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?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Populist Farmer (Conservatism, Part 2)

Let me pick up on a point Lee made in the first of these Verbum Ipsum posts I mentioned, where he reflects upon the arguments of one of my favorite thinkers, Christopher Lasch:

Lasch favored what he called 'populism'....Lasch's populism valorizes what he considered to be lower-middle-class or 'petit bourgeois' values of local community, solidarity, dedication to craft, loyalty and self-denial. In essence, it is an ethic of limits that doesn't expect ever-expanding wealth and opportunity, but finds satisfaction in concrete attachments to family, neighborhood, honest work, and civic participation. Lasch's vision combined a desire for a certain level of economic egalitarianism with a distrust of the state and a commitment to what we might call "traditional values." But it's not entirely clear that such a state of affairs is possible (assuming that it's desirable). Is it possible to ensure a measure of economic independence for working people without an expansive welfare state? Is it, as some have suggested, that it's the state that makes the concentration of wealth possible through the various subsidies and supports it provides to big business? Is a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism/populism feasible in the 21st century, or is that just nostalgia?

Lee--and Lasch, for that matter--aren't really explicitly talking about farmers here; their invocation of agrarian populism has more to do with the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy of small property owners, of producers and workers that can stand independent of large commercial machines, than with an actual celebration of farm life. Still, Lee's comment got me thinking about farming, partly because my family is involved in it, but even more because through that involvement, I think I can grasp some of the practical problems and possibilities that might go into answering Lee's question, and thus make for a better conservatism than what passes for such today.

Farming is an economy of limits, and teaches one an ethic of limits. You cannot retool a plot of land the way you can a factory; you cannot redesign or alter a crop the way you can a production line or menu or novel or any other material thing that someone might produce through their labor. Of course, over time--through working with the land, judging the seasons, experimenting with different hybrids, developing new planting and harvesting procedures--the sort of agriculture any given person or community is involved with can change; and by the same token, it's not as though any non-agricultural business or practice can just turn on a dime: there are machines and investments that need tending to, there is training that has to take place, etc. Still, broadly speaking, the essential distinction between an act of creative labor that involves oneself, or an organization, or a factory, and the labor which involves the land, holds firm: farming is--must be--careful, slow, patient, conservative work. In short, working on a farm teaches you about time, teaches you your own limits and thus turns you to others, teaches you value, as Wendell Berry put it in his essay "Going to Work," "the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory." (This is in contrast, according to Berry, to "much modern work" which takes place in "academic or professional or industrial or electronic enclosures," and thus encourages a "separation between the workers and the effects of their work...permit[ting] the workers to think that they are working nowhere or anywhere.")

So there is a reason why Lasch--who once wrote that it was simply "common sense" that (here he quotes Raymond Williams) in the future, "work on the land will have to become more rather than less important and central"--focused on farming along with so many other lower-middle-class or "petit bourgeois" forms of work as the key to his conservative but also egalitarian, humble but also hopeful world. But does any of this have any connection to farming today? Setting aside the full-bore agrarian vision, and assuming that every person will just have to find, if we so choose, a way to recover a little bit of Jeffersonian social and economic independence (an independence which exists in the context of a defined community, not an open and uncaring market) in whatever vocation or lifestyle we live, can contemporary agriculture offer anything from which we can learn?

I think so, though perceiving it isn't easy. The terrible burden of farming in America today, and for several decades now, is that of bigness--between the technology of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, and the machinations of political and corporate leaders in the 1970s, the principle of limits, while still an undeniable aspect of farming, was officially denigrated: the goal of every farmer was to increase yields, to "get big or get out," to plant, as Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it, "fence row to fence row" (and, of course, that meant trying to get more land within those fence rows as well). Of course, this didn't happen over night; in many ways, due to the enormous amount of arable land available in the United States, combined with a free-market ideology that has always encouraged farmers to think about growth rather than conservation, the lure of limitlessness has long been with us. Today, corn is so overproduced in the U.S. that massive subsidies--more than twice as much as any other crop receives--are necessary to keep it profitable, with the result that the corn economy spills over into such ridiculous and environmentally destructive endeavors as ethanol, corn-fed beef, and--worst of all in our household--the omnipresence of corn syrup as a sweetener. But to a degree this is simply a replay of the 19th century, when the overproduction of corn made possible the near-universal consumption of cheap corn whiskey and rampant alcoholism. Wise farmers and managers of farms have long been sensitive to the lure of bigness, and the crises it can cause; but such wisdom is difficult to hold onto when agriculture has become captive to obsession with growth and "feeding the world." (As Amartya Sen demonstrated years ago, famines are rarely caused by a lack of food, but rather by poorly developed or managed local economies that prevent people from finding the kind of work and wealth needed so that they can afford food.)

Today in the U.S., 90% of farms are still technically family-owned and "small"--but they account for an increasingly small percentage of total farm production. Over one-third of all agricultural output in the U.S. is now determined by corporate contracts, and two-thirds of American farms are obliged to specialize in only one or two commodities. The raw number of farms in the U.S. have been falling for decades; but what is far more worrisome is the collapse of the mid-sized farm economy, the "agriculture of the middle," as one report puts it. Small farm operations, especially those nearby urban markets, can often deliver their goods directly to consumers and stores, especially as the interest in organic food and farmers markets has grown. Huge corporate farm operations, of course, increasing dominate the agricultural scene (helped along enormously by subsidies which are tied entirely to sustaining price despite overproduction). The farmers who are falling through the cracks are the ones who are working perhaps 200, perhaps 500, perhaps 1000 acres, who still sell their crops on the open market and still make decisions about what to plant and how to manage the soil and when to harvest themselves, who still can manage the land and pass down that knowledge directly, frequently within their families. This is a grave concern: while the major agricultural conglomerates (some scholars suggest that we will soon see economic pressures and incentives force or lure most non-boutique farmers into joining massive, 225,000-acre "industrial" farm complexes) will always be able to produce food (though whether it's good to eat or not is a different story...), it is these mid-sized farms which are most able to produce unique, highly differentiated commodities in sufficient quantities to be able to participate in economies of scale. More relevant to this discussion, it is farms like these that are at the outside edge of the sort of consciousness of limits, and the virtues which follow from the same, that farming at its best represents. If we lose them, then farming's connection with Jeffersonian hopes, with a model of populist empowerment and discipline so important if we wish to prevent the free market from descending into pure anarcho-capitalism, will mostly disappear. Fortunately, things may be turning slowly around.

My family owns a farm--in two parcels, one 400 acres and the other 1400 acres, of which about 1100 acres are tillable--in the Kootenai River valley in northern Idaho. (See here for some more personal information and reflections on our farm.) We grow mostly wheat, with the occasional excursions into lentils or barley. We're lucky in a lot of ways: our land is tended for us by a family of Mennonite farmers, the Amoths, that have been associates of the Fox family for going on four generations now. Moreover, the arable land in our part of the Inland Empire is some of the finest wheat-growing land in America, with no need for irrigation and a climate well-suited for a variety of strains (we grow both soft white and hard red varieties, including the comparatively rare and valuable dark northern spring). And wheat itself is a fairly high-demand and stable crop. Still, it isn't at all impossible to imagine losing our toe-hold in the market, especially when confronted with the huge subsidies and contracts pulled in by the major operations out there. Fortunately, there are programs which have been designed to help, in particular the Conservation Security Program. This program, which has only recently become available in the Kootenai River watershed area, is a quantum leap forward in the relationship between the federal government and farmers. Rather than simply paying them the difference between their costs and the market price of their goods (thereby warping the latter), or paying them to destroy their goods outright so to keep them off the market, it treats farmers as stewards, subsidizing them in their efforts to transform--and, thereby, limit--their land in accordance with good environmental principles. Individual plans are developed in consultation with those who actually work the farm, and the result in a more natural farm, but one that is still productive, still producing marketable goods, and still ultimately in the hands of their knowledgeable, local owners and operators. As my father put it, "Someone in Washington finally figured out that people who spend their lives on the land are better environmentalists than those who visit it for a weekend." This sort of trust--call it populist empowerment--strengthens the mid-sized farm and those who, in their own independent way, make the land and their work upon it part of the American scene, thereby making it and them that much more like to endure in a world characterized by the colliding demands of environmentalism, efficiency, and economic centralization.

The CSP is just one program, and it alone can't make much difference across the country; but then, it is just an example of some of the ways in which farming's contribution to the fabric (as well as the feeding) of America can nonetheless still be drawn out. The legacy of the New Deal--which always was far more about building economic security and solidarity than simply cutting welfare checks--included several programs that built upon the expected ability (and obligation!) of farmers to make wise use of their land, assuming the market would pay for and respect the kind of limited, disciplined work they were doing. The Burley Tobacco Program is a good example of such; this is how one farmer and writer described the effects of that program (which Wendell Berry has also praised):

The Burley Tobacco program, for example, has sustained more small- and moderate-sized family farmers than has any other agricultural program in any other state in the US. When I was raising 3-4 acres of tobacco on my 155-acre dairy farm in Kentucky in the 1970s, I was making enough money from tobacco to take care of my mortgage and loan payments on the whole farm. I never got a subsidy check. The companies were required to pay a fair price, or they didn't get the tobacco. Tens of thousands of small farmers making a living meant that church and school events were always packed with people. There was a healthy, lively rural economy and social fabric....Some of my economist friends didn't like the tobacco program because they said it "retarded efficiency." They explained to me that tobacco-farming methods were antiquated, that more tobacco could be produced more cheaply if the production weren't required to be disbursed among so many "inefficient" little farms. They were right, of course, but when farm leaders talked to me about the importance of the program, the never talked solely about efficiency—they always talked about the really good farmers whose income from tobacco enabled them to be livestock and grass farmers, thereby stewarding the land. They also always talked about how many kids were sent to college with tobacco checks. This was a stark example to me of two different paradigms about economic systems. One considers financial efficiency primary and all other goals derivative. The other considers social and environmental goals as important as financial ones.

I neither smoke nor care much for people who do, and I'm anything but a fan of the tobacco industry. But you have to recognize and applaud sincere efforts, wherever you may find them, to make farming work in today's open-ended social and economic environment in the egalitarian and empowering way that agrarians from Jefferson on down have insisted that it can and should. The American government spends billions of dollars on agriculture, flooding world markets while protecting our own, propping up bloated agribusinesses that soak up the corporate welfare and use their wealth to patent crops and micromanage farming like any profit-minded corporation would, and all the while fails to do the basic things which France--which is hardly free of such abuses themselves--has successfully done with far less overall spending: identify limited niche markets where agricultural commodities, produced in conservative and limited--and therefore all the more personalized and enriching--ways continue to shape an overall way of life.

I don't imagine that the majority of the Illinois corn fields surrounding our house will be transformed into numerous small or mid-sized, locally productive and managed farms anytime soon. Still, one can hope: hope that the CSP and programs like it receives more funding and is extended to more areas of the country, hope that more people will key into the way in which farming can help to sustain a populist public good. The state must play an important role here: not simply as a provider of welfare per se, but because--absent, as I said above, a complete agrarian revolution--it alone has the democratic power to structure and thus shape the way in which modern technologies and markets interact with farmers and farming communities. Without such structuring, the best--most communitarian, most Laschian, most egalitarian, most local, most conservative--aspects of American farm work will be hard-pressed to survive. But if they do survive, or even flourish, farmers like the Amoths might well endure to be popular examples of the kind of good life which workers the country over might someday be clamoring to conserve.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Conservatism on Trial in St. Louis

Well, it seems that once again I've managed to let nearly month go by without much serious blogging. I guess I'll have to do something about that.

I just got back from a conference in St. Louis--it was the annual meeting of the Association for Political Theory, a relatively new and growing professional academic group--and I was on a roundtable discussing "Prospects for American Conservatism." It was an excellent panel, with some great discussion afterwards--in some ways, a replay of the panel I was on with some of my fellow bloggers at APSA, but in some ways going in a very different direction. For one thing, it was much more personal, reflecting the efforts of four people thinking very hard about how to place themselves and their interests, hopes and fears in relation to what passes for "conservatism" in America today. I can't do justice here to the energized discussion which followed afterwards; suffice to say it was an excellent exchange all around. And there was a lot of material presented worth arguing about: Steve Millies used Burke to thoughtfully explore and critique the highly imprudent and anything-but-traditional Bush Doctrine ; I did my usual Christopher Lasch-inspired social conservative-Christian socialist shtick (our panel chair, the sharp and funny Daniel Pellerin, said after listening to me that he was surprised to find an old-fashioned Red Tory living in the U.S.); Gus Dizerega discussed his break with libertarianism and his suspicion of a totalitarianism lurking within the soul of the Christian right; and Ed Wingenbach reminded us of the danger of getting caught up in a merely "nominalist" argument when the conservative movement in America today, whatever it actually consists of, has been so successful in positioning itself as the party of power.

Ed's comments were particularly relevant given the arguments which emerged in the discussion period, most having to do with the apparent intentions of contemporary imperialists and certain neoconservatives. Does talking about "conservatism" do anyone any good in diagnosing this phenomenon at all? You link this wholesale revision of much of what has long been assumed to be "conservative" (realism, prudence, community, tradition, localism, etc.) with the ambitions of certain religious activists, and what you find is the acknowledgement that the word itself simply doesn't describe the existing movement; as Joseph Bottum himself admitted in a prominent essay in First Things, "this isn't conservatism....But so what? Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene." Daniel's observation that, if Hartz's thesis about the liberal tradition in America has any truth to it at all, then there is every reason to properly read Bush's adventures as a somewhat radicalized iteration of American Whiggery, the liberal imperialist mindset which has always lurked below the surface of America's civic creed and which now, post-Roe, post-9/11, has found a new outlet. I think there's a great deal of truth to that. But, for my own sake, I also think it's important to point out the enduring, oft-misunderstood presence of at least one authentically conservative strand of thought in the current Republican party.

As the discussion turned to the war on terrorism, I confessed that I had drank the Kool-Aid: back in 2003, as most of you know, I was a worried but nonetheless emphatic supporter of the Iraq War. I have long struggled, against my better judgment, with the problem that there is much that someone of my views can plausibly admire about President Bush, and a great deal of that is caught up the way he and those around him intentionally or unintentionally tapped into a deep idea--an idea that, as I put when I finally admitted that I needed to eat some crow, "appealed to me: [one that] made sense, [that] matched what I thought ought and could be possible in a world of danger and oppression where the meaning of sovereignty had changed but the role of national power hadn't." When one member of the audience suggested framing the present condition of conservatism and liberalism in the U.S. explicitly in post-9/11 terms, this is what I came up with--

In the aftermath of 9/11, and reaching all the way to the invasion of Iraq, Bush's and the neoconservatives call to war has ideologically caught up three distinct groups of Americans. The first and largest group responded to the attack on the U.S. and its interests with a straightforward patriotism, the sort of civic and religious pride in America that united many diverse factions all throughout the Cold War when Soviet communism was presented as a legitimate and dangerous threat to the American way of life. Despite the way in which, post-Vietnam, self-described "conservatives" were able to claim this mantle for themselves, there was never anything coherently conservative about it; in fact, to the extent that the "American way of life" is basically a liberal one, than this patriotic reaction is similarly "liberal" in a rather fundamental way. The second group, smaller but highly influential, were the liberal nationalists and internationalists, who resonated to the call to war for reasons of human rights and idealism and the promise of uniting democracy promotion with imperial might. So much has been written about this group (and so much of which, I must admit, I still cannot help but be sympathetic to) that there's no point in elaborating it further, except to note that, whether they called themselves liberal hawks or neoconservatives, this too, at bottom, was just another iteration of liberal reformism and humanitarian imperialism, Gladstonian-style.

The line dividing the second group from the third is thin and hard to discern, but important to speaking clearly about conservatism today. For this third, I think very small group, what happened as we watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces o globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceededd on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own....well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

When I was making my remarks, Steve told me later, he scribbled down on his pad "Christopher Hitchens conservatism!"--and that nails it, absolutely. There is something subtly yet authentically conservative about the present Republican party, and it draws on that portion of the left which knows that social egalitarianism, or indeed any social ideal, will never be enough--you need an socially engaged community, a socialist and egalitarian culture, and for that you need a common morality and collective goods. A very small yet real part of the progressive left has, I think, rightly decided that we're the only one's left actually defending the authority of community and tradition, and we'll take any ally we can find in this battle, with the result that religious and communalistic progressives often end up with odd bedfellows. Too bad a lot of us for a long time couldn't see (as some of us, like Hitchens, still can't) that Bush's "traditionalism" appears to involve far more cronyism that communalism, which means that--arguably unlike the more honest imperialists of 19th-century Britain, or even the liberal-yet-still-culturally-traditional architects of America's transformative occupations of Germany and Japan after WWII--he is unwilling to acknowledge, or more likely is entirely ignorant of, what respecting and encouraging a decent culture actually means.

Anyway, since I'm now thinking about all this stuff, I might as well try to get down a couple of other recent, more theoretical ideas I've had related to conservatism, both inspired by a series of wonderful posts written by Lee at Verbum Ipsum a few weeks back. In those posts, he touched a bunch of important and interrelated issues--populism, agrarianism, technology, and the role of the state and the market--all in the context of exploring conservatism. I'll see if I can't them both up over the next day or two.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happy 5766!

It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Last year I wrote a long piece, weaving my thoughts about the importance of this holiday with some reflections on seasons and holidays in general; I doubt I could do any better this time around, so I'll just link to that old post, which you can read if you're so inclined. You might also be interested in a post with some links to Jewish-related matters over at Times and Seasons, where I also blog. In the meantime, if there’s a synagogue here in Macomb, IL, I’m unaware of it, so there will be cultural dimension missing from our family celebrations tonight. Still, Melissa will make her chicken soup and challah bread, and we’ll share stories from the Old Testament with our children. Shana Tova, everyone!