Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
Can the liberal political ideals of individual freedom and equality be rethought coherently while being stripped of their Enlightenment trappings?
With the demise of modernist civic culture -- i.e., the form of civic culture based upon the doctrines of modernist liberal political theory, we must invent the resources for a new form of civic culture if liberal democracy is to survive. But can this be done? Can the central normative doctrines defining the liberal political ideals of individual freedom and equality be rethought coherently while being stripped of their universalist and essentialist Enlightenment trappings?
This is the question, then, that defines perhaps the most formidable intellectual and cultural challenge that we (i.e., we citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies) now face. One of the most significant obstacles we must overcome is the lingering influence of modernist liberal political theory itself. For where the vocabulary of modernist liberal political theory is still influential, it continues to generate universalist discourses and perspectives that do not even allow proper the definition and understanding of the task facing us. This is because modernist liberal political philosophy was built upon a denial of the particularistic character of the civic culture that liberal political institutions require for their support.
The form of civic culture based upon modernist liberal doctrine was a strange form of civic culture indeed. Essential to Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge was their claim to articulate a standpoint that transcends all culturally particularistic and historically-conditioned belief. The universalism of Enlightenment culture appealed to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century proto-liberals because, in an age rife with religious and class warfare, the conflicts between particularistic local cultures seemed to them to be the central political problem. The idea of a political program whose basic ideas and agenda could claim derivation from absolutely universal, culture-neutral principles had an irresistible rhetorical appeal.
But the universalism and essentialism that governed Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge and truth, when applied politically, tended to conceal systematically the particularistic cultural requirements for the support of liberal political institutions. Modernist liberalism appropriated Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge and truth for use as rhetorical weapons against the remnants of feudalism. Modernist liberal political philosophy presented itself as a purely theoretical discourse articulating discoveries about the essence of human political association. As such, it constituted the first political ideology, the prototype of all those that were to follow in its wake.
Modernist liberalism did not originally conceive of itself as an attempt to provide the conceptual foundations of a particularistic form of political culture. It adopted a (purportedly) culture-neutral vocabulary to achieve its culturally particularistic rhetorical and political goals. As a result, it not only concealed its own political function, but also tended to discourage systematic reflection on the characteristics of the particularistic political culture required for the support of liberal democratic institutions. Yet, paradoxically, in spite of its posture of cultural neutrality, modernist liberalism provided the basis of the peculiar form of civic culture that became increasingly influential in Western countries throughout the nineteenth century and that finally achieved dominance in the twentieth.
How Enlightenment universalism served cultural particularism
This form of civic culture was characterized by a distinctive interpretation of the normative standpoint of liberal citizenship. Modernist liberalism took over the classical republican political ideals of freedom and equality and gave them a radically non-classical twist.
Liberal democracy, as an historically specific form of political association, begins with the assumption that a liberal democracy will be composed of a number of diverse ethnic, class, and religious communities and assumes therefore that the citizens of a liberal democracy will disagree in their answers to the most basic questions of human life. Liberal political institutions are designed to function in spite of such disagreement -- or, perhaps better, to function best when such disagreement exists. The liberal state, however differently its legislative, executive, and judicial mechanisms may be designed to meet local historical and political circumstances, is above all designed to rule over persons who are willing to associate with one another in spite of the fact that they, as members of different ethnic, class, and religious communities, pursue conflicting conceptions of the good life.
To make such rule a practical possibility, the citizens of a liberal democracy must be shaped by a political culture that supports the exercise of civic virtues such as tolerance of difference, a disposition to resolve disputes rationally (in a special sense), and a personal acceptance and attribution to others of individual (as opposed to group or collective) responsibility for actions. In short, for liberal political institutions to work, citizens must undergo a very unusual and difficult process of individualization, a process by which they must come to identify themselves both as members of particularistic ethnic, class, and religious communities and as members of a civic community that regards them as free and equal individuals -- i.e., that disregards the rankings, privileges, and responsibilities they hold within any particularistic cultural community.
Thus, the normative standpoint of liberal citizenship -- i.e., the ideal standpoint of the ideal citizen of an ideal liberal democracy -- requires persons to develop a capacity to define themselves and others effectively within two very different and often conflicting cultural and moral perspectives. Specifically, citizens whose identities have already been shaped by some particularistic cultural conception of the good life must learn to view themselves and others apart from the ranking systems, the standards of excellence, the concepts of virtue, etc. that normally determine their judgments as members of particularistic ethnic, class, or religious communities.
Within the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European ethnic and religious conflict, modernist liberal doctrine had to assign a name to this normative standpoint of liberal citizenship. Since the rhetorical imperative faced by modernist liberals was to avoid identification of their political program with established warring ethnic and religious factions, they naturally sought to identify this normative standpoint of liberal citizenship in the most universalistic and culture-neutral terms. As a result, the normative standpoint of free and equal civic individuality came to be conceived of as the standpoint proper to the natural pre-political condition of all human beings -- or, alternatively, as the universal standpoint proper to the faculty of autonomous human reason. In this way, the modernist liberal conception of the normative standpoint of liberal citizenship became inextricably linked to Enlightenment conceptions of reason and nature.
Concealing the cultural presuppositions of liberty
Today we see this universalist conception of the idealized standpoint of liberal citizenship as a rhetorical strategy. Needless to say, that was not the way that the founders of modernist liberal political theory understood their doctrines. For them, all serious cognitive efforts specifically excluded rhetorical calculation and embellishment.
Nevertheless, as a rhetorical strategy, it was successful because it provided a vocabulary in which a set of entirely novel political norms and structures could be described as "natural." Liberal political philosophers could show that the coercive and objective order of nature itself made all human beings as such -- in their natural or pre-political condition, at least -- free and equal individuals. Liberal political norms, economic structures and organizational principles could henceforth, in the language of the Enlightenment, claim derivation from the natural order of things. Feudal social and economic structures could then be identified as arbitrary arrangements in need of special explanation and justification.
But feudal structures are invariably tied to local cultures and histories. They cannot be explained and justified by reference to the universal and coercive order of nature -- an order that is always the same everywhere. Feudal economic and political structures could thus easily be shown to be subversions of the natural freedom and equality of individuals. In this way, the rhetoric of modernist liberalism pretty much turned the "natural order of things" on its head.
It doesn’t require much anthropological or historical insight today for us to realize that, if any type of economic and social organizational principles can be called "natural," then it would be the type of feudal organizational principles that modernist liberalism attacked as unnatural. Hierarchical structures grounded in local ethnic, class, and religious cultures in fact do represent the "natural order of things" in matters political -- i.e., these are the sort of political structures that we find most frequently and spontaneously occurring in human groups. On the other hand, it is the sort of political norms and institutions that modernist liberalism claimed to be in conformity with nature that, if any, are utterly unnatural in this sense. That is to say, such norms and institutions can find widespread acceptance and can flourish only rarely and under the most extraordinarily favorable economic and cultural conditions.
It is this fact that the universalist political rhetoric of modernist liberalism was forced systematically to conceal. Classical republicanism understood all too well how rare and fragile was the flower of political liberty. Classical republicans, both ancient and modern, reflected incessantly about the cultural presuppositions of political liberty. They were almost obsessive in their awareness of the threats to liberty produced by class, ethnic and religious factionalism.
But modernist liberalism is another story. To the extent that modernist liberalism spoke the cognitive and moral language of the Enlightenment, liberal political institutions had to be presented as those that would in fact occur spontaneously everywhere in the absence of obstacles created by arbitrary and oppressive regimes. Liberal political norms had to be presented as those that would in fact be affirmed spontaneously by all human beings in the absence of superstition and priestly domination. Thus, the rhetoric of modernist liberalism was governed by a logic that systematically concealed or at least de-emphasized the unique cultural requirements for the flourishing of liberal political institutions.
Thinking our way beyond the Enlightenment
This feature of modernist liberalism continued to produce well into the twentieth century a blindness to the vital role of the very peculiar sort of political culture that is required to support liberal democratic institutions.
For example, what sort of perception of political reality allowed Americans at the end of the Second World War to impose upon the Japanese a liberal democratic constitution so alien to their national culture -- and to impose it with the expectation that it would "take" and produce a nation of liberal democrats? What is it that led American governments since then to repeat the same mistake again and again in innumerable peasant societies? Of course, such policies can easily be explained as pretexts, as elements of an economic strategy to open foreign markets and a Cold War strategy to impose friendly liberal regimes everywhere in order to "stop the spread of communism."
But such a strategy would make no sense even as a pretext in the absence of a belief that liberal democratic political regimes were somehow expressions of the natural order of things. During the Cold War, liberals continued to view liberal democracy as the political order that people everywhere would spontaneously choose if they were genuinely permitted to do so. Liberal democratic regimes were imposed in the name of universal and natural human rights. Where such regimes did not exist, liberals believed that it was because those universal human rights were not recognized by backward and oppressive governments.
Ironically, the war against fascism and the Cold War extended the influence of modernist liberal rhetoric well beyond the time that its intellectual credibility had effectively ceased. John Dewey’s project of rethinking the conceptual foundations of liberalism early in this century could not possibly have been as influential as it was had it not spoken to a widespread sense that the world view of the Enlightenment had lost its relevance.
But, during their long struggles against various forms of fascism and Marxism, Western liberal democracies found themselves opposed by enemies that, in different ways, provided a set of purely political motives for adherence to the doctrines of modernist liberalism. Fascism, with its virulent and nihilistic cultural particularism that was itself produced by a reaction to universalist Enlightenment values, seemed to demonstrate the cataclysmic political consequences of any abandonment of modernist cultural universalism.
On the other hand, in Marxism, Western liberal democracies faced an enemy armed with a world view no less rooted in the universalist culture of the Enlightenment than was modernist liberalism itself. In the same way that modernist liberals spoke of universal human rights deriving from the natural human condition, Marxists spoke of universal history -- the class struggle, the laws of capitalist accumulation, the stages of development toward socialism, and so on. Both sides supported their political agendas by offering grand historical metanarratives that provided totalizing narrative representations of the march of human events. In advancing these totalizing visions, both sides appealed to the doctrine that, through the application of one or another cognitive method, human beings can successfully free themselves from the limiting perspectives imposed by historical conditions and adopt the transcendent standpoint of universal human reason.
In this way, both fascism and Marxism during the middle years of this century provoked a cultural reaction in the West that strengthened the political appeal of modernist liberal rhetoric even as the intellectual credibility of its assumptions continued to erode.
Toward a non-ideological civic culture
With the end of the Cold War, this artificially extended life of modernist liberalism has now ended. The universalist and essentialist philosophical vocabulary of the Enlightenment, the language used by liberals to explain and advocate the establishment of liberal political institutions, is now irretrievably lost.
Central to the cultural project of the Enlightenment was the doctrine of the autonomy of human reason. This doctrine expressed the belief that human reason, on its own, using methods derived from an analysis of its own powers, could transcend the limits imposed by historical circumstances and attain universally valid knowledge. It is this doctrine that simply no longer makes sense in the world that has emerged in the course of the twentieth century.
In this world, we are everywhere confronted with the inescapable reality of cultural difference and the power of historical circumstance to shape belief. In this world, the particularism of the cultural assumptions underlying liberal political doctrine is also impossible to deny. In this world, liberal political institutions can no longer be credibly explained and justified by appeal to self-evident truths, universal natural law, the principles of pure practical reason, or any other supposedly culture-neutral metaphysical or epistemological theory.
If liberalism is to survive the collapse of Enlightenment culture, liberals must now attempt to de-universalize or contextualize their political language, to learn to explain and advocate liberal democratic moral ideals in a vocabulary that can express the particularism of liberal political norms without thereby invalidating them.
In undertaking this cultural project, the challenges we face are many and significant. Even though the conceptual underpinnings of modernist liberalism have lost their credibility, the essentialist and totalizing language of modernist liberalism continues to be virtually the only political language available to us. As a result, all postmodernist initiatives in the sphere of political discourse are easily subject to misunderstanding. As noted above, in appropriating the universalist rhetoric of the Enlightenment, modernist liberalism systematically concealed the particularistic character of the political culture required for the support of liberal political institutions.
As a result, a vocabulary that allows us to comprehend and speak of liberal political norms in their cultural particularism can easily be taken as one that embodies a rejection of the validity of those norms. Out of this misperception arises the usual accusations that postmodern political vocabularies support "relativistic" or nihilistic world views. Such accusations have the effect of identifying liberal democracy as a form of political association once and for all with the defunct cultural vocabulary and world view of the Enlightenment.
Such an identification would prevent us from undertaking, in the manner of classical republicanism, the sort of reflection upon the unique cultural presuppositions of liberal democracy, the sort of reflection that alone can open the way to the creation of a post-Enlightenment civic culture capable of supporting liberal political institutions in the years ahead. This sort of final identification of liberal democracy with the vocabulary of modernist liberalism constitutes a failure of imagination of fateful proportions and must be avoided at all costs.
Page last edited: January 29, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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