Wednesday, April 16, 2008

False Consciousness All Around?

I am extremely uncomfortable with some of what I wrote in a previous posting (written about another previous posting), and Rod Dreher has forced me to acknowledge it publically. There is the express danger in the argument that we are ALL in the throes of embracing an unmitigated narrative of progress - even the good people who "cling" to guns and religion in Pennsylvania - that the social conservative position contains simply another version of the accusation of "false consciousness" that was implicit in Obama's remarks. That is, Obama implied, a la Marx, that religion is the opiate of the masses who don't have the same opportunities as our cosmopolitan city dwellers. In my previous post, I suggested that at the very least some of the anger expressed in the rural towns of our heartland has its sources in resentment toward the "successful" (and hence, a degree of jealousy), inasmuch as the narrative of progress appears to have been embraced widely and deeply in our culture. No doubt I overstate this, and far be it from me to claim comprehensive knowledge of the views of the many diverse peoples throughout this land. But, my libertarian critics are nevertheless correct to note that many small towns have emptied as other opportunities have arisen. I have a good number of students at Georgetown who come from these sorts of towns, and whose parents hope that they can be given opportunities at a place like Georgetown that will allow them to live and succeed in places like San Francisco. Moreover, and perhaps most problematically, many who remain in those towns have been complicit in the destruction of the economic bases of those very towns by readily embracing the opening of Wal-Marts and Home Depots, and ironically killing off the manufacturing base that once undergirded their communities.

So, Russell Arben Fox asks nevertheless whether I'm just a wee bit populist. I'd like to say yes, of course I am, but what does this mean exactly? I fear that we romanticize a time when - as critics note - there were no other good options other than to be involved in small town, rural, local life. But what do we mean by populism now? Are our small town denizens now any less inclined to shop at Wal-Mart or to watch American Idol than many other Americans? I doubt it; indeed, I suspect they are likely to be more inclined. The populists of the turn of the last century were notable because they realized that they needed to actively defend their way of life against encroachments from the centralizing and homogenizing powers of business and government. I am not so certain that many small town Americans are as willing, or perhaps able, to defend their way of life and the fundamental philosophical bases on which it rests. I would like to argue that they are not in the throes of false consciousness - that is, that they do not know their own good and it is for me, an urban college professor, who must enlighten them to fully embrace their way of life. Rather, I think we need to acknowledge that the dominant narrative of progress (and growth and globalization) has become well-nigh monolithic in our age, and intellectual sources of opposition have withered. As discomfiting as it may be, I am inclined to conclude that people who are blessed with some degree of time and the opportunity for reflection, but more importantly, intellectual connections with a countervailing philosophical and religious resources, need to articulate and propound this alternative from every available soapbox. This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case. This was no less true for someone like Chesterton living a century ago than it is for someone like Wendell Berry who - while every bit the farmer - is known to us for being a writer.

I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.

6 comments:

Russell Arben Fox said...

This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case. This was no less true for someone like Chesterton living a century ago than it is for someone like Wendell Berry who - while every bit the farmer - is known to us for being a writer. I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.

Bravo, Patrick--very succinctly (a talent I have never possessed) and very thoughtfully said. The discourse between yourself and Senator Obama--just like the discourse between each and every person who takes the time to familiarize themselves with ideas and argue about how to best theorize them and apply them to one's own and others' lives--is invariably going to be a discourse between members of an intellectual, and probably socio-economic as well, elite. But--and this I would insist upon--not all elite ruminations upon our social condition involve imputations of false consciousness. You can and should be able to talk about what some of one's fellow citizens do not realize about what's happening to their lives, and how they respond to those happenings within a democracy, with sufficient care and concern so as to not fall into stereotypes which do ride upon an allegation of false consciousness. I think you can and should be able to talk about small moves here and there to recover economic and cultural sovereignty--the real heart of populism, which is very different from majoritarianism--while taking the beliefs and practices of ordinary Wal-Mart shoppers seriously. In today's political world, such serious care and concern in speech and thought won't be enough, of course; the crime of "elitism" will be brought against you, and in this age of the mass man, you won't be able to much defend yourself. But you keep on, as Wendell Berry keeps on, aware that most dismiss his critiques of modern life as a kind of reverse-privileged crankery, always hoping that somewhere, someone will understand his point, and recognize the messenger as someone who has done his best to be one with those he is speaking to.

I really ought to blog this.

Patrick Deneen said...

Russell -
Yes indeed. And stated with remarkable succinctness and clarity. I only ask that you refrain from the use of "blog" as a verb. This is one "small move" that is worth fighting, and I think is winnable...

Bob said...

Patrick, you are correct that progressivism is "monolithic," and that any critique of it is seen as provencial, reactionary, and eccentric.
But, for those of us who see its abject failure and corruption of the human spirit, it is encouraging to stumble upon a true intellectual (Voegelin, Berry, Schumacher, Eliot, and, dare I say, Deneen) who get it.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Okay Patrick, I posted something...though I'm afraid your succinctness and clarity of thought continues to elude me. I did manage to avoid using "blog" as a verb, though.

The Eastvold Blog said...

Oh, goodness, now I guess I have to stop using "blog" as a verb, too...

Great post. This whole business of who's "populist," who's "elitist," etc. is so confusing. For instance, I try not to shop at Wal-Mart on account of my general distaste for unreflective globalization, cheap (and potentially dangerous) Chinese-made goods, all the rumors of corporate irresponsibility, and a preference for locally-owned businesses. I do shop there occasionally however, the reasons usually being price, convenience, and... the surprising fact that the Super Wal-Mart actually has a fairly large selection of organic, all-natural, and/or fair trade items. Elitism AND the nastier side of small-town (in my case, small-city) populism, all in one shopping trip!

- KPE

Anonymous said...

Was there ever a time when the leading proponents of populism were *not* from elites?

I'm not very familiar with the history of the US Populist movement from the late 1800's, but weren't the primary proponents educated men?

-Barry