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Artillery Row

The social self

Between individuals and communities

This is part three of the “Content of Conservatism” series, which seeks to probe the philosophical foundations of conservative thought. Read parts one and two

Are we first and foremost individuals, or members of communities? This is the fascinating debate that has opened up within the Conservative party since the leadership contest last year. It is a perennial question in political thought. Whereas Trussites articulated their agenda for government as an attempt to peel back constraints and checks on individuals, the likes of Michael Gove and Nick Timothy have since argued for “leaving the politics of ideological individualism behind” and for the restoration of communities. This argument has been described as a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, but it is more precisely a contest to define conservatism. 

To understand this debate properly, we need to recognise that it is a proxy for a more fundamental dispute about human nature. What, when we observe them, are men and women like? Intuitively, as humans, we recognise ourselves as individuals. We understand instinctively that we are all unique and distinct from other beings, that we constitute autonomous, agentive entities. It is from this — a view of the self as capable of action and causation — that we derive a view of ourselves as moral agents, responsible for the choices we make. It is also from this that conservatives recognise a basic pluralism to mankind: our individualism makes disagreement and dissensus inexorable aspects of our condition. It is our nature not to agree on questions of values, and any political system must recognise this fact of human existence, rather than seek to finally transcend it. 

Yet at the same time, human existence is relational. We are naturally interdependent and born into a multitude of different types of communities, yes, but we also get our very sense of self through our interactions with others. We identify with communities, and these provide us with a sense of who we are and what we value. The self, we observe, is a “social self”.

The conservative sees individuals and relationships as symbiotic

Political doctrines can be largely understood as different perspectives on the relationship between these two facets of human nature. Liberalism for example is based on the premise that the individual is paramount and sacrosanct — that it constitutes the basic unit of account in morals, politics and economics, and it has moral priority over forms of community and society itself. We are all born into the world, liberalism contends, as individuals endowed with reason and an unlimited freedom to act and decide for ourselves. Our membership in communities is voluntary, and this extends to our membership of political communities, too. The liberal conception of political obligation is based on reasoned self-interest: free humans determine that entering into a society will help them secure their lives and property, and the legitimacy of the political authority derives from the fact that individuals submit to it voluntarily. 

Communities are not necessarily oppressive to the liberal, and they may indeed be welcome. Only those communities which we are voluntary members of can be considered legitimate, however, and the claims of communities are subordinate to those of individuals. Individuals are the supreme ends, to which all other things can only have instrumental value.

Socialism might be thought of as the binary opposite perspective. Socialism contends that the claims of the community trump those of individuals, and the social and relational dimension of human nature transcends the individualistic. Thus, values and meaning are not judged and determined by individuals, but at the social level. Human individuals are not ends in themselves, but means to the ends of communities. Usually, this community takes the form of the state for socialists, but it applies to classes, too: socialism believes the interests of individuals are subservient to the interests of a class. 

What is the conservative perspective? Is it that of the individualist Trussites, or the communitarian coalition now associated with the think tank Onward? Given that conservatives have throughout history defended the rights of individuals over communities, as well as arguing for the subservience of self-interest to that of the common good, one might be led to believe that there is no distinctly conservative position. I disagree. The conservative perspective sees the individualistic and relational aspects of humankind as symbiotic.

Conservatism’s central criticism of both liberalism and socialism is that their incomplete outlooks ignore this symbiosis. Human beings are certainly individuals, and political creeds like socialism also fail to recognise the basic pluralism of human existence: asserting the moral priority of one form of community over individuals ignores the fact that it may vary with time and context how strongly an individual identifies with any given community. 

Liberalism’s perspective is equally distorted: we are not and never were born into a state of nature of atomised individuals of perfect autonomy. We were born into families and other forms of involuntary association, which come with obligations and responsibilities that constrain and influence our decision-making as individuals. These are not in and of themselves illegitimate. Community is not a superadded, optional extra. It is intrinsic to our existence. Human identity presumes, as Scruton put it, the existence of a “first person plural” — a “we” from which we derive a sense of belonging, purpose and place. 

Conservatism’s critique of socialism and liberalism is not just an empirical one; it has a sharper moral dimension as well. The perspectives on human nature advanced by liberalism and socialism are pathological in practice. The risk with liberalism is focusing solely on the individual, seeing any form of involuntary constraint as repressive and illegitimate, is likely to foster social atomisation. Emile Durkheim called it “anomie” — a sort of listlessness or normlessness that erodes the sense of community and belonging that we require for fulfilment. 

A neglect of the social dimension of our nature also undermines the sense of reciprocity and commonality required for humans to act in concert with one another to solve societal problems. Humans have the capacity to be profoundly altruistic, but only to those that they identify with. Solidarity is the precondition for generosity, and ignoring the former reduces the propensity in humans for the latter. Indeed, our willingness to correct injustices within society is conditional on our identifying with each other, and a belief that we are members of a common community with mutual obligations. 

Equally, an unmodulated communitarianism tends to totalitarianism, the usage of individuals as instruments in the service of some other goal. Conservatives have long recognised that socialism, in its privileging of the state, can also undermine the forms of community that foster an altruistic society. Statism — the idea that the state comes before everything else and that all other aspects of society should be bent to its will — erodes the real bonds of responsibility and compassion that spring from smaller, organic forms of community. 

The nation is an intermediary good, supporting smaller communities

What of the nation then? Conservatives have always defended the nation, but they defend a conception of the nation as fundamentally distinct from the state. Of course, the primary forms of community we encounter in our lives are proximate: they are our families, our neighbours, the clubs and churches and local groups to which we belong and with which we as individuals identify. We belong to and identify strongly with broader communities, too, the most significant of which is the nation. Burke contends that our attachment to smaller, more immediate communities — “little platoons” — is “the first principle” of public affections, by which we proceed “towards a love to our country”. This is not to say that the country or nation is necessarily the highest form of community to which all other forms are instrumental. In fact, conservatives believe precisely the opposite. Conservatism sees the nation as an intermediary good — it is not an end in itself but helps support and nurture the smaller communities to which we belong. It galvanises them together so that they complement one another. Unlike statist accounts of politics, conservatism takes a “multicellular” view of society as composed not of a single community, but numerous subcommunities. The nation plays a vital integrative role amongst those communities by binding them together for the good of each.

It is also, like the family, an important container of intergenerational solidarity. Families inculcate a sense of mutual debt and obligation between grandparents, parents and children. The nation nurtures this same sense of intergenerational debt and obligation in the form of a shared history, shared customs and shared institutions that connect members of a political community across time. This enables citizens to believe they have a responsibility to preserve something and to hand it on to the next generation. 

As set out in part two of this series, stable political orders that strike the right balance between individuals and communities — between our innate desire as humans for both self-expression and belonging — are unique and precious. In defending such orders, conservatives seek to maintain that balance. They aim to protect not only from those who would compromise the basic entitlement of all individuals to be treated as ends in themselves, but also those who would erode the sense of cohesion that is required for any political society to endure. 

This symbiosis between individuals and communities in the conservative view is also refracted through its understanding of liberty. Conservatives often draw a distinction between “liberty” and “licence” to make this point. For some, liberty is an inviolable, unqualified value, and a society is good in so far as it maximises the freedom of individuals. They see obligations derived from involuntary membership of political society or a particular community either as undesirable encumbrances to be lifted or else necessarily evils simply to endure. 

Conservatives have long argued that liberty in any meaningful sense would be impossible without many of those “encumbrances”. Liberty is the product of a society in which a matrix of rights, obligations and duties together secure the space for individuals to go about their lives as they wish. This necessarily depends on the forbearance of individuals in exercising their freedom not to impinge on the liberty of others. Such forbearance depends on a sense of mutual obligation that humans reserve for those with whom they identify. Liberty thus conceived has an intrinsic social, civic dimension. It exists in contradistinction to licence — the “imagined freedom to do anything one wants, regardless of circumstance”. Put differently, liberty in and of itself is pathological in the conservative conception. It is not self-sustaining, but liable to degenerate without external conditions to regulate and order it. Individual and community go hand in hand to produce free societies, and liberty is the product of well-ordered societies possessed of strong ties of shared responsibility.

Conservatism in its pronouncements on this subject can appear inconsistent — on some occasions defending the rights of individuals, on others affirming the limits to individual liberty that come with being a member of a political community. Though the “front” on which conservatives fight might change with context, the “ground” is always the same: durable political order requires an approach to individuals and their relationships with communities that recognises the basic duality of human nature. An excess of individualism would sunder the sense of community that is required for solidarity; it would compromise the common “first person plural” upon which all societies depend.

Liberty is a great horse, but a horse to ride somewhere

An excessive intrusion into the lives of individuals, on the other hand, would mean forgetting one of the reasons we value stable political orders in the first place — that is, as systems and frameworks which give us space as individuals to flourish. Conservatives recognise that the primary threat to social order is determined by context. This is why they offered a critique of liberalism in the 19th century, but sided with liberals against socialism in the 20th century. To paraphrase Churchill’s “Consistency in Politics”, in its defence of a balance between individuals and communities, conservatism consistently pursues the same ends: “seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other”.

In the present context, the question conservatives must answer is this: is the primary dilemma in our society today that we are excessively shackled as individuals — that we lack sufficient liberty? Or is it that we have lost our sense of mutual obligation to one another — that the belief that we belong to a shared community of common values has been badly eroded?

Conservatives are rightly sceptical of easy answers. The state in many parts of the private and public sectors is certainly strangling the capacity of individuals to deliver good outcomes for customers and consumers and hindering economic growth. We are not as a country doing nearly enough to enable individuals to become independent through property ownership either. 

At a general, cultural level, however, it is surely the case that the primary challenge for our society is disintegration — that the bonds of obligation and loyalty which we depend upon to solve collective problems together have loosened. For too long, the conservative approach to these things has been one of indifference: grow the economy, and let individuals decide themselves how to carve up the proceeds. It sounds liberal enough. Economic growth is only ever a means to an end, though, not an end in itself. Liberty is a great horse, but a horse to ride somewhere. It is obligation that compels people to believe that it is their duty to invest in raising children, caring for the elderly, supporting the poor. It is community — the very thing that generates our sense of obligation to each other — that has been consistently neglected. 

This is where a conservative programme for government must focus its energies: on a tax system which supports rather than penalises families; on enabling communities to take ownership of important assets in their local area; on building new homes so that younger generations can afford to buy a house near their family and friends if they want to; on a culture policy that champions our shared inheritance as something that binds us together, rather than a weapon with which to divide our society into irreconcilable identity groups; and on an immigration system that balances the rights that come with residing in the United Kingdom with corresponding responsibilities. All of this is entirely compatible with a concerted effort to foster economic growth, drive up productivity and reform the state so that it does fewer things but far more effectively. Indeed, to ask the state to do less is implicitly to ask communities to do more. 

Conservatism is a worldview laden with value. It is anything but contentless. If it is to thrive in our time, its practitioners need to regain the strength of their convictions. There is a distinctive conservative conception of the common good for our country, but we are a democracy. In democracies, groups with different principles must make their case to the electorate in order to govern on the basis of those principles. If Britain feels like a less conservative country than thirteen ago, it is because we have failed to make the case for our values compellingly enough.

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