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I.: SOCIETY AS AN ASPIRATION - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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SOCIETY AS AN ASPIRATION
if we ask what it is that a Scottish crofter, a London stockbroker, a Welsh steelworker, and a Manchester journalist all have in common, then it is not difficult to give a political answer. They are all British citizens, can travel on British passports, pay taxes to the British State, and can vote in British elections. The political unity of the British State is clear and precise, and it includes all individuals equally. But what makes each of them a member of British “society”? Only the fact that they are members of the British State. There is virtually nothing else they have exclusively in common. Moral standards, linguistic usages, traditions, customs and prejudices will all vary. The State no doubt includes an enormous number of institutions, laws, “norms,” “folkways,” communities, associations, beliefs, etc. But none of these is precisely co-existent with the boundaries of any given State. They are all either parts of the State, or else spill across its boundaries and constitute international linkages.
Yet if the liberal distinction between State and society is to be sustained, there must be something held in common which is not the creation of the State. Still, the ambiguities of the term “society” allow a good deal of hedging on this point before it ever need be faced; and the hedging is facilitated by the fact that the liberal uses of “society” are seldom qualified by any adjective, especially any political designation of boundaries. Used alone, the term will absorb from the context sufficient in the way of connotations to be clear to anyone who is sympathetic. At its widest, “society” may be taken to “include all or any dealings of man with man, whether these be direct or indirect, organized or unorganized, conscious or unconscious, co-operative or antagonistic.”1 This is the generic use of the term, and it is simply an organizing abstraction which covers all possible instances of our more businesslike use of the adjective “social.” This meaning of “society” will certainly absorb politics; it will absorb anything. But just because it is so hospitable, this meaning is of no use to liberalism.
But “society” may be distinguished, Professor Ginsberg tells us, “from a society.” And a society in this more precise meaning is a much more promising candidate for liberal usages. “A society is a collection of individuals united by certain relations or modes of behaviour which mark them off from others who do not enter into those relations or who differ from them in behavior.”2 Now the members of any State will, in terms of this definition, also constitute a society; and if we also bear in mind the more extensive generic meaning of society, then we will easily be convinced that the members of any State constitute a society independently of their political association.
But how can the members of a State also constitute a society in this non-political manner? One obvious answer lies in discovering things upon which they all agree. This was the view taken by Locke. It is a moral view, for it is an agreement to approve of certain common acts and objects. Society, then, is constituted by our agreements, the State by our conflicts. Here we may observe a continuity between the liberal and the Marxist views, both linked to the nostalgic desire that the State might “wither away.” This solution runs into the difficulty that there is nothing upon which all the members of a politically constituted class also happen to agree. There will always be times when many of them act disagreeably to whatever is thought to be the consensus. They do not thereby cease to be members of the State, but in some sense they withdraw from “society.”3
Social and moral disagreement is something normally tolerated in free States. But there are certain circumstances, particularly that of modern war, when internal dissension and conflict are found to be disruptive. In such times the State is expected to take on a more cohesive unity which will promote a “high morale.” The crofter and the stockbroker, whatever their variations, are expected to consider their membership of State and nation as the deepest and most important thing of all. The State seeks to monopolize the emotions and services of its citizens; it demands further that these things should be willingly given.
Even when there is no such crisis, the doctrine of nationalism may develop exactly the same demands. Such a doctrine naturally becomes an ethic. It insists on the goodness of national devotion, and places the sceptical or the recalcitrant in various undesirable categories. At its height, this kind of movement becomes an exaltation. “There is something terrible,” said St. Just, “in the sacred love of the fatherland; it is so exclusive as to sacrifice everything to the public interest, without pity, without fear, without respect for humanity. . . . What produces the general good is always terrible.”4 The State generates a great range of powerful emotions, and directs them towards a metaphysical idea; it can hardly do anything else, for the particular actions of any existing government cannot in themselves justify such sentiments.
It might be imagined that here we have a fairly rigid distinction between liberal and totalitarian kinds of political thinking. Liberals insist that the State is simply a piece of machinery designed for the good of individuals whilst their totalitarian enemies make of the State a small god, and project violent emotions on to it. On this argument the distinction between the State and society is the whole crux of the liberal-democratic position. It places a limit on the activities of the State, making the latter responsive to the demands of its subjects. This is exactly the position of Locke, who kept the State on a short chain which could only be loosened for the good of the people, and then only in emergencies. Society, as Locke saw it, was rational and conservative, composed of a multitude of individuals, who needed political arrangements but were determined not to become enslaved by them. This theoretical position would seem to be amply confirmed by experience. Wherever a country has fallen into the hands of leaders claiming unlimited authority to regulate social affairs, oppression, misery, and usually war have been the result. And in all these countries, the prevalent philosophy denied the distinction between the State and society.
This argument is one that deserves to be taken seriously. But it depends very much upon how “society” is conceived, and as we shall see, a good many changes have been imposed upon the original Lockian formulation. Society has in fact become a person. It features in a great variety of roles, not only in political propaganda, but also in sociology itself. Convicts are said to be “paying their debt to society.” Race riots, visible prostitution, capital punishment and a whole set of things which the speaker dislikes are said to be “an affront to society.” Or again: “The existence of race prejudice indicates a widespread social failure.” But how can a complex of relationships “fail”? Society is, furthermore, something which can be tested: there is a social order which is only good if it satisfies social (or human) needs. We are the products of our society, yet we are also told that we must decide “what kind of society we want to live in.” If we extend our search for such usages into the fields of sociology and political theory, we shall find the word “social” qualifying such terms as objective, purpose, order, system, needs, problems, etc. Now sometimes a “social purpose” simply will mean a purpose arising out of social relations, as it means sociologically. But more often we find a curious monistic use, by which these objectives, purposes, etc., are thought to qualify “society” as a whole. It is this monistic usage which is the basis of liberal propaganda.
Our problem, then, is to discover what it is that collects debts, suffers affronts, determines the behavior of people and is also determined by them (whichever is convenient), fails, moves in different directions, has purposes and problems, and so on. A reader trained in linguistic philosophy may at this point hasten to enter a demurrer: All of these usages, he will say, must be evaluated in their contexts and on their merits; to look for a single meaning in a collection of usages is the sort of basically misguided question which has created the metaphysical confusions of the past. To this objection, we may readily agree that we shall be unlikely to find a single real entity to which all these usages clearly or confusedly refer. But this kind of single entity is exactly what is necessary to make sense of the many liberal uses of the term.
Liberals emphatically reject the idea of obligatory nationalist or totalitarian participation in the State. They accord to each individual the right to go about his own business within the protection of the State, so long as he does not illegally interfere with others. For something like a century now, however, they have been evolving a new form of obligatory participation. This new form of participation can be stated in the form of a moral argument.
The first premise of this argument would be the assertion that Britain is a democracy. Most of us would give some sort of qualified approval to this proposition. Democracy may be a vague term, but it has a number of signs (freedom of political organization, a thriving opposition, extensive freedom from official censorship) which are certainly present in Great Britain. Still, it is always rather inaccurate to connect an actually existing, concrete, political organization existing over time, with an abstract system; such a connection will rapidly lead us to conclude that Britain is only imperfectly a democracy, and (since we are supporters of democracy) we find that our harmless political proposition has turned into a program of action under our very eyes. There are some writers who take this bull very firmly by the horns and declare that democracy is an “ideal” (that is, that it fits as an end into someone’s policy) which we can approach but never quite fully attain. Ideals often get less tolerable as one gets closer to them. Our proposition can also generate all sorts of elegant intellectual difficulties: When did Britain become a democracy? For example—in 1688? 1832? 1867? 1884? 1920? 1928? 1945? Or, if Britain is still moving closer to the ideal, then our proposition is false, and Britain is not a democracy. The position here is similar to, say, “Britain is a Christian Community.” The assertion is a strange mixture of fact and aspiration. It is, in other words, a device, fitting into the endless flux of propaganda and persuasion.
The argument develops by unmasking some fragments of a definition: Democracies are states in which all sane adults participate in making political decisions. We are all by now familiar with the picture of the democratic citizen as one who takes an intelligent interest in public affairs and, when election time comes round, votes for the party which he judges will be better for the country. This picture has been under fire during the last decades from some political scientists writing articles with titles like “In defense of apathy.”5 The line taken in these arguments is that apathy is usually evidence of a well-governed State in which the populace is content to go about its business, and that it is frequently a preferable condition to the political hysteria which sometimes accompanies a protracted period of popular interest in political affairs. This account of political life has pretty clear conservative implications. The conclusion we may draw from this kind of dispute is that whether we are politically active, or inactive, we are going to please some people and displease others. More generally, what looks like a more or less academic question of defining the abstract term “democracy” is in fact a highly loaded ideological dispute. (How the political scientist, seeking to remain uncontaminated by “values,” and to supply means to anybody’s ends, gets off this hook is a fascinating question. Even if he merely reports usages—like a linguistic philosopher—he is still dealing with inflammatory materials.)
The general point about such definitions is that their content varies according to the political situation of the promoters of the abstraction. Those who are promoting an unestablished abstraction in hostile country (the champions of Moral Rearmament for example) are keen to define it in terms which will appeal to everyone—as being wholesome, idealistic, anti-communist and whatever else happens to be popular or support-gathering at any given time. On the other hand, those defining an established abstraction will write hortatory strictures with titles like “What is a Democrat (Communist, Nazi, Liberal, etc.)?” in which the emphasis is very much on how people must accommodate themselves to the movement. In the contemporary west, Democracy is such an established abstraction. Most people feel strongly attached to Democracy and are therefore likely to be receptive to all duties which can be presented to them as democratic.
We may now state the argument in the form of a rough syllogism:
Britain is a democracy.
A democracy is a State in which all sane adults participate in making political decisions.
Therefore all sane British adults ought to participate in social and political affairs.
Strictly speaking, one needs a number of supplementary propositions to establish, for example, that one can only make intelligent decisions if one has first taken an interest in the matters to be decided, but these are refinements we may neglect. Also, we may note that the duty reported in the conclusion is another version of meliorism: the theorist who completes his “negative” and “destructive” analysis and then goes on to make “constructive” suggestions is simply conforming to this democratic duty of participation. Its political effect is, as we argued in discussing trend-persuasion, to bring within the range of political propaganda people formerly protected by apathy.
But the main point that concerns us here is to discover what is the relation between the democratic duty of participation on the one hand and the liberal conception of “society” on the other. The clue to this relationship is to be found in the conception of a “social problem.” In strictly liberal terms, and indeed in all pre-liberal societies, there is no such thing as a “social problem.” There are political problems, which States and other institutions have to solve, and there are individual problems which individuals must deal with as best they can—and this may, of course, include turning individual problems into political ones. Institutions also have their problems—trade unions used to face the danger of political suppression or civil lawsuit; churches face such problems as a declining membership, or a disposition among enemies to persecute them. Now, as we saw in our earlier analysis of a policy, there cannot be a problem unless it fits into someone’s policy—unless, that is to say, it falls in principle to someone or some institution to solve it. If “society” is simply a complex descriptive abstraction, then it clearly cannot even have problems, much less solve them. In a purely formal sense we can say that the conception of a “social problem” is incoherent and impossible. Taken seriously, it yields a definition of “society” as “that for which the thing in question is a problem.”
But that obviously does not dispose of the question. For the modern liberal conception of society has nibbled away at the State so successfully as to reduce the State to “society in its political aspect,” an agency for making effective the wishes of the community. Here we are in the perilous territory of interacting abstractions, and some intricate untangling is required.
To say that the State is an agency of society is to indicate a causal direction. We are asserting, in fact, that society acts as a cause which determines (or, given the calculated ambiguity of these propositions, ought to determine) the acts of the State. This situation is very familiar to us, in which what starts off as a factual statement (“The State is an agency of society”) abruptly turns into a criterion, that is, into a particular policy. To be properly understood, the proposition requires to be prefaced by: “In a fully liberal world . . .” or “In terms of the policy of liberal movement. . . .” If we remember to add such a preface, then we shall not be puzzled by this perfectly ordinary logical dualism. But what is objectionable about the statement is that the causal relationship is one-directional. In other words, society determines the State, but the State is not allowed to influence society. And this, of course, is absurd, whether it be taken as a factual or a normative statement. Liberal theorists would no doubt agree that an executive act, or a piece of legislation, can indeed influence social affairs, but they would wish to insist on some criterion by which the political act could be shown to have social origins. For the liberal idea of political evil is a governmental act which springs full grown from the brow of politicians, and which lacks the antecedent of social support.
Next we must turn to elucidate the significant word “aspect” which crops up in the definition of the State as “society in its political aspect.” Here again we must analyze the matter in terms of policies. An aspect is something which interests us about an already determined whole. The dimness of this definition may be illuminated by an example. In wartime, the morale of the people is an “aspect” of the war effort; but to the people themselves it isn’t an aspect of anything—it is simply how they feel. Or, to take another example, the general policy of understanding and investigating the world leads to the field of knowledge being carved up into a number of subjects or disciplines. A scholar who is concerned to explain rural settlements in the Highlands of Scotland might, in some contexts, be said to deal with an “aspect” of geography, but to the scholar himself his subject is not an aspect, but a whole in itself—one which will no doubt have its own aspects. As long as this is understood, there is nothing especially objectionable about seeing the world in terms of wholes and aspects, though when this becomes a metaphysical exercise, it rapidly turns into idealism and begins to undermine the independence of everything in the world. In idealist terms everything is simply an aspect of an all-inclusive whole which is usually referred to as the absolute.
How does this general point affect the definition of the State as “society in its political aspect”? Obviously the definition is positing society as a whole which includes and determines politics. But in that case, we will have some difficulty in discovering the nature (or the defining principle) of this peculiar whole. We observed at the beginning of this section that the only thing which equally united the citizens of Great Britain (or of any other country) was the political fact of citizenship. The borders of “societies” and their internal constitutions are all produced by the work of politicians—whether kings or statesmen. It is, of course, true that all manner of social, geographical, linguistic and historical circumstances went into the definition of any given modern community; but the work of creating States and maintaining them is political, and inescapably so.
The unity of that “society” which claims the State as its “political aspect” is thus itself a political unity. The State is not an aspect of society; it is the only unity that society can lay claim to. In digging a grave for this widely accepted formula, we are actually laying to rest the ghost of the social contract theories, which also (and for ideological reasons) wished to establish that society was logically prior to the State, and therefore ought to control it. But once we are free of this assumption, we are able to detect the bones of liberal ideology. The unity of society in the liberal sense thus emerges not as a fact but as an aspiration—which might become a fact if everyone followed out the democratic duty which emerged from the syllogism we discussed. Liberal social unity is that of obligatory social participation, and it gains its plausibility from confusion with the sociological definition of society as a “complex of relationships”—for everyone is involved in many sorts of social relationships.
The liberal who argues in this manner is now in a position which is very characteristic of all ideologies. He is able to say both that social unity exists (i.e. there is such a thing as society apart from its political unity), and that the fact that social unity does not exist, is a social problem. He can have things both ways, shifting from one position to the other according to whether he is arguing with ideological opponents or trying to affect the behavior of ideological supporters.
[1. ]Morris Ginsberg, Sociology, Oxford, 1955, p. 40.
[3. ]This might suggest that “society” is a more exclusive term than “state,” and in this usage, and in many sociological contexts, it is. In this liberal usage, it retains valuable overtones of that earlier meaning by which “society” indicated only the respectable. But “society” may also become wider than the State, as in this rather baffing proposition from a letter to the Listener: “The enemies of the State are not necessarily the enemies of society.”
[4. ]Quoted by Elie Kedourie in Nationalism, London, 1960, p. 18.
[5. ]For example in an interesting article by Professor Morris Jones, in Political Studies, February 1954.