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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

 

Community and Political Thought Today, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler and Dale McConkey, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers (1998), 244 pp.

 

Reviewed by Robert Bradley, Department of Political Science, Illinois State University.

 

This edited volume evolved from a conference on communitarianism and civil society held in 1996 at Berry College. Most of the authors in the volume participated in the conference and include sociologists, political scientists, political philosophers, and historians. They share with the communitarian movement a critical concern about the current state of American society. Some authors agree with many of the precepts of communitarianism while others do not. They also differ as to the causes and implications of the current state of affairs in America, and as to what theoretical orientation provides the most valid insights into that state of affairs. Finally, significant differences exist among the authors as to what they would prescribe to address the perceived problems plaguing our current form of democracy.

In Chapter One, Allen D. Hertzke and Chris McRorie introduce and define the concept of 'moral ecology'. They observe that many commentators have included ecological referents in discussing contemporary social and political problems. The authors claim this chapter is "the first systematic formulation of empirical relationships inherent in the concept of moral ecology" (p. 2). Before detailing that formulation, the authors briefly review the conceptâs historical origins. Then the authors present three cases - media violence, the breakdown of the family, and the states' promotion of lotteries - to illustrate the empirical relationships evident from a moral ecological perspective. The authors conclude by discussing the advantages of using the moral ecology concept, the philosophical dilemmas posed by the concept, and the broad policy implications that flow from the existence of the concept. If the authors had emphasized moral ecology more as a theoretical construct and less as a social science model, their venture would have been more persuasive.

In Chapter Two, Murray Jardine attempts to clarify the confusion surrounding the term "communitarian". As Jardine contends, some perceive the term to be a reflection of wanting to return to past idyllic communal societies while other think the term connotes a desire for a contemporary version of socialism. He also wants to provide a more coherent theoretical basis for communitarianism by placing its concerns in the context of current political theory. He argues that the primary concern for current political thinking is to find a new basis for political order. The central premise for modern Western bourgeois culture, which is its conception of progress, has come to an end. Jardine provides several reasons for the demise of the notion of progress. In detailing these reasons, Jardine interestingly points out that modern culture in progressing toward a society of autonomous individuals has sown the seeds for the emergence of tyranny. Then he discusses three different approaches to reconstructing political order ÷ postmodernism, neoclassicism, and a philosophy of language and science. Finally, he argues that communitarianism could profit both from employing a classificatory model to distinguish itself from other reconstructive approaches and from developing its own unique vocabulary that is appropriate for devising new democratic communities.

Marc Stier in Chapter Three addresses the question as to whether communitarianism can draw usefully from the ideologies of both the left and right in this nation. He concludes that for communitarianism to present a viable alternative to the existing political world it has to adopt a pluralistic stance and use some ideas from the left and right, and also some suggestions that communitarians might find untenable. Before discussing his suggestions that would reduce the tension between the left and right in their appraisal of communitarianism, Stier briefly describes what the "left" and "right" in contemporary American politics mean. Ultimately, he argues that for communitarianism to be successful it must allow local communities to pursue actions that adherents of the left or right might view as questionable or even harmful. For communitarianism to have an impact, the struggles between the left and right have to be tempered. This prescription, however, might be much easier to state than to see actualized.

In Chapter Four, Bruce Frohnen presents a compelling case that Robert Bellah, in writing Habits of the Heart, does not render accurate full accounts of "Tocqueville's thought, American traditions of thought and action, and the grounding of communities of memory" (p. 71). Frohnen first contends that Bellah, even though often cited as a Tocquevillian analyst of American democracy, differs substantially from Tocqueville as to a cure for the problem of "individualism". He also argues that Bellah misstates the American traditions of biblical religion and republicanism in using them as models in constructing a new tradition for American public life. Finally, Frohnen states that Bellah desires to re-connect Americans through communities of memory that in fact don't need a shared history or memory. The memory of a community can be subject to constant reinterpretation that would allow it to move toward Bellah's desired goal of a social democracy. Frohnen concludes in arguing that Bellah uses religion, history, and traditions as means to be used to achieve the end of social democracy. It would have been interesting for Frohnen to address if Bellahâs desired end justified his means.

Brad Lowell Stone in Chapter Five presents another critical view of Bellah's Habits of the Heart. Specifically, Stone contends that the introduction to the updated edition of Bellah's book is full of false or distorted claims. He argues that it is vital to note these distortions because they draw attention away from the true sources of the failings in American society, and also deflect analysis from the problem-solving resources available in classical liberal thinking. An illuminating aspect of Stone's chapter is his discussion of the different meanings of "social capital" as used by different authors. Feminists would be quite interested in his analysis of the chief cause of the decline in birth rates and increase in divorce rates, and what he perceives to be the natural end of marriage.

In Chapter Six, Wilfred McClay briefly makes the case that the communitarian movement to be feasible has to incorporate a strong element of federalism. If the movement is committed to emphasizing the need for civic virtue through renewed interest in citizenship, then it should give serious attention to promoting such virtue at the state and local levels. Communitarians need to recognize that the American system of federalism provides multiple opportunities for citizens to become involved in public life. Unfortunately, McClay doesn't address the pervasive critique of our system of federalism in that such a wealth of opportunity for public involvement can overwhelm the typical citizen and compel them to inaction.

Alan Woolfolk in Chapter Seven attempts to clarify the theoretical links between Philip Rieff's works on therapeutic culture and Robert Bellah's ideas expressed in Habits of the Heart. First, Woolfolk discusses how part of Bellah's discussion on individualism fits nicely in the context of Rieff's concept of therapy. Then he illustrates how Bellah and Rieff use similar analysis and language in discussing the problems present in American culture. They also are similar in their depictions of the characteristics of American culture. Even in an area of significant departure, the impact of civil religion as a practice on communities of memory, Woolfolk demonstrates the two authors are reactive to each otherâs ideas.

Chapter Eight presents another comparison of two scholars' ideas. Barry Sharpe argues that to more fully understand the liberal-communitarian debate one has to appreciate the similarities and differences in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt. He compares them on history, tradition, political liberty, and public space. The comparisons are done to illustrate that simplistic dichotomies like liberal and communitarian or individual and community prove to be less than useful in evaluating current American politics and devising remedies for any perceived problems.

In Chapter Nine, Joseph Knippenberg examines the implications of postmodernism for citizenship. Before stating those implications, Knippenberg first briefly discusses the primary tenets of postmodernism, and then discusses Richard Rorty's "liberal ironism" approach as the best available case for the positive impact of postmodernism on citizenship. Ultimately, Knippenberg is not convinced by Rorty's ideas and argues that postmodernism is likely to have deleterious effects on citizenship.

Rorty's works are also the focus of Chapter Ten by Peter Augustine Lawlor. At the statrt of this chapter, Lawlor makes several points of interest for those concerned about political philosophy. One is that "pragmatism is the dominant form of thought in America today" (p. 147). Others include that Richard Rorty is "America's leading professor of philosophy," that Rorty is "the most clever, subtle, and witty pragmatist," and that Allan Bloom may have been "America's most formidable opponent of pragmatism" (p. 147). Lawlor examines the relationship between Rorty's and Bloom's thought by first detailing Rorty's pragmatism on several dimensions, then discussing the differences and agreements between Rorty and Bloom, and demonstrating some deficiencies in Bloomâs refutation of Rorty. According to Lawlor, the primary difference between the two scholars is their reflections on the importance of death, whereas they appear to agree on the condition of contemporary America.

In Chapter Eleven, Mary P. Nichols examines the criticisms of American education made by E.D. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. Both authors essentially claim that the current weakened state of American democracy is partly due to the failings of American education. Nichols essentially agrees with their criticisms of American education, which she details, but argues that their recommendations are faulty since they include some of the same theoretic elements on which our nationâs current system of education is based.

In Chapter Twelve, Robb A. McDaniel presents a systematic analysis of Leo Strauss's anti-egalitarianism. He wants to explore more fully the ambiguities that are part of Strauss's thoughts on natural inequality. For those interested in perpetuating liberalism, a fuller examination of the complexity of Strauss's defense of liberal democracy would be quite useful. McDaniel discusses some of the critical components of Straussâs ideas about liberalism, and reflects on some of the common ground shared by his and communitarian thought.

In Chapter Thirteen, Daniel J. Mahoney wants to "highlight the contribution that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has made to our understanding of the phenomena of ideology and natural right." (p. 210) Mahoney examines Solzhenitsyn's thoughts primarily in regard to his reflections on the meaning of totalitarianism and the worst evil emanating from totalitarianism. He also discusses Solzhenitsyn's political stance and his thoughts on the rearticulation of a natural moral order and compares those thoughts to Leo Strauss's.

In the final chapter of the volume, Brian C. Anderson explores Raymond Aron's thoughts on the prospects of achieving a state of peace for the world community. Anderson points out that Aron categorized two approaches toward achieving this form of peace. Anderson details Aron's thoughts on these two approaches and which one would be the preferred way of achieving a universal peace. The transition between this chapter, which focuses on the notion of international community, and the other chapters that examine community in the American context is somewhat abrupt but does prove to be a interesting extension of reflecting on communitarian thought.

In summary, to more fully appreciate the insights made by the chapters' authors, one needs to have a pretty thorough understanding of the tenets of communitarianism and a basic familiarity with the writings of both classical and contemporary philosophers. For readers with this knowledge base, Community and Political Thought Today makes a welcome contribution along a variety of dimensions about communitarian and current political thought and the state of affairs in America.