Poor Francis Fukuyama. He has been a punching bag ever since he unwisely declared the End of History, more than twenty-five years ago. Fukuyama, of course, meant that the globe had, at the end of ideologies, reached an equilibrium, an even, calm sea of liberal democracy, and all that was left was cleanup. Patrick Deneen is here to kick Fukuyama some more, and to announce that not only is liberalism a defective ideology, it is doomed just as were the other, more flash-in-the pan ideologies. The systemic failure of liberalism is on the horizon, or underway, and Deneen’s project is to offer thoughts on how we got here, and what is next. Thus, Why Liberalism Failed fits squarely into my current interest, Reaction—the call for the creation of a new political order built on the ashes of the old.
Sometimes I think it is a fool’s errand to study economics and hope for enlightenment. Much economics knowledge is too simple for that goal—for example, the relationship of supply and demand to prices. Such facts are easy to grasp through direct personal experience. But beyond that, actual enlightenment never comes, because, as everybody knows, economics is not a science. Economists can’t even analyze the past with any precision or unanimity, much less the future. Because I thought highly of the explanations of monetary policy in Charles Wheelan’s Naked Money, I hoped that by reading this book I would at least move further down the curve toward enlightenment. But even the best writers cannot spin straw into gold.
English traditional conservatives today exhibit a depressed passivity. They ruminate, probably with a glass of claret in hand, on how good the past was and how little can be done about today. Doubtless this enervation has to do with living in The Place Where Great Britain Used To Be, which is, like most of Europe (other than Hungary and Poland), a den of thought suppression and self-hatred, cursed with leaders who are mealy-mouthed, emasculated men and women of no use or value. Caught with wine glass in hand, the prolific Roger Scruton, who somehow manages to combine the highest quality thought with constant output, offers us a combination of worthwhile philosophy and worthless enervation. At best, this combination is unsatisfying. More importantly, this book is not timely, because it is inwardly focused and passively philosophical, in an age when too much focus on philosophy, and too little focus on brute action, has, like Judas Iscariot, betrayed conservatism into the hands of its enemies.
Republican Like Me belongs to a certain phenotype, which we can call the “anti-jeremiad.” Whether on the Left or the Right, people of good will sometimes write a book after discovering what they did not earlier know about their political opponents. They make those discoveries by exposing themselves to opposing thoughts and attempting to understand the people who hold them. Thus enlightened, they attempt to find common ground, lamenting the polarization of today’s American society. Probably because the educated Right necessarily is necessarily continuously exposed to the thought of the educated Left, and not vice versa, such anti-jeremiads can mostly be found by authors from the Left. A classic of the genre is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which largely parallels Ken Stern’s book, although Hochschild offers more focus on the personal likeability of her political opponents, and Stern’s voyage of discovery offers more focus on the plausibility of their arguments. There is always room for another, though, and this genre has rarely been as well done or as timely as in this …
This review will combine something very old with something very new. The very old, of course, is the title character, the Emperor Augustus, and his times. The very new is a continuation of my thoughts on reaction as a modern political movement. You will see how these things fit together, and in fact are much the same thing, for today, more than ever, everything old is new again. And I will begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “reactionaries,” as I recently promised I would.
Let us talk of many things, as the Walrus said, but primarily, of neoreaction. What follows is the start of what I hope to make an extended exploration of this line of thought, for which I have much sympathy. I embark on this project for four reasons. First, to amuse myself. Second, in order to make my own thinking coherent, for confusion already stalks the land, and why add to it? Third, in the hope that what I say may bring value to others, since a man should not bury his single talent. And fourth, so that in some small way, in a manner yet to be revealed, this combination of analysis of others and thoughts of mine will help to either forge the future, or smash and remake the present.
Already before I began writing this review, I was worn out reading books with a similar theme, that of Christian renewal, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. I was already going to retire and turn to reading biographies for a while. It is not, of course, Reno’s fault that this is the final book I read in the chain. I have tried to ensure that my being worn out does not color my perception of the book. Nonetheless, I was disappointed in this book. While what it says has value, and Reno’s heart is in the right place, his book is largely derivative and superficial, and it omits, for all practical purposes, any real plan for achieving the goal of its title.
Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. She said it was the best book she had ever read. Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum. The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand? But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile. A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.
This is a silly and shallow book. But it is not worthless, because it serves to exemplify and clarify modern political fracture lines. In the West, the major political split today is between those who view the modern liberal project of maximum individual freedom and maximum democracy (as long as the voters make the correct choices) as the ultimate and unquestionable good, and those who view that project as either inherently defective or sharply limited in the good it brings to humanity. If Ryszard Legutko, in his criticism of European “liberal-democracy” in The Demon in Democracy, had conjured that demon to physical form, it would be James Kirchick—although, perhaps, Kirchick would manifest only as an imp or familiar, in thrall to some greater demon lurking in the wings, such as George Soros.
The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book. Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press. Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society. This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.