Attack of the Deracinated Unencumbered Selves
Communitarian Patrick Deneen says contemporary liberalism–by which he means autonomy, individualism, and free-willing–is a dead end. (His phrases, one and all.) At Cato Unbound he writes:
The contemporary Right — most often the defenders of free market capitalism — aid and abet the destruction of civil society by advancing the liberal anthropology through its individualistic economic assumptions, while the contemporary Left defends radical individualism in its defense of “lifestyle” liberalism through an equally ferocious defense of individual rights. In both guises, the defense of anthropological liberalism in the economic or personal sphere requires a corresponding displacement of inherited or cultivated loyalties and commitments to intermediary commitments in the civic realm — family, neighborhood, community, Church, fraternal order, guilds, unions, and so on. Both require a re-education program that renders us mobile and relatively uncommitted, regarding the ties of family and community as obstacles to fulfillment of the self, whether economically or toward the end of “autonomy” or “self-realization.” Both encourage the ethic of “voluntarism” and “preference neutrality,” defining us most fundamentally as individuated selves, and displacing the central role of civil society in fostering a more expansive conception of the self, one interpenetrated and defined by relationships and thereby fostering an ethic of mutuality.
Why does liberalism require any of these things? Sheer nonsense. It says simply you are free to pursue them or not. For example, it doesn’t require a re-education program hostile to family, as Deneen fallaciously accuses. It is silent on the role of family–whether that bond be an obstacle or a nurturing spring. What it says is that it is for you to decide these things. The State may be modeled on “preference neutrality,” but you as an individual are not. The authority of that moral judgement ultimately resides in you. It’s called thinking for yourself.
If, as Deneen says, liberalism encourages “voluntarism,” I wonder what the opposish has going for it–coerced membership? Deneen accuses liberalism of requiring displeasing and repugnant things, but what does his own messianic obligation of self-sacrifice require? He doesn’t come out and say it because he knows it wouldn’t go over well. Distilled, his philosophy is some mixture of the following:
- You ought to have no choice over what community you’re a part of because you’ll have a more fulfilling and enriched life. (i.e. it’s in your interest)
- You ought to obey and stay because it’s in the general interest.
- You ought to obey and stay because the Great Fraternal Chain of Being represents the highest spiritual development of man.
Deneen wants to portray left wing collectivism and libertarian free willing as two sides of the same assumptions. Together, he claims this axis of freedom (again, his phrase) destroys the “ethic of mutuality” that supports civic society. But 19th century American history belies his assertion: community flourished in the U.S. when the power of exit–and entry, for that matter–was at its zenith. The deracinated selves from the East Coast found community and mutuality on the Western frontier. Deneen’s right about collectivist left wing buncombe. “If you don’t do it, the government will” is a guarantee that destroys civil society. So much the worse when government can’t even deliver on that promise. But the ethic of freedom–“If you don’t do it, no one will”–is the great community builder. Call it the existential imperative. In fact, de Tocqueville pointed this out himself:
Amongst democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can hardly do anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow-men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, fall into a state of incapacity, if they do not learn voluntarily to help each other.