Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview
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uals participating in the shape of the future is to take seriously the idea of human dignity where authorship, participation, and responsibility are key components. Tocqueville's fears about the diminution of the individual in the writing of history in democratic ages and the retreat of the individual in the face of mass society, as well as Arendt's concern about the "existential illusion" associated with historical vision and the victory of administration over politics, echo this commitment to human dignity. Seen in this perspective, Dagger's claim for the function of memory -- "without memory there no personality, no sense of self. Indeed, we can think of and act as selves only because we can recollect the experiences which constitute our selves" -- is less a characteristic statement demonstrating the divide between the "unencumbered" liberal self and the "situated" or "socially constituted" communitarian self, and more a reflection on the interdependence, promise, and fragility of individual and public action and memory.

It is possible to argue that the "democratic moment" captured by Tocqueville and Arendt's exemplary model of the Greek city-state is not relevant for today's mass political life. In other words, to hold Tocqueville and Arendt up as possible "remedies" for current political problems or use them as models for a possible politics is simply engaging in nostalgia. Perhaps. Even if there is some element of nostalgia in valuing Tocqueville's and Arendt's work as standards for contemporary politics, however, their fears about mass society and the importance they place on public space for the exercise of political liberty are worth our attention. Because of their emphasis on the importance of beginnings, their warning about holding to broken or dead traditions, their call for individual action and responsibility while maintaining the need for vital public spaces, and their stress on the art of "associating together" as the touchstone for the formation of political habits and the cultivation of public space, reading Tocqueville and Arendt, perhaps even reading Tocqueville and Arendt together, may not be simply a nostalgic exercise but a hopeful and sober statement on the health and possibility of politics today.

Allen Buchanan provides a nice summary of major communitarian criticisms of liberal theory in "Assessing the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism", Ethics 99 ( July 1989):852-882.
Charles Taylor, "Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate", in Liberalism and the Moral Life, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Alan Ryan, "The Liberal Community", in Democratic Community, edited by John W. Chapman and Ian Shapiro ( New York: New York University Press, 1993), 91.
Even scholars who have explicitly linked Tocqueville and Arendt draw different conclusions concerning shared themes, concerns, and prescriptions. See Margie Lloyd, "In Tocqueville's Shadow: Hannah Arendt's Liberal Republicanism", Review of Politics 57 (Winter 1995): 31-58; Suzanne D. Jacobitti, "Individualism and Political Community: Arendt and Tocqueville on the Current Debate in Liberalism",


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