Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Philippe Legrain: let's replace nations with ...

Philippe Legrain describes himself as follows:

My outlook is broadly liberal, socially and economically. I am passionate about individual freedom, think markets generally work well and believe that competition is usually a powerful force for good. But I am also convinced that governments need to intervene vigorously to make a reality of equality of opportunity and help the less fortunate.

This is a centrist (perhaps a centre-right) take on liberalism. Like other right liberals, he associates individual freedom with the market; like left-liberals, he looks to the state to intervene in society to create "equal freedom".

If you think this makes him a soft and cuddly kind of liberal, think again. He is enough of an intellectual to draw out the radical logic of liberalism.

I wrote recently that,

Liberalism recognises only the individual parts of society: millions of autonomous, choice making individuals ...

How does Philippe Legrain define society? He describes it as,

a framework of the aggregated individual choices made by others - "society"

He puts the word society in scare quotes to suggest its lack of real existence; all that really exists for him is the sum total of choices made by individuals.

The full quote is this:

Everyone is torn between the urge to do their own thing and the need to live with others: individual choice therefore exists largely within a framework of the individual choices made by others - "society".

If "society" is just the sum total of choices made by individuals, then society can be anything and everything:

In this context, ‘society’ can mean everything from a family to a group of friends, a workplace, a village, an urban neighbourhood, a national society that sets its own laws, or a global sense of humanity that aspires to common norms such as human rights.

Oh, but it can't be a traditional community, based on a particular people or place. Legrain follows liberal orthodoxy here too. The orthodox position is that individual autonomy is the supreme good; whatever we don't determine for ourselves is therefore a restriction from which the individual is to be liberated. We don't choose to be members of traditional communities but are (mostly) born into such traditions; therefore, thinks Legrain, they represent a coercive tyranny and should be replaced by new chosen communities:

Misplaced nostalgia for the erosion of the coerced local communities of old – the flipside of which is liberation from the tyranny of geography, social immobility and the straitjacket of imposed national uniformity – should not blind us to the richness and vibrancy of the new chosen communities, be they groups of friends from different backgrounds, multinational workplaces, environmental campaigns that span the globe, or online networks of people with a common interest. Solidarity is alive and well when British volunteer doctors treat AIDS sufferers in Africa, when friends take over many of the roles that family members once performed (or failed to perform), and when the membership of pressure groups never ceases to rise.

What Legrain is really arguing here is that the older national communities, such as the French, the English, the Dutch and so on, are coercive tyrannies from which people should be liberated and replaced by newer, superior, voluntary communities such as "groups of friends from different backgrounds", multinational workplaces, pressure groups or environmental campaigns.

We are to be "liberated" from our nationality, and perhaps even from our biological family (which is also unchosen after all), and instead experience the richness and vibrancy of belonging to "groups of friends from different backgrounds" or "online networks of people with a common interest".

Can you really be liberated to something more trivial?


  1. Philippe Legrain reminds me of the first who tried to attempt to fly. However, Philippe’s model (utopia) is still on paper. I wonder what would happen to his aircraft if he tried jumping off a 100 ft cliff to see if it would fly.

    On a separate note, I think Americans often take there own country for granted, seeing that they are still in the experimental stages of their own utopia; because it’s only been a couple hundred years sense its inception and the future of the country doesn’t look so good. Hopefully their leaders will start practicing what they preach.

  2. I am terrified, not just by this mans ideas, but that these ideas are dominant in the upper cultural elites of our societies.

    It is truely astounding that the supposed brainy elites of our society have become so cut off from reality that they actually believe this crap.

  3. Legrain has absolutely no concept of national loyalty owing largely to his own diverse multi-national (Estonian/French/American) origins and globe-hopping upbringing. This post-national talking head has apparently now settled on the United Kingdom as his community of choice and likes to travel around on a British passport but that appears to be the full extent of his local connection to that particular country.

    As Peter Brimelow caustically put it:

    "Ironically, this advocate of inundating immigration, a former professional propagandist for the supranational European Union, has not one drop of British blood.

    Skepticism about immigration is, at base, a patriotic thing. Legrain wouldn’t understand."

  4. One thing that is interesting is how tenaciously people will hold onto friends today. If you don't have friends ...

  5. Fact is, the "the coerced local communities of old" like the coal mining town in northern England my grandmother was born in weren't coerced.

    Most people in pre and early industrial society did not have the means to travel widely and communicate globally.

    Think walking, horses, steam-engines, sail and snail mail. Emigrating to Australia was almost the equivalent of moving to Mars. You never returned.

    That was a fact of life for the vast bulk of human existence. Marco Polo was a notable exception, not the prototype 'global citizen'.

    However, a quick scan of the rest of Mr LeGrain's bio suggest a typical academic, media, Gen X, 'progressive' utterly monotone existence of the typical wannabe social engineer/justice/social-ist elite.

    Which, if he were at an Australian university, means that if you were to ask him what he has in common with suburban communities 10-20 kms down the road from Sydney University or the ANU - apart from some vague notions of 'solidarity' he would doubtless curl his lip in contempt with the near neighbours in the 'burbs.

    His real community is globally diffused academic, leftist elites that forty years of ever-increasing university access under the tutelage of the 60s radicals who moved into academia and the bureaucracy have spawned through all the industrialised liberal democracies.

    He would be right at home in Berkley, Cambridge, Melbourne Uni or the Sorbonne. He would cringe in horror if he took the train to Parramatta.

    The academic, media leftist intellectuals are a global tribe to themselves. This guy is just trying to rationalise their elitism.

  6. (*May Offend*)

    "if you were to ask him what he has in common with suburban communities 10-20 kms down the road ..."

    The suburbs. That's where people drink, smoke and gamble. Are overweight. Fight over nothing. Have inherited from the left the culture of me me me, compo, Daddy Government do it for me and f u authority. Whilst they have right wing prejudices they generally don't do anything with them and are happy to be led by the nose provided their leaders wear a football jersey once in a while.

    I guess I'm elitist too.

  7. There is an interesting discussion over at View from the Right between Lawrence Auster and Fjordman on the topic of liberalism and the nation-state.

    Fjordman asks the question: "Our democracies are based on nation states. But what happens if our elites no longer care about defending these nation states?"

    Auster replies: "A profound point. One of the keynotes of modern liberalism, with its emphasis on non-discrimination and what Jim Kalb calls the technocratic organization of all of life in order to supply everyone's needs, is the downplaying of the very thing that made political democracy possible: the nation state. The older democracy was not primarily about rights and needs; it was primarily about self-government; self-government means the activity of a people, organized into a political society, ruling itself through representative and accountable leaders. But self-government is anathema to modern liberalism and its transnational elites. Self-government of a people is discriminatory and exclusive of all other peoples. The newer "democracy" or rather advanced liberalism is not about self-government; it's about the management of the world.

    As Fjordman points out, on the practical level the most immediate way in which modern liberalism attacks democracy is through open immigration. A people loses any ability to govern itself and its affairs when its territory is filled up with aliens who do not share the same history, identity, loyalty, and ethos. Indeed, as soon as a country has admitted a significant number of culturally diverse immigrants, it loses the ability freely to debate whether it wants such immigration to continue, because to say anything critical about such immigration is to "bash immigrants."

    Since we are already so deeply mired in the concrete results of liberalism, particularly the loss of true self-government and freedom, the only possible way out is through the radical rejection of liberalism."

  8. "The newer "democracy" or rather advanced liberalism is not about self-government; it's about the management of the world."

    But isn't it a philosophy of good times? I mean look at 9/11 there was general hysteria that oscillated between blaming the state (that's one thing we know how to do) and saying its not really happening. What if we were called on to defend the state? Could the sons of liberalism really do it? That's one of the reasons I think liberals push the peace option so hard, they wouldn't really know what to do if there was a war. So we hear "oh you can't win an insurgency", No, YOU can't win an insurgency.