Monday, February 26, 2007

Communitarianism: A Summary

The thread on my abortion post, somewhat surprisingly to me, turned in part into a discussion of communitarianism, and specifically the idea of using the law to promote (or discourage) communally felt goods (or ills). Since at the same time I was engaged in another series of posts that had to do with liberal and communitarian political theory, it made me think that a general post on communitarian terms and concepts might be in order. I provided something like this for liberalism a few years ago, and some people found it helpful; maybe some others will find this one the same.

Like liberalism, communitarianism can refer to both an ideology--a set of more or less organized claims or ideas about political positions and actions--and a philosophy. However, I would argue that the range of arguments and proposals that can be plausibly identified as "philosophically communitarian" is much greater, culturally and historically, than is the case with liberalism. Practically all core liberal ideas are associated with the growth of personal and social liberation from the modern history of Europe: the rise of entrepreneurial capitalism, dogma-debunking science, and the rambunctious public sphere, and the skepticism of royal, church, and ultimately government authority which followed. "Liberty" surely has its positive connotations, with economic and moral empowerment and equality being treated as a necessary requirements to the realization of liberal rights; T.H. Green made that argument in the 19th century, and John Rawls did in the 20th. But by and large, notions of rights (whether natural--John Locke--or categorical--Immanuel Kant) operate in a negative way, asserting what should not be done to a person or be imposed upon her interests or preferences in the name of a religious truth, a local tradition, a community norm, or a political goal. Liberalism--as a philosophy and ideology--is thus to a great degree a carrier of the individual liberation and social deconstruction achieved in the modern West to the rest of the world.

Communitarianism, by contrast, can be applied to any of a great number of philosophical presumptions that do not aim to justify individual liberation from tradition, authority, religion, society, necessity, and so forth, but rather to positively assert the embeddedness of the self in a community. The "liberty of the ancients" as described by Benjamin Constant--in which the existence of slavery made possible the regular participation of citizens in the collective formation of civic life--is basically communitarian, and rightly so; Aristotle and others like him are complicated thinkers that don't easily fit into any one (especially modern) category, but only a seriously misinterpretation could discover in their writings a condemnation of the cultural and hierarchical claims of one's community and the affects it has on individual lives. Similarly, one can discover communitarian ideas in classical Confucianism, medieval Christendom, or in almost any other premodern worldview. Practically any theology or ontology or epistemology which criticizes or undermines individuated, critical, unprejudiced (and therefore alienated) action or cognition, and considers to be natural or good or necessary its opposite (a dependence upon revelation, an emphasis on group-ordained roles, the prioritizing of mutual benefit and progress, etc.) is communitarian. Still, such broad descriptions--which could presumably equally fit Han dynasty China or ancient Sparta or 16th-century Swiss villages, to say nothing of their modern incarnations--leave much unexplained. Thus, figuring out exactly how any person or policy identified as communitarian comes to that label is at least as important as identifying it as such in the first place.

Michael Walzer (whom I also quoted in the aforementioned liberalism post--what can I say? the man is brilliant) suggests in an old essay of his that contemporary communitarian perspectives can be sorted into two fundamental camps. The first perspective "holds that liberal political theory accurately represents liberal social practice." That is, it affirms that the doctrines of liberalism--the notions of self, rationality, and nature which emphasize economic, social, moral and political liberation--have in fact resulted in the fragmentation of civilization: we have lost our ability to connect with one another, lost even the ability to coherently explain that loss, and consequently live materialist, egotistical, self-interested, isolated lives, with no sense of a common good, no moral standards for judgment, no solidarity, no traditions, no hope for transformation or better ends. The second perspective, by contrast, "holds that liberal theory radically misrepresents real life"--that the "deep structure of even liberal society is in fact communitarian." Being born into a state of nature, outside of embedded relationships of power and meaning, is of course impossible; the way we work through our families and languages and cultures to evaluate and make sense our lives proves that. Hence, according to this perspective, liberal theory is not so much destructive as it is confusing (though that confusion could do a fair amount of destruction along the way).

There are problems with both approaches, as Walzer notes; they struggle when they try to turn themselves into productive critiques of our undeniably liberated world. In regards to the first, if it is true that the modern flight from norms of obligation and belonging has destroyed our ability to articulate and attend to community, why exactly would we want to subject ourselves to communitarian policies which presumably would be in vain? In regards to the second, there is the fact that, as Walzer concludes, "if we are all to some degree communitarians under the skin...the portrait of social incoherence loses its critical force." Still, Walzer believes--and I agree--that there is a lot of wisdom and truth in both approaches: it is useful to reflect on how much communal sensibility and appreciation for the public good the modern West has lost, and it is valuable to see how much of that sensibility nonetheless still haunts our moral and political thinking. Amongst philosophers and writers, I would describe Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Robert Nisbet as communitarians of the former sort, and Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, or Walzer himself as in the second camp--though almost none of these people would use the word "communitarian" to describes themselves.

(The aforementioned names are all, obviously, intellectuals who have engaged in the debate over the modern world in the United States as it has developed over the past generation or two; I could have included Thomas Aquinas, Mencius, or Edmund Burke as advancing similar communitarian arguments, though in radically different contexts.)

Agrarianism, populism, nationalism and fascism, localism, civic republicanism and humanism, traditional conservatism (both theo- and paleo-), socialism and communism, some forms of anarchism, social democracy--all of these are specific movements that are communitarian in important ways. The ontological supports that advocates of these ideologies have philosophically drawn upon or have felt led to them by range across the above divide, and of course plenty of agitators for one or more of the above theories of government and society don't feel a necessary connection to any particular sustaining philosophy at all. However, generally speaking, the more a person's criticism of liberal modernity is based on conceptions of the natural world or religion, the more likely it is to be "conservative" in the political sense, and thus tending towards the first perspective. This is the sort of communitarian ideology most Americans are used to, even though it's rarely called by that name: this is where you find advocates of traditional marriage and gender roles, opponents of artistic expressions and media that ignore local values, supporters of protective and small-town agricultural economies, and people critical of the language of rights and grievances. With them usually also comes both a sense of nostalgia or lamentation and, perversely, Republicans trawling all too successfully for votes. This attitude--and voting pattern--is familiar enough today that it is regularly incorporated into liberal writers' assessments of "Red America" or "the Homeland"; still, it doesn't capture the alternately despairing and hopeful, anarchist or countercultural, element of this communitarian critique. Of course, many of those who are persuaded by elements of this critique are not truly critical of philosophical liberalism at all; so long as the government stays small or they are able to keep a few socially conservative regulations on the books, they are content with the liberating, "creative destruction" of capitalism and individual rights. This is the primary reason why, as Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher have observed, conservatism in America today is deeply confused.

On the other hand, if one's critique of modern liberalism is based on social observations, such as about the importance of civic trust, national service, or class equity, whether derived from Karl Marx or Alexis de Tocqueville, then one's communitarianism is likely to be more inclined to the second perspective. This is the kind of communitarianism that, in contrast to the former and more politically common type, most theorists will be familiar with: Michael Sandel, Philip Pettit, William Galston, and Richard Dagger have been key figures in a small but significant neo-Tocquevillian revival, in which a re-attachment to the virtues that the liberal order presupposes, and a recommitment to its participatory demands and possibilities, are seen as crucial to restoring legitimacy to the modern democratic welfare state. Most of these individuals, strongly influenced by the social democratic left, see themselves as liberals or civic republicans rather than communitarians, a word which they (wrongly, I think) associate with conservatism and religious authoritarianism. Sometimes those in this group are categorized as "left" communitarians, as opposed to the previous, more "right"-leaning kind, and there is a certain logic to that usage (though I think "left" and "right" can be used to explore conservatism, and thereby separate the pure traditionalists from those of a more explicitly communitarian focus as well). More usually they have eschewed such labels altogether, and defined themselves instead as representing a "Third Way" or a "Radical Center," and in so doing have blurred to the point of indistinguishability the difference between themselves and scholars like Will Kymlicka who take community and culture seriously, but only on explicitly liberal terms. Nonetheless, even these left-leaning communitarians, by opening themselves up to necessity of tradition and attachment, usually find themselves less than instinctively supportive of modernity's project of liberation. The primary political form this moderate "illiberalism" takes is through populism--an easily abused term, but one which at its heart suggests putting real economic, moral, and political power in the hands of specific communities, or at least aligning such protective power with the popular interests of decidedly non-cosmopolitan non-elites. The right has long claimed the populist mantle, but today, as the 2008 presidential contest begins, there's more populist and communitarian rhetoric to to be found amongst the Democrats than the Republicans.

A couple of additional points. Many conservatives, and quite a few populists as well, have responded with suspicion to communitarianism in its most straightforward form, such as that articulated over the past fifteen years or so by Amitai Etzioni and others. Their primary complaint, as Christopher Lasch once put it, is that communitarianism as an ideology on its own terms is too much a creature of sociological investigation, and thus suffers from a tendency to frame its recommendations around "behavior" and "customs"--which are unreflective and static stylizations of what is actually lived out in a community--as opposed to "action" and "memory." Lasch's distinction is a little overwrought, I think, and doesn't serve his own populist agenda well, but he makes a good point: too often communitarian laws and programs clumsily aim to prop up something which has been, somehow or another, identified as important to the embeddedness of a people, failing to see that it is the context within which people can act communally that matters, and only rarely the particular form of community content. This leads to a final observation, about the association between Continental philosophy and communitarianism. It is true that the German romantic tradition, including but not limited to G.W.F. Hegel, gave rise to a phenomenological argument which asserted that knowledge, ethics and action depend upon already-existing historical and cultural horizons and materiality; this, in time, contributed to the writings of hermeneutical thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom emphasized such communal realities as language, participation, and the Volk. While there is no real sense that any of these thinkers were communitarians in the manner I have discussed them here, it is nonetheless true that, under the influence of Arendt, social and participatory democratic thinkers like Sheldon Wolin have advanced arguments that link political action with community, thus providing a good antidote to overly sociological constructions of belonging.

And me? Well, I'm a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take some forms of cultural conservatism seriously, but also one who is attached enough to romantic and socialist traditions to see virtue and equality as mutually compatible, if the playing field is democratic enough. But figuring out how to make it that way is something else entirely.

13 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

One issue that deserves investigation is the propensity of individuals to form freely chosen communities using Internet technology; it is already a trope that "Web 2.0" is all about social networking. Rather than imposing community, a strong thread running through existing communitarian philosophy, perhaps a better perspective would be to investigate how members and leaders of these freely chosen communities can operate them most efficiently and effectively.

Also, I don't see that you've given due blame (credit?) to the effects that technology and economics have had on social and political fragmentation. I strongly suspect a case could be made that political and moral philosophy is a reaction to the fragmenting effects of technology and economics, and are not at all driving the process.

Rob Jubb said...

There's this weird thing going on where I am reluctant to call myself a liberal, but have this nigh-on overwhelming urge to defend liberal political theory. Go figure.

Anyway, Locke and Kant aren't negative rights theorists. Half of Kant's examples in the Groundwork are of positive duties to act, and Locke's two provisos are easily read as creating a duty to provide people with enough goods to do at least as well they would in the state of nature. More than that, I'm just not sure what's going on in the communitarian shift from first-order moral argument to either sociological claims about how societies are sustained or a meta-ethical position which states that we need to be embedded in various particular kinds of social structures in order to make sense of our lives (and it is important that it is particular kinds of social structures). I have this sneaking suspicion it's because they lost the first-order moral argument.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Barefoot Bum,

"Rather than imposing community, a strong thread running through existing communitarian philosophy..."

I would take exception to this. Not that notions of "imposing" community aren't present in many various forms of communitarian thought, but that "imposition" can take as many different forms as that which is imposed. For example, what if the preferred community norm is supported by popular, democratic referendums? Or what if it is not so much enforced by the state, as supported by mediating institutions which the state endorses? There's a lot more to be said about the buttressing or ratification of communitarian norms than can be captured in simply talking (in a rather liberal way) about it being "imposed."

"...perhaps a better perspective would be to investigate how members and leaders of these freely chosen communities can operate them most efficiently and effectively."

This I don't disagree with at all. Philosophy aside, simple prudence dictates that in today's relatively pluralistic societies, communitarians should be "liberal," and attempt to frame the norms they support in voluntaristic terms to whatever degree possible. Anything that helps such chosen associations to express themselves better will further communitarian ends much more readily that comparable top-down solutions.

"I don't see that you've given due blame (credit?) to the effects that technology and economics have had on social and political fragmentation."

You're right; I wrote the whole post without mentioning technology once. Well, maybe the "dogma-debunking science" bit in some ways points to the role which scientific inventions have contributed to an economy of innovation and liberation, but that's pretty indirect. Especially considering that I drop Heidegger in there at the end, I really should have said more about this point. Thanks for the reminder.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob,

It's good to see you around again; I hope you're doing well.

"Locke and Kant aren't negative rights theorists. Half of Kant's examples in the Groundwork are of positive duties to act, and Locke's two provisos are easily read as creating a duty to provide people with enough goods to do at least as well they would in the state of nature."

I disagree, most particularly in regards to Locke. Locke's provisos regarding the emergence of natural (and thus presumably prior to and inviolable by the community) property rights are only "positive" in a fairly weak sense; they don't describe a duty so much as a criteria for justifying self-interested action: namely, remember to leave enough stuff for others when you're taking stuff out of nature for yourself. As for Kant, I'll grant that the Groundwork is a strongly positive text. But those transcendent positives mostly only shape subsequent ethical duties; when it comes to political matters, Kant connects the emergence of his preferred republican order to humankind's self-interested commercial appetites, governed by the rule of rational law. Still pretty contractarian by my lights.

"I'm just not sure what's going on in the communitarian shift from first-order moral argument to either sociological claims about how societies are sustained or a meta-ethical position which states that we need to be embedded in various particular kinds of social structures in order to make sense of our lives."

Well, if you're the first type of communitarian--the conservative, lamenting type--you probably make that move because of an organic or divine teleology that you hold to on the basis of revelation or natural law. If you're of the second type, your communitarianism is more sociological or anthropological, arising from Marxist or similar accounts of the history of human society (though Aristotelian republican thought carries a fair amount of that element as well). And then, of course, you could be like me--someone romantic enough to take some form of Hegel's sittlichkeit seriously, and thus see the sociology of community as also implicated in a moral ontology. None of those may be satisfying to you, but they all seem at least logical to me.

The Barefoot Bum said...

You're probably right about the prevalence of "imposition", especially in an illiberal sense, in communitarian philosophy; your experience is without a doubt considerably wider than my own.

Still, I think I'm entitled to at least mention illiberal imposition in any class of philosophy that includes fascism. ;-)

Consumatopia said...

Or what if it is not so much enforced by the state, as supported by mediating institutions which the state endorses?

If you are in a situation in which your mediating institutions are so popular that people want the law to endorse them, what is to be gained by such a legal endorsement? You run two risks--either that such an endorsement will alienate liberals against your institution, or that the power politics that dominates all governments will grow to interfere with your institution.

Maybe it's not fair to talk about communitarians imposing things, but it *is* fair to ask why they're so insistent that government support and endorse their particular community, even when it's not clear that such an endorsement provides any boost for their particular community's goals. That's especially true in social, cultural, and religious matters--endorsing one view over another by the state means there is a "winner" and a "loser", and everyone has to fight over the sacred, and how can a fight over the sacred not be to the death?

Russell Arben Fox said...

"Maybe it's not fair to talk about communitarians imposing things, but it *is* fair to ask why they're so insistent that government support and endorse their particular community, even when it's not clear that such an endorsement provides any boost for their particular community's goals."

I don't know about that lack of boosting you associate with legal endorsement, Consumatopia. Smoking bans, most of which have shown high levels of popular support, have clearly done at least as much or more to delegitimize and discourage smoking, and thus promote better health, then all the equally popular ad campaigns and such which proceeded them. While the data can be disputed, many scholars would argue that the same could probably be said about the great many value-heavy laws--no graffiti, no loitering, etc.--that were enforced in NYC and elsewhere as part of the "broken windows" thesis of policing. I'm not necessarily praising any of these policies, by the way--there are valid criticisms which can be made of all of them. I'm just suggesting that, contrary to what I read you as saying, there is strong reason to believe that, if one is serious about a healthy and/or well-ordered community, actually getting the law involved in enforcing norms can make a real difference in outcomes, at least sometimes.

As for your point about creating "winners" and "losers" in situations that could lead to greater conflict, it's well taken. I don't think that means the attempt must not, on principle, therefore ever be made, but it does provide a very strong reason for "imposing" ones communitarianism "liberally" whenever possible, as I said to Barefoot.

Consumatopia said...

I was unclear--I didn't mean that it's never useful, I mean that in some cases it's clearly not useful but there's still a desire to do it anyway--as though government endorsement of the symbolism means more than the actual prevalence of the behavior.

For example, the number of flags burned in protest nationally can usually be counted on one's fingers in most years. If we actually banned flag burning, I can assure you that this would rise. Yet, my suspicion is that for many supporters of such a ban, a situation in which the number of burners greatly increased but they were all punished by the state would be preferable to the status quo. They claim they want unity and cohesiveness, but they seem willing to trade cohesiveness for dominance.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Any moral/ethical system which is actually implemented in a social organization must accept some degree of imposition, of coercion. The question is not whether to use coercion, but how.

It seems obvious that all "communitarian" philosophies pertain to the meta-value of living in cooperative communities.

The three crucial components are the meta-values about what values should be imposed, the process for determining how these values are imposed, and the rapidity at which changes are made to "official" societal ethics.

The meta-value component pertains to such distinctions as (classical) liberalism vs. authoritarianism: Liberal meta-values are much like, "Anything not prohibited is optional"; authoritarian meta-values are much like, "Anything not compulsory is prohibited." (Even more-or-less "positive" implementations of liberal meta-values, such as welfare, serve mostly to "prohibit" living in poverty.)

The process by which individuals' values are translated into a society pertains to such distinctions as democracy vs. autocracy and between different flavors of democracy.

The rapidity of change pertains to distinctions between radicalism and (classical) conservatism.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I also think that things like smoking bans, and seat-belt and helmet laws, are nothing but a disingenuous distraction.

Perhaps these laws are a bit illiberal, but is the freedom to become addicted to a drug and delivery system which causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema really the sort of freedom we want to go to the mat to protect?

Russell Arben Fox said...

"The three crucial components are the meta-values about what values should be imposed, the process for determining how these values are imposed, and the rapidity at which changes are made to 'official' societal ethics."

This is an intriguing way of breaking down and analyzing communitarian proposals, Barefoot. I need to think about it some more, but it seems like it might a very good way of categorizing and distinguishing between distinct strands of communitarian theory. Thanks for contributing it.

"I also think that things like smoking bans, and seat-belt and helmet laws, are nothing but a disingenuous distraction. Perhaps these laws are a bit illiberal, but is the freedom to become addicted to a drug and delivery system which causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema really the sort of freedom we want to go to the mat to protect?"

On the one had, I can see your point; defending communitarian thought and action in reference to freedoms that many people don't take seriously anyway is a little easy. Harder cases might be those involving civil service or the draft, or the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or dress codes at schools, or laws obliging businesses to reflect standards of "corporate responsibility," and so forth. On the other hand, though, just because a freedom doesn't have a lot of defenders doesn't mean it can't serve to demonstrate the general point of communitarian legislation: namely, that communal norms can be and often are strengthened through the law.

The Barefoot Bum said...

[C]ommunal norms can be and often are strengthened through the law.

No argument there, nor with the implication that it can be a Good Thing to implement communal norms through law.

Since you're responding directly to me, it might be easier to refer to me by my given name.

-- Larry

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