326. Values, identity and democracy
An individual is socially constituted, from interaction in its environment. Thus, individual identity feeds from cultural, group identity, and is loaded with shared values one holds dear and is prone to protect.
Democracy aims to achieve compromise, settling differences in interest. In liberalism (in the European, not the American sense), values are not a matter of public concern, but are to be left to individual choice. Behind liberalism and economics lies a utility ethic, looking only at outcomes, regardless of underlying intentions and processes that lead to outcomes. This focus on outcomes facilitates democracy, avoiding conflicts of values that may obstruct negotiation on interests.
However, the increasing sway of neo-liberalism, leading to effects of globalization that are perceived as unjust, perverse effects of markets, and self-interested conduct of leaders (‘elites’) in politics and business, have bred growing protest, and demands for a role of values, and attention to process and intentions, as a matter of public debate. And with that, politics is becoming more a matter of cultural identity.
The problem with an identity-based politics, however, is that to the extent that the values concerned are more absolute and exclusive, identity becomes sacred, and compromise on the sacred is sacrilege.[i] That obstructs democracy, which requires sober, reasonable debate, in moderation, in search of a golden middle. Identity politics does not seek the middle, but hails the extremes that demand its recognition.
In this blog I also have pleaded for a shift from an ethics merely of outcomes to an ethics also of process and intentions, in the form of a virtue ethics. Now the question is this: does the problem indicated above undermine my plea for a virtue-based politics? After all, ethics is informed by values, associated with views of what ‘the good life’ is. Is there a danger, then, that my plea intensifies the problems of an identity-based politics? I have a solution to this potential problem. It is twofold.
First, as I argued early in this blog (in item 10), identity should not be seen as having some essence, which you either have or don’t have, being inside or outside. That makes identity unique and exclusive, blocking democratic debate. Instead, identity is to be seen as multiple, with partial overlaps, and subject to development.
One is member of a variety of groups to identify with, to a greater or lesser extent. Family, neighbourhood, profession, organization where one is employed, sports club, etc., and, yes, also of a nation with its language and history. I proposed (in item 209 in this blog) to see identity as a node in a network of relationships that overlap, more or less, with those of other people.
Those relationships yield access to resources[ii], and people with more sparse, constrained networks have less access. The narrower the network, as in the case of economically, cognitively, socially, culturally and symbolically less endowed classes, the narrower and more pronounced the focus of identity is.
The point here is that when identity is not seen as corresponding with an essence, but as being multiple, there is a basis for openness to others with partly overlapping sources of identity.
The second part of my answer to a possible problem for virtue politics is as follows. I define virtues as competencies for living what one thinks is the good life. Now, not to provide an obstacle to democratic debate and negotiation, the virtues should be procedural, not substantive, about how people deal with each other, not about what the true good life is. That is indeed, and here I preserve a core of liberalism, to be left to individual choice.
And that is, in fact, as I argued before (in item 305), what the classical, ‘cardinal’ virtues are: reasonableness, courage, moderation, and justice, which are procedural, leaving open the choice of the good life.
Now, formerly society was also segregated, even more radically than now, in blocks, according to religion or political ideology, each with their own churches, schools, unions, regions, neighbourhoods, even shops. Was that not a problem? Somehow the elites at the top of those blocks managed to compromise, run democracy, in varying political coalitions.[iii]
I wonder: could it be that the old ‘elites’, whose job it was to negotiate democracy, had those cardinal virtues, but have been losing legitimacy as a result of losing them, in unwillingness to be open to other views, lack of courage to take political risks of not satisfying the prejudices of their constituencies[iv], lack of moderation (in pursuing excessive remuneration), and lack of justice (in looking mostly to self-interest, as they were told to do in the economics classes that gained them a position).
[i] I pick this up from a comment made by Ian Buruma in a discussion, on Dutch TV, on the future of democracy, on July 2nd 2017.
[ii] And to different forms of capital, as suggested by Bourdieu: economic, cognitive, social, cultural, and symbolic. He looked at identity in terms of positions in ‘fields’. I think that networks is better, more specific.
[iii] This is another comment I pick up from Ian Buruma, made in the debate mentioned above.
[iv] Made more difficult, I must admit, by demands for transparency of political deliberation, which earlier could be more secluded.