Friday, July 29, 2011

Perfectionist Liberalism & Social(ist) Democracy

Against the idea of force, the force of ideas.
—Austro-Marxist aphorism

In dark times, that is, with the evisceration of a public culture suitable for establishing and encouraging the necessary conditions of personal autonomy, it might help to remind ourselves of the following basic premises of “perfectionist liberalism:”

“The life of the autonomous person is distinctive not by what it is, but by how it came to be what it is. It is marked by the fact that it could have been otherwise and became what it is through the choices of that person. It is marked by the fact that the autonomous agent had many options which he rejected. To show that a person had an autonomous life, we have to look not only at him but also his environment. One is autonomous only if one lives in an environment rich with possibilities. Concern with autonomy is concern with the environment.

The environment determines whether one has the conditions of autonomy and it is the conditions of autonomy which are, up to a point, the charge of political institutions. Governments cannot make people have a flourishing autonomous life. That is up to each one to see to himself. But governments can help put people in conditions where they are able to have that kind of life by protecting and promoting the creation of the environment which makes such a life a possibility. Toleration as respect for individual freedom not only is consistent with, it in fact requires concern for and involvement with others. [….]

The availability of options depends in part on private goods…. But options also depend on public goods, which are available to all and serve all. Public goods lie at the foundation of most options. Options are to a considerable degree socially defined. [….] The conditions of autonomy require an environment rich in possibilities. In that they require an appropriate public culture, for it is the public culture which to a considerable degree determines the nature and quality of the opportunities available to a society. But to the extent that the conditions of autonomy require a suitable public culture, they depend on the common good, that is, on a good which if available to one is available to all and whose benefits can be had by all without competition or conflict.”—Joseph Raz, Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics (1994): 121-122.

Indeed, this is why I stubbornly retain a perhaps inordinate but unashamedly wistful fondness for “Red Vienna.” The Viennese Social Democrats assiduously, and in large measure successfully, cultivated a public culture and common good as necessary conditions for personal autonomy. As Helmut Gruber concludes in Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919-1934 (1991),

“…[D]espite serious practical failings, red Vienna succeeded as no other metropolis had in improvising and innovating social reforms and cultural activities for its working class within the political limits of a polity hostile to such efforts. The SDAP [Austrian Socialist party or Austro-Marxist Party, also known as the Viennese Social Democratic Workers’ Party] cultural preparation for a socialist future in the present was unique. It went beyond traditional social democratic reform legislation in seeking to encompass the Viennese working class through an intricate network of party cultural organizations and activities that had both an educational content and symbolic force. While critical of the conception and execution of this program, one still marvels at the daring vision, for instance, of the public housing palaces as total worker environments containing laundries, bathhouses, kindergartens, libraries, meeting rooms, swimming pools, cooperative stores, youth and mothers’ consultation clinics, and much more. The purpose of these enclaves was to provide the workers with a setting for the ‘political culture’—the Austromarxist special formula leading to the maturation of the working class—through which the consciousness necessary for the creation of the ‘neue Menschen’ could be instilled.”


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