Saturday, November 27, 2010

What holds a society together?

What has been needed, for a long time, is a principled opposition to liberalism (i.e. an opposition which doesn't just complain that a particular liberal policy has gone too far too soon, but which rejects the underlying principles on which liberalism is based).

I noted in my previous post that the entry on liberalism in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy does include some principled criticisms of liberalism, of the kind we need to develop.

There was one final criticism of liberalism made in the Oxford Companion that I left out. It's an important, albeit lengthy, one. The issue is whether a liberal society can remain stable in the long run if it rejects preliberal forms of social solidarity:

A similar question has been raised about the long-term political stability of a liberal society. Non-liberal societies are typically held together by shared conceptions of the good, such as a common religion, or by common ethnicity. Members of these societies are willing to make sacrifices for each other because of their commonalities. But what holds a society together when its members come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds and do not share a common conception of the good life?

Some liberals suggest that the tie that binds the citizens of a liberal society is simply a shared commitment to liberal principles of freedom and equality. It is debatable whether this is a 'thick' enough bond to keep a multicultural society together. After all, a liberal society makes many demands on its members: they must be willing to accept considerable sacrifices (e.g. military service), to take an interest in public affairs, and to exercise self-restraint in their personal actions and political demands. Liberals have tended to focus on the rights of citizenship but a liberal society would stop functioning if its citizens did not also accept certain duties and exercise certain virtues. It seems likely that a sense of commonality is needed for individuals to accept these sorts of duties.

Conservative critics have argued that the stability of liberal societies is based on a pre-liberal sense of shared identity. Citizens of England, for example, do not see each other primarily as individual rights-holders, but as fellow members of the English nation, with a shared history and culture. This gives rise to a sense of solidarity which is prior to, and deeper than, a shared commitment to liberalism. It is this national solidarity which explains why the English work together, and make sacrifices for each other. Conservatives worry that this sense of being members of the same 'people' or culture or community is gradually being eroded by the individualism of liberal rights, which treats people in abstraction from their communal ties and responsibilities.

Interestingly, many nineteenth century liberals agreed that liberalism is viable only in countries with a sense of common nationhood, a view shared by some recent theorists of 'liberal nationalism'. Most post-war liberal theorists, however, have rejected the idea that liberalism should ally itself with nationalism, and have instead asserted that a common commitment to liberal principles is a sufficient basis for social unity even in multicultural countries. Habermas's idea of 'constitutional patriotism' is one example of this view, explicitly offered as an alternative to nationalist theories of social cohesion.

One difficulty with this view is that it provides no guidance on how the boundaries of distinct political communities should be drawn. Indeed, it provides no explanation for why there should be distinct political communities at all. Why shouldn't all societies that share liberal values merge into a single state, aiming ultimately to create a single world state? If we reject the nationalist belief that states have the right and responsibility to express particular national identities, languages and cultures, why shouldn't liberals favour abolishing existing nation-states and replacing them with a thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism of open borders within a single global state?

Few liberal theorists are willing to take this step towards an unqualified liberal cosmopolitanism and most believe that nation states remain the only viable forum for the implementation of liberal-democratic values. Yet equally few liberals are willing to acknowledge that these liberal nation states depend for their viability not only on adherence to liberal values, but also on the inculcation of deeper feelings of national identity.

Whether the cohesion of a liberal society depends on some prior sense of identity remains an important topic for debate.

That's a very good summary. My one quibble is that I think the writer underestimates the degree to which liberals are willing to move away from the nation state. In Europe there has been a steady drift of sovereignty away from the nation state and toward the European Union. The Australian political class has also toyed with the idea of moving toward a regional system. First, it was the idea of a Pacific Community, followed by Kevin Rudd's more grandiose vision of an Asia-Pacific Community. If the Asian leaders had been more receptive, the plans might have gone further than they have.


  1. Wow that's an excellent summary by the companion. I'm a little suprised that most Liberals aren't willing to admit that their ideal is the cosmopolitan world state. Many of them absolutly love the idea. For one example we can see inside nations the endless desire to do away with States in favour of a strong Federal government.

  2. I call myself a Jeffersonian - which means that, in theory, I am a "classical liberal," but in practice, everyone who meets me calls me a reactionary, a right-winger, a troglodyte, a Nazi, etc.

    In theory I espouse "classical liberal" soul-searching - the sort of questioning of all values that Jefferson summarized as : "Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

    To take such a philosophical quest seriously requires an inherently cerebral temperament, moderate scholarly ability, and congenial circumstances. One cannot question much while working a 13-hour shift in a sweat shop, for example.

    Large segments of society lack at least one of these three requirements. Thus, large segments of society are not capable of living up to the philosophy of liberalism.

    Liberalism is a suitable philosophy for "nature's aristocrats," but it is not a means by which one can organize a society. (And, incidentally, if nature's aristocrats get too involved in cerebral quests, they may forget to breed while they are fertile, which harms society.)

  3. 'To restrict someone's freedom of choice, on this Kantian view, is to treat them as less than a fully mature and responsible human being, and this is wrong, regardless of the desirable or undesirable social consequences that might follow.'

    In that light, I am anti-Kantian. I affirm that many individuals are NOT capable of moral autonomy. Rational thought and spiritual discipline are noble pursuits, but they require self-discipline and personal refinement, usually over a lifetime of effort.

    The challenge is to treat stupid people with spiritual dignity. It is hard for cerebral philosophers to remember that the ignorant masses have immortal souls. (Christian and Buddhist orthodoxy impose various rigors on their devotees in the hope that such self-mortification will lead to humility, rather than to more spiritual pride.)

    I submit that a sufficient weight of spiritual work is what supports a society. The cerebral philosopher might attain spirituality by thoughts; the viscerotonic housewife might attain spirituality by self-sacrificial devotion to her immediate family. So long as a society is a whole organism on a spiritual level, it can endure the challenges of material life.

  4. What we arguably get to keep stupid people in thrall is a more directive state and the welfare goody shop, wielded by fairly mediocre people.

    I saw a WW2 Donald Duck cartoon recently where they were making fun of the Nazi's, it was quite funny. The central argument was the in Nazi germany the citizen is little better than a slave worshipping the Fuehrer, whilst in the West/America there’s greater dignity for the individual and a higher standard of living.

    If we say that this is the essence of the West, or what holds it together, a higher standard of living and more freedom to do your own thing, then that is not inconsistent with what we're seeing today.

  5. Personally I agree that without commonalities more powerful than mere ideals a society does not have a very long shelf life.

    But how best to preserve the communities that create these commonalities?

    Best bet would be to return to these institutions [church, ethnic groups, etc] the powers and responsibilties removed from them by the liberal state. Encourage faith schools, community charities and the like by removing government from the public sphere.

    Even in a place like Lebanon where there are many radically different communities the society functions reasonably well becasue the central state is subordinated to the various religious and ethnic "nations" to ensure that none of them ever ains enough control to eliminate the others.

    It is far from a perfect solution, but thanks to the idiocy of mass-immigration combined with policies of Multiculturalism it could be the best-worst possible future for the west.

  6. "But what holds a society together when its members come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds and do not share a common conception of the good life?"

    I'm just amazed that the Oxford Companion has printed something so heretical. How did this get past the editorial board? How old is it?

    I just can't believe anyone in academia is still allowed to wonder whether the body matters, etc.

  7. I think the Lebanon solution is like the Yugoslav solution and is ultimately unstable or unsustainable. The more likely bet will be that people will be encouraged to move past their ethnic backgrounds. How this is done though ...

    I was also surprised to see that published by the companion. Its good to see these issues discussed.

  8. How old is it?

    First edition 1995. I quoted from the second edition 2005.

  9. James wrote,

    "Even in a place like Lebanon where there are many radically different communities the society functions reasonably well because the central state is subordinated to the various religious and ethnic "nations" to ensure that none of them ever gains enough control to eliminate the others."

    How does your vision differ from standard liberalism? Liberals say that non-ethnic, non-religious officials govern neutrally over competing ethnicities and religious groups. But isn't this false? Competing ethnicities elect ethnically competing officials. Ethnic strife becomes partisan ethnic strife. And ethnic conflict on the street becomes ethnic conflict in the halls of Parliament.

    That's why we have black partisans in the DOJ refusing to prosecute fellow blacks guilty of civil rights infractions. That's why Lebanon can't keep a stridently Christian Prime Minister alive for very long. And the list goes on.

    Also, you wrote that Lebanon functions "reasonably well". In comparison to what? It's hard to see how Lebanon is preferable to much of anything.

  10. Jesse wrote,

    "The more likely bet will be that people will be encouraged to move past their ethnic backgrounds. How this is done though ..."

    Right. And, as the Oxford Companion explains, it's not clear to what they're supposed to "advance" and how that's better than what they're giving up.

  11. ""Also, you wrote that Lebanon functions "reasonably well".In comparison to what?""

    In comparison to Lebanon circa 1982.

    What happens there today is not good. But people stick to their own, have their own support networks from their own communities.

    TBH what you and other commenters say is true, the situation today is more of an extended truce than anything else.

    Truely multi-ethnic communities [as opposed to ones with a dominant culture and ethnicity] have a great deal of trouble lasting longer than a week.

    The point I guess I was trying to make is that when communities take control of the services to their group that group can survive under intense pressure, such as the Lebanese Christians or the Druze.

    Groups which allow the state to dole out services to all regardless of group status must eventually die out.

    The liberal state in my view is the biggest enemy to any communal group that wishes to survive.

  12. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it.

  13. If you look at any school or workplace brochure you'll see a bunch of smiling faces of people from diverse backgrounds. The idea of that is not merely to demonstate their inclusive nature but to show that people from any background can satisfy the requirements of that institution. I guess its the same thinking with nations. Anyone can be a citizen just like anyone can be a work employee. All of the "externals" such as the envioronments in which people live or have grown up in are wished away or dismissed.

  14. Lol has anyone seen this?

    Its a complaint that a Pakistani was turned away from auditioning as a Hobbit because she wasn't white.

    So we either politely don't hire them and let them figure out their own reasons. Have a token black hobbit in the background, which would be ridiciulous because people in Middle Earth are more homogoneus, or else we take this front on and tell them to go to hell.

  15. Have a token black hobbit in the background, which would be ridiciulous because people in Middle Earth are more homogoneus, or else we take this front on and tell them to go to hell.

    I'm for the latter. When it comes to art or literature that has a lasting place in Western culture, the inclusion of nonwhites in roles normally given to whites is a very subtle form of ethnic cleansing. Tolkien's works are among the purest expressions of the Western condition; the inclusion of a wise-cracking African hoodrat in the role of Samwise Gamgee would damage the entire mythology beyond recognition.

    I'm sure there are still parts available for goblins and orcs, though.

  16. No, I hadn't seen that, Jesse. Tell them to go to hell.

    Wow, speaking of race, have you noticed the increase in interracial pairings in the media/ads? It's one thing to have the occasional mixed-race couple. But I think I see more interracial couples now in the media than racially homogenous, particularly white, racially homogenous.

    And if I notice this and oppose it, I'm obsessed with race.

    And in another few years, there will be more homosexual couples than straight in the media.

  17. Yes I think kissing the diversity ring for something like that is ridiculous and insulting. I'm sure everyone, even the limpest commentator would boo it and think it inappropriate.

    On the point about mixed couples I think I've noticed that. What will probably happen is mixed race people will be more promoted as a standard of beauty, eg Jessica Alba and Alicia Keys. These people are genuinely beautiful but I wouldn't be suprised if that is more common.

  18. Also, the claim that multi-ethnic, multi-cultural but illiberal societies lack peace seems not merely wrong but backwards. Lots of empires one could name worked reasonably well in all their mulit-ethnic, multi-lingual, muli-cultural, multi-religious messiness. And they seem to have worked OK precisely because they were illiberal: uppity subgroups were likely to get their heads bashed in by the Legions, so subgroups did not get uppity.

    By contrast, as multi-cultural empires became more liberal, they fell apart: Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, and India, for examples.

  19. Yes it was the same with Russsia. You could kick on with no freedom but not some freedom.

  20. Excellent find! This post and the last one are fascinating. I'm with James on this one, and I'll leave it at that and not bore you all with my governmental theories.

    I don't think mixed-raced people are more attractive, but we have a broader appeal because our looks are more ambiguous. My former employer loved to trot me out for the clients and send me off to conferences. I felt like a corporate whore. They have a cute Asian girl now, who appears to be making the rounds. She's very cute, with enormous eyes.

    Partly it's "diversity", partly it's to entice young male engineers to apply to the company or purchase your products. If your Booth Bunny is mixed-race, the men will give your stand more attention than one with a white woman, as men -- especially young men -- are attracted to novelty. It's just a cynical marketing ploy.

  21. What will probably happen is mixed race people will be more promoted as a standard of beauty, eg Jessica Alba and Alicia Keys.

    Perhaps. Or perhaps Alte is right that these are merely novelties, and will eventually fade as all novelties must. As obsessed with racial diversity as the world is right now, the Caucasian woman is still considered the gold standard of beauty.

    Bartholomew is correct that we're seeing a lot more interracial couples in advertising, but, naturally, the advertisers don't simply mix spouses at random. Whites, and especially white women, are singled out to take part in these relationships. Since only whites are to be considered racist, and since only a white woman can give birth to a white child, it doesn't take a physicist to figure out the motive.

  22. It's a funny name, isn't it? But that's what they call you. It was the most dull work I've ever done, and it's gruelling standing around in high heels, while smiling inanely at yet-another-man asking you, "Where are you from?", and trying to convince him to fill out some stupid form so that you fulfil the day's quota. But it pays the rent, I suppose.

    Made me feel like an animal in a zoo.

    Most of the ads around here feature white men with non-white women. But I'm near DC, so we probably in different markets. Beauty standards tend to go along with civilizational prominence, so it will be interesting to see how they change over time. I certainly won't benefit from the change, as I obviously capitalize on the status quo, but I'm lucky to have dark hair.

    Race-mixing is a sign of the breakdown between sexes within a race, resulting in an urge to widen the selection pool to gain a higher-quality mate. If the sexes ever manage to call a truce, race-mixing will decrease and mixed-race people will disappear into the majority population eventually.

  23. Yes sales work is grueling. I enjoyed it though, its a very human interaction. A bit of flirting a bit of explanation a bit of presentation, a bit of thinking quickly. Oh well hehe, but it does get tedious as you say. With the whole animal in a zoo thing that must be a more female response because you get looked at directly much more then men. If someone looks at me too much I can always give them the "back off" look.

  24. Oh, I did like sales work, as long as it wasn't myself I was selling. I worked for a gentlemen's clothing store for a while, and that was nice. The men were coming for the suits and the cashmere, you see. Totally different atmosphere.

    Worked at a delicatessen for a while, which was nice. Mostly old ladies and family men. Very nice customers, good conversation, and no leering. Software conferences are like meat markets sometimes. I've heard gamer conferences are even worse.

    I think the thing that bothered me the most was my pride. I was an expert in the field and everyone talked to me like I was just decoration. I like that about the Internet; people take me more seriously on here than in real life, where I'm often consigned to "cute but dim" status.

    But now I'm derailing again, I'm afraid.

  25. Hehe *sighs buts hand over forehead* I'm perpetually tormented by my good looks too hehe. I'm just teasing by the way.

  26. Sorry, that all made me sound like a total airhead. Let me put my Big Girl cap back on now, and concentrate on exuding Smart Mature vibes again.

    I bet you do well in sales. :-)


    And now, back to the regularly scheduled program...

  27. Hehe, you certainly do well online. I'll stop too.

  28. Oh, by the way, Jesse:

    Here's an example of the kinds of ads we're seeing a lot of this year in the States:

    Also, I agree with Alte that many of the ads also portray white men with non-white women. It's as if some federal court ordered all the ad agencies to promote race-mixing this year. It's weird.

  29. I animated this blog post using XtraNormal. See here. I hope that's OK. The speech is fairly robotic but it's watchable. I'm no expert on animation, just giving it a go.

  30. Fascinating. Thanks for doing that. It's certainly a first for this site.