “concrete” enough:

Thus one of the (classical) liberal state’s main roles becomes the active liberation of individuals from any limiting conditions. At the forefront of (classical) liberal theory is the liberation from natural limitations on the achievement of our desires – one of the central aims of life, according to Locke, being the “indolency of the body.”

A main agent of that liberation becomes commerce, the expansion of opportunities and materials by which not only to realize existing desires but even to create new ones we did not know we had. The state becomes charged with extending the sphere of commerce, particularly with enlarging the range of trade, production, and mobility.

The expansion of markets and the infrastructure necessary for that expansion do not result from “spontaneous order”; rather, they require an extensive and growing state structure, which at times must extract submission from the system’s recalcitrant or unwilling participants.

Initially, this effort is exerted on local domestic economy, in which the state must enforce rationalization and imposition of depersonalized modern markets. Eventually, however, this project becomes a main driver of (classical) liberal imperialism, an imperative justified among others by John Stuart Mill in his treatise Consideration on Representative Government, where he calls for compulsion over “uncivilized” peoples in order that they might lead productive economic lives, even if they must be “for a while compelled to it,” including through the institution of “personal slavery.”

One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships. The (classical) liberal state serves not only the reactive function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; it also takes on an active role of “liberating” individuals who, in the view of the state, are prevented from making wholly free choices as (classical) liberal agents. At the heart of (classical) liberal theory is the supposition that the individual is the basic unit of human existence, the only natural human entity that exists.

(Classical) Liberal practice then seeks to expand the conditions for this individual’s realization. The individual is to be liberated from all the partial and limiting affiliations that preceded the (classical) liberal state, if not by force than by lowering the barrier to exit.

The state claims to govern all grouping within the society; it is the final arbiter of legitimate and illegitimate groupings, and from its point of view, streamlining the relationship between the individual and the (classical) liberal state.
(pages 49 – 51)

Call me a hopelessly sentimental old Pollyanna if you must, but from my perch in the audience the evidence suggests the Reverend Jeffrey Langan and Mr. Patrick J. Deneen should be seated on the same side of this particular debate stage.


… even allies may disagree on tactics from time-to-time


So the lesson here might be that even cultural/religious allies will tend to disagree on tactics from time to time.

Like Father Langan, Ross Douthat is disappointed that Deneen “did not go further.” In Douthat’s case, he wanted to see the author envision a full-blown alternative political order. Instead, Douthat tells us, Deneen “urges a rededication to localism and community, from which some alternate political and economic order might gradually develop.”

Many secularists find fault with the “localism” and “community” aspect of this proscription. Writing in The New York Times on January 17, 2018, Jennifer Szalai points out how:

“Deneen says the only proper response to (classical) liberalism is ‘to transform the household into a small economy.’ Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be the site for homegrown prejudice, petty grievance and a vicious cruelty.

“Deneen is so determined to depict (classical) liberalism as a wholly bankrupt ideology that he gives exceedingly short shrift to what might have made it appealing – and therefore powerful – in the first place. With all its abiding flaws, (classical) liberalism offered a way out for those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan.”


… seeking a champion who will take care of everything


Many believers, on the other hand, can’t help but cringe at the “gradually” part of Deneen’s recommendation. We long for a “strong leader” to be elected president, or elevated to the papacy. Lazy and self-indulgent by nature, we seek a champion who will take care of everything and set things straight, so we can return to our entertainments.

(Needless to say, the polished and accomplished Mr. Deneen would find a way to avoid employing such a blunt formulation, at all costs.)

But gradually is the only way this sort of thing – restoration of the culture – will happen. It would help if we could approach this task while keeping the image of Francis rebuilding the small chapel outside Assisi in mind. We have to be prepared to go slowly, as he did, stone by stone. Starting with a change in the way we think, in the way we relate to our immediate family, our neighbors and our co-workers. In the way we see the world around us.

Reading the various reviews of Why Liberalism Failed one senses a void, a missing piece. Even Ross Douthat’s eloquent commentary does not quite do justice to the full scope of Deneen’s work. While the subject matter sounds familiar – cultural issues that are bandied about on a daily basis – the perspective is much broader and deeper than what we are used to, and the language at first is a bit foreign to our ears. This is why the book defies easy categorization.


… apparently only Deneen can do justice to Deneen


Perhaps the only one who can properly distill Patrick Deneen’s message is Mr. Deenen himself. He is regularly invited to speak at prestigious universities and institutes, and is granting numerous interviews to expound on the themes of his book. Much of this public exposure can be readily accessed on the internet.

One such interview was published on May 28, 2018 by The Nation, a progressive monthly that proudly announces it was founded by abolitionists in 1865. Its admirers consider it a reliable source of firebrand journalism. Its detractors see it as a pernicious liberal rag.

That its editors would deem the rather staid Mr. Deneen worthy of their time, and that Deneen would agree to sit down to chat, is remarkable enough. For the transcript of the ensuing conversation to read as a cordial and informative exchange between friends amounts to a revelation, and a measure of Patrick Deneen’s ability to communicate across the ideological divide.

To be sure, Mr. Deneen is not alone in mining this particular vein of cultural inquiry. But he has honed his distillation in a way that is finding special resonance in the minds of the intellectual elite, as well as with the more thoughtful members of the general public given to pondering such matters.


… quietly functioning as an agent of change


On paper and in person his tone is always measured. As if he realizes he needs to give his readers and listeners a chance to connect the dots, and digest the big concepts he is moving around and re-positioning. His appeal lies in the way he does not try to provoke, though his work is unquestionably functioning as an agent of change.

It would seem the trick to making a dent in the culture wars is finding a way to simultaneously speak to both “classical liberals” and ”progressive liberals,” and prompt each side to reconsider their most cherished economic/political assumptions. Deneen has developed and integrated and synthesized his thought over the course of his academic career to where he is now uniquely qualified to help blaze that trail.

Lest I give the wrong impression, I can relate very well to the Reverend Jeffrey Langan’s impatience – if he will permit such a characterization. The last five hundred years have not been kind to those us who still find our meaning in the Catholic vision of human dignity and human flourishing.

The last half-century in the life of the Catholic Church has been especially painful, marred as it has by misdirection, subversion, and false accommodation. While there have been some brazen outliers who openly sought the ruination of souls, many of the fallen-away are little more than well-intentioned bystanders, who received faulty instruction or suffered from poor example.

Now we must try to help each other as we all attempt to dig ourselves out, dust ourselves off, and continue on the daunting road to eternal salvation. Drawing sustenance along the way from wherever we can find it.

For the record, I have not finished reading Why Liberalism Failed, so my own review will not be ready for some time yet. In fact, I may never finish reading this slim volume. Like a papal encyclical or a favorite poem, its passages are worthy of being parsed, again and again. It is that kind of book, and I’m grateful to Patrick Deneen for having written it.

Together with the latest from Thomas Storck (An Economics of Justice and Charity), and Mary L. Hirschfeld’s ground-breaking entry (Aquinas and the Market), I am happily immersed in a veritable master class on Catholic anthropology, and Catholic social teaching. At last I have found my home.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 19, 2019

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