Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Conservativism and Organized Religion

An e-mailer wrote me asking about an assertion I made that "religion is the only thing that will 'get people to live together without being bossed around by police and government.'" He wonders "is there no place for the atheist conservative/libertarian? Or the agnostic? My religion is very personal and I do not wish to share it with others in a formal, organized setting."

It's a tricky question. Most people in the educated elite today find "organized religion" a little distasteful, and express their search for meaning in more personal, philosophical terms. Including me. Right now I am listening to a Teaching Company lecture series called "The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions" given by Jay L. Garfield of Smith College. Garfield skirts around Christianity but gives full value to the Bhagavad Gita, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, Confucius, the Tao, Buddhism, Hume, Kant, Mill, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Gandhi, and the Native American Lame Deer. All very private and personal.

But the implication of 20th century philosophy from Wittgenstein to Habermas is that meaning is a shared thing. There is no private knowledge; indeed private knowledge doesn't make any sense. The immensely successful knowledge of the natural sciences is instrumental, an attempt to understand nature in order to dominate it--and other humans. But it is also social. Scientists advance the boundaries of knowledge by bouncing ideas and claims off each other and shamelessly appropriating other peoples' ideas. If you read Charles Darwin, you will find that he mentions another scientist or naturalist and their findings on every page.

If knowledge is a "knowledge game" between people, then the way to knowledge is a process of discourse between people.

When it comes to moral knowledge the importance of knowledge as a social process, a discourse between equals, suggests that discourse creates a community, even that community demands a discourse.

Let's return to the question: Can there be such a thing as a private religion, can moral ideas exist except in a social setting where people are held to their commitments?

The immense value of organized religion as it has flourished in the United States under the doctrine of the separation of church and state is that religion provides a means of social consensus and control that operates in the space between individual and government. The point about society is that it is social. People live in a community and they influence each other and live together most of the time without resort to government and to hegemonic power. It is only when they fail to resolve their differences that they resort to government and force.

To live in a private space is to live beyond the influence of others. It means not having to listen to the opinions and maybe the authority of others. I fear that the modern yearning for privacy--in which all of us participate--is little more than a flight from accountability. We humans are social animals. We live together. If we are honest with each other we must acknowledge that the modern turn of increased individuality and government represent a troubling shrinking of community and social life, and who knows where it is leading us?

Anyway, the limit of privacy and individuality is the point at which it bumps up against another person and another idea of the good. Then what? Do we work together to resolve our differences or invoke the nuclear option and call in government?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Energizing Civil Society

Suppose we agree with Edmund Burke that it is the "little platoons," with Berger and Neuhaus that it is the "mediating structures", and with Lawrence Cahoone that civil society is the essential ingredient for the liberal republican society because "under conditions of civility, membership plus freedom equals dignity." Now what?

The what is obviously the culture that animates the civil society. The whole point of civil society is that it is a space of people living together without the interference of government, a community that, most of the time, resolves its problems internally.

But obviously, people do not just jolly along with their neighbors in a vacuum. They are inspired by trust in each other.

In The Faith Instinct Nicholas Wade makes it clear what it takes to get people to live together without being bossed around by police and government. It is religion. In the crudest terms, it is the threat of divine justice. People that behave badly may not be punished in this life but they will certainly be punished in the next one.

To expand this notion we could say that culture, in the broadest sense including religion, folkways, philosophy, and moral movements, is what makes civil society--people living together--work and give life meaning.

In the United States in the last century we have experienced a culture war between people who wanted to continue the Judeo-Christian religious cultural tradition and those who wanted a break with it in the direction of more sexual freedom, more cultural creativity, and more government in the areas of health, education, and welfare that were previously the responsibility of the Church and civil society. The situation has become complicated by the entry into the United States of East and South Asians with their faith traditions. How can all these traditions be brought together and blended so that civil society is still possible?

The answer is fairly simple. The three great cultural traditions, Abrahamic, Hindu, and Confucian, must come together to tame the modernist war on tradition and the mediating structures of civil society. For the great traditions are united in their knowledge of the importance of personal piety, the moderation of the individual impulse with the social impulse. They stand in the way of radical individual license and radical government power.

The moment for this coming together is now, as the modernist combination of radical individualism and overweening government crashes morally, economically, and financially all over the world. The great power of instrumental reason in the economic sector and the political sector must be tamed, and the place to do it is in the middle, the public sphere between the megastructures where people come to live together or close to each other and take off their political armor and economic weapons.

Is this possible? Can we really succeed in taming the monster? We already tamed the monster of plantation slavery, that Original Sin of capitalism. Now it is time to tame the monster combination of antisocial individualism and anti-human big government. It can't be that hard.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cahoone and "Neutralist" Liberalism

The starting point of Lawrence E. Cahoone's Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics is that the "neutralist or proceduralist liberalism" of left and right (i.e. Rawls and Nozick) is inadequate.

[Neutralism] either contributes to chronic social problems or blocks attempts to address them. Most troublesome is the rigid distinction of the political from the social and particularly the cultural spheres of life.

The problem is that "political theory has become more specialized, purified, and rationalized... Active citizenship, the language of public duty, and... cultural context..." have been cast aside by our liberal friends. Politics reduces to "rights, opportunity, and prosperity." For libertarians it reduces to "individual liberty;" for egalitarian liberals to "individual liberty plus cash." Missing from this view of society is the idea that politics and economics issue from society; they are not free-floating universal ideas good in themselves. The Good must be anchored in actual people and actual community.

This notion is the increasingly ubiquitous idea of "civil society" and Cahoone defines it in four ways.

First, civil society expresses the "priority of the social, the conviction that extant societies gain their norms from within, not from government, Church, or military organizations."

Second, Cahoone states the importance of "spontaneity," the idea that civil society lives in a space between the contractual relations of Toennies' "Gesellschaft" and the "Gemeinschaft of shared traditional morality."

Third, civil society is "intrinsically local," arising out of people living together or living near each other. Nineteenth century Populism was an attempt to express this against the hegemony of elites.

Fourth, for Cahoone, civil society means holism, "the total ensemble of social relations and culture." It is that whole that should drive "political affairs."

Of course, it is the holist view, that society and culture should drive politics, that is problematic for our liberal friends. The whole thrust of modern liberals is to short-circuit the local and traditional--experienced by liberals as benighted and cramped--in favor of the universal and global. But it is, of course, their politics of the universal that has bombed the local community to rubble, and bombed until it bounced the local community of lower income folks that have a less robust defense against the hegemony of the elites than the ordinary middle class. It is the opposition to the local and the particular that drives liberal opposition to modern conservatism, modern enthusiastic Christianity, and most recent of all, liberal opposition to the Tea Party.

Lawrence Cahoone, using modern philosophical ideas deveoloped in the last 50 years, says that "neutralist" liberalism can't deliver the kind of society that most of us want. What does that mean? It means that sooner or later, "most of us" will insist on change, whether liberals like it or not.

Frankly, we'd prefer that liberals work with us on this. But there is always the other possibility, that liberals will fight rather than switch.

That would be a shame.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cahoone's Civil Society

Over the years, I have come to believe in this one infallible rule of life. It goes like this. If I am wondering about some problem of political philosophy, chances are that some chap has written a book solving it.

It's obvious, really. I've been spending most of my adult life working and raising a family. And I'm not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer. Not dumb or something, but certainly not genius category.

Now my biggest problem over the years is this. We conservatives need a thinker who will refound the conservative tendency in the latest and greatest concepts from the world of ideas.

Up to now the best that I'd encountered were Michael Novak and his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Berger and Neuhaus and Empowering People.

But they don't light a candle next to Lawrence E. Cahoone and his Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics.

Cahoone begins with a critique of "neutralist" liberalism, the idea that liberals are just neutral adjudicators in the world. In fact, of course, neutralism is impossible, because any political action in the world is action towards a vision of the good. Then Cahoone formulates a "postmodern" conservatism using his deep and broad knowledge of 20th century philosophy. And we are talking here of everyone through Habermas and the neo-pragmatists, the latest, greatest idea that at every level of reality that we experience there are irreducible facts that are not just combinations of elements from a lower level.

The point about conservatism, Cahoone writes, is that it looks at society as a whole, that culture, politics, economics, and living-together are all of a lump; in this lump it is culture that is primary.

Liberals have their own heroic story of individuality and democracy and progress, but the values... are worldly and immanent. Modern conservatism contacts ultimacy via a non-political, ultimate transcendence that is left vague.

Conservatism is big on authority, and authority is an interesting space between compulsion and complete freedom.

Hannah Arendt clears a space for authority. Authority can only exist in the absence of both force and persuasion...

We may characterize, but not explain, the authority in the way Aristotle understands the person with phronesis [practical wisdom or prudence]: the authority is someone who habitually gets it right.

Cahoone has a solid definition for "what government must be or do."

Government must be legitimate and good... These minimal conditions of good government are: assurance of the survival of society... the enforcement of law; prevention of conquest; and avoidance of tyranny, corruption, the intentional punishment of the innocent or the intentional reward of the guilty.

And there is this:

There are four main goods internal to the notion of civil society: membership, freedom, civility, and dignity.

Well, that's a start, and I have not really begun to internalize the breadth and depth of Cahoone's argument. But you'll be getting a lot of Cahoone from me in the near future. After the debacle of Obama we are going to need some really good ideas to get American back to its place as the city on a hill, the last best hope of man for people who must have freedom.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Modernity's Original Sin

Hey, said the serpent to Eve. Eat that apple and you could learn a thing or two.

So she could and so she did. But the thing about the apples from the tree of knowledge is that the knowledge they bring doesn't solve anything. It just raises the stakes.

That is the point about Original Sin. It isn't the sin itself, its the self-consciousness. Back in the old Garden of Eden you can live your life away in the bliss of ignorance. If you live, you live. If you die, you die. But after acquiring knowledge and the power it brings, life is no longer the simple bliss of ignorance. Life is serious; life has responsibilities.

So it was in the Dawn of the Modern Age. Bliss it was to be alive, and to be young was very heaven. Mankind ate anew from the Tree of Knowledge, and the new sciences, the triumphs of instrumental reason, burst like flowers into bloom. But then came the bitter fruit, the responsibilities of power, and the reality of the modern Original Sin.

Instrumental reason, the Enlightenment, write Horkheimer and Adorno is a dance of domination, domination over nature and domination over man. "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."

It was the businessman that first applied this dictum in the years right after the Crusades. They built rational, efficient plantations on Cyprus, and eventually in the West Indies, to grow and refine sugar. They made tons of money, and they enslaved men and women to work the plantations, first Muslim slaves on Cyprus, and then Africans from West Africa. It ended up a huge, global business, and many fortunes were made and country houses built upon it. But the ruthless pursuit of wealth, made by rational planning and by enslaving men and women as mere factors of production, inspired a moral movement of rejection, the anti-slavery movement, that curbed and humbled this pure application of instrumental reason to business. And from that time we have always demanded of businessmen that they limit their appetites and their plans, treading lightly on the earth, and dealing gently with men. It turned out, anyway, that it was better that way.

But it was not just in business that the modern knowledge of instrumental reason could be applied. The new educated elite wanted to apply instrumental reason to politics, to make government equal and rational, to build a perfect society, carefully administered in every department, articulated in every joint, peaceful and just. But, Horkheimer and Adorno warned: "Enlightenment behaves towards things as a dictator towards men." And so it was that the effort to build a perfected, articulated society led to the most awful and cruel dictatorships ever known. In Nazi Germany, 6 million Jews killed; in Russia 10 million Ukrainian peasants killed. In China 30 million peasants killed in the Great Leap Forward alone.

When capitalism committed its Original Sin with plantation slavery, the educated middle class rose up in a moral movement that socialized this new force, creating a new moral culture to critique and to humanize capitalism, the efficient calculating monster.

But it has proved much harder to socialize instrumental reason when applied to politics and government. This is not hard to understand. The new educated class was just the social agent to critique and tame the economic monster. But it has proved remarkably resistant to the many critiques of its own monument to instrumental reason: big government and administrative bureaucracy. Instrumental reason applied to business created the bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers and barons of finance. Instrumental reason applied to politics created the educated class that occupies the commanding heights of government, education, and culture. It has the means to marginalize its critics and it uses it.

We humans must socialize the government monster, and tame this monstrous force. It will take a moral movement, just like the anti-slavery movement. It was already envisioned, two hundred years ago by Edmund Burke, but his sentiments did not grow into a moral movement. Not then.

But now that we see the failures of big government all around us, and its profoundly mechanical, un-social, in-human culture, it is time to rise up and develop the moral critique of rational, instrumental, big-government politics. It is time to put the "social" back in society.