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Friday, March 10, 2006

Illich, Day, Berry, Lasch and...Schor?

I've tried to keep up with the Crunchy Con discussion over the past week or two, but real life has been slowing me down somewhat. They moved through a discussion of consumerism last week, and this week the topic has been food; next up is homes and architecture. All of it is valuable, often insightful, sometimes frustrating (but in a good way) stuff. Last week, in particular, some of the themes they've been discussing came together for me: perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time that Juliet Schor visited our campus. But it has taken me more than a week to find the time to write them down.

Juliet Schor, for those who don't know, is an economist and sociologist who has made a name for herself through her studies of American work, leisure, and consumption habits. Many economists consider her data faulty and her conclusions overbroad, but that hasn't stopped many thousands of people from almost instinctively recognizing the essential truth of her interrelated theses: that contemporary Americans are to a great degree caught up in a game of constantly working and constantly consuming, tolerating ever-more invasive moves by corporate advertisers and bosses on our family time, our children's minds, and our sense of self, because earning and spending (and the economic growth which makes such material affluence possible) is one of the few ways in which we can actually pretend to feel real autonomy; the "choice" offered by markets is our addictive simulacrum of a limitless environment which could never have actually existed, but which we nonetheless pursue today at exhaustive, debilitating, economically unsustainable and for the most part hidden cost. Her work, to put it mildly, is challenging to way most of us work, play, and live. She herself, however, was anything but aggressive or challenging; when three of us went out to lunch with her, half of the conversation was funny anecdotes about her children (such as the time she let her children pick a film to rent at the video store, and they picked a film that was clearly marketed as a children's movie, but which was in fact an R-rated fantasia of sex and swearing). Most self-described conservatives today wouldn't cut her any slack, however, despite her obvious commitment to giving her family the same things they want to be able to give to their own: she's a leftist!, they'd shout. And they'd be right. She supports all sorts of progressive groups, movements and organizations, she said during lunch that she thought Senator Hillary Clinton's move to the right in regards to defense issues was simply incoherent--there's nothing about her that suggests "conservative."

Except, of course, the fact that she, unlike many others on the political right, is actually trying to "conserve" something substantive.

Rod Dreher made, in essence, this very point rather sharply last week: "The conservative protectionists fear loss of sovereignty and community, and subordinating those traditions to the global marketplace. The economic conservatives believe that the material progress available through expanding free trade is more important. Who is more conservative? It depends on what you want to conserve, doesn't it?" His conclusion was that, for the sort of conservatives he finds most appealing, conservatism cannot help but be "subversive"--involving a dedication to a moral order which demands iconoclastic resistance to many of the forces and habits of modernity. The research of Schor didn't bring Dreher to ask this question, but rather the writings of many thinkers whose warnings and laments nonetheless complement her "progressive" research quite well: Ivan Illich, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, and numerous others, all of whom found great flaws in the homogenizing, materialist, privatizing mentality of modern society (and many of whom I've written often about before, for example here and here and here.) As Angelo Matera observed, backing up Dreher's point, these thinkers can be considered conservative only to the extent that their moral vision, at the present time, made them apparently unpopular on the secular left; there is nothing necessarily conservative about what they stand for, at least not in the conventional, current use of the term. I would agree with her, but go further: I would insist that, beyond contemporary party politics, there is a reason to call these folks conservative, and it is a reason that covers Schor just as well as Lasch. What it isn't is a reason that fits in with what folks like Jonah Goldberg would call the right.

This reason piggy-backs on what I wrote before, suggesting that a deeper reading of "crunchiness" can result in a recognition of its themes in the same quest for ethical "substantiveness" in the thinking of Hegel and then later Marx. Goldberg has picked up on this, though I don't think he understands the depth of the argument he's engaging. His actual review of Crunchy Cons is filled with suggestions to the effect that Dreher's crunchy conservatism is a species of Christian Marxism and Fabian socialism, that Dreher "often sounds like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a Russell Kirk mask," and that such arguments are bound to ultimately lead their author to proclaim "To the Left, Here I Come." He suggests that what Dreher is flirting with is a "sacralization of politics," the antidote for which is apparently a kind of Augustinian libertarianism--the separation of the City of God and the City of Man made manifest through a defense of personal freedoms and property rights. He's very wrong about this, but wrong in a revealing and thought-provoking way. As Dreher suggested in his defense of his reliance in so many of these (let's call them) "subversive traditionalists," what most of the contemporary conservative movement wishes to conserve is the possibilities of material growth, seeing--as classical liberals have ever since John Locke--the essential rights of the individual as fundamentally tied up in the institution of property and the freedom of government-protected social and economic choice. That, according to those in this tradition, is the baseline which precedes all thinking about politics; any intrusion into this natural order, which is also a social order, is essentially indistinguishable from a Nietzschean will to power, a potentially fascist sacralization of an apparently spontaneous world. This is a point that Sheldon Wolin has made (in Politics and Vision), I think persuasively, in describing the way in which political consent was held out by Locke as a key to libertarian (or at least majoritarian) freedom, but in such a way as to make social and economic structures that govern civil life seemingly beneath the reach of politics (and thus presumably a cause of scandal if political arguments did attempt to reach out for them directly):

The upshot of Locke's argument was to obscure the political character of civil society. Its political qualities did not appear ab nihilo; they had been anticipated by the political form given the ideal state of nature. What can be said to be genuinely new political elements in civil society were introduced via the explicit agreement whereby men accepted a common body of rules and promised to obey the decisions of the majority. But more important was the minimal character of the political order. By this is meant not that the powers and jurisdictionn of government were closely restricted, for Locke's language allowed generous scope for government action, but rather that Locke initiated a way of thinking in which society, rather than the political order, was thepredominantt influence. Instead of asking the traditional question: what type of political order is required if society is to be maintained? Locke turned the question around to read: what social arrangements will insure the continuity of government? (pg. 276)

Anyone familiar with the history of political thought can identify the basic critique which lurks deep within Wolin's argument--it's Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin of Inequality threw down a gauntlet that every defense of modernity ever since has had to pick up or ignore at their peril. What Rousseau saw in the modern world was not the seamless manifestation of a natural economic and social order, but a construct, a set of conventions which pass themselves off as spontaneous but which are, in fact, the product of history, a history in which introduction of property forced human beings into a settled existence, characterized by overextensionn, dependency, and inequality. Since, as Rousseau wrote, "ties of servitude are formed by men's mutual dependence and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to subjugate a man without first having placed him in the position of being unable to do without another" (part 1, para. 50). Thus so long as an economy of complete self-sufficiency--or, at the outside, of "rustic" and wholly voluntaristic village life--obtained, human beings were both free and equal, "but the moment one man needed the help of another, as soon as it was found to be useful for one to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property appeared, work became necessary, and the vasts forests changed into smiling fields that had to be watered with the sweat of men, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout and grow together with the harvests" (part 2, para. 19).

Rousseau was a complete misanthrope, of course, and neurotic to boot. Voltaire was being unfair, but not completely so, when he mocked Rousseau for seemingly calling for a retreat from modern life, modern technology, and the very idea of civilization. Conservatives since Burke have held him up as a villain, as a deeply disturbed individual who preached a kind of blindedness to actual human nature, hoping instead for individuals to alienate themselves entirely to a single collective within which individuals will be forced to recreate Rousseau's version of the natural world and thus be "free." There is a lot of truth to this caricature. But focus on his diagnosis, rather than his solutions (which, one should note, Rousseau himself never expressed much faith in). Rousseau pushes one to think about historically embedded social and economic forces, and think about them politically, rather than seeing "politics" as something which already individuated selves choose to do with a given social and economicinheritancee. This is not--or at least not necessarily--a "sacralization of politics," a step towards wht Goldberg too casually calls fascism; rather it is an attempt to refuse to grant all that which makes actual "conservation" difficult--namely, the trends in media and exchange and manners and expression which one contributor to the Crunchy Con blog called a "heavy smog"--any sort of "sacred" right to be recused from political consideration and collective action. (There is more to be said here, about which I'll perhaps write more later, regarding the fine but important difference between wanting politics to "transcend" the immanent, and wanting them to join in a "consecration" of such; in the meantime, read what Daniel Larison has to say.) Whatever their preferred forms of political organization and coordination--and Lasch, for one, despite his description as a crunchy conservative saint, voted for socialists and Democrats, including Bill Clinton, up until his death in 1994--all these "subversives" and critics of modernity are Rousseau's intellectual descendents, though certainly not only his (as Allan Carlson has observed, the need to take political action so as to conserve the necessary social and economic underpinnings of what later conservatives would idealize--in overwhelmingly apolitical, "values"-laden terminology--as the "natural family" was recognized by the Catholic church back when the Industrial Revolution was at its peak). If Goldberg is so quick to smell Rousseau in advocates of the crunchy ethos, then perhaps he--and they!--should ask if there isn't good reason to see such "progressive" ideas as perhaps central to any substantively conservative politics today. Consumption is made possible by and in turn shapes our socio-economic fabric; if the weave of such fabric (a "seamless garment," anyone?) is, according to the crunchy conservatives, the truly proper conservative concern--and I agree that it is--then those of a truly conservative temperament will want to address the causes and consequences of consumption, rather than leaving it off the political table entirely. Hence, Juliet Schor: an economist trying to identify those underlying trends--in advertising, in work expectations, in leisure habits, in buying and selling--which turn the social and economic structure against the kind of sustainability that, if they can look beyond their ideological blinders, both progressives and honest conservatives ought to recognize they have in common. In fact, if it is anyone who can't articulate an argument of sustainability, it is the faux-conservative, the individualist who has so bought into classical liberal ideas (or the stunted, 19th-century reduction of such) as to be unable to conceive of the individual as anything other than a property-owning and resource-consuming unit already separated from any organic or historical structure or order....which therefore makes it next to impossible for them to understand that there is any substantive prior thing there that warrants sustaining in the first place.

This isn't to say that the sort of recommendations made by any given thinker who clearly understands the need to affirm, in the face of classical liberal and contemporary "conservative" defenses of the market, the populist possibility of turning politics towards those deep social and economic forces which make the conservation of a good society either possible of impossible, would always be identical to Schor's recommendations. Not all "Rousseauian conservatives" (left traditionalists? family-oriented progressives?) are alike, that's for certain. I strongly suspect that Dreher, and most of those he interviewed for his book, would pretty quickly concur with a great deal of Schor's progressive politics--her opposition to the penetration of corporate advertising into children's media and the public schools, the sexualization and commodifying of what used to be pretty innocent areas of human and family work and play, the dehumanizing demands which modern meritocratic expectations place on families, and the concomitant destruction to the social fabric which the move-away-and-follow-the-money mentality engendered by our meritocracy visits upon neighborhoods. But that is not to say they'd agree with her specific policy recommendations, if only because the balancing of such costs versus the obvious goods of liberty can be assessed in so many different ways.

In terms of political theory, Schor herself may well come to the conclusions she does not because she shares an appreciation for a moral order or tradition that needs an affirmative economic and social defense, but rather because she holds onto a vision of individual autonomy which incorporates social and economic dimensions. This came up in a discussion about parenting that Harry Brighouse, Tim Burke, Laura McKenna and I had a long time back (read the whole thread). For myself, while I consider such a culturally aware and robust notion of equality and autonomy a huge advance over the classical liberal one, I prefer to embrace the "deeper" Rousseauian connection between such diverse thinkers as Illich and Day and Berry and Lasch and Schor, and see in their crunchy conservatism, to whatever degree they would identify with such, a communitarian sensibility, one that wishes to articulate a collective concern for the moral order of our lives, and hence also the social and economic environment within which we shop, eat, dress, work, worship and play. (These two posts move the discussion in the right--as opposed to the "Right"--direction, I think.) Of course, everyone will emphasize a different aspect of that sensibility, and sometimes that'll introduce contradictions, of which there are surely many on the left. But I'm much more sympathetic to those "conservatives" who understand the need to get at the contradictions which modernity presents, than to those who see the source of those contradictions as intolerable, and deny their place in conservatism entirely.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for that great, thoughtful comment. I take issue with a few of your claims, perhaps predictably. For one, as for whether or not the claim that "radical economic freedom....is in gross tension with [a] conservatism that gives priority to any other institution or value" is "news," I would say it most certainly is, or at least apparently is given the vehement reaction which Dreher's arguments have given rise to amongst the many more libertarian "conservatives" who identify with the Republican party today. If nothing else, I would insist that, in the rhetoric and practice of contemporary conservative politics, including "compassionate conservatism," there has been a forgetting of just how complicated, and how delicate, the "fusion" of virtue and liberty supposedly at the heart of post-WWII conservatism really is; the crunchy conservative debate is thus, if not entirely new news, than at least a healthy reminder.

Your more substantive point--that the tendency of Goldberg, et al, to sniff out Rousseauist analyses of modernity (particularly as brought to light in debates over consumerism, for instance) and label them as incompatible with conservatism is an expression of historical and prudent judgment, nothing more--deserves a longer reply than I can give it here. Are ideologies really best understood as products of "exclusion," wherein one identifies that which one fears the most and constructs and argument to separate it out from the other wide variety of ends one might pursue? There's a lot of sense to that analysis....but it is also one which, I think, makes philosophical liberalism and more "negative" ideologies (in the sense in which Berlin or Shklar might have used the term) automatically appear far more reasonable. Is hope for new alternatives incompatible with political thinking? Must the historical fact that Jacobins made use of (a caricature of) Rousseau thus be grounds for every subsequent thinker to legitimately employ similar cariacatures so to allow them to ignore Rousseau's critique? If so, then the only political thinking which can be tolerably constructed into an ideological agenda has to be restricted to the most innocuous--which, perhaps not surprisingly, is why Wolin sees Lockean liberalism as having been marvellously successful: it sustains its own preferred way of thinking about ideologies by burying most of which might otherwise be hoped for and pursued politically into a deep "natural" structure, leaving relatively little of our actual lived lives available for reflection and critique.

As for the track record of Locke and "unproblematized society-and-economics" when it comes to coercion and violence, I'm not particularly confident that the history you're looking at as superior to Rousseau's (or anyone else's) is, in fact, Locke's  history. Again, this would take more than a blog comment to respond to, but consider all the republican revisionism of the last 30-odd years, which has reminded us of the large role played by religious, corporate and moralistic thinking in shaping liberal ideologies during the 18th and 19th centuries. If there is any coherence to my project at all, it is perhaps to insist that the abiding and saving presence of virtue in much liberal thinking is not really all that different from what has inspired most Marxist and progressive and populist critiques of consumerism and the free market, and that today's conservatives would benefit from recognizing that (as, arguably, Dreher has). 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...


I don't know anything about Daniel's background, but his blog is wonderful. He's far more conservative than I--that is, his philosophical conservatism carries over, in a traditional way, into many more areas of politics than my own--but I've learned a lot from reading his commentary, especially in regards to the Crunchy Cons. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Lee said...

Another good post, Russell, with lots to mull over. But I continue to think there is something to the the (classical) liberal critique of what I want to call "integrated" political visions - by which I mean an approach to politics - and life - that seeks to integrate every aspect of life into a particular hierarchy of values. This is the same problem I had with the Milbank piece you discussed a ways back. It seems to me that many of the Crunchies posting at the Crunchy Con blog are immune to the concept of trade-offs - that people might have good reasons for preferring a mix of goods and bads that is different from the one they prefer.

While I disagree with many of the political stances someone like Jonah Goldberg probably favors, I do think he displays a sound instinct in connecting a suspicion of such politics with an Augustinian sensibility. Augustine was well aware of the diversity of loves (what we would call values) between those who populate the city of God and the city of man (and, to complicate matters, there's no way of telling who's who for sure!). This diversity makes any kind of integrated political or social order reflecting a unified ranking of values impossible this side of the eschaton. 

Posted by Lee