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Vital Signs

Patrick Deneen’s Escape from Liberalism

“Regime Change” fits into a long tradition of magical thinking, from Anton Mesmer to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond.

Francis Chung/POLITICO/AP Images
Author Patrick J. Deneen on the campus of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., on May 17

The twenty-first century has been hard on the Enlightenment. Lauded as a foundational moment in the story of human progress—the font from which all civilized life supposedly sprang—its position and its claim for the triumphant power of human reason no longer seem so secure. The Enlightenment’s most prominent political offspring, communism and liberalism, lie either apparently dead or seemingly in terminal decline, while its technological children, the fruits of the fossil fuel–driven Industrial Revolution, have ushered us into an era of climate catastrophe. Historians have probed the Enlightenment’s racist and Eurocentric roots, and even the idea of verifiable truth, so fundamental to the Enlightenment project, has withered under the sustained gaze of philosophers and physicists alike.

This uncertainty about the basic principles of the Enlightenment can be seen in many of the political and cultural debates that roil the United States today: about Covid-19 vaccines and climate change, as well as arguments over abortion, “religious freedom,” human rights, and even the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the Enlightenment’s fraying hold over the modern world has led some to wonder how far it actually succeeded in the first place, while others hasten to reject it altogether.

In Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality From Camp Meeting to Wall Street, cultural historian Jackson Lears asks whether human reason really triumphed so completely during the Enlightenment, as he traces the enduring power of magical thinking and the belief in “animal spirits” in a supposedly more rational world. By contrast, in Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, political scientist Patrick Deneen seeks to dismantle the political legacies of the Enlightenment, urging instead the adoption of a religious “integralism” that deliberately calls back to an invented medieval past.

Both highlight an important truth about the Enlightenment and the societies based upon its principles: Though it claimed to represent a more open world, the Enlightenment brought its own demands for conformity. While less stringent perhaps than those of the age that preceded it, they were no less real. Read alongside Lears, Deneen emerges as simply one of the latest in a long line of figures—ranging from Anton Mesmer to J.D. Vance—to propose a form of escape.

The Enlightenment, Lears reminds us, was supposed to vanquish magical thinking. Whereas premodern societies across the globe held that the universe was alive and that humanity was governed by an irrational animality or “life force,” the Enlightenment’s arrival brought a radical shift in Europe: a worldview in which “human rationality,” stripped of its animal spirits, reigned over a mechanical universe of “inert nature and animal automata.” In place of a “cosmic order based on faith and fear,” now there was a “rational, secular universe based on Newtonian science.”

Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality From Camp Meeting to Wall Street
by Jackson Lears
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $32.00

While this increasingly secular worldview encouraged scientific inquiry and greater toleration of Christian dissenters, it was also a means for European settlers in the New World to justify their slaughter and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, claiming that they were bringing advanced civilization to a supposedly dark and barbarous wilderness.

While there is some truth to this textbook version of the tale (particularly with regard to its role in imperialism), Lears argues that the reality was much more complex. Just as Americans and their British cousins were claiming the mantle of rationality, they also continued to seek out and find magical energy governing their lives, in ways that ranged from the enlightening to the absurd.

The nineteenth century witnessed a whole host of dreamers, preachers, and charlatans who believed that they could harness the magical energy of the universe in order to predict the future or the heal the body. Anton Mesmer’s erotically charged “mesmerism”—where enrobed healers would harness “animal magnetism” by “tracing figures on the breasts and abdomens” of their (usually female) patients with a “long white rod”—found its way from Paris to the U.S. in the 1830s. Andrew Jackson Davis, a poor shoemaker’s son, managed to parlay it into a national following as the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” curing deafness and shrinking tumors by listening to and balancing what he called the “vitalic principle.”

Others connected such life forces to new research into electric current, believing that the world was bound up by “the energy of a subtil, active fluid” that had many of the properties of electricity, powering “all the phenomena of life and motion.” Vitalism coursed through revivalist Protestantism in the nineteenth century too, prompting followers to emotional outbursts of prayer and personal transformation; they spoke of Christ “the enkindler” and his “vital flame.”

Animal spirits were even detected within finance capitalism, which was extending its hold over British and American life at the time. Capital became a new and elusive energy to harness. As one British writer put it, there appeared “a wonderful conexion and sympathy … between the breeches pocket and the animal spirts.” Having vitality, and the courage that went with it, was thought essential for the successful entrepreneur, who had to take risks and successfully predict where the mysterious spirit of capital might wend.

Animal spirits continued to pervade Anglo-American discourse into the twentieth century—taking on pernicious implications at times. Some—like Theodore Roosevelt—looked to aggressive activity, even war, as a way to replenish a vitality supposedly sapped by civilization’s rules and regulations. Other versions were more benign, but the interest in finding a “pulsating, throbbing” universe remained strong. As scientific discovery appeared to present more evidence of a cold and lifelessly mechanical cosmos, people kept returning to the well of vitalism to find refuge: whether in self-help guides that suggested businessmen embrace their “volic force” while struggling against competitors or in the popularity of Carl Jung’s “energic theory of libido” as a key to understanding human behavior. Many feared the “looming core of emptiness” that increasingly appeared at the heart of Enlightenment rationalism, and they sought to flee the “nothingness” for a more hospitable vision.

Lears is both a thrilling and frustrating tour guide through these attempts, making eye-opening connections and assertions on one page, only to move quickly onto another idea on the next. Animal spirits are everywhere and a constant, but also regularly endangered and repressed, somehow both “archaic” and part of “emerging” new ideas. Yet if the book lacks clear elucidation at times, it ultimately makes a strong case for the enduring power of counter-Enlightenment thinking. One is left with the impression that the more Enlightenment rationality exerts its dominion over all aspects of human life, the more people start clamoring for magical exits.

Patrick Deneen is among those doing so. Deneen received a burst of national attention—and a spot on Barack Obama’s reading list—with his 2018 study, Why Liberalism Failed. It was skeptical of liberalism’s claims to be a neutral political philosophy where individuals, now supposedly emancipated from the strictures of the ancien régime, could pursue their own definitions of truth and meaning without political interference. Instead, Deneen argued, liberalism carries with it its own, far from neutral, conception of the good. Moreover, in his view, this conception of the good reduces human life to the mere pursuit of individual, material satisfaction. Few would ever find that satisfaction, Deneen suggested, because it’s unobtainable outside the traditional structures of church, family, and a culturally homogenous community.

Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future
by Patrick J. Deneen
Sentinel, 288 pp., $30.00

In Regime Change, Deneen once again advances his critique of liberalism, focusing in particular this time on how liberal political systems were meant not to emancipate the masses but to get them to endorse the legitimacy of a new capitalist elite. Liberals may have spoken the language of equality and popular politics, but they did so only in order to throw out the old blood and soil nobility and replace it with a new one supposedly built around merit. This “meritocracy” would be more flexible than the ranks of dukes and barons—outsiders could earn their way in through success in business or by educational attainment—but its new rulers would dominate society just as thoroughly as before.

This is an argument that has long been made by thinkers on the left. Deneen, however, reconfigures it by placing the evolution of the American political system amid a semi-mystical battle between “the few” and “the many” that dates back to the dawn of time. In Deneen’s version, the many are not masses seeking radical liberation but localist conservatives seeking to be left alone. His elites refuse to do so, however, instead enforcing what he calls the “core assumption” of modern thought: that “transformative progress is the key goal of human society.”

Deneen identifies corporations and capitalism as part of this problem, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” and its global reach disrupt the lives of average people, who, he believes, want nothing more than to make a decent living and raise heteronormative families according to traditional, religious values. Yet his main target is the “woke” elites of the left, those in universities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Hollywood—the “Botox-smoothed meritocratic … smart set,” as he refers to them at one point. Using their positions to ensure their way and ensure that their children retain their status, contemporary elites play at meritocracy but in reality have rigged the game in their favor. Their newest tool is “identity politics,” which allows them to divide the majority along lines of race and religion, creating a seemingly tempestuous politics that in reality moves steadily in culturally progressive directions in defiance of what the majority would truly prefer if it were actually in charge. 

Just when you think that Deneen will suggest that the solution is therefore a more truly majoritarian democracy, however, he pulls out the rug: The solution is a better elite. An elite more in touch with the people, to be sure, but an elite that will lead and control all the same. This new “aristopopulist” ruling class, he argues, would not divide the people against themselves—as he believes liberal elites do—but would keep society together as an organic whole. He conjures up an imaginary, pre-liberal conservative tradition to support this idea, one that oddly enough includes liberals (like Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli) and medieval thinkers alike.

The theme throughout the book is that things were simply better before liberalism reared its ugly head—back when elites saw themselves as stewards of society, guiding the commoners toward the better angels of their nature, as his cherry-picked examples supposedly prove. Particularly frustrating here is Deneen’s praise for the Puritan leader John Winthrop. His “city on a hill” sermon, Deneen suggests, advanced a vision of social cohesion that rejected the “fragmented individualism” common to liberalism and showed that human differences “should be understood to reveal a deeper unity.” He doesn’t mention that Winthrop delivered that sermon on behalf of a colonial project that saw humanity as divided between civilized Europeans and barbarous Native Americans—with the latter being subject to violent removal from their ancestral lands so that Winthrop’s “integrated” community could settle them.

As this suggests, unless you obscure important details, the past offers few examples of the type of society Deneen advocates for. Pre-liberal rulers were perhaps more honest, openly embracing hierarchy where liberalism tends to obscure it—Deneen manages to land more than a few punches on this score—yet it’s hard to escape the fact that nearly every large human society we have record of was founded upon exclusionary ideas: All were bound, as W.H. Auden once put it, by a “cement of blood.”

Deneen’s vision for society appears to depend upon exclusion too—particularly because he sees a renewed role for Christianity in a post-liberal world. The new elite, he writes, will seek a “renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization.” Deneen alludes to the Christian Democratic parties that ruled Cold War Western Europe and to contemporary Hungary’s “minister of family affairs” as inspiration. He looks forward to a tacit alliance between the state and Christianity, one where the “public acknowledgment and celebration” of Christianity replaces modern secularism. It’s hard to see how that could be anything but exclusionary in a society that encompasses many religions and many nonbelievers as well.

The most prominent national politician influenced by Deneen’s ideas, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, has shown far more interest in the culture wars than in restraining capitalism. He has expressed skepticism of divorce, gay marriage, and rape and incest exemptions to abortion laws, for example, but when it came to supporting the UAW in their negotiations with the auto companies, he focused more on the supposed failures of the pro-labor Biden administration than on the greed of the carmakers. It’s hard to shake the sense that, for all their gestures toward economic populism, Vance and Deneen are more interested in imposing their preferred values than in forging an organic union of elites and commoners.

Despite Deneen’s claims to be proposing a “new” regime, there is little in his work that offers a genuine departure—though its reminder that the Enlightenment was not so neutral as it seems is salutary enough. His vision is a traditional one: that an elite minority claiming to speak for the masses should determine the good and force that vision on everyone else.

Lears is less prescriptive. He is most interested in thinkers who found a path between the rational and the animal. The economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, rejected the idea that human beings were mere rational calculators, sufficiently content with lives of earning and buying alone. The “attribution of rationality to human nature,” Keynes wrote, “instead of enriching it, now seems to me to have impoverished it”—and thus he called for, and developed, economic theories that looked to enrich the whole of human life, rather than just pocketbooks.

Lears’s efforts to document centuries of resistance to dominant ways of thinking are also more illuminating. No intellectual project or social order is likely to ever command complete obedience. Thus people either have to be made to feel genuinely involved or be coerced. Coercion may be the easier route, and may sometimes even masquerade as liberation, but the real task is to find a way to build that genuine involvement in our socially and culturally fractious world. Only then, perhaps, might we find ourselves improving upon the Enlightenment.