Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Has Leon Kass Seen The Corporation? (Conservatism, Part 3)

The second of Lee's posts to really get me thinking was this one, where he makes the observation that

[T]he Christian theological tradition would say that our proper attitude toward material creation is to receive it as a gift and with thanksgiving. But the consumerist attitude is similar to the attitude of the Israelites in the desert hoarding the manna that came from God. They wanted to have it at their disposal, rather than as a gift received anew each day. In a similar fashion, we want things in our possession, at our disposal, and under our control. We turn them into commodities....[We] need some way of making communal judgments about how far is too far in the realms of consumerism and technology. Can we discover something like that while still preserving the achievements of liberalism and liberal institutions?

Eric Lee, commenting on this post, suggests that what Lee is talking about is well explored in the documentary The Corporation--and he's absolutely correct. I recently gave a presentation on this film (which everyone should see--it is, I think, just about a perfect mix of careful thinking and outrageous agitprop) here at WIU, and it struck me just how fundamentally its attack on the power of corporate entities to treat practically anything human or natural as a potentially ownable commodity relates to conservative complaints about technologically-driven social transformations. It made me think--not for the first time, I'm afraid--that Leon Kass, and many social conservatives others who share his opinions, would be well served by viewing this film.

Kass came in for a lot of mockery around the blogosphere last week (see here and here), and deservedly so. I'm not sure where I saw the comment, but someone pointed out that Kass's worldview (which I think is more quaint than dangerous, but in any case I don't agree with it) basically turns on a particular Straussian--or Allan Bloomian--reading of the ancient Greeks which presents the argument that men and women can't ever really be friends; true friendship is a intra-gender phenomenon, whereas across genders the erotic force often gets confused. (Maybe I should call this a When Harry Met Sally reading of ancient learning as well.) And so, of course, when it comes to women and men associating with one another, women need to be on their guard and discipline themselves so as to be able to sexually control men and lure them into marriage, because of course, as Kass put it, "why would a man court a woman for marriage when she may be sexually enjoyed, and regularly, without it?" The possibility that the man and woman might actually be interested in one another and enjoy each others' company--that they might, in other words, be friends--is simply not likelihood in his mind.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about; what is on my mind is Kass's many strongly worded warnings about and occasional denunciations of genetic engineering, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and biotechnology in general. I'm enormously sympathetic to the work Kass has done on the President's Council on Bioethics (see here and here and here and here), because I share his fear that our society's needed and basic moral notions of dignity and humanity can easily be compromised by allowing technology to turn too much of what is fundamental to our nature and our everyday lives into, as Lee put it, possessions, "at our disposal, and under our control." Once again, pointing back to yesterday's post, there is an important sense in which our ability to act freely and meaningfully in the world depends upon respecting limits--denying the ability of any one person, through the supposedly neutral and empowering aegis of the market, to make their own or someone else's life utterly pliable and choice-driven. If everything is a potential possession and commodity, if everything can be bought or sold or designed or reconstructed, then nothing is permanent, and if nothing is permanent, our ability to draw moral lines, much less our ability to build our institutions and laws in reference to such, will collapse. In the end, we need to distinguish between what is human and what is merely an accoutrement of humanity, and set the former beyond the reach of profit and pleasure-minded choice.

What bothers me about Kass and many other such conservatives is that, so far as I can tell, they have not identified the real driving force behind these choices: corporations, these legal fictions which we have created that our law grants the legal standing of persons, and yet are fundamentally unable to include within the logic of their actions any kind of human value or moral concern. Yes, individual persons are the ones who make the decisions which corporations then act upon, but no individual, on their own, is so powerful or so removed from the real world of everyday moral concern to be able to do something so horrendous as, say, patent a life form. Yet that is exactly which many powerful corporations have done. The modern corporate form is wonderful for harnessing the potential of capitalism; they can, through legal mechanisms, take money from investors and rapidly buy property and move into markets and innovate the production of goods to a degree single actors never could. But it is exactly that speed, that impetus towards constant growth and exploitation, which has allowed corporate powers to generate structures within which technology escapes human control: you just have one genetic engineer here, and one lawyer over there, and each of them are doing their job, and if, in the end, you're suddenly placing patents on goods which makes the basic stuff of life--genes, seeds, DNA codes, etc.--nothing more than objects of speculation and profit...well, who is to blame? The Corporation lays out all this expertly, and entertainingly as well.

I've been reading Norman Pollack's The Just Polity, an intellectual exploration of Populism in American history, and he has much to say about the populist critique of corporations and consumerism. Much of what he has to say about "property" just as clearly applies to matters of "technology" as well, so much so that you could easily replace the former with the latter, and the basic argument would hold: "[Technology]," he writes regarding the 19th-century Populists, "was only regarded as a threat when it became integrated with the mechanisms of domination....When [technology] was concentrated, Populists viewed it as taking on a politicized form" (pg. 6). This this puts it very well--the concentration of technological power, and economic power, in the hands of corporation is hardly a neutral event, an unavoidable and harmless byproduct of the functions of the market, but one which impinges upon politics. The makers of The Corporation (which, despite its occasional rabble-rousing goofiness and its heavy use of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, is a lucid and insightful film) do not argue against capitalism itself or urge an agrarian-Luddite revolution; what they do is ask how, and to what degree, we can continue to justify essentially outsourcing such transformative issues to a bunch of centralized, strictly speaking inhuman, acquisitive entities. I do not expect Kass to become a Luddite--I'm not myself. But I would expect him to recognize that what is primarily driving the kind of technological danger and commodification which he fears is to a great degree the one economic agent operative in our present socio-economic world that is almost completely structurally immune to the sort of democratic "communal judgments" which Lee mentioned. If he can't do that, especially in regards to these most pressing of issues, then really, what could he possibly be "conserving" anyway?


Lee said...

This is great stuff. Corporations are a major blind spot for most conservatives, even though they're arguably driving many of the trends conservatives complain about - not just bioethical issues, but pornography, the commercialization of childhood, etc.(though, for a more sober view of the matter from a self-described "traditionalist", see this interesting essay:

I also agree that the bioethics commission has been one of the few bright spots of this administration. The approach to bioethics and "life issues" was the only thing that really tempted me to vote for Bush last year (I ultimately ended up "throwing my vote away" and voting Green).

I'm curious if you see reining in corporations as a precondition for meaningful communal deliberations about the good, or, conversely, if you think we need to come to some kind of moral consensus first, in order to make political action possible? Will it be possible to create any kind of popular (populist?) movement to curtail economic power given the language of liberalism ("rights," "consent," "neutrality" etc.) that prevails in the public realm? I'm thinking of a kind of "MacIntyrean" analysis that holds deliberation about the common good to be pretty much impossible under present conditions. This is the chicken-and-egg problem as I see it.  

Posted by Lee

Russell Arben Fox said...

It is a chicken-and-egg problem, and no, I don't have a clear answer either. Though, as my "Populist Farmer" post shows, I don't think reform and communal empowerment are utterly lost to us; we obviously can't turn the nation into a democratic moral community overnight, but we can work at it, bringing in a little bit more participation where we can, hopefully using one small moral consensus to leap to a slightly larger one, and so on. If I didn't think some sort of movement was possible, I wouldn't have bothered to vote for Nader, which I have done twice--not because I wanted him to be president, but because his campaign brought things to the political table....which I suppose means I, contra MacIntyre, believe that the table around which possible empowering discussions can take place still exists. As I said before, I'm not quite a New Pantagruelist (yet).

jeremiah said...

I've just started reading your series and it's great. This third installment remains me of ralph Hancock's comment in the Milbank exchange a while back. It went something like "I'm more worried about the dangers on the horizon from biotechnology than about the shoddiness of goods at Wal-Mart." If he thinks that socks that wear out too quickly are at the core of the real complaint about Wal-Mart, he's missing something big.

"to treat practically anything human or natural as a potentially ownable commodity relates to conservative complaints about technologically-driven social transformations."

What is this relation? You and I may see the connection here but I see no reason to believe that people like Kass can or will. Conservative blindness to the 'moral implications of capitalism' is nothing new. My view is that the reason for it is not that they haven't seen certain facts or realities, but that the basic categories from which they warn us about biotechnology are very different from ours (though if I'm not mistaken we both have sympathy for the conservative insights as well).

The point about commodification (Marxian, but also Kantian or Hegelian) rests on a distinction between persons and things. 'Treat others not as a means but as ends'; 'be a person and respect others as persons', etc. Conservatives may be pressed to acknowledge something like this distinction, but it's not central to their worries here. Their response typically goes: 'So what if things get commodified? Life's rough--that's civil society for you. Wise people will recognize that that's not all there is to the world, and will find solace in religion, the family and private relationships. Now biotechnology? That's a real danger--before now some modern libertines overthrew governments and social orders in the name of liberty and autonomy. The results were disasterous not because the world became commodified but because all goods besides freedom were liquidated and eventually even freedom itself was destroyed. Now biotechnology threatens to allow these same libertines to escape even the most immediate limitation of all--biological and even psychological nature. It's the French Revolution on steriods."


Posted by Jeremiah J.

Russell Arben Fox said...

"My view is that the reason for it is not that they haven't seen certain facts or realities, but that the basic categories from which they warn us about biotechnology are very different from ours (though if I'm not mistaken we both have sympathy for the conservative insights as well)."

You may be right about that, Jeremiah. Kass may be a traditional conservative in the true, natural-hierarchy sense: that is, someone who is responding to the ravages of modernity simpliciter , without actually having some faithful concern for wholeness (because if you had that, then you may have to admit, as MacIntyre did in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that the modern world has its own tradition and wholeness to it as well). In which case, the reason someone like Kass might think playing around with nature is bad, is not because it commodifies and takes away our ability to appreciate the fulness of the gift and order that is nature (which is a rather Romantic or even medieval Christian notion), but simply because it upsets the appropriate hierarchy of things: people making themselves into something "better" than they deserve to be. And now we're back around to that weird longing which John Holbo identified in David Frum, the wish that things would be hard, apparently just for the hell of it... 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

jeremiah said...

"that weird longing which John Holbo identified in David Frum, the wish that things would be hard, apparently just for the hell of it... "

Exactly. Kass is even more interesting, though, because of the Straussian link. Every so often you'll hear a Straussian show the difference between him and the typical modern conservative by showing sympathy for Socratic or even Nietzschean recklessness. Political founders and spiritual revolutionaries, Machiavelli and Alcibiades. Mansfield recently--and brilliantly--remarked (previewing his new book) about how extraordinarily *manly* the feminist movement was in a certain sense. And yet in general Straussian conservatism emerges because of the persistence of the distiction between the "many and the few". 'Radical, world-shaking freedom can be a wonderful thing, but it's not for *you*, ordinary one.'

And yet I still wonder the reason for the deep, very Straussian, skepticism about overcoming the distiction between the many and the few, or at least some part of it, especially when economic, social, and technological change seems to throw the question wide open again. Perhaps the view is that it is good that there are only a *few*, even if they *could be* many. 

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Clark Goble said...

Russell, bringing in the more religious element - since your analysis of the gift ends up presupposing it. How do we relate the gift as essentially the gift and the gift as talent. That is, it seems to me that Kass' brand of conservativism elevates the notion of gift while repressing the element of expansion in the gift as found in the parable of the talents.

I think his work in bio-ethics illustrates this notion and you touched upon it in several ways. We have to be true to who we are, given that who we are is a gift. Yet can we be true to who we are and simultaneously manifest our stewardship which entails improving who and what we are. I think Nietzsche and his notion of overcoming here is interesting in the context of the gift.  

Posted by Clark

Hellmut said...

I agree with your larger point that corporations are a challenge. In my mind, the challenge stems from the power imbalance between individuals and corporations as well as the imbalance between several corporations.

I am not sure, however, if it is true that corporations are less moral than human individuals. Your example about patenting life forms makes it especially suspicious. I have little difficulty imagining Rockefeller or Carnegie patenting a life form if they would have had access to the necessary technology.

More importantly, corporations do not file for patents. Individuals within the institutional framework of a corporation file the patents (on behalf of the corporation). The question then seems to be if the same human beings would act differently if they operated within a different institution. 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz