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Monday, June 29, 2009

What's Modernity Marx Got to Do With It?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic.]

Blogger though I am, I can't deny that there is a major advantage to arguments conducted through the slower media of paper (to say nothing of peer-reviewed publishing): because the length of time between claims and counter-claims is longer, it is somewhat more possible to step back and get clear on just what it is that everyone is claiming. I'm not Luddite (or, as Susan McWilliams would perhaps put it, hypocritical) enough to wish the internet away and resolve to restrict myself to the discipline of the palimpsest, but I confess to somewhat wishing for those kind of belabored traces and delays to help me make it through the mutlifaceted argument which has erupted between my colleagues at Front Porch Republic and the writers at the Postmodern Conservative blog over the past few days. Still, let me try to explain the argument as I understand it.

[Obligatory pop reference] No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

It started with a couple of brief comments made by Pomocons Peter Lawler and Ivan Kenneally, expressing serious disagreement with what they see as the "polis envy" expressed by Patrick Deneen, the localists of FPR, and other "true deep communitarians" who worry too much about the "material conditions" necessary for community and tradition to flourish. Those comments were noticed by Jason Joseph, who saw in them a harbinger of a major conflict over the direction of American conservatism: should conservatives "embrace democratic capitalism while rejecting its Enlightenment presuppositions," or should they "reject modernity outright"? (Jason here is perhaps unintentionally echoing Damon Linker, who labels those who congregate around FPR and similar sites as "reactionaries," which is mildly disconcerting for leftists like myself who write over there.) A few weeks later, Patrick threw down the gauntlet on the FPR website and, well, the debate rolled onward (and continues) from there.

The possibility that this argument really comes down how one responds to modernity in general (and modern liberal democracy and democratic capitalism in particular) is clearly true in some important way or another. It's a possibility which appears to me to be essentially reflected in Patrick's framing of the dispute around "nature’s laws and limits." Under this reading, Pomocons affirm that the modern individual, understood as a being in possession of natural rights, obviously still longs for virtue and a context within which to realize and practice such, but is also confident that there are opportunities for virtue concomitant with all the social transformations which modernity has brought with it, as nature still abides. Hence, the "restlessness and alienation" which thinking conservatives of all stripes note about the modern world is best supplemented with an "easy-going quiescence." In contrast to this, the FPR position is presumably a more radical one, whereby modern life's obsession with technology and growth (of economic possibility and personal individuation and choice) is seen as possibly resulting in "a potentially catastrophic confrontation with natural limits and attendant human suffering." Hence, the need for a "reactionary" response, one which Lawler humorously characterized as an "it takes a medieval village" attitude, and which Kenneally, most seriously, indicts as an attitude which "embrace[s] certain conditions that make free moral life optimally possible but then reduce[s] the possibility of that freedom to the historical circumstances within which it emerges." Lawler's and Kennally's view may not be entirely fair to the distinction which Patrick introduces--and which he moderates in several comments--but it is not, I think, fundamentally untrue to it, as Patrick ultimately sets up the FPR position as one which posits nature and the virtues associated with such in opposition to modernity, claiming that, as admirable the benefits of modern life may be to the development of the human person, "modern goods are only worthy of being embraced because we are not living wholly in modernity." This all perhaps coincides with James Poulos's assessment of the debate, which suggests again that the real issue is what we think of modernity: "Front Porchers seem inclined to treat liberalism as the false consciousness inculcated to justify modernity, or some such, while Pomocons, I think, are inclined to recognize that liberalism is not simply a symptom of modernity."

All well and good, I suppose....except that it can't quite explain why on earth I'm here. Why would a paleoconservative blog have invited an Obama-voter and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a person who is ambivalent about and even occasionally willing to defend public schooling and Obama's economic plans, to contribute here? For that matter, why would they do the same for FPR's whole "left wing" camp, as Bob Cheeks put it, what with our attacks on capitalism, our defenses of government-funded family-leave policies, our praise of steady-state green and social democratic economies, our affirmations of positive freedom and land distribution and a government capable of carrying such out? I suppose that any one of such points of view, depending on how they are expressed, might well be acceptable to some conservatives of the old school, but for all their variety and for all their distinct philosophical grounds and justifications, overall such positions are, I believe, simply too close to the egalitarian ideas advocated by modern progressives and liberals to sit well with those who reject modernity root and branch. As I see it, the reactionary/paleoconservative stream of American conservatism has always been generally unwilling to take seriously "equality," however defined, as a virtue relevant to the good life. This means that, whatever suspicions FPR localists and communitarians share about modern life alongside traditional conservatives, traditional conservatism doesn't like populism, and has an ambiguous relationship with democracy at best, and while you may be able to find some echoes of that here and there on FPR, I think you're much more likely to find the opposite (even when we debate Lincoln, the issue is basically over how he wielded power, not the ends for which he wielded it).

It seems to me that the truth is that, as FPR has developed, its primary theme has thus not been a resistance to the trends of democracy and equality in modern history, with attendant conceptualizations of the nature of the individual and their rights and how all of may relate to the foregoing. Not to say that such isn't an important intellectual debate, nor to deny that there are writers at FPR who very clearly adopt such an approach, but it is not, I think, what primarily motivates those who worry about the fate of the front porch. You can accommodate on said porch a variety of understandings of, and recommendations for, individual persons seeking virtue in the midst of modernity's engagement with (conquest of?) the natural world. What brings us to the porch, first and foremost, I think, is the first of the three words in our subhead--not "liberty" (whether individual or otherwise), not "limits" (of nature or of something else), but "place." Which is why, as I said in my first contribution to this argument, and which I still believe a few days of comment-tracking later, the back-and-forth snarking about Marx--with attendant commentary from many others--is actually pretty important to what we're actually all about.

Lawler's insight into the Rousseauian and romantic commonalities between agrarian/localist diagnoses of the modern condition and Marxist/socialist ones is actually pretty trenchant and accurate, I think most especially because--and, given the way the liberationist left so often misunderstood and abused social democratic understandings of solidarity in the past, perhaps it is not surprising that this should come as a surprise to many people--it unintentionally underscores the relevance of authority (the authority of tradition, of community, of a people joined together in a common project of respect and participation) to what agrarians, localists, and, yes, Front Porchers, insist is crucial to a proper understanding of the meaning of "place." I'll draw here upon something I've written before about Normal Mailer's on-first-glance-weird-but-in-fact-quite-profound claim that he wished to "think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke":

[Mailer] wants to be an egalitarian, but he doesn't want to be a liberal, because liberalism simply isn't compatible, in his thinking, with "family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance" and other "dependable human virtues"....[His belief was] that the modern world has been fundamentally conditioned by...abstractions and transformations[;]...traditions and communities cannot exercise the same authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self (at least in the West--but increasingly, most everywhere else as well)....Marx...recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and and place and production that make the transformations of modernity--and most particularly the spaital ones, with solid traditions and properties and roles and locales evaporating into the thin air of free trade and the cash economy--into alienating burdens in the first place....[T]he Rousseauian perspective says, okay, our original, grounded nature has been lost, we're in chains....Rousseau's response [to this problem, and thus Marx's too] preserves true conservative seriousness...it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains--that we remake modernity, and resist those who would portray our restless condition as a fait accompli, the emergence of which was inherent to our natures. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.

The position I articulate here is heavily influenced by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who argues for an alternative understanding of modernity, one in which the ecology of modern life itself reveals a consciousness of, and need for, traditionally and communally realized moral instincts and epiphanies. Modern liberal and egalitarian goods are real, this position says, but they must not be allowed to interfere with or supplant--as opposed to being articulated so as to complement--the authority of more necessary, traditional, local, communal goods. Moreover, this position follows Hegel and the romantic tradition (which itself drew upon older, mystical ones) in acknowledging that there is a subjective, constructed, generally willed aspect to our deep structure, and those traditional and communal goods which reflect it; it sees that structure as something which emerges and thus must be regularly re-articulated and contextually realized. In Rousseau's philosophy, this willed engagement with and the movement to preserve communal grounds in the midst of history had a tragic character to it. Marx, to his eternal discredit, dismissed with that sense of tragedy, embracing instead a historical materialism and a determinism which ultimately justified thousands in seeing themselves (and the states they would take control of) as vanguards to bring Marxist solidarity or death to the millions of people. Nothing remotely admirable about any of that, to be sure. But Marx's diagnosis of modern liberal life, and in particular of the weight and the alienating cost of our the loss of structures and traditions and thoroughly material connection with the work of our hands and with our fellow man, rings absolutely true.

Clearly, what I'm laying out here doesn't represent the common self-understanding of the FPR community (some of whom would reject even labeling it a community); I don't know if there are any other Taylor fans there besides myself, though there is at least one Norman Mailer fan. As for Marx, more than a few FPRers are willing to acknowledge the significance of his approach to the question of modern liberalism, but is that acknowledgment any different from that which is offered by Pomocons, such as in the post from Lawler I cited above, or that which they confessed to on their site way back at the beginning? Perhaps not on the level of theory, but on the level of practice, I think so. Of the great many "practical" posts that have appeared on FPR, the percentage that have any sort of connection with Marx's analysis of alienation, commodification, and forms of production is very nearly zero...except, of course, for their deep communitarian willingness to talk about different forms of association, organization, distribution, and expression which would allow--and, different political and cultural and socio-economic reforms, both high and low, which would enable and extent--the doing of things differently with one's occupations and talents and property and education and land and position in life.

It perhaps reveals something important that Ralph Hancock, on the Pomocon website, acknowledges that Pomocons are more "politically realistic," being "regime-thinkers" who see the need to "making friends with real political forces," so as to influence the public, political realm and thereby protect and preserve virtues which flourish privately. Which, again, might well seem to be exactly the sort of thing mentioned up above (supporting--and paying for--certain activies for the sake of empowering people on their porches), save for the fact that Marxist/Rousseauian/socialist/localist/republican/populist/agrarian/what-have-you critiques put the division of public and private into question, asking whether or not it isn't the emergence of a "regime"--particularly a liberal one--in the first place that necessarily marks off that which the people, as defenders of their places, ought to be able to exercise some real sovereignty over. I can certainly be criticized for being an Obama-voter (hey, I can criticize myself for it!), but at least I don't think I've ever made the mistake of thinking that the partisan and electoral system which produced him and his agenda ever were or could be tools for setting the inherently discursive, dialogic, and thus political nature of our moral and communal lives right, which the theoconservative and First Things crowds in general have been occasionally tempted to believe the Republican party could and should do. To be sure, the platform of the Democratic party--particularly in its more progressive bureaucratic or judicial incarnations--does the same. Which only goes to show, I think, the need to constantly search for alternatives, to happily (if perhaps only partially) embrace the stupid accusation which Jonah Goldberg threw at Rod Dreher long ago (that the Crunchy Con movement, and all those sympathetic to it, are implicated in "Christian Marxism" and Fabian socialism, posing like "Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a Russell Kirk mask"), and, most importantly, to--as Mailer put it--think like Marx (and Chrisopher Lasch, and Wendell Berry, and Ivan Illich, and Dorothy Day, and Juliet Schor, and...). Doing so, I think at least, gives us our best chance to get out from under the regimented regime supports--the parties and profitability margins--which, as Sheldon Wolin put it while speaking of John Locke, turn around the traditional question of "what type of political order is required if society is to be maintain?" (a properly conservative question if there every was one), replacing it instead with the question "what social arrangements will insure the continuity of government?" I know, from my own association with them, that the Pomocons certainly don't believe that just so long as society and culture and the manufacture of profits follow the meritocracy, we have no truly fundamental problem. It is interesting, though, to see them raise eyebrows and doubts and sniggers at those who figure, as radicals of all sorts always have, that since that isn't true, something ought to be done about it.

This turned into another one of my long navel-gazing posts, which is likely to be of interest to about eight people tops. So let me finish it off my pointing at this fine contribution by James Poulos, in which he asks questions that are more humble, and as such admit to no easy theoretical demarcations: how does one balance loves for embedded communities versus perhaps "superficial" but nonetheless just as authentically affections for contemporary life? Can individuals through their own ethical choices really ever resolve such dilemmas, or must people operate in solidarity and community with one another to do so? And if the latter, which community, on what level of abstraction, if any? I have my answers to some of those, and no doubt he has his, as does probably everyone who has gotten tangled up in this argument one way or another. All our answers are, to be sure, tentative. Which I guess makes me glad that I'm just writing a blog post here after all.


Alan Jacobs said...

This is an argument that isn't going to get anywhere until ll the participants agree to refrain from using any words that contain the string "modern." That sequence of letters, with it's usual array of prefixes and adjectives, has done a great deal to impede genuine debate in the lady few decades. Its penumbras are too many, too ghostly, and too persistent. Away with it, I say.

Alan Jacobs said...

I should never try to write comments on my iPhone.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Alan, there is something deeply funny, or ironic, or whatever, about your description of the ghostliness and persistence and indistictiveness of "modernity," being written from an iPhone. But perhaps only quasi-Luddites like myself can see the humor. Thanks for the comment, though. Your ideas about the damaging effects of, and the need to get away from a concern with that which is or isn't "modern" echo some of James Poulos's recent statements. Is he borrowing from you, or vice versa? (Or maybe this is a "great minds think alike" sort of thing.)

For what it's worth, I think I mostly agree with you (and him); making this debate, or any debate, "about" modernity is a recipe for confusion. Stephen White helped me decide a while ago that modern vs. postmodern is a basically useless argumentative strategy; we're all just "late-moderns," and we should leave it at that. The actual debate (over "modernity" or anything else) is, I think, as I say here, better expressed in other terms.

John B. said...


Some unformed comments here--apologies in advance . . .

Like you, I also think of that term "place" as what attracts me to FPR's arguments, even as I read some of these folks and find myself thinking, uncharitably, I admit, that they're like Survivalists but with better backgrounds in philosophy ("They'll get my Summa when . . ."). In my more charitable moments, I read them and feel like my students when I talk to them about Thoreau: This is all very well and good, but how does this work--if, indeed, it ever could--in our particular moment?

Part of the answer--or maybe it's another way of reframing the question--may be the distinction you made here between "independence" and "sovereignty." As I think about these things, the Front Porch-as-political space ("politics" here being broadly defined) can never be completely autonomous, nor should it be--otherwise, it leads to a relativism of a conservative sort. To my mind, the Front Porch is ideally a sovereign space: it becomes respected not through mere assertion but negotiation. FPR's big bugaboo is modernity, and rightly so: much liberty "we" once had has now been lost; but when contrasted with the history of the evolving political status of people of African descent in this country, it's hard both to avoid rebutting FPR with, "Really, now, what do you have to complain about?" and to point to that evolving status as a possible solution to the dilemma FPR finds us located in.

In my quixotic quest to make the idea of cycling-as-serious-transportation seem slightly less absurd here in Wichita, it's quickly become obvious to me that simply making the "cyclists are people, too" argument won't cut much ice here. The argument has to be stated in terms of how accommodating cyclists redounds to the benefit of everyone who uses the roads. Such an argument, I think, simultaneously asserts and respects the sovereignty of all users of surface transportation.

So, an analogy: "FPR:PomoCon :: Emerson:Thoreau

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comment, John. I like what you say here:

[T]he Front Porch-as-political space ("politics" here being broadly defined) can never be completely autonomous, nor should it be--otherwise, it leads to a relativism of a conservative sort. To my mind, the Front Porch is ideally a sovereign space: it becomes respected not through mere assertion but negotiation

...and I appreciate the way you connect with that older post of mine on the distinction between "independence" and "sovereignty." However, I have to question why you call modernity FPR's "big bugaboo"; obviously many people, including some who write for the site itself, think modernity's the problem or at least present claims which tend in that direction, but my argument is that modernity isn't what's being disputed, and that the more we (both FPRers and their interlocutors) go forward assuming that the argument is all about modernity's transgression of natural limits and such, the more we'll be missing the practical substance of things. I think Marx (following Rousseau) is a good guide to the morass, because both of them accept that modernity and modern subjectivity is what we have and are, and so the question of how to conserve things in the face of technology and self-interest must become a practical (or, if you prefer, distributable, material, general, collective) one. The questions which follow that framing of the dispute allows us to get on to the matter of actually seeking to establish such material sovereignties, which are matters that won't ever really be addressed if you haven't allowed yourself to notice the unquestioned reign of the market in the meantime.

Sorry for the philosophy; I don't know how to mix to the Platonic and the pratical as well as you. Your line about "simultaneously assert[ing] and respect[ing] the sovereignty of all users" of a given space sums it all up very well, I think.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Professor Fox. I can't say as I'm that familiar with the debates going on around the Front Porch Republic website, but I really appreciate your articulating some of the questions I'd been struggling with since I left college.

For a long time, I've been sympathetic to the ideological-communitarian critique of liberalism, and my study of Hegel and Marx helped me give voice to that, to a certain extent - and after that, Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth (with their emphasis on the need to live out of an authentic existence grounded in commitment to something real and meaningful - like a religious community - rather than living out of an ideological or rationalist abstraction).

I'm currently reading what I can get my hands on of Nikolay Berdyaev (another existentialist who critiques Marx along similar lines), but you've definitely added to my reading list here - I'll have to track down some Norman Mailer. Thanks much!

- Matt

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the comment. But please, don't read Normal Mailer for the philosophy! He's a novelist, and not always a good one. The quote I make reference to is from his book The Armies of the Night, and it's basically a long, second-person retelling of how Mailer himself, a novelist and intellectual, made sense of the popular protests during the Vietnam war. He's stumbled upon an important idea in that book, but he really doesn't theorize it in any way.

I'll have to look up Nikolay Berdyaev; I've never heard of him before.

John B. said...

Thanks for your reply. I engaged in a bit of overgeneralization in my earlier comment: I had in mind the washing-our-hands tone of some FPRers re modernity without acknowledging that I know that's not your tone.

Incidentally, I have to say as an admirer of FPR that it's good to see them getting pushed a little by some outside voices.

Alan Jacobs said...

FYI, I explain my objections further over at the Scene.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Alan, I read your comment, and like it. As always, you have a purer, and far more succinct, grasp of words and ability to express their limits than I. Thanks for putting your boot into our back-and-forths!

Unknown said...

This is all very interesting, and, in light of the revolutions taking place in neuroscience and genomics, very quaint.

Maladjusted said...

This is a wonderful post and not just because I'm also the square circle that is a Taylor/Mailer fan. (Well, okay: actually, I admit to only having read "Harlot's Ghost..but I do appreciate Taylor.")

Can I just note that stumbling upon this blog (because of a reference to John Milbank) has completely delighted me? I'm so happy to see a Christian who doesn't think that their faith is best expressed in an undying devotion to the planetary casino of late capitalism, as well as someone concerned for the ravages of capitalism who doesn't think the best solution is hyper-liberalism/anti-liberalism, awaiting some mysterious revolutionary event or becoming lifestyle/identity obsessed.

Thank you for this.