Jeremy, you take me to task for conflating pluralism on the one hand and individualism on the other, because you are happy to accommodate the first, but regard the second as “not a progressive force”, and in the form of “the hegemony of liberal individualism” as spelling the end of “collectivities”, and thereby all “democratic progress”. This, you think might in fact be where a “fundamental philosophical difference” emerges between us. You cite Cruddas and Rutherford’s recent critique of ‘liberal republicanism’ in Soundings no.42.
Cruddas and Rutherford open their critique by drawing the fault-lines in the current political turmoil between “those who continue to believe that the market and individual choice” are the most effective means of maximising individual freedom, and “those who believe that individual freedom is based in social relationships and the democracy of public action”. They accept the invitation of Collins and Reeves, authors of the Demos publication The Liberal Republic, to revisit the “conflicting traditions of radical liberalism and socialism” at the roots of the centre left, only for long enough to accuse them of leaving out “the social realm” altogether, thereby sacrificing social solidarity, shared culture, ethical socialism and the chance to build a force which can take on “wealth inequality” and the power of “employers” and “economic institutions”. However, I fear their own reliance on other-regarding empathy and alliances of old and new which will somehow capture “the centre ground” do no better at addressing the problems they outline. The search for a “popular balance between individual self-realisation and social solidarity” with which they end the review pretty well merely restates the opening question.
My starting point would be to abandon these misleading polarisations altogether. Yes I do regard individualism and the working of individual choice as a vitally important process within the pluralism of modern societies like ours and fundamental to our developing democracy. My interest in pluralism, for the individual or the group, is that it provides an encounter with ‘the other’ which, while it may confirm one’s original position, will add something to the sense of the context one is in and may help us better to understand a different perspective. It may also change our minds, allow us to negotiate an enhanced way of living side by side, or lead to an entirely new, shared way of looking at the issue in contention. We do not question the value that what I have called ‘adult intelligence’ brings to the inevitable ‘me,me,me’ focus of the human baby. Why do we suppose that we can live without it in our complex democratic societies?
You say that there is an “absolute difference” between “a pluralism which enables me to think of myself as belonging to multiple overlapping collectivities, and an individualism which tends to make it impossible for me to imagine myself as belonging to any kind of collectivity at all.” But I see no such difference. In fact, if you replaced the word ‘pluralism’ here with the word ‘individualism’, you would have a much more meaningful sentence. The self that thinks of itself belonging or not belonging is of course a social construct that has been in preparation, via capitalism, Protestantism, the French Revolution and consumerism since the Renaissance at least, but this doesn’t make it any less crucial to political decision-making today. Instead of worrying about which comes first, the social or the individual, the conflation that really matters in our discussion, as well as in the Cruddas/Rutherford review, is the conflation between individualism and selfish individualism - a confusion which I believe anyone who wants to see social progress in the world reproduces at their peril, since it is a conflation on which capitalism and capitalist power increasingly relies. More importantly, its opposite - or how the individual may come to perceive his or her self-interest (notice I do not say selflessness or altruism) as residing not in ‘power over’ but in mutual empowerment, and in the wider social and environmental ‘good’ is, I believe, the precondition and absolute bedrock for all progressive social change.
This suggests to me that the left, the centre left, anyone interested in social democracy, needs to go further back to refresh their thinking than to the nineteenth century debate between social liberalism and ethical socialism - perhaps to the critique of capitalism to be found amongst the early English exponents of the novel form and in particular in the rather reactionary religious novel of Samuel Richardson published serially in 1747–8, as London became the centre of the known universe.
Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, is the longest novel in the English language. It is also the first romantic novel, and its publication triggered at least two centuries of European literary response. In it Richardson tells the story of a virtuous young bourgeoise, Clarissa Harlowe, who resists parental pressure to marry the odious moneybags, Solmes, only to fall prey to the seductive libertine, Robert Lovelace – one of the greatest villain-heroes in English literature. Pursued, abducted, and imprisoned in a London brothel, she is eventually drugged and raped by him, goes into a decline and dies.
Richardson’s Lovelace, modelled on Milton’s Satan, is the embodiment of selfish individualism: an actor-dramatist who stars in his own Machiavellian plots, he is a Mandevillian materialist, a Hobbesian ‘possessive individual’ and always in competitive pursuit of newer and better conquests. In this, as Lovelace points out, he differs from Solmes and the Harlowes only to the extent that they claim to be acting in Clarissa’s interests. The virtuous Clarissa, for her part, has a different view: "the world is but one great family; originally it was so; what then is this narrow selfishness in us, but relationship remembered against relationship forgot? " As Lovelace is increasingly driven to prove her either an ‘angel’ indeed or a ‘mere woman’, Clarissa comes to realise that there is nowhere for her to turn: “What a world is this! What is there in it desirable? The good we hope for, so strangely mixed, that one knows not what to wish for: and one half of mankind tormenting the other, and being tormented themselves in tormenting." The twist that matters to my argument is at the end, when Lovelace realises that he has destroyed the only thing that he ever loved. With a little more forethought, perhaps he might have found his way to the happier ending that Richardson’s distraught, international, sentimental audience were urging upon him…
Capitalism, especially in matters of governance, has always drawn on an account of the individual - Machiavellian, Hobbesian, Mandevillian - that encourages us to pursue what Paul Barry Clarke refers to as our ‘selfishness, sectarianism and sectionalism’; persuades us that freedom from society rather than within it is the only true freedom; and that only a strong state can contain the resulting war of all against all. It denies the feasibility of any alternative concept of our own best interests. Of course it is a little more complicated than that. Roger Scruton will tell us that “ the two great loves on which human society depends, family love and love of country” are proved in the ultimate act of sacrifice; and Edmund Burke did capitalism a good turn when he counterposed to the ‘New Man’ of the French Revolution, the little platoons which link the British people to their monarch. But another way of viewing these two “great loves” is that they are the highest forms of the selfishness that is the only officially permitted driving force of our society and our world.
But this concept presides over only one half of Richardson’s battle between two titanic figures. In his psychomachia, we are offered a second account of the individual, of Man as a Maker of his own destiny through choice, that goes back to the Promethean and Faustian figures of the Renaissance, the Neo-platonic Christian narrative of emanation and return, and to Dante’s Fortunate Fall. Drawing on Milton’s ‘dissentany argument’, Richardson believed that evil and suffering existed in order that good should come to know itself: hence his story of the daughter who is cast out of her father’s house, only to return to her heavenly father, possessed of a higher feeling and understanding for the ways of the world which all her readers may share, including the hapless Lovelace. Pulling against Richardson’s theology, if you like, is the bildungsroman form of the novel in which the self grows to understand the world he or she is in, and even the most selfish individual imaginable can come to see the limits of that selfishness. (As a driver for science and thinking in general in the Enlightenment period, this optimistic version of the creative individual was an essential accompaniment to the rise of capitalism in its innovative stage). So at the birth of capitalism there were critics who were already aware that it contained the potential to destroy everything that is of true value in the world. But in the 1740’s they also saw that they had a choice.
Today, more than ever before in history, the “collectivities” that Jeremy Gilbert’s vision requires will be ones that individuals choose to belong to, not ones that they will be bounced into by force or by hermetically sealed ways of life. We are beginning to understand this in regard to our failed attempts to impose democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan - why don’t we also grasp it about our own western liberal democracies. Hence the interest for my argument of the diverse groups of individuals who opt into and successfully collaborate on large-scale projects on the net in response to social signals, rather than market prices or managerial commands. This suggests opportunities for greater autonomous action on the part of millions of individuals. Of course, they can choose evil. But wherever they are engaged in a process of interaction with the ‘other’, they can also learn lessons for their time and place and choose good. Our experience in the era of globalisation, fragmentation and flux, brings to many more of us at least a glimpsed understanding of Clarissa’s opposing world view. It seems to me perverse at this stage in human history for the left to concede the pass to ‘possessive individualism’.
The left must do more than avoid the mistake of taking ‘selfish individualism’ as its starting point. It must also wrestle with what it means to pursue a politics that fully recognises and respects the role of individual choice in any democracy. I’m afraid we are once again back at square one.
Well, not quite at square one. If we want to describe what this would look like and how it might come about, thankfully, there has been a revival of civic republican thinking since the middle of the twentieth century, led by thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and more recently, Charles Taylor. They recognised that if values and identities were once confirmed through social hierarchies and homogenous communities, now those societies are marked by increasing diversity. They concluded that in these circumstances, political community must be based on communication rather than an assumption of commonality.
This call for an expanded realm of deliberation allows us to envisage a return of politics which would surface in multiple publics to which all can contribute. Moreover, the process of extending these deliberative frameworks need not be “an all-at-once upheaval”: piecemeal changes can improve the situation - wherever two or three are gathered together. Much of Iseult Honohan’s book, and in particular her Chapter 7, is concerned with how this can be made to work today.
I believe that it is an urgent matter for any left to set about arguing for and helping to create these ‘multiple publics’ essential to a thriving deliberative, republican politics. Jeremy – you and I have both been involved in this kind of activity over the years, but perhaps this discussion offers a new context, a new meaning and a new urgency to that activity. It is of course galling after thousands of words to discover that Noel Hatch, in his call for a Glastopolitics, has already responded in four eloquent sentences to your thoughtful and original opener with everything that is essential to my argument:
“So go where the people are… Don't take them for granted, value them as people you can't do without. Expect to be surprised by them, they're the people you've been waiting for. Share your success and they will commit even more… Don't just get people on your dancefloor, get them to run the show and they'll join your revolution.”
Hatch’s examples of already-existing activity, moreover, suggest that it is not only democratic renewal that depends on this kind of release of people’s energies and intelligence, but the restoration of such underlying foundations of prosperity as productivity, social institutions, and an education system that works.