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Books Walzer's Obligations


By Thomas Geoghegan

IN THE sacerdotal days of moral philosophy, political ethics was a self-confident teleology of actor and attitude. Now it is a demonology which defies system, scares off common sense, and in outlining political obligations, gives the citizen a Pirandellian sanction to do whatever it is he thinks he is doing. Perhaps it has always done so. But it took until this century to realize what an indiscriminate string of relativities shores up, say, even the treatises of John Locke. The Republic itself is built on sand.

The only absolute insisted in Michael Walzer's Obligations: Essays on Disobedience. War, and Citizenship -the only demand made on the political actor-is to perceive that moral choices exist. Once made, these choices persist and shift over time, divide a man's allegiance, and estrange his comrades. Walzer's essays whatever their other lessons, brilliamly ill?minate these choices. They imaginatively accommodate political ethics to the native brand of social protest which emerged in the 60's. Walzer attempts here to order a discussion of recent history without detailed reference to that history.

His essays are formal and abstract. They redefine polities as an endeavor to reconcile the maximum amount of personal honor with group solidarity. In a more cosmic sense, they re-evaluate citizenship and dissent in conceiving man as a striver for moaning through politics. Despite lapses into existentialist jargon. Walzer's "political journalism." belongs to the most lucid order of scholarship.

Walzer first published several of the essays in Dissent. a magazine which he helped found and edit. The other pieces come from lectures in Government 104 at Harvard during the years 1966-69. His discussion of "Civil Disobedience and Corporate Authority" reflects the impact of the school's strike in April 1969-during which he became a leader of the Harvard Faculty's "liberal caucus." Another essay, on oppressed minorities, refers unmistakably to the rise of black nationalism and the ?hical muddle which it presents.

Walzer is sometimes careless with that peculiar vocabulary of political philosophy-the "careful words." as John Schaar calls them, which one must ponder deeply. It would help, for instance, to distinguish "obligations." the subject of the book, from "patriotism" or "loyalties" which also influence and spring from moral choices. These are not the same things. They operate at different but overlapping levels of awareness. Loyalty seems a more comprehensive and powerful motive force than "obligation." a word which implies formal duties and rational ranking of commitments. How do these fit into Walzer's hierarchy? A glossary or an expository chapter might have looked awkward but it would have saved confusien later. Stray aphorisms like "Solidarity is the patriotism of the Left" neglect to explain what patriotism and solidarity really are. The author should give more content to the nonrational dimensions of political theory-loyalty, patriotism. etc.-which enter his discussion.

WALZER'S political universe is existential and consensual. He takes the Lockean consent-of-the-governed (if not quite the social contract) as a real and serious matter. This seriousness focuses the essays on a procedural rather than substantive ethics. As a tool of analysis, consensual theory can say little about those whose consent is tacit. A silent majority is negative data. Walzer necessarily concentrates on those whose moral initiatives are obvious and visible, as with the radical or dissenting intellectual. Inevitably, and perhaps for the best, he describes a political world as confronted by people like himself.

Walzer neglects the more decisive question of moral responsibility: the responsibility of power, the limits and conduct of state authority. He confines his attention to men out of power, and only such men as can enter into the complexities of a moral relation. Responsibility here refers to men with "plural obligations," men committed in different directions with their commitments changing over time.

THE THRUST of these essays is to redefine pluralism, the oft-invoked rationale for inaction or moderate quiescence, as a disruptive and revolutionary force. Pluralism makes for moral havoc. It means that the state, especially the liberal state, is not the most important arena of ethical life. Parties, sects, and unions have the kind of autonomy which can enjoin members disobedience to the state. With admirable balance. Walzer fleshes out the competing obligations-to the group as a whole, to the other members, to ideals. to civility, and sometimes to revolutionary violence.

Obligations begin with group membership. The tighter and more selective cells and parties can heighten willfulness to impose greater obligations. By contrast, the state demands only a minimum commitment. Should these secondary associations make total claims to primacy, they become revolutionary. But Walzer is quick to hedge this democratic right of revolution (rescued from Locke, not Marx) in an actual democracy.

By elimination, then, Walzer studies the borderline cases in which secondary associations claim primacy only in certain limited areas. He wants to stake out and legitimate that grey area of political activity between passive disobedience and streetfighting. The essays deny that every challenge to the constituted authority is implicitly revolutionary. The state would find it beneficial to broaden the range of permissible dissent, particularly against corporate authority. The larger society should recognize some groups' claims to limited primacy and exempt them from state harassment. The right to strike must be generously defined. Pushing pluralism to the limits, he sanctions dispersal of authority consistent with market socialism. The state must accept "limited violence" (i.e., not directed primarily against the state) to force corporations into collective bargaining. To Walzer this is the essence of the liberal state.

A plea for the liberal state would seem antique. In fact, it imposes an extreme ethical nonviolence on the very institution which must monopolize violence. While asking the state to be more pacific, he desires that the small groups become more purposeful, repressive, and disciplined. Ethical laissez-faire would widen for the oppressed the options of limited violence. The state would fulfill the need for a sphere of nonviolence. But if the sovereignty of the state is limited too sharply, if all political groups can move out of the existing politico-legal framework, then the state will lack the power to intervene on behalf of the oppressed. The civil rights progress since 1957 has come through purposeful state coercion. While letting group pluralism run amok, Walzer should have affirmed the duties of power-the responsibility of the state to preserve itself and the nation, and to provide for the common welfare.

Alas, this may also be seen as a warrant for repression. It depends on the nature of the state. One wonders how far Walzer is proposing to dismantle the state and deny it the power to inhibit group formation. It would be unwise to hope that the struggle of right and left can regulate itself. In a capitalist society, such a struggle has only one outcome. Ultimately the state must impose its own law and order. Like it or not. American dissent subsists on creative state intervention.

Because Walzer sees the state as aloof and parenthetical, pluralism itself must keep peace in society. Mediated group activity combats the alienation effect of the state on the individual. In Walzer's model of confrontation, the organized group resists the state, but citizens relate to the group as isolated individuals. An obligation to the group may collide with an obligation to the state. It may also conflict with personal honor. A man's comrades demand his cooperation. On the other hand, each man must use his own eyes. How, Walzer ponders, does one resign his comrades? Behind his Lenin-flavored existentialism-in which obligations are incurred to tight-knit groups-the vision of an independent and consenting self remains.

CHOOSING between country and conscience also poses not-so-obvious ambiguities. A citizen may confront the country as state, transcendent political community, the federal government, an electoral majority, or simply as the Administration. One can see such confusion in college dissenters trying to separate America from her great silent majority.

The same ambiguity pervades Walzer's discussion of "The Obligation to Die for the State." One must agree with his conclusion that it is never possible to say a particular man should die for a particular moral good. He may also be right in saying that a man is obligated to fight only if he feels the obligation-but at least there should be agreed-upon criteria, laid down by the general will, through which one comes to such decisions. His conclusion from the essays on war, you-are-obligated-if-you-think-so, pushes individual responsibility past the breaking point.

Indeed, as Walzer argues, an oppressed minority should be able to judge the quality of their oppression and the extent of their obligations. But even in racist America, blacks have disagreed when they have tried to be precise about their situation. This raises the thorny issue of who speaks for the oppressed. According to Walzer, political activists emerge because the masses are unable to act for themselves. They must perform as unauthorized agents, or virtual representatives.

The black movement illustrates the unstable leadership which results from its haphazard process of virtual representation. For better or worse, community control has come to mean internecine warfare. Walzer clearly believes in black solidarity and worker solidarity, at least as some transcendent precipitant of social division, but he indicates how hard it is to represent this solidarity through legitimate, democratic process.

Activists may be obligated to push the masses faster than they wish to go-but how fast can an oppressed minority proceed against a majority? Walzer immediately rules out revolution, no matter how great the popular oppression, so long as the democratic rules can be exploited with some success. Democracy, as he defines it, involves mutual respect for the freedom to act. The activist need not fully respect the rules, but he must not undermine them.

In the perennial borderline case, the polity may recognize the oppressed as full citizens, honestly, count their votes, and consistently defeat their candidates. Here is a stalemate. The activists have acquired competing obligations both to the system and the system's victims. A radical himself. Walzer is uncomfortable with the paradox he has presented. His discomfort expresses a denial that "imperfect justice should be endured as long as possible." In a burst of patriotic optimism, he argues that in a democracy the hypocrisy of the majority can be exposed.

ACTIVISTS must live with tension in Walzer's state. They work simultaneously to raise the consciousness of the oppressed, keep open the possibilities of democratic action, and yet accept concrete improvements which may dampen that consciousness. All disclaimers aside, Walzer in fact asks frustrated activists to accept an incremental politics. "Equal rights cannot be won by a revolutionary attack on the social structure within which rights are being sought." Only a truly drastic oppression generates total freedom from the restraints of civility. Formally equal in law, the American poor and black have incurred some obligations to civility.

Citizenship may negate revolution in the state, but citizenship in the state does not generate corporate citizenship. Walzer forcefully insists on a right of revolution against corporate authority. Judged as a political community rather than a piece of property, the corporation is an authoritarian system, "The issue is not ownership but what ownership entails."

Walzer proposes ground rules for the corporate revolutionaries. Whenever corporate strife leads to violence against the state, the militants should exercise real caution. The liberal state, after all, benefits by democratizing the internal politics of the corporation. If officials remember that civil order and corporate authority rarely are equivalent, they can disengage themselves from a particular piece of social oppression. Liberalism, once again, is seen as retreat or strategic withdrawal. But the protection of civil disobedience depends on the state's ability to respond to changing communal values. It depends on the state's responsibility to power being commensurate with the citizen's responsibility to dissent.

When the state refuses to intervene, a new balance of power can take shape within the corporation. Negotiation begins. To achieve industrial democracy, weighted voting, or collective bargaining, the rebels must keep their position flexible. Walzer accurately dismisses unconditional surrender as an irrational political demand. With perhaps his own school in mind, he criticizes student militants for hasty initiatives and adventurism.

ADEVNTURISM surfaces as a failure to work seriously in the community to build majority support. The author fails to indicate, though, what composes a majority in the multi-layered estates of the university-or anywhere else. Defining one's constituency has baffled even the best-intentioned militant.

The terrorist has no such excuse. Walzer's approval of limited coercion to effect radical change makes convincing his distaste for student guerrillas. He detests "the directionless defiance of terrorism," whose agents are perfectly contemptuous of the needs of the oppressed. Terrorism bullies the weak; Walzer wants to challenge the state. Of course, one could make out a case for strategic terrorism with this objection in mind. What he really objects to, though, is any effort to shatter the minimal moral cohesion of the liberal community.

Wary of the student left, Walzer would defend the university against revolutionary violence. He notes students enjoy immense civil and personal liberties without parallel among workers. Contradicting his earlier sentiments, he would presumably question their right to feel oppressed.

What puzzles him most, I think-though he fails to articulate it-are the suicidal politics pursued by certain student radicals. They are betting on the apocalypse, the total conflagration that would swallow up even rational radicals like Walzer. He innocently thinks it a service to point out to militants the sensible limits of action. His coffeehouse radicalism can barely accommodate the drug-rock epoch of student politics. The student left embraces more than a mind-blown psychedelia-but the offspring of Lenin, the puritanical disciples of collective repression who infatuate Walzer, are fast disappearing. The prospect of an irrational left has chilling consequences for a theorist of responsible dissent.

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