Community AND Liberty OR Individualism AND Statism


(What follows is the text of the remarks that I delivered at the recently concluded I.S.I. Honors Program. The conference was entitled “The Language of Liberty”).

Fells Point, Baltimore.  A narrative today dominates our political landscape that poses liberty as defined by classical liberalism against the collectivism of “progressive” liberalism or Statism.

One might reasonably conclude that, when it comes to “the Language of Liberty,” liberty seems – like Americans – to speak only one language. Thus, if we confine ourselves to one language, this narrative seems compelling enough as far as it goes. But it is, in the end, a severely limited “language,” even one that finally leads us to an incomplete and even mistaken set of conclusions about the relationship between individualism and collectivism. I’d like to see if we can’t expand our vocabulary a bit, and even suggest that a more appropriate name for this conference might be “the Languages of Liberties.”

By expanding our consideration to a different understanding of liberty, we change our position somewhat and see with more clarity that, what looks from our current position like a deep antipathy between individualism and Statism, is in point of fact something more of a continuity and logical progression. Without the addition of a distinct understanding of liberty to that of classical liberalism, from close up, all that we can discern are the opposite features of the two dominant political views of our day. By expanding our vista, however, we can better discern their relatedness, and propose that a true alternative is not between these siblings, but between a false choice of these two ideologies and a true choice between distinct and competing ideas of the very nature of liberty itself.

While there are a number of thinkers who can aid us in this expansion of our vocabulary, one thinker I wish today to highlight is one of the most penetrating and prescient of the mid-twentieth century conservative authors, the sociologist Robert Nisbet. I will have recourse to some of his powerful insights in his 1953 book The Quest for Community – recently re-issued by ISI Books – as well as his later 1975 book Twilight of Authority. Nisbet’s key insight, variously articulated, was that Statism is a logical and even inevitable consequence of individualism – and thus, that the apparently opposite and conflicting philosophies of classical liberalism and progressive liberalism are actually inseparable. If this is the case, to seek to combat iterations of collectivism by appeal to the individualistic principles of classical liberalism is to be engaged in the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.

At the heart of Nisbet’s analysis is the following claim – human beings are by nature social and relational creatures, and that modern liberalism begins with a set of assumptions that contradict that reality. In so doing, the assumption of anthropological individualism at the heart of liberalism, and the practical realization of individualism in the world, deforms the human person. It is this deformation – particularly the evisceration of a thick set of identities embedded in a variety of groups, whether family, community, polity, church, or any other of other institutions and organizations – that fosters the conditions that makes collectivism an attractive and even inevitable alternative. Without the rise of individualism, the rise of collectivism is inconceivable. To take recourse to an important image from an essay by Leo Strauss, the two philosophies represent major “waves” of modern thought – and, like waves, one forms from the material that preceded it onto the shore.

Before exploring this dynamic in more detail, let me first contrast two competing understandings of liberty, one largely developed in the ancient and Christian world, and the other centrally developed in the early-modern period by, among others, the philosopher John Locke. Both claim the “language of liberty,” but if one is true, the other is false, but, importantly too, it is only from the perspective of ancient liberty that one can see more clearly the close relationship between the individualism of classical liberalism and the collectivism of progressive liberalism.

Modern liberalism begins not – as might be believed if we were to follow the narrative of contemporary discourse – not in opposition to Statism or Progressivism, but rather in explicit and intense rejection of ancient political thought and especially its basic anthropological assumptions. Hobbes, among others, is frequently explicit in his criticisms of both Aristotle and “the Scholastics” – that Catholic philosophy particularly influenced by Aquinas, who was of course particularly influenced by Aristotle. Modern liberal theory thus began with an explicit rejection of Aristotelian/Thomist anthropology.

According to Aristotle, and later further developed by Thomas Aquinas, man is by nature a social and political animal – which is to say, that humans only become human in the context of polities and society. Shorn of such relations, the biological creature “human” was not actually a fully realized human – not able to achieve the telos of the human creature, a telos that required law and culture, cultivation and education, and hence, society and tradition. Thus, Aristotle was able to write (and Aquinas after him essentially repeated) that “the city is prior to the family and the individual” – not, of course, temporally, but in terms of the primacy of wholes to parts. To use a metaphor common to both the ancients and in the Biblical tradition, the body as a whole “precedes” in importance any of its constitutive parts: without the body, neither the hand, nor foot, nor any other part of the body is viable.

Within human societies, to the extent that humans are able to develop true and flourishing individuality, it is only by means of political society and its constitutive groups and associations, starting of course with the family. An essential component of our capacity to achieve human flourishing is our learned ability to place ourselves under rule and law. At first, as children, we are expected to obey because of the claims of authority – we follow rules and law because we are told to do so by our elders. As we grow in maturity and self-knowledge, we assume the responsibility of self-government – ideally in a form that is continuous between the individual and the city. For the ancients, liberty is the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world.
The various practices by which we exercise self-limitation and self-governance is comprehensively called virtue. By contrast, for the ancients, the inability or unwillingness to exercise virtue was tantamount to the absence of liberty. The unbridled or even extensive pursuit of appetite led necessarily to a condition of servitude and even slavery – slavery to one’s passions. Thus, for the ancients, law was not an unnatural imposition of humanity’s natural freedom; rather, law (ideally, a self-imposed law) was the necessary and enabling condition for liberty.

(This idea of liberty is certainly not unknown in more recent times, though it is rarely articulated. One can find it, for instance, beautifully stated in the second verse of Katherine Lee Bates hymn “America the Beautiful”:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!)

The ancients emphasized the necessity of an appropriate scale in which such human flourishing could take place. First, the experience of law must necessarily be close, not distant, and must ideally be experienced as a form of self-governance. The more distant and impersonal the promulgation of law, the more it would necessarily be experienced as an external and even unnatural imposition upon me, and a divide would open between law and liberty (government “out there”). Additionally, the larger the scale, the law would fall generally and categorically upon a variety of circumstances, thus tending to inherent injustice as the natural variety and distinctivenss of human arrangements would be ignored or dismissed. Further, a large scale also lent itself to the anonymity and corresponding forms of irresponsibility (think of nature of anonymous commentary on many websites), while undermining the kinds of trust and responsibility that were required to foster a sense of gratitude and corresponding obligation between generations. Another consideration was that large scale political entities tended to aim at national or imperial greatness and wealth, and thus tended to stoke and tempt the appetites and undermine the inculcation of virtue. Ancient theory thus centrally considered the appropriate scale in which liberty as the practice of self-government through virtue could be realized. Liberty, so conceived, could only be realized in a small and local setting.

For the ancients, the highest aim of society was the flourishing of the free, self-governing individual and the achievement of our particular capacities – our talents and abilities – but such “individuality” could only achieved through the auspices of our political and social relationships. Thus, even as we might flourish in our particular gifts, we are simultaneously obligated to acknowledge that such gifts have their source in and through the contributions of our community. The achievement of our full humanity is necessarily appropriately accompanied by a disposition of gratitude, and a corresponding assumption of obligation to proffer the same prospects for future generations. Thus, while classical philosophy – especially Aristotelian and Thomistic iterations – extolled the condition of achieving the condition of a free individual, it was a philosophy that could be confused as aiming at “individualism.” The properly cultivated individual can never be conceived, much less experience, a wholly separate relationship to his community. It is incorrect to suppose that ancient thought denied a place for “liberty” or the aspiration to achieving distinct forms of individuality, but the context and definition of each differs considerably from contemporary understandings.

*** *** ***

Liberal theory fiercely attacked this fundamental assumptions about human nature. Hobbes and Locke alike – for all their differences – begin by conceiving humans by nature not as parts of wholes, but as wholes apart. We are by nature “free and independent,” naturally ungoverned and even non-relational. There is no ontological reality accorded to groups of any kind – as Bertrand de Jounvenel quipped about social contractarianism, it was a philosophy conceived by “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods.” Liberty is a condition in which there is a complete absence of government and law, and “all is right” – that is, everything that can be willed by an individual can be done. Even if this condition is posited to show its unbearableness or untenability, the definition of natural liberty posited in the “state of nature” becomes a regulative ideal – liberty is ideally the ability of the agent to do whatever he likes. In contrast to ancient theory, liberty is the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites, while government is a conventional and unnatural limitation upon our natural liberty.

For both Hobbes and Locke, we enter into a social contract not only to secure our survival, but to make the exercise of our liberty more secure. Both Hobbes and Locke – but especially Locke – understand that liberty in our pre-political condition is limited not only by the lawless competition of other individuals, but by the limitations that a recalcitrant and hostile nature imposes upon us. A main goal of Locke’s philosophy especially is actually to expand the prospects for our liberty – defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites – now through the auspices of the State. We come to accept the terms of the Social Contract because its ultimate effect will actually increase our personal liberty by expanding the capacity of human control over the natural world. Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty, by which he means our liberation from the constraints imposed by the natural world.

Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual “creates” the State through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal State “creates” the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, now defined increasingly as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over nature. Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the State, – as so much of modern political reporting would suggest – liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection between the liberal ideal of liberty that can only be realized through the auspices of a powerful State. The State does not merely serve as a referee between contesting individuals; in securing our capacity to engage in productive activities, especially commerce, the State establishes a condition in reality that existed in theory only in the State of Nature – that is, the ever-increasing achievement of the autonomous, freely-choosing individual. Rather than the State acting as an impediment to the realization of our individuality, the State becomes the main agent of our liberation from the limiting conditions in which humans have historically found themselves.

Thus, one of the main roles of the liberal State becomes the active liberation of individuals from any existing limiting conditions. At the forefront of liberal theory is the liberation from limitations imposed by nature upon the achievement of our desires –one of the central aims of life, according to Locke, being the “indolency of the body.” A main agent in that liberation becomes commerce, the expansion of opportunities and materials by which to realize not only existing desires, but even to create new ones that we did not yet know we had. One of its earliest functions is to support that basic role it assumes in extending the conquest of nature. The State becomes charged with extending and expanding the sphere of commerce, particularly enlarging the range of trade and production and mobility (e.g., Constitution positively charges Congress with “to promote the Progress of sciences and useful arts.” (“Progressivism” already in the Constitution). The expansion of markets and the attendant infrastructure necessary for that expansion is not, and cannot be, the result of “spontaneous order”; rather, an extensive and growing State structure is necessary to achieve that expansion, even at times to force recalcitrant or unwilling participants in that system into submission (see, for instance, J.S. Mill’s recommendation in Considerations on Representative Government that the enslavement of “backward” peoples can be justified if they are forced to lead productive economic lives.).

One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of otherwise embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships. The liberal State serves not only the “negative” (or reactive) function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; simultaneously it also takes on a “positive” (that is to say, active) role of “liberating” individuals who, in the view of the liberal State, are prevented from making the wholly free choices of liberal agents. At the heart of liberalism is the supposition that the individual is the basic unit of human existence, the only natural human entity that exists. If liberal theory posits the existence of such individuals in an imaginary “state of nature,” liberal practice – beginning, but not limited to the rise of commerce – seeks to expand the conditions for the realization of the individual. The individual is to be liberated from all the partial and limiting affiliations that pre-existed the liberal state, if not by force (though that may at times be necessary), then by constantly lowering the costs and barriers to exit. The State lays claim to govern all groupings within the society – it is the final arbiter of legitimate and illegitimate groupings, and from its point of view, the only ontological realities are the individual and the State. (for evidence of this fact, consider the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan). Eventually the State lays claim to set up its own education system to ensure that children are not overly shaped by family, religion or any particular community; through its legal and police powers, it will occasionally forces open “closed” communities as soon as one person claims some form of unjust assertion of authority or limits upon individual freedom; it even regulates what is regarded to be legitimate and illegitimate forms of religious worship. Marriage is a bond that must be subject to its definition. A vast and intrusive centralized apparatus is established not to oppress the population, but rather to actively ensure the liberation of individuals from any forms of constitutive groups or supra-individual identity. Thus, any organizations or groups or communities that lay claim to more substantive allegiance will be subject to State sanctions and intervention (e.g., Belmont Abbey College), but this oppression will be done in the name of the liberation of the individual. Any allegiance to sub-national groups, associations or communities come to be redefined not as inheritances, but as memberships of choice with very low if any costs to exit. Modern liberals are to be pro-choice in every respect; one can limits one’s own autonomy¸ but only if one has chosen to do so, and generally only if one can revise one’s choice at a later date – which means, in reality, one hasn’t really limited one’s autonomy at all. All choices are fungible, alterable, and reversible. The vow “til death do us part” is subtly but universally amended – and understood – to mean, “or until we choose otherwise.”

*** *** ***

Various forms of Statism thus arise quite logically from these basic aspects of the liberal system. Progressive philosophy agrees fundamentally with the liberal vision of the liberation of the individual from all partial and mediating institutions, but eventually comes to include the State itself as one of those partial and limiting associations. This follows with iron and inevitable logic: if the State is the creation of individuals, then eventually the State itself needs to be abolished to achieve the thoroughgoing liberty of the individual from all partial associations. Marxism’s dream of the “withering away of the State” is a logical extension of the trajectory of liberalism.

It is here that Robert Nisbet notices some additional relationships between the two. It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind’s social life have been eviscerated – when the individual experiences himself as an individual – that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism’s successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been “their own” and the increasing realization of the “individual” made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era. The idea that we could supercede all particular attachments and achieve a kind of “cosmic consciousness” or experience of our “species being” was a direct consequence of the lived experience of individualism. Locke is the midwife to Marx, in a manner of speaking.

Nisbet also notes the psychological conditions arising from liberalism’s unfolding that also give rise to a longing for collectivism. He argued that collectivism arises as a reaction against the atomization of liberalism. The active dissolution of traditional human communities and institutions provokes a violent reaction in which a basic human need – “the quest for community” – is no longer being met. As naturally “political” or “social” creatures, we long for thick and rich set of constitutive bonds that necessarily shape a fully-formed human being. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture – and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon our autonomy – we seek membership and belonging, and a form of extended self-definition, through the only legitimate form of organization available to liberal man – the State. Nisbet saw the modern rise of Fascism and Communism as the predictable consequence of the early-modern liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities – shorn of those memberships, modern liberal man became susceptible to the quest for belonging now to distant and abstract State entities. In turn, those political entities offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of those memberships that they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious membership, now in the Church of the State itself. Our “community” was now to be a membership of countless fellow humans who held in common an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation and isolation. It would provide for our wants and needs; all that was asked in return was sole allegiance to the State and partial and even the elimination of any allegiance to any other intermediary entity. To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted. Thus Nisbet concludes – following a basic insight of Alexis de Tocqueville: “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth-century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”

Lastly, collectivism arises logically from classical liberalism out of sheer necessity. Having shorn human ties to the vast web of intermediating institutions that sustained people through good and bad times, the expansion of the experience of individualism renders humans bereft of recourse to those traditional places of support and sustenance. The more individuated the polity, the more likely that a mass of individuals will inevitably turn to the State for help in times of need. This observation – made before Nisbet most powerfully by Tocqueville – suggests that individualism is not the alternative to Statism, but its very cause. As Tocqueville wrote in v. 2, bk. iv, ch. 3 of Democracy in America,

Since … no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each [person] is at once independent and weak. These two states – which must neither be viewed separately nor confused – give the citizen of democracies very contrary instincts. His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, the need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. In this extremity, he naturally turns his regard to the immense being [the tutelary, bureaucratic, centralized State] that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement. His needs and above all his desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness.” (644)

Far from fundamentally opposing one another, the individualism arising from the philosophy of classical liberalism and the subsequent philosophy of collectivism have been mutually reinforcing. Indeed, they have powerfully combined to all but rout the vestiges of the ancient conception of virtue as a practice or even an option. Today’s classical liberals and progressive liberals remain locked in a battle for their preferred end-game – whether we will be a society of ever more perfectly liberated, autonomous individuals or ever more egalitarian members of the global “community,” but while this debate continues apace, the two sides agree on essential means to achieve their distinct ends, thus combining in a pincer movement to destroy the vestiges of the classical practices and virtues that they both despise.

To the extent that modern “conservatism” has embraced the arguments of classical liberalism, the actions and policies of its political actors have never failed to actively undermine those areas of life that “conservatives” claim to seek to defend. Partly this is due to drift, but more worringly, it is due to the increasingly singular embrace by many contemporary Americans – whether liberal or “conservative” – of a modern definition of liberty that consists in doing as one likes through the conquest of nature, rather than the achievement of self-governance within the limits of our nature and the natural world. Unless we recover a different, older, and better definition and language of liberty, our future is more likely than not to be one not of final liberation of the individual, but our accustomed and deeply pernicious oscillation between the atomization of our Lockean individualism and the cry to be taken care of by the only remaining entity that is left standing in the liberal settlement, the State. If we care about liberty, we need rather to attend to our states and localities, our communities and neighborhoods, our families and Churches, making them viable alternatives and counterpoints to the monopolization of individual and State in our time, and thus to relearn the ancient virtue of self-government.


  1. Well done. See also:

    1. Michel Foucault on neoliberal governmentality, and
    2. Phillip Blond on Red Toryism

  2. Excellent piece. This closely mirrors some stuff I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship between libertarianism and modern liberalism/progressivism, which is that both philosophies hold that the central purpose of government is to maximize liberty; they just disagree over the means to that end (libertarianism says that goal is best achieved through the “spontaneous order” of the free market, whereas progressivism says that goal can only be achieved when the state actively works to “level the playing field”). Anyway, I now see why they’re both related in this fashion: Because, as your article pointed put, both philosophies begin with individualist presuppositions. Everything else just follows logically and naturally from that starting point.

    Question: Any idea how all of this fits with the classical republican view of liberty as the absence of arbitrary coercion?

  3. Profound, hugely significant essay. I have bookmarked it and saved it — and will be forwarding it and referencing it a lot in the future, I am sure.

    Your essay reinforces the things I learned by reading Thad McCotter’s book, Seize Freedom! (which was published by ISI Books, by the way). McCotter has much to say about the crucial importance of “mediating institutions.”

  4. I agree that this is profound… knida the culmination of stuff I’ve been reading on this and related sites.

    Coming from a cosmopolitan-libertarian perspective, I have a number of objections; it’s hard to decide which are most productive and easiest to explain.

    1) This essay ends with the suggestion that there is hope for a revival of this classical conceptions of politics. However, most of this essay seems to suggest that such ideas are effectively dead, and otherwise completely disconnected from modern society. Despite a long tradition of criticizing the atomization of liberal capitalist society (it was a major part of the communist critiques from the late 19th century), liberal capitalism has become increasingly influential. We’ve gone through a few centuries of this increasing atomization, including the Great Depression and WWII…and we seem to have come to terms with it, or at least figured out how to manage.

    2) This argument for the classical conception of society seems to depend upon the reader having a particular emotional temperament (e.g. “we long for thick and rich set of constitutive bonds that necessarily shape a fully-formed human being”) and believing that all people share that temperament. However, people are different from each other, and many of us may very well prefer a cosmopolitan life (with long-distance relationships to a number of people who may not know each other) over the more provincial life championed in this essay. Even for those who are dissatisfied with modern cosmopolitanism, if given the choice they may still reject the small-town life (and the virtues of early civilization) in favor of a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

    I suppose that the answer to each of these concerns rests with whether it is realistic (and worthwhile) to live this life of ancient virtue in the midst of modern society. Can you get by with evading and ignoring the state (and large-scale capitalism), or do you need to win influence over those institutions in order to have the community that you want?

  5. I’m not of Ricketson’s stated bent, but taking off on his questions, how do community and liberty become something more than choices within a liberal framework? How shall the state be persuaded to abandon its claims to omnicompotence and to permit meditative institutions to limit individual freedoms?

  6. “and we seem to have come to terms with it, or at least figured out how to manage.”

    Managing through the pursuit of empty diversions and pleasures? (Plus the distortion of what forms of friendships that remain, including an exaggerated companionate notion of marriage.) The current state of affairs is possible only with the abundance of cheap energy.

  7. The ancient notion of ‘liberty’ (libertas from the adjective liber) literally just means unshackled or unimpeded in the sense of free, i.e. a non-slave. There is really nothing of the modern abstraction of ‘liberty’ that we today here libertarians prattle on about. (See the entry for ‘liber’ in the extended Lewis and Short.)

    Mind you, however, that the ancient idea of community was quite ethnocentric. The notion of nation or tribe (from nasci) implied a link by blood.

    As Aristotle noted: “A state cannot be constituted from any chance body of persons, or in any chance period of time. Most of the states which have admitted persons of another stock, either at the time of their foundation or later, have been troubled by sedition.”

  8. Mind you, too, there might be an evo-bio explanation why Europeans or Diaspora Europeans are more individualistic than others. The colder, isolated environment of Europe might have encouraged selection for traits able to cope with such an environment. That said, contra haec, others who evolved in colder environments don’t seem to have the same individualism and prior to modern times Western-derived people seemed to be more tribalistic / ethnocentric than they are today. Cochran & Harpending (10,000 Year Explosion) entertain idea that different environments (not only climatic differences but civilizational as well) might have influenced gene selection for different traits (e.g. individualism, cooperation, aggression, etc.).

  9. Many interesting points in this article but I have a few questions. How are you going to achieve your ends? Through the same government you deplore in this article? Wouldn’t a return to a small community based government be best served through cutting the Federal Government’s power down to size or gasp!!! abolish it? I am a libertarian and I don’t believe the government should expand liberty, that is not a common belief most libertarians believe in at least the ones I have met and talked to and all the periodicals I read never tout “Government has to force liberty on people”, I don’t know where you got that one, unless it was from something the Cato institute published. I would like a return to small communities and neighbors helping neighbors but it wasn’t libertarianism that has led to this down fall but New Deal Statism and Federal Reserve Central Banking, one can say this stemmed from “Classical Liberalism” like this article says but I really didn’t see any of those theories in all the reading and research I have done on FDR and the New Deal, it seemed him and his “Brain Trust” thought the opposite, I really don’t see how you can tie socialism and classical liberalism together, there was alot of logical and phiosophical somersaults in this article. The Centralizing of authority has shattered and reshaped the economy into the disgusting shapes we see today. Wouldn’t a return to community and local values best be served by slashing the central authorities power?

  10. “our accustomed and deeply pernicious oscillation”

    Does the fact that it has become so accustomed hint that this oscillation might actually be the “thing” to conserve? Or the natural state of affairs? I am not a historian, but I am struggling to come up with a place or an era that can be used as evidence of this “ancient virtue of self-government.” Who lived this life? The people of Walnut Grove? Athens? Sparta?

    Have we given up on this struggle, or are we in the midst of it?

  11. “Managing through the pursuit of empty diversions and pleasures?”

    T. Chan, I agree that many people squander their lives on foolish pursuits, and that our current economic system is probably unsustainable. I also don’t see how this is really relevant to the topic of this essay … as if a “thick set of identities embedded in a variety of groups” prevents people from pursing wealth, luxury, and status. People were foolish and greedy long before the rise of liberal individualism.

    This enui that you observe is hardly the type of crisis that will drive people to revisit fundamental political philosophy. It may drive some people to religion, or to restructuring their lives in other ways, but there’s no sign of any great revival on the horizon.

    Likewise, its presence in no way indicates that we are moving towards greater collectivism. This condition has been the norm in post-WWII western society, yet they have all become less collectivist during that period.

    While we on this topic, the notion that liberalism culminates in totalitarian regimes such as Fascism and Communism (which is repeatedly suggested by this essay, though not explicitly stated) is completely at odds with history. Fascism was defeated over 60 years ago, and there is little sign of its resurgence. What’s worse, the success of these ideologies did not correlate with the liberalism or individualism of a society. England was typically viewed as the most individualistic European society, yet it did not become Fascist. My impression is that Spain and Italy were among the more conservative and community-oriented societies in Europe (same for Japan, when compared to Europe). As for Communism… Russia was probably the most illiberal part of Europe at that time.

    “He argued that collectivism arises as a reaction against the atomization of liberalism.”

  12. Ricketson:

    “I agree that many people squander their lives on foolish pursuits, and that our current economic system is probably unsustainable. I also don’t see how this is really relevant to the topic of this essay … as if a “thick set of identities embedded in a variety of groups” prevents people from pursing wealth, luxury, and status. People were foolish and greedy long before the rise of liberal individualism.”

    I leave it to Professor Deneen to define identity. I think it is not simply intellectual but also volitional, and I would talk not only about identities (and roles) apart from duties and virtues. I don’t think Professor Deneen intends to make such a separation. If identity is tied to the virtuous exercise of a role, then yes, it is a bulwark against the pursuit of vice. Identity formation must be a part of moral formation.

    “This enui that you observe is hardly the type of crisis that will drive people to revisit fundamental political philosophy. It may drive some people to religion, or to restructuring their lives in other ways, but there’s no sign of any great revival on the horizon.”

    I didn’t claim that it would lead to a fundamental reform of the political economy. I was merely pointing out that people seem to be ok with the lack of community/friendships because they’ve turned to other pursuits to occupy themselves. The ongoing economic crisis may lead to reform; an energy crisis may strengthen the impetus for reform, or things may just get worse.

  13. The “language of liberty” was the topic of a post at the Freedom Democrats blog a couple of years ago. Taking from “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer, four American “libertarian” traditions were identified:

    1) The “ordered liberty” of the New England puritans (collective liberty, individual liberties, soul liberty and freedom from tyranny of circumstance)

    2) The “hegemonic liberty” of the Virginia Cavaliers (the power to rule over lesser men)

    3) The “rights of an Englishman” for the Pennsylvania quakers (property, vote, and jury trials)

    4) The “natural liberty” of Backcountry Scotch-Irish (both anarchic and conformist)

    The liberty described in this essay reminds me most of the Puritan concept, though it may also have a bit to do with the Quaker concept.

  14. This essay is critical to the diagnosis of white Americans’ unwillingness to defend themselves both from internal ethnic violence and legal discrimination and from an ethnic southern invasion. To white most Americans, it is not legitimate to think of themselves as members of an ethnic group, although they are being attacked as such. Perhaps the attacks will result in the re-creation of white America, as the African-American identity was created in opposition to slavery and Jim Crow.

  15. Patrick, very thought-provoking, as always.

    Some questions, though:

    1) “Justice” does no make an appearance at all in your essay. But don’t we have to talk about it? Humans do desire thick connections, eg, but they desire justice, also–more so, perhaps. Don’t we have to reckon with the actual nature of those thick communities of yore–from plantations, to small towns, to factory towns–in terms of their promotion of or violation of justice (“rights”)? Isn’t that relevant, and hasn’t it also played a huge role in delegitimating these communites, and enhancing the power of the state?

    2) Economy: Aren’t economic factors more important than the state in separating individuals from their communities–going all the way back, on this continent, to those Puritans who “hived off,” breaking covenant with church and town for better prospects . . . in the Connecticut Valley? The state is sometimes implicated in this–government contracts in shipbuilding, aviation, defense, eg, entice people away from home–but the government also helps people stay rooted–agricultural subsidies, mortgage programs, etc.

    3) Isn’t the prime engine of government growth war, not individualism? See,eg, Randolph Bourne on that.

    4) Why is it that many of the most traditional people–with strong attachments to place, family, church–are the ones with the most intense devotion to the State, especially the military? Why is it that rootless cosmopolitans, with few thick connections, are apathetic about the State and uninterested in military service?

    5) Did the individualism of 19th c. Europe really produce attachment to fascism, eg? Didn’t the Nazis begin as a voluntary association, with thick connections among them? Didn’t they then proceed to destroy state institutions (the Reichstag, eg), and co-opt traditional loyalties to unions, churches, etc. (rather than replace them utterly)? What about czarist Russia? Not a land of rampant individualism in the 19th c., its collectivism was forced on it through terror. Or think of S. Hussein’s Iraq: a very strong collectivist State existing side by side with thick communities of tribe, mosque, neighborhood, town . . . How do those examples fit your thesis?

  16. Allan Carlson has argued that war is a means for the government to revolutionize society, so it is not mutually exclusive with rootless cosmopolitanism.

  17. Anymouse, there’s something to that, of course. But it’s actually a far more mixed bag than is often appreciated.

    The major revolution in our society–and here I agree with Patrick–was the adoption of the Constitution, but that was in no way engineered by means of war. In fact, many of the patriots of ’76 saw the Constitution as a betrayal of the Revolution.

    The Civil War, while revolutionary in many profound ways, was anything but a means to permanently bind individuals to the state. If you look at tax receipts, number of men under arms, war budget, government employees, or even federal intrusiveness in state affairs, all those indicators fell sharply after the war.

    And we might point too to the Vietnam War, which resulted in the end of the draft–a significant reduction in the power of the State over individuals.

  18. Re: Most of the states which have admitted persons of another stock, either at the time of their foundation or later, have been troubled by sedition.”

    Genetics and linguistics disagrees wth Aristotle, in his own time and place. Far from being racially pure the ancient Greeks were an admixture of Indo-Europeans and whatever native peoples were present in the lower Balkans when they arrived.

  19. Along with admiration at a particularly astute essay, I am wondering if Prof. Deneen realizes the magnitude and even practical repercussions of his article. This article is, in a word, seditious, or at least a disavowal of the effective “Basic Law” of American governance today. Prof. Deneen puts himself outside of this Basic Law—not its intellectual history certainly, nor its founding fathers and generations, but outside the rubrics of the American regime. The social contract, as well as the proposition nation, is both policy and the religio, and I know whereof I speak. In the U.S. today, there are two acceptable positions in polis discourse—classical individualism and progressive collectivism. As such, Prof. Deneen might as well be Jonathan Boucher.

    Despite the ability to call upon threads of American history in support—and there are such threads—perhaps it would also be useful to simply recall that the roots of the American Basic Law also run deep. James Wilson, with as good a pedigree as a founder as any, states: “The dread and redoubtable sovereign, when traced to his ultimate and genuine source, has been found, as he ought to have been found, in the free and independent man.” Perhaps Prof. Deneen could interpret this as an early attempt to engender the United States as the first micro-cosmopole. In Chisholm v. Georgia, Chief Justice Wilson characterized the State as a mere convention while Man a creation of God. Certainly Wilson’s early endeavour failed with the 11th Amendment, but it eventually succeeded in light of the outcomes of the American Civil War.

    There are two questions that I would like to pose to Prof. Deneen:

    First, why is it necessary to speak in the language of liberty at all, if, as one may surmise, some would like to break the described nonsensical paradigm of mistaking and arguing two different aspects of the same ideology, and calling it politics? Why not talk of the Good, virtue, a just order, life, identity, etc…? Rather than freedom?

    It would be exceptionally problematic to try to inject into the lingua franca a new definition of liberty—that Ancient/Catholic notions of freedom are in reality true freedom. The modern definition has all the horns of the Steropticon at its disposal; and, after all, freedom suggests, even to me, “the absence of restraint.” As such, following Prof. Weaver’s maxim that an argument from definition wins out over an argument from circumstance every time, why talk about freedom at all if one wishes to change the discourse?

    The second question I would pose in what way is the classic definition of Man different from that of Fascism? Fascism seems to posit that men only become themselves in association with others through the medium of the state. If Sergio Panunzio rejects statolatry, and says that the state exists to promote “richest possible development of both individual and social forces” (as quoted by Prof. A.J. Gregor), is this not Prof. Deneen’s classical definition too? If not, then in what way are they different? More interestingly, if it is similar, then how and to what extent did Fascists fail their own project?

  20. This is an excellent essay. A riff tying together Aristotle, Aquinas, Polanyi and MacIntyre to name but a few important thinkers. It reminds me of Phillip Mirowski’s and Dieter Plehwe’s argument in their book “The Road From Mont Pelerin” that Neo-Liberalism’s libertarian aim to move democracy into the marketplace and away from the State depends upon Neo-Liberal’s seizing and maintaining control of the State, not letting it wither away. Of course, as we are all slowly beginning to realize after the Great Sub-Prime Crash it was always a silly idea to believe that democracy in the marketplace for the majority of us would not be very limited. Free to choose price and quality and move jobs occasionally hardly addresses the wide range of issues we need to deal with. Issues such as, how to create an automatic stabilizer so that incomes keep pace with productivity and profits, how to stop other countries imposing a tariff on home country job creation by currency rigging and other subsidy devices and perhaps most important of all how to stop another Great Crash because the Invisible Hand has increasingly become that of a Cat-Burglar.

  21. Rocklibertywarrior needs to reread the article if he/she does not think that libertarianism does not have blood on its hands . Libertarianism is up over its ass in this mess.

  22. *First off, I apologize but I haven’t read the previous comments, so this comment most likely won’t be contributing to this thread.

    I just recently discovered FPR, and just yesterday read this essay (which I greatly enjoyed by the way). I have a brief observation:

    I won’t go into exactly how I arrived there (I don’t even remember at this point, frankly–gotta love the internet!) but this morning I came upon something that I just had to post here. It has to do with the “transhumanism” movement? I don’t know much about this site so maybe you guys have talked about it at some point. Before today I’d read a little about it a few years ago (via Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and proponent of this sort of thing. As well as, in my opinion, a demon in disguise. I guess I should say his ideas are demonic. There’s no other word for it). Anyway, it’s a movement that, if I think about it too much, seriously depresses, frustrates, and scares me to no end. To say the least.

    The Wikipedia page describes it as “an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Yeah, to “eliminate aging”, and, among other things, death itself.

    Anyway, there’s a section further on that caught my attention and reminded me of this (Deneen’s) essay: “In 2006, a political struggle within the transhumanist movement between the libertarian right and the liberal left resulted in a more centre-leftward positioning of the WTA under its former executive director James Hughes…” yada yada.

    Libertarian and liberal “transhumanists,” despite their political differences, united behind what seems to me to be a movement advocating for the ultimate triumph, “fullfilment,” “actualization,” etc., of the Imperial Self. In this case vis-a-vis technology.

    Scary scary scary. Anyway, it seemed darn relevant. Just wanted to throw that out there. Great essay, Mr. Deneen. I’ll definitely be reading more of your writings, and those here on FPR in general.

    (disclaimer: I recognize that most liberals and libertarians would find their aims and ideas abhorrent. This is not a condemnation of all such people. Though “transhumanist” liberals/libertarians should be condemned into oblivion in my view.)

  23. I have been asking various libertarians and anarchists what liberty means. Somewhere in the discussion I intrude St. Augustine’s distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” The discussions are interesting. We touch upon where these various individuals voluntarily restrict themselves, where they surrender some of their cherished autonomy (anarchists) or liberty (libertarians). Where out of practicality? Where out of fear? Where out of love? Where with a willing heart heart, where ambivalently, begrudgingly?

    Another ancient definition of liberty, very important in the American tradition, needs to be included in the this author’s very fine thinking about liberty. “Liberties” in ancient English/American usage were places where people were exempted from certain higher or central authorities (and their taxes) in other to establish an autonomous self-governing local authority.

    The Magna Carta removed certain areas of power from the King and dispersed those powers to the land-owning barons (covering any title of nobility). Later some of these liberties were extended to all English and American citizens (“A man’s home is his castle).” Many English cities had areas called “Liberties.”

    This political notion of liberty was tied up with ownership of productive property (not just a dwelling). As power devolved away from kings and idle nobles to productive owners of property (including some of the nobility) and productive property came more and more to mean corporate property, the issue of the ownership of the means of production and liberty became entwined.

    Can a wage worker be truly a person of liberty? Oh yes, the traditional conservative libertarian says, he is at liberty to freely make contracts with fellow citizens without government interference. But how justly, how much in alignment with human dignity, does that freedom to make contracts work out for a needy, family-supporting individual against a powerful owner of significant means of production and resources, which he can protect with private armies answerable only to him? How fair would that “free” contract be? Hence, as this essayist points out, the appeal of the state and its power to enforce laws and legislate on the content of labor and other contracts.

    A “commonwealth,” that term so fondly used by early Americans instead of the dangerously anti-royal word Republic, encompasses a concept of a large number of productive property owners forming a self-governing system. In many ways this concept echoes what it meant to be a citizen in the Roman city-states that survived the disappearance of the Roman Empire: every citizen was attached to a familia (extended kin and patronage group), with a patriarchal head. These heads of the familias constituted the ruling oligarchy, but the oligarchy, through the familias, had material and spiritual obligations to all. Thus self-governing city-states, made up of citizens attached to familias, stood in contrast to latifundia, large slave owning or serf-worked plantations where the lord was the supreme owner of everything and everyone and petty kingdoms, where the king was the supreme “owner” of everything and everyone.

    Is it possible to create an economy of shared, democratic ownership of the means of production as envisioned by Syndicalists (some anarcho, some not) and Distributionists through the creation of worker and community owned cooperatives? How would autonomy, solidarity, justice, subsidiarity combine in these self-governing cooperatives to create a human liberty that is based on relationships and individual-respecting community rather than individualism? Presuming realistically that the state survives as an institution, what would be the role of the state in governing so many self-governing entities? Would there still be a place for national and global, privately owned corporations? If so, what would be their relationship to the the cooperatives?

    Can we continue to frame the question of liberty combined with justice in terms of individuals, relationships, families, communities, collectivism and governments without thinking through the issue of the ownership of the means of production? I think not.

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