October 23, 1989
We are all at least amateur philosophers of history, and the cardinal category of most such philosophizing is emancipation. Politically, from arbitrary authority; economically, from privilege and inherited status; intellectually, from received wisdom; morally, from custom—in all cases, of individuals or discrete groups from restraints imposed by, or in the name of, some community. These installments of emancipation are chapters in an integral narrative: “The Growth of Freedom in the West.”
In this multivolume epic, the history of the United States is often perceived as an especially glorious episode. Here, in the first (the only?) society born free, authority is suspect and the moral sovereignty of the individual is unchallenged. “Mind your own business,” and “it’s a free country”: These two quintessential Americanisms are generally assumed to stand in a causal relation. And indeed, American individualism in its nobler manifestations— Shays’ Rebellion, the last gasp of the Revolutionary yeomanry; Whitman’s Democratic Vistas; the Wobbly bards; the free wheeling literary-political critics Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald; be-bop; the Beats; feminism—has been one of the wonders of the world, one of the genuine achievements of civilization.
But progress is dialectical: Every historic advance exacts a price. Modernity—which means, fundamentally, the rise of a national labor market and of mass consumption—requires emancipation from the constraints on individual mobility and development entailed by premodern structures and values: family, locality, ethnic group, church, religious doctrine, and patriotic myth. But that which constrains may also support. Shared beliefs, loyalties, membership create attachments among believers, loyalists, members. These attachments are a promise of mutual aid and comfort, of a sort that money cannot buy and without which life is, for all but the most fortunate, painfully insecure. Even more important, perhaps, these structures and values frame our lives, give them coherence, relieve us of the sometimes vertiginous sense of fragility and contingency to which the unaffiliated and unbelieving are vulnerable.
When insecurity and anomie are wide spread, social stability is at risk. The United States has largely evaded this risk, in part because religious and civic allegiances have persisted alongside, and accommodated to, modernization. In the ‘80s, that accommodation is under strain, with consequences brilliantly depicted in “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (1985) by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsden, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton.
Bellah et al’s portrait of the contemporary American character descends from a tradition of sociological fretting about the costs of modernity. Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber, Tonnies, the Lynds, David Riesman, Christopher Lasch, and many if not most other important modem social theorists have sounded similar themes. But what was for sociology’s founders only a disturbing tendency is now a mass phenomenon. For most Americans (especially middle-class Americans, the chief subjects of “Habits”), the binding force of extended and even nuclear families, neighborhoods and regions, religious organizations, ethnic societies, and other small-to- medium-scale bodies has greatly diminished. These ties could not survive the enormous increase in residential and occupational mobility required for success within an economy and society dominated by large-scale organizations, corporate, governmental, and academic. As a result, the individual now matters far less to those she lives and works among, and vice versa. At the same time, she is likely to possess far more, materially and culturally.
A sentimental politics?
Since we must all feel we matter to someone, we have begun to matter more to ourselves. There being fewer competing claims on us, and more resources at hand, we have taken to cultivating those selves, translating our resources into experiences and, to the extent we can afford, it, into lifestyles. This is pretty much the prevailing ethos among the educated middle class. Bellah et al call it “expressive individualism” and describe its genesis, forms, and psychological effects with much subtlety and nuance.
Because expressive individualism is now so much the norm, the evocation in “Habits” of older ideals of work and citizenship is a great part of the book’s value. Before work became a means of making a living and (at least for some) self-expression, it was a “calling”:
“…a practical ideal of activity and character that... subsumes the self into a community of disciplined practice and sound judgment [and] links a person to the larger community, in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all.”
Similarly, citizenship was not merely a matter of advancing individual or group self-interest, as in liberal political theory and practice, but of pursuing the common good “in a society organized through public dialogue,” which “can be sustained only by communities of memory, whether religious or civic.” It is clear why work and citizenship so conceived would produce a very different character structure from the anxious, acquisitive, manipulative, self-protective type current in our world of bureaucracies, commodities, and universal competition.
This contrast between modern individualism and an archaic, or at least submerged, communitarianism is the organizing principle of “Habits of the Heart.” But though the authors expound the contrast forcefully and lay bare its historical roots, they decline to grasp those roots. Having identified the separation of public and private life and the “ontological individualism” of Locke as the original sins of modernity, they cannot quite bring themselves to demand repentance and conversion. Instead, eloquently but a little vaguely, they hope that “the older civic and biblical traditions have the capacity to reformulate themselves while simultaneously remaining faithful to their own deepest insights” and call for “reducing the inordinate rewards of ambition and our inordinate fears of ending up as losers” (by which they mean, presumably, a more progressive tax structure and more generous social-welfare programs). Amen. But will these fine sentiments vanquish the modernist Moloch?
To such complaints Bellah et al reply that they’re working on a sequel that will at least begin to spell out solutions to the problems they’ve identified; and besides, they were mainly trying to get a discussion going among people of good will. The most substantial fruit of that discussion so far is “Community in America: The Challenge of ‘Habits of the Heart’”, edited by Charles Reynolds and Ralph Norman.
Like “Habits”, “Community in America” is diverse, with contributors from across the academic landscape, from religious studies to political theory to comparative literature. In one of the book’s most successful essays, Roland Delattre links addictive consumption to the dependence and anxiety generated by the “corporate culture of professionals, experts, and managers,” taking military weapons procurement as an example of this dynamic. In another, a defense of psychoanalysis, Ernest Wallwork concedes the shallowness of the “therapeutic ethos” in its popular form but reminds us that Freud’s thought remains our best guide to the scope and limits of individual autonomy. Stanley Hauerwas admonishes communitarians that Christianity can only judge or instruct, not enter into dialogue with, the earthly city. Frederic Jameson offers a sophisticated postmodern-Marxist alternative reading of the situation Habits surveys—so sophisticated, as Bellah notes in his “Afterword” to “Community in America”, that it can scarcely have much resonance beyond a thin stratum of left-wing academic intellectuals. More tellingly, Bernard Yack argues that liberal societies have their own traditions, virtues, practices, and forms of community, which “Habits” overlooks, and that the values associated with individualism—”self-reliance, individual responsibility, and respect for constitutional authority and legal agreements”—morally integrate American society today, just as the more visibly other-directed values of the religious and republican traditions did formerly.
So ambitious a book as “Habits” is bound to leave many questions unanswered. But two would appear to be so urgent that not even the promise of a sequel seems sufficient excuse for begging the one and evading the other. The first of these is: What if the religious and republican traditions went into eclipse for good reasons— what if they depend upon beliefs that are not true? The references in “Habits” to the actual content of these traditions are vague to the point of vacuousness. At one point, the authors remind the reader that “we did not create ourselves”; at an other, they allude to a “covenant” between God and His people. But surely a great many even of their most sympathetic readers cannot believe in any sort of creation, or covenant, or God? According to “Habits”, the essence of republican virtue is recognition of and devotion to the “common good.” But what if there is no common good—what if the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles? And what if the average modern individualist understands all this, however dimly and inarticulately, and can see no other reason—no other philosophical reason—not to eat, fuck, and be mellow?
Jeffrey Stout’s contribution to “Community in America” is the only one to acknowledge that the cognitive content of the traditions “Habits” invokes somehow matters—that “Habits” may be less rather than more persuasive because of its dependence on a particular “public philosophy.” There is no reason, he observes, why the authors should have sought to derive their valuable critique of American individualism from dubious philosophical first principles rather than from their splendidly thick descriptions. Not philosophical foundations but reliable reports and modest proposals are what a society in trouble needs. We should gratefully accept Habits’ ethnography and politely ignore its theology.
So much, perhaps, for the first urgent question. There’s another, though. The separation of public and private life is a necessary consequence of mass production and the spread of market relations. What economic changes would allow that separation to be healed, would allow work once again to be a “calling”? “Habits” is little help here, a few inspirational passages notwithstanding. Christopher Lasch’s brief but illuminating essay in “Community in America” addresses the question more straightforwardly.
Practices and Markets
Lasch takes up the Aristotelian idea (recently revived by Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue”) of “practices.” Practices are activities like poetry, medicine, and sport, that are ends in themselves, with internal standards of excellence and characteristic virtues. Lasch points out that while “practices have to be sustained by institutions”—e.g., medicine by hospitals, scholarship by universities—the latter “in the very nature of things tend to corrupt the practices they sustain,” by rewarding practitioners with external goods like money and social status and by “subjecting [them] to standards of productivity derived from the marketplace.” The purpose of liberal politics is to regulate the pursuit of self-interest; the purpose of communitarian politics, Lasch concludes, is to protect the integrity of practices.
Fine; but can the production of necessities be organized into practices? If so, how? If not, then either a good deal of the industrial system will have to go, or else some people will work at mass production and others at practices. In the former case, how much? And in the latter, how can such an arrangement be made equitable? In either case, decisions about investment and credit allocation must be made. By whom and by what criteria? In short, what social relations of production do Lasch and the authors of “Habits” have in mind?
And why does one come away from both the book and the essay with a suspicion that the phrasing of that last question would provoke a certain impatience—as though it missed the point? There are two scant references to “class” in the index of “Habits of the Heart”. “Power” does not appear at all.
The best and most useful response to “Habits” that I’ve encountered is a symposium comment in “The Nation” by Barbara Ehrenreich (December 28, 1985-January 4, 1986). Though appreciative of the book’s humane intentions and “fine dissection of the therapeutic mentality,” she takes issue with its diagnosis—
“[T]he problem is not just the emptiness of middle-class life, even for the emptiest among us. The problem includes all the pain and dread that have been pressed back into the margins and final, wistful pages of “Habits of the Heart”: the hunger of the world’s majority, the draining misery of most people’s daily labor, torture and repression, the threat of nuclear annihilation. If we who are currently comfortable and affluent need a moral reference point, we will not find it in the mirror tricks of therapy or religion, but in other people’s pain.”
—and its prescription:
“[Socialism] is still the only word we have that attempts to bridge the gap between our private notions of decency and morality and the public sphere of the political economy. And it is still the only vision—the only modernist vision, that is—of a world in which individual desire might be reconciled with collective need. To neglect the socialist tradition as much as Bellah and his colleagues do is to contribute to the impoverishment of the political imagination they have so ably documented.”
Ehrenreich is the author of “The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment” (1983), which traced an evolution within American society away from “a moral climate that honored. . . responsibility, self-discipline, and a protective commitment to women and children” toward “a moral climate that endorsed irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and an isolationist detachment from the claims of others,” Sound familiar? In “The Hearts of Men” and now “Fear of Falling”, Ehrenreich, like the authors of “Habits”, has charted “the inner life of the middle class.” There is important common ground here, though in method (social history rather than interpretive sociology), provenance (Marx rather than Tocqueville), and style (witty and direct rather than earnest and edifying), her account is quite different.
For Bellah and his colleagues, middle-class American life represents the triumph of liberalism’s emancipatory critique: Their story emphasizes the individual’s liberation, for better or worse, from traditional obligations and allegiances. For Ehrenreich, modern life represents the defeat of liberalism’s universalist, egalitarian aspirations: Her story is about the middle-class’s growing awareness—and uneasy acceptance—of itself as an elite.
Near the end of the 19th century, the older middle class, or gentry, of independent farmers, small businessmen, self-employed lawyers, doctors, and ministers “found itself squeezed between an insurgent lower class and a powerful new capitalist class.” Its response was to transform itself into a “professional middle class.” Professionalism created a new form of capital: “expertise,” which was acquired by training and certification rather than by economic activity in the marketplace. The professions were self- regulating, which allowed them to restrict their numbers and so avoid significant competition. Also, professionals marketed themselves to business as part of a “rational” response to labor conflict. The social sciences, social work, public health, engineering, and the new professional schools of “management” all gained funding and respectability by cooperating to inculcate proper attitudes in, and construct the proper environment around, an unruly working class.
This history is familiar enough. What’s original in “Fear of Falling” is Ehrenreich’s narrative of middle-class consciousness since the l960s. At the beginning of that decade, the middle class chiefly inhabited suburbia, from which vantage point affluence looked so universal and secure as to seem potentially enervating. Of any “other America” they had no inkling until Michael Harrington’s book of that name came to President Kennedy’s attention. The resulting War on Poverty aimed not at redistributing wealth but at combating the “culture of poverty,” a collection of pathologies that had supposedly kept the poor from achieving “normal” middle-class careers and living standards.
In those innocent days the poor were perceived as a manageably small category of the deprived and the deviant. Even more important, they were passive and unthreatening. Blacks mobilized by the civil rights movement were not still, they too seemed to be demanding inclusion rather than fundamental social change. Middle-class liberals might feel considerable guilt—which they tried to relieve through pejorative stereotyping—in response to poverty and discrimination. But they had no reason to feel that their societal prerogatives, their very self-definition, was being challenged.
It was the student movement, especially in its countercultural aspect, that set off their alarms. Central to the ethos of professionalism are the ideals of objectivity and rigor and the virtues of perseverance and self-denial. It was just these qualities that the poor were said to lack, evoking middle-class condescension, and that the counterculture rejected, arousing middle-class horror. For the rebellious students were largely the professional middle class’s own children, and their revolt seemed to signify the older generation’s failure to reproduce itself in anything like its own image. The blame for this failure was laid to “permissiveness,” an insidious and ubiquitous disease of modern civilization transmitted by a “New Class” of secular liberal intellectuals, who administered and continually enlarged the welfare state.
Ehrenreich links this preoccupation with permissiveness among neoconservatives and the New Right to the middle class’s chronic “fear of falling,” a “fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will”— and, in consequence, losing status. There is, of course, a powerful tendency toward just this sort of narcissistic character structure in contemporary society. But its source is nothing so nebulous as “modem civilization” or so nefarious as a self- aggrandizing “New Class.” Its source is the culture of consumption, promoted by advertising and essential to the health of developed capitalism. The hedonism, such as it was, of the counterculture only mirrored what Daniel Bell once described as “the hedonism stimulated by mass consumption, [without which] the very structure of business enterprises would collapse.”
The New Right was unwilling, however, to blame capitalism for permissiveness (or anything else). So it evolved a largely mythical ideology that counter-posed the New Class, or “liberal elite,” along with its underclass, minority, and “deviant” constituencies, to the virtuous and productive upholders of traditional values: business and the white working class. In the ‘80s, this right-wing populism has swept all before it, a half-truth whose time has come. Unsparingly but tactfully, Ehrenreich sets out the confusions besetting this worldview as it has sought desperately to reconcile the cultural contradictions of capitalism. And with equal astuteness she locates the origins of neoconservatism in the dilemma of the professional middle class, caught between its ideals of intellectual independence and public service and its need to market itself in an era of declining public expenditure and increasing corporate hegemony.
Obstacles to solidarity
Obviously, populism can be manipulated and professionalism can rationalize privilege. But both contain nobler possibilities: populism’s instinct for justice and equality; professionalism’s encouragement of curiosity and altruism. As Ehrenreich points out, there is a way to combine these qualities programmatically: interesting work for everyone. It’s a demand that implies a number of others—above all, a more equal distribution of wealth, but also subsidized child care, job training and relocation, flexible technology and job design, worker self-management. It connects up, too, with the idea of “practices.” The Biblical/republican concept of a “calling” and the expressive-individualist notion of “fulfilling work” may not be identical, but they have enough in common—enough political-economic prerequisites, at any rate—to sustain a stable alliance of communitarians and democratic socialists.
Unfortunately, however, most people are neither communitarians nor democratic socialists. By and large, America’s elites do not believe they are morally obliged to sacrifice substantially for the sake of ordinary people. By and large, ordinary people do not believe in their own right and ability to force elites to do so. Perhaps, then, communitarians and socialists should—since virtually no one seems to agree with us—refurbish our usual answers to some fundamental questions of political morality. Why care about others? Why pay extra taxes, spend extra time, put one’s status, security, children’s prospects, or whatever else one cherishes, even slightly at risk? Why not remain radical individualists, each trusting to her own strength and ingenuity and to the rough justice of the market place?
“Because we are one Body,” reply the authors of “Habits of the Heart” “and our happiness lies in realizing our common good.” “Because we are two classes,” replies Ehrenreich, “and we must all suffer separately until we abolish exploitation together.” These are different visions, or at least different rhetorics, of human fulfillment: on the one hand, full membership in a beloved community; on the other, equal rights in a rational collectivity. One is libertarian, egalitarian, secular; the other is. . .well, all those things, too, but ambivalently.
Both visions are plausible; both are honorable. Both may be irrelevant. As a species, we may simply not be up to either. The indefinite persistence of possessive individualism and bureaucratic authoritarianism seems equally likely. A decade of brutally callous, mindlessly improvident, and highly popular leadership in the world’s foremost democracy compels the attenuation, if not the abandonment, of radical hopes. “Socialism or barbarism” is the battle cry of Ehrenreich’s tradition; “you cannot serve God and mammon” is that of Bellah’s. The victory—not final, perhaps, but decisive for our lifetime—of mammon and barbarism is a prospect that must haunt anyone who has lived through the ‘80s.
Nothing in history or human nature guarantees the solidarity necessary to avert social stasis, environmental collapse, or nuclear catastrophe. But the main obstacle to this solidarity is mental and moral inertia—not positive error so much as sheer unrefiectiveness; not active malevolence but paralyzing insecurity. “Habits of the Heart” is a slight enough blow against modem anomie, as is “Fear of Falling” against class divisions. But their convergence, however partial and implicit, is encouraging. Because probably, if there is to be any ground for hope, the first requirement is solidarity among the partisans of solidarity: communitarian and individualist, republican and socialist, religious and secular.