Monday, February 14, 2022

The problem of solidarity

I have finished reading The Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory. There is a great deal I could usefully comment on, but I'd like to focus on a single argument that Gregory makes in the conclusion. Gregory believes that whatever the successes of liberal modernity that it has internal contradictions which are undermining it.

One of these contradictions runs as follows. In liberal modernity there is no shared, substantive common good; instead "individuals self-determine the good for themselves within liberalism's politically protected ethics of rights". But this raises an issue. How do you hold together a society in which there are "incompatible views about what is good, true and right".

Liberalism found an answer, in part, by encouraging individuals to focus on the "goods life". Instead of publicly contesting the answers to the Life Questions, individuals would acquisitively seek out material wealth. Liberalism also relied for its stability on a legacy of shared commitments that were, in part, drawn from Christianity.

However, these two ingredients of the "cultural glue" helping to stabilise a liberal society ultimately work against each other. The focus on individual acquisitiveness undermines the social ties within which the cultural legacy was practised and sustained. But it is difficult in a liberal order to reject the pursuit of the "goods life", no matter how much it harms social solidarity, because it is a means by which the problem of hyperpluralism is tackled.

Gregory puts the argument as follows:

As a result, public life today, perhaps especially in the United States, is increasingly riven by angry, uncivil rivals with incompatible views about what is good, true and right. Many of these views and values are increasingly distant from substantive beliefs that derived most influentially from Christianity and that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remained much more widely shared, notwithstanding inherited early modern confessional antagonisms. But the rejection of such answers to the Life Questions has led to the current Kingdom of Whatever partly because of the dissolution of the social relationships and communities that make more plausible those beliefs and their related human practices.

Most visibly in recent decades, this dissolution owed and continues to owe much to the liquefying effects of capitalism and consumerism on the politically protected individuals within liberal states, as men and women in larger numbers prioritize the fulfilment of their self-chosen, acquisitive, individual desires above any social (including familial) solidarities except those they also happen to choose, and only for as long as they happen to choose them. Which means, of course, that the solidity of these social "solidarities" is better understood as liquidity, if not vaporosity. 

Nevertheless, these same liberal states continue to depend on the widely embraced pursuit of consumerist acquisitiveness to hold together the ideological hyperpluralism within their polities. Hence modernity is failing, too, because having accepted the redefinition of avarice as benign relies for cohesion on a naturalized acquisitiveness that simultaneously undermines other shared beliefs, common values, and social relationships on which the sustainability of liberal states also depends. (p.378)


  1. Modern western societies are conceptualized as free trade zones. All culture is a potential threat to that highest telos. Hence it is undermined.

    1. And all individuals as interchangeable producers and consumers thus undermining all particular nations and cultures.

    2. Yet the free will of individuals and private groups persists against that paradigm, and undermines it in turn. We- all parties concerned-- may ultimately recognize this as a dance and save our hostility for real existential threats rather than for competing ideas.

  2. What exactly are these "other shared beliefs, common values, and social relationships?"

  3. Is Liberalism still the defining ethos of the modern world. I would suggest not, that it is a universalist morality.