In any event, given that Deneen contends that liberal democracy is already a form of despotism, he is singularly ill-equipped to draw distinctions between political movements that support freedom and those that would trample on it should they ever come to power. In this respect, as in others, Deneen is in alarming congruence with the leftist intellectuals of the Cold War era, pointed to by Ravel, for whom “the faults of free societies are so magnified that freedom appears to mask a totalitarian reality.” Indeed, Deneen echoes no one so much as Herbert Marcuse, the quasi-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, whose contempt for the “false” freedoms offered by liberal democracy provided inspiration to the New Left of the 1960s and whose doleful influence lingers to this day.
Like Deneen, Marcuse regards liberalism as a mask for tyranny. What Deneen calls “liberalocratic despotism,” Marcuse calls a society of “total administration” and “totalitarian democracy.” In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse insists—in language which Deneen closely maps—that the promises of liberalism are actually camouflage for social control: “What is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.” To Deneen, the pernicious promises of liberalism are also camouflaged: Liberalism, he writes, is “a pervasive invisible ideology” that “surreptitiously” remakes the world in its despotic image.
Thank goodness someone’s finally calling it for what it is. I read Deneen’s book (and Ryszard Legutko’s) last year and wasn’t much impressed. (Neither was Deirdre McCloskey.) I was wondering when the trendy intellectual infatuation with their brand of illiberalism was going to finally wear off. Now I’m just kicking myself for not seeing the obvious parallel to Marcuse earlier.