Liberal Nationalism and Communitarianism: An Ambiguous Association

By Vincent, Andrew | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Liberal Nationalism and Communitarianism: An Ambiguous Association


Vincent, Andrew, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The main focus of this paper is on the relation between contemporary liberal nationalism and communitarianism. Despite some affinities between these two doctrines, there is a paucity of reflection on their precise relation, except by default. This paper analyses the relation, taking note of both affinities and differences. In this sense, the paper is a ground clearing exercise. Another undercurrent runs through the latter part of the discussion, namely, an underlying unease that both doctrines fail to address a crucial issue of late modernity -- radical difference and pluralism. Eric Hobsbawm has remarked, "The owl of Minerva, which brings wisdom, said Hegel, flies out at dusk. It is a good sign that it is now circling around nations and nationalism".(1) Possibly we should now add communitarianism to the owl's circuitous twilight jaunt.(2)

Affinities

After a few brief introductory remarks, this first section considers five basic affinities between contemporary communitarianism and liberal nationalism. I contend that these form the basic groundwork for any immediate or intuitive judgement we might make concerning the relation between these doctrines.

Images of the coherent, consensual, unified society, community or nation have obsessed European social and political thinkers over the past two centuries. In the closing two decades of the twentieth century these images have once more gained currency within communitarian and nationalist discourse. In one reading, increasing mobility, globalisation and rapid technological change have led to a subtle but worrying decline of social cohesion, a loosening of identities and the fragmentation of communities. In fact, in recent literature, this fragmentation has now acquired the dubious appellation "detraditionalization".(3) Postmodern, poststructuralist and difference theorists (of various stripes) see such loosening as a matter for rejoicing; for the community-minded though, of whatever shade, it is a matter of some anxiety.

There are clearly stronger and weaker senses of both nationalism and communitarianism.(4) The stronger sense, of both terms, is usually premised on a belief in a more objective, political, moral or cultural order. The kind of society envisaged is more homogeneous. The individual self, in this stronger sense, is merged totally into the social whole. For critics of this view such a notion is difficult to uphold in an advanced industrial scenario with developed individualism, rapid social, political and economic change and mobility.(5) In addition, there is a sense that the stronger view can either be foolishly nostalgic or just deeply reactionary. Exponents of a weaker sense of community (or nation) have limited its application to citizenship loyalties or generalised commitments to a common culture or legal code. In this scenario, the individual self is not totally merged and can retain other allegiances, although the overall community is still of prior importance.

The stronger variants of "communitarianism" resonate directly with the stronger expositions of "nationalism". Historically, these variants would include figures from the conservative and fascist pantheon, like Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt In recent debates in Anglophone political theory, however, the weaker liberal forms of communitarianism have figured most strongly. What criteria enable us to identify this weaker communitarian view? Inevitably, any such criteria will be shaky given the tendency of theorists to repudiate the term or change their perspective.(6) Nonetheless, most theorists, who are quite regularly identified by the "scholarly community" of political theorists (and often discussed as such in text books and articles) as communitarians, adhere to the following general theses: first, political and moral goods cannot be determined by abstract reasoning, they arise out of historical communities. Second, the community forms the basis of practical reason. …

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