PoW: Multiculturalism and the Common Good

It looks like the Red Bull-fueled supernova that is Maurice Glasman may be about to burn out. Glasman's Blue Labour project, which has lit up the British media for the last six months like a gas-fired stove, is in danger of running out of gas after Lord Glasman controversially suggested a complete halt to immigration in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. This follows an interview two months ago where Glasman suggested Labour needed to connect with the supporters of the English Defence League. Having pleaded with him to stop giving so many provocative interviews, other prominent members of the Blue Labour project now appear to be running for cover.

This was always likely to happen. Blue Labour is a Neo-Aristotelian project. Glasman draws his inspiration from Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, and I always wondered quite how one could fit Aristotle with modern pluralism and multiculturalism. Let me explain.

Aristotle had quite an exalted idea of democracy and citizenship: he thought in a well-functioning democratic state, citizens would be intimately joined together in a search for the common good. Being a democratic citizen would be an exercise in virtue, because the good citizen puts aside their particular egotistic interests and tries to discover what's good for the whole community. It would involve a great deal of intellectual skill, because the citizen must be able to discover the best policies for your community. And it would involve a lot of emotional skill, because democracy, Aristotle argued, is all about friendship, intimacy and trust. The citizens in a democratic state must know each other, like each other, even love each other - otherwise they won't trust each other enough to reason together towards the common good. So Aristotle's conception of democratic politics makes enormous demands of its citizens - both in terms of their time, their education, and their commitment to their state.

And it also demands a great deal of the state, particularly of its education system. The end of the state, according to Aristotle, is nothing less than the intellectual, emotional and spiritual fulfillment, or flourishing, of its citizens. If citizens are going to be united in friendship and in a common idea of the virtues and the public good, then the state needs to educate them to a very high moral and philosophical standard. And the state also needs to intervene in the economy, to make sure no one is too rich or too poor - because if they are, it will be impossible for citizens to arrive at an idea of the common good.

This was a pretty idealistic vision of democracy even in Aristotle's own time. Where Plato had argued the state should be ruled by a small elite of philosopher-guardians, Aristotle argued that, in effect, all male Greek citizens should be trained up to be philosopher-citizens (yes, I'm afraid he was a sexist and a racist). Aristotle's lofty conception of citizenship was only ever likely to work in small communities. Plato also thought the ideal population for his republic, for example, was around 5,000. Rousseau, who was deeply inspired by Plato and Aristotle, thought democracy worked best in the small cantons of his native Switzerland, where citizens would sit around and deliberate together over the common good - again, Rousseau thought it was essential that the citizens know each other and trust each other if they were ever going to reason their way to the General Will.

The rise of the Neo-Aristotelians

In the last 20 years, Aristotle's conception of politics has become fashionable once again. Philosophers from Michael Sandel to Martha Nussbaum to Alasdair MacIntyre have argued that politics needs to return to a common idea of the good life, while policy wonks in the UK including Richard Reeves, Philip Blond, Geoff Mulgan, the New Economics Foundation, Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman have also talked of embracing a Neo-Aristotelian politics of human flourishing. I wrote a story on this rise of Neo-Aristotelianism for IPPR's magazine, called Our Leaders Are All Aristotelian Now, which was a quote from a column by Mary Riddell in the Daily Telegraph - she also conducted the infamous Glasman interview in which he called for a stop to immigration.

But this Neo-Aristotelian project was always going to face serious challenges. The main challenge, of course, is that the whole Aristotelian idea of the 'common good' goes against pluralism. The basic assumption of pluralism is that humans have various different conceptions of the good, and it's impossible to find one conception that fits everyone. Moreover, pluralists argue, no government has the right to impose its particular conception of the good life onto its citizens. That way lies totalitarianism. And it's true, Aristotle's conception of politics is total - it involves the whole citizen, from their mind to their emotions to their soul. It is full-body politics, rather than our extremely limited conception of political participation.

It also goes against multiculturalism. An Aristotelian city-state might allow some new arrivals, but it would demand they completely absorb the state's values and virtues. And given how difficult and time-consuming the philosophical education of a citizen is, it would probably limit the number of new arrivals. It would be against multiculturalism, in general, because multiculturalism would dilute the citizens' shared values, and it would also be against increasing the population, through immigration or uncontrolled breeding, because a booming population would mean the citizens knew each other less, trusted each other less, and therefore found it more difficult to deliberate together towards the common good.

You can see how illiberal this conception of politics is, and how impossible it would be to introduce in the modern nation-state. The modern state is simply too big and too diverse, so citizens can't possibly be united in friendship or in a shared idea of the common good - except, perhaps, briefly during war. If such a community of shared values were to exist, it would need to be much smaller, and would need to take state education much more seriously than at present. It would need to abolish private schools, because they have a Platonic, rather than an Aristotelian conception of education - they only train a small elite to be rulers (like the jokers pictured on the right), rather than training all citizens to be rulers.
And it would need to demand a lot more of its citizens, in terms of the time and energy they commit to the running of their society. And we're not prepared to make that commitment to our state. We want to devote our time to our own private projects - our family, our job, our career, our private pursuit of pleasure. We simply don't care enough about the state or our fellow citizens to think it worthwhile to spend a large proportion of our time on politics.The political apparatus of the modern state is too technocratic, too vast and impersonal, too damn complicated, to make us feel we can participate in it meaningfully or virtuously.

I don't think this will stop politicians and policy-wonks paying lip service to Aristotle, and to the idea that the aim of politics is to encourage a common idea of human flourishing. But this will be technocratic tinkering at the sidelines - unless we started to take state education a lot more seriously and really made it the central project of our societies. For Aristotle, for Plato, indeed, for practically all Greek philosophers, the most important part of political philosophy is the state education of citizens. Everything else - the army, the economy - takes second place. In the modern state, by contrast, our education system is designed to serve the economy. And I don't see any political party prepared to re-arrange our society so that state education is at the heart of it, partly perhaps because so many of our rulers were educated privately.

That doesn't mean I think the Aristotelian conception of politics is completely impractical. But I agree with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre that it is only really feasible in small communities.