Review of Deneen, “Why Liberalism Failed”

I have a review of Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, at the Liberty Fund blog. A bit:

[L]aw is liberalism’s most potent instrument. Law plays a legitimating role in many political regimes, but it performs unique work in Deneen’s account of the liberal state.

Legal liberalism is the device that replaces non-liberal social structures and institutions—the very structures and institutions that once sustained it—and establishes itself as the exclusive fount of authority. Legal liberalism substitutes informal relationships derived from non-liberal institutions with administrative directives and centralized controls, whether of the surveillance state, the Title IX bureaucrat, or the carceral network. Legal liberalism elevates the Constitution to the status of sacral cultural object, in the process consecrating the legal state: new citizens and officeholders swear an oath not to the nation, but to the Constitution and the law. Legal liberalism trumpets the ceaseless progression of individual freedoms and rights, even as its laws generate and consolidate greater power, wealth, and control in the state. Legal liberalism’s contemporary master right, as announced by its oracles—to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”—requires a correspondingly enormous and engulfing positive law and regulatory armamentarium. Legal liberalism is predisposed toward cosmopolitanism, globalism, and internationalism, and against local custom, culture, and tradition. And it seems to me that Deneen would take legal liberalism’s educational hubs—the elite American law schools—as archetypes of the sorts of pathologies afflicting institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, one might well suppose that the partisans of legal liberalism would be the least receptive to what Deneen has to say, devoted as they are to maintaining and enlarging the power structures and ideological commitments of the liberal status quo. Lawyers and legal academics will be particularly prone to dismiss Deneen. The legal elite is adept at inventing stratagems of self-validation. It is quick to enforce internal codes of civility, conformity, right thinking, and right speaking that mark membership in the club. It drives itself to distraction in the latest Supreme Court intrigues, investing its preferred justices with a superhuman heroism and a cult of personality (while demonizing the others). It jealously guards its own birthright. It will not like this book.

Yet even those within the legal liberal establishment who are inclined to hear him out might doubt that Deneen has shown that legal liberalism has “failed,” or that its weaknesses are so pervasive as to suggest imminent regime collapse. In the first place, legal liberalism, and the society that it has supported and been supported by, have generated vast economic wealth. To be sure, the allocation of that wealth has been, to put it gently, uneven. But its resources are nevertheless formidable. Second, legal liberalism has made several great social and political advances possible. It has helped to ameliorate, if not correct, certain profound injustices affecting various marginalized groups and it has expanded social and economic opportunity. These are genuine contributions. Deneen rapidly acknowledges this point early on, but the balance of the book does not demonstrate that the political and legal framework of liberalism either is an abject failure or has reached the point of breakdown.

What Deneen has shown, and to great effect, are a series of dynamics internal to the claims, logic, and aspirations of liberalism that produce extremely serious problems. Yet of all the variations of liberalism discussed in the book, legal liberalism is perhaps least likely to adapt to overcome these difficulties because of its deep investments in maintaining its own position. Deneen might welcome this resistance as the beginning of the end, since it would confirm a piece of the book’s thesis. But if the end is coming, legal liberalism’s tail is likely to be a long one.

MacEachern, “Searching for Boko Haram”

9780190492526

Remember the Chibok girls? In 2014, the African Islamist group, Boko Haram, kidnapped hundreds of girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, instigating a world-wide campaign to prevail upon the group to “Bring Back Our Girls.” Four years later, half the girls are still missing. The world’s attention span, sadly, is very short.

A new book from Oxford University Press, Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa, by Bowdoin College anthropologist Scott MacEachern, traces the history of the group, which, he argues, has centuries-old roots. The publisher’s description follows:

For the past decade, Boko Haram has relentlessly terrorized northeastern Nigeria. Few if any explanations for the rise of this violent insurgent group look beyond its roots in worldwide jihadism and recent political conflicts in central Africa.

Searching for Boko Haram is the first book to examine the insurgency within the context of centuries, millennia even, of cultural change in the region. The book surveys the deep history of the lands south of Lake Chad, richly documented in archaeology and texts, to show how ancient natural and cultural events can aid in our understanding of Boko Haram’s present agenda. The land’s historical narrative stretches back five centuries, with cultural origins that plunge even deeper into the past. One important feature of this past is the phenomenon of frontiers and borderlands. In striking ways, Boko Haram resembles the frontier slave raiders and warlords who figure in precolonial and colonial writings on the southern Lake Chad Basin. Presently, these accounts are paralleled by the activity of smugglers, bandits (coupeurs de route–“road cutters”), and tax evaders. The borderlands of these countries are today places where the state often refuses to exercise its full authority because of the profits and opportunities illicit relationships afford state officials and bureaucrats. For the local community, Boko Haram’s actions are readily understandable in terms of slave raids and borderlands. They are not mysterious and unprecedented eruptions of violence and savagery, but–as the book argues–recognizable phenomena within the contexts of local politics and history.

Written from the perspective of an author who has worked in this part of Africa for more than thirty years, Searching for Boko Haram provides vital historical context to the recent rise of this terroristic force, and counters misperceptions of their activities and of the region as a whole.