Localist Principles, Populist Words (or, The Problem Defined)

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I suppose Front Porch Republic is experiencing growing pains, because all the talk lately is about “what’s next?”–what cause, what platform, what principles or agenda or policy, if any, FPR should support? The ideas being thrown around are many (see, for example, here, here, here, here and here), and as one might expect, some of them I agree with, and some of them I don’t. I certainly don’t think I’ve got either the brains or the wisdom to attempt a synthesis of them all. But there is at least one large problem looming behind all this rousing debate about differing proposals, and that is a disagreement as to why, or to what end, proposals are to be offered in the first place. I don’t think I’ve got either the brains or the wisdom to attempt an answer that could encapsulate all of the above. But recently I read a phrase–in a different but not entirely unrelated context–which strikes me as a good way of expressing the overarching problem, and thereby perhaps one which could help people like me know where we stand, and think about what we want to say.

The phrase I’m thinking about arose from a comment made by one of my favorite bloggers, Timothy Burke. As part of a reflection on his mixed reaction to Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft–which, of course, we’ve discussed at length before–Tim and I got into a bit of an exchange, during which he sharpened his complaint with Crawford’s tone:

Crawford’s manifesto strikes me as at least half based on his aesthetic view of what makes for the good life. Which is absolutely fine. It’s absolutely fine even to evangelize for the good life as you understand it, and that’s inevitably going to involve suggesting that most other people ought to like what you like, live as you believe they should live. But it’s got to start from a constant recall that this is about good (food) (sex) (wine) (literature) (machines) (daily habits) and an aesthete’s appreciation of their goodness, which seems to me should always be unabashedly personal. That way, when you argue that everybody else should get with the aesthetic program, you tend not to forget that you think you have better taste than other people, rather than tricking yourself into thinking that everybody would have this good taste if the Powers that Be/Consumer Culture/Hegemony/Mainstream Media or whatever weren’t enslaving your mind. It’s about not confusing a project of persuasion with a project of emancipation, and I think Crawford really does confuse the two.

I like that–not all of it, maybe, but certainly at least the last line: a “project of persuasion” and a “project of emancipation.” I can work with that, maybe run with it a little bit. The former project is one where you are attempting to argue through appeals to taste, morality, beauty, or virtue: qualities that may once have been widely accepted as objective, derived from ancient philosophical or traditional religious sources, but which today, in modern Western democracies anyway, are most usually assumed to be plural and subjective. In any case though, you’re talking about something that will partake of a sense of the aristocratic, or the elite: a concern for the good (or, at least, a better) life. Of course, talking about “the good life” pushes up against talk about “the common good”; the two overlap somewhat, but not entirely. Common good talk partakes mostly of the latter approach, in which your goal is to do more than to persuade others about the worth of your values: it is to teach them about the practical, personal, and/or popular freedom or opportunity that you are convinced is available to them. This is an approach which requires not just making a case for a way of life, but an attack upon the structures, policies, and situations that you believe define both your own and others’ ways of life. You are, in sort, appealing to the (presumably objective) political, economic, and/or social interests of your interlocutors. Tim adds that he thinks Crawford’s book has been particularly successful amongst a certain type of social conservative because they also frequently confuse the two…and though he was kind enough to give me the benefit of the doubt, I can’t help but feel the sharp edge of that criticism.

I don’t really consider myself an out-and-out localist, but my family and I do try to live in accordance with certain localist, self-sufficient, simplicity-oriented principles: we try to eat local and buy cheap, we walk or ride bikes, and so forth. I’m also not much of an out-and-out populist, but there is so much which, I think anyway, potentially goes hand-in-hand with populism–a commitment to democracy and sovereignty, a recognition community integrity and social equality–that I don’t mind the label, and use it repeatedly. (See here, here, here, here and here, for a start.) Point is, I find myself wanting to be able to do both things, just as Tim accuses Crawford of doing. I want to communicate a source of belonging and virtue and culture–call it “localism”–that I consider, philosophically and psychologically and, yes, aesthetically, to be valuable. I also want to communicate my belief that what gets in the way of people being able to appreciate their communities as sources of such is, more often than not, structural economic and political opposition to such–call that “populism.” Is it really possible to do both at the same time?

Perhaps not. Localism–or, more plainly, a commitment to a specific, local community–is, quite possibly, in a world characterized by what Michael Walzer called the “Four Mobilities” (geographic, social, marital, and political) like our own, invariably just an affectation, not an agenda. True, we can–and should!–discuss the numerous economic and social forces which sustain the modern Western world’s environment of innovation and dislocation, but until and unless a complete collapse of wealth and/or technology drains the pool of opportunity through which even the most grounded and conservative of individuals swim, you’ll be hard pressed making the case for local communities without including along with your quasi-Marxist jeremiad a large portion of romance. (I know; I’ve tried.) By the same token, the populist critique almost invariably can’t stay localist, can’t stay nostalgic or simple: if you really want to empower people, then you have to attend to what people actually do…and if what they do is move around and live and buy and sell beyond the sphere of some basic, hypothetical, self-sustaining polity, then any attempt to reach those people will have to involve some compromises with and positive action towards socializing and preserving a communitarian sensibility within said polity. (In short: simplicity is complicated, and sometimes local communities are their own worst enemy.) So perhaps localist principles can never quite entirely support the sort of populist arguments which their defense requires, and conversely perhaps populist claims can never quite entirely capture the whole appeal of living locally in the first place. It’s enough to make you want to move to some isolated cabin in the mountains of Montana–or a some nondescript anonymous apartment in Manhattan; whichever place best allows you to give up on any attempt at straddling–and leave the whole “project” alone.

(Of course, one could also respond to this fear with the example of more than a few Western European polities, which have arguably demonstrated that pursuing populist (or, at least, progressive or “socialist”) ends, ends which to a great extent ground themselves in a socio-economic critique of those aspects of the market which can undermine equality, in fact rebound to the sustaining of local ways of life and the preservation of community. This is probably my own one weak hope: the Red Tory/left conservative/Laschian breakthrough! Though I suspect I’m mostly alone in believing the United States should strive to learn “conservative” or “communitarian” lessons from our Christian Democratic brethren across the Atlantic.)

In a comment to a recent post, Patrick Deneen asked whether the kind of conservative effort which Front Porch Republic is engaged in–if that is, in fact, what it is engaged in, a point about which I would have some questions at the very least–ought best be considered an “ethos” or a “movement.” He further asks, “whether it’s possible to advance an ‘ethos’ through politics and a political movement.” If I might continue to make use of Tim’s distinction, it is a question as to whether or not any “political” argument that necessarily involves some element of aristocratic persuasion–about what makes for good food, a good family, a good community, and a good, local life–will ever be plausible or workable in our modern, liberal democratic, interest-group-dominated political world. And it is a question of whether, assuming we can come up with a political argument that speaks of local common goods, will that “common good” be so watered down by the policies and compromises necessary to achieve real democratic emancipation–the freedom and capacity for the masses of individuals to get away from the rat-race, and find fulfillment the popular control of one’s economy and culture and polity–that it isn’t really conserving anything at all, anymore? For me, divided modern man that I am, this is the problem. But of course, it’s actually a problem for all of us, in the end.

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