In this episode we discuss Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age by John Gray. Next time: Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization by Andrey Mir.
On the podcast this week, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age by John Gray. Next time: Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization by Andrey Mir.
Normally Jerry writes an ideological Turing test summary for the book we discuss, but it’s impossible with this one as you’ll hear us say. So here are some of Jerry’s highlights from the book itself:
If the Enlightenment myth of progress in ethics and politics continues to have a powerful hold, it is more from fear of the consequences of giving it up than from genuine conviction.
the collapse of communism was a world-historic defeat for the Enlightenment project. Communism was not a type of oriental despotism, as generations of Western scholars maintained. It was an authentic continuation of a Western revolutionary tradition, and its downfall – after tens of millions of deaths were inflicted in the pursuit of its utopian goals – signalled the start of a process of de-Westernization.
It is an inquiry into the right whose agenda is justice and whose content is given, not by any investigation of human beings as we find them in the world, with their diverse histories and communities, but by an abstract conception of the person that has been voided of any definite cultural identity or specific historical inheritance.
Consider, in this regard, the central category of the intellectual tradition spawned by Rawls’s work – the category of the person. In Rawls’s work, as in that of his followers, this is a cipher, without history or ethnicity, denuded of the special attachments that in the real human world give us the particular identities we have. Emptied of the contingencies that in truth are essential to our identities, this cipher has in the Rawlsian schema only one concern – a concern for its own good, which is not the good of any actual human being, but the good we are all supposed to have in common, which it pursues subject to constraints of justice that are conceived to be those of impartiality. In this conception, the principles of justice are bound to be the same for all. The appearance of a plurality of ciphers in the Rawlsian original position must be delusive, since, having all of them the same beliefs and motives, they are indistinguishable.
The subject matter of justice cannot, except indirectly, be found in the histories of peoples, and their often tragically conflicting claims; it must be always a matter of individual rights. It is obvious that this liberal position cannot address, save as an inconvenient datum of human psychology, the sense of injustice arising from belonging to an oppressed community that, in the shape of nationalism, is the strongest political force of our century.
The task of political philosophy is conceived as one of deriving the ideal constitution – assumed, at least in principle, to be everywhere the same. This is so, whether its upshot be Rawls’s basic liberties, Nozick’s side-constraints, or Dworkin’s rights-as-trumps. The presupposition is always that the bottom line in political morality is the claims of individuals, and that these are to be spelt out in terms of the demands of justice or rights. The consequence is that the diverse claims of historic communities, if they are ever admitted, are always overwhelmed by the supposed rights of individuals. The notion that different communities might legitimately have different legal regimes for abortion or pornography, for example, is hardly considered.
If the theoretical goal of the new liberalism is the supplanting of politics by law, its practical result – especially in the United States, where rights discourse is already the only public discourse that retains any legitimacy – has been the emptying of political life of substantive argument and the political corruption of law. Issues, such as abortion, that in many other countries have been resolved by a legislative settlement that involves compromises and which is known to be politically renegotiable, are in the legalist culture of the United States matters of fundamental rights that are intractably contested and which threaten to become enemies of civil peace.
Communitarian thought still harbours the aspiration expressed in those forms of the Enlightenment project, such as Marxism, that are most critical of liberalism – that of creating a form of communal life from which are absent the practices of exclusion and subordination that are constitutive of every community human beings have ever lived in.
Old-fashioned toleration – the toleration defended by Milton, and by the older liberals, such as Locke – sprang from an acceptance of the imperfectibility of human beings, and from a belief in the importance of freedom in the constitution of the good life. Since we cannot be perfect, and since virtue cannot be forced on people but is rather a habit of life they must themselves strive to acquire, we were enjoined to tolerate the shortcomings of others, even as we struggled with our own. On this older view, toleration is a precondition of any stable modus vivendi among incorrigibly imperfect beings. If it has become unfashionable in our time, the reason is in part to be found in the resistance of a post-Christian age to the thought that we are flawed creatures whose lives will always contain evils. This is a thought subversive of the shallow optimistic creeds of our age, humanist or Pelagian, for which human evils are problems to be solved rather than sorrows to be coped with or endured.
Toleration is unfashionable for another, more topical reason. It is unavoidably and inherently judgemental. The objects of toleration are what we judge to be evils. When we tolerate a practice, a belief or a character trait, we let something be that we judge to be undesirable, false or at least inferior; our toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone.
we tolerate ersatz religions, such as Scientology, not because we think they may after all contain a grain of truth, but because the great good of freedom of belief necessarily encompasses the freedom to believe absurdities. Toleration is not, then, an expression of scepticism, of doubt about our ability to tell the good from the bad; it is evidence of our confidence that we have that ability.
The idea of toleration goes against the grain of the age because the practice of toleration is grounded in strong moral convictions. Such judgements are alien to the dominant conventional wisdom according to which standards of belief and conduct are entirely subjective or relative in character, and one view of things is as good as any other.
Indeed, when a society is tolerant, its tolerance expresses the conception of the good life that it has in common. In so far as a society comes to lack any such common conception – as is at least partly the case in Britain today – it ceases to be capable of toleration as it was traditionally understood.
What the neutrality of radical equality mandates is nothing less than the legal disestablishment of morality. As a result, morality becomes in theory a private habit of behaviour rather than a common way of life.
What a policy of toleration would not mandate is the wholesale reconstruction of institutional arrangements in Britain such that homosexuals acquire collective rights or are in every context treated precisely as heterosexuals.
This is not to say that the current law of marriage is fixed for all time, any more than the rest of family law, such as the law on adoption, is so fixed. Further, it is to say that such extension of legal recognition would not be to homosexuals as a group but to individuals regardless of their sexual orientation.
To make a political issue that is deeply morally contested a matter of basic rights is to make it non-negotiable, since rights – at least as they are understood in the dominant contemporary schools of Anglo-American jurisprudence – are unconditional entitlements, not susceptible to moderation
In modern Western pluralist societies, policies which result in the creation of group rights are inevitably infected with arbitrariness and consequent inequity, since the groups selected for privileging are arbitrary, as is the determination of who belongs to which group.
a stable liberal civil society cannot be radically multicultural but depends for its successful renewal across the generations on an undergirding culture that is held in common. This common culture need not encompass a shared religion and it certainly need not presuppose ethnic homogeneity, but it does demand widespread acceptance of certain norms and conventions of behaviour and, in our times, it typically expresses a shared sense of nationality.
The example of the United States, which at least since the mid-1960s has been founded on the Enlightenment conviction that a common culture is not a necessary precondition of a liberal civil society, shows that the view that civil peace can be secured solely by adherence to abstract rules is merely an illusion. In so far as policy has been animated by it, the result has been further social division, including what amounts to low-intensity civil war between the races. As things stand, the likelihood in the United States is of a slow slide into ungovernability, as the remaining patrimony of a common cultural inheritance is frittered away by the fragmenting forces of multiculturalism.
The kind of diversity that is incompatible with civil society in Britain is that which rejects the constitutive practices that give it its identity. Central among these are freedom of expression and its precondition, the rule of law. Cultural traditions that repudiate these practices cannot be objects of toleration for liberal civil society in Britain or anywhere else.
The radical tolerance of indifference has application wherever there are conceptions of the good that are incommensurable.
the claim that there may be, and are present among us, conceptions of the good that are rationally incommensurable is not one that supports any of the fashionable varieties of relativism and subjectivism, since it allows, and indeed presupposes, that some conceptions of the good are defective, and some forms of life simply bad.
the radical tolerance of indifference is virtually the opposite of old-fashioned toleration in that its objects are not judged to be evils and may indeed be incommensurable goods.
Woodrow Wilson’s project of imposing a rationalist order conceived in the New World on the intractably quarrelsome nations of Europe. Like Marxism, this rationalist conception had its origins in the French Enlightenment’s vision of a universal human civilization in which the claims of ethnicity and religion came long after those of common humanity.
In the wake of Soviet communism, we find, not Homo Sovieticus or any other rationalist abstraction, but men and women whose identities are constituted by particular attachments and histories – Balts, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Russians and so on.
Western opinion-formers and policy-makers are virtually unanimous in modelling the transition process of the post-communist states in terms which imply their reconstruction on Western models and their integration into a coherent international order based on Western power and institutions. Underlying this virtually universal model are assumptions that are anachronistic and radically flawed. It assumes that the system of Western-led institutions which assured global peace and world trade in the post-war period can survive, substantially unchanged or even strengthened, the world-wide reverberations of the Soviet collapse; the only issue is how the fledgling post-communist states are to gain admission into these institutions. This assumption neglects the dependency of these institutions on the strategic environment of the Cold War and their unravelling, before our eyes, as the post-war settlement disintegrates.
The strategic consequence of the end of the Cold War has been the return to a pre-1914 world – with this difference, that the pre-1914 world was dominated by a single hegemonic power, Great Britain, whereas the return to nineteenth-century policies and modes of thinking in the United States leaves the world without any hegemonic power.
the Soviet collapse has triggered a meltdown in the post-war world order, and in the domestic institutions of the major Western powers, which has yet to run its course.
the crisis of Western transnational institutions is complemented by an ongoing meltdown of the various Western models of the nature and limits of market institutions in advanced industrial societies. The alienation of democratic electorates from established political elites is pervasive in Western societies, including the United States.
Contrary to Hayek, who generalizes from the English experience to put forward a grandiose theory of the spontaneous emergence of market institutions that is reminiscent in its unhistorical generality of Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx at their most incautious, the English example is a singularity, not an exemplar of any long-run historical trend. The English experience is sui generis, not a paradigm for the development of market institutions, because the unique combination of circumstances which permitted it to occur as it did – immemorial individualism and parliamentary absolutism, for example – were replicated nowhere else. Where market institutions did develop elsewhere on English lines, as in North America and Australasia, it was in virtue of the fact that English cultural traditions and legal practice had been exported there more or less wholesale. Market institutions of the English variety failed to take root where, as in India, their legal and cultural matrix was not successfully transplanted.
It is noteworthy that, until its collapse in 1991, the Swedish model performed well in respect of what was, perhaps, its principal achievement, an active labour policy that kept long-term unemployment very low, and so effectively prevented the growth of an estranged underclass of the multi-generationally unemployed.
The German or Rhine model of market institutions, as it developed in the post-war period up to reunification, was not the result of the application of any consistent theory, but rather of a contingent political compromise between a diversity of theoretical frameworks, of which the most important were the Ordoliberalismus of the Eucken or Frankfurt School and Catholic social theology. It represented a political settlement, also, between the principal interest groups in post-war Germany, including the newly constituted trade unions.
It would be false to imagine that China lacks ethnic conflict, or separatist movements. As a portent for the future, there appears to be an Islamic separatist movement in the far-western ‘autonomous region’ of Xinjiang, which has borders with the new republics of Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and with Afghanistan and Pakistan; and there are undoubtedly strong separatist movements in neighbouring Tibet and Mongolia. it would not be entirely surprising, but would in fact rather accord with long-term patterns in Chinese history, if the Chinese state were to fragment in the coming years, perhaps after the death of Deng Xiaoping;
market institutions have as their matrices particular cultural traditions, without whose undergirding support the frameworks of law by which they are defined are powerless or empty. Scottish thinkers, such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, who not unreasonably generalized from their own historical experience to such a connection, this result of their inquiries evoked anxiety as to the eventual fate of market institutions, since – like later thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter – they feared that individualism would consume the cultural capital on which market institutions relied for their renewal across the generations. Our experience suggests that such fears as to the ultimately self-defeating effects of market institutions that are animated by individualist cultural traditions are far from groundless.
The growth of lawlessness in Russia, the threat posed to social and business life by organized criminality, and the apparent powerlessness thus far of the Yeltsin government in the face of this threat, suggest that an authoritarian turn in Russian political life, whether by the Yeltsin government or by a successor, and whether or not the army has a decisive role in any subsequent authoritarian regime, would be in accord both with the exigencies of current circumstances and with Russian historical precedent. Authoritarian government is likely to emerge in Russia both in response to the dangers of fragmentation of the state and ensuing civil strife and as a response to growing criminal violence in everyday and business life.
The Soviet collapse, far from enhancing the stability of Western institutions, has destabilized them by knocking away the strategic props on which they stood. The prospect of the orderly integration of the post-communist states into the economic and security arrangements of the Western world is a mirage, not only because of the unprecedentedly formidable difficulties each of them confronts in its domestic development, but also because the major Western transnational institutions and organizations are themselves in a flux, amounting sometimes to dissolution.
The world-historical failure of the Enlightenment project – in political terms, the collapse and ruin, in the late twentieth century, of the secular, rationalist and universalist political movements, liberal as well as Marxist, that that project spawned, and the dominance in political life of ethnic, nationalist and fundamentalist forces – suggests the falsity of the philosophical anthropology upon which the Enlightenment project rested.
On the alternative view that I shall develop, the propensity to cultural difference is a primordial attribute of the human species; human identities are plural and diverse in their very natures, as natural languages are plural and diverse, and they are always variations on particular forms of common life, never exemplars of universal humanity.
The task for liberal theory, as I see it, is not vainly to resist the historical falsification of the universalist anthropology that sustained the Enlightenment philosophy of history, but to attempt to reconcile the demands of a liberal form of life with the particularistic character of human identities and allegiances – to retheorize liberalism as itself a particular form of common life.
Agonistic liberalism is that species of liberalism that is grounded, not in rational choice, but in the limits of rational choice – limits imposed by the radical choices we are often constrained to make among goods that are both inherently rivalrous, and often constitutively uncombinable, and sometimes incommensurable, or rationally incomparable. Agonistic liberalism is an application in political philosophy of the moral theory of value-pluralism – the theory that there is an irreducible diversity of ultimate values (goods, excellences, options, reasons for action and so forth) and that when these values come into conflict or competition with one another there is no overarching standard or principle, no common currency or measure, whereby such conflicts can be arbitrated or resolved.
Value-pluralism imposes limits on rational choice that are subversive of most standard moral theories, not merely of utilitarianism, and it has deeply subversive implications for all the traditional varieties of liberal theory.
The thesis of the incommensurability of values is then not a version of relativism, of subjectivism or of moral scepticism, though it will infallibly be confused with one or other of these doctrines: it is a species of moral realism, which we shall call objective pluralism. Its distinguishing features are that it limits the scope of rational choice among goods, affirming that they are often constitutively uncombinable and sometimes rationally incommensurable.
It is a fundamental contribution of Raz’s political philosophy to have shown that a rights-based political morality is an impossibility. rights claims are never primordial or foundational but always conclusionary, provisional results of long chains of reasoning which unavoidably invoke contested judgements about human interests and well-being.
If the truth of value-pluralism is assumed, such that there are no right answers in hard cases about the restraint of liberty, then it seems natural to treat questions of the restraint of liberty as political, and not as theoretical or jurisprudential questions.
Despite its self-description as political liberalism, then, Rawls’s is a liberalism that has been politically emasculated, in which nothing of importance is left to political decision, and in which political life itself has been substantially evacuated of content. The hollowing out of the political realm in Rawlsian liberalism is fatal to its self-description as a form of political liberalism and discloses its true character as a species of liberal legalism. The liberal legalism of Rawls and his followers is, perhaps, only an especially unambiguous example of the older liberal project, or illusion, of abolishing politics, or of so constraining it by legal and constitutional formulae that it no longer matters what are the outcomes of political deliberation. In Rawlsian liberal legalism, the anti-political nature of at least one of the dominant traditions of liberalism is fully realized.
In historical practice, the effect of attempting to abolish or to marginalize political life has been – especially in the United States, where legalism is strongest – the politicization of law, as judicial institutions have become arenas of political struggle. The end-result of this process is not, however, the simple transposition of political life into legal contexts, but rather the corrosion of political life itself. The treatment of all important issues of restraint of liberty as questions of constitutional rights has the consequence that they cease to be issues that are politically negotiable and that can be resolved provisionally in a political settlement that encompasses a compromise among conflicting interests and ideals. In conflicts about basic constitutional rights, there can be no compromise solutions, only judgements which yield unconditional victory for one side and complete defeat for the other.
Allegiance to a liberal state is, on this view, never primarily to principles which it may be thought to embody, and which are supposed to be compelling for all human beings; it is always to specific institutions, having a specific history, and to the common culture that animates them, which itself is a creature of historical contingency.
On the view being developed here, allegiance to a liberal state is always allegiance to the common culture it embodies or expresses, and, in the late modern context in which we live, such a common culture is typically a national culture.
the only things, on the account here defended, that can command allegiance. In our world they are nations, or the common forms of life which national cultures encompass and shelter. The point may be put in another, and perhaps a simpler way: there can be no form of allegiance that is purely political; political allegiance – at least when it is comparatively stable – presupposes a common cultural identity, which is reflected in the polity to which allegiance is given; political order, including that of a liberal state, rests upon a pre-political order of common culture.
As Berlin has put his position: The fact that the values of one culture may be incompatible with those of another, or that they are in conflict within one culture or group or in a single human being at different times – or, for that matter, at one and the same time – does not entail relativism of values, only the notion of a plurality of values not structured hierarchically; which, of course, entails the permanent possibility of inescapable conflict between values, as well as incompatibility between the outlooks of different civilisations or of stages of the same civilisation. He sums up his view: ‘Relativism is not the only alternative to universalism … nor does incommensurability entail relativism’.
Berlin’s point, which is surely correct, is that there may be a specifiable minimum universal content to morality, and some forms of life may be condemned by it; but the items which make up the minimum content may, and sometimes do, come into conflict with one another, there being no rational procedure for resolving such conflicts.
because the universal minimum in all of its variations underdetermines any liberal form of life, many of the regimes that meet the test of the universal minimum – probably the vast majority of such regimes to be found in human history – will not be liberal regimes.
The likely prospect, on all current trends, is not only of the East Asian societies overtaking Western liberal individualist societies in the economic terms of growth, investment, savings and living standards; it is also of their doing so while preserving and enhancing common cultural forms which assure to their subjects personal security in their everyday lives and a public environment that is rich in choiceworthy options. By contrast, the prospect for the Western individualist societies is one of economic development that is weak and feeble in a context of cultural impoverishment in which the remnants of a common culture are hollowed out by individualism and legalism. The prospect for the Western liberal societies, and particularly for those in which individualism and legalism have by now virtually delegitimized the very idea of a common culture, is that of a steep and rapid decline in which civil peace is fractured and the remnants of a common culture on which liberal forms of life themselves depend are finally dissipated. The self-undermining of liberal individualism, which Joseph Schumpeter anticipated in the mid-1940s, is likely to proceed apace, now that the Soviet collapse has removed the legitimacy borrowed by Western institutions from the enmity of a ruinous alternative, and the East Asian societies are released from the constraints of the post-war settlement to pursue paths of development that owe ever less to the West.
When our institutional inheritance – that precious and irreplaceable patrimony of mediating structures and autonomous professions – is thrown away in the pursuit of a managerialist Cultural Revolution seeking to refashion the entire national life on the impoverished model of contract and market exchange, it is clear that the task of conserving and renewing a culture is no longer understood by contemporary conservatives. In the context of such a Maoism of the Right, it is the permanent revolution of unfettered market processes, not the conservation of traditional institutions and professions, having each of them a distinctive ethos, that has become the ruling project of contemporary conservatism. At the same time, neo-liberalism itself can now be seen as a self-undermining political project. Its political success depended upon cultural traditions, and constellations of interests, that neo-liberal policy was bound to dissipate.
liberal civilization itself may be imperilled, in so far as its legitimacy has been linked with the utopia of perpetual growth powered by unregulated market processes, and the inevitable failure of this utopia spawns illiberal political movements. Indeed, unconstrained market institutions are bound to undermine social and political stability, particularly as they impose on the population unprecedented levels of economic insecurity with all the resultant dislocations of life in families and communities.
A central test of the readiness to think fresh thoughts is the way we think about market institutions. On the view defended here they are not ends in themselves but means or tools whose end is human well-being.
Indeed, among us, market liberalism is in its workings ineluctably subversive of tradition and community. This may not have been the case in Edmund Burke’s day, in which the maintenance of the traditions of whig England could coexist with a policy of economic individualism, but in our age a belief in any such harmony is a snare and a delusion. Among us, unlike the men and women of Burke’s day, markets are global, and also, in the case of capital markets, nearly instantaneous; free trade, if it too is global, operates among communities that are vastly more uneven in development than any that traded with one another in Burke’s time; and our lives are pervaded by mass media that transform tastes, and revolutionize daily habits, in ways that could be only dimly glimpsed by the Scottish political economists whom Burke so revered.
The social and cultural effects of market liberalism are, virtually without exception, inimical to the values that traditional conservatives hold dear. Communities are scattered to the winds by the gale of creative destruction. Endless ‘downsizing’ and ‘flattening’ of enterprises fosters ubiquitous insecurity and makes loyalty to the company a cruel joke. The celebration of consumer choice, as the only undisputed value in market societies, devalues commitment and stability in personal relationships and encourages the view of marriage and the family as vehicles of self-realization. The dynamism of market processes dissolves social hierarchies and overturns established expectations. Status is ephemeral, trust frail and contract sovereign. The dissolution of communities promoted by market-driven labour mobility weakens, where it does not entirely destroy, the informal social monitoring of behaviour which is the most effective preventive measure against crime.
Classical liberalism, or what I have termed market fundamentalism, is, like Marxism, a variation on the Enlightenment project, which is the project of transcending the contingencies of history and cultural difference and founding a universal civilization that is qualitatively different from any that has ever before existed.
In this paleo-liberal or libertarian view, the erosion of distinctive cultures by market processes is, if anything, to be welcomed as a sign of progress toward a universal rational civilization. Here paleo-liberalism shows its affinities not with European conservatism but with the Old Left project of doing away with, or marginalizing politically, the human inheritance of cultural difference. That this perspective is a hallucinatory and utopian one is clear if we consider its neglect of the sources not only of political allegiance but also of social order in common cultural forms. Market liberalism, like other Enlightenment ideologies, treats cultural difference as a politically marginal phenomenon whose appropriate sphere is in private life. It does not comprehend, or repudiates as irrationality, the role of a common culture in sustaining political order and in legitimizing market institutions.
Market liberalism is at its most utopian, however, in its conception of a global market society, in which goods, and perhaps people, move freely between economies having radically different stages of development and harbouring very different cultures.
Human beings need, more than they need the freedom of consumer choice, a cultural and economic environment that offers them an acceptable level of security and in which they feel at home.
The conservative idea of the primacy of cultural forms is meant to displace not only standard liberal conceptions of the autonomous human subject but also ideas of the autonomy of market institutions that liberal thought has been applied – or misapplied – to support. It is not meant to support nostalgist and reactionary conceptions of organic or integral community which have no application in our historical circumstances and which, if they were implemented politically, could end only in tragedy or – more likely in Britain – black comedy. The idea of a seamless community – the noumenal community, as we may call it, of communitarianism – is as much of a fiction as the autonomous subject of liberal theory. We all of us belong to many communities, we mostly inherit diverse ethnicities, and our world-views are fractured and provisional whether or not we know it or admit it. We harbour a deep diversity of views and values as to sexuality and the worth of human life, our relations with the natural environment and the special place, if any, of the human species in the scheme of things. The reactionary project of rolling back this diversity of values and world-views in the pursuit of a lost cultural unity overlooks the character of our cultural inheritance as a palimpsest, having ever deeper layers of complexity.
It is clear only that, for us at any rate, a common culture cannot mean a common world-view, religious or secular. It is an implication of all that I have said, however, that we have no option but to struggle to make our inheritance of liberal traditions work. At present, the principal obstacle we face in the struggle to renew our inheritance of liberal practice is the burden on thought and policy of market liberal dogma.
The central difficulty is that the enlargement of leisure that Mill, by contrast with the gloomier classical economists, expected to come from stability in population and output against a background of improvement in the industrial arts is occurring in the form of ever higher levels of involuntary unemployment. It may be that proposals for a basic or citizen’s income, where that is to be distinguished from the neo-liberal idea of a negative income tax, and for a better distribution of capital among the citizenry, need reconsideration – despite all their difficulties – as elements in a policy aiming to reconcile the human need for economic security with the destabilizing dynamism of market institutions.
Almost as significant in disclosing the Americocentric character of the new liberalism was its anaemic and impoverished conception of pluralism and cultural diversity. The incommensurability of values affirmed in doctrines of objective ethical pluralism was understood as arising in the formulation of personal plans of life rather than in conflicts among whole ways of life. And cultural diversity was conceived in the denatured form of a cornucopia of chosen lifestyles, each with its elective identity, rather than in the form in which it is found in the longer and larger experience of humankind – as the exfoliation of exclusionary forms of life, spanning the generations, membership of which is typically unchosen, and which tend to individuate themselves by their conflicts and by their historical memories of enmity.
The core project of the Enlightenment was the displacement of local, customary or traditional moralities, and of all forms of transcendental faith, by a critical or rational morality, which was projected as the basis of a universal civilization.
This is the project that animated Marxism and liberalism in all their varieties, which underpins both the new liberalism and neo-conservatism, and to which every significant body of opinion in the United States continues to subscribe.
That liberal individuality is, in practice, invariably a prescription for abject conformity to prevailing bien-pensant opinion is, on the view being presented here, not the chief objection to it. The most disabling feature of these and other constitutive elements of the new liberalism is what they all betoken – namely, a rejection of the political enterprise itself, and of its animating value of peace.
For the pluralist, the practice of politics is a noble engagement, precisely on account of the almost desperate humility of its purposes – which are to moderate the enmity of agonistic identities, and to generate conventions of peace among warring communities. The pluralist embrace of politics is, for these reasons, merely a recognition of the reality of political life, itself conceived as an abatement of war.
from the truth of a plurality of incommensurable values the priority of one of them – liberty, autonomy or choice-making, say – cannot follow. Value-pluralism cannot entail, or ground, liberalism in any general, still less universal way.
Pluralists reject this Old Right project for the same reason that they reject the Enlightenment project. Both seek to roll back the reality of cultural diversity for the sake of an imaginary condition of cultural unity – whether that be found in a lost past or in a supposed future condition of the species in which cultural difference has been marginalized in a universal civilization. Both perspectives are alien to that of the pluralist, which takes the reality of cultural difference as a datum of political order.
A pluralist political order may nevertheless deviate from the central institutions of a liberal civil society at crucial points. It need not, and often will not possess an individualist legal order in which persons are the primary rights-bearers. The principal bearers of rights (and duties) in a pluralist political order will be communities, or ways of life, not individuals.
The pluralist standard of assessment of any regime is whether it enables its subjects to coexist in a Hobbesian peace while renewing their distinctive forms of common life. … By this standard, the current regime in China might well be criticized for its policies in Tibet; but such a criticism would invoke the intrinsic value of the communities and cultural forms now being destroyed in Tibet, not universalist conceptions of human rights or democracy.
Here I think Raz has grasped a point of fundamental importance, perceived by Mill but not by Rawls – that a liberal state cannot be neutral with regard to illiberal forms of life coming within its jurisdiction. Or, to put the matter still more shortly, Raz is entirely correct in seeing liberalism itself as a whole way of life, and not merely a set of political principles or institutions. The trouble is that, if value-pluralism is true at the level of whole ways of life, then the liberal form of life can have no special or universal claim on reason.
In the late modern period in which we live, the Enlightenment project is affirmed chiefly for fear of the consequences of abandoning it.
(The United States is, as ever, an exception in this regard, since in it both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist affirmations of the Enlightenment project remain strong. The collapse of these fundamentalisms in the United States, however, were it to occur, would likely be accompanied by an outbreak of nihilism of a violence and intensity unknown in other Western countries; such an outcome is prefigured in much contemporary North American art, literature and popular entertainment.)
There can, in my view, be no rolling back the central project of modernity, which is the Enlightenment project, with all its consequences in terms of disenchantment and ultimate groundlessness. … the thought of Nietzsche, especially but not exclusively his thinking about morality, is unavoidably and rightly the starting-point of serious reflection for us, at the close of the modern age which the Enlightenment project, in all its diversity, inaugurated.
the political forms which may arise in truly post-Enlightenment cultures will be those that shelter and express diversity – that enable different cultures, some but by no means all or even most of which are dominated by liberal forms of life, different world-views and ways of life, to coexist in peace and harmony. For this development to be a real historical possibility, however, certain conceptions and commitments that have been constitutive, not merely of the Enlightenment and so of modernity, but also, and more fundamentally, of the central traditions of Western civilization, must be amended, or abandoned. Certain conceptions, not only of morality but also of science, that are central elements in Enlightenment cultures must be given up. Certain understandings of religion, long established in Western traditions, not as a vessel for a particular way of life but rather as the bearer of truths possessing universal authority, must be relinquished. The most fundamental Western commitment, the humanist conception of humankind as a privileged site of truth, which is expressed in Socratic inquiry and in Christian revelation, and which re-emerges in secular and naturalistic form in the Enlightenment project of human self-emancipation through the growth of knowledge, must be given up.
Further, and perhaps decisively, once liberal practice is released from the hallucinatory perspective of liberal theory, it will be seen for what it always was – not a seamless garment, but a patchwork quilt, stitched together and restitched in response to the flux of circumstance. … If, as I believe, liberal practice is best conceived as a miscellany of ad-hoc improvisations, made over the generations in the pursuit of a modus vivendi, then no part of it can be regarded as sacrosanct; it can, and should, be rewoven, or unravelled, as circumstances and changing human needs dictate.
The conception of the natural world as an object of human exploitation, and of humankind as the master of nature, which informs Bacon’s writings, is one of the most vital and enduring elements of the modern world-view, and the one which Westernization has most lastingly and destructively transmitted to non-Western cultures.
In this last period of modernity, Western instrumental reason becomes globalized at just the historic moment when its groundlessness is manifest. The embodiment of instrumental reason in modern technology acquires a planetary reach precisely when the animating humanist project which guided it is overthrown. Nothing remains of this project but the expansion of human productive powers through the technological domination of the earth. It is this conjunction of the global spread of the Western humanist project with the self-undermining of its most powerful modern embodiment in the Enlightenment that warrants the claim that we find ourselves now at the close of the modern age.
In truth, the likelihood is that, now that the imperatives of the Cold War period are over, the European countries and the United States will increasingly decouple, not only strategically and economically, but also culturally, so that their cultural and political differences will become more, not less, decisive. It is difficult to believe that the forms of liberal culture will not diverge greatly, as a result of this likely decoupling, between the United States and the various European nations. Indeed, even as things stand now, Rorty’s post-modern liberalism is an expression of American hopes, which are far from being shared by other liberal cultures, such as those in Europe.
For liberalism to become merely one form of life among others would involve as profound a cultural metamorphosis as Christianity’s ceasing to make any claim to unique and universal truth.
The surrender of the will to power has its most important application in our relations with other forms of life, and with the earth. The project of subjecting the earth and its other life-forms to human will through technological domination is Western humanism in its final form.