Shadows of the Future

July 11, 2012

During the brief spike of intellectual interest in the Blue Labour movement a few years back, I was somewhat baffled by the inability of most commentators to understand where it came from and what it was really about. I have been reminded of this today by a comment from Jonathan Freedland on identity, which I shall reproduce below and explain its importance.

Firstly, I want to cover some ground on what the likes of Maurice Glasman were intending to bring onto the political agenda. As Keynes nearly said, ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher’ and in this case the philosopher is Alasdair MacIntyre.

MacIntyre is credited with reviving the Aristotelian understanding of virtue ethics, perhaps best understood as the notion that the ethical life consists in achieving excellence in a range of virtues, rather than simply acting correctly in a given situation. He is directly cited by Glasman, and has the privilege of not being defunct yet; improvements in communication technology apparently hastening the pace of intellectual slavery.

His position is complex, and I will not do it justice in this post – you can find a useful summary here. Broadly, it can be characterised as a theory of communal virtue. The individual in MacIntyre’s proposed communities is an individual that is subordinate to the agreed practices of that community, which are aimed at the good life. Participation in those practices, and engagement with the traditions from which they arise and are composed, enables the individual to develop the internal excellences associated with them. The goods derived from playing chess, for example, are internal: skill, planning and strategy. They cannot simply be given, but must be achieved through practice. Moreover, they are good for the community, as everyone can learn from the games of chess you play as part of your practice. Examining games played in the past must form part of your practice, and amendments cannot be made to the rules without the consent of the community of chess players, following internal debate from those with sufficient excellence to meaningfully participate.

MacIntyre claims that this is the way our society should function, and it should be clear from this that the identity of an individual would be necessarily bound up with their community as a result. Indeed MacIntyre claims that this is always the case anyway, even we believe ourselves to be separate, because our opinions are formed in large part by the traditions of our community. Attempts to philosophise about morality outwith this context are doomed to failure, which is how MacIntyre describes the rest of moral philosophy post-Enlightenment. Individual moral claims are meaningless outside the context of a community that agrees to aim at a definition of the good life.

This is a philosophy fundamentally opposed to liberalism, as the practices of a community are the bounds of the identity of its members, and the liberty of the individual to define their own forms of practice is not recognised. Members of a community have a claim to condemn others if they do not believe they are fulfilling their role in that community, regardless of that individual’s attempts to be virtuous on their own terms. If all virtues are communal, then failing to exhibit that community’s virtues is a sin, which can be punished.

So, for small communities with particular traditions of practice, you can forget several things. You can forget rights for gays, women, outsiders, and indeed anyone who does not cohere with that community’s idea of the good life. This is not a bad thing on this reading (although MacIntyre somehow tries to claim that it is, seemingly ignoring his own logic), as the community defines individuals, and disruptive ideas about individuals’ freedom to develop themselves are attacks on the whole community. You can forget capitalism too, as trade outwith the community can damage internal practice – if I can sell my products elsewhere and acquire more external goods, then my wellbeing is no longer dependent on my community and I do not need to be subordinate to it. MacIntyre describes this as ‘undermining communal ties’.

I bring this up because of the Freedland comment I mentioned above. It comes in the context of an article in which he claims that attacks on Islam are frequently tantamount to racism, instantly drawing the ire of people who think that the adherents of Islam who are opposed to women’s rights are bad people regardless of what race they are:

“I think much of the trouble with this subject comes in this area. Some believe that in attacking Islam they are simply attacking a set of intellectual beliefs – like criticising, say, fiscal conservatism. The trouble is, what we call religion is for many people not really a matter of adherence to a set of theological ideas. Rather it is about their identity, their tradition, their family, their history. I suspect that for many Muslims, as for many Jews and perhaps for many Christians too, what others call their religion is really better described as their identity.”

Freedland is here affirming his agreement with Glasman and other communalists: attacking an individual whose beliefs are sourced from traditions and a specific community is the same as attacking that community. Attacking a community-based identity is, on this reading, the same as attacking anyone who is part of that community. ‘Racist’ is not the correct word, but given that we do not have an appropriate word (perhaps ‘communalist’), Freedland’s reasoning now becomes understandable.

It is important to put this the context of a wider movement. The likes of the New Economics Foundation, and their promotion of the work of Polanyi on community-based politics fall under the heading of the anti-individualist camp. The attacks from the Church of England on gay marriage bring them under this heading too. The attempts by Tory traditionalists to maintain the House of Lords in its present form also fall under this category too, as they are focused on asserting existing forms of practice and subordination. Labour’s renewed focus on immigration is part of this movement.

All this may yet be the beginning of a new political alignment – or the revival of a very old one – and, as a threat to the freedom of all individuals to cultivate their own virtues in any way they choose, it must be resisted.


One Response to “Shadows of the Future”

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