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Terror and Liberalism: Sociological Grounds for Teleology?

A longer version of this essay was presented at the 2011 Telos Conference, “Rituals of Exchange and States of Exception: Continuity and Crisis in Politics and Economics.”

The Excellence Critique of Liberalism The term “Excellence Critique” connotes a broad array of thinkers, including but not limited to Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Robert Spaemann.[1] While there are clear problems lumping these thinkers together, they share some important qualities. Two such qualities I shall discuss here. First, none of these thinkers deny the successes of liberalism. All agree that liberalism generates the most “wealth” and “freedom” when these terms are measured via monetary success and moral relativism, respectively. Their argument is not one of efficiency; it is one of excellence. Liberalism, according to these thinkers, fails to fully embrace human flourishing. One way of understanding this failure, I will suggest, is via liberalism’s teleological deficit. By teleology I intend a shared, transcendental, and ineffable conception of the good. The second quality shared by all of these thinkers is genealogical. All posit a history of liberalism as proceeding along a trajectory that can be (artificially for the sake of clarity) split into four stages: secularism, individualism, capitalism, statism. While each of our thinkers differs as to the order and importance of each stage, there is a general consensus that these are the stages necessary for understanding liberalism in its current form. I want to add that each of these stages colludes to undermine a teleological vision. Secularism: Where teleology is understood as transcendental, pertaining to an objective but ineffable Good from which virtues can be derived, secular liberalism intentionally avoids teleology.[2] Instead, its proponents say, secular liberalism is a compromise between competing teleological visions, based on the assumption of conflict between such visions. It is a practical attempt to avoid conflict, rooted in the religious wars of the seventeenth century. The Excellence Critique finds this understanding unhelpful; tracing secular liberalism’s roots to its practical application is of no use to anyone trying to understand what of its conceptual origins has led to its present-day discontents. Secular liberalism should instead be seen as a shift internal to theology, devised to claim authority over the political realm and to subsequently implement discipline and generate wealth.[3] In this context, the mistrust of competing teleological visions is institutionalised well before it becomes a political necessity. The modern liberal state encroaching upon civil liberties can be traced back to this disciplinarianism. In the context of the encroaching liberal state, there is a call for the rights of the individual. Good in intention, the focus on the individual is nonetheless ominous because it accepts the language of private confession. The point of teleology is that it transcends the individual and the immanent, meaning that its work is both political and never finished. Conversely, the new focus on the individual, notwithstanding the possibility that it remains transcendental, cannot be teleological because it cannot be political; it always begins and finishes with the individual. Individualism lends to moral relativism in its present day form, regarded not just as an epistemological fact but a moral obligation. Naturally, in such a climate, teleology seems not only impracticable but hegemonic. With the onset of individualism, then, comes a shift in political philosophy from a question of how to discover and subsequently implement a teleological vision, to one of how to implement a fair balance between multiple competing visions. I shall be brief here because this story has been told many times before. Unlike deontology and consequentialism, which look to form ethical systems that stand outside of and inform debates between competing teleological visions, thus overcoming conflict, capitalism works toward the common good by harnessing conflict. It harnesses toward the creation of wealth the same qualities that any account of the virtues looks to overcome. Common good thus comes to be perceived as common wealth, the present day form of which is GDP.[4] The state has three roles for which it requires vast powers: to enforce neutrality in the public realm; to protect the rights of individuals; and to support the mechanisms of capitalism. The result is twofold: first, intermediary institutions, be they the Church or the Boy Scouts, lose their sense of purpose, derived as it is from their teleological vision; second, and as a result, individuals, especially young people whose identity is drawn from the friends, groups and institutions that surround them, become increasingly withdrawn from social enterprise. Homegrown Islamic Terrorism in the UK Secular liberalism suffers from a teleological deficit. Central to my understanding of teleology’s absence as a deficit, rather than a negligible fact, is the assumption that teleology provides people with a unifying narrative and therefore social identity. Only with a shared vision of where society is aiming can people understand the context in which they relate to one another and their role as individuals in society. Now, if secular liberalism fails to provide its own citizens with this unifying narrative, it follows that no such narrative can be provided for immigrants. In his book Freedom or Terror, Russell Berman traces how immigrants to secular liberal societies tend to arrive expecting a strong unifying narrative. In the absence of this narrative, immigrants undergo a crisis of identity. As the title of Salman Rushdie’s collection of essays suggests, this deficit leaves immigrants seeking “imaginary homelands.” Many site the desire to be part of a group that represents a cause beyond themselves as a reason for joining terror networks. An individualism that promotes self-autonomy at the expense of social institutions only deepens this desire and drives it underground. Because social association is spontaneous, the erosion of social institutions renders the former more voluntaristic and exclusive. With the breakdown of historic social institutions, we lose the traditions of inclusion (and exclusion) that go with them. The result is that the differences between the socially advantaged and disadvantaged are amplified. Many young Muslims cite marginalization, Islamophobia, and racism as reasons for joining terror networks. Capitalism’s role in creating pathways into Islamic terrorism is more indirect and ideological. Capitalism replaces moral value with monetary value. As a result, capitalism becomes blind to both social justice and the human aspects of exchange. In this context, an ideology that claims to implement social justice becomes appealing. But capitalism also has a direct affect on pathways into Islamic terrorism, best summed up in the paradox that we are free in the “neutral” public space to wear as little clothes as we see fit, for this represents freedom of expression and social inclusion, but we are often not allowed to wear too many clothes, namely the hijab and niqab, which represent oppression and social exclusion. Now, while I have said that many cite social exclusion as a reason for joining terror networks, many would-be terrorists are active members of social groups. That such people leave these groups for more extreme terror networks points to the possibility that such groups fail to provide an adequate teleological vision. This draws on Phillip Blonde’s policy research influenced by the Excellence Critique, which suggests that the central control of government renders community activism tedious and often unrewarding.[5] The neutralization of the intermediary institution renders it insipid and unattractive. Moreover, because the state itself is teleologically neutral, there is little impetus to make the leap from private to public individual. And Teleology? While the public imaginary is such that transcendental teleology is out of fashion, by looking at states of exception such as terrorism, it is possible to rediscover the importance of teleology in our everyday lives, and therefore in the formation of intermediary institutions and government policy alike. I am grateful to Marcia Pally, who stressed to me the importance of calling for a specific teleological vision underpinned by a particular theology, as opposed to promoting teleology per se, which risks being amoral. Indeed, in a longer version of this essay, I stress the importance of not merely being satisfied with social bonding as its own judge. For some of the best cases of social bonding underpinned by a strong teleological vision are the most dangerous, especially when that vision lacks a deep theology: Italian Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and, of course, Islamic Terrorism. Moreover, the often philosophically shallow manner with which policymakers tend to adopt sociological research might suggest a duty on the part of the academic to stress the underlying philosophical and theological implications of his conclusions. Nonetheless, what this essay represents is the beginning of an idea: that in order to convince policy makers of the importance of teleology, we need to find for teleology some sociological grounds. Notes 1. I am indebted to Adrian Pabst for suggesting the inclusion of Robert Spaemann in this list. While Spaemann does not take a genealogical approach, he nonetheless shares the criticism of liberalism as a philosophy of efficiency. 2. In his presentation to the 2011 Telos Conference, “The Only Possible (Bio)Politics? On the Critical Theory of the Risk Pool,” Kevin Amidon offers an excellent and engaging critique of pretensions to objectivity. It should also be noted here that some proponents of liberalism see it is realizing a teleological vision in the here and now—but this de facto rules out teleology as transcendental. 3. I again refer to Adrian Pabst, whose forthcoming paper deals with this in more detail. For a fuller discussion, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, chapter 2; John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, chapter 1. 4. The reader will allow that I have had to be exceedingly genealogically naïve here, ignoring the ways in which each of the superstructural ethics colludes in the modern outlook. 5. See Phillip Blonde, Red Tory, passim.

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