Why Liberalism Failed - by Patrick J. Deneen

In the young twenty-first century, liberal democracy, that system that marries majority rule with individual rights, has entered a crisis of legitimacy. As practiced in recent decades, and as an international ordering principle, it has failed to deliver on its promises to growing, and increasingly mobilized and vocal, numbers of people. The symptoms of this ailment are easy to observe: an increasing skew in the distribution of wealth; decay in traditional institutions, from civic associations to labor unions to the family; a loss of trust in authority—political, religious, scientific, journalistic—and among citizens themselves; growing disillusionment with progress in effecting equal justice for all; above all, perhaps, the persistent and widening polarization between those who want increasingly open and experimental societies and those who want to conserve various traditional institutions and practices. The fragmentation not only continues but deepens. As people sort into new social and political tribes, electoral results confound and alarm experts and further widen polarization. W. B. Yeats’s line “the center cannot hold” applies in our fractured societies as much as it did when he wrote it a century ago.

Deneen’s is a radical critique, arguing that liberalism needs not reform but retirement. The problem is not that liberalism has been hijacked but that its elevation of individual autonomy was wrong from the start, and the passage of decades has only made its error more evident.

Introduction: The End of Liberalism

Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of powerlessness by relentlessly advancing the project of “globalization.” The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy—including rights of property, the franchise and its concomitant control over representative institutions, religious liberty, free speech, and security in one’s papers and abode—is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fait accompli. The economy favors a new “meritocracy” that perpetuates its advantages through generational succession, shored up by an educational system that relentlessly sifts winners from losers. A growing distance between liberalism’s claims and its actuality increasingly spurs doubts about those claims rather than engendering trust that the gap will be narrowed. Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. 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. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.


Citizens of advanced liberal democracies are in near revolt against their own governments, the “establishment,” and the politicians they have themselves selected as their leaders and representatives. Overwhelming majorities regard their governments as distant and unresponsive, captured by the wealthy, and ruling solely for the advantage of the powerful. At its inception, liberalism promised to displace an old aristocracy in the name of liberty; yet as it eliminates every vestige of an old order, the heirs of their hopeful antiaristocratic forebears regard its replacement as a new, perhaps even more pernicious, kind of aristocracy.


Civic unhappiness is mirrored in economic discontent. Citizens are more likely to be called “consumers,” yet the liberty to buy every imaginable consumer good does little to assuage the widespread economic anxiety and discontent over waxing inequality—indeed, the assumption by economic leaders seems to be that increased purchasing power of cheap goods will compensate for the absence of economic security and the division of the world into generational winners and losers. There has always been, and probably always will be, economic inequality, but few civilizations appear to have so extensively perfected the separation of winners from losers or created such a massive apparatus to winnow those who will succeed from those who will fail. Marx once argued that the greatest source of economic discontent was not necessarily inequality but alienation—the separation of worker from product and the attendant loss of any connection with the goal and object of one’s efforts. Today’s economy not only maintains and extends this alienation but adds a profound new form of geographic alienation, the physical separation of beneficiaries of the globalized economy from those left behind. This leads the economic winners to combine lamentations of economic inequality with sotto voce denunciations of the backward views of those who condemn globalization’s course. The losers, meanwhile, are consoled with the reminder that they are wealthy beyond compare to even the wealthiest aristocrats of an earlier age. Material comforts are a ready salve for the discontents of the soul.


Advanced liberalism is eliminating liberal education with keen intent and ferocity, finding it impractical both ideologically and economically. Students are taught by most of their humanities and social science professors that the only remaining political matter at hand is to equalize respect and dignity accorded to all people, even as those institutions are mills for sifting the economically viable from those who will be mocked for their backward views on trade, immigration, nationhood, and religious beliefs. The near unanimity of political views represented on college campuses is echoed by the omnipresent belief that an education must be economically practical, culminating in a high-paying job in a city populated by like-minded college graduates who will continue to reinforce their keen outrage over inequality while enjoying its bounteous fruits. Universities scramble to provide practical “learning outcomes,” either by introducing a raft of new programs aimed to make students immediately employable or by rebranding and reorienting existing studies to tout their economic relevance. There is simply no choice to do otherwise in a globalizing, economically competitive world. Few remark upon the fact that this locution becomes ever more common in advanced liberalism, the regime that was supposed to ensure endless free choice.


The modern scientific project of human liberation from the tyranny of nature has been framed as an effort to “master” or “control” nature, or as a “war” against nature in which its study would provide the tools for its subjugation at the hands of humans. Francis Bacon—who rejected classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and justice, arguing instead that “knowledge is power”—compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets. Even if we do not speak in these terms any more, the modern scientific project now dominates what we regard as useful and rewarding inquiry. Yet nature seems not to have surrendered.

Our carbon-saturated world is the hangover of a 150-year party in which, until the very end, we believed we had achieved the dream of liberation from nature’s constraints. We still hold the incoherent view that science can liberate us from limits while solving the attendant consequences of that project.

Meanwhile, we are increasingly shaped by technology that promises liberation from limits of place, time, and even identity. The computer in every person’s pocket has been shown to change the structure of our minds, turning us into different creatures, conforming us to the demands and nature of a technology that is supposed to allow expression of our true selves. How many of us can sit for an hour reading a book or simply thinking or meditating without an addict’s longing for just a hit of the cell phone, that craving that won’t allow us to think or concentrate or reflect until we’ve had our hit? This same technology that is supposed to connect us more extensively and intimately is making us more lonely, more apart.

The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together. Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism. For all the claims about electoral transformations—for “Hope and Change” or “Making America Great Again”—two facts are naggingly apparent: modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other does the opposite; rather, both move simultaneously in tune with our deepest philosophic premises. Claiming to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships, liberalism has homogenized the world in its image—ironically, often fueled by claims of “multiculturalism” or, today, “diversity.” Having successfully disembedded us from relationships that once made claims upon us but also informed our conception of selfhood, our sense of ourselves as citizens sharing a common fate and as economic actors sharing a common world, liberalism has left the individual exposed to the tools of liberation—leaving us in a weakened state in which the domains of life that were supposed to liberate us are completely beyond our control or governance. This suggests that all along, the individual was the “tool” of the liberal system, not—as was believed—vice versa.

A rejection of the world’s first and last remaining ideology does not entail its replacement with a new and doubtless not very different ideology. Political revolution to overturn a revolutionary order would produce only disorder and misery. A better course will consist in smaller, local forms of resistance: practices more than theories, the building of resilient new cultures against the anticulture of liberalism. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early decades of the nineteenth century, he observed that Americans tended to act differently from and better than their individualistic and selfish ideology. “They do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves,” he wrote. What’s needed now is not to perfect our philosophy any further but to again do more honor to ourselves. Out of the fostering of new and better selves, porously invested in the fate of other selves—through the cultivation of cultures of community, care, self-sacrifice, and small-scale democracy—a better practice might arise, and from it, ultimately, perhaps a better theory than the failing project of liberalism.

Unsustainable Liberalism

The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and action. Three main efforts undergirded this revolution in thought and practice. First, politics would be based upon reliability of “the low” rather than aspiration to “the high.” The classical and Christian effort to foster virtue was rejected as both paternalistic and ineffectual, prone to abuse and unreliability.

Second, the classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation and self-rule relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue—and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny—came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation.

Third, if political foundations and social norms required correctives to establish stability and predictability, and (eventually) to enlarge the realm of individual freedom, the human subjection to the dominion and limits of nature needed also to be overcome. A “new science of politics” was to be accompanied by a new natural science—in particular, a science that would seek practical applications meant to give humans a chance in the war against nature.

A revolution in modern science thus called as well for overturning such philosophical traditions as Stoicism and Christian emphasis upon “acceptance” in favor of belief in an expanding and potentially limitless human capacity to control circumstance and effect human desires upon the world.

A main result of the widespread view that liberalism’s triumph is complete and uncontested—indeed, that rival claims are no longer regarded as worthy of consideration—is a conclusion within the liberal order that various ills that infect the body politic as well as the civil and private spheres are either remnants of insufficiently realized liberalism or happenstance problems that are subject to policy or technological fix within the liberal horizon. Liberalism’s own success makes it difficult to sustain reflection on the likelihood that the greatest current threat to liberalism lies not outside and beyond liberalism but within it. The potency of this threat arises from the fundamental nature of liberalism, from what are thought to be its very strengths—especially its faith in its ability of self-correction and its belief in progress and continual improvement—which make it largely impervious to discerning its deepest weaknesses and even self-inflicted decline.

Perhaps above all, liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish. The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability. The increased focus upon, and intensifying political battles over, the role of centralized national and even international governments is at once the consequence of liberalism’s move toward homogenization and one of the indications of its fragility. The global market displaces a variety of economic subcultures, enforcing a relentless logic of impersonal transactions that have led to a crisis of capitalism and the specter of its own unraveling. Battles in policy areas such as education and health care—in which either the state or the market is proposed as providing the resolution—reflect the weakening of forms of care that drew on more local commitments and devotions that neither the state nor market can hope to replicate or replace. The triumphant march of liberalism has succeeded in at once drawing down the social and natural resources that liberalism did not create and cannot replenish, but which sustained liberalism even as its advance eroded its own unacknowledged foundations.

Liberalism is most fundamentally constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute “liberalism” inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of “liberty.”


The first revolution, and the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism, is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.

Only the state can limit our natural liberty: the state is the sole creator and enforcer of positive law, and it even determines legitimate and illegitimate expressions of religious belief. The state is charged with maintaining social stability and preventing a return to natural anarchy; in so doing, it “secures” our natural rights. Human beings are thus, by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous. Liberalism begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships—beginning with, but not limited to, political bonds—becomes increasingly dependent on whether those relationships have been chosen, and chosen on the basis of their service to rational self-interest.

Liberalism began with the explicit assertion that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision making. Yet it was implicitly constituted as a normative project: what it presented as a description of human voluntarism in fact had to displace a very different form of human self-understanding and experience. In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships. Liberalism often claims neutrality about the choices people make in liberal society; it is the defender of “Right,” not any particular conception of the “Good.” Yet it is not neutral about the basis on which people make their decisions. In the same way that courses in economics claim merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors, but in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships—to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism encourages loose connections.


Liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences and humanity’s relationship to the natural world. The first wave of this revolution—inaugurated by early-modern thinkers dating back to the Renaissance—insisted that man should employ natural science and a transformed economic system to seek mastery of nature. The second wave—developed largely by various historicist schools of thought, especially in the nineteenth century—replaced belief in the idea of a fixed human nature with belief in human “plasticity” and capacity for moral progress.

First-wave liberals are today represented by “conservatives,” who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends but oppose most forms of biotechnological “enhancement.” Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies. Today’s political debates occur largely and almost exclusively between these two varieties of liberals. Neither side confronts the fundamentally alternative understanding of human nature and the human relationship to nature defended by the preliberal tradition.

Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires. This kind of liberty is a condition of self-governance of both city and soul, drawing closely together the individual cultivation and practice of virtue and the shared activities of self-legislation. A central preoccupation of such societies becomes the comprehensive formation and education of individuals and citizens in the art and virtue of self-rule. Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere unconstrained by positive law. This concept effectively brings into being what was merely theoretical in its imaginary state of nature, shaping a world in which the theory of natural human individualism becomes ever more a reality, now secured through the architecture of law, politics, economics, and society. Under liberalism, human beings increasingly live in a condition of autonomy in which the threatened anarchy of our purportedly natural condition is controlled and suppressed through the imposition of laws and the corresponding growth of the state. With humanity liberated from constitutive communities (leaving only loose connections) and nature harnessed and controlled, the constructed sphere of autonomous liberty expands seemingly without limit. Ironically, the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms. These controls were largely cultural, not political—law was less extensive and existed largely as a continuation of cultural norms, the informal expectations of behavior learned through family, church, and community. With the liberation of individuals from these associations, there is more need to regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law. At the same time, as the authority of social norms dissipates, they are increasingly felt to be residual, arbitrary, and oppressive, motivating calls for the state to actively work toward their eradication. Liberalism thus culminates in two ontological points: the liberated individual and the controlling state.

In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.

If I am right that the liberal project is ultimately self-contradictory and that it culminates in the twin depletions of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied, then we face a choice. We can pursue more local forms of self-government by choice, or suffer by default an oscillation between growing anarchy and the increasingly forcible imposition of order by an increasingly desperate state. Taken to its logical conclusion, liberalism’s end game is unsustainable in every respect: it cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it provide endless material growth in a world of limits. We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back inexorably into a future in which extreme license coexists with extreme oppression.

Uniting Individualism and Statism

Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas. This deeper cooperation helps to explain how it has happened that contemporary liberal states—whether in Europe or America—have become simultaneously both more statist, with ever more powers and activity vested in central authority, and more individualistic, with people becoming less associated and involved with such mediating institutions as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family. For both “liberals” and “conservatives,” the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state.

The “individuation” of people required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts but people’s acceptance that their labor and its products were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian and individualistic terms. Yet market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as these “fictitious commodities”—as material for use in industrial processes—in order to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves as individuals separate from nature and one another. As Polanyi pithily says of this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”

Nisbet remains an instructive guide. In The Quest for Community, his 1953 analysis of the rise of modern ideologies, Nisbet argued that the active dissolution of traditional human communities and institutions had given rise to a condition in which a basic human need—“the quest for community”—was no longer being met. Statism arose as a violent reaction against this feeling of atomization. As naturally political and social creatures, people require a thick set of constitutive bonds in order to function as fully formed human beings. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (nuclear as well as extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture, and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon their autonomy, deracinated humans seek belonging and self-definition through the only legitimate form of organization remaining available to them: the state. Nisbet saw the rise of fascism and communism as the predictable consequence of the liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities. Those ideologies offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of the associations they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious membership, a kind of church of the state. Our “community” was now to consist of countless fellow humans who shared an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation, and isolation. It would provide for our wants and needs; all it asked in return was complete devotion to the state and the elimination of any allegiance to any other intermediary entity. To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted. Thus Nisbet concludes, “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs. Liberalism thus increasingly requires a legal and administrative regime, driven by the imperative of replacing all nonliberal forms of support for human flourishing (such as schools, medicine, and charity), and hollowing any deeply held sense of shared future or fate among the citizenry. Informal relationships are replaced by administrative directives, political policies, and legal mandates, undermining voluntary civic membership and requiring an ever-expanding state apparatus to ensure social cooperation. The threat and evidence of declining civic norms require centralized surveillance, highly visible police presence, and a carceral state to control the effects of its own successes while diminishing civic trust and mutual commitment.

Liberalism as Anticulture

THE dual expansion of the state and personal autonomy rests extensively on the weakening and eventual loss of particular cultures, and their replacement not by a single liberal culture but by a pervasive and encompassing anticulture. What is popularly called a “culture,” often modified by an adjective—for instance, “pop culture” or “media culture” or “multiculturalism”—is in fact a sign of the evisceration of culture as a set of generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular settings.

Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time and place—form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The advance of this anticulture takes two primary forms. Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.

A core feature of the liberal project is antipathy to culture as a deep relationship with a nature that defines and limits human nature.

Evidence of our anticulture surrounds us yet is pervasively denied. Liberalism extends itself by inhabiting spaces abandoned by local cultures and traditions, leading either to their discarding or suppression or, far more often, to their contentless redefinition. Rather than produce our own cultures, grounded in local places, embedded in time, and usually developed from an inheritance from relatives, neighbors, and community—music, art, storytelling, food—we are more likely to consume prepackaged, market-tested, mass-marketed consumables, often branded in commercialized symbolism that masks that culture’s evisceration.

Technology and the Loss of Liberty

There is a long tradition of cultural criticism, ranging from Lewis Mumford’s critiques of modernism to Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, which emphasizes the way the “technique” of technology erases everything in its path in the name of utility and efficiency, and more recently to Wendell Berry, who has argued that machine technology has its own logic, which tends to destroy the practices and traditions of a community. Perhaps the most representative voice in this tradition is that of Neil Postman, whose book Technopoly—published in 1992—was suggestively subtitled The Surrender of Culture to Technology. In that book, Postman describes the rise in the modern era of what he calls Technocracy. Preindustrial forms of culture and social organization used tools no less than technocratic societies, Postman writes, but the tools they employed “did not attack (or more precisely, were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization.” The tools adopted by a Technocracy, by contrast, constantly transform the way of life. Postman writes, “Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development... Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.” From technocracy we have entered the age of “technopoly,” in which a culturally flattened world operates under an ideology of progress that leads to “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” The residual cultural practices that survived the era of technocracy now give way to a transformed world in which technology is itself our culture—or anticulture, a tradition-destroying and custom-undermining dynamic that replaces cultural practices, memory, and beliefs.

A technological society like our own comes into being through a new kind of political technology—one that replaces the ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good with self-interest, the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over a concern for public weal, and an acquired ability to reconsider any relationships that limit our personal liberty. In effect, a new political technology is invented—a “new science of politics”—that itself conditions our understanding of the purposes and ends of science and technology. Technology does not exist autonomous of political and social norms and beliefs, but its development and applications are shaped by such norms. Liberalism introduces a set of norms that lead us, ironically, to the belief that technology develops independent of any norms and intentions, but rather shapes our norms, our polity, and even humanity, and inevitably escapes our control.

In light of this set of political preconditions to a technological society, we can reconsider the two dominant narratives by which we tend to think about our relationship to technology: that technology “shapes” us in ways that should cause regret and even concern, and that its effects are inevitable and irreversible. First, as we have seen, there is much concern about the ways that modern technology undermines community and tends to make us more individualistic, but in light of the deeper set of conditions that led to the creation of our technological society, we can see that “technology” simply supports the fundamental commitments of early-modern political philosophy and its founding piece of technology, our modern republican government and the constitutional order. It is less a matter of our technology “making us” than of our deeper political commitments shaping our technology. You could say that our political technology is the operating system that creates the environment in which various technological programs may thrive, and that the operating system was itself the result of a transformation of the definition and understanding of liberty.

We regard our condition as one of freedom, whereas from the standpoint of liberal modernity, adherents of Amish culture are widely perceived to be subject to oppressive rules and customs. Yet we should note that while we have choices about what kind of technology we will use—whether a sedan or a jeep, an iPhone or a Galaxy, a Mac or a PC—we largely regard ourselves as subject to the logic of technological development and ultimately not in a position to eschew any particular technology. By contrast, the Amish—who seem to constrain so many choices—exercise choice over the use and adoption of technologies based upon criteria upon which they base their community. Who is free?

Liberalism against Liberal Arts

if liberalism ultimately replaces all forms of culture with a pervasive anticulture, then it must undermine education as well. In particular, it must undermine liberal education, the education that was understood as the main means of educating free persons by means of deep engagement with the fruits of long cultural inheritance, particularly the great texts of antiquity and the long Christian tradition. To the extent that a fully realized liberalism undermines culture and cultivation into liberty as a form of self-governance, an education for a free people is displaced by an education that makes liberal individuals servants to the end of untutored appetite, restlessness, and technical mastery of the natural world. Liberal education is replaced with servile education.

The collapse of the liberal arts in this nation follows closely upon the redefinition of liberty, away from its ancient and Christian understanding of self-rule and disciplined self-command, in favor of an understanding of liberty as the absence of restraints upon one’s desires. If the purpose of the liberal arts was to seek an instruction in self-rule, then its teaching no longer aligns with the contemporary ends of education. Long-standing requirements to learn ancient languages in order to read the classical texts, or to require an intimate familiarity with the Bible and scriptural interpretation, were displaced by a marketplace of studies driven by individual taste and preference. Above all, the liberal arts are increasingly replaced by “STEM,” which combines a remnant of the ancient liberal arts—science and mathematics—with their applied forms, technology and engineering, alongside increasing demands for preparation for careers in business and finance.

In response to these tectonic shifts, those who labored in the humanities began to question their place within the university. Their practitioners still studied the great texts, but the reason for doing so was increasingly in doubt. Did it make sense any longer to teach young people the challenging lessons of how to use freedom well, when the scientific world was soon to make those lessons unnecessary? Could an approach based on culture and tradition remain relevant in an age that valued, above all, innovation and progress? How could the humanities prove their worth in the eyes of administrators and the broader world? These doubts within the humanities were a fertile seedbed for self-destructive tendencies. Inspired by Heideggerian theories that placed primacy on the liberation of the will, first poststructuralism and then postmodernism took root. These and other approaches, while apparently hostile to the rationalist claims of the sciences, were embraced out of the need to conform to the academic demands, set by the natural sciences, for “progressive” knowledge. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their superiority to the authors they studied; they could display their antitraditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” that aimed to expose the way texts were deeply informed by inegalitarian prejudices, and that even questioned the idea that texts contained a “teaching” as intended by the author, offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. By adopting a jargon comprehensible only to “experts,” they could emulate the scientific priesthood, even if by doing so they betrayed the humanities’ original mandate to guide students through their cultural inheritance. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied. In an effort to keep pace with their counterparts in STEM disciplines, the humanities became the most conspicuously liberative of the disciplines, even challenging (albeit fecklessly) the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. Natural conditions—such as those inescapably linked to the biological facts of human sexuality—came to be regarded as “socially constructed.” Nature was no longer a standard in any sense, since it was now manipulable. Why accept any of the facts of biology when those “facts” could be altered, when identity itself is a matter of choice? If humans had any kind of “nature,” then the sole permanent feature that seemed acceptable was the centrality of will—the raw assertion of power over restraints or limits, and the endless possibilities of self-creation. Ironically, while postmodernism has posed itself as the great opponent of rationalist scientism, it shares the same basic impulse: both rose to dominance in the university in conformity with the modern definition of freedom. In the humanities, this belief today takes the form of radical emancipatory theory focused on destroying all forms of hierarchy, tradition, and authority, liberating the individual through the tools of research and progress. A special focus of the modern academy is sexual autonomy, a pursuit that reveals how closely it ultimately sides with a scientific project aimed at mastering all aspects of nature, including human reproduction. The humanities and social sciences also focus on identity politics and redressing past injustices to specific groups, under the “multicultural” and “diversity” banners that ironically contribute to a campus monoculture. The groups that are deemed worthy of strenuous efforts to redress grievances are identified for features relating to their bodies—race, gender, sexual identity—while “communities of work and culture,” including cohesive ethnic and class groupings, receive scant attention. Thus while students’ groups grounded in racial or sexual identity demand justice so that they can fully join modern liberal society, cohesive ethnic groups resistant to liberal expressive individualism like Kurds or Hmong, persecuted religious minorities such as Copts, nonurban nonelites such as leaders in the 4-H, and the rural poor can expect little attention from today’s campus liberals.

Today the liberal arts have exceedingly few defenders. The children of the left cultural warriors of the 1980s are no longer concerned with a more representative and inclusive canon. They are more interested in advancing the cause of egalitarian autonomy, now arrayed against the older liberal norms of academic freedom and free speech in the name of what some call “academic justice” and greater campus representation. While a rallying point is the cry for greater diversity, the ongoing project of “diversification” in fact creates greater ideological homogeneity on nearly every campus. Under the guise of differences in race, an exploding number of genders, and a variety of sexual orientations, the only substantive worldview advanced is that of advanced liberalism: the ascent of the autonomous individual backed by the power and support of the state and its growing control over institutions, including schools and universities. The children of the right’s cultural warriors have also largely abandoned interest in the role of formative books as the central contribution for cultivating self-government. Instead, today’s “conservatives” are more likely to dismiss the role of the liberal arts not only as a lost cause, but not even worth the fight anymore. Instead, reflecting priorities of the modern marketplace, they are more inclined to call for greater emphasis on STEM and economic fields—those fields that have gained prominence because of the victory of ideas in many of the “Great Books” that successfully proposed that old books might no longer be studied.

The New Aristocracy

A two-tier system has arisen in which elite students are culled from every corner of the globe so that they may prepare for lives of deracinated vagabondage, majoring only in what Wendell Berry calls “upward mobility.” Elite universities engage in the educational equivalent of strip mining: identifying economically viable raw materials in every city, town, and hamlet, they strip off that valuable commodity, process it in a distant location, and render the products economically useful for productivity elsewhere. The places that supplied the raw materials are left much like depressed coal towns whose mineral wealth has been long since mined and exported. Such students embrace “identity” politics and “diversity” to serve their economic interests, perpetual “potentiality” and permanent placelessness. The identities and diversity thus secured are globally homogenous, the precondition for a fungible global elite who readily identify other members capable of living in a cultureless and placeless world defined above all by liberal norms of globalized indifference toward shared fates of actual neighbors and communities. This in turn induces the globalized irresponsibility that was reflected in the economic interactions that precipitated the 2008 economic crisis but which is assuaged by calls for “social justice,” generally to be handled through the depersonalized levers of the state. One of the most powerful ways that liberalism advances is by implicitly encouraging globalized narcissism while perpetuating a pervasive belief in its own benevolence.

In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray reports that while stable marriages are more likely to contribute to various measures of life success, those most likely to form stable lifelong marriages are those at the elite levels of the social ladder. Those in the lower tiers, meanwhile, are experiencing catastrophic levels of familial and social breakdown, making it all but impossible for them or their children to move into the upper tier. Elites are studiously silent about the familial basis of their relative success. Marital stability is now a form of competitive advantage for the upper tier, an advantage amplified by the insistence that family formation is a matter of individual choice and even an obstacle to autonomy. Having shaped the family in the image of the Hobbesian state of nature, its adoption by the strong is now one more tool for advantage over the weak.

Liberalism was justified, and gained popular support, as the opponent of and alternative to the old aristocracy. It attacked inherited privilege, overturned prescribed economic roles, and abolished fixed social positions, arguing instead for openness based upon choice, talent, opportunity, and industry. The irony is the creation of a new aristocracy that has enjoyed inherited privileges, prescribed economic roles, and fixed social positions. Even as liberalism’s architects were forthright about their ambition to displace the old aristocracy, they were not silent about their hopes of creating a new aristocracy. Widespread abhorrence of the old aristocracy blinded many who acquiesced in liberalism’s ambitions, even as it positively appealed to those who believed they would join the new aristocracy. Liberalism begins as a version of the Rawlsian Original Position, offering a veil of ignorance beyond which it is promised that there will be certain winners and losers. Rather than encouraging the embrace of relative economic and social equality, as Rawls supposed, this scenario was embraced by those of liberal dispositions precisely because they anticipated being its winners. Those inclined to deracination, rootlessness, materialism, risk taking, dislocating social change, and inequality in effect assured their own success, even as they appealed to the system’s likely losers by emphasizing the injustice of aristocratic orders.

A subsistence economy is noteworthy for almost complete material equality between ruler and ruled. The aristocratic order is marked by pervasive inequality of rank and status, but those differences are relatively immovable. The proposed liberal order, by contrast, is premised on an elastic and expansive condition of inequality based upon economic prosperity as the method of differentiation between the higher and lower orders. The means of assuaging indignities, slights, resentment, or anger at the widening gap between high and low, successful and ineffective, rulers and ruled, is the promise of ever-increasing material prosperity for every member of society. This is liberalism’s most fundamental wager: the replacement of one unequal and unjust system with another system enshrining inequality that would be achieved not by oppression and violence but with the population’s full acquiescence, premised on the ongoing delivery of increasing material prosperity along with the theoretical possibility of class mobility.

The unleashing of spontaneous, creative, unpredictable, unconventional, often offensive forms of individuality was Mill’s goal. Extraordinary individuals—the most educated, the most creative, the most adventurous, even the most powerful—freed from the rule of Custom, might transform society. “Persons of genius,” Mill acknowledges, “are always likely to be a small minority”; yet such people, who are “more individual than any other people,” less capable of “fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides,” require “an atmosphere of freedom.” Society must be remade for the benefit of this small, but in Mill’s view vital, number. A society based on custom constrained individuality, and those who craved most to be liberated from its shackles were not “ordinary” people but people who thrived on breaking out of the customs that otherwise governed society. Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living”: society as test tube for the sake of geniuses who are “more individual.” We live today in the world Mill proposed. Everywhere, at every moment, we are to engage in experiments in living. Custom has been routed: much of what today passes for culture—with or without the adjective “popular”—consists of mocking sarcasm and irony. Late night television is the special sanctuary of this liturgy. Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which especially those regarded as judgmental are to be special objects of scorn, in the name of nonjudgmentalism.

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed,” at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary—the majority who benefit from societal norms that the strong and the ordinary alike are expected to follow. A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secure the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few strong.

The results of this civilizational transformation are everywhere we look. Our society is increasingly defined by economic winners and losers, with winners congregating in wealthy cities and surrounding counties, while losers largely remain in place—literally and figuratively—swamped by a global economy that rewards the highly educated cognitive elite while offering bread crumbs to those left in “flyover country.” Trends observed decades ago by Robert Reich and Christopher Lasch, who decried “the secession of the successful” and the “revolt of the elite,” are today institutionalized through family, neighborhood, and schools, and replicated by generational succession. Children of the successful receive preparation for entry into the ruling class, while those who lack those attainments are much less capable of affording, and insufficiently knowledgeable about, the basic prerequisites needed to push their children into the upper echelon.

this condition is not an aberration from healthy liberalism but its fulfillment. From the outset, liberalism held forth the promise of a new aristocracy composed of those who would flourish with the liberation of the individual from history, tradition, nature, and culture, and the demolition or attrition of institutional supports that were redefined as limits or obstacles to liberty. Those who are best provisioned by disposition (nature), upbringing (nurture), and happenstance to succeed in a world shorn of those institutional supports aspire to autonomy. Even as the liberal family is reconstituted to serve as the launching pad for the autonomous individual, a landscape shorn of widespread social networks leaves those without advantages to succeed in liberal society among the underclass. Compounding their disadvantage is the “secession of the successful,” the geographic withdrawal of a social and economic elite to a few concentrated areas, siphoning away those who might once have engaged in local philanthropy and the building of local civil society.

The Degradation of Citizenship

A degraded form of citizenship arises from liberalism’s relentless emphasis upon private over public things, self-interest over civic spirit, and aggregation of individual opinion over common good. We live in an age in which the ancient suspicion of democracy as a debased and corrupt form of government has been largely forgotten, or when encountered, is regarded as backward, authoritarian, and inhuman. The genius of liberalism was to claim legitimacy on the basis of consent and arrange periodic managed elections, while instituting structures that would dissipate democratic energies, encourage the creation of a fractured and fragmented public, and ensure government by select elite actors. If this were all that liberalism achieved, however, its patina of legitimation would quickly wear thin as a frustrated populace witnessed a growing divide between the claims of democracy and the absence of popular control. Instead, the true genius of liberalism was subtly but persistently to shape and educate the citizenry to equate “democracy” with the ideal of self-made and self-making individuals—expressive individualism—while accepting the patina of political democracy shrouding a powerful and distant government whose deeper legitimacy arises from enlarging the opportunities and experience of expressive individualism. As long as liberal democracy expands “the empire of liberty,” mainly in the form of expansive rights, power, and wealth, the actual absence of active democratic self-rule is not only an acceptable but a desired end. Thus liberalism abandons the pervasive challenge of democracy as a regime requiring the cultivation of disciplined self-rule in favor of viewing the government as a separate if beneficent entity that supports limitless provision of material goods and untrammeled expansion of private identity.

In the eyes of leading commentators, democracy remains as threatening and unsavory a regime as it did for Plato and Aristotle. While the ancient philosophers typically relegated democracy to the category of “vicious” or “debased” regimes, today’s leading thinkers retain a notional allegiance to democracy only by constraining it within the strictures of liberalism, arguing that liberalism limits the power of the majority and protects freedoms of speech and the press, constitutional checks upon government. They also generally tend to favor fairly open markets and porous national borders, arguing that these arrangements secure prosperity for the nation’s consumers while allowing globalized opportunities of economic mobility and opportunity. Democracy is thus an acceptable legitimating tool only as long as its practices exist within, and are broadly supportive of, liberal assumptions. When democratic majorities reject aspects of liberalism—as electorates throughout western Europe and America have done in recent years—a growing chorus of leading voices denounce democracy and the unwisdom of the masses.

The persistent absence of civic literacy, voting, and public spiritedness is not an accidental ill that liberalism can cure; it is the outcome of liberalism’s unparalleled success. It is an aim that was built into the “operating system” of liberalism, and the findings of widespread civic indifference and political illiteracy of past and present social scientists are the expected consequences of a successful liberal order. For all of the differences between the progressives and the Framers, there nevertheless exists this striking continuity, at base a shared commitment of their common liberalism: both classical and progressive liberals are dominated by thinkers who praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systemic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence in the name of good policy outcomes. Indeed, it is curious and perhaps erroneous to debate the “democratic competence” of the American public, given that the system of government explicitly designed by its Framers was not to be democratic. The authors and defenders of the Constitution argued on behalf of the basic law by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Constitution would result in a democracy. They sought to establish a republic, not a democracy.

It was Madison’s hope that once the populace recognized its relative powerlessness in the public realm, the people would instead focus their attention on achievable private aims and ends. The political realm would attract the ambitious and those drawn to power, but would direct the growing power of the central government to increase individual prospects for the private ambitions of the individual, encouraging at the same time liberation from interpersonal ties and connections, fostering mistrust toward others so that interpersonal relations would be tenuous, fleeting, and fungible. One of the ways that it was hoped that modern republicanism would combat the ancient problem of political faction was not by commending public spiritedness but rather by fostering a “mistrust of motives” that would come about due to the large expanse of the republic, constantly changing political dynamics, the encouragement to “pluralism” and expansion of diversity as a default preference, and thus the shifting commitments of the citizenry. The ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good was to be replaced by the basic motivation of modern republicanism—the pursuit of self-interest that leads to the overall increase of power and thus fulfillment of desires. The resulting liberal polity thus fosters a liberal society—one that commends self-interest, the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over a concern for public weal, and an acquired ability to maintain psychic distance from any other human, including to reconsider any relationships that constitute a fundamental limitation on our personal liberty.

We should finally not be surprised that even a degraded citizenry will throw off the enlightened shackles of a liberal order, particularly as the very successes of that order generate the pathologies of a citizenry that finds itself powerless before forces of government, economy, technology, and globalizing forces. Yet once degraded, such a citizenry would be unlikely to insist upon Tocquevillian self-command; its response would predictably take the form of inarticulate cries for a strongman to rein in the power of a distant and ungovernable state and market. Liberalism itself seems likely to generate demotic demands for an illiberal autocrat who promises to protect the people against the vagaries of liberalism itself. Liberals are right to fear this eventuality, but persist in willful obliviousness of their own complicity in the birth of the illiberal progeny of the liberal order itself.

Conclusion: Liberty after Liberalism

The “Noble Lie” of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced. Discontent is growing among those who are told by their leaders that their policies will benefit them, even as liberalism remains an article of ardent faith among those who ought to be best positioned to comprehend its true nature. But liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house standing. The end of liberalism is in sight.

This denouement might take one of two forms. In the first instance, one can envision the perpetuation of a political system called “liberalism” that, becoming fully itself, operates in forms opposite to its purported claims about liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive “deep state,” with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control. These methods will continue to be deployed despite liberalism’s claim to rest on consent and popular support. Such a conclusion is paradoxical, not unlike Tocqueville’s conclusion in Democracy in America, in which he envisions democracy culminating in a new form of despotism. But the instabilities that surely would accompany this outcome suggest a second possible denouement—the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime. Most people envisioning such scenarios rightly warn of the likely viciousness of any successor regime, and close to hand are the examples of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism, and Russia’s brief flirtation with liberalism before the imposition of communism. While these brutal and failed examples suggest that such possibilities are unlikely to generate widespread enthusiasm even in a postliberal age, some form of populist nationalist authoritarianism or military autocracy seems altogether plausible as an answer to the anger and fear of a postliberal citizenry.

Imagining a humane alternative to either liberalocratic despotism or the rigid and potentially cruel authoritarian regime that may replace it seems at best a parlor game, at worst a fool’s errand. Yet engaging in the activity once central to political philosophy—the negotiation between the utopian and realistic, begun by Plato in the Republic—remains essential if the grimmer scenarios of a life after liberalism are to be avoided, and something potentially better brought into being.

  • First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.

  • Second, we must outgrow the age of ideology. Of the three great modern ideologies, only the oldest and most resilient remains, but liberals mistook the fall of its competitors for the end of history rather than the pyrrhic victory it really was. The gap between liberalism’s claims about itself and the lived reality of the citizenry widens to the point that the lie can no longer be accepted. Instead of trying to conceive a replacement ideology (or returning to some updated version of an alternative, such as a renascent Marxism), we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.

  • Third, from the cauldron of such experience and practice, a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge. Such a theory must eschew liberalism’s ideological dimensions yet be cognizant of its achievements and the rightful demands it makes—particularly for justice and dignity. The outlines of such a theory are already discernible, guided by liberalism’s own retention of essential concepts from a preliberal age—especially that of liberty—and reinforced by experience and practice essential for a humane life. This first step toward a new theory is the most tentative, but it faces in a confident direction, given the perpetual appeal of certain basic political ideals that have been present in the Western tradition since antiquity.

The building up of practices of care, patience, humility, reverence, respect, and modesty is also evident among people of no particular religious belief, homesteaders and “radical homemakers” who—like their religious counterparts—are seeking within households and local communities and marketplaces to rediscover old practices, and create new ones, that foster new forms of culture that liberalism otherwise seeks to eviscerate.

Ironically, given the default choice-based philosophy that liberalism has bequeathed to us, what might someday become a nonvoluntarist cultural landscape must be born out of voluntarist intentions, plans, and actions. Such efforts should focus on building practices that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and “polis life,” or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation. All such practices arise from local settings that resist the abstraction and depersonalization of liberalism, and from which habits of memory and mutual obligation arise. While culture is cultivated and passed on in the most immediate way in households, it is developed in and through a community of families and centers especially on rituals surrounding birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. Culture takes into account local circumstances, often drawing sustenance and inspiration from facts of local geography and history.

A counter-anticulture also requires developing economic practices centered on “household economics,” namely, economic habits that are developed to support the flourishing of households but which in turn seek to transform the household into a small economy. Utility and ease must be rejected in preference to practices of local knowledge and virtuosity. The ability to do and make things for oneself—to provision one’s own household through the work of one’s own and one’s children’s hands—should be prized above consumption and waste. The skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting not only undergird the indepen-dence and integrity of the home but develop practices and skills that are the basic sources of culture and a shared civic life. They teach each generation the demands, gifts, and limits of nature; human participation in and celebration of natural rhythms and patterns; and independence from the culture-destroying ignorance and laziness induced by the ersatz freedom of the modern market.