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Book Review: Conserving America? (Patrick Deneen)

This book, a book of essays, is effectively a companion to Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy.  The core theme of both books is that “liberal democracy” is inherently defective; the books explore why and what that implies.  Whereas Legutko’s project is to compare liberal democracy to Communism, to explain their similarities and what that has meant for post-Communist Europe, Patrick Deneen’s is to explain how the American founding itself implies liberal democracy, and therefore, in a culture that needs renewal from the evils created by liberal democracy, conservatives are wrong to call for a return to the Founding—for, like the serpent in the Garden, the evil has been there since the beginning.

This book is thus in the genre I call the “Great Fragmentation”—the dissolution of the post-war grouping of disparate philosophies under one general umbrella of “conservatism.”  The fissures have been growing for twenty years, and the fragmentation is now nearly complete, accelerated by the successive impacts of the Great Recession, which revealed cultural and societal conflicts within conservatism as a whole, and of Donald Trump, who offered a new mashup of philosophies, generally conservative in orientation but in a new form, to those dissatisfied with existing conservative electoral politics.

As a result, as of this moment conservatives break down into two basic groupings, though what exactly will ultimately be the final form of “conservatism” is anybody’s guess.  One group can be called “classical liberals.”  Their focus is maximization of individual opportunity.  Individual autonomy is, for them, an unfettered good and a defense against the overweening state.  Their historical focus was on individualism as the best defense against the State, and their high point was resistance to 20th Century aggressive collectivism, but as those collectivisms have waned individualism for its own sake has waxed in the thought of classical liberals.  Within this group there are those who want more or less American global commitment, and other differences also exist, but the key is a focus on unfettered liberty, or apparently unfettered liberty.  It is these classical liberals who most often point to the principles of the American Founding as what we have departed from and should return to.  Figures ranging from George Bush to Bill Kristol to the magazine National Review fall into this group.  Classical liberals put the “liberal” in liberal democracy.

A second, rising, group sees the modern State as a problem, but unfettered individualism not as the solution.  Instead, this group sees individualism as rather one cause, the main cause, of a cultural breakdown and the vanishing of the concept of the common good, and the State as a participant in that fragmentation through its pursuit and mandate of excessive individualism.  This group focuses on cultural renewal through a revival of civil society outside the State, with an eye to rebuilding intermediary institutions and a distaste for winner-take-all economics.  We can call them the “civil institutionalists.”  Relevant figures include the American Conservative magazine and Rod Dreher, the Pope Urban of the “Benedict Option.”  But few politicians as of yet fall into this group, although arguably Steve Bannon, and thus elements of Trump’s circle, maintain a certain rough alignment.  Thinkers in this group, including Deneen, are currently providing the intellectual heft necessary to develop and flesh this out, what is really a new position in America.  Without the rise of Trump, combined with a reaction against the attempts by Obama to crush religious liberty, this group would probably have gained no traction.  As it is, they form the core of a new thing, something that seems strange to delineate, since it is largely outside the American Founding tradition, but has ample historical precedent.  Whether civil institutionalism will be that new thing remains to be seen, but if it does, it will be books like this that make it possible.

As this is a book of essays, most of them derived from talks given to academic audiences, it suffers somewhat from disjointedness.  Each essay is excellent, but the reader is left to weave them into a whole—or not, depending on his level of commitment.  Deneen divides his twelve essays into three groups, focused roughly on an analysis of where we are now (“Hope Among The Ruins”), philosophical conservatism (“Thinking Conservatively”), and more pessimistic thoughts about the future (“American Twilight?”).  It is the latter two groups of essays, especially the third, that, combined, contain a coherent explication of civil institutionalism (my term, not his).

At the core of this argument, Deneen contrasts two views of liberty.  One, the older, arising from such thinkers as Aristotle and Aquinas, holds that man is by nature social and political, and thus “to the extent that humans are able to develop true and flourishing individuality, it is only by means of political society and its constitutive groups and associations. . . . [L]iberty is the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world.”   Virtue consists of exercising self-limitation and self-governance; lack of virtue is a form of slavery.  Virtue, and liberty, is the opposite of “living as one likes.”

The other view, the newer, follows Hobbes, Locke and others to view liberty as the ability of the individual to exercise choice in the pursuit of the satisfaction of self-interest.  It is this newer view that is “liberal” in the sense of “classical liberalism” or “liberal democracy.”  It exalts the ability to “live as one likes.”  And the State exists to enhance the individual’s ability to choose for himself—therefore, an ever more powerful State is necessary to better secure the individual’s freedom to choose.  “Thus, one of the main roles of the liberal State becomes the active liberation of individuals from any existing limiting conditions,” whether those be economic, familial, community-based, class-based, group-based, or even biologically based.  Deneen notes that “Liberalism is perhaps best defined as the effort to liberate individuals from all forms of arbitrary and non-chosen relationships.”  This approach separates the members of society, as their relationships become instrumental rather than organic, which leads to a geographical and class sorting that cuts counter to a view of the common good that builds communalism and social solidarity.

It is important to remember what classical liberalism is NOT.  “It is not constitutionalism, not the rule of law, not rule by elected representatives, not the separation of Church and State, not the recognition of rights attached to individual.  All of these features, and more we might name, are the inheritance of a pre-liberal tradition, developed especially throughout the period of Christendom that we moderns are often prone to label ‘the Dark Ages.’  Liberalism is a distinct way of thinking of these various institutional, legal, judicial and even social arrangements that now largely claims them all of its own making and invention.”  And, of course, liberalism in this sense is an ideology, “a system of ideas that proposes a seamless political architecture, outside of which existing political arrangements are deemed to be illegitimate and require immediate remaking.”  Hence the intolerance of any program that denies the deification of personal liberty.

As Tocqueville and, later, Robert Nisbet, pointed out, “Statism is a logical and even inevitable consequence of individualism.”  (Deneen cites Tocqueville very frequently.  Civil institutionalist conservatives of late have taken to quoting him extensively, because many of the negative characteristics he noted, and predictions he made, about Americans and our system, which seemed merely incidental in better times, have now blossomed fully, and not in a nice way.)  Because personal liberty is the highest good, the State must necessarily level all limitations on individual autonomy, most especially those created by the intermediary institutions that make up the strength of a healthy society (what Legutko aptly calls “coercion to freedom”).  And when this destruction is complete, the State’s power becomes unfettered, and it uses that power to oppose any belief or system that makes universal moral claims.

Therefore, to combat anti-conservative beliefs, left-liberalism or progressivism, by demanding more individualism merely exacerbates the problems of social decay and fragmentation created by those beliefs, which also worship individual choice.  And, of course, the State’s action is made worse by our own actions, as Robert Putnam showed in Bowling Alone—not to mention that since that book, technology has further accelerated our abilities to ignore our fellow man and to lead lives of unfettered choice.  Thus, Deneen calls for us to re-think the entire logic of casting liberty in the mold of Hobbes and Locke, and instead return to the earlier conception, that pre-dates the Founding, when many early Americans recognized the inherent tension between the exaltation of liberty and maintaining civil society in the long term.  Whether that would require a wholesale restructuring of our politics, or could require only a moral awakening and consequent recapture of a common moral vision that placed voluntary limits on unfettered individualism, Deneen does not say.

The rest of the book contains essays that have a connection to this core theme.  One, “Progress and Memory,” in particular bears on the larger question of liberal democracy.  A common claim of today’s civil institutional conservatives is that forgetting the past, thereby severing our connections to the past, is foolish, but is mandated by both liberal democracy (including in its conservative manifestations) and progressive ideologies of various types.  We need memory of both the good and the bad; a polity that exalts the eternal now, or, worse, the eternal future, is necessarily doomed.  “Recalling those who have preceded us and awaiting those who will follow, we forge civilization itself, the accumulation of memory and the intention of continuity into the future.”  Classical liberalism, whose economics are market capitalism and whose politics are liberal democracy, “a politics designed to promote maximum individual freedom, protection of rights, minimal public or private obligation, ever-increasing mobility and opportunity,” focuses on time-present, the self-interest of each of us in the now, dictated by the supposed key command of human nature, self-interest.  Progressivism focuses on the future that change will bring us, change in human nature to a better nature, focused beyond lowly self-interest, but, like liberalism, wholly discounts the past.  Nostalgism is living only in the past, an idealized past, and being inherently hostile to changes occurring in the present or proposed for the future.  None of these are acceptable.  Instead, we should “restore temporal continuity” and link all things together in the web of time, including with respect to matters frequently denigrated by conservatives cast in the liberal democratic mold, such as protecting the environment.

Deneen also examines the “patriotic vision,” in an essay from immediately after 9/11.  He cites the ancient Greek practice of “theory”—originally the office of a man sent from a particular polis to a foreign location, in order to see it, evaluate it and give a report.  The point was not simply to collect facts, but to determine whether foreign practices revealed some deficiency in the sending city that might need correction.  Such a man had to both be clear-seeing about practices that diverged from those of his own city, and deeply familiar with, valuing and respecting, his own city’s practices, such that he could keep “the city open to improvement without loosening the ancient loyalties.”  He had to objectively compare his city with others, without losing his love for his own city.  Over time, this function became not just an office but more broadly associated with some philosophers, who traveled in their thoughts, not physically—for example, Socrates, who both criticized and submitted to his city.  Finally, “theorist” became associated with an adversarial, “citizen of the cosmos” approach to social criticism, divorced from rootedness in one’s own city.  Deneen points to Descartes, “a kind of ‘free rider’ on the wealth, security, generosity, and anonymity provided by modern nations, and especially by cosmopolitan cities that are sufficiently liberal as not to demand any loyalty in return.”  He concludes that we should not be free riders—we should be like the original Greek theoroi, reflective of what may need to change, but always aware of what is our and what we owe to it and our fellows.

In another essay, “Citizenship as Vocation,” Deneen again turns to Tocqueville, who noted the “restlessness” or “inquietude” of Americans, created by equality of opportunity and unfettered choice, causing them to precipitously chase after new things, an “inconstancy born of anxiety.”  Americans tend to denigrate that one can have a “vocation,” in the sense of a call to do certain things with one’s life.  As Deneen notes in his core essays, America is built on the idea of self-sufficiency and self-interest, which tend to atomization (and suggests those whose vocation is politics should always be suspect in the American system), in opposition to the earlier, Platonic concept of human insufficiency that requires man to join in society.  Deneen, with Tocqueville, calls for us to view citizenship as vocation to serve one’s fellows, in a way similar to the ideal functioning of an aristocracy, as a counterweight to our nation’s tendency toward centrifugal force and atomistic individualism.

Another essay, “Ordinary Virtue,” I think is the most powerful and illuminating in the book, though it has little direct bearing on today’s politics.  It is framed around the speech of William James to Civil War veterans in 1897, at the dedication of the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw that still stands in Boston Commons.  James suggested that it was not his military virtue, of courage even unto death, that most distinguished Shaw.  Rather, it was that he was willing to command the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of black soldiers, at all.  He did so out of a sense of duty, to his parents, primarily, after initially declining.  He knew it would harm his chances for advancement and would reduce his stature in the eyes of many.  Deneen quotes James:  “That lonely kind of courage (civic courage as we call it in peace-times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared . . . of five hundred of us who could storm a battery side by side with others, perhaps not one could be found who would risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse.”  This civic courage is equivalent to their “sacred Honors” that the signers of the Declaration declared themselves willing to sacrifice, along with life and liberty.  It is an honor that is only retrospectively gained, by the movement and change of a society to recognize that the actor was right do act as he did.  “One cannot immediately honor that which a polity does not recognize as honorable, thus making such a form of ‘civic courage’ all the more extraordinary.”  Returning again to Tocqueville, Deneen notes that democracies encourage this form of virtue less than other forms of government, because of the power of the majority to dominate opinion, and thus over time tend to encourage too much “going with the flow.”  Thus, it is especially this virtue that we must encourage and fight for, in a time when the “go along, get along” mentality, enshrined in the demand for freedom to do as every man pleases, even to the destruction of the core of society, dominates.

This is a philosophical book.  It is not a jeremiad; it is not even a clear call to specific action.  It is not designed to raise the blood pressure of the reader.  But for readers interested in figuring out where we are and where we  are heading, especially readers who are interested in actively participating in the new tendencies in American conservatism and American life as those grow and develop, this book is extremely valuable.

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