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Thoughts on Deneen’s Anti-Liberalism: Or, Against a Confederacy of Abbot-led Cooperatives

April 21, 2018

I’m no fan of extreme individualism, but the way to constraining it is not through Patrick Deneen’s revisionist history of “liberalism” and a tyranny of the parochial. I was struck by this passage from Hugo Drochon’s reflection on Deneen’s new book (Why Liberalism Failed):

Rising inequality, the degradation of the environment, decreasing living standards, increasing loneliness, the destructive polarisation of our political world – Deneen blames liberalism for all the ills currently afflicting society. Surprisingly, he does not attribute these ills to the failures of liberalism, but to its success.

Like many conservatives, Deneen sees liberalism not simply as a theory about how to conduct politics, but as an all-encompassing ideology, like fascism and communism, that extends to philosophy, society and the economy. And it is an ideology that has won – which is why, on Deneen’s view, everything that is wrong with the world can be blamed on it. If liberalism is the cause of all our troubles, then the answer, according to Deneen, is to get rid of it altogether.

Conservative Catholics, it seems, always want to chuck the baby (i.e. freedom) with the bathwater (i.e. liberalism). Why? Because “liberalism” allows one to reject their faiths and local traditions (even while it preserves, ironically, retrograde conservative ideals via respect for the freedom of speech). Thinkers like Deneen, and Rod Dreher, seem to want a new ideological tyranny of confederate subsidiarity.

But really, the greater problem for conservative Catholics like Deneen is difference—because it means divisions of power and respect for difference. A deep respect for difference means power sharing, and trusting others.

Also, it seems that Deneen is confusing liberalism with “the state.” There is a political liberalism that can live with decentralization (i.e. neoliberalism being the deregulatory form of liberalism). But the problem is that decentralization allows too many local injustices.

I wish I could respect anti-liberals like Deneen and Dreher. But they can’t seem to respect others and difference. And they underestimate the role that localities play in perpetuating racial and gender injustices. They seem to want local cooperatives with abbots. What will not be allowed is democracy, nor the checks and balances of a larger democratic system of cooperation and justice.

To be fair, it does not seem that Deneen is calling, exactly, for confederacy of abbot-led cooperatives. But I can’t imagine what other form of community for which he might be advocating. And what of unity? And justice? And fairness? – TL

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