Submission is still very clearly a dystopian novel—an increasingly popular genre these days—but, more than that, it is a meditation on the aimlessness of late-stage Western liberalism, where there is nothing much to be believe in, and nothing much to fight for, except the never-ending expansion of personal freedom. The controversy aside, Submission is strangely intriguing. Houellebecq is among a growing number of Western intellectuals flirting with anti-liberalism: Perhaps liberalism is not the unmitigated good most of us are raised to believe it is. In an odd way, though, liberalism’s critics end up saying more about the resilience of liberalism than its demise.
The emphasis on polygamy in Houellebecq’s depiction of Islam is often gratuitous. But there is also a sense of envy, that Islam retains a vitality, conviction, and self-assuredness that Western liberalism and Western Christianity lost long ago. (In his real life, Houellebecq, who once called Islam “the stupidest religion,” has since read the Quran and apparently developed an appreciation for Islam, contributing to his own epiphany of sorts. “When, in the light of what I know,” Houellebecq says, “I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.”)
In fiction and nonfiction alike, liberalism—referring here not to the left of American politics, but to the political order that privileges non-negotiable rights, personal freedoms, and individual autonomy—has come in for a beating, or at least a challenge. Take, for instance, the work of Christian orthodox writer Rod Dreher. His highly influential book, The Benedict Option, calls on Christians to resist liberalism’s aimlessness and “moral chaos,” and instead form intentional communities of religious solidarity in a post-Christian America.
Few books challenge the core assumptions of modern liberalism as unapologetically as the suggestively titled Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at the University of Notre Dame. Liberalism, in dismantling traditional structures, encouraging “privatism,” and empowering an ever-expanding state, has created an existential crisis, he argues. And insisting on yet more liberalism as a corrective has only made matters worse. “One of the liberal state’s main roles,” he writes, “becomes the active liberation of individuals from any limiting conditions.” Liberty, which he argues was once about freedom from “one’s own basest desires,” was redefined to encourage the ceaseless pursuit of those very same desires.
Some of this might sound like the standard anti-liberalism—a kind of Catholic nostalgia for the one true church, before the reformation unleashed a religious pluralism that would never be tempered again. As a liberal who is critical of liberalism, I sympathize with these arguments but am, at the same time, unwilling to follow them to their logical conclusion. I am fundamentally biased after all. For all of liberalism’s faults, I wouldn’t want to live under a non-liberal or even a less liberal system, and in the strongest parts of the book, Deneen suggests why that might be. Modern liberalism is designed for people like me. In David Goodhart’s parlance, I’m an “anywhere” rather than a “somewhere.”