6 Oct

Liberalism and Limits

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/06/08

On his blog, Patrick Deneen identifies himself as a political theorist. Not a political scientist or a political philosopher, but a theorist. This self-designation reflects Deneen's attention to political history and to the life of language. . . .

On his blog, Patrick Deneen identifies himself as a political theorist. Not a political scientist or a political philosopher, but a theorist. This self-designation reflects Deneen's attention to political history and to the life of language. To be associated with scientia, derived from the Latin verb meaning "to know," would be an honorable situation for any thoughtful academic, even if "political science" has an air of mechanistic wonkishness about it. "Philosopher" might be a more attractive label for someone with Deneen's commitments, the etymological echoes of the word accurately suggesting his evident belief that thinking well about politics is a matter properly linked with the orientation of the soul.

"Theory" comes from a Greek verb meaning "to see." The English word "theater," denoting a place where scenes from human life are enacted to be seen (and to promote greater vision about life), comes from the same root. As Deneen himself explained in a 2002 essay on the nature of patriotism, the word "theory" came over time to designate a particular kind of seeing in the Greek world. "Certain designated city officials—theoroi—were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to 'see' events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city, where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To 'theorize' was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the 'other' in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare, and then, in [the] idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to his fellow citizens." Theorists in the best tradition are people who enable us to become "other-wise," encouraging us to realize that the way we live life isn't the only way it could be lived, and may not be the best way we could live.

Deneen's blog is called "What I Saw in America," an homage to G. K. Chesterton, and is subtitled "The Political Theory of Daily Life." Like the ancient theoroi, Deneen has traveled to distant places, distant in time if not space—Tocqueville's America, Aristotle's Athens, Wendell Berry's Port William, Descartes's utopia—and returned to explain aspects of our daily lives in light of what he has seen there.

In the past few weeks, Deneen's posts have placed the Wall Street meltdown in a larger cultural perspective that is absent from most media diagnoses and from the comments of politicians, whose handlers and PR experts forbid them from ever saying anything critical of the dominant trends of our cultural moment. In mid-September, in a piece called "Abstraction," Deneen argued that "at nearly every level this financial collapse was precipitated by transforming reality into abstraction, unmooring grounded commitments and obligations and fostering new patterns of fantastical behavior throughout the populace." That essay was followed by "Political Philosophy in the Details," in which Deneen questioned one of the fundamental assumptions of classic liberalism, which is that "unleashed self-interest is a predictable driver of human behavior and can be harnessed to ensure stable political institutions and dynamic economic activity." This assumption contradicts the wisdom of premodern political thinkers from Aristotle on, who "argued against unleashed self-interest inasmuch as its free rein led to the deformation of the human soul—a form of enslavement to the desires." While liberalism claims to be a procedural order in which competing claims about the good—whether religious, philosophical, or practical—all compete freely in an open "marketplace of ideas," in actuality what liberalism "seeks above all is the promotion of economic growth and material pursuits as the main activity" of human societies. "It can afford to be neutral about ends because by emphasizing that one end—growth and material gain—it effectively demotes all other ends. . . . Correspondingly, no party of government will call for virtue and restraint as a possible solution [to our economic woes], since that would contradict the fundamental wellspring of human behavior necessary for increase and dominion."

Deneen followed up this piece with a post entitled "Whack a Mole," in which he insisted that the failure of political leaders to call for self-restraint is "an indication of our enslavement to appetites over which we have no control. This latter condition was defined by the ancients as a condition of servitude, not liberty."

In an entry dated October 2, 2008 called "Democracy in America," Deneen raises questions about the viability of democracy in a culture that eschews limits and self-control. Citing Tocqueville's insight that democracy was a collection of mores as much as it was a system of government, he reviews Tocqueville's warning about how the very success of democracy could lead to its undoing. "The very dynamism of modern democracy that allowed it to defang resentments [by enabling social and economic mobility] also simultaneously contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others—neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future—we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future." Deneen also cites Montesquieu's belief that democracy could only survive if it was internally enabled by virtuous citizens, people with the habit of the heart to eschew luxurious living and temper their appetities. "Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance [that is, the willingness of each citizen to govern himself], democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question."

Reading Deneen over the past few weeks has prompted me to go back and review some of Daniel Bell's observations in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In that profound study, Bell raised questions about "the end of the bourgeois idea," the unravelling of social and political order in a society in which the bourgeois virtues of self-control and delayed gratification necessarily collide with the modernist values of limitless acquisition and boundless self-expression, values promoted by a capitalism centered on consumption rather than production. Bell's examination of the symbiotic relationship between economic practices and structures on the one hand and cultural beliefs and assumptions on the other is worth extended reflection. Looking at the current financial chaos with his analysis in mind, one is struck—as one is in reading Patrick Deneen—by how the trajectory of this crisis predates the regulatory changes of the past three decades. "American capitalism changed its nature in the 1920s," Bell wrote, "by heavily encouraging the consumers to go into debt, and to live with debt as a way of life. In the 1960s, the basic financial structure of the economy became transformed when sharp individuals began to realize that considerable fortunes could be created through 'leverage,' that is, by going heavily into debt and using that borrowed money to underwrite finance companies, create real estate investment trusts, and increase the debt/equity ratio of corporations, rather than expand out of internal financing or by equity capital." Bell goes on to describe possible economic and political scenarios when an economy built on a "mountain of debt" encounters reality. What I find more interesting is his description in the first half of the book of how so many features of our cultural life—our notion of identity, the centrality of fun and entertainment in social life, our need for constant distraction and stimulation, the institutionalization of "transgressive" behavior—have imprinted a characteristic mentality that makes recognizing the nature of our cultural and economic disorder so difficult. That's all the more reason to be grateful for insightful theorists such as Patrick Deneen.

Subscribers to the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal will have heard my interview with Patrick Deneen on volume 91. If you missed that interview, you can hear a portion of it here or purchase the whole issue here.

Posted by Ken Myers on 10/7/08