Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Swedish Addendum and a Summary (Simplicity, Part 5)

I suppose I've pushed the "simplicity" thing about as far as it can go. As a concept I've stretched it in all sorts of probably unjustifiable ways, but that's because I simply couldn't shake it as a basic frame of reference, and so for the better part of three months I've kept trying to find ways to apply it to various, disparate concerns: trade and economics, home entertainment, travel, dining, whatever. It's a powerful idea, elements of which you can find in ideologies ranging from the far right (nationalists longing for a homogeneous state) to the far left (communists longing foran undivided economy); it finds a home in the mainstream (plant a garden!) and the radically counter-cultural (get rid of your car!). It's the ghost of Thoreau which lurks over all our Franklin Planners, and it's good that it's there, I think. But what do you do with it?

My original simplicity post elicited thoughtful comments from Nate Oman and Timothy Burke, both of whom essentially said the same thing (though from very different perspectives): to the extent "simplicity" means a kind of enclosing and enabling of a particular living arrangement, separate from the speed and change and complexity of modern life, then it must be the product of a group of people consciously choosing--in the face of the constant experience of modernity--to maintain it through the imposition of some kind of regime; simplicity cannot remains simplicity, because preserving it on its own terms cannot avoid being both coercive and complex. I'm not sure if I ever actually denied that point, but no doubt I was hoping to elide it to some degree. Consider my example of Sweden, and the $3 cup of coffee--as I described it, "wage controls, universal education, and other actions by the [Swedish] government have constructed in an environment where certain basic social realities are protected, reliable, even guaranteed: jobs and neighborhoods and vacations and so forth." The Swedes themselves don't call this "simplicity," but I took it as an example of such, because it showed one way to think about how a given people can strive to enclose themselves, and thereby exercise a kind of simple control and freedom over the consequences of their own choices. But there is far more to Sweden than I let on in that post. Christopher Caldwell's Weekly Standard cover story on "A Swedish Dilemma" made it pretty clear that the particular transactions which the Swedes have embraced in the name of resisting the "Golden Straightjacket" of globalization are ones which have pretty significant costs, costs which are cultural and sociological and not just economic. To withstand the tides of modernity on such a significant, state-wide scale requires that a people have the resources and willingness to internalize and respond to whatever those tides may wash up--in Sweden's case, a huge, mostly unemployed and segregated immigrant population attracted and sustained by the Swede's own commitment to building a society around the "moral superpower" ideal. The dynamic here is pretty clear. The economics of globalization demands fluidity; to resist such, and to build an economy around security and simplicity (as I call it), requires that prices being kept high and wages equally so. This can be done through policing borders (in matters of trade and immigration, which Sweden has not done) or carefully controlling work and income through taxes on goods, universal unionization and wage ceilings (which Sweden has done). That has created something of a classless, egalitarian society, of the sort which the simple life (in which all are producers and mutually self-sustaining) itself assumes. But it also creates an underclass: and in Europe today, that also means a multicultural (mostly Islamic) one, from which follows all the same tensions which formerly ethnically and religiously homogeneous states like Denmark, the Netherlands, and France of been struggling with so much in recent years. As Mauricio Rojas, a Chilean-born history professor and liberal reformer in Sweden today, put it at the end of Caldwell's article, Sweden has not confronted what its own tax policies demand as a "community." Instead, Sweden has been a "tribe--a good tribe! Very peaceful and nice! But a tribe."

That comes close to putting the whole debate about concisely as one might imagine. Opponents or critics of the communitarian hopes that lurk around this talk of simplicity insist that it is only possible, only plausible, to the degree one puts oneself out of the modern world entirely and back into a tribe (Rousseau's rustic man, perhaps!). And of course we can't do that (not even Rousseau thought we could)--certainly not living as we do in the civilization of states and laws. And so there will be coercion, which will backfire, and thus make the whole endeavor pointless. On the other hand, seriously community-minded folks will similarly shake their heads at Sweden's half-hearted attempts at enclosure, and even more so at my conscription of them for the cause. A nation of millions, with high-tech industries and international obligations and aspirations, they will say, cannot be a tribe. (And if it attempts to build policies as if it were one, well, it'll be unpleasantly surprised in the end!) True simplicity has to do what the critics say is impossible--gather together the faithful, and beat a retreat: back to the farm, to the village, to a tribal life of tradition and faith. Look to the good people who produced Caelum et Terra--they had the right idea, they knew what simplicity really meant. Anything else is so compromised as to be a sham.

Maybe so. Still, I'm nothing if not romantic (and perhaps a Romantic too, at that), and so I keep trying to learn lessons. Maybe the sort of tribal affectivity which makes possible a unified front against the transformations of the modern life cannot be wholly achieved, but what parts of it can? What role does history, language and religion, as reflected in education and civic life, play in making at least some sense of community possible? Is any part of it compatible with nationality, or do we need deeper federal arrangements? And that's just the first part of the inquiry: it only establishes the minimum requirements for a collectivity capable of sustaining the complex burden of resisting elements of modernity, leaving the whole matter of persuading people of the value of security untouched. The fact that some of the best progressive minds out there agree that "security/simplicity" alone can never again constitute an effective political message has to give one pause. Okay, so thoroughgoing simplicity simply isn't appealing on its own terms. It still remains to ask what kind of technologies and strategies ought to attend our individual engagement with and enjoyment of the risky, open-ended, supposedly non-coercive world. Isn't it the case that many of them structurally force us into patterns of work and leisure that are unintentionally more alienating and more complicating than they need to be? This leads us to Emma Goldman's comment on my original post, where she lays down some strong general principles about simplicity: minimizing distance over which any given economic transaction is operative, balancing necessary (and necessarily sufficient) centralized provision with local control, and (in a delightful phrase) getting a handle of the "tchotchke-fication of life." Cut back on the stuff! Not a very clear socio-economic argument, and one that, when applied to such disparate topics as watching TV, traveling to far away places, or eating haute cuisine (such as I've considered them), fails to result in any definite program of action. Still, one must not shy away from asking.

Michael Walzer years ago defined the communitarian critique of liberalism as more a "communitarian correction," a recurrent attempt to qualify and moderate the consequences of liberal modernity. I think that's probably correct, but not because communitarianism (or populism, or simplicity, or whatever) is merely derivative of the liberal order. Rather, I think there is something real to be gained and felt in lived experiences whose roots transcend that order; that the living a liberal life is both a good and important historical accomplishment does not make liberalism itself an order which goes all the way down. There is a more fundamental teleology--or a "direction in being," as Charles Taylor put it long ago--present in our worldmaking than that provided by superficial liberty, and taking our unenclosed and unpatterned modernity to be more than it deserves to be distracts us from that fact. Accessing that direction is no simple matter, paradoxically; it thus it may be that we will always be more edified by our attempt to grasp the call of simplicity than whatever complicated compromises with such we may actually come up with. But some other romantic once said something about our reach exceeding our grasp, right?


Anonymous said...

Why do you think life in Sweden is more simple than in the US? I've read this and the original post twice and I don't really see what you mean. 

Posted by David Weman

Anonymous said...

Thoreau had a simple idea. Seek wisdom and avoid what is not necessary. Unable to direct the society, he chose to disavow it. Go live in the woods, work only when absolutely necessary, and contemplate nature and life.

At the other extreme we have those who are described by Frederic Bastiat, writing at about the same time "writers on public affairs . . . assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped -- by the will and hand of another person -- into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected." We have those who believe they know how to shape a more perfect world. Karl Marx, as isolated from society as Thoreau, was such a person.

We here this voice raised in Caelum et Terra: "voices proclaiming a true vision of man, one capable not only of describing the symptoms of the world's disease but of diagnosing its causes and prescribing its cure."

Yet such philosophers, because they see partially rather than wholly, offer no real help. Religion has brought division, not unity. Politics has brought division, not unity. Philosophy has brought division, not unity.

Plato said that "There will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers." Until enough people know this to be true, firmly believe it, and act on it, the world will continue on its present course -- complicated, disorderly, violent, and ill-ruled.

Jesus said "take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?" A wise government will restore to all of us the confidence that we will not be denied food, drink, or clothing -- that we need not concern ourselves with this. A foolish government will cause us to worship money and live in fear.

Lao-tse, 2500 years ago, described the perfect ruler. You know he rules, but wonder what he does, since you are sure you do everything yourself.

Compare our current world, with 25,000 people dying of starvation each day, with war and terrorism, with wealth and poverty, with politicians who are always doing something and rarely acting from wisdom, and with most people believing they must turn to the State for guidance, for education, for sustenance, for life.

We have a long way to go, and absent a wise leader, we will surely lurch from one ditch to another. 

Posted by Fredric Dennis Williams