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On liberalism and the new communitarian critique thereof

2 December 2012

If you’re interested in the history and development of political discourse (or is that just me?) you may have noted the recent rise of what might be termed a new communitarian critique of liberalism. At the theoretical level it seems rooted in the critiques of liberalism issued by major philosophical voices such as Alastair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, often in the form of philosophical responses to the liberal theorising of figures such as Dworkin and Rawls. At the grassroots it seems to take its inspiration from a hodgepodge of sources, from Christian social theorising such as Catholic social thought and the Social Gospel to such aggressively secular sources as classical democratic socialism, as well as more inchoate popular protest movements like Occupy. These sources come together, either in aggregate or in more or less inclusive combination, around contemporary social and economic concerns into a less-than-coherent but still valid critique of the modern liberal democratic capitalist state.

You may find it relevant at this point to know that I am neither a liberal nor a communitarian. I tend to describe my own inchoate political leanings with the following cluster of ‘-isms’ and left-branching compounds: localist, altermondialiste, Green liberal-leaning, left-of-center eco-capitalist. I also have some leanings towards or sympathies with distributism and, and to a lesser extent, eco-communalism. The  word ‘liberal’ does feature but you’ll note that it is highly qualified and describes sympathy rather than association. My interest in liberalism as such is, rather, academic, as the genesis and early development liberal theory and discourse, particularly as it is relevant to the rise of modern social imaginaries, is part of the focus of my long-term research interests. My interest in this particular new critique is grounded in the fact that it constitutes not an alternative model of social and economic organisation but rather a prophetic voice [1] from within liberalism itself.

What I mean by this deliberately bold statement is that the mainstream political discourse of the new communitarian critique, by which I do mean to explicitly exclude its more nuanced discourse and its philosophical substream(s), is critiquing liberalism on liberalism’s own terms. I do not mean this to be a critique or a reproach, merely an observation. The argument (if I might take the liberty of rephrasing it slightly into a more compact format) generally proceeds roughly as follows: the capitalist economy has devolved (I use this perhaps provocative word deliberately) into a mercantilist one which serves the interests of powerful individuals, largely heads of governments and corporations, at the expense of the interests of the majority. The call thus issued for government to cease policy-making that serves the profit-based interests of major corporations and replace it with policy in the interests of the disenfranchised majority. The discourse is heavily tinged with the language of majority vs corporate and elite interests, with grass-rootedness and the claim to speak in voce populi being veritable litmus tests of the movement. Macroeconomics is far less favoured a topic than the personal experience of those purportedly adversely affected by the global economic system and/or ‘the recession.’ The rhetoric can be markedly aggressive, even violent, with the language of occupation (by and for the majority of the elite) and resistance to the elite being commonplaces. Equally commonplace are calls for solidarity among the majority in opposition to the elite.

The following quote from the website of the Occupy spin-off group Strike Debt serves, I think, to illustrate my point quite clearly:

Debt is a tie that binds the 99%.

As individuals, families, and communities, most of us are drowning in debt to Wall Street for the basic things things we need to live, like housing, education, and health care. Even those of us who do not have personal debt are affected by predatory lending. Our essential public services are cut because our cities and towns are held hostage by the same big banks that have been bailed out by our government in recent years.

We are not a loan. Strike Debt came from a coalition of Occupy groups looking to build popular resistance to all forms of debt imposed on us by the banks. Debt keeps us isolated, ashamed, and afraid. We are building a movement to challenge this system while creating alternatives and supporting each other. We want an economy where our debts are to our friends, families, and communities — and not to the 1%.[2]

This language, with which Strike Debt chooses to open its website, verges at times on class warfare-style discourse but consists only of a reproach of current policy practices and the proposal of their own alternative praxis. The underlying economic questions, lending at interest, securities trading, unsecured loans, etcetera, go un-commented upon. Fundamental questions regarding whether the current economic system is one even to be maintained are, and here I mean to expand to the movement as a whole again, not addressed.

What I have styled the ‘communitarian critique’ is a voice calling for solidarity among a majority population in order to represent the interests of that population over and against those of a powerful minority within an economic system that is assumed. While standard ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric may be deployed, it is rarely substantive. What is substantive is the message that the system is distorted, that it is no longer serving its intended end, that it must be returned to its own fundaments. Capitalism was, after all, in its inception, a leveling, egalitarian philosophy, issued in opposition to the monopolistic economic systems of the guilds and the chartered companies. [3] The critique is also, in its bones, liberal. Despite its communitarian overtones, hues, and elements, the communitarian critique is calling, first and foremost, for a more truly representative government which protects the liberties, positive and negative, of its citizenry.

The point about both positive and negative liberties is crucial. While mainstream liberal discourse of the past century or two has favoured negative liberties to the exclusion of positive liberties, the communitarian critique has returned to the fore the balance of positive and negative which typified classical republicanism, one of the earliest forms of the tradition of thought and discourse which we now know as liberalism. Negative liberties, such as freedom from interference and freedom from physical harm, typically define our system of what are called ‘rights,’ whereas as negative liberties, which are more inchoate but might be thought of as freedoms of potencies of action, have fallen into the discursive background and/or are addressed largely as collective rather than individual subjective rights.[4] With the communitarian critique, positive rights are again at issue. Not only collectively, as in the rights of the social collective versus the privileges of the wealthy and/or the powers of corporations, but in terms of individual ‘rights of access,’ we might say, to wealth and opportunity currently available only to the posited elite.[5] Whether this represents a permanent shift in our political discourse and what implications this may have for other areas of the political realm, remains to be seen.

Post Scriptum

Another interesting discursive development of this new communitarian liberalism is the emergence of a new repertoire of democratic actions around civil disobedience. That direct action is an integral aspect of this new liberalism is abundantly clear in the names which the movements have given themselves: Occupy, Strike Debt, etc. That this is resulting in a new field of democratic action is clear from the emergence of self-styled ‘occupy’ movements who attempt to replicate the success, such as it is, of past popular occupations simply by reproducing their actions: occupying physical space. The proper analysis of this new repetoire of actions is beyond my ken but has been and is being taken up by other commentators.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] By ‘prophetic voice’ I mean not a voice speaking to the future nor under divine inspiration but rather the technical sense of a call for reform, often if not generally along pre-existent but now-abandoned lines, from within a community or tradition.

[2] Via strikedebt.org, retrieved 24 Novemeber 2012.

[3] Of which the British and Dutch East India Companies would be paradigm examples but also merely prominent examples of a broader economic philosophy which favoured monopolistic entreprise as a vehicle for state enrichment.

[4] The notion of a collective right to self-determination is a prime example. While many people would assert the existence of such a right few can define its proper subject; that is, what sort of human collective proposes the right to self-determination. Traditional answers such as ‘nations’ and ‘polities’ run afoul of their own ill-defined, nebulous characters.

[5] I use that qualifier not to question the validity of the claim but to highlight its rhetorical nature. I mean neither to affirm nor denounce the phenomenon which I here describe.

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