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Attack of the Deracinated Unencumbered Selves

May 18, 2010

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.


  1. kurt9 permalink
    May 19, 2010 2:08 am

    Collectivists are like con-men. They keep coming back with new scams every time. However, one can always see through them. Its just like the same old, foul-tasting wine in new bottles.

  2. May 18, 2010 10:31 pm

    The problem with recognizing the evil that Communitarianism represents, for Western ideologues, is that it is not a Fascism but a Casteism on the Manu Smriti model. Its ‘internal contradiction’ lies in the fact that any Community that the Communitarian succeeds in establishing would commence by seeking to squash the fucker’s pointy little head like a cockroach- unless that is, it was, incentive-wise, rigorously caste based.
    It is interesting that, as part of the wider Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment cult of the benevolent despot- or (in the case of Burke & later Malthus) that same imperative operating at second-order w.r.t. to ‘Providential’ institutions like the fucking unreformed pre-1832 Parliament- Manu and the noisome notion of caste really came into their own.

  3. kurt9 permalink
    May 18, 2010 9:31 pm

    I think some perspective is in order here. Deneen is mostly channeling Phillip Blond in this piece. Blond’s comments, in turn, are specific to the situation in the U.K. As you may or may not know, Labour under Blair and later Brown essentially used mass immigration as a tool to change the character of U.K. society, to a certain extent, over the wishes of the majority of U.K. voters. Labour wanted to create the ideal multi-culti society. In order to do this, they used mass immigration to strip away all of the traditional associations that U.K. people had that were informal in nature. In other words, Labour spent the past 13 years engaging in a social engineering scheme by sidestepping the wishing of U.K. citizens. This is the context that Phillip Blond’s arguments must be considered in response to. I think Blond’s position is a legitimate one, but one that is narrowly applicable to the U.K. only.

    Patrick Deneen, on the other hand, deserves no such consideration. He is attempting to take the example of localized traditional U.K. society and apply it to the U.S., a society that was founded on the principles of openness and pioneering. Deneen is attempting to apply Blond’s arguments on a more universal level and he deserves to be roundly condemned for it.

  4. kurt9 permalink
    May 18, 2010 6:38 pm

    Deneen is essentially saying that freedom is slavery. Ive always thought communitarianism is Orwellian. I prefer to call a spade a spade. Communitarianism is a fancy four dollar word for fascism.


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