Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents
by Patrick J. Deneen.
St. Augustines Press, 2016.
Paper, 192 pages, $19.
The title of the book—Conserving America?—tells us much of what we need to know about Deneen’s thesis. For much of conservative intellectual history in the United States the question of whether or not America should or could be conserved was beyond dispute, and, for the most part, it remains so. This conservation typically takes the form of conservative intellectuals fighting for the preservation of the principles of the Declaration and Constitution against those who seek, to borrow a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI, to read those documents through a hermeneutic of rupture. Interestingly, Deneen argues in the book that if America is to be conserved it will not be through the promotion of conservative principles but in a rejection of those principles. Deneen believes that the philosophy, a Hobbesian and Lockean form of liberalism, upon which the United States was founded, contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Deneen has become, over the course of his long career, one of the nation’s sharpest critics, arguing that America’s founding principles are at their root progressive and at odds with the national self-image preferred by conservatives. Conserving America? is composed of twelve chapters taken mainly from speeches and lectures on subjects ranging from whether in fact America has a conservative tradition (according to Deneen, no) to what will happen when American liberalism possibly falls apart.
Deneen argues that the “Enlightenment and liberal philosophies that informed the American founding posited the existence of radically autonomous human beings in the state of nature, rights bearing creatures who consent to the creation of a government which exists to secure those rights.” But the truth, according to Deneen, is just the opposite. This radical autonomy and the state of nature exist only in theory and it is government that is put to the task of making that theory come into existence.
Deneen further argues that our electoral choices are in fact false choices and that there is a “consistent and ongoing continuity in the basic trajectory of modern liberal democracy both at home and abroad” regardless of whether the political left or the political right is in power. This trajectory results in the concentration of power in the hands of a global aristocracy that controls more and more wealth—an aristocracy that moves “continuously back and forth between public and private positions, controlling the major institutions of modern society.”
Deneen argues that the political left is the greatest beneficiary of this arrangement though they remain silent, or even at times, blissfully unaware of liberalism’s beneficence and focus their attention on identity and sexual politics. The political right, on the other hand, “promises to shore up traditional family values while supporting a borderless and dislocating economic system that destabilizes family life especially among those who do not ascend to the global elite, those outside the elite circles who exhibit devastating levels of familial and community disintegration.” For Deneen, conservatism cannot do both and indeed, its support of a limitless globalism destroys any real basis for a conservative polity.
While Deneen discusses the problems and shortcomings of the political left in the book, it is his critique of the political right that is most interesting. American conservatives would do well to take Deneen’s critique seriously even if they find they cannot fully embrace it. His critique of the destabilizing nature of capitalism is important and that critique should find ears after an election cycle that in many ways hinged on the “forgotten man,” an election cycle during which a major conservative magazine published an article arguing that communities that have been ravaged by capitalist creative destruction in some sense deserve to die, and that the poor people living in them need, more than anything, a U-Haul.
Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further in that he recognizes that capitalism makes it difficult to have a common good toward which a society can work. Because capitalism is based on the idea that each person working toward his or her own self-interest will benefit society as a whole, it results only in something that resembles cooperation rather than actual cooperation, much less working toward a common good that benefits the whole. This might be okay, argues Deneen following Tocqueville, if not for the fact that the “language of self-interest would [over time] exert a formative influence upon democratic man’s self-understanding” causing him to lose sight of communal responsibility and the common good. The language of self-interest is also deceptive in that “in thinking solely of our own advancement and accumulation, we deceive ourselves in thinking we are wholly self-sufficient and that our success has come solely through our ownefforts.” Both of these effects of the reliance on self-interest to direct society result in the breakdown of conscious cooperation and therefore become corrosive to society.
Deneen’s critique of capitalism is instructive but at times it falls prey to what might be called a boutique mentality. For Deneen the ideal community looks something like Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In one of his more well-known essays, Deneen sees George Bailey as almost as much a villain as Mr. Potter, for it is Bailey who brings urban sprawl to Bedford Falls, in the form of affordable housing. Deneen sees in Bailey not a hero but an agent of destruction: “George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment. To re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.”
Deneen argues that a community like Bailey Park cannot sustain trust and community in the same way as Bedford Falls. Deneen sees Bailey Park as the gateway to an America “wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs.” It’s a long list of wrongs to load on the back of George Bailey. Where should the people who moved to Bailey Park live? They can’t afford to live in Bedford Falls unless Deneen’s critique of capitalism goes further than it seems. Deneen is not altogether wrong about suburban life or urban sprawl, but it’s not clear what a realistic alternative would be without a massive re-appropriation of wealth. Moreover, conservatives have long admired this movie for its opposition, in the form of George Bailey, to a rapacious capitalism: the movie’s alternative view of Bedford Falls had the rapacious banker Potter prevailed is even less attractive. The challenge to Deneen is to demonstrate that there is some path that avoids both forms of consumerism and community-erasing that the movie presents.
Another theme worth grappling with is Deneen’s argument that American conservatism is not at all conservative. Deneen argues that the two main commitments of mainstream American conservatism have been the “strenuous defense of a relatively unregulated market and the insistence upon a strong military posture that extended American power into every corner of the world, often explicitly in defense of promoting universalized liberal democracy …” Neither, he says, supports the local and humane scale of community necessary for the common good and political liberty.
This effectively argues that conservatism’s main goals have been to promote liberalism. In appropriating the tools of liberalism, Deneen argues, conservatism was wildly successful, but its success did away with conservative ways of life like family farming and family-owned businesses. Deneen further argues that conservative promotion of economic and cultural globalization and conservative commitments to the “abstractions of the markets and the abstractions of national allegiance” destroyed the local forms of American life that had sustained distinctive communities across America.
So what is the way forward? Deneen sees the collapse of liberalism as possible even though in his estimation nearly every human institution has been formed to enact and perpetuate liberalism. What reason is there for hope in the face of these odds? Deneen believes that as liberalism becomes more itself, it will become harder to explain its “endemic failures [massive income inequality, the breakdown of community, etc.] as merely accidental or unintended.” Deneen is not overly optimistic on this score. He explains that as the failures of liberalism come out, many proposed alternatives will be even worse and so it is our responsibility to defeat these alternatives and propose in their place something better.
The book’s concluding chapter is titled “After Liberalism,” a deliberate homage to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Deneen acknowledges that many of the alternatives to liberalism on the world stage are not comforting, but he urges us to actively hope for the end of liberalism and that it might be a “fourth sailing—after antiquity, after Christianity, after liberalism into a post liberal and hopeful future.”
If we are to have any hope for this future after liberalism, conservatives will need to take seriously the challenges thinkers like Deneen put forth. The effects of liberalism and the free market on community must not be dismissed as intractable or their possible alternatives as unrealistic. Conservatives would also be remiss if Deneen’s critique of the deleterious effects of, especially the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, as applied through constitutionalism, are not adequately addressed. If conservatives fail to address these problems seriously it will be due to a failure of imagination. In fact it can be said, based on Deneen’s argument, that the only way to achieve the stated goals of conservatism, is to stop being “conservative.”
Marc Mason lives in Sacramento, California. His work has appeared in digital format at Front Porch Republic and First Things.