Category: utopian visions

Religion, Sect, and Party (Part 3)

Moving from religion to politics, in Slezkine’s The House of Government, basically entails moving the search for transcendence, the negotiation of the gap between the real and the ideal, from the difference between the profane and the sacred to the difference between the status quo and some projected (imagined) improvement upon the existing state of affairs.  Institutional religion—the church—represents the more quietist approach: the acceptance of the imperfection of the fallen world along with the promise of a better world elsewhere coupled with structures and hierarchies meant to insure stability, peace, and order in the imperfect here and now.  The compromises of the institutional church are always contested by impatient visionaries who long, with equal fervor, to create a utopian now and to punish those who stand in the way of achieving that utopia.

For Slezkine, the utopians organize themselves into “sects.”  Following the work of Ernst Troeltsch, “the distinction between a church and a sect” can be stated as follows: “a church is an institution one is born into. . . . [A] sect [is] a group of believers radically opposed to the corrupt world, dedicated to the dispossessed, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism” (93).  In Slekzine’s philosophy of history (I can use no other term for his wild—and world-weary—identification of a pattern he thinks repeats itself over and over) “the history of the new order [humanist post-Christian polities], like that of the old one [Christianity prior to the Reformation], is a story of routinization and compromise punctuated by sectarian attempts to restore the original promise” (107).  Sectarians scorn compromise and institutions, are often galvanized into action by a charismatic leader, and embrace violence in the name of the good.  When not fighting the reprobate, they are constantly in-fighting in order to insure that only the absolutely pure are members of the sect.

If revolutionaries are best understood as sectarians, Selkzine’s model explains a) their trust in and non-distaste [to use a weird double negative] of violence; b) their suspicion of and hence ineptitude in establishing institutions; c) their difficulty in sustaining trust and working, cooperative relationships once the movement grows beyond a “knowable community” (i.e. they are very bad at “imagined communities” because committed to the intense relationships of a shared oppositional—and doctrinally pure—set of beliefs); and d) their impatience with compromise and their fury when their utopian vision does not materialize (generating the frantic search for people to blame for that failure).

This, of course, is another way of saying that it is easier to be in opposition than in power.  It seems fair to say that the Republican Party has become more and more sect-like over the past thirty years.  Certainly it is much more prone to expel members who don’t toe the line (RINOs), and is hostile to compromise and to institutional structures/norms.  Its contempt for the routines of governance makes it just about incapable of governing; it has ground legislative activity to an almost complete halt, while rendering federal bureaucracies increasingly inept.  As many have noted, today’s Republican Party is not conservative; it is revolutionary reactionary.  It is out to destroy, not to conserve.

The oddity is that its destructive urges are almost entirely negative.  It is not driven by a positive vision, but mostly by a hatred of the elites it associates with anti-American values, tastes, and snobbishness.  Yes, there is nostalgia for a certain kind of small-town American culture that was built on racial exclusion and post-War prosperity.  But there is no serious—or even non-serious visionary—platform for reestablishing that world.  Empty slogans suffice if the joys of hatred are allowed free expression.  It really is as if the losers in this neoliberal universe will be content if given free rein to express the animus—most fully expressed in the death threats they love to send to people, but more mildly expressed in the various statements now deemed unacceptable in polite discourse—they feel toward the non-whites and the professional elites they cannot avoid in today’s business world and public sphere.  In their heart of hearts, undoubtedly there are true believers who think deporting all the immigrants is a possibility, but surely they are a small minority of those who vote Republican.  Similarly, those same voters know that the manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Contrasted to sects (in Slekzine’s view) are parties:  “Parties are usually described as associations that seek power within a given society (or, in Max Weber’s definition, ‘secure power within an organization for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members’) (58).  The key difference here is that the party accepts, has a huge amount invested in, the current institutional and political order.  To that extent, parties are all conservative; they seek to preserve the current system—and are oriented to gaining power with that system as the means toward furthering the party’s particular ends.  That’s why parties are the “loyal opposition”; they are not revolutionary, but are partners with other parties in the preservation of the current order.

Thus, today’s Republican Party seems to exist in some kind of uneasy (unsustainable?) tension between being a party and a sect.  It quite obviously seeks power to gain advantages for its active members—the donor class to which it delivers the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation etc.  But its appeal to its non-donor class voters is sectarian—and the result is that its elected officials include true believers who embody the no compromise hostility to institutional forms that is a large part of the party’s current brand.  These radicals will cheerfully have the government default on its debts (to take one example) and are constantly at odds with the more staid party functionaries who are only interested in power within the current system (Mitch McConnell being the epitome of this kind of politician).

Because of its use of sectarian tactics (tactics which someone like McConnell thinks he can keep safely under control), the Republicans have clearly abetted (by authorizing) various kinds of hate crimes and violence, even as they have given us an authoritarian, charismatic President.  The Party has moved far enough toward being a sect that its ability to actually govern is more than questionable, even as its attacks (voter suppression, harassment—and worse—of immigrants) upon outsiders to its “America” increase in ferocity.

All that said, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sectarian left.  Sects make things happen in the world; I have just finished reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography (of which more in future posts) and she, as well as Slekzine, tells a tale featuring dedicated conspirators, people spending their whole lifetimes committed to a cause of radical change.  A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are American examples.  In all these cases, from the 400 or so “Old Bolsheviks” to the 400 or so dedicated Irish nationalists to the 400 or so “race warriors” in the US, mountains were eventually moved.  If there exists such networks in the contemporary world, I don’t know of them.  Yes, we have the rightist militias.  But what do we have on the left: the respectable organizations, the ACLU and the like, fine in their own way, but very much within the established institutional order.

What I guess I am saying is that I want sectarian dedication, single-mindedness and energy, without sectarian violence and constant in-fighting.  After all, both Bolsheviks and the Irish revolutionaries, once they had succeeded in overthrowing the existing system, ended up fighting against one another.  It is shocking—at least to me—to read anti-Treaty documents in 1922 that casually refer to the Free State soldiers and officials as “the enemy” when those numbered in “the enemy” were one’s comrades in the fight against the British in 1921.  Yes, there was some hesitation at the start of the Irish Civil War about killing one’s friends and erstwhile comrades, but that hesitation disappeared with frightening, sickening, rapidity.

Maybe—and just maybe because I may be wildly over-idealizing here—one key factor (hardly the only one) involves careers.  Today’s Republican Party reactionary revolutionaries can safely attack governmental/legal/political institutions because they are not threatening (in fact see themselves as reinforcing and protecting) the institutional structures of American capitalism.  And it is well documented, there in plain sight for any operative to see, that the right has sinecures (in the think tanks, in lobbying organizations, increasingly in academia, etc.) readily available for those who do the party’s work.  That’s one way of saying that the Republicans are between a party and a sect; they are attached to an existing structure that provides a ladder to climb, a route to riches, recognition, and security.  It is just that that structure is, they like to believe, non-political, the “free market,” and thus enables a no-holds-barred hostility to political institutions.

The revolutionaries of the left—Lenin, Gandhi, Rustin—had no such safe perch, or secure position at which to aim.  They were fully on the outside, existing in a no man’s land where recognition, money, and eventual success were never guaranteed and were (for years) withheld.  They were stepping out into a void with no safety net.  As I say, maybe I am wrong here, guilty of over-idealizing.  I am hardly claiming these men did not have their faults—their vanities and their self-indulgences.  But they did not exist within any kind of established institutional order that provided security.  Only the intense relations within the sect offered some form of support.

Am I saying that existence within institutions stands in the way of being a true advocate for change?  Certainly, concern for the preservation of one’s own slot, one’s own career, for the sources of one’s own income and status, are deterrents to devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a transformation of existing conditions.

I don’t see where the kind of sect, the kind of movement that enabled Lenin, Gandhi and Rustin to live almost completely outside existing political, economic, and social setups, exists on the left today.  The Bohemian outside appears to have disappeared.  Life in the US has become so expensive, especially housing costs, that the counter-cultural enclaves such as Brooklyn or the Bay Area are the playgrounds of the rich now.  At the same time, increased surveillance (both physical and digital) gives a revolutionary counter-culture much less room in which to maneuver.

There is also the left’s almost universal repudiation of violence (the overblown existence of the anti-fa “movement” notwithstanding).  Maybe it is hard to have a sect without some kind of commitment to violence.  (I want to consider that idea in subsequent posts.)

Add the fact that being a sectarian is tedious.  Mostly what the old Bolsheviks did was read, write, and have endless meetings—for which they then spent long stretches of time in prison.  The hoped-for moment of transformation is endlessly postponed.  How energy, passion, and hope are sustained over such long periods of time is a mystery and a miracle, much to be admired.

Maud Gonne’s life has much to offer in thinking about such issues.  So I will go there next

Religion, Sect, Party (Part Two)

Having given you Taylor’s definition of religion last time, I now want to move over to Slezkine’s discussion of religion (which then bleeds over into politics) in The House of Government.

He offers a few attempts at defining religion, the first from Steve Bruce: religion “consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose.  Such a formulation seems to encompass what ordinary people mean when they talk of religion” (73; all the words in quotes are Bruce’s, not Slezkine’s).  If we go to Durkheim, Slezkine says we get “another approach. ‘Religion, according to his [Durkheim’s] definition, is ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.’  Sacred things are things that ‘the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity.’  The function of the sacred is to unite humans into moral communities” (74).

Durkheim’s position is functionalist; religion serves human need, especially the needs of human sociality.  Slezkine continues: “Subsequent elaborations of functionalism describe religion as a process by which humans create a sense of the self and an ‘objective and moral universe of meaning’ [Thomas Luckmann]; a ‘set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence’ [Robert Bellah]; and, in Clifford Geertz’s much cited version, ‘ a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of facticity that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (74).

In Bruce’s terms, I don’t think I can be considered religious, since I think morality is uniquely human; I don’t think there are impersonal or divine processes/beings that have a moral purpose and are capable of acting to further that moral purpose.

But the Durkheim/functionalist positions seem closer to home. What I have been worrying for months on this blog concerns the “sacredness” of “life.”  Does taking life as sacred, as the ultimate value, as the thing that profane hands (the state, other agents of violence, the lords of capitalism) should not destroy or even render less full, fall within the realm of religion?  It does seem to aim at some of the same ends—certainly at establishing a “moral community” united by its reverence for life; certainly in establishing a “moral universe of meaning” underwritten by the ultimate value of life; and certainly in paying attention to “the ultimate conditions of existence,” i.e. the drama of life and death, of being given a precious thing—life—that can only be possessed for a limited time.

I am never sure what all this (that is, the “formal” consonance of religion with humanism) amounts to.  If it is something as general as saying that the question of meaning inevitable arises for humans, and that the ways they answer that question has inevitable consequences for human sociality/communities, then the resemblance doesn’t seem to me to have much bite.  It is so general, so abstract, a similarity that it doesn’t tell us anything of much import.  It is like saying that all animals eat.  Yes, but the devil is in the details.  Some are vegetarians, some kill other animals for food, some are omnivores.

All human communities must be organized, in part, around securing enough food to live.  But hunter/gatherers are pretty radically different from agrarians—and all the important stuff seems to lie in the differences, not in the general similarity of needing to secure food.  I suspect it is the same for religion/atheism.  Yes, they must both address questions of meaning and of creating/sustaining livable communities, but the differences in how they go about those tasks are the significant thing.

More interesting to me is how both Taylor and Slekzine use Karl Jasper’s notion of the “Axial Revolution.”  Taylor leans heavily on Max Weber’s notion of a “disenchanted” world; Slekzine is interested in how the Axial revolution displaces the transcendent from the here and now into some entirely separate realm.  Or, I guess, we could say that the Axial revolution creates the transcendent realm.  In animist versions of the world, the sacred is in the here and now, the spirits that reside in the tree or the stream or the wind.  The sacred doesn’t have its own special place.  But now it is removed from the ordinary world—which is fallen, in need of salvation, and material/mechanical.  Spirit and matter are alienated from one another.  The real and the ideal do not coincide.

For Slekzine, then, every politics (like every post-Axial religion) has to provide a path for moving from here (the fallen real of the world we inhabit day by day) to there (the ideal world of moral and spiritual perfection).  He is particularly interested in millennial versions of that pathway since he thinks revolutionaries are quintessential millennialists.  And he clearly believes that all millennialists promise much more than they can deliver—and then must deal with the disappointment that inevitably follows from the failure of their predictions to come true.

That’s where I retain a liberal optimism—which is also a moral condemnation of the pessimist. My position, quite simply, is that some social orders (namely, social democracy as it has been established and lived in various countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Canada etc.) are demonstrably better than some other social orders if our standard is affording the means for a flourishing life to the largest number of the society’s members.  Measurements such as poverty and education levels, life expectancy etc. can help us make the case for the superiority of these societies to some others.

The point is that the gap between the real and the ideal is actual—even in the best social democracies.  But the point is also that this gap is bridgeable; we have concrete ways to make our societies better, and to move them closer to the ideal of a flourishing life for all.  Pessimists take the easy way out, pronouncing (usually from a fairly comfortable position), that all effort is useless, that our fallen condition is incorrigible.  A humanist politics, then, aims to re-locate the ideal in this world (as opposed to exiling it to a transcendent other-worldly place), while also affirming that movement toward the ideal is possible—and should be the focus of our political efforts.

In these terms, the ideal is, I guess, transcendent in the sense that it is not present in the here and now.  The ordinary does not suffice even within a politics that wants to affirm the ordinary, the basic pleasures and needs of sustaining life.  But there is also the insistence that the ordinary supplies everything we need to improve it—and that such improvements have been achieved in various places at various times, even if we can agree that no society has achieved perfection. There is no need to appeal to outside forces, to something that transcends the human, in order to move toward the ideal.

How a society handles, responds to, the gap between now (the real) and the ideal seems to me an important way to think about its politics.  Looking at 2018 America, it seems (for starters) that we have a deep division over what the ideal should be.  The liberal ideal is universal flourishing.  It seems very difficult not to caricature the ideal of liberalism’s opponents.  I think it is fair (but they probably would not) to say their view is premised on the notion of scarcity.  There is not enough of the good, life-sustaining, stuff to go around—which generates endless competition for the scarce goods.  In that competition, there is nothing wrong (in fact, it makes emotional and moral sense), to fight to secure the goods for one’s own group (family, ethnicity, nation).  A good (ideal) world would be one in which the scarce goods would go to those who truly deserve them (because hard workers, or good people, or “one of us.”)  But the real world is unfair, all kinds of cheaters and other morally unworthy types, get the goods, so politics should be geared to pushing such moochers away from the trough.  That seems to me to be the rightist mindset in this country these days.

But both sides seem to be humanists of my sort, since both seem to think politics can move us to the ideal in this world.  There is not some hope in a transcendent realm—or an orientation toward that realm.

Religion, Sect, Party

Even before quite finishing one behemoth (two chapters to go in Taylor’s A Secular Age), I have started another one, Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government (Princeton UP, 2017).  Surprisingly, they overlap to a fair extent.  Slezine pushes hard on his thesis that Bolshevism is a millennial sect and that its understandings of history and society follow time-worn Biblical plots, especially those found in Exodus and the Book of Revelations.  I find his thesis a bit mechanical and over reductive, an implausible one size fits all.  The strength of his book lies in its details, the multiple stories he can tell about the core figures of the Russian Revolution, not in the explanatory framework that he squeezes all those details into.

But Slezine does offer some general speculations on the nature of religion, sects, and parties that I want to pursue at the moment.  Taylor defines “religious faith in a strong sense . . . by a double criterion: the belief in transcendent reality, on one hand, and the connected aspiration to a transformation that goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on the other” (510).  A fairly substantial component of Taylor’s argument is that most, if not all, people will feel a pull toward those two things; that settling for mundane reality and ordinary flourishing will leave people with a sense of “lack,” a haunting feeling that there must be more.  He considers, very briefly, the idea that secularism entails people simply becoming indifferent to transcendence and some kind of transformation beyond the ordinary—and rejects the possibility that such indifference has—or even could—become common.

He pays more attention to the fact that the existence of a “transcendent reality” has simply become incredible to many people.  But—and this is a major point for him—he insists that the evidence cannot (of science or of anything else) be decisive on this question, or that evidence is even the prime reason for unbelief in the transcendent.  Rather, unbelief is underwritten by an ethos—one of bravely facing up to the facts, of putting aside the childish things of religious faith (the Freudian critique of the “illusion” that is religion).

I am not convinced.  Am I full of contempt for the evangelicals who claim to be Christians, but are such noteworthy examples of non-Christian animus, gleefully dishing out harm to all they deem reprobate even as they accommodate themselves to the thuggery and sexual malpractices of Donald Trump?  Of course.  But Taylor has no truck for the fundamentalists either.  His is the most anodyne of liberal Christianities; he has trouble with the whole idea of hell; basically (without his ever quite coming out and saying so) Taylor’s God does not consign people to eternal damnation.  Instead, hell for Taylor gets associated with sin—both of them understood as the painful alienation from God that results from turning one’s back on the transcendent.  Taylor, in other words, tiptoes away from judgment and punishment—believers aren’t supposed to be judging other humans or inflicting punishment upon them, and he is clearly uneasy with the image of a judging God.  In fact, moralism (rigid rules of conduct) is one of his main enemies in the book.  In its place, he urges us to Aristotelian phronesis, which insists that judgments always be particular, attending to the novelties of the situation at hand.

But back to me.  Aside from my contempt for the evangelicals and their hypocrisies and petty (and not so petty) cruelties to others, do I harbor a Freudian contempt for the believer?  Does my unbelief, the fact that I find the notion that god exists simply incredible (meaning there is no way that how I understand existence has room for a divine being) rest on a self-congratulatory idea of my “maturity” as contrasted to those childish believers?  It doesn’t feel that way.  I find most Christians harmless, and have no beef with practicing Muslims and Jews.  It’s only the fanatics of all religions, but equally the fanatics of godless capitalism, that I abhor.  And I share that sentiment with Taylor.  So I just don’t see that it’s some basic moralistic distinction I make between believers and unbelievers that drives my adoption of unbelief.  It seems much more obvious that my understanding of the world has no place for a god, makes the very idea of a god, if not quite unthinkable (because so many other humans keep insisting there is one), at least unimaginable.  I might as well try to imagine, believe in, a world that contains unicorns.  My “picture” of the world just can’t accommodate a god.

Taylor several times evokes Wittgenstein’s idea of our being held “captive” by a picture.  But Taylor also eschews the notion that some kind of argument (like the classic ones about god’s existence) or some kind of evidence could change the picture of unbelief to one of belief.  He is very much in William James territory.  Basically, his position is that the facts “underdetermine” the choice between belief and unbelief, that materialist science is not conclusive, and so the materialist, as much as the theist, rests his case, in the final analysis, on a leap of faith.  This is the Jamesian “open space” in which we all exist.  And then Taylor seems (without being explicit enough about this) to say that the deciding factor is going to be “experience” (shades of James’s Varieties of Religious Experience), where what follows (in the ways of feelings, motivations, transformations) from making the leap of faith toward a god stands as the confirmation that belief is the right way to go.  It’s the fruits of the relationship to a transcendent that Taylor wants to harvest, that make religious belief valuable in his eyes.

Here’s is where I wish Taylor had paid closer attention to James, particularly the essay “The Will to Believe.”  In that essay, James says that choices have three features: they can be “live or dead” choices, “momentous or trivial” ones, or “forced or avoidable” ones.  On this last one, James identifies the “avoidable” path as the result of indifference.  If I say you must choose between the red or the white wine, you can answer “it’s all the same to me” or I don’t want any wine at all.  You can, in short, avoid making the decision I am asking you to make.  In the case of “live versus dead,” I can ask you whether you believe in Zeus or Zarathustra, and your reply can be “neither of those options is a true possibility for me; nothing in my way of life or my existing set of beliefs allows the question of believing in Zeus to be a real question for me.”  Finally, “momentous/trivial” relates to what I think hangs on the choice; whether or not to have a child is momentous, with huge implications for my life and the life of others; what I choose to eat for dinner tonight is much less momentous, although not without some consequences (for my health, for the environment etc.)

I bring this up because the choice of believing in god is not, at this point in my life, a “live” choice for me.  I have no more substantial grounds or inclination to believe in the Christian god than I do to believe in Zeus.  Furthermore—I am on shakier ground here but think this is true—I don’t find the choice of unbelief momentous.  It is just what I believe: there is no god.  James in that same essay also covers this ground: most of our beliefs are not chosen.  Even though I only have second-hand evidence of the fact (what is reported in books and the historical record), I am not free to believe that Abraham Lincoln never existed or that he was not a President of the US.  I can’t will myself into not believing in his existence.  Well, I feel the same way about god.  I can’t will myself into believing that god exists.  That there is no god is as settled a belief for me as my belief in Abraham Lincoln’s existence.  And I don’t see that very much hangs on those two beliefs.

How can that be, asks the incredulous believer?  But (and, again, I am following James here) I think the believer often has cause and effect backwards.  Pope Francs has just declared capital punishment unacceptable to believing Catholics; Antonia Scalia, a devout Catholic, was an advocate of capital punishment.  So it is hard to see how the belief in god is the source of the conviction about capital punishment.  Something else must motivate the position taken.  Or, at the very least, the fact of believing in god is pretty radically undeterminative; god’s inscrutability is such that humans have to fill in many (most?) of the details.

It’s the same as Taylor’s revisionist views on hell.  Humans keep tweaking their notion of what god wants in order to fit human ideas of what an acceptable god would look like.  Even if you want to dismiss that kind of debunking statement about humans creating the god they can admire/respect, many believers (obviously not fundamentalists) are still going to accept that god’s ways are mysterious and not easily known.  In relation to that mysteriousness, that under-specificity of actual directives, I want to say choosing to believe in god or not doesn’t turn out to be very momentous—at least not in terms of giving us clear moral/ethical guidelines.  Believers have disagreed vehemently about what the implications of their religious beliefs are for actual behavior. Skipping the whole choice, being indifferent to the question of god’s existence (and I think that kind of indifference, not paying much mind to the question of god, is much more common than Taylor thinks it is), doesn’t allow us to escape disagreements about good behavior, but doesn’t handicap us in any significant way from participation in such debates.

I don’t, in fact, think Taylor would disagree about this.  He isn’t at all interested in a moralistic religion—and he is also not committed to the notion that atheists can’t be moral, that their moral convictions and commitments rest on air.   Instead, Taylor argues that the choice is momentous because of the experience–of “deeper” (a word he uses again and again without ever really telling us what is entailed in “deepness”) meanings and a “transformed” relationship to life, the world, others–opens up, makes possible.  Again, the specifics of the transformation are awfully vague.  But the basic idea is clear enough; to those who open themselves up to a relationship to the transcendent, the very terms of life are different—and fuller, more satisfying, and more likely to answer to a spiritual hunger that lurks within us. So I guess Taylor’s advice to me would be: give it a try, see what changes come if you believe in god and try to establish a relationship to him.  I am free, of course, to say “I pass.”  What Taylor finds harder to credit is that my response to his offer could be indifference, a shrug of the shoulders.  He thinks my rejection of his offer must be driven by some animus against the believer and some admiring self-image of myself as a courageous facer of the unpleasant facts of existence.

The funny thing about this is how individualistic it is, how much it hangs on the personal experience that belief generates.  It is one of the key differences between James and John Dewey that James’s vision is pretty relentlessly individualistic, while Dewey is the kind of communitarian critic of liberalism that Taylor has, throughout his long distinguished career, been.  In A Secular Age, however, Taylor is not interested in the community of believers.  Yes, he sees the cultural setting (the “background assumptions” that are a constant in his understanding of how human language and psychology operate) as establishing the very conditions that make unbelief even possible in a “secular age,” but he doesn’t read the consequences of belief/unbelief in a very communal way.  That’s because he has to admit that both believers and unbelievers have committed the same kinds of horrors.  He is very careful not to make the crude Christian argument that unbelievers like Stalin will inevitably kill indiscriminately, as if there wasn’t any blood on Christian hands or as if there have been no secular saints.  So he does not seem to say there is any social pay-off to widespread belief—at least not one we can count on with any kind of assurance.  But he does insist on the personal pay-off.

Here’s where Slezine’s book comes in.  The kind of millennial religion he ascribes to the Bolsheviks is all about communal pay-off; they are looking toward a “transformation” of the world, not of personal selves and experience.  In fact, they are oriented toward a total sacrifice of the personal in the name of that larger transformation.  So it is to the terms of that kind of belief—in the dawning of a new age—that I will turn in my next post.

Perfectionism and Liberalism

Adam Gopnik has become one of the most astute theorists/apologists for liberalism, even though his thoughts on that subject simply come as asides in the occasional pieces he writes for the New Yorker.  In the July 30, 2018 edition, in a review of a book about the utopian fictions of the 1890 to 1910 period, he has this to say: “Liberalism is a perpetual program of reform, intended to alleviate the cruelty we see around us.  The result will not be a utopia but merely another society, with its own unanticipated defects to correct, though with some of the worst injustices—tearing limbs from people or keeping them as perpetual chattel or depriving half the population of the right to speak to their own future—gone, we hope for good.  That is as close as liberalism gets to utopia: a future society that is flawed, like our own, but less cruel as time goes on.”

The complaint of non-liberals is that liberals aim too low, that they timidly rule out as impossible things they should be fighting to accomplish.  And surely there is much to be said for the view that liberals are particularly ineffective if they are not constantly pushed by a more radical “left.”  On the other hand, liberal timidity, what Judith Shklar memorably called “the liberalism of fear,” is a commitment to minimizing concentrations of power and maximizing the distribution of power in order to prevent tyranny.  Power deployed for economic gain or power deployed to bring about a utopian vision of solidarity/common effort are equally to be feared.  Pluralism is the by-word, also known as liberal “permissiveness.”  As much as possible, keep to an absolute minimum the power of any entity (be it state, business, church, or another person) to dictate to me the terms of my life.

Another common critique of liberalism comes from a different direction.  The issue here is not that liberals don’t fight hard enough for the justice they claim to cherish, but that the individualism that liberal permissiveness establishes is unsatisfying.  Left to their own devices, individuals will either (this is the elitist, right-wing critique of liberal individualism) choose “low,” materialist desires that are undignified and recognizably bestial or (the left-wing, “communitarian” critique) be left adrift, exiled from all the kinds of intersubjective associations/relationships that actually make life meaningful.

In short, a straight-forward “materialism,” which accepts that our primary motives are for bodily comforts and other basic pleasures—what I called “hedonism” a few posts back—is deemed insufficient for a “full” (now the term is Charles Taylor’s) human life.  There must be more, Taylor keeps saying.

Here’s my dilemma—and kudos to Taylor for bringing it home so forcefully.  A certain version of materialism, with its notion that personal interest in securing material goods plus the psychological satisfactions of familial love and social respect are primary and “enough”, reigns among the aggressive right-wing in the US today.  The old line conservative, elitist critics of the Alan Bloom and Harold Bloom sort are just about total dinosaurs now.  The current right wing scorns elites and their fancy views of human dignity and attachment to “higher” things.  “Freedom” for Samuel Alioto is complete liberal permissiveness in economic matters, tied to a lingering moralistic attempt to suppress non-economically motivated “vices.”

So I certainly want to combat what Taylor insists is the “reductionism” of a materialist utilitarianism—the notion that all value resides in the extent to which something contributes to well-being, with “well-being” defined in very restrictive, mostly economic, terms.  The humanities, as a whole, have understood this as the battleground: the effort to get the public and the body politic to accept (and act on that acceptance) the value of non-economically motivated or remunerated activities. (In a future post, I will return to this topic aand try to think through what the “more” is that a secularist humanities would offer.)

What path should one take in this effort to combat economistic utilitarianism?  Taylor writes that “the question [that] arises here [is] what ontology can underpin our moral commitments” (607).  Now, of course, Richard Rorty (of whom more in a moment) would argue that we needn’t have any ontology to underwrite our commitments, that the whole (traditional) philosophical game of thinking that “foundations” somehow explain and/or secure our commitments is a misunderstanding of how human psychology works.  (Basically, Rorty is accepting William James’s insistence that we have our commitments first and then invent fancy justifications for them after the fact.)  The critics reply (inevitably) that Rorty thus shows that he has an ontology—basically, the ontological description of “human nature” that is James’s psychology.  If, like Rorty, you are committed to the liberal ideal (as expressed by Gopnik, who is consciously or not, channeling Rorty on this point) of reducing cruelty, then you are going to undertake that work in relation to how you understand human psychology.  In Rorty’s case, that means working on “sensibility” and believing that affective tales of cruelty that will awaken our disgust at such behavior will be more effective than Kantian arguments about the way cruelty violates the categorical imperative.

The Humean (and Rorty, like Dewey, is a complete Humean when it comes to morality/ethics) gambit is that humans have everything they need in their normal, ordinary equipment to move toward less cruel societies.  We don’t need “grace” or some other kind of leg up to be better than we have been in the past.  Our politics, we might say in this Humean vein, consist of the rhetorical, legal, and extra-legal battles waged between those who would “liberate” the drives toward economic and other sorts of power and accumulation versus those who would engage the “sympathetic” emotions that highlight cooperation and affective ties to our fellow human beings.  The Humean liberal, therefore, will endorse political arrangements that do not stifle ordinary human desires (for sex, companionship, fellowship, material comforts, recognition, the pleasures of work and play) while working against all accumulations of power that would allow someone to interfere in the pursuit of those ordinary desires.

What Taylor argues is that this liberal approach is not enough.  And it is “not enough” in two quite different ways.  First, it is not enough because it still leaves us with a deep deficit of “meaning.”  It is a “shallow” conception of human life, one that does not answer to a felt—and everywhere demonstrated need—for a “fuller” sense of what life is for and about.  Humans want their lives to connect up to something greater than just their own self-generated desires. (I have already, in a prior post, expressed my skepticism that this hankering for a “deeper meaning” is as widespread, even universal, as Taylor presumes.  To put it bluntly, I believe many more people today–July 28, 2018–are suffering from physical hunger than from spiritual hunger.) People, in Taylor’s view, want to experience the connection of their desires to some “higher” or “larger” purpose in things.  So the ontology in question is not just a description of “human Nature” but also of the non-human—and a description of how the human “connects” to that non-human.  You can, of course, claim (like the existentialists) that there is no connection, that we are mistaken when we project one and would be better off getting rid of our longing for one, but that is still an ontological claim about the nature of the non-human and about its relation to the human.  In that existential case, you are then going to locate “meaning” (a la Camus) in the heroic, if futile, human effort to create meaning within a meaningless universe.

Taylor’s second objection to Humean naturalism is more interesting to me because I find it much more troubling, much more difficult to think through given my own predilections.  Put most bluntly, Taylor says (I paraphrase): “OK, your naturalistic account posits a basic ‘sympathy” for others within the human self.  But, by the same token, your naturalistic account is going to have to acknowledge the aggressive and violent impulses within the self.  Your liberal polity is going to have to have some strategy for handling or transforming or suppressing those violent tendencies.  In short, there are desires embedded in selves that are not conducive to ‘less cruel’ futures, so what are you going to do about them?”

Taylor’s own position is clear.  He doesn’t use the term “perfectionist” (that, instead, is a recurrent feature of Stanley Cavell’s objections to Deweyean pragmatism), but he is clearly (at least in my view) in perfectionist territory.  Taylor is certainly insistent that what non-religious views (those that adhere to a strictly “immanent frame”—his term) miss is a drive toward “transformation” that is often motivated or underwritten by the desire to connect to some “transcendent.”  Liberal “permissiveness” doesn’t recognize, or provide any space for, this urge to transformation—or for the fact that those who pursue this goal most fervently are often the humans we most admire.  Self-overcoming, we might say, is view more favorably than simply “care of the self.”  Taylor is very, very good on how the arguments about all this go—with the liberal proponents of care of the self seeing the self-overcomers as dangerous, with their heroic visions that tend toward utopian-seeking tyranny or a religious denigration of the ordinary, the here and now; and the proponents of transformative striving seeing the liberals as selfish, limited in vision, stuck in the most mundane and least noble/dignified of the possible human ways to live a life, to pursue and achieve meaning.

I am clearly of the non-heroic camp, but the challenge Taylor poses is most difficult to me when he says that even the liberal aims at a transformation of human nature, of built in human desires, insofar as the liberal seeks to minimize violence and even to banish it entirely.  The conundrum: how do you either transform or (where necessary) suppress desire without being tyrannical?  The easy way out is to say it is not tyrannical to suppress the rapist.  But that just gets us into the business of what desires are so beyond the pale that their suppression is justified as contrasted to the desires we should let express themselves.  The prevailing liberal answer to that problem remains Mill’s harm principle—which is, admittedly, imperfect but the best we’ve got on hand.

Meanwhile, it would seem that liberals would also be working on another front to transform those violent desires so that the need for suppression wouldn’t arise as often.  Liberals, it would seem, can’t completely sidestep a “perfectionist” ethics, one that seeks to re-form some basic attributes of human nature–as it has so far manifested itself in history. To put it in the starkest terms: every human society and every moment in human history has manifested some version of war.  Yet the liberal is committed to (in utopian fashion) the idea that war is not inevitable, that we can create a world in which wars would not occur.  But the path to that war-free world must involve a “perfectionist” transformation of what humanity has shown itself to be up to our current point in time.  The issue then becomes: “What is the perfectionist strategy to that end?”  How does the Humean liberal propose to get from here (war) to there (perpetual peace)?

Taylor is not denying that the liberal has possible strategies.  But he thinks those strategies are “excarnated”—divorced from the body and emotion, the opposite of “incarnated.” This is Taylor’s version of the familiar critique that liberalism is “bloodless,” that it disconnects the body from the mind in its celebration of the disengaged, objective spectator view of knowledge at the same time that it extracts individuals (in the name of autonomy) from their embedding in social practices and social communities.  The ideal liberal self stands apart, capable of putting to the question everything, including the most basic constituents of his life (his own desires and his own relations to others.)  This is Rorty’s liberal ironist, cultivating a certain distance from everything, even his own beliefs.  The liberal, then, only has “reasons”—the consequentialist argument that life would be more pleasant, less “nasty, brutish, and short”—if we managed to stop war, stop being violent and cruel to one another.  Or, if we go the Humean/Rorty route, the liberal can work to enhance the inbuilt “sympathy” that makes us find cruelty appalling—and mobilize that sentiment against the other sentiments that lead to finding violence thrilling, pleasurable, or ecstatic.

Taylor, instead, favors a non-liberal route that avoids “excarnation.”  Instead, it recognizes that “in archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it relates violence to the sacred, and gives a numinous depth to killing and the excitement and inebriation of killing; just as it does through the rituals mentioned above for sexual desire and union” (611-612).  The Christian experience/virtue of agape, Taylor insists, is fully bodily and emotional—and affords a sense of connection to non-human, transcendent powers and purposes.  And there can be a similar sense of connection in expressions/experiences of violence.

Of course, Taylor relies here on the “containment” that ritual performs.  A safe space, we might say, is created for the expression of violence—a space that highlights the connection to the transcendent that violence can afford but which also keeps that violence from getting out of hand.  (I continue to be very interested in all the ways violence is “contained.”  Why don’t all wars become “total”?  Why do states, in dealing with criminals, or other authority figures, like parents, stop short of total violence, of killing?  Think of spanking; how it is ritualized, how it stops short of doing real physical harm—or how, in other instances, it pushes right through that boundary and does lead to real physical harm.  What keeps the limits intact in one case and not in the other?)

But the ritual is not only “containment” for Taylor; it is also a path toward “transformation.”  Think of how the ritual of marriage transforms the love relation between the two partners.  Do we really want to argue that marriage is meaningless, that it does not change anything between the couple?  The marriage ritual is not, as we all well know, magically efficacious—but that hardly seems to justify claiming it has no effect at all.  What Taylor is pointing toward is some kind of similar ritual(s) to deal with aggressive desires (a complement to marriage’s relation to potentially anarchistic and violent sexual desires).

So what Taylor thinks we lose if we are a-religious secularists is this way (habit?) of thinking about the connection between desires found in selves and some kind of larger forces out there in the universe.  And losing that sense of connection means losing any taste (or search) for rituals that take individual desire and place it in relation to those larger, non-human forces.  As a result, we lose an effective strategy for the transformation of those desires into something more “perfect,” more in accord with our (utopian?) visions of what human life could be—where that utopian vision in Taylor’s case includes both a more meaningful life on the personal level (since connected to powers and purposes beyond the isolated self) and a more just, less cruel society because rituals contain the destructive potential of sex and violence.

Rorty’s alternative is instructive if we consider the modesty, the anti-utopianism, of liberalism.  Rorty doesn’t rule out perfectionism (that would violate liberal permissiveness), but he relegates it to the “private” sphere.  Self-overcoming is all well and good—from training for marathons to trying to overcome one’s tendencies to anger—but is a “project” undertaken by a self—not a path mandated by any other power.  The “public” sphere is devoted (for Rorty) to overcoming cruelty and to something like a minimal social justice (making sure everyone has the means to sustain life).  But any public mandate to “transformation” is opening the path to tyranny.  What this Rorty formula leaves unanswered is whether the public (think of the French Revolutionaries and their festivals) should strive to create rituals for the expression/transformation of basic desires.  These rituals need not be mandatory, but could still be useful in the effort to curb cruelty and heighten (emotional and moral) commitment to social justice.  That is, even a minimalist public sphere (in terms of what it hopes to achieve and in terms of how much its leaves to the discretion of individuals when it comes to where they find meaning and how they spend their time) might still benefit from not being so minimalist in terms of the occasions for public gatherings and rituals that it provides.

Let me end here by saying that I am one of those anti-clerical, anti-religious people (so well described by Taylor) who worries that religion’s focus on the transcendent implies a neglect of, even a contempt for, the ordinary.  I am always troubled by a search for salvation—whether that search take a religious or a Utopian form.  I think we are better off if, as Gopnik puts it, we accept the imperfections of the human condition, and work on improving that condition, without thinking that some kind of “transformation” will change our lot very dramatically or, once and for all, insure that peace and justice will reign undisturbed from now on.

In my most extreme moments, I want to say not only can’t we be “saved” from the human condition as we now experience it, but that we don’t need to be “saved.”  What we need is to take up the work at hand, work that is fairly obvious to anyone who looks around and sees the rising temperatures and the homeless people on our streets and the people going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills.  There isn’t a “transformation” of a political or religious/ethical reality that is going to address such issues.  It’s doing the gritty down-to-earth work of attending to those issues that will lead to some desirable changes, although not to the end of all our cares and worries.  In short, I am secularist insofar as I don’t think help is coming from elsewhere.  I have no faith that there are non-human powers to which we can connect—and that those powers will enable some kind of “transformation” that will solve our (humanly created) problems.

“Perfectionism” is a fully permissible add-on, but please do that on your own time (i.e. I accept the Rortyean notion that it is “private”), while the “public” of legal politics will demand that you act decently toward your fellows.  Still—with all that—I acknowledge that Taylor poses a significant challenge when he says that even the liberal (whether a Humean or a Kantian liberal) will look to “transform” certain human desires in the name of a more just and less violent society.

Moten and Harney, The Undercommons

The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.

When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook.  I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to.  The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver.  They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.

M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse.  But the two big ones are politics and individuation.  Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods.  The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under.  So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed.  Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.

Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core.  Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it.  Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject.  “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence.  Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have.  We want something utterly different.”

What is that utterly different thing?  Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird.  Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.”  There is nothing wrong with us (blacks).  We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”)  M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise.  The basic message:  “We are here.  You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to).  And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way.  But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”

An odd kind of quietism.  Just leave us alone.  We don’t want to partake of your madness.  We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us.  Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children.  Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks.  Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison.  But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach.  Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man)  is a completely understandable strategy.  But it is surely a second best.  Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?

Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster.  Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker.  There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s).  Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart.  Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.

That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten.  Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge).  On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively.  And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster.  But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.

It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere.  How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else.  Why if life so hard to love?

Conviviality

Music may be the best thing in American daily life.  I guess I could try to expand that to the arts generally.  But I am not sure that any of the other arts have as wide an appeal or generate such idyllic communal scenes.

Last week I went on a Tuesday night with some friends to the BlueNote in Durham.  It was open mic night, with bands of four to six being formed from the people who sign up to play.  Mostly the blues, with the music ranging from passable to surprisingly good.  About sixty people in the audience, of all ages and races.  Lots of dancing, plenty of beer drunk, and enthusiastic cheering for the musicians.  Lots of people out having a good time—with good cheer all around.

Then I spent four days at Merlefest, the huge music festival held each year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  No alcohol allowed, although the festival is just about totally unpoliced.  I saw two security personnel on Sunday, the last day, and realized I had not seen any security or police the first three days.  Lots of volunteers, in their bright yellow vests, and some announcement of the rules from the stages, but no one, as far as I could see, was stopped from doing anything.  We snuck in some alcohol—and I am sure we were not the only ones.  But no visible drunkenness that I could see, while everyone is almost sickeningly polite, and (once again) enthusiastic about the music and about the good time we are all having together.  Over 10,000 people there on Saturday and good cheer all around, with the unwritten rules about seats and places at the various stages universally respected.  And then there are all those 20 something musicians who are bringing back the traditional music even as they are creating new music.  Plus an astoundingly knowledgeable core audience—people who also know and love this music and its history and its old standards.

My rose-colored view does need to be qualified.  We ended up at the ER on Saturday around noon (a false alarm, luckily) and the staff there told us how they hated Merlefest because they were fated to see lots of drug overdoses and some alcohol poisonings over the weekend.  Back at the festival, I tried to see the signs of these problems–but did not.

Also, the crowd was all white, a mixture of white professionals and Trump voters. (So my wife–who wasn’t there–said, “there’s the harmony.  Easy for people to behave well among all their own kind.” Please read that statement with the proper sarcastic tone.)  The culture gap was revealed dramatically on two occasions.  Friday night the headliner was a country singer named Jimmy Johnson (or some such; I had never heard of him), who has a beard down to his navel, and a beer gut that should not adorn a thirty-something body, singing formulaic Nashville songs that sounded like every country record of the past thirty years.   After two numbers, my friends and I were done; but as we walked out, we saw that the reserved seats were about half full while the unreserved seats were completely and totally packed.  This guy was a big star, a must see, for a large audience that obviously lives in a different universe than I do.

Then on Sunday morning we were treated to a Christian rock star named Paul Thorn.  Had never heard of him either, or really known about the world of Christian rock.  And again a huge crowd, much larger than any of the crowds for the banjo meisters Bela Fleck or Allison Brown.  Exactly the kind of music I most dislike—chord thumping, drum driven, banging as opposed to note picking—was what really drew in the crowds.  And the slick, smarmy Christian preacher, with his little homilies in between his Christian rock numbers, had them in the palm of his hand.  Looked him up on google, and he just started out as a rock musician wannabe; the Christian stuff came later, which only heightens my prejudicial conviction that he’s a fraud.

One of my friends was offended by my distaste for Paul Thorn.  She thought him a sincere Christian, disliked my immediate suspicion that these Christians are inevitably exploiters of the proles.  But it is hard for me to feel charitable toward Christians these days, not when their unflagging support for Donald Trump shows them up in all their mean-spirited bigotry.

But I didn’t sit down at the typewriter to bash Christians.  I sat down to reflect (yet again) on the conviviality that characterizes American daily life.  My son lives in a DC neighborhood that is 85% African-American and was 100% black five years ago.  The street vibe is very friendly—in stark contrast to the street vibe in DC when I first lived there in the 1970s.  I don’t fully understand it; if I were black, I would be pissed off all the time.  When the police (who are usually black) have any dealings with someone on the street in the neighborhood, there are always five to ten people standing around videoing the encounter on their phones.  Gentrification is slowly moving up H Street from Union Station toward my son’s house, two miles further east.  It will probably reach his block in 3 to 5 years.  Yet everyone on the street—and in the local stores—smiles and says Hello and is invariably polite.

I have the same experience in New York City, where I grew up.  When I asked an old friend a few years ago “when did everyone in New York become so nice,” she instantly replied, “isn’t it disgusting?”  She knew exactly what I was talking about.  A certain kind of macho swagger has lost its cool for large swathes of the population.

And yet . . . We have all the sexual harassment (and worse) even as crime rates are going down.  And we have the immigrant hatred and black bashing.  Just like in 1968, we want to say that’s just the old folks; that kind of stuff is going to die out.  But the kids of 1968 are the old folks now.  Our politics is worse than ever; our society’s neglect of large swathes of the citizenry and the rhetorical justifications offered for the state’s and the corporation’s cruelty are more bald-faced than ever.  The bile pouring out of the TV and over the internet just doesn’t connect up with the conviviality of face-to-face daily life.

I don’t understand this world I now live in, where life on the streets is so much less mean than I expect, while our public discourse is so hateful that I can’t believe people think that way—or would dare to utter such thoughts in public.  I want to run and hide in the music, where a good life beckons.

“Good Enough”

In my last post, I said that liberals are believers in the “good enough,” in accepting the better in place of holding out for the best.

But I can only endorse that position with some serious qualifications.  The first is that “good enough” is always contestable.  That was the point of saying politics is endless. Political debate, deliberation, and conflict is often about what good the polity should be aiming to achieve.  But, in other cases, the debate is about whether the extent to which we have reached a particular good is “good enough.”  Could we do better?  80% of the population has health insurance.  Should we be content with that level of achievement?

There will always be people who say we are not doing well enough.  And such people are to be cherished.  The “good enough” position asserts that any arrangement is imperfect.  Under that condition there is much to be gained, and little to be lost, by encouraging those who point out how short of perfection we fall.  Every halting point, every compromise, is unsatisfactory to some degree—and we hardly want to lose sight of the imperfections that mar every temporary arrangement/agreement.

We stand on muddy, messy ground here—and that is partly the point.  Politics is messy because we never know for sure if different tactics will bring us closer to our goal—or if we have maximized what we can achieve.  I am loath (allergic to) declaring imperfection inevitable.  I hate appeals to “necessity” that seem designed to shut down utopian aspirations or radical critiques.  Keeping the realm of possibility as open as possible seems, to me, essential to an imaginative progressive politics.  To be called utopian should be an honorific, not a slur.

But—here’s the muddiness—some way of organizing things has to prevail in the imperfect meantime; we cannot leave everything entirely open, fully in flux, waiting upon the perfect.  So political fights will also be about whether this current set of arrangements is “good enough” to accept for now, even as we acknowledge its falling short of the ideal.  When, in other words, is “good enough” good enough?  A very, very, very, difficult question to answer—and one that logic, reason, theory, philosophy cannot do much to help answer.  We are here in the thick of the underdetermined world where “truth” has little or no role to play, the world that Arendt identified as quintessentially political.

Temperamentally, I find myself fairly often impatient with the perfectionists who refuse to sign on to an existing arrangement.  I say, very likely unfairly, that they prefer their purity, prefer keeping their hands clean, to pitching in to do work required in the here and now.  Keeping aloof becomes, all too easily, a permanent stance, a kind of ironic negation of anything that actually exists.  It can, no doubt, be difficult to find anything to affirm in this sublunary world—that is, anything to affirm besides the ideals that would allow us to escape our sublunary condition.

But I guess—I never really thought of it this way before—I feel some kind of duty of affirmation.  If one is, as I am, an absolute atheist, then there is nothing other than this world.  And, yes, we humans have managed to fuck it up mightily.  Still, that we have the power to fuck it up means we also should take at least some responsibility for it, for the ways it is arranged and unfolds.  Ironic aloofness is one way of denying responsibility.  It’s not my fault.  I did no harm.  But it is also a strategy for not making anything at all happen; I sit aside waiting for the arrival of a perfection that never comes, of a world that will live up to my standards.  Good luck with that.

I prefer the route of saying “find something to affirm—and build out from there.”  The great good things in my world are my family, my friends, my students, and my colleagues.  With all of them I am able to have interactions that are life-affirming, that yield pleasure and insight, and provide opportunities for giving and receiving.  From there, it makes sense to affirm (even reserving a right to criticize all their imperfections) the institutions and social arrangement that make those interactions possible.  There are worldly settings for our relationships and it seems foolish to ignore or condemn those settings wholesale.

The liberal is often derided as a compromiser, as someone who muddles through, trying to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, lacking a firm sense of contradiction.  And the liberal is also seen as a Pollyanna, resolutely closely his eyes to injustices that undergird the social arrangements and institutions he proclaims “good enough.”  But the liberal is not a conservative, not someone who is deeply committed to defending the status quo as the best we can do.  And the liberal is not a reactionary, insisting that the golden age was somewhere in the past, and we must tear down the present to return to that prior era.  The liberal is (in William James’s terms) a meliorist, forward-looking, in favor of improvement, always willing to measure our imperfect present against the ideals we espouse—and that we fall short of achieving.  But the liberal refuses to condemn the present tout court and refuses to believe that absolute and violent repudiation of that present is likely to create even a better world than the present, no less a perfect one.

Again, to conclude, no theory or philosophy can guide us here.  When is the status quo so unjust, so bad, that drastic action is justified to change it?  When are more moderate strategies for improvement the better course?  These are matters of judgment, and there is no determinative calculus to tell us which judgments are correct.  Politics takes place on the field of judgment—and all we have to guide us are past instances, analogies and examples, and projective (imaginative) suppositions, none of which comes with any guarantees.  Judgment, like social arrangements, are good and better, but rarely vault into the land of the “best.”  We can only try to make our judgments “good enough.”   Which means those judgments lead to tolerable decisions and actions, to doing things that introduce at least some improvement over the currently existing state of affairs.  And then we count on “the cries of the wounded” (another phrase from William James) to let us know how the new arrangement still falls short.