Every now and then we come across an article or blog post that’s directly relevant to what we’re trying to say on Epsilon Theory, but is too big and thoughtful to be carved up for a Mailbag note or Zeitgeist post. Steve Soukup has been writing for The Political Forum for many years now (@thepolforum), and I always enjoy reading his weekly emails (firstname.lastname@example.org). This note hit home for Rusty and me (in different ways!), and Steve was kind enough to let us publish it in its entirety. – Ben
Make / Protect / Teach is a Big Tent.
The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.“Ten Conservative Principles,” Russell Kirk, Adapted from The Politics of Prudence, 1993.
POLITICS, COMMUNITY, AND REBIRTH As you may (or may not) recall, we ended last week’s Politics, Et Cetera on a seemingly pessimistic note. “Foreign observers of American politics often wonder at the pervasiveness and divisiveness of the abortion issue in this country,” we wrote. “They are right to do so. It didn’t need to be this way. And now that it is, there’s no political way to rectify it.”
The emphasis on the word “political” was in the original and was added purposefully. This is a largely inarguable assertion. There is no political solution to the abortion issue and there never will be. It is beyond politics. And so, for that matter, are a great many of the most serious issues facing the nation and indeed our civilization. This may sound strange for “political” analysts to say, but it’s the God’s honest truth. There is a definite and incontrovertible limit to the effectiveness of “politics” as we know it.
Longtime readers will undoubtedly know that this is an idea around which we’ve tap-danced for years. Now is the time to make it explicit. For decades, we have insisted – categorically, in print and in speeches – that Washington is not the place where the big decisions about the fate of this nation are made. Washington, we’ve said, is merely the place where the score is kept.
Unfortunately, we’re not entirely sure that this is the case any longer. The ruling class has been trying, for at least the last fifty years to change that, to reverse the balance of power in our federal republic. And almost without interruption, it has been winning, slowly but surely usurping the rights and prerogatives of the people. The Ninth and the Tenth Amendments are considered by the ruling class to be relics, quaint reminders of days gone by that serve no practical purpose and are embraced only by cranks and radicals.
The people have done their best to resist. As we have noted in these pages over the last several weeks, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were manifestations of the country class’s resistance to the ruling class’s perfidy. Both promised “hope” and “change,” albeit of differing varieties. But neither delivered on those promises. And while our knowledge of the specific reasons for their failures may be fragmentary, it is nevertheless clear that the larger problem is that this is NOT, strictly speaking, a fight that can be won through political means.
You could, we suppose, call this a “come to Gramsci” moment on our part. (We’ll call it something else, but more on that in a minute). It is the recognition that the century-long effort on the part of statists to infiltrate and command the institutions of the transmission of culture has been so thorough and so remorseless that it is simply impossible to fight the good fight any longer, by politics alone. Gramsci was right, of course, and victory in the “War of Position” – i.e. the war within society to control the culture – is a necessary precondition to victory in the longer, more eternal struggle. The statists – Left, Right, and otherwise – fought that war, at Gramsci’s insistence, and now control the culture. And as a result, they control the state and are able to impose their will upon the people, almost without the people even noticing. “Free” healthcare, you say? Sign me up!
For a long time, we – and countless other “anti-statists” – believed that the response to this victory in the War of Position by the statists should be met in kind. In order to win back the country from its now-ensconced ruling-class, the country class would, we believed, have to reverse engineer the statists’ strategy and wage its own war to take BACK the institutions and thereby take back the culture. Just as they took over education, entertainment, and the media, we would have to do the same, taking back what they stole and using these resources to reconstruct a culture rooted in eternal moral principles and virtues, and dedicated to liberty, free markets, and the proposition that all men are created equal.
There are, unfortunately, problems with this approach. The first and the most obvious is that it takes time. While the Leftists/statists could afford to be patient, those seeking to restore a declining culture don’t have that luxury. It’s declining, after all, and before long, it will be gone entirely. Even operating under the most optimistic assumptions, one must conclude that the effort to retake the institutions will be measured in decades, not years. And by then, the neo-Jacobin statists will have done everything they can to ensure that the country class is officially a vassal class, more or less unable to function without the beneficence of its ruling-class masters.
A second and perhaps more significant problem is the fact that some of the institutions are probably not fit to be “retaken,” if for no other reason than they were never “taken” in the first place. They were never part of the established order to begin with. Here, we are referring specifically to the vast majority of the institutions of higher education in this country. Whereas Harvard was founded to train Unitarian and Congregational clergy, Yale was founded to teach theology and religious languages, Dartmouth was founded to teach Christianity to the Native Americans, Princeton was founded to serve as a seminary for Presbyterian ministers, and so on, most American colleges and universities were never intended to transmit eternal truths and ancient knowledge. Indeed, they were intended to do precisely the opposite.
With the exceptions noted above, America’s universities were nearly all founded under the explicit guise that they should be dedicated not to learning, re-discovering, or teaching the old, but to creating and constructing the new. In a 2016 essay praising the American university system, published in The Atlantic, Jonathan Cole, the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia, put it this way:
Most members of the educated public probably think of America’s greatest universities in terms of undergraduate and professional education—in terms of teaching and the transmission of knowledge rather than the creation of new knowledge. This point of view is completely understandable. They are concerned about the education of their children and grandchildren or relate to their own educational experience.
But what has made American research universities the greatest in the world has not been the quality of their undergraduate education or their ability to transmit knowledge, as important as that is. Instead, it’s been their ability to fulfill one of the other central missions of great universities: the production of new knowledge through discoveries that change our lives and the world.
[T]he United States created the foundation on which great research universities could be built. Those core values included meritocracy; organized skepticism (the willingness to entertain the most radical of ideas, but subject the claims to truth and fact to the most rigorous scrutiny); the creation of new knowledge; the belief that discoveries should be available to everyone and that those that make discoveries should not profit from them; the peer-review system that relies on experts to judge the quality of proposed research that’s seeking funding; and academic freedom and free inquiry, without which no great university can be established.
In short, then, the American university has ALWAYS been progressive, indeed, was specifically designed to be progressive and to incorporate progressive values. And while this is all well and good, when applied to the physical sciences, when it is applied to the social sciences and the rest of the humanities, it is and always has been disastrous. This is very much the same dichotomy that existed in the Enlightenment itself, in the contrast between, Newton, for example, and Rousseau. There is no way to take “back” such institutions, given that their very foundation is fundamentally flawed.
None of this will come as news to conservatives, which is why they spent the last sixty years or so creating their own research institutions. We know them as “think tanks” – places like the Heritage Foundation, Cato, and the American Enterprise Institute. But while there are think tanks devoted to politics, think tanks devoted to culture, think tanks devoted to politics and culture, thinks tanks that are conservative, think tanks that are libertarian, think tanks that are dedicated exclusively to promoting functional free markets, the statists still, nevertheless, continue to control the culture.
This is not to say that these think tanks are not having an impact. They are, undoubtedly. But it’s not enough of an impact to move the needle at all. They are discovering – or demonstrating, more accurately – the third and biggest problem with the idea that a Gramscian war can be waged to “take back” the national cultural institutions. As it turns out, not only are many of the issues that divide this nation beyond politics, they are actually beyond a national solution of any sort. And as we think about it, that’s precisely as it should be.
In truth, then, this is not a “come to Gramsci” moment for us so much as it as a (or another) “come to Kirk” moment. Often ignored among Russel Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” is principle Number Eight, which is that “conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” Kirk continued:
Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.
For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously warned of the possibility that tyranny could enter the United States via the establishment of powerful, centralized administration. He hoped, however, that Americans would be able to resist this centralization of administration because of the strength of their civic organizations, the power and the faith they placed in “community.” And for a long time, he was right. The existence of these civic institutions permitted the United States to remain distinct from its Western brethren and thus to enjoy the fruits of liberty and true, genuine, and remarkable community. But, like all good things, as they say, this too came to an end.
Beginning with the Progressive Era and with the Progressives’ aggressive intervention in the day-today affairs of private business, the all-powerful state emerged like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy, “gradually, then suddenly.” The New Deal, World War II, the post-war technocratic consensus, and then, of course, the rise of the cultural Left and its politicization of everything, placed the erstwhile centrally governed but de-centrally administered American people under the thumb of the “immense and tutelary power” of “The State.”
Among the sins of this omnipotent and omnipresent state is the bowdlerization of “community” of all sorts – local, regional, religious, civic, athletic, business, social, etc., etc., ad infinitum. This was, we’re afraid, always inevitable. It was always the inexorable ambition of the state. This is not a Republican or a Democrat thing. It is not a liberal or conservative thing. It is simply where the state has always been headed. Again, Russell Kirk saw it coming before any of the rest of us. To wit:
All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss. In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor. “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.” Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association. What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance. Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system. The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.” The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death. All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.
It is clear, then, that the “the state” as it exists today is both tyrannical in the Tocquevillian sense and largely unchangeable or at least unchangeable in the direction that the anti-statists would desire. Recapturing the cultural institutions is both time consuming and, in some case, likely impossible.
So what, then, are we to do?
There are, we think, only two options. The first of these is simply to accept our fate, to concede that the state offers comfort, consolation, and a certain amount of stability. This is the easy choice, the choice of the sensible egoist. This is the choice of the young American woman who, two weeks ago, lectured the protesters in Hong Kong about their foolishness for choosing freedom over safety. It is also the choice to become, as Tocqueville put it, “nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
The second option is to choose a form of communitarianism, that is to say to choose, consciously and deliberately, to reconnect with that which should not be the purview of the state and to share that connection with like-minded individuals. As Kirk notes above, “the same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome.” And when it took place near the fall of Rome, a communitarian ethic took hold among some of the citizens of the Empire, ensuring that its greatest accomplishments would survive its statist rot and eventual collapse. Or, as the quintessential communitarian moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
As some of you may know, this section of the conclusion of MacIntyre’s After Virtue was the inspiration for the communitarian-conservative journalist Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. In the final paragraph of After Virtue, MacIntyre writes that “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the dark ages which are already upon us.” Dreher took that as a challenge to Christians, a warning that they must rediscover their sense of self and find ways to preserve that in the face of the state’s perpetual encroachment upon the lives of its subjects. Dreher explains his thoughts as follows:
If America — and the West — is to be saved, it will be saved as St. Benedict and the Church saved the West for Christianity after Rome’s fall: by the slow, patient work of fidelity in action. The most patriotic thing believing Christians can do for America, then, is to cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American order, and instead focus our efforts on strengthening our communities. It begins by re-learning our story, and regaining a sense of the holy. All the rest will follow, in God’s time.
This does not require us to turn our backs on our neighbors — indeed, I don’t see how any Christian can justify that. It does mean, however, that to the extent that engagement with the broader world compromises the telling of our Story to ourselves, and embodying that story in practices, both familial and communal, we must keep our distance. My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.
Dreher’s thesis sparked a great deal of controversy but also a great deal of conversation. And while most religious public intellectuals refrained from directly endorsing “The Benedict Option,” First Things hosted a discussion that included Dreher, Michael Hanby, a prominent Catholic intellectual, and George Weigel, perhaps the most prominent of all Catholic intellectuals. It ended with Weigel writing that “The answer in America is to revitalize a civil society rooted in the moral truths embodied in human nature. Only a civil society so rooted is capable of sustaining pluralist democracy without imploding into chaos or sinking into the dictatorship of relativism.” This may not be The Benedict Option explicitly, but it most certainly is a nod to communitarianism and to the idea that the pursuit and rebirth of civic life must take place well removed from the old strategies that centered on “retaking” the institutions of the state.
Weigel – who, as we say, is quite possibly the most prominent Catholic intellectual in the country, if not the world – went on to argue that “only the Church, among American civil-society institutions, can lead in that long process of national civic renewal.” In 2015, when those words were written, we might have agreed. But today, even we aren’t so sure. The other day, Pope Francis directed Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn to investigate the diocese of Buffalo, which has been one center of the priest abuse scandal. Our initial reaction – which should tell you something about the American Church’s present ability to lead the process of civic renewal – was to think of a fox and a henhouse.
And while we wish it were otherwise, in the short-run, it’s fine, we suppose, because religious Christians are not, by any measure, the only people in this country who are fed up with our ruling class, with the all-powerful state they’ve enabled, and with the ensuing BIPARTSAN political shakedown.
We may be wrong about this, but you would be hard-pressed, we’d imagine, to find two people less likely to agree on the centrality of the role of Christianity and the Church in society than the aforementioned Rod Dreher and Ben Hunt, the market commentator who, along with his business partner Rusty Guinn, runs Epsilon Theory. And yet, just four weeks ago, Ben published a piece in which he laid out his vision for challenging “The Long Now.” And Ben’s vision is remarkably communitarian in its aims, which means that it is also, fundamentally, similar to Dreher’s Benedict Option. Though the community he wishes to build is differs significantly from Dreher’s, Hunt nevertheless takes his inspiration from MacIntyre. Roughly a month ago, Ben put it this way:
Every three or four generations, humanity consumes itself with the fang and claw of fascism and collectivism. Every three or four generations, we eat our own.
This is that time. This is the Long Now.
In politics it takes the form of a widening gyre, where the center cannot hold against the onslaught of polarizing political entrepreneurs who eliminate the political promise of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant political fear. In economics it takes the form of a market utility, where those same illiberal political entrepreneurs eliminate the economic risk of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant economic stimulus….
My question is not how we prevent or avoid the Long Now. Sorry, but that ship has sailed.
No, my question is how we keep the flame of small-l liberal thought and small-c conservative thought alive through the Long Now, so that it can light the world again when this, too, shall pass….
You will hear that the danger at hand is so great, so existential, that NOTHING MATTERS other than combating that danger, that you must sacrifice your most precious possession – your autonomy of mind – to believe in the necessity of these political actions. You must not only think that it is possible for 2 + 2 = 5 if the political exigency is urgent enough, you must believe that it is necessary for 2 + 2 = 5. Orwell called this “collective solipsism”. I call it political nihilism. Either way, THIS is the politics of the Long Now.
And once you believe that NOTHING MATTERS … poof! you have CHOSEN to become a rhinoceros.
So you vote for Bob Menendez. You vote for Roy Moore. You excuse your party’s lies and your politician’s thuggery and moral corruption as necessary to prevent some greater evil.
Here’s the kicker.
There’s not a damn thing that you or I can do to stop this.
There’s only one thing that you or I can do. Luckily, it’s the most important thing….
My advice? Abandon the party as your vehicle for political participation….
THIS is where we stand our ground. Not on some national political scale where we are either turned into rhinos ourselves or trampled into the mud. But on the personal scale. On the scale of our families and our communities. A scale where we can recognize ourselves once again, not as a means to some grand Statist end, but as members of a clear-eyed and full-hearted Pack.
The way through the Long Now is a social movement, not a political party.
A social movement based on resistance and refusal. A refusal to vote for ridiculous candidates. A refusal to buy ridiculous securities. A refusal to take on ridiculous debts. A refusal to abdicate our identity and autonomy of mind.
And it’s more than refusal. It’s more than just saying “Homey don’t play that”, more than just turning the other cheek. There is also action. But it is action in service to our Pack, not action in self-aggrandizement and the celebration of power itself.
As we say, Rod Dreher’s “community” and Ben Hunt’s “pack” would be rather significantly different from one another. Nevertheless, they would both share the belief that the American reliance on politics and enabling of the omnipresent state have failed. They would also share the belief that there are certain collective values that supersede contemporary radical individualism, but that those values should be guarded, taught, and expressed “locally and voluntarily.”
When we left Lehman Brothers – Mark 18 years ago, and Steve 17 years ago – we formed our own community, our own pack. We didn’t set out to do so, but, like MacIntyre’s Romans, we – “not recognising fully what [we] were doing” – rejected the imperium to construct a new form of community. Our community differs from Rod Dreher’s, just as it differs from Ben Hunt’s, although we consider ourselves adjacent to both, perhaps in between the two. You, gentle reader, are our community, our pack, our “sympathetic association.”
As many of you know, The Political Forum community has not been well these last couple of years. One difference between our community and Ben Hunt’s pack is that his is, as he says, “at scale,” while ours is not. Nevertheless, we fight on, and have plans that we hope will enable us to maintain our community and to maintain the values we think are important.
Chief among these values is the belief that the ancient truths and virtues apply to and benefit man, no matter the setting or conditions of his action or deliberation. And while countless organizations exist on the Right to foster this same belief and to encourage this same notion in life and politics, we find that it is sorely lacking in the practice of business. The conflict between “self-interest” and “stakeholder interest” is unnecessary and destructive. It is also both a component and a product of the crushing of “community” in the general sense. We can’t fix this, obviously. But we can guard the remnants that still exist and do our best to re-create a community in which this all makes sense.
And that’s what we intend to do.
Watch this space.
If you’d like to connect with Steve, you can email him at email@example.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter at @thepolforum.