What do you call a political philosophy that identifies the locus of America’s current challenges as located in both a libertarian view of sexual mores, and in an unchecked greed for capitalistic consumption and acquisition, including a myopic need to dominate nature? Is this republican or democratic? Is it conservative, liberal, or perhaps socialist? Refreshingly, the answer is none of the above. Yet, this is the political philosophy offered by Patrick Deneen in his much discussed book Why Liberalism Failed. Of course, in one sense such views are not revolutionary as they reflect the orthodox thought of the Catholic tradition from which Deneen emanates, including ideas espoused by Popes Francis, Benedict, and John Paul II, even though in America the first is considered liberal, and the latter two conservative. And, as a reformed Christian, I would argue that such thought is also very consistent with New Testament Biblical values of the early church. Yet, in our stringently dichotomized American context where culture wars dominate, and nuance and complexity are quashed or ignored, Deneen’s thought, at this moment, offers hope for culture war pacifists such as myself, who believe our only chance at healing lies outside what seem to be the sole two American options.
Deneen views the challenge to the rule of law in the Trump presidency, the clouding of truth with noise, the discontent over inequalities caused by globalization, and the atomization leading to the breakdown of family structure and social institutions--not as a matter of which political party gains ascendency or which leader is in office--but as signs that the entire American social and political order are engrossed in deep pathology. For Deneen, philosophical Liberalism's focus (the ideas undergirding both democratic and republican beliefs) upon individual liberty and autonomy, and its reverence for the market, has inevitably led to gross inequality and social breakdown, with a natural progression toward the grasping after anti-democratic authoritarian solutions. For Deneen, the ethos of the American constitutional democracy, and the intellectual thought undergirding it, themselves have led to this very moment. The sexual revolution and the centralization of economic power based upon globalized consumerism, have destroyed relational community, and have thus destroyed our primary means of supporting the development of self-governance. We have increasingly become hedonistic creatures, living a false freedom in which we can express our anger and libido, consume, and click links at will, when in fact we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our lower human impulses.
Liberalism was thus a titanic wager that ancient norms of behavior could be lifted in the name of a new form of liberation and that conquering nature would supply the fuel to permit nearly infinite choices. The twin outcomes of this effort—the depletion of moral self-command and the depletion of material resources—make inevitable an inquiry into what comes after liberalism (Deneen, p. 41).
Yet, the means of this inevitability is where, perhaps, Deneen departs from traditional Catholic thought and exhibits his fascinating eclecticism (and it is perhaps this eclecticism which is misleading his critics). Deneen does not portray republican and democratic power brokers serving the Prince of Darkness with a grand master plan to produce economic inequality, family dissolution, and community breakdown. Instead the values and assumptions of the essence of individuals realized as free agents removed from culture, race, religion, and local context, permeate down to create beings that are unable to self-govern. And, ironically, relates Deneen, because we are unable to self-govern, an expansion of government influence is necessary.
Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual “creates” the state through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal state “creates” the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, increasingly defined as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over circumstances. Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the state—as so much of modern political reporting would suggest—liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection: its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state (Deneen, p. 49).
Such theory of operationalized consequences almost seems to echo ideas of hegemonic cultural domination delineated by Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, which describes the great prestidigitation of wealthy capitalists as socially constructing a cultural and political order which simultaneously disempowers the working class while convincing them that such order is natural and inevitable (boy, could we go off on a tangent here and apply this to the current American context, and using the culture wars to divide the black and white working class!) Forgive me if this excites me too much. For many opt-out culture war pacifists (not necessary one that believes violence is never justified, but instead one that is a conscientious objector in refusing to participate in the culture war) such as myself, we often describe ourselves as simultaneously so far to the left and so far to the right, that the far ends of the continuum bend down and touch each other while creating a circle (The New Testament, after all, both suggests common property ownership and condemns sex outside of marriage. How un-American is that!)
To make this more concrete, let’s consider our latest American screaming match resulting from the horrible and tragic mass shooting in Parkland Florida. Both sides of the culture war are, understandably, angered and fearful from this event (although perhaps not enough pure sadness?) However, given that our nation really has only two cultural languages, with few bi-lingual citizens, the two sides of the war are speaking two radically different dialects in response. Conservatives feel safer with more guns, as it allows the majority not prone to unjust violence to defend them-selves when no state actors are there to provide such defense. Liberals feel safer with less guns, as they feel the violence is part of a “gun culture” in which the very ubiquity of guns leads to masculinity run amok, vengeance, and violent impulse. Liberals are arguing for assault weapons bans to quell future acts of mass violence. Conservatives yell back that criminals will obtain illegal guns just as criminals obtain illegal drugs, that the only defense for law-abiding citizens is to have guns themselves, and that the real problem is the breakdown of family, community, self-discipline, and church going.
The revelation that I am an existential alien on American soil is that I think there is logic on both sides of this argument. Ultimately, the phenomenon of mass shootings is so complex that it seems to be an empirical issue, but the level of emotion and vitriol in the debate makes empirical inquiry impossible, just as reality and truth are becoming increasingly irrelevant throughout American society (will save for another time the argument that spirituality is our best hope for empiricism restoration). But perhaps a Deneenian application can help us. Perhaps the issue is not whether we will solve the problem through government regulation or whether limiting government will allow for individual liberty to solve the problem. Perhaps government regulation and individual liberty are part of the same problem. One application of this belief would be to listen more to each other, and to truly attempt solutions that would strengthen community, protect the freedom of law abiding citizens to defend themselves, and limit the possibilities that those with a high likelihood to commit harm could obtain a weapon of mass destruction. If this solution does not seem that radical—the radical part would be that we would have to listen to each other and acknowledge that both sides have legitimate insights, in order to obtain such a solution.
I want to be clear, that this last application is mine, and I have no idea how Patrick Deneen approaches the issue of mass violence. My main point is that cultural and political theory such as Deneen’s possesses the possibility to embrace culture war pacifism, to find commonality among all Americans, and build a healthier future which neither rejects our history and traditions as fatally flawed, nor uncritically seeks to return to a former period, but re-invents something new using the best of the past, while discarding past injustices (Contrary to Deneen critics such as Timothy Fuller, Deneen does not reject important achievements in our political ideals, but states that such ideals have inevitably led to our current situation. See Deneen, p. 182). Complexity is more challenging, but it also may lead to a softening around the edges, and it may allow the nuances that already exist to bubble up. I have not seen two possible solutions in American among its people—I have seen at least 20. Healing will take insights from all of these, but such insights will only be heard if we create room and pay attention to their expression. For this to happen, we have to opt-out and become culture war pacifists.