Sunday, August 30, 2009

Solidarity & statism

It's very rare that the underlying principles of modern politics are debated. Usually it's just accepted that politics begins with abstracted, atomised individuals who seek to maximise their personal autonomy. The big debate then becomes how you hold together a society made up of millions of competing wills.

In general, the right has argued that the market can regulate individual profit seeking for the overall good of society. The left has preferred to rely on the state to regulate society and to bring about an equality of personal autonomy.

This second tier debate, of how best to regulate a liberal society, is both predictable and never ending. Recently Jon Cruddas, a British Labour Party MP, and Jonathan Rutherford, a Professor of Cultural Studies, reviewed a pamphlet published by the think tank Demos:

The think tank Demos celebrates its 16th birthday with this pamphlet on “liberal republicanism”. Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that “the good society is one composed of independent, capable people charting their own course” ...

Reeves and Collins are confident that the future lies in the historical legacy of liberalism, though they acknowledge that the conditions for a self-directed life do not emerge out of thin air. Independence requires what Amartya Sen calls “capabilities” – financial resources, education, skills and health. Liberalism asks that individuals become the authors of their own lives, “but republicanism demands that we are also co-authors of our collective lives”.

But what is the nature of this co-authorship? How do we achieve a good society? Here Reeves and Collins are less convincing. The devolution of power they endorse is limited to a transfer from the bureaucracy to the people.

So Cruddas and Rutherford have no problem with the underlying goal of autonomy, but they baulk at the idea of moving away from state regulation. They are therefore offering a standard leftism. They want more state in the mix of social regulation and less market. Which explains the following criticism of the Demos pamphleteers:

They do not think that wealth inequality threatens political equality. Unlike social liberals, they do not recognise the interdependency of individuals. So, what holds their liberal social order together? Friedrich von Hayek argued that it was the economic relations of the market. Reeves and Collins offer no alternative explanation. At the heart of their political philosophy is the absence of society.

Reeves and Collins write that the “beginning of a liberal politics is the individual”, but their liberalism ignores the ways in which individuals are products of complex social, cultural and economic relations. They argue that the failures and tragedies in people’s lives belong to each alone. But individuals do not decide the inequalities that determine their longevity, or the statistical likelihood of their succumbing to poverty, poor housing, unemployment, murder, prison, disease, mental illness, obesity and educational failure. Such problems are socially produced and are not the responsibility of individuals alone ...

Nothing holds this social order together except the moral imperative to gain maximum personal autonomy.

What Cruddas and Rutherford are arguing is that the "freedom" (i.e. autonomy) side to liberalism, as regulated by the market, only recognises the individual alone, not the individual in society. But society for Cruddas and Rutherford is only significant in how it affects equal access to autonomy. Which is why a commitment to "society" means little more than a commitment to state regulation. The state is supposed to be the guarantor of equal autonomy (equal "freedom"), even if this means state intervention to equalise factors such as longevity, obesity, housing, educational outcomes, mental illness, imprisonment and so on.

So they want a greater reliance on the state rather than the market to "hold this social order together". They call this leftist view "ethical socialism":

Ethical socialism also begins with the individual although, besides liberty, it values equality, because it recognises that there exists a common humanity despite people’s differences. It is based on a mutual recognition that the freedom of each individual depends on the freedom of all.

To summarise this view: we are individual wills seeking to maximise our autonomy, but we shouldn't do this at the expense of others, first because we have a common humanity and second because we maximise our own autonomy most securely in society with other autonomy seeking individuals.

This is still, from the traditionalist point of view, a breathtakingly individualistic perspective. But Crudd and Rutherford believe that they represent a "social" view of things in contrast to a classical, market-oriented liberalism:

In the past three decades, what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “ethical intention” in public life has given way to the pursuit of individual self-interest. The business elite have become a law unto themselves, while the political elite are divorced from the people. Enterprise culture, the flexible labour market and welfare reform have all generated anxiety and isolation, rather than the “independence” valued by liberals such as Reeves and Collins. The values of kindness, care and generosity are out of keeping with the dominant market culture. And the liberal individualism of The Liberal Republic is no remedy for this.

Crudd and Rutherford want to limit debate to the more left-wing subspecies of liberalism: "social liberals" and "socialists". They don't recognise as relevant a more market-oriented, classical liberalism:

Two institutions have dominated the life of this country for the past 30 years: the state and the market. How shall we reform both in order to confront the huge systemic problems we face and create sustainable, equitable economic development? The progressive future belongs to those who can find credible answers to such questions, and who are able to strike a balance between self-realisation and social solidarity. This politics will emerge from the long-standing argument between social liberalism and socialism. Unfortunately, The Liberal Republic places itself outside what will be an epoch-defining debate.

They are talking here of the self-realisation of individuals who have already been stripped of their most significant defining features. And social solidarity here means little more than accepting state intervention. Yet it is the holding in balance of these qualities which is supposedly going to define a future epoch.

What traditionalists have to do is reject utterly the terms of the debate set out before us. It is a tired debate that has repeated itself endlessly for some generations.

We change the whole framework of the debate when we take the social nature of man more seriously. If our sense of self is based, in part, on social qualities, such as belonging to national or ethnic traditions, to family roles or to a role within the polis (political society), and if we recognise the legitimacy of pursuing common goods rather than atomised individual ones then we don't need to rely on either the state or the market to re-socialise individuals who, as a starting point of liberal theory, have been set apart from each other.


  1. Mr. Richardson, it occurs to me that one aspect of autonomy theory that perhaps you haven't elaborated (or maybe I've missed it) is that, while we are to be autonomous, self-defining individuals, no choice we make is to be construed as limiting us or to firmly define us. That is, even if we were purely self-defining, the act of defining also is constraining and limiting. As autonomous individuals, that does not work, so this theory is self-contradicting, although that certainly doesn't stop anyone from pushing ahead over the cliff.

    So this aspect of autonomy theory is that it is a continual state of autonomous choice-making and self-definition. There is no acceptable escape or settling-down to a chosen, firm identity.

  2. Jaz, excellent point. You have identified another contradiction within liberalism. The highest liberal good is to be "free" as an autonomous, self-defining individual. But whatever we choose to be then defines us, imposing a limit or constraint on our identity.

    Which explains why liberals are so often keen to talk of fluid identities. Or why, when talking about a life choice, they so often throw in the line that "they are not defined by their identity".

    They are struggling with the contradiction you have pointed to.

    And what is the larger consequence of this contradiction? As you note yourself, it means that autonomy is maximised not by choosing your own stable identity but by not having one. It rules out stable forms of human identity.

  3. The common good doesn't exist without incentives.

    Liberalism shows that people will forgo the common good at the drop of a hat if it isn't incentivized.

    Humans are ration utility maximizers. If the state usurps the advantages of the common good, people will cease desiring it.