Blogs > Cliopatria > Individualism and community, beginnings of a follow-up

Apr 16, 2004 3:44 pm

Individualism and community, beginnings of a follow-up

Lawrence Krubner asked in the comments on my post below:"What does the word community mean? I'd like to see this conversation continue and go deeper." He posted a longer reply here.

I'm not comfortable with the word"liberal" myself, because I do disagree with the worldview of what Krubner describes as the"foundation texts" of Western liberalism:

The foundational texts of liberalism are those of John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill - all of which emphasize the rights of the individual against the state and society. Locke suggested a social contract existed, and people held certain rights in their natural state which they did not abandon when they joined human society. These texts also suggest that individualism, even extremely selfish and self-centered individualism, is good for society. Consider Smith's insistence that an individual, pursuing their own self-interest often does more for society than the person who sets out to do good.
If Schwyzer has a way of reconciling liberalism to communitarianism, I'd like to hear it. That would, indeed, be very original...

Perhaps Krubner is pushing the individualism of these classical liberals too hard. But if he is accurate, then of course, there is an ideological and theological divide between evangelical Christianity and liberalism. One problem in this country is that the left is split between its"libertarian" (classical liberal) and"social justice progressive" (communitarian) wings, in much the same way that the right is split between its"libertarian" and"social conservative" branches. A number of evangelicals whom I know are comfortable in the"social justice progressive" camp, but not the"libertarian" group. In other words, we believe that Christians have a spiritual and moral obligation to strive for justice and peace. These are biblical mandates for us. But the extension of justice and peace is not coterminous with maximizing individual freedom! Indeed, it is often quite the opposite, as it seems certain that much injustice results from the abuse of personal freedom.

Krubner worries about the Christian (and secular communitarian) concern with community, and how it undermines classical liberalism. He writes:

What do people really mean when they say they want more community? I'm wary. America seems to me an easy country to meet new people. There is a great variety of organizations to join. It takes very little effort - a free hour or two each week and you can join up with a new group of people who share at least one interest in common with you. In fact, forming community, in this sense, is so easy, that I'm fairly sure that when people talk about wanting more community, they are talking about something else entirely. I'm wary, as I said before. I'm wary - I worry that people are actually talking about non-voluntary forms of community. (Emphasis is mine).

With all due respect to Mr. Krubner, the idealization of solely"voluntary" communities is, I think wishful thinking. The most basic form of community is the family, which in most instances one enters in a decidedly involuntary fashion. We don't pick our parents, our culture, our homeland. Our earliest human experiences are formed not in a democratic community, nor (ideally) in a totalitarian dictatorship. Good families do impose involuntary obligations on their members (ranging from changing one's children's diapers to changing one's mother's diapers), but good families also allow their adult members to choose to opt out of family life.

Christian political thought, back to Paul, used the image of the body as the best way to represent the interconnectedness of the human family and the church. Paul says"the eye cannot say to the hand, I don't need you". As a social justice progressive, I worry that classical liberalism is taking the side of the eye! Radical individualism (which has historically been an ideology which only wealthy men could practice) is the denial of the very kinds of basic responsibilities which Christians see as central to our vision of the body and community. Feeding the homeless, caring for the immigrant, providing health care to the sick -- these are not choices. They are obligations. A progressive vision that I can and will embrace will insist that those among us who see ourselves as least bound by obligations to the larger community begin to take notice of the hands, the feet, and the other parts of the body.

So, no, by the classical definition, I am no liberal. Perhaps on issues where our beliefs coincide (like opposition to the war in Iraq, concern for the poor in this country, opposition to capital punishment) Christian progressives and secular liberals can work together. But on other issues (most obviously the"life" issues like abortion and euthanasia), we may be forced to take opposing sides from our dear friends.

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More Comments:

Ed Schmitt - 4/17/2004

This is a very interesting post, and in many ways it gets at the difficulties we all have when we become too governed by the conventional political and intellectual spectrum of conservative and liberal (which I think can be devastating to debate and growth). Picking up on some of what Mr. Luker said, William Lee Miller long ago contended that Protestantism has shaped this political spectrum, causing it to become a "common unchallenged set of assumptions that are not argued, but taken for granted as self-evident," infusing it with an "anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional, anti-corporate strand" which has run counter to the corporatism described by Mr. Schwyzer with regard to Paul's conception of the Church. Catholicism has tended to be more comfortable with this type of corporatist, communitarian vision. As a result, Andrew Greeley has written that "the liberal/conservative paradigm cannot cope with the Catholic propensity to support liberal policies on government intervention and egalitarianism and convservative policies in response to crime." John McGreevy's recent excellent study on the ambivalent and turbulent relationship between American Catholicism and political liberalism bears this out as well. Of course, Catholicism does not have a hold on communitarian thought (even among religious traditions, of course,as Judaism has a strong communitarian strand as does the Social Gospel tradition of American Protestantism), and there is a growing body of communitarians on both the right and left, ranging from Michael Sandel to Michael Lind to Amitai Etzioni. Thanks again for this very thought provoking post which helps to move beyond what John Dewey called the "debilitating dualisms" that so often constrain political thought in the U.S.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/16/2004

In some sense, it seems to me, the problem here is a flawed tracing of classical liberalism. I do commonly think of capitalism as liberalism's economic form, of protestantism as its religious form, and of democratic enfranchisement of the individual self as its political form. What runs through those forms is an assumption of the autonomous self as the primary unit in human communities.
On the other hand, liberalism doesn't trace simply or even only to John Locke and Adam Smith. The lineage is much more complicated than that, I think. There's a line running from John Calvin through the Puritans to Locke which is fairly important.
The other side of that is that the communitarian assumption is, in truth, stronger in Catholicism than it is in Protestantism generally speaking. In some sense, Hugo seems to me to be attempting to compensate for an inadequate sense of community in Protestant assumptions.
Krubner's question to Hugo about "involuntary communities" is itself telling. To some of us, thinking of family as "involuntary" doesn't occur because we think of family as one person voluntarily joining another person in union. We tend not to recall that we are first and involuntarily born into our first experience of community -- into a family.