Excerpt #26 — Charles Taylor on How the “We” for Whom The State Exists Cannot Be a Mere Aggregate

I expect to get back to the question of intention vs. impact soon, as I have two posts left before that series is completed. In the meantime, I have several posts that are nearly finished, and which I’ll release first — including this one, which is relevant to those intention-vs-impact entries. 

I recently posted a (very) short overview of some of the themes of Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries. I may write a longer reflection at some point, but for now, two long excerpts that highlight the importance of all citizens within a democracy seeing themselves as collectively a single people, whatever other memberships they may hold in various other kinds of groups:

can a decision that goes against me serve my freedom? Here we meet a long-standing skepticism, which is particularly strong among those who hold to an atomist political philosophy and who are suspicious of all appeals to a common good beyond individual choice. They see these appeals as just so much humbug to get contrary voters to accept voluntary servitude.

But we don’t need to decide this ultimate philosophical issue here. We are dealing with a question not of philosophy, but of the social imaginary. We need to ask: What is the feature of our “imagined communities” by which people very often do readily accept that they are free under a democratic regime even where their will is overridden on important issues?

The answer they accept runs something like this: You, like the rest of us, are free just in virtue of the fact that we are ruling ourselves in common and not being ruled by some agency that need take no account of us. Your freedom consists in your having a  guaranteed voice in the sovereign, that you can be heard and have some part in making the decision. You enjoy this freedom by virtue of a law that enfranchises all of us, and so we enjoy this together. Your freedom is realized and defended by this law, whether you win or lose in any particular decision. This law defines a community of those whose freedom it realizes/defends together. It defines a collective agency, a people, whose acting together by the law preserves their freedom.

Such is the answer, valid or not, that people have come to accept in democratic societies. We can see right away that it involves their accepting a kind of belonging much stronger [190] than that of any chance group that might come together. It is an ongoing collective agency, membership in which realizes something very important: a kind of freedom. Insofar as this good is crucial to members’ identity, they thus identify strongly with this agency, and hence also feel a bond with their co-participants in this agency. It is only an appeal to this kind of membership that can answer the challenge of an individual or group who contemplates rebelling against an adverse decision in the name of their freedom.

The crucial point here is that, whoever is ultimately right philosophically, it is only insofar as people accept some such answer that the legitimacy principle of popular sovereignty can work to secure their consent. The principle is effective only via this appeal to a strong collective agency. If the identification with this is rejected, the rule of this government seems illegitimate in the eyes of the rejecters, as we see in countless cases with disaffected national minorities: rule by the people, all right; but we can’t accept rule by this lot, because we aren’t part of their people. This is the inner link between democracy and strong common agency. It follows the logic of the legitimacy principle that underlies democratic regimes. They fail to generate this identity at their peril.

I have never thought to connect the desire of some for Catalan secession with the frustration of some Black (and Latino, &c.) Americans (or White working-class rural Americans) to identity politics: if the deliberative and legislative procedures of the larger collective civic membership group (i.e., the nation, represented typically by urban elites) are consistently not taking into account measures that often or typically harm the community or communities where one lives and works (or where one fails to find work), then it is quite possible that one will not feel invested in this larger civic group, or will feel one’s investment levels diminishing to the point of vague identification; if one feels an identity with an ethnic or religious (or some other) people group that desires some sort of emancipation and a desire for self-governance, but which has no clear territorial claim in the area to which one’s group might secede and over which one’s people group might exercise sovereignty, then identity politics, of some form or other, would seem to be a possible and likely result.

There is another excerpt from later pages [see p. 192], which is connected to the passage above: it talks about how nationalism is a kind of collateral of modern social imaginaries and democratic procedures.

we have a new kind of collective agency, with which its members identify as the realization/bulwark of their freedom and the locus of their national/cultural expression. Of course, in premodern societies, too, people often “identified” with the regime, with sacred kings or hierarchical orders. They often were willing subjects. But in the democratic age, we identify as free agents. That is why the notion of popular will plays a crucial role in the legitimating idea.

This means that the modern democratic state has generally accepted common purposes, or reference points, the features whereby it can lay claim to being the bulwark of freedom and locus of expression of its citizens. Whether or not these claims are actually founded, the state must be so imagined by its citizens if it so be legitimate.

So a question can arise for the modern state for which there is no analogue in most premodern forms: What/whom is this state for? Whose freedom? Whose expression? The question seems to make no sense applied to, say, the Austrian or Turkish Empires, unless one answered the “whom for?” question by referring to the Hapsburg or Ottoman dynasties, which would hardly give you their legitimating ideas.

This is the sense in which a modern state has a political identity, defined as the generally accepted answer to the What/whom for? question. This is distinct from the identities of its members, that is, the reference points, many and varied, which for each defines what is important in their lives. There better be some overlap, of course, if these members are to feel strongly identified with the state, but the identities of individuals and constituent groups will generally be richer and more complex, as well as being often quite different from each other.

If it is not clear to a section of a democratic society that they are not fair participants, if their interests vary so much from the rest of the civic body that they are inevitable losers, then either they must feel that they gain more than they lose by participating in the democratic process, or else they will feel disenfranchised and not like members; they will, eventually, not identify with the nation or with the state.

This is why we have identity politics in the first place. It is also why many liberals emphasize the strong need for an ethic of citizenship (to keep the whole democratic project together), and why our educational institutions are battlegrounds for different iconographies of venerated figures, &c.

Also, there “better be some overlap” with what various citizens “define[…] [as] […] important in their lives”, which means that there must be some center — either democratically negotiated, as Taylor suggests in another essay, or else anchored in some vague tradition that can be shared across constituent groups and traditions within the nation, without erasing their character. To reiterate: this shared center, where groups’ interests overlap, is probably either (1) constantly negotiated or (2) rooted in some relatively vague (but also sufficiently clear) tradition or institutions or principles or practices. Whether it is (1) or (2), whether it ought to be (1) or (2), is the subject of another post, when I have clear and developed thoughts about it.


Header image found here.

10 thoughts on “Excerpt #26 — Charles Taylor on How the “We” for Whom The State Exists Cannot Be a Mere Aggregate

  1. In a country as large and diverse as our own, the principle of subsidiarity, one that the Founders valued very highly, is especially important. We need to treat all citizens as equal before the law, and the law needs to be as close to the people as possible and only to govern them in necessary matters. The larger and more powerful the unit of government is, the more it could hurt its people if it were to fall into the hands of rulers with malign intent. 50 laboratories of governance, with thousands of sub-units, offer the opportunity to test various solutions to problems, and, in the extreme case, offer their people the chance to leave for something better. Unity to serve the common purposes that concern our whole nation makes the welfare of that nation possible. Homogeneity of that nation makes the purposes for which it exists null and void.

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    • Why are at least some minorities claiming that they don’t feel like they are represented at nearly any of these levels, claiming that these institutions weren’t built for them? I don’t think it’s because the principle of subsidiarity isn’t understood; I think there is something located at the pre-political level that generates this feeling, which Taylor here singles out, and which strikes me as a self-identified people group feeling frustrated, disenfranchised, and either inclining for inclusion as a distinct group with distinct interests, or else moving towards an affirmation of self-determination (there are really no other routes). Most identity politic folks I know thankfully incline to the former, rather than going The Young Lords direction like the latter route. What are your thoughts?

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      • The principle of subsidiarity is actively ignored. If it were still honored, many problems born of ham-fisted majoritarianism would disappear. There ought to be no embedded disadvantage for any law-abiding group in a fair and just society. If powerful people did not wield their power unfairly, there would be no suffering inflicted by them upon the minority. One of the safeguards of personal freedom is, again, to limit the ability of the powerful to cause damage. Human beings are less than perfect. Draining the power of malefactors to inflict evil, insofar as it is possible to do so, lessens their ability to harm others, typically members of a minority group, which group will vary from time to time.

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          • It was this: A possibly amusing example of the principle of subsidiarity lies right in our own backyards. Two blocks of Elm Street in Davis Square, Somerville have Elm Street addresses, but they are not actually in Somerville at all. The reason for this is that long ago, two farmers in what was the town of Charlestown (which included Somerville at the time) felt that the town was acting in a tyrannical manner, and they seceded from Charlestown (now Somerville) and joined Cambridge. The rules are stricter now than they were then concerning a change of municipal boundaries, but it is a concrete example fo people voting with their feet. The last time a municipal boundary was changed in Massachusetts was in 1938 when the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott were dissolved by order of the legislature. This was for the creation of Quabbin Reservoir, a magnificent body of water for the needs of people 90 miles away. Although the state still retains the unique right of free petition, by which a member of the legislature is constitutionally required to submit any bill when petitioned by a constituent, there is no concomitant requirement that the legislator actually support the bill or that it be discharged from the committee to which it is sent. It is an uphill battle unless the legislator actually likes the bill, in which case the legislator’s own name is likely to be attached to it as a sponsor. At any rate, if an idea that the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate dislikes is actually reported out of committee (not very likely), there is a special graveyard called “The Committee on Bills in the Third Reading” where it is very likely to spend eternity.

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    • There is constant negotiating. Looking at this post a day later, I notice (upon your directing my attention to it) that I didn’t really allow that there may be no negotiations possible unless there is a history of established practices to negotiate. In a vacuum of traditioned practices, there is not negotiation, but chaos and paralysis — and probably violence, as in France during the Revolution.

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  2. Hey Gregory
    Time is passing very fast..the words that were easy to spell are harder now…my mind has shrunk like a pair of jeans that you didn’t want to put in the dryer but somehow you missed them in the switch over…I will try to stay in touch with you…I’m mostly on Instagram..kleemansheldon

    Liked by 1 person

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