Expressive individualism to the left of us, expressive individualism to the right of us

Alan Jacobs writes:

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

Along these lines, it’s interesting that Marx and Engels’ eloquent description of the massive transformation of traditional European society by the bourgeoisie in the first section of The Communist Manifesto does not mean that they want to undo the capitalist phase of history. Instead, capitalism provides the “creative destruction” necessary to get to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the subsequent classless paradise.

I realize that Jacobs’ reference to “international capitalism” and “the Market” lumps a vast collection of actors and decisions into one artificial being, but if we think about the culture of global capitalism it can ring true to a certain extent. Think of the ways that we are encouraged to express our individuality through our purchases. As Yuval Levin points out in The Fractured Republic, both left and right traffic in expressive individualism, where we are encouraged to be ourselves (supposedly) rather than conform to external standards. Levin also points briefly to Francis Fukuyama’s discussion of the post-1960s “renorming” in which some argued successfully that the norms of competition could provide the incentive for disciplined behavior after the moral upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Economic freedom is a very good thing in my book, but when international capitalism becomes a totalizing ideology, that’s very bad.

Jacobs writes, “I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.” You can see how he applies this to education in the post.


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