The first thing that Deneen usefully recognises is that Western politics is dominated by two variants of the same liberal philosophy. He calls them classical and progressive:
Camosy: When you say that “liberalism has failed,” you don’t mean that liberalism-as opposed to conservatism-has failed. Can you say more about what you mean by liberalism?
Deneen: By “liberalism,” I mean the political philosophy and the resulting political institutions, practices and beliefs that dominate the governments and societies of much of the western world. Its founding fathers were philosophers like John Locke, and in the United States, the architects of our Constitutional order. But I also include in their number those considered to be “progressives,” such as John Stuart Mill, or in the United States, John Dewey.
Most of our political debates pit “classical” against “progressive” liberal visions, holding the two views as diametric opposites and thus circumscribing the whole of our political imagination.
He also believes that liberalism has gradually unfolded over time, but that its very success has led to its failure:
What I seek to describe is a gradual but accelerating “realization” of a set of philosophical beliefs that have transformed practices, making us more fully liberal over time, and as a result, giving rise to a slow realization that its success leads to its own set of systemic failures. My thesis is that liberalism has failed precisely at the moment that it has succeeded
Deneen recognises that liberalism is not just a neutral position but an ideology based on a view of man as being an atomised, autonomous individual:
Camosy: Why do you think so many liberals fail to understand that liberalism, rather than a neutral political and ideological space, is a particular ideology and worldview?
Deneen: Liberalism has shrouded its substantive commitments behind a veil of neutrality, although some of its classical and contemporary philosophers and defenders are forthright about those substantive commitments...
...liberalism advances by positing the belief that humans exist in a state of nature as autonomous, disconnected, wholly free and rights-bearing creatures.
But what is claimed to be merely a description of human nature over time becomes an aim and goal of liberal society itself, gradually but ineluctably shaping people in the image of what it merely claims to describe. Thus, we increasingly see a liberal people defined by absence of interpersonal commitments, whether marriage, family, children, or memberships in longstanding cultures or a religious community.
Further, where commitments are taken on, they are subject to perpetual revision - whether through divorce in the matter of marriage, abortion in regard to children, or church shopping or the rise of “Nones” in the case of religion. Such people are driven above all by demands of consumption and money-making, claiming the right to self-definition while abandoning any longstanding cultural practices of self-limitation, which become increasingly regarded as unjust and unjustified limitations upon one’s freedom and autonomy.
More ironically still, a massive growth of the state is required to make this experience of individualism possible, thus enthralling purportedly free subjects to a pervasive political order.
He believes that Roman Catholic culture in the West is no longer clearly an alternative to liberalism, but tends to divide along classical vs progressive liberal lines:
Camosy: How have Roman Catholics-and even Roman Catholic moral and political theology-accepted certain aspects of liberal ideology? What might this mean for the Church as liberalism fails?
Deneen: Tragically, at least in America but perhaps more pervasively in the West, Catholicism has come increasingly to be defined by and experienced as the two political iterations of liberalism, whether “classical” or “progressive.” Rather than offering a distinct alternative, many Catholics have come to understand their faith through the lens of these dominant expressions of liberal philosophy.
...Catholicism rejects both anthropological individualism and collectivist statism, but today we are divided into Catholic tribes who by default advance one or the other as a central political project.
Deneen holds that liberalism has destroyed genuine cultures, which then have to be replaced more formally by state organisation, which then means that politics becomes a matter of contesting for the levers of the state. He wants in the longer term to return to more traditional, non-statist ways of life:
I argue in my book that liberalism advances an “anti-culture”: whether through blandishments of the market or the power of the state, it seeks to weaken and eviscerate culture and replace it with a homogenous anti-culture of “free” people who consume pre-packaged, monetized “popular culture,” but no longer live in actual cultures of memory and tradition.
Inasmuch as we see deep instability and forms of systemic failure in our politics, this dysfunction occurs not in spite of an otherwise healthy culture, but to a great extent because of the destruction of culture and its replacement with an anti-culture. As cultural norms, practices and forms of belonging are eviscerated, informal codes must be replaced by legal systems and state enforcement of legalized directives.
From what I've read so far, it is possible that Deneen will not go beyond the concept of "cultural communities," but I'll have more to say on this once I've read his book.
Regardless of this, I am hopeful that the book will have a very positive effect in breaking down the liberal hegemony within academia. It's so timely as well - there is an audience out there now for intelligent and principled criticisms of the liberal ideology.