Mr. Douthat like David Brooks seem infatuated, for the political moment, by Patrick Deneen’s ‘Why Liberalism Failed‘. But Douthat introduces his latest essay with Steve Bannon, who manages to cultivate the look of a man just off a week long bender. Mr. Bannon’s politics are just as slovenly and as misbegotten as his appearance would indicate.
Mr. Daneen’s book offers Douthat the opportunity to write another column, that resembles something like intellectual engagement, when in fact he shares the provincialism and ideological myopia of his fellow ‘Conservative’ David Brooks. How so? The fact that in both America and Britain what has replaced ‘Liberalism’ is Neo-Liberalism. The New Democrats and New Labour capitulated to the Mt. Pelerin poison of ‘Free Markets’ that was a betrayal of the Republican Tradition, that produced the ‘Liberalism’ whose death Daneen’s book pronounces. And that Douthat makes the center of an essay that will soon be ‘yesterday’s news’.
An extended excerpt from the Douthat ‘dissent’ on Daneen’s autopsy report:
But 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.
Deneen’s portrait is sometimes a caricature, but like any good one it captures important things about our situation. Still, one obvious response was offered last week by my colleague David Brooks, who argued that liberalism does not have an inevitable arc: It also has the capacity to regenerate itself, to support the goods Deneen cherishes and solve the problems he identifies.
But my own response to “Why Liberalism Failed” was disappointment that its author did not go further. At the end, having delivered his indictment, Deneen declines to envision any alternate political order; instead, he rejects ideology and urges a rededication to localism and community, from which some alternative political and economic order might gradually develop.
Yet if the liberal order is increasingly oppressive and destined to get worse, why would one expect such communities and experiments to flourish, rather than simply being plowed under by the same forces he decries? Surely if there is political life after liberalism, someone will need to step forward and do what the liberal philosophers did several centuries ago — invent the new order, describe the new ideals, urge the specific transformations that future leaders might achieve.
Alexis de Tocqueville is mentioned twice in the Douthat essay, and the portrait byadds what is missing from the essay: the portrait of an actual thinker and writer, whose works have had what Douthat’s and Daneen’s will not have, withstanding the tests of time!
The ‘alternative order’ that Mr. Douthat scolds Mr. Daneen for not providing, might just be a return to the Republican Tradition, that was discarded in response to the rise of both Reagan and Thatcher. And the dead end of The Free Market Mythology, the Depression of 2008, its successor Austerity and the ‘as yet’ of The Self-Correcting Market?
Mr. Douthat essay ends with the return of the specter of Mr. Bannon:
…— well, then maybe the crisis of liberalism isn’t real, maybe people are just play-acting, as Steve Bannon turned out to be play-acting the 1930s, within a system too settled to really be moved except by inches.
In sum, radical nostalgia, political pessimism, cultural despair, its end point nihilism!