Marcello Veneziani, Comunitari o Liberal: La Prossima Alternativa (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1999), 99 pp.
After the French Revolution, when “Left” and “Right” came to designate the two main political orientations in Europe, “modernity” became the dominant metaphysical horizon within which almost all political questions have been formulated. As Panajotis Kondylis has shown in Konservatismus and other works, earlier “pre-modern” conservative visions lingered on, buried mostly in fading institutions, but their time was up. In the 20th century, the major political ideologies –Bolshevism, fascism, Nazism, liberalism, etc. — have all been alternative modernist proposals for social reconstruction, concerned primarily with how to modernize society in what these ideologies postulate as the most efficient, just and rational way. Most of them have done so at astronomical human costs and by deploying unprecedented brutality. What has contributed to occluding the common genealogy of these various ideologies has been the extreme acrimony and violence that has characterized relations among the regimes subscribing to them. Yet, shocking as it may be, the mountains of corpses they left behind does not widen the narrow gap separating their respective modernist philosophies of history.
As a result of their efforts to eliminate each other through hot and cold wars, modernist ideologies have precipitated ever more homogenization. The WWII defeat of fascism and Nazism led to the criminalization not only of both these ideologies, but of the “Right” in general, while the end of the Cold War has meant the definitive delegitimation of communism, as well as practically all socialist and Welfare-State projects. Today, traditional Left parties continue to win elections and to govern practically everywhere, especially in Europe, but only after having repudiated their original organizing principles and, occasionally having discarded their former names to distance themselves from whatever was still “distinctive” in their positions. The one-dimensionality described over a generation ago by Herbert Marcuse, and even earlier by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, has turned out to be even more bland and conformist than feared. Contrary to both “end of ideology” ideologues, who welcomed such an outcome as the achievement of utopia, and their critics, who depicted it as a “new and improved” form of soft totalitarianism, “the new world order” is far from resembling either of the projected visions. The gradual liquidation of most “pre-modern” residues which, indicted as the cause of any remaining social problems, had legitimated modernist theodicy, has paved the way for a whole series of new conflicts incomprehensible within the predominant conceptual framework. Having successfully saturated practically every aspect of everyday life, today the modernist world-view has become not only the major obstacle to an adequate self-understanding, but a conceptual trap which automatically turns all “leftists,” “rightists” or “centrists” into de facto conservatives in the most banal sense of the term, i.e., into apologists for the status quo. Unable to transcend the conventional wisdom, they end up mourning or, even worse, attempting at all costs to hold on to what they nonetheless acknowledge is hopelessly obsolete.
Not surprisingly, many modernist overviews of the contemporary sociopolitical predicament have “end,” rather than “new,” as part of their title. From Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, to Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia and Carl Boggs’ The End of Politics (not to mention more elegant European euphemisms, which prefer “decline,” as in Pietro Barcelona’s Il Declino dello Stato, or “dusk,” as in Mario Tronti’s La Politica al Trarnonto), the common thread of all these analyses is that something has become exhausted. Unable to spell out exactly what it is, however, they all end up calling for a rekindling of the old “radical” flame or, in more optimistic accounts, redescribing what has ended as more of the same old pre-modern remnants. Unlike the increasingly popular movie genre featuring multiple endings, such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Run, Lola, Run,” where the various possible outcomes are actually qualitatively different, these terminal political analyses all provide slightly different versions of exactly the same conclusion. They are all descriptions, whether positive or negative, of the end of an era and of the kind of world-view which, acknowledged or not, was shared by the last few generations in the West and now elsewhere as well. Even in the case of Panglossian apotheoses of the consequences of the end of the Cold War, such as Fukuyama’s, what is at stake is the same all-too-real general development: the exhaustion of modernity at the very acme of its success.
This state of affairs helps explain why it is so difficult to rethink political divisions in terms of acceptance or rejection of modernity, and why there is so much reluctance to regard modernity as simply another historically specific approach to reality, rather than as the necessary outcome of social development. The problem is that the very posing the question in terms of “modernity” leads to an evaporation of discourse to a level of abstraction so general and inaccessible that the whole undertaking eventually ends up relegitimating the modernity under scrutiny by automatically translating familiar conceptual paradigms into common sense. Thus, today, the mere questioning of modernity is perceived to be either a reactionary vindication of pre-modernity or an expression of postmodern nihilism. Trapped in a unilinear temporal sequence, the modernist imagination confuses ideology with chronology, and interprets all transgressions of its dogmatically accepted norms as maladjustments or pathologies. But, there has never been anything “modern” (in the sense of “better” or “superior”) about modernist ideologies, other than that they happen to have been most fashionable for the last couple of centuries. In fact, to the extent that they presuppose and are therefore parasitic precisely on that “premodern” cultural patrimony they systematically erase, their very success corresponds to their demise. In this sense, anti-modernist reactions are the natural outcome of intensifying modernist “rationalization,” i.e, the eradication of whatever does not fit within the predominant scheme.
Relegated to an intuitive level that is hardly ever articulated sufficiently to generate theoretical frameworks able to translate into concrete political positions (since most of todays’ intellectuals are themselves a modernist by-product), antimodernist sensibilities, which cannot be automatically sequenced as either premodern or post-modern reactions, remain undifferentiated and undeveloped, exploding only occasionally, to be readily reinserted within the predominant political discourse. This does not alter the fact that all recent efforts to prolong the life of the modernist narrative are doomed. Despite the fact that Western economies seem to be on an indefinite expansion as a result of the unprecedented growth in productivity precipitated by new technologies — developments that usually discourage radical tinkering with the status quo — no one denies that something fundamental has changed. The old pork-barrel politics, which a few years ago were still concerned primarily with economic issues (recall the cryptic battle-cry paving the way for Clinton’s victory in the 1992 election: “It’s the economy, stupid!” — even though Clinton’s policies, and other derivative European variations, only extended existing strategies) have given way to new cultural politics, where the conflicting sides can no longer be identified as either “Left” or “Right.”
To be sure, this state of affairs has not gone unnoticed. But the kind of debate that, e.g., followed the publication of Norberto Bobbio’s extremely successful little book, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction — an elegant, but desperate and ultimately failed effort to resurrect a defunct political dichotomy — does not seem to have settled anything. In fact, in retrospect, the very attempt to uphold the dichotomy appears more and more to be an ideological move to relegitimate a bankrupt Left ideology, otherwise indistinguishable from its equally bankrupt Right counterpart, by caricaturing its opposition as tendentially authoritarian and crypto-fascist, and thus squatting on the moral high ground of anti-fascism, equality, and social justice. The problem with this maneuver, as Marcello Veneziani argues in his book on communitarians and liberals, is that such a dichotomy presupposes the existence of two sides, and today those who are opposed to the Left refuse to be associated with the Right (p. 76). This is why he suggests that the main political division in the 21st century is likely to be between liberals and communitarians — despite the fact that the latter have not yet managed to coalesce anti-modernist sentiments into any kind of systematic political philosophy, and that liberals have succeeded in co-opting their opponents within a cloudy, one-size-fits-all centrist framework.
Politics, however, requires conflict and opposition. Thus, centrist syntheses are doomed to fail, and the differences between communitarians and liberals are bound to sharpen rather than fade, even if there is a growing number of new pseudo-communitarians, such as Amitai Etzioni, who have (with some success and a lot of government funding) sought to subsume communitarian impulses within a broadened Welfare-State liberal framework. Veneziani probably provides as accurate an account of existing political differences between the two poles as is possible at this time. Yet, his descriptive-didactic approach prevents him from inquiring into the dynamics governing the respective development of the two and their relation to the broader phenomenon of the disintegration of modernity.
If, in fact, communitarianism and liberalism are not merely two competing political alternatives but, in terms of their relation to modernity, conceptual systematizations of different responses to different problems arising at different times in the history of the West, then, despite Veneziani’s admitted preference for communitarianism, posing both at the same abstract level already presupposes a liberal bias. It is part and parcel of liberalism to regard political ideologies as merely abstract choices by equally abstract individuals objectifying their interests and values within a neutral political arena defined exclusively by strict and clearly spelled out procedural rules. As for communitarians, values and interests are always social in character, and it is their very codification and objectification that defines political entities. Even politics itself is not concerned with interest aggregation within a society of private citizens, but with friend/enemy relations among political entities so defined. Consequently, while liberalism sees communitarianism as but another arbitrary world-view predicated on nostalgia and other reactionary criteria, such as ethnicity, religion, language, and race, communitarianism sees liberalism as an abstract proceduralism originally meant to deal with the religious civil wars and subsequently deteriorating into a normative system that gradually displaces the cultural particularities of the various warring factions.
What is at stake here is much more than simply a political contest between two alternative modes of social organization. It is a matter of two radically different ways of understanding the trajectory of Western civilization: one, modernist; the other, anti-modernist. The teleology of the first, in its communist, liberaldemocratic or even Nazi variations, culminates in a society of autonomous, equal, and thereby homogeneous individuals (in the Nazi case: a racially homogeneous society; in the liberal-democratic case: a juridically homogeneous society of hyper-heterogeneous individuals whose myriad of differences are all dissolved in an abstract Verfassungspatriotismus). In this sense, liberal society seeks to abolish politics as the conflictual tension between different groups whose identity is predicated on the adherence to particular cultural tenets codified in their particular moral and juridical framework, in favor of a technocratic administration predicated on neutral procedures of classless individuals engaged exclusively in the pursuit of self-interest. The teleology of the second projects an aggregation of communities, with their particular cultural identity, competing with each other in a conflictual context where any harmonious resolution is not guaranteed by a state or even a world government, but by contractual arrangements between the various sovereign groups (despite the fact that, especially during the last century, the human price paid for failing to negotiate such arrangements has been unimaginable).
The irony here is that the radicalization of the differences between liberalism and communitarianism tends to erase their incompatibility. In fact, at the dawn of liberalism, they were not necessarily incompatible. They became so only after liberal proceduralism underwent a modernist transformation and hardened into a normative system competing with the particular cultural frameworks of the political entities whose relations it was meant to regulate. Originally, the American Constitution was drafted precisely in order to reconcile liberal proceduralism at the federal level and cultural particularity at the state level. More generally, in the original Althusian formulation and before the mid-19th century, when the concept was gradually corrupted to end up corresponding to nationalism — to the point that, today, in the US and within the EU, the two are practically interchangeable — federalism represented precisely such a reconciliation.
This helps to explain why communitarianism, unlike liberalism, which is now several centuries old, began to coalesce as a political doctrine only after liberalism completed its normativist involution with the full bloom of the Sozialstaat and the Welfare State in the 1970s, just before Reagan and Thatcher sought unsuccessfully to return it to its original formulation. While Veneziani’s elegant presentation, in attempting to be fair, devotes roughly equal time and space to both, it leaves the mistaken impression that the two are at an equal level of theoretical elaboration. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Communitarianism is still a long way from being a full-fledged political ideology capable of competing on an equal footing with liberalism, which accounts for the fact that politics everywhere in the West still unfolds almost exclusively along the liberal paramenters of Left vs. Right. Yet, the substance of political discourse is almost entirely communitarian in character.
One needs only scan the main issues being debated by the candidates in the US Presidential election of November 2000 to realize how far they are from any easy classification as either “Left” or “Right” in terms of the traditional ideological meaning of the two sides: abortion, gun-control, gay rights, fiscal policies, education, health, etc. All of these issues presuppose particular cultural values that a strictly procedural liberalism has no business dealing with. Yet, late liberalism shows no reluctance in subsuming them within its jurisdiction. Having reified its world-view into a scientistic ideology predicated on arbitrary “human rights” imposed as universal values, and having successfully contained democratic prerogatives within equally arbitrary juridical parameters, liberalism assumes cultural values to be determined by politics rather than the other way around. No wonder a communitarian reaction has been brewing within various new social movements and beneath the conventional political radar, seeking in vain a viable political embodiment. Whether it will succeed remains a political contingency. Yet, as long as modernist liberalism continues encroaching on particular cultural spheres or in colonizing the Lebenswelt, it will only arouse otherwise dormant communitarian sentiments.
In a valiant effort to legitimate communitarianism as the new loyal opposition, Veneziani has managed both to inflate it to a theoretical dimension it cannot yet command, and to diminish its historical profile by compressing it into a pinch-hitter for a Right long since missing-in-action. Yet, he has managed to provide probably the best account of communitarianism to be found anywhere with such a few pages and with such a high level of sophistication.
[Telos; Fall 99 Issue 117, p185, 6p]