Monday, November 11, 2013

What comes next matters too

Which philosophy is currently dominant in the West? I've collected a few quotes from political philosophers in which the answer is clearly stated to be liberalism. Here is another, this time from Dr Phillip Cole, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of the West of England. According to Dr Cole:
normative political philosophy at present simply is predominantly liberal political philosophy

I doubt if liberalism will retain this orthodox status forever. However, it's important to keep in mind that the demise of liberalism won't necessarily mean a revival of traditionalism. Liberalism could be replaced by something else just as damaging.

I was reminded of this after reading a column by Giles Fraser, an Anglican minister. In this column, Fraser states clearly that he is not a liberal:
All of which presents an opportunity to clear the decks and say why I am not a liberal. No, I'm not a conservative either. I'm a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal.

His understanding of liberalism is pretty good:
What I take to be the essence of liberalism is a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods.

Fraser is right that liberals put the moral goods of individual freedom and personal autonomy first. One of the problems with this, as I see it, is that it then leaves the good of the community undefended, and the good of the community is important for individual well-being, as we are social creatures who derive important aspects of our identity and our sense of belonging from the communities we belong to.

Fraser criticises liberalism from a different perspective, a socialist one. He wants the community to hold to a moral vision of equality and redistribution and this communal good is then to trump any individual ones:
So, do we think the state ought to have a substantial vision of shared values, perfectly at ease with the language of right and wrong, and at times not at all uncomfortable about imposing that vision through taxation and legislation? Or do we think that the state ought to butt out and let us all get on with living our lives as we see fit?

Just to be clear. I take it that socialists are happy with the former, using the levers of government to shape (impose, if you like) a fairer, more redistributive society.

Fraser observes correctly that individual choice often reduces itself to relatively trivial aims:
From the 80s onwards, popular culture morphed from an angry insistence on a fairer society (the Jam, the Specials etc) into a me-first relativism that is all about sex and shopping.

Fraser then discusses what community means for liberals (though his description seems to best fit classical or right-liberals):
For liberals the word community means little more than co-operation for mutual advantage. Here, individuals exist fundamentally prior to community. There is no such thing as society, and so forth. Liberals are doing it for themselves and rely on the invisible hand of self-interest to do the community work for them. This sort of philosophy has little to offer those who are trying to eke out a living in the tower blocks of south London. It is a philosophy that has demonstrably failed. For socialists, Christians and other religious denominations, the community precedes the individual in so far as the individual is shaped by and responsible to something wider than itself.

It's true to say that the individual is shaped by community and responsible to something wider than himself, but I'm not sure that I'd therefore claim that philosophically the community precedes the individual. The stronger the sense we have of the individual, then the stronger the sense we ought to have of the community which gives the individual the setting for his social commitments, for his self-fulfilment, for his identity, for his love of people and place, for his connection to culture and heritage and so on.

It is not as if you have to choose either individual or community: if you choose individual then you should also choose to defend community rather than seeing community as something the individual has to be liberated from.

It's likely that in coming years some of the attacks on liberalism will come from those who wish to replace it with a socialist view of the common good, which will boil down to the state replacing the functions of the family and also redistributing wealth in the name of equality.

It's important that we maintain our own traditionalist criticisms of liberalism, so that those who blanch at the socialist vision aren't forced back to liberalism as an alternative.

12 comments:

  1. "It's true to say that the individual is shaped by community and responsible to something wider than himself, but I'm not sure that I'd therefore claim that philosophically the community precedes the individual. The stronger the sense we have of the individual, then the stronger the sense we ought to have of the community which gives the individual the setting for his social commitments, for his self-fulfilment, for his identity, for his love of people and place, for his connection to culture and heritage and so on. "

    You are expressing a liberal view which in reality would lead to social breakdown as it has in the West. In a traditionalist society the philosophy and identity of the community, be it the family, tribe, ethnic group or nation, always precedes the identity of the individual. The individual takes his identity first and foremost from the community and the expression of his individuality is restricted within the context of the community traditions. Traditional societies throughout the world all have similar features which are responsible for their long histories of survival and adaptation against adversity and strife. They are all based upon the sound understanding of human nature which recognizes human weakness and disorder and understands that the survival of communities cannot be left to human choice alone. All traditional societies are therefore based upon coercion with threats of expulsion for those who fail to comply.

    If the individual identity and philosophy is dominant, as it is in liberal societies, then the community philosophy suffers. One cannot leave the defense of community to personal choice and individual preference and perceptions.

    "if you choose individual then you should also choose to defend community rather than seeing community as something the individual has to be liberated from." This statement is simply magical thinking and indeed contradictory. The choice of individuality itself prioritizes the individual above the community and leaves defense of the community a matter of personal volition and perception, both of which immediately have the effect of weakening and potentially transforming the community identity. It is therefore not viable.


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    1. Anon, you keep beating this drum. But you are mistaking what I mean when I talk about the individual. I am not saying that the individual self-creates his own identity in whatever way he chooses, as a liberal would say. I'm making the point that if, say, you are born an Englishman that you would draw a significant aspect of your self-identity from this, and that it would enhance your life as an individual rather than limiting it. Therefore, you would have a positive interest in the common good of the English nation and generally be willing to contribute to this common good (for instance, by upholding standards of culture or of family life). If communities relied just upon coercion and of forcing reluctant individuals to comply, they would be miserable aspects of life and would have poor prospects of long-term survival.

      That isn't to say that a community can just rely on the spontaneous actions of individuals. We need to learn from recent history, for instance, that it is important what happens to the institutions and that those appointed to positions of responsibility should be supportive and responsible members of the community. Also, leadership matters a great deal, and should be encouraged within the best layer of family men (which is why I don't mind the term "patriarch" - there should be a layer of men with a patriarchal instinct toward leadership in society).

      But, in general, I reject the idea that community is set against genuine individuality. We are social creatures and so our individuality requires that we be embedded within the "thick" relationships that are found within longstanding ethnic communities.

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    2. " If communities relied just upon coercion and of forcing reluctant individuals to comply, they would be miserable aspects of life and would have poor prospects of long-term survival. "

      A brief examination of history would confirm the exact opposite of your assertion.
      If you study world history, travel the world and analyse the reasons why some communities survive and thrive and some don't you will quickly be forced to come to the conclusion that a significant degree of coercion is required to prevent a community from fragmenting. Why did the Jews survive when most of the Arabian tribes which emerged at the same time disappeared? (Orthodox Jews are the most coercive society on earth, yet one of the happiest and longest surviving) And why has the Indian caste system survived whilst the British class system is disintegrating? All traditional societies are based upon a significant degree of coercion, without which they would not survive and their long term happiness and contentment is much greater for that.

      You state
      "I'm making the point that if, say, you are born an Englishman that you would draw a significant aspect of your self-identity from this, and that it would enhance your life as an individual rather than limiting it. Therefore, you would have a positive interest in the common good of the English nation and generally be willing to contribute to this common good (for instance, by upholding standards of culture"
      Well an examination of the present state of England would prove that that statement is nonsense. Drawing a part of your identity from being English has not stimulated an interest in the common good or the preservation of the society. It has certainly created arrogance and pride but also rampant individuality which has been socially destructive. A lot of people do things which they do not understand are socially destructive and so there has to a mechanism in which their behaviour can be restrained or prevented.

      "That isn't to say that a community can just rely on the spontaneous actions of individuals" You are now contradicting your self here. If you cannot rely on the spontaneous actions of individuals then you need to have some means of coercion which ensures that people follow actions which are beneficial to society and prevents socially destructive actions.

      True Patriarchy means strong leadership with a set of values imposed upon society by the Patriarch and expulsion for those who fail to comply.Most British businesses, clubs and organisations were run this way until political correctness took control.

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    3. Anon, you keep wanting to draw the discussion back to your idea of the need for coercion.

      The original point I made is that community is not set against the individual because we are social creatures who draw our identity and fulfilment from our place within a communal tradition and social institutions like the family. Therefore the individual has a reason to want to uphold the good of the community and not just an individual good.

      Of course, that doesn't mean that communities will always prosper and survive. There are countervailing factors as well that tend toward dissolution and these have proven very strong in the West.

      The issue of what you do to try to hold a community together is not really the focus of the post or this discussion thread. It's a whole other topic that deserves a post and discussion thread of its own.

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  2. Wait, I'm confused. I thought, since there are both left-liberals and right-liberals that you can be both a socialist AND a liberal...

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    1. Yes, a left-liberal will usually support state intervention to create what is, in their way of thinking, "equal freedom" (by which they mean people having equal resources to create autonomous, self-determining lives).

      However, there are some on the left who seem to be rejecting this type of left-liberal framework and who are more open about asserting equality as a "common good" and who want the state to take over the functions of family life on the basis of a commitment to a "common good".

      Sorry if that doesn't make it clear - I'll write a future post more carefully to try to explain how some on the left are starting to reject the "self-chosen, subjective, individual moral good" framework to assert instead the idea of a common good (but by which they mean the state enforcing socialist values).

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  3. "Community" apparently meaning random humans living within arbitrarily drawn boundaries. Or is it really about state ownership of the economy?

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    1. Fnn, exactly. Well put. Giles Fraser talks about the precedence of community, but he is an open borders advocate and a statist. When socialists talk about a common good and community it often seems to mean a commitment to statist egalitarian redistribution, rather than to real, historic communities and to natural forms of community, such as the family.

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  4. It's important for us to put left-wing communitarianism in its place.

    The problem with it is that while they make much of eschewing atomized individuals and choice, their notion of community comes fundamentally from equality. In other words, they are still a species of liberal, even if they don't wish to identify as such.

    Human community is very much real, but it doesn't begin (or end) with equality. Indeed it is the contrary: older-younger, weaker-stronger, wiser-less experienced.

    It was a commonplace in natural law thinking, and even among many enlightenment thinkers for a time as well: we all start as infants. That is, weak, helpless, witless. No appeals to equality can maintain the human species.

    And given that equality so little appears as any kind of natural fact, those who parse "community" in terms of it are really just liberating themselves from constraint in the *political* management of others.

    Beware "communitarians."

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    1. Aaron, I agree that they still have much in common with left-liberalism, even if they do accept a notion of a common good. A good comment, thank you.

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  5. After traditional architecture was marginalized by so many undistinguished glass boxes that people wanted anything but another glass box, in came post-modernist architecture, like a series of nasty and bad jokes that you can't get away from.

    After right liberalism demolishes traditional, healthy, natural hierarchies like the headship of the husband in a family, all in favor of everyone working and striving to excel in an intolerably barren "marketplace", in comes left-liberalism with its perverse and un-adaptive hierarchies of purported victimhood.

    Over and over, unless somebody is banging away at positive alternatives, what comes after a situation that liberalism has made intolerable and unsustainable is something worse.

    Hence the importance of this blog and the whole "traditionalist" idea.

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    1. Couldn't have said it better - worth a post in itself.

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