The referendum on Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of national populism in Europe are a clear sign of mass discontent towards our current political system. But what is the ideology behind this system, how has it failed, and what can replace it? We have interviewed Patrick Deneen – a political theorist, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the book Why Liberalism Failed – renowned among American conservatives and also recommended by former president of the United States Barack Obama, to tell us more about the flaws of the liberal order which has dominated European and American society since the 17th century until today.
First, what do you mean exactly by “liberalism”?
I know the terminology in Europe is different, but by liberalism I mean the tradition in the United States and Great Britain that first appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, and so forth – the philosophy that inaugurates the American political tradition, but which also includes free-market liberalism and progressive liberalism. My argument is that there is a deeper continuity between the two worldviews that make them actually very similar. The recent elections in the United States and what is happening in Europe constitute a rejection of that very narrowness of both sides of liberalism.
What would you say to those who claim you’re confusing the liberal values of the Enlightenment with progressivism and post-modernism?
Post-modernism to me is an extreme version of liberalism, essentially critiquing the ways and forms of power that are designed to subtly control human behaviour. At its heart, I think liberalism is the redefinition of liberty in the modern era, essentially it means the freedom from external constraints from my actions, instead of the classical and Christian tradition of freedom, which meant governing one’s appetites and freedom from my basic desires. The debate between libertarians and progressives is about means rather than ends; whether the freedom to do what one wishes is best achieved through the free-market or the use of state power defines the fundamental difference between a libertarian and a progressive. The post-modernist rejects both the free-market and statist views and believes in a kind of anarchic perspective, where if all forms of power were eliminated we would be completely free. All three philosophies are deeply informed by this modern redefinition of freedom. Michel Foucault is a really good example of the post-modernism I am referring to – he is a great critic of the Enlightenment and how it ultimately intends to control the individual, but he does this analysis seeking an even more extreme end than classical liberalism, where there is a liberation of what it means to be human in itself; being free from being human for him represents the ultimate liberation.
With civil uprisings like the Gilet Jaunes taking place in countries like France against the liberal order you claim has failed, do you think this form of resistance is the preferred one, considering it looks very similar to the violent revolutions of the 18th century, which were inspired by liberal ideas in the first place?
We live in a strange moment now, when the philosophy which was born out of revolution – classical liberalism in the US and radical liberalism in France – has now become dominant, holding power over all our institutions. The question that arises is: how do you protest against a revolutionary philosophy that has become institutionalized? The irony is that it makes people seeking stability, defence of tradition, culture, and their way of life turn into revolutionaries. So the people who were the original reactionaries are now turning into revolutionaries, and the original revolutionaries are now reactionaries. If people come to the conclusion that there is no way to articulate their position through the normal course of politics, then it will find another form of expression, and historically that has been violence or civil disobedience. I see it as a reflection of a breakdown in politics; it is less subject to my own assessment of whether it is right or wrong, and more a reflection on whether normal politics can be the appropriate avenue for the expression of these discontents. It shouldn’t surprise us this is how this protest is manifesting itself.
In your book you encourage small-scale, local communal relationships based on faith and family as a solution, but how do you see this as feasible in a society that is becoming increasingly globalized and connected with the advent of technology?
In certain ways, that recommendation was my own effort to suggest an alternative way of living to the dominant form of life under liberalism. It was in some senses, referring to living in protest against the liberal order in a more peaceful and less confrontational way, and it would require an intentional way of life which resists the anti-culture of liberalism. But it was not intended as a comprehensive political solution, and I do think there has to be a political solution. When I finish the book I talk about how there has to be a reform in the life of the community which has been lost, but these practices and virtues need to be cultivated before a political solution. The political solution has to come as a reaction to our culture. As for the technological revolution, it has radically changed our place, time and form of relationships towards others, but it can co-exist and maybe even correct the placeless, irresponsible way of life that modern technology has encouraged. I see this solution as a corrective to the thoughtless trajectory of modernity. What was once natural, village life of a small Italian town now has to be lived much more consciously, with a form of hyper-awareness of the faults of modernity.
The development of technology will also likely bring automation, which will lead to less manual labour, larger economies of scale, and therefore an even greater break from localism than the one brought by the industrial revolution. How do you see this process reversing?
It’s hard to predict right now. There is an eternal fantasy of humanity to be liberated from work, but work has always given us meaning and dignity. On the one hand, one might imagine that people would find other ways to find meaning and dignity in their daily lives that doesn’t involve work – hobbies and passions etc., but on the other hand, one imagines a feeling of discontent, usefulness, not contributing to the goods of life. The ushering of the imagined Marxist utopia of the 19th century also brought about profound cultural and political discontent, instability, and violence in the same way the industrial revolution ushered the reaction like the Luddites destroying the machines which had replaced their work. I think it’s difficult to predict what will happen at the moment because it’s a double-edged sword, but what is certain is that we won’t be able to escape the human condition.