why liberalism failed

by Peter Deneen

If I was to give the book a subtitle, it would a christian lament. But I go ahead of myself.

As with most writers, Deneen assumes that his readers know what liberalism is and therefore doesn’t bother to define it. But this is remedied, slightly, I think, when he says liberalism, as an ideology, was premised on

the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control.

which he notes and I would agree, that in many places, this promise is anything but a mirage. The people have very little control of the political processes and their contribution remains limited to voting and submitting tax returns without so much being able to influence the policies of the government.

On education, he writes that liberalism is killing liberal arts education. That in most universities, the focus is mainly STEM. Here, I will let him speak

[..]The emphasis on the great texts—which were great not only or even because they were old but because they contained hard-won lessons on how humans learn to be free, especially free from the tyranny of their insatiable desires—has been jettisoned in favor of what was once considered “servile education,” an education concerned exclusively with money making and a life of work, and hence reserved for those who did not enjoy the title of “citizen.”

What these great texts, of course we are not told.

Elsewhere, he writes,

Claiming to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships, liberalism has homogenized the world in its image—ironically, often fueled by claims of “multiculturalism” or, today, “diversity.”

and one would ask is his intention be that culture remains static, not changing not adopting to changes in the accumulated knowledge of the race? The claim, and the reason for my subtitle, is that for Deneen, the world has moved away from a Christian ideal and become godless. He seems deeply saddened by the separation of state and church and especially in American schools. Liberalism has made it possible to have abortion, divorce and these, to Deneen are not any signs of progress.

He writes that in a liberalized world

personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.

In a sense, for Deneen, personal choice should be subservient to other considerations, such as what god, the Christian one, wants, who your village elder thinks is the right partner for you and all. It was love at first sight must remain only in the domain of poetry. Maybe, marriage should be based on property considerations.

I disagree with him when he tries to argue that we are without gods not because of the absence of evidence supporting any deities, but because of liberalism. His insistence that the world should be more christian ignores the colourful, I mean, bloody christian heritage.

Where we almost agree, as I wrote in a recent post, is the damage monoculture and excessive use of fertilizers among other things is causing to the soil and leading to starvation in many places, especially in the global south.

Deneen seems to me to be enamored by the work of Wendell Berry who he refers to many times in this particular work. In one place, referring to Berry’s work, he writes

Berry insists that they are justified in maintaining internally derived standards of decency in order to foster and maintain a desired moral ecology. He explicitly defends the communal prerogative to demand that certain books be removed from the educational curriculum and to insist on the introduction of the Bible into the classroom as “the word of God.” He even reflects that “the future of community life in this country may depend on private schools and home schooling.”

In my view, while there could be some merit in this particular work, it seems to me, largely a lament about a Christianity that no longer has control in the public sphere on human affairs. Though I also think he writes mainly for an American audience and as such to a person so removed from that setting, some of what he writes has no rhyme.

I wouldn’t consider it a must read. I think it fails to deliver on its promise; to tell us why liberalism has failed. In another place, it can be used a sermon.



About makagutu

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

35 thoughts on “why liberalism failed

  1. The terminology can be confusing to a lot of people who are not well read in the subject matter. I would make the following distinctions:

    Liberalism: the concepts of The Enlightenment philosophers – such as John Locke – which stress the importance of individual rights, democracy, the rule of law, and secularism, in contrast to oppressive authoritarianism and arbitrary authority.
    Libertarianism the ideas epitomized by 20th century writer Ayn Rand which stress individualism and unemcumbered freedom to the point of opposition against governmental authority.
    Neoliberalism the advocacy for unrestrained (laissez-faire) capitalism which became official public policy during the Reagan-Thatcher era in response to the prevailing Keynesian economic period following World War II.

    The failures:

    The heyday of liberalism occurred over a span of two centuries in which it presented a desirable alternative to monarchy, dictatorship, and other autocratic forms. During this time, human civilization achieved its greatest heights. However, as the world became more populous, more complex, and fraught with existential crises (e.g. nuclear war, climate change, etc.), liberal governance couldn’t effectively adapt. Now, it is being systematically replaced by the very authoritarianism it had once superseded.

    Libertarianism never evolved into an official construct and remains mere political philosophy because its basic premise of society without government is incongruent with both human nature and social complexity.

    Neoliberalism has been widely successful if measured strictly by how extensively it is practiced. However, this success has triggered unprecedented inequalities of wealth and status which are extremely destabilizing to social organization. A major reason why authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide is the social unrest caused by these inequalities.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Superb summation! Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      Excellent summary, Bob.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Ron says:

      “Libertarianism the ideas epitomized by 20th century writer Ayn Rand which stress individualism and unemcumbered freedom to the point of opposition against governmental authority.”

      This is incorrect. Ayn Rand despised Libertarians

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s correct. Libertarians in America revere Ayn Rand, including former congressman Ron Paul who named his son “Rand” in honor of her. Rand, BTW, is now a U.S. Senator.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ron says:

          Libertarians might well revere her, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. I’d advise you to read her writings. She had zero kind words for Libertarians.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I have read her works. But, you’re missing the point. My initial comment addressed libertarian philosophy which Ayn Rand’s writings had a huge impact on. Her personal feelings on that movement are irrelevant. She’s dead. Libertarianism isn’t.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ron says:

              I’m not contesting that Libertarians were influenced by Ayn Rand’s writings. I’m arguing that’s it a gross mischaracterization to state she epitomized ideas like “unemcumbered freedom to the point of opposition against governmental authority” given she explicitly stated that without government, an anarcho capitilist system would devolve into tribal warfare (akin to the situation in Somalia) and a limited form of government was therefore necessary to regulate human affairs, protect against foreign invaders and control the criminal elements of society.

              Liked by 2 people

              • You’ve twisted my words. I wrote that Rand’s writings stressed “individualism and unemcumbered freedom to the point of opposition against governmental authority,” and this is true. She opposed statism including normative forms such as democratic socialism, and supported laissez-faire capitalism (a.k.a. neoliberalism) which she referred to as “radical for capitalism.” It was libertarianism, not Rand herself, which I described as advocating for “society without government.”

                The fact that we are both splitting hairs here is precisely the reason why Ayn Rand and libertarianism will be forever linked. I find it hypocritical that Rand would support minarchism (i.e. minimal statism) while opposing anarcho-capitalism (i.e. elimination of the state) since the latter is a natural progression of her philosophy.


  2. basenjibrian says:

    Sounds like the critiques on Amazon were spot on. Another reactionary Catholic “in-tuh-lekshul” like Saint Thomas Aquinas pining for the days when THEY were most assuredly in charge.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. john zande says:

    Liberalism has made it possible to have abortion, divorce and these, to Deneen are not any signs of progress.

    Naturally, because women dying in childbirth, or being trapped in poverty, or remaining voiceless are such positive things.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Eric Alagan says:

    … and while the self-appointed intellectuals poked their fingers in the air and made grand speeches and others of their ilk wrote thick books dissecting an idea – China quietly took over the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. shelldigger says:

    Sounds like a bunch of word salad from a wannabe Quaker and member of the KKK to me.

    Or as we know them in the south, “good x-ians.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. renudepride says:

    I was enjoying reading of his philosophy until he began to bring belief systems into the equation and then I stopped reading. I’ve had quite enough of religion for one weekend. Otherwise, an interesting post. At least now I know to avoid his writings for the remainder of my natural life! Naked hugs, my Kenyan brother!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Swarn Gill says:

    Again, I would disagree that the university focus of STEM is one that is a result of liberalism. Us liberal professors are actually not for this at all. It creates divisions at university as most science professor acknowledge the value of humanities to being a well-rounded human being. It creates division in how resources are allocated and that is not a good thing either. For me the focus on STEM is purely due to the politics of capitalism…which isn’t directly connected liberalism, and in this country is mostly related to conservative politics. Schools are supposed to be profitable, we are supposed to churn out students that have marketable skills in the more profitable area of science and technology, so that we too can be rich enough to spend money to become consumers ourselves. And given that tuition costs are hardly subsidized at all, you almost have to go into STEM to make all the money back you spent on tuition. It’s a vicious circle. Professors go after STEM grants because that’s where most of the money is, because public universities have less capital to support university programs. So I don’t see how liberalism applies here once again.

    I don’t know…while there are certainly critiques to be had about liberalism, this guy seems to have some fundamental flaws in his reasoning that makes me take his arguments less seriously. Because his belief in God seems to be such a large part of how he thinks the universe works that all arguments seem to be bent towards justifying his belief in God rather than an honest critique.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. chapter18 says:

    Homogeneity of culture, fuelled by technology and social media, is the very reason for the resurgence of cultural excluvism, a need to seek and preserve individual identity. Citizens seem to be okay with authoritarianism in governance if that helps in safeguarding nation and group identities.


  9. dolphinwrite says:

    There are those who believe they have the answers for everyone, but don’t live by faith. I’ve always been one who believe encouraging responsibility and understanding, so our youth see things for themselves, results in better answers through discussions and debates. There are those who do not have faith, do not believe in the individual, so cannot understand and see clearly, muddled in their own thinking. Very limited. No hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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