Descent of the West? Part 2, Patrick J. Deneen’s verdict: Western Civilization Has Failed Because It Succeeded

Brett Alan Williams
8 min readJun 4, 2022
The Caryatids on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece by Sergio García on Unsplash, modified by the author in GIMP
The Caryatids on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece by Sergio García on Unsplash, modified by the author in GIMP

As James Davison Hunter remarks in the Foreword to Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, “In the young twenty-first century, liberal democracy, that system which marries majority rule to individual rights, has entered a crisis of legitimacy… Deneen’s is a radical critique, arguing that [classical] liberalism needs not reform but retirement. The problem is not that liberalism has been hijacked but that its elevation of individual autonomy was wrong from the start…” Or should that be, “the eventual sanctification of individual autonomy was the wrong outcome”?

Deneen’s idea can be simplified with an analogy where our social system — that product of Enlightenment philosophy — is a grinder of grain, and we are the grains. Gears in this machine thrash the natural health and goodness of those grains into bits and pieces of what was. While these bits are labeled “Whole Grains,” they are nothing of the sort. Instead of healthy wholeness, they’ve been converted to a substance little different from raw sugar, that source of (social) sugar highs and sugar crashes. While the bits that pile beneath this machine look to be in close proximity to one another, they’re severed from their natural attachments, living in isolation with only the appearance of connectedness. But in exchange, these bits acquire the freedom to be manipulated into all sorts of new and wonderous contortions, like pizza crust or breadsticks or lonely nonconformists. Curiously, the gears of this machine run on an odd fuel called “borderlessness.” Stranger than it sounds, it’s both a motive force that pushes gears forward with intent and direction, and an attractive force that draws the gears toward where they imagine they can be. Borderlessness is a powerful fuel sold by people of two stripes. One side advertises its utility in the grinder for the grain’s emancipation from things like national boundaries and gender, while the other side promotes its use in removing safety limits on guns and strip mines. The gears inside this grinder are of two kinds: the state and the market. The state and the market are just gears, they don’t know they’re smashing the healthy wholeness of grains, they just do. And by doing, they create a low-grade toxin for all who consume it, resulting in any number of ailments, from obesity and heart disease to diabetes and the death of Western civilization. Marketers give this process of converting grain’s natural nature a happy name; they call it “Liberty.”

Per Deneen, “[Classical] liberalism created the conditions and the tools for assent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge for its own culpability.” It failed because it succeeded, a success measured by its achievement of the opposite of its promise. Liberalism — that underlying philosophy of America’s Founders — is sinking after 250-years, not because something went wrong, but because, like our food industry built on whole-grain paste, it worked so impossibly well. And what worked so well dissolved the foundation that supported itself, as high-glycemic foods created the most lethally obese population on earth.

“By ancient and Christian understandings,” writes Deneen, “…self-rule was achieved only with difficulty requiring extensive habituation with virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites — the achievement of liberty required constraints on individual choice.” A condition achieved less by laws than by norms as custom, which Thomas Aquinas considered superior law. But the grinding philosophy of liberalism made liberty its opposite: “the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms.” Where the only limitations come from “inferior laws” necessarily constructed by the state to maintain order on unfettered individuals. Liberalism obliterates custom and its norms.

That’s the philosophical and psychological effect of the system, but mechanically, procedurally, how does the grinder do what Deneen says it does?

The first gear: the state. “Liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle,” says Deneen, “in which state expansion secures the end of individual [barriers to liberty], in turn requiring further state expansion…”

The second gear: the market. “Sovereignty of individual choice in an economy requires demolition of artificial boundaries to a marketplace. The market — once a defined and limited space within the city — must ultimately become borderless.”

The fuel: borderlessness. It’s “the arbitrariness of almost every border [where] any differentiation, distinction, boundary, and delineation…come under suspicion as arbitrarily limiting individual freedom of choice.” Be they barriers to spending, barriers to expression, barriers imposed by nature, they “must increasingly be erased under the logic of liberalism.”

These all work together. “The logic of liberalism thus demands near-limitless expansion of both state and market,” Deneen writes. “A massive state architecture and a globalized economy, both created in the name of the liberation of the individual, combine to leave the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of freedom.” As the market grows, the state grows to manage it with “a felt loss of liberty.” As Plato noted, while liberty and license grow with behavior ever more released from social norms — which are, after all, obstacles to free choice — the state must swell to maintain order. Thus managing “a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs…replacing all nonliberal forms of support for human flourishing…hollowing any deeply held sense of a shared future or fate among the citizenry.” Remember the once-lauded “American melting pot”? An idea that made aspirants greater by their unity, now exchanged for “identity” — segregation as sovereignty.

All this can be hard to see. Unlike the plainly authoritarian regimes of fascism and communism, “liberalism is less visibly ideological and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image,” says Deneen, “liberalism is more insidious: it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth. It makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operating system goes largely unseen — until it crashes.” But ideologies eventually fail “because as falsehoods become more evident, the gap grows between what the ideology claims and the lived experience of human beings under its domain… Either it enforces conformity to a lie it struggles to defend, or it collapses when the gap between claim and reality finally results in wholesale loss of belief among the populace.” Consider how Leninist-Marxist ideology worked out for the USSR. It took only seven decades, one lifetime, to fail.

As recognized by Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Robert Nisbet, the “signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness.” Three hundred million people in America, and according to the World Economic Forum, loneliness is an epidemic in this, one of the loneliest places on earth. A condition pressed for by liberalism of both Left and Right, and they don’t know it, as we all now wonder how totalitarianism became so popular in America.

For social structures like thick communities of custom, tradition, and religion, today’s political Left sees these as oppressive of individual free expression. To liberal individualists, rules that service the community demand obedience — and they do, but this is not to be allowed because rules that demand obedience to individuals supersede those of community. Communities are to be opened for state inspection to assure no individual rights are violated, ensuring no coercion exists (although the Amish get away with it). Restraint — i.e., virtue — is an assault on Free Choice in worship of the Sacred Self with a minimum of attachments, expanding personal liberty, liberating moral judgment, disconnecting people from each other. Surprisingly, the Left then wonders why there’s little concern for the poor, why the rich want to keep all they can, why corporations would place profit above people and the planet. For liberals, communal belonging is a kind of weakness, needy, an insult to autonomy. Morality — that practice of ethical behaviors in a universe of more than one lone individual — is a matter of personal choosing.

On the Right, free choice is, among other things, manifested through consumerism. Conservatives seek unregulated laissez-faire markets for untrammeled consumption, Christian teachings of modesty and the rich man’s ban from heaven be damned. Religious prohibitions of covetous excess are impediments to profit. Markets will govern themselves the way they didn’t before Wall Street’s Great Recession. Ethics that stand in the way of eviscerating the environment or some other species for economic return is for “tree-huggers.” Markets must be protected by big government from poor, indigenous, or politically weak people in a say to their own lands if resources are discovered under it. Markets that relocate occupations overseas from the town they originated and were built from are simply engaged in “asset allocation” and “resource management” for “win-win, due diligence compactification across the enterprise eco-system.” (Huh?) Increased purchasing power of cheap goods is supposed to compensate for the export of high-paying manufacturing jobs. Profit is about the dollar, not the flag, except in China, and it’s certainly not about employees who provide return on investments and yet are expendable while investors somehow are not. Laws that allow corporate polluters to poison the very people that work for them — from coal miners with black lung to America’s Cancer Alley in Louisiana and Texas — are legislated by business-friendly conservative politicians. When it comes to cherished families and their values, try killing off a few — a regular occurrence — then see how their traditions stand up to it. Morality — that practice of ethical behaviors in a universe of more than one lone individual — is a matter for the rugged individual to judge.

While the New Right has garnered recent focus by their normalization of violence and immorality (remember the “Moral Majority”?), the Left and Right are on the same team. Both sides exercise all rights, no responsibilities, the alpha and omega of liberalism. The Founders did not give us a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities so the latter — comprised of duty and virtue in ample supply at the time — wasted away by the kryptonite of post-Enlightenment liberalism.

Notice that both Left and Right accused Deneen’s book “of promoting nostalgia for communities that limit mobility and individual liberty.” Indeed. True communities thrived on our sensitivities of connectedness, providing judgment and bearing, while state and market society thrive on our disconnectedness, providing liberation and perplexity. As political philosopher, Michael J. Sandel has it, “liberated and dispossessed.” Our replacement is the NASCAR “community,” the Facebook “community,” this afternoon’s mass murder “community.”

Deneen concludes, “To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.” All this might cause us to “wonder whether America is…approaching the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespan of all human creations.”

And the solution?

He doesn’t say.

References not linked to above:

Paragraph 1: “…wrong from the start.” Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Yale University Press, 2018, pg. vii, viii.

Paragraph 3: “…its own culpability.” Ibid, pg. xvi; “…opposite of its promise. Ibid, pg. 3, paraphrased.

Paragraph 4: “…individual choice.” Ibid, pg. xiii; “…customary norms.” Ibid, pg. xiii.

Paragraph 6: “…further state expansion…” Ibid, pg. 62.

Paragraph 7: “…become borderless.” Ibid, pg. xiv.

Paragraph 8: “…freedom of choice.” Ibid, pg. xviii. “…the logic of liberalism.”: Ibid, pg. xviii.

Paragraph 9: “…name of freedom.” Ibid, pg. xii; “…loss of liberty.” Ibid, pg. xii. “…among the citizenry.” Ibid, pg. 62.

Paragraph 10: “…until it crashes.” Ibid, pg. pg. 5. “…among the populace.” Ibid, pg. 6.

Paragraph 11: “…and loneliness.” Ibid, pg. 59.

Paragraph 15: “…individual liberty.” Deneen, pg. xxi. “liberated and dispossessed”: Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press, 1998.

Paragraph 16: “…raging fire.” Ibid, pg. 4.



Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and