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More on identity and liberal technocracy

A Swedish correspondent wrote to ask why ideas of historical and cultural community never seem to go anywhere today. My response continues some of the thoughts touched on in the recent discussion of social conservatism:

The basic problem I think is that such ideas depend on notions of what one is, and the modern and liberal understanding of man and the world makes notions of identity seem irrational and therefore threatening.

On that understanding what exists is individuals on the one hand and social structures on the other. The social structures have no essential connection to the individuals but are simply instruments—ideally of the individuals themselves, often in practice of those who run them or some ruling class.

From such a perspective the notion of identity makes no sense. You are defined by your purely individual desires and choices, which are whatever they happen to be. You are simply you, other people are simply other people, and there’s no real connection there.

In the liberal system there are no essentially good or bad desires or choices, because there are no essences and there is no good or bad apart from what particular men desire. However, some desires and choices are allowed and some are not allowed depending on their relation to the rational and efficient functioning of the system.

One desire you’re denied as much as possible is the desire to treat certain other people as more connected to you than other people. If you do that it’ll make some people happy and some unhappy. From the standpoint of the authorities that’s bad either way.

It’s bad when it makes some people happy because it means that you and those other people will start relying on each other in carrying on your lives and that will undercut the comprehensive nature of the official system, which is considered uniquely rational. And it’s bad when it makes people unhappy because that’s bad for them and besides it creates problems the authorities have to deal with.

So the problems are very basic and philosophical:

  1. What is a man, or for that matter what is anything whatever? Is it simply an individual, whatever that individual happens to be without regard to anything larger, or is it constituted by larger essences and connections?
  2. What is rational action? Is it acting to get whatever you happen to want, whatever that may be, or is it acting in accordance with what you are—a man, a son, a father, a Swede or whatever?