Recognition was a long time a‑borning. Not the recognition that something is deeply, profoundly wrong with American culture and society — and that of the West generally. That has been easy enough to perceive for, well … decades.
It’s only been in the past few years that I have been forced to reckon with a hard truth: What’s broken isn’t going to get fixed; what’s wrong isn’t going to be put right. That recognition came through a lot of searching and seeking along dark paths — and in hours of fruitful conversation with mi compadre Craig Rullman. It’s required laying down some trailworn baggage and deeply-held articles of faith.
The path has brought us here to the Running Iron Report. Our mission at RIR is to define just what has gone so far awry in the noble project of the Republic, why this is happening — and, most importantly, how we might live, and live well, even as the train goes hurtling off the tracks.
Our job just got a whole lot easier. Turns out, we’re not the only people on this path, not by a long shot. And some fellow travelers are doing some remarkable trailblazing work that we can absorb, adapt and apply at RIR and on the ground.
Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, from Yale University Press’ Politics and Culture Series is a bracing treatise on the failure of an ideology that appeared not only triumphant but permanent and unassailable at the end of the Cold War, when its chief rival, Communism, collapsed under its own weight. Liberalism was so transcendent in that moment that those of us living under its sway scarcely understand it as such, but rather as the only natural and right state of living.
As the publisher notes:
Of the three dominant ideologies of the 20th century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution.
It’s important at the outset to define terms. Deneen is referring to liberalism as the ideology that sprouted in the 17th and 18th centuries out of the political philosophy of John Locke, Adam Smith and others, and found its most profound expression and greatest success in the founding of the American Republic. He’s not using the term as a Sean Hannity pejorative. Those whom contemporary politics label “conservative” and “liberal” (or “progressive”) are both, in Deneen’s analysis, adherents of liberalism, who differ in emphasis and approach but nevertheless cleave to the fundamental faith.
That faith can roughly be defined as a belief in radical individualism, free markets and the right and necessity of bending nature to the requirements of man.
Depending on where we fall on the conventional political spectrum, most of us find value in at least two of those propositions, and probably, at least in degree, in all three. And that value is real. Liberalism gave us a powerful sense of the value of individual rights and equal justice for all. Free markets have created unprecedented wealth, and the control of nature has given us a level of comfort, convenience and ease scarcely imaginable to people who lived just a few generations ago.
“Today, some 70 percent of Americans believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction, and half the country thinks its best days are behind it. Most believe that their children will be less prosperous and have fewer opportunities than previous generations. Every institution of government shows declining levels of public trust by the citizenry, and deep cynicism toward politics is reflected in an uprising on all sides of the political spectrum against political and economic elites… It is evident to all that the political system is broken and the social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap increases between the wealthy haves and the left-behind have-nots, a hostile divide opens between faithful and secular peoples, and deep disagreement persists over America’s role in the world…
“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.”
And, Deneen argues, all of these negative outcomes are the result of liberalism’s success, the inevitable extension of fundamental liberal principles — baked in at the very beginning. A feature, not a bug.
The triumph of liberal individualism has rendered us unmoored from community, place and what Deneen calls “constitutive relationships.” We can be whatever we want to be — we are free, but adrift in an increasingly atomized society. The breakdown of communities and local cultures under the pervasive and corrosive inroads of a liberal monoculture dismantles the groups and organizations that could mediate between the individual and the state — and the state grows to fill the vacuum. In the absence of cultural constraints on complete individual autonomy, the state becomes the arbiter of morality and the enforcer of what passes for culture.
The triumph of individualism within a free market has made it more common for us to be thought of as consumers than as citizens — and the former role is much more important to the maintenance of the system than the later. In effect, we are free mostly to choose among an endless array of consumer goods and entertainments.
The domination of the natural world has left us alienated from the rhythms of the earth, dependent on a complex and fragile web of agribusiness and fossil fuels, and may be triggering our doom through climate change and resource depletion, especially of topsoil and water.
Steeped as we are in an ideology that we scarcely recognize as such, we are tempted to apply liberal solutions to the pathologies and discontents that liberalism has created. If only we elect the “right” people, get big money out of politics, enact better policies and somehow make the system work better, surely we can correct the course and march on into a dazzling future. Deneen asserts, I think rightly, that applying liberal solutions — or, more realistically, Band-Aids — to ameliorate our discontents is doomed to failure. More consumer options in a globalized economy, more personal autonomy, more state intervention to try to “put things right” won’t save us. In fact, doubling down on what brought us to this pass will only deepen the crisis.
So… what is to be done?
Political revolution is not a viable course. As we have seen in our study of radical underground militants of left and right, such projects are a dead end. Most are doomed to bloody, fiery — or merely tragicomic — disaster. Successful revolution would most likely usher in authoritarian tyranny.
The antidote Deneen proposes is precisely the kind of project upon which we have embraced at Running Iron Report: a kind of internal secession, a generative exile. A counterculture or, as Deneen prefers, a counter-anticulture.
“Already there is evidence of a growing hunger for an organic alternative to the cold, bureaucratic, and mechanized world liberalism offers,” Deneen writes.
That hunger is the motivating force of RIR.
Deneen argues that we must build communities based around conscious practices that are not only generative in and of themselves, but also productive of civic virtue. An agrarian heart beats at the heart of Deneen’s book, which is deeply informed by the work of Wendell Berry — just as Craig’s work is.
“The skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving and composting not only undergird the independence 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…
“Such communities of practice will increasingly be seen as lighthouses and field hospitals to those who might have once regarded them as peculiar and suspect.”
As the empire of nothing that liberalism has created inevitably crashes, the practices developed in such communities will perhaps become the necessary building blocks of the civilizational reset to come. Learning something and doing something — every day if we can — sure beats the hell out of getting caught up in the spin cycle of the reality TV show that is our civic life these days. At the very least, those of us who bend our minds, hearts and hands to that good, generative work will find solace and refuge from the “deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism above all seems to foster.”
My copy of Why Liberalism Failed is a thatch of sticky notes. There’s a passage on virtually every page that jumps out at me as an artful expression of a feeling or an idea that I have not quite been able to formulate or adequately articulate. I now better understand the hesitancy, the guilt I have felt in abandoning the verities of the mythology under which I was raised. Good citizens participate in the process; I must stay informed on the national political “conversation”; I must attend to the plight of my fellow Americans as “my people” in one nation under God, indivisible. I, like virtually everyone else imbibed an ideology without recognizing it as such. I knew that 1989 didn’t mark “ the end of history” in the inevitable triumph of liberalism — but I didn’t really understand who or why I knew that. Now, I have a better understanding. As always, it is a work in progress.
Why Liberalism Failed is a clarion call. The diagnosis is in the x‑ring; the prescription simpatico. If Running Iron Report and the way of life our outfit is trying to build here in our patch of Oregon and share with all of you wherever you abide can be one of those lighthouses and field hospitals that offer a beacon and a refuge in a storm-tossed world, I shall be well satisfied.