On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIIE Liberal Communitarianism versus Social Democracy Pettit versus Walzer

When I was a visiting professor at Princeton University from 2003 to 2005, for a period I occupied the office of Professor Philip Pettit, a brilliant political theorist. I had the benefit of using his personal library. He is an apt choice to compare his theoretical underpinning of social democracy on the left to that of Michael Walzer’s progressivism.

Pettit begins his essay, “Towards a Social Democratic Theory of the State,” (Political Studies 1987) that he wrote when he still taught in Canberra, Australia with a third order question – not about the theoretical foundations of a state, or the second order rules according to which we should determine how a democratic state should conduct itself, but about third order norms – what values a state ought to advance. Both progressive liberalism and social democracy or democratic socialism (the two depictions are somewhat different, but, for our purposes, we can ignore those differences) are based on the pursuit of the ideal of “equal respect,” or what I have heretofore called equal recognition. Equal respect means that individuals and institutions, including the state, do not dominate others – other individuals, other institutions, other states – do not arbitrarily impose one will on another. Each philosophical position gives that ideal a different interpretation.

Pettit is modest. He does not insist that the social democratic version is better, only that it is worthy of consideration, that it is tenable and, further, that it is preferable, a different matter than arguing it is better for the latter requires a definition of the good against which the results can be measured.

Pettit’s definition of social democracy is stipulative and not historical because he does not want to get bogged down in the actual historical shifts the conception underwent as it developed. Instead, he simply wants to bring out the essential features commonly accepted of both social democracy [SD] and progressive liberalism [PL].

For the theoretical background to the entire liberal spectrum of ideas of the organization of the state, see Chapter 7 in the collection, Republican Democracy entitled, “Two Republican Traditions.” For a mature version of his more developed and comprehensive thesis lauding one distinctively republican theory of democracy and legitimacy, see On the People’s Terms. A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (1997). Justice and legitimacy are the two normative domains of political theory, namely justice, the one that I attend to in these series of blogs, and law. In Pettit’s volume, the concept of equal respect evolved into the norm of freedom as non-domination. Justice applies to the horizontal relations between individuals and their institutions, while legitimacy applies to the relationship between those citizens and their governing institutions. The following is my interpretation of Pettit’s work depicting only the differences between progressive liberalism and social democracy as expressed in my words.

For PL, all individuals who are members of the state bear the responsibility for ensuring equal respect. In the SD framework, the state is viewed as the beneficent institution that will define equal respect for the benefit of all the people. In PL, the aggregate of individuals serve as the addressor and the state is the addressee. In SD, the state is the addressor and the collectivity is the addressee. PL depends on a watchful citizenry and the institutions designed to make that watch work, especially representative democracy. SD depends on a beneficent state and participatory democracy. “Liberal democratic theory is distinguished, I believe, by the assumption that equal respect for all is an ideal addressed to (my italics) individuals; social democratic theory by the assumption that it is an ideal addressed to the state.”

For PL, the focus must be on individuals seeking and ensuring that political and civil society institutions serve them, their interests and their values. For SD, it is the state, and not its citizens, that bears the responsibility for the shape of society. Another way to put it is that in a PL democratic regime, civil society defines political life. In a SD system, the polis defines and refines and protects civil society. This is not just a matter of looking at the same phenomenon from two opposite vantage points, but rather seeing democratic polities as founded on these two different ways of seeing the political world.

Thus, PL will applaud dissidents, that is, behaviour in which individuals do not demonstrate equal respect, in order to advance the long-term goal of equal respect. SD presumes that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that individuals act with equal respect. To the extent a state veers in the direction of PL, hate crimes will not normally be integral to the law. In contrast, in a SD, hate crime will be an integral element of the legal system.

There is thus a difference between asking a state to exemplify equal respect and requiring a state to promote it. This is also true of the value given to economic redistribution. PL states tolerate differences in the distribution of material goods as long as every individual is given sufficient economic support so that an individual is in a position to demand of society equal respect. In SD, the state is obligated to promote equality of distribution as a necessary prerequisite of equal respect; the direction of policy must work towards the improvement of equal respect with regard to an individual’s material well-being.

Another way to put it is that, in a PL, individuals as addressees must hold the state accountable for satisfying the criterion of equal respect whereas in SD, the democratic state is said to be inherently responsible for treating everyone the same. The question for SD is whether the state delivers in its beneficence, and if not, why not and how that can be corrected. PL operates on the presumption that the state will only serve the ideal of equal respect if the individual members hold the state’s toes to the fire.

Let me make these theoretical distinctions more concrete, first be doing what Pettit does not do in that seminal essay, root the differences in the development of different ideologies concerning democracy. Historically, we have become one human family, namely deracinated because of the underlying economic forces of globalism. The centrists are correct. America is indeed a society of “radically isolated individuals, rational egotists, and existential agents, men and women protected and divided by their inalienable rights.” Not because the U.S. political-economic order emerged out of a state of nature and not because it can be deduced from first principles that establish the necessary conditions without which there could be no liberal society, but because, as Rorty insisted, liberalism has its own history developed in its fight against traditional societies.

How has that tradition developed in actual concrete practice? I believe that liberal theory in its most sublime form does mirror liberal social practices. The only tradition that almost all Americans share is American Thanksgiving, for Puritans and Methodists complained that Christmas had been reduced to a bacchanalian revel superimposed upon Catholic idolatry. But Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways. The centrists and individualist liberals celebrate a secular humanism, the former based on the mythical story of absolutely free and unencumbered individuals emerging ex nihilo from a state of nature or as rational expressions of a deduction from pure reason, while the latter celebrate the mythical history of colonists in America fighting for individual rights, especially property rights, against an oppressive imperial regime overseas.

However, progressives tend to stress the common pattern in America of using Thanksgiving as an opportunity not only to bring the family together from far and wide, but to push to the forefront that it is a celebration of bringing together different nations, first and foremost American colonists and the First Nations living in North America. Thanksgiving was a “national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord.” In the present era, that means inviting people of many faiths and non-faiths, and from varied ethnic backgrounds to the table. Thanksgiving offers a chance to forge a unified identity out of a pluralist background.

For social democrats, in turn, Thanksgiving is often and perhaps usually celebrated as an autumn harvest festival to remember (and assist) those unable to do so to participate in the rich harvests of America. Thanksgiving is used as a reminder of the great inequalities that continue to exist in America and contend that the celebration of American colonial settlement and Native American unity was not just a myth, but a lie. Though the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 taught the Puritan settlers to both plant crops and forage for wild foods, the first Thanksgiving festival in 1627 was a celebration of the massacre of an entire Pequot village.

Obviously, all of these themes, positive and negative, many contradictory, are interwoven in almost all Thanksgiving celebrations on the fourth Thursday of November. But one of them is usually given priority. Social Democrats prioritize the focus on what others lack as they offer thanks for what they have but are “disdainful of Thanksgiving’s aura of divine blessing and pious gratitude.” As an article in The Atlantic (22 November) opined, “Gilded Age populists and secularist crusaders criticized the holiday’s gospel of abundance” that mocked struggling farmers and industrial workers who have lost their jobs.

Who should the poor thank for poverty’s wage;

For hollow-eyed Want, that stands at the door;

For hunger and rags and homeless old age;

For the kicks and the cuffs that fall to the poor,

And other sweet morsels like these?

However, whether in a form endorsed by either Rawls or Rorty, whether the myth is ignored or celebrated as a narrative background, “All that the critics have to do, so they say, is to take liberal theory seriously. The self-portrait of the individual constituted only by his willfulness, liberated from all connection, without common values, binding ties, customs, or traditions – sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything – need only be evoked In order to be devalued: It is already the concrete absence of value.” On this the left liberals, whether of the progressive or more radical stripe, unite against their opponents within their own democratic tribe. That opposition against the right within the left trounces on the contradiction between an insistence on rights versus a stress on utility.

In the name of consensus, there is none. In the name of a meeting of minds in the public sphere, there is none. And there cannot be. For if people have an absolute right to choose, large numbers choose to ignore communal obligations, ignore even any obligation to vote in the “triumph of private caprice” as social democrats note. The very definition of liberalism makes a common value system that obligates everyone virtually impossible.

In fact, Donald Trump can be said to be the absolute perfect expression of such a liberalism with his fickleness, his reversals, his insistence that what he deems to be true is true. It should be no surprise that fragmentation even more than divisiveness is the hallmark of the current regime based on the problematic co-existence of individuals. An ahistorical community cannot emerge from such a swamp. How can a unity around procedural justice emerge from a society with no conception of the good? Determining rights will not suffice to unite an aggregation of strangers. But real life does not represent abstract or concrete representations of liberal beliefs. There are families and ethnicities and clubs and communities each with their own histories and narratives.

Certainly, there are transactional relations, but the model of the central dynamic of life premised on the rights and wills of individuals neither makes a community nor resembles communities as we actually find them. That is true even in business relations where trust and loyalty are, in fact, central features, much more important than selfish grasping for the highest ring. Walzer asked, “how are we to understand this extraordinary disjunction between communal experience and liberal ideology, between personal conviction and public rhetoric, and between social bondedness and political isolation?”

Individuals may and do operate in accordance with the natural laws of Brownian motion. Americans uproot themselves like no other nation, moving from city to city and state to state. Americans are either upwardly mobile or slipping downwards. Americans, and other proto-American societies, take commitment to be so ephemeral that relationships constantly dissolve as new ones take their place. Finally, and this is what politics is about, mobility is instantiated in the migration of individuals from one party to another. Democracy, ironically, depends on political instability as this freedom to move enacts the American individualist dream. Americans are less and less bound to the politics of their parents, however powerful that political DNA is passed on.

However, just as we move further and further apart as atomic individuals, we move closer and closer together in discourse silos and the mythologies of a new age. 32% of Americans do not believe their president is a liar let alone the greatest liar by far that has ever occupied a high office in America. Hence the resort to a new form of communitarianism, identity politics to take on the anomie of the right. For we are gay and female, black and Asian, Hispanic and white, Jew and Muslim. The new communitarian liberalism is built on a foundation of alliances among disaffected communities. In reality it is through the formation of alliances that new communities are created. Communities define the objective of neutrality as both blown up by the right and now disdained by the left as a trap to neutralize them.

In the PL tradition, the state serves as an umpire to, in John Dewey’s words, “avert and remedy impasses of one group upon another, but also to give members of the polity greater liberty and security” without becoming the front-line guarantor of that security and liberty. The two positions expressed in this proposition envision liberalism, whether a progressive one or a social democratic one, as constituted by relationships. Those relationships are primarily voluntary for PLs, but must be facilitated and even guaranteed by the state for SDs.

The issue is not the constitution of the self as an individual, as it is for Rawls and Rorty, but the construction of the society and the state. For PLs, voluntarism is the final guarantor, including the opportunity for alternative identities and affiliations, and for Exit as well as Voice to be possible as elaborated by Albert Hirschman about whom I have written previously. For SDs, the measure is the result delivered by the state and the genuine concern for those left behind and washed up on shore in abandoned towns and cities who feel most betrayed even when they are most deeply rooted in their neighbourhoods.

In a subsequent blog, my ambition is to bring all four theories underpinning the liberal left within a common framework in order to query the significant different impacts of each theory and to ask whether an overall unified theory is possible rather than giving preference to one over another. For all I consider are tenable. However, I hope to test the degree to which individuals, civil society associations and the state can be relied upon to deliver that recognition which we require, which institutions ought to be given responsibility and for what sphere.


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