Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Inherent Limits of Liberal Democracy

For journalists, the Democratic party always appears to be in disarray. For political theorists, democracy itself, that is, the specific species liberal democracy, which we are more or less wedded to in the West, also appears to be in constant crisis.

One of the reasons we appear to be in such constant crisis is the apparent need of a modern democratic state for something common and shared as a collective identity. As diverse theorists in what is commonly called the civic tradition, from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt to Charles Taylor have argued, "free societies require a higher level of commitment and participation than despotic or authoritarian ones. citizens have to do for themselves, as it were, what otherwise the rulers would do for them. But this only happens if these citizens feel a strong bond of identification with their political community, and hence with those who share with them in this." [Charles Taylor, "A Tension in Modern Democracy," in  Democracy and Vision: Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, ed. Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly, Princeton U. Pr. 2001, p. 81].

Some 60+ years ago, the great 20th-century student of political theory, Sheldon Wolin, highlighted what was easily missed but radically revelatory about the famous frontispiece from the 1651 edition of Leviathan (photo) by the paradigmatic 17th-century English philosopher of modern political, cultural, and social discontinuity, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Wolin first noted the obvious - the image of a thriving city, its peace and prosperity made possible by the political order created by the looming presence of powerful sovereign. Yet, a closer examination of that Hobbesian sovereign's image, Wolin observed, highlights how Hobbes's version of a body politic is completely composed of individual miniatures of the citizens of Hobbes's contractual commonwealth. Furthermore, "each subject is clearly discernible in the body of the sovereign. The citizens are not swallowed up in an anonymous mass, nor sacramentally merged into a mystical body. Each remains a discrete individual and each retains his identity in an absolute way" [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought , 1960 ed, pp. 265-266, 2004 expanded ed., p. 238].

In his ambitious prescription for the modern state, Hobbes eschewed both the classical and Christian conception of the commonwealth as a natural society fitted to fulfill fundamental human needs in a quasi-sacramental organism (e.g., the medieval "body politic") and also the modern totalitarian state's subordination of citizens into an anonymous mass of interchangeable subjects. For all its admittedly authoritarian aspects, (mildly modified later in John Locke's adaptation), Hobbes's commonwealth clearly resembles the United States much more than it did, say, the Soviet Union. Indeed, Hobbes' picture of politics should resonate well in our contemporary context. For us, as for Hobbes, the political community (if we can even call it that) is no more than an artificial constitutional structure of (partly voluntary, partly involuntary) cooperation in order to facilitate the satisfactory fulfillment of each citizen's egoistic individualism, devoid of any truly shared and common higher aspiration.

Certainly, the imaginary Hobbesian commonwealth required citizens to sacrifice something for their common survival, but otherwise it largely left them - as all modern "liberal" societies strive to do - qualitatively unchanged, self-referential individuals. Our purposes are but the products of our passions. Our reason remains no more than rational calculation. Our sociability is but a politically constructed egoistic artifice. Unlike both the medieval conception of citizens as naturally dependent upon one another in their political body (much like the natural mutual dependence of the organs of their natural bodies) and Rousseau's sublimation of egoistic individualism in the totalitarian collective of the "general will," Hobbes highlighted the limited and contrived character of modern political obligations, in which the older idea of a shared "common good" has largely lost most of its meaning in the face of each individual's disconnected, autonomously self-defined particularity.

Hence, the widespread contemporary failure of increasingly abandoned traditional moral arguments, based on our mutual interdependence and natural obligations not to harm others - whether the issue be abortion or vaccinations or other pandemic precautions or a common commitment to caring for the planet as our common home. This development, like so much modern rights language, is rooted in the fatal early modern replacement of the political language of mutual human obligations by the radically anti-communitarian language of disconnected individual rights.

The solution, if there is one, cannot be in further reinforcing the presently predominant paradigm of individual disconnectedness but in retrieving from an older, pre-modern, ethical language of interconnectedness and mutual dependence an alternative paradigm within which we may relearn how to talk to one another, premised on who are together, rather than on who we are apart from one another. 

One way of formulating this in more modern language, which I find somewhat attractive, has been attempted by Charles Taylor (drawing in part on the diverse legacies of the likes of Emile Durkheim and Johann Gottfried Herder.) "The fullness of humanity," for Taylor, "comes not from the adding of differences but from the exchange and communion between them. Human beings achieve fullness not separately but together." Taylor locates theological sources behind this"in certain crucial Christian doctrines, e.g., the Trinity and the Communion of Saints." ["A Tension in Modern Democracy," p.90.]

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