Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Thoughts

When the history is written, it seems likely that not only will 2008 go down as the year when the fissures of the American way of life were made plain, but it will be understood to be the date when the beginning of the end of the American empire was made manifest. No empire of significant power falls in a day or a year, but in stages, like the slow motion internal degradation of a rotting building.

Historians will write with amazement and wonder at the madness that had swept the land, such that even (or especially) the best and the brightest believed that something - a great deal, in fact - could be had for nothing. In the course of a few months this year we went collectively from feeling wealthy and insulated from any great harms, to discovering that our entire edifice was built on a foundation of unsustainable risk. The last bit of breaking news of the year was the revelation of a massive Ponzi scheme, a bit of financial chicanery by which newer "investors" are fleeced in order to line the pockets of older "investors." The massive scheme hatched by Bernie Madoff - not now on impoverished little widows and orphans, but the power elite of America and even the world - was a smaller morality tale of the entire American financial system, one that had been all along premised upon impoverishing the young and the unborn for the sake of the living and soon dead.

Stories will be told about this year, with amazement that humans could have attempted to organize a society around a belief in the utter efficacy of self interest. This philosophy appeared to work for a time, and was well-designed to do so by virtue of the presumed existence of two phenomena that it neither created nor replenished. What allowed this philosophy of the Enlightenment - so-called - to succeed for a time were two gigantic reservoirs that the philosophy fundamentally held in contempt, yet nevertheless assumed to exist and even to persist: a long prehistoric accumulation of material and moral inheritances.

First, it assumed the existence of ample material that could be converted from a state of "waste" - to use John Locke's term for the natural condition of material things that had not been yet mixed with the sweat of human labor and use - that, upon being rendered useful for human use and consumption, would undergird a consumptive growth economy. The contradiction, of course, that lie in this assumption was the belief in a permanent co-existence of consumption and growth. The earth is a finite system, a closed natural system that has a finite amount of material and energy (including the constant stream of energy that is received from the sun). The assumption of modern economics was that increases in efficiency and the productive employment of energy, human labor and ingenuity would annually increase the overall value "created" the human economic system. What in fact occurred was the employment of a rich and seemingly inexhaustible store of non-renewable energy forms that, for a time, made it possible for humans to transform the "waste" of the natural world into the greatest wealth that humankind had ever known (yet, a better way of thinking about this "wealth" was that it was in fact the accelerated use of nature's bounty. We consumed in a century what might otherwise have been available to countless generations. In this sense, another way of looking at our wealth was that it was generational theft).

Prone as humans are to self-delusion and capable of fostering immense and engrossing distractions, we believed that we had created something wholly new and permanent - a civilization based upon human ingenuity that represented a new and permanent departure from the backwardness and myopia of previous ages. We refused, or were incapable, of seeing the reality of our "achievement": we had, for the first time in human history, tapped a finite resource base and built a civilization upon the assumption that it was somehow infinite. Even today, when the faith-based adherents of modern economics are confronted with proof of the finite limits of our non-renewable energy forms, the response is the assertion that human ingenuity will solve the problem. The "problem" was never subject to human ingenuity, since the problem itself arose not from the victory of human ingenuity, but from the foolishness of human ingenuity. Our inventiveness allowed us to employ with extreme wastefulness and lack of foresight a store of resources that had been accumulated over eons of human pre-history - we used what we thought was ours, and congratulated ourselves in the process. Our ingenuity appeared to be the be the source of this employment, but in fact it was the pride in our ingenuity that led our willful incapacity to see the endgame of this gambit.

What allowed us to submit to this delusional belief that the laws of physics had been suspended due to human ingenuity - particularly that we could ignore the second law of thermodynamics, dictating that all energy flows from organized and productive forms to dissolution and unusable forms, the entropic equilibrium that dictates the motions and destiny of the universe - was an explicit rejection of the moral inheritance of ancient pedigree, the Greek and Christian ethical systems - and their lived, everyday manifestations - that were explicitly and virulently attacked by the advanced men of the "Enlightenment." They urged the overthrow of the ancient prohibitions as so many arbitrary and inhuman oppressions, the unjustified circumscription of natural forms of human liberty that purportedly existed in some natural, pre-human condition. The success of this new philosophy relied upon the success of these attacks, the lifting of ancient beliefs and practices that, in particular, would induce generational amnesia, a forgetting of our debts to the past and our corresponding obligations to the future. A new conception and experience of time was introduced, one that - for the first time in human history - permitted, indeed encouraged, human beings to live solely in the present. The success of the modern project rested upon the overcoming and rejection of the legacy of antiquity.

At the same time, it should be understood that more deeply, the modern project relied upon the very inheritance that was being attacked - just as it rested upon the existence of a created natural order that it held in contempt as so much "waste." The inheritance of the ancients provided habits of living that stretched far into modern times - much like (to borrow an image from Vico) the sweet water of a river will travel uncontaminated for time into the brackishness of the seas, eventually mixing in until the freshness is dissipated. What we have seen in this culminating year of the American empire - and, quite arguably, the modern project, though it will continue on for a time, even oblivious to its having passed a zenith - is that very dissipation of those fresh waters that had continued to freshen the brackish waters even deep into the corrosive currents. Longtime habits of virtue, enactments of responsibility and unconscious acknowledgement of generational bonds had continued to maintain the order upon which the modern system rested and flourished, but in no way renewed or replenished. Thrift; moderation; liberality; self-sacrifice; these, and other virtues, continued for a time, but in this year were revealed to have been overthrown by the mad, even insane pursuit of temnporary and fleeting gains. We discovered at once that we had passed a tipping point in our consumption of supposed infinite energy, even as we discovered as well that we had passed a tipping point in the maintenance of the virtues that might have prevented us from such abandoned consumption. We found that neither our leading citizens nor the ordinary working stiff any longer exercised prudence or forsight in making some of the basic decisions that ensures the future of a civilization. The Ponzi scheme was suddenly revealed, and the house of cards came crashing down.

I suspect that we will now enter a time not unlike the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The expectation awaiting the savior - in the form of soon to be President Obama - indicates clearly that we are firmly in the first stage, denying any permanent significance to this moment. We await the righting of our ship of State, the restoration of American power and majesty, and more deeply still, the rejuvanation of the modern project of human conquest. In claiming an ability to "heal the planet," Obama offered the ultimate promise to moderns who are increasingly aware of the destruction that this project had wrought: to employ our massive powers to healing a planet that we ourselves had scarred, and in so doing, allowing us to continue our project of human dominion. The planet was never ours to destroy or to heal, but upon which to live: the belief that we can re-tool the economy to reverse the damage, achieve a non-damaging relationship with the natural world, create "green jobs" that achieve an equilibrium between human activity and natural processes - all the while restoring American power, status, and economic growth - is the newest and most ridiculous yet of the delusions that we have adopted in our enlightened times. Most telling to me is the fact that the Obama agricultural policy will remain wedded to a system that relies on limited fossil fuel inputs to achieve maximal caloric outputs at the cost of the ultimate viability of our capacity to grow food into any reasonable future time. Our willingness to ignore the massive damage to and erosion of the remaining topsoil of the American continent reveals most deeply that we are wedded to our continued belief in the our God given human prerogative to extract whatever we want, when we want it, at whatever price to be paid at some future time. Even as we laud our democratic accomplishments, our relationship to the world is totalitarian.

We will at some point in the nearer future achieve "acceptance" - as with any terminal patient, we will have no choice. We will accept the inevitability of the demise of our modern wager, the faith-based belief that we could master nature without being mastered by the consequences of our purported dominion. Acceptance will entail the death of a way of civilization and a philosophy that spawned it, but will likely not mean the death of humankind. It will instead mean that we will be forced into the realization of the limits of the natural world and the limits that any human philosophy must acknowledge. We will, in one way or another, discover our fallenness, our proneness to pride, sin, avarice, sloth, living in the shortest of terms. We will discover that our age was a profound heresy, a new living-out of the oldest temptation that bore humankind East of Eden, the craving to taste the fruit that we should not eat. We will, in time, discover that ours was neither an "environmental" nor "economic" nor "political" crisis, but a theological failing.

And, from this realization may come wisdom and a better way. For whatever reason - a trial imposed upon us by God for reasons we cannot understand - humankind seems to be destined to go through historical cycles in which we believe ourselves to transcend our condition, to be permitted to go beyond right or due measure, even to believe ourselves to be God. And, inevitably - whether we call it hubris or sin or nature - we are reminded of ourselves, of who we are - and who we are not. While ours, and likely the next, will be the generation that curses its fate not to have lived during a time of plenty and excess, and we will wonder why it was our bad fortune to have lived in the aftermath of an empire's glory, if we are capable of deeper and better perspective, we will understand the blessings of our age. From such times of trial a certain deeper wisdom has been made possible - one thinks especially Augustine's great blessing to have lived in a time that made it possible to write The City of God - and we may yet come to know, and accept - even embrace - the knowledge that our falsity will have spawned. While for most we will despair over our losses and pains, perhaps later if not sooner we will understand the blessings of this - our - time of trial.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Road Dependency

A recent article in the Washington Post outlines what is likely to be a battle that the political Left is likely to lose more decisively than the choice of Inauguration Day pastor - namely, whether the lion's share of the infrastructure stimulus will go toward existing transportation projects, or toward the creation of a new, "green" economy. Obama has already signaled that he will push for immediately effectual stimulus through the funding of "shovel ready" projects, meaning projects aimed at enlarging or reinforcing the current transportation system. Even without the exigencies and pressure for immediate stimulation of the economy (and the creation of large numbers of unskilled jobs), there was a strong likelihood that the lion's share of any stimulus package was going to go to "traditional" sorts of public works projects that have been at the heart of the great American build-out for the past 50+ years. There are simply too many interests, organizations and lobbying groups to ignore; demands by Congress alone would have ensured that legislation would be over-brimming with a variety of locally desired pork projects. With the added pressure for immediately effective economic stimulus, any efforts for long-term and not immediately stiumulative investment in a new, alternative "green" future are all-but likely to be put on permanent hold. Path dependency is simply too determining, especially in this case.

It is either farce or tragedy that we will invest further in an economic model premised on permanently cheap and readily available energy sources at a time when we have had our first taste of the reality and experience of peak oil. We will sink more of our increasingly limited funds (or, increasingly limited ability to borrow funds that we can no longer create) in maintaining or expanding a transportation system that, for a few months at least in the last year, was decreasingly being used as the price of energy rose so high to be a disincentive to travel. We saw - and continue to see - the housing of the far-flung suburbs losing its value as people began to re-think the wisdom of purchasing more house at distances that not only entailed lengthy and deadening commutes, but which were becoming so cost prohibitive to force people - for the first time in decades - to consider distance to be a factor in considerations of where to live. And, we are likely to sink more money into a transportation system at just the moment we witness the collapse of America's automobile industry - the industry for which the massive investment in roads was largely built to support and expand. Growing up alongside the massive public investment in roads, bridges, and the corresponding build-out of auto-based businesses, that in one way or another employs so many Americans that the taxpayer was not only on the hook in making the growth to such massiveness possible, but is now on the hook in preventing its collapse. The reason for its demise was long in the making, but the nails in its coffin were being nailed in when it was decided that it would continue on its own path dependency of massive energy wastefulness in placing all its bets on the SUV even after our first and second experiences with various energy shocks and the industry's (and government's) awareness that the era of fossil fuels was reaching its apogee.

The decision to bail out the automobile industry is essentially born of the same set of necessities that will orient the stimulus package in sustaining and expanding our current transporatation system, and more fundamentally, our current economic model. At the most obvious level, we have thrown so much of America's wealth into the creation of this system that it cannot be allowed to collapse, even though that collapse is taking place because of our confrontation with a permanently constrained energy future. More deeply, it cannot be allowed to collapse because the American way of life has become defined by the massive expenditure and waste of finite resources. We will continue to maintain this system - of roads, automobiles, suburbs, vast and wasteful supply lines, and in general our "consumer" culture - because it is who we have become. Yet with each additional dollar that we throw into this black hole of unsustainability, we spend ourselves closer to the collapse of this groaning, creaking, crumbling system that has no future. Nearly every dollar we spend privately and that is appropriated publically now goes to sustaining the unsustainable. Yet we can be certain that we will continue to spend what is remaining to be spent to do just this - holding off, if for only a few years or months longer, the demise of a way of life that was from the outset based on wishful thinking, short term thinking and deeply flawed assumptions about a future of bottomless energy and infinite growth.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Today is the winter solstice, the day with the least sunlight. According to James Frazier in the "Golden Bough," on this day (or Solstice eve) it was the practice in a number of ancient European cultures to collect large logs (including the "Yule" log) and burn them on the highest point in the surrounding land, thus lending heat and light to the sun in an effort and hope that its powers would again wax in subsequent days. Eventually it became the practice to burn the evergreen - the tree that remained green even during the dead of winter - to add vitality to the attempt. Invariably the effort worked - daytime increased each passing day until the summer solstice six months later. In this way ancient cultures not only practiced a form of pagan magic and ritual, but marked the seasonal passing of time, the annual cycle of the earth's rotation around the sun and the entry into the season of winter and the hope of warmth and life to follow.

Frazier intended his book as a kind of expose of the pagan practices that underlie Christianity, but such exposure could only really have purchase in an increasingly Protestant culture that sought a purified form of Christianity (or to expose it as a nonsensical collection of cultural practices that were not essentially Christian). Early on, however, it was easy to see how Christianity was able to adapt aspects of these ancient practices, given that they were not contradictory to the way in which time was experienced in the life of the church. While there have been many claims that Christianity introduces a linear conception of time, the life of the Church is experienced in a circular fashion - from Advent to the birth of Christ, through the "Ordinary time" in which the words and deeds of Christ are recalled, into the Lenten season of penitence and fasting (during the deadest months of winter and just before the bursting of Spring), to the Triduum and the Easter celebration of resurrection and renewal (coinciding with the beginning of Spring, with all of its images and resonances of fertility), and again into "ordinary time" until the coming again of Advent. The Church's calendar was overlaid on these ancient practices, recognizing the coming and passing of seasons, of planetary motion and of the course of human birth, life, death, and (it was hoped) renewal.

It has been persuasively argued by a number of scholars that linear time is the result not of Christian historiography (though aspects can be found there), but rather a modern conception of measured time that increasingly divorces the marking of time from the natural world and instead resorts to mechanical tools for measuring time (see, for instance, Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum's History of the Hour, which dates this development to some time beginning in the 14th century). Even if this dating is correct, it can be safely assumed that most people continued to live less by the demands of the clock than the movement of the sun and the passing of the seasons: this would be especially true of societies still fundamentally based upon, and populated by, agricultural work and farmers. The explosion and increasingly monolithic experience of linear time comes especially during the 19th-century with the rise of the industrial revolution, decreasing numbers of farmers in favor of industrial workers (whose lives do become increasingly parceled out by the time clock, or the factory whistle), and - as Wilfred McClay has pointed out in his book The Masterless - the need for uniform time zones due to the demands of railroad scheduling. From that point midday is no longer marked by when the sun is at its zenith in one's spot, but rather by a standard measurement of time that may occur as much as an hour before or after the sun's zenith, depending on where one lives in one's time zone.

Above all, the sense of linear time is not only experienced because of mechanical measurement, but due to a sense that time now marks not the rhythmic cycle of birth, life, death and renewal, but rather a clear and perceptible advance of human progress in the world - in particular, the growing human capacity to govern and master the natural world. We understand years not as cycles, but accumulations, as growth rather than circularity. As our mastery of nature advances, our basic reliance upon, and connection to, the natural world decreases, further eviscerating any sense of the ancient conception of circular time. Our use of non-renewable energy forms - beginning with coal in the 19th-century and petroleum in the 20th - divorces us from a deeply lived understanding of the connection of our use of energy for life from the sun. While fossil fuels are ultimately extremely potent forms of stored sunlight, we do not intuitively understand that connection, and rather both extract, process and use the substance with and for machines. The motions of the earth - the seasons, its influence on agriculture, our sense of the cycle of life, the resulting forms of humility and gratitude that result - are all hollowed as we increasingly believe ourselves to be divorced from those slow, steady, and predictable cycles. Our new industrial economy is based upon and celebrates straight lines, not cycles: roads that are blasted through mountains and are suspended over ravines; the trajectory of the bullet and the laser; the skyscraper that pierces the sky....

On this night with my children we light a solstice fire outside to warm the sun; we talk about the movement of the planets and the cycle of the seasons; we talk with expectation about the birth of Christ and the promise of everlasting life that attended his birth - that in this season of empty trees and chilling cold, the spring awaits and even now new life gathers itself. Our linear culture ravages and destroys everywhere; where possible, we should preserve what circles and cycles that, even where attenuated, still inform our sense of time and season. The fundamental things still apply, in spite of our willful efforts to ignore or overcome them.

Friday, December 19, 2008

False Analogies

A column in today's Washington Post decries President-elect Obama's selection of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration in a month's time. The selection has caused an uproar in the Left blogosphere, with many arguing that the choice constitutes a betrayal of Obama's promise for a more equal and inclusive Administration. Already it is evident that Obama is likely to be in for a rough ride from an energized Left that believes it is responsible for his election.

It's hard to know where to begin on this issue, one that almost belies belief that it is an issue at all. What is most risible about the pro-gay marriage Left's response is that it reflects a view that Obama has betrayed them by selecting Warren, who supported Prop. 8 in California (recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman, and thus de-recognizing same-sex marriages that were sanctioned in the wake of a court decision). Yet, one could quite reasonably conclude that Obama is actually acting consistently, having throughout the primaries and general election declared his personal opposition to gay marriage, while insisting that civil unions would generally suffice. In this sense, Obama's views significantly mirror Warren's own, and he bases his opposition to gay marriage on a similar (if more soft-pedaled) view that marriage should be defined exclusively as a recognized bond specifically between a man and a woman.

In today's Post column, Joe Solmonese compares the selection of Warren to the hypothetical choice of an anti-Semite to deliver the invocation. He asks, "but would any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, 'We're opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don't worry'"? Toward the closing of the column he decries the choice of the "anti-gay" Warren. Given that Obama also opposed same-sex marriage during the campaign, are we to assume that the support of Obama - even by members of the activist gay community - was "anti-gay" and comparable to the support of an anti-Semite?

Of course, it is widely believed that Obama didn't really believe what he said, and was only currying favor of Middle America (in which case, he arguably owes his election more to them, and thus must indeed respect the widespread opposition to gay marriage that many there hold. One could conclude that in selecting Warren he is being inclusive). After all, even while claiming to personally oppose gay marriage, Obama opposed the passage of Proposition 8, a curious if expedient position. Few have failed to notice that it was on his coattails - particularly his appeal to socially conservative black and Hispanic voters - that Prop. 8 passed. It's interesting that people like Rick Warren and the Mormon church bear the brunt of the fury of the gay community, while those ethnic communities - part of Obama's base - are given a pass. I have heard that they need to be educated, while it appears the Mormons need to be eradicated.

What this response begs for is a strong resistance to the notion that opposition to gay marriage constitutes a base and baseless prejudice akin to anti-Semitism or racism (another frequently invoked analogy is bans on interracial marriage). These are deeply flawed analogies, but their frequent repetition has the intended effect of convincing many well-meaning people that they are true and therefore there can be no argument. No one wants to be accused of anti-Semitism or racism, and if opposition to gay marriage is akin to these reprehensible prejudices, then clearly it's irrational and unjustified to oppose gay marriage.

The aim of this tactic is to paint opposition as irrational - purely faith-based, prejudiced, traditionalist and mean-spirited. Arguments that are brought by opponents to gay marriage are heckled, twisted or ignored. Solomnese alludes to a basic argument against gay marriage - that in sundering the connection of marriage to reproductive biology of one man-one woman, it wholly opens the definition of marriage to any combination of partnerships, such as polygamy, polyamory or incest (indeed, these relationships would biologically have a STRONGER claim to state-sanctioned legitimacy) - but summarily dismisses some of its main points without counterargument, but merely contempt. "More recently, he [Warren] even compared same-sex marriage to incest, pedophilia and polygamy. He may cloak himself in media-friendly happy talk that plays well on television, but he stands steadfastly against any measure of equality for LGBT Americans." Solomnese regards such analogies as outrageous, worthy only of ridicule or dismissiveness - refusing to address the legitimate claim that underlies them - even as he peddles analogies that are in fact outrageous. It is the word "even" that galls in the previous passage - as if such concerns are unworthy of consideration or below contempt. It's inconceivable that there is an reasoned basis by Warren or others who raise such concerns - rather, such considerations are further evidence of irrational and baseless prejudice.

It is a curious pass: we are not debating whether gays should or should not be arrested for illegal private acts, as was once the case. We are not debating whether or not gays should be rounded up and put in concentration camps, as the analogy to anti-Semitism is intended to intimate is the secret wish of opponents. In most cases, we are not even arguing whether or not gays should be accorded the rights and privileges pertaining to civil unions: indeed, my best understanding of Proposition 8 is that it would not have added a single civil benefit for gay couples already protected (and still protected) by civil unions. Yet, those who oppose gay marriage - including, apparently, President-elect Obama - are accused of being "anti-gay," of being comparable to anti-Semites and racists, and of being in the grip of wholly unreasoned and unreasonable set of fanatic religious beliefs and ugly prejudices.

I, like many of my friends on the Left and too few on the Right, deplored the usage of phrases such as "feminazi" used by the likes of Rush Limbaugh to mock and deride his opposition. Feminism in its many guises is a legitimate position to hold with reasons and arguments in its favor. It should be understood to be a basic requirement of citizenship to treat those positions respectfully, even if one opposes some or many aspects of its overarching argument. What we see happening now developing around the gay marriage issue is a similar and lamentable effort to paint reasonable and reasoned opposition to gay marriage - an opposition I share, and which I can elaborate more upon in a future post - as nothing other than sheer and spiteful prejudice. This might be a moment for a probing national conversation on this issue, but I fear the burden of irresponsibility falls on gay activists who have become so certain of the rightness of their cause that opponents to their position are increasingly being implicitly compared to members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi party. This slash and burn effort may in the end accomplish its aims, but only at the cost of any prospect of future civility and exchange of reasons that should rightly be the basis of democratic discourse. Of course mine is the audacity of hope.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Democracy, Rightly Understood

Rounding out a set of recent postings on democracy in America (here and here), I excerpt here a recently published essay that has appeared in the fine journal Critical Review. Critical Review is a theme-oriented quarterly journal of high-quality essays that are written by academics but generally accessible to an intelligent reader. I credit its editor - Jeffrey Friedman - in his judicious use of invitations and his refusal to adopt the deeply flawed "referee" system of journal publication. A good editor and editorial board can and should be able to publish top quality work that someone will actually read. Another excellent journal - Perspectives on Political Science, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler, follows the same model, and for that reason publishes work of high quality and wide interest. I am happy and honored to publish work in both places, and commend both journals to your attention.

My essay was written in response to an invitation to consider a series of previous articles on the findings of numerous social scientists (including Philip Converse, in a classic 1964 article) that the American citizenry demonstrates low levels of civic knowledge and competence. For some this is cause for despair over democracy's prospects and reason to believe that an elite-centered bureaucratic system is to be preferred. For others, it is a clarion call for civic education and increased levels of competence. These two responses were part of the theme of my last book, Democratic Faith, in which I explained that the responses to the data reflects less any empirical necessity than relative faith - or disbelief - in democracy as a system of government. In this essay I conclude with a reflection on the fact that we should not be surprised by this data - after all, given our system that was created to relieve us of the burden of civic activity and attentiveness, it should be no surprise that civic muscles have atrophied. The only mistake in the data is to assume that somehow this system should be called a "democracy." I argue that social scientists, and for that matter any number of elites with purported commitments to democracy, as well as a broad swath of the citizenry, need to broaden and deepen their definition of democracy.


A Different Kind of Democratic Competence:
Citizenship and Democratic Community

Patrick J. Deneen
Department of Government
Georgetown University

Democracy Wrongly Understood


The persistence of calls for good government that require the circumvention of other commitments to popular participation has deep historic precedence dating back to the nation’s founding. For all of the differences between the Progressives and the Framers – and the differences are manifold, as many scholars eagerly point out (e.g., Pestritto, 2005) – there nevertheless exists this striking continuity: both the Founding and the Progressive Eras are dominated by thinkers who praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systemic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence in the name of good policy outcomes. Indeed, it is curious and perhaps erroneous to debate the “democratic competence” of the American public, given that the system of government explicitly designed by its Framers was not to be democratic. The authors and defenders of the Constitution argued on behalf of the basic law by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Constitution would result in a democracy. They sought to establish a republic, not a democracy. As Madison would famously write in Federalist 10, “hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions” (Madison, et. al., 126).

In Federalist 10, Madison argued in particular that the dangers of democracies – conceived as small-scale republics (in his mind, roughly corresponding to the size of the American states, or smaller still) with a high level of participation by the citizenry – could be avoided by two recourses: first, by “the representative principle” of the new science of politics; and second, by “extending the sphere,” that is, creating a large-scale political entity that would minimize the possibilities for civic combination (“faction”), increase the numbers of interests, and discourage political trust and activity amongst the citizenry. Even while retaining an electoral connection that would lodge ultimate sovereignty in the people, Madison was clear that representatives should not be overly guided by the will of the people: the desired effect of representation, he argued, is “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country…” (Madison, 126, emph. added). Furthermore, by enlarging the orbit, Madison sought to foster higher levels of mutual distrust amongst a citizenry inclined to advance particular interests, rendering them less likely to combine and communicate: “where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” A portrait arises of citizens who each face a large mass of fellow citizens whom they are inclined to mistrust, and a class of representatives who – while elected by the citizenry – take it upon themselves to govern on the basis of their views of the best interest of the nation.

The very origins of mass democracy, then, appear to be bound up with efforts to minimize the creation of an engaged democratic citizenry. The dominant American political narrative – consistent from the time of the Founding to the Progressive era and even to the present day – is simultaneously one that valorizes democratic governance while devising structures that insulate government from excessive popular influence (more recent examples include “blue-ribbon commissions” and the growing influence of quasi-governmental but largely insulated agencies like the Federal Reserve).

What requires more reflection are the deeper presuppositions of what constitutes “good policy” [of the sort consistently called upon by social scientists who study civic competence]. Good policy for the Founders and Progressives alike were policies that promoted the economic and political strength of the American republic and the attendant expansion of power in its private and public forms. For all their differences, what is strikingly similar about the thinkers of the Founding era and leading thinkers of the Progressive era were similar efforts to increase the “orbit” or scope of the national government concomitant with increases in the scale of the American economic order. Only in the backdrop of such assumptions about the basic aims of politics could there be any base presupposition in advance of the existence of “good policy” – and that policy tended to be whatever increased national wealth and power. In this sense – again, for all their differences – the Progressives were as much heirs as the Founders to the modern project of seeing politics as the means of mastering nature and “the relief of man’s estate” (Bacon 2001 [1605] 36).

The Founders and the Progressives alike sought to increase the influence of the central government over disparate parts of the nation, while increasing economic efficiency and activity by means of investment in infrastructure and communication. Just as the Founders could promote the “useful arts and sciences” as one of the main positive injunctions of the Constitution, so a Progressive like John Dewey would praise Francis Bacon as “the real founder of modern thought” for, among other things, his insistence that “knowledge is power” (Dewey, 1957 [1920], 28) – or, implicitly, for maintaining that only discoveries or information that increase human power over nature are worthy of the name “knowledge.” For all of Dewey’s valorization of “democracy,” it should not be forgotten that his definition of democracy is bound up in whatever outcome would ultimately favor “growth.” For the Founders and the Progressives alike, the expansion of what Madison described as “the empire of reason” (Madison, 1999 [1791], 500) should be paramount, and on that basis stated trust in popular government was to be tempered by structural limits upon popular influence over good public policy.

Democracy Rightly Understood

Debates over “democratic competence” such as those engendered by Philip E. Converse’s essay “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Democracies” thus take place in a context that can only at the outset be considered to be problematically or dubiously democratic, at best. Indeed, the American political system was designed explicitly to avoid being a democracy - at least one that sought the expansion of popular participation on the local scale - and it was, arguably, designed to foster the political, economic and cultural preconditions for the disengaged, politically disinterested citizenry that authors ranging from Lippmann to Converse to Friedman lament as deficient. While these authors lament insufficiently democratic capacities of a citizenry, they ignore the very political structures and context that undermine the kinds of competencies that otherwise expect. There is a self-fulfilling quality to the laments, with evidence being presented that was in fact itself the result of a set of political arrangements that have been intentionally designed to render just such outcomes.

What is lacking in all these laments is a conception of democracy that fosters and inculcates the very competencies that are deemed to be absent. Such an alternative conception of democracy must encourage democratic citizenship rather than accept the basic premises of institutional arrangements that aim to limit or restrict active citizenship. Thus, attention must be given to a conception of citizenship that is fostered within a more robustly democratic context. That one finds little evidence of civic competence in the midst of increasingly global polities and commerce is not only unsurprising, but to be expected – and indeed, from the viewpoint of proponents of such an outcome – even ultimately welcomed.

There is perhaps no better indication of the impoverished conception of democracy that dominates contemporary discussions than the near-exclusive emphasis upon elections as the main feature and indication of democracy. The Federalists would regard this particular belief as curious at best, since the occasional and periodic election of representatives was to be one of the features of the new Constitution that prevented the new constitutional order from becoming strictly democratic. While the Federalists had a firm understanding that the modern liberal state was to avoid high levels of political engagement by the citizenry – a condition that could only result in mob rule (Federalist, no. 55) – in the post-Progressive period, many social scientists and theorists alike remain in a state of internal conflict, at once seeking to advance the idea and instances of rule by the people, even as they continue to valorize good government and objectively desirable policy in accordance with deeper commitments to the growth of the modern political and economic system. Thus, contemporary debates about “democratic competence” center on participation levels and relevant electoral knowledge without raising questions whether those very outcomes – low participation and meager knowledge – are not in fact consonant with, rather than problematic for, this form of government.

By contrast, a different conception of democracy – one attendant to a host of other considerations beyond elections – suggests that the current debate is fundamentally misdirected. Other theorists – drawing on ancient theory and critical of the handiwork of the Framers in this regard – would argue on behalf of “an older, more comprehensive understanding that makes citizenship, rather than voting, the defining quality of democracy” (McWilliams, 1980, 79). In particular, by such an alternative conception, what becomes the object of concern are the necessary political grounds for a flourishing form of democratic citizenship, the practice of which is likely lead to a variety of habituated democratic “competencies.”

Rather than beginning within the unquestioned context of an emaciated form of representative democracy whose citizenry is acting just as the Founders intended — distant and under-involved with governance, and regarding fellow citizens with a considerable dose of mistrust — concerns for “democratic competency” ought rightly to begin by raising questions about our understanding of democracy. A different debate might arise if we began by entertaining the possibility – even likelihood – that we have the citizenry appropriate to the regime; and rather than beginning by damning (or excusing) the citizenry, we might question aspects of the regime instead.


If the liberal philosophy of the Founding begins by presuming every individual to be a discrete and separate entity according to nature, an Aristotelian understanding begins by assuming that the “city” is prior by nature to the “individual”: we begin not at the level of separated individuals, but even in our various parts as constituted by a larger whole. As Pierre Manent has expressed this view, “In a body, the whole is present in each part: the same life animates each part because it animates the whole…. In a political community, each element is both itself and the whole. In this sense, every political community is a body of sorts…: each member lives within it both its own life and the life of the community” (Manent, 2006, 136).
Still, our bodies and their longings show us to be irremediably separate: the base fact of our corporeal apartness that underlies the political philosophy of the moderns is a challenge to the assumptions of the ancients. For this reason, Aristotle (and after him, in a distinctively modern way, Tocqueville) argued that much of political life must occur on a small and local scale: because our senses are limited and our longings are often lodged in the body or extend only to a limited number of people close to us, our capacity to subordinate our private interests for the sake of the public tends to be limited to relatively small and palpable dimensions. A democracy composed of public-spirited citizens is possible (if only with difficulty) on a small scale where we are likely to know and care about our fellow citizens, where personal sacrifice is not too divorced or distant from our experience of public weal, and in which there is the possibility of practicing the arts of ruling and being ruled in turn. In such a setting, citizens are likely to be deeply invested in the outcome of political discussions; and their influence on the outcomes of those decisions is more evident, and the effects more immediate.

In a nation of the scale and complexity of our own – and in which important aspects of the nation are increasingly giving way to global politics and commerce – there can be little wonder that civic engagement and civic knowledge are both dismally low. What is curious is that government on such a scale and complexity, such a distance from the citizenry whose role in its guidance is necessarily limited, can be regarded in any significant respect as “democratic.” Until we are willing to acknowledge that debates over “democratic competence” within the context of the modern political and economic system are largely specious and based upon a flawed premise, there is little hope of engaging in an actual conversation either about what would constitute democracy or civic competence.

In the absence of forms of meaningful participation in self-governance based in civic practice; civic education in the habits of “ruling and being ruled in turn”; a cultivation in what Tocqueville called “the arts of association”; direct investment in outcomes of political decisions within the communities in which citizens live; and the prospect that one’s voice matters in arriving at those conclusions, we can expect that “democratic competence” and participation will remain dismally low. But while we should not be surprised by current measures of democratic competence, neither should we have any right to expect otherwise, or to suppose that this is an indictment of democracy. While possibilities to encourage truly democratic political possibilities are constrained by the Constitutional system, there is room to begin considering ways of strengthening local possibilities for meaningful self-governance.
One of the first requirements for such a consideration, however, is to challenge the notion that our current system can be meaningfully called a democracy. A second is to challenge the idea that a major aim of government is to ensure that “good policy” decisions can be reached by limiting democratic influence; rather, in a democratic setting, what constitutes “good policy” will be the determination of actual democratic deliberation among a wide swath of the citizenry and vested in local circumstance, not a largely pre-determined goal that accords with the broad presuppositions of the modern nation-state which, in turn, by definition diminish the conditions for democracy. A third requirement, then, is to entertain the possibility that democracy cannot be defended either as a good in itself or as an instrumental good, but rather as a form of government that properly accords with human nature (thus, in certain respects being both good in itself and instrumentally good, but not exclusively either of these).

This is, of course, a controversial claim, resting upon an understanding of human nature in which only through an active engagement in civic life can human flourishing within human communities occur. However, while some modern liberals claim to have liberated human beings from constraining conceptions of human nature – i.e., the conceptions that would demand greater involvement in the public life of communities – liberalism rests no less on a conception of human nature, one that is deeply premised upon the centrality of individual self-interest. If many of our contemporary political scientists and theorists alike find themselves anguished about the lack of political knowledge and competence in the public, then perhaps rather than indicting our fellow citizens, we ought first to question our deepest (but thereby largely unconscious) theoretical commitments, which may be fostering the very conditions that discomfit us.

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Dewey, John. “My Pedagogic Creed.” In The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Vol. 5. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1972.

Friedman, Jeffrey. “Democratic Incompetence in Normative and Positive Theory: Neglected Implications of ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.’” Critical Review 18 (2006), no. 1-3: i-xliii.

-----. “Introduction: Public ignorance and democratic theory.” Critical Review. Astoria: Fall 1998. Vol. 12, Iss. 4; pg. 397, 15 pgs.

Madison, James; Alexander Hamilton; John Jay. The Federalist.

Madison, James. “Consolidation.” In Madison: Writings (New York: Library of America: 1999 [1791].

Manent, Pierre. A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State. Trans. Marc LePain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

McWilliams, Wilson Carey. “Democracy and the Citizen: Community, Dignity, and the Crisis of Contemporary Politics in America.” In How Democratic is the Constitution? Ed. Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute: 1980.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Pestritto, Ronald J. Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of American Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Purcell, Edward A., Jr. The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973).

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Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence. Ed. J. P. Mayer. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Wollheim, Richard. “A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy,” Philosophy, Politics and Society, ed. Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, 2nd Series. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Democracy, Ancient and Modern

An essay long-completed and hardly awaited is slated to appear as the conclusion to a forthcoming edited book entitled Democratizations with MIT Press. Written when I was on the faculty at Princeton, it attempts to explain the transition for an older definition of democracy - drawn primarily from an Aristotelian conception of citizenship - to the new one based on rights and individual liberty and autonomy. What fascinated me in particular was the way in which Aristotle intimates that a true egalitarian democracy (absent a slave or laboring class who were barely free) would only be possible in a technological society, but that a technological society (such as that conceived by Francis Bacon) requires the rejection of the form of self-rule defended by Aristotle (namely, based upon an Aristotelian conception of nature that is rejected by Bacon). Thus, a basic conundrum arises in which a substantive egalitarian democracy of the sort imagined by Aristotle requires technological conditions that make such substantive egalitarian democracy untenable. At a deeper level, I aim to raise the question whether the democratic ideal of self-rule is possible in modernity. I attempt a modestly hopeful, if chastened, answer in the closing paragraphs.

I paste a few relevant pages of the essay, here, for those who would like a taste and can't wait for the appearance of the $37 paperback in March.


Democratic Prospects in Undemocratic Times
Patrick J. Deneen

The Paradox of “Democratizations”

The ancient conception of democracy [as shared self-rule of a small group of citizens] is rejected out of hand for its historical association with inequality, particularly the existence of slavery and the complete absence of a public role for women. Ancient democracy held a robust and committed conception of citizenship, but that conception relied extensively on the effective disenfranchisement of a large segment of the population. Modern democracy, by contrast, strips citizenship of its substantive expectations, and by making it primarily a matter of formal recognition, extends suffrage universally. As Wollheim formulates the difference, “in classical theory the people is identified with a section or part of the population, whereas in modern theory the people is identified with population as a whole” (1962, 72). However, if in practice ancient democracy required this radical division as a means for making possible political liberty for relatively few citizens, there is nothing endemic to ancient theory that makes this the case. Aristotle suggested that distinctions between citizen and slave would evaporate if the work of “mere life”-–basic survival-–could be performed by mechanized “tools”: “For suppose that each tool could complete its work either by being told to do so or because it perceived what was to be done in advance...”--–in which case “managers need not assistants or masters need not slaves” (Aristotle, 1253a-1254a). Aristotle promptly admitted that such a scenario was more the fancy of poets than remotely within the power of realization within Hellenic civilization. But the larger point remains: inequalities marking ancient democracy were the result of material circumstance, not a fundamental failing of ancient political theory.

Modern theory solves the problem by releasing humankind from restraints that formerly pointed humans away from the domination of nature. Francis Bacon inaugurated the tradition aimed at providing “relief to the human estate,” promoting the useful arts and sciences as the handmaiden of modern politics, thus unleashing at once creative energies hitherto unseen and a transformation of nature breathtaking in its thoroughness (Bacon, 2001 [1605]; White, 1968). Yet herein lies the paradox of “democratizations”: if the modern project aimed at the “conquest of nature” makes possible those very material conditions that Aristotle fantasized might make the realization of universal civic equality possible, those very conditions appear to require a fundamental transformation of philosophy that in fact points people away from the ancient conception of civic equality and shared rule. The selfsame argument that emphasizes the priority of individual self-interest, the pursuit of material goods without limit, and the elevation of private over public goods, at once promotes the very material conditions imagined by Aristotle and the poets that might emancipate people from brute drudgery. Yet, at the same time, this philosophy also undermines the democratic beliefs that at base inspired the ancients’ fantasy of “tools” that could relieve human drudgery in the first place. In order to realize the conditions that might make ancient democratic forms universally possible, history suggests that one must develop an alternative philosophy aimed at mastery of nature that, in effect, makes the realization of robust democracy implausible if not impossible.

In light of this recognition, it’s likely that there is no plausible likelihood of “democratizations.” The complexity and interdependence of modern peoples, the massive growth in world population, the inability of most contemporary democratic citizens to rely extensively on their own economic products, makes even the most well-intentioned efforts to instantiate ancient conceptions of democracy frightful to contemplate, with outcomes more likely to resemble the French terror than a beatific vision. Yet the fact remains that, at least in the realm of theory, one can envision a form of democracy distinctive from the modern form, and begin more clearly to see the radical insufficiencies of modern democracy not only at the fringes of social policy, but on democratic grounds. Ancient political theory offers a corrective principle which points to the need for attentiveness to political democracy itself, rather than to the lip service to paid its pale shadow of economic choice and personal satisfaction. Ancient conceptions remind us of the nobility of rule and an even greater majesty of assent to rule (given that such assent may be against our immediately perceived “self-interest”), of those first grounds for democracy involving ruling and being ruled, of the civic whole that precedes the parts. These ancient teachings afford an encounter with a justification of democracy on the basis of human equality rather than as a utilitarian arrangement that best suits the modern project of nature’s domination and the belief that democracy is the fulfillment of the misguided claim “to live as one likes” (Aristotle, 1317b).

Prospects for Democracy in Undemocratic Times

In these overly self-congratulatory of democratic times, the prospects for democracy according to its more ancient understanding are meager if not moribund. The most ardent proponents of democracy in contemporary times largely eschew such alternative democratic commitments. On the Right, many equate democracy with the opening of markets and the continued growth of human mastery over nature. On the Left, many embrace non-economic liberation as the sine qua non of democracy, equating democracy wholly with personal autonomy in all of its forms, yet maintain distrust of economic libertarianism even as many of the manifold forms of personal autonomy that it recommends rest extensively upon the material advances and leisure afforded by modern economics. While the Left expresses more explicit commitments to political forms of democracy than the more economics-oriented Right, more often than not such civil devotions are manifested by calls for participation in movements and dramatic democratic “action,” evincing impatience for the hard discipline and even inglorious grind of daily democratic attentiveness (Mansbridge, 1986; Kelly, 2001). Perhaps more significantly, both the Right and Left are wedded to the project of globalization, whatever their differences over its specific character.

A conception of democracy that focuses instead on citizenship--not merely formal extension of electoral rights, but substantive commitments to shared civic life and public deliberation as a daily undertaking--finds less obvious support in these purportedly democratic times. Modern peoples schooled in a conception of democracy that recommends, above all, individual satisfaction and likely to equate the word “politics” with the distant cynical exploitation and manipulation of interests, are hardly disposed to embrace a conception of democracy that stresses discipline, sacrifice, and the willingness to reconsider one’s apparent interests in the light of the good of the polity. The very absurdity of the notion that there can be a single “good” of a polity of such vastness and overwhelming anonymity should already reveal to us the utterly foreign, even incomprehensible, tenor of such a conception of civic democracy.

At the same time, one must marvel at the near-universal embrace of democracy and the widespread ambition to effect various “democratizations” throughout the globe. Belief in the promise of democracy, even in these times of pallid democratic forms, nevertheless courses deep. Underlying modern democracy’s commitments to rights-based citizenship, jurisprudential political activity, representative democratic forms, and its recommendation of individual self-concern, nevertheless may lurk a devotion to democracy in its more robust civic conception.

This possibility was disclosed particularly in the United States on September 11, 2001 and during the days that followed. On that day, fanatics opposed to democracy flew above the skies of New York City and Washington D.C. searching for suitable targets, the destruction of which would symbolize their hatred of and momentary triumph in particular over modern democratic forms. In New York City, they chose two towering skyscrapers, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In Washington D.C., they targeted the Pentagon. In short, they set their sights on America as “military-industrial complex,” that entity against which President Dwight Eisenhower had warned America becoming in his Farewell Address of 1961. The attackers had concluded that America manifested the complete triumph of modern forms of democracy expressed through economic expansion and military domination, but for the fact that they altogether overlooked the nobler democratic commitments that also mark the civilization they despised.

Were one to have asked any average American what structures or symbols best represented their own self-conception of America in those two cities on September 10, 2001, it’s doubtful many would have named the buildings that were attacked on the following day. Instead, one modestly speculates that most would have named, in New York City, the Statue of Liberty; and in Washington D.C., the Capitol, the White House, or possibly the Lincoln Memorial. That many would have chosen these political monuments over financial and military structures as the paramount symbols of their nation is all the more noteworthy given that many Americans have been tutored to think of democracy as a system allowing for the fullest expression of personal preference and may in many cases lack a strong admiration for politics in its daily incarnation. The overwhelming and spontaneous willingness to donate blood, time, and treasure especially for those victims in New York City--a place that many throughout the country had been rumored to love to hate before September 11--momentarily revealed the residue of civic commitments persist in spite of modern democracy’s prevailing commitments to self-satisfaction. Like a palimpsest, the ancient devotions of democracy--shared political equality and a belief in our linked common fates--lingers below the surface of its contemporary definitions, leaving those more robust civic forms legible for those with the willingness and patience to discern their presence and to make their subdued teaching more visible amid the more obvious manifestations of modern democracy.

Tocqueville, more explicitly than others, discerned this dual nature of democracy in modern times. He noted that Americans tended to justify their actions in terms of self-interest, even when their motivations were considerably more selfless than they admitted. He noted that modern democrats – captured by the influence of liberal and individualist philosophy and capable solely of expressing even their noblest actions in the cramped language of self-interest – often “would rather do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch.8, 502). Yet he worried that actual motivations eventually would conform to the explicit language in which those motivations were framed and justified, eventually undermining the nobler motivations of the people in favor of their philosophic claims.

Still, Tocqueville also hoped that even such stated self-interest could be moderated through participation in democratic politics itself. He observed that citizens might understand their initial engagement in political activity as a means of advancing their apparent self-interest, but by means of the very interaction with other citizens, and by exposure to countervailing concerns, varying backgrounds, and alternative proposals, democratic politics itself leads to the possibility that each citizen’s “heart is enlarged” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch. 5, 490). Above all, democracy might flourish where there persists a commitment to cultivating “the arts of association”--those formal and informal political activities by which individuals are transformed into citizens and in virtue of which a conception of the common good could be achieved through the dynamic interaction among democratic citizens.
Tocqueville predicted the rise of “individualism” and the decline of active civil life. But more hopeful aspects of his analysis--a hopefulness that was momentarily justified in the civic response to the terrorist attacks--suggests that perhaps multiple forms of “democratization” are possible after all. Tocqueville maintained such hope in spite of the formidable paradox that exists at the core of modern democracy--that is, the embrace of modern forms of material progress and emphasis on economic freedom which make possible the liberation from the drudgery of “mere life” also simultaneously undermines our capacity to acknowledge a common civic purpose and shared fate. For even contemporary democratic faith rests most fundamentally on a belief in democracy’s potential and in the possibility of a political whole that transcends the many parts that comprise it. Like any faith, it offers grounds and inspires justification for greater humility--in this instance, for a form of civic humility that points to the fact that democracy is neither easy nor automatic, but rather requires extensive, even heroic civic commitments. While commentators from William James to Jean Bethke Elshtain have insisted that democracy is “on trial,” perhaps we do better instead to conceive democracy as a trial (James, 1897; Elshtain, 1995). According to its ancient conception, democracy’s trial takes the form of hard discipline. It involves the cultivation of civic capacities of rule and being ruled as well as the restraint of immediate self-interest. It requires the hard task of discerning a common purpose underlying our manifold interests. In its modern form, democracy’s trial inheres in a double temptation: the inclination to lose sight of democracy’s basic commitment to political self-rule, and its tendency to surrender wholly to its explicit foundation on self-interest. Because of its citizens increasing inability to resist these temptations, and the absence of statesmen and leaders who remind them of these ancient teachings, democracy is increasingly imperiled. By attending to the fragility of democracy in spite of its apparent powerful and reigning modern forms, we can again recognize democracy to be a shared civic project and an activity rather than a set of institutions, and thus carve out even a small space for the possibility of democratizations in these otherwise undemocratic times.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Babel Tower

The Washington Post has run a lengthy article rehearsing the origins of the financial crisis, particularly the chicanery and incredible conflicts of interest involved in the packaging of toxic debt in order to appear like sound investment vehicles. At every level the greed and willful suspension of disbelief coincided to create a grand mutual conspiracy of self-deception. Investment firms under pressure to perform, and in the pursuit of quick and easy profit, aggressively peddled this new product. "Investors," eager for outsized returns and asking few if any questions (until it was discovered that they were holding worthless bonds), eagerly dumped massive percentages of their funds into these vehicles. The government was only too eager to look the other way, pleased that these vehicles were the means for many people to purchase houses - whether or not they had any business holding mortgages that could not be repaid in the (likely) event that the housing market ceased its upward rise. Lenders were only too happy to generate these loans, collecting the fees and immediately selling them upstream so that the consequences were off their books. Borrowers believed that they could get rich quick - seeing the incredible (i.e., "not to be believed) rise in housing prices, they were willing to take loans on terms that that they could not realistically repay, on terms that often appeared reasonable (interest-only, teaser-rate, variable loans that promised low monthly payments for a few months, and the consequences be damned after that.

At the moment various story-tellers attempt to craft narratives that will fix the blame on one party or another - Wall Street, Fannie Mae, the government, speculators, people who overreached in taking on oversized mortgages, etc. - but what we should acknowledge is that nearly everyone was involved in some way, at some level. There was a confluence of interest, all revolving around the great American dream of getting rich quick, painlessly and without cost. A self-induced fantasy overrode good sense and old lessons that previous generations once admonished younger and over-eager young people to heed before acting rashly and without thought of consequence. In this case, however, it was many of our "wisest" people - political and business leaders particularly - who set a tone of irresponsibility and unreality. We have ourselves to blame, though that narrative doesn't produce satisfying winners and losers, or victims and predators.

It was a toxic and short-term bubble of an increasingly bubble-ridden economy. The immediacy of the various bubbles - their frequent inflation and violent puncturing - obscures a more fundamental truth that our frantic efforts to deal with the near-constant inflating and popping of smaller bubbles obscures. That is, the entire economic system, and its deepest philosophical presuppositions, is itself a gigantic fantastic and fanciful bubble. Its deepest basis rests upon the idea that it is possible to achieve infinite and permanent growth on a finite and limited planet. From the time of the industrial revolution - when we began extracting and utilizing various fossil fuels for the first time in a sustained fashion aimed to revolutionize world civilization - we had set ourselves on the course of the ultimate bubble. While we experience the jarring ups and downs of daily and annual economic turbulence, the overarching trend of the world economy since the industrial revolution has been upward, as a simple glance at the Dow stock chart since the turn of the last century will indicate:

Our entire political, economic and social system is based upon the idea that this line - notwithstanding temporary ups and downs - will continue its upward trajectory forever. The recent efforts of the worlds' governments - whether called "conservative" or "liberal" - has been to reinstate the upward climb of economic growth at any cost, whatever the later or ultimate consequence. Every aspect of our society is premised upon the permanence of this growth - the infinite inflation of the ultimate bubble. We have in all likelihood extracted as much of the most potent and most cheaply accessible forms of energy in fueling this upward climb. As a consequence we have generated the greatest amount of the fungible form of that energy - money - in world's history, and subsequently sought ways to put it to work in spite of the obvious depletions of our planetary bounty. Like a man climbing a mountain who refuses to acknowledge that he is at the peak, like a cartoon character we have used past momentum to ascend higher than the ground, hanging for a short time suspended over a nearly bottomless chasm, and now find ourselves plummeting downward in a cascade of unraveling finances that was in part precipitated by the encounter with energy depletion. We are experiencing the mother of all forms of economic entropy, having dissipated the greatest concentration of planetary energy (short of fusion, which seems to be exclusive to the sun) and unleashing a resulting entropy that is enveloping the globe with no less comprehensiveness and universal impact than the ascending form of "globalization" and "wealth creation."

I cannot say whether this represents the final peak on our ascent of the mountain of modernity - or whether we will find that this is but one severe and violent valley that we can expect to be a frequent occurrence as we near the top - but if we are not at the point of our decline from the peak of modernity (which I think to be a very real possibility), then we are closer today than we were a day ago and much further along than that time a mere century-and a half ago when we began our ascent. Only those who believe that humankind can create a balloon of infinite elasticity can believe otherwise. And unless we reflect on this path, we will find ourselves facing a precipice of dizzying and incomprehensible height and with so little oxygen remaining that it will elude our capacity to find a footing as we descend. While we act like Chicken Littles looking for a way to suspend the sky, we ignore the reality that the sky only appears to be falling because our Babel Tower grows higher, and more precarious, with each passing day.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a Name?

In a column last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed that Barak Obama should consider re-naming the Department of Agriculture to "The Department of Food." This change would signal a fundamental commitment to altering the course of agricultural policy in the United States, away from destructive forms of industrial farming in which a few centralized industrial players are given substantial advantages and smaller farmers either "get big or get out," and toward sustainable practices that emphasize more local crops, smaller producers and fewer petroleum inputs. Now that's change I could believe in.

In particular, Kristof calls for reduction of subsidies on "unhealthy calories" like high-fructose corn syrup, more and decent space for farm animals, and in general an overall reduction in the amount of costs being "externalized" by reducing the amount of costs like sewage and soil runoff being shifted to the public. In effect, the proposed name-change - emphasizing "food" - is to call for policies that would assuredly increase the cost of basic foodstuffs (almost all of which is derived from subsidized corn or soy), and thus result in a shift in the American diet and even a reduction of the overall calories being eaten. If we were to name things properly, we would be shifting from the Department of Gluttony to the Department of Temperance.

Yet it's odd to propose this one example of an encouragement to governance of appetite while on a far greater scale we promote the re-inflation of the great American consumption machine, witnessing a deep and fundamental agreement by Republicans and Democrats alike that massive amounts of money must be printed or borrowed in order to allow the "consumer" again to employ credit for the purchase of disposable non-necessities. Having bailed out banks, insurers, mortgage underwriters and investment firms, now we are about to underwrite failed automobile companies whose product lines were designed to appeal to American vanity and wastefulness.

What's more, the taxpayer will be asked to subsidize a company - General Motors - which turned the business of "externalizing costs" into a billion dollar industry, reaping wildly enormous profits while taxpayers paid not only for roads, automobile pollution, inadequate disposal of countless amounts of tires, oil, batteries and automobile hulks, a blighted landscape that sprung up to service the automobile industry, the destruction of existing neighborhoods to accommodate America's passion for the open road (see The Power Broker, about the life of Robert Moses and his profound altering of the neighborhoods of New York), but in fact assisted in undermining viable mass transportation systems. Forgotten is that GM was responsible for destroying a number of urban mass transit systems - especially the great competitor to the automobile, the street car (a form of transportation that is still used in urban centers around the world, and which was an encouragement to greater population density). GM purchased a number of mass transit systems over time through front companies and proceeded to dismantle mass transit in order to force upon people the option of choosing one of a variety of automobiles - while eliminating the choice not to drive. In this way they succeeded in promoting the illusion of choice while in fact eliminating certain choices. This is the company that now comes to the representatives of the citizenry in order to demand that they dig deeper to bail out a company that is too big to fail. How they became too big is conveniently forgotten, induced by a collective amnesia that a culture based upon instant gratification was designed to induce.

So, while we are at the business of renaming various entities of the Federal Government, let's consider a few other candidates. Starting with the Department of the Treasury let's call it by its proper name - the Department of Greed - or consider reforming it by renaming it the Department of Thrift. Rather than the Department of Defense (a wild misnomer - the Department of War at least had the virtue of honesty), let's either consider calling it what it is - the Department of Wrath, or perhaps Pride - or eliminate it in favor of a citizen militia run by the States. It's hard to run an empire with State militias, a major reason the Anti-Federalists opposed the existence of a standing army.

A few other suggestions. The Department of Education (or, sloth?) - let's call that the Department of Pointless and Endless Standardized Tests. The Department of Interior? The Department of Commerce? The Department of Transportation? The Department of Energy? Perhaps these can all be folded generally into a Department of Lust (luxuria), given their collective and shared aim is the increase of our material comfort by means of exploitation of the earth's resources and destruction of our human habitat in the pursuit of comfort and cheap plenty (whose costs are externalized to future generations).

Looked at in this light, what is evident is that the main organizations of our Government are designed to encourage, promote, and foster widespread lack of self-governance. The government governs an ungoverned populace - people who are consumers - driven by appetite - not citizens who govern themselves and in concert govern together. While we are in the business of renaming, perhaps we should stop calling that entity "Government" and instead call it "Appetite." This would have the virtue of honesty, and allow us more clearly to understand the basic aims and functions of the vast and powerful entity that - in deep concert with massive private firms - seeks to encourage the ongoing delusional belief that consumption is the aim and end of human life.

No, I don't expect Obama to change the name of the Department of Agriculture anytime soon. That would open a can of worms no President of the American Appetite would want to unleash. Best to allow the current abuse of language to continue, a fact that Orwell would appreciate, even if we largely cannot.