‘Theology’ of Liberty: Identity Politics to Methodological Individualism

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Andrei Znamenski, The University of Memphis


    I argue that identity discourse that currently dominates Western culture, policies, and scholarship has promoted what popular German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls methodological nationalism ‘a tendency of social scholars and policy makers to prioritize the categories of group identities (race, ethnicity, gender, and nation). Having sprung up in the 1960s-1970s, at one point it served liberation purposes during the time of national liberation and civil rights movements. Yet in a course of time, the identity politics acquired a life of its own and now has become a mainstream ideology that is celebrated and superimposed by Western elites frequently at the expense of individual freedom. Diversity promoted from up above instead of from down-up resulted in a celebration of cultural balkanization and promotion of group values. In the light of the current financial crisis this identity politics is especially dangerous because it breeds intergroup conflicts, resentments, contests for entitlements, fueling ethnic, racial, religious and national conflicts. Yet, for the past hundred years at least in the West in their loyalties people have been clearly shifting from group-think (class/religion/nation) more to individualism. In a regular life it manifests itself in a growing role of a private space, the formation of fuzzy and fluid internet communities that transgress national borders, and skepticism toward mass movements driven by militant ideologists. In intellectual culture, it manifested itself in rejecting all-embracing grand theories and such large collective aggregates as class and embracing of the unique and individual by so-called post-modernism. Yet, paradoxically, instead of fully embracing self-determination, moving away from categories of a nation, race, gender, and ethnicity to a local community/situational group and further down to the individual, Western elites became trapped in the ‘middle world’ of identity politics. They developed a fear of methodological individualism, favoring group values as progressive and downplaying individual liberty as reactionary. Dwelling on the tradition of libertarian scholarship (Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard), I argue that we need a qualitative intellectual leap, moving away from methodological nationalism to a new mode of thinking, which for the sake of an argument I metaphorically label ‘theology’ of liberty – a healthy bias in favor of individual liberty. I argue that part of the problem is that Western social scholars and policy makers continue thinking in the 20th-century categories of ‘big is beautiful’(statism and collectivism).