Volume > Issue > Communitarianism or Populism?

Communitarianism or Populism?


By Christopher Lasch | May 1992
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.

My title is meant to refer to a difference of emphasis, not to an irreconcilable opposition between two positions having nothing in common. The populist and communitarian tra­ditions are distinguishable but historically in­tertwined; any account of those traditions and their contemporary significance has to do jus­tice both to what unites them and to what sets them apart from each other. Populism is rooted in the defense of small proprietorship, which was widely regarded, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as the necessary basis of civic virtue. Communitarianism has its intellec­tual antecedents in a sociological tradition, initially a conservative tradition, that found the sources of social cohesion in shared assump­tions so deeply ingrained in everyday life that they don’t have to be articulated — in folk­ways, customs, prejudices, habits of the heart. Because both traditions shared certain common reservations about the Enlightenment, howev­er, it has not always been easy to tell them apart. Nor has there seemed to be much point in this exercise. Both fell outside the dominant celebration of progress, and their agreement, on an issue of such importance, has made their differences seem trivial.

If terms like populism and community figure prominently in political discourse today, it is because the ideology of the Enlightenment is visibly crumbling. The claims of universal reason are universally suspect. Hopes for a system of values that would transcend the particularism of class, nationality, religion, and race no longer carry much conviction. The Enlightenment’s reason and morality are in­creasingly seen as a cover for power, and the prospect that the world can be governed by reason seems more remote than at any time since the 18th century. The citizen of the world — the prototype of mankind in the future, according to the Enlightenment philos­ophers — is not much in evidence. We have a universal market, but it does not carry with it the civilizing effects that were so confidently expected by Hume and Voltaire. Instead of generating a new appreciation of common interests and inclinations — of the essential sameness of human beings everywhere — the global market seems to intensify the awareness of ethnic and national differences. The unifica­tion of the market goes hand in hand with the fragmentation of culture.

The collapse of the Enlightenment mani­fests itself politically in the collapse of liberal­ism, in many ways the most attractive product of the Enlightenment and the carrier of its best hopes. Through all the permutations and transformations of liberal ideology, two of its central features have persisted over the years: its commitment to progress and its belief that a liberal state could dispense with civic virtue. The two ideas were linked in a chain of rea­soning having as its premise that capitalism had made it reasonable for everyone to aspire to a level of comfort formerly accessible only to the rich. Henceforth men would devote them­selves to their private business, reducing the need for government, which could more or less take care of itself. It was the idea of progress that made it possible to believe that societies blessed with material abundance could dispense with the active participation of ordinary citizens in government. In the after­math of the American Revolution, liberals be­gan to argue, in opposition to the older view that “public virtue is the only foundation of republics,” in the words of John Adams, that a proper system of constitutional checks and balances would “make it advantageous even for bad men to act for the public good,” as James Wilson put it. According to John Taylor, “an avaricious society can form a government able to defend itself against the avarice of its members” by enlisting the “interest of vice…on the side of virtue.” Virtue lay in the “prin­ciples of government,” Taylor argued, not in the “evanescent qualities of individuals.” The institutions and “principles of a society may be virtuous, though the individuals composing it are vicious.”

The trouble with this agreeable paradox of a virtuous society based on vicious individuals is that liberals didn’t really mean it. They took for granted a good deal more in the way of private virtue than they were willing to ac­knowledge. Even today, liberals who adhere to this minimal view of citizenship smuggle a certain amount of citizenship between the cracks of their free-market ideology. Milton Friedman himself admits that a liberal society requires a “minimum degree of literacy and knowledge,” along with a “widespread accept­ance of some common set of values.” It is not clear that our society can meet even these minimal conditions, as things stand today; but it has always been clear, in any case, that a liberal society needs more virtue than Fried­man allows for. A system that relies so heavily on the concept of rights presupposes individu­als who respect the rights of others, if only because they expect others to respect their own rights in return. The market itself, the central institution of a liberal society, presup­poses, at the very least, sharp-eyed, calculat­ing, and dear-headed individuals — paragons of rational choice. It presupposes not just self­-interest but enlightened self-interest. It was for this reason that 19th-century liberals attached so much importance to the family. The obliga­tion to support a wife and children, in their view, would discipline possessive individual­ism and transform the potential gambler, speculator, dandy, or confidence man into a conscientious provider. Having abandoned the old republican ideal of citizenship along with the republican indictment of luxury, liberals lacked any grounds on which to appeal to individuals to subordinate private interest to the public good. But at least they could appeal to the higher selfishness of marriage and parenthood. They could ask, if not for the suspension of self-interest, for its elevation and refinement.

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