Deneen and the Defense of Culture: on “Why Liberalism Failed”

I recently returned home from a business trip. West Africa, Istanbul, Bangkok, Paris and back to West Africa. It’s appropriate that my journey started in West Africa, from whence Robert Kaplan twenty-five years ago warned us of the ‘coming anarchy’, an anarchy which has now arrived. It is also appropriate that my reading for this trip was Patrick Deneen’s new book “Why Liberalism Failed”. Hagia Sophia, Notre Dame and the ancient Buddhist temples – the Bosphorus and the Seine and the Chao Phraya. Cradles of onetime powerful civilizations themselves which also fell away, overlaid now by liberalism’s vapid mono-anticulture.

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Civilizations – ours has been called “liberalism”, a five-hundred-year-old idea that is now over.

Liberalism in its original intent was about freedom, freedom from outward constraint to be sure but also freedom from our own ungovernable human urges. Self-control, restraint, discipline. Deneen’s main contention is that our liberal project, at least how we have recently come to define it, has been taking us down a very dark, self-destructive path. We have focused the efforts of our civilizational struggles on the need to free us from each other, from any bonds that might be interpreted by anybody as restrictive – oppressive. An entirely external locus of attention – ignoring the important role of “liberty” in self-governance as we cast our nets ever-further afield, searching vigilantly for oppression in all its forms and fables.

Yes, oppression, that is the word of the day.

Libralism has become laser focused on ending oppression. But how was this to be achieved? Classical liberalism envisioned a world run by markets where our only limitations were of our own making. Progressive liberals saw a powerful benevolent state ready to cripple the enslavers and deliver everybody to themselves. Family, propriety, dignity, anatomy, environment, faith – all these were simply tools of oppression to be overcome by the means of market or state; at least that is Deneen’s contention.

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This book could be called “In Defense of Culture”. That might even be better – a full throated clamoring for us all to remember that we are not place-less, sex-less, past-less, future-less entities. We did not arrive to planet earth, grown in a plastic bag by scientists for use of the elites, as is so often portrayed in the new post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies; our brains empty though our bodies are fully formed.

No, we arrived from our culture. Not “pop-culture” but instead that idea of culture that comes from the word cultivate – to carefully prepare the earth for the seed, to fertilize it, protect the plant as we watch it grow and mature; prune it and keep the predators away and nurture it, for we need it to produce a bountiful harvest of golden fruit not only once, eschewing a tomorrow as we satiate our immediate pangs of hunger but also again and again and yet again. For ourselves and our children and our children’s children.

Consumption – I think what I most appreciated about Deneen’s book was the discussion of consumption. As a free marketer I have been trained in the knee jerk reaction against those who decry consumption. How else do we get anything, if not purchasing it from the market to consume? Waking up, grabbing the toothpaste, the toothbrush, mouthwash, clothing and a shower and a coffee with cream and sugar. I haven’t even left the house yet and already I’ve depended on the market a dozen times. Besides, isn’t the opposite of the market system the centrally planned one? Isn’t the opposite of capitalism, communism? And anybody who reads me knows how I feel about that ideology.

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Yes – we consume, but our division of labor, our anonymity allow us to think rarely about our depleted watersheds, our empty aquifers, our burned down forests and the accelerated destruction of our carbon-fueled world. We assume technology will fix it – of course, hasn’t it always in the past? Aren’t we at our most ingenious when we’re pushed against the wall, facing extinction?

We deny culture because we want an end to oppression – and culture exists to tell us of our land, our lives – our limits as they relate to God and nature. Yet we have a dark empty hole in our hearts that we prefer not to think about, and we instinctively fill that hole with the state – a positivist superstate that decides morality and opportunity and supervises our every interaction, assuring that each and every one is free from constraint, external or internal. Why do you think we fight so hard over who controls that state? Because our Platonic state now defines us. Or we want to finally, at long last, free the market, telling ourselves what we really need is to let the invisible hand guide us to perfect liberty – no not God’s hand but the invisible hand of our own self-interest. How could that go wrong? And in the never-ending hunt for oppressors we overlook the greatest oppressor of all – ourselves.

As I journeyed across the world reading Deneen in the courtyard of Topkapi Palace, sitting gazing at the Eiffel Tower or eating noodles at a local food stand beside a great river in Asia, I was amazed by the pervasiveness of the homogeneity that Deneen rightly identifies as the sign of our abiding anti-culture. Smart phones that ring no matter where I am; brands I recognize announced in technicolor from a garish sign over an ancient mosque; cars and planes and laptops that have all made our world safe, safe but fundamentally unstable.

Will humanity realize that our culture-less consumption is ephemeral? That we can’t keep it up and that this time maybe, just maybe, no technological “fix” will be forthcoming? At least not in time. At least not for the animals, for the water, for the forests and the trees and for ourselves.

Will we look up in time from our smartphones to realize that yes, we have freed ourselves from each other and from any limits of anything that we might self-identify as “oppressive”, but this has only made us miserable as it destroyed our world?

I doubt it – for I am not optimistic. Those who read my musings about “the arriving ordeal” know at least that. But what to do? Darned if I know – except the one answer I always return to. Read. Read backwards; start with Deneen and go back and back and back again until you arrive at Tolkien and then keep going till you get to Tocqueville and keep going still. Burke and Bacon and Locke and Augustine; Cicero and finally Aristotle. Look around at the valleys and the mountains that define your values, that set the limits to your expansion – yes there are limits – and make your peace with them, finding again your faith and your family and eventually your happiness. I will do the same. Maybe someday we will meet, and you will tell me about how you found your joy and I will smile while I tell you about mine. And they will be different, because by then our civilization of mono-anticulture will have come crashing down. And we will tell the story of how we survived.

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About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of four novels. The most recent is "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps. Other works include "Lords of Misrule", "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio".
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