Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.
[Deneen] sees evidence of liberalism’s failure in the 2008 financial crisis; the new extremes in economic inequality; the reckoning due human beings from climate change; and the collapse of public confidence in self-government. All result, he says, from the rampant unchaining of human appetite as a matter of individual right. Liberalism fails, Mr. Deneen says, because “at the end of the path of liberation lies enslavement. Such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory, for two simple reasons: human appetite is insatiable and the world is limited.”
Deneen comes as a Jeremiah to announce that Tocqueville’s fear that liberalism would eventually dissolve all these inheritances, leaving only a selfish individualism and soft bureaucratic despotism locked in a strange embrace, may now fully be upon us. Where it once delivered equality, liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich cultures to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an “anticulture” from which many genuine human goods have fled.