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Community and identity in late modernity: Part Four

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 25, 2008

Might it be possible to try to quasi-empirically measure the strength of a person's identifications with different communities? How would one draw the boundaries between what constitutes a differentiated identification (e.g., a person's Frenchness, or a person's politico-philosophical outlook) and what would be the most reliable indicator for the strength of a person's identification (e.g., although someone may listen to rock-music for five hours a day, they are thinking about France for most of those hours).

Real traditionalists today are completely repelled by crude systems of class, or "ascriptive class privilege". The brazen exploitation of human being by human being is both untenable and unattractive. At the same time, however, traditionalists argue against the "new class", or "overclass", or "new oligarchy" which they see as becoming instituted after the 1960s. Traditionalists might indeed interpret the ultimate meaning of "the Sixties' revolutions" as resulting in the final passing away of a more traditional-minded, and probably more restrained elite, by people who – regardless of whether they had claimed to be idealistic in the Sixties or not – tended to move in the direction of becoming little more than another form of oligarchy. Traditionalists today are against the rule of these (mostly liberal) rich. [1]

Some might argue, for example, that "the real world" of the North American media is probably just as exclusive an oligarchy as any other. [2] Traditionalists may sometimes be amazed to see how nasty the current oligarchy can be, especially to truly powerless people who are neither well-connected, nor considered as emphatically part of the rainbow sectoral groups.  It is also quite unrewarding to anyone who (for one reason or another) isn't an "insider", e.g., an old, dedicated Labourite campaign worker who gets a button from the Leader for 40 years of slaving for the Party. It would be quite interesting indeed to do some serious scholarly inquiry into how the current-day elites really function – without moving into the too-predictable grooves of the usual left-liberal sectoral formulations.

There is a somewhat obvious critique of contemporary liberalism to be made, to whit, that although liberalism promisesfreedom, "freedom of choice" in regard to one's beliefs, and absence of prior constraint, it in fact gives no real opportunity to people to choose anything other than itself. This argument about the "sub rosa social totalitarianism" of liberalism was made by conservatives (and some eclectic left-wingers) already decades ago. Given that people are exposed to millions of hours of media images and sounds (MTV, etc.) virtually from birth, the chances that they will not be broadly liberal by eighteen are infinitesimal. The media images drip, drip, drip into the person, and melt (meld) into their personal essence.  One can never underestimate the extreme conditioning power of media, in all its various dimensions. The searing electronic medium in its visual and auditory aspects is certainly a truly new element in human history. It could be argued that, rather than enhancing creativity, imagination, and "re-enchanting" the world, it in fact undermines real creativity and real imagination, and ultimately deconstructs reality.

Another very important consideration is the very marked weakness of "the public-political realm" today, in most people's daily lives, as opposed to, for example, "the rock and rap-music world", or "the sports world", etc. One might ask pointedly: how many times has John Rawls been on CNN? A rather utopian goal one could aim for, is that as much of the fundamental political and decision-making realm would be contained within the formal organized party structures (of a wide spectrum of ideologies) of a given country; as little as possible located in economic, media, and "special-interest" sectors (of whatever type).

It might be argued that the importance of Rawls (for example) is mostly only within his own relatively small community (i.e., political philosophy in the academy). A more optimum strategy might be to try to participate in as large a number of possible communities as possible. One can probably appeal to a greater possible number of persons in that way.

Figures such as Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O'Rourke, and especially Camille Paglia, are to be admired for their "media-savvy". They are what could be called "media intellectuals", and are themselves pop-culture icons, as opposed to academics, however brilliant, who stay strictly within the academy. (Paglia was initially teaching at a little-known American college.) It is their ideas, phrases, and vocabularies that seep into the general consciousness through the media. Even the very traditionalist Canadian thinker George Parkin Grant, as a "public philosopher", played up to certain elements of the media, and had a sort of well-defined media image -- as the gruff, kind-hearted "profound critic", and "pure lover of wisdom".)

When reading the social democratic Gad Horowitz's excellent piece in By Loving Our Own: George Grant and the Legacy of Lament for a Nation (1990) (an anthology of essays on Grant's thought), one can be in almost complete agreement with his condemnation of aristocratic privilege, and of its deficiencies. It's possible that most traditionalists would agree with the idea of a guaranteed annual income, but it would have to be realistically pegged (in North America) at about $15,000, not $30,000 a year (Beiner had suggested the latter figure in his 1992 book, What's the Matter with Liberalism?) [3] Unfortunately, his economic plans, as presented in the book, seem clearly unworkable, economically-speaking. One might also wonder if getting a substantial guaranteed income in the range of $30,000 a year would, realistically-speaking, necessarily improve a person, or in fact lead to some kind of return to a sense of community in North America today?

The author saw, some time ago, a televised talk between the editor of Tikkun, Michael Lerner, and William Bennett on CNN, where he was drawn to far greater agreement with Lerner than with Bennett. It might well be true that many Americans are too selfish, as Lerner argued. But is it not true – as Lerner obviously did [ul]not[ul] argue -- that the repudiation of personal selfishness is most effectively done in the name of what could be pointedly called "a higher selfishness", i.e., that of one's own family or one's real community? One cannot usually love all humanity together, in the abstract.

Also, there is the contrast of someone with great social authority (or what is considered as authority today)  vs. someone with great economic resources. There is also the fact that someone with vast economic wealth may choose to live a relatively spartan or relatively virtuous existence.

Traditionalist social critics also have the politically realistic if very pointed view that there are always in every society "the rulers" (ultimate decision-makers) and "the ruled" -- however many attempts there are to mask this. A possible critique of the liberal New Class is precisely that it lacks some kind of moral code that would in any sense restrain its excesses, both in terms of the effective suppression of its opponents, as well as in its virtually unlimited self-indulgence. The condemnation of the liberal New Class is precisely that it is in some senses one of the worst ruling classes in history. There is also the excellent point that the distance in lifestyle between the so-called North American superrich (who considerably overlap with the liberal New Class), and the rest of the people, is probably the greatest that has ever existed in history. The superrich are really in their own world.

It is also ironic that it frequently happens that those who talk the most about "the rich", the "two nations" in America, and so forth, are often those who are closest to the real establishment, and derive the most advantages from the system (a good example of such a figure being Robert B. Reich, see especially his book, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (1991)).

Is there not also some case to be made in trying to differentiate – at least in theory -- between those poor in current-day society who have fallen into poverty because of circumstances quite beyond their control, and those who have fallen prone to various bad lifestyle habits. The latter group of people should not perhaps reflexively generate such searing moral anguish among society as whole. The writings of Theodore Dalrymple, for example, give a rather depressing picture of life among at least some of the current-day poor, in which he avoids the usual liberal sentimentalism.

Another important issue is whether there can be true "erotic" politics of any sort, without some kind of agonistically constituted exclusion, subordination, and closure of options (as I recall John Gray [4] writing)? It is, unfortunately, frequently though not always true that the "hot ecstacies" of the Gemeinschaft can also lead to attacks on other peoples.
It may be suggested that the emphasis on the all-determining nature of culture is a way of possibly rescuing "nationalism" from its critics. Though there clearly are some purely physical characteristics shared in common by some proportion of a given people, culture clearly involves things such as mannerisms, clothes, and, of course, language, which cannot really be divorced when we "conjure" a picture of a given nationality in our minds. Theoretically, let us say, anyone can be a French person, if they are culturally socialized as a French person, though what might be called "the physical resistances" are greater in the case of certain highly dissimilar groups. However, much of that may in fact be due to very strong, prior cultural identities of dissimilar groups. It is difficult to precisely define "ethnicity" -- it is not an entirely cultural, but neither is it an entirely somatic phenomenon. Today, however, in most Western countries, ideas of exclusion, or of assimilation, are seen as almost equally repugnant – although they are in fact much different concepts.

The collection edited by Amy Gutmann, consisting of a major essay by Charles Taylor, and commentary by other prominent figures, including Michael Walzer, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1992) is an important contribution to the scholarly debate over "community". (It was followed by an expanded collection of essays on the same theme, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994).) The essay by Michael Walzer defends "one liberal culture". His vision is of ethnicities (folkloric) within a single liberal culture. This is in contrast with the "new multiculturalism" or what some would call true multiculturalism, which has overtones of a "loss of a center", and "the postmodern mood".

To be continued. ESR


[1] It's interesting that the frequently seen liberal condemnations of "the rich" almost never extend to entertainment celebrities and sport-stars, or high-ranking bureaucrats. One can suppose it's presumed that the "bien pensant" opinions of most celebrities, sport-stars, and high-ranking government bureaucrats make them exempt from any such criticism. Nevertheless, even high-ranking government bureaucrats do not necessarily make outrageous salaries. But it could be argued that the income of many celebrities is probably far more grotesquely inflated, and usually received for far more morally dubious activities, than that of many CEOs. 

[2] Orwell had suggested the current-day regime would dwell on such abuses in past history as the droit de seigneur to demonize the past – continually reinforcing the lesson that the past was horrible. Yet, has not current-day society created a difficult-to-avoid climate of sleaze for virtually every young woman alive today? Looking at what could be called "evils of the old type" one often finds that current-day society has considerable "evils of the new type" that also pose great challenges to society and the sense of the ethical.

[3] One of the ideas behind the guaranteed annual income is the hoped-for reduction of government bureaucracy. Is it at all possible to do studies examining the ratio between what is spent on administration, and the amount of support actually delivered to the needy person? Another issue to be considered is that benefits such as food stamps (in the US), low-cost housing, and free medical care, could be at least informally considered as part of one's income. And some persons on welfare can have "gray-market" as well as clearly illicit sources of income that obviously do not appear officially. On the other hand, the typical working person in the US has to pay "full price" for food, housing, and medical care (usually through private medical insurance) out of his or her annual income – as well as paying at least some income tax. Indeed, the plight of the "working poor" has drawn greater attention in recent years.

[4] The well-known British political theorist John Gray, formerly at Jesus College, Oxford, now teaches at the London School of Economics.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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