Patrick Deneen on the three pillars of liberal anticulture

Yesterday, I started on a book that’s been on my ‘must read’ pile for most of this year – Patrick Deneen’s gripping and highly-readable Why Liberalism Failed. While Deneen appears to read some of the most significant historical shifts in the West’s cultural and political imaginary in ways that are markedly less contested than do I, there is no doubt that, at least to where I’ve read up to so far, his book offers a stimulating and broadly-compelling diagnosis of liberalism, its vacuous promises, its parasitic nature, and its self-defeating vision.

Here’s a taster:

‘Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity; second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience—nature, time and place—form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The advance of this anticulture takes two primary forms. Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.

This anticulture is the arena of our liberty—yet increasingly, it is rightly perceived as the locus of our bondage and even a threat to our continued existence. The simultaneous heady joy and gnawing anxieties of a liberated humanity, shorn of the compass of tradition and inheritance that were the hallmarks of embedded culture, are indicators of liberalism’s waxing success and accumulating failure. The paradox is our growing belief that we are thralls to the very sources of our liberation—pervasive legal surveillance and control of people alongside technological control of nature. As the empire of liberty grows, the reality of liberty recedes. The anticulture of liberalism—supposedly the source of our liberation—accelerates liberalism’s success and demise’.

– Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 65–67.

Jonathan Sacks on one gift that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies

Sacks - The Dignity of DifferenceJonathan Sacks has described the public commons as ‘the places you go where you do not have to pay’. Such places are becoming increasingly rare in the world’s cities; they are being converted into shopping centres and entertainment complexes. ‘But these are not civic spaces. We go there as consumers, not as fellow citizens’. And so we are formed. Relationships once based on neighbourliness and the shared bonds of citizenship have become commercialised and disembodied. And exposed here, Sacks argues, is one of the real gifts that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies – that they can help such societies ‘to acquire the habits of co-operation which form the basis of trust on which the economics and politics of a free society depend’. He continues:

One of the classic roles of religion has been to preserve a space – physical and metaphysical – immune to the pressures of the market. When we stand before God we do so regardless of what we earn, what we own, what we buy, what we can afford. We do so as beings of ultimate, non-transactional value, here because someone – some force at the heart of being – called us into existence and summoned us to be a blessing. The power of the great world religions is that they are not mere philosophical systems, abstract truths strung together in strictly logical configurations. They are embodied truths, made vividly real in lives, homes, congregations, rituals, narratives, songs and prayers – in covenantal communities whose power is precisely that they are not subject to economic forces. They value people for what they are; they value actions for the ideals that brought them forth; they preserve relationships by endowing them with the charisma of eternity made real in the here-and-now.

Slavoj Žižek on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left

With my lectures for next two weeks (basically) written, I’ve turned to some fun reading: namely, Slavoj Žižek’s latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. It’s an unsurprisingly-passionate critique of contemporary capitalism post the recent so-called financial crash. While few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, his analyses of the big movements are very insightful, often compelling, and nearly always worth reflecting on – if for no other reason than that no-one quite says it like Žižek. Here he is on liberalism, fundamentalism and the true Left:

‘A true Left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions, but as something inevitable, as a chance to be fully exploited. The basic insight of the radical Left is that although crises are painful and dangerous they are ineluctable, and that they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. The difference between liberalism and the radical Left is that, although they refer to the same three elements (liberal center, populist Right, radical Left), they locate them in a radically different topology: for the liberal center, the radical Left and the Right are two forms of the same “totalitarian” excess; while for the Left, the only true alternative is the one between itself and the liberal mainstream, the populist “radical” Right being nothing but the symptom of liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat. When today we hear a politician or an ideologist offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, triumphantly asking (purely rhetorical) questions such as “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocker of religion to be punishable by death?” what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer – who would have wanted that? The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. This is why, for a true Leftist, the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle in which two opposed poles generate and presuppose each other. Here one should take an Hegelian step backwards, placing in question the very measure from which fundamentalism appears in all its horror. Liberals have long ago lost their right to judge. What Horkheimer once said should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk (critically) about liberal democracy and its noble principles should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism. And, even more pointedly, one should emphatically insist that the conflict between the State of Israel and the Arabs is a false conflict: even if we will all come to perish because of it, it is a conflict which only mystifies the true issues.

How are we to understand this reversal of an emancipatory thrust into fundamentalist populism? In authentic Marxism, totality is not an ideal, but a critical notion-to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include within a system all its “symptoms:’ it antagonisms and inconsistencies, as integral parts. In this sense then, liberalism and fundamentalism form a “totality:’ for their opposition is structured so that liberalism itself generates its opposite. Where then do the core values of liberalism – freedom, equality, etc. – stand? The paradox is that liberalism itself is not strong enough to save its own core values from the fundamentalist onslaught. Its problem is that it cannot stand on its own: there is something missing in the liberal edifice. Liberalism is, in its very notion, “parasitic” relying as it does on a presupposed network of communal values that it undermines in the course of its own development. Fundamentalism is a reaction – a false, mystificatory reaction of course – against a real flaw inherent within liberalism, and this is why fundamentalism is, over and again, generated by liberalism. Left to itself, liberalism will slowly undermine itself – the only thing that can save its core is a renewed Left. Or, to put it in the well-known terms of 1968, in order for its key legacy to survive, liberalism will need the brotherly help of the radical Left’. – Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London/New York: Verso, 2009), 75–77.