The New (Secular) Pragmatism

Paul Collier devotes a long, provocative, stimulating TLS review to a sketch of a “new pragmatism.” The review doubles as an essay on the “future of capitalism.” Along the way, Collier discusses the problems of multiculturalism and gives qualified endorsement to nationalism.

Multiculturalism must be “bounded,” partly because Western culture deserves “support in the face of less functional rivals.” Partly too because multiculturalism encourages a rootless detachment that is far from utopian: “A world composed of ‘global citizens’ would not be the universalist utilitarian paradise that liberals lazily imagine, but the brutally atomistic world of unchecked individualism. Shared national identities have permitted a globally unprecedented degree of generosity of the affluent to the poor. Beyond a point multiculturalism undermines that generosity and so threatens the poor.”

National identity, he argues, is “the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity. Although a nation is an ‘imagined community,’ its fictional basis does not invalidate it: on the contrary, being ‘imagined’ makes shared identity a fragile miracle.” Critiques of the dangers of nationalism are overwrought, he thinks, and undermine the one structure that provides a sense of common purpose.

That may be true, so long as “only force” is qualified as “only secular force.” After all, for all their raucous upheavals, the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church, and Orthodoxy bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity; the church constitutes a real multiculture that does not dissolve into atomistic individualism.

Put aside questions of faith. Any plan for the world as it actually is, any consideration of “the future of capitalism” or “the new pragmatism,” has to take account of the political and economic weight of religious institutions.

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