Monday, February 27, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (I)

Can America be conserved? Dr. Deneen begins his collection of essays with that question. There is a logic in posing the question so starkly, because the problems Deneen identifies warrant the question. He notes that 70 percent of Americans believe America is moving in the wrong direction, and half of us believe our best days as a nation are behind us.

Analysis of the situation is colored by two related tendencies, he says. Firstly, we tend to believe that our problems and solutions are to be found in the sphere of politics; and secondly, we find value in a strict binary American "liberal/conservative" axis. Deneen says that such a binary doesn't only note disagreement, but an irreconcilable conflict of worldviews. As such, the stakes could not be higher, and total or near-total control of the branches of the national government is viewed by all as imperative.

And yet, Deneen argues, the deep philosophical and ideological divide is "fundamentally illusory," because a very small elite actually controls the levers of power, irrespective of who wins, and who loses. It would be something of a lazy conspiracy theory, but for the fact that Deneen identifies classical liberalism and its philosophical assumptions as the fundamental systemic problem. He believes that much of the anger we have witnessed is an inarticulate rejection of a false choice.

The heart of liberalism's assertion is that human beings by nature are radically autonomous, free and independent, possessed of certain rights, and so, we consent to the creation of a government charged with securing those rights.

I sense the questions Deneen is inviting us to ask in response, and it behooves us to make them assertions, in order to understand the depth of the critique he makes: On the contrary; human beings are not radically autonomous. "Liberty" is not an end in itself.

If the end of man is indeed higher than himself, and his rights and duties flow from a telos he does not make, but acknowledges, then the rationale for government and its legitimate authority changes. That is, consent may be desirable and even necessary, but it is not sufficient. If government arises organically from the duty to love God and neighbor as ourselves, then man does not consent to its creation, in a real sense.

Deneen says that the American republic from its very conception endeavored to maximize inequality, if I understand him correctly. At the very least, to maximize differences. The concept of solidarity seems to be a rejection of this notion. If Deneen is correct here, "originalism" in the strictest sense cannot be compatible with Catholic faith.

The present system offers us the false choice of allegiance to the Market, or to the State, Deneen argues. In either case, the person is severed from his own inherent dignity, or his individuality. The ascendancy of "conservatism" in the late stages of the 20th century only served to further the goals of liberalism. "Conservatism" has been rendered moot, not because it failed, but because it succeeded. In making this point, Deneen is provocative, to say the least.

For my part, I can see how this philosophy would destroy civil society, or what we might call "mediating institutions." These institutions--family, community, private association, the Church--remind people of their duties to their neighbors and to God, and one senses that Deneen has observed their gradual replacement by State and Market. Dr. Deneen seems to hold out hope for a better way, and I'm eager to hear what else he has to say.

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