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?

5 thoughts on “More on identity and liberal technocracy”

  1. Identity

    Would you like to comment on the new practice of adults’ identifying themselves at social gatherings by first name only, like children? Is this a new mediaevalism? Erasure of identity?


    • A party of pure particulars
      Well, the entry says that the current social metaphysics is that there are individuals and there are impersonal utilitarian social structures, with no real connection between the two.

      A party isn’t an impersonal utilitarian social structure, so it’s just a collection of people identifiable only by pure individuality.

      On that understanding only purely individual names—John and Joan instead of Dr. X and Mrs. Y—would make sense at a party.

      It’s not medievalism. In medieval times people used a single name because most of their dealings were within the circle of people they had known all their lives. Their names didn’t have to tell people who they were because that was old news. Introducing yourself as Bob to a roomful of people you’ve never seen before is a different situation.

      • Since adults’ introducing
        Since adults’ introducing themselves by first name only is a new practice, I respectfully suggest that regarding a social gathering as “just a collection of people identifiable only by pure individuality” is new, too. Perhaps you suggested that.


        • Heather, Joshua, and the unfolding dialectic of modernity
          Liberal principle has been around at least since the 17th c. but it takes a long time to remake social attitudes and understandings in its image. That’s what it means to say liberalism is progressive and reformist. It’s also why liberals have a perpetual bad conscience.

          Liberalism starts by criticizing and reforming the most public institutions and then works its way down the list. In recent years it’s reached immediate social relations, which have to be purified of nonliberal residues. PC is one aspect of that, gay marriage another, the use of expressions like Father Bill and Dr. Tanya in occupational settings still another. Present-day party etiquette is one more development along the same line.

          • On a first name basis with everyone
            Along those lines, children frequently speak to us using our first names now. I don’t remember it being that way that way when I was a child and I’m not that old. If you try to correct them, you’re thought of as pompous.

            I’ve noticed the same with service employees, for example, banks.

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