The Liberal Origins of the Great Awokening
Patrick Deneen debates Bret Stephens on Bari Weiss’s “Honestly”
Several weeks ago I donned my headset and spent over two hours in conversation, exploration, and debate with the the New York Times’s Bret Stephens on the podcast “Honestly,” hosted by Bari Weiss.
You can find the episode here:
The topics covered were ranging, but a the central question was whether we (Americans, and Westerners more broadly) enjoy too much, or too little freedom. My position was that many of our worsening contemporary pathologies—both social and economic—have arisen from too much bad freedom, and not enough good liberty—i.e., too much liberalism, and not enough classical and Christian liberty. Bret Stephens—obviously, to anyone who knows his worldview—took the opposite position.
In a number of instances there were concrete questions that touched on policy. One of the areas that came under debate was whether government should seek to support family formation—encouraging marriage and children through public financial support backed by the force of law. Stephens held that as long as no one prevented someone from forming a family and having children, they were sufficiently free, and—that being the case—there was no particular need for government support. His position was reminiscent of a slightly altered observation of Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic silence, allows the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
I argued that we now live in a social and economic order in which to be married and to have children is for many, even possibly most of our countrymen and countrywomen, far more difficult than to eschew one or both. To allow the possibility of a genuine choice that allowed people to marry, to have children, and to have one or both parents able to spend time at home raising those children themselves, and not amount to a condition of extreme financial duress, required assistance of the public order. For the liberal, the appearance of theoretical choice suffices; for the postliberal, genuine choice—and moreover, encouragement to make the better choice that requires thinking beyond individual self-interest—cannot exist in the absence of a wide range of public, civic, and familial support.
Further, I argued, the public order has a vested interest in encouraging the formation of families with children, and not only because a nation seeks to foster conditions generative of future generations. As I argue in this clip below (via Twitter), for most humans, we come to learn most deeply about the extent of nearly limitless yet ordinary self-sacrifice when we have our own children. It’s when we ourselves perform the daily small sacrifices and duties as parents that we come most fully and profoundly to realize the sacrifices that our parents once made for us:
For me, however, the most striking aspect of the debate was our respective differences in views about the wellspring of contemporary “wokeness.” For Bret Stephens—and, I suspect, Bari Weiss—progressive wokeness is an aberration from good, old-fashioned liberalism. What I attempted to convey to both of them, and to her audience, was that the key elements of “wokeness” arise not from some successor philosophy, such as “cultural Marxism,” as most classical liberals wish to claim. Rather, I argued, it is the natural and even inevitable outgrowth of liberalism’s core feature of transgression. Nothing revealed this difference more than a brief debate between Stephens and myself over how to understand the legacy of John Stuart Mill:
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Stephens cited Mill’s On Liberty as the text that exemplified his position: people should be as free as possible, so long as they harmed no one in the exercise of their liberty.
I argued, by contrast, that Mill’s argument contains the core of the very progressive liberal ideology that has today emerged as “wokeness.” Mill argues ultimately not for liberty as an inherent good, but as a means to progress. The actual title of his book should have been On Progress, or How Liberty Leads to Progress. The answer: by destroying tradition and overturning a conservative order shaped on behalf of ordinary people, in favor of a revolutionary order that favors a few.
The society that Mill above all seeks to bring about is one that encourages the liberation of transgressive individuals from social, cultural, and traditional norms. He picks up the liberal baton where John Locke left it: having successfully created liberal political orders that secure individual rights, Mill’s concern was that such rights were useless unless people were freed from what he called the “the despotism of Custom.”The main purpose of On Liberty is not to secure political liberty—which he believed had been largely achieved in nations such as England—but social freedom, a freedom that required the positive disassembling of customs and tradition. This was especially needful for the nonconformists, people who wanted to flout the norms that governed most of everyday life. Among the despotisms that hold back the nonconformists we can see clearly today include: the expectation that people would marry and have children at some point in their early adulthood; that they would be members in good standing of a religious congregation; and that they would conduct themselves with comportment and decency.
Being thus freed, Mill further argued, the genuine purpose of liberty might emerge: Progress. Until people were sufficiently freed from the “despotism of Custom,” progress was thwarted. As long as nonconformists were prevented from engaging in “experiments in living,” societies would tend to replicate themselves. Traditions would be passed from one generation to the next.
Most societies, he wrote, had “no history,” properly speaking—that is, things happened from one day to the next, but there was no progressive trajectory to history. Only when the social “default” switched from “tradition” to “experimentalism” would proper and progressive history begin.
For this reason, Mill feared that the hoi polloi were the greatest danger to genuine liberty: they were always a conservative obstacle to genuine progress. Mill was unstinting in his criticisms of “conservatives,” famously calling them the “stupid party” and arguing on behalf of plural votes that would increase with the number of a educational degrees attained by an individual. Moreover, in regard to benighted people who lived in highly traditional societies, he argued that in such cases, tyranny (at least for a time) was justified in the name of liberty:
A ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end. . . . Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.
What “classical liberals” such as Bret Stephens (and Bari Weiss) abhor about “progressives” is their authoritarianism. How peculiar—and revealing—that Bret Stephens would have lauded a work titled On Liberty, apparently not realizing that the heirs of Mill would someday decry backwards people as “deplorables” who “cling” to their Bibles. Such liberals believe they can put the despotic genie back into the bottle by supporting unfettered liberty. This is also what Mill wanted, a position that led to the call for despotism over the unwashed masses. Unbeknownst to seemingly well-educated “thought leaders” like Bret Stephens is the inconvenient fact that it was the fruits of their own philosophy that let out liberalism’s inner despot. Only a postliberal order can teach anew a better kind of liberty.