This article is a response to “You are Not a Communitarian” by Nicholas Woode-Smith. Please read the original article before reading the response.
[Liberal anticulture] frees us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture.
– Patrick Deneen
I was asked to comment on a Rational Standard piece (“You are not a communitarian”, 9 July 2021) by Nicholas Woode-Smith, and I gladly oblige. I have made the case for communitarianism before. As Nicholas opted for “focusing on the essential beliefs of communitarianism in its hardest form”, I will reciprocate by judging individualism in its hardest forms. In this piece, I will address the individualist doctrines Woode-Smith offered as an alternative to communitarianism.
Liberalism’s Marxist children
Many liberals nowadays choose to refer to themselves as “classical liberals” in a desperate attempt to disassociate themselves from their ideology’s misbehaving, radical children who violently fight for the realisation of its logical conclusion. Classical liberals are therefore just liberals who are witnessing their ideology progress towards its tragic endgame, yelling “STOP!” The liberal narrative is that historically liberal organisations and parties were “driven into the arms of the Marxists”, but history teaches us that liberals, in fact, opened the door and invited the Marxists in for tea and strategic talks before the Marxists had even knocked on the door.
As examples, we see how the ANC progressed from its staunch liberal roots to the National Democratic Revolution; how the Black Sash movement nowadays advocates universal basic income; and how US and South African liberal academics and commentariat uncritically embrace critical race theory and cultural Marxism. This leads one to ask: Why does this pattern continue to reveal itself? More specifically: Why do liberal movements and organisations so eagerly and so often ally with the far-left against a common foe, but the notion of a liberal organisation that aligns itself with the far-right is viewed as preposterous and ridiculous by any liberal? Indeed, there exist exceptions to this trend, but there is a reason why we acknowledge the correlation between smoking and cancer. Liberalism cannot hide its Marxist children in the basement forever. They will eventually grow strong enough under your coddling care to break down the door and confront your houseguests with enraged, violent rantings about critical race theory and whiteness.
The community takes away and the community gives
The truth is that freedom is only truly possible in a community with firm values and one that gives shelter from the external consolidation of tyranny. It is limited freedom, but what is gained from this limited freedom is greater than the freedom that is sacrificed, while the freedom that is sacrificed is paltry in comparison with its alternative. It is the difference between the discipline of an apprenticeship and the shelter of an open-air prison.
Voluntary community organisations and institutions enable the individual to be relatively free in a safe environment. If we all believe in the same moral code, we are all free to live our best lives together. Although you are free to leave most communities voluntarily, you cannot necessarily join them. It is required that you sacrifice some freedoms and take on responsibilities, which encroaches on unlimited individual freedom. In fact, it is desirable for a community that those who do not want to be part of it leave the community. Woode-Smith argues that all communitarians believe that individuals cannot leave the community in which they are. This is simply untrue. During the Battle of Blood River, anybody could leave the laager if they so wished, but this act of individualism would probably have resulted in a Zulu spear through the chest.
A novice violinist is not able to play any song that they want. They must first master their instrument, which requires sacrifices and taking on many and difficult responsibilities. If they want to become truly great artists, it would benefit them to delve into the rich tradition and heritage of the many great violinists who came before them – or “following the texts of ancient, dead people”, as Woode-Smith remarks. This foundation enables them to stand on the shoulders of giants, while they create their own legacies. That is what makes the value of the orchestra much more than the sum of its individual musicians: Enabling them to make something greater, which they would not have been able to do alone. In the same sense, being part of a community and understanding its customs, values and traditions, enables many individual freedoms and countless accomplishments.
Individualists argue that the individual is the “smallest minority”, and that this gives it ultimate precedence, but this is nothing more than a fallacy that falls apart on closer scrutiny. It is much like arguing that an individual brick is one of the smallest minorities in the community of bricks that forms a house. Woode-Smith’s argument – that individual bricks form the home and are therefore individually more important than the house – ignores the fact that a single brick cannot provide shelter for anyone on its own. Their individual use is relegated to acts such as being thrown through the window of someone else’s house.
The matter of moral relativism
The argument is raised that communitarians are moral relativists because they believe that communal moral codes should be allowed to flourish, even though many are contradictory. However, arguing that it is practical to draw a line in the sand and to agree not to interfere with other communities is just a pragmatic bit of common sense. But Woode-Smith knows full well that those of a communitarian bent believe in a positive set of values. He knows that they are merely offering a realistic compromise for the sake of peace. This really is just to pre-empt such an accusation being levered at him.
I cannot help but think of the very recent debate within online libertarian circles regarding legislation on the age of consent. Individualists argue that individual autonomy trumps “arbitrary” societal moral standards, and that mutual individual consent is enough to allow sexual relations with a minor. Not to mention the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire advocating child labour in a now deleted tweet. I hardly think these are unfair examples when the piece I’m responding to is comparing communitarianism to apartheid and ISIS, for example.
The imperialist demands of liberalism
Apartheid was a statist project; communitarianism, on the other hand, focusses on bottom-up communal autonomy, with a preference for less state-led interference and social engineering. It is in fact liberalism, and by extension individualism, that requires a powerful “holistic state” to protect individual rights when these are threatened. Is the destruction of Afrikaans as a medium of education at public universities – a cause backed by the liberal intelligentsia – not a testament to how individualism is insufficient to protect the rights of minority communities? Today, Afrikaans-medium education is preserved not by individualist institutions but by communitarian organisations.
South Africa, with its liberal constitution – praised by liberals at its conception as a great document that is stacked with individual rights – proved ill equipped to protect the rights of communities in terms of culture, heritage, religion and language, among others. The sound of the distant marching of the jackboots of socialism and statism rears its ugly head with Woode-Smith’s statement: “The core of morality, politics and justice is about determining just resource distribution and mitigating conflict.” This is liberal morality in full flight, and I don’t fault you for struggling to see the difference between the author’s sentiment and the ANC’s rhetoric.
Expropriation without compensation is justified by its proponents as a moral policy, rooted in just resource distribution and conflict mitigation. Under a liberal regime, the state becomes the arbiter of “just resource distribution” and “conflict mitigation” in line with “universal” liberal moral principles. As I noted in a recent debate, in the pursuit of state-managed inter-group harmony, the inevitable practical endgame of the liberal state, based on individualist ideals, was always going to be an increasingly detailed, authoritarian and explicit state bureaucracy and legislation that is aimed at managing all the different communities in society as a collection of individuals under one holistic state. Liberal universalism is forced down upon the entire society, whether they like it or not. Liberalism’s logical conclusion is legislated harmony by silencing dissidents through ever-expanding hate speech laws, social media purges and peer-reviewed papers that try to essentialise liberal morality that shifts with the winds of the reigning zeitgeist.
As Woode-Smith admitted, some group practices are viewed as morally reprehensible to liberal morality; therefore liberalism justifies outlawing these practices. But what or who determines which practices are morally reprehensible to liberalism in a multi-cultural society? It is easy to justify banning the burning of widows; but then again, legislated universal morality always starts with the absurd cases, so becomes the banning of the old South African flag in South Africa in the name of state-enforced tolerance.
The world is not nearly as liberal as liberals so desperately want (or need?) it to be. Therefore, the only way to make the world adhere to “universal” liberal morality, is through imperialism. British imperialism was partly driven by a similar paternalistic view that the world would be a better place for all only if it is anglicised – proto-globalism. Hence, the involuntary imposition of their religion, institutions, morality and language on all their dominions amounted in their minds to a noble humanitarian act. Liberalism clings to the belief that the world is secretly liberal at heart and will welcome a liberal order if only given the opportunity. When their idealism encounters a different reality, however, this sentiment quickly shifts from “the world wants a liberal order, we just need to give it the option” to “the world needs a liberal order, we just need to make them get used to it”. In the mind of the paternalistic liberal utopian, the “enlightened” ones always know best; therefore the common people should follow gratefully: “You will be liberal individualists, and you will be happy.”
Individualists can continue to claim that they value the importance of culture, but the fact remains that liberalism only tolerates communities who adhere to liberal morality and values. Individualists are committed to culture and community in the same way that the ANC is committed to non-racialism. Why must the Ngonyama Trust be judged in terms of Western liberal principles, if they have a voluntary traditional cultural system that has been functioning effectively for generations? The Zulu people must be given the liberty to preserve their own culture according to their wants and needs. Communitarians do not claim to know what is best for the Zulu people – no one knows better than the Zulu nation itself.
Look around you
The reason why individualism has come under increasing scrutiny from specifically ex-liberals, is the fact that liberal ideas all over the Western world have woefully failed in curbing the encroaching tyranny of leftism and woke corporations, as well as critical race theory seeping into every facet of society. Increasing numbers of libertarians are being banned from the social media cartel, yet they continue to console themselves that at least it is not the government that is supressing them. Does it really matter if tyranny comes at the hand of multibillion dollar, multinational corporations with more power and wealth than most countries, rather than by the government?
People are losing everything they hold dear to globalist utopianism and the tyranny that originates from the unholy marriage of corporations and states. People are feeling more and more helpless, nihilistic and isolated in an increasingly atomised society. In a world where being part of something bigger than yourself is looked down on, narcissism runs rampant. Community-based solutions are bearing fruit; therefore they are also gaining support. But liberals seem keener on attacking those who mobilise communally to push back, by condemning their “primitive” and “evil” collectivism. In reality, communities are building tangible solutions, while liberals are yelling at their ideological comrades to stop. Collectivism is not inherently or even predominantly evil. To make such a claim would be to condemn most forms of human organisation throughout time. The family is collectivist. Churches are collectivist. Neighbourhoods are collectivist. Culture is collectivist. Communities are collectivist.
Furthermore, individualist institutions and political parties actively continue to run interference for leftist ideologues, such as the US Libertarian Party, who advocate that people be “anti-racist” and who embrace Black Lives Matter. Liberalism paved the way for critical race theory, intersectionality and cultural Marxism. When the individual is the centre of everything, you eventually get to the point where it is mandatory to cater to every individual identity; hence we end up with hundreds of gender identities who all demand their pronouns be used – or else the state will enforce tolerance.
Liberals view any threat to their utopian world order as a risk of returning to a past that is filled with tyrannical despots and monstrous collectivists. This is how they justify the suppression and banning of ideas that liberalism deems threatening or too friendly towards the past. Liberals view the past as another country; a bigoted, hateful, backward dystopia to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who dares point out the failings of the neoliberal order, or who dares propose alternatives is ordered to grovel and apologise for the horrors which their ideas have produced since time immemorial; or they are accused of wanting to return to the dark ages before the enlightened era. I therefore find it notable that Woode-Smith likens community-based ideas to apartheid and ISIS.
The harsh reality is that the increasingly intolerant and oppressive present that liberalism has created (particularly in the West) increasingly resembles precisely those past horrors that they so vehemently condemn – while some of the present horrors even surpass any historical despot’s wildest dreams. The longer liberals decry the glaring flaws of neoliberal modernity as “not real liberalism”, the more they start to sound like soviet communists who are confronted by the harsh reality of the gulags which their ideology have produced. There is more to communitarianism than what a quick glance at its Wikipedia page informs. True communitarianism has been tried successfully, to various extents, throughout human history and all around you today.
My political label may still be evolving, but I know for certain what I am not
Individualism, which puts individual autonomy above all else, may condone child labour, advocate the lowering of the age of consent or often cruelly shame the religious. However, I can assure you that my community certainly does not. Protecting individual autonomy is not an excuse for imperialistically forcing evil unto communities. Woode-Smith’s piece urges communitarians to start referring to themselves as liberals instead. I urge the author to keep referring to himself as a liberal, because the radical individualism that he champions was the gateway to many of society’s problems that we experience today. Accept that most people around the world are not secretly or unknowingly liberal, and that the “silent liberal majority” that many liberals desperately cling to is a fantasy.
Without community, the Afrikaner culture would not have survived in Africa. Whenever we or our culture is threatened, we resort to what served us well in the past. We and other African cultures are what our history made us. Liberalism and imperialism from “know better” empires have throughout our history threatened our freedom and our existence because these strived to break down all boundaries and ignored all differences that make every culture unique. All communitarians are not the caricatures portrayed by Woode-Smith. Some of my liberal friends say that it is not helpful to argue amongst allies when we are staring down more pressing matters. I agree to a large extent; however, individualists must make peace with the fact that many of their allies in this fight are not liberals (as they would like to believe) and do not view collectivism as inherently evil. Do not try to gaslight us or fool yourselves. We definitely disagree on many fundamental principles, but thankfully we also agree on many critical ones. So let us discuss and debate our differences robustly and without pretences, because we are so different that both of us cannot be right.