Thursday, January 29, 2009

Adieu, Culture 11

Rod (good newspaperman that he is) broke the news yesterday, and it became official last night: the brief, fine run of Culture 11 has ended. It's a pity: it filled a unique niche in the world of political/cultural/intellectual discussion on what might yet be a new Right. It was an effort to do for a new generation what "National Review" sought to achieve about half a century ago. Its financial problems - immediately a casualty of the economic crisis - I suspect would have been nonetheless perennial, since it sought a new direction for (or dare I say a rediscovery of an older, truer form of) conservatism, and not one that necessarily was going to be embraced by the financial powers in the Republican party. So, now the question still remains: is there a venue for new thinking, a deeper rethinking - or rediscovery of - conservatism that does not begin with trying to put together the ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle of Reagan's coalition? Is the a place for conservatism that is particularly attentive to the role of culture in fostering a good society, and in conserving traditions that are otherwise everywhere under duress in modernity? A conservatism that places front and center concerns for the local and the particular in this age of globalizing homogeneity? What of a new "green" conservatism that embraces the core ideal of "conservation" that ought rightly to lie at the heart of conservatism, that emphasizes the rightful place of "nature" in contrast to the human-centered emphasis on "environment"? And a place for religion that orients us away from the insistence of the things of this world to a priority of the eternal, and which rightly moves us away from an emphasis on self and urges the most difficult of the virtues - faith, charity, humility? Ironically enough, the internet still seems the likely "place" where to bring together a thoughtful group thinking through to a different and new direction, but perhaps a smaller outpost that will - in the best conservative sense - grow organically. Let's hope.

As for me - I return here to my modest outpost on the internets. I'll be posting here again occasionally. Welcome back to me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Symposium: On the Side of Angels

Over at Jacob Levy's website, Jacob has organized a most admirable book symposium on Nancy Rosenblum's new book On the Side of Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, a study of anti-partyism in most iterations of political thought, and a spirited defense of parties and partisanship. I am one of the respondents (I posted a reply in which I ask about the place for solidarity that parties have provided - which exists in tension with, if not outright contradiction to, prevailing assumptions of liberal self-interest - within the liberal framework and assumptions that inform Rosenblum's defense of parties). Other respondents include Henry Farrell, Jacob Levy, Mara Marin, Andrew Rehfeld, Melissa Schwartzberg, and Nancy Rosenblum. The web should be a great space for just such exchanges - let's hope it's one of many others like it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rational Control

We learned last night that Timothy Geithner was confirmed as the Obama administration’s Secretary of the Treasury. While this outcome was never in real doubt, the revelation that he had failed to report upwards of $26,000 in self-employment taxes when he was an overseas employee of the IMF became the closest thing to a scandal in the widely admired first week of the Obama administration. While there was some noise among conservatives – and some liberals – that it was inappropriate to have a confirmed tax evader as the leader of the IRS (yes, Geithner claims it was a “mistake,” but James Fallows, among others, thinks otherwise), with the economy continuing its deep tailspin to oblivion (55,000 job cuts announced today alone), it was clear that this particular potato would not be put in the microwave.

Still, people are right to be troubled by Geithner’s “mistakes” given the extent to which liberals generally rely upon the tax code as a substitute for virtue. Redistributive taxation is the single most dominant form of “rational control” that our society has adopted, in the midst of ever more pervasive forms of “rational control.” By rational control, I adopt the recent working definition advanced by Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, in which he points to the replacement of virtue by automated controls that act on our behalf in ways that would be virtuous if we were to have effected those same outcomes voluntarily. Says Mansfield,

What is rational control? In the brand new building where I work at Harvard, the lights go on and off, the shades go up and down, and the toilets flush automatically. Rational control has replaced individual virtue, which is subject to vagaries and may not be active or awake. As instruments of rational control, the seatbelts in your car are inferior to airbags because the former you have to buckle on your own and the latter save you without your having to lift a finger. These examples are small matters of convenience, but they add up. As intrusions into your privacy, your own control over your life, and your virtue, they also add up. In their very minuteness, they reveal the comprehensiveness of rational control.

One pervasive explanation for Geithner’s “mistake” was that the rules regulating payment of self-employment taxes in an overseas job are not automatic: not only must they be made consciously via quarterly payments, but (I have learned from this letter to the Washington Post) the computer tax program Turbo Tax is not set with a default to alert individuals that they should make these payments. Faced with the demand to exercise conscious and purposive virtue in the payment of his tax obligations, Geithner failed to act with precisely the form of "responsibility" that has tripped easily off of his President’s lips in recent months.

In fact, on this question of individual responsibility for virtuous action, vs. forms of automatic "rational control," lies one of the true and decisive dividing lines between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives as a general rule hold that individuals can and should be responsible for their own actions - whether virtuous acts of generosity (hence their preference for philanthropy rather than taxation) or individual culpability (why they are tougher on criminals) - while liberals emphasize the social dimension of obligations and responsibilities. In a recent book entitled Unjust Deserts, its authors Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue that the accumulated wealth and accomplishments of our society are the consequence of the collective accomplishment of generations of humans, and that all contemporary enrichment of society rests on the shoulders of a common inheritance. Thus, no individual "deserves" what he or she earns - since they have not really achieved anything on their own at all - and all living humans should benefit from this common inheritance through widespread income redistribution. The thrust of the book is to argue that successful people like Timothy Geithner should not only pay their taxes, but should pay significantly more and then have those larger tax receipts widely redistributed. This may be the kind of change that Geithner can believe in - as long as the taxation is more "rationally controlled."

While I’m not prepared to sign aboard the redistibutionist bandwagon - I’ll stick with the Distributivists, thank you - I find myself thinking that there is something deeply conservative to the liberal side of the argument. Whatever conservatism is - and it is many things these days - to my mind it is a defense of the idea of an organic social fabric that needs conserving and defending against the depredations of modern liberal anthropology, politics, and economics. Such conservatism - Burke’s conservatism - takes a dim view toward individualism. It has a high regard for the idea of generational inheritance and obligations. Such conservatism understands that an individualistic form of liberalism threatens the viability of community - its educative features, including and especially those that teach us forms of obligation and common care, as well as the limits upon our individual will, our greed and ambition. Liberalism was premised most fundamentally upon the liberation of individuals from the confines - or the enculturation - of such communities, and conservatism was born of the effort to thwart this undermining of the res publica.

Yet, our contemporary conservatives are the most ardent defenders of individualism and our liberals are the proponents of a more social and even socialized understanding. This reversal is not only because of the intervention of Communism - of course that’s of central importance - but, I would argue, because of liberalism’s introduction of "rational control" as the means of achieving some of the very social ends that might once have been similar to those pursued by a Burkean conservative. Liberalism seeks to put acts of social justice on "auto-pilot," above all because the form of society that have helped make liberalism ascendent relies upon a profound weakening of any sense of social solidarity or understanding of generational gratitude and responsibility. In liberating us from the confines of community, the immediate, instinctive and palpable sense of a community was replaced by a generalized, abstract and generally theoretical vision of Society. Having liberated us from the confines of community, now we are freed to care for the universal "community" of humankind - except that there is no such community. Any such care cannot be cultivated, but must be achieved by forms of "rational control." Indeed, in making their case for the generational inheritance of social forms of knowledge, Alperovitz and Daly cite innumerable academic studies proving the inherited sources of collective human knowledge, whereas in a Burkean community, our inheritance would be obvious in the lessons we learn at the feet of our grandfathers and father, in the kitchen beside our grandmothers and mother. In such a community, you don’t need a book to understand the inherited nature of knowledge - or a complex tax code that even confuses the NYC Fed Chairman - but the doing of a thing learned and taught from one generation to the next.

What liberals seek are the effects of virtue without its causes or the conditions that make it possible. Liberalism was born of a deep and pervasive mistrust of paternalism (read Locke’s FIRST Treatise for confirmation), but it ends with a grotesque version of paternalism without fathers. We inhabit a society in which lights are turned off, in which shades are lowered and toilets are flushed, but in which we effect none of these actions, and in which we are not required to even think why we would take such actions. We act socially without socialization; responsible actions are effected albeit without responsibility. As Kant predicted, modern republicanism could be created out of a nation of devils - as long as systems of "rational control" could be established. I imagine that in hell, all the toilets are automatic flush, though the sewer pipes lead right back to the people who couldn’t be bothered to pull the lever.

Modern conservatives should understand that their defense of individual responsibility is ultimately a defense of the communal, the source of a cultivation in virtue. Virtue is never the accomplishment of any one individual - I will agree with Alperovitz and Daly to this extent - but it is enacted and fostered by individuals, in concert with a healthy community of continuity, memory, and gratitude. Conservatives should properly understand the nature of their own commitments to the role and place of the individual - not as the monadic and disencumbered selves of Locke’s fantastic and fanciful vision of "childless men without children" - but as humans between the beasts and the gods, formed by and in communities and responsible ultimately for passing along the goods of those lessons learned to a new generation.

I will say - as a father of three - getting kids to flush toilets is damned hard. But, when they do, there are few more satisfying moments in a father’s life. Better even than the rush that accompanies automatic flush toilets…..

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The New Rome

An article in today's Washington Post notes the rise of Washington D.C. from a sleepy, backwater (or brackish water), Southern parochial town to a status that increasingly aspires to that of a world capital. Notably, the article stresses that the American tradition of decentralization and a more local experience of economy and politics meant that America was particularly noteworthy - in comparison to many European nations - in its diversity of "centers," particularly its division into various centers of finance, entertainment, intellectual life, manufacturing, etc. A few years ago the New York Times noted the significance of "The Atlantic Monthly's" decision to move its offices from Boston to Washington, signaling the decline of Boston as the nation's intellectual center and the concomitant rise of Washington, D.C. in that unaccustomed role (one might further note the growing number of "blawgs" that seem to have a DC base of authors - including the space where I now write, "Culture 11", in spite of its "conservative" credentials - a fact that somewhat belies the belief that the internet can be everywhere and nowhere). With the arrival of the Obama Presidency - concurrent with the worldwide economic crisis that will increasingly be Washington's to solve, along with a nationwide sense that Obama represents the salvation of the age - Washington is only likely to increase its role and status as the national and world center, in every sense, assuming a gravity that will only increase its tendency to draw everything within its orbit.

For me, the money quote of the Post essay is a summation of one argument from Daniel Bell's "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,": according to the author, "the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the country's prevailing 'business civilization' would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy. Corporations would eventually look to Washington's lead for regulatory standards, to sponsor research and make critical science-related decisions." This was prescient and correct, a process that is now about to be accelerated as Washington becomes the printing-press of last resort, the savior of a liberal and capitalist system that was purportedly designed to limit the reach and extent of government. The irony of Bell's accurate prediction is that one consequence of an unfettered market - or, a market with a particular set of fetters that promote growth and consolidation of industry - results in ever greater reach of increasingly centralized government. What if, in retrospect, it turns out that the best way to have controlled the expansion of the Federal government - and to have kept Washington a small provincial city - would have been to restrict the growth and consolidation of private industry? Would this have required some growth of the Federal government, and if so, would it have been sufficient to have allowed restriction of its greater growth? We won't know, and I think are likely never to know. Power may indeed devolve away from the center at some point - perhaps in the not distant future - but it will not be orderly and lawful, but the result of a cataclysmic loss of control that will be precipitated by a rising anarchy in the parts and the inability of the central government to enforce its will. Before that happens, however, centralization and control will reach an apogee, a constriction that will precede an explosive release. This article about Washington's rise to central preeminence is a fact to be lamented, but about which, I fear, too little can now be done.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Heating Up

This one will stir up a hornet's nest...

The words “global warming” may have achieved Pavlovian status. Like the ringing of the bell that accompanied the Alpo fed to Pavlov’s dogs, the words foster an immediate and instinctive response by adherents of our disparate political faiths. Among liberals it fosters the an immediate desire to put a halt to the unleashing of new greenhouse gases, a Gore-ish propensity to quote the latest scientific research and deep disapproval of the American way of life. Among conservatives it causes a condition close to the foaming at the mouth, a knee-jerk rejection of “purported” science, a denunciation of Statist paternalism and proud assertion of the rightness of our industrial project. The two sides could not be further apart on this issue. Yet, what strikes me is how opposite these respective reactions are to the stated political philosophies of liberalism and conservatism – so-called.

Contemporary liberals are marked, perhaps above all, by the modern faith in science and a rejection of the claims of mere nature. Liberalism was built on the modern scientific project inaugurated by Francis Bacon who rejected that nature was a fixed and permanent entity, but instead urged humankind – through its ingenuity and capacity to understand and decode – to exert governance, dominion, and even mastery over nature. Liberalism ecstatically welcomed the 19th-century research of Charles Darwin for its fundamental rejection of the idea of a notion of fixed and permanent nature created with intention and design by God. Darwin refuted the idea that nature was static, and instead – while it purportedly demoted mankind by rejecting the idea of a “Great Chain of Being” – implicitly promoted the idea of humankind as a self-fashioning creature who was capable of changing the natural world that was itself constantly subject to changing forces. Our contemporary effort to reduce everything to Darwinian terms (even religion!) reflects the view that all human artifacts and efforts are part of the instinctive effort to exercise control over our environment. We shape and reshape the world in our own image, and reject the antiquated notion of a fixed or “normal” conception of the natural world.

Yet, it is our contemporary liberals who argue against the human contribution to climate change, who appear to embrace the notion that the climactic conditions of the past several centuries constitutes the normal or what should be permanent condition of the world’s climate. Contemporary liberals seem to exhibit a reverence for nature that belies what is otherwise nearly everywhere a hostility to mere nature shorn of the human ability and imperative to govern its working (e.g., birth control, abortion, etc.). There is even a strong element of anti-humanism in the arguments of many opponents to climate change, the sense that human ingenuity in utilizing exosomatic energy represents an abuse of the existing natural world – and not a Darwinian survival strategy. Rather than understanding climate change within the dominant liberal framework of Darwinism – which would suggest that we are at least neutral to creaturely alteration of the world, if not welcoming of the dynamism it will unleash that may force further evolutionary developments and adaptations – instead we witness the invocation of a “normal” condition of nature that seems to be based upon a curiously fixed and unchanging view of how the world should be.

By contrast, conservatism – particularly as inaugurated by Edmund Burke – arose as a critique of the often Pollyanish and optimistic worldview of liberalism. It argued on behalf of caution and insisted upon an awareness of the law of unintended consequences. Conservatism was the locus of at least once principle – “the precautionary principle” – which urged great caution in the face of claims that human actions would always and everywhere result only in good and positive outcomes. Classical conservatism was firmly wedded to a conception of unchanging human nature – and, in turn, a created order reflected through nature – that demanded hesitation and doubt in the face of claims that the human or natural order was alterable at will. Conservatism regarded the governing claims of science with suspicion and hesitancy, arguing against its universalizing tendencies and its efforts at dominion, and arguing on behalf of the legitimacy of longstanding local practices of culture and tradition that modern science often sought to eviscerate.

Yet it is our contemporary conservatives who most blithely reject the import or relevance of many findings that suggest increases in global temperature are the result of human industrial activity. It is our conservatives who today urge the rejection of “the precautionary principle” when speaking of global warming, who insist that it is the liberals who are Chicken Littles. At times they argue that – even if the evidence is true – we will have the ingenuity to find technologies and scientific solutions for the problems that are generated by the very successes of modern science. They are optimistic about our mental prowess and confident that any changes will not be so significant that we cannot redress them. They retain a commitment to our dynamic and energetic society that generates innovation and change.

In short, when it comes to the issue of “global warming,” our liberals seem to embrace a conservative stance, while our conservatives appear to evince all the earmarks of liberalism. What gives?

Dare I submit that global warming is not really about global warming – not really? Global warming, it seems to me, is a proxy battle in a larger war, a bit like Vietnam was a proxy war in the greater conflagration of the Cold War. As such, we find ourselves aligned with peculiar allies and defending uncomfortable positions. Indeed, the comparison to Vietnam is not inapt, since Global Warming is now where many of the political and culture wars have now come to rest. It is an issue around which a now-traditional set of ideological divisions have now come to roost – ones that curiously lead our conservatives to hold a deeply unconservative position and our liberals to act illiberally.

Of course, the immediate and most palpable issue is that of free market economics: contemporary “conservatives” hold a adhere to a deeply anti-conservative faith in an unregulated market that is a remnant of the Cold War, while liberals dream of a world State in which we achieve Rawlsian redistributive justice that can be measured based on our respective carbon footprints. Inasmuch as the fight over global warming can be reducible to a debate over the relative merits of the free market, the incoherence of these two positions is a direct inheritance of the Cold War.

Still, even these respective positions on the economy itself reflect a deeper divide over a more fundamental question. What seems to be is at deeper issue is the battle over the existence of human nature. For those on the Left, Global Warming represents the best contemporary avenue toward the age-old ambition to overcome that recalcitrant part of human nature that seems to belie the belief that we can change ourselves without limit – self-interest. If a new form of global consciousness is possible, then its best prospect for realization appears to be through the inculcation of an immediate sense of the interconnectedness of all things. Echoing the 19th-century hope among some utopians for the creation of a new “cosmic consciousness” (the most popular book of the late-19th century – Looking Backwards, by Edward Bellamy – was premised upon the achievement of such a form of consciousness in the year 2000), the primacy of the issue of “global warming” among today’s liberals is a continuing echo of that ambition to overcome the recalcitrant existence of the human ego. Weirdly, the Left adopts a “conservative” stance toward the achievement of anti-conservative transformation of the human creature.

Meanwhile, for those on the Right, the effort to transform human consciousness on this issue represents a step the age-old liberal faith in the plasticity of human nature. Their insistence that humans continue to act in accordance with the economic imperatives based in human self-interest reflects their Pavlovian understanding that underlying the utopianism of liberal efforts to foster a new consciousness is a kissing cousin of socialism and Marxism.

Ironically, this proxy battle is taking place in spite of, and not because of, the actual issue of global warming. It is our conservatives who should rightly be warning of a potential catastrophe for humanity out of a plenitude of caution and prudence. Our conservatives should be urging restraint of our industrial activities out of ample concern for “the precautionary principle.” It is our liberals who should be less wed to a conception of a “normal” or permanent natural condition, unaltered by biological activity. They should celebrate the dynamism of our society and its success in liberating us from the constraints of culture and tradition.

Doubtless this incoherence is with us to stay for a time – perhaps a very long time. But we should recognize it for what it is: above all, that both camps are not really debating over global warming. Were liberals truly devoted to a reduction of greenhouse gases, they would have to sacrifice one of the fundamental pillars of liberalism: the pursuit of human liberation from nature. Liberalism’s admirable concern about global warming is informed by a high degree of incoherence, in the first instance partaking of a deeply anti-humanistic belief that, at base, draws on classical liberalism’s division between nature and culture. Further, and more incoherently, the current liberal faith relies unrealistically on a kind of technological optimism that holds we can run our current civilization, continue worldwide economic growth and “development,” all the while cutting back substantially on the exosomatic energy sources that have made much of modernity possible. Their concerns are real enough, but nevertheless they otherwise occupy a realm of unreality.

Meanwhile, our conservatives are trapped even more deeply in a state of incoherence. Their devotion to an unregulated free market is one of the deepest sources of anti-conservatism in our time. Their blithe acceptance of the “creative destruction” of the market is the single greatest contribution to the evisceration of traditional “family values.” Their implicit hostility to nature attacks the deepest source of conservatism’s meaning – the imperative to conserve. It is my hope that a new generation of conservatives – highlighting the root word “conserve” – will change the dynamics of this debate. By urging a concern for the natural order; by insisting upon governance of our appetites; by inculcating prudence and respect for the natural order; by pointing out the incoherence of both contemporary positions, perhaps we will indeed find a better way to exist in a natural order that we did not ourselves create, upon which we rely for life and livelihood, and of which we are finally and permanently a part. Whether and what will happen as the planet warms is unknown to me. To be blithely optimistic that we’ll figure out how to deal with it – that science and the market will find a way – seems to me to be the very antithesis of a properly conservative response. Politics inevitably makes strange bedfellows, but one must always be wary of how you’ll feel about your bedmate the morning after.

(Cross-posted at Postmodern Conservative)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Say Hello to the New Boss

A short time ago Barack Obama became the nation’s chief executive and the leader of the Free World. His inauguration as 44th President was historic and nation-altering: what was at one time an inconceivable dream - an African-American President - is now a daily fact. Flying in on Sunday from California amid a planeload of revellers and walking yesterday on the Mall with my children in Washington D.C., it was exciting and heady to participate in the electric anticipation especially of the throngs of African-Americans from around the nation.

Obama’s inaugural address was at times moving, and especially praiseworthy was his opening recollection of the sacrifices that were made by previous generations for our benefit, and his closing call for service to ideals greater than ourselves. Still, at times its message was mixed, if not in contradiction to these sentiments, in general calling for hard work in the ambition to put America back on the course of greatness and growth - arguably those twin engines that have come, for most, to define the very essence of freedom that was being celebrated today. And, in asserting that "we will not apologize for our way of life," Obama did nothing less than echo the ongoing sentiments of previous Presidents - often in times of bellicosity and national self-assertion, if not self-indulgence - such as George H.W. Bush who in 1992 declared that the "American way of life is non-negotiable," or George W. Bush’s summation of the 9/11 as either the demand that we change our way of life, or we change theirs. Those moments were reminders that the Obama mantra of "change" did not fundamentally include the self-understanding of the regime. We remain a modern republic in the model originally articulated first by Machiavelli, and the Presidency remains the main agent of the modern project of expansion and dominion. The declaration today by Obama to reinvigorate the American promise - for all of its nobility of intention and inclusiveness - remained well within the mainstream of the American creed devoted to personal liberty based upon the conquest of nature and American power premised upon economic, scientific and military dominance. In this sense, Obama’s inaugural address was not outright disappointing, but utterly expected, conforming to the project formed long before his birth, and thus generally predictable: there will be changes in emphasis and style, but still the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night; still we believe in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us, and still we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…

The Presidency was a central feature in the new Constitution that would advance the prospect of the expansive project of modern republicanism. In his book Taming the Prince, Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. argued with great insight that the modern executive is in practical effect the living remnant of Machiavelli’s Prince, the leader who, when necessary, will act outside the bounds of morality and the narrow constraints of law. As defended first by Founding Father James Wilson (who first proposed the unitary executive in the Constitutional convention) and then Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 70, "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch" would characterize the executive officer, a person who would act in ways often opposite to, and indeed at times in circumvention of, the slow, deliberate and "inactive" pace of a more numerous and divided legislature. This role of the executive was seen as the force that would preserve the constitutional order: if the Constitution was marked by a Kantian devotion to law and principle, its practical viability was made possible by the a-moral agency of the Executive who would necessarily at times act out of the forces of exigency. To put it in philosophical terms, an agent of consequentialism was deemed necessary to preserve the deontological commitments of the Constitution. Many of our most divisive court cases are practical distillations of these two philosophical worldviews - e.g., LIncoln’s suspension of habeus corpus, Korematsu v. U.S., or the question of the role of Guantanamo and interrogation all represent confrontations of the Machiavellian vs. the Kantian. The famous phrase by Robert H. Jackson from his dissenting opinion in Terminello v. Chicago - "the Constitution is not a suicide pact" - expresses the belief in the permanent necessity of the "Machiavellian" to preserve the viability of the Constitutional order. One’s adherence to either side of this divide marks one of the fundamental distinctions between "conservatives" and "liberals" in our regime, between those whose view of human nature tends toward a Machiavellian realism or Kantian idealism, between a view of humans as permanently fallen or potentially redeemable.

Mansfield’s analysis is remarkably insightful, but insufficient for its lack of exploration of what the end, or aim, of the Machiavellian exective is. If the end justifies the means, we have a far clearer idea of the variety of means than the end. It turns out, in fact, that why the Machiavellian and the Kantian can co-exist - if in tension - is that the ends they share are in fact fundamentally the same. Both philosophies - deriving from a deeper philosophy of modernity itself - aim at the expansion of human dominion over the natural world and the enlargement of liberty by means of the increase of human control and mastery. Machiavelli’s comparison of the mastery of "Fortune" to the building of dikes and dams to control the effects of flooding (see Federalist 10 for a similar argument couched in political terms) is of little difference to Kant’s embrace of Enlightenment ambitions to unleash the practical and technical capabilities of modern science in the expansion of human mastery. For this reason, both are wedded to expansionist political projects - Machiavelli, in his efforts to collapse the ancient language of republic within a modern project of empire, and Kant’s call for an ever greater expansion of cosmopolitan republicanism culminating - for some modern Kantians - in the dream of the world State. If Kantians have relied upon Machiavellians for the fulfillment of this agenda, similarly Machiavellians have happily resorted to calls for the expansion of liberty and democracy (sound familiar? - bon voyage, W) in the shared aims of expansion. The longstanding purported conflict in International Relations between "realists" and "idealists" is a blinkered and diverting purported debate that masks the deeper set of agreements between these two schools - an agreement that has been practially pursued identically by "Machiavellian" and "Kantian" Presidents alike. At the deepest level there is no disagreement about the ends sought by Machiavellians and Kantians, or more narrowly, between our Republicans and Democrats - merely a difference in means. Growth and expansion remain the ends we seek. Obama will be no different than his predecessors, all claims to "change" notwithstanding.

In fact, for all the changes in parties, ideologies, philosophies and rhetoric, there has been one identical feature of the Executive from the very outset: it is the agent of expansion, represented most immediately by its own enlargement of power over the course of the republic’s history. The Presidency has continued to grow as the expansion of the modern project has also unfolded apace: the very success of that project especially in the economic, but also political and social realms has demanded ever greater "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch," and has necessarily grown impatient with, and moved beyond reliance upon, the slower and plodding pace of the legislative and deliberative branches. While the school-house version of the Founding often stresses the idea that it sought a balance of powers and divided government, in fact its aim was to replace the clunky and slow-working system under the Articles of Confederation, and in particular to accelerate the consolidation of the various States through legislative and economic integration. The very success of the Constitutional order in achieving that end necessarily required ever greater "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch" on the part of the Executive, to the point now at which we witness a hope and belief that a single individual can attain the salvation of the polity and perhaps heal the world. Obama’s claim that "the ground has shifted beneath" those who would question the scale of government is absolutely true - but was already fundamentally true from the moment that the Executive office got underway in 1789. His assertion that what matters is what "works" begs the question of what constitutes "working." The pretense that he uniquely represents the transcendence of old debates over the scale and scope - and more importantly, the end - of modern republicanism is a canard, since all previous office-holders of the executive office have accepted the basic ambition of the modern republic. To do otherwise would be to represent real change - and Obama, all appearances to the contrary, is anything but an agent of any such fundamental change. His call for sacrifice - even his invocation of "virtue and hope" - were made means to the end of renewing the modern project of expansion and growth. In no way can his Inaugural address be construed as a call for real change, such as the inculcation of virtue aimed rather at the governance of appetite and the lessening of our reliance upon growth as the source of national meaning. Any such call would exist in contradiction to the implicit aim of the modern Executive, and would indeed constitute real change.

Today I celebrate with my nation the peaceful transition of power and the ascent of a man of African descent to the Presidency. Yet, too, I lament that we remain trapped within the deepest presuppositions of philosophies born in early modernity that have at their heart the premise of mastery and dominion of the world and even humanity. Until and unless we achieve a better and truer understanding of freedom - that freedom is not achieved by the enslavement of the world, but by the governance of our appetite and desires - then we will remain ourselves enslaved to the worse angels of our nature. We await an emancipation, but today’s proclamation portends that it still lies in a future yet distant.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sticking It

I reply to a reply by Peter Lawler to last week's post, here and below. Perhaps I am wrong, but I tend to think the most interesting debates are among intellectual kin. I agree with Peter roughly 97% of the time, so it's the 3% that is of great interest to me.

I post this from Santiago, Chile, where I have had the privilege during the past week to co-teach a seminar on political and social thought. A few random observations, based on a very limited exposure to the city and my first trip at all to any part of South America:

1. It is a very modern city, in many ways indistinguishable from a big European or many American metropolises. At least those areas I have been staying in and visiting, there is extraordinary evidence of prosperity. Still, there is everywhere evidence of a Latin culture, including random store opening hours, cafes that seem to be full at all times of the day, and a dinner hour that starts usually after 9.

2. I continue to be struck by the number of wild dogs that roam the streets of Santiago. They live among, but not with, human beings. They seem well fed, which is perhaps why they are satisfied not to bother people. Still, it's jarring to come across random dogs lying around the streets, sometimes traveling in packs, and more or less doing what dogs would do if they weren't restricted to traveling on leashes.

3. The students from throughout South and Latin America are very good - I think not yet wholly infected by the American contagion of grade-seeking and intense meritocratic striving that can make it difficult to engage in intellectual discussion for the sake of wanting to know. The students readily crowd around the professor after a lecture to continue talking, and would gladly, I think, continue talking about the topic until dinner time, and probably beyond.

4. Though my Spanish is SEVERELY limited, people overall have been very tolerant of my fumbling efforts, even downright helpful. There is very little of evidence of impatience that one frequently encounters in parts of Europe, particularly tourist destinations and pretty much everywhere in France. I account for this in part because there are far fewer Americans here than in the major outposts of Europe, and hence less impatience with "the ugly American," but suspect as well that it may also be particular to Chile, which is far more pro-American than most other countries of South and Latin America (from what I am told, at least).

5. I find myself wondering about the relative merits and demerits of the authoritarian regime of Pinochet. I don't have any developed views on the matter, and know that there are many who do, so I offer no underinformed speculation. Nevertheless, given that in many respects Santiago appears to be a very prosperous, well-ordered and successful city, how much can one conclude that the success of liberalism and free markets in some cultures rests on the successful use of dictatorial powers? Discuss.


Not to revisit a debate that, by internet standards, is now ancient history – having taken place as a result of my posting last week in criticism of the modern conservative commitment to profoundly anti-conservative philosophy of liberalism – but looking over what Peter wrote and others posted as comments, I think it is interesting to draw out some of the implicit problems of a “stuck with virtue” conservatism.

There is, on the one hand, a kind of end-of-history resignation to the fact of liberalism’s necessary and irreversible triumph. There is the suggestion that a political liberalism and free market capitalism is the most natural regime and economy for human beings, as if there were not great struggle and contrivance that had to take place for its success. Peter suggests - passingly - that markets succeed naturally because they accord best with our nature as acquistive creatures. This is, at best, itself an exaggeration of the supposed inevitable march of free markets in the world. Even surveying American history, there was considerable effort exerted by pro-liberal, pro-market forces on different aspects of American culture that were resistant (I won’t mention the problematic case of the American South; one can think, instead, of efforts by Midwest farmers to resist the coming of proto-globalization during the Populist movement. The fact that they resisted its advance certainly can’t be chalked up to false consciousness, can it?).

Peter suggests that it is because of the very success of modern liberalism that virtue is more necessary than ever. Because of the inevitable inability for humans to conquer nature in all respects – the fact that we are still the creature that is conscious of its own death, above all, no matter our ability to conquer ever more of nature – means that we must necessarily rely upon the classical and Christian virtues. Yet, because we are also ever more successful in the technological ability to govern even the inevitable anxieties that remain amid our progress (one thinks here of Prozac, everpresent distractions of popular culture, and the like), our ability and inclination to cultivate and practice those virtues is more difficult than ever. Lawler suggests that we simultaneously need, and have the opportunity to avoid, those virtues more than ever.

There is a kind of resignation to this tragedy of liberalism’s success, but also a sense that those who do practice a kind of virtue are more virtuous than ever. Virtue came relatively easier to a pre-modern people who did not have to confront the liberating force and success of modern liberalism and its attendant prosperity and mastery of nature. Those who are able to live with their modern misery – even live well – are more virtuous than any Aristotleian Greek or mendicant monk. Virtue is a greater accomplishment than ever.

More than that, virtue is precisely more virtuous than ever because it, too, has been liberated from necessity. Naturally it is far easier to be virtuous where there are fewer choices, fewer temptations, fewer options. Precisely by making virtue itself a choice – perhaps the ultimate choice, given that it consists in part in the choice not to choose (e.g., not to take Prozac, to wallow in the truth of our misery), virtue becomes truer and purer than ever before.

Yet, this very argument begins to resemble a kind of Kantian ethical heroism, whereby we eschew some aspects of a hedonistic modernity through the herculean exercise of human will. The practice of virtue itself becomes a form of “the triumph of the will”: it rests in the power of individuals to achieve an extraordinary self-willed, conscious exercise of increasingly difficult forms of virtue.

But perhaps this is the wrong way to proceed, and misunderstands virtue: perhaps virtue was not supposed to be this hard or this willed, but rather was an accomplishment not of individuals, but of cultures. After all, it is Aristotle who begins in the Nicomachean Ethics to speak of virtue as a form of habituation, a pre-conscious set of practices that we learn before we are necessarily conscious of them as virtues. One can compare the habituated acquisition of pre-modern virtue to the learning of table manners: children are taught gradually the proper way of eating in a civilized manner before they have any awareness of the grounds for such practice. Indeed, it is seldom the case that even parents know the deeper cultural and even philosophic grounds for the practice of table manners: it is something into which they were likewise habituated when they were children. There is a strong suggestion in Aristotle that most of the virtues of humans begin, and are ultimately successful, due to successful habituation, and not the heroic philosophic and willed capacity to act with virtue in spite of the structure and assumptions of the wider society.

What we need perhaps to entertain is the non-liberal idea that virtue can be the achievement of a culture – the capacity to habituate generation upon generation into the practice of various civilized virtues. Rather than drawing on a liberal, individualistic paradigm in which we understand such people to have fallen short of heroic self-willed forms of virtue, we can rather understand that the capacity to continuously and successfully transmit certain forms of habituated virtue is a signal accomplishment of a culture. In some senses, it is actually such people who are “stuck with virtue,” or for whom virtue is stuck to them from a very young age.

What I attempted to convey in my last post is the idea that what liberalism does exceedingly well is break the transmission of culture. By displacing the authority of the past – in the form of tradition, custom, and ancestral – it is produces a culture of anti-culture. The virtuous person in such an environment is simply the lastest manifestation of the self-made man: someone who pulls himself up by his moral bootstraps in spite of the challenges that the age presents. This is simply a reification of the voluntarism and the valorization of the naked human will that marks the trajectory of modern liberalism.

Such virtue has the unvirtuous effect of undermining the inculcation of virtue. The rendering of all things into choice is not to establish a neutral ground in which we freely choose among all options, including option C, virtue. Choice in all things generates its own logic, above all the tendency to choose those outcomes that increase choice. A “culture” of choice is not neutral about choice itself. Thus, while virtue is available to the few counter-cultural heroes of a liberal society, the anti-culture of liberalism has the effect of “habituating” its young toward the embrace of ever greater multiplication of choices. I find very little virtue in resignation to such an outcome – rather, I see a deep reneging of the responsibility of an older generation in providing guidance to the young about choices that are better and worse, based upon the experience of history, past, and tradition. One example of such avoidance of responsibility (drawn from my own vocational experience) is the movement in universities away from any fixed requirements in the curriculum. We leave it to our students to figure out what will constitute a good education, reneging the hard responsibility of providing guidance. Within a liberal context we can congratulate ourselves in providing ever more liberty to the young (perhaps including providing them the possibility of exercising virtue), but in so doing, perhaps we have in fact avoided the most fundamental virtue that an older generation owes a younger generation: responsibility and care. Liberal emancipation ultimately takes the form of not caring enough to send the very best. It’s watchwords are, "not that there’s anything wrong with that" - no matter what "that" is. One is hard pressed to imagine a worse philosophy of parenting, or, by extension, a worse attitude of an older generation to a younger. Perhaps we should consider whether a “culture” of choice means that we are stuck with virtue, or whether in fostering such a “culture” we are sticking it – but decidedly not virtue that we ourselves avoid – to our children.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Conserving Liberalism?

We enter a season in which the meaning of conservatism becomes the ping-pong ball du jour. With not only an election, but the meaning of the “movement” in itself in the contention, people of various beliefs and commitments seek to lay claim to the word and thereby to the direction of the opposition to Obamacracy.

For many, the main ambition remains to hold together the coalition that successfully vaulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency and created a competitive, indeed, governing Republican coalition (if for a time). The most articulate recent defense on behalf of the viability of this coalition has been made by Peter Berkowitz in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, in which he argues on behalf of a “constitutional conservatism.” This minimalist conservatism, he argues, can draw together the commitments of social conservatives, economic libertarians and national security hawks around a classical conception of the constitution: “The constitution it seeks to conserve carefully defines government’s proper responsibilities while providing it with the incentives and tools to perform them effectively; draws legitimacy from democratic consent while protecting individual rights from invasion by popular majorities; assumes the primacy of self-interest but also the capacity on occasion to rise above it through the exercise of virtue; reflects, and at the same time refines, popular will through a complex scheme of representation; and disperses and blends power among three distinct branches of government as well as among federal and state governments the better to check and balance it. The Constitution and the nation that has prospered under it for 220 years demonstrate that conserving and enlarging freedom and democracy depends on weaving together rival interests and competing goods.”

What is being proposed by Berkowitz and others is the conservation of liberalism. Ironically, if Louis Hartz could argue in the 1950s that there was only one tradition in America – the liberal tradition, in particular that tradition deriving from the thought of John Locke – it was by dint of historical and philosophical developments that this very tradition eventually came to known as “conservatism” in the face of redefinitions of modern liberalism. In particular, even as Hartz was writing, increasing numbers of the American intelligentsia were being drawn to the allure of communism; liberalism was moving left, meaning that a space was created where the Left had once resided that now appeared to be to the Right of the trajectory of history. The conservatism forged by Frank Meyer and William Buckley (as mentioned by Berkowitz) was one that rallied around the liberal tradition inaugurated by Locke and the Founders. It was defined above all by what it was against – communism and the idea of human perfectibility – rather than what it was for.

All along "conservatism" was never an "ism": it never was a philosophic checklist of positions like its various ideological opponents. It grew up alongside and against ideology (namely and particularly the French Revolution); yet, it tended to move in opposition to increasing extremes, from the butchery of the French Revolution to the massacres of Fascism and the pogroms of Communism. Conservatism is thus subject to drift, and that drift has necessarily been leftward in a modern world that has a decided tilt toward viewing politics as the realm of solutions (final or otherwise). Thus, to find a foothold in a modern liberal America particularly in the fight against communism, "conservatism" adapted itself to a dubious partner - liberalism.

As a whole what this meant was that American “conservatism” became considerably anti-traditional. In occupying the abandoned space of Lockeanism, it resided with the deep anti-traditionalism that lie at the heart of Locke’s philosophy. “Traditionalism” is, of course, almost as meaningless a word in the abstract as conservatism: what it most fundamentally seeks to signal is the legitimacy of authority – lodged in “the ancestral,” practice and longstanding custom, culture, and tradition – as the basis of rule and power. That rule is represented by the paternal, the authority vested in an older generation by dint of their inheritance of tradition and their responsibility in its transmission to subsequent generations. Locke’s mostly unread First Treatise on Government is devoted to a lawyerly (and very devastating) evisceration of the theory of Patriarchy as devised by Robert Filmer; while Filmer sought to meld parental authority with a defense of Kingship (i.e., that Adam was the first King and then-contemporary Kings were Adam’s heirs), the larger game that Locke was hunting was the de-legitimation not simply of hereditary monarchy, but of all forms of traditional authority. As developed in the Second Treatise, legitimate authority could only be chosen authority. Hence, even the authority of fathers and mothers eventually gave way at the age of “nonage”: children no longer owed parents any filial piety once they reached the age of maturity, unless, that is, the children chose such piety. Locke’s overarching ambition was the dissolution of all authoritative claims based in tradition: because things had been done in some way by previous generations was no basis for its legitimacy. The only basis of legitimacy was the free choice of successive new generations. The authority of the ancestral was displaced by the authority of choice.

In the context of 20th-century history and philosophy it is possible to regard this position as “conservative.” Compared to communism or theories of justice that hold the possibility of ever-greater moral perfection of human beings, Locke’s view of humans as endowed with a basic and unalterable nature – self-interested individuals – at least resembles aspects of pre-modern anthropology in retaining some recognizable elements of the Fall. Lockean liberals and various (often religious) social conservatives could agree that the vision of humankind offered by progressive liberals and communists – one of human perfectibility – offended the more conservative or classical sensibilities about the unalterable nature of human beings. As long as this alternative anthropology held attraction to intellectual elites, various stripes of conservatives could suppress their disagreements in their battle against a common enemy. Politics, as ever, makes strange bedfellows.

While only a few noticed it amid the celebration of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death-knell of the modern conservative coalition. Without the external threat of communism to hold together the disparate elements of conservatism, its incoherence became yearly more evident to one and all. Libertarians grew restive with social conservatives: indeed, not a few people noted that no less a leader of libertarianism than Milton Friedman declared years earlier that he, for one, was not a “conservative.” Social conservatives began to balk at the idea that they were merely “conserving” liberalism, if liberalism meant the continued evisceration of the traditions of hearth and home. Thomas Frank – in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? – thought that he was exposing the great deception at the heart of conservatism, when in fact he was merely glimpsing its internal divisions.

The great and self-destructive paradox of modern “conservatism” is that there was very little that a “conservative liberalism” could ultimately hope to “conserve.” If Frank was right that social conservatives were ill-served by economic elites who won most battles of the Republican agenda, it had more to do with systemic bias in a liberal regime than deceit and subterfuge. In particular, the very system to which Berkowitz now calls for the old coalition to sign onto – “constitutional conservatism” – was designed expressly to undermine the claims of tradition and culture. Its main ambition was to liberate individuals from the arbitrary authority of place, family, and folkway, and to permit them a life of material success amid an economic system that generated an endless bazaar of values and “lifestyles.” One merely had to choose what one preferred. Thus, even “traditionalism” was rendered itself into a choice (this is a point Peter Lawler likes to make as a critique of various traditionalisms, pointing out that it too is merely a kind of lifestyle choice. But this is to confuse effect for cause: of course “front porch” traditionalism or “crunch conservatism” or “the Benedict option” become “lifestyle choices”: the constitutional order was designed to make EVERYTHING into a choice – except the option not to choose).

Growing numbers of social traditionalists (let’s not call them “conservatives,” lest we confuse the issue) are realizing that the coalition they joined was a devil’s bargain. While communism was successfully combated, market capitalism did its work undermining most of the traditions that held together communities, folkways and customs. Communities were undermined by multinationals while elite universities scoured the land for any talent that could be strip-mined from localities and turned into productive material in the international market system. If you weren’t a winner in the cosmopolitan, meritocratic sweepstakes then you deserved some kind of welfare and re-education; the norm of success was defined by one’s distance from traditions and culture. The conservation of liberalism has accelerated the demise of the viability of tradition’s claims. Thus, I, for one, have a jaundiced eye toward the old bargain being offered in some circles: rather, it seems likely that it is time to fight battles with erstwhile allies (even as new alliances are formed with some on the current Left, e.g. those with localist or somewhat healthy environmental views which stress conservation over techno-optimism) rather than sign back on to a lousy bargain that offers to allow us to “conserve” an anti-conservative "tradition." The place to start – difficult as it will be – is to reject the various “isms” being offered in return for electoral success. After all, what could be more conservative than opposition to an “ism” – even, dare one say, “conservatism”?