The Lowliest Duties

In his sonnet, “London, 1802,” William Worsdworth praises John Milton in the following terms:

“So dids’t thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.”

In the leftist/liberal circles in which I mostly travel, Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed  is much loved.  The novel depicts a radically egalitarian society whose social arrangements are a response to sever environmental conditions.  Scarcity of the means to sustain life concentrates society’s mind wonderfully—and everyone chips in to insure survival, understanding that taking too much for oneself threatens not just the lives of specific others but the fate of the whole society.  The communitarian solidarity of this society (not without its problems of enforced conformity) are contrasted to a bloated, consumerist society that deploys its plenty to disagreeable ends.

My university has just announced, as part of its re-opening plan for the fall, that teachers and students will be responsible for cleaning each classroom after its use, in order to sanitize it for the next group that will enter.  You can imagine (I am sure) the howls of outrage that have greeted this suggestion.  Howls that, to some extent, reveal how inegalitarian most contemporary sensibilities are, even among those with a sentimental attachment to egalitarianism.

Let me be very clear.  Colleges across the US have been stampeded into announcing that they will open for the return of students in the fall. Apparently, in order to secure student commitments, they feel they need to tell everyone what they will do for a fall semester—even though, in reality, they do not know in our still fluid circumstances. Many colleges, like my own, in fact plan a fairly early August opening in order to finish up the fall semester by Thanksgiving.  Once having made that commitment, the colleges are then required to create some kind of plan for how they are actually going to do this safely.

This is insane.  First, we currently do not have a good read on what the situation will be like two months from now.  The announcement of re-openings are wildly premature.  Second, bringing students from across the nation and from around the world back on campus—and having them once again live and socialize together—is a formula for disaster even if you can make (the very limited) time they spend in class safe.  Add the notion that classes will be “hybrid,” with some students accessing them virtually and others in person, and the full impracticality of the proposed schemes becomes fully apparent.

It would, at the very least, be honest for colleges to admit they are flying blind and that any and all plans are contingent on the changing facts on the ground.  But, apparently, honesty is no longer possible in the world.  Pretense is everything.  As if anyone is fooled.

All that said: I am still interested in the outrage generated by the suggestion that the “lowliest duties” be shared.  Under what conditions, I want to ask, could we achieve communal solidarity instead of a fierce holding on to the privileges of one’s status and an equally fierce sauve qui peut attitude? Global warming is the most obvious case in point.  But this pandemic could be another such case—except that the emphasis on “social distancing” pushes in exactly the opposite direction.  It isn’t about rolling up your sleeves and joining a communal effort to avert the danger, but about running away from everybody else, stockpiling necessities, and protecting yourself from the general contagion.

At my university, the failure to get “buy in” for a communal effort stems, in part, from the heightened attention to status built into university careers (at least at “research” universities.)  It is why such faculty are allergic to unions and fervently support differential pay, with the more productive “star” faculty commanding significantly higher salaries (and often also getting various special perks, including lighter teaching loads).  The university (again, despite the announced allegiances of many of its faculty) is neither democratic nor egalitarian.

It seems to me there are only three ways to produce communal solidarity.  The first is through a democratic process by which all are consulted and all agree to take on those lowly duties.  As has often been noted, that process is time consuming (too many meetings) and often frustrating.  Reaching consensus is very, very hard.  Getting a majority vote is easier, but then you have to have some way to bring those who lost the vote along.  Furthermore, the maintenance of democratically produced solidarity proves very difficult.  Communities fall apart.

The second method is compulsion: the group effort is generated in a hierarchical structure with sanctions for those who don’t pitch in.  The go to model here is often the building of the pyramids.  With enough violence, people can be made to contribute to the communal project.  Economic necessity is somewhat nicer than slavery, but it is still compulsion that is doing much of the work in getting the factory hands to do their bit.

Finally, there is the Ruskinian dream (where the building of medieval cathedrals is contrasted to the building of the pyramids) of a collective enterprise that is hierarchical through and through, but in which the authority of the leaders is respected by the commoners because they are convinced of the overall project, of the commitment of the leaders to that project, and feel enabled, even liberated, by their own participation in the project. (The key texts are “The Nature of Gothic” and Unto this Last.)

It is easy to call Ruskin utterly deluded.  But at least let’s try to take seriously some of the issues his position highlights.  (To be concrete for a moment, all trust in or respect for that authority of the leaders on my campus has been seriously eroded over the past ten years by a series of actions by those in charge.  That’s why my campus in particular is in an especially tough spot when trying to get faculty and staff “buy-in” to the reopening plans.)

But back to Ruskin. 1.) Is there something like “authority” which gains allegiance and cooperation, even obedience, apart from threats of direct violence or economic deprivation?  Do we really want to say that the notion of this kind of authority is a complete illusion, that all cooperation and obedience stems, in the last instance, from compulsion?

2.)  Do we want to deny that participation in a communal effort, where concern for self disappears in the pleasure of contributing to the joint enterprise, is viewed (and experienced) by many as just about the greatest satisfaction available?  Self-forgetfulness can be bliss, can seem the most intense, most meaningful, most fulfilling experience of one’s life.  The urge to actually find the opportunity for such experiences can be a strong motive, aside from any kind of compulsion, for joining a team, a community, a project.  In short, immersion of the self in the communal is liberating in many (hardly all) instances.

3.) Do we want to deny that we admire the competence, integrity, virtuosity, and achievements of others—taking them as models for our aspirations for ourselves?  We apprentice ourselves to those we admire in this way, submitting to their authority precisely in order to learn how to become a person like them.  Yes, and this is where Ruskin seems most blind, this relationship opens the way to all kinds of abuses—but, still, must an egalitarian insist all such relationships are poisonous and unproductive?

4.)  Do we want to say work is always an evil, always something we would shun if possible?  Work can be a means of fulfillment—and much work requires collective effort.  How to think about the terms—and structures—within which work takes place? To what extent are hierarchies, authority, and coordinating direction required?  In addition, I would argue that we need to think about the enabling effects of constraint.  The sonnet form imposes various constraints on the poet; but those constraints are productive, even liberating.  They are not (or, at least, not in all instances) oppressive.  Constraints experienced as enabling are akin to authority accepted because it allows various desirable things to happen.

Ruskin, in other words, can seem a retrograde apologist for the established order.  But, if taken at least a bit seriously, he pushes us to think past individualism, past an assumption that any collective enterprise is a threat to freedom—and that a person is a dupe who submits himself to authorities beyond the self.  That’s the real rub, it seems to me.  Even the liberal/left, when its own positions are challenged, retreats (in too many cases) to the neo-liberal sensibility that equality is a threat to freedom because equality pushes us toward a conformity imposed from outside the self.  Getting with the program, cheerfully laying on ourselves the lowliest duties in union with others who do the same, is not experienced as a self-generated choice, but as acceding to an external charge.

We can’t (I believe) make political progress until that sensibility is revised.  We need to find a way to endorse, even embrace, cooperation–and it seems to me that cooperation is only sustainable where all are seen (even if there is some division of labor, of responsibility) as equally foregoing individual need/rewards for the sake of the common goal.  Everyone has to pitch in, and those with the most should give the most.  (The justification for progressive tax rates among other ways of taking into account unequal capacities to contribute.)

So this post returns us to the question of sensibility.  I am talking, partially at least, about esprit de corps.  The mystery (to me) of the military is how it utilizes harsh compulsion (in boot camp) to forge (in many cases) a deep commitment to the “unit,” to the communal.  Football coaches obviously strive to emulate the military’s methods.  How do you create this ethos, this acceptance of the group’s priority over the self, this willingness to take upon oneself the “lowliest duties”—where that willingness is not a loss of caste, but in fact a source of pride?

The military seems particularly apt for thinking about all this because it is, in my view, both admirable and terrifying.  Its inculcation of blind obedience, its strict hierarchies, are the antithesis of the kind of egalitarian social relations I favor.  In some ways it wants to prevent any soldier thinking for himself (in every sense of that phrase).

But—at the same time—it can encourage creative thinking about what steps will best serve the good of the whole, and it inspires a kind of egalitarianism found just about nowhere else in our society.  No wonder, then, that Fredric Jameson in his An American Utopia looks to the creation of a “universal army,” the conscription of all, as the way to create a communitarian sensibility.  Where else, he asks, are the classes so radically mixed as in the army?  And where else are all the members of a group subjected to the same treatment?

The paradox, of course, is that this egalitarianism is embedded within a highly hierarchal institution.  But that’s why Ruskin seems apposite.  We need to think the ways in which hierarchy, based in authority, can foster equality (in the commitment of all to a common project) and even liberation (in that the self finds fulfillment through the enabling provided by constraint, through its submission to the common.)

I ask myself: “have I ever been caught up in a larger project in which I ‘lost’ my self?”  I have to say the answer is No.  But surely I am not alone in devoutly wishing I could have that experience.  I often say that in retirement I want to find an organization that is doing real good in the world—and offer them my services.  I want to be part of a group that is working together and making something I value happen through that collective effort.  That heady feeling is what had made war so exhilarating for so many.  Certainly, my parents experienced (in their early twenties) World War II that way—and remained nostalgic for those years the rest of their lives.

William James famously told us we need to find a “moral equivalent of war.”  What he meant is we need to find a positive, world-enhancing (rather than world-destroying) project that would inspire the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication that war calls forth.  The failure of global warming and now the pandemic to inspire cooperation makes The Dispossessed look mistaken in its plausible (at least to me) supposition that a crisis will rally a society to a cooperative effort to solve it.  Our sad experience these days suggests the opposite: a crisis only leads to people doubling down on their efforts to save themselves, letting the devil take the hindmost.  And if the crisis is one that no one can, in fact, evade, so much the worse for humanity because the conviction that one can personally outrun the danger will triumph over any recognition that we are all in this together.  Only a human enemy bearing down on us, weapons in hand, seems to inspire that more collective response.

A pessimistic ending–and certainly Ruskin’s own fate hardly offers much hope.  But I do think the pathway to hope lies along the lines he sketches out.  Cooperation needs both some kind of respected authority and a fervent commitment to a common cause.  The fulfillment, even pleasure, comes with a sense of contributing to the achievement of that cause, irrespective of more individual rewards (rewards understood as money, honor, acclaim, or anything else that marks the self as “more equal” than the others who are also pitching in).

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