After the 2Blowhards interview I got into a discussion with one of the commenters on his own blog that began with a request that I respond to a paper he had written on Emerson and related topics. Here’s an edited version that tries to pick out the parts most likely to interest readers of Turnabout:
Commenter: Old world, “corporatist” conservatism—which is what Jim is espousing—is very much consistent with communism, but Lockean liberalism (the antonym of Jim’s brand of conservatism) will always be hostile to a scheme that puts the good of the “body politic” (no matter how you wish to define “good”) over the good of the individual.
On a related point—there is no conflict between liberalism and “traditional moral/Christian” values. You can be a deeply devout Christian, obsessed with your own personal morality and prospects for salvation, without deviating from the path of liberalism. To confuse the personal and the political is to court folly. (Which is to say—don’t leap at the chance to embrace some political monolith just because you feel “uneasy” in the world—you’re supposed to feel that way!)
But even if we were to allow metaphysical concepts how is this an argument for “custom and usage”? If, as I (and all non-pantheists) believe, we have no access to the noumenal, then two thousand years of tradition are as useless to us in ascertaining what is “right” as the word of any living breathing person.
Jim seems to regard “multi-culturalism” as the ne plus ultra of liberalism. And of course he’s wrong. “Identity politics” are anathema to Lockean liberalism—in fact, this is “traditionalism” running amok. The liberal subject is always merely that—he or she can have no group affiliation, no “sexual orientation”, no gender in fact! As far as the state is concerned, each person is a “unit” and that is absolutely all. Ideally, society is a pact between people that makes the existential struggle for meaning as pure as possible.
Jim Kalb: I read your paper on and found it on the whole well-written, informative and intelligent. I’m not sure what you want me to do with it.
I agree that the formal public intellectual and political tradition of America is very predominantly liberal. I also agree that Emerson is the pre-eminent public philosopher of America and stands in very close connection to that tradition. He presents its spiritual side. For my view of Emerson see my paper on the topic. So I don’t see what it is that I’m supposed to rebut.
I can think of two points that may be relevant to whatever it is we’re discussing:
- It’s obvious that the formal public intellectual and political tradition of America is not the whole of American tradition or the whole of what has made it possible for America to function as a society. That is the point of my “Traditionalism and the American Order”. The Founders didn’t found America. America was already here as a going concern. The institutions the Founders created were rather limited, although their effect of course has become more and more pervasive as time has gone by.
- Conservatism in my understanding has a rational component. Otherwise all it could do is approve whatever exists exactly as it is. In addition to respect for tradition it has to concern itself with the relationship among traditions and the overall functioning of the system. My basic point is that the liberal aspects of the American tradition (and of Western tradition generally) have become too absolute. One result is that tradition, as a system for accumulating and organizing social knowledge, can no longer function adequately.
Responses to particular points you make:
- Neither Catholicism nor any form of conservatism I’m aware of are consistent with communism (other than the voluntary communism of some religious communities). In the case of Catholicism that’s a matter of formal doctrine as well as history. The fact Catholicism and European conservatism recognize group interests that do not reduce into individual interests does not mean they do not recognize individual interests that in some respects transcend group interests. Neither individual nor group can be reduced into the other. Each has some relative autonomy.
That’s an extremely important point, by the way. Liberals and other modernists characteristically miss it because they find it hard to understand a social and moral world that is richer and more complex than their own. They think that the alternative to liberalism—a moral and political world based just on one thing—is “some political monolith”—another moral and political world based just on one thing, but a different thing.
- Since man is social, “‘traditional moral/Christian’ values” can’t be conceived in the purely individualist way you suggest. I agree that if you’re a Lockean you can put your understanding of those values into effect in your life in an individualistic way. It’s an understanding that makes no sense though.
- It’s not true that all who accept philosophical realism are pantheists.
- You say “The liberal subject is always merely that—he or she can have no group affiliation, no “sexual orientation”, no gender in fact! As far as the a state is concerned, each person is a “unit” and that is absolutely all.” The whole of my theory of liberalism is contained in that statement. I’m not sure why you think it’s a straw man. It’s simply working out the implications of something you accept yourself.
- Multiculturalism is an instance. The function of multiculturalism—the reason liberal institutions in the West have accepted it and made it central to their justification and self-understanding—is that it destroys the authority and social function of culture and so assimilates it to individual taste. The point of multiculturalism is to accommodate culture to your definition of liberalism. It doesn’t matter what the rhetoric is about “celebrating our diversity.” The point of the celebration is to make sure the diversity has no bearing on social position or function—in practical effect, to abolish it. “Identity politics” is permissible only for those whose diversity has not yet been made of no effect. It is always an engine of radical equality—the abolition of the effects of diversity.
- I find your conception of authenticity utterly empty. It goes nowhere, or maybe to Samuel Beckett-land. Also, why be so self-righteous about forcing it on everyone? Isn’t that your own kind of establishment of religion?
- And I don’t advocate tribalism. I say unchosen connections are part of what makes us what we are. For example, part of what I am is a native of this country, a contemporary of these people, the son of these parents, the father of these children, etc. I don’t say that some single unchosen connection defines the whole of what we are, which is what “tribalism” seems to suggest. Again, much of my argument against liberalism and modernism is that they insistently try to reduce everything to just one principle. I try to avoid that.
C: What I was really hoping to see you address is my claim that liberalism is capable of promoting social cohesion. Liberalism may use the individual as the building block of the state but it does not follow that it is a political philosophy built upon egocentrism. The bedrock of liberalism is the conviction that other minds exist, and that, consequently, we are obligated, as citizens, to treat other citizens as ends in themselves not as links in a chain of cultural transmission. And this leads us back to “multiculturalism”, which has nothing to do with liberalism. It is the product of muddled thinking that has somehow equated the rights of individual traditions with the rights of individuals. oping to see you address is my claim that liberalism is capable of promoting social cohesion. Liberalism may use the individual as the building block of the state but it does not follow that it is a political philosophy built upon egocentrism. The bedrock of liberalism is the conviction that other minds exist, and that, consequently, we are obligated, as citizens, to treat other citizens as ends in themselves not as links in a chain of cultural transmission. And this leads us back to “multiculturalism”, which has nothing to do with liberalism. It is the product of muddled thinking that has somehow equated the rights of individual traditions with the rights of individuals.
JK: As you seem to say, liberalism understands man as essentially an ego with thoughts and desires but no particular qualities that are relevant to what he is. He has no binding connection to anyone in particular. His connection to his next door neighbor shouldn’t weigh more for him than his connection to someone in Borneo. He can’t assume that he shares any common goods with others. He does have the abstract realization that everyone else is in the same position, and he’d agree that it would be better for all men to get what they want than otherwise.
So I suppose the question is how much social cohesion can arise out of such abstract realizations. Not a lot, it seems to me. Liberal thinkers tend to analogize political order to a contract among self-interested actors. It’s not wholly clear why if self-interest is the key the actors shouldn’t cheat on the contract when they think they can get away with it. Kant of course introduced the notion of man as an end in himself. It’s not clear to me how to give content to that notion though when there are no substantive goods we can be assumed to share. Can the notion that I should act in a way consistent with your getting what you want even though I find it loathsome really give rise to cohesion?
The natural expression of the abstract universal solidarity characteristic of liberalism would be a universal managerial PC welfare state, a sort of EU writ large. So there’s an experiment going on to see just how much social cohesion liberalism gives rise to. To me it looks like it’s not going to work—people abuse welfare, they stop taking care of each other informally, they stop having children, costs go though the roof, there are cutbacks, people get resentful, crime rises, millions of Muslims get imported who no doubt will love supporting vast numbers of Europeans in their old age, etc. Is this really going to fly?
Other points—it makes sense to oppose treating people as “ends in themselves” to treating them “as links in a chain of cultural transmission” if you think that culture is external to the person. If you think that man is by nature a cultured and social animal, the opposition makes no sense. Also, if multiculturalism is not a natural feature of advanced liberalism, why do advanced liberal institutions take to it so readily? And if culture is external to the person, as you seem to believe, and it’s therefore unjust for public institutions to give support to any particular culture, how other than by multiculturalism do you propose to eliminate the public influence of whatever culture may be dominant?