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An Essay on the Liberal Society

Author: Aleksandar Fatić

The Institute of International Politics and Economics and Centre for Security Studies, Belgrade, 2009, 225 pages




Economic reductionism in the perception of solidarity


Social solidarity as a concept


Sympathy as a “social grammar”

Sympathy and related phenomena


Intentionality and intersubjectivity


Culture as learning

The specifics of social and sub-cultural conditioning of learning


Learning violence

Structural violence

The repositioning of values

Grassroots initiative


The emotional sources of morality

The role of moral emotions

Autonomy in emotionally transparent communities

Negative emotions

Truth-seeking by conflict

Clarification of values through negative emotions

The collective introjections of individual responsibility


Public and private moralities?

After a universal morality: Sources of norms

Cohesive and dispersive value communities

The meaning of politics

Choice of political elites

Liberty and guidance in the organic community

The metaphysics of freedom in heteronomy

The “social role of religion”

The existential role of religion in political communities

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Most of the modern political theory revolves around the hinging principles of liberal democracy, the core of which is in the idea that individual and group responsibility ought to determine one’s standing in the society and the ways one fares in the various societal endeavours. Amid overwhelming empirical evidence that structural factors tend to have a much more crucial role in the determination of one’s position in democratic societies than one’s own endeavours, “merit” or “responsibility”, there appears to exist a practical consensus among the liberals that without responsibility as the fundamental functional principle democracies cannot function. Fatić’s book sets out to challenge this assumption philosophically, by arguing two main thesis:

(i) that the idea of freedom is so fundamental to human perception of political life that its very vividness and motivational force witness to its ontological reality, by way of its influence on the living dynamics of democratic societies, and

(ii) that a way must be found to reconcile the possibility of freedom, which Fatić considers an irreducible dimension of polity in the most general sense, with the factual lack of autonomy in any democracy.

This ambitious theoretical task Fatić pursues by examining the conceptual shortcomings of what he, along with Robert Solomon and others, considers “the cult of responsibility” in the modern democracies. He argues that, while the responsibility of an agent can only exist where there is either complete or at least substantial autonomy of action for the agent, the latter condition cannot be fulfilled in democratic social arrangements, and thus responsibility needs to be viewed as a much less pronounced and more conditional value. Through the separate and rigorously argued chapters on Solidarity, Simpathy, Structural Violence, The Emotional Sources of Morality, and Religion, he maintains that freedom can only be realistically sought through the establishment, encouragement and long-term maintenance of empathic relationships between members of the community, based on a shared substantive morality, similar values, and a more communitarian emphasis on the value of an individual in society that would draw more on the individual’s abilities to contribute to collective projects, rather unlike liberalism, which insists on the individual’s “rights” not to be part of joint projects save certain reserved situations.

A particular aspect of the argument developed in the book deals with the rationalist tradition of democratic political thought, which, while rationalizing all aspects of social intercourse, has systematically discourage a recognition of the proper role played by emotions in the constitution of a society marked by solidarity and mutual sympathy. Fatić pays special attention to the detailed analysis of the legacy of Max Scheller’s concept of sympathy. While he keeps a reserve with regard to certain aspects of Scheller’s views, especially his idea that sympathy plays a general role in both the biological and social life of all species, not just humans, Fatić argues that sympathy as the binding tissue is irreplaceable by procedural norms and the concept of obligation, because the latter remove the essential emotional presuppositions of a proper human community, and thus builds on Scheller’s views within a specifically political context.

The spontaneity and internal energy inherent in the emotionally laden community marked by the dominant tendencies of mutual sympathy (although, as Fatić points out, this also requires the presence of the opposite, passionate antipathies and animosities that must be allowed a substantial degree of articulation) is stifled by the structural violence embedded in any functioning society, but especially pronounced in modern manipulative political strategies that Steven Lukes has influentially called “domination” in developed democracies. Structural violence as an element of democracy, thus, restricts autonomy of agency even in the most “sympathy-impregnated society”, and this is the main reason why freedom as the strongest motivational source for positive living in society must be articulated within a heteronomy imposed by such structurally violent arrangements. In other words, in order for freedom to be adequately promoted in society, it must conceptually coexist and be reconcilable with a considerable degree of heteronomy, and that is possible only where not only procedural, but primarily the substantive values are shared by members of the community. This, in Fatić’s argument is apparently the most non-liberal idea. However, he argues that the shared values do not imply the right to infringe on the values of others, but simply that communities consisting of people with similar values will tend to be more functional and harmonious, with a greater degree of subjective as well as objective freedom being able to be exercised by each member, without at the same time having to encounter the limits constituent of the general phenomenon of structural violence.

Fatić argues in his concluding chapter that such “organic” communities, whose existence is often ascribed in literature to times long past, still exist in the modern urban societies. These are small communities, characterized by a strong sense of shared values, and they have proven their vitality as sub-systems in the large multicultural cities that do not satisfy any of the criteria for organic community, primarily the criterion of “small is beautiful” as it is colloquially known, and the criterion of relative cultural homogeneity. In the large “unorganic” communities small organic communities may be able to flourish, and perhaps the most well-known examples of such groups are the religious communities. Fatić draws on Semyon Frank and the Russian philosophical tradition to provide not only functionalist, but ontological arguments on the reality of freedom and ideals based on their ability to influence our lives. He argues that religious affiliation is a way of exercising freedom in a heteronomous society that ought to be considered as a prime empathic model relationship that constitutes organic ties in a society. Such freedom is capable of existing alongside the large amount of structural violence and is little dependent on the availability of external autonomy. While the need to curb society’s corporate interests and projects that might work to expand the realm of social violence remains paramount for social activism, as Fatić argues, one must maintain a wider perspective with a view of conceptualizing freedom in its true internal dimension that plays such a crucial role in motivating all external actions, including the positive and constructive democratic social activism.

The only healthy form of social activism arises from the constructive motivation of well integrated individuals, and such individuals can hardly exist without a core of empathic and sympathy-based ties with their immediate community. The fact that such immediate organic communities are not fostered, but undermined in modern democracies by the over-rationalisations and the discourse on the procedural regulation of the political process, including the over-emphasised discourse on the negative rights and liberties, accounts for the fact that modern democracies tend to be populated by increasing numbers of dissociated individuals whose political activism is either silenced, or, when it is exercised, it does not come from well integrated individual agents.

Faith is the pre-requisite of action, and religious and moral faith may well be the model of the sort of more generalized faith that is a pre-requisite for functioning democracies.