Published:

A new ConHome monthly series offering a very short introduction to some of those who are making or who have made an intellectual contribution to conservatism.

5) Patrick J Deneen

Age: 57

Education: Rutgers University,

CV:

  • Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame
  • Author

Relevant works:

Several, but for the purposes of this piece:

  • Why Liberalism Failed

Outlook:

At the heart of Why Liberalism Failed is a bold claim: that the various crises starting to wrack western liberal democracies are not just challenges to liberalism, but inevitable consequences of liberalism; they are artefacts not of the failure of liberal ideology, but of its success. It cannot be salvaged, and the hunt for a ‘post-liberal’ way of living must begin.

This is quite the thesis, but in just 200 pages Deneen limns it persuasively enough. Doing so in five paragraphs is a trickier proposition. So I will instead simply highlight a few of the cases he advances, lest any of them snare the imagination.

First, he suggests that modern liberalism is built on a radically different understanding of liberty to the classical and ancient tradition, substituting a definition based on freedom from restraint for an older one centred on discipline and mastery of the passions.

Following this, Deneen argues that many of the apparent strengths of early liberalism were built on a pre-liberal inheritance – classical education, traditional social mores, ‘thick’ community allegiances, et al – which liberal society does not replenish, and to which political liberalism is often officially hostile.

He then attempts to trace the roots of a huge range of problems facing modern society, from populism to voter disengagement to obesity, to the triumph of (often well-intentioned) liberal campaigns to emancipate mankind from restrictions imposed either by custom or nature.

Finally (for our purposes – this could be a very long article) he claims that conservatives and progressives, supposedly the great antagonists of modern politics, actually work symbiotically to advance a common liberal project: the right dissolves restraints on the market, the left social restraints on the self. Whilst both sides often have non-liberal objectives, they tend to advance these much less consistently than their liberal ones.

Impact:

Why Liberalism Failed once made President Obama’s summer reading list, which probably counts for something. It’s also a useful guide to what the people who have started calling themselves ‘post-liberal’ (a term that appears in the book) actually think. Deneen offers an accessible introduction to an emerging trend on the right.

Where to start?

Definitely this book, which at only 200 pages is a perfectly manageable treatment of its theme even for those disinclined to settle in with vast tracts of political philosophy.