Fells Point, Baltimore A narrative today dominates our political landscape that poses liberty as defined by classical liberalism against the collectivism of “progressive” liberalism or Statism.
One might reasonably conclude that, when it comes to “the Language of Liberty,” liberty seems – like Americans – to speak only one language. Thus, if we confine ourselves to one language, this narrative seems compelling enough as far as it goes. But it is, in the end, a severely limited “language,” even one that finally leads us to an incomplete and even mistaken set of conclusions about the relationship between individualism and collectivism. I’d like to see if we can’t expand our vocabulary a bit, and even suggest that a more appropriate name for this conference might be “the Languages of Liberties.”
By expanding our consideration to a different understanding of liberty, we change our position somewhat and see with more clarity that, what looks from our current position like a deep antipathy between individualism and Statism, is in point of fact something more of a continuity and logical progression. Without the addition of a distinct understanding of liberty to that of classical liberalism, from close up, all that we can discern are the opposite features of the two dominant political views of our day. By expanding our vista, however, we can better discern their relatedness, and propose that a true alternative is not between these siblings, but between a false choice of these two ideologies and a true choice between distinct and competing ideas of the very nature of liberty itself.
While there are a number of thinkers who can aid us in this expansion of our vocabulary, one thinker I wish today to highlight is one of the most penetrating and prescient of the mid-twentieth century conservative authors, the sociologist Robert Nisbet. I will have recourse to some of his powerful insights in his 1953 book The Quest for Community – recently re-issued by ISI Books – as well as his later 1975 book Twilight of Authority. Nisbet's key insight, variously articulated, was that Statism is a logical and even inevitable consequence of individualism – and thus, that the apparently opposite and conflicting philosophies of classical liberalism and progressive liberalism are actually inseparable. If this is the case, to seek to combat iterations of collectivism by appeal to the individualistic principles of classical liberalism is to be engaged in the philosophical equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.
At the heart of Nisbet’s analysis is the following claim – human beings are by nature social and relational creatures, and that modern liberalism begins with a set of assumptions that contradict that reality. In so doing, the assumption of anthropological individualism at the heart of liberalism, and the practical realization of individualism in the world, deforms the human person. It is this deformation – particularly the evisceration of a thick set of identities embedded in a variety of groups, whether family, community, polity, church, or any other of other institutions and organizations – that fosters the conditions that makes collectivism an attractive and even inevitable alternative. Without the rise of individualism, the rise of collectivism is inconceivable. To take recourse to an important image from an essay by Leo Strauss, the two philosophies represent major “waves” of modern thought – and, like waves, one forms from the material that preceded it onto the shore.
Before exploring this dynamic in more detail, let me first contrast two competing understandings of liberty, one largely developed in the ancient and Christian world, and the other centrally developed in the early-modern period by, among others, the philosopher John Locke. Both claim the “language of liberty,” but if one is true, the other is false, but, importantly too, it is only from the perspective of ancient liberty that one can see more clearly the close relationship between the individualism of classical liberalism and the collectivism of progressive liberalism.
Modern liberalism begins not – as might be believed if we were to follow the narrative of contemporary discourse – not in opposition to Statism or Progressivism, but rather in explicit and intense rejection of ancient political thought and especially its basic anthropological assumptions. Hobbes, among others, is frequently explicit in his criticisms of both Aristotle and “the Scholastics” – that Catholic philosophy particularly influenced by Aquinas, who was of course particularly influenced by Aristotle. Modern liberal theory thus began with an explicit rejection of Aristotelian/Thomist anthropology.
According to Aristotle, and later further developed by Thomas Aquinas, man is by nature a social and political animal – which is to say, that humans only become human in the context of polities and society. Shorn of such relations, the biological creature “human” was not actually a fully realized human – not able to achieve the telos of the human creature, a telos that required law and culture, cultivation and education, and hence, society and tradition. Thus, Aristotle was able to write (and Aquinas after him essentially repeated) that “the city is prior to the family and the individual” – not, of course, temporally, but in terms of the primacy of wholes to parts. To use a metaphor common to both the ancients and in the Biblical tradition, the body as a whole “precedes” in importance any of its constitutive parts: without the body, neither the hand, nor foot, nor any other part of the body is viable.
Within human societies, to the extent that humans are able to develop true and flourishing individuality, it is only by means of political society and its constitutive groups and associations, starting of course with the family. An essential component of our capacity to achieve human flourishing is our learned ability to place ourselves under rule and law. At first, as children, we are expected to obey because of the claims of authority – we follow rules and law because we are told to do so by our elders. As we grow in maturity and self-knowledge, we assume the responsibility of self-government – ideally in a form that is continuous between the individual and the city. For the ancients, liberty is the cultivated ability to exercise self-governance, to limit ourselves in accordance with our nature and the natural world.
The various practices by which we exercise self-limitation and self-governance is comprehensively called virtue. By contrast, for the ancients, the inability or unwillingness to exercise virtue was tantamount to the absence of liberty. The unbridled or even extensive pursuit of appetite led necessarily to a condition of servitude and even slavery – slavery to one’s passions. Thus, for the ancients, law was not an unnatural imposition of humanity’s natural freedom; rather, law (ideally, a self-imposed law) was the necessary and enabling condition for liberty.
This idea of liberty is certainly not unknown in more recent times, though it is rarely articulated. One can find it, for instance, beautifully stated in the second verse of Katherine Lee Bates hymn "America the Beautiful":
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
The ancients emphasized the necessity of an appropriate scale in which such human flourishing could take place. First, the experience of law must necessarily be close, not distant, and must ideally be experienced as a form of self-governance. The more distant and impersonal the promulgation of law, the more it would necessarily be experienced as an external and even unnatural imposition upon me, and a divide would open between law and liberty (government “out there”). Additionally, the larger the scale, the law would fall generally and categorically upon a variety of circumstances, thus tending to inherent injustice as the natural variety and distinctivenss of human arrangements would be ignored or dismissed. Further, a large scale also lent itself to the anonymity and corresponding forms of irresponsibility (think of nature of anonymous commentary on many websites), while undermining the kinds of trust and responsibility that were required to foster a sense of gratitude and corresponding obligation between generations. Another consideration was that large scale political entities tended to aim at national or imperial greatness and wealth, and thus tended to stoke and tempt the appetites and undermine the inculcation of virtue. Ancient theory thus centrally considered the appropriate scale in which liberty as the practice of self-government through virtue could be realized. Liberty, so conceived, could only be realized in a small and local setting.
For the ancients, the highest aim of society was the flourishing of the free, self-governing individual and the achievement of our particular capacities – our talents and abilities – but such “individuality” could only achieved through the auspices of our political and social relationships. Thus, even as we might flourish in our particular gifts, we are simultaneously obligated to acknowledge that such gifts have their source in and through the contributions of our community. The achievement of our full humanity is necessarily appropriately accompanied by a disposition of gratitude, and a corresponding assumption of obligation to proffer the same prospects for future generations. Thus, while classical philosophy – especially Aristotelian and Thomistic iterations – extolled the condition of achieving the condition of a free individual, it was a philosophy that could be confused as aiming at “individualism.” The properly cultivated individual can never be conceived, much less experience, a wholly separate relationship to his community. It is incorrect to suppose that ancient thought denied a place for “liberty” or the aspiration to achieving distinct forms of individuality, but the context and definition of each differs considerably from contemporary understandings.
*** *** ***
Liberal theory fiercely attacked this fundamental assumptions about human nature. Hobbes and Locke alike – for all their differences – begin by conceiving humas by nature not as parts of wholes, but as wholes apart. We are by nature “free and independent,” naturally ungoverned and even non-relational. There is no ontological reality accorded to groups of any kind – as Bertrand de Jounvenel quipped about social contractarianism, it was a philosophy conceived by “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods.” Liberty is a condition in which there is a complete absence of government and law, and “all is right” – that is, everything that can be willed by an individual can be done. Even if this condition is posited to show its unbearableness or untenability, the definition of natural liberty posited in the “state of nature” becomes a regulative ideal – liberty is ideally the ability of the agent to do whatever he likes. In contrast to ancient theory, liberty is the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites, while government is a conventional and unnatural limitation upon our natural liberty.
For both Hobbes and Locke, we enter into a social contract to secure our survival, but to make the exercise of our liberty more secure. Both Hobbes and Locke – but especially Locke – understand that liberty in our pre-political condition is limited not only by the lawless competition of other individuals, but by the limitations that a recalcitrant and hostile nature imposes upon us. A main goal of Locke’s philosophy especially is actually to expand the prospects for our liberty – defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites – now through the auspices of the State. We come to accept the terms of the Social Contract because its ultimate effect will actually increase our personal liberty by expanding the capacity of human control over the natural world. Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty, by which he means our liberation from the constraints imposed by the natural world.
Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual “creates” the State through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal State “creates” the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, now defined increasingly as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over nature. Far from their being an inherent conflict between the individual and the State, – as so much of modern political reporting would suggest – liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection between the liberal ideal of liberty that can only be realized through the auspices of a powerful State. The State does not merely serve as a referee between contesting individuals; in securing our capacity to engage in productive activities, especially commerce, the State establishes a condition in reality that existed in theory only in the State of Nature – that is, the ever-increasing achievement of the autonomous, freely-choosing individual. Rather than the State acting as an impediment to the realization of our individuality, the State becomes the main agent of our liberation from the limiting conditions in which humans have historically found themselves.
Thus, one of the main roles of the liberal State becomes the active liberation of individuals from any existing limiting conditions. At the forefront of liberal theory is the liberation from limitations imposed by nature upon the achievement of our desires –one of the central aims of life, according to Locke, being the “indolency of the body.” A main agent in that liberation becomes commerce, the expansion of opportunities and materials by which to realize not only existing desires, but even to create new ones that we did not yet know we had. One of its earliest functions is to support that basic role it assumes in extending the conquest of nature. The State becomes charged with extending and expanding the sphere of commerce, particularly enlarging the range of trade and production and mobility (e.g., Constitution positively charges Congress with “to promote the Progress of sciences and useful arts.” (“Progressivism” already in the Constitution). The expansion of markets and the attendant infrastructure necessary for that expansion is not, and cannot be, the result of “spontaneous order”; rather, an extensive and growing State structure is necessary to achieve that expansion, even at times to force recalcitrant or unwilling participants in that system into submission (see, for instance, J.S. Mill's recommendation in Considerations on Representative Government that the enslavement of "backward" peoples can be justified if they are forced to lead productive economic lives.).
One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of otherwise embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships. The liberal State serves not only the “negative” (or reactive) function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; simultaneously it also takes on a “positive” (that is to say, active) role of “liberating” individuals who, in the view of the liberal State, are prevented from making the wholly free choices of liberal agents. At the heart of liberalism is the supposition that the individual is the basic unit of human existence, the only natural human entity that exists. If liberal theory posits the existence of such individuals in an imaginary “state of nature,” liberal practice – beginning, but not limited to the rise of commerce – seeks to expand the conditions for the realization of the individual. The individual is to be liberated from all the partial and limiting affiliations that pre-existed the liberal state, if not by force (though that may at times be necessary), then by constantly lowering the costs and barriers to exit. The State lays claim to govern all groupings within the society – it is the final arbiter of legitimate and illegitimate groupings, and from its point of view, the only ontological realities are the individual and the State. (for evidence of this fact, consider the frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan). Eventually the State lays claim to set up its own education system to ensure that children are not overly shaped by family, religion or any particular community; through its legal and police powers, it will occasionally forces open “closed” communities as soon as one person claims some form of unjust assertion of authority or limits upon individual freedom; it even regulates what is regarded to be legitimate and illegitimate forms of religious worship. Marriage is a bond that must be subject to its definition. A vast and intrusive centralized apparatus is established not to oppress the population, but rather to actively ensure the liberation of individuals from any forms of constitutive groups or supra-individual identity. Any allegiance to sub-national groups, associations or communities come to be redefined not as inheritances, but as memberships of choice with very low if any costs to exit. Modern liberals are to be pro-choice in every respect; one can limits one’s own autonomy¸ but only if one has chosen to do so, and generally only if one can revise one’s choice at a later date – which means, in reality, one hasn’t really limited one’s autonomy at all. All choices are fungible, alterable, and reversible. The vow “til death do us part” is subtly but universally amended – and understood – to mean, “or until we choose otherwise.”
*** *** ***
Various forms of Statism thus arise quite logically from these basic aspects of the liberal system. Progressive philosophy agrees fundamentally with the liberal vision of the liberation of the individual from all partial and mediating institutions, but eventually comes to include the State itself as one of those partial and limiting associations. This follows with iron and inevitable logic: if the State is the creation of individuals, then eventually the State itself needs to be abolished to achieve the thoroughgoing liberty of the individual from all partial associations. Marxism’s dream of the “withering away of the State” is a logical extension of the trajectory of liberalism.
It is here that Robert Nisbet notices some additional relationships between the two. It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind’s social life have been eviscerated – when the individual experiences himself as an individual – that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism’s successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been “their own” and the increasing realization of the “individual” made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era. The idea that we could supercede all particular attachments and achieve a kind of “cosmic consciousness” or experience of our “species being” was a direct consequence of the lived experience of individualism. Locke is the midwife to Marx, in a manner of speaking.
Nisbet also notes the psychological conditions arising from liberalism’s unfolding that also give rise to a longing for collectivism. He argued that collectivism arises as a reaction against the atomization of liberalism. The active dissolution of traditional human communities and institutions provokes a violent reaction in which a basic human need – “the quest for community” – is no longer being met. As naturally “political” or “social” creatures, we long for thick and rich set of constitutive bonds that necessarily shape a fully-formed human being. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture – and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon our autonomy – we seek membership and belonging, and a form of extended self-definition, through the only legitimate form of organization available to liberal man – the State. Nisbet saw the modern rise of Fascism and Communism as the predictable consequence of the early-modern liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities – shorn of those memberships, modern liberal man became susceptible to the quest for belonging now to distant and abstract State entities. In turn, those political entities offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of those memberships that they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious membership, now in the Church of the State itself. Our “community” was now to be a membership of countless fellow humans who held in common an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation and isolation. It would provide for our wants and needs; all that was asked in return was sole allegiance to the State and partial and even the elimination of any allegiance to any other intermediary entity. To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted. Thus Nisbet concludes – following a basic insight of Alexis de Tocqueville: “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth-century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”
Lastly, collectivism arises logically from classical liberalism out of sheer necessity. Having shorn human ties to the vast web of intermediating institutions that sustained people through good and bad times, the expansion of the experience of individualism renders humans bereft of recourse to those traditional places of support and sustenance. The more individuated the polity, the more likely that a mass of individuals will inevitably turn to the State for help in times of need. This observation – made before Nisbet most powerfully by Tocqueville – suggests that individualism is not the alternative to Statism, but its very cause. As Tocqueville wrote in v. 2, bk. iv, ch. 3 of Democracy in America,
Since … no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each [person] is at once independent and weak. These two states – which must neither be viewed separately nor confused – give the citizen of democracies very contrary instincts. His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, the need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. In this extremity, he naturally turns his regard to the immense being [the tutelary, bureaucratic, centralized State] that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement. His needs and above all his desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness.” (644)
Far from fundamentally opposing one another, the individualism arising from the philosophy of classical liberalism and the subsequent philosophy of collectivism have been mutually reinforcing. Indeed, they have powerfully combined to all but rout the vestiges of the ancient conception of virtue as a practice or even an option. Today’s classical liberals and progressive liberals remain locked in a battle for the end-game – whether we will be a society of ever more perfectly liberated, autonomous individuals or ever more egalitarian members of the global “community,” but while this debate continues apace, the two sides agree on essential means to achieve their distinct ends, thus combining in a pincer movement to destroy the vestiges of the classical practices and virtues that they both despise.
To the extent that modern "conservatism" has embraced the arguments of classical liberalism, the actions and policies of its political actors have never failed to actively undermine those areas of life that "conservatives" claim to seek to defend. Partly this is due to drift, but more worringly, it is due to the increasingly singular embrace by many contemporary Americans – whether liberal or “conservative” – of a modern definition of liberty that consists in doing as one likes through the conquest of nature, rather than the achievement of self-governance within the limits of our nature and the natural world. Unless we recover a different, older, and better definition and language of liberty, our future is more likely than not to be one not of final liberation of the individual, but our accustomed and deeply pernicious oscillation between the atomization of our Lockean individualism and the cry to be taken care of by the only remaining entity that is left standing in the liberal settlement, the State. If we care about liberty, we need rather to attend to our States and localities, our communities and neighborhoods, our families and Churches, making them viable alternatives and counterpoints to the monopolization of individual and State in our time, and thus to relearn the ancient virtue of self-government.