Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke paint a picture of humankind living out short, brutish lives of self-interest, held together by a tenuous social contract of mutual benefit. But this liberal conception of the self is facing inevitable decline, argues Adrian Pabst, as we find ourselves thrown into a society characterised by community and cooperation.
In 1984, the American political philosopher Michael Sandel anticipated the effects of liberal individualism when he wrote that ‘in our public life we are more entangled but less attached than ever before’. Today the Covid-19 pandemic opens up the space for renewing a communitarian spirit of rediscovering the importance of attachment to people and place. Protective isolation has thrown us back onto family and neighbourhood, community and country. Yet at the same time, we find greater meaning in virtual connections worldwide, crossing liberal fault lines between the private and the public, the local and the global.
Binding together the tension between being embedded in places and being connected across the planet is our yearning for purpose – a natural desire for relations and institutions that provide meaning. If humans are meaning-seeking and story-telling animals, then the self only makes sense in something greater than itself. In our quest for a purposeful life, we discern at the heart of ourselves what the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the greater human “We”, all the ties binding us together as humans who are social beings.
If humans are meaning-seeking and story-telling animals, then the self only makes sense in something greater than itself.
Beyond wealth and power, humans tend to seek mutual recognition – valuing everyone’s talents, vocations and contribution to society. Connected with this is our natural disposition for what George Orwell termed ‘common decency’ and honourable performance. We take pride in a job well done. The forging of a common life between separate selves that are also relational beings requires a politics based on a transcendent conversation, which can address deeper divisions around questions of shared belonging. Paradoxically, the search for the self leads us to discover the priority of the relational over the purely individual or collective.
Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global Read more The pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable our lives are. From the “wet” markets of Wuhan and the cheap flights that carried this virus across the globe, to the locking down of countries and the crashing of economies, we have seen our fragile systems collapse. In one sense, the deadly disease threatened all of us, everywhere and simultaneously. Faced with our own frailty, we were being forced to confront existential questions about life and mortality.
In another sense, the Covid-19 crisis was not the ‘great leveller’. It affected groups very differently, disproportionately hitting minority communities, those in precarious jobs and with underlying health conditions. Far from changing everything, the pandemic has accelerated and amplified disparities of power, wealth and social status that have developed for decades.
Those worst hit face greater economic interdependence but also greater social isolation than before. As the bonds of family, community, work, church and nation have declined, the scale of loneliness and seclusion is growing. Many of us are connected with one another online, but often we lack real relationships in the places we inhabit. The social theorist Sherry Turkle has given this paradoxical phenomenon the apposite appellation ‘alone together’.
With new levels of digital dependence and addictive attention-seeking, over-excitement and disenchantment cascade into each other. Instead of mutual recognition and flourishing anchored in notions of the common good, politics and social life become debased. Our selves are individualised identity or part of some collective mob – as painfully visible in the violent rioting by both revolutionary left and far-right groups following the brutal murder of George Floyd.
The global revolt after the global lockdown underscores the limits of liberalism. As optimism gives way to pessimism even among ardent progressives, the utopian dream of liberal progress has not survived contact with the reality of our contingent existence. The philosopher John Gray is right: what is gained can just as easily be lost. Hyper-mobility begets enforced isolation, just as mass unemployment returns after the latest stock market boom. The forces of progress, such as global capitalism or disruptive technology, have morphed into engines of regression.
The philosopher John Gray is right: what is gained can just as easily be lost.
But it is not just liberalism’s faith in a better future that finds itself on the ‘wrong side of history’. Long-held assumptions about human nature are also in question. The liberal idea – already articulated by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – that we are solitary selves bound to one another by contract based on enlightened self-interest is an abstraction from practical life and from people’s personal and existential concerns.
Far from being selfish, greedy and distrustful of others, many of us are capable of solidarity and generosity vis-à-vis our neighbours who not so long ago were often utter strangers. In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, people came together in groups to help their communities fight the pandemic. In response to the UK government’s call, more than 700,00 people signed up to deliver food and medicine to those self-isolating at home. By contrast, liberal culture oscillates between selfishness and abstract altruism, forgetting the fellow-feeling of which the Queen spoke in her poignant address to the country in April.
By preferring private autonomy to fraternity and self-emancipation to common endeavour, the utopia of liberalism has dystopian effects. It has brought about in practice the social fragmentation that the liberal commitment to individualism assumed in theory.
Tragically it has taken a global emergency to shine a light on the social epidemic of loneliness engulfing liberal societies. Long before the lockdown, around 9 million people in Britain reported that they are always or often lonely. Many of them are elderly who feel abandoned and endure a state of permanent social distancing.
It is not just during enforced isolation that liberalism’s focus on choice and freedom rings hollow. Even in more normal times, the liberal mission of liberating the individual from all social constraints leaves us free yet fragile. By dismantling hierarchies and cultural ties, liberalism undermines the social fabric which binds people together and gives purpose to liberty – the relational and institutional support people need to sustain their deep desire for more community.
The virus has revealed just how removed liberal utopianism is from reality. Social distancing brings us closer to our immediate families so often denigrated by progressives. The lockdown has revived mutual aid and a sense of social solidarity across the nation. We are forced into protective isolation that generates closer connections from our streets to the globe.
The liberal idea – already articulated by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – that we are solitary selves bound to one another by contract based on enlightened self-interest is an abstraction from practical life.
Loyalty to local businesses and a generous disposition of give-and-receive re-emerge as more primary instincts than transactional trucking and trading. Adam Smith’s utopia of the market’s invisible hand is not working so well. Voluntary self-organisation turns out to be just as important to economic survival as the visible, clunking fist of the state. All this highlights our over-reliance on the impersonal mechanisms of central states and global markets.
The politics that commands popular support is one that reflects reality – our health, work in support of our communities, the love we have for family and friends. The pandemic reminds us of the paradox that is our human condition. We are experiencing at once frailty and resilience, fright and courage, helplessness and extraordinary acts of sacrifice. The liberal tradition has had little to say about these moral sentiments and social virtues. Without recovering the language of the common good, liberalism will neither renew itself nor offer real hope to people.
A post-liberal politics that does not slide into the anti-liberal extreme of nationalism and neo-fascism is a politics that puts society before economics or coercion. It means first of all a more plural, decentralised democracy that devolves power and resources to local communities. Secondly, it involves building more moral markets that are embedded in the foundational economy – the collectively used infrastructure of everyday existence, from utilities to public services and local businesses.
The response to the medical emergency has already seen a new impetus to corporatist bargaining between the state, business, trade unions and the charitable sector. Across different countries, we are witnessing how the voluntary involvement of civic groups is essential for the sustaining of agriculture, education, welfare and people’s mental and physical health.
But so far the new corporatism depends too much on the will of the executive and on central resources. Rather than being ruled by state power, a corporatist polity is meant to constrain it within a balanced institutional ecology. New trade unions in the gig economy just are as vital as decentralised democracy and laws to break up corporate monopolies, beginning with the big banks and the tech platforms. Otherwise US libertarian free-marketeers or Chinese state capitalists will take over weakened businesses in Europe and elsewhere.
A more interventionist state alone will not be able to resist this. Nations and localities alone cannot transform finance capitalism or technological power. That is why the third element of a post-liberal world is to renew the spirit of international friendship.
If a plural and democratic corporatism between estranged interests can be negotiated, then cooperation across border is equally possible. After all, if one believes in the priority of relations that constitute the self, then it is inconsistent to absolutise the nation-state which is but the individual writ large. And if relationships and institutions trump individualism, then the nation-state is part of a nested network of peoples and nations and not absolutely sovereign.
Therefore pluralist corporatism at the national level can be and in fact needs to be internationalised. International cooperation can also be, and even most fundamentally is, from inner local body to other such bodies in other countries – as with faith communities, trade unions and universities.
The future of the world cannot be left to containment, confinement, nudge and fear. Life is about so much more than that. An international society of resilient nations is the realm which brings together the things that make life worth living