In his recent blockbuster Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen makes a powerful argument for why liberalism — despite being the only surviving political ideology with moral currency after the long 20th century — has been ridden by internal ideological and practical tensions since its inception. For instance, while promoting the moral equality of all, the economic doctrines affiliated with liberalism have led to widening material inequality and resultant social instability. Liberalism draws on contractarian and democratic doctrines to legitimate liberal political systems, while simultaneously emphasizing the individual and their private pursuits over civic involvement. As a result of these, and other tensions, Deneen observes that it is no great surprise that liberalism is rapidly losing its moral currency despite not facing any external enemies. He believes that the emergence of right-wing and left-wing identity-oriented movements, and the authoritarian slant which characterizes many of them, is the inevitable consequence of liberalism’s internal logic being consistently applied.
Many of Deneen’s criticisms echo longstanding critiques by conservatives about the fundamental tensions embedded at the heart of liberal doctrines. In this brief essay, I am going to highlight one particular tension which occurs when we try to establish a moral system while distinguishing between means and ends. Following Macintyre, I believe this leads to very serious problems in liberal societies. When compounded by other socio-economic and technological trends, it is responsible for the emergence of a post-modern culture defined by identity politics and the dismissal of “truth” on both the left and more controversially, the right. I believe we can learn a lot from these conservative critiques of post-modernity, but we also need to recognize their consistent limitations and seek to go beyond them.
The Means-Ends Distinction
One of Deneen’s clear intellectual influences is Alasdair Macintyre, whose great book After Virtue was a watershed moment in the history of political theory. In After Virtue, Macintyre primarily engages in a complex rediscovery and re-articulation of “virtue ethics,” drawing primarily on Aristotle. I do not intend to discuss this dimension of Macintyre’s thought extensively in this article. Instead, I will briefly summarize his account of modernity and the challenges facing modern liberalism, and show how this account can help us understand the emergence of post-modern culture.
Macintyre makes many criticisms of liberal doctrines. His major criticism is liberalism’s distinction between “means” and “ends.” He clarifies this distinction by juxtaposing modern morality with Ancient Greek morality. In the Greek world, the goal of morality was pursuing the highest end of human perfection and happiness, what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia. Eudaimonia was not achieved by simply pursuing one’s private pleasure. Instead, it was achieved by developing established excellent qualities-virtues-which enabled one to become an increasingly honored member of one’s community. Achieving eudaimonia was an art one needed to improve upon throughout life as it was the end or telos of our human existence.
Macintyre juxtaposes this against the modern liberal argument that the locus of morality is not teleological, but formal. For early liberals, the point of life becomes not the pursuit of eudaimonia, but the private pursuit of pleasures and material happiness. What matters for morality then becomes exclusively about the means to achieve happiness for all, rather than the ends which we are all supposed to pursue. The theoretical consequence of this according to Macintyre is that it leads to meta-ethical emotivism; the idea that what is right and wrong is purely a matter of taste and opinion. What is “moral” for one person, such as the pursuit of riches through the production of pornography, might not be moral for another person who might choose to work for a charity. According to Macintyre, liberalism has no way of determining which of these pursuits is more “moral” than the other since it is left to individuals to decide which ends are important to them. Culturally, in the long run, this leads to a nihilistic society where individuals are disconnected from and indifferent to one another. They exist as atomized selves whose only abiding moral concern is that their “rights” to pursue pleasure are fully respected by others. Macintyre does not believe such a culture can persist in the long run. As he put it in the apocalyptic final passages of After Virtue:
“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless quite different — St. Benedict.”
These beliefs are echoed by Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed. He does not believe that liberalism has failed due to a crisis of faith, or from its misapplication. Instead, it failed because liberalism is unable to resolve its fundamental tensions. The most notable of these are related in a very key way to the Macintyrean claim about the means-ends distinction. According to Deneen, liberalism creates a society where individuals feel they should be free to pursue any objectives in life without being subject to moral limitations. But we then come to realize that we are still faced with inescapable physical and social limitations which inhibit the pursuit of our desire; including our desire to inhabit a given identity that might be different from that which is ascribed to us. According to Deneen, this leads to a growing demand to use the state to efface these perceived limitations on the realization of our inner identity and its desires.
In our increasingly anxious political environment, it is hard not to sympathize with Macintyre and Deneen’s assessment. But I believe Macintyre and Deneen should focus more on looking at the social factors which contribute to the emergence of nihilistic post-modern culture. They tend to brilliantly explore the influence of intellectual ideas and their formulation as idealized ideologies, which is undeniably a crucial task in understanding how we got where we are. But we also need to look at other factors as well. Macintyre and Deneen both fall victim to a characteristic weakness in many (but not all!) conservative critiques of post-modernity: their arguments tend to operate at a very abstract level which does not take into account complex material and technological transformations at play in society. This is because their critiques are primarily moral in nature, which in turn has the consequence of individuating blame for destructive social trends on given people or cultures. This is inadequate for understanding how we have gotten where we are.
Contemporary society is indeed one where the claim that there are no obvious ends to which we should all strive is taken for granted. But liberalism as a doctrine and liberal political systems are not the only ones to be blamed. I believe that both socioeconomic and technological transformations also play a substantial role. This is where leftist critiques of post-modernity have always had the edge on their conservative counterparts, and given the emergence of new forms of right-wing post-modern authoritarianism, the need for them has rarely been greater.
The neo-liberal economic system we live within is predicated on rampant consumerism and the satisfaction of private desire. It cannot function consistently unless individuals feel their primary aim in life should be the pursuit of commodities. Whether this is a private and isolated homestead located far from everyone else, or the latest electronic device enabling one to spend every greater time in digital communication bubbles cut off from the broader culture. Moreover, neoliberal economic imperatives don’t simply direct firms to satisfy the already existent desires of others. As was well established by Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, and others, firms are also very active in the creation of new desires through the development of novel products, the immense sums spent on marketing, attracting social capital to commodities and so on. While engaging in these processes of “creative destruction” economic firms overturn traditional and personalized ways of living and interacting, particularly those moral, legal, and political barriers which prevent them from marketing and selling new products. This leads to ever greater social fragmentation through the dissolution of old values and institutions. This is often justified by appealing to the liberal “right” of consumers to acquire what they want-of more accurately-what they were driven to want by firms. While by no means common in contemporary right-wing discourse, some sharper conservative critiques have noted this tendency, though their analysis of it tends to fall short of what is needed. As put by Deneen in his 2015 essay “The Power Elite” discussing the Indiana RFRA law:
“Corporations exist to make money, not to advance political and social causes—except for those that help them make money, of course. And that’s just the point: The decision by Apple, Walmart, Eli Lilly, Angie’s List, and so on was a business decision—even more, a marketing decision. Coming out in opposition to the Indiana RFRA law was one of the shrewdest marketing coups since E.T. followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces. The decision to #BoycottIndiana was not made because it was the politically courageous thing to do; it was made because it was the profitable thing to do. The establishment could express support for a fashionable social norm while exerting very little effort, incurring no actual cost, and making no sacrifice to secure the goal.”
The social fragmentation produced by these socioeconomic trends is compounded immensely by additional economic insecurities. As professions rise and fall, jobs are shipped overseas, and inequality soars, people witness the very material facts of their existence change with unparalleled rapidity. This leads to a great deal of anxiety, both about change in itself and its material consequences for individuals and their families.
These socio-economic trends are coupled with developments in modern technology and technological culture. The internet has tremendous potential to enable individuals to communicate with countless others around the globe. Under better circumstances that might lead to the virtues of a more informed civic dialogue and a better understanding of what one’s ideological opponents are saying. Unfortunately, that happens rarely. In these hyper-real mediums, individuals deal with the anomie produced by modern economic and social transformations by turning to others on the internet who feel very much like they do. Driven by resentment, they come to feel that their happiness and identity are under attack by mysterious antagonists which are often not well defined; a factor which contributes to their perceived omnipresence. Because these individuals operate in a moral culture where the pursuit of one’s private happiness is taken as the primary focus of life, they react to these perceived wrongs in a highly antagonistic and even paranoid fashion.
One of the results of all these factors is the emergence of today’s identity politics on the left and the right. Identity politics is the product of a post-modern culture where the liberal dismissal of ends, and the consequent economic and technological transformations that align with it, combine to produce angry and resentful populations. These populations align with others who affiliate with given group identities to push for the political power needed to better pursue their collective desires.