The communitarian critique of liberalism left and right
by Graham Lister
For the philosophical communitarian, the Sartrean cogito, spontaneously reinventing itself ex nihilo, permanently free to choose and revise its definition of the good, is a fiction that pervades all modern liberalism. From Hobbes, Locke and Kant, through to Mill and Rawls, the rootless, solitary and “unencumbered self”, as Michael Sandel describes it, prior to and independent of its ends and rationally deliberating on the value of its voluntary attachments, is adopted as the starting point of social analysis.
This conception of the subject, it is argued, precludes from the start the possibility of genuinely communal forms of association, of “constitutive” communities “bound by moral ties antecedent to choice”. This is why communitarians stress the cultural constitution of the subject, the way the individual forms his or her identity, sense of self, and intuitive system of values by inheriting and passing on an unchosen legacy of collective orientations, shared meanings and standards, networks of kinship and pre-contractual forms of solidarity which are a prerequisite for, rather than the outcome of, the subject’s capacity for moral commitment.
Rising discontinuity is accompanied by the diversity of visible cultures and lifestyles. This is promoted by the density of urban populations, high social mobility and change, unprecedented choice for the individual consumer - albeit at the potential cost of a rapid decline in the overall diversity of our natural stocks - and the impact of transport and communications technology, especially on the tourist industry. Exposure to different forms of life, particularly those that are too exclusive or stylized to permit participatory understanding by outsiders, inevitably creates a sense of cultural relativism. Where ethnic, class, national and religious traditions do intermingle and combine, discrete cultural narratives are severed or reinvented, and hybrid cultural forms emerge which lack historical precedent, thus weakening the constitutive bonds between generations.
There is also the well-documented impact of the mass media, another factor which has served to heighten many of the trends already noted. The entertainment media have encouraged the privatization of society and the decline of face-to-face interaction through which communal narratives are reaffirmed and passed on. The proliferation of sophisticated images has blurred the boundaries between the real and the imaginary and saturated social life with ubiquitous representations of novelty and difference, representations which typically incorporate easily identifiable elements of ordinary life and recycle them in impossibly exotic, erotic, and alluringly faultless images. Moral and cultural relativism reflects the success with which the media has, by providing simulated substitutes for human interaction, made us wide-eyed strangers to those lives and cultures whose basic elements - from the mundane aspects of work and play, to the feelings and puzzles which human existence gives rise to - we all share in common.
At the same time, our insatiable appetite for remote and alien experience has attenuated our capacity to recover something of the child’s original wonder at the everyday world, to yield to a curiosity for the most familiar aspects of our surroundings, to find joy in the simple passage of the seasons, to marvel at the growth of children, to renew our affections and attachments without the aid of imported novelty and change.
Today’s “imaginative hedonism”, this limitless and self-gratifying appetite for rootless novelty and conquest which seems so hostile to our need to re-establish an ethic of self-limitation, is not a “postmodern” phenomenon, as is largely assumed, but is better described as a characteristic of “hyper-modernity”, in which society has failed to steer the emancipatory dynamic of modernity towards a political end. Daniel Bell saw it as a radical extension of the trends in modernist culture itself, reinforced by the hedonistic compensatory mechanisms of organized capitalism. Christopher Lasch believed its origins lie in our failure to achieve psychological individuation, a process demanding that we repudiate our memories of pre-natal bliss and find connections with a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs. Robert Bellah and his colleagues identified the clear emergence of this “expressive individualism” in nineteenth-century America, contrasting it with a scientific culture of utilitarian calculation to which it was both a reaction and a complement. And with greater precision, Colin Campbell has located the religious source of the consumerist outlook in the Pietist strand of the same Protestant ethic that helped generate the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism.
For the philosophical communitarians, then, it is the cultural and historical heritage of individuals, their identities as “bearers of a tradition”, which provides the moral particularity essential for an authentic life. In MacIntyre’s account, it is the roles and attachments of one’s family, one’s profession, one’s city or nation, which incur “a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations” that “constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point”.
This theme is taken up by Sandel, who rejects what he refers to as liberalism’s depiction of a “deontological” self whose identity is never tied to its aims or attachments. He writes:
A person without such constitutive attachments, Sandel continues, would be lacking in moral character and depth:
The “deontological self” which is the starting point to liberal contract theory is, by contrast, a self so bereft of character that it is incapable of self-knowledge, and therefore self-direction. Being “unencumbered” by its conception of the good, having no attributes and aims other than those it has voluntarily chosen, its enquiry into its own motives and ends “can only be an exercise in arbitrariness”. Sandel’s belief that “some relative fixity of character appears essential to prevent the lapse into arbitrariness which the deontological self is unable to avoid”, is shared by MacIntyre, who sees the work of Sartre as the epitome of this liberal individualism. Should we follow MacIntyre and dispense with Sartre’s existentialism for depicting “a self that can have no history”, that is “entirely distinct from any particular social role which it may happen to assume”, and that creates a human life “composed of discrete actions which lead nowhere, which have no order”?
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