Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cahoone and "Neutralist" Liberalism

The starting point of Lawrence E. Cahoone's Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics is that the "neutralist or proceduralist liberalism" of left and right (i.e. Rawls and Nozick) is inadequate.

[Neutralism] either contributes to chronic social problems or blocks attempts to address them. Most troublesome is the rigid distinction of the political from the social and particularly the cultural spheres of life.

The problem is that "political theory has become more specialized, purified, and rationalized... Active citizenship, the language of public duty, and... cultural context..." have been cast aside by our liberal friends. Politics reduces to "rights, opportunity, and prosperity." For libertarians it reduces to "individual liberty;" for egalitarian liberals to "individual liberty plus cash." Missing from this view of society is the idea that politics and economics issue from society; they are not free-floating universal ideas good in themselves. The Good must be anchored in actual people and actual community.

This notion is the increasingly ubiquitous idea of "civil society" and Cahoone defines it in four ways.

First, civil society expresses the "priority of the social, the conviction that extant societies gain their norms from within, not from government, Church, or military organizations."

Second, Cahoone states the importance of "spontaneity," the idea that civil society lives in a space between the contractual relations of Toennies' "Gesellschaft" and the "Gemeinschaft of shared traditional morality."

Third, civil society is "intrinsically local," arising out of people living together or living near each other. Nineteenth century Populism was an attempt to express this against the hegemony of elites.

Fourth, for Cahoone, civil society means holism, "the total ensemble of social relations and culture." It is that whole that should drive "political affairs."

Of course, it is the holist view, that society and culture should drive politics, that is problematic for our liberal friends. The whole thrust of modern liberals is to short-circuit the local and traditional--experienced by liberals as benighted and cramped--in favor of the universal and global. But it is, of course, their politics of the universal that has bombed the local community to rubble, and bombed until it bounced the local community of lower income folks that have a less robust defense against the hegemony of the elites than the ordinary middle class. It is the opposition to the local and the particular that drives liberal opposition to modern conservatism, modern enthusiastic Christianity, and most recent of all, liberal opposition to the Tea Party.

Lawrence Cahoone, using modern philosophical ideas deveoloped in the last 50 years, says that "neutralist" liberalism can't deliver the kind of society that most of us want. What does that mean? It means that sooner or later, "most of us" will insist on change, whether liberals like it or not.

Frankly, we'd prefer that liberals work with us on this. But there is always the other possibility, that liberals will fight rather than switch.

That would be a shame.

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