The individualism and universalism of western political elites are on a collision course with the popular desire for moorings in time and place. The nation state cannot be replaced by global normsby E K / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
A world beyond politics: a defense of the nation-state, by Pierre Manent (Princeton, £22.95)
Most modern liberals take it for granted that progress means transcending the nation state. In his new book, Pierre Manent tries to understand today’s impatient cosmopolitanism in the light of western political philosophy. Along the way, he elaborates a full-bodied cultural criticism of what Daniel Bell termed the “antinomian” ethos of modern man: our unwillingness to accept limits on our freedom to remake our authentic, absolute self. In the same way as cultural traditions mediate and constrain the self, the nation state frustrates our desire to achieve a perfect public self based purely on universal law. Individualism and universalism are two sides of the same worldview, chafing against the mediations of particular communities. Hence the dreams of today’s western political elites incline towards cosmopolitanism—as Manent says, “Americans, through the extension to the whole world of the US’s writ, Europeans, through the extension beyond Europe’s borders of Brussels’ ‘mechanisms and values.'” Indeed, both Europe and America are characterised by an inability to place limits—cultural, geographic or political—on their respective liberal visions. The flipside of this is a failure to accept national particularity and a consequent cosmopolitan overreach by liberal-democratic proselytisers, who burnish their “culture-free” credentials in an attempt to convince sceptics outside the west. This results in both resentment by non-western peoples and an alienated western mass public, which cannot connect to the faceless supranational constitutions, judges, bureaucrats, quangos and NGOs of the emerging “post-political” order.
Aspects of this line of criticism can be found in communitarian writings, such as those of Charles Taylor, who insists that we can only realise ourselves by interacting with others and making commitments to particular communities. Likewise, liberal nationalist political theorists, like Yael Tamir or David Miller, defend nations against cosmopolitan critics such as Jeremy Waldron. However, what is distinctive in Manent is the way he links cultural criticism of the unbounded self with a political assault on limitless cosmopolitanism. In so doing, his work marks a new twist in the evolution of the postwar “New York intellectual” tradition, represented by Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and others.
Though Manent has always worked exclusively in French, is a committed Catholic and emerged from the Parisian cultural milieu of 1968, his mentor was the counter-revolutionary social thinker Raymond Aron. Aron’s youthful Jewish socialism, postwar anticommunist liberalism and post-1968 cultural criticism…