The failure of modern liberal democracies. In an interview with Patrick J. Deneen. By Silvio Brachetta

Patrick J. Deneen, speaking of liberalism, speaks of “failure” – and for some time. Liberalism has failed because it has imploded into internal contradictions, which are the fatal house of cards for any ideology. A couple of years ago he published Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, USA, 2018), translated into French and Italian (Perché il liberalismo ha fallito, La Vela, Viareggio, 2021).

Deneen, a Catholic, professor of political science at the University of Notre-Dame (Indiana), recently gave an interview to the French site “La Nef”, where he spoke of a triple “revolution” produced by historical liberalism.

The first revolution – according to Deneen – annihilates two thousand years and more of the freedom narrated and lived as liberation from sin and passions and, at the same time, as a search for virtues. The classical concept of freedom, transmitted by Plato and Aristotle, as well as, later, by Christian theology (and philosophy), is harshly criticized.

By revoking the concept of freedom, modern liberalism has envisioned “a ‘state of nature’, in which each person was equally free to do whatever he wanted.”

In the second revolution, liberalism broke the union of the freedom-virtue-culture triad: freedom, in classical thought, is by no means a “state of nature”, but a conquest that is achieved with difficulty, through discipline and virtue. Freedom is a demanding daily “crop.” Culture has always been a “central necessity” of life, inextricable from the environment in which virtue is forged.

Aristotle especially observed how “the cultivation of virtue” begins before a person even knows what he is. This culture was achieved, in the centuries after the Greek philosophers, through the family, school and religious institutions. Liberal philosophers – Deneen continues – have seen all this as an “obstacle” to freedom: John Stuart Mill himself argued that “culture was a kind of despotism”, so that “the state could be required to limit those aspects of any culture that violated the individual freedom».

For the modern liberal, discipline is seen as a suffocating remnant of the past and cultural institutions as an impediment to the will of the individual.

The third and last revolution, in the interviewee’s opinion, has allowed human power to dominate nature, thanks to science and economic prosperity, ignoring the path of culture. For liberalism, in fact, “there are two main obstacles to human freedom: the rest of the people and nature.” Therefore, it was necessary, in order to achieve freedom, to get rid of the limitations imposed by others and by nature. Everything is reduced to “other”, as a potential limiting of freedom.

The whole of Christian thought, in particular and up to Scholasticism, would see in nature an order of which man was a part. Nature, the cosmos, was not “other” from man, it was not a “limit”, an obstacle to freedom. In fact, a liberation was necessary, but not by dominating and subjecting the laws of nature to the disorderly desires of man.

It was Francis Bacon-recalls Deneen-who described “nature as a prisoner who must be interrogated, even tortured, to reveal its secrets.” Furthermore, the liberals did not stop at manipulating man’s “external” nature but, in their fanatical attempt to produce unconditional freedom, they also began to manipulate “human nature” itself, which was also an obstacle to free will dissociated from reason.

The so-called “state of nature”, in the liberal sense, foresees and describes the human being as “separated” and “individualized” from some “other” (man, nature, human nature). This is the reason – says the author – why the state and society are considered, by liberalism, as “neutral” entities. Without this neutrality, deep down, the forces of culture (not neutral by definition) would still remain active and would hinder the assertion of liberalism, whose true nature, however, is closer to anarchism.

The “state of nature” in the liberal sense, however, “is a pure lie”, as the philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel writes, for example: the state of nature “takes away from our nature our sociability, our dependence and our relational capacity. »; it also denies “our existence as creatures belonging to a long narrative of human history, as beings ‘with’ and as ‘part’ of nature […], as inheritors of culture.”

It is a mere chimera to seek freedom by eliminating culture and tradition, the natural order and relationships. Deneen is convinced that “the more liberalism ‘achieves’, the more it fails”, because it does not create any liberation, but, on the contrary, seeks the enslavement of technology, finance and the most widespread evils of our time.

As has always been the case in history, Deneen realizes that in order to establish a social system based on ideology, it is necessary to use a well-entrenched and totalitarian political system. In the case of modern liberal democracies, it is not possible to do this without a very strong centralized power, of a statist matrix. Instead of the promise of some form of autonomy, restrictive laws and decrees are enacted. The “limited government” of liberal philosophy is pure illusion. Instead, it is an invasive government that seeks simplification and only produces complications; it seeks to impose freedom through “homogenisation” and “conformity,” but only obtains constriction.

The whole apparatus is also tottering around the concept of “tolerance.” So why has liberalism become intolerant? Deneen says that, in its early days, liberalism claimed that “human beings could not agree on the nature of what was good.” Therefore, it was necessary for philosophy to respond, not a church, while the state should have remained neutral, guaranteeing civil peace and tolerance.

Tolerance, however, did not extend to that religion (the Catholic) which “insisted on a public dimension of the ‘good'”, according to the Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine, otherwise it would have dethroned the liberal principle. Ultimately, the Church would only be able to survive if it agreed to become “a totally liberal organization” – which happened as soon as the “judgment” was replaced by the “values of tolerance, love and forgiveness.” In short, liberal society can only stand upright if it is based on “mutual indifference” to the concept of “good.”

There is a conviction, in particular, on which the liberal philosophy is based – Deneen observes: the political order must be the result of popular and democratic “consensus”. This is hypocrisy, since liberalism has always had a congenital distrust of the people. There has always been, in the liberal or progressive, suspicion of the person, who is considered as destabilising and conservative by nature.

The new ruling class has replaced the old aristocracy, to exercise a suspicious control over the masses, through the “bureaucratization of the state”, so that power became “organized and permanent.”

Liberalism does not have the appearance of something that can last – concludes the author. Conformity costs. Bureaucracy costs. Assistentialism costs. In other words, the entire liberal bandwagon has increasingly unsustainable costs, in the economic sense, but also in the sense of surrendering freedom.

A tyranny (or an ideology) cannot be sustained indefinitely. Free initiative, the genius of the individual, the propulsion of inventiveness, the necessary privilege of merit, the various spiritual and practical vocations cannot be perpetually mortified. All this, today, is in the grip of an irrational repression that, perhaps, has in itself the internal fissures for an omen of future collapse.

Silvio Brachetta