No, Deneen is not a reactionary fantasist...

and no, he does not deny liberalism's accomplishments:

"First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to 'return' to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward." -- Why Liberalism Failed, p. 182

This passage highlights a danger I noted in Oakeshott on Rome and America: while for several centuries Romans simply respected and followed the mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors, when their traditions began to break down, there arose a brand-new traditionalist ideology. Whereas previously Rome's traditions had been followed in an organic way, one which allowed them to also be organically modified, once they began to break down, a faction arose demanding that those traditions be turned into rules, and that those rules must be followed without deviation (and thus without allowing any organic response to changing circumstances).

And this is an error that too many modern conservatives have committed: they wish to return to the 1950s, or the 1920s, or the 1890s, or 1783, or whatever other period they admire. Such a return, as Deneen clearly recognizes, is impossible. We can try to preserve the best aspects of earlier times, but we cannot ever just recreate them. And after all, even if we could, given that those earlier times brought about our present situation, wouldn't we just repeat the exact same progression that has led to the present situation that these nostalgic conservatives deplore?


  1. "a faction arose demanding that those traditions be turned into rules, and that those rules must be followed without deviation"

    So religious fundamentalists can only arise in a society where the traditions have already long broken down?

    Can you imagine taking this and realizing that Saudi Arabia and Iran are post-modern societies where the tradition has already long broken down?

  2. "So religious fundamentalists can only arise in a society where the traditions have already long broken down?"

    I think that is right: Biblical literalism is a very recent phenomenon!

    And good point on Iran and S.A.: they are ideological reactions to the intrusion of modernity on traditional cultures.

  3. God knows if Iran and Saudi Arabia would have been have more moderate, humane societies if modernity had NOT arrived there.

    1. God knows, but I think we have a good guess: yes, they would have.

    2. Prateek, , would there be less religious fundamentalism there if religion had not arrived there? At least monotheistic religion? Were the Greeks and Romans as intolerant as: Mohammed, Paul when still Saul, Innocent III, Calvin, ibn al Saud, ...

  4. Religious fundamentalism is a *monotheistic* phenomenon, and we have seen it come and go as long as we have had that idea.

    1. Yes, the Maoists and Stalinists were great monotheists!

    2. Well for comment to be apposite you must see those strains of Marxism as religions. But then religion no longer requires a *being* as a god or gods, more abstract notions can play that role. And it's pretty clear that in those terms they were mono religions.

      But my point, as context and language make clear, is that amongst being-based notions of gods, the polys have never been as fundamentalist as the monos. The reason is obvious. I can say my kid is great, and if you say your kid is great I can agree. If you insist your kid is the only great one, not so much.

    3. OK, I think your confusing intolerance and fundamentalism. Fundamentalist may (or may not) be intolerant, and the intolerant may (or may not) be fundamentalists, but they are not the same.

      For instance, the medieval Catholic Church was intolerant by modern standards, but was certainly not fundamentalist! (For instance, non-literal interpretations of scripture were widely accepted.)

  5. That reminds me.

    19th century and early 20th century American thinkers and philosophers had ideas that could be considered fairly...socialistic? William Jennings Bryan, for example.

    The capitalist fundamentalism that occurred in the US 1940s onwards may not have been due to an American aversion to socialism, but a reaction to Soviet communism, and its far-spreading reach. Much the way religious fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity.


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