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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Justice Together: Pushing for Justice one City and one Step at a Time

[A version of this piece has appeared in Kansas Reflector and Religious Socialism.]

Back on May 9, something remarkable happened in Wichita, something similar to other remarkable things which have happened in recent years in Lawrence, Topeka, and elsewhere across Kansas.

At the Century II building in downtown Wichita, elected and agency leaders—specifically Wichita Mayor Lily Wu, Sedgwick County Commission Chairperson Ryan Baty, the managers of both Wichita and Sedgwick County, and leading representatives from COMCARE, and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services—stood in front of over 1300 people and committed to take certain specific local policy actions to address homelessness and mental health crises. At least one of the commitments they made—supporting the creation of a municipal “Air Capital” ID card--will be controversial, and may already be in the process of being walked back slightly by Mayor Wu. Still, you don’t often see such public support for social justice actions coming from city and county leaders in Kansas, so applause—and encouragement!--for those who brought them to the stage is much deserved.

The group which brought them together and laid out the commitments which gained their assent is called Justice Together, a group I’m proud to have been a participant in from the beginning, though I play no organizational role in it. In early 2023, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, a friend and occasional interlocutor from the Ahavath Achim Congregation here in Wichita, told me about an interfaith group that was coming together to try to move social justice issues forward in Sedgwick County; I’m not a leader in my religious congregation, but I started to attend out of curiosity. At the very first meeting, I was gratified to find Louis Goseland, a Wichita-born community organizer that I remember from Sunflower Community Action and other justice-related associations from more than a decade before. He was back in Wichita as a regional coordinator from the Direct Action and Research Training Center or DART, an umbrella organization that has been working with church congregations and other community groups to help them apply the best lessons of religious activism to motivate their members towards specific social justice goals.

DART started in Florida in 1982, working primarily with church ministries that served the interests of senior citizens; since that time, it been able to help build over 30 additional interfaith movements across the country, including several here in Kansas. DART was instrumental in the formation of Justice Matters in Lawrence, which has raised millions of dollars for a locally managed Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and JUMP (Justice, Unity, and Ministry Project) in Topeka, which is working to bring a mental health crisis intervention program to Shawnee County. Similar interfaith organizations, representing dozens of different churches and faith-related groups, have been formed with the assistance of DART in Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

In Wichita, Justice Together includes nearly 40 denominations—mostly mainline Protestant, but with Catholic, Mennonite, Unitarian, Baha’i, and Jewish synagogues part of the effort as well. Over the past 14 months, they have worked through their church groups to develop specific plans to assist those struggling with mental health (funding to provide free bus passes to those in crisis and to pay for staffing for 24/7 on-call psychiatric help) and homelessness (sustainable funding plans for an integrated agency center, and the aforementioned municipal IDs). It is those plans they asked all these local leaders to support, and which all of them committed to do so.

This is DART’s method, one that they’ve adapted from the history of activism in so many of the churches which they work through, as well as directly from the history of civil protest. Months of research, parishioner outreach, and consensus-building culminates in what they call a “Nehemiah assembly,” an idea taken directly from chapter 5 of the book of Nehemiah in the Bible—specifically Nehemiah 5:12, where the prophet Nehemiah, having heard the cries of the people for justice, presented their pleas to the nobles, rulers, and priests, and “took an oath of them to do as they had promised.”

Justice Together’s strategy, following those of dozens of other similar church-based DART organizations across the country, isn’t directly confrontational; their goal is explicitly not to generate walks-outs and protests. But it does aim to generate tension: to make a well-researched and achievable case, and then publicly, in front of hundreds of newly activated religious citizens (the great majority of whom are, crucially, registered and informed voters!), demand action. This is the kind of tension central to Reverend Martin Luther King’s position, which Justice Together explicitly cites: to raise just enough heat that “a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

It's true that the plans Justice Together developed don’t involve structural change. Their call for more free bus passes for those with mental health needs, more staffing for on-call psychiatric assistance, and a sustainable budget plan for a Multi-Agency Center to bring together resources for homeless individuals are all needed and important, but not radical; nearly all of these involve projects that the city of Wichita, or the county, or COMCARE already have in front of them. But the fact that Justice Together managed to elicit public support for a free municipal ID program? That is a genuinely transformative step.

Having a reliable form of ID is desperately needed by many in recovery or on the streets when it comes to accessing welfare, getting housing, applying for jobs, and so much more. And it is also something which Republican leaders in Topeka have repeatedly attacked as a backdoor to legalization for undocumented immigrants, leaving aside the complication that access to state services often depends on a simple form of reliable identification. Wyandotte County introduced municipal IDs in 2022, and former Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple had pushed for his city to do the same; both such efforts, as well as those being contemplated by other cities seeking to address this genuine need on behalf of their poorer and unhoused residents, were knee-capped by the Republican majority in the legislature, leaving this small, crucial reform very much in limbo. Mayor Wu’s comments after the commitment-making assembly, during which she said her affirmation “was really a commitment that we will sit together between [the] city and county to talk about this,” reflects the political disagreements which lay ahead.

Thus, a real test confronts Justice Together: will they find a way to publicly hold city and county leaders accountable to their promises. Will they be able to push the negotiations that will have to take place in such a way that the municipal ID goal, which everyone in the movement has extracted a commitment towards, doesn’t get killed by elected and appointed leaders fearful of blowback from ideologues who share the paranoia about illegal immigrants that is unfortunately common among Kansas Republicans? Time, as always, will tell. Whatever their ultimate success, though, the fact of this group’s existence is a reminder of the long history in America of people of faith organizing public support on behalf of specific social justice actions. 

To me, their presence here in Wichita is a blessing in itself.

Friday, April 19, 2024

On George Scialabba and the Left Conservative Possibility

[A version of this piece is cross-posted to Current]

How might one politically categorize the following statement?

[M]y apparently disparate-sounding worries....all result from one or another move on the part of the culture away from the immediate, the instinctual, the face-to-face. We are embodied beings, gradually adapted over millions of year to thrive on a certain scale, our metabolisms a delicate orchestration of innumerable biological and geophysical rhythms. The culture of modernity has thrust upon us, sometimes with traumatic abruptness, experiences, relationships, and powers for which we may not yet be ready–to which we may need more time to adapt....If we cannot slow down and grow cautiously, evenly, gradually into our new technological and political possibilities and responsibilities–even the potentially liberating ones–the last recognizably individual men and women may give place, before too many generations, to the simultaneously sub- and super-human civilization of the hive. 

For those whose exposure to or engagement with political ideas is fairly minimal–whether by choice or by circumstance or both–the question would likely seem strange. After all, there are no obvious partisan markers anywhere in this statement, no references to presidential candidates or global events or policy disputes. So what is political about it? But for those who have some familiarity with the history of political ideas and arguments, as well as some of their attendant philosophical formulations and literary tropes, there are flags in this statement which suggest an answer–and that answer, in all likelihood, would be “conservative.”

Not “conservative” in the way most Americans would be likely to use the term today, to be sure. The passage doesn’t provide anything that connects to Donald Trump or lower taxes or tighter immigration or anti-LGBTQ positions or the Supreme Court, at least not directly. But astute readers would pick up on the final sentence’s reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “last man,” his vision of a humanity that has succumbed to nihilism, hedonism, and passivity, and thus falls into a kind of groupthink where all individual accomplishments are lost. The passage also speaks warningly about developments and innovations of modernity which humanity, whose embodiment reflects a deep evolutionary grounding in small-scale interactions, needs to be far more cautious about embracing. Hence, the politics of this passage could be–and, I think, would be, if read without any additional context–plausibly coded as small-c conservative, or at least as philosophically anti-progressive. Its implications include a preference for the local, a suspicion of intellectual abstractions, a discontent with the ennui that consumer wealth and technological ease has enabled, and a fear of a too-rapidly pursued future whose liberating possibilities will likely be lost unless they are approached incrementally (if at all). In short, it communicates a respect for, even a valuation of, a more limited conceptualization of our social world–and, aside from certain strains of environmental concern within the current constellation of liberal thought, talk of “limits” is generally seen as the provenance of conservatives, not progressives.

 And yet, the author of this passage is George Scialabba, a man of–as was once not infrequently said of writers like him–“the left.” Scialabba is a highly regarded essayist, book review, and public intellectual, whose latest collection, Only a Voice: Essays (Verso, 2023), is a brilliant collection of insightful readings and contrarian arguments about some of the most important thinkers and writers of the past century, and some from centuries earlier: Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, T.S. Eliot, Leo Strauss, Irving Howe, I.F. Stone, and many more. The essay “Last Men and Women,” a survey of criticisms of mass society and modern democracy, includes the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, but also this plain self-description: “[This]...is where I also stand–with the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs, and against Straussians, religious conservatives, national greatness neoconservatives, Ayn Randian libertarians, and anyone else for whom tolerance, civic equality, international law, and a universal minimum standard of material welfare are less than fundamental commitments.” Whatever else might be said about that self-description (which was published in 2021), it doesn’t sound at all “conservative,” even in the small-c sense. So should we conclude therefore that Scialabba is simply inconsistent? Or might there be a political categorization which can, in a theoretically consistent way, capture both his progressive Enlightenment aspirations, and well as his worries about the same?

I think there is–though, as with all ideological labels, it’s a categorization with greater use as a conversational reference than as an analytical tool. The label is “left conservatism,” and applying it to Scialabba’s writings–or, perhaps more accurately, using Scilabba’s writings to apply the label more broadly–is an intellectual exercise worth engaging in, especially in our moment when so many other political categorizations seem either overthrown or irrelevant or both.

 The term “left conservative” is hardly new; it’s been coined and re-coined multiple times over the decades. Most recently, the term been revived in some conservative publications to describe a mix of anti-globalist, socially conservative, pro-labor, subsidiarian perspectives which recognize the need for protectionist action to strengthen national economies and local cultures. Those considerations are accurate, so far as they go. But to really dig into the idea–and to assess its fit with Scialabba’s incisive considerations of our moment–we need to look to an earlier expression of it, one found in the third-person self-description Norman Mailer provided in his book Armies of the Night: “Mailer was a Left Conservative. So he had his own point of view. To himself he would suggest that he tried to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” What is it that Mailer was describing there, this Marxian-style attainment of Burkean principles? By “the style of Marx” one must presumably mean employing a revolutionary, or at least structural, set of intellectual tools, ones addressed to emancipation of persons and goods in society; by “values suggested by Edmund Burke,” one must presumably be talking about local communities and the traditions they give life to, and the need to maintain and strengthen them. So how to put that together?

The most intellectual plausible articulation of this idea, I think, is to say that modernity–whether that is dated to the Protestant Reformation, the Declaration of Independence, the Industrial Revolution, or any other particular historical landmark or era–is simply different from what came before it. The 18th-century (and earlier) traditions and communities which Burke defended cannot exercise the authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self. Technology, social fluidity, capitalism, democracy: all are genies let out of the bottle, in the face of which traditions of all kinds suffer. (Marx’s famous statement in The Communist Manifesto that, with industrialization, “all-fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away....all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” is an obvious support to this formulation, but Scialabba himself adds one as well, describing Burke’s own writings as “expressions of outraged common sense” in the face of the inevitable—and, he asserts, entirely justified—transformations that came with the expansion of suffrage and other “democratic truths”). Hence, the preservation of Burkean values–acting “conservatively,” in other words--now requires actions which go beyond the expansion of liberal guarantees or the amelioration of socio-economic disruptions.

This reading of Mailer may simply sound like the conservative insight famously expressed by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy: “If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.” But the “revolution” invoked by Chesterton in the name of conserving a particular state of affairs was a formal, not structural one, whereas the better understanding of Mailer’s point about “think[ing] in the style of Marx,” I believe, means something truly “left”in the structural, even radical, sense. Maybe, the left conservative thinks, only a radical shift towards the democratization, the socialization, and the equalization of the products and processes of modernity will be sufficient to enable people to continue to thrive in their communities.

And it really is communities which are central here. (One could argue that “left conservatism” might better be expressed as “left communitarianism,” and there’s some value to putting it that way. But since the connections and commonalities which emerge in the context of communities are, I think, something that human beings, as political animals, always seek to construct and always mourn the absence of–and here I am heavily influenced by the writings of Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, two political philosophers that were frequently labeled “communitarians” when that term enjoyed a boomlet 30 years ago–focusing on the concern to literally conserve that which is genuinely valuable about our communities is appropriate.) Our individualistic age puts an asterisk of suspicion beside all communities, however defined, seeing them all as potential sources of majoritarian abuse or undemocratic tyranny–which, of course, they too often are; as Christians at least ought to be quick to acknowledge, we are fallen beings, after all. But the conservative desire for belonging and rootedness and community, whatever evils it enables, also grounds both democratic and egalitarian possibilities: traditions are forms of meaning and fulfillment which cannot (or at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions and thus be taxed away from you or turned against you by those who wield power. To the extent that the modern world sees profits, procreation, wars, borders, religions, holidays, families, markets, marriages, and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle--whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress--one could argue, if one is of this particular conservative orientation (as I think Scialabba is, at least partly), that something in the modern world has gone wrong, or at least has gotten too far away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence, truths and necessities which are the necessary (if not sufficient) prerequisites to treating all people as equally capable of self-rule and equally deserving of respect. That’s not necessarily a defense of all communities, especially not national ones, which too regularly employ the coercive power of the state to maintain the definition and borders which those in power decide upon; Mailer’s communitarianism, a term he probably would have blanched at, was decidedly small-scale and anarchic. But the centrality of being in connection with others, and defending those connections, remains.

Not many have picked up on this reading of Mailer’s ideas in the two generations since, to say the least. On the left or progressive liberal side of America’s intellectual divide, as it began to deepen and sharpen in the decades following the upheavals of the 1960s, leftism mostly focused its decreasing energies on various statist parties and platforms, while most liberals came to treat those who worried about the excesses of their individualistic liberatory language as either 1) accidental intellectual traitors (as it was frequently expressed at a UC-Santa Cruz conference on the “specter of  left conservatism” in 1998, these unfortunate folk are genuine leftists whose distaste for the latest theoretical developments has tricked them into allying with conservative forces), or 2) just remnants of an old rural conservative Democrat faction, soon to die out. That’s assuming White voters were the ones being discussed, of course; the religiousity and social conservatism of many Black voters was treated very differently, though not until Bill Clinton was its preferred language given much credence, and even that didn’t last–Barak Obama, our first Black president, reflected very little of that sensibility while in the White House (which, cynically speaking, is perhaps one of the reasons he was able to attain it.)

As for America’s rightward flank, the rise of a pro-business, anti-socialist libertarianism as a component of the Republican coalition from the 1960s through the 1990s made any kind of liberal egalitarianism, much less leftism, unwelcome there. Occasionally you see attempts to import into American conservative discourse “Red Tory” formulations more common to Western European conservatism generally, but despite gestures in that direction (George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” for example), none of them have in any significant way shaped the overall conservative coalition in the U.S. Of course, some would insist upon adding a “until the rise of Donald Trump in 2016” to that sentence, and it is true that Trump’s profound lack of ideological (much less ethical) grounding has arguably presented an opening for leftist ideas to experience a revival in Republican circles. But while in today’s America you are, in fact, more likely to hear talk of structural or revolutionary changes to our liberal capitalist and democratic order coming from the Trumpist corner of the Republican party than from the Democrats led by Joe Biden, that talk is generally, and tragically, reflective of a fascist-adjacent authoritarianism which too many social conservatives, following Trump, seem to have become comfortable with. Even thoughtful and nominally worker-friendly treatments of the integralist argument in favor of more firmly supporting traditional community-based values seem to presume egalitarianism itself to be the real problem, and what limited appreciation for the solidarist approach to building economic equality–meaning unions, mainly–which still exists in America today is found coming the Democrats and the White House, not Mar-a-Lago.

All of which means that the left conservative position lacks a broad constituency in American politics. But that does not mean it lacks a voice. Perhaps most influentially, the historian Christopher Lasch, long a hero to many dissident and contrary conservatives (even as he remained personally a committed Democratic voter and a firm-if-worried supporter of the liberal egalitarian project overall through his life), and someone who himself never used terms like “left conservative” or “communitarian” in a self-descriptive way (even as close students of Lasch work subsequently used both), articulated at least the outlines of what could be called a left conservative ideology as well as anyone. And Scialabba presents, in multiple essays, Lasch as perhaps the most valuable of all the “antiprogressives” (which is not the same as “conservatives”) whom he holds that fans of the Enlightenment, like himself, must learn from.

That learning, he writes, involves grappling with the best thinkers’ “combination of discrimination and democratic passion,” defining the latter as “the constant remembrance that democracy entails not merely that the people should be governed well but also that the people should govern.” Mourning the tendency of intellectuals and politicians of all stripes–including both what he calls “the business party” and “the Progressives”–to ignore this fundamental principle, Scialabba’s cast of heroes includes, as he lays them out in his introduction to Only a Voice, scholars and activists and writers who, in one way or another, demonstrate a “moral intelligence” that “allowed them to make relevant distinctions and get the difficult decisions right.” This means, rather than simple apologists for the Enlightenment, such figures as Randolph Bourne, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Richard Rorty, Bill McKibben, along with Lasch, earn his praise. These are people who, in his view, take seriously their “democratic obligation to persuade people before legislating for them”–and that means taking seriously the “anxieties about modernity” which confront all those whom these thinkers and writers, like Scialabba himself, attempt to clarify the democratic options for. The responses to this anxiety which these writers all wrestled with obviously vary greatly, from Rorty’s advocacy of setting aside worries about “self-creation” in the name of a bland yet vital “tolerance,” to Howe’s insistence that the ideal of socialism “will need to be reimagined in every generation,” to, perhaps most centrally, Lasch’s populist insistence the “the democratic character can only flourish in a society constructed to the human scale.” Yet Scialabba thoughtfully considers–and by so doing, makes it possible to learn from–them all.

That this practice of thoughtful learning includes giving sympathetic attention to what he calls “perhaps the most significant strain of social criticism in our time,” the “antimodernist radicalism” of limits one can find in writers like D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, or Lasch himself, is not entirely pleasing to even some of Scialabba’s most enthusiastic readers. In a review essay on Only a Voice in Commonweal, Sam Adler-Bell gently suggests that Scialabba misunderstands that modernity’s anxieties and doubts are less to be responded to than embraced as actually one of its strengths: the modern person “is not necessarily a conformist, a face in the crowd, incapable of independent thought,” but rather “is someone who detects these frailties in everyone else.” This is a subtle point, and a good one, but it also strikes me as an inverted application of Robert Frost’s famous comment that a liberal is someone too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument. Scialabba is far too conscientious a thinker to deny the immense accomplishment of Enlightenment liberalism in teaching people to be skeptical of the limits and presumptions they inherit or which have been imposed upon them. But he also recognizes, as anyone with even a smidgen of leftist suspicion of the bourgeoisie should, that such skepticism, without a foundation in practices and places and, yes, even prejudices–in the sense of “pre-judgments”–to draw upon, will often result not in robust, democracy-defending free-thinking, but rather in a literally care-less disconnection, a tendency to abstraction which capitalist overlords will be more than happy to use to manipulate and oppress. As Scialabba writes in “Progress and Prejudice,” the first and most overarching essay in Only a Voice, he has come to recognize “with some reluctance” that thinkers like Lasch are correct: that “as long as modernization is involuntary,” then conserving our ability to draw upon and stay within “our own skins—and even, perhaps, within traditional social forms” is needed, if our “every liberation” is not to be “captured and exploited.”

Left conservatism is one way of articulating a set of political convictions that can, at least as a matter of theory, see this needle, the needle which modernity has presented us with, and thread it, thus enabling the continued project of weaving together (or sewing up tears within) our democratic political fabric. Scialabba, through his writing over the decades, like Lasch himself in decades prior, has been an insightful advocate for the kind of democratic learning which all of America’s diverse communities need–a learning which reminds us of modernity’s liberating and equalizing accomplishments, and what must be conserved if the left’s emancipatory project is to continue. Whether this political categorization fits him well or not, his position is one much worth contemplating–an action which would have to begin with reading his most recent, and excellent, book.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Thinking About Wendell Berry's Leftist Lament (and More)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wendell Berry’s sprawling, uneven, brilliant, and sometimes frustrating The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice will likely not, I think, be widely remembered after he leaves us as his greatest, most important work. But it is undeniably his longest, and arguably his most ambitious as well. Very late to the party, I have finally read through his wrestling with the entangled ideas of racism, history, patriotism, religion, public discourse, agrarianism, and more, and I’m glad I did. It is a book crammed with insights, thoughts that Berry has, as he makes clear in the book’s introduction, considered and re-considered, written, scratched out, and re-written, over many years. “I am surprised, slowly of course, by the slowness of my mind” he writes as a kind of apologia (p. 5). However, I was surprised as well to have retroactively discovered, long after completing the book, a through-line to his argument, one that mostly ties together most of its nearly 500 pages, despite the many zig-zags and dead-end observations (a few of which probably could have been eliminated or perhaps deserved further integrative reflection of their own) along the way. And surprisingly (or perhaps not), it was a work of Marxist economic history that helped me see it.

In my observation, conservatives who celebrate Wendell Berry's ideas deal with the seemingly leftist elements of his thought—his condemnations of corporate power, finance capitalism, and libertarian individualism most obviously, but his highly selective and somewhat distanced engagement with the traditionalist pre-occupations that define so much of our never-ending culture war is perhaps even more important--in a variety of ways. Some downplay those elements, some appropriate them into a post-liberal framework, and some insist that the localist or distributist character of the agrarian beliefs which he holds aren’t in any substantive sense leftist at all, but rather are actually conservative, properly understood. All of these approaches have their value—though given that Berry never makes, in all this massive book exploring prejudices in America, an explicit Burkean defense of prejudice, I am doubtful how far any of them can go in their attempt to claim these ideas of Berry's as "conservative" in any formal sense. Rather, while The Need to Be Whole will probably never be much read or appreciated by contemporary (and overly statist) socialists, I think his overarching intentions are clearly most at home with anti-capitalist radicals of the left. It is they, after all, who have most consistently lamented the destruction of the commons, and lamented all the divisive consequences which have followed its ruination at the hands of an expansionist capitalism which has, tragically, characterized American history from its beginning; their complaint is Berry's as well.

The destructive horror of slavery and its still-abiding legacies are, to Berry, not best understood in explicitly racialist terms, though obviously the primary way those horrors and those legacies were and are elaborated is via racial categories. Still, the millions whose lives were destroyed by the Atlantic Slave Trade and slave economy of the American South is, to Berry, of a piece with the—primarily socio-economic, though often also literal as well--destruction of millions of farming lives and hundreds of farming communities (which provided settled environments of provision and membership to families both black and white) by industrial agriculture. This is not some Heideggerian sublimation of human suffering to the logics of technology; Berry is excruciatingly particular in the way he talks about the ways in which Southerners of all races dealt with the Civil War and its aftermath, with reverberations that affect our historical assumptions and linguistic pre-occupations to this very day. But nonetheless, if Berry's book is to be understood as providing an alternative to the history of racial exploitation told in the 1619 Project, it isn't anything similar to then-President Trump's celebratory 1776 Commission; rather, it's a long, sad tale that begins with 1225's Charter of the Forest, and all the ways in which the fundamentals of common provisioning, which the gift of land makes available to all those willing to work it, have been continually whittled away in the name of profit. 

Some might question giving Berry even this much credit when it comes to his dealings with race, pointing to the sympathy he expresses towards Robert E. Lee in the book, and his dislike of those who attribute some kind of genetic trauma to any depiction or memorialization of those Southerners who fought for an understandable yet still evil cause from 1861 to 1865. All this attracted a fair amount of criticism when the book came out in 2022, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to it. But an understanding of how Berry grounds his overall argument in the requirements of membership and community-building work should enable open-minded readers, I think, to see that he’s not minimizing the horrors of slavery when he shows some contextual sympathy for those born into its web of enveloping prejudices. Rather, he's extending the tragedy of those horrors and the devastation they justified, situating all Americans in the same destructive shadow that slaves and their masters were implicated in alike. 

He does this by way of an impressively wide rage of arguments, including a thoughtful consideration of the Sermon on the Mount, a critical reading a Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a reflection on the origin of Kentucky's state anthem, "My Own Kentucky Home," and much more. But the clearest elaboration of his entwining of moral, environmental, and socio-economic themes in his treatment of race in America comes through the lengthy consideration he gives to a conversation with the famed defender of both white supremacy and states’ rights, John C. Caulhoun, recorded in the dairy of John Quincy Adams in 1820—a conversation which Berry calls “essential to the sense of this book." He writes:

Calhoun’s significant distinction is between work that is not degrading, and therefore suitable for white people, and degrading work fit only for slaves. Adams defines the trouble exactly—“mistaking labor for slavery, and domination for Freedom”—and he clearly thought that the trouble affected both races….By assigning specifically to slaves the manual work considered degrading, the slave-owning aristocrats degraded that work for everybody, black or white, who did it. By degrading the work, they degraded the workers….It became possible for people who could not escape hard manual labor to despise themselves for doing it, and, from that, possible to despise the land that required it of them. Thus the set of values and attitudes by which the Old South aristocrats placed themselves above the fundamental work of the world in their time, values and attitudes meant to define the superiority of a class, instituted a (so far) illimitable cycle of degradations. It degraded the fundamental work itself, in both status and quality. It degraded everybody, black and white, who did that work. And inevitably—provided that the workers consented to the aristocratic values and attitudes—it degraded the land on which the work was done….

In his argument with Calhoun, Adams was speaking in affirmation of the value to the country and to democracy of “the plain freemen who labor for subsistence,” presumably on their own farms or in their own shops. Calhoun, speaking self-consciously as an aristocrat and in defense of his class and its values, divides human life and work into the permanent grades of higher and lower. (He clearly could have granted no standing to Jefferson’s “aristocracy of talent and virtue,” with which Adams might have concurred, though he did not like Jefferson.) Perhaps the greatest irony of our history so far is that in our public life we have favored and democratized Calhoun’s values and pointedly disfavored Adams’s….We all, black and white together, want to be John C. Calhoun….

The superiority of Calhoun’s social class rested upon Negro slavery—which, if we understand slavery as the lack or the want of freedom, was only one kind of slavery…Consumers of industrial products participate in the industrial economy virtually as captives, because of their total dependence on the products, and because of their lack of responsibility for the quality of what they buy. The condition of industrial consumers is of a piece with the condition of industrial workers, who are captives of the “labor market” and their need for jobs, and who have no responsibility for the kind and quality of their products….Slavery did not begin with the capture and sale of African black people, and it did not end with their legal emancipation (pp. 298-300, 301-302, 374).

In retrospect, much of Berry’s meandering book is revealed as an explicit exploration of the many and perverse ways the “democratization” of Calhoun’s aristocratic prejudices have deeply warped American social and economic life. In his view (and mine as well), without consistently prioritizing a participatory, democratic, egalitarian respect for work--including both those who do the work, and the land upon which they do it--one will be invariably left with a divisive competition to separate oneself from manual labor, and a greedy desire to impose on those you have separated yourself from to make sure they continue to do it for you. While there have occasionally been successful efforts to arrange and maintain the environments within with such work can flourish throughout American history, Berry mourns how rare they have been. Rather than the ideal of seeking common membership in a particular context of work—the “American Dream” of “economic democracy,” of “self-sufficiency based upon ownership of a family farm or ‘forty acres and a mule’ or a small store or a small shop” (p. 98)—we have a public realm that “is not, except in the most remote and theoretical sense, a membership…. It is nobody’s home … the realm of extremely powerful, wealthy, childish, and badly spoiled adult humans typified by Mr. Trump, his allies, and his rivals” (p. 136). Why this Calhounian triumph, in Berry’s view? Well, at one point he observes that human beings are “most at peace with one another when they are reasonably prosperous” (p. 87). That might seem a brief and materialist aside, but it is echoed in dozens of similar asides throughout the book, when he remarks on the fecundity of well-respected land, on how even oppressed populations (including the slaves of the American South) could find some degree of independence through the natural provisions that wise observers could obtain from said land, and so forth. When one reflects upon the common resources that lay at the heart of prosperity, and how capitalist expansion throughout history consistently begins with robbing the people of those common resources, economic explanations emerge as a framework for understanding how all the divisive and racist prejudices which Berry is exploring take root.

Ian Angus’s The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism is a short and dense book, one which lays out in close detail both the centuries-old tradition of commons-based agriculture through most of human history (Angus’s research is explicitly focused on the development of expansionist capitalism in England, the United Kingdom, and its imperial territories, but it is clear that similar data patterns can be found around world), and the way that tradition came to an end. Many are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the “enclosure movement”—the repeated, and always expanding, efforts by aristocrats and early capitalists from the Middle Ages through the 18th century to dispossess the peasants who farmed, hunted and gathered in, and provisioned their families and villages from the streams, forests, and fields that they may have had any nominal ownership of, but by centuries-old common law had access to. Leveling woods to establish fenced in sheep pastures, leveling homes to oblige those who lived there to hire themselves out as laborers in cities—the sociological and economic consequences of the history of enclosures have been debated (and, depressingly often, defended) for centuries, with Angus’s Marxist analysis being just the latest contribution of the argument (though an excellent one). I strongly doubt that Berry and Angus are at all aware of each others’ writings; yet, Angus’s argument about the centrality of dispossession to understanding the roots of imperialism and slavery enables me to see their work as complementing each other in a small but essential way.

In a way, it’s not a Marxist argument at all, but one that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Second Discourse: all the pathologies of division and competition which plague humankind, according to him, begin with “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, said to himself, This is mine." But Rousseau’s philosophical jeremiad against economic inequality and private property is hardly a rigorous argument—and it certainly isn’t Berry’s, or Angus’s (or even, when you think about it, Marx’s either, as he was far more concerned with bringing to an end exploitation than he was with imposing any kind of propertyless economic sameness; he and Friedrich Engels explicitly stated in The Communist Manifesto that it was property employed in the process of bourgeois production, not personal property, which they were targeting). What Marx, and Angus’s use of Marx’s analytic framework, actually provides in this context is simply an understanding that dispossession—using competitive acquisition, whether legal or financial or military, to end the common access to landed resources which communities had for millennia learned (and sometimes, in some places, still do learn) to share and shepherd together—was and remains at the heart of creating the economic disruptions upon which plantation slavery in the American South, and so many other forms of economic imperialism today, were and are maintained. Angus’s quotes Marx, who in this light sounds downright Berryesque (though, unfortunately, not nearly as lyrical):

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil….Capitalist production, therefore only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker (pp. 186-187).

Marx’s opinion about agriculture’s place in his vision of the historical inevitability of a workers' revolution is complicated. It is easy to assume that the above passage is merely descriptive of what he saw as an economically determined process, but there are also notes and letters from Marx (which Angus quotes at length) which reveal that Marx himself recognized the social power of the cooperative relations which existed among farmers and other small-holders, where the mutually sustaining and shared commons had not yet been absorbed in the name of elite profit. This, obviously, open up the possibility for a socialist conception of property and community that is leans in a more localist, republican, or anarchist direction, and decidedly away from the Marxist-Leninist assumption that overcoming capitalism can only be achieved through forcing workers--dictatorially, in necessary--down the path of industrial socialization.

But either way, seeing in Marx’s observations above a parallel to Berry’s concern about how economic competition introduces class distinctions, which in turn introduce a contempt for the economically poor or legally enslaved who are obliged to engage in manual labor on the land, and thus result in a degradation of all landed work as well as the land itself, isn’t difficult. Hence, my original description of The Need to Be Whole as a leftist lament. The kind of respectful and cooperative and forgiving communities of work and fair membership that Berry locates in the civil religion of America, as well as within the Christian vision, were (and still are being) undermined, with depressing rare exceptions, by the legacy of labor degradation and slavery, America’s original sin. That legacy was most prominently and destructively embodied in the chattel slavery of the American South, but it is tragically more accurately reflected in the acquisitive stifling—both at the beginning of the American experiment and today--of the “land need,” the “sensible need for independence” which common resources provide, a need expressed by “early settlers and freed slaves” alike, and which is felt today by anyone who wishes, as they search the want-ads and punch the clock, “not to be a starvling, a pauper, a scrounger, an underling, a peon, a slave” (p. 365). For us all to be economically free and respected by our fellow human beings, free of prejudices that stigmatize and separate us from one another and from the land and from the labor of our own hands, and for there thus to be no truly poor among us—what could be more leftist than that?