The end of individualism?
In the early nineties, political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the “End of History” was upon us-that western liberal democracy was the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution…the final form of human government.” The Berlin Wall had just fallen-communism, and fascism before it, defeated. The liberal order based on the idea of choice-making, rights-bearing individuals seeking their own conceptions of the good was here to stay.
Is it the beginning of the end of liberalism?
But the past few decades have seen the post-1989 liberal consensus of opening everything up-from markets to morality-stirred, if not significantly shaken. Trump’s rise and Britain’s exit are signs of a broader discontent with the way things are, people have had enough of feeling powerless. There are now even murmurings of Cold War 2.0. Is it the beginning of the end of liberalism?
Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, Patrick Deneen thinks so, and outlines why in his recently-released and provocatively-titled book, “Why Liberalism Failed.” The contradictions of liberalism have taken hold, he claims, and tinkering at the edges won’t do. The whole project is beyond redemption.
Columnist David Brooks summarises these contradictions well: “liberal democracy has betrayed its promises. It was supposed to foster equality, but it has led to great inequality and a new aristocracy. It was supposed to give average people control over government, but average people feel alienated from government. It was supposed to foster liberty, but it creates a degraded popular culture in which consumers become slave to their appetites.”
We have become alienated… from one another, our past, and our place.
The story goes that the rise of the individual precipitated the fall of the family, the neighbour, the community-the traditional virtue-making institutions. Cultures, defined as “a set of generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular settings,” have been weakened, with Deneen going so far as to call liberalism “anticulture.” We have become alienated, he says, from one another, our past, and our place. As these bonds deteriorate, ever-growing markets to meet our desires and burgeoning governments to guarantee our rights emerge in their place. Liberalism has therefore “drawn down” on its inheritance-it has destroyed the conditions which enabled it to flourish; and doesn’t have the means to recreate it.
And there’s no easy fix. Rather than replacing one flawed ideology with another, Deneen recommends we focus on “developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life” where “a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge.” While this DIY approach is a good and necessary corrective, it doesn’t have the teeth to solve national and global political problems we face today.
Liberalism underpins policy on both the left and right-it’s the social and political air we breathe.
While Deneen’s proposed solution doesn’t go far enough, I think his diagnosis of the problem should open our eyes. Liberalism underpins policy on both the left and right-it’s the social and political air we breathe. It has in many senses delivered the goods-the relative peace and prosperity of the modern period has been astounding-but we can’t continue to ignore the costs.