One of the most talked-about books in intellectual (or at least opinionated) circles over the past two years is Patrick J. Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed. Recognizing conservative, leftist, populist and authoritarian dissatisfaction with the liberal order, Deneen reportedly traces it all to liberalism's ultimate inability to check self-indulgent, self-interested individualism on the social, cultural and economic fronts. I haven't read the book, but Robert Kuttner's review of the new paperback edition in The New York Review of Books tempts me to give the book a chance -- since Kuttner certainly doesn't. An editor and co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, Kuttner qualifies as a leading liberal thinker in the Democratic sense of the term. He's dismayed, if not disgusted by all the attention Deneen has received. In Kuttner's view, Why Liberalism Failed is at heart a brief for Catholic traditionalism that misrepresents both liberalism and the history from which it emerged. I can't judge whether he's fairly characterized the book until I read Deneen myself, but one fundamental distinction Kuttner draws is instructive. He quotes Deneen's definition of liberalism as an aspiration toward "the greatest possible freedom from external constraints" in order to damn it as a caricature. For Kuttner, liberalism's target isn't "external constraints" but plain and simple tyranny of all kinds, from aristocracy to theocracy, from bureaucratic statism to the tyranny of the majority. Rather than failing or refusing to curb excessive individualism, Kuttner contends, liberalism is ever mindful of the limits imposed on individualism and collective power alike by the rights of others -- both other individuals and minority groups. Deneen, Kuttner claims, idealizes a pre-modern consensus in which few actually had any say and which often was enforced by cruel violence.
What Deneen actually says remains to be seen, but Kuttner's outraged review arguably plays into the author's hands. Deneen might well ask: what keeps a liberal from seeing any external constraint as tyranny? The answer must depend on how one defines "external constraint." From Kuttner's account, Deneen includes traditional values, including revealed religion, in the definition, but Kuttner himself, waxing anticlerical, argues that traditions often come with oppressive hierarchies and habits of intolerance that require the evolution of liberalism in defense of human rights. This might serve as evidence that liberals like Kuttner can't accept a normative consensus without looking for inquisitors behind every tree. Such heightened awareness of potential tyranny is well known in this country. It can be found on the left and the right alike as each sees the other as the potential tyrant. If we can no longer acquiesce in electoral defeat without worrying that tyranny is imminent, then one can argue -- though I don't say this is Deneen's argument -- that liberalism, however you define it, is failing. But while all sides seemingly grow more weary of Americans' absolute right to be assholes, I don't know if hyper-individualism is the true seed of liberalism's downfall. Liberalism is a product of particular historic conditions that no longer apply as they did in liberalism's heyday. You don't need to be a Marxist to believe this, and Marxists probably are wrong to see liberalism (or, as they'd say, bourgeois values) as characteristic of a mere stage, inevitably left behind, in human progress. It may be more useful to see the liberal/bourgeois epoch as an exceptional but not necessarily irreproducible episode in a more cyclical pattern of history -- perhaps as a high point from which decline rather than progress is inevitable, but definitely something that can't be permanent. If that's the case, the question of liberalism's failure would be as much a "when" as a "why." It could well be that Deneen is asking the wrong question, and Kuttner is giving the wrong answer anyway.