Daniel E. Burns has penned a very long article over at National Affairs in response to the growing chorus of critics of liberalism like Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari.
“To a disinterested observer, the major events of 2016 might appear neither all that shocking nor all that related to one another. The American primary and Electoral College systems displayed their quirkiness. Global internet platforms designed to share user-generated misinformation did just that. The aftershocks of the Eurozone crisis reverberated. Five-year-old civil wars provoked by the brutality of two Arab dictators continued to feed the largest human migration since World War II. Europeans began to resist that migration, and a Turkish autocrat was paid well to help them do so. China grew.
But as Tocqueville warned us, Americans have a special penchant for fitting complicated data into a single time-saving theory, especially when it is a theory about the irresistible direction of history. So among the American commentariat, the year 2016 has become associated with the question of whether the World Spirit might now be spurning the charms of his longtime paramour Liberalism. A few hope it may be so. Many more fear it could be so. Others have jumped up to insist that, at all events, it need not be so. Every one of these reactions has amply vindicated Tocqueville’s observation. Liberalism’s critics, both at home and abroad, have touched an American nerve.
They have touched a nerve, in part, because everyone can see they are onto something. We need no grandiose narrative in order to acknowledge that 2019 does not quite match the expectations of 1989, 1999, or even 2009. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed are both worth a close read, and both are subtler than the arguments often attributed to them. But one does not have to know much beyond their titles to see that each book tapped into an important element of the national mood when it was written. …”
I’ve always looked at liberalism from the perspective of a historian.
Over the course of 250 years, I see liberalism as an intellectual disease that has steadily gnawed away at the foundations of the social order and unraveled Western culture, which has been broken down and dissolved piece by piece in one social revolution after another. It destroys the attachments that makes life rich and meaningful in order to “liberate” its subject which is the autonomous individual. Having been made alienated and miserable by liberalism, the autonomous individual then joins radical leftwing social movements in search of identity and community, which further weakens the social order.
It was George Fitzhugh and Thomas Carlyle writing about the nature of liberalism and free-market capitalism in the 1850s who first turned me on to this. Fitzhugh saw abolitionism as a logical deduction from the axioms of liberal theory and linked it to the other “-isms” of his day which he saw as the first splattering drops of a perpetual state of social revolution.
“The experiment which they will make, we fear, is absurd in theory, and the symptoms of approaching anarchy and agrarianism among them, leave no doubt that its practical operation will be no better than its theory. Anti-rentism, “vote-myself-a-farm” ism, and all the other isms, are but the spattering drops that precede a social deluge.”
The slippery slope began with monarchy, aristocracy and mercantilism in the 18th century. The next target was chattel slavery. The demise of slavery produced civil rights. The triumph of civil rights made women’s suffrage inevitable. The triumph of women’s suffrage and civil rights brought on feminism and gay rights. The triumph of gay rights led to gay marriage and transgenderism. The progress of liberalism invaded the family and called marriage into question in the mid-20th century. The result was no fault divorce, birth control and abortion. The anonymous exchanges of the marketplace began to put down deeper and deeper roots and became dominant in the age of consumer capitalism. Christianity was poisoned by liberalism and has been steadily dying for over a century now. The deracination and replacement of Europeans which began after the Second World War was similarly a byproduct of the triumph of liberalism. These things are unimaginable in the absence of the ascendance of liberal theory.
If this has been the history of liberalism for two centuries, then what does the future of liberalism hold? Undoubtedly, the future of liberalism is that the disease will progress even further and will unravel and destroy even more of our traditional culture, and the response of “conservatism” will be to assimilate each successive liberal social revolution into conservatism as it is already doing with transgenderism. As liberalism advances, America will become more and more polarized and ungovernable as it descends into a pit of nihilism, anarchy, resentment and degeneracy. Eventually, we will end up with a tyrant who will promise to restore order and that will be the end of liberalism.
While it is true that liberal practice has never fully conformed to liberal theory, it is also true that liberalism has “progressed” across the course of history by steadily eliminating inconsistencies with its vision of the fully liberated autonomous individual. These things have traditionally taken the raw edge off of liberalism and stabilized it, but increasingly they are held in disrepute.