Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Big Units, Blue Social Model, Meta-narratives

If you read Walter Russell Mead you will quickly bump into "the failure of the Blue Social Model." If you read Michael Barone you will soon encounter talk of the decline of the Big Units: Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor.

These chaps are saying that the great meta-narratives that have sustained the growth and the dominance of the liberal administrative welfare state are breaking down. They no longer explain the way the world works or the way the world ought to work.

And yet, we read daily of the efforts of the National Labor Relations Board to bring back the past: to stop Boeing from assembling aircraft with non-union labor and to change the rules on union organizing by administrative ukase.

The funny thing is that none other than lefty postmodernist Jean François Lyotard has declared that overarching meta-narratives of this kind are bound for the ash-heap of history.

Meta-narratives roughly equate to the everyday notion of what principles a society is founded on. They form the basis of the social boand. The meta-narratives of the Enlightenment were about grand quests. The progressive liberation of humanity through science is a meta-narrative.

For our liberal friends the overarching meta-narrative is the big-government program, that our lives are given meaning when we all contribute to and belong to big-government programs guaranteeing pensions, health care, education, and welfare.

The problem is that when meta-narratives are concretely formulated and implemented, they seem to go disastrously awry. Marxism is the classic case of a meta-narrative based on principles of emancipation and egalitarianism which, when implemented, becomes perverted to totalitarianism under Stalin in the Soviet Union.

In the case of liberal administrative welfarism, we get the utter waste of one-size-fits-all programs captured by the producer interest and slowly delivering less and less service for more and more money--until the whole thing collapses in sovereign debt default.

Yes, but if the old meta-narratives are no more, where shall we go, what shall we do? Lyotard recommends the little narratives of Wittgenstein's language games.

[These are] limited contexts in which there are clear, if not clearly defined, rules for understanding and behavior. We no longer give credence to total philosophical contexts like Marxism which ostensibly would prescribe behavior in all aspects of life, rather, we have lots of smaller contexts which we act within. We are employees, we are students. These roles legitimate knowledge and courses of action in their limited contexts. By fragmenting life into a thousand localized roles, each with their particular contexts for judging actions and knowledge, we avoid the need for meta-narratives. This is the nature of the modern social bond. Our effectiveness is judged in the context of how well we perform in each of these many limited roles.

Thus, instead of sacrificing ourselves into a grand narrative, we "what legitimates knowledge in the postmodern condition is how well it performs, or enables a person to perform, in particular roles."

But judgment by results is the "instrumental reason" of the Enlightenment, and Horkheimer and Adorno have already noted that pure instrumental reason leads to domination: totalitarianism. That is where the three sectors model of Michael Novak comes in: the Greater Separation of Powers between the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural.

Obviously the blue social model, the Big Units notion, ObamaCare, wise regulation by experts at the Environmental Protection Agency or the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau conjured up by activist academician Elizabeth Warren to be free of Congressional oversight, all these things belong to the big-narrative age. They do not say: let's try something and see if it works. They say: here is the big picture solution; just fall in line and believe and everything will come out right because we have the best experts in charge.

My belief is that we are going into a political cycle that will be the most convulsive in our lifetimes. Our liberal friends are pushing ahead on all fronts on their meta-narrative as though this is their last chance before their Liberal Hour is over. But my hunch is that we will see a monster repudiation of the liberal meta-narrative. Because, after all, the United States has always been a society built upon the pragmatic notion of doing what works.

That's why I voted for Barack Obama. I felt that, when the American people saw what liberals were about and felt it in their pocketbooks they would reject it. And I predict that in 2012 they will do so.

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