Integration from Within

"To amplify Deneen’s own text somewhat, a similar logic also bars any return to some putatively better strain of liberalism (“classical liberalism” or what have you). In different versions, the hope is for a return to the Europe of the postwar era, a return to the America of the 1950s–1970s, or even a return to the neoliberal (or largely neoconservative ) paradise of the late 1980s and 1990s. But all such nostalgia rests on some version of the assumption that it is possible to separate imperialist progressive liberalism from an older good, or at least stable, version of liberalism. Deneen conclusively refutes this idea, showing that the progression (as it were) from one form of liberalism to another unfolds by a logical dynamic, an inner necessity. A magical return to the old liberalism, were it somehow to occur, would merely restart the same process. As Valéry Giscard d’Estaing put it in a related context, “There is no question of returning to the pre-1968 situation, first because the pre-1968 situation included the conditions that brought about 1968.” The only way out is forward.

But according to Deneen—and I will indicate shortly that this is the precise moment when Deneen’s argument takes a wrong turn—a postliberal politics must “avoid the temptation to replace one ideology with another. Politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice” (188). This cashes out in a call for localist living, work, and education, in “intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society. They will be regarded as ‘options’ within the liberal frame, and while suspect in the broader culture, largely permitted to exist so long as they are nonthreatening to the liberal order’s main business” (196). Above all, however, “the impulse to devise a new and better political theory in the wake of liberalism’s simultaneous triumph and demise is a temptation that must be resisted. The search for a comprehensive theory is what gave rise to liberalism and successor ideologies in the first place” (196). Rather the thing to hope for and work towards is “not a better theory, but better practices . . . [which] might finally be worthy of the name ‘liberal’” (197–98)."