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Patrick Deneen, a Wolf in Wolin’s Clothing?

In Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen argues that the cultural and political pathologies of our present stem directly from the triumph of an idea. The crises of faith and spirituality, the decline of community, the destruction of the liberal arts, the cheapening of our aesthetic culture, the rise of social atomism and of the tutelary, administrative state—Deneen argues these all are the fruits of liberalism, the political philosophy first articulated half a millennium ago and perfected from Thomas Hobbes to Publius to John Rawls.

Here in the United States, all mainstream political ideologies are variations on a liberal Enlightenment theme, according to Deneen. “Classical liberal” Republicans and progressive Democrats appear to be engaged in ferocious political conflict, but in reality they agree on all the important points. After all, who among them denies America’s basic, self-evident creed: All men are created equal; they are endowed with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and to protect these fundamental rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Most mainstream political commentators would likely agree with Deneen that Americans across the political spectrum share an abiding commitment to Enlightenment liberalism. This is the common philosophical ground from which a fragile political center tries to defend itself from populisms left and right, from the corrosive effects of identity politics, and from the dangers of xenophobic nationalism.

Against these illiberal threats a familiar set of thinkers periodically pipe up to defend the liberal center (and the acceptable bounds of liberal Left and liberal Right). Such writers as David Brooks, William Galston, and Mark Lilla acknowledge the limits of Enlightenment rationality and of liberalism as a political ideology even as they remain committed to the basic liberal project. The legacy of the Enlightenment, the primacy of reason, the principles of the American Founding—these are the liberal values around which we must rally.

For Deneen, this shared ground of liberal Left and liberal Right is itself the problem. I have little to add to the impressive collection of commentators who have discussed Deneen’s core thesis in detail, including at Law and Liberty (see the incisive review by Marc DeGirolami). My purpose here is to point out some striking similarities between Deneen’s thinking and that of Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), a far-Left political philosopher who taught at Berkeley and Princeton for many years.

On the surface, the two could not be more different. Deneen is a leading voice in a movement of traditionalist Christian (typically Catholic) thinkers who often look for “integralist” alternatives to liberalism that orient the state toward human flourishing and grace. Wolin was a radical, participatory democrat who saw in the protests of the 1960s the promise of human emancipation. Where Deneen favors authority, Wolin clamors for liberation. Where Deneen demands a politics of virtue, Wolin theorizes a politics of self-actualization.

And yet their condemnations of modern liberal politics are remarkably similar. Both prefer human-scale localism to depersonalized concentrations of power. Both value active citizenship over managerial, bureaucratic governance. Both identify liberalism with a scientistic, technological rationality that destroys traditional humanistic education.

They are even drawn to the same Jeremiahs. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, is their shared indispensable theorist of modern democracy. Wolin produced a masterful study of Tocqueville’s ambivalence between the disappearing aristocratic world of his ancestors and the unyielding democratic world of his descendants. Likewise, Deneen insists on virtually every page of Why Liberalism Failed that Tocqueville remains the one thinker we must study to understand the character of contemporary political life.

The Anti-Federalists are a second shared inspiration. To Wolin and Deneen, our Founding Federalists are villains in a story of political consolidation and managerial politics. Wolin stylizes the Anti-Federalist-versus-Federalist debate as a debate between “tending” and “intending.” Where Publius aims to intentionally construct a new political regime in the mold of modern science, the Anti-Federalists wish to tend to their evolved, traditional, democratic culture. Deneen is drawn to the same metaphor, contrasting the (faulty, to his mind) scientific presumptions of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton against the salutary localist preservationism of Wendell Berry. Not even Federalist 10 and Federalist 51—two of the most celebrated intellectual achievements of the Founding—are spared. Both writers blame  these texts specifically for legitimizing a selfish factionalism inconsistent with genuine, democratic self-rule.

Having replaced rich, active citizenship with the petty pursuit of self-interest, Publius goes on to replace local, participatory democracy with distant, consolidated managerial government. Here again the two political philosophers present the same interpretation. Federalist 17 laments the intense loyalty citizens feel for their states, and subversively suggests that this loyalty can be “destroyed” if the national government can provide “much better administration.” Federalist 27 gives up the game by observing that “the general government will be better administered than the particular governments.”

Deneen and Wolin alike identify “administration” as the dangerous, anti-democratic end state of modern liberalism. Bureaucratic administration is the antithesis of an engaged citizenry.

In Deneen’s telling, “Publius clearly believes and intends that better administration at the federal level will lead to the displacement of local loyalties and engagement, and the redirection of attachments to the central government.” Wolin likewise deprecates what he calls the “organizationalist ideology of the Founders,” which elevates efficiency and stability above the cathartic turbulence of democratic self-rule.[3] He writes that the two great demands of the Federalist Papers, “size and concentrated power,” are “the two natural enemies of democracy,” and were “invented by science to show how republics could control the excesses of democracy.”[4]

What should we make of the joint Wolin-Deneen critique of liberalism? We might want to say that the very fact that liberalism has parallel critics on Left and Right is a reason to favor liberalism. After all, the liberal project is designed to protect political life from totalizing ideologues of all stripes. But such a conclusion begs the question. Reflexive—one might say reactionary—liberal centrism is at least as likely to produce debilitating mediocrity as it is the golden mean.

These two political theorists have mounted a serious critique of liberalism’s penchant for scientific, technocratic managerialism. In so doing, they point us to the lamentably undemocratic character of modern political life. As Wolin puts it in assessing Rawls (and I suspect Deneen would agree), liberalism’s aspiration of “subordinating participatory possibilities in favor of administered benefits” is at the heart of our contemporary discontent.[5]

But Wolin and Deneen haven’t just reached many of the same conclusions, they’ve done so using the same method. Both wish to understand a pathology at the heart of modern political life. But rather than asking “What’s wrong?” in the style of the problem-solving engineer, they ask, “What went wrong?” In other words, how did we come to believe the things we believe? How can old ideas explain the character of contemporary life? Wolin and Deneen believe that a grand study of the history of ideas can yield a diagnosis and a prescription. Intellectual errors first made by canonical liberal thinkers—Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Publius, and others—are in some way responsible for contemporary problems.

Both men reject nostalgia as the basis of this method. There is no going back. But if not return, they write what Wolin calls “essays in retrieval.”[6] Political conflict produces winners and losers. Sometimes that conflict gives rise to enduring progress. But sometimes, as the losers exit, “things of value go out of the world.”[7] Studying the history of ideas helps us to locate what values we have lost and can inspire us to think about how we might restore them.

Here we see that in addition to liberal, managerial politics, Wolin and Deneen share another enemy: Whiggish pragmatism. Whig history insists that things, for the most part, are always getting better. Pragmatism generally agrees, and adds that what problems we face are technical difficulties in need of technical solutions.

What Wolin and Deneen reveal is the emptiness of the Whiggish, pragmatic outlook. Even amidst progress, things of tremendous value disappear. As Wolin sharply explains, Publius’ triumph represents “the subjugation of other forms of politics. The myth of the Founding belongs not to the archetype of Athena springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus, but is instead a muted version of the fratricidal story of Romulus.”[8] The history of ideas offers a way of meditating on the inadequacy of contemporary political categories. It’s a way of making clear that radical rethinking—not just technical tinkering—may be necessary. Ideological mistakes first made long in the past continue to dominate the way we live and think.

Even as we give serious consideration to the history of ideas, however, we should remember that a nation is not a philosophy seminar. Nor is a nation an idea unfolding through history, always tending toward totalizing purification. Instead, a country is a bundle of contradictions, a collection of peoples, habits, and cultures. As Samuel Goldman observes in a perceptive review of Deneen’s book, ideas certainly matter, but they are not all that matters. To be sure, our country is uniquely philosophical, uniquely “dedicated to a proposition.” But that proposition—that “all men are created equal”—is far from obvious in its meaning.

The character of equality, the nature of rights, the balance between liberty and license—these are questions that have generated heated debate for centuries, much of it within the liberal tradition. The mere fact that one proposed resolution or another has proved politically dominant for a time need not imply historic inevitability or authority. After all, one of the great lessons offered by Wolin and Deneen is that we should not mistake politically victorious ideas for intellectually successful ones—the Whigs were wrong to think of the march of history as a march toward moral perfection. We would be similarly blinkered, though, if we were to insist   that our tradition—even our liberal tradition—is altogether bereft of the resources needed to build a free and flourishing society.

 

[1] Sheldon S. Wolin, “What Revolutionary Action Means Today,” in Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays, edited by Nicholas Xenos (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 371.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sheldon S. Wolin, “Tending and Intending a Constitution: Bicentennial Misgivings,” in The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution, Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1989), pp. 92, 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition with a new foreword by Wendy Brown (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 531.

[6] From the Introduction to The Presence of the Past, p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Tending and Intending a Constitution,” p. 87.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 11, 2018 at 09:52:31 am

That is a superb comparative analysis of separate embarkations seeking different destinations following disparate paths arriving at the same point.

Intriguing and very well-written.

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timothy
on April 11, 2018 at 10:56:53 am

Reflections: "liberalism's aspiration of subordinating participatory possibilities in favor of administered benefits is at the heart of our contemporary discontent." (Sheldon S. Wolin)

Bureaucratic administration is the antithesis of an engaged citizenry and a dangerous anti-democratic end of modern liberalism?

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Anthony
on April 11, 2018 at 14:06:00 pm

All of which just goes to show you that the terms right and left are as meaningless as liberal and conservative, whether or not the terms are capitalized.

To my eye, modern Anglo-American liberalism began in 1621 when Edward Coke entered Parliament and organized the Puritan faction, led by John Pym, into a revolutionary "rule of law" faction in opposition to James I/VI and his notions about the divine right of kings. This eo-liberalism was based on Coke's Year Books and Institutes and the Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. Natural law outside of the common law and the Bible had no place in the puritans' political thought in the 17th Century and to this day low church evangelicals remain profoundly suspicious of appeals to natural law that are not derived from either Coke's writings or the Bible.

There were two varieties of English puritans; Presbyterians and Independents. Initially, they differed only on the point of church governance. The Presbyterians insisted upon strong central control of the member congregations and the Independents insisted that each congregation must be autonomous and self-governing. Between 1630-50 this squabble over church governance spilled over into the debate about how England should be governed after Charles I and the monarchists had been defeated.

By 1646, the Presbyterians had become the Grandees who became the classically liberal Whigs after 1688. Independents became the Levellers who ultimately became the commonwealth men after 1720 in England and the democratic-republicans in the US after 1798.

The Winthrop Fleet of 1630 and the subsequent Great Migration of 1632-40 accurately reflected the divisions between Presbyterians and Independents that emerged in the Long Parliament after 1643. In the Bay Colony, the magistrates were overwhelmingly Presbyterian, both religiously and politically, and the settlers were overwhelmingly Independents, both religiously and politically.

Needless to say, Deneen and Wolin continue to represent the Independent/Leveller/democratic-republican line of liberal political thought and Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Hamilton and our contemporary "Swamp" continue to represent the Presbyterian, Grandee, Whig line of political thought.

Christopher Hill identified this arcane squabble over the questions of whether congregations should be independent or under the supervision of presbytery as something that has shaped history of the West to this very day.

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EK
on April 11, 2018 at 19:27:04 pm

EK:

You are quite conversant in "Whiggish" thinking.

A question for you for my own edification (and education);

Were the Whigs as "historical" (Hegelian sense) as the above essayists suggests?

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gabe
on April 11, 2018 at 19:45:10 pm

"Where Deneen favors authority, Wolin clamors for liberation. Where Deneen demands a politics of virtue, Wolin theorizes a politics of self-actualization."

perhaps, their methodologies are similar as are their 'bogeymen". However, the congruemce between these two is, I suspect, less than the essayist would suppose.

Wolin's thirst for self actualization runs DIRECTLY counter to Deneen's aspirations for a politics of virtue. One may consider that this politics of virtue is not simply the absence of "corrupt" or divisive politics but rather a politics practiced by a virtuous people and may be traced directly to natural law theory. Clearly, rightly or wrongly, the Founders reached their formulations / theories on proper Republican government after much consideration of natural law / rights. Virtue under this schema would DENY the present "self-actualization, made initially popular by Abraham K Maslow and his ilk, soon followed by popular commentators / barely post-pubescent philosophy students and eventually by politicos in pursuit of voting blocs. Virtue DEMANDED restraint, it expected that "obligations" would be both recognized and honored. This is what, to my (and some other) minds Deneen rails against. Unfortunately, it appears at times that he fails to recognize that classical liberalism a la American has ceased to recognize the need for a virtuous citizenry. His mistake is in assuming that the Founders also were not cognizant of the role that virtue MUST play in a successful republic created to sustain ordered liberty.

Wolin, according to the essayist, would prefer that self-actualization is precedent over virtue and ordered liberty. He decries the Founders for not advancing "self-actualization" via constraints on the citizenry which the founders imagined would impel virtue whilst Deneen ignores or denies the Founders preference for a virtuous citizenry and politics. Deneen argues for that which he fails to recognize in the Founding Generation.

And, BTW, the central government WAS more efficient, not to mention LESS CORRUPT than the State Governments. We ought not to blame Mr. Madison for his powers of observation!!!

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gabe
on April 12, 2018 at 01:17:29 am

In Deneen’s telling, “Publius clearly believes and intends that better administration at the federal level will lead to the displacement of local loyalties and engagement, and the redirection of attachments to the central government.” Wolin likewise deprecates what he calls the “organizationalist ideology of the Founders,” which elevates efficiency and stability above the cathartic turbulence of democratic self-rule. He writes that the two great demands of the Federalist Papers, “size and concentrated power,” are “the two natural enemies of democracy,” and were “invented by science to show how republics could control the excesses of democracy.”

Interesting arguments. They call to mind Max Weber's "iron cage" of bureaucracy, as described in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Weber argued that this cage would be all but inevitable because bureaucracy is so much more efficient than almost any other system of organization, but an occasional charismatic person might lead an uprising against it. Was he foretelling the rise of Trump?

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nobody.really
on April 12, 2018 at 01:53:56 am

Where Deneen demands a politics of virtue, Wolin theorizes a politics of self-actualization.

And yet their condemnations of modern liberal politics are remarkably similar. Both prefer human-scale localism to depersonalized concentrations of power. Both value active citizenship over managerial, bureaucratic governance. Both identify liberalism with a scientistic, technological rationality that destroys traditional humanistic education.

I have sympathy for the idea that liberalism’s focus on the individual gives insufficient attention to the collective.

And I acknowledge that as people develop ever more sophisticated ways to make life better, each of us understands a smaller percentage of the whole. Allegedly today’s commercial aircraft are so complicated that there is no one human intellect that could encompass it all; instead, the planes are designed and built by teams of people who must simply trust that the other people know what they’re doing. Yet the things fly.

What does this mean for democracy? Clearly the act of “trusting that other people know what they’re doing” poses a challenge for a public that is supposed to take an active and participating role of their own governance.

That said, let us not fall into mindless nostalgia for the good ol’ days. What did the world look like before depersonalized concentrations of power, arising from a scientistic, technological rationality that destroys tradition? It’s kind of abstract. So let’s make it more concrete:

Traditional peoples from time immoral would dump their shit in the river. Hey, it’s an easy way to get rid of shit. Sure, it might lead to dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid fever, acute gastrointestinal illness, eye and ear infections, methemoglobinemia ("blue baby syndrome,” arising when excessive nitrates interfere with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen) and the growth of bacteria such as E. coli. Sure, this would kill people, especially the young and the old. But it would have this effect on the people living downstream.

Localism means “rejecting burdensome regulations that only benefit other people.” And social cohesion means that the rich and poor alike would get to see each other regularly burying their parents and infants. They’d learn similar songs of mourning. That’s togetherness.

Along comes some faction with sufficient power to suppress the practice of dumping shit in the river. These technocrats claim that this practice has health benefits, but can they demonstrate that fact with sufficient clarity to people who are not schooled in the subject? I didn’t think so.

True, we find we have less occasions to go to the graveyard than before. As a result, the rich and poor don't have as many occasions to interact. They don’t have as much in common. And fewer people are learning the old mourning songs.

So, should we rebel against these know-it-alls who adopt policies from some remote perspective, and who look down on us and our proud traditions regarding songs and shit? Stripped of its fancy, abstract language, this is what I believe the authors are suggesting.

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nobody.really
on April 12, 2018 at 10:18:40 am

Oh come on, nobody!

"So, should we rebel against these know-it-alls who adopt policies from some remote perspective, and who look down on us and our proud traditions regarding songs and shit? Stripped of its fancy, abstract language, this is what I believe the authors are suggesting."

The authors are not suggesting that we rebel against the "know-it-alls", at least not in total.

I take your comments to be an example of "strategic" hyperbole as I cannot believe that one so versed in the art of "nuanced" thinking can simply deny that others may also be in possession of a similar strain of nuance in their own thinking.

Clearly, the "shit" had to go. Would you allege that the authors would prefer that it remain and that as a result of an "un-nuanced" mind, a mind of perhaps less fecundity than yours, the authors are unable / unwilling to discern the proper application of the knowledge of the "know-it-alls"

Perhaps, the authors are simply suggesting the redefinition of technocratic boundaries / knowledge and expertise and not a march to the pillory for the know-it-alls.
Now THAT would be "mindless nostalgia"

See ya in the town square!

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gabe
on April 12, 2018 at 14:45:38 pm

That is hard to say.

Locke's father was an officer in Alexander Popham's Regiment, one of the few overtly Presbyterian regiments in the New Model Army during the English Civil Wars. The regiment remained loyal to the Commonwealth and Protectorate after Pride's Purge. But when Cromwell was unable or unwilling to make adequate provision for a successor, Popham was one of those who orchestrated the Stuart Restoration. Alexander Popham was John Locke's sponsor after 1647.

Similarly, Thomas Hobbes was Charles, the Prince of Wales's, tutor in Paris after 1647 and became a royalist. After 1660, it turned out that when presented with the choice between a monarchy and a constitutional republic, the Presbyterian faction, typified by Hobbes and Locke, overwhelmingly picked monarchy. That said, it has to be recognized that there is a large middle ground between radical republican Independents and radical elitist Presbyterians inhabited by independent Presbyterians and presbyterian Independents.

Whiggism, however, did not clearly evolve much before 1707. The political goings on in England between 1688-1707 are not something I can usefully comment on beyond observing that the object of the Glorious Revolution was to avoid having the crown of England pass to a Catholic (James III) and to check the expansionist designs of Louis XIV (the Sun King) on the Calvinist Dutch Republic and the Rhineland and Catholic Ireland. To my eye, political Whiggism in Great Britain was not fully expressed until the succession was finally vested in the Hanovers in1714.

I think that political presbyterianism is a synonym for Whiggism; that is government by the better sort of people, the natural aristocracy. In that sense, almost all of the "Framers" were Whigs. The problem is that it only takes a few generations for a natural aristocracy or meritocracy to become a hereditary aristocracy. Everyone in the US, except Hamilton, Jay and Knox, were very concerned about that between 1789-100.

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EK
on April 12, 2018 at 14:49:40 pm

Have you read FH Buckley's "The Republic of Virtue"? He reaches a different conclusion about corruption but, as ever, the answer is not clear and depends on the circumstances.

That is not a problem for Calvinists, we have internalized the idea of the utter depravity of men and women in power.

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EK
on April 12, 2018 at 15:09:14 pm

EK:;

"That is not a problem for Calvinists, we have internalized the idea of the utter depravity of men and women in power."

As of late, I think I am becoming a Calvinist!

I would only add that the depravity is often to be observed even in those who are either a) out of power and / or b) aspire to power.

As for Buckley, he would prefer we abandon the Madisonian scheme and revert to a Parliamentary form. Are we to accept his contention that such a form will not be as susceptible to corruption.

Instruct him on the Calvinist doctrine, if you would. Botching some past notable here, "All things under Heaven, [including corruption] are possible as Parliament is SUPREME."

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gabe

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