Friday, February 24, 2006

Still Chewing...

I find myself checking into NRO's Crunchy Con blog every half-hour or so; there's so much good thought there, put forward by a lot of smart people. But then there's Jonah Goldberg....

You have to give him credit for knowing where he stands: he doesn't care for crunchy conservatism or anything like unto to it. Why? For both stylistic and substantive reasons, I think, as I wrote over at Laura's place here. Goldberg's hang-up with what Rod Dreher is trying to do through his book, in my view, comes down to his apparently firm belief that "conservatism" means primarily growing up and taking responsibility for yourself, whatever that "self" may be. In other words, it's very individualistic and libertarian, though not necessarily in a principled sense; what is actually "conserved" in his conservatism isn't very clear. It's also very "establishment": you put on your tie and walk out the door and make your own way in the world and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I suspect that Goldberg sees in "crunchiness"--sticking close to family, tending your garden, getting together at the neighborhood organic food co-op, supporting your local church--everything he hates about (his uninformed stereotype of) liberalism: it's weak, it makes you dependent on others, it's cloying, it lowers your horizon, it's for wusses. The possibility that conserving family and community and authenticity--holding onto a "common good," in other words--might actually sometimes require just such consensual and egalitarian arrangements, actually obliging the development of the self in some collective direction, is something he cannot tolerate. Real men won't stand for being told what to do, even in the public interest.

Some of the other contributors held Goldberg's feet to the fire regarding the whole issue of speaking in terms of the common good, or whether it really is even possible to talk about politics in the philosophically libertarian language of a field of neutral choices. Goldberg responded:

It is one thing to say that government polices are never neutral in their outcomes and quite another to say that because this is so we should give up the ideal of government neutrality. Much of what conservatism has fought against in the last fifty years has been the notion that elected and unelected government officials (and even democratic majorities) should be allowed to decide what's good for everybody. Obviously the federal government needs to mind the general welfare and one can get into trouble when one gets absolutist on either side of this either/or framing. But as a general proposition I want my federal government as libertarian as possible and my local community as communitarian as feasible. What scares me (or one of the things that scares me) is that so much of this Crunchy stuff buys into the view that the "personal is political." I don't want the federal government to be able to pick winners and losers based on that worldview.

Let's think about this for a moment. There's an interesting point to be made here, though Goldberg does come close to fully articulating it. Ignore the huge red herring in this passage--that is, Goldberg's complete dismissal of the possibility that an articulation of a "common good"--on any level--might actually involve some democratic participation and representation, thus resulting in something more than just an arbitrary "picking." (Though that's a pretty revealing glimpse into his basic estimation of human ordering in the first place.) Let's just address his libertarian-communitarian distinction.

Is communitarianism--in this case, meaning a concern for consensus, identity, authority, and the pursuit of a common good--good or bad? If it's good, then why wouldn't you want libertarianism on the federal level; shouldn't you try to bring forth whatever kind of communitarian feeling is possible on any level of government? The quick response is that the federal government isn't the same as a neighborhood association--but who is arguing that it is? That's a straw man; of course a national body can't be communitarian or republican or concerned with a common good in exactly the same way a small locality can--that's an understanding and an argument which goes all the way back to the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and earlier. But given that reality, why does it follow that such language should be wholly abandoned once one leaves the local level, save only for matters of "general welfare"? (Was fighting a war to end slave power in the South a matter of the "general welfare"?)

On the other hand, maybe because Goldberg actually thinks communitarianism is bad? That it infringes upon his bedrock individualism? If so, why would he want localities to be communitarian at all? Sure, national governments can oppress people terribly, but it's not like local communities can't be pretty oppressive as well. (Female circumcision is defended in local, tribal African communities, not by the states within which such communities reside.) Maybe Goldberg thinks communitarianism and inculcating notions of a common good is a necessary evil, one that we need it to form the sort of civic virtues and social capital which make an otherwise libertarian society sustainable? In that case, we would want communitarian communities, but only so as to provide citizens the opportunity to escape from such when they grow up, so they can enjoy "real" freedom. But that, of course, raises the question of how to keep said local communities going from generation to generation, if the real pay-off of American society is to be able to escape into a wider, more libertarian polity. And moreover, if that's the way Goldberg thinks, then shouldn't he have reluctantly written that local communities should only be as communitarian "as necessary," rather than saying they should be as communitarian "as feasible"?

The only way to make this coherent is to argue that the very meaning of "community" and "the common good" fundamentally alters when it is expanded beyond a particular level, such that the harms associated with it start dramatically outweighing the benefits. That's a valid argument to make. But it needs to be made, rather than simply asserted as Goldberg does here as if it's some sort of obvious, prudent truism. Caleb Stegall, a much more thoughtful writer, goes some distance towards articulating this. He cites a thoughtful e-mail which argues that "in promoting the genuine goods of tradition, community, public beauty, local variety and family integrity on which most conservatives agree, it's important to disentangle three modes of promoting the perceived Good: 1) personal suasion, religious teaching, conversion, appeals to beauty and justice; 2) social pressure, the threat of ostracism, moralistic disapproval; 3) governmental diktat," and which comes to the conclusion that, as most Americans "have little patience with the intrusive force of the Gemeinshaft," we end being "comfortable....with mode 1) and, oddly enough, mode 3), [but] deeply resistant to mode 2)"; following this, Stegall suggests that, since he believes community and the common good really does dramatically change as we move into nonlocal contexts, crunchy conservatives who want to avoid looking like statists and incipient fascists need to work on number 2):

The kind of "libertarian/communitarianism" I would advocate for is premised almost entirely on his mode #2 with a dash of #1 thrown in. What it requires is a renewed appreciation for society; for what Wendell Berry calls "membership"--a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. It's what the old English jurist Fletcher Moulton called "obedience to the unenforceable." It is tradition in this sense, in the societal sense, that is required for order. Social context and membership within it is not something which can be simply valued or appropriated. Tradition must be inheritable, or always-already inherited, to be wholly itself. It is a gift of givenness, given to the point of being so formative of the order of man's soul that it is ineradicable even from those who turn against it. So, yes, the individual remains free to choose, but in the choosing he is always choosing against an important part of himself.

Where all this is pointing towards is the anarchism/communitarianism/localist continuum, which Stegall praises and which Lee over at Verbum Ipsum highlights. So does that mean we're all in agreement in disagreeing with Goldberg, at least insofar as the proper locus of the articulation of a common good goes, so long as I shelve any hope for a national common good?

Not entirely, and it may be that our differences on this point is really what explains where "left traditionalists" like myself part ways with other crunchies. What all of this turns on, I think, is the basis upon which one can attribute legitimate consensual and/or normative force to something "social"--that is, something that isn't restricted to cramped desires of the sovereign individual, and yet isn't on the other hand just a blank check written to a faceless, corporate state. From what Stegall writes, with his sympathy for "anarchic" or "libertarian" communitarianism--the sort exercised by the Amish and other radically dissenting groups, for example--it appears that his judgment is that, once one moves beyond the immediately local, all affectivity (bonds of attachment, the sort of thing that make "social" persuasion and collective authority and discipline possible) is lost, and anything that attempts to maintain such is really just acting like a state....and since states by definition always centralize power at the expense of persons, that means we need to keep our larger polities and political aspirations as "stateless"--and thus as "anarchic" or "libertarian" in a particular sense--as possible. But I'm somewhat more sympathetic to modernity's particular take on "liberal society." I think one can be liberal--in a political if not philosophical sense--and still link up with something substantive and connective and affective. Charles Taylor's "alternative modernity" is my vision here; the ability to see that while a modern concept like "nationality" obviously can't do everything a local community can, it can nonetheless do some things, instantiate some common goods that one can feel affectionate towards and thus feel bonded to. Nations, in other words, in my mind need not be merely imagined props that states use to justify their power, but actual socialities through which certain communitarian goods can be articulated.

But in any case, whether or not the language of community can provide only local alternatives or broader, collective ones to modern consumerist liberalism, we're in agreement that common goods exist, that traditions exist, that there is such a thing as "soulcraft" and that to at least some extent the personal is political....and so that living in such a way as to promote the ability of persons to collectively order themselves (I would hope in egalitarian ways) along with others is a much better way of life than thinking of oneself as an independent self who never needs to be told what to do. In other words, I think we're in agreement that Goldberg is completely missing the boat.


Lee said...

One thing I would like to see addressed (and maybe it is addressed in the Crunchy Con book) is what I see as an unacknowledged tension between a communitarian-living-close-to-the-land-and-kin kind of philosophy and the religous faith that many CCs seem to hold dear. After all, Christianity at any rate seems quite often to be disruptive of tight-knit families and communitites. Jesus didn't stay in Nazareth, Peter didn't stay at his nets, Paul was a "rootless cosmopolitan Jew" if anyone was, etc. I find this to be a tension in broader conservative/Republican rhetoric about "family/Christian values" - quite apart from the hypocrisy often involved - it tends to see religion as essentially a stabilizing force rather than a subversive one. But I don't think that's necessarily so. Community and family, even at their best (maybe especially?), have a way of becoming idols.
Posted by Lee

Michael J. Keegan said...

"In other words, I think we're in agreement that Goldberg is completely missing the boat. "

You are spot on…

I find your appreciation for "egalitarianism" interesting in that this "ism" has its roots in the anti-traditionalist reaction that is the Enlightenment.

Your identification of Prof. Taylor seems quite appropriate. Prof. Taylor, does as good a job as any, in attempting to reconcile opposites - tradition and egalitarianism -- most cogently in his Sources of the Self. In the end, humbly: it seems somewhat contrived to me. Synthesis is one thing, dementia is quite another. Liberalism has overtaken traditionalist forms because the former has a cunning, accommodation-ist nature – it’s polite just before it eats its prey.

I also recognize the efforts of Dr. David Walsh -- a professor of mine who sparked my interest in political theory not so many years ago -- specially in his work The Growth of the Liberal Soul . He has also attempted to reconcile liberalism and tradition - in fact, positing that liberalism is a tradition. The latter I find convincing to a point. Liberalism as a tradition seems to be equivalent to a white blood cell in a body politic – annihilating or marginalizing all traditional forms that take issue with the corrosive effects of egalitarianism.

After reading your very thoughtful post, I recalled Caleb’s following contribution to the CC booklog, which I find also spot on (and would appreciate your impression, if possible):

"Possessed of abstract natural rights, the developing 18th Century liberalism (whether in its radical continental form or more restrained English/Lockean incarnation) located the individual and his unconstrained will as the fundamental and universal unit of political and cultural order. Social institutions, traditions, and cultural restraints become at best keepers of the necessary ground-rules for maximum attainment of the free exercise of natural rights, and at worst they become hurdles and obstacles to the individual’s will. Progressive emancipation is the order of the day… So when the putatively conservative David Walsh argues against abortion, for example, he does so on rights-based grounds: abortion weakens the sanctity of all individuals; the sanctity of the individual is the foundation of personal autonomy and freedom; therefore, abortion must be opposed to preserve personal autonomy and freedom."

Thank again, for your very thought provoking post and for letting me comment…

Posted by Michael J. Keegan

Russell Arben Fox said...

"One thing I would like to see what I see as an unacknowledged tension between a communitarian-living-close-to-the-land-and-kin kind of philosophy and the religous faith that many CCs seem to hold dear. After all, Christianity at any rate seems quite often to be disruptive of tight-knit families and communitites."

That's an interesting question, Lee; I haven't gotten a hold of a copy of the book either, so I don't know if Dreher addresses this theme. Clearly, there's a sense in which communitarians like myself can go too far, and elide over the deeply individualizing, liberating force of Christianity. For a true Christian, as much as Babylon can be seen as an enemy at the gates of the family or the community, it's not as though those things can't become fetishes also. The only theological response I can come up with right now might be a reminder that Christian communities always have to involve and/or arise from a kind of personal interiority, a realization of being together with others through a process that begins from within. That is, every community has to have a healthy respect for subjectivity. Which I suppose means that Christians, as individuals in the public world, ought to at least have a prudential appreciation for those political orders which do not ascribe too  much objective power to families or communities in the first place. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...

"I find your appreciation for 'egalitarianism' interesting in that this 'ism' has its roots in the anti-traditionalist reaction that is the Enlightenment. Your identification of Prof. Taylor seems quite appropriate. Prof. Taylor, does as good a job as any, in attempting to reconcile opposites--tradition and egalitarianism--most cogently in his Sources of the Self . In the end, humbly: it seems somewhat contrived to me."

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree (if that isn't already too liberal!) on this point, Michael. Obviously, mounting a defense of what Taylor is doing through Sources and in his other writings is a major project; for the moment, I'll just argue that I don't think there is reason to accept that the goods associeted with the liberal order, such as egalitarianism, are available solely through an anti-traditionalism. Secularism and liberalism paralleled each other, but do not completely define one another; plenty of early liberal thinkers, including Locke, assumed a background continuity of religious tradition which made their interpretation of nature feasible. (See Jeremy Waldron on this point.) Taylor is no great friend of Locke (and neither am I), but his point holds--the problem has not been, I think, modernity's destruction of community and tradition, but an interpretation of the self which it makes possible that masks community, makes it easy to dismiss it or forget about it. Taylo doesn't think the moral sources which make for strong evaluation can disappear, but we can just forget where they are.

"I also recognize the efforts of Dr. David Walsh--a professor of mine who sparked my interest in political theory not so many years ago--specially in his work The Growth of the Liberal Soul. He has also attempted to reconcile liberalism and tradition--in fact, positing that liberalism is a tradition. The latter I find convincing to a point."

Were you a Catholic University student? That's where I received my Ph.D. I wasn't as close to David as some other grad students, but I admire his work a great deal all the same. He sees "tradition" expressed within and through modernity as operating in a different ontological mode than I, I believe; while he was interested in Taylor, he was never as convinced of his importance as I am. David is perhaps more influenced by a perspective which places Catholicism deep in the heart of the modern liberal order: liberal rights follow from natural law and so forth. I may be doing his thought an injustice, but I think modern subjectivity suggests the necessity of seeing liberal goods as instantiated through a different process. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

ken mcintyre said...

One way of thinking about this distinction between local communitarianism and national libertarianism can be found in the work of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott distinguishes between two types of human association. The first type, which he calls enterprise association, entails a community of choice and circumstance united by a common substantive goal, while the second type, which he calls civil association, involves a community of common beliefs, institutions, and practices united by common procedures. According to Oakeshott, it is only within a state conceived as a civil association that a great variety of smaller communities or enterprises can flourish. Conversely, the state understood as an enterprise association is a moral enormity precisely because, contrary to Mr. Locke, et al., it is compulsory and, as evidenced by the growth of centralized warfare/welfare state in the West, because it cannot coexist with other enterprise associations within its borders.

For example, the Soviets hated nothing more than the small, independent farming community because it could not be co-opted in the grand pursuit of the New Jerusalem. For example (two), Wendell Berry's (sometimes exaggerated) comparison of the totalitarian character of the American government's agricultural policy blames that policy, at least in part, on the contemporary conception of the American polity as some Baconian productivist enterprise.

By the way, Mr. Goldberg represents almost everything that is wrong in what passes as American conservatism today.

Ken McIntyre 

Posted by kenneth mcintyre