I just read about an app called Musical.ly. Designed to be a hub for aspiring performers to share their talents with others, it also serves as a playground for perverts, a soundboard for hatred and caustic humor, and a place where children display evidence of self-harm and feelings of despair.
Indeed, this is just one more symptom of a fundamental societal ailment manifesting itself all around us. This can no longer be denied by anyone who is looking: school shootings have become a norm of American life, family structures have been hollowed out, depression and addiction have risen to epidemic levels over the past decade. In an effort to do something, voters in the United States, Britain, and now fun-loving Italy have turned increasingly to “illiberal” solutions in rejection of the very order that, supposedly, is supposed to help us climb out of this cultural wasteland.
But can it really? Can liberalism, as such, actually stop the bleeding (physical and otherwise) around us? In fact, Patrick J. Deneen’s much-discussed recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, suggests the exact opposite. In the book, Deneen makes the bold claim that what the United States (and the West more broadly) is experiencing right now is a kind of end-stage liberalism, one which is both the embodiment of liberalism’s triumph as well as its inevitable and self-made death knell.
Deneen is at his best when he analyzes our current cultural situation. His descriptions of life today are critical without being melodramatic. He points out the fact that new undergraduates arriving at college campuses are forced to navigate all kinds of social questions unimaginable even by their parents. They must also decide whether they are going to “sell out” and seek to perpetuate the cycle of economic production and consumerism or be contented with a less exciting and less materially enriching life. They feel intense pressure to display performance commensurate with the incredibly high tuition and fees required to go such schools ($70,000 to go to my alma mater next year). And those are just the problems of those who are privileged enough to find themselves at an elite institution. For those less well off, the cultural breakdown manifests itself in other – more destructive – ways, as Charles Murray has chronicled: those in lower socio-economic strata have disproportionately experienced the loss of marital stability (and even rejection of marriage as an institution), drug usage, and economic stagnation over the past twenty years.
Deneen identifies today’s “liberals” and “conservatives” as locked into a kind of phony war which actually advances the same system: “the liberal project of statist and market deracination and liberationism, achieved through expansion of individual autonomy and the Baconian project of conquering nature.” At its core, liberalism takes many ancient forms of human relationality – democracy, trade, citizenship – and ancient goals of the human heart – liberty, justice, truth – and warps their meanings, subsuming them into a massive project of social engineering based on the absolute primacy of individual autonomy and desire fulfillment. Again, Deneen is quite convincing when advancing such arguments. He is correct when pointing out the inherent dangers of our “rootless” culture, in which economic transactions are touted for their completely de-personalized quality.
Indeed, Deneen makes a compelling case that while the human desire for liberty is real and true, the “liberty” of liberalism is just a parlor game. We have near-infinite consumer choice – at least in the United States – but we have no time for leisure or worship of God. Such activities, says Deneen, are considered “wasteful activities.” It borders on irresponsibility for a parent to, say, bring his child to Church on Sunday in lieu of a soccer game. Church won’t pay for a week at Stanford.
And yet for all its positive aspects, Deneen’s argument leaves one with many questions. Why, for instance, did many of the values Deneen consider important persist through most of the supposedly evil reign of liberalism, as he himself admits? Liberalism is collapsing under its own weight like a neutron star, says Deneen, and for that reason small communities will have to preserve the remnants of what is true, good, and beautiful. Yet small communities – the kind of close-to-the-earth interpersonal dealings which are the true experiences of life – have done quite well under liberalism. Ethnic enclaves like the Italian and Irish neighborhoods of old – and Liberian and Latino communities today – have thrived.
Michael Novak made the point decades ago in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: without a religious faith to undergird life, the institutions of Democracy and Capitalism collapse upon themselves. This is not to say that political and economic forms are beyond critique. Indeed, any just market economy will make provision for the poor and disadvantaged both from the perspective of morality and because it makes economic sense. Nevertheless, I would submit that the primary reason why our world seems so broken today is because of a loss of a sense of faith among a large group of people. Many – even those who profess belief in God – seem to experience this loss acutely.
Our moment is a moment for religious activity. Political forms will come and go. Economic policies need constant monitoring. But at the end of the day, only a robust public affirmation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will bring about renewal in our society. The Church, then, must not squander such a critical moment in obsessing about maintaining structures of ecclesial life which have had their day. We must be flexible and open to the promptings of the Spirit. And there are signs of life in so many places, especially among millennials. They are thirsting for God, and they are not satisfied with a mediocre, arrogant, or dumbed-down faith. They want the Gospel in all of its radical implications – not a sanctimonious traditionalism or a reckless obsession with “new paradigms.”
Deneen identifies liberalism as the ideology which harnesses social structures in order to advance personal autonomy at all costs. That sounds to me like a perennial problem, one caused ultimately by the Fall. What is required to combat the human need for gratification is not a new political movement, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Deneen has done us a great service by coalescing the anxieties of our age in one insightful volume. But while the symptoms are unique to this moment in history, the cause is still the same: human sin. That will always be present while we reside in the earthly city. For this reason, the City of God must always be there to offer a truly alternative lifestyle – one infinitely more radical than liberalism and whatever may come next.