Forget manichaeism: like Bobbio, I choose dialogue
In the debate over the identity of the Left, two positions have emerged: there are those who embrace liberal multiculturalism, but with one exception, Islam; and there are those who reject this exception because believe that we should articulate our judgement on the Islamic culture and think it is a mistake to regard it as a whole, as if it were a homogenous world. After September 11, many of those who at the time of the Cold War theorized and embraced a politics of intolerance toward the Communists tended to apply it to Islam. The European open-to-compromise attitude that is not tremendously afraid of cultural pluralism seems to be more difficult to be practiced in the United States. Positions such as those endorsed by Paul Berman (which I would define as one of Manichean Occidentalism) in addition to being reductionist and somehow deceptive is also politically dangerous since that it may unwillingly help the cause of Osama bin Laden’s extremism.
From this article by Nadia Urbinati, published in the magazine Reset (issue 103, September-October), began the debate between the author and the philosopher Michael Walzer.
On few topics such as the one that concerns us here - the relationship between liberal principles and religious cultures - the debate over the identity of the Left (i.e. progressive democracy views broadly conceived) overlaps so clearly with the issue of the identity of democracy. It seems to me that as for now two positions have emerged: on the one hand, there are those who embrace liberal multiculturalism (they acknowledge, not merely tolerate the existence of cultural and religious differences within a democratic community) but with one exception, Islam; one the other, there are those who reject this exception because believe that we should articulate our judgement on the Islamic culture and think it is a mistake to regard it as a whole, as if it were a homogenous world with no internal differences. It is important to be aware that these two positions are a reflection of a fact that can hardly be ignored – namely, the intricate link between domestic politics (of democratic counties) and foreign politics (of democratic countries towards those countries or world areas where from Islamic terrorism came). International politics and issues are deeply intertwined with national or domestic politics in a way that recalls closely the Cold War era. I would thus propose a parallel between today’s dualism between “us” and “them” and the Cold War’s.
The first of the two kinds of multiculturalism I mentioned above seems to correspond to the one that during the Cold War was shared by those liberals and democrats who believed that a dialogue with the communists was not only undesirable but moreover impossible: One could not in fact be tolerant with those who were intolerant. In that context, communism was seen as a whole, an ideology with religious and dogmatic characteristics that was inhospitable of dissent. Many democrats existed who saw no other solutions except a policy of the wall: us against them. It is interesting to notice that after September 11, many of those who at the time of the Cold War theorized and embraced a politics of intolerance toward the Communists tended to apply it to Islam.
Dissent, Bobbio and Communism
With all due precautions that any generalisation demands, it is possible to venture the following observation: The way in which the political culture of the Cold War was experienced and practiced can offer us with a guide for understanding the current division (and even disagreement) between European and American intellectuals on the subject of multiculturalism and, more in general, democratization. If one recalls the engaging debates involving European intellectuals from the 1950s onwards, one would perhaps realize that it will prove extremely difficult to find similar examples in the United States. Let briefly analyse two representative magazines of the 1950s, one American and one Italian: Dissent and Nuovi Argomenti. Dissent of course played a unique and original role in the United States, since it attempted to disassociate the Left from communism on matter of principles so as to preserve the former from the anti-communist fury of McCarthyism. Dissent contributed in an important way in defending a left-wing democratic identity in a country that was little prepared to make distinctions within and among left-wing streams. Yet not even Dissent discussed with the communists. It provided instead space for ex-communists, who could better describe the unchangeable monolithic characteristics of Marx-Leninism.
Let now turn to Europe, and Italy in particular, and compare Dissent to the magazine Nuovi Argomenti, which in 1954 launched an extraordinary investigation among Italian intellectuals concerning the role to be played by the Left with regards to communism and the role to be played by Western European democracy with regards to the two blocks and their respective models of democracy. And it is Norberto Bobbio who comes to mind, one of the most lucid participants in that debate and a scholar who was not afraid to challenge the Italian Communists directly by inviting them to discuss the subject of democracy and liberty. We do not need to remember that beginning with 1947, the political confrontation took in the west the character of odium theologicum. Bobbio’s aversion to “political sectarianism” and the spirit of “religious war” on both sides of the political spectrum may explain his inclination toward a realist vision of politics. He was convinced that a liberal and secular politics would gradually transform conflicts from absolute contrapositions into an antagonism between organized interests and political programs. Although a church-like movement, the Communist Party was perhaps far from internally homogeneous, and a politics of dialogue - Bobbio thought - would perhaps make its doctrinal differences become visible to its own believers and militants. As a matter of fact, once the Italian Communists agreed to discuss their doctrinal principles with a liberal theorist according to the method of “arguments and counter-arguments,” they were actually agreeing to put their dogmatic system on trial, and to risk acknowledging its limits and flaws.
Toleration and dialogue were the only strategies that could engender a change in the communists’ ideology while at the same time preventing those who held “correct opinions” (liberals and democrats) from becoming fanatics in their own way. Thus the politics of dialogue was not merely prudential. It was primarily normative and principled. Dialogue and tolerance were essential not merely because they would keep the Communists within the constitutional system, but because they would enable Italian democracy to consolidate itself. On the other hand, the western side of Cold War too had an anti-liberal core when it claimed that the functioning of democracy required a society that was inherently homogeneous in ideology and culture, not only political institutions and procedures. Hence Bobbio: “It might be logically consistent to answer intolerance with intolerance, but it is ethically poor and perhaps politically disadvantageous. One can never be sure that the person who is intolerant will understand the ethical value of respecting others’ views once they are accepted within the liberal camp. It is, however, certain that a persecuted and excluded intolerant will never become a liberal. It is worth risking liberty by making its enemy its beneficiary if the only alternative is to limit liberty to the point of suffocating it or not allowing it to bear fruit. Much better an always endangered but expansive liberty than a liberty well protected but unable to develop.”
The European art of dialogue
In any case, the European peoples, whether because their closeness never allowed a radical anti-dialogue attitude or because the many wars they fought while debilitated them never ended with the extermination of the enemy (the extermination of the Jewish was not perpetrated in war operations), developed the habit of debating matters among themselves in a permanent relationship of friendliness/enmity. They were forced or solicited to practice the art of dialogue and as a result they de facto acknowledged effectively that no church or faith is a homogenous block. It is certainly possible that the Protestant Reformation (the first great example of pluralisation of a monolithic church) played a crucial role in making Europeans experience and cultivate this attitude.
Whatever the historical reasons, this open-to-compromise attitude that is not tremendously afraid of cultural pluralism seems to be more difficult to be practiced in the United States, although in the States civil society is more multicultural than in any European country. Historians of ideas and cultural historians may be tempted to explain this by resorting to the ideology of American exceptionalism that marked the creation of the American nation in its understandable need to distinguish itself from Europe, and above all Europe’s political vices, such as despotism and a culture of privileges and hierarchy. The role played by the United States in the shaping of a modern democratic culture was fundamental and American exceptionalism played also a positive role. Meanwhile, however, it oriented American politics and political culture towards a proud defence of its own national uniqueness. Until this defence coincided with issues such as peace and democracy, as in the cases listed by Michael Walzer in an interview published by Dissent, a virtuous circle came into being that strengthened both democracy and the international leading role of the United States in favour of democracy. It is this virtuous circle that is under crisis nowadays and, as I shall explain below, this is manifest precisely in the different visions of democracy and the culture of dialogue that have become rooted respectively in Europe and in the United Stated. Before analyzing these visions, I would like however to return to the multicultural attitude with which I started this paper.
The risky politics of “block-thinking”
The difference between the two multicultural attitudes I have outlined at the start is clear whenever we pay attention to the political theory of Michael Walzer, perhaps the American intellectual who has more than any other reflected on the multiple paths of reformism and the Left. I am referring especially to his theory of the social meaning of ideas and of “criticism from within” with which ever since the 1980s Walzer wanted to distinguish between monolithic theories of a just society founded on a “simple” concept of equality (as for instance that implied by the two principles of justice that John Rawls deduced a priori from the “original position” and through the mental experiment of the “veil of ignorance”) and pluralistic approaches founded instead on the assumption that each people is primed to create from below and through a process of interpretation from “within” the pathway towards a more just society or democracy. (How can one forget Walzer’s brilliant analysis of the movement of democratisation in Eastern European countries?). Walzer’s appeal to respect, appreciate, and encourage an internal articulation of critical views was followed in a few years by an extraordinary theoretical production that focused on the analysis of the foundations of the two reformist attitudes (the deductive and the contextualist) and on the strategies put forth by the intellectuals who endorsed them. It is worth mentioning on this regard his Interpretation and Social Criticism and The Company of Critics, two pivotal works published one year after the other, in 1987 and 1988 respectively.
In the article “Block Thinking and Internal Criticism”, Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor (Public Culture 18 (2006):3) refer precisely to this theoretical contribution by Walzer. They emphasize, correctly, the important implications that it may have today, in the face of the rebirth of new Manichean attitudes amidst Western reformist intellectuals. Goankar and Taylor write that multiculturalism, when and if it does not degenerate into particularism and is not transformed into sectarian policies, if in other words is liberal in its principles and democratic in its attitudes, has two basic characteristic; first, it presumes that cultural differences are unavoidable in a climate of freedom and should be acknowledged and tolerated (with due care that civil rights are protected); and second, it assumes that within each culture there are minorities (which the liberal rights of the “exist” and “voice” elucidated by Albert Hirschman should guarantee) and no culture is monolithic. Each culture is like a universe of complicated dialectics and disagreements that are often invisible to those outside since that complexity is expressed in a language and through symbols and memories that are better seen and understood by those who are familiar with them because they made them or shared in the history of those who made them. Yet many signs of that complexity can be seen or sensed from those outside who can read and interpret them through their own experiences since the outsiders too have presumably used engaged in similar debates and fight their own battles. Contextual criticism does not mean closure to the outside or solipsism. It means instead cross-understanding through the comparison of experiences.
Paul Berman’s mistake
The philosophy of dialogue is based on these premises, both of which manicheanism radically rejects. To resume our main topic, on this rejection is based radicalism, both inside the Islamic culture and inside the Western one. The politics of “block thinking” – or the assumption that there are monolithic and hence unchangeable cultures — is risky since it tends to thrust all the members of the culture in question (be it Islamic and Western) into the arms of those radical minorities that do really want their culture to be a unitary block under their leadership. Positions such as those endorsed by Paul Berman (which I would define as one of Manichean Occidentalism) in addition to being reductionist and somehow deceptive is also politically dangerous since that it may unwillingly help the cause of Osama bin Laden’s extremism. Goankar and Taylor write that the best “antidote” to “block thinking” must be found precisely in the concept of Walzer’s “internal criticism”, hence in the invitation to thinking that within every society or group or culture there do however exist principles, forms of expression, words, ideas or symbols that allow people to start criticising or reforming or questioning some given representative interpretations of their own culture.
As we know, Walzer addressed contextual criticism first of all against Marx-Leninists’ messianism, their idea that the pathway towards a better society was only one, that one that the science of dialectical materialism had defined. To Marx-Leninists vernacular cultures or dialects were nothing more than prejudices that the language of science would have to get rid off so as to allow the Future Society to emerge. Contextual criticism, in Walzer’s view, was a theoretical answer to rationalism and dogmatism, but it was also a political platform whose aim was that of facilitating internal processes of cultural transformation, also through or thanks to stimuli and influence from outside. This should amount to indirect influence however, not direct or military intervention. The democratisation of Eastern European countries was conquered by means of the concurrence of internal and external political and cultural actions (not military). I would suggest that democratic and liberal intellectuals apply to the contemporary scenario of democracy’s planetary destiny Walzer’s dualism between a monolithic theory of reformism imposed from outside (deduced from some abstract universal principles and the rationalistic stipulation that any attempt to contextualize them would represent a deviation from True) and a participated reformism developed from within (the result of diasporas and interpretative conflicts concerning some shared meanings and texts, thanks also to forms of external influence). This premise made, I can now address the issue of the identity of democracy with which I started this paper.
Two visions of democracy
It is possible to identify two broad visions of democracy: one is ideological as quasi religious in kind, based on a nucleus of values that are identified with the West as an organic whole (it corresponds more or less to a Wilsonian conception of democracy as a mission, with which not only American neo-conservatives identify but also some revisionist liberals such as Berman); the other is moral and procedural in kind, and pays attention to the context and is based on a nucleus of procedures that are applicable in various circumstances. The first concept is powerfully identifiable with a politics of the will – democracy as an international political project that must be encouraged even with coercive measures, if necessary. While it acknowledges democracy as the highest value and peace as its corollary, the politics of the will betrays the democratic principle of voluntary determination, which is the necessary condition for the creation of democracy, and violates the principle of sovereignty without which neither democracy nor peace can exist (pace the easy declarations concerning the death of the state and sovereignty). The other concept is identifiable with a politics of judgement; it is better rooted than the other one in the idea that citizens’ consent is the fundamental requirement for a democratic political order; this is so because it deems the state as fundamental for democracy, an institutional authority organised so as to operate through rules and laws, and equipped so as to implement legally acknowledged rights and to pass laws that are legitimate and revisable.
Equally important for achieving democracy is the promotion of social and economic conditions that fight against poverty; it is people with concrete chances to find a job and gain a just salary so as to make their lives decent. Without these basic conditions democracy cannot consolidate. As political scientists have proved in their comparative studies on democratisation, a correlation between convenience and democratic stability is crucial. Democracy must be desirable to be pursued, and, once achieved, must manage to solve social conflicts through constitutionally defined rules so that no citizen or group can tamper with rules for their own advantages. For democracy to be desirable it is necessary that it proves itself capable of allowing social and economic improvement, of repaying those who make sacrifices to obtain and sustain it. As Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us, democracy is not founded on any kind of artificially induced or imposed patriotism, nor does it demand excessive sacrifices from its citizens; it is strong because it generates a convenient form of patriotism, so to speak, or a “selfishness well understood” by which means people perceive the public good as convenient to everyone. It is precisely to this well-understood interest that I refer when I suggest that we should ensure that the transition to democracy is perceived as convenient by the players themselves.
The question could therefore be posed as follows: ‘How can one render the democratic process convenient and safe, not simply possible?’. In this question we may recognize the great lesson we received from the system adopted by the European Union in defining the conditions for the admission of new countries: How to render democracy desirable and convenient and hence how to ensure that the citizens themselves concur in promoting and defending it. Policies involving incentives (indirect influence) are like or work like policies of checks and balances or of counterbalance because they make the process of democratisation a cooperative strategy, an enterprise that is based on a relationship that is mutually convenient. But this attitude can prosper and progress only if it is based on at least two conditions: that the people become the leading players in the democratic transformation; and that the world’s interdependence between peoples is a fundamental element of the democratic transformation. Interdependency does not mean indulgence or surrendering to violence. Interdependency entails a system of mutual convenience; a condition that alone assumes the direct self-promotion of the interlocutors, of those who from within the group develop the difficult process of democratic freedom and those who from without can help them with the practice of dialogue and with incentives.
Left and the need of a philosophy of the individual
It seems to me that this should be the path to be followed by democrats, in Europe as well as in the United States. A pathway of contamination by using means that work as checks and balances and as stimuli, as correctives and incentives, not however Manichean contrapositions. In our political culture, this path – which the ancients used to call commercium, assigning to this word a meaning that was broad and rich in cultural elements, not only economic – has valid foundations; it has foundations in the liberal culture as well as the democratic one and finds (and found) practical application in a politics of dialogue. But the politics of dialogue must rely on the premise that no culture is homogeneous like a block or a stone; that wherever human beings are born and grow-up by accident they have however the capability of reflecting upon the world in which they by chance find themselves so as to make it “their own”. Perhaps a democratic Left would need to enrich its political culture with a philosophy of the individual. It is no coincidence that, the European intellectuals who, at the end of World War Two, rejected the Manicheanism of the Cold War and practised the culture of dialogue passed through the intellectual experience of humanism, existentialism or personalism, the philosophical elaborations that in 1930s and 1940s had contributed greatly in the moral renaissance of the value of the individual person against the two hegemonic holistic systems, Fascist and communist, and their belief in the centrality of collective entities such as the state and the party. Now too we are witnessing perhaps the need to emancipate the individual person from the identification with the culture or the religion she or he belongs in. The issue here is not that of concluding that culture and religions are fictions and illusions, but that of emphasising that culture and religion are expression of and originate in the individual search for meaningful life.
Nadia Urbinati is Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, New York. Together with Andrew Arato she co-edits the magazine Constellations. Her works include Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (University of Chicago Press 2006). An author of essays on liberalism, individualism and Stuart Mill, she edited and published in the United States, for Princeton University Press, Carlo Roselli's Social Liberalism. She is also co-author of Liberal-socialisti. Il futuro di una tradizione (con M. Canto-Sperber, I libri di Reset, Marsilio, 2003), and of La libertà e i suoi limiti. Antologia del pensiero liberale da Filangieri a Bobbio (with C. Ocone, Laterza, 2005).