Liberalism delivers on all its promises. This is the author’s contention. Neither does he intend to take sides.
He contends that both conservatives and progressives have combined to create all the features of liberal society in which we live, move and have our being. These two positions are not opposites, as is often thought. What was originally conceived as a theory of what human beings are by such as Plato and Francis Bacon,; has, through the mediation of John Stuart Mil, Hobbes and many lesser beings, been made into a reality.
Deneen concisely describes what this reality comprises of. He notes both the continuance of the development of liberalism through the ages as well as the distinctive redefining of its terms in recent times which has produced its current iteration. Liberalism, as expressed in reality, he argues, is the exact representation of its philosophical blueprint. There are many surprises here for the reader. And as an introduction to the subject, the book is a help. There are also some challenging views here as well.
A particular criticism that has been made in the American reviews is that Deneen is complaining about modernity. This assumes he is taking his stand from within one of liberalisms strands, the conservative. Yet his argument could equally be made from the other side, from the progressive strand of liberalism. As Deneen points out, the objection that has arisen to the results of the last presidential election in the USA and the EU referendum in Britain is one that was made from within liberalism by certain of its exponents in the past. (And indeed, all ages are modern to the people who live in them).
At the same time, the author, if he wants to be consistent with the thrust of his argument, cannot describe as ‘deformations’ certain features of the establishment of liberalism as a currently-lived reality. He seems to fall into this as a way of drawing the reader’s attention to what he asserts to be the failure of liberalism. Just as the oak tree is in the acorn, so these features of liberalism as lived, were always present in its philosophical DNA. The animal that looked cute as a puppy has grown to be the species Rottweiler that is always was. Though muzzled and neutered, it is still the same. And it may share this fierce nature with its two rivals that are now defunct. The author reminds the reader of Mill’s utilitarian imperialist proposal for making productive those native peoples who were deemed by him to be inefficient.
It’s possible to feel when reading that Deneen doesn’t always quite fully articulate the observations or conclusions that his text begs. For example, liberal liberty of the self-actualised individual can only be guaranteed by the state, and to which end the state must and has become ever larger and ubiquitous. In the Bible, it is God who liberates and who confers material benefits on people. Now the Almighty God-State does this, and it does it far more thoroughly. (In Britain an MP has described the National Health Service (NHS) as the nearest thing the English have to a religion).
Although liberal liberty claims to enable people to make a free choice, there are examples, certainly from Britain, that a writer could have quoted to indicate that you can only choose what the liberal state allows: this necessarily ubiquitous entity will defend your right to agree with it. He suggests that if there is a post-liberal age it could be totalitarian. While he hints at its growing authoritarianism, he could equally have posited that totalitarianism is liberalisms self-perpetuating end state, rather than its decline. Deneen highlights many contradictions of liberalism in practice, but it sometimes feels as if he doesn’t always fire a full broadside.
Though the author alludes to the reasons for it, he doesn't express any surprise that millions of ordinary people who are neither philosophers nor radicals have so easily and so quickly abandoned their previous habits and affections. It was easy to change their sexual habits. Why?
Deneen concludes his book with a brief selection of thoughts and one important suggestion, considering how liberalism first began, as to what might be possible if there were to be an age that is post-liberal. One suggestion will surprise both liberals and conservatives if they assume the author is writing respectively either against or for their position.
Overall, the book could be enjoyed for the author’s concise formulations of what liberalism is in practice. These are almost Shakespearian in their economy of words. They also take on the character of indictments read out in a courtroom. Or they feel like the sword thrusts of a master swordsman, driving his blade into the deepest sinews of Leviathan.
But will the beast die? Can it die? To quote Sir Roger Scruton writing about one of liberalism’s rival ideologies, and referencing Deneen on page 5, has the software ‘ossified into hardware’? If it can die, what is it to take some of its scrimshaw in our knapsack as we set out, as the author suggests, to look for another place, another belonging, outside the city of destruction?
As the Israelites, liberated from the fleshpots of Egypt, wandered in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land, some hankered after the good things they had been left behind in the land of their former slavery.
Liberalism offers to crown your will with imperial rule. It offers to place the orb of the world in the left hand of your aspirations, and the sceptre of the power of unfettered freedom in the right hand of your appetites. Above all, it offers to lay on your shoulders the mantle of righteousness, that which is woven from the gold and silver threads of equality and diversity.
And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
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