Patrick J. Deneen writes on a little-perceived aspect of our present political/social moment in America and most Western democracies: that we generally engage in a debate between two forms of Liberalism, rather than liberalism versus something else. And the great problem of our present debates is that liberalism (either classical or progressive) both seem to result in what Deneen refers to as an anti-culture:

America is a nation in deep agreement and common belief. The proof lies, somewhat paradoxically, in the often tempestuous and increasingly acrimonious debate between the two main US political parties. The widening divide represented by this debate has, for many of us, defined the scope of our political views and the resultant differences for at least the past one hundred years. But even as we do tense and bruising battle, a deeper form of philosophical agreement reigns. As described by Louis Hartz in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, the nature of our debates themselves is defined within the framework of liberalism. That framework has seemingly expanded, but it is nonetheless bounded, in as much as the political debates of our time have pitted one variant of liberalism against another, which were given the labels “conservatism” and “liberalism” but which are better categorized as “classical liberalism” and “progressive liberalism.” While we have focused our attention on the growing differences between “classical” and “progressive,” we have been largely inattentive to the unifying nature of their shared liberalism.

While classical liberalism looks back to a liberalism achieved and lost—particularly the founding philosophy of America that stressed natural rights, limited government, and a relatively free and open market, “progressive” liberalism longs for a liberalism not yet achieved, one that strives to transcend the limitations of the past and even envisions a transformed humanity, its consciousness enlarged, practicing what Edward Bellamy called “the religion of solidarity.” As Richard Rorty envisioned in his aptly titled 1998 book Achieving Our Country, liberal democracy “is the principled means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence.… Democratic humanity…has ‘more being’ than predemocratic humanity. The citizens of a [liberal] democratic, Whitmanesque society are able to create new, hitherto unimagined roles and goals for themselves.”

In the main, American political conflicts since the end of the Civil War have been fought along this broad division within liberalism itself. We have grown accustomed to liberalism being the norm and defining the predictable battlefield for our political debates. Largely accepting at least the Hartzian view, if not also Fukuyama’s claim that liberalism constitutes the “end of history,” we have been so preoccupied with the divisions and differences arising from these two distinct variants of liberalism that our debate within the liberal frame obscures from us an implicit acknowledgment that the question of regime has been settled—liberalism is the natural order for humanity. Further, the intensifying division between the two sides of liberalism also obscures the basic continuities between these two iterations of liberalism, and in particular makes it nearly impossible to reflect on the question of whether the liberal order itself remains viable. The bifurcation within liberalism masks a deeper agreement that has led to the working out of liberalism’s deeper logic, which, ironically, brings us today to a crisis within liberalism itself that now appears sudden and inexplicable.

What is especially masked by our purported choice between primary allegiance to classical liberalism’s emphasis on a free market and limited government, on the one hand, and progressive liberalism’s emphasis on an expansive state that tempers the market, on the other, is that both “choices” arise from a basic commitment of liberalism to depersonalization and abstraction. Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism seems most likely to secure human goods—the space of the market, which collects our seemingly limitless number of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding any specific thought or intention from us about the wants and needs of others; or the liberal state, which, via the mechanism of taxation and depersonalized distribution of goods and services, establishes standard procedures and mechanisms to satisfy the wants and needs of others that would otherwise go unmet or be insufficiently addressed by the market.

The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of the state’s efforts to redress injustices masks the reality that the two grow constantly and necessarily together: Statism enables individualism; individualism demands statism. The creation of the autonomous individual, that imaginary creature of Hobbes and Locke, in fact requires the expansive apparatus of the state and its creation, the universal market, to bring it into existence. And, as Tocqueville predicted, once liberated, the individual no longer has reliable personal networks to which to turn for assistance, and instead looks for the assistance of the state, which grows further to meet these insistent demands. While the battle is waged between liberalism’s two sides, one of which stresses the individual and the other the need for the redress of the state, liberalism’s constant and unceasing trajectory has been to become both more individualistic and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other achieves (and fails) in the opposite direction; rather, both move simultaneously together, as a matter of systemic logic that follows our deepest philosophical premises.

The result is a political system that trumpets liberty, but which inescapably creates conditions of powerlessness, fragmentation, mistrust, and resentment. The liberated individual comes to despise the creature of its making and the source of its powerlessness—whether perceived to be the state or the market (protests to the former represented by the Tea Party and to the latter by Occupy Wall Street). The tools of liberalism cease to be governable and become instead independent forces to which disempowered individuals must submit—whether the depersonalized public bureaucracy or depersonalized globalizing market forces, aided and abetted by technology, from surveillance to automation, that no longer seems under the control of its masters. Much of our common response to liberalism’s triumph today is a celebration of our completed liberty, but it takes the form of discussions and debates over the ways in which we can lessen the unease accompanying our powerlessness and dislocation as we submit terms of surrender to ungovernable forces in politics and economics. The movements that resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump suggest that some will reject the terms of surrender altogether, even at the cost of considerable political and economic disarray. Across the world today, liberalism’s moment of triumph is being marked not by the tolling of victory bells but the sounding of air-raid sirens

Calls to restore culture and the liberal arts, to curb individualism and statism, and to limit the technology of liberalism will no doubt prompt suspicious questions. Yet, practices that foster culture, liberal arts, and an equality born of shared fates will prove to be formidable answers to the challenges from a theory whose practices are unsustainable. …

I want to offer three areas for consideration where one can see liberalism’s two opposing parts advancing a consistent and uniform end by effectually engaging in a pincer movement from two different directions, and in the process destabilizing the very possibility of a shared political, civic, and social life. These areas are, first, liberalism’s hostility to culture, with preference given to a pervasive and universalized anti-culture (to borrow sociologist Philip Rieff’s term); second, liberalism’s assault on the liberal arts and humanistic education; and third, liberalism’s creation of a new and fully realized aristocracy, or what I call a “liberalocracy.” …

First, both classical liberalism and progressive liberalism are commonly arrayed against the persistence of culture as a basic organizing form of human life, and together devise economic, social, and political structures in order to replace the variety and expanse of existing cultures with a pervasive anti-culture. Local cultures, often religious and traditional, were seen by the architects of both classical and progressive liberalism as obstacles to the achievement of individual liberty. Shaping the worldview of individuals from the youngest age, cultural norms came to be seen as a main obstruction to the perception of the self as a free, independent, autonomous, and unconnected chooser. Whether in the form of classical liberalism’s tale of the “state of nature,” which portrayed the natural condition of human beings as one in which culture was wholly absent, or progressive critiques of tradition and custom (for instance, the main object of John Stuart Mill’s concern about “tyranny of the majority” in his classic essay On Liberty), a continuous feature and core ambition of liberalism was the critique and eradication of culture as a given, to be replaced by a pervasive anti-culture in which remnants of cultures would be reduced to consumer choices.

The advance of this anti-culture takes two primary forms. Anti-culture is at once statist, especially arising through a legalistic regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be described and discarded as forms of oppression. It is the simultaneously the consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture which, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anti-culture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing customary norms with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what had come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with the pervasive legal threat and financialization of debts. Thus, in the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anti-culture.

Deneen’s is a heady analysis, and I’m working through what I think about this by actively seeking greater context, history, perspective, etc. on it in a process that I expect might take my lifetime. What I can say for certain, right now, is that if Richard Rorty’s description of liberalism is the common understanding (that it’s the “means by which a more evolved form of humanity will come into existence”) then I reject that entirely as utopianism. Deneen’s analysis of anti-culture intuitively seems correct.

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