Often, a political ideology can be justified on the basis of its principles, despite its many failings in practice. This is how Francis Fukuyama and Patrick Deneen’s interpretations of liberalism should be framed. Both thinkers are extremely adept at charting the genealogy of liberalism and its outgrowths within economics and culture. Both also offer sharp analyses of the crises that beset liberalism today.
In his short essay, “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” Fukuyama is sympathetic to the philosophical foundations that gave rise to and still underpin the norms and institutions that safeguard liberalism. He is alive to the contradictions inherent to the practice of liberalism, documents the increasing assaults on liberalism from both left and right and remains adamant that the principles that gave birth to liberalism are still worth defending. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, by contrast, is a devastating polemic against the moral foundations of liberalism and the sinister ways in which liberalism has permeated and corrupted political, economic, cultural and technological life. Deneen’s central, controversial claim is that liberalism’s failure is paradoxically due to its unbridled success. So who is right?
Liberalism Qua Fukuyama
When he declares that democracy is currently under attack, Fukuyama is referring to liberal democracy, with the emphasis on liberal. According to Fukuyama, “classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity … it is a system for peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies.” Classical liberalism, for him, is based on the fundamental principles of tolerance of fellow citizens on the one hand, and legal protections guaranteed by the state on the other. The raison d’être of the state is to guarantee this tolerance and security.
Fukuyama demonstrates the historical necessity of the liberal principles and institutions that secure tolerance and liberty. Enlightenment and Christian ideas of dignity and intrinsic human value and rationality, early conceptions of property rights and a wish to manage internal conflicts between different ethnic and religious sects while avoiding majoritarian or state tyranny were all factors in the development of liberalism: a legal and political regime that saw the individual as paramount and therefore recognized and codified her rights and freedoms. Tolerance was key: “You do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what those things are without interference from you or from the state.” In essence, liberalism, argues Fukuyama, was a pragmatic solution to the many heated disagreements between groups and individuals, since it relegated the adjudication of such differences to the private sphere and made politics purely about providing security.
Liberalism and Its Failures
Like Fukuyama, Deneen describes liberalism as “a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing.” According to him, liberalism conceives of human beings as rights-bearing entities, who could and should be able to determine for themselves what a good life ought to look like. Like Fukuyama, he views this as part of a contractual view of state and society, in which rights and duties are applicable to all and perennially reinforced by free and fair elections. Liberalism embraced and continues to embrace the idea of universal natural rights and freedoms, vouchsafed by the rule of law and legal institutions designed to check state and majoritarian abuses of power. Such liberty also includes rational agents’ ability to make choices and take initiatives within a free market economic system. But Deneen also sees liberalism as plagued with internal contradictions.
Deneen’s central claim is intentionally paradoxical: the “accumulating catastrophe” of liberalism is evidence of its success because liberalism is inherently unsustainable and self-contradictory: “A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.”
These inherent contradictions are masked by the seamless way in which liberalism integrates its subjects into its ideological scheme. Deneen correctly characterizes liberalism as an ideology. An ideology is an amalgam of thoughts, beliefs, practices, representations, institutions and codified moral indices that insidiously shape the social and political order. While liberalism lays claim to neutrality, beneficence, righteousness and the promotion of political and economic liberty, it stealthily overruns and corrodes every meaningful sphere of existence.
The Fight for Liberalism
Deneen and Fukuyama agree on a lot—for instance, on the fact that liberalism has come to be defined by the radical deregulation and decentralization of the market economy, especially as the US has moved away from civic nationalism. Both thinkers argue that the neoliberalisation of the economy paired with the liberal ethos of unfettered freedom have obscured once important cultural distinctions and increased economic inequality. Multiculturalism and neoliberalism create a culture in which every individual is interchangeable and can be viewed purely in economic terms. Neoliberal capitalism is characterised by privatization, deregulation, market liberalization, low taxation and hyper-commodification. In addition, liberalism valorises cultural imperialism. The culture clashes resulting from mass immigration, economic inequality and insecurity all nudge people towards authoritarianism and they are all by-products of our current perverse forms of liberalism.
Deneen also argues that previously strong civic and political bonds have fractured under liberalism, partly because it is based on false impressions about human nature and partly because people’s material circumstances contradict the idea that everyone enjoys liberty, equality and the good life. As a result, liberalism either “enforces conformity to a lie it struggles to defend, or it collapses when the gap between claim and reality finally results in the wholesale loss of belief among the populace.” For Deneen, liberalism was originally meant to entail limited government and collective political participation, but state surveillance and militarization and our globalised economy leave citizens little to do beyond taking part in perfunctory and increasingly cynical elections. Under neoliberalism, we labour but are alienated from the fruits of that labour, consume things without having a real sense of their capital value, while the system continues to degrade the environment and fosters dependence on technology. A liberal education is meant to teach us about our human qualities—now, because of our obsession with productivity and competition, education’s main role is to prepare us for precarious job markets. Our fixation with individualism denies our social nature and destroys the communitarian spirit that underpins human culture, morality and democracy.
This is all true, but it misses the point.
Deneen’s critique of liberalism is marred by reactionary fatalism. It is not really an indictment of liberalism as such, but of neoliberal statism. Fukuyama is more convincing since he focuses on liberalism as a political philosophy and demonstrates both how necessary it is and how severely it has been distorted in recent decades.
Liberalism, writes Deneen, “deliberately lowered the horizon of politics,” creating a state full of “depersonalized procedures and mechanisms.” But this, I would argue, was necessary when liberalism was first conceived. Politics needs to be depersonalised to a certain extent in order to calm internal religious and ethnic conflicts by protecting all groups from the tyranny of pure majoritarian democracy and curtail the effects of majoritarian factionalism. But, as politics became depersonalised, Deneen and Fukuyama argue, the focus shifted from a culture of communal involvement and civic bonds to one of homogenised and individualised consumerism.
Deneen is correct that this depersonalization that encouraged consumerism and cultural homogenization has promoted the neoliberal order. This is where Deneen and Fukuyama differ. Fukuyama recognizes that the disquieting consequences we see today are not a result of liberalism, but of its evolution into neoliberalism. As Deneen and Fukuyama show, neoliberalism erodes the civic, economic and politico-cultural principles and ways of life that it was meant to uphold. Undoubtedly, liberalism’s appeal lay in its unobtrusiveness and its ability to make politics less about identity and more about abstract rights and duties. It allows people free choice as to which rights and values they endorse and which state and legal apparatuses they endow with legitimacy. The difference between Fukuyama and Deneen is that Fukuyama wants to revive true liberalism, while Deneen wants to discard liberalism entirely.
As Fukuyama reminds us, in its infancy liberalism was a useful means of tackling religious and ethnic conflicts and providing the individual with political rights and access to free markets. In the aftermath of the second world war, it also staved off national conflicts. However, unfortunately, national and political tribalism has since re-emerged in the worst ways possible. Increasing inequality, social dislocation, mass immigration and cultural conflict have led to the emergence of both left and right-wing populism, increased polarization and the elections of authoritarian demagogues. Fukuyama rightly argues that liberalism is necessarily connected to democracy and that economic and social policies must be tempered by considerations of social equality and stability. He also recognizes that no social order can afford to neglect individual rights and accompanying dignities in favour of illiberal ties based on race, ethnicity or religion.
If we fail to uphold liberalism, we risk falling into authoritarianism. The fight for liberalism is therefore more imperative than ever.
A good example of this is the way in which Deneen views contemporary sexual liberation. It is easy to view this as a moral devaluation of sex and of the female body. However, I would argue that we should prioritise freedom, even if we don’t like the way in which some people exercise that freedom (by commodifying sex, for example). The problem with Deneen is that he constantly harps on the pathologies and excesses that can arise in practice, without acknowledging the value of the principles that underpin the liberal ethos. The neoliberal hegemony has led to the economisation, individualisation, depersonalisation and commodification of our activities as consumers, our education, our bodies and our sociopolitical bonds. While liberalism has afforded us freedoms, neoliberalism we have now extended those freedoms so far that our own freely chosen actions harm us and harm the environment and this, ironically, has made us less free.
So does Deneen offer liberalism a fair shake? Not really. In telling us that we have become less free because of the surreptitious workings of an ideology that proclaims us to be radically free, he has only demonstrated our inability to live up to our ideals. Neoliberal statism may make the process of political participation more difficult and ostensibly meaningless, yet we should encourage people to participate more anyway. Neoliberal statism may devalue education and other aspects of daily existence, but this may be the result of market forces, rather than liberalism. Neoliberal statism may have encouraged individualism, yet we should still strive to improve and maintain our social bonds. We need to ask more of individuals. Deneen’s critiques are broadly accurate. But they are more about neoliberalism than about liberalism tout court and he also writes as though people have no individual agency to change things. It is better to attempt to redeem liberalism than to abandon it. In fact, our political fate depends on it.