Category: utopian visions

Roberto Unger: Utopia, Participatory Democracy, and Exemplary Action

I have now read two recent pieces by Roberto Unger: the essay “The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View” and the transcript of a session at the OECD in Paris, entitled “Inclusive Vanguardism: The Alternative Futures of the Knowledge Economy.”  (Both are available as PDFs on Unger’s website: http://www.robertounger.com/en/).

Here is a quick outline of his basic project: the knowledge economy names a significant shift in the mode of production.  Specifically, it changes the Fordist model of the mass production of exactly identical products into the machine-driven production of customized products.  Thus, the new automatons change the dynamics of scale—and have the potential to upset entirely the “law” of diminishing returns. (Each now copy of a digital product costs almost nothing to produce; so the millionth copy of Microsoft Word produces a larger profit than the first 10,000 copies.)

Interestingly, Unger (unlike so many others writing on this theme) does not think the human race is about to reach a condition of post-scarcity.  Perhaps this is because he comes from the global South.  Because he still believes scarcity is a problem, he is in favor of “perpetual innovation” and increasing the productive powers of our machines.  Utopia, in his view, is having humans only do the work that cannot be done by machines (which might be characterized as “care” work—teachers, health care providers, child and elderly care, environmental protection etc.) 

To unleash both the full productive and full utopian possibilities of the knowledge economy requires, in his view, the full-scale involvement of all in the work of innovation—hence his focus on “inclusive vanguardism.”  We need to structure our societies to encourage constant experimentation as we search for the technical solutions to our many needs and problems. 

In focusing on the mode of production and in what can only be called his technological optimism, Unger looks very much a disciple of Marx.  I think many readers would share my sense that the biggest lacuna in his work is any attention to environmental concerns.  He talks (in the OECD session) a lot about Brazil, yet never once mentions the subjection of Brazil’s land to extractive processes that are an environmental disaster.  The knowledge economy (this statement is me, not Unger), no less than Fordist production, is a vampire with a seemingly endless appetite for “natural resources.” 

“Perpetual innovation” in and of itself is no answer.  Innovation has to be in the service of ends that are not destructive and/or unjust.  Yes, we must experiment with and try to develop innovations that alleviate the severity and costs of climate change.  But to believe (and invest and pursue) only technological fixes to environmental degradation is to trust the very mind-set that got us into this mess. We need also to re-think the whole obsession with “productivity” and “growth.”  Unger appears utterly committed to the promotion of growth as the correct goal of our economics.

Having lodged that (fundamental) objection to his project, I want to dwell on what I found inspiring in these two pieces.  Unger is advocating for radical social changes, but he argues forcefully that change is always piecemeal.  You must begin where you are, experimenting with what is possible in this set of circumstances, even as you have an eye on the long-term, larger transformations your local action is aiming toward.  On the other hand, this focus on the local (which includes an endorsement of “radical devolution” in federalist arrangements that permit substantial regional divergences) does not neglect the considerable power of the state.  For starters, the state must permit those local experiments—and enable them through institutional/legal orders and with financial resources.  But there also has to be a national (at least) vision that enlists the state in the project of inclusion, of breaking down the hierarchies that establish the division between the “knowledge workers” and the drudges. 

When faced with an acknowledgement of all that is wrong with current arrangements, Unger insightfully tells us that any suggested remedial actions usually are felt to be “too trivial” (not substantial enough to effect the “real” change we want to see) or “utopian” (not remotely feasible under present conditions; just fantasies that we have no way of getting to from here).  This strikes me as completely accurate—and it has a chilling effect, is a formula for hopelessness, exhaustion, and apathy. 

My own sense (derived from Arendt) of how to combat this dilemma is to say that any kind of political or social activism must combine immediate rewards with “eyes on the prize.” Change is slow, uneven, prone to set-backs, never matches the full utopian vision, and a source of painful conflicts and compromises.  Plus it is very hard to see the effectiveness of any single action in bringing change about.  For all those reasons, the participation in any social movement must involve the excitement of working creatively with a set of people toward a common end.  It is that experience of immersion in a collective project that sustains long-term political movements.

Unger is an advocate of what used to get called (I guess still is, although this theme has retreated from much recent work in democratic theory) “participatory democracy.”  He calls for “a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life . . . and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns—the creations, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future” (68-69 in the Knowledge essay).

Unger has some sharp critiques of social democracy along these lines—basically arguing that it turns citizens into passive recipients of benefits handed out by the central government instead of active shapers of their civic life.  He doesn’t want to see citizens as “consumers” that the government must serve.  Unlike the conservative critique of the “nanny state” (even as Unger’s worries about passivity chime with some conservative views), the idea here is to have citizens actively engaged in the provision of those services.  Unger favors mandatory national service; along with paying taxes to see that children and the elderly are cared for (to take one example), citizens would be expected to provide that care for some portion of their working life (either as a two year service period or as a periodic—one month a year—seconding.) This service would increase trust and empathy, both of which are in short supply in today’s world, even as it would also increase a sense that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all our fellow citizens and actively engaged in both thinking about and participating in the best ways to insure that welfare.

Multiple ways to promote citizen interaction, as well as citizen involvement in the shaping of policy, would also be needed.  Most crucially, perhaps, is the need from workplace democracy.  The whole notion of an “inclusive vanguard” is built upon breaking down the hierarchies in the workplace that reserve expertise to a small minority.  Everyone should be invited to participate in developing innovative ideas and experimental projects—and everyone should be provided with the education that makes such a democratization of expertise possible.

Unger understands that experimentation cannot take place where people have no economic security.  Necessity, it turns out, is not the mother of invention.  The absence of fear, the knowledge that one’s daily bread is secure, plus immersion in high-energy, collaborative (yet also somewhat competitive; Unger is fond of the phrase “cooperative competition”) environments is what stimulates the imagination and makes it possible to take risks.  Make the cost of failure too high—and very few will take any risks.  So, far from those conservative cowboys who adopt the macho line of letting the fittest survive in the jungle of the “free market,” Unger describes a political/economic regime that underwrites innovation and experimentation by providing the resources that make sure such experiments are not matters of life and death. 

Why the focus on experiments?  Three reasons, I think, all of which resonate with the project of “social choreography.” First, we don’t know in advance (through some kind of theoretical thought) what actually works.  There are always unanticipated and unexpected consequences of any course of action—just as there are always unanticipated obstacles and (if we are lucky) serendipitous successes. 

Second, experiments undertaken collectively are a site (and a very non-trivial one) of happiness.  Participation can be—and often is—a joy.  And it is the energy of that joy that carries the project forward even as it encounters difficulties and even as its contribution to a larger social transformation is not clear.  Participation (and this is the Arendt piece) can be an experience (in miniature but in the real time of the present) of the kind of society we are aiming to produce. In short, participatory democracy in action, here and now.

Third, if we accept that change is piecemeal, then our experiments are “exemplary actions” (the phrase is Unger’s), demonstration projects that show what is possible.  We don’t have to—and should not—wait upon total transformation to begin living the lives we desire to live.  We can find the others who are willing to experiment with us—and begin to dance.

Ben Lerner (2)

Floating beneath the surface in Lerner’s 10:24 is a longing for connection, for art’s communicative possibilities to open up a pathway to community.

“[I] felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I look at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurablity of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate register, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. . . . [W]henever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of this possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.  What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her.  If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.  You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down by the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event” (108-109).

The theme returns in a short lecture given by the narrator at a round-table featuring three writers.  He has explained how the Challenger disaster and its aftermath (a poetic speech by Ronal Reagan, the rash of anonymously generated jokes about the event that circulate through the culture) set him on the road to becoming a writer.

“If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling.  I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ [a poem Reagan quotes in his speech] as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer.  I don’t see anything formally interesting in the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t even funny at the time.  But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammars the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all” (115-116).

The wistfulness here reminds me of John Lennon’s Imagine—and seems tied to the author’s (and our?) inability to access Whitmanian mysticism with any conviction.  The skyline is a monument to collectivity.  It could never have been built except by many human hands working in concert.  And even if the various activities encompassed by city life—“bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity” (108)—are “bad forms of collectivity” they are “figures” of the possibility of collectivity.  Selves share the “meanings” by which “we build a social world.”  The boundaries between selves are utterly porous; we dissolve into one another—and into the stories that we share, the images that guide us.  If only we could tweak those facts, shift them slightly on their axes—then the world and each one of us would be “the same but a little bit different” (a formula for utopia that comes from  Benjamin or Brecht or someone of that ilk; I can’t find the exact source).

We always already exist in collectivities; the struggle is to make them better, to make them serve our deepest longings rather than to stifle and frustrate them.  We fight collectivity (cling to selfishness in all its senses) even as we long for it.  Art is connected to that longing; think of how movies and plays move us to tears, even those of us who almost never cry in “real life.”  We only indulge our longings in the safe space of art, while living our prudent, advantage-seeking, lives in the everyday world.  We know—as Adorno says—what our better selves and a better world look like, and we live out the shame (no matter how deeply we manage to bury it) of the gap between that vision of the good and the sordid realities we inhabit and reproduce.

The web of shared meanings is what we might call “myth”—and what is frightening about the current moment in American history is that the prevailing “myth” is no longer shared. (Probably it never was; more likely is that those who held alternative visions were more ruthlessly silenced in the past.) There are two (at least) utterly incompatible set of meanings circulating through the culture—and they appear so incompatible that the proponents of each find it close to unimaginable to share the national space with the other side.

In a sense, the power of art has never been so dramatically on display.  The left/liberal vision occupies the lion’s share of official culture, from the high art bastions of museums and universities to the culture industry’s popular music, film, and TV.  But the unofficial, unsanctioned world of the internet has spawned the alternative vision of the populist right, which now has its spokesperson in the White House.  Fed by a not inaccurate understanding of its exclusion from “respectable” opinion, populism has developed its alternative modes of communication alongside its refusal to credit anything the official world has to say.

Communication, “spin,” how and to whom facts and meanings are articulated, command the field.  Only catastrophic natural events—the virus, hurricanes, wildfires—seem capable of breaking through the morass of words and images, and not in any definitive, unequivocal way.  That supposed objective barometer of facts on the ground—the market—has proved as fictitious (if not more) than other “social indicators.”  Printing money and piling up debt have become disconnected from any actual consequences.  Inflation remains low, faith in government bonds remains unshaken, the stock market indices remain high.  We do appear to have left a reality-based world far behind.

And yet.  There is so much real and remediable suffering out there.  How did we, the human race, manage to turn all our possibilities, all our astounding capacities, into shit?  Collectively, we have built an amazing world.  But it amazes far more often by its byzantine dysfunctions than its praise-worthy accomplishments.  We can work wonders in medicine, but have developed a bureaucracy for delivering medical care that creates massive amounts of spiritually deadening labor and places obstacles in the way of getting treatment to those in need of it. We can feed seven billion people through our farming practices, but have built a system with perverse incentives that lead to the destruction of food while people go hungry and encourages the depletion of the natural sources of agricultural productivity.  We spend billions of dollars on military hardware, but claim we can’t afford to help the 20% of children who live in poverty.

I have always disliked Lennon’s Imagine.  It seems so removed from actual engagement, so enchanted with its own melancholy.  I find Lerner’s wistfulness more substantial.  He more fully articulates the sense of being both outside and inside of the collective failure.  Outside of it because seemingly unable to effect its unfolding disasters in any way—and outside of it because viewing it from a perspective that makes one unable to take its madness for granted or as inevitable or as immune from harsh judgment.  Inside because one is fully engorged by this whale; one can’t pretend not to be a participant, day in and day out, as one struggles to construct a life, a way of negotiating through this minefield.  Coming to terms with the devil is what we do even if we dream of living otherwise.  Driving one’s car, paying one’s insurance and tax bills to underwrite inhumane systems, consuming then throwing away plastic. The list of contributions we make toward perpetuating the world as currently constituted is endless.

Stop the world, I want to get off.  Whitman’s optimism is no longer available, even if his dreams are.  Lerner returns to Whitman later in the book and wonders about the “ecstasy” that runs through Whitman’s encounters with wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals in Washington DC.  There is something inhuman, deeply disturbing, in how Whitman gets off on the sight of these suffering bodies.  Optimism in such circumstances is reprehensible—and seems linked to an ideology of “glorious sacrifice” that was, I would hope, finally put to rest by World War I.

Where to find that optimism today?  Clearly, some people find in the collectivities created by the demonstrations that have become a recurrent feature of American civil life in 2020.  Insofar as the demonstrations attempt to construct—and make stick—a counter-narrative, a vision of American society antithetical to the racism and division Trump wants to amplify, the battle is on.  It is a war of meanings, and a war between an inclusive vision of collectivity against a divisive one.  Lerner articulates for us the forlorn, but still deeply felt, longing for that inclusive collectivity (the beloved community) even as he reminds us that art (if understood in the widest possible sense) is where articulation takes place, where the meanings we hope to share are first presented.  We can never quite believe that Shelley was right about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, but it is less incredible to recognize how the arts are powerful creators of community—and of the shared meanings that hold communities together.

A Diminished Thing

 

Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

 

The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

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).