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Sunday, June 5, 2011


Mannheim's initial characterization of the liberal-humanitarian orientation toward time is, at first, somewhat puzzling. Here is how he introduces the idea:

"The utopia of liberal-humanitarianism ... establishes a 'correct' rational conception to be set off against evil reality. This counter-conception is not used, however, as a blueprint in accordance with which at any given point in time the world is to be reconstructed. Rather it serves as a 'measuring rod' by means of which the course of concrete events may be theoretically evaluated. The utopia of the liberal-humanitarian mentality is the 'idea' ... here .. conceived of as a formal goal projected into the infinite future whose function it is to act as a mere regulative device in mundane affairs." [p. 219]

Mannheim has in mind, I believe, what at a certain point was referred to, in connection with nineteenth century English historiography, as "the Whig interpretation of history." Time is conceived as flowing smoothly, evenly, without chiliastic eruptions or abrupt revolutionary breaks, but always steadily, gently upward, toward a better future guided by a conception of the good society projected into an indefinite future. In this worldview, there is always room for experimentation, for observation, for accommodation, but all of these in the service of a utopian ideal as goal of social and political action. Whereas the Chiliast holds herself always at the ready, prepared for the unpredictable moment when the infinite will erupt into the finite world and transform Being, the liberal-humanitarian considers each moment in time as simply another opportunity for incremental improvement. For the Chiliast, the world is divided without remainder into True Believers, who will be welcomed into the Kingdom to Come, and all the rest, who are of no importance whatsoever. [Once again, I encourage you to apply all of these descriptions to contemporary American Born Again End-Time Christian Fundamentalists.] But for the liberal-humanitarian, the world exhibits no such binary divisions. Anyone is a potential colleague in limited projects of social improvement; no one is forever an enemy.

The liberal-humanitarian refuses to accept the ideological claim of the ruling classes that nothing of any importance can be changed, that all is as it must and always shall be. As Mannheim says, "The liberal idea is adequately intelligible only as a counterpart to the ecstatic attitude of the Chiliast which often hides behind a rationalist facade and which historically and socially o ["Rationalism in Politics", in the book by the same name.] offers a continual, potential threat to liberalism. It is a battle cry against that stratum of society whose power comes from its inherited position in the existing order, and which is able to master the here and now at first unconsciously and later through rational calculation." [p. 226] As Michael Oakeshott says of "the Rationalist," which is his version of Mannheim's liberal-humanitarian, "With an almost poetic fancy he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail."

The conservative orientation toward time and social reality is, in many ways, the inverse of the liberal-humanitarian orientation. [Once again, I must break into my exposition to urge you to read Mannheim himself. Mannheim was perhaps the greatest theorist and analyst of Conservatism, and I cannot begin to do justice to the richness and complexity of his account.] By Conservatism, I mean here, as Mannheim does, the traditional conservatism of Burke, of De Maistre, not what calls itself Conservatism today in American politics, and is really an incompatible, internally illogical fusion of classical laisser-faire liberalism and nativist Fundamentalist Protestantism.

The Conservative is not, Mannheim tells us, in the first instance a theorist. Indeed, the Conservative mentality, the Conservative orientation toward society, is at first implicit, unformulated. The Conservative cherishes what is simply because it exists, because it has persisted over time. He accepts and enjoys quirky, particular, inexplicable immemorial customs of actual political institutions: The quaint forms of speech with which Members of Parliament address one another, the wigs that barristers wear, the long settled inconsistencies in the allocation of seats to the States that makes the United States Senate so thoroughly unrepresentatve. The Conservative hesitates to alter what has stood the test of time, believing that embodied in it, in ways that may not be apparent, is some measure of collective historical wisdom that we would be wise not to ignore.

Mannheim writes, "The time-sense of this mode of experience and thought is completely opposed to that of liberalism. Whereas for liberalism the future was everything and the past nothing, the conservative mode of experiencing time found the best corroboration of its sense of determinateness in discovering the significance of the past, in the discovery of time as the creator of value. Duration did not exist at all for the Chiliastic mentality, and existed for liberalism only in so far as henceforth it gives birth to progress. But for conservatism everything that exists has a positive and nominal value merely because it has come into existence slowly and gradually." [p. 235]

We come finally to the fourth form of utopian mentality, the Socialist-Communist Utopia. The focal point of the Socialist-Communist mentality is that singular moment that it calls The Revolution. In sharp contrast to the liberal-humanitarian mentality, which denies to any particular moment in time any special world-historical weight, the Socialist [as opposed, say, to the Social Democrat, who is really, in temporal orientation, a liberal-humanitarian] sees all past and all future time as having a kind of virtual existence in the Moment of The Revolution. "Historical experience," Mannheim writes, "becomes thereby a truly strategic plan. Everything in history must now be experienced as an intellectually and volitionally controllable phenomenon." [p. 247]

But in contrast to the Chiliast, the Socialist-Communist does not merely keep herself in perpetual readiness for the unpredictable eruption of the infinite into the present; instead, she prepares for the Moment, strategically choosing actions designed to bring the Moment into existence. [Aside: we may see here some kinship with the form of Jewish Messianism to which Disgruntled Goat alludes. I do wish you folks had more plausible names. :) ]

Let us step back and reflect on what Mannheim is suggesting to us. He sees these four forms of utopian thinking as united in their determination to go beyond the existing socio-economic order [Conservatism does not fit perfectly into this schema, but I will do my best to include it.] But each differs from all the others in its orientation to time itself, as one of the fundamental structures of human experience, as opposed to what occurs in time. To the Chiliast, time is divided into a single unpredictable Moment of transcendence or immanence, and an undifferentiated and unimportant sequence of moments that are merely to be borne, or put up with, while waiting in a condition of perpetual unchanging anticipation for salvation. To the liberal-humanitarian, time is a steadily flowing stream without distinguished or differentiated Moments, but with a direction, from the past toward an ideal future that hovers always at the horizon of social possibility, guiding us in reformist adjustments designed to bring us ever closer to the idea. To the Conservative, time is weighted with meaning and value merely by virtue of its passage, so that what is has substance and worth as a consequence of its survival. The Conservative orientation to time, unlike that of the liberal-humanist, is backward looking, for it is the institutions and practices and associated sensibilities of bygone times that have value for the Conservative. And finally, to the Socialist-Communist, time is a strategic matrix preparing for a Moment of Revolution that will be brought into existence by careful planning and uncompromising commitment. The time beyond that Moment will be the fulfillment of utopian dreams. As the old joke goes, "Now, only the bosses eat peaches and cream, but after the Revolution, we shall all eat peaches and cream."

For the Chiliast, there are only the Saved and the Damned. The Saved will go to heaven with us; the damned do not matter. For the liberal-humanitarian, there is a world of people of good will who can join with us in reforms and projects to make incremental improvements at each moment in the unfolding of time. For the Conservative, there are the bearers of traditional roles and responsibilities, who are to be honored and respected by virtue of their inherited status. And for the Socialist-Communists, there are Comrades, Fellow-Travelers, Class Traitors, and Enemies, in a struggle to the death for The Revolution.

I will leave it to each of you to reflect on Mannheim's insights in order to discover whether they throw light on the world as you know it. Speaking purely for myself, I realize as I read him that my ideological beliefs, which are Socialist-Communist and Anarchistic, do not comport with my practical politics, which are liberal-humanitarian, nor entirely with my sentiments, which are sometimes sympathetic to the Conservative orientation to time.

After reading Mannheim for the first time many decades ago, I wondered whether it would be possible to develop an ideological and utopian critique of space consciousness, like Mannheim's analysis of time consciousness. The point would be to tease out the political implications of such notions as neighborhood, nation, and [spatial] world. If anyone is looking for a brilliant, albeit difficult, topic for a doctoral dissertation, there it is.

Tomorrow, we travel to the Kalahari.


Utopian Yuri said...

"I do wish you folks had more plausible names. :)"

Done and done. I'm not committing to an unqualified utopianism quite yet, but the alliteration works nicely.

- Utopian Yuri, formerly Disgruntled Goat.

dominic said...

Very interesting posts. Thank you professor.