Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Inadequacy of the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism

I'm still finding Andreas Kinneging's book, The Geography of Good and Evil, to be a fascinating and wise book. I'm reading it slowley in between other duties; this is the first week of classes and I only have a few minutes here and there to read it. But I'm finding it expresses many of the thoughts I've been thinking much more clearly than I can do.

I've been very worried about the trend of left-wing Evangelicals like Campolo, McLaren and Wallis to lead young people, including many of my own students, away from a traditional expression of Evangelicalism toward an emphasis on social justice that is more liberal than orthodox. But Kinneging puts my vague unease into precisely logical languge. His chapter "Spiritual Capital" explains why the communitarian critique of liberalism, that we need more social solidarity - concern for the poor - is not as radical as it sounds and actually a capitulation to modernity. Let me retrace his argument.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the triumph of liberalism was proclaimed, by Fukuyama for example, but many people soon came to agree that: "it was necessary to critique liberalism as an ideology of individualism, and of the notions of markey, exchange, self-interest, and so on that naturally went along with it." The 90's saw the rise of communitarian thinkers such as Robert Bellah, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor and Alister MacIntrye. Kinneging wites:
"In contrast to liberalism's emphasis on the individual as the antithesis
of the community, these authors emphasized the importance of the community to
the will-being and development of the individual." (117)

Kinneging notes that this communitarian message is part of a long tradition in Western thought that goes back to antiquity, but it distills only a single element from that tradition, namely, that man is a social animal who requires society for the full development of his potential. This, as we shall see, it true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enought in recovering ancient wisdom.

The triumph of liberalism leads to the erosion of what Kinneging terms "solidarity," which is his term for brotherhood, charity, community spirit, concern for the poor, etc. The communitarians can sound like Marxists sometimes in their critique of liberalism, but they do not prescribe the full Marxist solution (eg. public ownership of the means of production). They do, however, prescribe social solidarity.

Kinneging points out that the communitarian focus is on:
"reforming the state with the aim of transforming it from a professional
bureaucratic organization into an association bearing the principles of
participatory democracy. It is hoped that this will create a state of, for, and
by the people instead of the post office we now have, where we only
visit when we need something. It goes without saying that this view holds
particular appeal for socialist." (119-120)

Kinneging distinguishes between the republican communitarians, who want to reform the state, and the more strict communitarians who want to reinvigorate civil society, i.e. that third sector which is neither under the control of the state or the market. Obviously, this kind of communitarianism is the kind I would endorse; I find the republican kind to be little more than "socialism lite," just another form of statism.

But Kinneging is not convinced that either form of communitarianism actually can produce what it says is most badly needed: social solidarity. He says that solidarity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good society. (121) He says that
"Solidarity, care for the weak and the poor, is often elevated to
the alpha and omega of public morality. . . . without solidarity , we are in
trouble; if there is solidarity, all is well. The former assertion is
correct. But that latter - if there is solidarity, all is well - is wide
of the mark. It reveals a cramped view of the moral condiciones sine
quibus
non of a good society. Seen in this light, the popularity of
the communitarian criticism of liberalism acquires a disturbing significance; it
is a telling sign of the impoverishment of moral thinking that is so
characteristic of our time." (121-2)

Kinneging argues, in the rest of this chapter, that social solidarity and a good society characterized by social solidarity depends on large numbers of people having thoroughly internalized certain values - i.e. what used to be called virtues. Although republican communitarianism omits mention of, or concern for, individual virtues, Kinneging contends that a good society is impossible without individual virtues. Kinneging says this is true on two counts:
"First, social virtues presuppose individual virtues. Second, as
individual virtues increase, the need for social virtues decreases. . . . The
less individual virtues are practiced, the more we need social virtues.
But with a decline in individual virtues, social virtues are also bound to
disappear, since the first are the social capital that make the second
possible." (123)

For Kinneging, the real crisis of our day is moral and morality cannot be reduced or constricted to merely social solidarity alone.

When I heard Jim Wallis speak a couple of years ago, he spoke scornfully (and crudely) of the tendency of Christians to be preoccupied with "below the belt issues." He wanted his Evangelical audience to give up what he perceived as its undue preoccupation with sexual morality and focus on what he considered to be of far more importance, namely, social solidarity. Tony Campolo makes a similar point when he tallies up the number of verses in the Bible that speak of poverty versus the number that speak about sex. What is going on here is exactly what Kinneging describes: a thoroughly modern approach which has lost sight of the importance of the individual virtues and is trying to revive one aspect of the moral tradition of antiquity without grappling with the whole tradition. Kinneging describes the genesis of this trend:
"What are the historical roots of this crisis in our moral
consciousness? When did this forgetfulness set in? It has spread
primarily since the end of the 1960's, and today it has become the socially and
politically predominant approach to morality in the Western world. It is
often called liberalism. This outlook did not originate in the 1960s but
rather has its origins in the Enlightenment and Romanticism, which themselves
have roots going back a few centuries. Until the late 1960s, however, these
philosophies of life remained the view of a small elite. Since the end of
the '60s the thinking of the Enlightenment and Romanticism has been accepted by
the masses as their 'cultural patrimony.''

As Kinneging goes on to show, to believe that man is capable of social solidarity without being a personally virtuous person is to accept the Romantic notion that sin inheres not in man himself, but in society. He recommends the reading of Homer and Nietzsche as a cure for such a delusion! But he is convinced that only a widespread return to the virtues can possibly allow a fragmented society like ours, in the grip of individualism and the will to power, to find an adequate basis for social solidarity. In this he is surely right.

5 comments:

Grammar said...
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Grammar said...
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Craig Carter said...

Note:
I'm taking the advice of friends who think I've been too lenient in allowing my blog to be a dumping ground for rude and irrelevant comments by anonymous individuals who obviously have nothing to say relevant to the topic. So I won't hesitate to delete such comments in future. Those people are free to get their own blog and say whatever they want.

Logic said...
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Logic said...
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