This is, perhaps, why Caleb Stegall and those like him are, to me anyway, the most important-if not necessarily the most persuasive-of all the localists and agrarians out there: they are entirely willing to contemplate doing without the liberal bargain of modernity entirely, and revert to a much different-possibly more virtuous, certainly more communal, probably less healthy, definitely less secure-way of life. … but I sincerely doubt many of the people reading this site would genuinely want to live in a world where patriarchal authority was so unquestioned, where educational opportunities were so limited, etc.

 I’m trying to figure out if this is damnation by faint praise or praise by faint damnation.  “Important yet unpersuasive” … I think that’s what they said about Socrates. 

I admit to finding this line of argument bizarre and impenetrable.  You want to find people to marginalize for their “virtuous” abandonment of modernity, go to Clear Creek, Oklahoma or Lancaster, PA.  I have an iPhone for Wendell’s sake! 

And I’m sorry, but the bit about no one wanting to live in that scary, backward world of limited educational opportunities is just dishonest argument.  As if we could, even if we wanted to!  And such disdain for a time not our own.  It’s bad manners if nothing else.

Here is what I think is really going on.  Russell and I are both thoroughly modern men (how could we possibly be anything else?).  The only difference is for me, modernity has lost its magic.  For Russell, it hasn’t.  I don’t mean that just colloquially (though that too, has a certain power of expression), but as a technical term of political philosophy.  In other words, every political community must generate its substance with a “magical evocation.”*  Those who live under the magic spell form the ruling and activist center of the political community.  In this sense, every coherent political community is a “single party” system. 

In our case, our magical evocation starts with a “whiggish” history that takes as its core the rise of central, national, secular states in Western Europe after the Peace of Westphalia and posits an evolution within these states toward constitutional democracy and its ever increasing citizenship made up of outlying populations which had formerly been denied active participation in the political community. 

Eventually, however, this magical evocation runs its course as the constant and generational struggle for constitutional rights of participation wears away at the substance of the community itself until one is left with a mass society supported by nothing more than its own self-congratulation.  From the point of view of political philosophy, what we are dealing with is the problem of political disorientation that occurs whenever man experiences a period of political disintegration where the magical evocation of the political community falters-and in our case, falters badly, and perhaps fatally.

In such a world, certain men will be willing to do without the creature comforts of this self-congratulatory existence because, for them, it has lost its magic.  Their task is either, like the medieval jokers (see Cervantes and Rabelais), to make a vast joke of the absurdity of their fellow citizens, or to generate by force of will and personality a new evocation out of the strength and substance of their own souls. 

I certainly do not claim to have the strength of character necessary for that, however, I at least recognize the need for those who do.

* See Eric Voegelin, from whom I am borrowing a great deal

 

 

 

 

11 COMMENTS

  1. There is simply no reason to think that the “comforts” of modernity are identical to the comforts of technology. Distibutist systems, such as Mondragon or Emilia-Romagna, are as technologically advanced–if not more so–than anything capitalism has on offer. Further, Medieval man believed himself to be living in a marvelous age of machinery. In Doomsday Book (1086) there are recorded 6,300 mills in Norman England, mills that were used in grinding grain, fulling wool, metallurgy, and brewing. See Jean Gimpel The Medieval Machine for the extent of technological advances in the Middle Ages. The age of discovery stopped with the Reformation, as Europe busied itself with internal warfare, and then picked up again in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The industrial revolution was actually the continuation of the progress that had been taking place since the “Agricultural revolution” of the 9th and 10th centuries.

  2. There is simply no reason to think that the “comforts” of modernity are identical to the comforts of technology.

    I don’t think I said they were identical, but perhaps your comment is not directed my way.

  3. The comment wasn’t directed at anybody. It was directed at an idea, a ruling myth, namely, that we have to accept modernity if we want all the technological advances; they are the gift of capitalism. Sometimes this myth is stated implicitly and sometimes explicitly. But it is simply not the case. There is no conflict between the agrarian and the technological. However, the agrarian is better able to judge the appropriateness of any given technology. The modern state involves a vast series of subsidies, but a technology can only be evaluated on the basis of the costs of the inputs. If these are subsidized, then no valid engineering judgment can be made as to their efficiency. For example, WalMart has built a distribution system that is a technological marvel. However, it depends on the “free”ways, on transportation costs being subsidized by the state. If the roadways were funded by weight-distance tolls, could WalMart compete successfully with local production? I suspect not, but there is no way to judge the case in the abstract. In the face of subsidies, it is impossible to say that one system is more efficient than another.

  4. “Important yet unpersuasive”….I think that’s what they said about Socrates.

    Ouch! That hurt, Caleb. A fair shot, though. Please note, however, that I didn’t say “unpersuasive”–I said “not necessarily the most persuasive.” Splitting hairs? I don’t think so–I have been persuaded of the truthfulness and usefulness of much that you have written over the years, as you know; I just don’t think all of it has been quite as persuasive as some other–usually rather less localist–stuff I have read over the same time period. Which, frankly, probably isn’t surprising to you; half of the time, you’re not really writing to persuade, but to testify, shock, provide witness and/or mockery, often simultaneously. You don’t have to agree with someone to take their point.

    As for your diagnosis of our difference(s), I find it…persuasive!

    Russell and I are both thoroughly modern men….The only difference is for me, modernity has lost its magic. For Russell, it hasn’t….[E]very political community must generate its substance with a “magical evocation”….Eventually, however, this magical evocation runs its course….In such a world, certain men will be willing to do without the creature comforts of this self-congratulatory existence because, for them, it has lost its magic. Their task is either, like the medieval jokers (see Cervantes and Rabelais), to make a vast joke of the absurdity of their fellow citizens, or to generate by force of will and personality a new evocation out of the strength and substance of their own souls.

    Not in all of it’s details, of course (am I whiggish? really?). But in its overall sense that modern life has emerged alongside acts of national/popular/sovereign “imaginings,” and that this magical stuff has been deeply interwoven with the liberties and securities we have enjoyed. Now it is all–maybe, possibly–falling apart, and the times see to call for Rabelaisian responses, or else something more darkly Nietzschean. I know I haven’t the shoot-the-wounded wit for the former, and I hope I’m not the latter. So that leaves me puttering around modernity, trying to find alternatives, buttressing up what I can. Not so much a noble task, perhaps, as a solidly goo-goo liberal one, but if Jimmy Carter can build Habit for Humanity homes, then dammit, so can I.

    (Dude, do you really have an iPhone? I’m shocked.)

  5. Thats it……the Media Political Magic Evocation is a Gigantic Count Mesmer. Lovely imagery. Anybody who could inspire the phrase “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton” has a clear understanding of the assets and liabilities of magic. “praise by faint damnation”….nice one.

    As Medaille points out, the Medievals had their modern too. On their heels, Frederick the Great legislated against the torture whose regulations against , we have apparently come to find “quaint”. To be sure, one man’s modernism is another’s primitivism with the caveat that the current Technological Primitivism would appear to be altogether more lethal, despite its pretensions of “progress”.

    Exactly what good is a modernism that appears to be a case of geopolitical-economic heartburn where the sanguinary sauces of yore are beginning to repeat themselves a tad too often. To be productive, Modernism would appear to require some custodial talents as may be offered by the conservator.

  6. Russell, a very gentlemanly response, thank you. You are right on target, I think, both in your diagnosis of me and of the state of play. And “muddling through” has its own kind of nobility, to be sure.

    (Dude, do you really have an iPhone? I’m shocked.)

    I contain multitudes.

  7. Mr. Stegal,

    Spot on!

    And, Dr. Voegelin also wrote, “One of the typical phenomenon of the 20th century is the event of spiritually energetic people breaking out of the dominant intellectual group in order to find the reality that has been lost.” You, sir, are among those people (and allow me to include Kauffman and Wendell as well) and, it appears, one of Aristotle’s spoudaios aner!

    Perhaps, our own political disorientation is a result of Marx’s transfomation of Hegel’s contemplative gnosis into an activist mysticism (see Rossbach’s, The Gnostic Wars); one result being that we are, or about to, pay the price for forgetting God! In the history of our specie this seems to happen with a certain regularity, though the intellectuals never seem to see it.

    Your response to Dr. Fox was the best piece, so far, on this site, and this site is producing some excellent stuff.

  8. “But in its overall sense that modern life has emerged alongside acts of national/popular/sovereign “imaginings,” and that this magical stuff has been deeply interwoven with the liberties and securities we have enjoyed.”

    We might enjoy liberties and securities at this precise moment, but the modern world can hardly be said to have provided more liberty and security than members of pre-modern societies. If we begin with the French Revolution and move forward to today, we see an astonishing age of violence, oppression, and misery; a sharp decline in intellectual and artistic achievements, a spiritual wasteland, and the very real possibility that man can destroy total life.

    So that we do not seek remedies from the same diseased tradition that got us here, we need to be very blunt about this. The modern vision has failed. And it has don so miserably. The Enlightenment, too, is a zero. It cannot help us. I agree with Solzhenitsyn on the subject.

    “The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistic selfishness of the Western approach to the world has reached its peak and the world has found itself in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the nineteenth century.”

    At some point, we have to ask this question: why has the modern age been so bloody and intellectually and spiritually vacuous? And it is at this point that one must look to pre-modern societies for a corrective. We need, I believe, a substantial and vigorous reorientation of thought and feeling towards a pre-modern ethos. For a primer on the subject, I recommend Thomas Fleming’s book The Morality of Everyday Life: An Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Traditon.

  9. I meant to say, “the modern world can hardly be said to have provided more liberty and security than members of pre-modern societies enjoyed.”

  10. Mr. Médaille took the words right out of my keyboard, i.e. under the modern spell everybody is hypnotized by “a ruling myth, namely, that we have to accept modernity if we want all the technological advances; they are the gift of capitalism. Sometimes this myth is stated implicitly and sometimes explicitly.

    But it is simply not the case. There is no conflict between the agrarian and the technological.

    However, the agrarian is better able to judge the appropriateness of any given technology.”

    To me the point seems to be not to sneer at technology per se, but rather to raise the question as to how we might direct technological development such that it furthers the development of our human character & civilization instead of dehumanizing us.

    The ethos of modernity can’t do that, because the very idea of trying to have some sort of ideal or notion of what human nature is is regarded as — well, oppressive.

    Barring some sort of vision for what people are for and why we’re here, the end result is technological development which can be guided by one thing and one thing only: Appetite.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m71m-LBqFQ

    Not only do we not question whether our approach technology might be making us better or worse people, we are now cleverly-ironically reveling in our own decay.

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