Sunday, March 30, 2008

Religious Verbiage

With Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States just over two weeks away, and the Pennsylvania primary not much further behind, Catholicism seems to be much in the news. While we can expect that the foolishness is just beginning, it's hard to imagine anything that will top this essay in today's Washington Post for sheer erroneous brazenness. The essay claims that Americans won't understand today's Vatican unless they realize that the Holy See is just another outpost in the grand European experiment. The Vatican, we are told, is pacifist, eager to display multicultural sensitivity, not as pro-Israel as would appear (apparently because European elites are oftentimes anti-Semites), and is indistinguishable from secular programs of poverty relief. In short, the Vatican is a kind of foreign blue-state, a Lefty outpost for bleeding heart liberals with robes and funny hats. As the article concludes, "if you're trying to understand how the Pope sees the world, to get past the religious verbiage and the political kernel within, try not to think of Rome. Think of Brussels."

I'll admit, this is a first: normally, the mainstream media disparages the "religious verbiage" in the name of blue state enlightenment. This fellow, Michael Sean Winters, tells us that any such verbiage is epiphenomenal to the deeper political liberalism that results, he suggests, from the fact that the leadership at the Vatican is drawn from the same institutions and schools as the rest of Europe (his evidence - a murdered Italian intelligence officer's brother is an official in the Vatican. Case closed, I guess. I suppose that all that training in seminary is just a kind of veneer, finishing school polish). The basis of the author's argument seems to be, in any way that the Vatican would seem to be critical of policies of the United States, it must therefore be in complete sympathy with the positions of Europe. So, we're to assume that the Vatican is pro-statism, pro-euthanasia, pro-abortion, pro-childlessness and pro-capitulation to Islamic shari'a. QED.

Really, this essay would be laughable for its fanciful and inventive - if poorly argued - thesis, if not for the fact that so many American Catholic elites hold something of this view, or a version of it. Such elites - notably, presidents and officials at Catholic Universities, as well as many Catholic journalists, opinion makers and, of course, politicians - hold the view that Catholicism justifies every aspect of liberalism - particularly those aspects that broadly fall under the umbrella of "social justice" - and only the Vatican hasn't seemed to discover this fact quite yet. Mr. Winters seeks to offer to these elites (many of whom read the Washington Post) the illusion that their Left understanding of Catholicism is, in fact, shared by the Vatican! Happy Days!!

I wonder, though, what many of these elites - particularly those working in Catholic institutions like Georgetown - will make of the Pope's anticipated upbraiding that will take place at a lecture on Catholic education to take place at Catholic University. It's doubtful that many will be able to spin the message as a license to define Catholicism in any way one pleases - much less to dismiss "religious verbiage" as a way to discern the "political kernel within." Stay tuned - but in the meantime, I'd probably avoid pre-ordering Mr. Winter's forthcoming book, "Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats," since, according to the "analysis" of this article, there's really no distinguishing between the two.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Malthus, Again

This article on the increasingly perceptible "limits to growth" - appearing, no less, in the leading free market cheerleader, The Wall Street Journal - deserves to be read by everyone interested in continuing to live (I almost wrote "sustainable economy," but really, they are the same thing). While it maintains throughout the touching faith that innovation and technology will see us through the current encounter with limited resources across the board - petroleum, water, food, industrial materials, etc. - it also avoids the usual blithe dismissiveness toward longstanding fears that unfettered human appetite will end up completely devouring all provisions for our future survival, and even seriously entertains the question of whether Malthus was right after all.




The article concludes, "Indeed, the true lesson of Thomas Malthus, an English economist who died in 1834, isn't that the world is doomed, but that preservation of human life requires analysis and then tough action." We might replace the words "analysis" and "tough action" with "thoughtfulness" and "self-governance." Our future-disregarding assumptions of permanent growth has led us to what Wendell Berry has called "global ignorance" of the consequences of our actions, a kind of worldwide form of behavior that we have seen in a crystalline form in Bear Stearns. We have permitted ourselves the self-deception of thoughtlessness, particularly a willed and irresponsible ignorance toward the future. Believing that technology will solve any problems we might create, we accumulate literal and metaphorical debts, borrowing aggressively against the future in the belief that our children and theirs will be able to continue borrowing against their children's future. Is this how a civilization raises its young, is this the legacy we wish to leave?

Already we can see our tendency is to blame other people for this confrontation with limits. It's the Chinese and Indians. It's the oil companies. It's Bush/Cheney. It's the Islamofascists. In the felicitous phrasing of Jason Peters, "it’s like heavy traffic. Heavy traffic is always other people. When you say 'traffic was terrible' you’re never talking about yourself." Well, folks, the traffic is terrible. But the last thing we should be doing is building more roads.

Hat tip: Rod Dreher

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nationally Recognized?

Well, if it's in the Rome News-Tribune, then it must be true. I notice, however, it doesn't say in what nation these scholars - which may include me, but may not - are "recognized." Maybe in Liechtenstein?

Anyway, if you find yourself in Rome tomorrow evening - Rome Georgia, that is - stop by the science building on the campus of Berry College and listen to me criticize science. My assigned topic is "Virtue, Technology, and Wendell Berry," a highly serviceable title. It should be fun, and thanks to the redoubtable Professor Peter Lawler for hosting a fine gathering of "nationally recognized" scholars. And me.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

5 Books - or Thereabouts

An admiring reader (who would have thought!?) wrote to ask me for the title of five books in political theory that I would consider having been formative in developing the line of thought one finds in the writings here. It was a hard task - kind of like asking about the three books you'd like to have on a desert island - but it helped to be able to limit myself to works of political philosophy and ones that I picked as formative rather than more broadly important. I list below the ones that came immediately to mind - I'd welcome suggestions of texts I've forgotten or overlooked. And, I couldn't help but cheat, as you'll note in text(s) #5.

_______________________

Dear [Reader]:

You pose an interesting, and nearly impossible challenge - distilling what I've come to understand about politics in about five titles. Still, there are a few titles that come to mind, as long as you realize that these are not meant to be comprehensive, but a start, and in particular for what you ask me - as a point of entry to how I've come to look at things.

I begin with the most important first - actually two books (though I'll only count them as one, since they're written by the same author) -

1. Aristotle's Ethics and Politics. Aristotle can be a very dry and often difficult author, but each reading and re-reading brings you deeper into the profoundly integrative and organic way of his thinking in his effort to show that human nature and human culture are not mutually exclusive and, when formed well, should be mutually reinforcing.

2. Vico's New Science. A largely overlooked minor masterpiece. Vico was among the first to criticize the abstractions of Hobbes and Spinoza. His New Science is an effort to ground the origins of human beings on a basis that does not rest on abstract and instrumental reason; rather, Vico "reverse engineers" from what we know about human beings and their nature, including their inclination to form families, to worship, and to build memorials (in particular, to the dead). It is a defense of the "naturalness" of culture, custom, and tradition, and a critique that efforts to undermine those inherited practices through the application of instrumental reason will lead to application of instrumental reason to human relations and a "ricorsi" to barbarism.

3. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Enough said, I'll assume.

4. Tocqueville, Democracy in America. The essential text to understand our age - its virtues and its shortcomings.

5. Tough to choose a last title, and a more contemporary text. Let me cheat and offer a few titles. I'll assume you've read MacIntyre. Bertrand de Jouvenel is well worth reading (e.g., his book On Sovereignty, but really anything. For a good introduction, read Dan Mahoney's short book from I.S.I. Books). Leo Strauss's understanding of the divide between the ancients and the moderns is essential - start with his essay "What Is Political Philosophy?". Hannah Arendt gets some things right, and is always interesting - in particular in her book The Human Condition. Oakeshott is a more analytic and "updated" Burkeian in many ways - the Liberty Fund book Rationalism in Politics is a first rate collection. Pierre Manent is our age's Tocqueville. John Gray is a great analyst of the religious antecedents (and perversions) of modern political thought (e.g., his book Al Queda and What it Means to be Modern). Peter Lawler is our greatest existential, thanocentric critic of modern biotechnologies and the of the effort to make humans "at home" in the world - that is, a modern embodiment of his middle name, Augustine; if you can track down essays written by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, it's worth the effort - though I hope in about another year, you won't need to track them down, as I will be working to bring them together as one or several books; Christopher Lasch was our ages's greatest critic of the faith in progress - especially his book The True and Only Heaven; and, of course, anything and everything Wendell Berry has written.

Yes, I really cheated on this last one, but it's hard to pick the ONE modern classic. Time will tell.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Horton Hears Political Correctness

I took our kids to see the film adaptation of "Horton Hears a Who" yesterday. I'd heard that it was fairly faithful to the book - at least much more so than some recent abominations of Dr. Seuss, including "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat." And it was fairly true to the story, though it was some of the departures that struck me as not only gratuitous, but containing a disturbing agenda that was finally at odds with the lesson of Seuss's book.

I was first jarred by a passing reference by Kangaroo, who we are told early on is the oppressive enforcer of rules in the jungle. On hearing of the excitement of some of the smaller animals about being friends with Horton, she dismissively proclaims, "Oh, I don't allow Rudy to roam around with just anyone. He's pouch-schooled." Already we are given the intimation that home-schoolers are oppressive authoritarians - a reference I thought might be the end of things, but turned out only to be the start.

As the film proceeds, Kangaroo makes it her personal mission to destroy the Clover - and dust speck which rests upon it. In a culminating scene, Kangaroo addresses the assembled jungle animals and incites them to detain and imprison Horton, and to destroy the clover. She exclaims that "these supposed other people can't be seen or heard. If Horton succeeds in persuading people that they exist, it will lead to a breakdown of authority and a descent into anarchy! Let's put him in a cage and destroy the clover!!" Copy on the film's website suggests that she fears that "non-conformity and anarchy are minutes away from turning their ordered life into chaos." There can be no doubting that we are to understand that she is the jungle's equivalent of an Evangelical Christian: small-minded, oppressive, an opponent of imagination, liberation, and autonomy.

But here's what's peculiar: Horton is a defender of life - even life that is too small to be seen. He is a faithful defender of the helpless, frail, and weak. "I said what I meant, and meant what I said: an elephant's faithful, one-hundred percent." And, most famously, his mantra is: "A person's a person, no matter how small."

The movie shows us, then, an analogue for Hollywood's understanding of Evangelical Christians engaged in fierce persecution of a pro-life Elephant (a Republican, no less??!). Hollywood's only way to explain Kangaroo's hatred of Horton is to make her into a version of today's conservative, all the while missing the complicating point that Horton's defense of unseen life is best understood to be the modern analogue of the same conservative Christians. But, this is perhaps finally less a confused and contradictory message than it might appear to be: rather, by emphasizing that the hatred of Horton is ascribable to small-minded conservatism, it detracts any potential attention from the fact that the character for whom the audience is to cheer - the faithful elephant - might otherwise have been seen as admirable precisely because of his defense of life, "no matter how small."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Feeble

Republicans are supposed to be strong on foreign affairs; Democrats, better on the economy. During times in which the nation senses that it is at risk from powers abroad, at least since the association of the Democrats with the peaceniks of the 1960s, the electorate has favored the Republican Party. During times of nervousness about the economy, they have turned to Democrats. Bill Clinton knew this when he made the mantra of his 1992 campaign, "It's the economy, stupid!" We believe this, in good part, because of deeply ingrained memories of FDR and our collective belief that the Democrats will have the good of ordinary citizens in mind. We don't mind that Republicans favor the rich as long as we believe that we'll get rich any moment by flipping houses; it's when the housing market goes bust that we decide that we were against the plutocrats all along.

Yet, this time, the viable candidates for the Democratic nomination thought they could run against the strengths of the Republicans - namely, that they could run against the prosecution of the Iraq War. The debate became one in which it was argued who repudiated the war sooner, and who would withdraw the troops quicker. For all three of the currently viable candidates, the war overshadowed the state of our economy. At least until this week. Meanwhile, John Edwards is wishing he'd stayed in a bit longer...

Now, suddenly, events have outstripped their plans, and the response of the candidates has been pathetic. It's difficult to imagine how it could be otherwise: not only have they not really focused on the economy, but even if they had, it's doubtful they would have any inkling about the more fundamental forces that have brought us to this pass. In fundamental respects the various candidates don't really differ in their views of the economy. Yes, there will be differences in tax policy and government expenditures, and these differences are not without substantial consequences. But, far more fundamentally, they are all running on a platform of Growth - the one object that defines modern liberal democracy and about which people, for all their vaunted diversity and "the fact of pluralism" - nevertheless embrace as an identical goal. For that shared and unquestioned end they are willing to overlook a host of systemic time-bombs we've tucked away in our midst in order to maintain the appearance of growth. In response to the systemic breakdown of our financial markets - the lifeblood of the modern growth economy - not one seems to have a clue about the root causes, or any plausible solutions. As reported in the Bloomberg article (linked above), all three have adopted a "let the Fed handle it" stance. None of the candidates dares to second-guess the Fed at this point, since, as the lender of last resort, it is their only hope to keeping the whole creaky ship afloat. Most revealing about this deeper level of agreement should be our suspicion that the Chairman of the Fed is actually running things, and the race for the Presidency is a nice way of sustaining our belief that popular will matters.

Hillary! - the candidate who claims she would be ready to lead on Day One - had this response to the crisis: our current economic situation "is a really serious piece of business" and said she would seek "advice and counsel from a broad range of economic advisers" (Translation: "I haven't got the damnedest idea of what's going on"). Moreover, to show her seriousness about the high price of oil, she called for a release of oil from the federal government's strategic reserve "as a signal to OPEC that we're not going to stand idly by." I'll bet OPEC is quaking in its sandals, knowing that we'll sell amassed oil purchased at cheaper prices from the Saudis so that we'll have to refill it in coming months when it's more expensive. All for gasoline that will be cheaper by 3 cents per gallon for a month or two. If this is what constitutes the sort of emergency for which the Strategic Reserve was created, then what will we call actual oil shortages that appear to be increasingly likely in our not-too-distant future?

At least John McCain had the honesty to admit that he doesn't know much about the economy. There's the straight-talk express for you.

How about thinking outside the box? It's interesting to recall that the Fed was partly the creation of the populist perennial Presidential candiate, William Jennings Bryan. He saw it as a necessary public counterpoint to massive private industries, a public trustee of common weal. He believed it would represent and act on behalf of all the main players in the economic system, and argued that on its Board should sit a farmer, a wage earner, and a small businessmen, in addition to representatives of financiers. We accept without question - as if it were so mandated from on High - that the Fed is comprised of, and works on behalf of, the financial powers. Why should we accept that as God-given? What would be different if the Fed enacted policy with ordinary citizens, workers, farmers in mind, ones who might argue on behalf of a set of priorities and goods that did not boil down to the brutal efficiency of itinerant global plunder? In part it's difficult to imagine because it would require us to consider a polity with a different set of priorities. We might, for starters, think differently about the economy, as a set of relations and interactions that is aimed at more than profit, but which rightly accounts for goods beyond efficiency and maximum return. We might add the worth of small and local businesses and their investment in their communities; the good of small farmers and widespread ownership of property by families who provide for their daily bread from the sweat of their own brow; of the virtues of frugality, self-governance and moderation. I much doubt these are considerations or words that have ever been spoken during a meeting of the Fed, and won't be during the Presidency of any of the current candidates, for all their purported differences.

Dignity

Yesterday I appeared on a panel organized by the President's Council on Bioethics and held on the campus of Georgetown University. The panel was assembled to discuss a new publication by the Council, entitled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The report is a first rate collection of essays by top thinkers in the field of bioethics, including Robert George, Peter Lawler and Gil Meilander.

I had some of the following to say about the volume:

Let me address the most contentious issue contained in the volume – the claim that dignity is a religiously-based concept, and hence not justifiable in a secular liberal democracy because of its basis in faith – that is, unreasoned belief. This is a view that is advanced by Daniel Dennett, who argues that claims to human dignity are a “holy myth,” that “science has banished the soul as firmly as it has banished mermaids, unicorns, and perpetual motion machines.” It is the view expressed in a recent council meeting about this report by Steven Pinker, who finds many of the discussions of the religious basis of the idea of dignity explored in this book “to be highly tendentious. They would be extraordinary in just about any other government forum. If they ever served as the basis of legislation, they would almost certainly violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.” It is a view aggressively stated by Patricia Churchland, who argued in the report that “we have much more to fear from the moral dogmatist who brandishes his unshakeable certainty about what God supposedly wants and intends concerning human dignity than from the calmly tolerant person who will listen to others.”

At the heart of the criticisms of these respective science and technology enthusiasts – those who find the concept of dignity to be wanting and either seek its replacement or rejection – is the belief that the benefits of science for the relief of the human estate are incontrovertible and cannot be gainsaid. Adherence to a Biblical conception of dignity – one that would urge caution to the aggressive application of biomedical interventions in a host of areas – is seen as antiquated and unjustified belief. Churchland summarily argues that “as the benefits of technology become plain, it becomes more and more difficult to convince large numbers of people that enduring the misery of disease is morally superior to enjoying the benefits of health.” In their own respective ways, each of these thinkers admirably and genuinely maintains that through biotechnology the misery of humankind can be relieved in a host of ways, an end that is seen by Nick Bostrom as an actual overall increase in human dignity.

However, in each of these essays a curious feature emerges: each of these thinkers is positive, without doubt or misgiving, without second thought or reservation, that the expansion of biotechnology to human life will result in positive goods. Take, for instance, the chapter by Daniel Dennett, whose title alone gives every appearance of recognizing that science can pose a threat to human dignity: “How to Protect Human Dignity from Science.” He begins by differentiating threats we can know from and about the physical environment- the example he gives is global warming – from threats that would undermine our belief environment. He does not scoff at the very real danger that threats to our belief environment can pose: for instance (in a timely example), he notes that a currency can become worthless when people cease to believe that it represents value. Such loss of belief, he suggests, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy “whether they are right or wrong” (43). That is, even when wrong objectively in their belief that a sound currency has become worthless, that currency will nevertheless become as worthless as if it had objectively lost its value. At this very moment in his argument, Dennett alludes to the fear that “if we pursue our current scientific and technological exploration of the boundaries of human life … we will soon find ourselves in a deteriorating situation where people – rightly or wrongly – start jumping to conclusions about the non-sanctity of life…” (43-4). Dennett summarizes this fear as wholly irrational: “faced with that dire prospect, it becomes tempting indeed to think of promulgating a holy lie, a myth that will carry us along for long enough to shore up our flagging confidence until we can restore ‘law and order.’” (44).

This is a curious conclusion by Dennett’s own assumptions. Whether there is an objective thing such as dignity or not, some people believe in such a thing and invoke it against certain biotechnological explorations out of fear that it will be violated and human life will cease to be accorded inherent value. Even by the terms of Dennett’s own argument, one would at least conclude that one would need to proceed carefully in such an environment, recognizing that – as he himself states – “in some regards belief environment is more important and more fragile” than even the physical environment (43). Rather than suggesting that this particular belief environment might be as fragile as a monetary system, he proclaims with certainty that there are certain features of humans that he regards as incontrovertibly the source of our belief in human dignity, features which accord us with special status that does not have to be justified in terms of religious belief. They are “language, and art, and music, and religion, and humor, and the ability to plan projects that take centuries to unfold,” among other qualities unique to humanity. Curiously, having noted that religion is one of the things that makes us unique, he would reject our inheritance of that tradition as “holy myth” – even at the risk of undermining a certain belief, whether held “rightly or wrongly.” In short, Dennett is remarkably self-certain that belief in human dignity that factually has its roots in a lengthy religious tradition has no bearing on actual human dignity – outright contradicting his purported concern for the fragility of belief systems.

Moreover, Dennett is unwilling to entertain the possibility that we humans might act in self-destructive ways even in the face of doubts or concerns for unintended consequences. He suggests that we have sure knowledge of technological activities that would compromise the human good. Yet, his very example drawn from the “physical environment – namely, global warming – suggests otherwise. Global warming has come to pass because we inventive humans devised ways to extract and exploit highly concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, thereby releasing carbon molecules that had been previously sequestered through natural processes for millions of years. At the very outset of the industrial revolution, when human self-confidence about its own technological mastery of the physical world was certainly as high as Dennett’s about our capacity to “technologically exploit [the complexities of human life] in entirely novel ways” (40), there was little question by progressive minded people and technologists that burning fossil fuels was the path to human happiness. Yet, what are we to make then the warnings of Svante Arrhenius, who in the late 19th-century concluded from measurements of infrared radiation from the full moon that humanity was increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, and predicted that the average global temperature would rise as much as 9 degrees if the amount of carbon dioxide in the air doubled from its pre-industrial levels? Would Dennett conclude that we ought not to have burned those fossil fuels – that we should have stopped human scientific and technological progress right in its tracks? Would he argue that the burning of fossil fuels in spite of these warnings – as he suggests is true of biotechnology – is an instance we can assert our “faith in science” based upon “the proven record of scientific success?” (41). Or, can it be that we exploited this technology in spite of dangers that some suspected might occur because it served our comfort, self-satisfaction, accorded with our tendency toward short-term thinking, and reflected an unwarranted confidence that any negative consequences could be managed by more science? Ought we be any less suspicious of our motives when thinking of relieving our bodily discomforts, pains, imperfections, even at the cost of potentially exploiting other human beings or undermining our inherited notions of human dignity, as we were over 100 years ago when our forbears blithely ignored the empirical evidence of an eventual Nobel prize winning scientist?

The unquestioned self-confidence over uncontestable benefits of science and our unerring ability to recognize any dangers is even more confidently and contentiously stated by Patricia Churchland in her essay “Human Dignity from a Neurological Perspective.” Churchland resorts to several historical examples of religious-based opposition to scientific advances that she suggests categorically reveal the baselessness of any objections to scientific progress in the biomedical realm. The examples she provides are first, opposition to vaccination of the small pox disease – 18th and 19th century objections to which she compares to contemporary opposition to universal dissemination of the HPV vaccine; second, opposition to anesthesia as a method of relieving pain during childbirth; and third, contemporary opposition to stem cell research. Such objections she regards as evidence of “moral certitude” that stymies “the compromises and negotiations of fair-minded, sensible people.”

But how fair-minded is it, in the first instance, to compare opposition to HPV vaccinations to earlier opposition to smallpox vaccinations? There is the suggestion that the diseases are self-evidently comparable, without acknowledgement that the opposition to universal HPV vaccination is not born of irrational superstition, but the fear of societal condoning of multiple sex partners among its young women. This is one instance of the inability to credit minimal reasonableness to the claims of the opposition, an inability that is more deeply evinced in particular by the choice of examples. Lost is some of the context of the 19th-century, in which religious believers of various stripes opposed the forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, proposals of State-sponsored euthanasia, and culminated in the 20th century with the experimentation by Nazis upon unwilling human subjects. In retrospect there were undoubtedly times when opposition to certain procedures was not justified, just as, in retrospect, we would regard opposition as praiseworthy and in the right. Yet, in positing that technological innovation is always beneficial and religious belief always constitutes irrational belief, one is forced to conclude that it is Churchland who evinces the highest degree of dogmatism and evinces little of the “fair-minded sensibleness” that she otherwise lauds.

What I see in the essays by a number of the other authors in this volume who defend a notion of human dignity that would at the very least force us to question whether the benefits of biotechnology are as without cost as some suppose, is a far greater sense of humility about ascertaining the right or appropriate application of these new technologies upon human beings. I detect no anti-scientism among these more cautious authors, but concerns that certain technologies may lead to utilitarian calculations, an increased disregard for generational obligations and duties, or a host of slippery slopes, such as the fear that unlimited enhancement would lead to a society that pursues “designer-babies” and makes successive generations obsolete or would lead to the differentiation of the species into classes; the concern that “euthanasia” would lead to the active encouragement of killing of elderly people who young and autonomous persons regard as burdensome and no longer flourishing; or the trepidation that cloning will be pursued for the ends of organ harvesting or “replacement” parts. None of these fears could be regarded by a “fair-minded and sensible” person as without grounds, and only a person without doubts, without concerns for unintended consequences, lacking an even-handed regard for a mixed historical record – a person that one might even call dogmatic – could think otherwise.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Big

On Friday the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of bailing out Bear Stearns, one of the big five Wall Street firms that was in danger of running out of funds due to what numerous commentators have described as a "bank run." This morning Treasury Secretary Paulson defended the bailout as essential, a necessary step to ensuring order in the financial markets and preventing a major shock to the American economy. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the failure of Bear Stearns would have devastated the markets and the broader economy. The failure of Bear Stearns would have been the catalyst for a widening circle of bank failures once those firms which had capital investments with B.S. would have had to call in funds from their creditors to ensure adequate liquidity. As it was, the markets fell again substantially on Friday, as they have the past three weeks, and it's hard to see where this cycle ends.

I have little doubt that Bear Stearns if absolutely FULL of workers who have been BIG TIME defenders of free markets for much of their lives. I am fairly certain that they have condemned countless interventions of the Federal government in numerous spheres, lamenting that the efficiency of market solutions have been undermined by top-heavy, interventionist, "socialist planning" guvment meddling. Indeed, I'll even bet that most of them, while relieved at the Fed's lifeline (ensuring that most will continue to have jobs - at least for another several days) will hardly be shaken in their view - in spite of the fact that those very efficient markets would have forced them to shut the doors on those masses of depositors who demanded their money - with little hope that George Bailey could calm them down while pulling out his personal funds to cover the loans.

To this argument, many have pointed out that "Bear Stearns is too big to allow to fail." This is indeed true: its investments are so deeply intertwined in the financial activities of so many other firms and banks that to allow it fail would have meant the failure of countless other institutions, leading to literal bank runs even as your friendly neighborhood bank shut its doors. The very interconnectedness of a vast financial system - itself resembling the interconnectedness of the entire economic system - means that there are certain players in the system whose failure would be tantamount to the failure of the system itself.

This state of affairs suggests two things: first, this condition reveals that at least one of the origins of the current crisis was the confidence of such institutions where the rot has currently set in that they would not be allowed to fail, no matter what reckless and morally dubious financial transactions they participated in. Indeed, the more they could implicate their transactions in those of other institutions, the more buffered they were against the ultimate consequences of their actions. This entire condition is one gigantic "moral hazard," one in which there is an enormous incentive to become huge - through acquisition, merger, and outright hostile takeovers - in order to ensure that financial chicanery would be rewarded no matter what the consequence. The imperative to "get big" (echoing the same cry of Ford's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, to farmers) is nothing more than the effort to ensure that you will become impervious to the consequences of your actions.

Secondly - and more importantly, in my view - the fact that this firm was "so big it could not be allowed to fail" starkly reveals the fundamental bias in the current economic and political system toward massiveness and centralization. Note well: such largeness is constantly invoked against those who would commend smaller and more local forms of economy and banking as BETTER because, unlike economies of smaller scale, such large scale (national, international, global) enterprises ensure that no ONE local failure will result in deprivation. That is, in small economies, when a crop fails or a bank folds, the whole community is potentially shattered. A large scale economy theoretically spreads risk so that the consequences of small failures are minimized, much like a punch to a Sumo wrestler is absorbed by his gigantic girth. The fact that the failure of Bear Stearns was not permitted to occur because it would have potentially caused the collapse of the entire American and even international financial system suggests that this argument on behalf of bigness has always been false and beside the point. Further, the entire sordid subprime (and increasingly prime) fiasco has shown how this system has been designed to ensure that everyone is able to avoid responsibility - unlike a more local economy, in which responsibility toward one's community, friends, and neighbors is felt with some force. One could easily argue that a Government could just as easily intervene and ensure against the worst effects of a local failure just as it has done in the current instance of defending against the failure of the global system. We should now put aside the riposte by defenders of economies of massive scale that such an economy defends against failure by spreading risk; if anything, the consequences of our current systemic failure are likely to be far more costly and pervasive, even as we have undermined our moral resources that would otherwise need to accompany this challenging moment.

So what is at issue then? Far from representing a "neutral" position toward human ends or the "good" (a laughable article of faith in contemporary liberalism), our current economic and political system is riven with deep preferences that are otherwise most often barely discernible, even if hidden in plain sight. Most fundamentally, no matter the party or the "ideology," there is a deep hostility toward the local. There is a pervasive adversity toward commitment, loyalty, memory, the willingness to be content with what one has and where one is. There is, instead, a systemic pressure to adopt the Hobbesian view of man - "a restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death" (a.k.a., "the pursuit of happiness"). Big means more than even just growth, wealth, and power: it is a systemic orientation that encourages avarice, greed, restlessness and a willed (and eventually habitual) ignorance of the costs of our actions. Everyday I see the evidence of this systemic assumption in the students I teach: they have internalized the imperatives of their parents, ones they have learned from everyone around them, from the media, the elites, the leaders of our society, that the only true measure of success in our society is gain, ascent to the centers of power, wealth and power. They accord no special regard to other virtues that one might instead embrace, including the aspiration to make good families in good communities in which we are able stewards of what we are and possess, in which we take pride and are accorded honor for our contributions to those communities (whether monetarily rewarded or not), and in which we tend to the memory of the dead and care for the future of the unborn. We celebrate the "free market" as a neutral means of attaining the various goods we might individually seek, while ignoring an enormous finger on the scale that tends to funnel all conceptions of good to a point of singularity - insatiability. We tend to think of our current way of life as wholly natural, a way of life inherently arising from that "natural" condition described by Hobbes which was itself a masterful redefinition of our nature to fit his particular goal of a certain kind of society - one dominated by Leviathan, the great, massive, central powers that would ensure our safety even as that system wrought in us infinite and unfulfillable appetites.

Dallying in Dallas

Once again, thanks to the good offices of Mr. Crunchy Con, Rod Dreher, a version of an earlier "blawg" entry has appeared in the Dallas Morning News. Rod is doing his level best to allow me the experience of slightly fulfilling my fantasy career - a newspaperman. Thanks Rod!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Over A Barrel

Political and economic theory dating from the 18th-century holds that commerce will be the grease that decreases nationalist sentiments, that leads to a softening of the warlike virtues and their replacement with economic virtues, that eventually will lead to what Kant called a "cosmopolitan peace" among a world comprised of liberal nations. For many commentators - among them, longtime proponents of theories of "democratic peace" - this theory seems to have been proven in the laboratory of modernity. Even at one point dubbed the "McDonald's Thesis" by Thomas Friedman, the belief was that free-market economics would lead to a world of peace and the decline of the assertion of national identity, honor and primacy.

While 9/11 already had partially shattered this view, it could be argued that one of the many reasons for undertaking the war in Iraq - and, in fact, one of the reasons that actually lie behind the invasion - was the continued faith in this theory. It was believed by many that establishing a liberal, secular, democratic, free market beachhead in the Middle East would create a domino effect in which the populations of other Middle Eastern nations would demand to have a similar arrangement. While many, perhaps most, have had this faith shattered as well, there are still a good many people in influential places who hold that this can still be the long-term outcome of the war.

But unfolding before us on the world stage right now are gathering warning signals that this long-held theory is running into a grim reality. This theory - summarized with brilliant and prescient insight by Marx and Engels in the opening pages of "The Communist Manifesto" - argued on behalf of the relentless unfolding of an international and cosmopolitan order that would expand according to the logic of industrial production. Wrote Marx and Engels,

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.


Yet, what we see today arising alongside the seeming apotheosis of this predicted process is its opposite: the renewed assertion of nation both as a reaction to this process, but more deeply, in anticipation of its exhaustion. Written in 1848, Marx and Engels rightly foresaw a world in which commodities from one place would be shipped elsewhere, seeking out foreign markets for the import of money or other goods, while other markets would be employed for cheap labor for assembly and production. Their vision - that shared by most mainstream (non-Marxist!) economists today, was premised upon a future of expanding and seemingly endless resources. Nations would gladly rearrange their internal ordering - would sweep away "all fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions" and make "new-formed ones antiquated before they can ossify." While there is overwhelming evidence that this is the case, some signs suggest that this theory may be confronting a different reality.

Consider the current economic system, writ large. While it appears, at least on the surface, to resemble the order that was predicted by thinkers ranging from Smith to Montesquieu to Marx and Kant and beyond, another way of looking at it is that far from representing the growth of cooperation and growing empathy bordering on the transcendence of nations for a cosmopolitan worldview, what we are actually seeing with growing clarity is a system in which each player is trying to use the others to the greatest possible extent before scrambling out of the system to avoid the wreck. It's like a gigantic game of "Chicken" with all of us heading to a point of convergence - cosmopolitan bliss? - while in fact realizing that someone is going to swerve, and that everyone will get burned in the process. Economics is just war by another means.

The major players literally, and figuratively, have each other over a barrel. This is not cosmopolitan nirvana, but mutual exploitation that barely covers the ultimate ambition of zero sum game. America has/had wealth and insatiable appetite. China produces cheaply, buys little, and gobbles up our debt. The Saudis and a few others sit on an (evaporating) ocean of oil and little else, pumping madly to sell what they can while they can. None of these folks very much like each other, but we need each other for our own prosperity - right now at least. The Americans need the oil, so we transfer dollars (once of some worth) and provide a military umbrella for a familial dictatorship. Because we're going broke, we need cheaper goods, so we export jobs for Wal-Mart crap. Meanwhile, the Saudis need us as consumers/addicts, so they hold the line on keeping oil priced in dollars (for the moment) and, until now, have worked hard to keep the price of oil within a price band - at least until it's no longer possible to increase production to bring down demand-driven price increases. The Chinese are getting itchy about holding trillions of dollars in increasingly worthless debt - its worthlessness being increased every day by a Fed that's inflating the economy with full knowledge that we're screwing our owners - but can't quite afford to dump their Treasuries knowing that this would put a nail in the American economic coffin, correspondingly undermining their own "growth miracle."

An international economic system destined for the transcendence of nation? Or, a game of Chicken? Who blinks first? Do the Chinese dump the dollar? Do the Saudis agree with the likes of Kuwait (a nation of much gratitude for its "liberation") to price oil in Euros or gold? Does Uncle Sam continue to give them the big middle finger in its efforts to bail out its bankers and Wall Street "playas"? When one card gets pulled out of the house, what happens to our happy narrative of globalization?

Lying behind all this is what Smith, Marx, Kant, etc., did not envision - a world of increasingly constrained "stuff." The cosmopolitan dream - all Martha Nussbaum airy "expanded mentality" Kantianism aside - was most deeply premised on what Marx clearly saw, namely, the circulation of commodities and cheap labor. For this circulation to work well and readily, those commodities had to be plentiful and relatively cheap. With growing constraints in nearly every area - petroleum, metals, water, food (a.k.a. petroleum), you name it - the world is seeing a resurgence of resource nationalism and the growing sense that cooperation works best when the pie is growing, not so well when it's shrinking. Could we call it "peak globalization"? Just at the moment when our universities and elite institutions are preparing the next generation for a utopic world of international cooperation and glorious cosmopolitanism, we may just be re-playing an ancient human tragedy in which our theory blinds us to reality.

Indeed, my nugget for today: beware of any academic peddling a theory that ends with the suffix "-ization." We have not yet given up the Geist, but history never had it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

Some upcoming appearances. The concert tour T-shirt should be available at all these events:

1. I'll be participating in a panel discussion entitled “Human Dignity and Bioethics," recognizing the publication of Human Dignity and Bioethics by The President’s Council on Bioethics. This volume includes essays by Leon Kass, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, Robert George, Patricia Churchland, Peter Lawler and many more, and is available on request from info@bioethics.gov. It's a terrific book - and free!

This event is being held at Georgetown on Tuesday, March 18 from 10:30 a.m. until noon in The Riggs Library, 3rd floor, the Healy Building, Georgetown University, 37th and O streets, NW. The discussion features Tom Beauchamp, Alisa Carse, and yours truly, all of Georgetown University.

2. I'll be speaking at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, home institution of the redoubtable Peter Lawler, on March 26. This is part of a two-day campus colloquium on the subject "The Politics of Science and the Science of Politics," the 11th Annual Conference on Politics, Religion, Culture, and Community, March 26-27, 2008. I'll be speaking at 6 p.m. on the 26th on the subject of "Virtue, Technology, and Wendell Berry" in the Science Auditorium; a loaded and estimable panel of commentators will include: Kevin Pybas, Missouri State University; James Poulos, Essayist and Ph.D candidate at Georgetown University; Joseph M. Knippenberg, Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University; and Jeff Lidke, Berry College.

3. A lecture on "The Alternative Tradition in American Political Thought" at Patrick Henry College on April 2 - some time in the evening. Details to follow.

4. A lecture and/or colloquium at Wofford College in Spartenburg, SC, on April 12. Details to Follow.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Food Fight

Bloody Brilliant.

Second Sailing

So, without saying more, I was on a boat for a week. It called to mind an essay I wrote some years ago for something of a Festschrift volume devoted to Amitai Etzioni which was edited by my teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams. Carey passed away toward the end stages of putting it together, so I helped to bring it to print. Eventually published under the title The Active Society Revisited, the book was largely an appreciative but also sometimes critical assessment of the contributions of Etzioni's earliest (and often abstruse and dense) book. My own submission was placed last in the collection, as it sought to offer a generous overview of Etzioni's corpus. What brought the essay to mind in the context of my recent trip, of course, was its opening section (later revisited) on the metaphor of the ship in the history of political thought. While researching that particular metaphor was the subject of some hearty laughs in the grand old Princeton basement bar "The Annex" (alas, now closed), I think the contrast between the ancient and modern conceptions of ships is of value, and so - in honor of my recent seafaring - I post it here.

From the Active Society to the Good Society:
The Second Sailing of Amitai Etzioni

Patrick J. Deneen
Princeton University (now Georgetown)

Among the most ancient and evocative metaphors for human community – be it a polis, the State, or society – is that of a ship. “Ship of State” is a phrase commonly invoked to capture the sense of common undertaking among citizens, the concomitant intimation of a common destination, as well as the awareness of peril that threatens any sea-bound vessel.

While invocations of the image of a “ship” as a symbol for society are common throughout western political thought, there is a broad but fundamental distinction that might be thought to divide ancient from modern conceptions of “ship” as society. For the ancients, the invocation of the ship metaphor more often directed attention toward the internal elements of the ship, particularly the character and relationships among the “sailors” qua citizens. Alternatively, for moderns, the invocation more often pointed to the ship itself – the elements of its construction, its condition, its course. For the ancients, the excellence of a “ship” was primarily determined by the excellence of character (ethos) or soul (psyche); for the moderns, attentiveness to external structures reflect both the modern inclination to avoid the potential oppressiveness that comes from character-formation, as well as a greater belief in the possibility of human mastery and dominion.

A characteristic, indeed foundational, invocation of the ship image is one of the rightly famous images amid the description of the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic. Socrates describes the baleful condition of most cities because of a certain inattentiveness to the arts of ruling and right order:

Conceive something of this kind happening either on many ships or one. Though the shipowner surpasses everyone on board in height and strength, he is rather deaf and likewise somewhat shortsighted, and his knowledge of seamanship is pretty much on the same level. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the piloting, each supposing he ought to pilot, although he has never learned the art…. Enchaining the noble shipowner with mandrake, drink, or something else, they rule the ship, using what’s in it; and drinking and feasting, they sail as such men would be thought likely to sail…. They don’t know that for the true pilot it is necessary to pay careful attention to year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that’s proper to the art, if he’s really going to be skilled at ruling a ship.


In a similar vein, if characteristically less hierarchical, Aristotle also compared the city to a ship, and more importantly, the citizenry to its complement of sailors in the Politics:

Like a sailor, a citizen is someone who shares in community with others. And although sailors are unlike in their capacities (for one is a rower, another a helmsman, another a lookout man, and another has some other such title), it is clear that … there will be some common account that fits them all. For they all have as their work the safety of the voyage. In like manner, then, the citizens, though being dissimilar to each other, have the safety of the community as their work….


Both these examples, drawn from constitutive works in the ancient tradition, attest to the attentiveness paid by ancient thinkers to the quality and relationships of the individuals and community on the ship, and concomitantly less emphasis upon the ship itself. For Plato, such ships, like most cities, are ill-governed and chaotic precisely because the ruling arts are not recognized by most ordinary people, and one who would practice them, a “true pilot,” is considered by the rabble to be “a stargazer, a prater, and useless to them by those who sail on ships run like this” (489a). The Republic’s recommendation of the “philosopher-king” is an attempt to bring proper order toward the end of creating the good city, and hence, by implication, a well-managed ship. Aristotle, not altogether differently, views the division of labor aboard the “ship of state” to be a sign not most fundamentally of civic divisiveness, but rather as a source of strength for the common enterprise of the preservation of the regime. These accounts are characteristic of the ancients in their emphasis upon the dispositions, qualities, even souls of the “sailors.” The condition of the ship is secondary to the character of and relationships among its “crew.”

Modern political thought frequently alludes to the “ship of state,” but often with more attentiveness to the ship itself rather than its crew. A characteristic modern articulation of the greater importance of structure over “character” is expressed by David Hume in his essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” in which Hume relates that European mathematicians have been divided over “that figure of a ship, which is the most commodious for sailing…,” and proposes in this regard that “it must be advantageous to know what is the most perfect in the kind, that we may be able to bring any real constitution or form of government as near as it is possible….”

Reflecting Enlightenment confidence of the human ability to navigate, and conquer, nature, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the structure of the ship over its sailors: “The storm through which we have passed, has been tremendous indeed. The tough sides of our Argosie have been thoroughly tried. Her strength has stood the waves into which she was steered, with a view to sink her. We shall put her on a republican tack, & she will show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders.” The image of the modern state as near-impervious ship is captured most characteristically in the confident rhythms of the final stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “O Ship of State”:

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, are all with thee!

These images portray the modern ship of state – particularly the consummately modern regime of America – as nearly invincible in its power and perpetual on account of its superb design and workmanship. Even images that take into account modern man’s purportedly more modest sense of human potential nevertheless evoke, if only as an undercurrent, persistent belief in the prospects of human mastery. The ship image that haunts the modern belief of its mastery and dominion is, inexorably, the Titanic, capsized in apparent contradiction to its proud claims of invincibility. Yet even in this evident warning against the hubris of modern man, the Titanic’s mythology is just as often invoked to remind us of the possibility of that its downfall was not, most fundamentally, the failing of the ship (or of a similar ship properly designed), but of its flawed human creators who might, absent their penchant for corruption or by means of further technological improvement, be capable of yet creating an unsinkable ship.

Amitai Etzioni begins his pathbreaking 1968 book The Active Society with a nautical image that, he says, accompanied him throughout: “The image which often appeared to me as these pages were written was that of an ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring not only more drive but also reconstruction while continuing to sail the high seas.” His image is insistently modern in its emphasis upon the ship, and especially so by dint of its appeal to the motorized and massive “ocean liner,” a vessel that plies the sea virtually without obstacle, one vastly larger than almost all other man-made objects afloat. The Active Society, Etzioni alerts us by means of this introductory image, is consummately modern. Its orientation, thus, might be said to focus more upon activity than the condition of the “crew,” or the members of society, as such. One labors largely in vain to find in its pages a discussion of the necessary character of the citizenry of an “active society,” or recommendations of forms of civic education or moral culture that would be necessary to cultivate and sustain such a citizenry. Rather, one sees its strongly modern orientation, in particular, in Etzioni’s equation of “knowledge and power,” and in his continual insistence upon the necessity of “transformation.”

Absent among the hundreds of names that appear in the index of The Active Society is Francis Bacon, although his presence is certainly evident in spirit if not in fact. Bacon is among the first thinkers in the Western tradition to equate power and knowledge: “knowledge is power,” he wrote in 1597. For Bacon, power could be augmented especially by means of scientific investigation into nature, and further, the alteration and manipulation of nature by means of “discoveries and inventions.” Nature is, if most obviously humankind’s unwitting antagonist, nevertheless also a vast storehouse of potential remedies for the very challenges posed by nature itself. Bacon advanced a conception of science that emphasized control of nature – to the extent possible – as a means to securing and extending power in all domains. As he wrote in the explanation of his essay “Proteus” in The Wisdom of the Ancients – an updating of the ancient myths in which the myths reveal the wisdom of scientific advancement – science could extract nature’s secrets by force in a manner akin to the Inquisitor:

For the universe, with the common structures and fabrics of the creatures, is the face of matter, not under constraint, or as the flock wrought upon and tortured by human means. But if any skilful minister of nature shall apply force to matter, and by design torture and vex it, in order to its annihilation, it, on the contrary, being brought under this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the Creator can annihilate, or truly destroy it; so that at length, running through the whole circle of transformations, and completing its period, it in some degree restores itself, if the force be continued. And that method of binding, torturing, or detaining, will prove the most effectual and expeditious, which makes use of manacles and fetters; that is, lays hold and works upon matter in the extremest degrees.


Science, seen as an enterprise by means of which knowledge continually expanded and power was constantly extended, undergirded the definitively modern tenet that Bacon, perhaps among the earliest if not also most fervent of early modern thinkers, advanced – namely, the belief in progress. Progress was conceived to be possible not only in the material sphere alone, but, as human knowledge and power expanded, in the moral realm as well. In this sense, Bacon viewed his own project as fundamentally transformative of the human condition, even to the extent that humankind would return to the prelapsarian condition in which alienation from other humans, nature, and the divine could be overcome, and humankind’s original “power” could be restored.
Etzioni stresses the importance of knowledge as a means of increasing power to control of societal processes: “To know is to have power, and social knowledge is a source of power over society…” (AS, 15). In The Active Society, Etzioni – like Bacon before him – places his hopes for the expansion of knowledge, and hence, an increase in power and societal activity, in the practices of science and scientists, albeit now the social sciences. Knowledge, qua power, is thus “the propellant of transformation” (AS, 201). The aim of the “active society” is the transformation of society and all of its members:

In the process of societal activation, not only do more people gain a share in the society, thereby reconstituting its structure, but the members themselves are also transformed…. Mankind is continually redefining itself…. A general will exists which, though not standing above the members, is not merely their reflection at each point in time. Members who are active change the societal structure, advance the general will, and, in turn, rely on the changes structures in advancing themselves.
(AS, 15
)

Etzioni’s overarching argument in The Active Society replicates a number of fundamental tenets of modern faith: the possibility of ongoing and endless progress, the prospect of human and societal transformation, the vision of control and dominion over natural and social processes: “to be active is to be in charge; to be passive is to be under control, be it of natural processes, of social waves and streams, or – active others…. The fact is, however, that social laws can be altered. It is here that we find the key to a secular conception of man – in the ability of men, by changing their social combinations, to change themselves, to be their creator” (AS, 4).

Much of The Active Society echoes many themes from American, and especially Deweyan, pragmatism (and, not accidentally, Dewey consciously appeals to the authority of Bacon in fashioning modern pragmatism). The “active society” is one in which high levels of activity, aimed at articulating and securing the common good of the society, is cultivated and extensively undertaken. “The Active Society” combines a notion of a highly participatory society – mainly through its various organizational sub-units – while recognizing the need for “societal guidance” that is afforded by social elites. Etzioni’s theory is a rejection of then ruling determinist paradigms of “structural functionalism” associated especially with the sociological theories of Talcott Parsons. Equally, Etzioni sought to set himself apart from sociologically thin “voluntarist” theories of society emanating from the liberal/contractarian school of political theory. Etzioni saw his theory occupying a middle ground between these two prominent positions in sociological and political theory. “It seems most productive to presuppose a perpetual, in part, creative, conflict between the forces of design and those of inertia and opposition, to see social systems as in part guided by a cybernational overlay, and in part an underlay composed of collective bodies, of societal bonds, values, institutions, and powers that resist guidance.” The challenge, in Etzioni’s view, was to increase “activity” by facilitating communication between guiding elites without those same elites thwarting or undermining the prospects of widespread popular activity. Communication was conceived as an acceptable form of power, aimed at increasing levels of social activity – primarily, but not solely, through social movements. As such, Etzioni decidedly favored “persuasive” power over alternative forms, such as “utilitarian” or “coercive” (AS, 357-9).

Etzioni is realistic in thinking that all societies exercise power, whether as an outright form of coercion or through less visible forms of influence and subtle control. Even “conserving a status quo” reflects an exercise of power: “the notion that evil is imposed by power while goodness flies on its own wings assumes an optimistic view of human nature and societal institutions that has little evidence to support it” (AS, 321). For Etzioni, the exercise of power “is the principle way of getting things done,” and thus is an overarching factor in creating “the active society.” Etzioni seeks not an absence of power, per se, but rather a high degree of consensus in the exercise of power by means of the creation of the active society. Societies must be rendered “responsive” by means of an expansion of communication from elites to groups, and through “feedback” from social groups to scientific, educational, and political elites (AS, chs. 17-18).

In The Active Society Etzioni rejects “community for community’s sake”: such a commitment to existing social bonds and relationships represents “a retreat from engagement, consciousness, and effective action; a return to passivity is a trap to which many social movements have fallen” (AS, 14). Activity is the sole means of effecting the ongoing “transformation” of society, of increasing the possibility of high levels of communication and feedback among and between the different strata of society, and finally of forging consensus about the shared values that emanate from such social ferment. Ultimately, an “active society” will overcome the limits of “society” narrowly conceived: Etzioni envisions that the trajectory of the “active society” is toward an increasingly international order in which limiting communities are superseded. “Many values to which societies under study subscribe, especially stable peace, cannot be realized unless tribalism is superseded at least to a degree.” Etzioni propounds “a change in the boundaries of the units of control and of responsiveness. The national society, a concentration of societal guidance in the hands of a nation-state, is a limited historical phenomenon…. Since the active society will be a post-nationalist one, an active citizen will be a cosmopolitan one…” (AS, 11). Social scientists will play a key role in effecting the transcendence of citizens from particular allegiances to cosmopolitan identities – a prospect that will be furthered when social science understands its own mission as distinct from any allegiance to national sub-units, and instead recognizes “the community of man” (AS, 608).

The model form of “activity” that is most likely to effect this fundamental “transformation” of human society is best discerned in the engagement of social movements in the transformation of modern society: by means of such movements as “the civil rights movement…, decolonization and modernization…, [such societies] have come relatively closer to an active society, a society responsive to its changing membership, one engaged in an intensive and perpetual self-transformation. As the active society is best depicted as a macroscopic and permanent social movement, the examination of social movements is of particular interest.” (AS, viii). Democracies are the pre-eminent source and goal of “activity”: democracy at once encourages such forms of activity, while benefiting from the self-reinforcing democratic aspects of such widening forms of social activity, largely due to its superior “flexibility” (AS, 507-9). The “active society” – overcoming divisions that result from insufficient flexibility, communication, and feedback, resulting in greater “interdependence” and responsiveness – is a society that can hope finally to overcome alienation of its members from one another. Following the recommendations of Comte – who promoted “the religion of humanity” – Etzioni foresees the prospect of the overcoming of human alienation by means of the growth of a sense of what Marx called “species-being”: “[The] idea of universal order is consummated only through the union of all individuals in mankind, and the positivist destruction of obsolete theological and metaphysical standards…. Humanity, not the state, is the only reality.”

The Active Society appears to be consummately a book of its time, namely, unsurprisingly for a book written from 1964-5 and published in 1968, brimming with dreams of social transformation and even (in spite of its sometimes turgid sociologese) ecstatic utopianism. Perhaps more interesting than the fate of The Active Society after thirty-five years is the fate of Amitai Etzioni – the “father of communitarianism” – who came if not in every particular to repudiate the modernist and utopian teachings of The Active Society, nevertheless to champion a chastened vision of human community that advanced a recognition of limits, the reining in of the dream of control and mastery, and embroidered a profound sense of the tragic dimension of human existence into his sociological theory that otherwise seemed absent from The Active Society. In the process, he came to promote less the active society than the good society. The story of this transformation is at least as interesting as the argument on behalf of social transformation advanced in The Active Society.

From the “Active Society” to the “Good Society”


Only with great hesitance should one hazard to attribute changes in intellectual orientation to biography, but, given the extent to which Etzioni has linked the events of his life to his thought and to his role as a public intellectual, we perhaps do Etzioni more justice by taking his life into account than by attempting to attribute all alterations of his thought solely to isolated accounts of intellectual development. For, there is a signal moment in Etzioni’s life, shortly after the publication of The Active Society, that – while not indicating a thoroughgoing departure from his main interests in increasing communication among members of society, in promoting democracy and community, and, above all, in ascertaining how society can be fruitfully directed (but not dictated to) by responsible and responsive elites – marks a departure from what might be regarded as his more optimistic, even consummately “modern” vision in The Active Society, and instead reveals the increasing influence of (subtly) ancient and (implicitly) religious perspectives. That moment occurred in 1969, and is described in a section of his recent autobiography My Brother’s Keeper entitled “Parting of the Ways: No Cracked Eggs (1969).” (BK, 109-114).

Etzioni was a popular figure among student activists in the 1960’s – a frequent speaker at “teach-ins” and rallies. Yet, shortly after the publication of The Active Society, Etzioni’s disquiet at aspects of the student movement led him to break with its more radical elements, and in effect to forfeit the influence and popularity he had built among student leaders. In particular, he abhorred the turn to violence that was increasingly advocated and practiced by student radicals, and decided to draw down some (and, in retrospect, possibly most) of his “political capital” by admonishing students at a rally to eschew the route of violence (BK, 114). Regardless of his agreement with many of the ends of the student movement, he saw no principled difference in the employment of violent means, whether employed in a noble or questionable cause: “Acts of violence against persons are in principle no different than the violence of the Vietnam war, except that a fist may be used instead of a bomb” (BK, 111). Etzioni’s revulsion toward violence is connected to his extraordinary military career as a young man fighting on behalf of a Jewish homeland (BK, chs. 1 and 2). His comments are revealing – both of his awareness of the profoundly chastening effect his wartime experience, and his own growing sense of limitations on the extent to which words, ideas, arguments and dialogue might be expected to effect rapid and thorough societal transformation. “I wished I had more compelling arguments and personality so that I could have convinced the students to refrain from the use of force. If I could have transported the students, for a few days, to the mountains of Judea, burying friends, consoling their families, witnessing the agony of those at the receiving end of violence – I was sure – they would have seen the light. But as much as I tried, I swayed only a few” (BK, 114).

If in The Active Society Etzioni rejects “community for community’s sake,” in his break with the student movement and subsequent activities attempting to rein in scientific “progress” in the form of space exploration and genetic research, one perceives a rejection of “activity for activity’s sake.” Indeed, his disquiet at the student advocacy of violence suggests that Etzioni clearly saw the dangers entailed in the unbridled promotion of “the active society,” namely, the likelihood that utopianism would foster impatience for the ideal of overcoming injustice, hierarchy, and alienation. Witnessing the revolutionary and violent implications of “activity” in action, Etzioni increasingly stressed a subtle undercurrent in The Active Society – namely, a call to be wary of political excesses and a reminder of the dangers of seeking social amelioration at all costs without awareness of intended or unintended consequences. An overarching and unmistakeable “lesson” that one receives from a reading of his biography – subtitled “a memoir and a message” – is the call to recognize the severe constraints that limit social change and the unlikelihood of achieving any thoroughgoing societal transformation. Talk of overcoming human alienation largely disappears from Etzioni’s work following 1969; by 2003, writing of his efforts to change policy through the levers of government while working for the Carter administration, Etzioni avers that one who would enter politics “better have the patience of Job” (BK, 163).

Recalling his many successes and even more numerous frustrations in his career as an academic, a political actor, and as a public intellectual, Etzioni concludes with a revealing proverb that he mistakenly remembered throughout much of his life. It attests both to his strong sense that fundamental change and transformation are difficult if not impossible, yet, as well, to his belief that one must do one’s utmost in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Etzioni’s altered proverb combines a sense of humility and hope, an awareness of tragic and nearly insurmountable limits and the necessary dose of hubris to keep trying. And, it takes the form of a reference to a sea-borne vessel, though now one very different from the high-powered “ocean liner” with which The Active Society begins:

For years I thought that the fisherman’s prayer was, “oh God, the sea is so large and my oar is so small.” When I was told that the prayer speaks of a small boat, not an oar, I asked myself why I misremembered it in this particular way. The original text seems to concern someone who is cowed by the sea, who fears being overwhelmed by its mighty squalls. My fear was that I would not travel far enough, would not deliver what I was destined to deliver. Oh, Lord, the sea is so large, and my oar is so small.
(BK, 363)


Etzioni’s repudiation of the violent means to which student activists increasingly turned in the late-1960s represents a signal recognition that frustrated utopian dreams could lead, on the one hand, to an impatience that had a tendency to take the form of violence, and on the other, toward despair that might lead to a repudiation of engagement in pursuit of social and political amelioration. Etzioni’s later work reflects an abandonment of optimism in favor of hope. Modern optimism could too easily lead, on the one hand, to the unadvised wholesale effort to disassemble the ship while between ports, or, on the other, to an abandonment of seafaring altogether for the solitude of a deserted island. Etzioni’s later image – one of a small boat afloat on a vast ocean, powered by a nearly insignificant oar – is echoed by Etzioni’s frequent description of communitarianism as “faith in faith.” This evocative phrase – similar to that of “hope against hope” – reveals Etzioni’s awareness that social change can be effected only by the attentiveness to the character of members of the “ship,” not by means of wholesale efforts of elite groups to reconstruct the ship itself. As such, “faith in faith” is most often described by Etzioni as the repudiation of attempts at transformation by means of coercion – particularly legal coercion, a form that, at base, contains an unavoidable threat of violence – and rather insists upon the central and unavoidable importance of persuasion (NGR, 29, 120, 138; N, xi, 21-46). The emphasis moves away strictly from correct elite structural reorganization in order to effect society’s transformation, and instead lights more extensively upon the necessary character that is willing and morally equipped to engage in such dialogic activity. At the same time, among these later works there is a growing emphasis upon the “good society” as a necessary prerequisite for cultivating such characters (just as these characters, in turn, contribute to the creation of a good society). Etzioni moves away from considering “the responsive society” exclusively a means to the end of social transformation, and instead begins to write of it in terms more closely proximate to those of the ancients, namely, as “the kind [of good] that we like for its own sake and for what comes out of it, such as thinking and seeing and being healthy.”

Communities are the loci of self-government, of moral training, of the reconciliation of the many and the one; they are the intermediate area between the State and the economy, the sphere of “civil society” where humans are not reducible to voters or consumers (N, xi-xii). As such, communities are an indispensable ingredient in the creation of the “good society.” His commendation of the “responsive community” continues to echo many of his recommendations in The Active Society on behalf of persuasion and causes of justice. Even in his most recent writing Etzioni maintains a commitment to “responsive communities” for their potential contributions for further “progress”: “For all these reasons, cultivating communities where they exist, and helping them to form where they have been lost, is essential for the future provision of much social good and should be a major priority for future progress” (N, 8; Etzioni’s emphasis). He remains open to the idea and ideal that communities can be substantially altered from within, albeit consensually and thereby, one surmises, only incrementally.
At the same time, a further element is present in Etzioni’s more recent writing that was less in evidence in The Active Society, one that emphasizes community as the locus of humility and restraint and the sole training ground for appropriate human yearnings and ends: community draws people out narrow concern for self-advancement, even as it constrains dreams of dominion and mastery that might result from allegiance to national and imperial undertakings. Community points us beyond affluence as the sole measurement of human success, but rather emphasizes “mutuality and spirituality” (N, 110). Etzioni, seemingly returning to his posture as an activist of the 1960’s era, recommends community for its fostering of a “counterculture” – however, not one now that seeks human transformation, but rather inasmuch as it fosters a human ecology born of realism and accessible to humans as they are rather than how they might be: “A return to counterculture is … a realization that one can find profound contentment in reflection, friendships, sunsets, and walks on the beach rather than in the pursuit of ever more control over ever more goods” (N, 112). These homely recommendations of (extra)ordinary human experiences signal a fundamental departure from the heady identification of “power” and “knowledge” that marked The Active Society. The “good society” does not necessarily aim at activity, or at least not in with the same orientation toward mastery, as that recommended in his most recent books.

Government has a role to play in the fostering of communities, and thereby must be supportive if even at one remove in the cultivation of good citizens that is effected in communities. Society is ever-reliant upon politics to fashion those conditions amenable to human ecology, or, in the absence of such attentiveness, in danger of contributing (if by only by benign neglect) to the deterioration of cohesive and character-forming communities. “Government needs to do more to foster communities where they exist and to prime their development where they have failed” (N, 61). Governments cannot be indifferent or “neutral” toward prospect of cultivating virtuous citizens and “good” societies: the claim to “neutrality” is tantamount to acquiescing to the vitiation of civic virtue and good societies, particularly in societies in which utilitiarian market dynamics that promote short-term thinking and self-interest will invariably gain prominence in the absence of attempts to counterbalance such tendencies with civic considerations.

The Many or the One?

A tension exists at the core of Etzioni’s lifetime work, one that is likely unavoidable in contemporary “communitarian” theory, namely, the tension between “particularism” and “universalism.” In much of his work, from The Active Society to his contemporary writings, Etzioni appears at times to endorse a nearly-thoroughgoing relativism born of a commitment to “particularism,” as might be expected of one devoted to “communitarian” ideals. Indeed, one sees that aspect most clearly by returning to the earlier image of the ship from The Active Society: that is, the image of “an ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring not only more drive but also reconstruction while continuing to sail the high seas” (AS, x). In near-contemporary thought, almost this precise image of the ship was employed by Otto Neurath in order to describe the “antifoundational” condition of modern humanity. “We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best components.” The ship here is something that we can only provisionally repair in a piecemeal fashion; yet, at the same time, there is no one “kind” of ship. Such ongoing and provisional repairs result in continual alteration of the ship itself: “Mankind is continually redefining itself…” (AS, 15). Communities cannot endorse any a priori set of commitments: rather, Etzioni recommends “megalogues” – grand, extensive, and potentially transformative national conversations – by means of which social conflicts are resolved (NGR, 106-8). More important than the actual outcome of the conversation is the fact that such dialogue transpires: “megalogues are often extensive, disorderly (in the sense that there is no clear pattern to them), have an unclear beginning, and no clear or decisive conclusion. Nevertheless, in societies that are relatively communitarian, megalogues lead to significant changes in core values” (NGR, 107). There is no predetermined decision toward which a communitarian decision should tend; rather, it is the conversation that fosters community, not the ultimate outcomes of those deliberations.

At the same time, Etzioni has expressed misgivings and even outright disagreement with those in the communitarian movement who embrace the most robust and vocal forms of “value pluralism.” In particular, he objects to forms of communitarian relativism that posit that one is philosophically barred from judging decisions taken by other communities in which one is not a member. He expressed these misgivings most directly in describing the first meetings during which the Communitarian Platform was written:

In contrast [to some relativist conceptions of communitarianism], I believed that without recognizing universal principles (expected of all, although the communities to which they are responsible may vary), communitarianism was but a form of relativism. If we do not recognize any values above and beyond those upheld by various communities or cultures, we would deny ourselves a basis on which to rest moral claims. Nor could we challenge other nations’ practices of stoning adulterous women, chopping off the limbs of thieves, jailing dissenters, and trading sex slaves, not to mention child labor, forced marriage, and female circumcision…. Based on my deontological inclination, I argued that there must be a few select moral causes that all people would find compelling – once they were able to examine them in a free dialogue. (I granted that historically these universal values have been hidden from people in oppressed countries). [BK, 214]


Elsewhere Etzioni has described more fully some of these universally available truths; perhaps unsurprisingly, they resemble extensively the fundamental philosophical assumptions that undergird the American regime. They include: “democracy as a value”; “the Constitution and its Bill of Rights”; and “neutrality, tolerance, or respect” (NGR, 199-210). As such, core universal truths appear at first blush to resemble those procedural agreements upon which modern liberalism rests. As stated in Kantian or Rawlsian terms, there is a priority of the “right” (correct, if purportedly contentless, egalitarian and liberal procedures) over the “good” (a more robust conception to what end human life, and hence political legislation, should aim). Ironically, these self-same “universals,” particularly as embodied in American constitutional law and increasingly supported by promoters of an international rights regime, have become the main source of appeal against any special consideration that might be accorded to communities. Etzioni’s “universals” appear to work at significant cross-purposes to his communitarian position. Even Etzioni appears to recognize this problem, and, returning to his cosmopolitan position dating back to The Active Society, has argued that the definition of “community” can be extended so far as to encompass a “world community,” thereby raising into question whether, in the final estimation, there is a significant difference between Etzioni’s position and mainstream liberals who otherwise criticize the language if not the substance of communitarianism.

The main feature that distinguishes Etzioni’s thought from procedural forms of liberalism lies within the “particularity” of his “universals”: he finally rejects the monistic underpinnings of “cosmopolitanism,” instead lighting on a firm commitment to “communities of communities,” that is, the central importance of intermediate spheres of belonging that occupy an interposing position between the complementary modern devotions to autonomous individualism and cosmopolitanism. The recommended procedural universalisms – all of which seek, at base, to promote open forms of democratic communication – implicitly contain content that Etzioni finds underarticulated in many predominant forms of liberalism, and in particular, those forms that stress individualism arising from social contract theory. That content is embedded in Etzioni’s conception of dialogue, and points to the single, unbroken thread that connects all of Etzioni’s work, dating back to his early graduate career in Israel, continuing as a dominant feature of The Active Society, and undergirding his ultimate communitarian devotions (the linguistic relationship between community and communication becomes more obvious). Etzioni has, throughout his career, sought to advance nothing less than a societal-wide application of Martin Buber’s conception of “I and Thou” relationships. At base, seemingly content-free liberal democratic proceduralism contains a more robust set of assumptions about human inter-relatedness which in turn serves as firmer source of an endorsement of human equality and equal dignity than can arise from an individualistic (e.g., social contractarian) model. Commitment to forms of recognition (to adopt the Hegelian term for Annerkennung) of common human aspirations and experience must proceed and be embedded within commitment to liberal democratic procedures. Dialogue is the bridge (or, grammatically, the dash) between the chasm of “I-Thou,” reflecting a prior commitment to a robust form of recognition of our common humanity, even if dialogue itself cannot aspire to overcome completely the dichotomy and finally unbridgeable divide between individuals. As such, the commitment to liberal democratic procedures already contains an extensive content, and Etzioni would remind us that individualistic conceptions of liberalism fail to afford the necessary priority for this more dialogic underpinning.

Arguably there is even more content in these Buberian dialogic commitments than even Etzioni is willing explicitly to acknowledge, except perhaps in passing. Buber wrote that all particular “I-Thou” bonds were a “glimpse through to the eternal Thou” and derived their ultimate meaning via the relationship between man and God. Buber was primarily engaged in exploring a theological relationship between the divine and the secular and of contemplating the ways that the divide between the two was at once permeable and yet insurmountable. Humanity’s relationship with the divine forces upon humanity the simultaneous recognition of thoroughgoing human dependence even as it opens space for the possibility of human freedom. Buber writes: “Yes; in pure relation you have felt yourself to be simply dependent, as you are able to feel in no other relation – and simply free, too, as in no other time or place: you have felt yourself to be both creaturely and creative.” Humanity is not its own creator, and our recognition of the divine must be accompanied by the acknowledgement of human finitude and weakness. Our equality is thus bound up in our shared origin as “creatures,” i.e., created beings: we share a common fallibility and insufficiency. The “I-Thou” relationship between man and God is the core source of human equality: it is not an equality that can be “created” by humans through some future transformation of the human condition itself, but is rather the consequence of our “created” nature. Etzioni’s eventual retreat from the optimistic belief in human mastery that characterizes The Active Society reflects a re-embrace of the entirety of Buber’s teaching – not only the promotion of “creativity,” in particular the creativity that results in dynamic and “active” human communities – but an acknowledgement of limits on the prospects for human dominion that accompanies the recognition of our “creaturely” nature.

This Buberian insight urges us, as it moved Etzioni, from an attempt at the perfect construction of the “ship” to consider instead the vastness and uncontrollable nature of medium in which the ship travels: “Oh, Lord, the sea is so large, and my oar is so small.” Humans may create the ship, but the seas upon which we float and the sky stretching endlessly above us that brings down both storms and calm winds are not subject to our ultimate control. By attending to what we have not created – including, finally, ourselves – we are encouraged as well to consider our common state of insufficiency: the recognition of our common humanity, one marked by neediness and incompleteness, pushes us to see our equal status as brothers and sisters and of our shared obligations to each other. Visions of “activity” give way to concrete concerns for “goodness.” As Etzioni would urge us to remember – by way of rejection of the dreams of mastery that marked the first sin of Cain – we are our brother’s keeper.