Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Christian Democratic Communities and Teleological States: A Response to God's Economy

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Lew Daly's book, God's Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, is something of an odd masterpiece, a brilliant revisionist study of the idea of church-state partnerships in the struggle for social justice and collective goods. I say "revisionist" thinking primarily in terms of my own--and Daly's--American context; in societies where the legacy of established churches remain, the available language for talking about the various means of providing for the poor (whether that language be legalistic, political, or simply economic) is much broader than is the case in the United States, where the separation of church and state--as well as a fairly individualistic mainline and evangelical Protestantism--have long been (and to a degree, still are) the dominant paradigms. So Daly's arguments about the long evolution of different arguments about how churches can and should supplement the state (or vice versa!) in providing welfare and protection to the needy will likely not seem quite so "revisionist" to those schooled in, or experience with, Catholic social teachings, Dutch Calvinist social pluralism, and the like. But to this reader, at least, they were fantastically eye-opening.

In a book so broad, it is difficult to pick out and summarize any one of its many fascinating claims--but, since book reviews oblige one to do so, I'll try (guided significantly by his precis, here). Among other things, Daly argues that the "compassionate conservative" vision of "faith-based initiatives," the effort by the Bush administration to extend the provisioning of essential welfare resources through the agency of various disparate religious organizations, was hardly an original idea, but was in fact yet another development in an ongoing argument which extends back to, and took its original form in the wake of, the French Revolution. In the (most people would say admirable) efforts of the leaders of the revolution to end the numerous and often horrific abuses which the ancien régime had visited upon the French people--abuses which were often harshly tied up in the land and industries which the church and hereditary aristocrats controlled and employed to their own undemocratic ends--the French radicals went too far; they insisted upon, in contrast to the multiple modes of life and association which characterized traditional France, the existence of only one, uniform "corporation": the French nation itself. There could be no other communal property, no other citizen attachments, nothing. The aim was egalitarian. The result, however, was not; the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy did not disappear (as they almost never do), but the ability of all others to build for themselves communities that could help them sustain mutually enriching lives was seriously compromised. This was a radical individualism, which in particular left the poor (or those who worked in less-than prestigious professions, or who lived in less-than powerful parts of the country) unable to organize and effectively support and defend their ways of life. As these same individualistic ideas spread throughout Europe and America along with the Industrial Revolution, there appeared in response strong critics of French revolutionary fervor. Daly focuses in particular upon Catholic social and Dutch anti-revolutionary thinkers, both of whom, in different ways, emphasized the crucial role that the Christian religion must play in bringing security to those who, in the modern era, lacked such. The argument, from that point on, was and has been a continuing legal, political, and economic tug-of-war, with one side--the side taken by both advocates of a secularist state and supporters of an untrammeled capitalist market--seeing politically organized charitable and church groups as their common enemy, while the other side strives to advance the argument for the social pluralism and libertas ecclesiae, the freedom for church's to do God's work amongst the poor.

The book is powerful, provocative, and filled with eminently-arguable theses. (For example, in the foreword to the book, E.J. Dionne, while strongly praising Daly's work, take serious issue with him over his rather extensive claims regarding the influence Catholic and social democratic thought had on the New Deal.) So let me pick out one of the book's many strands of thought: leaving aside the question of just how one determines in the first place the extent and nature of the egalitarian support which social justice demands the poor receive to enable them to be full-fledged members of the community, what does Daly have to say about the role (and the inter-relationship) which church's, local communities, and the central state have in providing such justice?

In what I thought to be a particular insightful section of the book, Daly reflects upon the mid-1900s rediscovery of "social capital" as a term of analysis when thinking about community. About this, he writes:

John DiIulio and other social scientists have made significant efforts to [consider the role of religious providers in terms of social capital]. [Robert] Putnam himself...[has] argued that "nearly half of America's stock of social capital," as measured by membership, philanthropy, and volunteerism, "is religious or religiously affiliated." Or, as John DiIulio terms it, roughly half of our social capital is really "spiritual capital." Yet when Putnam specifies that "houses of worship" spend $15-20 billion annually on social services, it should also be clear that the scale of spiritual capital (at least by this one measure of involvement) barely touches the magnitude of social needs: $15-20 billion equals approximately $350 annually for every person near or below the poverty line as of 2007. In gross comparative terms, the total spiritual capital of the nation amounts to less that 20 percent of the total "poverty gap" in the United States--the amount by which impoverished people fall below the poverty line, which totaled $107 billion in 2001. This is to say nothing of the tens of millions of people who live near the poverty line on low-wage pay or go through their days only one medical crisis or one corporate merger away from plunging downward to the bottom rungs of the income ladder....

[E]ven if the "faith factor" is definitively proven [to be effective in responding to the needs of poor individuals and families] with further comprehensive research (perhaps leading politicians to prioritize faith-based services beyond current efforts to "level the playing field"), this does nothing to rectify what is obviously a more fundamental problem: the deficient scale of faith-based welfare (indeed of all welfare combined) in a country with growing poverty and increasing downward wage pressures affecting tens of millions of households above the poverty line....What social assistance should accomplish and by what means, and how the cost should be borne, assuming that more should be done, is...a larger question, not just of welfare policy, but of "public purpose," or what [Abraham] Kuyper and his scattered American followers call "public justice"
(pp. 190-191).

Public justice calls for more and better aid to be given to the suffering among us, but it cannot (and, speaking both realistically and politically, will not) be given along convention welfare state lines. I would argue that the long and not-yet (perhaps never-to-be) concluded debate over paying for and providing health care in the United States is a fine example of such: despite many serious attempts to introduce more localism or more communitarianism (or both) into the reforms proposed, in the end the result was perhaps predictable from the beginning: a merging of state and corporate power to accomplish much needed, but still philosophically regrettable, ends. What will have to happen to truly expand upon the vision of faith-based initiatives--the vision of Christian aid being sufficient to satisfying both the human and the communal needs of all needy people in any given polity--is a "re-engineering of the [whole] social safety net along pluralist lines....from the perspective of families and communities, and from a religious perspective, restricting the state while ignoring what is happening in society is not genuine pluralism but simply a faith-based alliance with liberal anti-statism" (pp. 192-193). Seeking to cut back on welfare, and encouraging--whether legally or monetarily or both--churches to take up the slack, while not seeking at the same time to seriously repair a socio-economic order which continues to prize an ultimately unforgiving and rapacious individualism above all, is no way to be true to principles which God calls the believer. A more comprehensive approach to welfare--what Daly calls, in reference to many policies which exist in Western European states, "Christian Democratic welfare policy"--is what is needed: a welfare policy that orients the whole of society, in its many different (and much in need of defense!) parts, around a common restorative goal. To quote Daly again:

Put simply, the faith-based initiative embodies a pluralist vision of societal restoration, based on legal recognition of the real personality of social groups--most importantly families and their churches and communities--coupled with requisite public provisioning for their security and special needs if this autonomy is infringed or reduced by other centers of power, whether public or private. In its fullness this vision encompasses a mandate of stopping or mitigating the impact of all institutions or organized powers that threaten the "tie-beams and anchors of the social structure," or "God-willed community," as Kuyper put it (pg 193).

Daly's conclusion is, ultimately, a hopeful one--that the introduction of a constitutional and procedural language in American politics for seeing welfare delivered and supplemented by locally grounded faith-based organizations is a step towards the kind of pluralistic re-imagining which is necessary for social or public justice to be achieved. Christians are called to help the poor; the best way to help them is to enable them to find and defend dignified ways of family and communal life; the scale of the need in regards to such is massive, and cannot at present be provided by churches alone--but to leave churches out of the matter entirely is to fail to acknowledge the critique, authority, and dignity which local religious bodies can provide; hence, the development of church-state partnerships is a crucial step forward in the filling of a gap in our thinking about the needs of the poor which extends back to the original, violent separating of the individual from the communities of faith and security which they once knew.

I wish I could share in Daly's optimism, but I do not. Not because I do not find his analysis of this--as well as many other--strands of the argument persuasive; on the contrary, I do, and like Adam Webb says in his consideration of the book, I am fully supportive of Daly's proposals. But Adam also touches on what I think to be the crucial issue. He observes that "plural sovereignty is grounded on a telos," and that if we want to make into subsidiarity something more than Michael Walzer's (admirable from the communitarian point of view, but limited insofar as the Christian one goes) "spheres of justice," then we must have a "more rigorous--and universal--underlying view of human purpose, human dignity, and the practices that secure them." We must, in other worlds, be able to collectively conceive of an end for welfare, or else doing justice for the poor will be indistinguishable from endlessly providing them with one or another different egalitarian program. Let me be clear: I think that most of those egalitarian programs are valuable, and usually are much better--when it comes to keeping families and neighborhoods intact--than nothing. But on their own they will only incidentally provide space for the development of truly democratic communities, of communities of capable, responsible, active, compassionate citizens and human beings...and sometimes, tragically, will become, as Daly notes in his critique of the welfare state, an active obstacle to such. What is needed is for the state to become, as Daly's title puts it, a "Caring State"....and for the state to care, it must believe in something. It needs a civil religion--and certainly a more robust one that the United States has at present.

Most of those who take the idea of civil religion at all seriously in our hyper-pluralistic and individualistic age probably agree that America's civil religion, to the extent that it has one, has been tainted by a Christianity Lite, or "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," as some prefer to call it. I'm on record as believing that, to whatever extent such a self-regarding, non-judgmental, atheological civil religion has captivated the country, that...well, there could be worse fates. A civil religion which is tolerant, pragmatic, open-minded, decent, and merciful, is to be much preferred over one that is none of those things. But that is a civil religion too well-suited to our meritocratic age; it has no real notion of suffering or sacrifice, and hence has no need of grace. If your religion--or at least your concept of the moral norms of the civil order--lacks a notion of grace, it therefore also lacks a notion of gifts; all it can say is that some people are lucky, not that some people are blessed. And with that slips away the notion of a blessed--or, as Martin Luther King preferred, a "beloved"--community, one in which the members' feeling for and service towards one another reflects something larger, adds up to something larger. The simple principles of social justice and welfare, without the teleological notions of adding up and gifting and blessing which the concepts of subsidiarity and "sphere sovereignty" (Catholic and Kuyperian terms, respectively) introduce, can never fulfill their own--often unstated, and these days perhaps mostly forgotten--aspirations. It also makes them an easy target for libertarian-minded Christians, who wish to reject the aims of welfare entirely, or who prefer to piously speak of freeing the churches to handle social welfare, without giving any thought to the pluralistic reality which--at least insofar as Daly thinks and hopes--faith-based initiatives hint at. But with America's current civil religion, such hints will not be enough.

Rod Dreher touches on this point, tangentially, in his thoughts about Phillip Blond's recent visit to the U.S., and the connection which "Red Toryism" might have to subsidiarian and localist reforms of the welfare state. While he was cheered by Blond's diagnosis of our present condition, and applauded his solutions, he doubted their applicability: "[F]or [Red Toryism] to be true, people have to not only be virtuous, but to agree on what virtue is....What the poor need is not a politician, but a preacher....We are stuck being governed by a procedural liberalism because we cannot agree on what constitutes 'the good life.' Moreover, in our liberal/libertarian political settlement, we no longer even consider that a concept of the good life can be arrived at through political discussion. In a heterogeneous, culturally pluralistic society like ours, it's not enough to point to the Christian tradition....[T]he radical transformation of our political and social life that Blond envisions will not take place through politics, but requires religious conversion." I can't disagree with Rod's concerns. Indeed, I would extend them to Blond's proposals themselves--if they are to be taken serious, if they are to be understood as contributing, in their own way, to same kind of Christian democratic project that Daly thinks may be enabled through faith-based initiatives, then they must remain teleological; they must maintain their religious point. Which means that the most important component of Red Toryism, like the most important component of Bush's original faith-based idea, is the religious worldview behind them, and the ability to elaborate such. For Bush, that worldview was essentially unexamined, as DiIulio's own experience with the Bush administration proved. For Blond, that worldview is hopefully closer to the surface. The "Radical Orthodoxy" of John Milbank and others may seem, at first glace, an odd addition to the ongoing argument which Daly has traced, what were their talk of "traditionalist socialism" or "socialism by grace". But a worldview that can provide an telos for the caring state like this one--"an associationist communitarianism, which combines left egalitarianism with conservatism about cultural and ethical values"--is something to be taken seriously.

Who knows? Perhaps, after Obama in America, after (perhaps) Cameron in Great Britain, Daly may have enough material to write an additional chapter to his impressive book. But in the meantime, he has given us plenty to debate about, all the same.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Influential (Actually Published, Actually Read Cover-to-Cover Before I Became A Trained Intellectual) Books, Part 2

The wonderful discussion threads which were prompted by this meme (I'm thinking in particular of those found at Crooked Timber and Rod Dreher's and E.D. Kain's blogs) have left me feeling as though I haven't been truthful--that I've only told half the story, at best. And so, just because it's going to keep bugging me if I don't, I present a second contribution to the "Influential Books" meme--only this time, I'm staying away from the stuff I read as part of my undergraduate and graduate education, and looking at books that I read when young or for fun, completely aside from what I was doing to make me into a officially credentialed member of the academic intelligentsia.

One caveat remains the same, though--these are actual books I really did read cover-to-cover...which means, once more, lots of essays or articles of different sorts (all those chapters from Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization!) which challenged me or got me thinking are left aside. Oh, and I'm also going to fifteen again, just because. In alphabetic order:

Richard Adams, Watership Down--I first read this aloud, to my older brother Daniel, when we were both in about 5th or 6th grade. I picked it up at a book sale, knowing nothing about it, and was subsequently swallowed up by the adventure and characters which Adams gave his readers. I never thought of it--and still don't--as a "fantasy" novel, but rather as a grand moral epic, one which gave me the idea that every type of person (Hazel, the wise and wounded leader; Strawberry, the repentant cosmopolitan; Blackavar, the haunted survivalist) can be part of a grand and shared destiny. It was a book which, even more than Tolkien, bonded Daniel's (who was Bigwig, the big tough fighter) and my (who was Fiver, the introspective mystic) imaginary worlds together.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays--Of the many collections of Berry's which I have since read, this first one, read when I was still only beginning to theorize about the appeal which localism and Luddism had for me, remains the best. Perhaps surprisingly, my favorite essay in it is "The Problem of Tobacco," wherein Berry speaks sympathetically, sadly, and wisely about the tobacco farmers he has known, and by so doing expresses well the difficult balancing act which any attempt to live by principles while also living amongst one's fellow beings invariably entails.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol--I have no idea when I first read this story, and I have no idea if the first version I read was a complete one, or one of the hundreds of adaptations out there. All I know is that this story made me passionately devoted to Christmas, and to the liberal lessons it cannot, I think, help but teach.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes--I read through every single one of these short stories, and all four novels, when I was around 13 years old. I knew, even while reading them, that I couldn't be a Sherlock Holmes; I felt no identification with Holmes's deductive, logical brilliance. But they did make me want to be brilliant, and gave me some no-doubt unwarranted pride in the small amount of brilliance I did have.

James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man--The first real work of historical scholarship I ever read. I think I might have been inspired to pick it up by a trip our family took to Revolutionary and Civil War historical sights around the east coast when I was 14. It ignited two passions in me: for America's political history, and for books (I searched for years in those pre-internet years for the four-volume biography this one volume was based upon, finally discovering them in a bookstore in Williamsburg, VA, during a summer internship in DC in 1993).

John Irving, The Cider House Rules--Recommended to me by an English teacher while at BYU as an undergraduate, Irving made me really think about the power of non-mythic, non-epic story-telling for perhaps the first time. I became, for some years, an Irving obsessive, eventually reading all his novels from The World According to Garp to A Widow for One Year. My favorite--and, I think, the best of all those I've read--is A Prayer for Owen Meany, but this book, coming into my life when I was a confused, questioning, horny young man, forcing me to think again about what I truly believed about sex and truth-telling and abortion and rules and growing up, had the greater impact.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce--I found an old paperback copy of this book in my first missionary apartment in Seoul, South Korea, in the late summer of 1988. I'd never read any Lewis before, though I was familiar with The Screwtape Letters from church leaders who would quote from them (as much as practically any other body of conservative American Christians, Mormons like being able to cite Lewis as he was one of our own). Now, having read much more Lewis, The Great Divorce, a story of a group of damned souls taking a bus tour to heaven, still resonates with me--it is, I think, his finest, wisest, most sharply observed and deeply imagined apologetic work. All of it was good, and parts of it (like the encounter between the angel and the soul struggling with the sin of lust) were shatteringly powerful.

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground--This tale of the conflict over busing in Boston is a monumental bit of creative non-fiction. No other book or article or essay I've ever read has ever so achingly conveyed the vain ambitions and tragic underside of modern liberalism: the good intentions, the high principles, the inability to relate to the actual human beings caught up in its projects, and the way it so often and so frustratingly (though perhaps also necessarily) sails over deep fissures of class and culture.

Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns--Of the big graphic novels that came out in the mid-1980s and were considered game-changers in the comic book world, Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's The Watchmen is the one which gets the most critical attention, and deservedly so. I can't pretend that it isn't the superior work; it truly is a masterpiece of comic story-telling. But my heart is with the one I read first: Miller's viciously funny, heavy-handed, emotionally rough tale of Batman's return after 10 years of retirement to a collapsing world. Its politics were frankly fascist; its mythologizing of Batman was crude. But still, panel after panel hit me with Kubrickian force. It's the ugly get-it-done! side of my liberal interventionism which I shouldn't ever let myself forget.

The New Testament
--Wait, you say, you're Mormon; shouldn't you be all about the Book of Mormon? Well, I do take our religion's additional testament of Jesus Christ quite seriously. But if I'm looking for a text that has shaped the fine grain of my Christian thinking, it is simply this. I was on my Mormon proselytizing mission before I ever read the Bible all the way through; I failed with the Old Testament (got about as far as Lamentations), but couldn't get enough of the New. Paul's epistles, in particular, framed fundamental questions and hopes about God and Christ which the stories of the Book of Mormon, I think, at best only expand upon, rather than express so succinctly, or with such poignancy.

Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion--Here, then, is where my Mormonism comes in. For a religious tradition less than 200 years old, it is perhaps to be expected that Mormonism hasn't yet produced a great many profound thinkers (as opposed to inspired and wise leaders, of which we've had more than a few). Nibley, however, was one such: a scholar of the ancient world who, with a deeply and entirely orthodox Mormon sensibility, used his learning to kindly yet relentless tear apart every compromise the Mormon community (particularly the politically conservative, thoroughly capitalist, environmentally unfriendly, intensely patriotic, western American Mormon culture he knew best) had made with 20th-century life. Long before I'd been able to truly situate myself in regards to all the postmodern philosophy and radical politics I was absorbing, Nibley's essays (in particular his magnum opus, "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free") taught me--admittedly, perhaps inaccurately--that my faith was egalitarian, communitarian, anti-modern, anti-authoritarian, and delightfully fun. I still agree with him (or at least want to) today.

Orwell, Down and Out In Paris and London--Orwell's 1984 was the best novel I read in high school, and trying to unlock Orwell's argument with and about modern democratic life in the mid-20th century was one of the first real interpretive puzzles I ever consciously took on. In time, I came to love--and wanted to emulate--his essays and reportage even more than his fiction. Despite that, I didn't read this book until I'd graduated from BYU. I was, perhaps not coincidentally, working as a dishwasher at a restaurant at the time, giving me the chance to verify that, however artificially constructed Orwell's persona may have been, his observations about human life and work at the bottom of the food-chain were dead-on accurate.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings--Like tens of millions of others worldwide over the past half-century, Tolkien was my gateway drug to fantasy. The consciousness that history, geography, language, religion, genealogy, all of it, was and, in fact, should be properly understood as the constituent elements of myth-making and world-creation permanently altered not just how I read stories, but the way I valued stories as well. To tell a story that made use of all the adventures and archetypes echoing around our heads well was to do something more than just to have created a fun Dungeons and Dragons campaign; it was to have done something that was, in some profound sense, moral. And who doesn't want to be part of that?

George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft--I read so much George F. Will when I was in high school; I bought big collections of his columns, and I thought his regular mini-essays on the back page of Newsweek magazine were the height of intelligent journalism. I've long since changed my mind about him. But when I bought this book of his (which, dork that I am, I actually was holding in my senior high school photograph), a set of essays he gave at Harvard long before he became a complete partisan, I realized a couple of things. First, I realized I agreed with him at least insofar in that I could never be a libertarian; I like respond to tradition and community too instinctively. Second, I realized he was doing what I wanted to be able to do: to marshal history--Burke! Tocqueville! Marx!--to defend an explanation of government and society. (It took me a few years to realize that was called "political theory"...and then, away I went.)

Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men--A great novel, reflecting a great moment in American literature, yes. But for me, more simply, it is the finest evocation of the feeling of belonging and place that I have ever read. The fact that Warren could so effectively, so lovingly, do this for unlovely people living in the squalid, corrupt political culture of the poverty-stricken Jim Crow south makes it all the more remarkable to me. I have no illusions that I could ever write anything as good as this book. But I do continue to tend to the illusion that, once I found a place for us to be, I could live as fully, as rootedly, as the characters Warren described did. That one, of course, is a work in progress, and probably always will be.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Kiss and Tell"

Well, if I gave Roxy Music the video treatment last week, I've got to given Bryan Ferry's solo work a nod this week, of course.

I swear, there are a couple of shots in this video where he looks exactly like a younger, Miller's Crossing-era Gabriel Byrne.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Classic Bugs Bunny Rules Us All

Doug Merrill's new Facebook profile has inspired me:

Man, I haven't seen the unexpurgated original in years.

Monday, March 22, 2010

On Health Care, Parliamentary Democracy, and the Tyranny of the Majority

Lots of excellent "Day After" thoughts out there, as the final hurdle in the way of establishing some kind of (still too minimal, still private-insurer-based, still poorly funded...yet still, I think, very much worth passing!) national health coverage system retreats into history. I am intrigued by Jacob's idea here (will the positive freedom enabled by the greater security provided by health care reform weaken other forces which similarly push for security against the free market?), Matt's observation here (by standing on their principles and refusing to compromise whatsoever, are the Republicans the unsung heroes of pushing the Democrats towards comprehensive reform?), and Ross's question here (will health care reform will turn out to be the last peak liberal egalitarianism will be able to climb before an era of global retrenching forces a long, slow, climb-down?). All are worth reading. But let me focus on something which comes up on Megan McArdle's and Laura McKenna's blogs.

Has the long and often ugly struggle over health care reform in essence made our national government (or at least Congress, or at least the Democratic party) more parliamentary? Megan thinks so:

Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn't want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all....I hope Obama gets his wish to be a one-term president who passed health care. Not because I think I will like his opponent--I very much doubt that I will support much of anything Obama's opponent says. But because politicians shouldn't feel that the best route to electoral success is to lie to the voters, and then ignore them. We're not a parliamentary democracy, and we don't have the mechanisms, like votes of no confidence, that parliamentary democracies use to provide a check on their politicians. The check that we have is that politicians care what the voters think. If that slips away, America's already quite toxic politics will become poisonous.

This is, to be blunt, stupid. Laura knows it:

Not everything that gets passed in Congress needs to be bipartisan. This vote represents a major failure of the Republican party to come up with a better idea for how to deal with rising health care costs and how to deal with the millions of uninsured Americans waiting in line in emergency rooms across the country. With the lack of policy imagination, all they had left was a "no" vote and that's what they did. It was the cowardly way out of this problem.

That's all that really needs to be said...but I like to talk, so let's pick apart Megan a little bit more. First "lie to the voters, and then ignore them"? The first part is simply false; while obviously the sausage-making process which is legislation has contorted the promises and specifics which many people, both Democratic and Republican, debated regarding health care reform over the past year, President Obama's basic intentions were laid out from the very beginning of his campaign. No one doubted that this was going to be a priority of his (and of Pelosi's and Reid's) from Day One. As for the second part...ignore which percentage of voters, at what point, regarding which issue? The best measurements suggest that the opinion of the American people in regards to the specific bill voted on last night breaks down at about 50% opposed, 42% in favor. A significant difference, but not a huge one--and moreover, a difference moderated by the fact that increasing awareness of the bill's specific provisions increases its popularity across the board.

Second, Megan seems to do be making use of a strange double-standard here. On the one hand, we clearly do not have a direct, plebiscitarian democracy in the U.S.; we have an indirect, representative one. Political representatives obviously should be expected to attune themselves to the will of their constituents, but--as Megan herself notes--we do not have the structural mechanics in place for voter approval or disapproval to be directly (or, at least, more directly) rendered via popular party actions like votes of no confidence. All we have are, well, elections--the most recent one of which gave the Democratic party enough votes (though just barely) in both houses of Congress to push through their agenda. But, on the other hand, Megan seems to consider this "tyrannical," and attacks the Democratic party's rule by majority as failing to "care what the voters think." Does she actually want our system of government to be a direct and plebiscitarian one? Because, if she does, the types of reforms that would make it so are...parliamentarian, with the pursuant lessening of the power of the Senate and its filibuster, the very thing which most slowed health care reform down (and forced strange compromises in it) in the first place. I could, perhaps, get on board with that.

In a recent discussion on Front Porch Republic, talking again about the possibility of "Red Tory" ideas here in the U.S. in connection with Phillip Blond's visit, one commenter observed that those who really want to see a more subsidiarian and communitarian politics emerge in America ought to note that "Front Porch or Red Tory principles are more congruent with parliamentary rather than presidential democracy, with coalitions rather than majority rule, and with variable decentralisation based on subsidiarity rather than rigid federalism." I agreed, commenting that parliamentary democracy is one way of bringing to life certain populist democratic principles: namely, that "that people can form coalitions, that coalitions can create majorities on appropriate levels of government, and that said majorities ought to be able to rule...Parliamentary democracy arguably strikes a better balance between the needs to respect individual rights and to empower majority coalitions than does our own separation of powers system." Now, to be sure, the great bulk of those (at least in American history) who have styled themselves as "populists" have not spoken a parliamentary language. But the overlap is, I would argue, undeniable: the populist demand for local empowerment against distant entities invariably involves an expectation of democratic accountability and responsiveness--that a majority of people can rightly control their government, express their views, and defend their places through collective action....such as a coalition of those being rendered insuranceless because of pre-existing conditions and their sympathizers demanding access to insurance markets, perhaps? Some people, of course, might call that "tyranny of the majority"; I wonder if it would have been the sort of tyranny (a tyranny much more responsive to "what people think," such as what they thought when they elected the health-care-reform-supporting Barack Obama over John McCain by 53% to 45%--which, interestingly, is about the same percentage spread over health care approval today--in the first place) that Megan would have been more approving of.

The United States of America, with its size, its consolidated and corporate media, and its atrophied party system, is arguably not particularly well suited to parliamentary rule; very likely any such reforms would, in our present socio-economic and geo-political context, simply result in a change in the structure and nature of political representation, not make our representatives markedly more democratic. But still, it would be more direct; it would be more responsive, and more accountable, to "what voters think." If Megan thinks the lack of direct plebiscitarianism in our democracy, and the ability for an elected majority to pass laws in the face of an up-to 8% point range in relative popular disapproval--if, that is, she thinks the lack of a parliamentarian democratic attitude amongst our representatives--is a serious problem, there is a easy way to fix that: embrace parliamentarian reforms! But somehow, if the matter involves legislation she doesn't like, I suspect Megan would find "tyranny" in that as well.

[Update, 3/23/10, 3:57pm CST: Nate Silver runs down 14 different arguments which people like Megan make to argue that there was something "tyrannical" about the passage of the health care bill; I don't agree with all of this comments, but his last one, #14, is dead-on accurate, not to mention specifically germane to this post here:

[W]ere the Congress closer to a direct democracy--such as by having proportional representation of Senators, non-gerrymandered congressional districts, and a norm for majority-rules procedures in the Senate [in other words, needless to say, if it were more...parliamentarian!]--health care reform would have been signed into law months ago and would likely be substantially more liberal and sweeping than the reforms that have in fact been enacted.]

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Looks Like They Made It (Final Reflections on Health Care Reform, Maybe)

(Update, 9:45pm, CST, 3/21/10: With a 219-212 vote in the House, and with Reid's Democrats in the Senate ready to mop-up the remaining details, and with Obama clearly ready to sign the damn thing, I'd say that it's only a slightly hyperbolic to announce that, love it or hate it, national health insurance reform is that the law of the land.)

Less than a day from now, President Obama's health care reform plan--The Health Care and Education Affordability Act--will be law, or at least very nearly so. Obviously, at the time of my writing this, the votes haven't been taken, and there are still ways in which Pelosi's carefully finagled vote-counting and timing process in the House of Representatives could collapse. And despite numerous assurances, it's still possible for Reid and the Democrats in the Senate to renege on their promises, or otherwise fumble the ball, and not put the negotiated reconciliation fixes over the finish line. But things are looking good for the Democrats--tight, but good.

Things are looking good for America too, I believe. This final version of the numerous plans hammered out in committees and through difficult votes in both the House and the Senate does some of the essential things most advocates of health insurance reform have always wanted to see done: puts firm regulations on insurance providers, so as to minimize their ability to exclude certain high-risk populations; provides the means (and the subsidies) for over 30 million uninsured Americans to purchase coverage; establishes individual mandates so to bring far more Americans into the same insurance market, thereby undercutting the affect which the aforementioned pooling had on the basic guarantees which characterized the various plans offered. And on top of that, it seems likely to exercise at least some control over medical costs, and introduce further controls as the years go by. All of which, policy-wise, are positive things.

But what do I know--I'm not a policy wonk, am I? Of course not; I can figure a few things out for myself, and there are a few numbers that I can add up in my own head, but when it comes to something as complex as this--the single largest expansion of America's welfare state in close to a half-century--there's just people I trust, because I can figure ways to see their statements and actions align with my own beliefs and preferences, and people I don't.

For example, I trust Dennis Kucinich. I'm not crazy about him by any means, at least partly because he occasionally seems borderline crazy himself. Also, I liked him better when he was willing to speak out against abortion. But as far as someone trying his best to push social democratic aims in a political environment that provides no real partisan location for advocates of social democracy, his record is second to few, if not none. So if he's comes to accept that the passage of this flawed-but-still-important bit of legislation has become crucial to the government's ability to further other social democratic and progressive causes, I take that as a heartening sign.

I mentioned abortion above; what about that? His relatively uncomplicated support for abortion rights was the one thing which really, truly bothered me about supporting Obama in 2008; does this legislation confirm all my fears? No, it does not. The argument about whether this bill would enable or increase federal funding for abortion was, I think anyway, always an artificial discussion, just a way of playing out ideological animosities and frustrations in the midst of a red-hot policy debate. The Stupak amendment in the original House bill included anti-abortion restrictions beyond the long-invoked Hyde Amendment to prevent the federal government from directly or indirectly funding abortion; Senate Democrats couldn't go along with that, and cut it back to the status quo. It's possible that conservative, anti-abortion House Democrats may get some specific executive language guaranteeing that status quo, but even if they don't get it, then all we have is what...well, what we already have. If that's good enough for an increasing majority of Catholic hospitals, health-workers, and activists, that's good enough for me.

What about my deep, theoretical concerns with it all? That it is, in the end, another entitlement, however well-meant, and not true reform: not anything that moves us towards greater solidarity, greater community empowerment, greater appreciation of the common good?

Well, those concerns are still there--indeed, reading the text of President Obama's final pep-talk to the House Democrats, just deepens those concerns, with the President insisting "this piece of historic legislation is built on the private insurance system that we have now and runs straight down the center of American political thought." Great--making our "private insurance system" central to a program designed to create a common foundation amongst all the members of our polity, not being subject to the divisions and competition which that same private insurance industry contributes to! It's frustrating, to be sure. It's frustrating because I'm convinced those same corporate entities are primarily responsible (most indirectly, but sometimes directly) in so isolating us and individualizing us, as consumers and citizens, as to make it almost inconceivable that real democratic government, real populist action, real community sovereignty and sufficiencv, is ever to be recovered. But with all that, I take solace from something Matt Stannard (a much more hard-core doomsayer than myself) recently observed:

Engaging institutions, even dying ones (perhaps especially dying ones), is unavoidable for virtually everyone in society. Our material positions put us there....On the other hand, we have to understand how the system is understand both the limits of reformism and the necessity to engage it precisely because it is crossing various economic and historical thresholds....Having listened to Democrats who actually favor the current legislation, to Democrats and other progressives who say it's better than nothing, to socialists who say it will make things worse...I agree with everyone. It isn't enough. It's a start. It's a distraction. It's a payoff. It will help some people. It will inspire some people. It will make some people complacent. It's a step forward and a step backward.

I wouldn't use all the language he uses, but I like his conclusion, because it fits, I suspect, pretty much any "reform" action taken in our present socio-economic context. The Health Care and Education Affordability Act is just that: something that will help many, make many more complacent ("That goodness that tiresome debate is finally over!" they will say), open up many new opportunities for greater social concern, as well as mollify us into thinking that we didn't need radical change after all. All at once.

Jonathan Cohn, who has followed this long legislative debate as well as anyone, thinks we have come to the "Closing Arguments," and he's hopeful; to his mind, the passage of health care reform in the House twelve or twenty hours from now could signal a crucial shift away from "conservative ideas about responsibility and vulnerability [which] have dominated political discussion for most of the last four decades," and back towards the animating principles of Social Security and Medicare: "We all give, in the form of financial contributions; and we all get, in the form of financial security...we are stronger [together] than when we are apart." I admire his communitarian sentiment, and I like the elements of it I see in America's welfare state, though I'm doubtful that someone who celebrates the end-result and downplays some of the corporate-friendly principles that were embraced at the beginning of the process fully appreciates what the communitarian point truly involves. James Poulos, though, has the opposite problem; he looks at health care reform as sees nothing but an overriding, self-righteous, legislation-by-fiat vision, a vision that posits "something is better than nothing" as a moral principle, which he rejects entirely: "unless you think this is true because insuring uninsured Americans is so important as to be worth doing even through a bill as wretched, misbegotten, and irresponsible as this, it is not true." But Poulos's ridiculous, Tea-Partier rhetoric about a bill that has been sent back and forth through the legislative wringer more times over the past year that the great majority of bills ever experience (how does ten months of constant debate and scrutiny add up to governing by "fiat"?) simply reveals him, beneath his philosophy, to be Mansfieldian at heart: someone so disbelieving that any kind of collective action or positive reforms can contribute to political liberty as to lead him to assume that anything which smacks of "reform" is by definition the undemocratic work of a Lawgiver, and therefore sees the "process" behind such as invalidating any and all claims that might be made on behalf of, for instance, insuring people, and regulating insurers, and maybe even lowering costs. I'm more sympathetic to Cohn than Poulos, obviously, but both of them miss this dialectical reality here: the end results don't justify or forgive every flawed principle behind the process, but the process itself is too much a part of the many admirable results to be reduced to a single, misbegotten mistake. Ends do not justify means, but neither are all ends subject to approval solely on the basis of one, absolute means-test. Reform isn't that bad a word...not yet, anyway.

Well, there you go: some (probably) final thoughts, as national health care reform enters what will very likely be it's very final act. Now watch everything go to hell ten hours from now, and this whole post gets rendered moot.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "More Than This"

Someone e-mailed me, and rebuked me: you've been doing this for more than a year, and still nothing from Roxy Music? Shame, shame, shame! To which I could only reply: you're right. How could they have slipped my mind? I don't know. Well, I can make up for that right here.

I hearby announce that the coming weeks will feature videos from the big-but-not-mainstream stars of the 80s video era. Should be fun.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Influential (Actually Published, Actually Read Cover-to-Cover During College or Graduate School) Books

Matthew Yglesias has put up a list of ten books that have been important influences in how he thinks about things. I can do that, too. Except, one problem: when it comes to my thinking--particularly stuff relevant to the political, philosophical, or otherwise intellectual thinking that I went to school for eleven years for--the reading that has influenced me most has usually come in the form of a journal or magazine article (or lately, a blog post). I'm not particularly proud of that, but that's the truth (and I suspect it's true for most academics as well).

So herewith, an attempt to be rigorous, and focus only on the books (though more than a few of them are collections of essays or articles). That means I'm leaving out some essays that profoundly influenced me, but you've got to put your boundaries somewhere. Also, I'm sticking with stuff that I read and which influenced me while I was forming my intellectual academic foundation, meaning the years from 1987 to 2001, with a two-year break in there while I was gallivanting around South Korea. (That means Tolkien is out!) And also, I'm going to have to go to fifteen, because I'm just verbose that way. In alphabetical order:

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. Essays like "What is Freedom?" and "What is Authority?" gave me an entirely different way of thinking about democracy and liberty--or, at least, gave me a language for expressing what I had already been thinking about for a while.

F.M. Barnard, Herder's Social and Political Thought: From Enlightenment to Nationalism. The first--and, as yet, the only--complete and published study of Herder's political ideas that I ever read, and, as much as I in time came to disagree with some elements of Barnard's interpretations of his subject, his account Herder's romantic contribution to a historicized but still morally truthful account of culture and language still draws me in--much more than Herder's own actual writings do.

Frederick C. Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought. Came at a time in my education when my studies of Herder had convinced me that the struggle between the Aufklärer and the advocates of Counter-Enlightenment told the only philosophical story really worth knowing. I grew out of that obsession eventually, but this book and others like it gave me a historical context for understanding my own nascent romantic and/or hermeneutic approaches to political life, cultural identity, and religious truth.

Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. A slim book, but packed with provocative ideas. By treating Confucian ritual teachings as religious and "magical," Fingarette helped my anthropological and ideological interest in East Asian philosophy become a moral one as well.

David C. Hall and Roger Ames, Thinking Through Confucius. The first in a series of books which Hall and Ames wrote together, exploring--sometimes in a phenomenological, sometimes in a Deweyesque manner--the application of Confucius's Analects to essential philosophical questions from the Western tradition: the nature of truth, the purpose of society, the cultivation of the self. Helped give me a basic orientation as to how I wanted to make use of all these notions I'd brought back with me from East Asia.

Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. Like much of Heidegger's writings (yes, I did try to read Being and Time; I got about a third of the way through) some of the essays are opaque and overwrought. But some of them--"The Letter on Humanism," "The Question Concerning Technology," "The Way to Language," for example--had a transformative impact on how I understood our way as human beings of perceiving and constructing both reality and society.

Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View. I think I must have underlined every sentence in this book. It was the first book I'd read that made me think both critically and practically about all the stuff I'd been reading about "republicanism" for years.

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto. Nowadays, I would probably put Marx's "On the Jewish Question" as the most important bit of Marxist thought in my own thinking. But at the time, actually reading, carefully and thoughtfully, through the Manifesto was a bit of a revelation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau's Political Writings. I don't use this edition in my own work or my teaching any more, but it's the collection that kicked-started my own engagement with communitarian thought, though I didn't call it that at the time. Much of what I still believe about equality and modernity can be traced back to The Second Discourse, the first work of political philosophy I ever took seriously.

Nicholas H. Smith, Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity. Helped me put Gadamer, Ricoeur, Taylor, and many others together and draw out the fundamentals of their insights; and by so doing, it helped focus my interest in developing a kind of "conservative" approach to culture and identity which did not fall into a literalist or natural law trap.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. The single heaviest, sustained philosophical argument I have ever taken myself through, and far and away the most influential in how I think about the relationship between truth claims and the historical and cultural narratives they are invariably embedded in.

Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation. A book about political theory, but it had a huge impact on how I, as a religious believer, took the hermeneutical arguments I'd come to accept and constructed them as part of the moral engagement I wanted to have with the world.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. Presented a way of thinking about "liberalism" and "conservatism" in the American context that I don't think anyone has yet been able to refute. More than that, it's also a tour de force, linking the history of America, the nature of rhetoric, and the meaning of democracy and constitutionalism together into a single, succinct argument.

Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution. Like a deeply planted time bomb, this book's various observations and arguments (mostly about Tocqueville and the Federalists and Anti-Federalists) kept coming to me, suddenly making sense, while thinking about community or politics or government or religion or philosophy or just about anything else, years and years after my advisor first recommended it to me.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Helped me see why republican ideas and language mattered, why those ideas gave rise modern democracy, and why the rise of democracy would mean means republicanism's inevitable fall. I don't fully agree, but it's an argument I can't shake, and which I make use of in my classes to this day.

On a different day, I'd probably come up with a slightly different list, but I think this hits all the big, influential books in my intellectual genealogy. Obviously, it reveals my graduate school interests: communitarianism, pluralism, comparative and American and the history of political thought. Nothing much there hinting at my later interests in socialism, populism, or localism. Even on it's own terms, I'm not terribly proud of the list: not enough original sources, and too much commentary on what others have said. Also, for someone who got a PhD in political philosophy in the 1990s, it's kind of sad to admit that big books by Rawls, Sandel, Young, Kymlicka, Rorty, Walzer, Okin, Rosenblum, Cohen, etc., just didn't move me as much as the (mostly more specialized) books above did, or as much as the smaller articles and secondary literature these thinkers produced did. But that's the way in happened, for better or worse.

Your turn, if you're so inclined.

If Capitalism Has Gone Global, Can Socialism Go Local?

I picked up this book at professional conference in Toronto last year, and read it on the plane ride home. It was a quick read, and a striking one: here was the last book by the late G.A. Cohen--who was by all accounts about as learned and witty a Marxist as you're ever likely to find--laying out a clear, concise, and (I thought, anyway) persuasive case for socialism which didn't appeal to Marx in any serious way at all. Since that time, there has been some fine discussions of the book, and Cohen's legacy overall, on the blogs (particularly over at Crooked Timber; see here and here), and deservedly so. In moving away from a materialist and Marxist justification for socialism, and turning instead to the question of what the development of a socialist ethos might involve, Cohen did something important: he implicitly called attention to the communitarian, democratic, anarchist, and localist aspects of the socialist egalitarian argument, aspects which are often forgotten by sympathizers and critics alike.

I'm using the book this year in an upper-level theory class on capitalism, socialism, and localism. A couple of months ago I gave a lecture to the local chapter of the DSA with the above title, using Cohen's book as a centerpiece; I did much the same thing a few weeks later, when I discussed the book with some folks at a local coffee house. Several people have asked me to put the basics of the lecture and discussion down in written form; well, here it is.


G.A. Cohen was born in 1941 in Montreal, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and grew up in an environment characterized most thoroughly by two things: secular Judaism, and orthodox Marxism. Cohen attended communist day camps, learned communist songs, and looked forward to the inevitable revolution the way sincere evangelical children are raised to look forward to the second coming of Christ. As he grew older, and became more aware of and wise regarding the world around him, he codified his beliefs, beginning most centrally with his passionate commitment to equality. He recognized that there were others besides convinced communists--namely, Christians--who also believed in equality, but he could not take their beliefs seriously: partly because he observed that believing all humankind were brothers and sisters and children of God didn't seem to necessarily translate into much actual change in the living conditions of those human beings here on earth, but mostly because he was convinced that concerning oneself with people's beliefs--talking about equality as the product of an ethos, in other words--was a waste of time; after all, Marxist historical determinism made it clear that the collapse of capitalism and a socialist revolution were inevitable.

That conviction of his eventually fell by the wayside. Cohen, by the last couple of decades of his life, no longer accepted Marx's historical materialist account of capitalist development, and no longer assumed that the immiseration of the proletariat and the subsequent revolution that would culminate in communism was inevitable. But he remained fiercely committed to equality--and moreover, professionally found himself engaged in extensive arguments with various liberals and egalitarians over just what kind of equality is possible in the modern world of markets. In the context of this argument, Cohen found himself, sometimes surprising, essentially affirming the Christian line which he had dismissed as a child: that the beliefs and behavior of people along egalitarian lines--the development of an egalitarian ethos, in other words--was essential to the realization of any kind of equality, socialist or otherwise.

In staking out this claim, Cohen was--at least as I read him--taking sides within the split that emerged amongst those socialists who rejected the course which Lenin and others took Marxist thought in at the beginning of the 20th century. While Cohen may have been raised in an environment which supported various Stalinists and other apologists for the Soviet Union, by the time he was a mature scholar his socialist convictions were strongly democratic. This meant, however, he was faced with an historical choice, one which Sheri Berman expressed this way:

One democratic faction believed that Marx may have been wrong about the imminence of capitalism’s collapse, but was basically right in arguing that capitalism could not persist indefinitely. Its internal contradictions and human costs, they felt, were so great that it would ultimately give way to something fundamentally different and better—hence the purpose of the left was to hasten this transition. Another faction rejected the view that capitalism was bound to collapse in the foreseeable future and believed that in the meantime it was both possible and desirable to take advantage of its upsides while addressing its downsides. Rather than working to transcend capitalism, therefore, they favored a strategy built on encouraging its immense productive capacities, reaping the benefits, and deploying them for progressive ends.

Cohen, to the end, was simply unwilling to countenance greater capitalist inequality in the name of "tak[ing] advantage of its upsides." Hence his long and critical engagement with the arguments of John Rawls, which, among other things, posit the justice of an arrangement whereby the most talented and the hardest working among us enjoy the bulk of the fruits of their labors--thereby encouraging them to be ever more productive--but are subject to some level of redistributive taxation...which, because of the large amount of taxes so generated, not to mention the many jobs which those talented, hard-working individuals created, would enable the least well-off to experience real improvement in their lives. Cohen--who, it should be noted, had immense respect for Rawls and his liberal-egalitarian/social-democratic arguments, comparing his philosophical work at one time to both Plato and Hobbes in importance--was only willing to call such an arrangement, perhaps, "sensible"; it could never be considered just. And this reveals another important element to Cohen's thinking about equality: that community--a community which, following the ideals contained in Marx's "On The Jewish Question," is only enabled when "individual man...has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that social force is not longer separated from him" (Karl Marx, Selected Writings, p. 21)--is crucial to equality: a state of affairs where things are made more equal by the (perhaps coerced) generosity of the rich towards the poor does little or nothing to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; it creates no solidarity between them. And, contrary to the social democratic or liberal egalitarian argument, Cohen, at least, was convinced that equality without solidarity, without something felt between people, was barely worth the name "equality" at all.

Which brings us around to Why Not Socialism?, which itself begins, not with Marx, but with a camping trip. Cohen, it is manifestly clear from the text, was probably never much of a camper. Still, his basic observations--about how fishing, cooking, and cleaning up duties are distributed during such a trip, for example--ring true: the activity of a camping trip is profoundly socialist, in the sense that there is little or no bargaining for position, little or no renting out of one's property or talents, that "norms of equality and reciprocity" are taken from granted...and that, indeed, to the extent that any of the above do not hold, it "contradict[s] the spirit of the trip" (p. 5). Cohen then proceeds to codify the "spirit of the trip," which he does through two principles: that of equality, and that of community. The former leads into, and becomes part of, the latter. Cohen rejects absolute communism, and recognizes that individual liberty and the vagaries of democracy will, of course, result in certain inequalities; however, of the sorts of inequality which a socialist arrangement, which he defines as "radical equality of opportunity" (p. 12), admits to, only a few will be tolerable. First, "variety of preference and choice across lifestyle options means that some people will have more goods of a certain sort than others do" (p. 25)--but that is unproblematic, because such individual choice (one camper awakes earlier than another to go enjoy a sunrise, while another gets to sleep in), in following individual preference, conveys no real social power. But then comes the possibility of regrettable or unlucky preferences (the camper who slept in missed a once-in-a-lifetime, worldview-transforming sunrise); such inequalities are problematic because they can accumulate, and in the aggregate can generate ever deeper divisions between individuals (the campers who caught the worldview-transforming sunrise have an increased capacity for work and increased wisdom, meaning they are able to more efficiently bring their own children those remote, difficult to access spots where they also can see world-transforming sunrises, etc.). Obviously, what Cohen is talking about here is how economic and social advantages can be passed down along individual lines, opening up new opportunities for select individuals, bypassing society as a whole entirely. And this is not acceptable--even if not, strictly speaking, "in-egalitarian," since none of it arose from necessarily unequal social designs, but might well have resulted simply from option luck--because it makes impossible socialist community:

"Community" can mean many things, but the requirements of community that is central here is that people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another. There are two modes of communal caring that I want to discuss here. The first is the mode that curbs some of the inequalities that may result from socialist equality of opportunity. The second mode of communal caring is not strictly required for equality, but it is nevertheless of supreme importance in the socialist conception. We cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make, and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do, because my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that you could help me cope with, but do not, because you keep your money....So, to return to the camping trip, suppose that we eat pretty meagerly, but you have your special high-grade fish pond, which you got neither by inheritance nor by chicanery nor as a result of the brute (that is, nonoption) luck of your superior exploratory talent, but as a result of an absolutely innocent option luck that no one can impugn from the point of view of justice: you got it through a lottery that we all entered. Then, even so, even though there is no injustice here, your luck cuts you off from our common life, and the ideal of community condemns that, and therefore also condemns any such lottery (pp. 34-35, 37-38).

Cohen's argument thus focuses our attention on the need for communal solidarity, for a common life, as a concomitant to equality. But this brings up some at least two crucial questions, which Cohen, to his credit, forthrightly acknowledges: is such community in fact desirable, and is it in fact feasible? As for desire, Cohen--appealing, to my mind, anyway--falls back on the pure ethos he was instructed in as a child, though he didn't recognize it as such at the time: "I continue to find appealing the sentiment of a left-wing song that I learned in my childhood, which begins as follows: 'If we should consider each other, a neighbor, a friend, or a brother, it could be a wonderful, wonderful world, it could be a wonderful world'" (p. 51). As for feasibility, the responses multiply and become more difficult--because, of course, modern states are not voluntary groups of campers, and thus differ in both nature and telos. Absent Marx's historical materialist justification for the emergence of socialism, what kind of argument or arrangement could be made which would assert the feasibility of socialism on a the scale of the nation-state? Cohen runs through several possibilities, insisting all the while that "the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run...our problem is a problem of design," rather than selfishness (pp. 57-58). He does also allow that the design problem may be insoluble, but that doesn't stop him for trying.

For many people, this seems simply utopian...and a consideration of utopianism, interestingly, is where we should turn to move Cohen's argument beyond the point where he was able to bring it. Socialist movements have been associated, both positively and negatively, with utopian thought ever since the mid-19th-century...and of course, in the pre-Marxian history of socialist thinking, you find it being advocated for religious and "utopian"--that is, explicitly ethos-based--reasons for centuries; socialist practice and different kinds of collectivist and/or intentional communities were, for most of Western history, almost invariably connected. However, around the beginning of that split amongst democratic (non-Leninist) socialist thinkers mentioned earlier, you also saw a strong push by different socialist parties and organizations against any taint of the utopian or the communal. Democratic socialism, in the hands of such early advocates as Sidney Webb, "included a determined lack of sympathy for proposals which sought the 'regeneration of mankind' by means of establishing 'little Utopias'," as David Leopold has argued. He went on:

[Webb] drew an interesting distinction between two strategies for the growth of socialism--one "horizontal," the other "vertical"....The communal strategy is characterized as a "horizontal" one, where by the "whole faith" is adopted by "a partial community" in the hope and expectation that individual communal success will lead to replication, and the eventual incorporation of the wider society. For Webb, the empirical record of intentional communities confirmed that the "horizontal" strategy was doomed to failure. He observed that the majority of communities failed, and, in the case of the rare few that might prosper, there was no subsequent evidence of the promised growth and expansion of socialism throughout society. However, in Webb's view, the communal strategy was not only unsuccessful, it was also undesirable....By turning their backs on "machine industry" in order to engage in "spade husbandry"--the allusion is to Robert Owen's stubborn and longstanding belief in the superiority of spade cultivation over that of the plough--communitarians should be seen as abandoning both the modern world and the majority who live in it....[By contrast,] the Fabians embraced a "vertical" gradualism initially involving "the partial adoption of their faith by the whole community." The resulting evidence of success would lead society as a whole to adopt ever more socialistic institutions....No country, he explained, having "nationalized or municipalized any industry has ever retraced its steps or reversed its action" (Leopold, "Socialism and (the Rejection of) Utopia," Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2007, pp. 224-5).

Of course, the Fabian Society is not the whole history and destiny of democratic socialism--but still, it is worth pondering the fact that Cohen, in beginning his defense of socialism by talking about a camping trip, never thinks to consider that his own approach to considering the feasibility of socialism--especially a socialism whose justice is affirmed through an appeal to ethical considerations of equality and community, rather than a historical, Marxist foundation--might be limited to the same sort of parameters Webb insisted upon. For that matter, the great majority of liberal egalitarians and social democrats are similarly so limited: witness the intra-left discourse which has taken place over the past year over the health care debate, in which slowly but surely the great majority of those who pushed and agitated for single-payer, for a public option, for anything more aggressively socialist, have nonetheless come around, however reluctantly, to supporting the president's plan, because it is better than nothing and because it is a foot in the door. Introduce something socialist, however minimal, to the public at large, and watch the people come recognize its worth and embrace it, is the argument. The evidence from the history of Social Security or Medicare seems to support Webb's "partial faith-whole community" approach, as opposed to the "whole faith-partial community" approach which he dismissed.

Obviously, it's not as though all socialist eggs are to be placed in the same basket; one can pursue, or at least accept as legitimate, both approaches simultaneously, especially given that they will almost certainly operate on different cultural and socio-economic levels at different times. And it is just as obvious that Webb's exhortation of continued, inexorable nationalization is a difficult one to take seriously in this day. So, perhaps, what we have in the end is the sense that the socialist project, to be feasible, cannot simply look at what minimal ways it can effectively extend its principles, as valuable as they are, to the whole community--meaning the whole state, the state being, for at least the time being, the central operating component and primary locus of any and all recognition of (and sometimes, even, organization of) socio-economic power. Despite the undeniable successes of that approach, the socialist project must also look at Webb's derided "whole faith-partial community" approach--the instantiation of equality and community in its fullest in camping trips and devotional communities and small-scale businesses and neighborhood organizations and anywhere else where a belief in a particular ethos can, itself, have real world results. More than a few democratic socialists (and fellow travelers) have recognized this; The Nation recently ran a whole series on "Reimagining Socialism," and one of the consistent themes expressed throughout was that unions, co-ops, farmers markets, and the like are where the real, practical future of socialist ideals lay: that socialism, in other words, must go democratic and ecological and, above all, local. Yes, it must address the issues of unregulated finance and industry and the dominance of corporations and commidification in the way in which citizens pursue their health and preferred lives, and it must insist and pursue as best as possible ways of design which can promote the public ownership and distribution of goods...but it must also go to those arenas of association--camping trips, where all is governed, quite sensibly, by assumptions of reciprocity and equality--where social power is truly not a dividing presence between persons. (Yes, even if that does mean associating occasionally with those bothersome, Robert Owen-type Luddites and farmers.) Because it is there, rather than in the purely economic, transactional, national sphere of the modern state, where the real point of a socialist ethos is most clear.

E.F Schumacher, long ago, said it best, as well or, perhaps, even better than G.A. Cohen did:

There are no ‘final solutions’ to this kind of problem. There is only a living solution achieved day by day on a basis of a clear recognition that both opposites are valid. Ownership, whether public or private, is merely an element of framework. It does not by itself settle the kind of objectives to be pursued within the framework....What is at stake is not economics but culture; not the standard of living but the quality of life. Economics and the standard of living can just as well be looked after by a capitalist system, moderated by a bit of planning and redistributive taxation. But culture and, generally, the quality of life, van now only be debased by such a system. Socialists should insist on using the nationalized industries [or, I would, any kind of "partial faith-whole communtiy" scheme of public regulation or ownership] not simply to out-capitalize the capitalists--an attempt in which they may or may not succeed--but to evolve a more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilization of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort. If they can do that, they have the future in their hands. If they cannot, they have nothing to offer that is worthy of the sweat of free-born men.

Some would argue, it should be noted, that Cohen's egalitarian and communitarian beliefs--his whole ethical approach to socialism--is no more respecting of "free-born men" than the orthodox, revolution-awaiting communism he used to embrace was; Andrew Sabl, years ago, famously attacked Cohen's determination to articulate a "project of social unity" as failing to "appreciate how a real liberal thinks." That kerfluffle was one of the earliest blog debates I ever involved myself in, and I wouldn't make the comments I made then in the same way today, but my basic concern is the same: that Cohen is right to see equality and community as necessarily linked, and he needs to be able to appreciate community as something other than a necessity for justice--something that also emerges, organically, from historically and locally practiced relationships and reciprocation. Cohen's camping trip goes along way towards that well as perhaps proving, if one wants to incorporate Sabl's terms into Cohen's argument, why liberals never go camping. My conservative father, who taught his kids well the borderline-socialist principles of Scouting on many a fondly remembered family camping trip, would be pleased to hear that. I hope Cohen, in his ethical and arguably illiberal way, would be as well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Apparently, the 90s Will Be With Us Forever as Well

First, our oldest daughter expresses an affection for the music of the 1980s. Now, our second oldest has discovered and embraced this classic as her new favorite song.

Could our daughters' musical appreciation age backwards, and one of them end up embracing Derek and the Dominoes, or the Beatles? The 80s I can handle, but Hanson? Seriously? And here I thought God was both merciful and just.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Glenn Beck-Bo Gritz Continuum

I really thought I could stay away from the whole Glenn Beck thing. I mean, I've laughed at him before, like most of the people who share my political beliefs and/or my professional class have probably laughed at him, but I never got upset or outraged by any of his conspiratorial mud-slinging, because I just dismissed it. It was out there, on the corner of my consciousness, but not much more than that. I mean, he's just an entertainer, right? I don't pay attention to Rush Limbaugh either. Yes, I realize that entertainers like Limbaugh and Beck have become hugely important to the ideological structuring of what passes for "conservatism" in the United States, but honestly, I just thought I could spend whatever awareness I bother to devote to the mass media on something more worthwhile.

And, of course, that's still true. But over the past week, Beck's stupid comments about "social justice" exploded all across the internet--and, perhaps inevitably, elicited comments from numerous of my fellow Mormon bloggers, since Beck is himself a member of the Mormon church...and for him to, however unintentionally, distinguish himself, with his emotionally overwrought patriotic Mormon Christianity, from the rest of the Christian world which foolishly talks about "social justice" was just a little too much. But I didn't blog about it. It's not as though I don't understand what he presumably thinks he's saying, trying to strike back against the "collectivism" which he apparently thinks has somehow sneaked its way into Christian thought; and it's not as though I like Beck being served up as a fat, easy target for much of the religious left, who for the most part really need to do some serious soul-searching themselves. I just didn't know what I could add to the flood of commentary.

Then my old friend Matt Stannard pointed out another bit of Beckian weirdness: he has this convoluted, confused argument which equates state and federal affirmative action programs with the enslavement of human beings, and as a consequence is urging his listeners not to fill out the U.S. Census, which the Constitution requires be conducted every ten years. And all of sudden it came to me: Bo Gritz!

For those of you who don't know, or don't care, James Gordon "Bo" Gritz (rhymes with "rights") as a US Army Special Forces officer who, sometime in the 1980s, discovered countless drug-money-fueled, internationally-coordinated conspiracies working to undermine America's strength and security, its Christian heritage, its moral values, etc., etc. Your typical right-wing extremist, right? Well, actually, Gritz managed a tad more than most of them have ever dreamed. By the 1990s he'd written multiple books, successfully inserted himself into the FBI's (often, it must be admitted, incompetent) engagements with various Freemen and Christian Patriot militias and survivalist groups which proliferated during the glory years of the "New World Order" (and, not coincidentally, became a hero to many of them; he probably saved Randy Weaver's life during the botched stand-off at Ruby Ridge), and had run for president under the slogan, "God, Guns, and Gritz." And here's where it gets interesting: just about everywhere else in America, Gritz was down at the bottom of the ballot, with various other marginalized candidates...but in my Mormon homeland of Utah and Idaho, he was big news. You see, Gritz himself was, for a time anyway, a member of the Mormon church, and thus was able to plug into a lot of deeply subterranean, arch-conservative, anti-government, John-Bircher, "the Constitution-hanging-by-a-thread-and-the-elders-of-Zion-must-save-it" stuff (for contrasting approaches to that venerable bit of Mormon folklore, see here and here) which has echoed around western American Mormon culture for more than a half-century. The result was, perhaps, predictable.

I was an undergraduate at BYU at the time, working for the campus newspaper, and when the election season of 1992 rolled around we student journalists found ourselves surrounded by sometimes-amusing, sometimes-intimidating, zealous, slightly paranoid, deeply moralistic, Christian Mormon patriots. (I can remember a couple of earnest old fellows who visited the newsroom, insisted on speaking to me, and took up an hour of my time explaining how the Federal Reserve had been complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.) Such folks weren't in the majority, not by any means; the great bulk of Utah voters were solid, respectable, socially conservative Republicans, and rolled their eyes at talk about the Illuminati along with the rest of us. But still: there were huge banners and billboard for Bo Gritz to be found all over the countryside. I attended a political rally/religious revival with Gritz which filled an arena up in Salt Lake City; there were thousands of people there, from all over the Intermountain West. Gritz came to a stage set with empty chairs, representing the spirits of the founding fathers, was introduced as another "Captain Moroni" (a widely admired--amongst some Mormons, anyway--military hero from the Book of Mormon), and proceeded to lecture and fulminate to great acclaim about the threats posed to America by Godless Others, the rally concluding with a frankly ritualistic burning of the United Nation's flag.

Well, Gritz earned a respectable 4% of Utah's total votes in 1992 (hey, four percent is more than Ralph Nader ever managed), and in some counties won up to 10%. Then he went off to Idaho to form his own survivalist training compound, and the Mormon church leadership eventually got around to inveighing heavily against that particular style of fundamentalist Mormon who rejects the U.S. court system as apostate and stockpiles eight years worth of wheat in their basement in preparation for Armageddon, and life went on? What does this all this have to do with Glenn Beck? I'm not suggesting there's any direct connection between the two; I'm only observing a pattern. A man finds a faith that includes elements, should he choose to look for them, of patriotic extremism, of warnings about "secret combinations" and historical conspiracies, all in the midst of a broader church culture that is strongly "conservative" (in the Republican sense, mostly) but otherwise, except in the eyes of assorted anti-cult zealots, basically a thoroughly Americanized, modernized, ordinary Christian church. (Which, not surprisingly, has reminded all its American members to be responsible citizens and fill out their census forms completely.) This means, of course, that the community must be enlightened. They must be warned. Glenn Beck, telling his listeners to beware the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing that is "social justice"? Makes perfect sense. He's proselyting, doing missionary work amongst the deluded, sharing the important information that he has discovered (or has been revealed to him? perhaps he thinks so...) with an America that has had the wool pulled over its eyes. Twenty years ago, it was the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Bill Clinton who had put the wool there; today, it's Barack Obama, health care reform, and, apparently, the U.S. Census. Any paranoid fantasy will do, because any one of them can be connected to the larger moral struggle which, for reasons both good and bad, much of my own Mormon culture and many of the Mormon teachings I accept make not just theoretically possible, but on some readings, downright credible.

I don't feel too bad about this--most of American Christianity makes possible its own fringes as well, so in a way I suppose it's comforting to know what we Mormons, just like the rest of you, have our clowns and kooks too. And hey, given that the line between fringe kookiness and thoughtful criticism is sometimes thin, I'm actually kind of grateful that we can call a nut like Beck our own: after all, someone has to keep outlandish arguments alive, just in case they someday turn out to be true. But I do feel bad for Beck himself. My friend Matt, in a different post, suggests that he's already almost entirely burned through his 15 minutes of fame--and that, in having invested so heavily in a fearful, suspicious mindset that has so little to do with the heart of the faith he has chosen, may find that after his star has been eclipsed that he won't have enough ordinary connection and commitment to the unfortunately mostly ordinary folks who fill Mormon congregations to get the kind of support from his ward that he may need. Which would be a loss--and I say that not just as a believer myself, but also as someone who, in watching clips of the show, keeps feeling that Beck himself, probably like Gritz, seriously needs a hug.