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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 8

June 29, 2017

All of the above amounts to a thin, as opposed to a thick, national identity, in which co-citizens are viewed as one of us without sharing much in the way of substantive views. It suffices to have the right kind of formal commitments, beyond those to shared principles of justice. This might lead open-minded communitarians to maintain that “politics is regrettably but inevitably liberal at the national level, but potentially and desirably communitarian at the local level” (267). This fact merits further emphasis for the author in that:

“From a liberal point of view, however, the very fact which makes national identity so inappropriate for communitarian politics – namely, that it does not rest of shared beliefs about the good – is precisely what makes it an appropriate basis for liberal politics (Tamir 1993: 90). The common national identity provides a source of trust and solidarity that can accommodate deep disagreement over conceptions of the good life. And exposure to the common national culture provides a range of choices for people without imposing any particular conception of the good life, and without limiting people’s ability to question and revise particular values or beliefs.” (267)

Whatever its historical or present merits, this thin conception of national identity may be unable to sustain solidarity or legitimacy in the face of multiculturalism, transnationalism and globalization. Regardless, Kymlicka again falls back on the point that communitarianism could hardly prove a better solution to those problems. Even if one promotes communitarian approaches at the local level, liberal approaches at the national level will still prove necessary to sustain practices such as wealth transfers across communities and agglomerations. As the author rightly concludes, “this requires a shared sense of solidarity which is not local, and not grounded on a shared conception of the good” but “requires, in short, a common national identity” (268). Yet liberal nationalism is not without its blemishes and might encourage systemic blindness to problems of global justice, a question which we shall not take up any further.

In the closing section, the author returns to the two main thrusts of communitarianism from which he set out.

“The first line of argument concerns the relationship between the self and its ends […] The leaders of traditionalist or fundamentalist ethnic or religious groups may find [limiting the ability of individuals to question or reject traditions and practices they find oppressive, demeaning and unsatisfying] an attractive position, but it is doubtful that many communitarians really endorse such an illiberal view, and much of this debate about the self and its ends seems based on false oppositions and straw-man arguments.” (270)

For the author, this first consequently falls by the wayside as most communitarians subscribe to some version of the second thrust, i.e. “the need for a social context for individual freedom” (idem.). Although this sometimes takes the form of straw-man arguments, namely that liberals subscribe to “atomism” and thereby preclude the social thesis, Kymlicka sees here “several real political issues […] with the relationship between unity and diversity”. In a word, the tension between the unity of society and diversity of (conceptions of) ways of life engenders anxiety in communitarians who typically respond thereto in either of two ways (following Phillips 1993): backward-looking communitarians for whom a conception of the common good must be retrieved by limiting or reducing diversity, which amounts to traditional conservatism; forward-looking communitarians for whom self-determination and diversity are so many givens but seeks nonetheless to build new bonds of community over and above traditional sources of unity. This in place, Kymlicka can lay out his final word on communitarianism as such:

“Understood in this way, the communitarian concern for social unity need not rest on illiberal values or assumptions. As I noted earlier, liberal nationalism can itself be seen as such a forward-looking form of communitarianism, since it seeks to draw upon the distinctly modern idea of nationhood as a way of bonding together people who are otherwise very different in their origins, beliefs, and ways of life.” (272)

Civic republicanism is itself another such forward-looking communitarianism and the subject of Kymlicka’s next chapter. If nothing else, it can be said of communitarianism, with the author, that it has furnished the starting point for a number of key debates on “civil society, cultural structures, political legitimacy, state boundaries”, each of which deserves longer treatment on its own (273).

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