[Cross-posted to In Media Res]
Back in February, Rod Dreher shared with his readers an idea for a new book: to introduce conservative Christians in America to “the warnings that people who grew up under socialism are sounding now to Americans about where our country is going….[this] is not primarily about economics, but rather about how the overall mentality of our culture, especially in our leading institutions, is preparing the way for socialism.” This, predictably, led to a lot of argument in his comments section. What exactly, some of us asked Rod (and each other), was the “socialism” that existed under the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which he was referring to, and how is that related to what he sees happening in the Democratic party and corporate America and large educational institutions today–especially given that his concern, as he said, wasn’t with economics? In subsequent posts Rod brought up multiple different possible interpretations of what “social conservatism” or “social justice” mean, and how they are or are not compatible with “socialism”–with none of it, on my reading, being especially coherent. Ultimately he recognized that using the word “socialism,” when what he really wanted to get at was what conservative religious believers needed to know when confronted with an ideologically secular conformity–a conformity that many who experienced the tyranny of various communist parties in Russia and eastern Europe have analyzed thoughtfully and well–“obscures more than it illuminates.” Rod didn’t cite Alan Jacobs when he came to this conclusion, but he should have–because Alan, I think, had it right: Rod wasn’t concerned about socialism; he was concerned about the individualistic, ideological premises of liberal capitalism itself being even further entrenched in our society. As Alan put it:
What [traditional Christians] are battling against isn’t a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market–a kind of metaphysical capitalism. The gospel of the present moment is, as I have frequently commented, “I am my own.” I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. That some kind of redistribution of access/prestige/attention and even economic resources might be needed to bring this gospel to those who have not previously been able to enjoy its benefits should not obscure for us what the core proclamation really is.
The fact that Rod saw the things he fears about ideological conformity as tied up with “socialism” is, unfortunately, a common mistake in America. Socialism is the bogeyman that conservatives of all stripes find easy to associate with all that distorts or corrupts those things they, in theory at least, hold most dear–namely, civil society, and the goods which social interactions in and through one’s community, church, and family make possible. Given the rise of actually electable, self-identifying, democratic socialist politicians to national prominence in the Democratic party, it becomes doubly easy for Republican voters of all stripes (including many conservatives, however defined) to simply associate “socialism” which whatever cultural concerns they have with the Democratic party’s platform, or the statements they hear from various Democrats or presumably Democratic-sympathizing interest groups and movements. Sometimes those associations are accurate–but usually they are not. It would be unfortunate if some of the genuinely interesting struggles taking place among conservative writers today, whether it be Daniel McCarthy’s “new conservative agenda” or Rod’s own call to eschew any revival of “zombie Reaganism,” simply continued to fail to take socialism –meaning, very fundamentally, putting social equality and collective empowerment before individual interests and private property– seriously. To do so is to leave the right side of the rhetorical battlefield empty, and thus available for our idiot president to fill.
Timothy Carney’s mostly excellent new book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse is a good example here. Carney is a talented writer, and he is clearly trying to set a higher bar for himself than the sort of conservative hackery he was content with in his earlier books. This book has a real thesis, and in exploring that thesis–the question of the “localized erosion of civil society in our country,” which he forthrightly admits in the acknowledgments isn’t at all new, but rather hews closely to the ground which important sociologists and thinkers like Robert Putnam, William Julius Wilson, and many others have already plowed (p. 301)–Carney brings out many solid and thoughtful arguments. Starting with the data which shows it wasn’t necessarily the most economically distressed white voters who decisively supported Donald Trump in 2016, but rather was the white voters who lived in the towns and cities where the social dysfunction which regularly attends the lives of the economically distressed (pp. 58, 62), Carney wants to explore why some places in America, and not simply certain groups of people, suffer. By comparing data sets specific to particular places, supplemented with some on the ground reporting, Carney smartly connects the collapse of certain sorts of economic opportunities–“low-skilled but reliable jobs….[which were] one of the many training grounds for life”–with the emergence of large numbers of people (mostly white men) who, failing to make America’s supposed meritocracy work for them, find themselves flailing:
For college-educated men, high-skilled jobs still exist in today’s economy, and those jobs often demand and cultivate the same virtues. For the man who was or would have been a factory worker, though, there aren’t the salaried jobs of the elites or the reliable factory jobs of the past. There is instead irregular and even unreliable work–contractor jobs, occasional gigs. These are the sorts of jobs that don’t reward or cultivate reliability or commitment, in a large part because they don’t offer reliability or commitment in return. they reflect more an on-again, off-again relationship of convenience…and perhaps they cultivate other habits: detachment, the default stance of constantly looking for a better deal, and a survival instinct that elevates self-preservation over loyalty (p. 82-83).
Leftist that I am, it is hard for me to understand how someone can notice the common denominator present in these places–the collapse of community, leaving in its wake far fewer examples of responsible citizenship and decent families and self-denying individuals; as Carney puts it explicitly, “the factory closing in Monessen destroyed Monessen as a community….[wiping] out the institutions of civil society”(p. 86)–and not come to the logical conclusion that the bulk of the problem is with what Jacobs rightly called “metaphysical capitalism”: the acceptance of the supposedly overriding imperative to let individuals and corporations specialize and sort and relocate and maximize and all the other things which homo economicus does so well. Carney poignantly describes how this cult of meritocracy and profit hollows out the human relationships that used to attend many once-stable communities (pp. 40-41), how it breaks apart those institutions–the church congregation, the local diner–which provided the places and contexts where mutual support and the goods of civil society could be experienced (pp. 102-103), how it deprives work of dignity and turns us all into interchangeable cogs in the Gig Economy (pp. 182-183). Yet when he visited Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, or activists working on the Sanders campaign in 2016, and saw the degree to which their actions in opposition to all of the above involved “building a mini-society” or “participating in community” or “making grass-roots connections”–in other words, when he himself acknowledged that the egalitarian aims of their work involved the strengthening of civil bonds, exactly the sort of thing that all good conservatives presumably cared about–he still couldn’t help but basically discount them. “As progressives and socialists…[they] believed the solution to this real problem was centralizing power” (pp. 209-213). Is that really all that conservatives can see?
There are a couple of points in the book where Carney digs deep, and comes up with something perceptive about his own understanding of the world; maybe that understanding connects with why the socialism right in front of his face–at one point his own analysis leads him to praise the union-run unemployment insurance system of countries like Sweden and Denmark, and says the U.S. ought to do the same, putting labor unions in charge of distributing roughly $100 billion in welfare dollars every year! (p. 286)–can’t be accepted in its own terms. In talking about Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the America Right, he quotes her statement that “the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life.” He responds:
Hochschild…and others on the left perhaps can’t understand that the folks of Trinity Baptist, Salt Lake City, and Oostburg see the church schools and the church slide as part of the public sphere and an integrative force. There’s no admission charged on Sundays. The slides and coffee shops and concerts and sports teams at these churches tend to be open to all comers, and not merely believers. Even those who are exclusive when it comes to worship (see the Mormon temples) are inclusive when it comes to other events. The “gentiles” I met around Salt Lake City spoke fondly of bringing their kids to the monthly potlucks the local Latter-day Saints church would throw. The recovery aid programs that Hochschild described and that most churches have are open to all needy people. Homeless atheists or Catholics aren’t turned away from Trinity Baptist. A mind-set that won’t count these institutions as “public” is a mind-set that diminishes community and civil society (pp. 153-154).
Now as it happens, as a Mormon who lived in Utah for five years, I and friends of mine could relate numerous situations which would suggest that Carney’s cheery portrait of Salt Lake City is hardly the whole story. No doubt similar stories could be told about any exclusive community attempting to balance its desire to maintain its identity while simultaneously being a good, civil society-contributing neighbor. This is one way in which Carney’s writing and analysis, fine as it is, fails to grapple with the real difficulties of community-maintenance in the way which, say, Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City did–or, for that matter, Rod Dreher’s own The Benedict Option. In both these works, as different as they are, the authors understand that the binding power which church institutions can contribute to civil society is unavoidably also an exclusionary one: that some doctrine, or standard, or authority, is going to have to be acknowledged, in one way or another, however “public” the church coffee shops or baseball leagues or recovery programs may appear to be.
Now, to the extent that such pluralism–that is, the various bodies, some of them being more open than others, all contributing in their own distinct ways to a healthy civil society–is experienced as a problem, it is arguably one which just takes us back to “metaphysical capitalism” again: the idea that “any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny.” Of course, the liberal foundation of rights in this country, whatever its abuses, can’t be cavalierly dismissed. But it is equally important to recognize where that doctrine leads, and to recognize that socialist principles can, and do, provide an alternative to it. Socialism (or democratic egalitarianism if you must) ought to be fruitfully pluralistic–and it usually is, as anyone who has spent any time in societies that embraced egalitarian principles, and made use of socialist policies to adhere to those principles, can probably tell you. But it is admittedly true that many types of socialism–particularly, but not only, the state socialist and communist parties which dominated much of the world for much of the 20th century–were unfriendly, to say the least, to any component of that pluralism which excluded, as of course churches often do, despite (or perhaps one could say “in connection with”) their manifest role in providing for the development and the strengthening of social goods.
This isn’t an argument that such civil bodies, once socially empowered, would or should never be changed by being more thoroughly economically integrated with the rest of society. Of course such bodies, churches included, can’t do what they do alone; even Carney recognizes that without an economic foundation which protects good work–that is, without strong limits on the marketplace–communities will fail, and families and individuals will follow, with churches and other particularist, voluntary organizations usually being mostly powerless to slow that decline. (As John Médaille wonderfully put it, while conservatives insist that politics in downstream from culture, culture itself is “downstream from breakfast.”) But perhaps if those who hope for the overthrow (or at least the significant modification) of capitalism wouldn’t so often fail to understand the place of what could be, and historically often was, one of their key allies in preserving anti-capitalist, genuinely social and familial and egalitarian values in a community, conservatives–or at least those conservatives who are able to break away from the always-trust-the-market-first mentality of Cold War fusion conservatism–might realize that what they’re looking for is something we socialists (or some of us, anyway) have been talking about all along.
Back in January, Erik Olin Wright, a brilliant and profoundly original socialist thinker, writer, and organizer passed away. His book Envisioning Real Utopias had an enormous impact upon me; when I first read it, I found myself explaining and re-explaining its ideas to myself and everyone I met for months. The most important thing it–and so many other of Wright’s writings–did, I think, was explain how the Marxist shadow over socialist, anarchist, egalitarian, and all other utopian thinking has too often blinded thinkers on the left from recognizing something pretty obvious: that what we are looking to do is empower civil society, to make the mutual support communities provide stronger, to make our social and economic worlds more democratic. Hence we leftists need to be guided, first and foremost, by a “socialist compass,” and we need to recognize everything that falls within that compass, including what he called “interstitial” entities and strategies–or in other words, what a non-sociologist might call the dozens, hundreds, thousands of initiatives and organizations (neighborhood co-ops, women’s shelters, intentional communities, environmental groups, and many more) which provide spaces wherein civil society, and not capital, rules. He acknowledged that the more doctrinaire Marxist thinkers would see these as a distraction from the longed-for revolution, but insisted that their emancipatory potential is real (Envisioning Real Utopias, pp. 322-327). And as for those civil associations which strengthen community and provide shelter from the hyper-individualism of liberal capitalism through particularist, sometimes exclusionary, even religious means? Should they be crushed by the secularizing Red Guards of some new socialist movement? Well…no. As Wright explained:
A vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kinds of members based on different sorts of solidarities….It is tempting to deal with this…by somehow defining civil society as only consisting of benign associations that are consistent with socialist ideals of democratic egalitarianism….I think this is an undesirable response….There is no guarantee that a society within which real power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that always upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges…My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment will inevitably successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism (pp. 145-148).
I can easily imagine many conservatives–and socialists too–seeing the forgoing as a lot of murky meanderings, neither promising of real social empowerment nor conserving genuine community stability. My guess is that Carney wouldn’t touch it, despite it, on my reading, allowing for exactly the kind of economic support and community respect that his own analysis seems to point directly towards. For my part, I find it beautiful; it reads as a perhaps unintended, but nonetheless carefully thought out and genuinely expressed, olive leaf to everyone who wants civil bonds to flourish, equal respect to increase, and communities to be stabilized–in other words, to promote economic and cultural goods that most people need to lead fulfilling lives. Here’s the truth, conservatives: socialists (at least those who haven’t unintentionally absorbed a metaphysics which is more capitalist and individualistic than anything else) want those things, too. So as the threat of Trump leads some American conservatives to rethink what they believe and where they’re going on, here’s hoping that they’ll realize that the socialism (or the “left conservatism“) which keeps on haunting their own arguments is more a helpful ghost, than a specter to flee.