Conformity to a Community of Diversity, Research Time, 01/12/2016

I’m going to run through an argument that I’ve gone through quite a few times before, and that I will even more in the future. It’s about the nature of community, particularly the concept of community in radical democracy. So it’ll be pretty important to the ideas of Utopias, and it’s very important to our own political moment.

Here’s an anecdote to start. Right now, my friends Hipster Gogol and Dons the Miner are having a wonderful argument in the comments to my link promoting Hipster Gogol’s classes in activism.

Liberal individualism and communitarianism are viciously co-
dependent in many ways. Consider that the fantasy narrative of
individualism is the rebel from conformity – the hero's triumph requires
that he be the only individual, even though liberal philosophy and
culture aims for everyone to live as self-reliant individuals striking
out on their own paths.
Hipster Gogol works for a southern Ontario water protection group, and Dons the Miner works in the mining industry. It’s the usual kind of head-banging conversation between a conservative who doesn’t want to pay taxes for programs that help poor people, and a left-wing activist.

The Miner’s arguments are purely individualistic. Because he himself isn’t poor or marginalized, he sees no reason why he should pay taxes that fund programs for the benefit of others to whom he has no connection. There’s no fellow-feeling for the members of his community in his arguments.

But there’s also a problem with the opposite, more communitarian way of thinking. It stresses that community can only arise from a common morality, or a common culture.

You’re left with a choice: the radical alienation and mutual hostility of individualism, or cultural uniformity enforced by morality of mutual policing and hostility to difference from inside or outside the group.

If you go to the radical democratic tradition,* you can see a way out of this double bind. One route Chantal Mouffe takes is through a concept of common sense.

Here's another vicious paradox. The right-wing take on progressive
language and communication – which is denounced as political
correctness – is that it's a thought police promoting conformity. Yet
it's a form of language that encourages people to understand and
express real differences.
* Thinkers like Spinoza, Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, and more lately Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau.

Common sense has a popular meaning that has nothing to do with this argument at all, sort of. The popular meaning of ‘common sense’ is to tag some ideas as obviously true. To introduce an idea with the phrase, “Of course we all know that . . . . . It’s just common sense!” The everyday intuition.

The most infamous use of this phrase today is the Newspeak of President Trump. For him, common sense is the obviously, intuitively true knowledge of those who are certain of their beliefs – that stop-and-frisk is a useful and important policing technique, that Muslims are inherently violent and anti-American.

I’m talking about the Spinoizist concept of common sense – literally the common knowledge that arises from honest conversations between different people. People of different genders, gender identifications, classes, sexualities, racial groups, religions, ethnicities, nationalities. Conversations that open your mind to other possible histories and experiences – different ways to be a person.

Radical democracy is an approach to building your community that flows from earnestly understanding and embracing human differences. So radical democracy preserves the individuality and room for difference that’s so important for liberal individualism.

Radical democrat (who spoke as an ontologist
and philosopher of science) Gilles Deleuze.
And because you’re literally reaching out to your neighbours and compatriots to understand their personal journeys, perspectives, and values, you achieve what communitarians want as well. A strong, deeply bonded community.

But it isn’t a community that comes from strictly enforcing moral and cultural conformity. Conservatives, particularly Trump and Trumpists, often accuse progressives of being morality police, enforcing their view of the truth to the exclusion of others.

The community is synthesized into a unity. But it’s a unity from differences. If I can get technical,** Deleuze called it a disjunctive synthesis.***

** And not just pretentious, like usual.

*** He originally developed the concept in the context of philosophy of mathematics, but he was able to work out an abstract structure for it that let it apply to particular acts of thinking in many different domains. The unity that arises from communication among differences.

Radical democracy constructs a community from disjunctive syntheses – the unity from differences in communication with each other.

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