Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Michael Walzer on the Good Society

reliminary Dialogue: The co-editor of Dissent argues with a philosophical friend to determine the truth (or a truth) of the matter.

Michael Walzer (MW): The definite article is wrong. How could there be one good society, given the immense variety of human cultures?

A Philosophical Friend (APF): Well, there is one human nature, recognizable across many historical and cultural settings. So why shouldn’t there be one good society that “fits” human nature and enables all men and women to reach their highest potential? Isn’t this the goal of philosophy since its Greek beginnings, and of most of the world’s religions, especially the monotheistic ones (think of the city on the hill, the holy commonwealth, the messianic kingdom), and of the left also for the last several centuries? Isn’t the pursuit of justice, truth, and beauty also, simultaneously, the pursuit of the good society, in which our higher nature would finally be fulfilled?

MW: But surely what is most distinctive about humanity is its creative power—to think, imagine, speculate, argue, and disagree. So men and women will imagine different good societies, argue about their political and economic arrangements, and disagree about which one is best.

APF: All right, that just means that the good society has to leave room for all those imaginings—it has to be liberal and democratic. The “marketplace of ideas” must be open to all comers.

MW: No, no, the good society isn’t a debating society—or rather, a debating society, a really lively debating society, may be one kind of good society, but not the only kind. People won’t just argue about different versions of goodness, they will try to act them out; they will build different “good societies,” and live in them, and teach their children that the society they have built is better than all the others.

APF: OK, I concede the point: that’s what has happened, that’s what people say to their children. Many different people aim at the good society and claim to have achieved goodness or to be on the way. Of course, they disagree; so what? What’s crucial is that they can’t all be right—otherwise what would be the point of the disagreement? Some of the different societies are better than others, which is to say, they are closer to the ideal. And the ideal is the good society. So let’s try to figure out what that is.

MW: Can you really look at all the different societies that human beings have built, acknowledge the range of difference, and still believe that it would be better if all humanity were living in the same way, with the same social practices and political institutions, in one big society (Plato’s Republic writ large) or in many similar smaller ones (like the Israeli kibbutzim)? Does it make sense to say that all the actually existing societies are really trying to reach the same ideal? Don’t they have different ideals? Perhaps incompatible ideals?

APF: No, the idea of the good must be coherent; its different features can’t be inconsistent with one another, or else we wouldn’t be able to say what goodness is. The good society will no doubt be a complex creation, but, finally, it will be a singular creation; its different features will fit together in a specific way that is the right way. And so it makes sense to think of existing societies as so many failed efforts to reach the right way.

MW: Well, I agree that there are failures, but they are of many different kinds—and there are also different kinds of success. Suppose, though, for the sake of the argument, that you are right about the one right way: there remains a practical moral question of considerable importance, especially for the left. Reaching a singular goodness is going to involve serious losses from the perspective of each of the existing societies (or of their majority or dominant groups); some part of what the members think good will have to be given up. How do you propose to bring them all to accept those losses? How much coercion are you prepared to use on behalf of your conception of the good society? And who is to use it? Does your argument require some world-historical agent—the messiah, the communist vanguard, an enlightened despot? And if such an agent is necessary, should you really pursue the argument? Our experience with world-historical agents hasn’t been all that “good.”

Good Societies
So the argument goes on and on, but I will stop here, giving my own side the last word. Let’s assume that there isn’t and shouldn’t be a single world-historical agent. Instead, there are many forms of agency, all of them on a smaller, more local scale. And then our maxim should be, Let a hundred flowers bloom! Let there be many good societies, or at least many agents aiming at goodness of different sorts. Let their projects and the societies they create co-exist.

But doesn’t this co-existence, whatever form it takes, require that each society recognize the rights of the others: the right to a place in the world, the right to organize a common life, the right to pursue goodness according to the local lights? So why not say that the good society, in the singular, is precisely this plurality, taken together, organized or at least enclosed in some larger whole? The good society is constituted by the peaceful co-existence of all the societies that aim at goodness.

That kind of practical plurality within theoretical singularity is fine with me. The good society can be imagined as a framework that encompasses all the versions of goodness. But that isn’t what most people who imagine it, and seek to establish it, are after. In all the visions of social goodness from Plato onward and in all the experiments (so far, at least), the good society is singular in a much stronger sense. It is the focus of the energy and loyalty of its members; it provides the structure and meaning of their daily lives. Rousseau said of his republic that its citizens would derive their greatest happiness from their citizenship: “The aggregate of the common happiness furnishes a greater proportion of that of each individual, so that there is less for him to seek in particular cares.” But in a society of societies, there would be no common happiness. There would be no common experience, at least in Rousseau’s sense of “common,” for we don’t participate directly in the framework that we share with all our fellows, but only in the enclosed societies that we share with some of them. So if we set out on the pluralist path, we are effectively giving up the definite article and the singular goal.

We are also giving up the old idea of “society” or, better, we are hollowing it out and then focusing our hopes for goodness on a long series of lesser, more local, more particularized “societies.” How should these be described? What actual or possible societies exist within the hollowed-out social frame—and what are their qualities? I am going to consider three kinds (though there may be more): movements, associations, and communities. And then I will add to the list the liberal state, which represents but isn’t the only possible form of the enclosing frame and which is also a society in its own right.

Movements: Remember Eduard Bernstein’s line, “The movement is everything, the end nothing.” Well, not everything (and not nothing); but movements have certainly provided large numbers of men and women with a powerful experience of a good society. Social democracy, with its parties, unions, schools, newspapers, cultural and athletic organizations, youth groups, and summer camps, is a prime example. Most social democrats, no doubt, thought that their movement was a model for the good society. But they were wrong about that. The movement’s purposive urgency, its intense solidarity, the moral and political commitment of its members—none of these can be sustained over long periods of time. At some point, the claims of ordinary life will take over. Movements rise and decline; they have a lifespan—in the same way that men and women do, whose generations both overlap and succeed one another. The chronology of movements is similarly patterned. Communities, by contrast, incorporate successive generations and sustain themselves over many years; movements commonly can’t do that. But in their time, for decades, not centuries, they are or can be good societies.

NOT EVERY movement is good, of course. There are standards of goodness, but these aren’t the standards of the good society, but of a good movement. I will try to say what those standards are, and do the same for associations and communities and then for states. As we will see, the standards are different, though they have important common features. The standards here have to do with the ends of the movement (despite Bernstein’s claim) as well as with the structure of its internal life. These two sometimes exist in tension—especially so in left movements where the end is equality and democracy, while the organizational structure, because of the urgencies imposed by social conflict, is something less than fully egalitarian or democratic. I am doubtful about Robert Michels’s “iron law of oligarchy,” but a tendency to curtail internal democracy is certainly visible in many left movements, to a greater or lesser extent. The goodness of the movement can survive this tendency—though it doesn’t always do so. When it does, the movement will be marked by the sense of a valued enterprise, freely chosen, and then by political friendship and solidarity.

Since the ends of the movement are commonly radical and far-reaching, it doesn’t actually have to achieve them; it only has, so to speak, to sustain them. On the other hand, groups within the movement, like labor unions in the socialist movement, must provide real benefits to their members. In this sense, they are like associations.

Associations: Movements make very strong (sometimes total) claims on the loyalty and also on the time, energy, and wealth of their members; associations are much less demanding, their ends less encompassing. Nevertheless, they often have an internal life that is highly rewarding for the participants. Assume that they are doing good work: they are helping the sick and infirm, defending a neighborhood against crime or a country against environmental pollution, seeking constitutional reform, promoting the interests and values of teachers or social workers or doctors, bringing together people with a common interest in Jane Austin, or stamp collecting, or 1940s jazz, and so on. Assume also that their members freely cooperate with one another and decide together on the structure of their enterprise. Then their association is a good society. But it also has to be judged by its effectiveness: it must bring (some of) the benefits it promises to its own members or to outsiders.

Because they make only partial claims on their members, associations co-exist and overlap in space; the same people can be members of different groups. Some of the associations are “campaigns” in Richard Rorty’s sense (see “Movements and Campaigns,” Dissent, Winter 1995), with an external purpose that is resolutely pursued; some of them are support groups, focused inwardly on the troubles of their own members. The groups sometimes compete, sometimes form alliances, mostly just co-exist. The field of their co-existence is called “civil society.” The field can be more or less open, more or less supportive, so there are better and worse civil societies. But no civil society is the good society, for greater value resides in the associations themselves—that serve our interests or advance our moral purposes—than in the field they occupy.

Communities: Movements and associations are parts of a larger world; I imagine communities as worlds-in-themselves, constituted by men and women committed not just to a project but to a way of life. Of course, communities also co-exist in time and space, and have to forge relationships beyond their boundaries, but they are at the same time somehow self-sufficient, complete—at least, they aspire to completeness. Most religious communities have this character, even if it is often compromised by the engagement of community members in life outside. Secular, ideological, utopian communities, like Brook Farm or the early kibbutzim, also aim at completeness, sometimes with religious zeal.

What is most distinctive about communities is their collective desire to pass on their way of life to successive generations. I suppose that their ability to do that is one of the tests of their goodness. Just as the ongoing engagement of individuals in the work of the movement or association is a kind of test, so is the engagement of generations of individuals in the life of the community. But this isn’t a sufficient test, since all sorts of social and economic pressures may force people out of these groups—people who would stay if the moral attractiveness of the groups were their only consideration. What makes communities morally attractive? The internal life must be meaningful to the members and equally accessible to all of them; whatever patterns of super- or subordination exist in the community must be freely accepted; and the members must also be free to leave whenever they choose to do so (well, not whenever: they may have residual obligations to the people they have lived and worked with; they can’t just walk away in a time of trouble). I don’t think that the particular religion or ideology of the community determines its goodness or badness. Barring ideologies that are Nazi-like, racist, or chauvinist, the range of legitimate doctrinal commitment is very wide. What matters is the manner in which the doctrine is socially enacted: Is it freely accepted by all the members? Is it open for revision? One might say of a medieval monastery that it was a good community for the monks but not for the serfs of the monks; hence so long as there were serfs it wasn’t a good community.

States: The state provides the most important framework, but not the only possible one, within which movements, associations, and communities can co-exist. It protects its citizens not only against other states but also against oppression or illegitimate coercion in the different groups: it is the guarantor of individual rights. So a good state is one whose guarantee is effective for all its citizens; this is what makes its own coercive power legitimate. But effectiveness requires, so we have learned, that the state be in the hands of those same citizens—that it is a democratic state.

Note that the state is also a community of a kind: it seeks to educate its children to be good citizens and to sustain a common political life across generations. Some political theorists have argued that this political community, the democratic state, is in fact the good society and that the engagement of citizens in running the state and “giving the law to themselves” is the good life. Hannah Arendt sometimes wrote as if she believed that citizens meeting in the assembly, arguing about war and peace, displaying their wisdom or virtue to their fellows, stand at the very zenith of human achievement. I don’t believe this, for reasons that should be apparent from my list of good societies. Many men and women find greater goodness in their movements, associations, and communities than they find in the state. And this finding is definitive. It makes no sense to tell people who are fully committed to a good movement that they are making a mistake. No doubt, citizens have obligations, but they are not obligated to accept the proposition that citizenship is the highest calling of humankind. They are free to decide (and a good state will guarantee this freedom) that they are “called” elsewhere.

The Project of the Left
Movements are judged first of all by their purposes, but also, more important, by the degree to which their internal life is already shaped by those purposes. Associations are judged by their purposes, by the active participation of their members, and also by their ability to deliver what they promise to their members and to people in need outside the association. Communities are judged primarily by the value of the common life to the members themselves (all of them). States are judged by their effectiveness in protecting the rights of their citizens, as individuals, in and against all these groups and also by the engagement of the citizens in running state affairs.

These societies co-exist in time and space both with societies of their own kind and of other kinds. They also overlap with one another, and they can be included inside one another. This last is perhaps the most interesting form of co-existence. Associations can live, so to speak, inside communities and states; members of communities, sometimes communities collectively, can join in political or social movements; movements can organize within as well as across state boundaries; and so on. It is possible to imagine, therefore, that a single individual could take part in many good societies, organized at different levels of social life and over different geographic areas. The societies would themselves be different; the commitment required for participation would be different; and they would be good (if they were good) in different ways.

MY BASIC claim is that all these kinds of difference are themselves good and represent a central part of what goodness is in social and political life. But I worry that this may sound like a conservative argument. The notion of the good society is always a critical notion, since it is immediately obvious that we are not living in such a society. Monism is a radical philosophy, whereas pluralism seems to allow more room for negotiation and accommodation. After all, there actually are movements, associations, communities, and states in the world, some better, some worse. What am I arguing here except that it would be better if more of these societies were . . . better?

But they won’t be better until more people are involved more deeply in more of them—and involved as free and equal men and women. I won’t pretend that freedom and equality are the common qualities of all good societies (monasteries are an obvious exception), but they are common to all left versions of goodness. I can be tolerant of, even welcoming to, other versions and, in some general way, I am. In principle I believe that there ought to be other versions, fighting (peacefully) for their place in the social sun. I also value the fights. But when I join them, I can only fight for my own version.

Even here, however, on the left, freedom and equality don’t make for a single good society, for these values are open to a variety of enactments. Indeed, they will be realized differently in different settings, or they won’t be realized at all anywhere. The coercive imposition of a single version would destroy both freedom and equality; this is the critical lesson of the communist experiment and, more generally, of the twentieth century. We must now look for a pluralist realization, that is, for many partial, incomplete, contradictory realizations, of these values.

Goodness requires plenitude. That means many people participating actively in many different ways in many different groups. Since the powers-that-be always prefer to rule over populations that are passive, inarticulate, fearful, subdued, and obedient, active participation is itself a good thing, even though some of us will want to criticize or oppose the resulting activities. Standing on the left, I imagine goodness being created and sustained by activist men and women in movements that are hostile to authoritarianism and hierarchy; in associations whose members commit themselves freely to one another—and to other others too; in communities experimenting with different understandings of a common life; and also, finally, in states where the practice of democracy engages the interests and passions of the citizens. To create and sustain this plurality of good societies will never be easy. It will turn out, in fact, to be a substantial, difficult, and radical project. But it is a possible project, while the one and only good society is both dangerous to attempt and impossible to achieve.
Michael Walzer is the co-editor of Dissent and author of numerous works of political thought.

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