I Rethinking Society

Political Friendship and the Social Bond

Peter Mallory


Recently, scholars have been working to revive the Aristotelian notion of civic or political friendship and recast it as a theoretical construct that can address the problem of solidarity between strangers. This new scholarship challenges the contemporary view of friendship as a purely private and personal relation by revealing how horizontal bonds of affection between persons underlie and sustain the public and the political. Moreover, it shows how the positive norms of friendship—its connection to equality, trust, respect, sympathy, and concern for the other—sustain a vision of friendship as a just social bond which resonates within, but also beyond, the private sphere. In reconceptualizing the social bond, the new literature on friendship and politics holds significance for critical sociology and its project of provoking a radical denaturalization of the existing

P. Mallory (*)

Department of Sociology, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS, Canada

© The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_2

social order. It offers, for example, an alternative vision of sociality not grounded in competitive market-based individualism or instrumental- purposive action. Nonetheless, the transposition of friendship to the public sphere of strangers remains awkward, since it is still perceived as a pre-eminently private and personal bond. The chapter therefore turns to Adam Smith’s subtle and original account of public friendships and uses both the strengths and flaws of his approach to develop a specifically critical sociology of social bonds.

Recent scholarship on civic and political forms of friendship (Allen 2004; Devere and Smith 2010; Kaplan 2016; Mallory 2012; Mallory and Carlson 2014; Scorza 2004; Schwarzenbach 2009; Schweitzer 2016; Smith 2011) takes as its central problematic the moral, horizontal, and affective bonds between strangers in public spaces and their salience for collective life. In focusing on social bonds, this scholarship is part of a general renewal of interest in social relations in the human sciences which includes, for example, communitarian or social capital approaches such as Robert Putnam’s (2000) and the recent interest in Carl Schmitt’s (2007) friend-enemy distinction (Mouffe 2005; Steiner, this volume). All of these approaches theorize the importance of friendship and social bonds beyond the private sphere. More specifically, they challenge the liberal imaginary of the individualized, calculating actor who may have true friends in a private sphere of altruism and affection but who is nonetheless able to rationally pursue his or her self-interest in a public sphere characterized by the clash of competing interests between morally indifferent strangers (Ludwig 2010; Silver 1997; Wellman 2001).

In spite of these apparent commonalities in the literature, however, scholarship on political friendship offers distinct advantages for theorizing the public significance of social bonds. Carl Schmitt’s work emphasizes the enemy but offers little analysis of the friend. Indeed, he links the political friend-enemy dichotomy to the problem of sovereignty and analytically separates it from “social” binaries related to morality, aesthetics, and economics. Yet it is precisely the moral and symbolic qualities of friendship that are important for theorists of political friendship. Moreover, social life is more complex than the friend-enemy distinction, the social being based more on the non-binary interrelation of friend and stranger. On the other hand, communitarian writings, such as those of

Putnam (2000) on social capital, do address the friend in relation to the stranger. Their concern is the indifference of strangers, and they tend to emphasize how shared values and common membership in communities and networks can overcome indifference by drawing citizens into public and political life. One distinct advantage of political friendship scholarship, however, is that it does not presuppose the similarity of friends or their embedding in dense networks of social capital. Indeed, such friends need not be similar and may even be friends precisely through their differences. Significantly, friendship is a practice, a way of orienting to others, rather than merely a belief or a value. Moreover, it is a practice that manifests some of the highest ideals of interaction, such as trust, respect, sympathy, and an orientation to the other as an equal (Allen 2004; Blatterer 2013, 2015). These positive normative qualities make friendship a useful alternative analytical or philosophical construct for theorizing solidarity between strangers.

While, in this chapter, I turn to Adam Smith as a resource for understanding political friendship, the version of Smith addressed here is not the famous or infamous one of The Wealth of Nations, which has been read and misread as the champion of self-interest and the virtues of free markets. Instead, I turn to his oft-overlooked social theory in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that develops a subtle theory of sympathy and mutual identification between strangers. Although the chapter concerns Adam Smith, it is not a work of Adam Smith scholarship per se. To borrow a distinction from Singer (2008), it is an attempt to think with rather than about Adam Smith. This points more generally to the use of the classics of social theory in the Canadian Network for Critical Sociology, whose members are deeply engaged in reading these classics, yet not merely to practice exegesis for its own sake. Instead, through their distance from the present, the classics can enable an estrangement from the seemingly self-evident dimensions of current debates and problems, thus helping us to think about the present in new ways.

The value of Smith’s work for distancing us from current debates stems from the fact that he does not associate friendship with intimacy or the private realm, as most contemporary interpretations do, but instead develops a public and social understanding of friendship in the context of a modern society of strangers. He theorizes the friend, the stranger, and their interrelationship in a manner so subtly wound in his work that scholars have recently coined the term “strangership” to describe his analysis of amicable bonds between strangers (Hill 2011; Horgan 2012; Silver 1997). By linking the two notions, Smith is able to treat stranger relations as a new type of social relation comparable in some ways to friendship. Moreover, all social bonds are animated by practices of sympathy, a rich concept that Smith develops in order to theorize solidarity and mutual identification between both friends and strangers.

While the value of Smith’s work is his public approach to friendship, his work has a number of limitations that we must address if we are to develop a view of social bonds suited to critical sociology. First, Smith’s notion of friendship is social and public but not necessarily political in the specific sense of producing a space of solidarity where the contingent and constructed nature of the collective order is subjected to critical reflection and action. Thus, while Smith’s work certainly points the way to a political notion of friendship, he refuses to take the path himself. And with all the resources Smith offers—including a careful and sophisticated analysis of sympathy and mutual identification between strangers—an important question is why not. One possibility suggested by the reading of Smith offered here is that sympathy is compatible with inequality and injustice. Such an observation has contemporary relevance because many forms of social criticism, most obviously Putnam’s (2000) social capital approach but also some writers on political friendship (Schwarzenbach 2009, 1), presume indifference, egoism, and the absence of social bonds to be the source of societal problems, the solution to which lies in the proliferation of sympathetic and communicative bonds between strangers. Smith’s work, however, should give us pause as a careful analysis of its limitations and flaws suggests the issue is not the presence or absence of bonds per se but the way those bonds are constructed. The analysis of the limitations of sympathy in Smith, therefore, will help us revise a dominant tradition in social thought and develop possibilities for re-theorizing sympathy in a way compatible with critical sociology.

A further aspect of Smith’s work that we must address from the perspective of critical sociology is his approach to the social. For Smith, the communication of sentiments through sympathy is the source of social bonds, but also of the immanent order and coherence of social life more generally. If, for Smith, self-interest animates a market, it is sympathy that animates a group or society. Smith’s account of the social as an immanent, determinate, and self-sufficient order that operates according to its own dynamics behind the backs of social actors is the founding move that makes his social theory possible. Yet he overstates the force of this immanent social order, which makes it difficult to raise the inequalities that the social order produces as a political problem, that is, to expose its contingency and contestability. Instead, the social in Smith empties reality of its contingency and naturalizes constructed patterns of inequality. Since critical sociology seeks a radical denaturalization of the social order, there is a value in considering how some accounts of the social such as Smith’s have precisely the opposite effect. Before turning to Smith regarding social bonds, sympathy, and the idea of the social more generally, however, it will be useful to address the notion of political friendship and the stranger in more detail.

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