Friday, February 23, 2007

A Religious Left?

Last night I spoke at the "America's Future Foundation," a group of young movement conservatives who meet regularly in D.C. I was invited to speak as part of a roundtable addressing whether there could be a "Religious Left." Hoping to steer the conversation in a less strictly partisan direction, I offered the following comments:

I’m pleased and honored to be invited here tonight, but since I’m not being paid to be here, I feel under no special obligation to address all the questions in their specifics. I know that a number of the panelists have problems with the questions as they’ve been framed, and I do as well, though my problems result more from a theological perspective than necessarily a political one. As a believer, I believe it is misguided to adjudge religious belief in light of political stances – that puts too much pressure for religious belief to conform to a particular political platform, or even to the perspective of a particular city. As one of the questions on the letter of invitation intimated, at the heart of the matter lies the proper relationship of the City of Man to the City of God. From the standpoint of the believer, the former should be judged in light of the latter, and not vice versa.

From this perspective, I’m hesitant to engage in a partisan debate about the legitimacy of the views of the Religious Right or the Religious Left. The views of any political party should be judged first from the position of religion, not one’s adherence to the party line. And above all, we shouldn’t forget that, as a Christian, we are instructed not to feel too at home in the world. We are most essentially to be pilgrims, not citizens; to use a title from a book by my friend Peter Lawler, we are “aliens in America,” or wherever we happen to be.

But, that said, we should notice that religion has made a good home in America – as Tocqueville observed, in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are mutually reinforcing. In contrast to Europe, where religion seemed to be the opposite of liberty, religion in America – and especially disestablishment as a general rule – prevented any Church from becoming too immersed in the necessary compromises and everypresent immoralities of everyday politics. Religious liberty is good for religion, a truth we need to recall when we consider Church attendance in the United States compared to that in Europe.

Tocqueville’s analysis went further, however: not only is liberty good for religion; religion is good for liberty. This relationship is more complicated, because it turns out that religion acts as much as a restraint upon the worst tendencies of liberty as much as it undergirds the idea of human dignity that underlies our endorsement of modern liberty. Religion chastens the American propensity toward “audaciousness,” or, toward the temptation to use liberty for personal or political self-aggrandizement. Tocqueville wrote that “nature and circumstances have made the inhabitant of the United States an audacious man; it is easy to judge of this when one sees the manner in which he is pursuing his fortune. If the spirit of the Americans were free of all impediments, one would sooner encounter among them the boldest innovators and the most implacable logicians in the world. But revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess openly a certain respect for the morality and equity of Christianity, which does not permit them to violate its laws easily when they are opposed to the execution of their designs… Up until now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim – one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all tyrants to come” (DA, I.ii.9, 280).

Tocqueville – rather ironically – describes what one can only conclude is a kind of benevolent tyranny of the majority, a felt pressure even by revolutionaries and people lacking any grounds for restraint to pursue whatever they deem would be necessary to achieve the good of society. The “spirit of religion” is good for the “spirit of liberty” because, to a significant extent, it puts some restraint on our liberty. We retain our liberty, but a chastened liberty that recognizes a law beyond humankind and checks our inclination to rampant forms of political utilitarianism or expediency. Tocqueville understands religion as a kind of check on our tendency toward unrestrained liberty – recalling that the root of the word “religion” is “religare,” or “to bind.” This chastened liberty preserves liberty because it prevents the rise of tyranny (anyone who has read the “Republic” knows what Tocqueville is talking about here – the regime that follows democracy, where we desire to rule but not to be ruled, is tyranny).

For this reason, I think that there are some grounds for the skepticism behind the questions posed tonight about the plausibility of a Religious Left. In the years since 1960, the Left as affiliated itself closely with a liberationist political philosophy, one that has placed human autonomy and freedom of human will at the center of its aims. Mainstream political philosophers of the Left have urged the cleansing of the public square of religious language and justification, and leading politicians – even believers – have insisted that personal religious views have no bearing on political decisionmaking. For young people growing up in your generation, it seems almost a fiat of nature that people on the Left are secularists while people on the Right are more inclined to be believers.

There is an undercurrent in the questions, and the very title of the roundtable, suggesting that the existence of a “Religious Left” is anomalous. As a student of American history, among other things, I think we need to be aware that quite the opposite is true: the recent history of the Left’s repudiation of a religious standpoint is the anomaly, not the norm. Indeed, historically, evangelicals were aligned with the Left, from time of the American Revolution in their opposition to the King, to their support of Andrew Jackson’s democracy party, to the populist movement and its standard-bearer William Jennings Bryan, and even in support of Franklin Roosevelt. As Tocqueville observed, secularism has been largely non-existent as a party in American history. The story of America has been debates within religious traditions, not between a Party of Religion and a Party of Irreligion. So, if we are indeed returning to a time when the Left lays claim to religious belief, it is a return to the norms of American history, and not a departure.

This would be a healthy outcome, because it would allow us to move beyond the easy assumptions that our side is religious while their side is not, and to begin to ask questions about what it means to be religious in politics. One preeminent question we should ask – in light of Tocqueville’s observation – is whether the belief in Liberty embraced by either political party in America reflects what Tocqueville called “the spirit of religion.” For, from the standpoint of a believer, it’s my view that both parties are complicit in a deeply problematic and disordered belief in Liberty, differently expressed.

On the Left, as I’ve suggested, the belief in Liberty takes the form of a libertarian personal morality that allows its adherents (in Tocqueville’s words) to “conceive and dare everything.” The utilitarian calculus that my liberty allows me to remove obstacles to that pleasure has led to the endorsement of a thirty year abortion regime, in which the cessation of the life of unborn children is undertaken as a form of birth control. Framed in terms of a political right, this practice has been defended as a non-negotiable basis of individual liberty without acknowledgement that a human life may be in the balance. If the Left seeks to promote a religiously inspired agenda that seeks to extend care to the least among us – our poor and indigent – then surely it must begin to question whether that care doesn’t extend to our very weakest and most vulnerable. Anything less is unadulterated ideology.

But, the religious scrutiny of our motives ought not to let those on the Religious Right off the hook. Much of the Right has worked tirelessly to defend a culture in which choice reigns, particularly the myriad choices that are extended to us through the free market economic system. Can we possibly believe that there is no connection between a culture of choice in everything we see, buy, touch and hear, a culture that urges upon us at every turn the admonition for self-gratification, to be a “consumer,” to “just do it,” that offers us an endless stream of barely veiled pornography and innuendo, and a culture that places “the right to choice” as its paramount virtue? Can we really believe that our insistence upon “a right to life” (notice the terminology – a RIGHT, not a duty or obligation) is all that is required? Our religious tradition teaches us not to be secure in our own sense of complicity, our own insinuation in the sins of our age. The one verse of the Bible that most students now know seems to endorse an easy-going kind of non-judgmentalism, but in fact urges a deep introspection about our own tendency to sin just as deeply as those we would regard as sinners. Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-3, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take out the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

My basic argument is that it is wrong for any side in the current political debate to become too self-satisfied or complacent about the ultimate rightness of its worldviews. The great social critic Christopher Lasch came late in life to understand that religious belief was a Hard Thing, far harder than unbelief. Against the disparaging view of religion by its liberal opponents, Lasch wrote that such a false understanding "misses the religious challenge to complacency, the heart and soul of faith. Instead of discouraging moral inquiry, religious prompting can just as easily stimulate it by calling attention to the disjunction between verbal profession and practice, by insisting that a perfunctory observance of prescribed rituals is not enough to ensure salvation, and by encouraging believers at every step to question their own motivations. Far from putting doubts to rest, religion has the effect of intensifying them. It judges those who profess faith more harshly than it judges unbelievers. It holds them up to a standard of conduct so demanding that many of them inevitably fall short….. For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self- righteousness, indeed, may be more prevalent among skeptics than believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion. "

I think for those of us who have grown up in an age when you have to pick which side of the line in the sand you stand on – belief or unbelief – Lasch’s words are a helpful reminder that belief is only the beginning of a groping toward belief. As the father said to Jesus when Jesus told him that all things are possible to those who believe, “I believe Lord – help my unbelief!” If we seek to understand how best to be believers in the City of Man, we do best to begin to interrogate our own failings and the shortcomings of our belief as a necessary prelude to interrogating the belief of others

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Peak Oil and Political Theory, Part V

And, to conclude...

V. Stuck With Virtue

What is to be done? Partisans of the Left and Right alike recognize that we face a critical moment, and their calls follow the characteristics of their political worldviews. Partisans of the Right – particularly libertarian techno-optimists – counsel continued “laisssez-faire” confidence that the market, in the form of price signals and the hopes, born of greed, of someone inventing the next great energy source, will inspire innovation and ultimately an adequate energy replacement. Partisans of the Left, in some senses no less techno-optimists, call for some Government intervention (often in the form of taxation upon oil companies) and believe that a combination of conservation and innovation will permit the continuation of our present economy and its resultant liberal autonomy. Both paradigms are fundamentally firmly within the modern worldview, believing that the goal of human life is ever expanding forms of personal liberty and the overcoming of limitations associated with traditional ways of life.

While realization of such hopes cannot be completely discounted, a severe caution is in order: business as usual cannot be assumed. We function under the belief that the success of humanity over the past 150 years in their mastery of nature and the provision of such material plenty to permit the widespread belief that we had surmounted basic forms of necessity and drudgery is a condition will continue to apply indefinitely. This assumption may not only be foolish, it may be cataclysmic. As creatures formed by cultures that we do not recognize to be cultures, we are conditioned to believe our own condition is “natural,” that it will continue to exist indefinitely. Constitutional democracy, market economies and globalization are the end of history. We do not pause to consider that this form of life has been the consequence of a momentary and foolishly wasted inheritance of our organic forbears. We place our hope in the market: just as Malthus was proven wrong, the market will again defeat the pessimist. However, again, a caution is needed: it should be recognized that the stunning modern success of “the market” has only existed in the age of coal and oil. “The market” may be as much an artifact of fossil fuels as the growth economy and liberalism itself. We up the ante of modernity’s wager, believing that a fix will save us just in time. Very little must change, and we continue to invest our hopes in the future of progress. In the future, we may wonder how our ancestors could have been so blinkered.

Liberalism dismissed the central role of virtue in the cultivation of young persons out of a belief that such formation represented authoritarian constraint and a form of oppressive paternalism. Yet, it is highly likely that we will discover that such inculcation in virtue is a necessity when one cannot presume the viability of the conquest of nature. Virtue is the cultivated human capacity to operate midway between the necessities of nature and the aspirations of human freedom. In a post-oil age, the reality of nature – its limits and its governing position – will reassert itself, and concomitantly, the need to cultivate human virtue. Virtues such as moderation, frugality, loyalty, self-sacrifice, modesty, a concern for common good, the grace of manners that comes with living in close proximity to many others – these, and many other virtues will again become a necessity for life. “Virtue ethics” will cease to be philosophical object of study, or a philosophical option equally available for those who consider it a preference, but an inescapable necessity. We are, in the words of Peter Lawler, “stuck with virtue.” While liberalism thrived for a period of time by suspending the ancient insistence upon the centrality of virtue – indeed, arguably thrived because of this suspension – the arrival of Peak Oil may prove that this suspension could only be temporary at best. However, the great challenge of modern times will be recovery of ancient understandings of virtue, a recovery made difficult if not impossible due to the massive rupture represented by modernity. Our loss of this particular patrimony may portend a much harsher transition into a post-oil future, and only the active inculcation of ancient virtue will soften the heavy blow we face. Given modern suspicions of virtue – suspicions laced into modernity’s DNA – it is unlikely that we will be adequately prepared, not only physically and economically, but morally.

Many thinkers have noted that liberalism’s success depended for a long time on the continued persistence of a pre-liberal inheritance of ancient and religious moral traditions that were instantiated in the forms of family life, civic community, religious and civil institutions, as well as a longstanding set of practices that were themselves not undergirded by, and indeed were eventually undermined by liberalism. Tocqueville noted that Americans had a tendency to explain all of their actions in terms of self-interest alone, even when their actions were motivated by nobler forms of altruism and self-sacrifice. As such, he wrote, “they do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.” Over time, however, deed and speech came to coincide, and the very wellsprings of pre-liberal virtue came under increasing pressure and dissolution. According to this theory, liberalism’s success rested on a pre-liberal inheritance that it neither created nor restored, but rather upon which it was parasitic and which it finally exhausted, portending liberalism’s own self-destruction.

Perhaps in a related form, liberalism has relied as fully upon a pre-liberal material inheritance that it also neither created nor replenished. In this sense, oil is the material equivalent of ancient “moral and religious motives.” Like such older philosophies, it is an inheritance that was formed in a distant past and through the slow accretion of the ages. Fossil fuels are literally our material patrimony: they are the slow transformation of untold generations of plant and animal life that slowly absorbed the sun’s energy and, through eventual accumulation, offered to future generations a packet of indescribable energy. Fossil fuels are irreplaceable reservoirs of our past, and in a period of 150 years we have burned through half – and by far, the most easily extracted half – of this multi-million year legacy. In both its philosophical and economic forms, liberalism has been like a jet propulsion engine which burns hot and bright for a short period before exhausting the seemingly vast reservoirs propelling it. For a time it was able to leave the bounds of earth – briefly “rov[ing] about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest - but appears poised to come down to earth with the exhaustion of its pre-liberal philosophic and material inheritances. Whether it will be a controlled descent or a crash-and-burn rests, ironically, upon our capacity to decide that we do not possess complete and thoroughgoing control of our own destiny.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Peak Oil and Political Theory, Part IV

The paper will have five parts. Here's the penultimate part.

IV. The End of Liberalism

Liberalism is a philosophy of limited government and political rights. As such, as a theory, it would seem that Peak Oil would have little necessary impact upon its viability. However, liberalism has also been deeply premised upon economic growth and the expansion of human dominion over nature, a prospect that is placed in considerable doubt by the arrival of Peak Oil. A fundamental question arises: whether liberalism has been necessarily dependent upon the presumption of growth and mastery, or whether those prospects are detachable from the theory of limited government and political rights.

Before turning to this harder question, first it should be stated that liberalism in its modern incarnation seems unlikely to survive. In its modern form – “progressive” or “radical” liberalism, premised especially upon a goal of radical human autonomy and liberty – liberalism is based far more explicitly upon the expansion of the modern project of mastery of nature and economic growth in extensive ways it rarely acknowledges. The liberal goal of individual autonomy – the liberation from oppressive limitations in the form of locality, custom, “given” circumstance, etc., are likely to be increasingly revealed as resting profoundly upon the oil platform – as much, if not more, than the success of the modern economy. While tending not to think of autonomy in these terms, nevertheless its basis upon open opportunity, liberation from circumstance, and extensive mobility, all can be seen in this light as deriving from the unparalleled wealth and liberty provided by our one-time use of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. Various iterations of this form of autonomy, including lifestyle choice, “self-creation” or Emersonian “self-reliance,” expressionist individualism, widespread irony indicating a studied distance from society’s norms, technologically-based personal expression (e.g., in the form of internet identities), and – perhaps most alarmingly to some – feminism in the form of liberation from the drudgery of the household and localities and easy entry into the mainstream economy, are potentially all in danger of extinction as the age of oil comes to a close. A future in which communal demands and local identification becomes far more prevalent suggest a fundamental redefinition of human identity away from a “liberationist” ethic and toward one of communal solidarity (in, perhaps, the most positive-sounding form of the likely change) or (to take the negative case) loss of individual liberty and the oppressive inescapability of folkways and circumstance. A form of Stoicism – that philosophy overturned by modernity, as initiated by Machiavelli – is likely to stage a comeback in the post-oil age, albeit not without first witnessing the expression of frustration, consternation, and rage against the loss of liberty once enjoyed by modern peoples.

What of a more minimal liberalism, that philosophy formed before the age of coal or oil, the pre-Millian philosophy that did not forefront material progress and did not even imagine moral progress, but instead identified inexpugnable self-interest as the basis for legitimation of the modern state? What of the liberalism of Locke and the Founding Fathers of the United States?

Theoretically, there may be little reason to suppose that Peak Oil would implicate minimalist theories of liberalism. However, concomitant with liberalism’s theory of limited government was a confidence in the human capacity to expand physically, geographically and materially. Liberalism, while a theory that appears to stress limited government, has practically resulted in greater centralization and the accrual of power to strong national governments. Liberalism justified not only the watchfulness of citizens who warily watched for encroachments upon rights, but the rise of strong executive power that necessarily created conditions to “secure these rights.” In addition to a theory of rights, including the right to revolution, John Locke wrote of the central importance of “prerogative,” that is, largely unfettered actions by the executive to secure the “public good.” By the “public good” one understands not only the existence of rights to life, liberty, and property, but more broadly the expansion of property by means of creative and expansive economic activity. The executive branch has necessarily grown in power and prominence as the growth in economy has demanded both its protection and protection from its abuses. It can be argued that this growth is as central to the core philosophy of liberalism as its theory of “limited” government and political rights. Growth has been a precondition – or at least an accompanying condition – of the success of the modern liberal project.

Commerce is especially important to liberalism because it drains the populace of the forms of political faction and enthusiasm that marked pre-liberal society, and instead induced a kind of pacific orientation toward personal comfort and success. As Leo Strauss has suggested, the moderns built on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, seeking above all the realizability of the modern conception of politics, against the fortune-bound aspirations of ancient political thought. The success of commerce, in particular, has been posited as a necessary condition of modern liberty. Montesquieu and Constant both stress the extent to which “modern liberty” is the beneficiary of successful economic life, and further, a necessary accompaniment to moving beyond the dominant forms of “ancient” liberty. As Constant wrote, “commerce does not, like war, leave in men’s lives intervals of inactivity. The constant exercise of political rights, the daily discussion of the affairs of state, disagreements, confabulations, the whole entourage and movement of factions, necessary agitations, the compulsory filling, if I may use the term, of the people of antiquity, who, without this resource would have languished under the weight of painful inaction, would only cause trouble and fatigue to modern nations, where each individual, occupied with his own speculations, his enterprises, the pleasure she obtains or hopes for, does not wish to be distracted from them other than momentarily, and as little as possible.” Similarly, the Founders of the American republic saw commerce as the main source of activity of most citizens, an activity that at once drew attention away from participation in political “faction” even as its growth fostered the greater wealth and power of the nation.

Emphasis upon our economic lives, while encouraging a propensity toward greed and avarice, nevertheless had the beneficial result of providing liberation from authority in most forms, and particularly the authority in the form of religious or civic forms of education and cultivation. Following Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand” or Mandeville’s belief in “private vices, pubic virtue,” the pursuit of individual interest would result – economically and politically – in a form of order and stability in which individuals acted freely and the power of the State nevertheless grew substantially. Institutional mechanisms were designed to thwart the worst effects of such unbridled interest, and a dim view was taken on the historical failures of “moral [and] religious motives.” In short, a vibrant and growing economic sphere, which garnered the attention of citizens and the devotion of most of their exertions, was a basic foundation in the success of the theory of liberalism. Absent this growth, a fundamental pillar of liberal theory would collapse, and with it, the viability of a theory that also commended limited government and individual rights. Indeed, it might be contended that a citizenry inadequately formed with “moral and religious motives” – ones fostered rather by the mechanisms of liberal institutions which do not require, and arguably actively discourage, such antique virtues – would be ill-prepared to confront a society that could no longer deliver the promise of future improvement and material amelioration. A recalcitrant citizenry would likely give rise to a mobilization of a not-so-limited government, or themselves demand a rise in its powers to deliver the growth that it had come to expect. A citizenry effectively taught that life consists in the ceaseless pursuit of “power after power” would be ill-prepared to confront a society in which power – and the energy that provided it – was in steep and permanent decline.

Thus, liberalism, most obviously in its “progressive” form, and even in its “minimalist” form, is likely to come under severe duress in the foreseeable future, and its survival is in question. Liberalism’s success was premised upon the fruition of its philosophy of growth, and so long as the philosophy gave rise to results that powered that growth, liberalism thrived, flourished, and ruled. Liberalism began as a serious political program at the outset of modern capitalism and the industrial revolution: it at once gave rise to those phenomena, even as it benefited from them. Liberalism has flourished in an age of growth, as it was intended. As we confront the limits of a natural world – limits which modernity itself had argued could be overcome by human mastery – the prospects of liberalism are dubious. Faced with the limits of nature, progressive liberalism is definitionally incompatible: “progress” itself will become a worldview of the past. Dreams of human autonomy, born of the human mastery of nature – including lifestyle liberty, self-creation and even many forms of feminism – would cease to exist. “Minimal” liberalism – the liberalism of Locke and the Founders – will also be put under severe stress, and to the extent that this philosophic tradition rests most deeply upon a foundation of growth and human mastery, it will be shown to be a system that worked exceedingly well so long as it could be powered by an immense source of energy. Having burned through its most potent form in only 150 years, liberalism may be entering, much like the age of oil itself, a future of permanent decline.

Part 5

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Peak Oil and Political Theory, Part III

I am presenting this paper at the University of Maryland on Thursday. Time to get it done. Parts I and II have been posted, below.


III. Prophesizing a Possible Future: Back to the Past

When most people consider rising energy prices, they reflexively translate this eventuality into their most immediate experience of these costs: increased commuting costs. There can be little doubt that rising energy costs will have a significant effect upon the commuting habits of millions of people in industrialized economies, none more so than citizens of the United States where landscapes have been fundamentally altered in keeping with the “restlessness,” or mobility, that Tocqueville regarded as a hallmark of American democratic life. Indeed, according to some estimates, seventy percent of oil consumed in the United States goes to supplying the American transportation habits.

However, declining oil production does not solely imply more costly commutes; indeed, when considering the profound effects of higher energy costs (i.e., less net energy in the world), higher commuting costs seem to be of comparatively negligible importance. The effects of peak oil throughout the economic system (including in the most obvious form of higher transportation costs) have far-reaching and world-altering consequences.

First, declining amounts of energy raises serious questions about the viability of “globalization.” This phrase, taking the descriptive form of a process, implies an apparently inevitable and irreversible set of actions that no human activity can resist or prevent. The phrase itself is eerily reminiscent of the inevitability with which social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s regarded the rise of “secularization,” another apparently irreversible trend of the modern world. In recent years, scholars have come to recognize that the formulation of “secularization” was, for many, a form of wishful thinking or even a form of faith rather than a fact or an accurate prediction. Peter Berger – one of its original proponents – admitted that he was mistaken in believing in the inevitability of the process in a recent essay entitled “The Desecularization of the World.”

Globalization, simply put, describes a world in which ever-greater interpenetration of culture and peoples has occurred as a result, at base, of economic expansion and interconnections. These economic interconnections themselves have been the consequence of the spread of free market economic system worldwide, a system that has depended essentially upon thoroughgoing mobility and ease of transportation. The current form of global capital rests on a worldwide labor market in which low-cost markets produce goods for more wealthy high-cost labor markets, which in turn trade for developments in technology and what Robert Reich has called the “products” of “symbolic analysts.” We inhabit a world almost unthinkable, if nevertheless attributable at least in theory, to Adam Smith, in which extremely low cost markets, producing goods largely made of plastic and chemical derivatives (i.e., petroleum), supply high-labor markets with products produced more cheaply than if those same products were produced in the same town as the consumer. The low cost of the raw materials (forms of petroleum) and the overall low cost of bulk transport (shipping and air-freight, propelled by petroleum), result in the cheap production of a nearly unimaginable array of products, all of which rest significantly on a platform of cheap and ample fossil fuels. Peak oil implies higher costs. However, higher prices are themselves a signal of a more fundamental phenomenon, namely less overall energy and less overall material. To the extent that the material form of globalization rests upon this base, the arrival of peak oil means that this basis of globalization will begin to unwind.

“Symbolic analysts” and hence advanced modern economies will be also adversely affected. In the simplest form, declining energy (as was evidenced in 1971) will result in less overall economic activity. A contraction of the economy will occur, and with it, the basis of many of the jobs that now result from an economy based upon growth. Much of the financial services industry will unravel; indeed, banking itself will come under extreme stress as fiat currencies loose value worldwide, and inflation makes existing and future loans increasingly worthless and dries up sources of investment. Material and technological development itself will stall as there is less overall investment, and the basic platform of modern high-tech communication and computing – electricity – will become increasingly expensive. High electrical costs may be forestalled with the increased reliance upon nuclear energy, but that very increased reliance will quickly manifest itself in the form of higher prices due to limited worldwide supplies of uranium.

Movement of products and people will become more difficult and less frequent. There is significant question about the future viability of commercial aviation. Once exclusively the privilege of a wealthy elite, it is likely that commercial aviation will again become the province of the very well-off and a rare experience for a middle-class that has come to take it for granted – but only after significant contraction in the number of existing carriers and, accordingly, flight routes. Many parts of the country and the world that were once isolated will find themselves again less accessible, and less easily departed from. Inasmuch as globalization has particularly rested on the long-term expansion of aviation, with the imminent arrival of peak oil, its future is deeply in question.

Domestically, the national economic system depends extensively upon trucking. This industry will become increasingly strained with the arrival of peak oil, most immediately in the form of higher energy costs which will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services. The interstate highway system will come under stress, inasmuch as the primary ingredient of pavement – petroleum – will make repairs on roads more costly and therefore rare. Higher prices will mean less ability to afford even what have come to be regarded as the necessities of civilization. These include not only “necessities” such as labor-saving devices, pharmaceutical products (many of which are themselves based on petroleum products), household items and the like, but perhaps most importantly of all, food. Indeed, the implications of peak oil upon food costs, and food production itself, border on the apocalyptic.

The imminence of peak oil directly and adversely impacts our ability to grow and transport sufficient quantities of food. The amount of fossil fuels used to grow basic agricultural commodities, and hence, to provide feedstock and ultimately fill our supermarkets, in the form of fertilizers, fuel for farm equipment, refrigeration and food transportation, is enormous. It is estimated by some that it takes approximately the fossil fuel equivalent of ten calories to put one calorie of food on our tables – significantly higher if one considers a meat diet. Another way of considering this equation: the equivalent of approximately 300 gallons of petroleum or its derivatives are necessary to produce our annual diet. Still another way to consider this fact: our daily diet would require the equivalent of 111 hours, or three weeks, of human labor. With the arrival of peak oil, our capacity to continue to produce adequate food supplies for a planet of 6 billion people will increasingly come into question. Already it has been noted that the demand for corn for the processing of ethanol has led to a steep increase in food costs, particularly given the extent to which corn lies at the root of much of the modern industrial world’s diet. Some of the gloomiest prognosticators of the peak oil phenomenon foretell the horrors of a global “die off.”

The declining amounts of worldwide oil will result in a worldwide decline of the standard of living, manifest not only in most leading economic indicators, but in necessary changes to our daily habits, the ways in which we organize our lives together, and even our diets. One direct effect of peak oil will be the opposite of globalization – i.e., re-localization. The form of living arrangements that have been devised throughout the twentieth-century will come under profound stress and may have to be abandoned. Suburban life depends extensively upon a base of cheap petroleum: long commutes, long supply lines to “big-box” stores and supermarkets that exist at significant remove from residential areas, an extensive network of roads and interstates, and the replacement of farmland for housing tracts, many of which have converted productive land for sprawling yards. The increasing size of homes in these suburban enclaves require massive amounts of heating and cooling, all of which will become increasingly expensive, and make this housing less financially sustainable. With peak oil, the housing market will itself be subject to collapse – the most fundamental basis of investment and wealth of average citizens of modern industrial economies. Economic contraction will make it increasingly difficult for people to maintain payments of exorbitant and often gimmicky mortgages, leading to a wave of foreclosures and added stress to the banking and financial industry. The loss of many citizens’ form of net worth would prove devastating, both economically and politically. A downward spiral of economic contraction and bankruptcy, of decreasing supplies and rising prices, of economic dislocation and disillusionment, could easily result in a potential economic and political catastrophe.

The strains on the food system – again, manifested in the form of higher prices – will make the need for more local production essential. Increasing numbers of individuals will need to return to the life of farming, now on a more regional and local basis. Delivery of food from afar will decline – again, will become the province of the very wealthy – and the need for local production will necessarily rise to replace declining food stores. A more local and agricultural-based economy will again arise, one that will have to be formed in close proximity to increasingly more densely-populated town centers. The necessity of more local forms of farming – and the decline of petroleum-based fertilizers and irrigation – will reveal, once again, that certain parts of the country and world are largely inhabitable, or at least that certain climates cannot maintain large centers of population. One can expect something of a “rewind” of population settlements that occurred throughout the twentieth century, now away from the arid southwest and west and the tropical south, and back toward the Northeast and mid-west, both of which can provide arable land and ample supplies of non-irrigated water. Living arrangements will essentially draw closer toward the center, and will necessarily be organized in the image of earlier forms of human settlement, with water, food, climate, and accessibility by water or rail forming the core reasons for the viability of future living arrangements.

Much of life will return to a local basis. An issue close to home to readers of this essay, as it were, will be significant implications and challenges for higher education. Elite institutions have increasingly embraced a role as global or cosmopolitan institutions. As globalization itself declines, these institutions will necessarily return to a more local identification, including their student bodies and even faculty. Cosmopolitanism as a governing philosophy will again be the fancies of slightly kooky philosophers. However, before this happens, the era of ever-growing endowments will end, and with it, the growth of the modern University. Those institutions that survive will nevertheless shrink, and the educational objective will return to providing an education for the benefit of localities and regions rather than for a globalized economy. The land-grant institutions, in particular, will return to their original mission and will bear a special responsibility in re-educating a populace in the arts of farming and cultivation.

There is no shortage of potential implications of the full brunt of Peak Oil. As far-fetched as these “prophecies” might seem, they are the logical extrapolation of the reality of declining worldwide energy, and with it, declining wealth and the end of expansion and growth. Short of a miraculous invention that can replace the one-time source of profound energy and hence economic boom provided by fossil fuels, our future is more likely to resemble what I have described rather than a fanciful portrait that continues to assume unbroken growth and material progress. And, if this portrait is even somewhat correct, then the scenario is good, because the alternative is much worse.

Species have always exhibited the most brutal and vicious behavior in situations of declining resources. As the world begins to face the fact of inevitable limits, there will be – indeed, there already is – a scramble for the remaining scraps at the table. The wealthiest nations will plunder the poorest in order to maintain their way of life and their immense investments. Nations blessed with remaining energy stores (e.g., Russia, Iran, Venezuela) will begin to use them as weapons against their neighbors (indeed, already have). As we come closer to the “top of the mountain,” the great fear is that the world’s great powers engage in a last gambit, a militarized fight to the finish over the remaining resources in order to positions themselves best for a post-oil glut future. As Vice President Cheney declared during the 2001 election, “the American Way of Life is non-negotiable.” Andrew Bacevich has declared that we are already in the midst of fighting World War III if not World War IV, and that this war is now being fought over the remains of the world’s oil resources. As those remains decrease, one can expect the fighting to become fiercer and even cataclysmic. The war in Iraq – already the first of the battles of the peak oil era – may only be a prelude of what lies ahead. As in all times of warfare – and it can be expected that this will be a situation of near-perpetual hot or cold warfare – power necessarily accrues to executive and military authority. Already the nation has seen a significant shift in power away from Congress to the Presidency, and ever-greater encroachments of executive power on civil liberties in the name of security. It is possible that constitutional democracy will cease to exist as we have known it, and that people – in the face of a decrease of all they have become accustomed to – will not only support the further rise of the imperial Presidency, but demand it. Whether, over the long term, constitutional democracy will survive the end of the oil age is an open question. The worst-case scenario is one of perpetual warfare, massive numbers of deaths, the potential for nuclear war and the end of modern civilization. But, I suspect many readers will be most disturbed at the following suggestion: peak oil portends the end of a particular aspect of modernity, the end of liberalism.

Part 4

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Peak Oil and Political Theory, Part II

It's been awhile since I posted the first part of this. Part I is here. This is Part Two of what I project to be four parts.

Part II
Modernity: The Relief of Man’s Estate

Modern political thought is marked, perhaps above all, by a growing confidence in human powers of understanding and the admonition to exert those powers in the control of nature – the natural world and human nature alike. Modernity was inaugurated by a transformation of scientific understanding – from the distinction of “science” as the observation of natural phenomena to the active effort to employ knowledge of natural operations in the active interference of those operations toward the goal of “the relief of the human estate.”

The move toward modernity was inaugurated initially in the effort to control chance, or “fortune.” Rejecting Stoic or Christian conceptions that commended a form of resignation to the vagaries of life and death – whether the result of pure chance or the will of God – modern thought began with the effort to exert control over those vagaries and, in effect, to put humans on the course of controlling otherwise inexplicable phenomena. As such, a new “faith” replaces an old faith – now, faith is directed at the explicability of otherwise incomprehensible effects. More than merely a search for causes, modern science begins with the belief that every effect has an explicable cause. By knowing the cause of effects, modern science opens the possibility of altering, adjusting, preventing or adjusting those causes, and thereby governing the effects. By anticipating the effects of causes, if not ultimately the causes themselves, modern natural science can begin to exert control over natural phenomena.

This hope and confidence was expressed in the famous metaphor articulated by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. Machiavelli was speaking of the role of Fortune in the lives of humans. Longstanding metaphors referred to “Fortuna” in terms that reflected the dominion and mastery of Fortune over human affairs: for instance, for Boethius, fortune was a “wheel” which turned inexorably would stop wherever it pleased, portending consequences for humans over which they could exert no fundamental control. His counsel – in classic Stoic terms – was acceptance and resignation.

By contrast, Machiavelli famously spoke of fortune as “a woman” who must be “mastered, beaten and struck.” Machiavelli argued that, in order to defend human freedom, we must accept the view that “fortune determines one half of our actions, but that, even so, she leaves us to control the other half, or thereabouts.” In discussing that half of human affairs that Fortune governs, Machiavelli appears to echo the kind of resignation to the majesty and dominion of fortune – now compared to nature – that was expressed by such thinkers as Boethius. Machiavelli writes, “I compare her to one of those torrential rivers that, when they get angry, break their banks, knock down trees and buildings, strip the soil from one place and deposit it somewhere else. Everyone flees before them, everyone gives way in the face of their onrush, nobody can resist them at any point.”

However, this is only half the story – or “thereabouts.” Humans must come to recognize that they control half of fortune, and the half that they control, significantly, in fact renders the ravages of fortune almost wholly tractable, practically speaking. “But although [the torrents of Fortune] are so powerful, this does not mean men, when the waters recede, cannot make repairs and build banks and barriers so that, if the waters rise again, either they will be safely kept within the sluices or at least their onrush will not be so unregulated and destructive.”

Indeed, while Machiavelli – anticipating Madison’s efforts to “control the effects” of nature (in this case, human nature) – emphasizes the effort to exert influence or to minimize the damage resulting from the Fortune, he reveals that these efforts will in fact “discourage” the causes of those effects in the first instance: “The same happens with Fortune: She demonstrates her power were precautions have not been taken to resist her; she directs her attacks where she knows banks and barriers have not been built to hold her.” Reading this passage with some care, it appears that Machiavelli in fact suggests that by controlling half of fortune, humankind effectually controls the whole of fortune. Fortuna will only be able to wreak its havoc on those whom are ill-prepared, leaving those who have in advance altered the landscape in anticipation of Fortuna’s effects effectively immune to most if not all of her ravages.

Notably, Machiavelli speaks of the rule of the political leader in terms of a metaphor of controlling nature. This is an inaugural, but continuous theme, of modern political thought. In contrast to classical theory, in which humankind is a part of nature, and hence substantially subject to its dictates (“Man is by nature a political animal”), modern political thought poses nature as an obstacle to humanity’s endeavors. Nature must be altered or controlled in order that humankind can achieve a desired condition of freedom. Freedom is initially understood to be the absence of external obstacles and the overcoming of hazardous consequences associated with nature’s dominion.

Modernity also comes to understand liberty as well in a more “positive” form of the active harnessing of nature’s resources for the securing of human comfort and prosperity. Francis Bacon inaugurated the modern scientific tradition which aimed at the active investigation into nature for the ends of “the relief of the human estate.” Science was to be understood not as the contemplation and understanding of nature – science as “theoretical science,” in Aristotle’s terms - but as the active intervention and manipulation of natural forms for the ends of human comfort, dominion, and wealth. “Knowledge is power,” wrote Bacon, inaugurating a belief that knowledge was a weapon to be used against a recalcitrant and hostile nature. Writing in the New Atlantis about the final aim of the “Salomon’s House,” or “The College of Six Days,” Bacon wrote that “the End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and the secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” In this latter formulation one sees a characteristic call for “enlargement”: modernity understands human dominion as necessarily entailing the “enlargement of orbits,” of the expansion and extension of human dominion over all natural phenomena. This includes mastery over external nature, even beyond the bounds of earth itself; it also means the expansion and extension of human nature, including the overcoming of that most basic of human conditions, the fact of our mortality. Bacon new science aimed to point humankind toward the most sublime and final end of knowledge: by means of learning, “man ascendeth to the heavens” and achieves that to which “man’s nature doth most aspire, which is immortality or continuance.”

This theme of human dominion in the form of expansion of control over ever greater sphere is reflected again in the youthful writings of John Milton. Scientific discovery would be the means of expanding human mastery to an ever-greater expanse. Milton predicted that “when the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest…. Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself has surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.” Echoing Bacon, human control of nature would come to resemble god-like power, the ability of creation and destruction, mankind as separate from, superior to, and master of all of nature. By implication, in extending human control of nature to such infinite extent, humanity would thereby change its own nature – from one of mere animal to one of divinity itself. Indeed, Francis Bacon argued that through scientific mastery of nature, human beings would make themselves into “mortal gods.”

This phrase found new definition in the thought of Bacon’s personal secretary, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes wrote of a similarly niggardly nature, one that deprived naturally acquisitive humans from achieving comfort and plenty. By means of a compact, humankind created an artificial person, a conventional entity called “Leviathan” which he called “a Mortall God.” This wholly contrived figure wielding expansive power allowed the full flourishing of human civilization; absent this figure, the natural human condition was one in which “there is no place for industry…, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such tings as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society….” Man’s natural condition is one in which nature rules and humans exert no power or control over an apparently arbitrary fortune; one can observe humans in their natural condition, those “savages” in “America” who live in a wholly “brutish manner.” By means of human science – now, “political science” – human beings are enabled to devise the means for the conquest and harnessing of a recalcitrant nature. Bringing out the implicit connections of Machiavelli’s metaphor, political science allows for the extension of human science into all spheres of life. The aim of life becomes mastery, now expressed in the form of “commodious living” – the increase of human comfort through the expansion of human power manifested as the control of natural forces and extraction of resources.

John Locke would expand considerably Hobbes’s commendation of “commodious living.” In his discussion “Of Property” in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke articulated the philosophical justification of an unlimited growth economy. Locke described a primitive world in which economic growth does not occur because of the existence of the “spoilage limit,” that is, natural limits to acquisition based upon current use. Only that amount of material needed for human subsistence could be justified under such primitive economic conditions. However, with the invention of money, Locke argued that the “spoilage limit” was superceded, and, moreover, that unlimited acquisition was not only possible, but justified. Unlimited acquisition, far from creating a “prejudice against the rest of mankind” – that is, depriving others of the benefit of one’s growing acquisition – in fact benefited one’s fellow citizens (and, playing out his argument to account for international trade, the whole of humanity). This benefit accrued due to an increasing standard of living shared by all persons living in a growth economy, regardless of whether one was “industrious and rational” or rather subject to “covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” Even the least well-off member of a growth economy was better off than the wealthiest and most elite member of a static or subsistence economy: “a king of a large and fruitful territory there [in primitive America] feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-laborer in England.”

Locke describes an economy that does not rely upon ample resources, but rather, efficient and concentrated use of nature to increase its offerings – in effect, using nature rather than leaving it in its native condition. Thus, he argues, “this shews how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions; and that the increase of lands, and the right of employing of them, is the great art of government; and that the prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind … will quickly be too hard for his neighbors.” Again, evoking Machiavelli’s original formulation, politics becomes the art of increase, of growth and dominion over nature. Nature is worthless without active use, “employment,” and exploitation of its offerings. Politics becomes tantamount to the art of the use and employment of nature, its conquest for the sake of “increase,” growth without inherent or natural limit. Human convention and artifice, the science of politics and the science of technology, become the means of securing human comfort and above all, human liberty. Modern liberalism is a theory that rests fundamentally not only upon a theory of human rights, but the material conditions of plenty and growth that justify the growing material inequalities that such unleashing of human productivity naturally fosters. The “industrious and rational” can point to the increased wealth of the society at large, even to the quarrelsome and contentious. The growth of material wealth, in turn, leads humans away from their over-involvement in partisan public affairs, ensuring the rational and efficient governance by competent and impartial governors.

Modernity itself, and liberalism specifically, is a philosophy that rests upon a basic presupposition of the desirability, and necessity, of growth. It was a political philosophy that, on the one hand, laid the preconditions for a massive expansion of economic growth and an unparalleled extension of human dominion over nature. However, in turn, it was a political philosophy whose very success was premised upon the success of that undertaking. Liberalism was a wager that unlimited growth was a possibility, that human ingenuity, extended toward ever-greater control and exploitation of nature, could continue indefinitely until (in Milton’s words) “the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest.” That wager has been wildly successful, unimaginably compensated, and apparently worth every risk while liberals “let it ride.” However, if the gathering clouds of global warming, of wildlife depletion and extinction, of topsoil erosion and worldwide war and genocide over increasingly exhausted resources do not already indicate that this has not been a costless wager, its very viability is about to be tested with the realization that its fundamental underpinning – “increase,” growth, and control of nature – is about to end. Abundant cheap oil was the grease that allowed the wager to succeed for roughly 150 years during the oil age; its cessation forbodes revealing that the odds have been in favor of the “house” all along – that nature is not subject to one of her own creatures, and that this momentary period of “commodious living” has been an illusion whose soon-realized limits will unleash consequences will be fierce and dire upon the creature that dared to master her.

Part 3

Monday, February 12, 2007

More on Conversion

Re: my post yesterday that the souls of a person seeking "conversion" may be born and not made:

I just came across this line from Leo Strauss from a reading that I've assigned for my Strauss seminar tomorrow:

"The only possible difference of opinion [about the existence of esoteric teaching] concerns exclusively the meaning of the distinction between inattentive and attentive readers: does a continuous way lead from the extremely inattentive reader to the extremely attentive reader, or is the way betwen the two interrupted by a chasm? Schleiermacher tacitly assumes that the way from the beginning to the end is continuous, whereas, according to Plato, philosophy presupposes a real conversion, i.e., a total break with the attitude of the beginner...." ("Exoteric Teaching," p. 68, _The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism_)

I'm not sure whether Plato may in fact not be closer here to how Schleiermacher is said to understand conversion than how Strauss understands him. I am thinking in particular of "the Myth of Er" in Book X of the Republic, in which the "soul" of each individual chooses the life that he or she will lead. Our "lives" are set into motion by the kind of soul that we already have. As such, even the person who undergoes a radical conversion may simply possess the kind of soul that is open to the experience. I suppose that this understanding has the potential of being deeply unsettling, because it flies in the face of the modern, and particularly American, belief in the everpresent possibility of radical self-reinvention.

"The Hydrogen Hoax

The most recent issue of "The New Atlantis" contains a fascinating, and I suspect for many alarming, article about the dim prospects for our purported "hydrogen economy." Robert Zubrin - an aerospace engineer - provides impressive data and a few scientific formulae to show that hydrogen is not only wildly inconvenient as a fuel, but that its production requires the input of more energy than it would provide. In short, hydrogen is a net-energy loser.

Problematically, he concludes by recommending a government-mandated creation of a flex-fuel automobile fleet, one as capable of burning fuels containing high alcohol content (e.g. ethanol) as burning fossil fuels. He doesn't subject such alternative fuels to the same "EROEI" ("energy returned on energy invested") formula as he persuasively does in regard to hydrogen. Once you account for the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce a fuel like ethanol - in the form of fuel for farm equipment, fertilizers, pesticides processing and transportation - the energy return drops close to 1:1. This does not even account for the damage done by the production of corn crops upon the land, particularly in the form of topsoil erosion.

The conclusion that few people seem willing to face is that there will be no free lunch. We've been living on an enormous credit card account whose bill is coming due. Unless we begin seriously to face this fact, our debts will overwhelm us.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Augustine in Pasadena

I returned today from a Liberty Fund conference held in Pasadena, CA, devoted to a discussion of "conversion" in Apuleius's "Golden Ass" and Augustine's "Confessions." Apuleius's whacky and at times downright obscene picaresque novel seemed more fitting in a setting of palm trees and endless boulevards than Augustine's often dark portentous broodings. The sentiment at the conference was decidedly pro-Apuleius, although I suspect that was less to do with the surroundings than the era. I found myself wondering throughout the conference whether an "Apuleian" or an "Augustinian" worldview is created or given. Augustine shows every sign that he would have been Augustine in some way regardless of his era and place. His restlessness and ceaseless introspection point to a person who would have made a kind of spiritual odyssey to conversion regardless of the setting; Apuleius would probably been relatively at home in our time, especially given his evidently earthy love of the worldly.

There were a number of people at the conference who simply could not enter into a sympathetic reading of Augustine. One of their recurring criticisms was his apparent detestation of the world (I think that is too strong a formulation, but clearly he does not love the world in itself and for its own sake). I don't believe that these critics would likely ever be persuaded or work their way toward an Augustinian worldview. One wonders, in this sense, if Augustine (and anyone, for that matter), isn't always simply writing for the "converted." In that case, is conversion a real change, or is it something that was already there?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Button Down Doomsaying

Matthew Simmons is an oil investment banker, analyst, very wealthy businessman, and was an advisor on Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force in 2001 (the one everyone thinks was packed with oil men. Well...). He lives in Texas. He is about as red meat, red state, and grey suited an oil man as you could find.

His thoughts: world production of oil has peaked. . He thinks we face some very rocky times ahead - even at one point mentioning the possibility of $300/barrel oil. He is not a techno-optimist: he doesn't think it's going to be easy to scale any alternative energy source to the same level at which we currently consume energy. His counsel: prepare for the end of globalization. He mentions, as an aside, "that this view is not so popular." He's right: neither the Right nor the Left wants to hear this, a fact that reveals something very deep about the fundamentally shared liberal worldviews of both our major "parties." The Right doesn't want limits on its march to increase "commodious living"; the Left doesn't want to stall the creation of our cosmopolitan paradise. However, nature is a funny thing: it has its own guidelines and its own limits, its demands and its sanctions. And, it is about to put a halt to our collective party. This is, in a very real sense, a profoundly good thing. The problem is, we have created a world in which the end of this party is likely to be very unpleasant. Too many people have created lives that depend on an ever-growing bubble of purported prosperity (prosperity that is built on the back of our energy slaves, oil barrels). Conservatives should be calling for a return to a conception of conservation. However, so-called conservatives are the worst of our "consumers" (the word is significant), while liberals - claiming to be interested in conserving - are the worst kind of self-deluded techno-optimists, thinking that we can suspend the second law of thermodynamics in our post-modern fantasy land. The next century is going to be very awful, I think, but perhaps the one after this will represent a return to post-modernism rightly understood. That is, if we survive.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Take Back Georgetown Day

I seem to be on a roll, delivering a number of talks in recent weeks on higher education reform. If I'm not careful, I'll get typecast.

In any event, today I spoke to a group of Georgetown undergraduates at the second annual "Take Back Georgetown Day." While I drew somewhat from my remarks at the "Choosing the Right College" event last weekend, it was a different audience, and it ended up being a somewhat different message. Of particular importance, I thought, was my concluding warning that conservative efforts to frame their greivances in terms of the desire for multicultural representation was a problematic, and potentially self-defeating, tactic. In any event, here's what I said:

“The Current State of Higher Education”

Take Back Georgetown Day

February 3, 2007


Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University


I want to thank the organizers of this conference for the invitation to speak before you this afternoon. I’m honored by the invitation, and admire the spirit, the passion, and the devotion of the students who have put this conference together, just as I applaud the willingness of you, the audience, to be here in order to reflect upon the restoration of this great university.

I have been asked to offer reflections about “The Current State of Higher Education.” If I were forced to give Higher Education a grade, even in an age of grade inflation, I think I could only muster an unenthusiastic C-. As you all know, this grade stands in for a REAL grade – one reflecting my view that higher education is failing its students. The reason for this is very simple: we don’t know what we’re doing. I mean this literally: we, most of us on the faculty and the administrators charged with running the University, don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing here. If Higher Education today were a term paper, I’d give it that C- grade with the following comments in big letters in bright red ink: “there are many interesting strands of thought here, but you have no thesis and no argument. What is your governing principle, your organizing structure? Your paper is all sound and fury, entertaining at some points, engaging at others, even edifying from time to time, but it goes nowhere and has no defining purpose.”

Human beings are funny creatures. We’re told that we’re a lot like monkeys or orangutans – maybe only 2 or 3% of our DNA is different. It turns out that that 2 or 3 percent is pretty important though – we haven’t heard yet of any Universities for monkeys or Dolpin academies. For all our vaunted similarity to the smartest beasts, those creatures still get through life basically by instinct. Humans, on the other hand, do very little by instinct. There can be very little doubt that our species would have been extinct long ago if we acted according to instinct. As a parent, I spend many of my waking hours trying to keep my kids from acting according to instinct, knowing that if they did, at the very least they’d be less civilized than monkeys, and in all likelihood they would have been dead a long time ago.

We humans have developed educational institutions – institutions from from marriage and the family to “Mommy and Me” to Elementary Schools to the Harvards and Oxfords and the Sorbonnes – because we figured out long ago that instinct doesn’t work for us. We’re instinct deficient. That’s what it means to be a human being – we are creatures who become who we are by some means other than instinct. We’ve been forced to reflect actively on what it is to be a human, and what actions are necessary to achieving the goal of becoming fully human. Fulfilling our nature does not come naturally to us, and for that reason, we are creatures that have developed culture as the means of fully becoming the human creature.

After all, the words “culture” and “cultivate” are more than just coincidentally similar. We are creatures who are cultivated through culture. Cultivation is the act of caring and tending for the young with an aim of raising them to maturity and fruition. In agriculture – another word that contains that word “culture” – we cultivate young plants so that they can achieve the full flourishing of their nature. We raise tomato plants to bear tomato fruit, and acorns to become oak trees. Just as in agriculture, in human life it is through the medium of culture that we cultivate children so that they can achieve the full flourishing of their human nature. A central feature of culture is culture is therefore education. Education, understood as a form of cultivation, necessarily aims at the perfecting of human nature. Properly understood, education is the effort to realize a certain end, the formation of the human being. The end defines the kind of education, the kind of cultivation, we extend to that creature.

When I say that we are failing our students because we don’t know what we are doing, I mean to say that we no longer have any real conception of the ends of education. I’m not even speaking here of contending ends, of disagreement about the proper aim of education which, at a deeper level, reflects differing beliefs about human nature itself. What I’m saying is that we don’t even think of education in relation to an end at all. We now operate in institutions that have no conception of the proper ends of education, because they have not thought about what kind of human being we are endeavoring to cultivate. Ask most professors what they teach, and they will respond, they teach “critical thinking.” But they haven’t subjected that phrase to critical thought. What is it that we are supposed to be criticizing, and what is it we’re supposed to be thinking? The claim is that we are teaching students a means, a method, a way of thinking that lacks content or direction.

Education is now a hodge-podge of opportunities and a dizzying variety of offerings that – like the C- essay – have some very interesting strands, but which lacks any governing structure. We have spread a smorgasbord of countless delicacies, piles of confections and sweets, quite a lot that’s fattening, and here and there some healthy food - and tell our young, “dig in!” without guidance or direction. It’s as if we raised tomato plants with a steady diet of chocolate sauce, salt water, roast beef, and a bit of tomato plant fertilizer, and expect healthy fruit at the end.

Perhaps, some people would reply, an education aimed at a certain end is too repressive. It does not allow us an extensive freedom of choice about the courses we take or even the ends that we define. They prefer the modern University without a structure or a governing principle. Better to have our freedom, freedom of choice, than the oppression of structures.

When I stop laughing, I reply in turn – it’s very sad that your form of education actually feeds your self-delusion. The choice such a person defends is much like the extensive choices we have when it comes to buying automobiles. We can choose an endless variety of models, of designs, of options, of colors. Stick shift or automatic. Leather or cloth. Convertible or hardtop. But one thing that we can’t choose, not really and not without great difficulty, is whether to have a car or not. We are so busy celebrating our extensive freedom of choice that we don’t notice that there’s a structure nonetheless, one that may in fact leave us far less free than we believe. People are told that they can be anything they want when the grow up, but you don’t find many carriage wheel makers or blacksmiths around these days. There are structures, and we ignore them to our peril.

Let me tell you a little about the structure that so many believe to be the absence of structure, that is, a form of liberation. In this structure, faculty are trained in disciplines. These disciplines are cut up into every narrower specializations, and each faculty member receives a training with an aim to making him or her an expert in that miniscule slice of human knowledge. To become a future faculty member you are required to write a dissertation on a narrow and never-before explored topic in order to prove one’s expertise to the approval of five to a dozen other scholars who are experts in your field. Once a University professor, you are required to publish arcane and jargon-filled articles in leading journals in your chosen field of specialization, each of which has an audience that numbers in the low double digits – if that. Faculty rewards – hiring, tenure, promotion and raises – are based extensively if not exclusively upon your publication records. Each member of the faculty has achieved their position not because of undergraduate teaching, but in spite of it. One’s orientation within one’s institution tends to be upon graduate students who are training in similarly narrow fields, or beyond the institution, to a tiny number of other scholars who share the narrow expertise, and whose word can propel or dash an academic’s career. Far from being “structureless,” the existing University has a definite structure, one that resembles freedom, but in fact reflects studied neglect if not outright annoyance at undergraduate education. The structure that we have is not “freedom,” but hyper-specialization in which there is no incentive or even shared belief that education aims at achieving a wholeness or a specific end. It is enough if every professor teaches his or her own piece. Putting it together is your jobs, and more often, something that simply doesn’t happen. What we now call liberal education in most cases does not liberate – the consequence of this current structure is to leave students where they are, subject to the prevailing dogmas of our time. We mistake superficial freedom of choice for freedom. We leave our students in a kind of blissful, if pathetic, ignorance.

There is a profound problem here we must acknowledge: students are now thrust into a situation of needing to know what constitutes a liberal education, the very knowledge that a solid liberal education is supposed to impart. In effect, those students most in need of a classical liberal education will likely never receive one, not knowing what it is they should be seeking in the first instance, whereas those students who enter the University with well-formed understanding of the ends of education and of what constitutes a liberal education in substantial ways are already well equipped. This is a consequence of the massive repudiation of responsibility by contemporary faculty and administrators. But, the fact that you are here today attests to an awareness of the need to go beyond reliance of what you are told by today’s Universities leaders, and from this independence of thought a kind of renaissance within Higher education might be born.

So, when we gather at a conference whose stated ambition is to “Take Back Georgetown,” we must ask, what is it that we seek to take back? What is it that has been lost? The answer to this is that we need to acknowledge anew that education aims at a specific end – the cultivation of human nature – thus, that nature exists, and that culture is of utmost importance and deserving defense. This will not be easy, because the modern University is against nature and against culture. To take back Georgetown, we need to rediscover both nature and culture. We need to reassert the importance of tradition. And, as I’ve said this will be difficult. Because, while many of you in attendance today consider yourselves to be conservative, you might not much like what I’m about to tell you. Conservatism went out of fashion in the 17th century, and was pretty much dead by the 19th. There really aren’t many conservatives around today. There are probably as many conservatives today as there are tinsmiths. And, they make less money.

The modern University, like modernity itself, was born out of a profound mistrust of tradition. Tradition is something that binds us to the past: it is the inheritance of previous generations, the accumulated wisdom of our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers, the repository of trial and error and memory. Tradition is a kind of enacted form of memory and gratitude, one that places us under the obligation of people who lived before us, and which forces upon us an acknowledgment that we did not make ourselves and that we owe allegiance to the past.
Tradition lies at the heart of culture. Cultivation is an art that is handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, in the fields, in the kitchen, in the town square and in the churches. Through the very act of cultivation we teach our young how to cultivate in turn. Past practice instructs us how best to raise tomato plants and oak trees, and similarly, how to bring to fruition the nature of human young. This is the original meaning of conservatism: it is the conservation – the preservation – of ways of doing things because they have been shown to be better than many alternatives. They are practices that accord with our nature. For a conservative, it is not necessary for every generation to begin anew; indeed, it would be a foolish and wasteful undertaking to ignore the accumulated wisdom of the past. Conservatives thus defend “paternalism” (and “maternalism” for that matter) that is, the idea that an older generation (to begin with, one’s parents) know better than a younger generation. “Father Knows Best” is not just the name of a nerdy old T.V. show, but a fundamental truth according to a traditional worldview. Authority was understood to be a legitimate source of rule and guidance, not an arbitrary imposition upon our liberty. The older generation is responsible for directing the younger generation in the right direction, and the younger generation is expected to accept that guidance as informed by experience and practical wisdom, and most of all, out of deep devotion for the good of the young. Education was undertaken in this spirit – it was guided and directed by professors and administrators who sought the cultivation and fruition of the younger generation.

This means, practically, that these elders would extensively craft a curriculum on behalf of the students in the belief that the judgment of elders – guided by experience – is a sure guide to achieving human excellence and human flourishing. It would be a betrayal of their responsibility and their duty if they allowed the young to substitute their own immature judgment for the inherited knowledge of the past. Far from representing “freedom,” such youthful decision-making would be a kind of enslavement to whim, fancy, ignorance and arbitrariness. A declaration that we seek not to interfere in the free choices of our charges would not be a sign of respect for their autonomy, but a reflection that we have betrayed our devotion to seeking their good – basically, that we don’t give a damn.

This is not to suggest that tradition is static or unchanging. Traditions alter according to alterations of circumstance or the gradual accretion of more knowledge, more experience. This knowledge is added to the storehouse without contradicting that accumulated store of wisdom or rendering it moot or useless. Tradition changes, but changes slowly, not precipitously, with each generation contributing in turn to the store of accumulated knowledge.

A traditional university – a University one might seek to “take back” – would endeavor to teach from the stores of this ancient wisdom. In its earlier days, Georgetown educated students according to its belief that tradition was a source of knowledge and wisdom. There was no choice: one had to learn the classical languages, Greek and Latin, so that students could read the constitutive texts in the Western tradition, the classics of Greece and Rome and the great theological treatises of the Judeo-Christian tradition. These texts formed the “core” of a liberal education, which aimed at the transmission of knowledge which the greatest minds had painstakingly originated, elaborated upon, and preserved. Education was understood to be the transmission of one’s own tradition, the preservation of knowledge and understanding. Its campus center was the library, the very locus of the preservation of knowledge, and the book its mode of transmission, an object of reverence and even of awe (so often a book is pictured in the great university’s Seals). Its main subjects were classical literature, rhetoric, theology, history and philosophy, as well as mathematics and natural sciences. It was well understood how these subjects fit together in the effort to cultivate good character. Even where some specialization existed, faculty saw their part of education as aimed toward a greater whole, the flourishing of soul within each student. Rather than aimed at “critical thinking,” as is so often the case on campuses today, such an education was infused with a kind of reverence and piety, of gratitude and respect.

The modern University came into being with the birth of modern philosophy and the overthrowing of classical philosophy and traditional Christianity. At the heart of this sea change was the new and different belief in human freedom – liberty was now understood as the absence of obstacles and the liberation from oppression. The immediate perceived object were parents, or ancestors, or traditions. The 1960’s saying “don’t trust anyone over 30” was kind of the culmination of modern thought that saw the ancestral as oppressive and arbitrary. Individual choice and liberation of will was now understood as freedom, and not the achievement of a certain end. We became charged with fashioning our own lives, our own ends, of Emersonian “self-reliance.”

At a deeper level, the modern world was formed out of a hostility toward nature itself. Nature represented the ultimate limitation, whether as a force that obstructed the achievement of our wishes or comfort, or even in the form of “human nature” that formed an obstacle to the ends I might wish to choose for myself. In the form of external nature, the goal of education increasingly took the form of mastery or dominion over nature, and modern natural science displaced other disciplines – especially the humanities – in the place of preeminence.

The guiding imperative of education became progress, and not tradition. The new and the young displaced the old and the ancestral. In a world marked by progress, youth would always be more “learned.” This fact is demonstrated daily when parents go to their children to find out how to use the computer. The library’s place of preeminence was replaced by the laboratory. Not tradition, but change and progress were now highlighted (characteristically, John Dewey – the great American prophet of this new form of learning – began the “Lab School” in Chicago, and replaced a curriculum based upon books with “experiential learning.”). Nature was no longer a standard in any sense, since nature was now manipulable and alterable. Why learn the ancient ways of cultivating tomatoes and oak trees when we could alter the genetic code of life itself? When we could extract and process natural resources that would replace old and less efficient ways of cultivation? Why accept the facts of biology when those “facts” could be altered? The definition of what it was to be a human – already challenging and elusive – became increasingly indefensible. Many people began to conclude that there was no human nature, only endless possibilities of self-creation. Education increasingly became oriented not toward the achievement of a certain end, but rather an invitation to endless possibilities.

This “celebration of endless possibilities” is the origin of our current obsession with “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is actually hostile to culture. It is part of the modern University’s program to eviscerate culture, only now through the apparent celebration of culture. Culture is a complete and complex array of memory and practice that must be deeply lived and embraced, as aware to us much of the time as a fish is aware of water. Multiculturalism, by contrast, regards culture as fashion, as a kind of outfit that can be worn and then replaced with other fashions. Culture simply becomes one more of the infinite variety of possibilities that is made available to us in our project of self-fashioning. If we don’t like our culture, we can try on another. In effect, there is really no culture, only the semblance of culture. Culture becomes different foods, clothing styles, dance steps and tchatckas. Without a belief in nature, there is effectively no need for “cultivation,” and hence no real place for culture. Multiculturalism is simply a shorthand term for the death of culture.

The Universities became places that sought to create new knowledge, not to preserve and transmit old knowledge. As such, the rewards for faculty became research and publication of original articles and books, not transmitting a heritage to new and subsequent generations. Indeed, the old teachings became suspect. One could not teach “the great books” as if they had something to teach. The teacher had to understand herself as superior to the old, dead, white men who wrote them, and thereby, rather than acknowledging a debt, rather assert her superiority by finding its flaws and failings. The imperative to prove that progress could occur in the world of ideas meant that all that was old and traditional had to be overthrown.
Core curricula were increasingly seen as obstacles to the new learning, and were strenuously overthrown on campuses around the country. Core curricula – a remnant of an older understanding in which tradition and culture were seen as the necessary conduits of a true form of self-understanding – were increasingly seen as repositories of oppression and stultifying limits. As a parade of protesters at Stanford University shouted in the 1980s, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go…” In many of America’s Universities, core curricula were overthrown outright. In other Universities they were retained, but they were practically eviscerated, and philosophically defeated inasmuch as their reason for existence was seen no longer to apply.

In most cases – and Georgetown is no exception – the fundamental reason for the existence of a core curriculum has been lost in the fog of time, and faculty willy-nilly create courses that fulfill the core requirement without any thought of how they are supposed to contribute toward the end of a liberal education. Most often, predictably, faculty understand their core courses to teach ‘critical thinking,’ not to be a source of conveyance of knowledge about the deepest roots of our own tradition. The core – once intended to transmit accumulated wisdom – is now most often employed to inculcate mistrust of the past, and to encourage “free thinking” unmoored from any deeper understanding of where such free thought is supposed to lead.

You perhaps thought that I was here to deliver a cheerful pep talk laying out a strategy of what would needed to be done to “Take Back Georgetown.” Instead, I bring some rather sobering tidings – the problems that confront the serious student who seeks an education guided by an aim toward the end of human flourishing must understand this as a struggle that goes far beyond Georgetown, and far beyond current politics. The fight lies at the deepest roots of philosophical assumptions about what it is to be human, about the place of nature in education, and about the place and role of tradition and culture in modern society. Taking Back Georgetown will require more, much more, than “balanced” debate on campus. It requires a liberal education – an education that liberates students from the prevailing prejudices and orthodoxies of our time. But, how can one achieve this liberal education in settings that are otherwise so hostile, indeed are formed in active hostility, to liberal education?

The news is bad, but it’s not all bad. As bad as the situation is at many of today’s most elite college campuses, there are almost always a significant or even adequate number of bright spots on even the most politically correct campuses. Just as the gothic towers remain as kind of architectural testaments to what Universities once were, so on most campuses there are vestiges of those who understand their vocation to provide a classical liberal education. In a sense, it’s necessary to see that every University and college is effectively, in point of fact, two Universities or two colleges. One is the predominant form – those faculty and administrators who seek to effectuate an education in “critical thinking,” whose fundamental loyalties lie not in educating undergraduates or a care of the form or end toward which such an education is directed, but rather their own professional standing, a standing that is achieved in particular through the now dominant reward system of arcane and jargon-ridden publication and hyper-specialization – “academics” in its most pejorative form. The other “University” or college is almost always miniscule, indeed, oftimes almost undetectable given the predominance of this first form of modern University. Much less evident than the gothic-style buildings, this “other college” is a kind of residue of the older form of University education. Rather than oriented outward, toward professional rewards and disciplinary recognition, the focus is inward, in particular toward the education of undergraduates in the belief that this is our highest calling, our vocation.

Today’s Universities combine these two institutions, although the latter dominates because its philosophy governs, and accordingly it seeks, attracts, and rewards a faculty which demonstrates fealty to its worldview. The older form of the university persists in corners and tucked away spaces, and must be actively sought. In this sense, Georgetown is actually better than many, even most Universities. There are more nooks and corners here than many hyper-rationalized Universities. Where they exist, avail yourself of them (if you’ve never taken a class with Father Schall, do so – IMMEDIATELY).

What I am saying is that it is possible, in your studies, to “take back Georgetown,” and to do it now, while you are students. You can have a classically liberal education if you decide to seek it out. Without finding these faculty, it does not matter how much a University touts its commitment to classical liberal education, its commitment to teaching, its embrace of its religious traditions, its core curriculum – all of those claims are simply undermined and effectively defeated by the overwhelming presence of faculty and administrators who have no regard, and indeed who harbor active hostility, toward such residues. The most obvious example of this is the meaningless of the contemporary core curriculum absent appropriate faculty who embrace its overarching reason for existence.

For you to have a classical liberal education, you need to grasp the reasons for its existence, the end toward which it aims. There is a core curriculum at Georgetown – you should strive to get as much out of it as you can. Students need to overcome the tendency of seeing such requirements as onerous duties that need to be checked off, but rather embrace them as the foundation that will allow the full flourishing of your educational experience. This means that you have to go beyond just signing up for course titles that fulfill the formal requirement, but undertake some research to discover whether some, and which, of the required courses are being taught by faculty who are devoted to classical liberal education. It may not even be your favorite course topic or subject, but that in fact matters less than the faculty member who teaches it. A great teacher can make any topic soar and inspire achievement from devoted students, whereas a great subject can be slaughtered and gutted by a professor who wants to be anywhere else but in an introductory course.

Most often you will find these classes taught by older faculty members who themselves had the benefit of receiving a liberal education and went through graduate training both before the skewing of academic rewards away from undergraduate education and before the dominion of political correctness in the modern academy. That is, they were taught, and in turn teach, under the now suspect belief that great books have something to impart and something permanent to teach, and that a liberal education is properly directed toward the end of cultivating excellence of character and the virtuous soul. They are great teachers and care deeply about undergraduate education.

At a number of campuses, Georgetown included, there are increasingly some other resources as well. A small number of a younger generation of scholars who abhor the vice-grip of political correctness have at various institutions gained a foothold, often enough of one by which to make a considerable difference in their institutions. Some of these faculty have sought to create initiatives that have the virtue of being conscious efforts to actively combat the dominant ideology of anti-Western and American tradition that pervades college campuses. They also have become a way for otherwise embattled and often isolated faculty who are devoted to classical liberal education to find one another, and, similarly, for students to find one another and these faculty. They thus serve to amplify otherwise potentially muted voices on campus, as well as bringing to campus additional voices who confirm that the tradition is very much alive and vibrant. It was out of this hope, and with this ambition, that I began “The Tocqueville Forum.” We have been successful bringing alternative voices to campus, and providing a locus for otherwise isolated traditional minded scholars and students, and I hope a catalyst for change. There has been much interest in the Program, signifying a thirst for a deeper learning and a rejection of so much contemporary orthodoxy. Our growing presence after only five months gives some reason for hope.

However, let me conclude with a warning – one that I must heed, even as I invite you to ponder it. I must admit to ambivalence about these new Centers, even the Tocqueville Forum, even as I applaud their creation and acknowledge their necessity. They replace in partial form what once necessarily governed on college campuses. Their danger is that they become isolated ghettos of classical liberal learning, one more “culture” in the universe of diverse multiculturalism on today’s college campus, an example of robust diversity and difference. What was once understood to govern college campuses becomes an interest group, vaguely tainted with suspicion. It’s difficult to see how else a reversal can begin to take place, but those of us involved with such endeavors must be wary of simply being subsumed and incorporated in the dominant ideology of our time.

I think you should also be aware of this danger as you think today about not only how to “take Back Georgetown,” but to what end. In the Conference’s Mission Statement on its website, there is mention of the high proportion of liberal professors on campus, the overwhelming support of the faculty for Democratic candidates, and a politically more evenly divided student body. There is the suggestion that conservatives should demand “representation” and balance on campus. I urge you to be wary, however: framing your vision in those terms represents a capitulation to the dominant worldview. Our “culture” is defended as just one more legitimate culture needing representation on a diverse campus. Ours is just one more partial way of life, as legitimate (and as optional) as any other. Conservatism becomes a lifestyle option, a Red State fashion.

As is often the case in the heat of battle, the means can overwhelm or obscure the end. I agree that there needs to be more balance among faculty – but not for the sake of balance. I agree that there needs to be more representation of conservatives – but not for the sake of diversity. I agree that there need to be conservative voices – but not for the sake of self-affirmation.

I urge you to remain vigilant about the goal – the affirmation of education undertaken with a firm belief that it aims toward an end, the flourishing of the human person. It defends the central place of culture as the medium that fosters the fruition of our nature. It highlights the role of education in the formation of good character, of decency and respect, of honor and gratitude. It seeks to inculcate the virtues, including habits that reinforce and solidify those virtues. These are virtues that are both defined by, and lead us to, the end of education. As John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in The Idea of the University, All that goes to constitute a gentleman, the carriage, gait, address, gestures, voice; the ease, the self-possession, the courtesy, the power of conversing, the talent of not offending; the lofty principle, the delicacy of thought, the happiness of expression, the taste and propriety, the generosity and forbearance, the candor and consideration, the openness of hand - these qualities, some of them come by nature, some of them may be found in any rank, some of them are a direct precept of Christianity.” In and through cultivation we become, naturally, cultivated.

Sadly, you strive mightily to come here, you pay exorbitant tuition bills, you labor intensively in the effort to succeed, all the while now being forced to be largely responsible for securing your own liberal education. You are expected already to know the very thing that is supposed to be imparted by that education. The fact that you are here today give me reason for hope. Knowledge that there is a problem, a lack, an awareness of our own ignorance (that old paradox of Socrates, the knowledge that I lack knowledge), is the first step in a liberal education. I urge you to take the second step, and the one after, and to move closer to the end of education that will order your time here at Georgetown, and the whole of your lives. I applaud you for your desire to take back Georgetown, knowing that in that taking you will be in fact be giving a great and lasting gift to yourselves and to future generations of students.