[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
To continue with the excellent discussion begun by R.J. Snell, Mark Mitchell’s fine and thoughtful book is filled with important insights and challenges, which do not, in my judgment, quite achieve what the author lays out as his aim. That is, the end result is less than the sum of its parts. So, because those insightful parts are important–and because I’m deeply indebted to the author for the work that he has done to push diverse localist, communitarian, and conservative ideas into wider discussion–let’s begin with them.
In the book’s Introduction, Mitchell thoughtfully presents the argument–most usually associated with scholars like Louis Hartz or Alasdair MacIntyre (neither of which he ever directly cites, though references to MacIntyre appear in his “Further Reading” section)–that American political discourse is overwhelmingly liberal, in the sense of prioritizing individual liberty and choice in the way we frame both public policy options and broader philosophical disputes. As he sums it up:
Partisans on both the left and the right express themselves primarily in terms of individual rights and think of politics in terms of an underlying and open-ended progress….They agree about the purpose of government (to protect individual rights) and the direction of history (progress). They may disagree about which individual rights to privilege and what specifically constitutes progress, but these are really in-house debates among liberals (p. xiv).
Mitchell wants to rescue “conservatism” from this ideological trap, by pointing in a different, non-liberal direction, one which emphasizes the idea of “stewardship” as its primary theme: that is, we should see ourselves as stewards of certain gifts, capacities, and properties, and our primary attitude towards such should be a one a humble, limited, and specific gratitude. This is fine evocation of the best which the idea of “conservatism” has to offer, and it’s one which anyone who feels any affection for their family, their community, or their tradition (religious or otherwise) should hope to be open-minded enough to be able to turn away from their philosophical liberal blinders and appreciate for what it is. I wholeheartedly embrace this kind of rescue effort.
In breaking down what we are stewards of, and how we ought to responsibly show gratitude towards it, Mitchell discusses our “creatureliness,” with its attendant limits in scale and its particularity in location. The arguments and observations he lays out in these first four chapters of the book are the best of the whole work, I believe. Mitchell thoughtfully articulates the claim that we are embodied creatures, who can only see and love so much or so far, and who logically must stand in only one place at a time. In weaving together these arguments, Mitchell artfully takes up modern secularism and materialism, technology and “scientism,” all of which we use to make ourselves seem larger and more independent and sovereign than we actually are. Modern liberalism–by which he means the whole ideology of individualism which has grown up in modern America–has made us all a decidedly non-humble bunch, obsessed with accumulating and dominating, rather than tending to those good things in our life:
In a sense, all Americans are Texans, only the Texans are simply more noisy about their claims. We love words like “awesome” and “amazing.” We favor Big Macs and Whoppers, pickup trucks with “the biggest payload,” and sports cars with “more horsepower than any in its class.” We want the fastest Internet, the clearest television, and the highest fidelity sound. We favor mega-churches, buffets, Costco, and if the number of plastic surgeries in recent years is any indication, we favor big breasts. Truly, America is a land of superlatives. Of course, this obsession with size isn’t limited to America, but Americans do lead the way, for good or ill (p. 55).
In contrast to this obsession with bigness, Mitchell wants us, instead, to care a little less about size and power, to be a little more humble and grateful–and that means learning to accept and appreciate our dependencies and responsibilities, the ways in which we are stewards who have an obligation to that which has been given to us and to that which we must ultimately pass along to those who come after us. This he counters against our tendency to become–here quoting Betrand de Jouvenal–“securitarians,” people who prize above all material creations, and ways of organizing our lives, which we can master and measure, thus deluding ourselves into thinking that we can create a world stable and regular and predictable enough that life can become a kind of technology, “in which all uncertainties are removed…[and] from which mystery has been banished” (pp. 52-53). Along the way of working out these preliminary ideas, Mitchell makes numerous provocative, challenging claims, many of which border on what most modern Americans–particularly mainstream American conservatives–would probably consider greatly lacking in patriotism or practicality. For example, he rightly rails against the planned obsolescence of so much contemporary production, and the way it makes us–and the material and productive conditions of our lives–complicit in a way of seeing existence as merely a disposable treadmill: “We work to have disposable income so we can purchase goods to consume…Consumption has become a patriotic duty” (p. 51). And he denounces the easy abuse of the notion of community, insisting that it makes no sense outside of shared space where there are actual, tangible human interactions: “The very notion of a national community is stretching the idea of community beyond recognizable limits. There is no American community. There can never be” (p. 66).
All of these and more could give rise to long and thoughtful arguments, and on some of them I’d be on Mitchell’s side, while on others I’d take the opposite view (I think there is some actual sense the idea of “national community,” for example). But overall, he expresses his philosophically “conservative” (not to mention romantic) attitude here persuasively and wisely. The modern capitalist obsession with growth and accomplishment, with safety and non-interference, and with surveillance and mastery and materiality, really all are connected in our lives with a refusal to accept responsibility and recognize our dependence on something other than ourselves.
In terms of putting some fleshing out the implications of his preferences for a culture characterized by greater humbleness and gratitude, Mitchell addresses politics, economics, the environment, the family, and education. Here, while the strong and passionate insights continue, I think his attempt to knit them together into a new political alternative to contemporary American liberalism and conservatism falters somewhat. This is no fault of Mitchell’s arguments, which remain compelling even when I disagree with them (and as someone whose localism and communitarianism is more left-leaning than his, the number of my disagreements mounted as I read). It is, rather, a matter of the missing, common thread through his arguments, one which cannot possibly be supplied by mere political and philosophical argument.
Consider how his argument in the chapter on politics develops. Here his guiding light is Tocqueville, and his prescient observations about how self-government and democracy give rise to demands for equality, and how that demand will likely result in greater centralization, as people look for systems of government and economy capable of ensuring equal treatment across borders. Mitchell correctly observes that the real problem which Tocqueville’s observations lead us to confront is the fact that perfect equality is impossible, at least so long as technology fails to completely overcome nature (which is the heart, as he sees it, of the technological scientistic project), and hence that when the desire for equality runs up against such natural differences, “vast energy will be expended to alleviate the incongruity,” which obviously points towards the creation of a vast regulatory state (p. 85). I respect the author for reluctantly acknowledging that America’s federal arrangement was probably fated, “right from the beginning,” to move power away from the states and towards the national government (p. 94), and his subsequent recommendation that the 17th Amendment–which provided for the direct election of senators–be reconsidered has merit. But in the end, as part of his consideration of subsidiarity, he confess that “a metaphysical account of human nature and human society is necessary for sustaining the independence of various spheres of authority” and that “the revitalization of religious belief may be a necessary long-term solution to the problem of centralization” (pp. 97-98). And while Mitchell’s book never turns to outright proselytism, this becomes a recurring theme throughout the rest of the book: a politics of gratitude will likely be impossible until the American people return to taking as a baseline the fact that they are divinely created beings with a need to be grateful for their lives and livelihoods.
Now there is nothing wrong with this connection of religion and political reflection; Tocqueville, among others, does this expertly. But if it is to be done persuasively in our pluralistic, democratic, and individualistic society, it should not, I think, be so entwined with a specific worldview, as it is in this book, whether Mitchell intended to communicate that worldview or not. But communicate it he did: religious humility and gratitude, for Mitchell, is the obvious concomitant of an agrarian, land-center economy, and outside of that kind of economic environment, the rational appeal of religious faith and the persuasiveness of our need for such a revival is simply not much there. Though Mitchell insists that “many of the virtues” he praises can be “encouraged by owning a small business,” he gives no convincing examples of how that might be so (p. 120). His discussion of neighborliness makes reference to barn raising (p. 122); his discussion of the natural world becomes most impassioned when talking about growing a garden (pp. 147-148); his discussion of the family revolves around personal examples of families escaping technological tools and engaging themselves with the land (pp. 164-166). Again and again, the grateful sensibility he urges upon his readers is connected to turning towards a more rural, more agricultural, less specialized and complex, more earthy and religious way of life.
I do not point this out by way of criticism; as one who grew up around the business of agriculture (milking cows by hand) and who emphasizes as much involvement with the earth as my location permits (planting a large garden every spring), I completely agree with Mitchell here. I like this worldview. And indeed, his conviction that God in involved in the natural work concomitant with this kind of life-world gives his argument for humility and gratitude real depth. When he talks disparagingly of the limited freedom of “citizens without property, that is, citizens who work for a wage” (p. 124); when he talks sadly about how the artificial lights of the urban settings robs us of the inspiring and humbling power of the night sky and replaces it with “hubris” (pp. 140-141); when he suggests that we have gotten too far away from sustaining handcrafts have become “too dependent on purchased goods” (p. 161)–all of it reflects a holistic vision of and context for his alternative politics, one that is summed up well in the following passages:
When we step back from all this, it seems clear that the life of the industrial family is a life tending toward self-absorbed consumption, and as such, is a life characterized by ingratitude. It is a life of unbounded appetites in which the propriety of scale has been lost….The first and most obvious step is to recover an orientation toward something above and beyond the self. An awareness and acknowledgment of God’s providence reminds us simultaneously of our creatureliness along with the debts of gratitude we owe for our very lives and the good things we encounter each day, from the food we eat to the love we share and the beauty of the first tulips of the spring….
I have already spoken of gardens, and at the risk of belaboring an obvious point, I will return again to the backyard. Not so long ago, many Americans kept large gardens and dependent on them for a significant proportion of their food. They ate what they could and preserved the rest. They kept fruit trees and livestock even if they didn’t live on a farm….Today, less than 1 percent of Americans live on farms, and suburbs are more notable for their wide swaths of yard than fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and chickens. But is not simply the absence of these that is a problem, for even if the homeowners associations stepped out of the picture, many Americans lack both the desire and the skills necessary to construct a viable garden….
The skill needed to produce the food is matched by the skill necessary to prepare it well. Eating fast food on the run in the solitude of an automobile or before the glaring eye of the television teaches us to feed like animals rather than to dine like human beings. When we eat at a table together, when the food has been prepared with care and skill, when attention is paid to the setting and to the presentation of the food, the occasion is dignified in a way that the solitary or rushed consumption of calories never can be….If the family meal represents the culmination of many themes we have discussed, perhaps the saying of grace prior to the meal encapsulates, in the fullest way, the thrust of all I have been trying to express. When we say a prayers of thanksgiving to God as we sit around the table laden with food, as a family joins hands, bows together, and takes a moment to return thanks, they are acknowledging their creatureliness….As a family says grace around the table, there is an exclusive element, for the whole world cannot fit around that table….A family meal is necessarily located some place, and when that place is known and loved by those joined in prayer, gratitude, and feasting, it is enriched and becomes a home (pp. 166-167, 169, 171-172).
That is a beautiful and powerful picture, one worthy of one of Mitchell’s heroes, the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. But what it does not do is sketch out an alternative “conservative” political language which could move our modernized, pluralistic society away from an over-reliance upon individualism and towards a different kind of politics. Rather, it is a call for an alternative way of living, a return to a context where politics occupied an entirely different space in our lives–a less important, more participatory, more republican one.
With his obvious sympathy for the ideas of Jefferson and Tocqueville, Mitchell is clearly moved by republicanism, especially in its classic form as a recipe for polities which were small, land-based, agrarian, and religiously (or at least morally) homogenous. But if that was his aim in this book of political theory, one which was obviously addressed to the America which presently exists, then the development of a better language of politics needs to wrestle with the applicability of republicanism and conservatism to our current moment, and there is not much evidence in this book that Mitchell is actually interested in addressing the arguments of Benjamin Barber, Richard Dagger, Philip Pettit, Michael Walzer, or really any other contemporary republican theorist (though he does briefly touch on the ideas of both Rousseau and Hannah Arendt). In short, this book, lacking an applicable comprehensive political theory, but containing instead a host of powerful and evocative arguments on behalf of a constellation of alternative “conservative” positions–mostly united through an emphasis on a return of farming and God–is really more about exploring and advocating on behalf an alternative attitude and lifestyle, rather than providing real, plausible answers to our contemporary ideological stalemates. The language of gratitude alone cannot create or sustain the agricultural or pious conditions by which its rightness will be understood; on the contrary, it is by being pulled by the power of Mitchell’s language into a greater involvement with God or gardening that the rightness of his points about gratitude become likely to be acknowledged.
Let me reiterate that, while Mitchell’s many specific suggests and excellent arguments may not quite add up to the theoretical critique of modern individualism which contemporary America needs, that hardly makes the book a failure. On the contrary, it is a wonderful book, one that I’d love the opportunity to argue with the author about at greater length (around a pleasant dinner table, especially!). To go back to Wendell Berry, note that this powerful writer has never imagined any of his many essays to amount to a “politics” of anything; he is a critic, and that is what this book should be taken as: a fine work of counter-culture “conservative” criticism, attacking the way we think about food and family and sexuality and technology and most of all the God and the land on which he thinks (and I mostly agree) we depend. Rod Dreher, the author of the counter-culture conservative manifesto which lays in the immediate background of all that Mitchell has accomplished through Front Porch Republic, called this book “plainspoken,” and I agree. Mitchell here demonstrates his facility with political ideas–but ultimately his aim is to witness on behalf of an alternative way of life, not persuasively argue the American reading public away from our liberal theory of politics and towards another, more republican and local one. Take seriously the kind of life he advocates, and perhaps the theoretical problems will take care of themselves.