The End of Liberalism
Liberalism has generated its own undoing. As a philosophy and practical political project, one of its main aims was to overthrow the old aristocracy, in which one's social station and political position was secured by birthright. No matter how much one strived-or how dissolute one became-one's social and political rank could not be changed. This immutability was true not only in regard to one's political position, but as a consequence that much of one's identity was the consequence of birth. Liberalism proposed to overthrow this ancien régime and put in its place an order in which people, through their striving, ability, and hard work, could create an identity and future based upon the sum of their own choices.
Several hundred years into this experiment, we have witnessed firsthand the rise of a new ruling class, a "meritocracy" that has thrived under the conditions established and advanced by liberalism. Liberalism is today in crisis, not just because of the bad behavior of the new elite, but because its rise has corresponded with the attrition of institutions that benefited the lower classes while restraining the ambitious who wished to escape its restraints. The weakening of the family, neighborhood, church and religious community, and other associations has resulted in the degradation of the social and economic conditions of "the many," even as "the few" have garnered a monopoly both on economic and social advantages.
In the advanced liberal democracies across the world, working-class voters have risen up to reject the leaders who have regarded those who have been "left behind" with disdain and contempt. In response, liberalism has unmasked itself, revealing itself as an ideology that will force those who oppose it into submission, and advancing an increasingly "illiberal" liberalism. Efforts to limit the political power of the culturally dispossessed and economically disadvantaged-frequently by accusing majorities of being "antidemocratic"-increasingly reveal liberalism not to be a mutually shared comprehensive system that always allows self-determination, but rather a particular partisan set of commitments. The once unassailed public philosophy has been delegitimized.
As liberalism has careened toward its inevitable failure, politics across the Western world have been scrambled, no longer dividing between left and right liberals. Rather partisans who criticize the "people" (often composed of left and right liberals) and partisans who criticize the "elites" (today, most powerfully on the right, but also present on the left-for instance, Bernie Sanders and his criticisms of corporate elites) oppose each other. More than standing in opposition, they are in a vicious cycle as each side declines in virtue and strives for the destruction of the other, a cycle that will continue as long as liberalism remains the regnant regime.
To understand how the rise of liberalism resulted in this vicious cycle, it is necessary to understand how liberalism's conception of liberty created both a new ruling class and degraded the lives of the masses.
A premodern conception of liberty-expressed in the pages of Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, and the confluence of the philosophical schools of Athens and the biblical theological tradition in Jerusalem-was premised upon the ideal of self-rule, self-discipline, and self-government. The institutions of family, religion, and government raised guardrails on the otherwise natural appetites and desires that, when succumbed to, resulted in what this tradition regarded as a condition of servitude or slavery. The person who surrendered to the appetites was not only a slave, but also had the soul of a tyrant-a gluttony for power that would allow the enslaved tyrant to commit any act, any crime, any awful deed. All of the citizenry, including the powerful, needed to be habituated to the virtue that accorded with freedom, and the guardrails helped with that education for liberty.
By contrast, liberalism's architects proposed a vision of freedom as liberation from limitations imposed by birthright. To realize this liberation it was necessary not only to overthrow rule by inheritance but the older social forms that had taught and reinforced the cultivation of virtue. The realization of a new liberty required the dismantling of older institutions that had cultivated the classical ideal of liberty.
What had previously been considered as "guardrails" came instead to be regarded as oppressions and unjust limitations upon individual liberty. As a result, the advance of liberal liberty has meant the gradual, and then accelerating, weakening, redefining, or overthrowing of many formative institutions and practices of human life, whether family, the community, a vast array of associations, schools and universities, architecture, the arts, and even the churches. In their place, a flattened world arose: the wide-open spaces of liberal freedom, a vast and widening playground for the project of self-creation.
Today, liberalism's dismantling of guardrails is often described as a heroic story of progress in which past injustices were overcome, ushering in an age of enlightenment, justice, liberty, and equality. Oppressed people were liberated from the unjust constraints of a dark age. Anyone questioning the narrative is accused of defending privilege and nostalgically craving to reinstitute the injustices of a benighted past.
This narrative is a classic example of "Whig history," a self-congratulatory story told by the ruling class about its inevitable and beneficent ascent. The story told by liberals-like all "Whig history"-is self-serving to their cause, even at the cost of getting the history wrong and ignoring lessons of the past about "limiting" institutions that actually served freedom.
Consider, for instance, arguments made by one of liberalism's heroes, John Stuart Mill. In his classic text On Liberty, Mill denounced the constraining role of tradition in favor of an open, liberal society that advantages those who seek to disrupt these kinds of formative institutions. In Mill's parlance, custom was a "despot" over the lives of those who wished to instead engage in "experiments in living." While it's doubtless the case that custom appears to be a "despot" to those who seek to disrupt and overthrow long-standing traditions and customs of society, from another perspective, custom and the associated array of institutions that support and perpetuate ongoing cultural practices exist not merely to prevent the liberty of self-inventions, but to protect ordinary people from the potential rapaciousness of the ambitious. Viewed in such a light, these informal but pervasive cultural forms not only prevent efforts of a revolutionary character from reordering society around the imperative of individual liberty, but they protect the stability and order that most benefits ordinary people, people who are not well served by instability, generational discontinuity, institutionalized disorder-in short, what Mill calls "progress."
Mill's contemporary across the English Channel, Alexis de Tocqueville, precisely in this light understood the threats of liberation from ambient culture. Observing the likely rise of a more "revolutionary" class in a liberalizing America, Tocqueville wrote admiringly especially of the constraining power of religion.
But revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess openly a certain respect for the morality and equity of Christianity, which does not permit them to violate its laws easily when they are opposed to the execution of their designs . . . Up to now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim-one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.
Understood in light of Tocqueville's argument, the "guardrails" that limited those of a revolutionary temperament-limits that might be understood as a benign form of "tyranny of the majority"-can be properly understood as deeply democratic. They are democratic first because they are the creation of countless generations of forebears who contributed to their creation, won through hard experience, and assembled and bolstered them through institutions in order to protect the prospects of life flourishing no matter the economic or social position of the person. Those likely to defend a preeminent role of cultural institutions implicitly recognize that there is inevitable inequality in the world, in any number of forms-whether the ongoing presence of arbitrary social differences, or their replacement by natural inequalities due to differences of talent and self-direction-and, rather than falsely claiming that all inequalities can ultimately and someday be overcome, instead insist that the governing cultural forms and norms are the best means of securing the prospects for flourishing especially of the weaker and disadvantaged. They were democratic, secondly, because the accumulation of customs and practices embedded in social structures acted as a break especially upon those of distinct ambition and even tyrannical impulse, those who would benefit especially from conditions of instability and disorder. It was for this reason that G. K. Chesterton stated his belief that "tradition is only democracy extended through time. . . . Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."
Contra Mill, long-standing cultural institutions and practices should be given the benefit of the doubt, precisely because they largely develop from the "bottom up" in order to achieve two simultaneous ends: foster conditions of flourishing for ordinary people, while restraining the tyrannical impulses of the powerful to be free of the moderating and sustaining strictures of custom, tradition, and culture. Tocqueville stressed that the obeisance of those who are potentially revolutionaries may only be "ostensible"-that they may harbor unstated desires to break free of all restraints-but even grudging acknowledgment of cultural norms, won through social pressure from below, can be sufficient as a form of restraint. For such cultural forms to exercise widespread influence, the customs and norms must be widely shared and generally embraced by the populace.
In effect, those who ascend to positions of power, influence, and wealth are "controlled" and limited by such forms-not merely by passage of positive law or separation of powers, but by the governance of the "democracy of the dead."
Today, the essence of elite formation consists of two main objects, irrespective of major or course of study: first, taking part in the disassembling of traditional guardrails through a self-serving redefinition of those remnants as systems of oppression; and second, learning the skills to navigate a world without any guardrails. College-especially at selective institutions-is a place and time in which one experiments in a safe atmosphere where guardrails have been removed, but safety nets have been installed. One learns how to engage in "safe sex," recreational alcohol and drug use, transgressive identities, cultural self-loathing, how to ostensibly flaunt traditional institutions without bucking the system-all preparatory to a life lived in a few global cities in which the "culture" comes to mean expensive and exclusive consumption goods, and not the shaping environment that governs the ambitious and settled alike. Those outside these institutions also have had the guardrails removed-all are to be equally "free"-but without safety nets in sight.
Elite opinion thus officially condemns the older cultural institutions and forms while learning a new kind of internalization of norms that function as a kind of privatized guardrail, not unlike the secured spaces of those gated communities that many in this class will eventually join. Cultures rich with norms that applied to high and low alike had been a kind of "public utility," serving everyone in society equally, but the official messaging of elite-driven society comes to attack and dismiss many of the long-standing ideals that were encouraged by older cultural forms. Thus, for instance, media, popular culture, and the education industry come increasingly to express disapproval of the ideal of family or marriage by redescribing it as "the traditional family" or "traditional marriage." By adding the designation "traditional," disrepute and disapproval are signaled by elites of the liberal order, in which the merely "traditional" is most often associated with arbitrary impositions of the past that are irrational, oppressive, and constraining. Yet-as social scientists such as Charles Murray and W. Bradford Wilcox note-those who enjoy the benefits of advanced university education implicitly learn how to form families in an anti-culture without guardrails, depending especially on the benefits of privatized norms as well as greater wealth and opportunity. Meanwhile, the demolition of the cultural norm and ideals-both through economic and social destruction-results in the growing dissolution of family formation among the less advantaged.
A third lesson follows these two: those who succeed deserve their status; those who have been left behind have only themselves to blame. As Michael Sandel has recently argued, educational "credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice." In a world increasingly arranged to guarantee financial and social success for those who have been formed by the "sacred project" of modern liberalism, those who fail to rise from the curse of being rooted "somewhere" come to be viewed as deserving their fate. The only obstacle to rising comes to be seen as a moral failure of sorts, particularly perceived as the "clinging" to outmoded beliefs and practices that those of superior pedigree had the courage and discernment to overcome. Sandel concludes that "meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism-an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college." The system that had come into existence to replace the arbitrary rule of aristocrats, he notes, "can become a kind of tyranny."
Michael Lind has aptly described this new divide as "the new class war," and notes that what I will often describe here in these pages as the division between "elite" and "working class" rests less on differentiation of wealth than credentials and access to a foothold and success in the managerial economy. Lind rightly notes that the working class is divided-arguably not only with the blessing, but active encouragement of the managerial elite-between "old-stock natives" and "recent immigrants and their descendants." Without denying the reality or seriousness of racism as a scourge in Western nations and particularly the United States, comprehensive and effective proposals to redress historic injustices would have to include considering how the demise of formative social institutions and family life have harmed the working classes, regardless of race. Such considerations are studiously avoided as part of the progressive effort to redescribe all of Western history as structurally racist, rather than structurally liberal-and, hence, damaging to the life prospects of ordinary people regardless of their race and ethnic background. Arguments that give exclusive focus upon a racial basis of the Western political divide thus end up reinforcing the advantages of the managerial classes, forestalling recognition among a multiracial working class of common interest against the managerial class, which in turn benefits from the political impotence of this divided underclass. Yet, as recent American elections have shown, a growing awareness of this common interest is leading to the gradual development of a multiracial, multiethnic working class that has potential to become a powerful counterforce to the gentry liberals who govern it from their new medieval citadels.
Copyright © 2023 by Patrick J. Deneen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.