“With Only Their Labor to Sell”

Glenn Beck drew a crowd and a good deal of commentary from across the political and religious spectrum.  I wasn’t at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally this past weekend and I haven’t spoken to any one who was, but I did come across a number of articles, editorials, and blog posts that offered their take on what was going on.  Needless to say, it wasn’t all positive.  But, as if to demonstrate that people remain more complex than our tendency to reduce the world into binary oppositions suggests, the most scathing review I read came from conservative, Southern Baptist seminary professor Russell Moore, and one of the more self-consciously open-minded pieces came from the LGBT Editor of Religion Dispatches, Alex McNeill.  Ross Douthat, who was at the rally, offered his take on the political implications of the “apolitical” rally in  his NY Times editorial and a follow-up blog post.

There is not much that I would care to add.  I’m basically in agreement with Moore, but rather preferred the sensibility to the actual people at the rally demonstrated by McNeil.  But thinking about the rally put me in mind to comment on a couple of other pieces I’d read within the last few days.  Beck (along with Limbaugh, Hannity, and company) tends to symbolize for many people the marriage of free market economics with cultural conservatism that came to dominate the political right from the late ’70’s through the present.  Essentially it is the Reagan coalition.  But what if that marriage was an inherently unstable mixture?

Sometime ago I was struck by a particular formulation offered by historian Eric Miller of Christopher Lasch’s critique of the both ends of the political spectrum.  According to Lasch, both ends harbored a fatal tension.  The Left called for socially conscious and active individuals while promoting a vision of the self that was atomized and unencumbered.  The Right called for the preservation of moral tradition and community while promoting an economic order that undermined those very institutions.  This remains, to my mind, a very apt summation of our current political situation.

In two recent essays, Philip Blond and Jonny Thakkar call for what they have respectively termed Red Toryism and Left Conservatism.  Neither Blond nor Thakkar cite Lasch, but they each channel Lasch’s analysis of the inner tension within modern conservatism’s attachment to free market ideology.

In “Shattered Society,” Blond, a London based academic turned political activist, laments the loss of mediating institutions which sheltered individuals from the power of the state and the market.

The loss of our culture is best understood as the disappearance of civil society. Only two powers remain: the state and the market. We no longer have, in any effective independent way, local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies, or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues. In the past, these institutions were a means for ordinary people to exercise power. Now mutual communities have been replaced with passive, fragmented individuals.

And according to Blond, “Neither Left nor Right can offer an answer because both ideologies have collapsed as both have become the same.”  The left lives by an “agenda of cultural libertarianism” while the right espouses an agenda of “economic libertarianism,” and there is, in Blond’s view, little or no difference between them.  They have both contributed to a shattered society.  “A vast body of citizens,” Blond argues, “has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell.”

In the provocatively titled, “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx,” Thakkar argues that there is no compelling reason for conservatives to wed themselves to free market ideology.  He cites Samuel Huntington who described conservatism as a “‘situational’ ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time …” “The essence of conservatism,” Huntington believed, “is the passionate affirmation of the values of existing institutions.”

Following anthropologist Arnold Gehlen, Thakkar assumes that habits and routines and the cultural institutions that support them are necessary for human flourishing.  These culturally inculcated habits and routines function as instincts do for other animals.  Apart from them we would be “prone to unbearable cognitive overload.”  A predicament that is all the more palpable at present than when Gehlen wrote in the middle of the last century.

But following Marx, Thakkar believes that it is in the nature of capitalism to undermine existing social and cultural institutions.  The reason is simple.  Competition necessarily drives technological innovation (not necessarily a bad thing of course!), and technological innovation in the realm of economic production elicits social change as well.  “To the degree that technological change is built into capitalism,” Thakkar summarizes, “so must institutional change be.  In every single generation certain institutions will become obsolete, and with them their attendant practices and values.”

Whatever one may think about the merits of this process, it certainly isn’t inherently conservative.  As Thakkar writes further on, “In theory it is possible to be an economic libertarian and a social conservative; in practice the two are irreconcilable.”

You can read both pieces to get the whole of their respective arguments as well as their proposals for moving forward.  Neither Thakkar nor Blond claim to be against the free market, but they are both in favor of re-prioritizing the health of society, particularly its mediating institutions.  In Blond’s view, this can lead to a “popular capitalism” that entails “a market economy of widely disbursed property, of multiple centers of innovation, of the decentralization of capital, wealth, and power.”

For Thakkar, this means pursuing a “commitment to think each case through on its own merits:  if something is harmful or unjust, we should try to change it; but if something valuable is being destroyed, we should try to conserve it,” rather than blindly submitting to the demands of the growth economy.

Whether we agree with the details of their policy suggestions or not, it seems to me that both Thakkar and Blond, like Lasch before them, have perceptively diagnosed the inner tensions of the political right (and left) and the cultural consequences of those tensions.

2 thoughts on ““With Only Their Labor to Sell”

  1. Thanks for the engaging post. As an Australian who lived as a poor graduate student in the USA for several years, the most important lesson I see is for the US to become more trusting of the state to help guarantee the economic and social conditions in which mediating institutions can thrive. A healthy associational (‘civil society’)life depends upon a degree of security. Australia is one of the few countries to have a healthy economy after the GFC. One of the reasons for this is that our banking and financial sectors were better regulated. We also have a more generous national minimum healthcare and social security system (combined with private sector options). To invert JFK’s words, we do need to ask not just want we can can do for our country but what our state can do for us. Keynesian social democracy helps to provide the economic and social security for the associational life and active democracy.

    1. Thanks for adding the international perspective Stephen. There is indeed a suspicion of the state in certain quarters. In many cases this is not entirely unwarranted, in others perhaps exaggerated. I do wonder if an over-reliance on centralized state mechanisms poses a danger to the mediating institutions from another direction (More Hobbesian, less Lockean). Where the state takes up a role, it is no longer necessary for mediating institutions to fill it. I think scale is important here, the centralized state in the US for example operates a larger scale than say Sweden. This distends the bureaucracy and removes agency from the local institutions that operate closer to the citizenry. I’m not arguing against a role for government, only looking for the best role.

      On the matter of public assistance, Blonde argues for what he calls “budgetary capture,” which amounts to giving local citizen groups power of government budgets. He talks briefly about this in the last third of his piece. Let me know if you have any thoughts on what he writes there.

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