Communitarianism, Conservatism, Populism and Localism: An Updated Survey

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Wichita, KS

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Michael Sandel’s giving of the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC (hat tip: the ever-watchful Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber) has prompted me to return to an old post of mine on communitarianism, and perhaps do some updating of what I wrote then, so as to incorporate the populist and localist ideas that I have since become more familiar with and committed to, and which I see as closely entwined with any serious attempt to think about politics in light of the well-being of families, neighborhoods, and communities. Front Porch Republic, in recent weeks, has seen much discussion of community, along with thorough considerations of such arguably communitarian forms of political economy and government as autarchy and distributism and Christian social democracy. Given all that, perhaps a review of the broad sweep of communitarian thought could provide some helpful, orienting perspective.

Sandel is not my favorite communitarian thinker (that would be Charles Taylor), but he has done as much to advance various civic republican and “common good”-style arguments in the context of political theory as probably anyone currently living, and so his thoughts deserve some consideration. In his first lecture (available for downloading here), Sandel makes the argument that the common, and easy, anti-capitalist response to our nation’s present economic woes–namely, the idea that our economic elites have behaved in an irresponsible and greedy manner–is, as he puts it, a “flawed or, at best, partial [critique].” He continues:

Looking back over three decades of market triumphalism, the most fateful change was not an increase in the incidence of greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms….[M]arkets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives….Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities, so to decide when to use markets, it’s not enough to think about efficiency; we have also to decide how to value the goods in question. Health, education, national defence, criminal justice, environmental protection and so on–these are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To decide them democratically, we have to debate case by case the moral meaning of these goods in the proper way of valuing. This is the debate we didn’t have during the age of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realising it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

It is easy, of course, to be cynical about such state; one could snark, as one on-line commenter did, that Sandel isn’t saying anything was wasn’t being said in the ninth century A.D., and even then it wasn’t new. But so what–so what if communitarian reflections tend to question methods of individual liberation, and emphasize the irreducibility of goods which are created and appreciated collectively and historically, and thus end up being, well, “conservative”? Old-fashioned, even. Stodgy, perhaps. It doesn’t seem to me that such stodginess prevents one from being able to recognize and take action on behalf of social concerns, both local and otherwise. Indeed, community-minded conservatives can be, and often are, the most radical of thinkers, in the sense of their ability to look past the obvious material benefits of consumer economies which separate out, meritocratically train, and enable individuals to specialize along their own preferred lines, and instead to insist upon the enduring quality of those things and relationships which are concomitant to groups, spread out over a particular place or a span of time, acting on behalf of something larger than themselves. But perhaps we need to get clear on our terms first.

Like “liberalism,” “communitarianism” can refer to both an ideology–a set of more or less organized set of claims or ideas about political positions and actions–and a philosophy. The range of arguments and proposals that can be plausibly identified as “philosophically communitarian” is, I think, 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 and dogma-debunking science in the context of an increasingly rambunctious public sphere, with a skepticism of royal, church, and ultimately government authority which followed. Of course “liberty” (though Lew Daly would probably prefer to say “freedom” here) 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 the same 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.

This is where things become particular interesting (or difficult, if you prefer) for populists and localists, or those sympathetic to such: do they insist upon a restrictive definition of community (as Jason Peters and Katherine Dalton do) as a specifically localized and peopled place, and deny the kind of thinking which suggests the applicability of orienting oneself towards an attendance upon cultural and collective norms which emerge from contexts other than extended families and small towns as having anything to do with “real” communities at all? Or do they (as I suggested in connection with public schooling) acknowledge there can be spheres of collective action and feeling that include broader, more “public” groups than those aforementioned, intimate ones, which would mean that the communitarian critique can be made use of in a diversity of settings–include, perhaps, even national ones? If the former approach is taken, then the very idea of communitarianism as anything other than an ontological category, much less as something sufficiently grounded as to be able to suggest moral and political possibilities at our present moment, seems ludicrous: Christopher Lasch’s old (I think somewhat unfair, but not entirely inaccurate) condemnation of communitarianism as too broad, too concerned in a sociological sense with “humanity” to be able to provide the specific judgments needed to revive the virtues that political freedom and economic security depend upon, would seem to be conclusive. But I suspect the latter approach can work as well–assuming that one can recognize and distinguish between the types of communitarian thinking one engages in.

Michael Walzer 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 sovereign and independent 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 types, 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 types: if nothing else, recognizing them can help us humbly consider how much communal sensibility and appreciation for the public good the modern West has lost–even in its current nation-state (or post-nation-state!) contexts–and it is valuable to see how much of that sensibility nonetheless still haunts our moral and political thinking.

Assuming we can use communitarian labels in this broader way, who amongst philosophers and writers would fit with which perspective? On the basis of my own reading of them, I would describe Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert Nisbet as communitarians of the former sort. (The residents of Front Porch Republic might insist that Berry would have no part of this, preferring instead to see his arguments as operating solely within the explicitly restrictive understanding of community mentioned above; however, if that were the case, then one might be a little hard-pressed to explain his not unoccasional willingness to recommend clearly “communitarian” command reforms of the national economy, and his wistfulness for ambitious New Deal-era efforts to preserve collective control over regional economies, such as through the Burley Tobacco Program.) On the other hand, Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and Walzer himself would be in the second camp–though it should be noted that, in any case, almost none of these people would use ever the word “communitarian” to describes themselves politically or economically.

And “conservatism”? Well, the ontological supports that advocates of these various communitarian critiques have philosophically drawn upon 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, it seems to me that the more a person’s criticism of liberal modernity is based on conceptions of the natural world or revealed religion, the more likely it is to be “conservative” in the political sense, and thus tending towards the first type of generally applicable communitarian thought. 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 many advocates of traditional marriage and gender roles, opponents of artistic expressions and media that ignore local values, supporters of protectionism 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, until the most recent election, perhaps, Republicans trawling all too successfully for votes. 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.

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, I think, 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, more political theorists will be familiar with: Sandel, of course, but also 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 (probably rightly, I think) associate with conservatism and (probably wrongly, I think) religious and political 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 both “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, and in that sense, they are friends to FPR types.

(For those inclined to ponder things in light of the whole history of philosophy, one more philosophical note, having to do with the association between what has been come to be called “Continental” philosophy (as distinguished from the predominantly liberal, Anglo-American tradition from Locke on down) 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 and others have advanced arguments that link political action with community, thus providing a good antidote to overly sociological constructions of belonging.)

Where does this survey leave me? Well, I’m most fundamentally a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take many forms of cultural and social 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.

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