Friday, October 31, 2008

John the Professor

Read this remarkable essay at "Inside Higher Education," the "true confessions" of a professor whose despair over the state of higher education - its moral and intellectual laxness - has led him to the conclusion that he must leave the professoriate. It is at times harsh in its judgments about students, but in many respects it is largely true about a great number of American institutions of higher education. At the elite institutions where I have taught I don't see so much evidence of the "cruise ship" mentality as much as the "credentialing" rat race. But for that reason, much of the analysis remains valid: the decline of intellectual exchange (among both students and faculty), the absence of leisure reading, the constant anxiety about grades and "gaming the system" to ensure a pristine transcript for the next credentialing stage - all of these aspects of John the Professor's essay ring true to me.

What "John the Professor" doesn't spend any time considering are the cultural conditions that led to this pass. We should be cautious about imagining some perfect moment when the university was populated by serious and intellectually-engaged participants (read Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise to recall a time when the university system truly was a finishing school, replete with "gentlemen's C's"). John the Professor would need to reflect on the ever more perfect meritocracy we have built - one in which accomplishment is measured increasingly by prestige markers, not intellectual accomplishment. He would need to consider the decline of the actual relevance of what students purportedly learn in the university with what they will need to know to succeed in the "real world": including how to hob-nob (i.e., "drinking and smoking" - though, do our students really smoke too much??), how to get along, how to collect faux accomplishments and most importantly how to "market" oneself. Above all, one needs to be unconstrained by moral and religious considerations: success is achieved by the ability to "just do it," not in forbearance. Arguably one of the key and essential features of the liberal arts education was the transmission of cultural restraint: how to govern our appetites, how to achieve the liberty of self-rule, how to pass from that condition of childhood to adulthood. The college was a place that had as its core mission the inculcation of adult virtues, ones whose groundwork had been well-laid by family, community and church. The entire culture of a college - from its courses to its daily life, including mandatory chapel service and chaperoned dances - aimed to lead the young person to good judgment, prudence, moderation, responsibility and self-control.

John the Professor laments the decline of the college because of what no longer happens in the classroom. If that is the last bastion of what is supposed to be worthwhile about the role of the college in transmitting and reinforcing good culture, then the battle was already lost long before John the Professor entered the professoriate. I find myself at times viewing the wreckage with similar temptations to hopelessness: but then I encounter students and faculty who understand the scope of the destruction and in the wreckage try to build something new and better. Renewing a culture is almost impossible, but it begins not with despair, but with chastened hope, a small community of those who understand, and a willingness to show by example a better way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Comments on Further Thoughts

Russell Arben Fox and "Pym" have left good and thoughtful comments in defense of a certain understanding of socialism, in response to my post "Further Thoughts." I've replied to them there in the comment section, but since it's MY blawg (note the assertion of ownership), I reserve the option of turning a comment into a posting. Which I do here, below:

Russell and Pym raise good questions here: it's very easy in modern America, and particularly in the wake of the catastrophe of the Soviet experiment, to dismiss socialism as an evil not worthy of consideration. Russell is right that Marx was a keen observer of the destruction that capitalism wrought upon traditional society, as expressed most eloquently in the opening passages of the Communist Manifesto (one of my favorite passages in all of political theory). Still, we need to understand that Marx was not so much lamenting this destruction (as Russell and I might) as recognizing that capitalism succeeded in obliterating traditional cultures and thereby opening the possibility of the awareness of an internationally shared interest of workers (proletariat) - and hence the opening line, "Workers of the World, Unite!" The destruction of cultures and traditions was the necessary first step that preceded the possibility of true communism, and thus we can see even more clearly that Marx relies upon, even as he rejects, the work of Locke, Smith and other early modern liberals.

[I would note that one can see great evidence for such post-Lockeanism in the thought of some contemporary political theorists who ardently embrace the label of socialism, understanding it to be a post-liberal condition. Thus, in our common opposition to liberalism, we share some eerily similar views that can at first glance be confused. For instance, in the same way that people like me reject the notion that Republicans can be considered to be conservative, such socialists similarly reject the notion that Obama can be regarded as a man of the Left. There is actually a high degree of agreement with those of us outside the current liberal configuration that what is needed is a politics that goes beyond the classic liberal conception of human nature as self-interested and driven by appetite. Still, further reflection helps one see why distinctions between Left and Right remain important for all those similarities, since just such contemporary socialists look ardently to the State to become the voice of the people - to make us one, and in and through the State we will achieve a transcendence of our self-interest. Traditionalists, particularly those based in the Christian tradition, soundly reject this notion - though they are more accepting of the idea of law and morality that restrains the full blown freedom of the markets - because they accept the fundamental Christian understanding that the State can no more be an idol than the market, and we are best served by moderating our appetites in moderate political and social settings. For a telling example of this Left socialism, see some of Jodi Dean's online writings, such as here and here , some of which echoes similar concerns that a traditionalist/Distributivist might express, but which goes in a very different direction. Indeed, she condemns a turn toward localism here, which she considers to be "deeply anti-socialist, anti-collectivist, and anti-cooperative. It's another version of every man for himself, in effect, a deeper, more estranged distillation of neoliberalism"].

"Pym" (and I assume Russell) are rightly drawn to an alternative understanding of socialism, mainly its pre-modern Christian form. I can't really object to that either, though I think it's one thing to admire these forms of small scale local communes (based on common ownership), and another to enact them. Efforts to enact them (particularly in modernity) have proven to be fanciful and short-lived. Indeed, it could be argued (and I would argue) that truths articulated by Christianity itself point to the impossibility of achieving a truly selfless small-scale commune: even on such a small scale, we still tend to prefer our own, and ultimately ourselves. That is simply part of being human after the Fall. Recognizing this, there is a strong justification for ownership and private property (for much the same grounds suggested by Aristotle - we care more about that which is ours, and that care will be manifested publically), centered largely around the family and small-scale ownership. The model here would be along the lines of Chesterton's and Belloc's Distributivism, that is, widespread ownership in the form of small-scale family-based and community-centered businesses, and mainly based in agriculture. I think this combines the insight of capitalism that we work hard when a form of personal satisfaction is possible (we work on behalf of "our own"), and socialism, that we need to attend to the concerns and demands of the common weal. Modernity set these two options at odds with each other (in the forms of Locke and Marx); our task is to bring them more closely together.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Consumption

Consumption [14th century. Directly or via French< Latin consumere "take up completely" < sumere "take"]
1. act of eating or drinking: the eating or drinking of something, or the amount that somebody eats or drinks;

2. act of using something up: the use of natural resources or fuels, or the amount of resources or fuels used;

3. consumer expenditure: the purchase and use of goods and services by consumers, or the quantity of goods and services purchased;

4. wasting disease: any condition that causes progressive wasting of the tissues, especially tuberculosis of the lungs.



With all the taxpayer money being poured into banking and financial institutions, many might have thought by now that the bubble would be discernibly re-inflating, like a water mattress beginning to rise from its senescence. Alas, deflation is a grim reaper, and it's not at all clear that this particular inflatable toy has the desire to be be blown back up.

Consider: two-thirds of the American economy is based on consumer spending. Sixty-six percent of the economic activity of this nation consists of people buying things from other people with something to sell. "Consumers" - as we are now called - never had that many trillions of dollars to spend: since the 1980s - call it "morning in America" - when our economy became consumption-based rather than production-based (coinciding with the peak of U.S. oil production, and the cessation of our own ability to power our economy), the personal savings rate has steadily declined until it went into the negative just over a year ago. Anyone who watched this decline was keenly aware that the end was nigh: an economy based upon debt-driven consumption could not be continued indefinitely with a populace that was spending more than it was earning. Anyone with eyes to see (apparently not Alan Greenspan, in spite of his Coke-bottle glasses) knew that a reckoning was nigh.



The effort by our GOVERNMENT to "recapitalize" the banks is essentially an effort to prime the consumption pump. They are hopeful that the banks will begin lending again - using the money of taxpayers (or, more accurately, the taxpayers of the future, since it will be our children and theirs who will be paying for this largesse) to encourage more indebtedness in the form of new home mortgages, new car loans, new consumer debt. The problem is twofold: the banks are unwilling even to spend money that's not theirs (they're making a nice killing on the spread, thank you very much), and the "consumer" is not asking for the money. Their houses are worth less than the amount they owe on them (or they fear that will soon be the case); their jobs, ever precarious, now seem deeply fragile; a level of common sense has arisen from our crisis, as they are beginning to see with new eyes that wanting something is not the same as needing something.

An article at Salon.com notes the paradox: our public policy to promote renewed and deeper indebtedness is a perverse and self-destructive policy goal. Our GOVERNMENT is seeking to encourage us not to govern our appetites, but to spend our way out of this deflation. There is even new talk of a new "stimulus" package, given that the previous handouts (oops, "rebate checks") proved to be a failure to the extent that "consumers" saved the money and didn't spend it on plastic gimcracks and elective cosmetic surgery. If the government succeeds, it ultimately fails, as my Georgetown (Law Center) colleague Adam Levitin has pointed out:

The U.S. economy is fueled by consumer spending. In order for the economy to grow, consumer spending has to grow, and consumer spending is fueled by debt. Consumers largely spend not out of current assets or current income, but out of future income. Consumers are able to do this because of their assumptions about their current assets -- especially their retirement savings. Unfortunately, consumer behavior for the past seven years has been shaped by the unrealistic expectations formed in a bubble. Consumers have saved less because they thought they had a bigger investment cushion. This sets us up for a retrenchment in consumer spending, which is exactly what Treasury does not want to see. In order to keep consumer behavior the same, Treasury needs to reinflate that bubble. But doing so just sets us up for another crash.

General consumer financial health would be helped by a shift to greater savings. But any shift will cause a short term contraction in consumer spending, which will mean economic pain for a while. This is a bitter pill to swallow. But it might not be as bad as the alternative, namely the economic effects of consumers becoming so overleveraged that we see massive defaults on all sorts of debts.


To become more economically sound, we will have to cease "consuming" so much - saving for a future rather than spending what we don't yet have. It is arguable that human culture exists to turn us from instinctual profligates into savers: culture is an informal grand-marm who reminds us that the future is our eventual present, a sure knowledge that comes from the past. It is the hard won habituation of ingrained thrift over instinctive profligacy (or its cousin, gluttony). By contrast, our "culture" actively encourages us to embrace these vices. Our liberal civilization was premised upon a rejection of such hard-won forms of cultural formation, and was based rather upon the demand that we acquiesce to our worst instincts of living in the present. Only by discounting the eventual reality of the future - by staying slightly behind it - could the grand self-deception be perpetuated that we could live in obliviousness to our future present. Our retirements were to be assured by "investing" in markets that were sure to return 10% a year in spite of the fact that overall economic growth runs at about 2-3% and inflation at roughly that same amount. In the meantime, we were to accumulate all our heart's desires, certain that the American dream was an everlasting slumber.

Will we have the discipline to live poorer, to become citizens ("ruling and being ruled in turn") rather than aspiring again to be defined most fundamentally as consumers? Will we govern ourselves better than - even in spite of - our GOVERNMENT? Will we have the capacity to joyously live within our means, looking not to our 401Ks for our future security but to our own resources, our capacity to live by thrift and restraint, counting on our children, our families, our friends, our communities - as every civilization but ours has done? Will we again realize that children ARE our future, not because they are tools in the grand international ponzi scheme, but the continuity between the past, present and future - the bearers and promise of culture? As long as we remain focused on the state of our portfolios and our purported material wealth, we will be governed by a GOVERNMENT that we deserve (no matter what happens on election day) - a GOVERNMENT that seeks to make us ungoverned. If this rupture in the fabric of our assumptions shakes us into a recognition of the truth of human life - of what matters - we will bless this moment as one of liberation, the inauguration of a time of true self-government, and thereby gain the discipline of freedom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beware What You Wish For

Last night I happened to catch a very interesting discussion between David Frum and Robert Schrum on C-Span. The event took place at Georgetown, but I wasn't able to attend, so I'm glad I caught it on the television. The topic was the future of liberalism and conservatism in American politics.

Schrum (representing the liberal view) only wanted to talk about the election - and it's not surprising why. This is an exciting time for liberals, with the promised land of complete control of the Federal government within reach. Still, it was noteworthy that he didn't have a thing to say about the future of liberalism, per se.

Frum was far more thoughtful and reflective, as one might expect from someone whose party is about to be shown the door. He realizes that there will be a time wandering in the wilderness, and he showed that he will be a major voice in re-thinking the Republican brand over the next 4-8 years (or more). There will be a terrible internecine battle between the libertarians and the social conservatives, but it's possible that 4-8 years (or more) of an activist liberal government will be enough to cause them to make up and play nice (alas!).

What struck me about this is that Frum is aware, and already has been working, on an intellectual and policy re-definition of conservatism. Yet, while the liberals have been wandering in their own wilderness for many years, I don't detect that there has been anything like such a reconsideration. It's not clear that they have developed any considerable or new governing philosophy other than "change" and "we are not George W. Bush." Now, it's possible that Obama will seek to move America in the direction of a post-political future like that we are seeing among elites in Europe. That is clearly the hope of many in the professoriate and elite circles who are in the throes of near-ecstasy over an Obama presidency. Such a course, I think, would doom Obama's presidency, and I think he's smart enough to know it. He'll give encouragement to this crowd in the way that Republican presidents since Reagan have appeared on videoscreen at pro-life rallies. What seems more likely is that Obama will be a conventional Democrat - doling out government favors to every group of his coalition that asks - trying to keep up with the spending proposals of Congress. However, he's also clearly smart enough to know that this course would be folly, given the massive new indebtedness of the government wrought by our financial crisis, and the dwindling tax receipts that will be evident next April 15 (the deductions from stock losses will be staggering). That course will almost ensure that he will preside over a declining America whose indebtedness and hyper-inflationary monetary policies will make us resemble a third world nation.

Obama is going to win this election, and decisively, mainly because he is NotBush. Democrats have not used very well their time in the wilderness. For all of the youthful enthusiasm of Obama's supporters, I don't see any comparable young liberal David Frums or Rod Drehers or Ross Douthats or Reihan Salams (actually, looking at Frum and Schrum sitting next to each other, I was struck that it appeared to be an inversion of a McCain-Obama debate, with a youthful, thoughtful conservative and an old, hackneyed liberal). It's virtually assured that an Obama administration will be filled with many of the usual suspects. In their joy they will be tempted to overlook the fact that Obama didn't win so much as the Republicans lost, and deservedly (I still think that Obama would have won even without the financial crisis, but it would have been a narrow win, not the possible electoral college landslide he may achieve). The great temptation of the Democrats will be to become Santa Claus to every oppressed and alienated group that comes asking. Their great task - should they accept the mission - is to creatively and thoughtfully address the great middle class anxieties of the nation, contemplate ways to provide some degree of economic and social stability to the Joe the Plumbers of the world, and thus resist every worst instinct they have to disdain and re-educate the parochial views of our unprogressed middle class whose anxieties and support will make Obama president, but will not necessarily keep him there. If they can do that, the Republicans will wander in the wilderness for a very long time. I'm just not sure the Democrats will be that smart, and able to resist their worst instincts. If not, we will witness one of the greatest Pyhrric victories ever seen in just under two weeks' time.

Further Thoughts

Following on my last post, "Legislating Morality," I have two additional thoughts that were implied or left inchoate in that posting.

FIRST, the belief that the natural or default position of human beings is that of autonomous, free individual in fact requires a massive investment of political power and intervention to realize. This belief began as a philosophical argument proposing that we are naturally unrestrainted by law, according to the thought of Hobbes and Locke, but had to be politically realized by means of the formation of strong centralized state structures. It is not a coincidence that Locke builds on the thought of Hobbes, author of "The Leviathan." While seemingly offering a defense of smaller government, Locke in fact authorizes the Sovereign to exercise nearly as much power (or, "prerogative") as Hobbes's Leviathan to ensure peace and unleashed productivity in society. The "industrious and rational" are to be encouraged, and the "lazy and contentious" either re-educated or constrained. A strong central government was needed to build the social and material structures that fostered "free" markets - a fact with which we are well aware if we consider the great public works projects of America, from the canals to the railroads to the interstate highway system (what was once called "internal improvements"). An extensive court system, investments in education aimed at supporting "the useful arts and sciences" (a phrase from the U.S. Constitution), the frequent exercise of eminent domain - these and other forms of central power have proven to be the necessary pre-requisites for a well-functioning "free" market system. The latest massive government intervention in the financial system really falls well within the general scope of these activities, a more visible exercise of government power in support of the markets than an exception to the rule.

More importantly, these centralized structures needed to restrain the natural tendency of human beings to seek and achieve stability and moral grounding in their lives. Every society before the advent of the "free market" system has shown that human societies aim at a certain, often high, degree of stability and continuity in the face of nature and a world in which entropy makes things fall apart. Societies are small collectivities of entropy resistance, using ancestral knowledge and customs to create continuities between past, present and future. The strong central state of modern free market capitalism was based upon a philosophy - again, central in Hobbes and Locke - that was deeply hostile to claims of the "ancestral" (Locke's almost entirely unread First Treatise is an attack on "patriarchy") and sought to unleash human productivity, and with it, the instability that is associated with markets. Much of the record of the modern liberal State - in contrast to the view of doctrinaire libertarians - is the record of the State playing defense against the natural human inclination to rein in the instability fostered by free markets. While that will, at times, ironically mean acceding to some constraints on the market (e.g., the New Deal), these constraints are accepted in a deeper defense of the markets, forestalling the impulse to make stability a paramount feature of society, and thereby threatening modern free market systems. The extent to which we have accepted this instability as a sheer fact of doing business in the modern world is reflected in the popular willingness to permit the dismantling of the social safety net, the widespread hostility to trade unions, the agreeableness to all sorts of free trade agreements, the demise of the idea that one job would suffice for a lifetime, and our reliance upon uncertain markets to secure our retirements even as we know that Social Security will not survive into the future, and so on. More than "enforcing" such willingness to accept instability upon us, the modern State reinforces a set of cultural presuppositions that encourages our belief in individual self-reliance and autonomy. We should note, however, that this belief is not "natural," but the result of concerted and powerful forms of cultivation.

SECOND, occasionally some of my posts - such as this one - will provoke a comment or two accusing me of being a socialist. This is pretty risible, but I can see why some people would think this. When the operating cultural paradigm is the Lockean belief that we are by nature free, autonomous individuals, any suggestion that an unconstrained free market is not good for humans according to nature can only be processed in modern terms - mainly, that opponents to unconstrained free markets are necessarily socialists. My own understanding of a morally grounded community that fosters self-restraint in both the "personal" and "economic" spheres is Aristotelian and Thomist, not Marxist. It begins with the assumption that a certain kind of well-formed culture will cultivate salutary forms of self-restraint that will not be experienced as external impositions. Marx begins with Locke's assumptions that our stage of history has made us free market capitalists, but that with the massive intervention of the State it can make us into post-historical communists. Both we and Marx alike reflect our unconscious and intuitive Lockeanism in which any constraint upon our market freedom must necessarily be an unnatural imposition (hence, Marx reveals his own Lockeanism by proposing a "dictatorship of the proletariat"). The sad irony is that our false liberal view of human nature - that one advanced by Hobbes and Locke (Bertrand de Jouvenel waggishly commented that such a philosophy was obviously imagined by "childless men who had forgotten their childhoods") - in turn engendered further false views of human nature (in which we could altogether overcome our alienation from one another), such as that advanced by Marx. BOTH are species of an impoverished and false modern understanding of humankind. To move beyond the tired and (what has now stood to be revealed to be) false debate between the Lockeians and the Marxists, we need to re-discover Aristotelian and Thomistic understandings of humanity's true nature. It will not be easy, since Aristotle himself argues that habituation is a powerful shaper of men's mores, and we must acknowledge that most of our contemporary habituation - in the form of popular culture, deep philosophic presuppositions, national mythology, and ubiquitous advertising - instruct us that we are monadic bundles of appetite seeking satiation. We have a highly successful culture of anti-culture, and it is difficult to see how it can be assailed, short of the slow drip-dripping of arguments and practices against it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Legislating Morality

"Ultimately ... the control of the economic system by the markets is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society; it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.

--Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation


Many libertarians are hostile toward the notion of "legislating morality." The lurking assumption is that a distant and oppressive State interferes with our in-born or natural freedom-loving proclivities. Morality - particularly in contested areas - should be a matter of choice, not oppressive and often unworkable State mandates. Examples like Prohibition or efforts to restrain recreational drugs, pornography or prostitution (and the inevitable black markets that such efforts generate) are offered as evidence for the futility of such impositions upon our freedom.

Undoubtedly there is a great deal of truth to this argument. However, this argument begins in medias res. To the extent that "moralists" engage in this debate and in this form, they have already given away the game: they begin with the assumption that "morality" is "legislated" by the State. They begin with the base assumption that humans are naturally free actors seeking to maximize their utility, most basically by increasing their pleasures and decreasing their pain or inconvenience. At the most fundamental level, as modern Americans and intuitive Lockeans, we begin with the assumption that we are naturally free and only secondarily and artificially constrained. Beginning with that assumption, all morality must be understood to be legislated, since in our natural condition there is no legislation and no "morality," only freedom. We understand societies to exist to preserve maximal amount of individual freedom and provide only the minimal amount of constraint in order to provide some security and stability.

We should notice that this basic assumption is shared by adherents on both the political Left and Right in our country, albeit touching on what are regarded as distinct spheres of human life. For the political Left, these libertarian assumptions are thought to apply to our personal and especially sexual lives. An example of this assumption can be seen in the argument that is typically used against conservative advocates of teenage sexual abstinence (evinced in the visceral hostility to Sarah Palin): "teenagers are going to do it anyway, so we should teach them about birth control." It underlies the contemporary insistence that the innate, genetic sources of homosexuality should be regarded as despositive in any further arguments regarding sexual behavior: if it's natural, it will and needs to be acted upon. At Georgetown, we now have a Resource Center for LBGTQ students; what we do not have is a Resource Center to support students who might seek to remain sexually abstinent, or even one that encourages abstinence among all students, regardless of sexual orientation. And this is a Catholic university, we are told.

This basic assumption underlies many of the economic assumptions of the Right, as well: the free market is populated with homo economicus, countless self-seeking, risk-taking, profit-seeking self-maximizers. To the extent that our market system is arranged to prevent obstacles to those behaviors, we can expect a dynamic and prosperous economic system. Legislation that restricts self-maximizing activities are abhorrent, curtailing growth and dampening the spirit of entrepreneurialism. These assumptions underlie arguments against regulations that potentially damage the bottom line, or efforts to soften the harsher aspects of the free market system - such as welfare - that undermine our natural economic incentives.

For the past 30 years we have considered debates in the first realm - between those seeking greater liberation especially in the sexual realm, and other areas of personal life other than economically - to constitute our "culture wars." Republicans have been able to win elections by appealing to the deep insecurities of "Red State" Americans who dislike the cultural and sexual libertarianism of our metro-sexuals (people who know no sexual boundaries, not even gender...). As Thomas Frank famously argued, these people were even willing to vote against their own economic interests as long as they believed that the expansion of cultural libertarianism would be thwarted by conservatives.

That didn't happen: our culture is more thoroughly sexually liberated today than it was thirty years ago when the "conservative revolution" began. One need only look at popular culture for confirmation of this trend: our most popular television shows are no longer the likes of "The Waltons" (a show that ran from 1972-1981, the first year of Reagan's first term), but rather shows like "Will and Grace," "How I Met Your Mother" (a show about serial couplings that precede marriage), and "The Sopranos." Occasionally, a "conservative" movie makes a splash - such as "The Passion of the Christ" - showing what an outlier and abnormal things such a worldview is in our broader culture. Ronald Reagan was our first divorced President, and John McCain would be our second - a fact that was a minor issue in 1981 and a complete non-issue today. Young people today largely operate in a world without sexual norms - other than the prevailing norm that the default is to be sexually active at a young age. Meanwhile, the great issue for conservatives over the past 30+ years - Roe v. Wade - remains, and is likely to remain, the ruling precendent. Social conservatives have arguably lost their main battles over the past 30 years, while economic libertarians have won many of theirs.

With the recent economic crisis, issues of the "culture wars" have receded almost entirely. There are no commentators remarking on the fact that pro-life Obama supporters are "voting against their interests." The main assumption, that is, is that economic concerns will necessarily trump cultural concerns when economic conditions grow severe enough to make any other issue irrelevant. We are, and remain, self-seekers by default. We will not be able to create an extensive social network any more than Europe has been able to robustly retain those social networks it created in the nineteenth century. Market forces have forced them to begin dismantling a number of their social nets (just as it has forced some nations to abandon traditions, such as the demise of the "siesta" in Spain), and will inevitably prevent an Obama administration from creating an expansive new social administrative structure. This was evident as soon as the primaries moved out of the Midwest, where - to win votes - he made noises about renegotiating the NAFTA treaty to the advantage of the manufacturing industry, only to discover (in one instance, by a reassuring meeting of an Obama economic advisor with Canadian officials) that these commitments were actually the result of "overheated" campaign rhetoric (heat that was briefly shared by free-marketeer, Hillary!). With or without a renogotiated NAFTA, the truth is that over-regulated industries will look offshore; support for Unions to negotiate high wages will be undercut by cheap-labor markets abroad; and anexpanding tax bases for a social net will drive corporations to find havens offshore.

The truth is, you really can't "legislate morality" - either of the sort that would seek to force us to restrain our hedonistic personal pleasures or the sort that would seek to force us to be socially responsible in the economic realm. We tend to think that "legislating morality" only applies to "social" and "cultural" issues, but it applies equally to the economic realm, and will prove as unsuccessful there under a Democratic president as it has proven in the cultural realm under a succession of Republican administrations. We should recall that while Ronald Reagan governed during a time of growing sexual liberation, Bill Clinton's presidency coincided with one of the wildest decades of market excess ever known. Party affiliation matters far less than underlying cultural, economic, and - most deeply - philosophic assumptions.

Seeking to "legislate morality" is to acknowledge that the base presuppositions of a culture have made it resistant to any such imposition. A culture that has robust forms of learned or habituated restraint as a matter of cultural transmission does not need to "legislate" such morality, or - if it does - it serves as a punctuating norm, not an external imposition. We don't experience the law forbidding murder as a form of "legislated morality," largely because the norm of not murdering is widely accepted. Law is only experienced as such an imposition when the prevailing norm has been eviscerated or does not exist. Morality can be legally sanctioned, but not created whole cloth out of law. For this reason, efforts to "legislate morality" either in the cultural or economic realms are currently doomed to failure. What is needed is a change in culture, not our legal code.

Can this be achieved? It is not likely. So long as our operating paradigm is the belief that law and morality are externally generated impositions, there will be no stopping the dissolution of any forms of social and cultural constraint. Our cultural wasteland has the same sources as our economic catastrophe: both are the result of a culture that has proven incapable of withstanding the corrosive solvent of liberal assumptions about human nature. Begin with a belief in human beings as naturally autonomous and free, and after a time - not immediately, but eventually - that belief will act as a corrosive agent that will destroy all forms of culturally transmitted and embedded restraints. Any such restraints will be experienced not as "natural" features of our human landscape - as constitutive parts of what is is to be a person living in this culture - but as arbitrary impositions on my natural freedom. Unless and until this basic assumption can be contested - and at the moment, our main "parties" deeply share it in one form or another - we need to see our discrete debates as distractions from the greater battle that needs to be fault. Until a vocabulary can be developed that speaks to the true sources of our contemporary anxieties - both economic and cultural - the "Left" and "Right" can expect to continue to lose the battles that it cares most about. The victory of Obama will be no less Pyhrric than that of Reagan, though the current gnashing of teeth on the Right, and the near-ecstasy of those on the Left, only serves to obscure this deeper truth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Political Theology at Georgetown

This evening and Thursday morning I'll be at Georgetown attending this conference on "Political Theology," built largely around a consideration of Mark Lilla's book The Stillborn God.

I have some serious issues with Lilla's book, some of which I'll be able to express at Thursday morning's panel. DC area readers are invited to attend; for those who can't, here's a bit of what I'll say.



The Great Combination:

Modern Political Thought and the Collapse of the Two Cities


Patrick J. Deneen

Georgetown University




Political theology, Mark Lilla instructs us, “is discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus.”1 That is, political theology is the effort to associate or affiliate political authority with appeal or reference to, a comprehensive doctrine of a divine being or beings. It thus represents an intermingling not only of Church and State, but theology and politics in the deepest sense – a condition in which the authority and legitimacy derives its force and definition from the society’s (or authority’s) understanding of the divine.

According to Lilla, political theology was for the most part the basis for political authority for most of human history (at least in the West, the area about which he is concerned), at least until the inauguration of “the Great Separation” that was inaugurated in the early modern period above all by Thomas Hobbes, and subsequently developed by such thinkers as Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. The “Great Separation” was an effort to remove appeals to “the divine nexus” in connection to political authority, instead vesting political authority wholly in terms that are rational, secular, and therefore separate from religious understandings. “The Great Separation” was an effort to remove religious concerns from the basis of political life, instead rendering it an affair of private life, individual conscience, and voluntary association. The hope, as Lilla suggests, was, over time, foster a condition in which “modern men and women [would] have less need of religion – a need they [could] satisfy privately, so long as they do not enter the public sphere” (SG, 90). On the basis of this “Great Separation,” not only would the wars of religion cease, but the need even to assuage human fears and longings through recourse to religious belief – it was believed – would also fade, replaced instead by concerns that were wholly secular and worldly. The world would become more like the one that many perceive or hope comes daily more into existence: a world of societies composed of individuals that are tolerant, peaceful, commercial, secular, reasonable, replete with plural views that do not violently conflict, governed by liberal regimes that are impartial to ends and efficient at promoting political and juridical solutions to problems while also encouraging prosperity that undergirds individual fulfillment. This was the dream that underlie “The Great Separation” inaugurated by Hobbes.

However,Lilla’s version of the development of modern liberalism as a form of "separation" of theological from political considerations is far off the mark. He writes that early modern thought sought to separate considerations of “the divine nexus” from political considerations. Lilla repeats with different iterations that the liberal order was built “without reference to such [theological] matters,” arguing that its constitutive thinkers sought to emphasize solely secular grounds for politics, “wishing the extinction of political theology,” concluding, for instance, that these thinkers sought the separation “of political discourse from theological discourse” (SG, 103, 298) Yet, this claim does not correspond to the deepest theological underpinnings of liberalism in its early modern and progressive forms of liberalism (roughly the two periods Lilla treats in the two respective chapters of Part II of The Stillborn God). Instead, looking squarely at the evidence, what one sees instead is the effort to overcome Augustine’s “Great Separation” by means of two distinct “Great Combinations,” each corresponding roughly with a development within liberal theory, from its classical conception enunciated most clearly by Hobbes and Locke, and its “progressive” period, as witnessed in such thinkers such as Rousseau and J. S. Mill. This “Great Combination” represents a true form of “political theology,” collapsing what Augustine had sought to hold apart, seeking fulfillment in the world by combining the Two cities. This combination differs for each iteration of liberalism, either putting the City of God in service of the City of Man (for classical liberalism propounded by Hobbes and Locke), or transforming the City of Man into the City of God (the aim of Rousseau and Mill, among others), but however rendered, it is actually at the origins of the liberal tradition – that tradition that Lilla believes to comprise the “Great Separation” – that one actually witnesses “The Great Combination.”

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That's the thesis and synopsis. As for my conclusion:


Conclusion: A New Separation?


Modern thought – particularly the two iterations of liberalism now dominant on today’s political scene – represent not the legacy of separation, but combination. Above all – for their many differences from one another – both liberalisms place the human will in a place of ascendance, and view the world (nature, even humanity itself) as being subject to human dominion, command, and manipulation. Reaching back to Hobbes’s early boss, Francis Bacon, the modern project rests fundamentally upon the redirection of human negotiation with the created world – that which is “given” by God and whose existence we must struggle to understand in full cognizance that complete understanding will elude us – to one in which the created world becomes subject to our mastery and dominion. As Dewey would write (admiringly) of Bacon’s understanding of the human relationship to existence, we must conceive of Nature as a creature akin to a prisoner, and humanity as its jailor and torturer, seeking to extract from unwilling Nature its secrets. Lilla paints a dramatic portrait of an age of pre-modern violence born of religious warfare and a placid and peaceful condition of modern liberalism in which toleration, industriousness and prosperity govern. Left unsaid is the violent basis upon which liberalism was based, mainly directed toward a world that was viewed through a Gnostic lens of discontent and dissatisfaction, a relationship that was made possible by a “Great Combination” that put humankind in a position akin to that of gods.

This is a belief that I think we can no longer afford. Everywhere we are presented with evidence of depletion and destruction that our brief experiment with modernity has left us. What is needed is a true separation, an acknowledgment – returning to an Augustinian view – that we are not god, and cannot treat the world as means to our individual satisfaction or aspiration to perfectibility. As the author Wendell Berry has argued, the “war against nature” – inaugurated by Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, if not already by Machiavelli – is one that we are bound to lose. Our relationship to the world must change if we are to continue to derive sustenance from it, requiring an acknowledgment that we are created – not creators – and subjects, not sovereigns. At the moment, Berry writes, our relationship with nature is “dictatorial or totalitarian.” We need something and we take it; we want something and we exploit it. Instead, he writes, the proper relationship with nature is that of a conversation. We would ask of a place what it can offer and what we can offer in return, and listen even as we express our wants. He writes (in his essay “Nature as Measure”),

The conversation itself would thus assume a creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together, changing and growing to no end, no final accomplishment, that can be conceived or foreseen....And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or that you would like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.


Such a faith begins with a rejection of our self-sovereignty. Such a faith eschews “assurance,” that aspiration, above all, that marks not our ancient faith, but those modern faiths that we can no longer afford. If our modern faith is marked above all by a “Great Combination” of religion and politics, then I can at least agree with Mark Lilla that what is needed is a new “Great Separation” – albeit one that truly separates what should not have been put together.

Download Me

Ken Myers, of Mars Hill Audio, has recorded a "podcast" in which he discusses some of my recent scribblings about our economic situation on this very blawg, and more importantly, Wendell Berry's reflections on the same in his recent essay "Faustian Economics." For those on the go, you can download Ken's thoughts here, or read the same here (about me) and here (about Berry).

The Anti-federalists on our Financial Crisis

Taking a longer view, we can find some instructive thoughts on the current financial crisis from a number of the original opponents to the Constitution. Many will recall we last heard from these so-called "Anti-federalists" nearly 220 years ago, when they expressed what were then thought to be overheated concerns about "consolidation" that would be effected gradually under the proposed Constitution. "Consolidation pervades the whole constitution" wrote Pennsylvania's opposition in the ratification debates. Over and over, its opponents saw the grant of powers that promised eventual consolidation of power to the center, and the evisceration of the place of the States and robust local diversity. "The convention appears to have proposed the partial consolidation evidently with a view to collect all powers ultimately, in the United States into one entire government," warned "The Federal Farmer." The lever by which power would ultimately be accrued was the use of powers not necessarily then required, but granted for future possible use as would be "necessary and proper." Wrote the Pennsylvania minority, "the legislature of the United States are vested with great and uncontroulable powers, of laying and collecting taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; of regulating trade, raising and supporting armies, organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, instituting courts and other general powers.... And if they may do it , it is pretty certain that they will; for it will be found that the power retained by the original states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of government of the United States; the latter, therefore, will be naturally inclined to remove it out of its way."

They saw that the particular way that this consolidation was being effected was by the hurried response to a crisis, and the willingness of a populace to acquiesce to a grant of power to the center in an effort to contain not just such a crisis, but the uncertainty it aroused - especially financial anxieties. The Federal Farmer expressed his concerns - striking in their familiarity: "Though I have long apprehended that fraudulent debtors, and embarrassed men, on the one hand, and men, on the other, unfriendly to republican equality, would produce an uneasiness among the people, and prepare the way not for cool and deliberate reforms in the governments, but for changes calculated to promote the interests of particular orders of men." Charges of exigency, born of the financial and political crises induced by debt and concerns of creditors (the life blood of the capitalist system), led to a call for "stability and firmness" even at the cost of local and historical liberty.

Perhaps what we witness here is a logic of modernity: as financial and political systems expand, crises cannot be contained, and enlargement and consolidation of powers is deemed to be the only solution. A system inaugurated theoretically with the aim to shrink government to small and legitimate size has been the driver of the most massive expansion of public, financial, police and military power in the history of humanity (as I've recommended before, see Bertrand de Jouvenel's book On Power for a penetrating history of modernity's comparatively awesome accumulation of public power). Periodic crises and disruptions - beginning shortly after the Revolution with the perceived inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, continuing through the New Deal until our current crisis, all point to the need for greater consolidation and coordination of centralized systems of response. Our demand for security results in its purchase at the cost of greater scale and concentration, which in turn sets up the likelihood of a greater future crisis that requires even larger expansion of centralized power - an outcome we welcome in the name of liberty.

One result of the current crisis - perhaps now momentarily muted amid the hue and cry of our shrinking 401K's (revealing our deep implication in a global nexus in which our literal future is bound to its success) - is near-positive glee on the part of agents of "globalization," particularly those who wish to achieve greater scope and scale of international consolidation and coordination. One consequence of this crisis is the evaporation of Bush's sometimes ham-handed unilateralism, lost amid the scramble to participate in a worldwide response to what has become a worldwide crisis. With the near-certain likelihood of an Obama presidency, one likely outcome of our decades-long investment in the creation of a global financial system will be a concerted effort to set into motion the creation of new international institutions and organizations that will almost as surely have a propensity to accumulate power to the center as that same propensity was perceived by the Anti-federalists. Just as surely, we are likely to see calls for a new global system that can respond to what are now de facto global crises; corresponding power and consolidation at the center. And just as surely, the people who will guide us through these crises - people who have the acumen and savvy, the education and credentials to navigate from the center - will bring to bear the particular values they have learned from the culture and its institutions of higher learning, above all, ethics of extraction, mobility, abstraction, meritocracy, and economic materialism. Views that are deemed backwards or insufficiently progressed - even if popularly supported - will be summarily excluded, although it will be claimed that such exclusion will be done in the name of "democracy." Excluded still - following the concerns of over 200 years ago - will be "every order of men in the community ... - professional men, merchants, traders, mechanics, etc.," who will enlarge the sorts of concerns and commitments that are undertaken in the name of the common good. Adding to the ledger these voices, the New York Anti-federalist Melancton Smith hoped, would ensure that certain virtues would be heeded. Against Hamilton - who favored rule by the highly placed great men of the society - Smith declared, "Those in the middling circumstances have less temptation – they are inclined by habit and the company with whom they associate, to set bounds to their passions and appetites – if this is not sufficient, they also want the means to gratify them – and they are obliged to employ their time in their respective callings. Hence, the yeomanry of the country are more temperate, of better morals, and less ambition than the great.”


Writing in 1787, Brutus questioned what sort of regime the Constitution would make, what trajectory it would set us upon. If the Constitution preserved the liberties of the populace, "you may solace yourselves with the idea that society, in this favoured land, will fast advance to the highest point of perfection; the human mind will expand in knowledge and virtue, and the golden age be, in some measure, realised." However, he warned "if, on the other hand, this form of government contains principles that will lead to the subversion of liberty - if it tends to establish despotism, or what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy; then if you adopt it, this only remaining assylum for liberty will be shut up..."

As we witness the ever-greater consolidation to the center - not only now to Washington, but Brussels, Moscow, Beijing - we might rightly wonder what future has arrived, and where, if at all, "the remaining assylum of liberty" remains.

How Bailey Park Ruined America

My thoughts on Ross Douthat's WaPo essay on "It's a Wonderful Life" are here. My conclusion, in disagreement with Douthat's mild praise of suburbia qua the American dream:

"As I have written elsewhere about the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film is actually a tragedy. At its heart is a deep and sad irony: in creating Bailey Park, George Bailey not only emptied Pottersville, but he ultimately destroyed the vibrant small town of Bedford Falls. At the end of that great and instructive film, George Bailey discovers that his accounts are short $8,000 (due to the forgetfulness of dear old Uncle Billy). The movie ends with the moving scene in which hundreds of fellow citizens of Bedford Falls appear in order to offer George even their meager savings to make up the shortfall. “They didn’t ask any questions, George - they heard you were in trouble and asked how they could help,” says Uncle Billy in the midst of the heart-warming financial salvation of George. Yet, one can’t help to think - especially during this coming Christmas season - that part of the film’s perhaps unintended message is that George’s children - growing up in Bailey Park - will not be able to rely upon the help and assistance of extended family and long-standing friends and neighbors who will lend a hand “without asking any questions” because they know you well. Instead, they - like us - will turn to the Government in times of distress, and it is the Government that will give the banks the $8,000, asking instead only that we allow our businesses and bureaucracy alike to grow a bit bigger, to insinuate themselves a bit more deeply in our lives, and to promise us that our own expansion of appetite will be accompanied at every turn by the expansion of “the vast tutelary State” which Tocqueville predicted would come about NOT from traditional motives of oppression, but as a consequence of our disconnection from community and the helplessness induced by our individualism."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Blue Collar Blues"

Speaking of the magazine "The American Conservative," I've just had a book review appear in their pages. The review is still behind a pay-wall, but since it's not on the newstands anymore, I'll include the bulk of it for you here - as ever, free of charge.

"Blue Collar Blues"
Review of Stephen Greenhouse, The Big Squeeze
American Conservative, October 6, 2008

Juxtaposed in the business section of many bookstores are two books that attest to the existence of two Americas: one America that is enjoying wealth and mobility in our globalized era, and the other America – the working classes – who have seen their wealth decline and job security disappear as a consequence of those same forces of globalization. The first book – by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank – is entitled Richistan and describes the lifestyles of the nation’s growing, if still small, number of millionaires. The second is entitled The Big Squeeze by New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, and describes the losers in the global sweepstakes: the factory workers, the housekeepers at hotels, service-economy workers, even – increasingly – white collar workers whose jobs are subject to “outsourcing.” Frank describes a cosmopolitan class whose success comes increasingly by disassociating themselves from places and nations, and rather see themselves as global entrepreneurs; Greenhouse’s book describes the people who have been left behind – literally and figuratively.

The point of comparison for Greenhouse is the post-war America of the 1950’s. This remarkable, and likely singular, period of American history saw extraordinary economic growth as, in the aftermath of the World War II, America remained the only significant industrial power and assumed the role as producer for the world. Because of the need for constant and steady labor and the absence of significant competition from elsewhere in the world, the major corporations supported the creation of working conditions for middle- and lower-class workers that the world had never seen before: high wages; cradle-to-grave benefits; job security; willingness to allow the formation of and to negotiate with unions; massive additional support that went directly to the benefit of the local communities in which those corporations were based. It was a period in which the “working grunt” could expect a level of prosperity rarely if ever experienced by lower-middle classes, from home-ownership to foreign travel. For Greenhouse, this is the period marked by the existence of a “social contract” – in which workers agreed to work long and hard, and in return for which they were guaranteed lifetime job security, benefits and the prospect of a comfortable retirement.

As everyone knows, that social contract was fleeting: this idyllic period lasted perhaps 25-30 years depending upon one’s industry, roughly until the oil crisis of the 1970s, a period in which the U.S. experienced the limits of its power – militarily, economically and politically. While Ronald Reagan declared it to be “morning in America,” the terms of the social contract were in the midst of being re-written, almost always to the disadvantage of employment security and economic stability, if also to the benefit of the dynamic growth of the broader American and world economy. And here’s the rub: while the growth of overseas competition and the beginning of “globalization” spelled the demise of the “social contract” of the 1950s – meaning that American workers were faced with a cut-throat competitive environment in which labor was always expendable, wages began to stagnate, benefits shrink, and workers were forced to take more risk for their futures upon themselves alone – America experienced one of the greatest economic expansions of its history. Early on, however, it was noticed that Reagan’s promise that “a rising tide raises all boats” seemed to be increasingly evanescent: some were clearly riding out the stormy seas in yachts, but the dinghies of most others were taking on water. By the 1990s the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch was writing about “the revolt of the elites” and the “betrayal of democracy,” a divided culture in which elite beneficiaries of globalization no longer identified strongly with their communities or even the United States, instead seeing their destiny in the economic bounty of the global economy; while, meanwhile, ordinary workers who failed in the meritocratic sweepstakes found that their life prospects had dimmed, that job security had ceased due to “outsourcing” and widespread (and subtly sanctioned) illegal immigration, that illness was one’s own fault and problem, that retirement was probably not in the cards (there was always a job to be had as a “greeter” at Wal-Mart), and that the future of one’s children looked even dimmer than one’s own....

While the portrait of our troubled workplaces should unnerve any American committed to a stable future of American democracy, Greenhouse can offer only unsatisfactory suggestions for redressing the plight of America’s workers. Ranging from wan proposals to “change the conversation” and “jawbone” the issue, the major problem facing Greenhouse and similar mainstream authors who are rightly concerned with today’s workplace challenges is the extent to which the accept the current economic model. Throughout his book he accepts the logic of “globalization” – including massive levels of outsourcing and high numbers of illegal immigrants whom he admits suppress wages – to be “inevitable” and “unstoppable,” even as he readily cites workers who decry outsourcing as “unpatriotic” as well as a CEO of Intel who admits that ongoing loss of decent American jobs “will portend a dimmer future for young Americans” and wonders “what my grandchildren are going to do.” Among his proposals – in light of his claim to eschew “crude measures” to curb the effects of globalization – is a standard theme of recent politicians to increase funding for re-training in high-tech jobs requiring advanced degrees. He points to America’s leadership in scientific education as a way of fostering home-grown employment growth. But, surely, Greenhouse must know that a miniscule number of the workers who have lost decent jobs over the past several decades can hope to re-invent themselves as MIT-trained scientists? Inevitably, many if not most of those who would once have gladly worked as manual laborers – who actually have skills and inclination to do such work, and find pride in doing it – will not and are not pre-disposed to become successful free agents in the globalized system. Why should they be expected to? Is there no dignity in the work of hands?

The sorts of re-training and education programs advocated by Greenhouse and others assuredly assuage the guilty conscience of liberal elites who lament the “inevitability” of globalization even as they happily play in its privileged fields. In commending such programs, Greenhouse reflects his bias as a “symbolic analyst” by privileging the globalized system that has fostered a divided America, even while implicitly suggesting that public policy ought to favor those who have the ability to join “Richistan” rather than those who are inevitably unwilling or unable to become migrant workers in a global marketplace (as a sop, he also proposes better poverty programs, presumably for those who don’t make the globalization cut). But why should public policy favor this outcome, rather than one that supports other goods – including decent jobs at living wages for people who work with their hands and are members of particular communities that they are not willing to abandon?
Greenhouse concludes that globalization has been a net boon for Americans, but in fact much of the evidence mustered in his book suggests otherwise. True, it has assuredly been a benefit to the denizens of “Richistan,” and it has also made available to the consumer cheaper products now manufactured in low-wage markets. But Greenhouse – and others like him who promote “economic efficiency” above all – don’t ask whether the trade off of cheap products from China (and our scandously high levels of national and household debt) is worth the price of stable jobs in stable communities. Greenhouse doesn’t question whether the situation he has aptly and wrenchingly described doesn’t suggest a world in which a certain kind of economics has trumped the very reason for economics: to make it possible for human beings to thrive in communities where they can put down roots and raise good families, where their contributions can be appreciated and where their children can expect a decent future. We have made a certain economic logic – efficiency, GDP growth and upward mobility – into an end in itself while abandoning a commitment to certain other goods of life which are supported by a decent and humane economy. An economy exists to make possible human flourishing – to provide the goods of human life for and among our fellow citizens, allowing in particular the flourishing of those goods that go beyond “mere” economics – family, community, worship. If our current economy is undermining the prospects for those goods among a vast swath of our countrymen, haven’t we ceased to understand the basic purpose for an economy in the first place? If we are going to begin “jawboning” about anything, this question would be a good place to start.

What I Said, Better Than I Said It

Ken Myers - who recently interviewed me for his marvelous audio program, "Mars Hill Audio," has written a brief overview about some of my recent postings (admittedly less frequent of late; while circumstances certainly have afforded much fodder, I'm trying to concentrate on sabbatical projects. I've also recently been invited to write occasionally for the AmCon blog, which may cut down on my one-man-show here. Still, I'll have something a few things to say in the next few days - things have been happening so fast, they require a bit of digestion).

Here's what Ken says:

"In the past few weeks, Deneen's posts have placed the Wall Street meltdown in a larger cultural perspective that is absent from most media diagnoses and from the comments of politicians, whose handlers and PR experts forbid them from ever saying anything critical of the dominant trends of our cultural moment. In mid-September, in a piece called "Abstraction," Deneen argued that "at nearly every level this financial collapse was precipitated by transforming reality into abstraction, unmooring grounded commitments and obligations and fostering new patterns of fantastical behavior throughout the populace." That essay was followed by "Political Philosophy in the Details," in which Deneen questioned one of the fundamental assumptions of classic liberalism, which is that "unleashed self-interest is a predictable driver of human behavior and can be harnessed to ensure stable political institutions and dynamic economic activity." This assumption contradicts the wisdom of premodern political thinkers from Aristotle on, who "argued against unleashed self-interest inasmuch as its free rein led to the deformation of the human soul—a form of enslavement to the desires." While liberalism claims to be a procedural order in which competing claims about the good—whether religious, philosophical, or practical—all compete freely in an open "marketplace of ideas," in actuality what liberalism "seeks above all is the promotion of economic growth and material pursuits as the main activity" of human societies. "It can afford to be neutral about ends because by emphasizing that one end—growth and material gain—it effectively demotes all other ends. . . . Correspondingly, no party of government will call for virtue and restraint as a possible solution [to our economic woes], since that would contradict the fundamental wellspring of human behavior necessary for increase and dominion."

Deneen followed up this piece with a post entitled "Whack a Mole," in which he insisted that the failure of political leaders to call for self-restraint is "an indication of our enslavement to appetites over which we have no control. This latter condition was defined by the ancients as a condition of servitude, not liberty."
In an entry dated October 2, 2008 called "Democracy in America," Deneen raises questions about the viability of democracy in a culture that eschews limits and self-control. Citing Tocqueville's insight that democracy was a collection of mores as much as it was a system of government, he reviews Tocqueville's warning about how the very success of democracy could lead to its undoing. "The very dynamism of modern democracy that allowed it to defang resentments [by enabling social and economic mobility] also simultaneously contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others—neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future—we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future." Deneen also cites Montesquieu's belief that democracy could only survive if it was internally enabled by virtuous citizens, people with the habit of the heart to eschew luxurious living and temper their appetities. "Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance [that is, the willingness of each citizen to govern himself], democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question."

Reading Deneen over the past few weeks has prompted me to go back and review some of Daniel Bell's observations in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In that profound study, Bell raised questions about "the end of the bourgeois idea," the unravelling of social and political order in a society in which the bourgeois virtues of self-control and delayed gratification necessarily collide with the modernist values of limitless acquisition and boundless self-expression, values promoted by a capitalism centered on consumption rather than production. Bell's examination of the symbiotic relationship between economic practices and structures on the one hand and cultural beliefs and assumptions on the other is worth extended reflection. Looking at the current financial chaos with his analysis in mind, one is struck—as one is in reading Patrick Deneen—by how the trajectory of this crisis predates the regulatory changes of the past three decades. "American capitalism changed its nature in the 1920s," Bell wrote, "by heavily encouraging the consumers to go into debt, and to live with debt as a way of life. In the 1960s, the basic financial structure of the economy became transformed when sharp individuals began to realize that considerable fortunes could be created through 'leverage,' that is, by going heavily into debt and using that borrowed money to underwrite finance companies, create real estate investment trusts, and increase the debt/equity ratio of corporations, rather than expand out of internal financing or by equity capital." Bell goes on to describe possible economic and political scenarios when an economy built on a "mountain of debt" encounters reality. What I find more interesting is his description in the first half of the book of how so many features of our cultural life—our notion of identity, the centrality of fun and entertainment in social life, our need for constant distraction and stimulation, the institutionalization of "transgressive" behavior—have imprinted a characteristic mentality that makes recognizing the nature of our cultural and economic disorder so difficult. That's all the more reason to be grateful for insightful theorists such as Patrick Deneen.


I'm grateful for Ken's thoughtful commentary, and his very kind assessment of my efforts to understand our times. Give a listen to his work at "Mars Hill Audio" if you haven't yet.

Out with the Old God, in with the New

From today's readings:

Letter of Paul to the Philippians, 4:12-14, 19-20
Brothers and sisters:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.

My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.


And from Harvey Cox, from the essay "The Market as God" in Atlantic Monthly, March 1999:


In days of old, seers entered a trance state and then informed anxious seekers what kind of mood the gods were in, and whether this was an auspicious time to begin a journey, get married, or start a war. The prophets of Israel repaired to the desert and then returned to announce whether Yahweh was feeling benevolent or wrathful. Today The Market's fickle will is clarified by daily reports from Wall Street and other sensory organs of finance. Thus we can learn on a day-to-day basis that The Market is "apprehensive," "relieved," "nervous," or even at times "jubilant." On the basis of this revelation awed adepts make critical decisions about whether to buy or sell. Like one of the devouring gods of old, The Market -- aptly embodied in a bull or a bear -- must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its appetite may seem excessive -- a $35 billion bailout here, a $50 billion one there -- but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is too terrible to contemplate.
(Hat tip, Matthew Sitman)


Our new god is very angry, and wants a very large sacrifice. And we will feed it, mostly because we have forgotten the words of old - praising our capacity to live within limits, even with want - and have instead replaced them with the belief that wanting something ought to mean having it. No matter the price - even leaving our children a crushing debt so that we will not have to pay for our irresponsibility.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Titanic - The Sequel

Markets around the world continue to plummet, with no end in sight. A contagion that began as a product "made in America" - a subprime morass - has now spread around the world, a virus that has now all but brought down some of Europe's biggest banks and is pummeling "emerging markets" (a combination of words that hindsight may come to regard as a terrible euphemism). Europeans have been waking up the past few mornings learning that their life's savings were in danger of evaporating because of bad loans and collapsing housing values in various parts of the United States. They might rightly wonder what reality they are inhabiting, where their savings can disappear because of bad loans made in the American real estate market.

Globalization giveth, and globalization taketh away. The past few years we have heard much of its promise, the glories of mobility and opportunity for those who embraced a world made flat. We are now witnessing how quickly a contagion runs through a world without hills, valleys, borders and cultures. The very genius of the global system - to dismantle barriers to trade and movement, to "flatten" the world (a metaphor that means that the world looks essentially the same from the financier's point of view) and remove frictions within the system that might slow the pace of global capital's trajectory - is on the verge of proving to be its undoing. We are now seeing the downside of the upside: no ability to stop the unraveling, no friction to slow the spreading contagion, no borders at which the virus will stop. We are told that this global system was so large and efficient that it was built not to fail: by spreading the risk everywhere and nowhere, no single point could bring down the entire edifice.

It's amusing, or maybe painful, to recall that only a decade ago we collectively watched, and re-watched, and re-watched the movie "Titanic," convinced it was actually a story about how love knew no bounds rather than a story about human hubris. The demise of the ship was portrayed as the fault a greedy speculator - Charles Ismay - and a foolhardy leader (captain? President?), and not the over-confidence of a generation who believed that technology and human ingenuity could REALLY build a ship that could not be sunk.

At the end of that movie, it turns out there is a happy ending for the young lovers: they are reunited in Heaven, which, it turns out, resembles the main deck of the Titanic. Perhaps if we were to revisit them there in a sequel, we would discover that they - and we - were mistaken about their destination. For, as Wendell Berry has reminded us in his recent short masterpiece "Faustian Economics," hell is the place where we believe no limits apply, where we believe our power and knowledge to be limitless, and thus become slaves to our appetite and lose freedom in the name of false liberty.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Democracy in America

George Will has penned some arresting words in a recent column:

We are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public.

Concerning which, a timeless political trope is: Government should budget the way households supposedly do, conforming outlays to income. But the crisis came partly because so many households decided that it would be jolly fun to budget the way government does, hitching outlays to appetites.

Beneath Americans' perfunctory disapproval of government deficits lurks an inconvenient truth: They enjoy deficits, by which they are charged less than a dollar for a dollar's worth of government. Conservatives participate in this, even though deficits fuel government's growth by obscuring its cost.


His words evoke two crystalline and opposite responses. First, they give rise to a degree of hopefulness: if government can indeed set a tone, such as it has, of profligacy and an acceptance of indebtedness, then the culture is perhaps indeed subject to the influence of a clearly articulated opposite set of values emphasizing thrift, moderation, and self-governance. It suggests the possibility that our public realm can set a tone and demonstrate that it is possible to restrain appetites to match outlays, even promote savings and a concern for the future.

But I'll admit the stronger reaction is opposite: you get the government you want, and our laws and lawmakers ultimately follow the public will. Deficits, indebtedness, and profligacy emanated as demands of the culture. When confronted with limits, people demanded the fealty and expansion of government. A vicious circle arising from never being told that "no" meant that we were all - public and private alike - rendered in a permanent state of adolescence, wanting limitlessly and indulging recklessly. Appetite stoked appetite, encouraging us to turn our houses into ATM's, our national budget into a credit line from China, and inclining us to consume with abandon.

A chilling portent arises from these latter thoughts: perhaps the entirety of ancient and medieval political thought was correct, and democracy is actually an untenable regime. Before our age that regarded it to be apostasy to utter these words, the longstanding view among political philosophers was that democracy was a deficient regime subject to internal self-destruction due to the ultimate inability of a populace to govern itself. Democracy was, quite simply, the rule of the many over the few, and subject to the same sorts of temptations to tyranny as any regime. Because "the many" (hoi polloi) exhibited the tendency toward mob behavior that descended to the lowest common denominator, it was widely held in antiquity until very recent times - about 150 years ago - that democracy always and ultimately devolved into anarchic mob self-indulgence.

About 150 years ago, confidence in democracy grew, in part as a result of the 50-100 year evidence of the success that resulted from grafting democracy to liberalism. Liberalism provided protections to the few (wealthy) against the many (poor) by enshrining a set of rights - particularly rights of property - and arranging governments of divided powers and checks and balances. However, its true genius lay in draining the traditional curse of democracy - resentment of the many toward the (wealthy) few - by means of encouraging a dynamic growth economy. By dispelling the belief that every person was born and destined to remain in a certain fixed station, democracy became defined above all as a kind of mobility - upward, downward, onward and westward. This was the genius of Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of democracy in Democracy in America, his awareness that modern democracy more than merely a form of government, but a set of mores that above all blasted apart the ancient arrangements of aristocracy.

While these mores made democracy suddenly more tenable than the ancients believed possible, it had a particular downside that Tocqueville believed would ultimately prove its greatest weakness: the dissolution of generational bonds and the resulting short-sightedness of democratic man. The very dynamism of modern democracy that allowed it to defang resentments also simultaneously contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others - neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future - we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future. As Tocqueville famously concluded his chapter on "Individualism," "[Democratic men] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

As we witness the wreckage of a several decade-long party of self-indulgence, in which the "adults" of our society proved unable to "hitch outlays to appetite," in which we blithely deprived future generations of the generous material inheritance of the planet, in which we saddled our children with massive debt and diminishing prospects, I cannot but help but recall Tocqueville's ever-prescient words and wonder if, after all, the ancients were right about democracy after all.

Montesquieu believed that democracy was a viable regime, but only, and above all, if its central feature was virtue. The inculcation of virtue, he argued, was only likely in a small state, one in which self-government was a practical possibility, and in which prospects for material abundance and luxury were limited. Large nations, of great wealth and power, were more inclined, and ultimately tempted, to become empires. Looking at the historical example - Rome being prominent among them - Montesquieu argued that the greatest threat to democracy was always internal, and particularly the imperial temptation. Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance, democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question.

As soon as tomorrow the Congress - our legislature, voice of the people - may hand over powers to the executive that will allow it increasingly exclusive powers to run our economy. Already it has ceded its war powers, its budgeting powers, and its oversight powers. We implore the "vast, tutelary State" to take care of us - only provide us the prospect of fulfilling our limitless appetites - for which we will sacrifice all self-rule. In failing to govern our appetites in the first instance, we had already betrayed democracy. The vote that awaits is merely the final punctuation mark.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

George Will has penned some truly discerning words today:

We are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public.

Concerning which, a timeless political trope is: Government should budget the way households supposedly do, conforming outlays to income. But the crisis came partly because so many households decided that it would be jolly fun to budget the way government does, hitching outlays to appetites.

Beneath Americans' perfunctory disapproval of government deficits lurks an inconvenient truth: They enjoy deficits, by which they are charged less than a dollar for a dollar's worth of government. Conservatives participate in this, even though deficits fuel government's growth by obscuring its cost.


Getting beyond the canard that the crisis is the result of some nefarious cabal, we do better to

His clarity about the cultural basis of our crisis points to a deep question about the viability of democracy: if a people cannot govern its appetites - instead preferring to "hitch outlays to appetites" - can a people be entrusted to rule?

The ancients indicted democracy because they believed - often based on the historical record - that democracy was simply the tyrannical rule of the many over the few. Aristotle put a finer point on it - democracy is the tyrannical rule of the many poor over the wealthy few. Democracy therefore results in the unjust theft of property from those who are politically weaker.

Liberalism made possible a rapproachment between rule of the many and the interests of the wealthy few: by protecting "the diversity of the faculties of men" (in Madison's words), particularly as that diversity was manifested in property differentiation, it became possible to entrust the people to govern without fear of outright deprivation of property. Part of liberalism's genius, in fact, was to bring into consonance the interests of the many poor and the wealthy few, particularly by inculcating a growth economy.

What liberalism failed to check - and indeed, in many respects encouraged - is a form of "class warfare" that the ancients could not anticipate: the tyrannical rule of the many living over the numerous unborn. The rapproachment between the wealthy and the poor necessitated a redefinition of the relations between generations, placing economic growth among the living in a place of higher importance than generational responsibility. In his chapter touching on the relations between parents and children in The Second Treatise on Government, John Locke argues that there is no fundamental obligation of one generation for the other (except, a bit inexplicably but necessarily, the responsibility of parents to raise children until the age of "nonage." Upon reaching maturity, the generations owe each other nothing, though they are free to choose to treat each other well). What concerned him more was