Monday, April 25, 2016

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Saturday Night Live Music: "Purple Rain"

But of course.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Indeed

Prince Rogers Nelson, RIP

I was actually planning to write a blog post today, my first in a couple of months, talking the passage of time and how it's leaving me with feelings both good and bittersweet. I was literally opening Blogger to get writing, when I saw this. Oh man. Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about which of the great rock, pop, folk, and soul artists of the second half of the 20th century would have a songwriting legacy that would last into the 21st, or beyond. Not groups, my friend insisted: no Beatles, no Led Zeppelin, just singular artists. In the end, I came up with three: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Prince. The Thin White Duke left us in January, and now 2016 has taken Prince has well. (Stay healthy and safe, Bob. Don't emerge from wherever you're hiding.)

What to say? Like Bowie, Prince was an enormously talented musician, whose stupendous skills were often lost in the dizzying way he would change his style, his look, and his sound. Unlike Bowie, he vainly insisted on fighting the contemporary pop music machine, rather than just outlasting it, and so lost years of effective communication with his audience during the whole TAFKAP nonsense. But oh well. He wrote, he produced, he sang, and he played--man, could he play! So here's my offering, to be tossed on the funeral pyre along with hundreds of more which are bound to come:

From 1985,"Raspberry Beret," my single favorite song of his:



From 1987, "Sign o' The Times," showing his socially conscious side:


From 1991, during his New Power Generation phase, "Cream":



From 2006, with years of fights with the record companies behind him, "Black Sweat":



From 2013, "Breakfast Can Wait." He never stopped being kinky, that's for certain:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #11: Thoughts on Localism and Resilience

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to the "Resilience Group," an informal gathering of environmentalists, activists, and interested others that meet regularly at the home of Wes Jackson, in Salina, KS. My short remarks--which were mostly inspired by the material in this post--gave rise to a robust and enlightening discussion, or so I thought. Here are a few take-aways, for whatever they're worth.

1) The growth-centric paradigm which dominates so much economic activity around the world isn't really the result of politically powerful actors; it's the consequence of a worldview. Thus fulminating against the defenders of--in some ways undeniably beneficial, but also socially and culturally harmful, not to mention ecologically unsustainable--globalism, whether their motivations are libertarian like the Koch brothers (whose influence is omnipresent in Kansas) or statist like the Davos bunch (whose influence around here doesn't really exist beyond the paranoid fears of a few black-helicopter-watching Tea Party types in our legislature), is to mistake symptoms for the disease. That's not to say particular actions by particular actors shouldn't be organized against; they should be. But we need to recognize that, as important as, say, an overturning of Citizens United might be to getting the message for local and economic democracy out there, simply accomplishing that, without a paradigm-changing language to explain why it's important to do so, probably won't change much.

2) The language that defenders of steady-state economies and local democracy need probably won't be political in nature, and probably won't emerge from the major cities or the state-based political entities of the world, despite those locations and polities being the site of so many productive nodes of intellectual input. Again, that is not to eschew politics, nor is it to claim that environmental and sustainable policies which emerge from Michael Bloomberg's New York City or Jerry Brown's California are automatically to be discounted. On the contrary--having effectual, real-world political power and financial resources behind efforts to help make the lives humans live around the globe more place-centric than growth-centric is something much to be desired! But we shouldn't quickly embrace them either, because a) such top-down efforts at reform are likely to generate extreme political backlashes, and b) even if they can take root in the political culture, they often won't be workable in the majority of living environments built by close to a century of what Charles Mahron calls "the Suburban Experiment."

3) The living environments where a paradigm-challenging language is most likely to emerge are those where "fugitive" uprisings of collective economic responsibility and democratic practice are already underway--and that usually means in cities large enough to contain enough people and resources to challenge the preferences of less-populist political bodies, but not so large that the ability to organize people and access those resources is crowded out. There was widespread agreement (or at least so it appeared to me) among those in attendance at Wes's house that usually--not always, but usually--the strongest opposition to piecemeal reforms in the direction of local empowerment and sustainable practices come from state and county governments, and those oligarchic political actors (many of whose livelihoods depend upon the cities they live in or near, but who often take on the role of property-rights defending exurban gentry nonetheless) who tend to dominate such bodies. The metropolitan areas whose size overwhelms the grid system of counties that we have (thanks in part to the lasting influence of Thomas Jefferson's Rectangular Survey System, which really might have enabled genuine democratic self-governance by yeoman farmers, if the Industrial Revolution hadn't changed everything) obviously deal with a different set of issues and obstacles--but the local practices which emerge from those neighborhoods, valuable as they are (Jane Jacobs taught us that!), are less likely to be one's which can make use of the sort of land resources which can most directly address our looming environmental concerns, most particularly concerning food. This is not to say that the leaders of mid-sized cities are all going to be amenable to making use of their available land to explore local agriculture and more sustainable food systems. Obviously, the growth-centric mindset is a firmly entrenched one, and many city council representatives will plainly see their first task as being able to use tax incentives to lure the latest Red Baron pizza chain to their district. And cities of any size, from the smallest village to the greatest mega-city, can and do regularly fall under the sway of economic oligarchs, whose rule can stifle these practices. But nonetheless, the ability to organize and act upon more direct (and, thus, usually more democratic and less carbon-dependent) ways of getting food to our tables is, we think, likely to be more common in urban environments where there is both a diversity of people and skills, as well as some genuinely, immediately available space.

4) The task of those concerned about the resilience of local democracy, responsible communities, and our whole natural environment needs to be making it easier for these fugitive instances to last as long as they can--because as they become accepted, a language which describes them (their priorities, their appeal, their rewards) will also become more accepted, and that is the paradigm-challenging language we need. Does this language--a terminology that describes and makes appealing the sustainable, the local, the steady-state, the participatory--already exist, and we just need to listen to the churches, the student groups, the neighborhood associations where it is being used and adapt to it? Or do we need to come up with a jargon ourselves and use intentional use of it, so as to instantiate and make public that which is already taking place all around us? Probably both are true, to a certain extent. However we account for the problem, though, the response is clear. The all-consuming ideological constructs which colonize so many of our governing bodies, even the most local ones, and which are reified by the global flows of information and capital all around us, distract us from what one participant yesterday wisely called "conversations of agency": namely, arguments over what is happening in the places where we actually live, where we, as actual neighbors and producers, can--or at least ought to, if we can tear ourselves away from jobs or noise which makes it feel obligatory to watch the stock market or argue on Facebook or file government reports or follow Fox News or MSNBC all day--effect real, practical change. It is those conversations, and the practices they describe, which can keep ecological responsibility alive; in the long term, perhaps nothing else will.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Deep and Discomforting Point of Populism (and Socialism, and Certain Sorts of Conservatism Too)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Over the weekend, a friend of mine shared an article which had joined in the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders fight, a fight which may come to an end tomorrow in New Hampshire, but probably won't. The title of the piece is "Bernie Sanders Doesn't Know Diddly-Squat About Wall Street" (a claim which, from the author's limited perspective, is undoubtedly true), and it acknowledges the truth of great many of the critiques of Wall Street's behavior over the past decade which are being made by both the Clinton and Sanders camps. But the article's overall critical aim is clear:

It is unconscionable that Wall Street’s compensation system continues to reward bankers, traders, and executives to take big risks with other people’s money in hopes of getting big year-end bonuses...But Sanders never talks about the compensation system on Wall Street. In fact, he rarely mentions anything concrete at all. Instead, he dwells on bizarre and nebulous notions such as imposing “a tax on Wall Street speculation”....The candidate’s website does not really flesh out the idea, other than to say that the tax “will reduce risky and unproductive high-speed trading and other forms of Wall Street speculation.” If one goes back to a bill that Sanders introduced in the Senate last May, there is slightly more meat on these bones; still, the proposed legislation seems to have very little to do with actually taxing “Wall Street speculation” and more to do with taxing every trading transaction--the buying and selling of stocks and bonds and derivatives--that Wall Street and hedge funds engage in. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever--why tax the very behavior the system depends upon?

In other words, there are clearly bad actors on Wall Street, so why on earth would someone want to burden the whole system of Wall Street, as opposed to doing something to simply target those bad actors? The idea that Wall Street itself--or at least the high-end, high-speed, huge-money, over-financialized skewing of it over the past few decades--might be the problem here simply never crosses the author's mind.

Let me expand on this somewhat discomforting point a little--discomforting because honest populists and socialists (and Sanders, though a career politician, is at least a little more honest than most) know that we are all far more affected by Wall Street practices than we'd like to admit. Indeed, we are all so affected by (and implicated in, and dependent upon) it that excavating the actual moral ideal at work in nearly all actually populist and socialist--as opposed to liberal egalitarian and redistributive--ideas is difficult, even though almost anyone who really thinks about it knows the point is there. Our profound inarticulateness over this point is owed, I think, to the fact that most modern leftism is bereft of the moral language which once animated anti-capitalist arguments generally, and thus those who advocate it--as Sanders does, however inconsistently--find it difficult to say what, on some deep and inchoate level, they clearly want to say. It is a point that, to their perverse credit, clear-eyed libertarian, propertarian, and other Lockean thinkers often recognize and put at the front in their attacks on actually socialistic ideas; some of them really delight in mocking their opponents for it, and those opponents fulminate usually rather hopelessly, because they believe in what they're saying but they're not entirely sure just what they're saying actually means.

What point am I getting at here? To be curt, it's simply this: "why tax the very behavior the system depends upon," you ask? Easy. Because us populists and leftists and other vaguely socialistic types actually don't like the system we're all affected by, dependent upon, and implicated in, and consequently want it to do less of what it does. A financial transaction tax may have a variety of revenue-raising and redistributive pluses and minuses, but from a genuine populist/socialist perspective its greatest effect will probably be to simply make it at least slightly less likely that something we don't like will be done. Both populism and socialism (and local traditionalism or distributism or what-have-you) can refer to a huge range of economic possibilities, but in the post-WWII, post-Cold War, globalized world, they both--whether their proponents realize it or not--basically mean the same thing: the elite generation and manipulation and moving around financial wealth has gone far enough. There ought to be less of it.

What would it mean for the Wall Street system (or, again, mainly the one which has emerged over the past generation or so) itself to see less activity? For taking on risk and collaterizing debt themselves to be seen as a less attractive means of generating capital? Well, as the article correctly points out, it would mean less absolute wealth would be generated overall (but that would also mean less inequality). It would mean investment would be less incentivized (but so would less ruinous speculation). It would mean less capital mobility (but that would also mean less community disruption). Thoughtful and compassionate liberals of all sorts, if they can be led to see clearly what exactly is being argued about here (which is not easily done), are rightly bemused or even infuriated by this idea: I mean, if you can tame the system so as to retain its advantages and generate enough surplus to pay for social programs that ameliorate its structural harms, why on earth would you want to do something that actually burdens the system itself? From Keynes to Krugman (though, to be fair, Krugman was once more willing to give a financial transaction tax some consideration) all these smart folk just look at the socialists, populists, and localists, confused and weirded out by such proposals. And since the language of sustainability and labor and community and other collective moral goods has mostly been in the ash heap for the past century, responding in any way which is actually comprehensible isn't very easy.

That lack of comprehension is a function of our times, of course. A century ago, the moral and communitarian--that is, the conservative (or as I prefer to call it, the "left conservative"--case against socially disruptive, collectively disempowering, but admittedly damn productive capitalist growth was pretty obvious, though by no means broadly accepted. William Jennings Bryan, the most nationally prominent spokesperson for this kind of more democratic, less banker and investor-friendly, more producer-oriented (and thus, inevitably, more localist and agrarian than urban and industrialist) vision of market economics, ran for the presidency--and lost--three times. The parallels between Bryan and Sanders are interesting, to say the least--among others, you can see in the complicated squabbles over whether Sanders counts as a "real" socialist the same sort of disputes over whether Bryan, in accepting the Democratic party's nomination in 1896, was selling out the Populist cause. And, of course, there's the argument that if Sanders actually manages the ridiculously unlikely feat of snatching the nomination away from Clinton, that he'd both be soundly defeated and will have forced class-conscious real changes into the Democratic party, as Bryan's nomination in 1896 (and 1900, and 1908), helped make it possible for progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win the party's support later on. But mostly, I think, those similarities are overshadowed by a major difference: Bryan, and all sorts of other populists and socialists (and even some actual traditionalists) a century ago, could recognize that certain types of, and certain amounts of, capitalist growth were just socially bad, however many individuals such transactions may financially reward. Bad because they create inequality and division; bad because they encourage radical individualism and cultural fragmentation; bad because, well, to be frank, the whole Christian tradition has mostly opposed them. And while Sanders has shown himself more than capable of quoting scripture and popes when it suits him, he lacks the civil religion substance that could give the form of his anti-capitalist democratic socialism some real, populist, moral weight.

None of which is relevant to the author of the article in question, because there's no indication that he's cognizant of these questions of morality, community, and sustainability either. And let's give Sanders some credit: if you actually believe (as I do) that our market economy ought to be informed by, and even regulated by, greater collective concerns and democratic controls and moral limits than contemporary capitalism tolerates, than Sanders anti-Wall Street talk at least partakes of the shape of the reforms we need. And at the level of the presidency--or, more realistically, at the level of the kind of highly symbolic exchanges over political possibilities which a presidential nomination contest makes possible--being able to get clear on just what the (admittedly somewhat discomforting) point and the shape of one's differing economic visions are is no small blessing at all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mid-Sized Meditations #10: Soil and Sacrament in Certain Kinds of Cities

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend here in Wichita, I participated in the Eighth Day Institute's symposium, Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift; Rod Dreher has a couple of nice write-ups about it, here and here. For me, sitting beside and listening to and talking with and learning from culturally wise small-o orthodox Christians (whether I agreed with their ideas or not, or whether they agreed with mine) was a real pleasure. Also, preparing for my presentation--"Urban Environments, Urban Gifts"--gave me a reason to read a classic I've been meaning to read for a while: Harvey Cox's The Secular City, which turns 50 years old this year. After reading it, giving my presentation, going back and forth with some other symposium participants about it all, and listening to Rod's continuing explorations of the Benedict Option, I came home with a huge load of thoughts banging around my head. Here are a few of them.

Christianity has for a long time, particularly over the past century and especially in Protestant America, struggled with the city. Just over 100 years ago, the main outlines of what soon turned into modern Christian fundamentalism were laid out, and the movements those fundamentalist declarations gave rise to became deeply interwoven with disputes over all the other changes being accomplished in Progressive-era America. Clearly, the greatest of those changes was the fact that in the two generations since the Civil War, the country had gone from being primarily agrarian and rural, with the bulk of its population and its wealth tied up with farming, to primarily industrial and urban, with the bulk of money and people moving into America's cities (a steady movement that, in the century since, has continued without let-up). The Social Gospel was essentially an acknowledgment that Christianity needed to make its home and find its vocation in the midst of urban industrialization. But even the Protestants who followed that liberal, modern, urban tradition through the first half of the 20th century were apparently bothered by it, haunted by the fundamentalist worry--a worry which, for better or worse (I think mostly the former), is probably unshakable--that in making peace with the modern American city, they were risking something essential about their faith.

Harvey Cox, though, insisted that kind of anxiousness was nonsense. In careful but powerful prose, he made the argument for the city, and all the secularism its growth as the defining type of social order in the post-Industrial Revolution world implies. Cox's explanations are succinct, sketching out the privatization and diversification of belief which attends modern life--a topic philosophers like Charles Taylor have spent hundreds of pages trying to understand--in just a few short short lines, and then moving on. He touched on the idea that Christianity was essential to both the "universality and radical openness" which is necessary to the modern city (p. 10), and the destruction of the "magical vision...[in] which nature is seen as a semidivine force" which is necessary to modern secularism (p. 20). This is a profoundly Protestant history of Christianity, and fairly elitist one as well; I suspect Catholicism and Orthodoxy wouldn't accept Cox's enthusiasm for the "disenchantment of the natural world" (p. 21). But still, his grasp of a Christianity stripped of natural law and metaphysics did allow him to see what the last 50 years have admittedly made obvious: that the Christian faith can and often does flourish in the pluralistic city, that urbanism's anonymity and distinction between public and private really can allow for a more charitable openness and the "capacity to live responsibly with increasing numbers of neighbors" (p. 39). In short, the pragmatism of the city is, he argued, fully compatible with Christian virtues--or at least not an enemy to them:

We should not be dismayed by the fact that fewer and fewer people are pressing what we have normally called "religious" questions. The fact that urban-secular man is incurably and irreversibly pragmatic, that he is less and less concerned with religious questions, is in no sense a disaster. It means that he is shedding the lifeless cuticles of the mythical and ontological periods and stepping into the functional age. He is leaving behind the styles of the tribe and the town and is becoming a technopolitan man. As such he may now be in a position to hear certain notes in the biblical message that he missed before. He may be ready, in some respects, to "do the truth" in a way his superstitious and religious forerunners we not (p. 60).

There's a lot that I like about Cox's vision; what he wrote about economics, sex, and civil society in the life of urban-dwelling (really just modern-epoch living) Christians struck me as wise, or at least prescient. But again and again, his Kennedyesque boosterism, his optimistic embrace of technology and change, led him to insist upon a normative breadth to his arguments that was just untenable. For Cox, rustic towns and small cities are even worse than the "tribal" existence we had before the emergence of the city; what is needed is the mobility, choice, and innovation promised by the true "technopolis"; those older forms of life presumably encouraged static authority and reactionary traditions, whereas "the Kingdom of Jesus came when God's doing something wholly new coincided with man's laying aside previous values and loyalties....the emerging secular city entails precisely this kind of renunciation" (p. 98). It's no surprise that Cox titles one of his chapters "The Church as God's Avant-garde."

But the problem with the avant-garde is that it almost always ends up being a friend to the impersonal and the authoritarian, and Cox wasn't free of that. In his view, the Christian in the city needs to fight the "stubborn residue of tribal and town ideology which prevents the technopolis from being realized," and that means challenging the "decentralization," the "fragmentation of power," and the "anarchy" in cities in favor of supporting "the power structure" so as to gain "political mastery over technical society" (pp. 116-117). The "defamilialization of work" has been a great, emancipatory thing, "sever[ing] once and for all the umbilical cord connecting family life and work life" (p. 148). The goal should be to direct our Christian efforts towards self-contained, rootless organizations that are "flexible," "future-oriented," "secularized," and "limited" in its claims on its members--which means, of course, that one shouldn't form attachments to those professions which resist such specialization and individuation (old-school industries and farming, mostly); "cybernation" is going to make them all go away, anyway, and with appropriate state planning those who are "emotionally attached to certain occupations" can be re-trained and moved into the service industries or simply subsidized: "We can easily," Cox added as an endnote, "afford to keep certain people in agriculture as a kind of occupational therapy" if necessary (pp. 152-153, 162-163, 166). What started as a realistic appraisal of the fate of the Christian faith in the modern era of urban individuality, diversity, and anonymity, ends up being a broad argument for happily accepting constant mobility, professional and personal transient-ness, and state-maintained procedural rationality as perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. That's a conclusion I find both socially unhealthy and scripturally untrue. But so what?

This is where Rod's Benedict Option comes in. Rod's presentation at the Eighth Day Symposium didn't add a great deal to much that he's written about the subject before. But, perhaps inspired by Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian and historian who was also here in Wichita (and who is praised further in this thoughtful post by Rod here), he did sketch out a positively sacramental argument in favor of the idea of forming communities of practice, ritual, tradition, stability, and memory, as a tool to conserve in a truly equitable way the goods that we can know together. His various points all had their own significance, but they could be summed up, I thought, in one pithy comment of his: "Matter matters." Things--the gardens we grow, the animals we raise, the food we cook, the products we fashion with our hands, the rituals we physically enact, the arts we make and share and pass down, the stories we preserve in books, all of it--matter as part of a gifted, sacramental reality. It put me in mind of Martin Heidegger's "es gibt," the notion (which really is ultimately Pauline, though Heidegger himself was reluctant to acknowledge that connection) that all entities and all relationships are things revealed to and given to us, as opposed to abstract objects whose being and meaning is entirely a product of our choice to turn our efforts upon them. (It isn't surprising that Cox thought Heidegger was "entirely wrong in believing that the escape route [from our modern theological predicament] lies in returning to a kind of primordial mythical thinking," since that "would deny that God has made man responsible for nature and that politics is the sphere of human mastery"--p. 219.) And it also made me realize: I think most people, at least most people who are familiar with the sort of issues Rod is struggling with, probably have some sense that matter matters too. And that's what worries them.

It is rare for Rod to write or speak about the Benedict Option without him feeling obliged to push back against the idea that the communities he has in mind must be isolated, rural, restrictive, sectarian, agrarian communes. That's not it at all!, he says and writes over and over again. But why must he always repeat himself? In part, I came to think during the symposium, because the sort of people he's sharing his ideas with mostly live--as nearly all people nowadays live, myself included--in cities, as members of a near-completely urbanized civilization. And on some level or another, they recognize at least some part of themselves in Cox's description (and celebration!) of the mobile, changeable, transitory city. Perhaps they work in advertising, trying to create ways to sell social media apps over the iPhone. Or they're a project manager for some corporation, responsible for charting performance reviews and job training so as to hit some government agency's quota. Or they handle financial derivatives. Or they process purchasing orders for online marketers. Or they collate information for hedge fund managers. Or they do one of a million other jobs which the diversity and anonymity and wealth of modern urban existence makes possible, and they read about the Benedict Option, and they think to themselves, even if Rod doesn't put it this way explicitly: there is no matter to what I do. There's no there there, at least not a real, sacramental, thingy there. And that worries them--as it worries me, city-dweller that I am.

A few years ago I pushed Rod on what I called the "undertheorized agrarianism" in his writings about community. That may have been a bit much--but it wasn't, I think, essentially wrong. No, Rod's Benedict Option does not have to be a rural, self-sufficient, agricultural monastery. But still, some of the very best arguments as to why one should be open to understanding the challenges of modern life such that Rod's counter-cultural communitarianism seems an appropriate response to them cannot help, I think, but at least hint at preferring such a monastic life to the busy, globalized, trade-and-banking-and-service-economy-dependent, thoroughly monetized city which most of us know. Because Cox is right--there is so much about urban life which points, even a half-century ago, towards exactly that kind of abstraction, privatization, and context-less rule-making. What do cities make? What is the productive ground which their inhabitants can actually take in hand, the matter which they can hold in common? Rod's urbanized readers, particularly the Christian ones, who are worried about the same things he's worried about and who want, like him, to connect with communities where matter matters, may be forgiven for perhaps often looking around themselves and thinking "Well, maybe I can't do it here."

There are, of course, numerous possible responses to that worry, even assuming it applies (amazingly enough, there really are still are cities in the United States where actual things are built). Rod's forthcoming Benedict Option book is sure to offer its own responses, and in a way, my own presentation did as well. On my reading of Cox, the real breakdown between the correct observations he made about the Christian possibilities available in the city, and his later acceptance of a religion and an economy entirely based on abstract choice, came with his embrace of the cult of mobility and innovation, and his (I think quite flawed) attempt to read a complete rejection of "place" into the Biblical story. If we take Cox's legitimate insights seriously but decline to go as far as he did, and instead say that we need to be attendant to the virtues of stability even in urban places, we may notice that not all cities are made equal. Some cities--smaller or mid-sized ones, ones that still have within their local economy the resources for real material productivity and within the reach of their local ecosystem the soil for growing real food--have a bit more stability than Cox's technopolises.

That kind of steadiness is a precarious condition in the world of global capital flows, obviously; it requires careful, thoughtful, long-term work to fight against the cult of zoning and save productive exurban (or even urban) land for farming, or to pull together the support necessary for small-scale artisanal manufacturing when the big city players (both banks and governments) usually just want to build a new mall--or, as Rod himself has noted in his praise for Wichita's Eighth Day Books, simply build a community-centering small business (which really isn't a simple matter at all!). Perhaps through and in the midst of that kind of work, the possibility for truly urban Benedict Option communities, urban places that can keep their connection to the matter that matters even in the midst to the many mixed and abstract distractions and anonymous blessings of modern cities, could be possible after all. Since that's where most of us live, after all, such needs to be our hope, or else pondering the future of the Benedict Option (for those of us so inclined, whatever our reasons) is done for.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"No Doubt."

Rest in peace, Mr. Rickman. So many of your performances on stage and screen were wonderful, but my favorite role of yours was Colonel Brandon is Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. My single favorite line from that movie--indeed, from any Austen adaption I've ever seen--was when Brandon revealed his sad past to Elinor. Mr. Rickman, you drew more sadness and wry wisdom out of this short scene--indeed, from those two words, twice spoken, more humor--than I think any equally skilled stage and film actor ever could. I can't find an embed, but we can watch it here. Look up Mr. Bowie, and have a fine drink with him, will you? Godspeed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Assessing the Freedom Of, and the Freedom From, Cities

[Cross-posted to Bleeding Heart Libertarians]

Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a superb work of political theory and intellectual history. It introduces, in clear and compelling language, a new way of making sense of the development of liberal ideas, by distinguishing between what he labels "rationalist" (consistent, transparent, state-centric) and "pluralist" (variable, private, culture-dependent) responses to the threats to individual freedom which have arisen throughout the history of liberalism. And then, as an encore, he uses all that his analysis has suggested to shed some new light on contemporary theoretical debates. Overall it's a great book, one that I hope will have a long life.

What is there to criticize? Not much. I'm sure defenders of the rationalist approach to ensuring personal liberty (Jacob makes clear his own preference for the pluralist approach) might take issue with some implications of how he sets up and describes these variations within liberalism. And fans of Charles Taylor (like me) might think that Jacob’s suggestion in the conclusion that Taylor’s history of modernity wrongly attempts a synthesis of rationalism and pluralism is a simplistic reading of Taylor's philosophical aims. But all that is rather small potatoes, especially considering that such nits arise in the beginning and ending of the book, and skip over its central, and best, section, which deals with the history of intermediate groups in the West and their relationship to liberalism.

For myself, the most interesting way to engage that section is through Jacob’s (too short!) treatment of the rise of towns, cities, and provinces, and how seeing those bodies as associational forms presents different types of pluralist challenges to our understanding of how best to define and defend individual freedom. He begins by asserting--relying here primarily upon the scholarship of Harold Berman--that cities and towns are essentially non-contractual entities. Rather than emerging through some hypothetical social contract or actual historical process of constitutionalization, they are bodies of individuals that ratified their own collective existence in particular places (along rivers or trade routes or mountain passes) through “real acts of mutual promise” (p. 96): in other words, through the organic realization of, the participatory recognition of, a community. This distinguishes them, when one speaks of local governing bodies, from counties or provinces, which usually were “geographically far larger than cities...not surrounded by a wall...primarily rural...certainly not founded by equals committing to one another by oaths...[but rather were] in large part the leftover geography of the processes of state consolidation” (p. 108). Jacob’s tracing of the different forms and norms of law which emerged as relevant to these different types of local bodies–Germanic or “gothic,” in the first case; Roman or republican in the second–opens up multiple lines of argument within political theory.

For example, his idea that the “Germanic legal model of law [was] tied to personal status” is only truly effective in “mostly homogenous” contexts, whereas something different was needed for “the arms’-length interactions of strangers engaged in long-distance or urban trade” (p. 101), parallels the arguments of the sociologist Lyn Lofland, who in A World of Strangers contrasted the pre-industrial city, whose inhabitants informally ordered themselves through signs of personal recognition (what someone was wearing, for example), with the industrial, commercial city, where that informal order was provided by recognizing the--often authoritatively determined and imposed--rules of one’s location (the part of the city where one lived or worked). There is also the sense in which these distinctions can deepen our understanding of the intense connection many throughout American history have made between freedom and independent ownership, and the socio-economic and spatial context (urban vs. provincial/rural) relevant to the intensity, or lack of such, felt for that connection. Jacob observes that “the paradigmatic city for the humanists and republicans was a sovereign city-state, maybe sitting at the head of its own empire [though a limited one, presumably]...the independence of the city was a prerequisite to the freedom of its citizens. The Germanic tradition that Stadtluft macht frei [“city air makes one free”] rested on no such assumption” (p. 133). Seeing these bodies as part of ongoing arguments over association freedom, lends important light to ongoing arguments about how public policies ought to be constructed, on the one hand, in regards to the tangles of political and economic obligations and opportunities which so often characterize modern capitalist urban life, as well as towards the (more often idealized than real) clear rules and spatial authority supposedly associated with private property ownership on the other.

That is light which Jacob himself is, perhaps, not entirely aware of. Jacob is to be credited with having been among those political theorists who recognized early on the great value of James Scott's arguments about state and market-based forms of rational, organizational oppression, but he's been ambivalent about accepting Scott's insistence that it is the modernist logics of the market and the state which push this oppression, not something that only happens when the latter appropriates the former. Some of this reluctance might be discerned by looking at what is not particularly discussed early in the book, when Jacob writes about the value of "associations that resist the state" and explores Adam Smith's warning about the "man of system," without making any comment about, say, the rational reformer who wishes to get rid of inconsistent trade barriers and idiosyncratic excise and sin taxes, all in the name of maximizing the benefits of creative destruction (pp. 59, 67). But is important that we make use of the light Jacob has provided in his book exactly in regards to these matters. .

Why? Because, as Jacob superbly demonstrates in his brief history of the Western political understand of cities, these bodies are often much more than--using Oakeshottian terms--civil associations, but rather are enterprise ones, complex and purposive bodies which offer "local and distinct lifestyles to mobile populations, letting people sort into local communities, whose distinctiveness then becomes reinforcing" (p. 289). In connecting this observation to his larger analysis of liberalism, Levy gives added theoretical heft to arguments--made by Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and many others (including me)--about the anarchic-yet-ordered potential of economically sufficient cities. While one can certainly fill whole books with accounts of localities throughout history being threatened by state-mandated "rationalizing" projects, in the name of ethnic cleansing, ideological punishment, or political homogeneity, surely one needs to at least acknowledge that in the modern and (mostly) law-abiding Western societies of today, the greatest threat to the survival of the purposive, economically sufficient, culture-forming capacity of cities is, in fact, the dominance of global finance capitalism. A dominance which is, of course, abetted by economic elites: elites whose propertied position and business revenue tends, more often than not, to be situated in provincial, state, or international contexts, rather than in the local urban communities they are part of; elites who, consciously or not, consistently favor making their lived environments as amenable to those remunerative, globalizing processes as possible.

Note that I acknowledge the remunerative character of these processes. There is no denying that there is a strict utilitarian, economic argument for the individual empowerment which generally arises from the capitalist rationalization of cities, making those bodies, and the consumers and workers who live there, into, as much as possible, enriching nodes in the global finance and capital flow machine. The question is: is liberty always best served by the liberation of individuals from obligation, community, and want which specialization and efficiency often (though not always) provides? Jacob's own preference for pluralism suggests that, despite his own libertarianism, the answer may not be a clear "yes." Still, his overarching thesis is that there can be no resolution of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism, nor any moral judgment as to objective superiority of one over the other, so he really doesn't answer this question--indeed, he doesn't even broach it in these terms. But he shines a new light upon the question nonetheless, and that is valuable enough.

In the end, the great accomplishment of this wonderful book is that it provides a language to help us see (for many of us, for the first time), and thus think productively about, the history and significance of the rationalist-pluralist divide in liberalism. If Jacob himself didn't use that language to address, say, city-county relations, or local versus global markets--well, that's a small loss, but not a great one. Because he's now shown us all a better way to go about doing exactly that on our own. Freedom indeed!

Monday, January 11, 2016