Wednesday, June 15, 2016

We are not that interested in power

I admit, I was frustrated with Deirdre N. McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality. Five years and more since her excellent Bourgeois Dignity I was expecting something to wrap up her Bourgeois Trilogy with a bang.
But she already said it all before, when arguing that the bourgeoisie brought something new into the world, a rhetoric that celebrated the dignity of ordinary people, innovation, and the spirit of “having a go.”

But I admit that the disappointment forced me to do Heidegger’s thing of “what is called thinking.”
What is it about us, the bourgeoisie, the people that I call the People of the Responsible Self that encapsulated what McCloskey has been saying about the bourgeousie, its virtues, its dignity, its equality? And then, Alger-Hiss-like, cudgeling my brain, I got it.

The point about the bourgeoisie, the middle class, the middling sort of person, is that we are not that interested in power.

And that is a very big thing. Because if you are not that interested in power then you can do things like surrender to Adam Smith’s invisible hand. You can say that you will inquire first how you can contribute to the world before you demand from it you cut, your share. And in that modest submission to the opinions of others develops the whole flowering of McCloskey’s Great Enrichment, the 200 year progrtess in per-capita income from $3 per day to $100 per day and very likely more. There has been nothing like it in human history ever.

You can describe the people of the Responsible Self any way you like, but I like the notion of Robert Bellah that this kind of person emerged in the Axial Age when religion developed the idea that individual humans could understand the world and could therefore do something about it. And then, of course, they ought to do something about it.

How are we to symbolize this Person of the Responsible Self; who is its poster boy?

Thank you, senator, I can help you with that. But I am afraid that the poster boy is not a boy, but a girl. The poster girl of the People of the Responsible Self is Denise Baudu, heroine of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, translated in English as The Ladies Paradise and available on Netflix as The Paradise. (But beware: The Paradise in Netflix is a BBC production and so it completely misses the point of Au Bonheur des Dames in exactly the way you would expect from a bunch of North London luvvies.)

Zola’s Denise Baudu arrives as a 20-year-old from Normandy, appearing on her uncle’s doorstep in Paris one morning in the 1860s, orphaned, with her two younger brothers in tow. But her uncle can’t help her because his mom-and-pop drapery business is in the toilet on account of the monster across the street, the growing innovative department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, run by Monsieur Octave Mouret, who has a genius for predicting what the ladies will adore.

OK. If Denise can’t work at her uncle’s shop she’ll work across the street for the monster, and so she does, thin and wan and chétive and casually abused by her boss and co-workers. She goes to work because, after all, Denise must be responsible and provide for her little brother Pépé and bail out her improvident apprentice brother Jean in his frequent bouts of girl trouble.

This being a novel, the boss of The Bonheur takes a shine to Denise in spite of her shyness and clumsiness, and he is right, for as she starts to find her sealegs in the ocean of the Bonheur she turns out to be an excellent vendeuse and really pretty. The day comes when she gets a summons to dinner with Mouret, at which, the according to lore, the invited vendeuse is herself to be the dessert. Only Denise is the perfect bourgeoise, a poster girl for the People of the Responsible Self. She refuses to become the mistress of the boss. She has responsibilities, brothers to provide for. So the This decision rocks the Bonheur to its foundations. She did what? It cannot be that she refuses the gifts and blandishments of M. Mouret on account of her honor and virtue; it must be her cunning that causes her to refuse the boss’s summons. Denise also rocks M. Mouret to his foundations; her consistent refusal haunts him. Again and again he propositions her, but the answer is always non, toujours non. Are you in love with someone, he demands? Yes, but… Finally she can’t take it any more and quits so she can take her brother and his new wife off to Normandy for a month of honeymoon. And then, on her last day at work, Mouret breaks down and offers to marry her. Oh no, says Denise, she cannot marry because she must care for her brothers. OK, sobs Mouret -- he is really a wreck at this point -- I give up: go to the man you love. So finally we get to the dénouement, as Denise breaks down and rushes into his arms. “Oh monsieur Mouret, c’est vous que j’aime,” she says, sobbing on his neck. Cue wedding bells and everyone lives happily ever after.

Now of course Denise Baudu is a woman so perfect that she never could have lived on this earth. She is so completely and devotedly responsible that she is super-human. But that’s what makes her a poster girl of the People of the Responsible Self. And she is not interested in power. Not at all.

Now, the rest of us are not perfect Paragons of the Responsible Self. So we live in a less exalted realm than a Zola novel. It can only be said of us that we are not that interested in power. Still, that is something.

But our liberal friends, and even more so their pas d’ennemis à gauche, they really are interested in power. In fact they believe in power: political power, cultural power, artistic power, administrative power, naming and shaming power, their power. It doesn’t matter whether they are Enlightenment rationalists, or Romantic artists, or Marxists, or modernists that believe in an overarching meta-narrative or postmodernists that swear on a stack of Power/Knowledge that they abjure all meta-narrative and hegemonies over the “other.” Rubbish. They all believe in power, political power. It is their religion.

But they are wrong. As the bacon billboard might have said: if you believe in power, YOU ARE WRONG.

The whole point about the bourgeois era is the astonishing discovery that if you ease up on the clunking fist of political power, if you allow moderate innovation and keep the established interests from killing innovation in its cradle, if you allow the middling sort of person to “have a go” then, if all the stars are in alignment, some nobody will invent a steam engine to pump out mines, another nobody will invent a machine spinner. Some clerk will develop the oil industry, some telegraph messenger will develop the steel industry, a couple of rural yahoos will invent the airplane, a mechanic will decide to assemble cars on an assembly line. Some rich kid will drop out of Harvard and sell another guy’s PC operating system to IBM. And so on. A Great Enrichment from $3 per day to $100 per day. All that without the vital and indispensable clunking fist of political power. “Impossible,” as the son of an iconic New Yorker editor gets to say again and again in The Princess Bride. Who would have thunk it?

But I have a question. I thought we were all postmodernists now. I thought that the whole point of the post-modern turn was the turn away from hegemony and domination of the single answer, the meta-narrative. It was supposed to liberate the “other:” women, minorities, LGBT, and formerly colonialized peoples.

So how come the first thing that gays did when they got “marriage equality”was to beat up on Christian bakers and pizza parlors if they were all postmodernists that would never “other”anyone? How come the crazed lefty Twitter mobs? How come the name-and-shame postmodern university?

How come Obamacare? Surely, in the postmodern era, with its new-found declaration against the one rational solution, the first thing you say is that the Single Payer health care idea is a crock. Because it is the one single solution, and that cannot be in the non meta-narrative society. There must be a diversity of health care provision to allow diverse communities to approach health care in their own way. How come our Democratic friends have not proposed to privatize Social Security because, of course, it is rubbish to insist that all lifestyes should follow a single Fordist trajectory of education, then work, then retirement. Suppose you are a lesbian quilter on your third “marriage equality” marriage? What does the Fordist monopoly government retirement program mean to you? Instead President Obama has proposed a unilateral increase in Social Security benefits. How would he know? Does he have an inside track on the one true answer to retirement provision? Or is he just a power-crazed politician pandering for votes? And is then the postmodern turn nothing but a lie, not merely a lie that our liberal friends have told us but a lie they have told themselves and ended up believing?

I think you know the answer to that.

It really is appropriate that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate for president this year. Because the Democratic Party, like its liberal culture, has descended into an endless swamp of lies. And so the Democrats, true to their last, have nominated a candidate that was first fired for lying when she was a young lawyer on the Watergate committee in the 1970s. Then she lied about cattle futures. Then she lied about the White House travel office. Then she lied about Whitewater. Then she lied to cover up her husband’s career of serial sexual harassment, telling us that the real story was a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Dear God, if only! But there’s a problem. We righties are not that interested in power. So we really wouldn’t know how to create a little conspiracy, let alone one so vast… And now she is lying about her stupid e-mail server, a truly Talleyrand moment that is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.
Up to now, I have been dealing with the importance of the bourgeois ethos, we are not that interested in power, at the macro level of rich kids wanting to get into activism and politicians wanted to impose a top-down one-size-fits-all administrative cramdown on health-care, Christian bakers, what have you. But what does this mean to you and me, down on the street, where ordinary people try to follow the rules, go to work, and obey the law. I will tell you.

The gospel of we are not that interested in power requires of us a very small thing. It is that when things go against us in the normal course of life, we do not go to government and demand that government and save our job by hobbling the innovators that are putting us out of a job. Instead the gospel asks us to be true to our last as People of the Responsible Self. It asks us, in the words of British politician Norman Tebbit, to get on our bike and take the loss and do the responsible thing and overcome our fear and disappointment and go and find something else to do that can provide a service that other people are willing to pay for.

This may be a very small thing, but it is very hard thing for people to do. We know that because of the intersection of the Trump phenomenon and the sudden discovery by the social-science experts that the white working class is dying of despair.

Of course, liberals are to blame for the despair of the working class as well as everything else. It was they that told the working class that they were horribly exploited, they that comforted the working class with a mattress of wage-and-hour laws, they that saddled the white working class with a boatload of payroll taxes payable in the future with wonderful entitlement benefits, they that helped the white working class infect their employers with the economic parasite called the labor union, that ends up killing its host, as well-ordered parasites in Nature do not do, they that turned on the white working class as racist, sexist, bigoted Archie Bunkers in the 1970s.

Back in the years of the French Revolution, Condorcet wrote that “a good law must be good for everyone.” That was easy to say, but hard to realize. We know better now, and so in the light of modern experience I propose the following catchphrase to check anyone proposing a new program: Government is Injustice. Of course, not all government is injustice, and occasionally a government does pass a good law that is good for everyone. Most of the time, alas, governments pass laws to reward their supporters, and the rest of the people, on the receiving end of the new law experience it as the clunking fist of injustice. And it stands to reason that the more government you have the more people are going to be on the receiving end of its taxes, its regulations, its men with guns, and will experience government as injustice directed particularly and with malice aforethought against them.

This truth is understood, I think, in the basic position of postmodernist turn. No meta-narratives. No othering. The logic of the postmodernists would lead them that government action would often result in negative results for the “others.” And, moreover, if government power is deployed in the interest of the "others" then the ordinary "us" will get othered. And so the hills are alive with the sound of rage. So what went wrong?

What went wrong is that, for everyone except the bourgeoisie and the People of the Responsible Self who are not that interested in power, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You can see where I am going with this. I am saying that the problem with our liberal friends is that they are interested in power. And like all regimes only interested in power, starting with the Soviet and Maoist disasters, and continuing with the Nazi disaster and all the other stupid human sacrifices to the god of power in our time, power ends in asphyxiation and strangulation, and not infrequently a pile of skulls. There is a simple reason for this, and it issues from the basic problem with a society dominated by power. It cannot adapt, and no wonder. The whole point of government is to stop change. The particular change that government is designed to sop is the attack on the homeland by foreign enemies. That is why government has the right and the power to mobilize the populace to fight the enemy, foreign or domestic, whether the people are a village, a tribe, a feudal realm or a nation state. In such an existential Fight to the Death all the populace must be enrolled in the armed forces or the war machine to fight the enemy and defeat him.

That is all very well, but what about the instances when the homeland is not facing an existential threat, but merely the disruption from some new technical innovation? This is the rub. Governments do not stop at fighting the change imposed by invaders and pillagers and plunderers; they also like to fight against any change, social or economic or cultural, that threatens their power and the status of their supporters. They find it hard to differentiate between real existential perils and mere threats to their regime supporters.

All this is, as Hegel says, about the Fight to the Death. Either you Fight to the Death or you will submit to Work as a Slave. That is what awaits the nation that does not repel the invader. So who would be a Slave and submit to the power of the Master?

Well, we all do, because we are all enslaved to the Masters of the ruling class. But all is not lost, because through Work we learn to overcome Nature, while the Master sits in his castle and learns nothing except more Fighting.

Of course, Hegel's Master and Slave dialectic is fanciful in the extreme. But Hegel is at least valuing the Work of the Slave above the Mastery of the Master, just as Deirdre McCloskey teaches us to value the virtues and the dignity of work celebrated by the middling sort of people, the People of the Responsible Self.

Eventually the world of Work finds a way to overcome the option of the Fight to the Death or Slavery. Eventually the two opponents of the Fight to the Death learn to replace it and Mastery and Slavery with mutual recognition. And in the overcoming, something happens. The supremacy of power begins to wane.

In the world of the Fight to the Death the only thing is power. But in the world of Work there is the possibility of recognition and cooperation. And in that world, it is possible to live by not being that interested in power.

Our liberal friends, alas, are primitives; they are still living in the old world of the Fight to the Death. That is what their sacraments of "peaceful protest" and "armed resistance" are all about, whether we are talking about Marxist liberals, modernist liberals or postmodern liberals. The only thing that matters to them is to be the Master, der Herr. And the rest of us are Slaves, die Knechte, who must submit to the Master and learn to Work, to obey the wage-and-hour laws and pay our payroll taxes. Because power is everything. And that goes for everyone, patriarchs, privileges whites, and victimized "others."

But we, the People of the Responsible Self, have a dream. We dream that one day the world will be peopled by humans who are not that interested in power. We do not imagine a fantasy world, totally emancipated and liberated, in which power has been banished and surmounted by a world of perfect responsibility and community. We do not believe, either, that there will ever be a world of perfect Denise Baudus, so utterly devoted to responsibility as to even deny themselves the joys of love until the last page. We do not believe in a Heaven on Earth.

We just think that things would be a lot better for humans if more of us were not that interested in power.


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  2. "We dream that one day the world will be peopled by humans who are not that interested in power. We do not imagine a fantasy world, totally emancipated and liberated, in which power has been banished and surmounted by a world of perfect responsibility and community. We do not believe, either, that there will ever be a world of perfect Denise Baudus, so utterly devoted to responsibility as to even deny themselves the joys of love until the last page. We do not believe in a Heaven on Earth. We just think that things would be a lot better for humans if more of us were not that interested in power."

    It's a beautiful dream. It has two fatal weaknesses. One is that it is not in accord with the nature of man, unless catechized otherwise. Two is that it cannot deal with religions of power. By which I do not mean a powerful religion, but a religion that worships power itself.

    At one time, the tenets of Christianity as Western Civilization ensured that the worship of power was always at cross-purposes to the West's reigning ideology. It was not a complete defense, but it always allowed a counter-attack from within a near-universal cultural framework. As a Jew, I'd like to say "Judeo-Christian" framework, but there are some uniquely Christian elements that are critically important.

    The West abandoned that, and we are reaping the consequences. Until that circle is squared anew, the People of the Responsible Self will continue to be extirpated. Whether this shifts to full-on Kulak mode remains to be seen, but that is the logical/historical progression.

    Understand more fully: Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity are pretexts of the Left, routinely violated in egregious ways. People keep noticing this, without drawing the correct conclusion. Haidt's other moral elements of Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity ARE the Left's religion, denigrated for concealment - and all aimed at the singular worship of Power. By overtly denigrating these other moral elements (usually via the handy shorthand of "christians"), the Left conceals ITS OWN use of them from its own supporters.

    By concealing these elements, it renders them immune to reflection or question. And NOW you grok why arguing with the Left is a waste of time.

    The People of the Responsible Self have no answer to this, for it is outside their thought. While the deliberate distractions of Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity are familiar. So they have suffered, lo these hundred years, and are dying.

    This is why nationalism is rising. It offers an alternative framework for Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity structure that is naturally and irrevocably in conflict with the Marxist Frankfurt School.

    Once established, nationalisms can be compatible with disinterest in power. IF they are combined with a dominant Christian ethic, and if they pass through their birth to stability and massive acceptance.

    But the path to get there WILL and MUST be very interested in power. Whether it passes on to tyranny or something better will depend on its inner foundation, which must itself be a religion to counter the Left's Religion of Power.

    Interesting times ahead. Interesting times.