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Tuesday, April 22, 2014


On Sunday last, I posted some sarcastic remarks about the NY TIMES Op Ed column by Ross Douthat.  Rather than respond in kind, JD penned a thoughtful defense of Douthat that rather put my cheap shots to shame.  I think JD deserves a serious response.  Let me begin by reprinting JD's comment, which, in my opinion, makes a better case for Douthat than Douthat made for himself.  Herewith JD:

"It seems like a rather coherent column to me; a form is readily discernible. I'm not equipped to comment on the issue he takes with Piketty's economic analysis– his criticism is brief, and it's likely you could answer it much better than I can say whether it is true or false.

However, his point is clear. In fact, his point is only a suggestion (a suggestion, however, that he clearly takes to be the case): a neglected victim of capitalism's destruction has been the cultural and spiritual resources which past generations have relied on and which are counted as some of the dearest fruits of civilized societies. He is suggesting that these goods are more imminently threatened than even economic equality and that the left, due to a neglect of questions of spiritual care and the importance of shared culture, has failed to see this and so even presently fails to have a clear view of the crisis of our times. He is suggesting not just a crisis of means but a crisis of values, ethos and community sustaining mythos. He is chalking up some of the right's recent successes to its ability (if only in rhetoric) to tap into these insecurities and fears that we are losing, or have mostly lost, the spiritual and cultural goods which give money and means more than their base, sub-human value."

This is an eloquent statement of an old, familiar, and honorable tradition in political theory, a tradition that has a right to claim for itself the adjective "conservative."  The Myth of the Golden Past is, of course, as old as Western Civilization, but the particular form of it that JD invokes was born in the late eighteenth century as a reaction to the rise of what eventually became known as capitalism.  Marx correctly observed that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, and a bit later on the Continent, it undermined the authority and the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, transformed London and the other great cities of England, ate away at and finally destroyed the age-old division between city and countryside, and threw up a class of New Men who, in a single generation, without family  connections or landed estates, became unimaginably wealthy.

Speaking broadly, there were three thoughtful responses to this phenomenon.  The first was the response of those who were called Liberals, writers who celebrated the changes and wrote confidently that the manifest evils of the young capitalism -- urban slums, brutal factory work, an economic cycle of booms and busts -- were merely the growing pains of a brave new world,  soon to be replaced by a stable order of endless growth.  The second response was that of the Socialists, who welcomed the destruction of the old order but insisted that the chaos of capitalism must be replaced by rational management for the common good.  Marx was not the first to voice this vision.  He was simply the most brilliant and the most penetrating in his anatomization of the inner exploitative structure of capitalism.

The third response, which appeared in England and France as early as the end of the eighteenth century, was that of Conservatives.  There were many observers of the passing scene who looked with horror on the destruction wrought by capitalism, seeing it not as a force for growth and liberation but rather as the enemy of all they held dear.  I do not think I will elicit much protest from my brethren on the right if I say that greatest among these voices was that of Edmund Burke.  In 1797, Burke wrote an impassioned response to the events in France under the title Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Let  me quote at length the most famous passage from that seminal work, for it says eloquently what Douthat was reaching for and what JD very nicely summarized.  Here is Burke, answering the claims of the social contract theorists of his day.  I have highlighted the portion of the passage that is most often quoted:

"Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen, but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things, to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow."

The England whose loss Burke was lamenting was in fact a land of servitude and grinding poverty for the many and inherited wealth, leisure, elegance, and culture for the few.  But that was not an image worthy of Burke's eloquent invocation.  It was at roughly at this time that there was born the fantasy of Merrie Old England, a time of maypole dances and madrigals, of soft summers and manageable winters, of simple pleasures blessed by a benevolent Church.  [Not by Burke, by the way!]

This is the sensibility to which Douthat is appealing, and in his column, it is thoroughly disingenuous and dishonest.  First of all, Douthat is not harking back to medieval England, or even Colonial America.  His Golden Age transparently is the Fifties, a world in which the  Roman Catholic Mass was still celebrated in Latin and Rosie the Riveter had turned her tools over to returning servicemen and had gone back to the kitchen, a world in which June and Ward Cleaver slept in separate beds and had sex only the requisite two times to produce Wally and The Beaver.  It happens also to be a time, as Piketty shows us, in which wealth was, temporarily, less unequally distributed than it had been earlier and would be later, a time of rapid economic growth to replace what had been lost in the depression and war years.

But of course Douthat's American version of Merrie Old England was also a time of quasi-slavery for African-Americans, of back street abortions and stifled ambitions for the female half of the population, a time of the closet for gay and lesbian men and women.  Douthat neither cares about nor bothers to recall these unpleasant facts, and I rather imagine does not even consider  them truly unpleasant.

When all is said and done, what is Douthat's column really about?  Quite simply, he is worried that Piketty might encourage people to take away some of the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and spread it around to those whose labor actually created it.  And along the way, they might once again take notice of the role played by the Church in blessing and sanctifying the exploitation of working men and women.

That, or something like it, is what was in my mind when I penned my cheap shots at Douthat.  I apologize to JD for not taking the time to spell it all out, and I thank him or her for recalling me to my better self.


JD said...

I'm appreciative of your response, Robert! Thanks for pointing me toward Burke as well. Personally, I tend to think there is something missing from modern life along the lines of what could be called religion or folk-spirit...basically, some sort of shared symbolic interface to help mediate the wonderful and terrible paradoxes of life to us with a dignity that we just can't hope to find in the language and mode of our present mediators: corporate creatures with their logos and tag-lines, advertising, hollywood cinema, and endless litanies to a diversity irrespective of substance...

It's somewhat unfortunate in my eyes that one can not find any collective response to the need for for a more noble mediation except in forms of religions whose moral past is admittedly quite murky and whose future viability remains doubtful. Still, the urge I well understand. On a popular level, I don't think the left addresses this need well which is why natures like my own are inevitably drawn to conservative ideologies. I myself do not at present have a political affiliation, but am only observing the what and the how of the attractiveness of given world-views. Douthat struck one chord with me– however little I know about his economic cares–that the left often fails to get at, and perhaps could learn something from. Material equality, at least at the rhetorical level, is really not enough of a vision.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is in this sphere that radicals can make some common cause with true conservatives, against the soullessness of classical liberalism. I find what you are speaking about in comradeship with men and women with whom I band together to fight for justice. That is not merely an instrumental colition but a life-changing bond of a common vision for the good society. To find that it is not necessary either to retreat into religion or to accept the inequality defended by those who today call themselves conservative. In the old days, we had all the good songs!

JD said...

"In the old days, we had all the good songs!"

I think I agree!

A strange thing to me: when my grandparents and family of their generation get together, they sometimes begin a festive meal with a toast and song that toasts to health and the goodness of the old country.

For myself and my generation, when we get together it's not really possible for us to spontaneously break into a song that does not bear an artist's name, a song that seems to come authorless "from the mist," as it were. Certainly we would never spontaneously sing "O Canada"– and probably for good reason. Similarly, my grandmother, whose literacy is probably below grade-school level, has on some occasions recited a poem from memory about the tribulations and disappointed hopes found in the trials of immigration and the search for a better life. Of my generation, most of whom have a university education, one would pretty much never hear a social recitation of poetry, never mind something committed to memory!

Without condemning myself or my peers, this disturbs me on an instinctual level. Admittedly, these are just anecdotes and one should even put one's instincts to the test. Further, these sorts of moments/ experiences I am speaking of, can only come organically, it seems. Still, personally I feel doomed to wander a world cut off from my ancestors, which is thereby in a certain way stale, lacking dimension, left to feasting in a crowd where the only song we all know by heart is likely to be "The Bohemian Rhapsody."

Thanks again, Robert for listening!

Bill Glenn Jr. said...

Am I wrong in thinking that there's a difference between conservatives pining for the good old days and the classical republican argument that a moral citizenry is a necessary precondition for good government (and a good economy)?

Burke and other conservatives definitely incorporated this argument into their rationalized nostalgia, but it's also voiced outside the conservative tradition by Machiavelli, Tocqueville and the founding fathers in a way that is divorced from a general defense of the status quo.

Today communitarian's like Michael Sandel appear to be the standard bearers for this set of ideas. And while Sandel may look conservative when he regards the values at stake worth conserving, he seems anything but when he feels otherwise.

While there was no shortage of things to complain about in the 50s (I think the 60s may have brought up some of those issues), the fact that the militancy of capital was slightly diminished and the feeling that we're all in this together was slightly heightened seems at least partially responsible for the rise of the post-war middle class and that has to be a good thing. The completely amoral capitalism that reemerged under Reagan drove out the last vestiges of the post-war capitalism that was at least partially constrained by moral and social norms and did contain some of the communal values JD recognizes we now lack. (For the record, I'm not saying post-war capitalism was idyllic or even good, only that it was far better than what came next.)

Then again, I wasn't born until the 70s, so everything I've been told about the post-war era may be wrong. I have constructed this history from mainly liberal sources, so may ignorance of more radical histories may have allowed me to be duped.