A victim of its own success

A victim of its own success

If liberalism is in trouble nowadays, it’s not because it’s failed but because it’s succeeded. That, at any rate is the theory of US academic Patrick Deneen, whose latest book, Why Liberalism Failed, has been making ripples since it was published early this year and who spoke last week in Dublin’s Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason.

“This latest book is the culmination of about a decade of thinking about liberalism as a political regime, which means more than merely a form of political organisation and a distribution of offices but as a kind of way of life, shaping the whole social – in addition to political – order,” Prof. Deneen tells The Irish Catholic.

Prof. Deneen says that the attention that surrounded the book when it was published in January was surprising to him at some level, “but I guess given what we’re seeing happening across the US and Europe today, maybe not as surprising as one would have initially thought”.

Originally from Connecticut, Prof. Deneen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and has taught in academia for 23 years all told, including stints at Princeton and Georgetown.

“My work has been kind of at the intersection of political philosophy and moral philosophy, with interest in theology and literature,” he says, adding that in the 1980s he spent a year as a student in Dublin’s Trinity College, studying English and some Irish literature.


The convergence of political and moral philosophy has seen him following in the footsteps of such ancient writers as Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, as well as the 19th-Century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America.

It is, he says, “the kind of regime analysis that asks what is the logic, the internal logic, of a political regime”, adding that the themes of his book entail mapping out “how the crisis of modern liberalism is not in spite of liberalism but because in some ways of its very successes and becoming fully itself”.

In this it sounds not unlike the work of such scholars as the English philosopher Phillip Blond, whose Red Tory identified Britain’s main political parties as two sides of the same coin, tending in one case to social liberalism, in another to economic liberalism, and in both towards a individualism that weakens community. Similarly, it seems to echo or at least rhyme with the ideas of American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has analysed how wealthy and educated western societies’ ethics of sanctity and community have been displaced by an ‘ethic of autonomy’.

“That’s fair-ish,” says Prof. Deneen. “But it’s not only in some ways the ethic of autonomy. It’s what’s needed to create human beings who experience autonomy, so it’s the actual replacement – and I don’t mean to romanticise anything from the past – of forms of solidarity with structures that reify autonomy.”

Liberalism’s success, he observes, has entailed its capacity to liberate people from forms of reliance and cooperation, replacing these with impersonal mechanisms like ‘the market’ and ‘the state’.

“And so it’s not simply an ethics of autonomy, it’s the systemic realisation of a kind of autonomy that I think ultimately undermines the capacity to be a sort of self-governing civic and political order but also a functioning social order in a lot of ways,” he says, with today’s political and social crises stemming from this root.

“We tend to account and attribute the gains as positive aspects without seeing those kinds of deleterious consequences as following from the very sources of those gains,” he adds, noting that there is plenty of data that points to growing forms of autonomy, which should be seen as pluses to a liberal mind, but also a corresponding decline in social bonds and relationships as highlighted in the work of Robert Putnam, most famously in his book Bowling Alone which mapped out a breakdown of associational life over recent decades.

Declines in religious association and practice, family breakdown, and the rise of the so-called ‘nones’ – those with no religious affiliation – all point to this too, he says.

“In the book I argue that these kind of statistics are an indication of what I call an anti-culture – that what liberalism in many ways aims to do is not merely liberate the individual from the shackles of an overweening political power,” he says, but that the emphasis on autonomy seeps into every aspect of life.

This has two obvious effects, he argues.

“First of all it requires the expansion of the legal realm so that the liberation of the self actually entails the strengthening of the central state,” he says. “In the United States we tend to think of these things as opposites, that our conservatives are individualists and our liberals are more statist, but in fact these two phenomena sort of reinforce each other because of the kind of strengthening of this anti-culture and the loosening of the capacity of society to order a kind of way of life that doesn’t require now a kind of legal regime.”

Secondly, he says, the omnipresence of a liberal mindset creates the conditions for a new kind of aristocracy that in the US is typically seen as a meritocracy.

“I’ve taught at schools that create this meritocracy and I would say its key feature is to prepare people to live in the anti-culture, in other words a place without signposts and sort of ways of understanding how we function in this world of new-found liberation,” he says.

“There are some people who do that and are able to negotiate that very well, and are prepared to do that, and then there are others who aren’t prepared to do that very well. I think in part this explains the collapse in our working class – the inability to form families, to have stable social lives, that you see so much characteristic of what has given rise to the phenomenon of Trump and the kind of populist resurgence in the United States today.”

The paradox of this is that as the buffers between individual and state are gradually eroded or abandoned, there is simultaneously an experience of liberation and a felt sense of a loss of control, with a risk of a backlash driven by the fear that as liberated selves we no longer control the institutions that are source and protectors of our liberation.

“And I think to the extent that this book is touching on a lot of anxieties today, I think it’s the sense that liberalism has been generating the sources of its own crisis. It’s not external,” Prof. Deneen says, adding: “I think it’s generated from internal dynamics, and the question right now is is it self-corrective? Does  liberalism have the capacity to be self-correcting, in  in ways that may require to be less liberal, if I can put it that way?”


The obvious question, then, is what can be done about this, and Prof. Deneen admits that his book’s conclusions have left a lot of people unsatisfied, since people understandably want answers more systemic than a call for families and communities to try to live differently.

“At the same time I’m wary of calling for some kind of revolutionary overthrow or overturning of a political order, knowing that’s rarely a happy experience,” he says, adding that recent political developments may nonetheless be providing an opportunity for a serious rethink of how our political structures may need to be less overarching and more inclined towards what Catholic social teaching describes as subsidiarity.

“If those who are now in charge of the liberal order don’t want to be swamped and in some ways overturned, they’re going to have to make some concessions to what I would think of as an understanding of the human person that is not defined by 19th-Century social contract theory as the autonomous liberated self,” he says.

Describing American politics nowadays as “a source of great pain and anxiety”, he nonetheless says that it is providing important feedback to those in academia.

“For  those who are kind of in my class at the universities, the powerful cultural centres, what I think they’re coming to realise is that they’re increasingly losing the politics, because the people are not with those who are in the leadership positions, and how you begin to close that gap is going to require I think some rethinking of the direction of contemporary liberalism,” he says.

While an understanding of liberalism that sees it as about “lifting obstacles to the fulfilment of the individual human” might well be contributing to contemporary social fragmentation and alienation, an obvious question is whether less theoretical factors might be at work instead – such things as mechanisation, urbanisation, potentially robotisation.

“We have an economy where it’s no longer clear that the economy is actually functioning for the good of human beings anymore,” Prof. Deneen concedes. “It has its own logic – you can understand that logic and I can explain that logic, and I can explain why automation makes a lot of sense, but at some level you ask what is this economy for, what is it doing? Is it for human beings? Is it helping human beings? At some level as consumers, yes, but as full-blown human beings for whom there’s a certain dignity in work, one might have a question.”

Stakeholder capitalist models, as are common in Germany and the Netherlands and as worked to at least create Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy in the 1990s, do point to different ways of doing things, however, and it could be possible to go further to head off threats that would worsen a sense of alienation, Prof. Deneen suggests.

“If you’re going to have some form of a market order, that’s able to take into account these kinds of considerations of the common good or the communitarian, you have to begin by rejecting the idea that any of these processes are inevitable. They’re inevitable if you accept the first premises of the liberal order – then they’re inevitable!”

Although they may seem inevitable, he says, they shouldn’t be seen as such.

“They’re not inevitable if we believe in human freedom and the capacity of human beings to order their society according to different commitments and different conceptions of the good. So I for one would say we should be thinking of the economic order as part of a broad order of the common good,” he says, pointing out that this is certainly not how things should be thought of in a classic liberal way with its reliance on the market’s ‘invisible hand’ and so forth.

Universities have a key part to play in how we rethink society, Prof. Deneen ventures, noting how his own university is a Catholic institution that prides itself on trying to ensure financial burdens don’t become an obstacle for those who are not in a position to pay for their college education. He’s long thought, however, that a different approach might be even better.

“Why don’t we as an institution, rather than trying to incentivise people to come in by decreasing their debt load or eliminating a potential debt load at the outset of their education, consider instead what it is they’ll become, what it is they’re going to do with their degree?”


Students set for careers on Wall Street and in consulting will be in a position to pay off debts quickly, but those who want to be teachers, priests, social workers, and others who society does not financially reward don’t have that option, and students may indeed be dissuaded from such vocational paths because of educational debts.

A wealthy Catholic institution like Notre Dame ought to be able to financially help people based not merely on their background, but on where they want to go, and how their futures might serve the common good, he says,

“At least at a Catholic university we should have a high regard for these positions. Couldn’t we blaze a very different path than our secular peers? Couldn’t we offer a different way of thinking about vocation than is kind of the norm today? Institutions like ours could really begin to articulate a very different way of thinking than just saying we’re going to subject ourselves to these market forces, to these inevitable kinds of forces,” he says.

“These are only inevitable to the extent that we accept their first premises and if we present alternative premises, maybe we could begin to offer an alternative to a world that very much needs an alternative way of thinking and understanding.”


The Catholic underpinnings of Prof. Deneen’s thinking are something he’s not shy about, and he expresses a hope that his book will appeal to future generations of students in Catholic institutions in America and elsewhere. He adds that looking at how Irish society is changing, “I think there will be a growing interest in a much more intellectual Catholic faith, and one that’s going to require some pretty powerful institutions, including in education and possibly a higher education institution.”

“I think I can be frank that while this book is written from the perspective of political theory and doesn’t articulate a theological vision that I come at this very much from a Catholic perspective, which is to say that I think what liberalism needs is a healthy dose of Catholic social teaching and Catholic understanding of the human person,” he says.

In this, he says, he is “in pretty substantial agreement” with his colleague Brad Gregory, author of  The Unintended Reformation and who was interviewed about this in last year’s ‘Reformation 500’ issue of The Irish Catholic, who has argued that “many of the kind of results we see today are in many ways logical outcomes of really core commitments of Protestantism”.

Not, he stresses, that liberalism’s achievements should be denied.

“By its own accounting there have been gains. The problem is that not only does it generate these costs, but I think every system has a difficult time being an accountant about its costs, seeing them for what they are,” he says.

“At the end of the day,” he concludes, “my argument isn’t that we have to go back to 1950 or 1980 or whatever. It’s not about going back – I don’t buy that argument and too many conservatives are nostalgists and write out the part of the history they don’t like.”

Rather, he says: “It is a recognition that unless we’re conscious about counteracting these forces and trajectories and inevitable outcomes, and thinking about and imagining alternative models, then I do think we’re in a condition where things could go very badly, either to a kind of illiberal liberalism, which I think we’re seeing around the world, or an illiberal anti-liberalism, which is I think also a very real prospect in some places around the globe.”