Thursday, October 16, 2003

Even More Thoughts on Political Labels

Twice before, I've written posts that relate to a discussion about political labels--initially dealing with conservatism, but later going in all sorts of directions--which developed on John Holbo's blog. Amazingly enough, nearly a month after John's original post, the thread is still alive, having been visited by such luminaries as Jacob Levy, Matthew Yglesias, Henry Farrell, and others. Now, Josh Cherniss has weighed in with a post on the thread which is actually longer, I think, than even my usually interminable posts, which is remarkable in itself. But the length is worth it; Josh's perspective on political ideology, pluralism, and many other related issues is informative and thought-provoking. In fact, I think I'll throw out a few provoked thoughts (I'll address them to Josh) right now.

Josh: "I take ideologies to refer to families of political philosophies which, in being associated with one another and with particular practical applications and goals, become both fuzzier and simpler--and, generally, cruder and more demanding. This is not necessarily to say that ideologies are bad, though. They're useful, and are as intellectually unsatisfying [to me at least; not to ideologues] as usefulness demands. I would also say that while political philosophies properly called are directed as discovering the truth about political things, ideologies are directed at justifying certain political arrangements or commitments), such as libertarianism, conservatism, etc."

Me: Speaking of how you tend to find that, when you reach a conclusion, Michael Walzer's ideas are somehow "already there"...isn't what you're describing as "ideology" essentially the same as the "moral minimalism" which Michael Walzer discusses in his book Thick and Thin; namely, the practice of taking a "thick" moral position and turning it into a caricature, a stick figure or bumper sticker, not as a better way to understand that philosophical position but as a way to make it politically useful across particularist boundaries? This isn't a criticism, just a thought.

J: "I think that talk of shared values often over-estimates the level of consensus in any culture or society. This isn't to say that some underlying consensus doesn't exist. It's to say, rather, that in certain cases the disagreements within a society are more significant, for political theory and practice, than the agreements (sometimes the opposite is true), and that shared values often give rise to vastly different interpretations. In many societies or cultures one has different camps who, appealing to the same shared values, interpret them in different ways, or draw different conclusions from them--and try to guide the society in the direction that their own views points to."

Me: Aren't you confusing "shared values" with "consensus" though? Rigorous communitarian thought is not ignorant of the contentious way in which values particular to a linguistic/cultural/historical community get worked out and then reworked again; but the ability to speak of a consensus or a lack thereof bespeaks the centrality of the shared worldview. Without that shared worldview, there'd be no way of knowing that the effort at consensus-building had broken down. This is a big part of Hans-Georg Gadamer's argument (which I think has strongly influenced better communitarian thinkers, like Charles Taylor) about the fusion of horizons in Truth and Method: there must be some mutual recognition of the space within which one speaks for people to acknowledge disagreement; otherwise, you're two ships passing in the night, completely unaware of what it is you're disagreeing about. To dismiss or criticize communitarian arguments because they don't appear to match the reality of lack of consensus within a community is to ignore or (I think wrongly) minimize the moral importance of the shared experience which must be present in every disagreement.

J: "It seems to me that political communities can sometimes abridge individual rights when upholding those rights would threaten the well-being of the members of that community in a suitably serious way, though it would have to be pretty serious. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea of a communal entity that is seen as having its own common, single interest, its own common, single good, and its own rights (and could thus impose obligations on individuals) in the same way as an individual does."

Me: The essential communitarian argument (which is also, speaking of various labels, a "social democratic" and a "republican" one) is that, as Michael Sandel famously put it in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, "we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone." Such goods may not be secured by way of a regime of rights, as is usually conceived in connection with individuals. While there is a tremendous amount of literature out there on "group rights," most of it is driven by the sort of "liberal culturalism" which Will Kymlicka has often described: the idea that linguistic/cultural/historical groups can make claims on the state, and even (perhaps) on their participating members, because there are individual goods which depend upon the preservation of collective contexts within which said individuals can construct themselves. This is certainly a kind of communitarian argument, and I'm sympathetic to it. But thinkers like David Miller (or Sandel, or Walzer, at least in certain circumstances) are suggesting something more: that (at least some of) the sort of goods that can only be known in common are good in themselves; they are not relational but are inherent to the nature of the community. As such, to speak of these goods as in terms of the community having " the same way an individual does" is to apply the wrong sort of argumentative frame to the issue. The communal entity, in this sense, doesn't have "rights" that it has to exercise as a claim against some neutral background; rather, it has a nature (or a set of virtues, or a historical telos, or a socio-economic imperative, or whatever, depending on if your communitarianism is more Aristotelian or Hegelian or Marxist) that it expresses as its own background, and it is the authentic recognition of which thinkers like Miller are addressing. Obviously, it's a debatable premise--but to debate it properly, you need to put the individualistic framework into brackets, at least momentarily.

Perhaps Josh will respond; perhaps not. In any case, if you're at all interested in political philosophy and ideological labels, check out Josh's post, and especially the long, meandering thread over at John's place. All in all, some of the most intelligent observations on political thought that I've seen on the web in quite a while.