Patrick Deneen’s much-awaited book Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2017) is a timely contribution that, in the wake of the Trump presidency, vehemently confirms the epochal crisis of political liberalism, the last standing modern ideology after the demise of state communism and short-lived fascist mass movements of the twentieth century. It is difficult to distinguish whether liberalism is still a viable horizon capable of giving shape to citizenship or if on the contrary, it endures as a residual form deprived of democratic legitimacy and popular sovereignty . In fact, contemporary liberalism seems incapable of attending to social demands that would allow for self-renewal. In a slow course of self-abdication, which Carl Schmitt predicted during the Weimar Republic, liberalism has triumphed along the lines of a logical administration of identity and difference through depolitization that has mutated as a global war in the name of ‘Humanity’ . The catastrophic prospect of liberalism is far from being a schmittian alimony of political exceptionalism. In fact, Mark Lilla in his recent The Once and Future Liberal (2017) claims, quite surprisingly, that the “liberal pedagogy of our time is actually a depolitizing force” . What is at stake at the threshold of liberal politics is the irreducible gap between idealia and realia that stages a moment where old principles wane, no longer accounting for the material needs in our contemporary societies .
Deneen confronts the foundation of its idealia. Deneen’s hypothesis on the failure of liberalism does not follow either the track of betrayal or the path of abdication. Rather, Deneen claims that liberalism has failed precisely because it has remained “true to itself” (Deneen 30). In other words, liberalism has triumphed in its own failure, crusading towards liberation as a philosophy of history, while administrating and containing every exception as integral to its own governmentality. If modern liberalism throughout the nineteenth century (an expression of the Enlightenment revolutionary ethos) provided a political referent for self-government, the grounds for the rule of law, and the exercise of liberty against divine absolute powers (the medieval theology of the potentia absoluta dei); contemporary liberalism has found consolidation as a planetary homogeneous state that reintroduces a new absolutism that interrupts modern man’s self-affirmation against divine contingencies . Since its genesis, liberalism was held by two main anthropological assumptions: individualism as the kernel for the foundation of negative liberty and the radical separation of the human from nature, both by way of an economic-political machine that liberates the individual at the same time that it expands the limits of the state. The rise of the securitarian state is the effective execution of this logic, by which politics centers on governing over the effects in a perpetual reproduction of its causes. These ontological premises are the underlying infrastructures of a two-headed apparatus that ensembles the state and the market in the name of the unrestrained conception of liberty. As Deneen argues: “…liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection; its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state. If the expansion of freedom is secured by law, then the opposite also holds true in practice: increasing freedom requires the expansion of law” (Deneen 49).
But the same holds true for the unlimited market forces that today we tend to associate with late-modern neo-liberal laissez-faire that presupposes the expansion of functional units of state planning as well as the conversion of the citizen as consumer. The duopoly of state-market in liberalism’s planetary triumph spreads the values of individual autonomy, even if this necessarily entails the expansion of surveillance techniques and the ever-increasing pattern of economic inequality within an infinite process of flexible accumulation and charity that maintain mere life. In this sense, globalization becomes less a form of cosmopolitan integration, and more the form of planetarization driven by the general principle of equivalence that metaphorizes events, things, and actions into an abstract process of calculability . This new nomic spatialization, which for Deneen discloses the erosion of local communitarian forms of life as well as the capacity for national destiny, is the epochē of sovereignty as the kernel principle of liberalism. In other words, Liberalism’s sovereigntist traction was always-already exceptio through which the governance of the nomos is only possible as the effective proliferation and rule over its anomic excess.
The substantial difference with early forms of liberalism is that only in the wake of contemporary globalization and the post-industrial reorganization of labor, this exceptionalism no longer functions as a supplement to the normative system, since it is what marks the subsumption of all spheres of action without reminder. In this scenario, liberalism is no longer a political ideology nor is it a horizon that orients a modern movement towards progress; its sole task is to control the imports of identity and difference within the social. One could say that liberalism is a technique for containing, in the way of a thwarted katechon, a society without limits. Paradoxically, liberalism, which once opposed sovereign dictatorship, now endorses a universality that cannot be transmitted, and a principle of democracy that has no people (populus).
In the subsequent chapters of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen turns to liberalism’s imperial mission in four distinct social paradigms: culture, technology, the Liberal Arts in the university, and the rise of a new aristocracy. The commonality in each of these topoi is that in each and every one of these social forms, liberalism has produced the opposite of what it had intended. Of course, it did so, not by abandoning its core principles, but precisely by remaining faithful to them, while temporalizing the hegemony of the same as eternal. First, in the sphere of culture, Deneen argues that liberalism’s inclination towards an anticultural sentiment is consistent with multiculturalism as the “eviscerated and reduction of actual cultural variety to liberal homogeneity loosely dressed in easily discarded native garb” (Deneen 89). The culturalism promoted by liberalism is a process of deletion that knows only a fictive transmutation within the logic of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ that seeks to exhaust the cosmos of the singular. The price to be paid for policed inclusion of cultural differences into liberal anticultural norms, aside from leaving the economic accumulation untouched, is that it forces a form of consent that tailors the radically irreducible worldviews to standardized and procedural form of subjective recognition. Although Deneen does not articulate it in these terms, one could say that culturalism – which Deneen prefers to call liberalism anticulturalism-, amounts, in every instance, to a capture that supplies the maintenance of its hegemonic thrust.
Nowhere is this perceived with more force today than in liberal arts colleges and universities across the country, where from both ideological extremes, the Liberal Arts as a commitment to thinking and transmission of institutional knowledge is “now mostly dead on most campuses” (Deneen 113). From the side of the political conservative right, the way to confront the ongoing nihilism in the university, has been to completely abandon the liberal arts, pledging alliance to the regime of calculative valorization (the so called “STEMS” courses) on the basis of their attractive market demand. But the progressive left does not offer any better option, insisting by advancing the abstract “critical thinking” and one-sided ideological politization, it forgets that critique is always-already what feeds nihilism through the negative, which does little to confront the crisis in a democratic manner. The demise of the liberal arts in the contemporary university, depleted by the colonization of the dominance by principle of general equivalence, reduces the positionality of Liberal Arts to two forms of negations (critique and market) for hegemonic appropriation . In one of the great moments of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen declares that we are in fact moving slowly into the constitution of a res idiotica:
“The classical understanding of liberal arts as aimed at educating the free human being ids displaced by emphasis upon the arts of the private person. An education fitting for a res publica is replaced with an education suited for a res idiotica – in the Greek, a “private” and isolated person. The purported difference between left and right disappears as both concur that the sole legitimate end of education is the advance of power through the displacement of the liberal arts” (Deneen 112).
Liberalism idiotism is invariable, even when our conduct is within the frame of public exposition. One must understand this transformation not merely as a consequence of the external economic privation of the public university (although this adds to the decline of whatever legitimacy remains of the Liberal Arts), but more importantly as a privatization of the modes of the general intellect into a dogmatic and technical instrumentality that “can only show their worth by destroying the thing they studied” (Deneen 121). The movement of liberalization of higher education, both in terms of its economic indexes and flexible epistemic standardization, dispenses the increasing erosion of institutions, whose limits have now become indeterminate within the general mechanics of valorization. The res idiotica is the very exhaustion of the res publica within liberal technicality, where any form of impersonal commonality is replaced by the unlimited expansion of expressive subjectivism. In a total reversal of its own conditions of possibility, the outplay of the res idiotica is satisfied in detriment of any use of public reason and freedom, if by the latter we understand a commitment to the polis as a space in which the bios theoretikos was never something to be administered, but constructed every time . The emergence of res idiotica coincides with the decline of politics as a force of democratization in the public use of reason.
In the economic sphere, the assault of the res publica entails the emergence of a new aristocracy, which as Deneen argues, was already latent in liberalism’s great ideologues’ (Locke, Mill, and Hayek) commitment to a ruling class formation and arbitrary economic distribution. For Deneen, one did not have to wait for Hayek’s experiments in active market liberalism to grasp that what J.S.Mill called “experiments of the living” as the promise of liberation from the social shackles, but only to consecrate an even more stealth system of domination between expert minorities rule and ordinary people. What remains of Liberalism in its material deployment is not much: a res idiotica that fails at constituting a public and civil society devoid of cives, and a state that expands the limits of administration in pursuit of freedom only to perpetuate an aristocratic class. In broad strokes, Deneen’s narrative about liberalism could be well said to be a story about how a “living body” (the People) became an absolute in absentia that only leave us with a practice of idolatry to a supreme and uncontested principle .
The idolatrous character of liberal principles is rendered optimal in recent theoretical claims against democracy, where the latter is seen as an obstacle for government rather than as the premise for the legitimacy of popular sovereignty. Hence, democracy is turned into a mechanical arrangement that includes whatever supports liberal assumptions and beliefs, and excludes all forms of life that it sees as a threat to its enterprise. In this way, liberalism today is a standing reserve that administers the proliferation of any expressive differential identities, while scaffolding an internal apparatus for self-reproduction. In one of the most eloquent passages of the book, Deneen evokes the anti-democratic shift of liberalism in the contemporary reflection:
“…the true genius of liberalism was subtly but persistently to shape and educate the citizens to equate “democracy” with the ideal of self-made and self-making individuals – expressive individualism – while accepting the patina of political democracy shrouding a power and distance government whose deeper legitimacy arises from enlarging the opportunity and experience of expressive individualism. As long as liberal democracy expands “the empire of liberty”, mainly in the form of expansive rights, power, and wealth, the actual absence of active democratic self-rule is not only an acceptable but a desired end”. Thus liberalism abandons the pervasive challenge of democracy as a regime requiring the cultivation of disciplined self-rule in favor of viewing the government as a separate if beneficent entity that supports limitless provision of material goods and untrammeled expansion of private identity” (Deneen 155-156).
The triumph of the res idiotica works in tandem with the expansion of the administrative state at the level of institutional reserve, and through the presidentialist charismatic populism in covering the void of an absent demos. These two cathetic instances of hegemonic closure maintain the democratic deficit that organizes the polis against any attempt at active dissent against the unlimited forms of commence and war that, according to Deneen, “have increasingly come to define the nation” (Deneen 172). At the very core of its innermost material practices, liberalism amounts to a technical-war machine that, in the name of a homogenous and uprooted ‘humanity’, liquidates the commitment to the res publica as the only political system that can uphold any form of consistent and durable endurance against the imbalanced domination of an unruly and anarchic power. If the political as a modern invention it is said to be a flight from the condition of servitude and slavish subordination, as Quentin Skinner has observed, we are in a position to claim that contemporary liberalism is as much a movement forward in unlimited freedom that articulates a regression to the form of dependence of the slave . Once the singular is dependent on a power that he interiorizes as fully spectral and all encompassing, freedom amounts to a slave restraint over the potentiality of desiring and retreating. In the planetary stage governed by equivalence as the administration of cultural identity formation, the singular comes to occupy the position of the slave that, although is free to exercise his self-command in an unlimited region for self-recognition, any transgression of the normative regime is always-already anticipated by the securitarian apparatus. Politics, as we know it, has come to a close in the liberal paradigm.
Why Liberalism Failed does not shy away from offering a way out, a ‘what is to be done’ to the liberal dominium that puts in crisis the relations between thinking and action, imagination and political ideologies. For some contemporary thinkers (in particular, the post-Heideggerian tradition opened by the work of Reiner Schürmann and Giorgio Agamben) have endorsed a positivization of an-archy as a way for clearing the path beyond the saturation of apolitical liberalism . But if we grant this speculative move, we forget that liberalism is an economy that governs the very excess of foundation that is already well within the anarchy principle. In other words, failure is not an exception or achievement or telos of liberal rationality; it is rather something like its irreducible latent force that gives semblance to the ‘actuality’ of the idolatrous principle. However, if liberalism is only semblance without material substance (barren from popular sovereignty), then it is no longer a constituted principle or archē. Anarchy is thus a false option, although it is not the option that Deneen subscribes. The question remains: what is to be done at the end of liberal politics that have brought to ruin the triad of action, freedom, and even citizenship?
Deneen’s wager is not an endorsement of a new and better theoretical articulation, but the affirmation of a community form that he associates with Tocquevillian ‘schoolhouse of democracy’ as well as with Wendell Berry’s practical communitarianism as a “rich and varied set of personal relations, a complex of practices and traditions drawn from a store of common memory and tradition, and a set go bonds forged between people and place that is not portable, mobile, fungible, or transferable” (Deneen 78). It is at this critical point in the conjuncture, where I see Deneen’s proposal as insufficient on grounds of both his own intellectual premises in his critique of liberalism, as well in relation to what the community form if understood as a locational and identitarian structure.
First, it is not very clear that community as understood here can do the work to retreat from liberal machination. The community form, assumed as a foreclosed and identitarian contained social form, can offer only a thetic instance of what liberalism promotes in its rule through management. The community as a countercultural reaction to liberalism’s promotion of identities leaves intact its own identitarian closure reduced to propriety and consensus . Could one reconcile democracy with a communitarian horizon for a singular that opts for dissent against the communitarian majority? Probably not, because the horizon of communitarization, like that of liberalism, rests on the production of exclusion for anyone that chooses to retreat from the community. The fact that these questions are left unanswered by Deneen’s proposal is a sign the community form does not offer any substantial alternative to atomized identity. Rather, the community form only call to legitimacy is a set of metaphysical niceties such as ‘inheritance’, ‘location’, and ‘practicality’.
By subscribing to organic communitarianism, Deneen postulates a theoretical archē of the community that thrives on what it excludes in order to properly define and constrain itself. In other words, as conceived under the banner of “practical” (not ‘theoretical’) forms of life, the community form becomes an active self-reproductive logic that bars dissent before any threat from the outside. However, there is a second consideration when thinking about community form. Essentially, that it is not convincing that Deneen’s affirmation of the community can claim to be an exception to liberalism’s empire. By retorting that liberalism amounts to a “demolition that comes at the expense of these communities’ settled forms of life”, Deneen immunizes the community as an impolitical form that can be extracted from the logic of real subsumption (Deneen 143). In an ironic endgame, Deneen’s practical communitarianism as a ‘personalized and settled form of life’ recasts contemporary Marxist and current vice-president of Bolivia Alvaro Garcia Linera’s thinking of the community form as organic entelechy that accelerates use value against global transnational capitalism . But whereas for the Bolivian thinker, the task amounts to an actualization of the community form in order to radically transform the state, in the case of Deneen’s proposal, the return to the communitarian patchwork amounts to the fantasy of a radical detachment from the administrative state and national popular structures. These two positions, although from opposing extremes of the ideological spectrum, do not provide an exit from the crisis of politics, but rather the full realization of politics as ongoing nihilism against the negative labor of liberalism. It would seem that the best that either the Left or the Right can offer today is a form of communitarianism.
If community form is always one of theological salvation – as a set of practices that would include care, humility, and modesty at the level of local communities (Deneen 191-192) – then this entails that communitarism works through a theological foundation of faith as the dissuasion of any possible instance of the profane interruption. As Elettra Stimilli has observed, the Christian community of salvation is always already consigns an unknown dimension of freedom, which reintroduces the dependence model of servitude . The factical life of Christian community of faith can only be maintained as an ascetic practice for those that already within the parameters of its beliefs. In short, community form does not only leave unperturbed the functioning of the liberalism’s empire of liberty, and unfortunately can only provide the same broken idealia that fails to confront the interregnum that today names the fracture between theory and practice of the political.
Could it be, rather counter intuitively, that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is actually an esoteric defense of liberalism? I would like to read the consequences of the book in that direction, by slightly displacing the question of liberalism to that of the anthropological genesis of modernity. This speaks to the book’s admirable tension between the triumphs of liberalism as a failure (or as always failing), while at the same time liberalism’s appeal to realize the admirable ideals that liberalism often only promised (Deneen 184). What if these aporias could allow us to rethink the Enlightenment as a project ‘to come’ that can guarantee open universal conditions for reform and in pursuit of modern man’s self-affirmative counter-communitarian, and institutional durability? What if the Enlightenment could desist on being a triumphalist account of humanist withdrawal, and instead be rendered as a project of radical deficiency, of the crisis of modern science, and the scope of singularity that can never amount to a metaphorization of the idea of liberty, but one that allows for the disturbance of myth (as well the theology) against transcendental action? 
The failed triumphalism of liberalism, and here I must agree with Deneen, was confined on its reducibility on subjectivation and subjectivity as an absolute anthropologism. This metaphysical anthropology, in fact, made the psychic life of the singular into identity reproduction between duty and guilt as the dual symptomology of becoming ‘subject’. Liberalism has been a compulsive and failed politics, not because of what it has not achieved by remaining all too faithful to its promises, but because it has substantially realized subjectivity as the uncontested hegemonic principle of the political. Against the servitude of liberalism’s imperial drive, and the communitarian countercultural obligations, the task remains to think the emergence of a universal, marrano, and non-subjective democratic enlightenment that could reinstate the res publica from within the ruins of the res idiotica, only if it is not already too late.
- The retraction of legitimacy in all political systems of the West has been argued by Giorgio Agamben in The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days (2017). Slightly in a different register, what I am arguing here is that the exhaustion of popular sovereignty in liberal hegemony, in part, is due to liberalism’s extreme distance, and at times even explicit rejection, from any transaction with the ‘popular’. At the same time, one could also claim that the emergence of populism in contemporary societies is a latent expression that seeks to ground popular mobilization to readdress the democratic deficit in technocratic governance.
- See La Guerra Globale (2002), by Carlo Galli.
- Mark Lilla. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017). 137-138.
- The epigraph of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, we read: “When the gap between ideal and the real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort beings anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision or order and resumes his search”. The question is whether in the current interregnum the capacity for ‘myth’ can still provide a source to cope with the fissure between a desirable political horizon and a theoretical set of concepts capable of giving form to a new order.
- This is the argument for the legitimacy of modernity beyond the theological-political underpinnings in the wake of secularization advanced by Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1985).
- Although the term general equivalent spans from Marx to Jean Luc Nancy to account for the logic of exchange, for an assessment of the question of equivalence as the logic of nihilistic measurement at a planetary scale, see “Infrapolitical Action The Truth of Democracy at the End of General Equivalence” (2016), by Alberto Moreiras at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/pc/12322227.0009.004?view=text;rgn=main
- The insufficiency of hegemonic politics today has nothing to do with a partisan, theoretical, or ideological inclination. If we say that the theory of hegemony is no longer viable today, it is because it can only work as a collectivization of identity proliferation, whether in the form of the equivalent demand or in through the closure of the community form, failing to provide in either case for a demotic impersonal region. For the crisis of the modern university and the insufficiency of critique, see La crisis no moderna de la universidad moderna (1996), by Willy Thayer.
- As Arendt writes in her essay “What is Freedom?”: “The way of life chosen by the philosopher was understood in opposition to the bios theoretikos, the political way of life. Freedom, therefore, the very center of politics as the Greeks understood it, was an idea which almost by definition could not enter the framework of Greek philosophy”.
- I am thinking here of Adrian Vermeule’s important critique of the idolatrous conception of the separation of powers by legal liberalism in his most recent Law’s abnegation: from Law’s Empire to the administrative state (2017).
- Quentin Skinner. “A Genealogy of Liberty”, unpublished lecture read at Stanford University, October 2016.
- See, “On Constituting Oneself an Anarchistic Subject” (1986), by Reiner Schürmann.
- For an important assessment of the limits of the communitarian model, see “Consensus, Sensus Communis, Community” (2016), by Maddalena Cerrato, at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/pc/12322227.0010.005?view=text;rgn=main
- Elettra Stimilli. The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism (2017). 9-10.
- This is the moment where Hans Blumenberg, who labeled himself as a disillusioned child of the Enlightenment, took maximum distance from the Kantian unlimited freedom as a necessary presupposition of reason: “However, the danger of using an absolute metaphorics for the idea of freedom can be discerned in Kant himself, and its grave, necessarily misleading consequences can be seen in the introduction of the conception of transcendental action. This makes it natural to regard as freedom anything that can be represented as a transcendental action of understanding”, in Shipwreck with spectator (1997), 101.