It’s both satisfying and terrifying to finish a book. It’s satisfying because it’s a little like finally getting a Haystacks Calhoun clone to remove himself from your prone chest cavity. It’s terrifying not so much because of what others may think of it—though that’s not an entirely negligible concern—but because of the fear that the book might have been lots better if you’d worked harder or had more time. Sometimes the best sentences finally form and key data points only become available after you’ve closed up shop, and that fear tends to be sharper the more expansive and open-ended the book’s topic.
That’s certainly how I feel about my new ebook, Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What To Do About It. I’m gratified that at least some people have already expressed appreciation for what I try to do in that book—and that includes Thomas Friedman’s generous call-out in this past Sunday’s New York Times, under the somewhat improbable title “Lose-Lose vs. Win-Win-Win-Win-Win.” But I’m finding it hard to let go of the subject despite having let go of the subject (if you know what I mean), because everywhere I look, it seems, I see more grist for my recently shuttered mill.
Thank heaven, therefore, for this blog—where I have the opportunity to supplement Broken on an ad hoc basis on those occasions when I can’t bear not to, and I can do it here without leaking footnotes all over the place.
That’s exactly what I’m about to do now, but in all fairness, especially to readers who have helped me with this project along the way as it rolled out in pieces here starting last year, take a warning: Below you will encounter a long, somewhat esoteric discussion in political theory/sociology that only eventually reaches a conclusion you might (or might not) care about. That conclusion takes as its prooftext, so to speak, the new Sprint advertising campaign that most of you resident in the USA will have noticed by now: “Be Truly Unlimited.”
My argument is that “Be Truly Unlimited” is not just an ad campaign, although it obviously is that, too. Sprint is trying to sell unlimited minutes for some carefully calculated market price, and the deal appeal resides largely in its simplicity: No more counting minutes or wondering about budget thresholds breeched, no more fuss with rollovers and so on. (I’m not in a position to comment on the commercial proposition, since I’ve never owned or paid for my own cell phone.) But I think the marketing team is aiming to leverage a strengthening American meme the larger consequences of which are somewhere between capacious and portentous, depending on one’s point of view. To see that, however, you must be able to decode the glitz and glitter of our crowded semiotic environment to find the core attitudes and assumptions, some we’re self-aware of and some we’re not, beneath. So if you’re ready, warnings be damned, let’s turn over some symbolic rocks and get started.
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It in the introduction to Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What To Do About It, I take some pains to explain why I choose a middling level of analysis, a Goldilocks level that’s neither too superficial nor too deep. I offer a teaser pointed toward deeper explanatory templates for our current difficulties, but soon leave off from them. The reason, as I explain in the book, is that deeper cultural explanations, however interesting and even true they may be, have close to zero chance to gain policy traction. They don’t speak wonk.
That said, there are a few verities about political life that simply cannot be ignored despite their falling outside the ambit of practical policy analysis. The first and most important of these is that most societies, most of the time, tend to govern themselves to one extent or another without much help from formal political structures. The glue, metaphorically speaking, that enables societies to do this is referred to as social trust, or sometimes as social capital.
All this really means—and in the book I refer to this key concept on several occasions—is that people in their communities establish over time certain reciprocal standards and expectations of conduct. These standards and expectations may be the result of a religious culture whose institutions tutor young people during their socialization to conform to behavior that is understood to be commanded from outside the human world. In such cases, moral behavior is ratified by the theotropic inclinations of human nature, in other words, by the sacred. Presumably, other forms of social authority, fully intrinsic to the community, can accomplish the same ends. Sometimes, usually in fact, both occur simultaneously, bringing about a merger encouraged by the fact that as people mature they learn to appreciate the virtues of civility, integrity, honesty, politeness and other social-guidance systems through which people reassure one another that we are allies-in-common by virtue of sharing a basic interest in the safety, security, prosperity and beauty of our surroundings. Government can encourage and structure the formation of such benign attitudes, but it usually cannot create them de novo.
The point here is that healthy societies create networks of expectations that work thanks to the magic of reciprocity, not because agents of a state constantly enforce them. Reciprocity amounts to sets of implicitly matched or parallel promises of future behavior, and it is the cumulative consequence of making and keeping such promises that is the font of any moral order. (This is something Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt well understood, but that most modern moral philosophers have managed somehow to miss, possibly because the insight has been tarnished in their eyes by association with Abrahamic theologies.) I don’t steal your backpack and you don’t steal my wallet not just or mainly because of a worry about the police catching us in or after the act, but because we know it’s wrong, and we know at one level or another that if everyone did wrong we’d all be in a total mess, police or no.
Generally speaking, the better a society can maintain social order on its own dime, the less government, and the less coercion, is required to keep civic life clear of Hobbesean nastiness, brutishness and brevity. This observation is the source of anarchism as a political philosophy, just in case anyone is interested. At its essence, the idea is that if people can refine their behaviors sufficiently through some form or other of enlightenment, then, very much pace Hobbes, the need for government can be dispensed with altogether. I confess to a youthful infatuation with anarchism. Some decades ago I read and sometimes thrilled to Bakunin, Krapotkin, Emma Goldmann, and, closer to our own time, the irrepressible Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).
Anarchism is based on a very optimistic view of human nature, or rather of human social nature, which is why it tends to appeal to youth. It was Don Marquis who had his cockroach hero Archie say, to Mehitabel the Cat I think it was, that “an optimist is a guy without much experience.” There is nevertheless a case for such a view beyond youth, and a recent case well made is that of James C. Scott (Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press, 2012)—recommended for young and old alike.
That said, I do not know of any large-scale human civilization that has not needed at least some government to establish the basic parameters for justice and economic activity, as well as for collective defense—the first and historically the most compelling and popular reason for government. But clearly, some societies are much better at creating their own internal stabilities than others. Some societies need and want less government than others. To generalize boldly (and perhaps foolishly), high-trust societies needing less government tend to be more homogeneous with respect to language, ethnicity, work profile and religious culture. In theory, anyway, these are enabling but not necessarily limiting factors. Low-trust societies needing more government tend to be more diverse, more urban, more functionally specialized and complex—in a word, ironically enough, more modern.
In a sense, this general observation parallels that of Edmund Burke when he observed that the less discipline a person exerts on himself from within, the more discipline will need be imposed upon him from without. What is true of individuals may also be true of entire societies; as John Adams said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Translation from 18th to 21st century vernacular: A limited government devoted to liberty can only work if society’s own high-functioning moral order keeps expressions of liberty within certain bounds. Or, to put it in far more common, but analytically vaguer, language: Self-government requires civic virtue.
If so, it follows that even a complex and specialized modern society—if it cherishes liberty—should strive for maximum feasible anarchism, even if that ends up being far short of the utopian outcome anarchist theorists have sought. It should strive to be as much of a self-regulating social system as possible, the basis of which is, in my view, the Jeffersonian principle of subsidiarity (to which I also make reference in the book). The best way to reduce both the demand for government and its propensity for coercion is to layer government in ways aligned with the location of problems, building in as best we can protective buffers between them—just as the natural world builds buffers into interdependency to reduce the dangers of systemic contamination and collapse. The fastest, most economical and most sustainable ways to solve most problems are to solve them as close to their points of origin as possible. What neighbors can handle neighbors should handle. What local communities can handle local communities should handle. What smaller jurisdictions can handle, smaller jurisdictions should handle, and so on. That is how a federal system should work. Any so-called federal system that congenitally drives decisions up and toward the center is a federal system that is malfunctioning, just as any non-governmental organizational form that gratuitously overloads leadership is a form that is inefficient by definition.
Obviously, some standards do cry out for a one-size-fits-all, nationalized (so to speak) solution. In the book I specify a few even as I debunk presumptions to several others. There are also cases where centralized economies of scale work well in organizational life, and they may be important ones. But as many such cases as there once were, they are becoming scarcer at a time when distributed systems are the bellwethers of efficiency. All the more reason not to clutter the channels with marginal issues better handled at lower levels of governmental or social responsibility.
But again, all this depends on people being able to learn and apply standards of conduct over a wide range of interactive domains, from business to sexual proprieties to recreation to rules of the automotive road. To do that, people have always gleaned the harvest of face-to-face interactions by reading not just words but expressions and body language. The moral ballast of any society starts at the capillary level, when any two people interact. At the other end of the spectrum, therefore, as we consider a nation as a whole, we can say that no society can be more refined than the mean refinement of the individuals and families that compose it.
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What also follows from this is a second verity of political life, namely that the political institutions of any society emerge from that society far more than the other way around. The United States is a democracy because its founding society was egalitarian-minded, not the other way around. All of the American Founders and all of their tutors, from Locke to Montesquieu to even the great bad-boy of the time, Rousseau, understood this. The idea that a governmental form could remold or create a society after its desired image earned the derisive label “talismanic” at the hands of William Taylor Coleridge. Yes, sometimes the bully pulpit can make a difference, as the mid-20th century American experience with desegregation shows; but even here, I think, a changing society for the most part led the government, not the other way around.
Social authoritarianism, which exists in both soft and hard, leftist and rightist versions, denies this, or at the least wants to overturn it through the force of a supposed vanguard will. Social authoritarians believe that the state can and should shape society. They want to raise our consciousness. They want to make us unselfish, or pious, or prim, or whatever the virtue d’jour happens to be. They want to squeeze our egos until they bleed compliance. Above all, they want us to conform to explicit standards regardless of any expectation of natural reciprocity. Moral obligations in this kind of command-morality world resemble Kantian categorical imperatives. Whether they want us to worship Karl Marx or the god of John Calvin makes little difference in this respect. Whether they want us to abjure private property or stigmatize tobacco smoking makes little difference, too. They want to create community, whatever its standards may be, by fiat.
Anarchism and statism are thus opposites, even though both have made and may yet again make use of similar radical methods. Anarchists want the least amount of government and the least amount of politics, while statist authoritarians want the most government and the most politics (as long as they control its vicissitudes). The utopianism of anarchism depends on human nature overcoming the distortions and barriers and bad faith accumulated in a history once described by Hegel as “a butcher’s block.” The utopianism of socialist statism depends on changing human nature from a “fallen” state to a pure one. Anarchists see true toleration, as against mere forbearance, as natural; statists do not. If you like the extension of a polarity from Western religion, anarchism is a Hebraic extremism, statism a Pauline one.
All the same, both have in common the idea that for human beings to live fulfilled lives, they must do so together, in communities. The difference between them is this: For anarchists, social trust develops naturally and organically as long as artificial hierarchies can be prevented from perverting and diminishing it; for socialists, social trust has to be imposed from the top down along explicitly devised lines. Both fear too much individualism untethered to the social commons. Both see hubris as the sin that turns the wondrous gift of individual human creativity into that which boomerangs to harm the community that ultimately nurtures us all.
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So now, finally, let’s talk about contemporary America, and about Sprint’s new advertising campaign. Let me continue by quoting a bit from Broken—from the aforementioned tease.
Recent widespread commercial applications of information technology extend broader trends toward the individuation of American society. The gossamer stuff from which the American dream has been spun is all about maximizing individual freedom, and about giving substance to that freedom by maximizing individual efficacy. We have willed our individualist myth into reality, for, as an old professor of mine, Erving Goffman, once put it, “Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we have of it.” Individuals in cybernetically advanced America today are autonomously powerful as never before, with worlds of information, education, training, products, social exchange and means of expression at their fingertips. But they are also apparently lonelier, less happy and more anxious as the interpersonal glue that ratifies our corner of humanity as a social species dissolves. . . . I suspect a Goethe moment at hand: We have got what we wished for as a youthful civilization, but now that we are older we are not sure what to do with a society made up of Protean individuals, or even why we wanted it in the first place.
Some few of us, anyway, are unsure. Most Americans, and most young Americans in particular, are downright enthusiastic about the I-am-an-island power they have at their disposal these days. They overwhelmingly see the upsides of the new technology insofar as education is concerned, for example, and are mostly oblivious to the tradeoffs.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they have made a conscious choice to care less about community, or friends, or about the natural pleasures of face-to-face relations. (Thank God for sex, or the prospect of it anyway.) We are so early in this new era of mass cybernetic connectivity that no one knows how social-trust friendly or social-trust unfriendly the gadgets will ultimately turn out to be. Look hard enough and you can see signs pointing both ways. The new stuff doesn’t have to be as isolating and destructive of social capital as television has been, for example, over the past half century. But the fact that Sprint has chosen to mount the individuating, Protean meme and ride it all the way to the bank suggests that a tendency, at least, may already be discernable.
Why should we be concerned about this? Because if the individuating tendencies inherent in the technology are not offset by creative balances that can restock social trust, or social capital, in America, it means that we will drift ever further from a high-trust social equilibrium conducive to liberty to a kind of order that needs ever more government to make it work. We will have to face what David Brooks has called “brutality cascades”, a kind of positional arms race to the bottom that ensues when it becomes difficult to impossible for standards of behavior to form out of interpersonal relationships.
Similarly and closely related, it also may mean that the social authority signals that flow from a naturally evolved social equilibrium will weaken, flattening a bit (or more than a bit) too much the bell curve of moral conformity. If that happens it will erode the constraints against extreme views and behaviors that are in every society the guardrails of civilization itself. One at least has to wonder whether that flattening hasn’t already contributed something to episodes like Buskerud, Norway, Aurora, Colorado and even Newtown, Connecticut.
Don’t misunderstand, please: I love liberty as much as the next American, and perhaps more than most. I am well aware that the concept of individualism that infuses the American ethos is the essence of Enlightenment modernity, and that it explains why both Hobbes and Locke, whatever their differences, were similarly the avatars of modern political life. I can find in my heart little enthusiasm for earlier ages suffused by superstition, smothering conformity, racist and misogynist hierarchies, stultifying fatalism and more besides. But a refined social order is nevertheless the indispensable base for individual fulfillment and dignity, no less than an infant’s willingness to roam and explore is a function of propinquity to parental security.
As Edmund Burke understood so well, tradition is not the mere accretion of habit; it is the wisdom of the ages hard accumulated, often a wisdom difficult to articulate but no less essential to basic civil order for so being. The yawning extent and accelerating trajectory of our individuation, I fear, threatens that order, threatens the natural moral balances in American society and, in their absence, lures many of us, at least, into seeking governmental solutions for everything that may displease us. (Yes, you guessed it: I suspect that American society, as more a creedal or covenantal nationalism than the bloodline forms of European nationalisms, is particularly vulnerable to the depredations of excessive individuation.) Our obsession with self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment—in short with the “imperial me”—and the concomitant rejection of the old virtues (patience, humility, thrift, inter-generational responsibility) as quaint enough for museums but not much good for anything else, has made our country increasingly in need of government and at the same time increasingly ungovernable (other reasons for the latter are explored in the book).
So here I go beyond the book: Yes, globalization and automation have upset some very effective and fairly longstanding arrangements and elements of our political institutional dysfunction have made it much harder to adjust. Corruption is running rampant in a third historical wave of plutocratic assault, and it mixes in myriad ways with the dislocations of our political economy and the frailties of our political culture, making everything worse.
Above all, perhaps, never have plutocrats had it so easy, since countervailing collective action has become more difficult in an age of individuation. Where are the 21st century populists or progressives? Where is the outrage? Do we see so little extra-parliamentary activity because things are simply not so bad (yet)? Or is it rather that the natural social platforms that used to serve as the basis for such political mobilization (from ward politics and community churches to fraternal lodges, quilting bees, Bob Putnam’s bowling leagues and even our colleges) have been hollowed out by our headlong individuation? Sure, Facebook and Instant Messaging can facilitate 20-something bar-mobbing, and Twitter can help crowds gather in Midan al-Tahrir, but today’s American social environment arguably offers up to small groups of the specially interested a door flung more widely open than ever when it comes to looting the public weal. The logic of collective action has never been less limited.
What I am suggesting is that our crisis of governance, which is reflected but only partly expressed by the mess our political class has made in Washington, is ultimately anchored in a cultural shift that is both a source for and a consequence of revolutionary technological change. Increasing numbers of young and well-educated Americans love the gadgets that help isolate them from one another because they do not wish to be obligated by civilities, do not wish to be constrained by responsibilities to others, do not wish to be limited in any way. We are witnessing the eternal temptation to self-indulgence raised to both principle and art.
The marketeers at Sprint are clever folks; five will get you ten that they know all this. If we want to be radically free, autonomously powerful, they are eager to pose as our helpers. If we want to escape social gravity, to propel ourselves into orbit around our own egos, we can sign that cell phone contract. And, ironically enough, in all this we are encouraged because everyone else seems to be doing the same thing. This is pseudo-individualism, narcissistic faux non-conformity in a crowd.
Where will this lead, if it keeps up? Well, there’s a very old story, let me suggest, that succinctly speaks to this. It is about a certain tower in a place called Babel. Are you confused?
All I can say is that I liked Sprint’s older, Beatles-inflected advertising slogan better: “All. Together. Now.”