After the Econolypse

by Rufus F. on January 7, 2010 · 19 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place

Hamilton, Ontario. When remembering a family-owned grocery store in rural Virginia, a first image comes to mind, even though I did not actually witness it. This is my boss, a woman standing all of five feet tall, in the front parking lot after closing time in her “shooting stance” with her gun out. While counting the money for the night, she watched two young men pull up in a car and start removing various firearms from their trunk. Walking around from the side exit, she got the jump on them. What she then said (edited for sensitive eyes) was: “I don’t know what (censored) you’re doing, but I’m the only one licensed to have a gun on my (censored) property. If you try to use that gun, you might hit me. But I will kill you.”  They left.

The second image I have is of their grown son, my manager, calling all of the store employees in for a meeting one evening and yelling for an hour straight at us. Some of the kids working there were less than cordial to the customers. A partial transcript (also edited for language): “Look! This is my store! This is my livelihood! And you are not going to put me out of business because you can’t be (edited) polite to the customers! When they come in, say hello! Stop whatever the (edited) you are doing and go talk to them! Get to know their names and what they come here for! And, you know what, ask them how they’re doing! The only way we can beat the big grocery stores is if you get to know these people and treat them better than those stores do!”

So we did. We knew all the customers, their kids, what sort of beer they drank, and spent at least half our working hours chatting (or jawboning, if you’ll indulge me) with them. We knew who the hunters were, whose daughter had leukemia, who was leaving her abusive husband, and we especially knew what kind of meat they bought. Our store had two specialties: our meat was excellent and we kept the beer fridge at one degree above freezing, so it was still cold when you reached your house.

The family also treated me, a kid working to save money for university, like a family member. When I finally went off to college, they gave me a “care package” that consisted of about two years worth of soap, shampoo, razors, and all sorts of other things. Every Christmas, we ate the turkey they gave me. When my grandmother passed away, they sent the largest floral arrangement at the funeral home.

When the store closed last year, it was on the local news. People who were interviewed compared the place to Cheers, where “everybody knows your name”. The reporter pointed out that the family had owned a store in that town- first a general store and then a grocery- for over a hundred and twenty years. They did not know that the family’s great-great grandfather had actually named the town.

Why did the store go under? Here’s where I repeat myself. First, a wave of people moved to town trying to get away from the big city and they brought with them box stores and enormous box homes. Secondly, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. People started defaulting on their mortgages, and more people were holding on by their fingernails. Suddenly, going to Enormo-Mart for groceries at a cut rate price, even if they don’t say Hi to you, made sense. Lastly, there was no way that the small family store could get the same deals from suppliers that the huge chains do because they could never buy in the same sort of bulk. The truck drivers charged them more, the suppliers charged them more; finally, they were paying more for items than Enormo-Mart was charging the customers. Few people could afford to pay more for groceries; after all, the middle class was dying off in that town. At last, they threw in the towel.

Philip Rieff once argued that the central institution of our social life had been the cathedral; then the courthouse; and finally the hospital. (I’m paraphrasing; if you want accurate Rieff quotations, see James Poulos.) Can we now replace the hospital with the mall, that hub of our anti-cultural life? Or should we move on to the slough of despond?

As for the family, they still live in town, but they’d leave if they could sell their house. The kids got other jobs, while their parents, who are in their 60s and have both been through serious surgeries in the last year, are trying to figure out what to do next. Their house is not large at all, but now it’s “too much house” for them. She can’t really walk after a hip replacement and he has no balance after having a growth removed from his brain. The son has crone’s disease. When it rains, it (censored) pours, eh?

When they started out in the family business, they were middle class, and now they’re below the poverty level in their late 50s. When my father started out as a lobsterman, he was working class, and now he’s below the poverty level. Just about everyone I know is adjusting to downward mobility.

Our political conversation still seems removed from this reality. I think Christopher Lasch was right: the doctrine of progress without limits still animates the political left and right, with meager hopes on the right that moral limits might return and on the left that a few ecological limits might be recognized. Otherwise, it’s business as usual: what’s striking in our current debates is that the left hopes to return to the time before the econolypse with a few state protections to soften the blow of the middle class’s continued cultural and economic impoverishment; while the right hopes to return to the time before with a bit less state intrusion into that impoverishment, and a talk show for Sarah Palin.

In terms of culture, the laughs come more bitterly. For three decades, the GOP has paid lip service to the values, virtues, beliefs, and ethos of people just like these, while championing the same economic systems, with their winner-take-all ethos, “no limits”, and instant gratification, that has always been against that culture. Say what you will about Marx; at least he recognized that capitalism would eventually destroy traditional cultures; he just called it a good thing because it would set the stage for communism. After all, no one could live like this forever. All of history shows that widespread inequality makes a mockery of civic virtue.

In the meantime, the DNC would like a bit more education/therapy to guide people through the destruction of their “outdated” way of life. The things those people say, think, and believe are rather embarrassing after all, in particular, their underlying sense that life is tragic and their skepticism that progress is anything but piecemeal and always reversible. Instead, we should have hope. For what? God knows. Just so long as we don’t have tradition.

Most of all, these people are at odds with progress because they have a sense of limits: economic, political, moral, and ecological, that the wider culture cannot acknowledge, even as it pushes up against them. But, we are pushing up against them, and that’s the final punch line. After all, the sort of limits that I sense the FPR is seeking to restore to mental life are not reactionary, outdated, socialist, or unreasonable. They’re the new reality after the econolypse.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ryan Davidson January 7, 2010 at 8:58 am

While I bear no special love for either political party–it’s more a general loathing, when it comes down to it–I have to say that thinking one can switch from the GOP to the DNC as a means of preserving traditional culture strikes me as downright bizarre. Yeah, the GOP has paid lip service to traditional cultures while supporting material organizations of society which are lethal to those same cultures. But the DNC is pretty explicitly against everything those cultures stand for. It was the unintended consequences of the GOP’s ideology and the intended consequences of the DNC’s that have gotten us where we are.

It would not do to forget that.

avatar Rufus January 7, 2010 at 11:32 am

Ryan,
I agree that’s downright bizarre; but I didn’t actually say that.
Actually, I think I said pretty much what you’re saying here. Admittedly, I’m not a professional writer, so I probably could have made it much clearer. In my opinion, the problem with liberalism is that it is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of personal liberation from all forms of traditional “coercion”. And yet, it carries a vision of progress: unidirectional, “scientific”, rationalist, unavoidable, unending, materialist, atheistic, unquestionably “beneficial”, and led by a technocratic intellectual elite- that is uniquely given to coercion, if not to cultural imperialism. The DNC is, at least implicitly, opposed to cultural traditions because liberalism is, from the beginning, opposed to traditionalism as such. So, I definitely wouldn’t suggest joining the Democratic Party as a means of preserving traditional culture! If I wasn’t clear enough about that, I was probably just assuming that readers here already know the contradictions of liberalism.

I think the confusion here is that I don’t believe that acknowledging the possibility that the GOP has paid lip service to traditional cultures while supporting material organizations of society which are lethal to those same cultures necessitates joining the Democratic Party. Conservatives, as opposed to Republicans, have always acknowledged that there was a contradiction there, at least since Whittaker Chambers griped about it to William F. Buckley. But the GOP seems, to my mind, to believe just as strongly in a vision of “progress” and endless “growth” as the Democrats do, and not to acknowledge that the outcome has been uneven economic growth and cultural impoverishment. In this case, the loss of that particular institution impoverished the culture of that small town. The political parties could have cared less.

I don’t think that discussing that necessitates becoming a Democrat, a Socialist, an Anarchist, or anything else. But, personally, it’s hard for me not to feel a bit like a man without a country these days. And I’m assuming that there are front-porchers who can relate.

avatar John Médaille January 7, 2010 at 11:39 am

I have given up worrying about which party to support, since both are merely branches of a ruling oligarchy that does not have the common good at heart. I don’t precisely feel like a man without a country, but I am a man without a party, and since citizenship means participation in the political life of the nation, the two are very close.

avatar Bruce Smith January 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm

What’s really being talked about here is Social Cohesion and to best achieve this is to seek Balance. Sure you can be a sociopathic profit seeker and allow yourself to be driven by the market to seek the best conditions for doing this irrespective of the damage you do to others. You can after all reassure yourself you are doing God’s work through the Invisible Hand ideology including creative destruction. Never mind making the effort to think whether the ideology could be re-balanced to keep the positive benefits but mitigate the negative effects without creating the monster of Big Brother government interference. To be honest as a sociopath and free-rider you just don’t care! However, though you can roam your country, or the world, seeking such things as the lowest costs of labor, minimal pollution regulations, subsidies and repressive labor regimes to profitably invest your capital sooner, or later, you are going to have to confront thinking about how secure your investments actually are. It’s all very well pauperizing your fellow citizens, or de-industrializing your country, for short term advantage but sooner, or later, there will be rebellion and an effort made to re-balance the situation. Evolution teaches that organisms always try to adapt to a change forced by other unbalancing organisms and often by increasing their own complexity. Accordingly, it can be argued that a “primitive” capital accumulation and manipulation ideology is lacking in wisdom because it fails to take into account that it will automatically generate an organic adaptive striving of human nature for balance. It is a manifest failure to see that organisms survive best by employing the forces of cooperation and cohesion and that human societies are no different. Clearly, an ideology more thoughtful in detail to achieve socially cohesive balance is what we need and will be driven inexorably to get. This new ideology will be something we might call “Cohesionism,” for lack of a better term, and what is predictable is that it will consist of Darwinism, Capitalism, Marxism and Environmentalism all bundled into one!

avatar Cecelia January 8, 2010 at 12:47 am

I rather doubt the much maligned enlightenment deserves all the balme for our current condition. Enlightenment thought appears after the events which bring us the modern world. The emergence of technologies which alter the means of producing wealth bear more responsibility I suspect. The movement of people from the land to the city was a function of steam engines – not Rousseau.

Culture is shaped by technology – and as long as we continue to let the emergence of technologies change our culture without giving it any thought – things will keep on changing and the harm will continue to pile up.

I do mourn the loss of local stores – greengrocers and the butcher shop in particular. But car culture destroyed local businesses just as surely as big brother business and government.

I do not disagree with the observations made here but I would add that at some point we must be willing to say “no” to some technological development.

Mr. Smith – excellent remarks – please let it happen soon!

avatar Ryan Davidson January 8, 2010 at 9:17 am

Cecelia, fixating on technology is even less sensible than fixating on modernism. I mean, bread is technology, and the introduction of agriculture was massively destructive to then-traditional hunter-gatherer societies. If anything, you’re idolizing technology by making it some thing with power of its own rather than recognizing it for what it is: ways humans do stuff. That’s what the word means after all: craft/art/skill.

Also, you’re wrong about your chronology. Steam technology came into existence concurrently with the beginning of the modern period (circa 1550 or 1650, depending on who you ask), but the first commercially-viable steam engine only went into production in 1712. The technique was not really widespread until the begninning of the nineteenth century, and steam-powered rail transit was not firmly established until the middle of that century. But Descarte did his main work in the 1640s, Hobbes died in 1674, and Locke in 1704. True, many major Enlightenment thinkers did their main work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it was well underway by the end of the seventeenth century, well before steam technology really took off. If you’re going to make an argument like that, at least get your timelines right.

avatar rufus January 8, 2010 at 9:42 am

Cecilia- I think that’s a good point. I overlooked the automobile in this case because it didn’t seem as evident, but certainly it makes a difference when towns are organized around auto transport and roads are rerouted or surpassed by new routes. Indeed, I think it’s part of what turns small towns into “backwaters”. So I would agree that auto culture plays a role in how towns are organized, along with political and business interests and ideologies.

avatar John Médaille January 8, 2010 at 10:28 am

Let me suggest that technology is never the problem; the way we choose to use technology is. The car is not the problem; the subsidized road network is. The absurdly named “freeway” system destroys cities precisely because it is “free.” “Free” means “free of tolls” but comes to mean in the mind of the driver “free of costs.” As rational human beings, we want all the “free” stuff we can get.

I mention this because technology is often spoken of as an impersonal force over which we have no control. I suggest that in place of statements like “Technology did this or that,” we use statements in the form “Technology allowed a few people with large capitals to control production.”

avatar eutychus January 8, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Please, please don’t become a professional writer. Because then you might stop writing these clear, concise pieces that have the power to move hearts and start writing long-winded articles that meander around your mind from “proof” to “proof” in search of some sort of “scientific” conclusion that will convince everyone of nothing. (Including yourself.)

Groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief.

avatar Matt Gerken January 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

An interesting thing about technology is that it has to be conceptualized and desired before it comes into being. It’s hard to blame the automobile and “free” roads for modern dislocation, for example, because those things don’t get made unless someone says “hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could go wherever I want whenever I wanted really fast?” At the bottom it’s all human pride, and technology is just the fuel that helps vice spread quickly to others.

avatar rufus January 8, 2010 at 9:41 pm

John- Yes, I agree. I have an axe and Lizzy Borden had an axe, but they mean different things!

Eutychus- Thank you, I really appreciate that. I will say that professional writing would be a good side gig. I’m getting a degree in the humanities, which is more of a losing proposition every day!

Matt- I agree that technology is the fuel that helps vice to spread quickly. Perhaps if we assumed that humans are sinful, we’d do a lot less damage with our ever-newer toys!

I do think that there’s something between condemning new technologies and embracing them uncritically. I have a technophile friend who likes to point out ironically that Socrates was afraid that writing would destroy our ability to memorize. I’ve asked him how many people he knows who can recite the Iliad!

avatar Cecelia January 9, 2010 at 12:30 am

I’d like to explain that I do not think it is all technology – and I agree that one can “worship” technology if you overemphasize its role – the same can be said though for “worshipping” the enlightenment.

Yes – trying to be brief and make the point – I used steam as an example prior to its actual development. However – I stick to my point – there is a marked tendency to castigate the “enlightenment” (such a big bad bogeyman) while overlooking other very significant factors. Enlightenment notions like the emphasis on the individual etc would have had very little traction if the changes in technology and economics had not occurred.

Bread is not technology – it is the result of applying technology. Of course I do not advocate for a banning of all technology – I suggest that we fail to consider the consequences of technological developments and the role they play in shaping our culture. If one has to walk or use a cart pulled by a mule – you will go to the closest store. Widespread use of cars (yes John) and the roads which allow those cars to get about encouraged people to shop beyond the local. As we went out and bought all those cars we never considered that one of the results might be that small businesses in our own towns might collapse hence damaging the vitality of those communities. Malls would not exist without cars. This is the issue I hope we might pay more attention to – technologies have consequences and play a significant role in shaping our culture.

avatar Bruce Smith January 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm

The narrative of the Family-Owned Shop raises some interesting questions. Setting aside the role of technology for a moment the fact that the Family-Owned Shop died a death at the hands of the big box stores could be construed as a failure of democracy just as the fact that the current economic recession can be viewed as a result of the breakdown in trust due to the failure of the Constitution to guard against this. Why can the two events be linked together? I would make the argument that firstly we should understand that the Constitution was predominantly based on the negative rights approach adopted from Europe and particularly that of Britain kicking off with the Magna Carta. It was mainly with regard to political suffrage that we observe positive rights emerging. Secondly, I have argued in previous posts that the American Revolution was, despite the “virtue” rhetoric against British corruption, a clash of personal interests both from American business owners and consumers. So in the Declaration of Independence liberty was the right to protect property ownership and the pursuit of happiness the right to pursue personal interests especially that of business. Yet in the Declaration Jefferson does use the word “Consent” in the sense of the government deriving its powers from the People. This use of the word is a lot stronger than having a negative right, that nobody should stop you choosing the government of your choice, it is a positive right that you are entitled to reject a political and economic system that no longer serves your interests and replace it with an alternative. From a Marxist perspective Chris Harman in his book “Zombie Capitalism” analyzes globalization and claims that the 2,000 largest corporations control half of the world’s wealth and that allowing for an average of ten directors per board this produces only 20,000 people who have decisive control over the world’s production, output and surplus. Given autocratic and sociopathic CEO’s this is probably a lot nearer 2,000 individuals. Again if true (and it feels as though it is) this relates to a breakdown in democracy since none of us have consented to this amassing of power which creates a form of shadow government. It also relates to why the Family-Owned Store went belly up and why the Vampire Squids of Wall Street gave us another recession.

If, therefore, I am arguing that the movement to Cohesionism, for lack of a better term, is a response to the breakdown, or inadequacy of democracy, then I believe I am declaring that relying predominantly on negative rights is no longer good enough. I am saying that the Constitution failed to get it right by not understanding that reliance on negative rights would be insufficient and that positive rights were also required so that “choice” would be both supported and checked by “consent.” Of course, the negative right of choice is much easier to action since consent implies “informed” consent and this is where understanding the implications of using technology comes in. Much easier, for example, to jump in your car and do your weekly shopping at a big box supermarket rather than walk, or cycle, to your Family-Owned Store even though the hidden effect of doing so would help stop you becoming obese and acknowledging what your doctor tells you that your heart is a muscle that needs exercising! However, as we know “informed” consent builds from having to take responsibility and this derives from the positive right to have a say in all the associations we get involved in like work, public services, local and central government and voluntary leisure and charitable activities. One ingredient of Cohesionism, therefore, has to be the development of associative democracy which can be compared to Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the importance of Practice. Isn’t this all about “virtue politics” though? Well not if we see that it was actually OK for the American Revolution to be grounded on some sensible object like pursuing your personal interests but at the same time recognizing that so did everybody else! As human beings we operate across the spectrum of self-concern and other-concern for good reason. We are after all rational but dependent animals that operate in groups as Conditional Cooperators and Altruistic Punishers. We like to dominate but hate to be dominated. As well as looking to our own self-concern we will always be looking to other-concern because we recognize it can dramatically affect our own self-concern. “Virtue” in human affairs, therefore, becomes the “pluralistic representation of self-concern” and the selection of negative and positive rights tools appropriate to the task at hand, economic suffrage being but one. In the end we can only all flourish by understanding the implications of the type of democracy we use and the technology. Its then “who” decides thereafter and “how” that we need to unite over and “We, the People” for starters sounds better than a few thousand CEO’s.

avatar Bruce Smith January 9, 2010 at 2:40 pm

As if to reinforce one of my points here is yesterday’s New York Times article about “Shorting China” :-

http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/contrarian-investor-predicts-crash-in-china/?scp=1&sq=James%20Chanos&st=cse

avatar John Médaille January 9, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Bruce, I remember from 20 years ago the talk about how Japan would dominate the world. Now the new nemesis is China. But it is a fraud. Their 8% growth rate is suspicious on its face, and their banking system is an exercise in organized fraud, even moreso than our system. China will collapse into chaos, and no matter how bad things get here (and they will get bad) it will be paradise compared to China.

avatar Cecelia January 9, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Bruce said: In the end we can only all flourish by understanding the implications of the type of democracy we use and the technology. Its then “who” decides thereafter and “how” that we need to unite over and “We, the People” for starters sounds better than a few thousand CEO’s.

I couldn’t agree more. The issue is how do we get to such a system.
I recently visited Thomas Edison’s workshop and home which is a national park now. Enlightening trip. Edison originally envisioned the power which would illuminate homes being generated not by large utilities across a national grid but rather by the people who used the power – he had seen electricity being used in England on large estates generated by hydroelectric plants on the estate and this served as the basis of his early notions. However – after his labs at Menlo Park burned down – he changed his mind and developed a system which focused on utility companies providing power etc. An interesting complication – he realized that the profit generated by using power to only provide illumination would not be sufficient to encourage the market to develop the grid. So he and his team began inventing household appliances that would use electricity thuis generating more use and sufficient profit. However – the need for such products was not immediately apparent to people so to persuade people to buy these products a massive ad campaign was developed. The campaign was aimed at men and asserted that a man unwilling to buy these labor saving devices was keeping his wife in a state of domestic servility. A great example of using psychology to persuade people to buy something they did not know they needed.

Imagine how different our society would be if neighborhoods or individual factories generated their own power. Certainly one thing apparent in such a different world would be that the source of wealth would be different. One could not get rich by investing in a power company. The groups or individuals who generated their own power would possess that wealth. I spend all this space writing about this example because I hope it illustrates how important it is to consider the source of wealth and the technological advances that promote wealth in promoting changes to our current situation. If the source of wealth remains the same – we will never achieve the cohesive, localized society FPR articulates. But the emergence of a new technology or the disabling of a current technology would radically alter how one gets wealthy. Consider how fast localization would re-occur if the supply of fossil fuels was suddenly no longer available.

John – I too suspect China is not quite the powerhouse it seems. I do note that they have been very busy of late buying up access to oil and natural gas as well as restricting exports of their rare earth minerals. Interesting implications there. I find many seem comforted by China’s embrace of capitalism but I suspect that the Chinese are not capitalists – they are nationalists and allow capitalism to the degree that it supports their perception of their national interest.

avatar Bruce Smith January 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Ceceila thanks for your support. The way we move away from the current system to a better one is to make the case on a whole variety of key issues; ownership and control of the economy, voting and electoral reform, global trade terms, subsidiarity and localism, public goods delivery, delivering technological innovation and sustainable development. The ideas then either get taken up by new or existing organizations for implementation.

However, the principal problem I believe we have to resolve is convincing others to understand their human nature better. We seem to endlessly oscillate between self-concern and other-concern and habituate ourselves in habits that we fail to recognize as coercively reinforcing one or other of the concerns, usually the self-concern. For example, the habit I mentioned previously of relying predominantly on negative rights as opposed to positive rights appears to have led to a situation of half the world’s wealth being controlled by the unaccountable heads of two thousand corporations. This is a major breach of democratic sovereignty arising in the name of liberty (defense of property) and the pursuit of happiness (personal interest). In other words the over-reliance on negative rights to generate political equality coercively allows the development of economic inequality. It’s only when we realize that self-concern and other-concern amount to one and the same thing (A sort of “There but for the Grace of God go I” unity) that we can start to get energized to understand “rights habits” and their effects.

Individuals failing to understand the need to develop cohesive, or unified, concern have instead tended to concentrate on acquiring wealth to make themselves distinctive in the hope of psychologically legitimizing their membership of society, or more precisely their right to other-concern! Put more simply, the American Republic‘s current failing can be said to be down to its society substituting a frantic love of money for more comprehensive and unified thinking.

avatar Bruce Smith January 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Actually I can put all of my last post more succinctly:-

The kind of “rights habits” a society has determines the degree of social cohesiveness for that society.

On that basis the Founding Fathers didn’t do too well.

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