Is it possible for the aspirations of politics in mass societies to be informed by that central tradition in art, religion and psychology which emphasises the world of personal relationships as the supreme source of value and fulfilment for human beings? This question, one of the most important in political philosophy, has been curiously neglected by the Anglo-Saxon tradition in our own time. It is marginal even in political rhetoric, the province of hippies and High Church totalitarians. How many of those on the left, who in their public lives advocate a 'politics of compassion', would be satisfied in their private lives with receiving compassion from others instead of dignity or love? How many of those on the right who see the aim of politics as the expansion of freedom would regard the pursuit of freedom per se in their own lives as anything other than empty, even wanton? In the relationships that matter to us most, it can be bitter to be offered compassion without passion, freedom without attachment. There is, it is true, a version of pluralism in political thought which draws a neat line between the public and the private spheres. It allocates to politics the role of ensuring that the conditions of public life (the distribution of power and wealth, the protection of individual rights) are such as to allow individuals the best opportunities to pursue a life of private personal encounter, in which life alone human fulfilment lies. It thus reconciles (or defends the inconsistency between) the values of politics and those of personal encounter at the cost of an unconvincing dichotomy between public and private: unconvincing partly because with improving techniques of communication and control, with 'personality polities', the private realm extends increasingly outward, but chiefly because, as artists have always known, even into relationships of the most familial and intimate kind politics can reach very far.
LRB 4 July 1985 | PDF Download