I was not at all surprised to note that the author of The Tragedy of Liberalism also writes for The American Conservative. The well-written pessimism about modernity coupled with a shout-out to “intentional communities” at the end is as good as a fingerprint. (Check out Rod Dreher for the best example.)
Unfortunately, no matter how nicely written and generally correct in detail, these pieces usually stumble due to the implied foundation: That there was a time when it was not so (and, occasionally, that there will be a time when it will not be). Dr. Deneen writes about Liberalism as Anti-Culture — terminology that always makes me think of the Anti-Life Equation — due to the need to privilege individual freedom and state power over cultural norms. The lack of cultural norms as a governing factor results in social chaos and attempts by the state to replace that structure with rules and punishments of its own.
However, the reason humans engage in cultural and social change — and liberalism is a cultural change — is because the previous arrangements came to be viewed as undesirable. Of two examples he cites, one is about a system of mortgage lending that denied people of color the ability to live where they wanted, and the other is a social system of acceptable sexual behavior that removed women’s agency while winking at the indiscretions of men. It is true that the “know your neighbor” community bank did not run up billions of dollars in losses, and the pre-Sexual Revolution norms produced slightly more of a defense against the predation of men, but both were paired with consequences that produced a tipping point towards social change. (I shouldn’t give too much credit on the bank example. Capitalism produced a lot of the impetus towards growth, and lessening discrimination was sort of along for the ride as the state became more concerned about racial equity.)
That being said, I find it strange whenever I read a piece that talks about social change as fundamental, that “there was a time when it was not so.” The perceived sins of liberalism are there precisely because social change accretes. There is no fundamental break between now and then, whether you regard parts of “the past” as a Golden Age or Hell on Earth. Social change is normally based on enabling the “good” while minimizing the “bad,” but that doesn’t mean the bad goes away, replaced by some completely new bad. Nor does it mean the good is new. The pathways for both might be different, as well as the frequencies of particular kinds of behaviors.
I guess the weirdest part to me is that I’m reading stuff that says things like “There is a Human Condition,” a view to which I am quite attracted, but the continuity that implies gets ignored. Culture provides direction and outlets, but the drivers aren’t new. Liberalism changed the details, not the desires. That means any writing about how things are generally bad today needs to address how one would change them in the context of thousands of years of recorded history of performing the same act to a different tune. And that looks like evolution, not revolution, which is unfortunately dissatisfying.
But, then again, cultural criticism has a long history. 🙂