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Monday, January 17, 2005

Simplicity (and its Complications)

I have a brother-in-law earning a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan; he's a brilliant guy, involved in all sorts of challenging research. Yet, increasingly, he doesn't seem to take it very seriously; that is, while he likes the math and research and puzzles of it all, he doesn't seem all that impressed with the world which high technology and science is inducting him into. In a recent e-mail, he was talking about one of the Dune books (what can I say? he's an old school sci-fi geek), and brought up the Butlerian Jihad, which was a revolution against thinking machines which had ended up enslaving humanity. (Don't write me if I'm getting details wrong; I'm just paraphrasing my brother-in-law, and anyway, I never cared for Frank Herbert.) He wrote: "Have we become slaves to our machines already? If we live too far from work and have to drive to work, then are we slaves to our cars? If we can't grow our own food, are we slaves to the trucks that drive in the food and to the machinery that plants and harvests and processes our food? I have often thought of our trips to the gas station as a type of worship service--we go to pay homage to the gods of petroleum--the gods that dictate how we live our lives and to whom we must pay our tribute."

It's not just talk with him and his family. They've thrown out their TV (though they still have his computer, and watch DVDs on it occasionally), and his wife has taken up spinning her own thread from wool and knitting their clothes. (She's good at it too: she made our daughter Megan a Gryffindor scarf for Halloween.) Talking with them doesn't give you a feeling of that they're self-consciously rejecting the world, becoming elitist cranks with a puritanical streak. On the contrary, they seem almost giddy about their ability to step away from the choices and structures most of us take for granted. We gave them a copy of the Wendell Berry essay collection The Art of the Commonplace for Christmas, and we talked for a while during our vacation in Michigan about what Berry has to say about community and simplicity, about the agrarian lifestyle and living close to the land. I really do believe that, given the right incentives, one day my brother-in-law and his family could just quietly drop off the map, relocate to some small farming community and raise goats and tomatoes, becoming completely self-sustaining. And I can't help but think that such would be a deeply admirable thing, even if it wouldn't necessarily be our preferred life.

As far as Melissa and I go, we already live a relatively simple life, comparatively speaking: one car, one computer, one income, no cell phone, no satellite dish, a garden in the back yard, etc. We're not acolytes of Wendell Berry, or any other explicitly antimodern thinker, though I enjoy dipping into The Essential Agrarian Reader from time to time, and we've discussed on and off what small steps we might be able to take to further our family's ecological independence (possible next step, depending on where we end up living next year: get some chickens). But basically my engagement with simplicity--and in particular the structure of it, what makes it possible, or better yet plausible--is theoretical: I want to understand what advocating simplicity (politically, economically, socially, culturally) means, what the arguments for it are, what the history of those arguments are and what we can learn from such. Because living a simple life in a complex world is hard. The modern world is premised upon fluidity, calculation, specialization, transformation and speed; that's how we have framed the acquisition of knowledge, economic transactions, social organization, and the development of the person for a few centuries now at least. That such speeding means many good things may be lost by the wayside is a commonplace and mostly uncontroversial; what is controversial is believing that controlling our pace is within our collective power, and amounts to more than easy, cranky condemnations. Of course, attacks on modernity are legion, have been around since Rousseau (the original modern crank, perhaps) and the Romantics at least, and have only been made easier by apologists for globalization who see some new kind of human emerging from Thomas Friedman's Golden Straightjacket. But just because there are lots of lazy Heidegger-quoting antimodern posers out there doesn't mean the problem is real, and isn't painful. To stick with Friedman, most people don't necessarily want to live their whole lives under olive trees, but they'd also rather the olive trees not be mowed down by Lexuses. To insist that the only remaining route to simplicity, to preserving the olive groves, is to live there and never move again is to engage in what Christopher Lasch called a kind of Gemeinschaftsschmerz, a longing for homogeneous and traditional communities which invariably privileges the perspective of educated (and usually wealthy) elites who feel themselves in possession of some custom or tradition with inherent, superior value. Many of the sort of intellectuals you find flirting with various antimodern arguments have often seemed to me to be oblivious to the limited and ordinary lives of actual families, their pleasures and labors and hopes and fears. (Neil Postman comes to mind, Bill McKibben is another, and I say that despite having learned much from and agreeing with much that both men have written.) Actually living out the traditions or customs or ways of life which constitute "simplicity" requires work, memory, openness to change and a chastened sense of possibility, which also means somewhat less respect for the content of said customs and traditions than high-minded reformers might think. This is part of the reason Lasch was so suspicious of communitarianism, and preferred to describe himself as a populist: attacking the technological diversification, and consequently the alienation, which the acquisition-focused modern economy thrusts upon us demands sacrifices that many people without adequate political, economic, social or cultural resources may not be able to make, at least not without causing themselves and possibly others (in particular their children) a potentially great harm. Far better to focus on the people who desire simplicity, than the simplicity itself. While Lasch was something of a crank himself, I agree with him, and hence want to be careful about what I think the simple life does and does not mean.

As is often the case, my thinking along these lines has been stimulated by Timothy Burke, who among other things is a superb defender of the modern and the popular. Some months back he wrote a stimulating essay on the "dizzy, glorious excesses of the current cultural dispensation, warts and all . . . What I see is the unlocking of human imagination, the democratization of creativity, an explosion of meaning and interpretation and possibility." The made stuff of the world is all good, in his view. Well, that stuff is stuff that the people want, surely; borderline socialist I may be, but I hardly think the whole modern marketplace is a matter of false consciousness. So Burke is right when he condemns "those who want less not just for themselves but all the world, who want only their own vision of what is refined and elegant to propagate, who so fear the authentic popularity of global popular culture that they imagine its successes to be impossible save by conspiracy, subversion and subjugation." But he goes too far when he observes:

[I]t's true that those forms of expressive practice which are fundamentally antagonistic to a cultural marketplace--the equivalent of usufruct ownership of land, the kinds of cultural practices that are unowned and unownable, collective and communal, and that require a protected relation to power, are threatened by the explosive force of market-driven popular culture. My feeling about that is the same feeling I have about gemeinschaft in general: good riddance. . . . All that is lost are the forms of social power that reserved particular cultural forms as the source of social distinction or hierarchy, all that is lost are the old instrumentalities of texts, performances, rituals. The achievement of liberty loses nothing save the small privileges of intimate tyrannies. Culture, even in the premodern world, is ceaselessly in motion and yet also steady as a rock. In getting more and more of it for more and more people, we lose little along the way.

I've disagreed with Burke about this point before, at least insofar as I believe that, if nothing else, progressive politics and egalitarianism can lose a great deal when a sense of the "collective and communal" are driven out of people's life experience--that is, if they become convinced that one needn't concern oneself about olive trees anymore (hey, I hear Proctor and Gamble just bought a 10,000 acres of now-cheap land in Indonesia and is experimenting with some new fast-growth olive hybrids, so fear not!). But my point here isn't about the link between social justice and the popular community (especially since I've beaten that to death before), but rather about what all that has to do with living a simple life. But perhaps I ought to define my terms.

What is the simple life? It's not necessarily agrarianism or an avoidance of technology, though such elements of the equation probably can't be entirely ignored. What I really mean by it is an environment which isn't likely to multiply out of one's control, making one simultaneously dependent upon and divorced from those forces and decisions which shape one's options; that is, a world where one can see clear through from basic personal choices to dependable public outcomes. Of course, the world is never really going to be like that: ours is an often random, frequently tragic, always unpredictable existence. But nonetheless, some environments lend themselves to being enclosed more easily than others, and enclosure doesn't just mean retreating from reality: sometimes it means cultivating the better parts of it. Again, the danger of imposing an authoritative content upon one's--and others'--acts of cultivation lurks: the number of hippies who just wanted to drop out of modern life and tune in to their communes who ended up embracing Maoism and talk of purges in the bean rows was probably pretty small, historically speaking, but that doesn't mean such a slipperly slope should be ignored. Burke wasn't kidding when he spoke of "intimate tyrannies." But not all intimacies are tyrannical, and he is, I think, perhaps less attendant than he should be to how much that rock of culture he speaks of can be shattered by the roar of Lexuses driving by. John Stuart Mill scratched his head in his essay "On Nationality" over the "half-savage relics" who choose to "sulk on their rocks" rather than embrace the liberty of (English) civilization; there is just the barest hint of a similar condescension in the assumption that wanting to holding onto the rough and rocky soil in which "social distinctions" and olive trees take root is likely about "hierarchy" and holding dominion over others. Maybe, instead, wanting to enclose off certain areas of life, to set at least of few aspects of one's life into a "protected relation to power," is about wishing to exercise dominion over one's place in the world--which is at least part of what is meant by "self-government," after all. (One of the things I find so interesting about the work of Gar Alperovitz is that his is not just an economic argument; it is also a political and cultural one, about what we can do towards creating a socio-economic environment wherein the speed of modern life doesn't run over people who have every reason, and more importantly the democratic right, to prefer to stay in their chosen, enclosed place.)

Echoes of the concern for the structure of simplicity that I'm talking about here can be found in what I've written about education (at least insofar as one can interpret egalitarian choices about schooling to reflect a desire to structure one's public environment, and not just engage in pedagogical exploration), marriage and social policy (in that covenant marriages and other tentative conservative moves against the divorce culture reflect the realization that such factors are not solely personal, but have deep economic and social ramifications), and dozens of other issues. (I guess when it comes to community I'm a hedgehog, according to Isaiah Berlin's typology, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog.) Honestly, a broad engagement with the complexities of simplicity can arise out of almost any aspect of contemporary life, so thoroughly does modernity challenge the very idea of limits. Lately, for example, I've been thinking about it in relation to such banal matters as home entertainment and eating out (both of which I hope will get their own posts this week). For the moment though, I'm thinking about coffee.

No, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I know most people in the U.S. and Europe are, and I know a little bit about the coffee economy. The transformation of coffee consumption into a status marker, via Starbucks and others, has increased the demand for certain kinds of coffee, which pulls the world market towards ever greater specialized production, shifting patterns of work and prices in order to maximize profits while keeping costs down and thereby making coffee cheap enough that its consumer base will continue to grow. In short, coffee becomes--as most manufacturing in our globalized world has become--part of the "pull economy," where power is no longer in the hands of producers and laborers but in the hands of retailers and marketers. Buy coffee, and you're buying a good that's been hurriedly yanked away from one place and out of one form to then put into another, and then yet another, and then finely delivered to you, nice and hot. Nothing we all don't already know.

Daniel Brook wrote an interesting article about Sweden in the most recent issue of Dissent, about how this highly egalitarian country, where more than one-half of the total GDP goes to the government in the form of taxes, has been able to weather the storms of globalization with its high standard of living, generous welfare state, and low wage differentials mostly intact, despite that fact that, strictly speaking, Sweden is poorer than every American state except West Virginia and Mississippi. It tells an interesting story, and not one I wholly admire, despite my egalitarian preferences (for example, rather than being honest about the trade-offs of immigration, the Swedes have been content to continue a policy of de facto exclusion of immigrants from the work force, paying them, in essence, to keep quiet, study Swedish, and assimilate--a policy which hasn't worked out well over the long run for countries like Denmark and France). But what I find most powerful about the story Brook tells is when it gets down to what it means to provide and serve coffee in a country of "capitalism without capitalists":

[C]all it the $3 cup of coffee debate. One of the most striking things for foreigners about Sweden is the high price of consumer goods. A simple cup of coffee at a café in Stockholm costs nearly $3. The main reason a cup of coffee in Sweden costs two to three times what it costs in the United States is the labor costs in the café. Pouring coffee is a minimum wage job the world over, but in Sweden the lowest wage is much higher than in the United States, and the employer is responsible for more social benefits. On top of that, a 25 percent value-added tax is paid by the consumer. I would gladly have paid $1.25 for a cup of coffee in Sweden, but . . . consider what my $3 bought. The added cost made sure that the person who poured my coffee lived in decent housing, enjoyed health care coverage, and could send her kids to college if they could get in. Swedish society had decided that coffee would cost more than anywhere else in the world in exchange for these public goods. Weren't they worth the money?

When I offered this analysis to Mauricio Rojas, a libertarian Member of Parliament, originally from Chile, he pointed to the other side of the coin. "When you pay your $3, you are paying for the black market, you are paying for exclusion [of low-skill immigrants from the workforce]. You know that." Choosing between the American and Swedish systems is a matter of choosing one's problems.

As I said, it's not that I admire everything about Swedish society--but wage controls, universal education, and other actions by the government have constructed in an environment where certain basic social realities are protected, reliable, even guaranteed: jobs and neighborhoods and vacations and so forth. In essence, Sweden has determined, in at least few key areas, to resist the Golden Straightjacket of the globalizers, and instead to impose some rules and controls of their own, directing (many would say warping) the local coffee market so that it became a part of their own larger, egalitarian enclosure. There's nothing about "simplicity" in Brook's article; and indeed, one might argue--looking at the rather lurid picture he paints of the extreme cosmopolitanism and secularism of the Swedes--that they've been able to "buy off" the frustration which must inevitably arise from controls such as these by making sure numerous cultural and social outlets remains unobstructed. He makes a point that, for example, thanks to near total unionization and close coordination with the government, labor unions in Sweden feel little need to call for protectionism; the stability and equality they value in their lives isn't dependent upon any specific material production, and so feel no real attachment to keeping such in Sweden. (Perhaps an argument could be made that there is a relationship between the secularism of Sweden and the lack of any defense of specific material ways of life.) But still, the essential point remains--this is a society which has undertaken the work to construct an environment wherein a certain simplicity, a certain socio-economic humility, abides. Coffee is not native to Sweden; if they want to drink it, it has to be grown and processed and shipped from somewhere else. The decision made in Sweden is, in effect, that if Swedes want coffee to be part of their environment they need to pay the price for it, and they need to put that price to work in sustaining what they already have. This narrows the margins of invention, of course; it encloses things (though only partially, never wholly), places and plans them, in the same way that a concerned agrarian might think hard about her every purchase, reflecting on the space with the item bought may take up and the waste which will likely result, with the aim of hammering down every cost: only in such a way can her footsteps be light and her personal ecology resist being swept away by the lure of low-cost, high-impact goods. No, Sweden is not a place for mad, brilliant, disruptive entrepreneurs--but it is a place for working citizens and families, most of whom would (as, I think, most every human being would, if the options were put plainly before them) prefer to exercise a little control over the vicissitudes of existence, and preserve a place for a reliable and secure everyday world. Few people would describe Sweden as a conservative country, and it's possible (perhaps even likely) that their particular approach to choosing what to put into a socio-economic enclosure has had political and cultural consequences that make different types of conservation impossible. Yet there is a sense that, compared with the U.S., they "conserve" far better than we. In their analysis of their own situation (and in the analyses of many other social democratic countries) you can see, if you look for it, the evidence that socialists and egalitarians of many (if not all) different stripes share an intellectual pre-occupation with agrarians and others: the conservative concern with tending to what one has, and a willingness to structure life so that one's tending isn't made moot by realities that ought to be subject to the will of the people. Karl Marx and Edmund Burke, as I've written elsewhere, aren't that far off, at least not at their roots.

An important, and concluding, point: very possibly no one, or almost no one, in Sweden would actually describe their collective socio-economic decisions in this way. Does that matter? It may, because to conserve without knowing what or why you are conserving--to ignore, that is, the communal aspect of one's project--can make it easy to forget about the way of life lived by the people being so enclosed, and reify the enclosure instead. That way lays jingoistic proclamations about "identity" that liberals assume (often, unfortunately, correctly) wait hidden in the heart of every claim to community. Identity is more problematic than that, but it will not seem so to those for whom the normative work of valuing the simple things a people may desire to set apart is absorbed into unthought presuppositions about those people. (The above Dissent article is loaded with references to how the Swedes tend to frame their actions in terms of an anti-Americanism, which is to say the least a potentially troubling moral ground to employ for one's collective actions.) In a very different context one can see something similar in David Brooks's recent column on how American women (meaning the middle and upper-class women that Brooks interacts with) struggle with the costs of adapting to a work environment which was designed for men and which "discourage[s] other options"; he suggests that what is needed is a little (government-led) restructuring so the choices of women may be broadened beyond the parameters of the workaholic marketplace world. Good for him, and Matt Yglesias rightly praises him for it--but then just as rightly faults him for leaving men out of the equation. As the thread which followed Matt's post makes clear (with me chiming in here and there), the problem is that Brooks is oblivious to the fact that he's not making a simple economic, choice-maximizing argument--he's making a normative, cultural argument about families and forms of life, hypothesizing about those simple things which he assumes women want. Maybe they do. But putting the simple life of raising kids--or any life for that matter--within the control, or at least more within the control, of any person must be ultimately measure by what people do with that life, not what some elite thinker believes is most natural, most beautiful, or best.

Okay, enough conceptual work, enough on the complex politics of enabling simplicity: how about some personal, ethical applications? If it is possible to slow things down, what does that mean? What junk shouldn't I buy? Where shouldn't I eat? Those aren't the most important questions to ask by a longshot, and I've no easy answers regardless (hey, I said this was the hard and always tentative part). Still, I'll try to get some thoughts down on both over the next couple of days.


Anonymous said...

As usual you have produced something lyrical, a bit too long, somewhat diffuse, and absolutely facinating. Well done.

I think, however, that you should think about one or two things with regard to Sweden. First, the cost of providing the social safety net behind the $3 cup of coffee is not going to be perfectly reflected in the price. You mention in passing the exclusion of outside workers, but this is a key element of what makes the situation possible. If you want, I can try showing you supply and demand curves and lost consumer surplus, but in the past you have not found these sorts of discussions fun ;->.

The second point is to think about the mechanics of simplicity. My point here is analogous to the one made by Hayek in the road to serfdom. The maintence of the kind of limited, simple community that you seem to lust after is only possible in the modern world in one of two ways. Either you can get a group of people whose individual consumption preferences are going to match up with simplicity so you have no defectors, or you can create legal mechanisms that forbid certain sorts of transactions. The problem becomes the complexity of the transactions one seeks to forbid. The complexity will require a similarlly complex legal response. My point here is not that a constrained community of the kind you envision is impossible, but rather than it is not simple. It will rest of necessity on a very complicated state, a state that will face ever greater pressure to complicate itself. Hence, in the end one does not end with simplicity. One simply ends up with a different form of complexity. 

Posted by Nate Oman

Anonymous said...

Nate's thoughts echo my own somewhat. The first thing is to recognize that the kind of simplicity you're envisioning is a consequence of modernity and depends upon its existence. It is not the negation or alternative to modernity. It is not what precedes modernity: especially not ever that. That's what is so very wrong with Neil Postman and others: they imagine a forward-looking project of remaking consciousness and subjectivity by pretending that it can be found in the past.

You can only achieve a forward-looking project of simplicity by gathering together people who feel the same desire, share the same vision--and they are only going to come to that desire out of experiencing and rejecting modernity. To reject it and try to craft some alternative way of being in the world, they are going to have to remain conscious of the modernity they reject, enframe it within their simplicity. The "simple life" cannot escape the conditions it sets out to critique because in order to make any sense--and in order to retain some kind of felt simultaneity in the members of a "simple" community, the encounter with modernity will have to be constantly renewed and simplicity chosen again each and every day as a conscious strategy of living.

The temptation once such a project is underway would inevitably be to turn to the state or the law, as Nate notes (via Hayek). And that's the ball game right there, game set and match.  

Posted by Timothy Burke

Anonymous said...

When you consider that the way we got to the overconsumptive society we have was through 'peer mediation', then a lot can be done just with honest and open education. While we type, the USDA is now touting their new guidelines for the food 'pyramid', not telling who is really on the top of that pyramid, and it isn't anything to do with nutrition. It's just business.
The libertarian compromise would be that if you educate people to be net creators, then it doesn't matter how much they do with technology, as long as they do it with the future of Life in mind. As long as they continue as we are, wasting more than we create, it won't matter if it is done by law or desire, we all just lose in the end. Short term thinking is what is pumping the stock market balloon on cheap energy (yes, 50 bucks a barrel is cheap), long term thinking (beyond 100 years) will always lead back to conservation and simplicity. Growth economics is a negative sum game. 

Posted by Dan Conine

Anonymous said...

A little late to the party here, but this is a set of questions that interests me deeply.

One of the challenges, I think, is to figure out how (or whether) any kind of simplicity can exist in an urban environment. We lean toward an agrarian lifestyle when we think about simplicity--growing our own. But cities can have an energy and vitality that is worthwhile, too, and the question is how to maintain that option, as well. (I could here denounce suburbs as evil, in part because the serve as a barrier between locally grown produce and said urban environments, and that this barrier function both makes urban versions of simplicity more difficult and makes maintenance of local production more difficult, as the suburbs continue to sprawl through farmland.)

I could tell you the ways I try to maintain some simplicity in my (very urban) life, if personal testimony is what you want, but I think the generalized principles to which you're referring have something to do with (a) the centralized provision, with some local control, of at least some social institutions (schools, health care) and (b) minimizing the distances that grown or produced goods must travel. The other two parts of my argument would address the tchotchke-fication of life and the distractions of the circus that help lead people away from certain grim realities that are related to the less-simple modes of consumption. 

Posted by Emma Goldman