Is liberalism anti-culture?


Deneen argues that it is. That for the liberal, cultural constraints over the individual are obstacles to the pursuit of happiness and only those restraints imposed by the liberal( expansive state) are acceptable. He argues, legitimate limits upon liberty can arise only from the authority of the consent-based liberal state. In essence, the goal of the liberal project is to create a homogeneous populace all over the world, a world devoid of culture.

He argues further, and I agree in part, that a healthy culture is akin to healthy agriculture which industrialized agriculture is not as its aims is to overcome natural limits through short-term solutions whose consequences will be left for future generations. These solutions, he lists, petroleum based fertilizers, genetically engineered crops that encourage increased use of herbicides and pesticides whose genetic lines cannot be contained or predicted; widespread use of plant monoculture that displace local varieties and practices etc. He writes, and most would agree, that the above practices eliminate existing farming cultures.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

40 thoughts on “Is liberalism anti-culture?

  1. jim- says:

    I would offer that liberalism and conservatism both eventually lead to the same result using different tactics. While liberalism seeks to put out every social fire (the pesticides) conservatism creates social fires and wants to extinguish opposition through faith based morality, thus creating their own monochrome culture.
    A major problem with religion is in signing up for a system that monitors your every move, while demanding religious autonomy, then liberalism seeks to cure social ills by legislating everything. Funny thing, imo, the conservatives in their desire to be monitored by god, are the very ones that need liberal governing, and the liberals who want more laws, don’t really need them. It’s amusing…sort of. And here I am stuck in the middle.

    Liked by 5 people

    • makagutu says:

      You are right and this will be the subject of the next post.
      Liberalism and conservatism work towards the same ends, while appearing to be diametrically opposed to each other

      Liked by 3 people

    • Excellent points and well said.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Swarn Gill says:

      liberalism seeks to cure social ills by legislating everything

      I don’t see this as part of liberalism really though. Because when you think about it, conservatives also seek to legislate everything as well, just in different legislation. The fact that we have to pass things like child protection acts, or civil rights acts, or use Roe v. Wade as precedent to give women rights over their bodies is an attempt to undo legislation or just enforce that some recognition of human rights for all people. I mean is trying to say end slavery, or end segregation putting out a social fire? If so then I can’t say that the practice is bad. Maybe there are some in which we get disproportionately concerned about where a conservative approach is more warranted. Certainly we could be better balanced. I think that liberalism has to recognize the value of healthy conservatism in society and I think in theory it does, but some things don’t work well in practice, and also, at least in the U.S. we don’t have healthy conservatism.

      I guess the question I might ask is…how important is cultural differences to society? I think culture is a broad word though and includes many aspects of a people from language, to religion, and other traditional practices. I mean let’s say we live in some liberal dream world, would that prevent somebody in Australia from wanting to play the didgeridoo? Would that prevent Germans from wearing lederhosen? It’s not completely clear to me though that liberalism seeks to erase these differences, in fact I would argue that liberalism tends to celebrate these differences. However there are certain aspects of culture that liberalism does act to end. I think there are some that are quite harmful and I don’t feel bad saying that things like female circumcision, or having women jump into graves with their husband are things that are really worth preserving.

      There are good things which I think liberalism might erase too. Different cultures often have different approaches to problem solving and I think those are the things we should worry about erasing. I don’t know that we need to however as I don’t see homogenization being endemic to liberalization, I think the its the layering of eurocentrism or american exceptionalism that causes harm. Why should we ignore eastern philosophy? Why should we ignore the value Sikhs place on communal living, etc. There is value to be found all over and I think cultural centric views of some liberal nations are quite illiberal and cause for concern.

      Liked by 4 people

      • jim- says:

        I see your point, and I agree mostly. I probably should’ve pointed to the extremes of both parties, which is what we see today. I like the idea of conservative governing with less intrusion of personal lives, but the abusers of the system, the corporations and super wealthy take advantage of the system to the detriment of regular people that would prefer a simpler life.
        The growth of liberal government (both parties) is unsustainable. 17% of US workers are government employees and rising. That’s a huge chunk of the GDP that produces nothing but regulation and more ticket takers. Maybe I’m just weird here on the mountain, but I really don’t want any services they offer.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Swarn Gill says:

          I would agree that waste is bad, but I think both parties have it. I mean if people are using the services and it’s helping people then I don’t mind paying for it. If we start looking at whether private industry are better at serving the people then I think that becomes an economic argument rather than a liberal vs. conservative argument. Or perhaps a better way to say it is, that commonly when we think about conservatism we think about socially conservative ideas which a liberal tends to be against, and when people oppose liberalism it’s often associated with wasteful government spending at least by more moderate conservatives. I have no problem with social liberalism and fiscal conservatism at least for certain aspects of society. I know the libertarian party tried to fill that role and in general I don’t think it’s a bad idea with a few tweaks, but at least in this country conservatism is so tied to religious morals and there was a time when they were moving away from that…which is why we don’t have healthy conservatism in the U.S.

          I guess all I’m saying though is that I don’t think liberalism is in contradiction to the ideas of small government. I mean if everybody was just nice to each other and worked together to help people in poverty we probably wouldn’t need much government at all. The biggest thing we would need government for is transportation, education, health care, and oversight to prevent runaway free market that might exploit workers and/or the environment.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jim- says:

            I like. Thanks Swarn.

            Liked by 1 person

          • makagutu says:

            Liberalism is in contradiction to small government. In fact, I think, it is because of it that the sphere of the state keeps expanding

            Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            I’ll comment to your other comments later when I have more time, but the common element here perhaps is that words like liberalism, progress, culture, conservatism are so broad that everybody seems to have their own definition. But if I were to go to the Wikipedia page on liberalism there seems nothing inherent in the philosophy that advocates for large government. All it states is that the government shouldn’t stand in the way of certain inalienable human rights. I think the case could easily made that when the government bloat begins to drain the economy or leads to great inefficiency in helping the people it’s trying to help, this would be illiberal. Again, I certainly agree that in practice it has lead to government expansion especially as it attempts to expand civil rights to all people of a nation and address poverty through a welfare state. But is this not a response to addressing problems that were not being solved through other systems? I mean when I look at the United States both parties keep growing the government but this seems not because of liberalism but rather because of the corruption in politics which has led us more to an oligarchy rather than a democracy. I guess the correlation between the aims of liberalism and the size of government aren’t clear to me.

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          • makagutu says:

            Deneen’s argument on this is that as the guarantor or protector of said rights, the sphere of government necessarily grows. And that it’s an outcome of liberal democracy that it is more of an oligarchy than a democracy. Further, pointing to his distrust for democracy, he lists many past thinkers, starting with Plato, who raised questions on democracy and whether the masses can be counted upon to act rationally.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            I don’t completely disagree with that, but I would still argue that if everybody adopted a healthy liberal attitude there would be no need to protect against said rights. Perhaps it’s naive to think that we could ever get to that point which is why I said liberalism is perhaps naive in that respect. Also in relation to my last post, perhaps once the government grows as a protector of those rights once everybody acknowledges those rights the government should then shrink in response. This is rarely done, but I don’t know that this is a fault of liberalism but more libertarianism which in my mind is different. Russia is an oligarchy with very little chance to spread it’s liberal wings after the fall of communism.

            The critiques of democracy are definitely valid. Again, I don’t know what the other options are though that would work better? Churchill is credited with saying that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms of government (although I’ve read Churchill was quoting someone else) and so I think there might be some truth of this. Power and money reeks havoc in all forms of government it seems…not sure what a perfect solution might look like.

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          • makagutu says:

            I am not sure what a good alternative might be but I think local action is a good place to start. Allowing for more robust public participation in all issues that concern them, including that one big commercial venture, war.

            Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          Deneen argues there is no way the GOP would propose to actualise their claim of small government. It will not work and for the liberal, the government is seen as a protector of rights so the government will keep expanding and yes it is unsustainable

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      • makagutu says:

        For Deneen, the liberal project is about individual autonomy and that any cultural practice that ain’t agreed on is to be eschewed. I don’t think he gives example of any but looking at the examples you give, for example wearing lederhosen, I would say, such are things that wouldn’t be missed if they were left to die off. I think he refers to cultural norms that have a bearing on societal relationships

        Liked by 1 person

        • Swarn Gill says:

          So would female circumcision be a cultural norm that has bearing on societal relationships? Is this the type of diversity he is worried about losing? I guess I don’t find the farming analogy all that helpful in that diversity in plant agriculture is benign in intention, where as cultural norms that have a bearing on societal relationships are not all benign and can cause oppression and suffering.

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          • makagutu says:

            To Deneen, I think he would say yes to the first question. He argues such practices have been developed over time & is part of the society’s way of doing things. That such practices perform, in his view, important functions in the society.

            I agree with his argument on farming, though. I am aware that others might argue that mechanised farming & monoculture has led to overproduction of food & thus population growth and large markets but amidst all this, there is starvation in many parts of the world especially Africa, parts of Asia. So how do we justify so much hunger in a world with so much food?

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          • Swarn Gill says:

            Oh I don’t disagree that diversity in plants for farming is important, just that I didn’t think it was as great of an analogy to cultural diversity given the wide range of practices of different cultures that cause a range of benefit and harm.

            I would definitely agree that, as he defines culture, that such practices always developed out of a need of some sort, but the question remains whether or not that need still exists. I mean clearly at one point eating pork was probably a bad idea. They carry lots of disease, they also don’t sweat and require water which is not the greatest of animals to keep in an arid climate. But are there still benefits to that practice? Maybe so, but at least not for the reasons that were once important as we can argue about the value of meat eating vs a plant based diet. But I certainly don’t advocate banning religions or religious practice, or forcing people to eat pork through any sort of legislative process and I don’t think liberalism as a philosophy promotes that either. Now with something like female circumcision I am strongly against that, but I don’t even know if legislation is best way to deal with that practice, especially in a country where it already exists and you want to get rid of it. I think there is a difference if you immigrate to a country where it is not permitted and you want to continue to practice it. In the end I think education is far more effective in the long run than alienating people in your population through legislation. But at the extreme I think there are cultural practices that need to be stopped just from a human right perspective and maybe female circumcision is one of them. Those who choose to pray for their children over get them medical attention is another one, although I don’t know that this is widespread anywhere except perhaps in places where people don’t have access to doctors. I don’t know.

            Interesting stuff.

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          • makagutu says:

            He argues, iirc, that education, mass public education is one of liberalism ways of reducing the grasp of culture. He has snide remarks about non religious people. It is as if, to him, people are irreligious not because of a paucity of evidence of any deities but as a result of the liberal project and this was to me one of the biggest contentions with his work

            Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            Yeah he sounds like he’s also making the argument that public education is a liberal tool for turning people against “good, wholesome values, and against God”. An argument used in this country a lot by evangelical. As I said on Jim’s post yesterday, it wasn’t really education or liberalism that led me away from religion, it was real life experience that had me questioning, although I suppose one could argue that education is what helped me get better answers as to what is really going on.

            I can’t speak about other education systems, but I never felt like my public education in Canada made me devalue other cultures. Quite the opposite really. Canada values multi-culturalism. I don’t deny that my parents (especially my dads) passion for learning and appreciating other cultures helped though. I also remember learning that our own “western culture” was fraught with many flaws those as well. So I didn’t feel like any particular culture was devalued anymore than our own. I don’t know this seems like a claim that would be hard to prove. I would agree that in general the mass public education system, at least at it’s root was an idea promoted by British colonialists, and thus I’ve no doubt there is cultural bias.

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          • makagutu says:

            You would be surprised to learn that in Deneen’s view, the claims of multiculturalism is anti-culture.
            But there is a sense in which mass education and especially if you were to look at it from this side of the globe, that it subtly erodes culture. I have written elsewhere that culture is adaptive but as Fanon wrote years ago, the educated African is alienated from his people and is also not welcome among the white people, so that they remain almost in a form of suspense finding nowhere to fit.
            What the right response to this, I don’t know.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            That’s interesting and it makes sense why and educated African would feel that way. I guess I just feel that there are multiple things going on here, and some of it is just more fundamental than even a particular ideology. In my own life I have noticed that my education has alienated my from family members who are less educated. We clash at times too, because there is me showing me educated self and making people feel stupid. There are times perhaps when I’ve been too harsh, but most of the time I’m not, but that doesn’t change how they feel. I think education simply opens up a much bigger world, and it doesn’t always leave a world behind…but I think for others that smaller world is all they have, and there is just some natural feelings of alienation that happen. You might still enjoy your cultural traditions, but you still don’t have as much in common. I don’t know.

            And yes I would be surprised to learn that multiculturalism is anti-culture. Although I guess I can understand how one might see being taught to appreciate cultures is very different from living them. But what choice do any of us have to but to learn about other cultures in this way as we only have one life and only grow up generally in one culture.

            I guess in the end, for me, the culture as he defines it isn’t all that important in comparison to the kind of stuff that you described before as “could be left behind”. The food, the clothing, the art, etc. I don’t know I still find the history interesting and really understanding where cultural practices come from. I think it’s important. I honestly would not really have that appreciation isn’t wasn’t for my education.

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          • Swarn Gill says:

            I would also argue that if anything is trying to turn people into a mono-culture, it’s religion, not liberalism.

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          • makagutu says:

            Or maybe both.
            One through market forces making us all consumerist and waiting for the next release of hardware and the other trying to create true believers but I could be wrong

            Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            I think that is the mixture of a certain political system and economic system though. I think it’s quite possible to have democracy in a completely socialist society that doesn’t emphasize consumerism and I would say that such a society could still be quite liberal. But I also could be wrong! lol

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  2. Interesting theories. Personally I think we’ve got it all wrong and the labels liberal and conservative are merely rationalisations of much simpler animal strategies.
    If you put “conservative” ideology onto a grid, or even transform it into equations – all roads lead to a survival strategy which entails reproduction (at any expense) and various forms of social Darwinism.
    Liberal theories on a grid seem to mostly be concerned with quality of life instead of the survival of the “strongest” within our species.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Swarn Gill says:

      I’ve had similar thoughts here Pink. I tend to reduce the two to safety vs. risk.
      Which is along the lines of your last sentence. Conservatism is for keeping you alive, but liberalism is to help you move forward and thrive and for that you have to take risks.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, safety vs. risk definitely makes sense as a general rule. Especially in a macro-sense, as in *of the pack*. I think that’s why so many explanations and justifications of behaviours don’t quite add up (i.e. no to abortion and yes to death penalty.)

        Liked by 3 people

      • makagutu says:

        This is to put it in a nutshell. The liberal project is about progress, at all costs. And when there is none, to be convinced consumerism is a solution

        Liked by 1 person

        • Swarn Gill says:

          Sorry there will be a lot of repetition in these responses. lol

          I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the “progress at all costs” but what I would say that it depends by what means by progress.

          There are several examples I could use here, but one that comes most quickly to mind is the advice a psychologist might give to someone who experiences some traumatic event. It could be that the advice for that person is to have some sort of stability in their life for a time. Get back into routine, try not to deal with too many changes. Progress at times requires patience. It requires no change at all, but to simply let things play out. Sometimes things are getting better and forcing the issue sometimes makes things work. Again if we look at safety vs risk, the reality is for any one individual you can’t take risks all the time. This is usually a losing proposition unless you are especially gifted or especially fortunate. As a middle class person I would be wise not to invest in the stock market until I built up enough savings such that I can afford to take a risk, and still have enough to remain stable should that risk prove costly. It doesn’t seem surprising to me that society must also behave like this, where at times we must push but at other times we must simply look around and make sure that everybody is okay with the new status quo. In the areas where I’d say I’m progressive are in areas where the trend is getting worse, or even if it is getting better it’s a pace where a great deal of suffering is or will occur if things aren’t pushed at a faster pace.

          Perhaps the biggest failing of liberalism (and perhaps why it seems contradictory) is that it can be rather naive in thinking that it can’t be carried to extremes or that it can’t be corrupted. I don’t see that as the fault of the ideology but as Pink says here it rather a way to look at a solution to survival from a different angle. And I guess I’d wonder what the author’s new ideology as a replacement for liberalism as a mode to improving the quality of human lives?

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          • makagutu says:

            As a way forward, the author writes that we must acknowledge the good that liberalism has made possible, that we should forget about going to some golden past but to consider local actions that take cognizance of among other things the cost to the environment of consumerism, overproduction among other things

            Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      I think you are right. And I think they all converge at the dominance of the market

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “That for the liberal, cultural constraints over the individual are obstacles to the pursuit of happiness and only those restraints imposed by the liberal( expansive state) are acceptable.” That’s a hell of a strawman argument. I’m not aware of any liberal who says or thinks this, and I see it as an argument of a petty anarchist who wants to do what ever he wants to, no matter how it harms others.

    since it starts out with a baseless claim, the argument that liberal culture is comparable to a agricultural monoculture fails badly. The author seems to be the toxic weed that wants free reign to do what it wants, ignoring any restrictions on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. renudepride says:

    My Kenyan brother, excellent topic and a very interesting discussion you’ve generated here. Naked hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

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