Modus Vivendi:Liberalism for the Coming Middle
John Gray is professor of European Thought at the London School of
Economics. His latest book is Two Faces of Liberalism (The New Press,
London, 2000). He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels at One Aldwych
in London in early February.
NPQ | It has been said that Marxism failed because it had no theory
of politics. Assuming the universality of one class, Marxism had no means
to negotiate different interests and values.
Francis Fukuyama and others have thus heralded "the end of history"
and the triumph of liberalism. Yet, your argument is precisely that liberalism
also falsely assumes its own universality by assuming there can be consensus
around one conception of "the good."
If this were ever true, it certainly cannot accommodate today's clash
of civilizations-the collage of incommensurate values that we see today
on a global scale-nor the rise within societies of populations with hybrid
identities that are far from any organic ethnic or religious unity.
Britain, where cities like Leicester will soon be a majority Asian, is
debating whether it is a nation or a "community of communities."
America has long seen itself as multicultural. Even in Germany, the population
of a city like Frankfurt is one-quarter Turkish. Rem Koolhaas, the urban
theorist, speaks of the city today as being like the Internet-a condition
that forms the background of "fluid culture."
Does the end of liberalism come now after the end of history?
John Gray | I don't see how liberalism as it has been mainly
practiced in the last two decades in the United States and Great Britain
can come to grips with the fluid, hybrid culture you describe. It is an
irony, as you have observed, that Marxism's defective understanding of
the sources of politics both in theory and practice should be replaced
by a form of liberalism that has an equally defective understanding of
the sources of politics. And, indeed, in its most dominant variety as
practiced over the past two decades in the US and Britain, liberalism
has aimed at abolishing politics or removing from the political domain
most of the controversial issues having to do with justice, the regulation
of personal liberty and the clash of values, and placing them in the sphere
of rights and the judiciary. It is this last disability of mainstream
liberal theory-by which I mean that nearly hegemonic trend within liberal
political philosophy best characterized by the work of John Rawls-that
seeks to derive something like an ideal constitution from a theory acceptable
to all "reasonable" persons. Within this "ideal constitution"
major issues of the regulation of liberty and of clashing ideas of the
good life are either resolved or privatized. This kind of liberalism is
as utopian and perverse in its actual consequences as was Marxism.
Legalist liberalism has two disabling flaws.
The first flaw is that the rule of law is taken as an accomplished fact,
which is not the case anywhere in the world, not even the United States
as we saw when a politicized Supreme Court ruled Bush the winner over
Gore in the presidential election.
But in many parts of the world there is no modern state, still less the
rule of law. So the rule of law is not the precondition of politics, but
is itself a political achievement. Unless you have a political settlement
underpinning the rule of law, the rule of law will be insecure or contested.
In some minor way, this is the case even in the US, the greatest modern
experiment in the rule of law.
The second flaw is the expectation that issues which are politically intractable
can become tractable by removing them from the political arena and enshrining
a solution to them in terms of judgments about fundamental rights.
For example, attempting to remove highly controversial issues like abortion
from the political domain and placing them in the sphere of rights only
ends up politicizing the judiciary. Further, this legalist approach casts
in stone the resolution of conflicts that might best be resolved by legislative
compromise, by a mixture of public discourse and political bargaining
that yields a "modus vivendi" that is renegotiable over time
and which needn't be the same in all jurisdictions or in all countries
where changes in values-and even technology can make a difference. Think
of the abortion pill, ru486, which has changed that debate in many European
The murkiness and partial rationality of shifting, renegotiable settlements
are the vices of politics that legalist liberals seek to preclude. To
me, these are the most indispensable features of politics in that they
enable us to live together over time.
Removing issues from politics and putting them into this sphere of law
and fundamental rights makes them more, not less, intractable. In some
cases-I think of the bombing of abortion clinics in the US-the unconditionality
of legal solutions even prompts danger to civil peace because they exclude
regard for the interests and ideals of all protagonists. It is either
complete defeat or complete victory. No venue is left to seek amelioration
once the issue has been taken out of politics.
How can that be reasonable? It is a fundamental error for late modern
plural societies that contain so many different ways of life to attempt
a transplantation of prototypically political issues into the realm of
How in such a context, then, do we live together and resolve the issues
which have become intractable among us in ways that don't make them bottom-line
fundamental rights issues? The way is to reach a "modus vivendi"
through political negotiation that always has both an element of intelligent
public discourse as well as an element of bargaining over interests.
Beyond all this, there is a deeper reason in philosophy itself that argues
against the legalistic, rights approach to liberalism. The deeper reason
is that there is no plausible or defensible theory of rights which doesn't
invoke a theory of human wellbeing and of human interests-and all such
accounts are in some degree rationally disputable.
Accounts of human wellbeing and of human interests are contestable in
two ways. One way is that different readings of the human good, different
ideals of the good and different beliefs about human beings-their fate
and destiny and the conditions under which they thrive-will map human
Thus, different conceptions of human wellbeing will generate different
accounts of human rights. Another is that even an agreed conception of
human wellbeing will encompass a variety of interests that won't always
be harmonious. They won't always make the same demands in practice. They
won't always dovetail. Quite commonly, they will make competing demands.
A practical example: Think of the recent disputes about freedom as privacy
versus the freedom of investigative journalism and freedom of information-not
only in respect to government agencies and activities, but in respect
to anybody or anything. Which right is greater: the right of the public
to know an American president is having an affair or a British minister
is gay; or his right to privacy?
Here we have a conflict of rights between the different interests of the
person who wishes to maintain a private realm-in having a sphere of one's
life in which one can develop personal relationships outside public scrutiny-and
the public's right to information about individuals who run our public
or corporate institutions or in some other way might affect our lives.
The underlying reality disguised by legalistic liberalism is that important
liberties are endemically in conflict. The freedom of gays not to be discriminated
against, not to have their sexuality disparaged, may conflict with the
freedom of private or public schools-Orthodox Jewish schools, Muslim schools,
Catholic schools and state schools-to hire whom they wish. That is a real
conflict, a genuine deep conflict.
To re-describe the liberties so that they cohere in a harmonious set eliminates
or deletes some liberties from the equation. This is a mistake because
if you delete some liberties you are disregarding underlying interests
which actually are the justification for the liberties and which give
them meaning and content. Rights have content only to the extent they
embody definite human interests. But to the extent they have that content,
they trigger conflicts among themselves.
Liberalism for the future must recognize that judgments about human rights
and conceptions of human rights themselves embody conceptions of the good
that are contested between different ways of life and even within them.
Even when you have an agreed conception of the good, it will itself harbor
conflicts of human interests. Any well-developed conception of the good
must recognize not just one human interest, but a whole variety. And that
means a negotiation between conflicting interests in the name of civil
peace. A "modus vivendi" is the liberalism now in order.
NPQ | Although such conflicts have always lurked beneath the surface
of rights-based liberalism, they are likely to grow as societies become
more a mix of migrants, as other ways of life are conveyed across civilizational
boundaries by global media and as the genome and medical revolutions unfold.
For some Japanese, organ transplants based on brain death are a violation
of the Shinto religious intuition because life is in all things. For some
Muslims, in vitro fertilization is prostitution and cloning is an abuse
of God's trust. To some in the West, stem cell research on embryos is
morally justifiable because no spinal cord has yet formed that can give
rise to consciousness; to others ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception.
Therefore, "modus vivendi" rather than a liberal conception
of absolute human rights?
Gray | The key thing to grasp is that the diversity of ways of
life is not a political option we can take up or reject. Nor is it a consequence
of some theory.
It is an historical fate for all late modern societies that we should
welcome and make the best of. It is an historical fate in the sense that
it arises from deep-seated features of the late modern world which include
large migrations of peoples, high degrees of immigration, the permeability
or fragility of boundaries, the fact that some peoples extend across several
states (like the Kurds).
Many of us have become less territorially rooted as a result of political
or military conflicts in native lands. And also modern technologies permit
geographically dissipated, territorially scattered peoples to renew their
cultural identities and personal allegiances more easily than before.
So the new technologies do two interesting things that pull in different
directions. They actually relax the pressures to assimilate. At the same
time, as you mention, the new technologies give everybody greater access
to the cultural traditions and values of each other.
In this historical circumstance we must be careful to avoid the error
of Johann Gottfried Herder, the German romantic thinker, who saw societies
as organic singularities, each different from the other, each identified
with an ethnic group or with a particular place, each with its own "volksgeist."
If cultures were ever like that, they are not like that now. European
cultures have all been patchwork quilts from the start, involving different
Greek and Roman, Jewish, Christian and Islamic influences.
They are all not completely individuated; they are all interpenetrated
with each other to differing degrees. There are obviously many degrees
of cultural self-assertion, cultural defensiveness, cultural porousness
and cultural boundaries. They vary a lot.
But nowhere in today's world do we really find cultures that exhibit this
organic wholeness or organic unity.
Self-determination is one deeply destructive practical consequence of
this Herderian error. The ideal of national self-determination is associated
with the notion that each nation embodies singular national cultures.
What it also neglects is the fact that some of the most stable and long-lasting
states have always been multi-national.
Britain is not a nation state, but an entity that encompasses four Nations-the
Scots, the Welsh, the English and the Irish-while hosting a multitude
of immigrants from its former colonies who have retained their plural
identities. In short, it is a community of communities.
One of the reasons I lament recent communitarian theories posed as a counterpoint
to rights-based liberalism is that they invoke the idea, as if it were
the normal or healthy condition, that each individual is deeply imbedded
in a single moral community.
That rides roughshod over the reality of the plural identities-gay, American,
Catholic, Muslim, woman, Hindu-each of us today possesses. Having plural
identities means we speak a variety of moral tongues. That has always
been so. It was only toward the end of the 19th century and at the start
of the 20th century that the project of embodying a single national culture
and a single self-governing political unit really became central in the
life of Europe and other parts of the world. The consequences have been
Nationalism has been an unmitigated disaster in human terms. Yet, it remains
the most powerful political tendency in the 20th century and at the start
of the 21st century.
It is true that the largest and most important trigger of the collapse
of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact bloc was the persistent re-assertion
of national identities in the Baltic states, in the Ukraine, in Poland
In this respect, of course, this disastrous doctrine had a beneficial
effect because the Soviet Union was one of the worst regimes ever. So
even a very bad doctrine, a false doctrine, and even a very dangerous
movement can have good consequences. Good is often contained in the bad,
just as rights often contain wrongs.
But the Balkans are the prime horror of the communitarian theory. Bosnia
once had the highest levels of intermarriage between Muslims and Christians
in the world-30 percent. That was ripped up by terrible wars.
So the same set of aspirations can have beneficial results at one moment,
and yet at a later stage can have cataclysmic and disastrous ones.
In our present circumstance it is much more important to plan politically
for the coexistence of plural identities than engage in the perversely
nostalgic communitarian project of re-envisioning a deep, strong common
life that embraces us all.
If you try to recapture these largely imaginary organic unities, you end
up with sealed trains and ethnic cleansing.
NPQ | You have called for "common institutions within which
conflicts can be negotiated." What does that look like? If it is
not the Supreme Court of the US that rules in favor of choice, or the
French Conseil d'Etat that bans Muslim girls from covering their heads
in public schools, how will these issues be dealt with?
Gray | I am seeking to revive some older understandings
of devolution and decentralization, including federalist ones. After all,
the original notion of the Federalist project was political, but its consequence
was that different jurisdictions could have different settlements on various
issues. Federalism is not the whole answer to the problem but it is a
partial answer. The important point is to have mechanisms where the same
problem can have different solutions depending on the plural interest
involved. If a girl in Illinois couldn't get an abortion, she would go
somewhere else where it was legal. Such old fashioned federalist solutions
One of my philosophical targets is the notion that there can be an ideal,
liberal regime in which all deeply valuable human freedoms are melded
or fused in a way which everyone can accept. That is sheer illusion.
There is no such thing as one system of liberties perfect for every person
or society. It is not even conceptually conceivable that in heaven these
liberties would dovetail. That is why each jurisdiction or each sub-unit
within a federalist system must be able to negotiate and revise settlements.
NPQ | Surely, though, there must be some minimum
universal rights despite all the diversity in today's world?
Gray | That is true. The point I'm making is that the burden placed
on the legal adjudication of rights has been much too heavy. And saddling
it with deeply controversial, difficult issues actually weakens the framework
of rights itself because it sets up problems it can't resolve.
So there does need to be a minimal framework. But even that minimal framework
can, to some extent, vary. And the reason for that is that even with respect
to the basic demands of a worthwhile human life-the most minimal demands-there
can be tragic conflicts.
One of the basic requirements of a worthwhile human life is the freedom
and security each of us has from being subject to criminal violence, ethnic
cleansing or religious pogroms-what Hobbes called "commodious living"
or civil peace.
That is absolutely vital. Unfortunately, that requirement isn't fully
reconcilable with other vital interests. Let me use the example of freedom
In Singapore there is full freedom of religious practice, but not of religious
proselytism. That arrangement corresponds to what some early modern advocates
of tolerance believed. Spinoza said, yes, there should be freedom of religious
belief and practice to the extent that it doesn't infringe on the civil
or public peace. But when it does infringe on that peace, there isn't
an unabridged right to religious freedom.
If you live in an historical circumstance of latent ethnic conflict or,
in Singapore's case, recent memories of very bitter ethnic conflict having
important religious dimensions, then the requirement of civil peace may
not be fully reconcilable with protection of religious freedom.
Like any rights, religious freedom isn't a single, categorical, unconditional,
clearly defined right. It is a bundle of rights. They may or may not include
full proselytization where the public and the private boundaries may shift.
And there are a whole variety of legal regimes that have been developed
throughout human history to cope with this difficulty. This is what law
is mostly about-the family and religion.
The Ottomans had one system. It was a system which wasn't liberal, wasn't
egalitarian, didn't include all religions but only the religions in the
Book and it gave preference to Islam. But, like the Moors in Spain, it
was a regime of toleration compared with what was then going on in Christendom.
Theirs was not a liberal solution because it treated collective entities
as having the rights and it therefore made it difficult for people to
switch communities. So from the standpoint of someone who values personal
autonomy, the Ottoman "millet" system had many defects.
Nevertheless, it was one way of resolving very difficult, intractable
and recurrent conflicts that, despite what Marx, Mill or Condorcet might
have thought, will not fade away. They go with the territory of being
This tolerant approach of the Moors and Ottomans is instructive for today's
world. It is a totally different approach from that of much liberal philosophy
that believes the way to deal with religious differences is to sweep them
under the rug, so to speak, by privatizing them fully, to make them as
politically insensitive and marginal as preferences for ethnic cuisines.
Part of me would love that to be possible. I admire the pluralism of postmodern
cities that arises from the personal autonomy that comes with privatized
beliefs-but that is not possible and will not be possible for most of
My personal ideal, a kind of postmodern shifting collage, is only one
solution to this set of dilemmas. There are other solutions like the millet
system of the Ottoman Empire, or perhaps a Hapsburg solution or a Roman
solution. Or even, sometimes and in some places where it fits, a liberal
solution. In a given circumstance, liberalism may be the legitimate solution.
But it is not the solution in terms of which every other one is to be
NPQ | So your neo-Hobbesian view is that "commodious living"
is the minimum, universal right that undergirds a "modus vivendi"
Gray | Yes, commodious living-the condition of civil peace.
NPQ | Along with the age of globalization comes the notion of universal
human rights which many Asian regimes view as a culturally imperialist
You are basically saying such a notion of universality is an illusion
Gray | It needn't be. Let me put it like this. The project of enforceable
human rights-human rights across frontiers, even globally-isn't incoherent.
And when it concerns the most basic defenses against losing the possibility
of a worthwhile life-when it concerns issues like genocide and torture-it
seems to me to be an inherently defensible project and actually one compatible
Value-pluralism is not relativism; it is not the view that all values
are weighted or equally valid or all human interests are equally important.
It recognizes that protecting and meeting some human interests are the
preconditions of any kind of worthwhile life.
But even at this fundamental level, there are a number of risks attached.
One rather obvious risk is that protecting these rights across frontiers
sometimes involves military action, as it did in Kosovo.
Then complicated prudential reasonings come into play. We have to consider,
not only the moral and legal justifications before it may be done but
also whether it has a reasonable chance of success. We also have to consider
the costs and hazards in terms of collateral damage to third-party communities
or international relations generally.
The illusion of "rule of law" liberalism is that we can wholly
put aside these murky, uncertain, Realpolitik considerations and just
deal in moral demands.
There is another consideration as well. The judgments of justice that
are embodied in these interventions may not be globally shared. They will
leave some elements of the international community, perhaps the majority,
outside of the discourse.
So I do not flatly condemn the project of enforceable human rights for
the very simple reason that I am not a nationalist. I don't accept national
jurisdictions as being final or absolute.
Just as in the Middle Ages, there are plural jurisdictions-the UN, the
EU, a Spanish magistrate seeking Pinochet for torture and so on.
For that reason I don't accept the unconditional authority of states to
treat their citizens as they please. I accept and endorse, in this respect,
the outcome of the Nuremburg Trials, which is that states have duties
to their citizens and citizens have rights against states.
But what must be insisted upon is the extension of that vital recognition
of the importance of a minimum framework to the actual consequences of
what one is doing, the likely benefits, the likely costs, the collateral
damage-all those frequently difficult and sometimes tragic dilemmas that
persist and cannot be avoided. And the pretense that they can be avoided
in a universal regime of rights does harm.
I supported the intervention in Kosovo. But I did so recognizing that
intervention, itself, would have many costs both human and political.
And the real question was and still is whether the US and Western Europe
will have the moral commitment to sustain the Kosovo protectorate for
a long enough time for it to become politically stable. That is very questionable.
Despite our questions on this score, we have to ask what
would have been the likely outcome had there been no intervention at all.
The likely outcome is directly relevant to your question. No intervention
at all would have meant a redivision of Europe between a rich, democratic,
Catholic and Protestant Europe and a largely poor, partly tyrannous Christian
Orthodox and Muslim Europe. In that other abandoned Europe beyond Vienna-tyranny,
pogroms and ethnic cleansing would have continued. That seems to me to
be an even worse outcome than the one we have actually have, despite its
This very example brings out the immense practical, moral and conceptual
difficulty of actually coping with these inextricably entangled political,
civil and military dilemm
as-dilemmas of peace and human rights which arise in contexts such as
Not that one should despair. But what is called for is a modest and humble
recognition that no solution, not even a human rights solution, will be
without wrong. Even the best solution will have bad consequences. Once
again, rights often contain wrongs. Not recognizing the violation of some
rights in the name of defending others is to invite accusations of hypocrisy
and a lack of moral seriousness. Thus, the protection of even very fundamental
rights can often only be done at the costs of other rights violations.
That truth is deeply uncongenial to most proponents of a universal regime
Rights conflict as often as they reinforce each other in many contexts.
That being the case, not only can different solutions be right in different
circumstances, but more radically, incompatible solutions can be right
in the same circumstances. It's not that there is no right answer. Rather
there can be more than one right answer, and each right answer can be
incompatible with the other.
Let's take an example from the several-decade-long, low-intensity
civil war in the northern part of Ireland. One of the issues which has
been the thorniest to resolve and will be the thorniest to resolve concerns
parades-parades of members of different religious communities on anniversaries
of historical events.
One standard response from the left liberal viewpoint would be, "People
have the basic human right to march to express their views as long as
they don't commit violence."
A very similar and equally shallow response, which differs to my mind
only in the details, is the right-wing liberal solution: "Whoever
has the property rights along those streets where they want to march should
determine the answer, and if they say it is ok, then ok."
Both of these views are politically and philosophically unsound. They
are philosophically unsound because both right and left identify a highly
determinate set of rights whether they be basic freedoms or property rights,
and postulate that they dovetail in an harmonious set. But they do not-either
in theory or in practice. These issues involve the constant contestation
and renegotiation of property rights and of basic freedoms. Someone says,
I have the freedom to walk down this street. Why? Because we have always
done it. We have done it for decades, generations, maybe even centuries.
It is an established customary right and there is no property right in
the street itself. Someone else says, quite rightly, that such a march
would be an act of offense against the other community at conflict. One
needs to balance all these claims.
NPQ | When Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif,
earlier this year, his offensive act brought down the Middle East peace
talks and reignited violence. Yet, even leading Labor doves like Shimon
Peres said Sharon had "the right to visit the Temple Mount"
just like any other Israeli.
Gray | What we need to recognize is that all these acts are heavily
freighted with deep symbolic significance. And that symbolic significance
engages the most fundamental, historical memories and therefore the most
fundamental aspects of human identity.
I am too little acquainted with the situation in the Middle East to be
ready to make strong judgments. But I would understand a critic of Sharon
who said that in Sharon's right was the wrong of offense to the Palestinians
NPQ | What would be a "modus vivendi" solution to the
Gray | It sounds very paradoxical to say what I am about to say.
But, alas, it is sometimes true. In some of the worst cases of communitarian
conflict such as Cyprus or India, an approach to "modus vivendi"
can be partition. That would be a tragedy in Israel-and unsustainable
as well. But it might be the only solution in some other cases. In the
Balkans it is already the de facto outcome.
In modern times a human demand beyond the negative freedom from oppression
has been that identities, cultural traditions and religions be accorded
some kind of public status and recognition.
Long before nationalism, this demand for recognition occurred. So, catastrophic
as it has been, in most respects the modern history of nationalism is
only a recent recurrence of this long dilemma. Imperial regimes from the
Roman Empire to the British Empire to the Hapsburg Empire were all involved
in recurrent skirmishes over recognizing local and national jurisdictions
or particular religions, granting status to their identities.
This very deep-seated human demand for recognition was recognized by Hegel
and elsewhere in Western philosophy. So these conflicts about parades
in Northern Ireland or gestures in the Middle East are recurrences of
the insistent political expression in circumstances of intense conflict,
of this enduring human need of public recognition of one's identity.
NPQ | A "modus vivendi" view, however, is not necessarily
just. It depends on the respective political weight of the negotiating
Gray | Yes. Some people might say my view is too unprincipled;
it really amounts to "anything goes."
After all you can have long-standing regimes in which large parts of the
population, even a majority, are excluded from negotiation. But what I
want to make clear is a precondition of my view: Insofar as a regime's
arrangement affects vital human interests of its subjects, those subjects
are entitled to take part in the negotiation and renegotiation of settlements
on issues that affect them.
What was deeply wrong with apartheid in South Africa, for example, was
that it was a system of self-reinforcing, structural inequality in power
and negotiation. The majority of the population was outside of the institutions
and didn't have democratic rights. They couldn't associate freely, couldn't
renegotiate the terms or even have any access to the interpretation of
the terms under which they were compelled to associate. In my view, that
is an example of an unjust regime.
Another example of unjust conditions in which "modus vivendi"
would not be possible would be in today's weak regimes in which what remains
of the corroded institutions of the state have been captured by criminal
The basic preconditions of a worthwhile human life are not met in large
swaths of world where there is no effective state at all. By and large,
Hobbesian anarchy prevails. This fundamental abridgement of human well-being
is the circumstance for most of Africa, of the Balkans, in post-Communist
Russia, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Colombia.
Thus, part of the case for a "modus vivendi" approach is that
it above all seeks to satisfy the basic condition of human well being,
which is civil peace and order.
Let's look at China. There can be no question that the Chinese regime
systematically violates many of the rights of its citizens, particularly
atrociously in Tibet and with respect to free association and free speech
in society at large.
Yet, thinking back to the Tienanmen crackdown, it is not self-evident
today that fully meeting the demands of the pro-democracy protestors at
that time would have yielded an outcome that was stable and would have
avoided anarchy. In other words, the basic Hobbesian pre-condition of
human wellbeing might not have been met.
Instead of civil order and economic advance, China might well have collapsed
like the former Soviet Union into criminality, chaos, horrible bloody
wars like in Chechnya and a declining mortality rate.
So, the consequences of attempting fully to recognize "human rights"
would not have all been in the positive column. To recognize the right
to free association might have meant to deprive hundreds of millions of
the right of civil peace.
NPQ | So to put it in the starkest terms, Deng Xiaoping is the
ultimate neo-Hobbesian, "modus vivendi," political _gure. And
Mikhail Gorbachev, the hero of the West whose visit to Beijing in 1989
sparked the Tienanmen protests, ended up destroying the basic condition
of human well-being, civil peace and order, in his own society?
Gray | Perhaps. Gorbachev was a noble and tragic figure. I am not
saying that it was possible or desirable to prop up the old system. Yet,
if Gorbachev and the rest of us who supported him had more fully recognized
the cost democratic freedoms and economic shock therapy would exact on
Hobbesian protection of life and liberty in post-Communist Russia, we
might have been better able to cope with these tragic consequences. An
inherently difficult circumstance could then have been less deeply tragic
than it has proven to be.
NPQ | Let's take another example of how "modus vivendi"
might work. In France, the state has ruled that Muslim girls cannot wear
head scarves in public schools. How might that be handled differently?
In the US now, too, now there is a church-state controversy over the funding
of "faith-based" groups that provide social services.
Gray | A "modus vivendi" approach would not seek to erect
everywhere an impermeable wall between the church and state. It is not
always wrong to do so, everywhere in every case. It might be the right
thing to do in Turkey where there is a contest for state power between
political Islamists and the very idea of a secular state. There might
be arguments for having that wall if the consequences of knocking holes
in it would be destabilization of the whole regime.
But it is implausible that this might be the case in France or the US.
This is exactly the kind of issue where compromise ought to be sought
because there is no rights-based solution, even at the level of theory.
Jurisprudence cannot come up with a universal solution that all reasonable
people find acceptable. To insist on this rights-based approach is not
a challenge to fundamentalism, only a rival form of it.
Making it a legal issue does not make it go away. Prohibition causes latent
resentment and conflict, now or later. And not wearing a head scarf doesn't
turn a schoolgirl into a secular person.
In the real world of history, no dress is neutral. Each form of dress
carries with it historical associations of domination, colonialism, oppression,
pogrom, resistance. That is the reality. There is no way of expunging
these issues from political life. There is no way of ghettoizing them
in the private realm. They are there. And the claims of liberal legalists
that they can somehow be sterilized by the application of theory of rights
are simply spurious and morally unserious.
NPQ | In many American public schools today, all kinds of personal
expression is allowed-earings, nose rings, tattoos. But in certain neighborhoods
gang-style clothing is prohibited by the school administrations because
it might incite violence.
This is done not by law across the board of all schools, but according
to the principle of "in loco parentis" which gives the local
school administrators leeway as de facto parents during school hours in
defining what is acceptable or not in their particular circumstance.
Gray | Every living and vital institution engages in this kind
of search for "modus vivendi." If too much effort were put into
codifying the rules on forbidden gang-based dress, it might itself create
more conflict. They would say, you have got to count everyone in the legal
universe of secondary school students, and that would endanger the "modus
NPQ | Robert Kaplan uses the Middle Ages analogy to describe his
dark foreboding of collapsed states and anarchy ahead. But you have spoken
more positively of the Middle Ages as similar to the world of plural jurisdictions
now emerging as a new order supplanting the nation state. The late Isaiah
Berlin went even further, wondering if we might have been better off in
the Middle Ages than in the modern age:
"In the grand scale of things, perhaps, one has to consider, that
despite royal and clerical monopolies of power and authority, the Middle
Ages were in some ways more civilized than the deeply disturbing 19th
century, and worse still our own terrible century with its widespread
violence, chauvinism, and in the end mass destruction in racial holocausts
and Stalin's purges.
"Of course, there were ethnic frictions in the Middle Ages and persecution
of Jews and heretics, but nationalism, as such, didn't exist. The wars
were dynastic. What existed was the universal Church and a common Latin
Instead of looking at the Middle Ages as a dark period, perhaps it exemplified
a form of "modus vivendi" that we may very well see in the future
and ought to welcome, not fear.
Gray | Robert Kaplan has pointed to a very real set of dangers
connected with state weakness and state collapse.
But I think the circumstance we are moving into is more like the late
Middle Ages than it is like the early modern period. That has some bad
sides, but also some promising dimensions.
As you point out, the Middle Ages were a time of plural jurisdictions,
a time in which the absolutist claims of the modern state hadn't been
accepted-before the Treaty of Westphalia. And despite the systematic inequalities
of power and privilege, and systematic discrimination against minority
religions and traditions, I tend to share Isaiah Berlin's judgment that
in some respects the Middle Ages were more civilized and more peaceable
than our time. And that is precisely because all those plural jurisdictions
had to negotiate with each other over their powers and interests, none
powerful enough to simply dominate the other.
There are respects in which the Middle Ages don't provide a model for
us. First of all, there won't be a single universal lingua franca-not
even English. English is at the moment the most universal language, but
with the next generation of translation technology and speech recognition
computers, that will change. Already, it is said that the biggest language
on the Internet by 2007 will be Chinese.
And certainly what is not applicable is the notion of a single universal
church or religion.
But still the idea of multiple overlapping jurisdictions that are continually
renegotiated has a deep application. Even the Kosovo intervention was
conducted on behalf of a large coalition that involved an ensemble of
players-the US, the UN, NATO and the EU. One sovereign state was not just
These sometimes competing, but often overlapping, jurisdictions and identities
have a kind of early, flawed, often equivocal echo-nonetheless an echo-in
the Middle Ages rather than in the modern age.
The Middle Ages reminds us that there are many other ways in which human
beings have arranged life other than under the nation state and found
"modus vivendi." They found it in the Ottoman Empire, in the
Moorish kingdoms, in the Hapsburg Empire and now even in liberal regimes-in
the European Union with all of its flaws and in the federalist project
in the US. There isn't only one way of achieving "modus vivendi";
there are many ways.
NPQ | Well, there is not a universal church today, but there is
Gray | Part of what we call globalization today is the continuing
deepening of our technological communication links with others, but that
is not new. It started back with the telegraph. Globalization has often
been confused with the extension of the free market. Ironically, the laissez-faire
model that is extended under this conception is more of a free market
than exists in the US, where the market is actually intensely regulated.
Of course, laissez-faire globalization is an illusion. It will not happen.
In the end, as always, there will be market pluralism.
The globalization that is really meaningful to us today is that cross-pollination
of influences transgressing the boundaries of cultures and civilizations.
It takes place in great modern cities, in regions, the Mediterranean region
or California, of deeply hybrid cultures and economies.
This isn't a sort of shallow multiculturalism, but like what used to exist
in the great cities of Alexandria or pre-World War I Vienna. This globalization
embodies some of the best features of liberal regimes together with an
increased recognition of diverse identities.
Let me perhaps conclude with this. If one were to ask what the greatest
achievement of liberal regimes has been, I don't actually think it is
the application of any theory of human rights.
The greatest achievement, it seems to me, is to have made human identities
less matters of fate and more matters of choice.
But to the extent this escape from fate is made into a doctrine of abstract
rights of the individual by privatizing identities it becomes dangerous.
It stops working. That is where it breaks down. And that huge historical
achievement is turned into a narrow and rather callow dogma. That is where
a different way of thinking, less doctrinally liberal, less fundamentalist
and more pluralist, is required.
The solution to the tragic conflicts of fated identities is not the universal
protection of a single liberal identity of citizenship. That may work
in some countries for some times. It may even be a tremendous achievement
in some place. For Ataturk in Turkey it was a great advance.
But it is not universally realizable, nor even universally desirable.
It seems to me that a better approach, one which is more workable in more
circumstances, more deeply responsive to the conflicts which occur even
within human subjects, as well as between them, is one that seeks to openly
work out conflicts.
Such a "modus vivendi" would be different in different historical
settings. It will require different institutions in which different identities
in the same community, same society and even the same person can coexist.
The deepest sense of "modus vivendi" is the co-existence of
different virtues and identities in a single life.
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