What Is to Be Done? Part Two


In my last post I borrowed some arguments from a few of my favorite thinkers to make the claim that people depend for their sense of individuality on the consciousness of other people. We rely on others to reflect images of us back to ourselves and develop our defining characteristics. These reflections constitute who we are. We are, in a sense, other people.

Even if you flinch from that bold conclusion, insisting, for example that a lone frontiersman or a prisoner in solitary confinement would nonetheless remain a human individual, you must admit that humans can only achieve their full range of flourishing through interaction with others and enmeshment in a civilization. This is what Aristotle meant when he said (at the beginning of Politics) that the human is a social animal.

I was not much of a social animal–or didn’t think of myself as one–until I was married and had children. I began to notice it in the playgrounds of Skopje, Macedonia, where I lived as a new father. I discovered that I loved taking my kids to the main local playground, which was situated astride a walkway between two rows of mid-rise apartment buildings. Depending on the time of day, you would find fifty or sixty kids playing there, attended by parents or, just as often, grandparents. Teenagers played hoops at an adjacent basketball halfcourt. There was always a crowd.

Working people cut through the playground, usually on their way to bus stops on either side of the surrounding apartment blocks. There were shops, pharmacies and banks at each end of the walkway, so lots of folks were headed to those as well. There was also a utility office about five minutes away where I used to walk to pay the bills once a month. They thought I was interesting because of my American accent.

Despite the basic foreignness of the place, my neighborhood in Skopje quickly became very comfortable to me. It was not just home, but in many ways a more practical and commodious home than any I’d lived in before. It was dense with human activity, and just about anywhere you could see or walk to from my apartment was interesting or useful.

I recently read a fascinating book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Among other things, Klinenberg gave me a useful term for summing up the experience of the built environment I enjoyed back in Skopje. One of the many reasons Americans never walk anywhere anymore, Klinenberg writes, is that there is nowhere “compelling” to walk to. You can walk around the block or possibly to the school bus stop, but you damn sure can’t walk to buy groceries, pay a bill or attend a PTA meeting.

To function in our society, you must get a driver’s license and buy a car. People in the suburbs have to drive places many times each day.

Put a pin in that idea. There are other, interlocking reasons why we don’t walk anywhere anymore, but the lack of accessible destinations is one I want to come back to. First, though, I want to shift the scene to a crowd of sweaty, (mostly) unlovely human bodies packed tightly around a swimming pool, picnicking and speaking languages I don’t comprehend. I, a misanthrope who hates crowds, despises prickly heat, fears skin cancer, and panics two seconds after  my kids disappear from view, should hate everything about the crowded swimming pool scenario. But I came to love it. It’s a puzzle that calls for reflection. It all happened in Griesheim.

Griesheim was the utterly unremarkable town of 29,000 people in south-central Germany where we moved after Skopje. We would live there for 12 years, and I would have several other experiences of communal life there outside the swimming pool that would challenge my idea of who I was. Just like back in Skopje, I would be remade by the people around me.

But the pool was memorable thing. Its meaning crept up on me over the course of many hot summer days, surrounded, as I have indicated, by a thousand or so of my overly warm fellow citizens. Entrance didn’t cost much, because the city wanted everyone to be able to afford the pool. Hence all the languages. Griesheim is a middle class town, with the offices of doctors, architects and lawyers dotting main street and quite a few professionals commuting 25 miles northward to Frankfurt. But it also has numerous of the less wealthy–Turkish speakers, whose parents or even grandparents came as early as the 1950s or 60s, a handful of Italians who came in the same wave, a large number of former Yugoslavians who fled wars in the 1990s, Polish and Hungarian vegetable pickers, and, more recently, about 400 Africans and Arabs.

The pool itself was big and serviceable but not lavish. The city had clearly sunk quite a bit of money into the facility’s construction and upkeep, and it had given a nudge to all its citizens to congregate there in the form of subsidized entrance fees (I’m fairly certain). What did Griesheim get as a return on this investment?

As a matter of fact, it got almost every piece of social capital to which Klinenberg  refers in the subtitle of his book–an antidote to inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life.

The Griesheim swimming pool (Image: http://www.hessen-luftbild.de)

The citizens of Griesheim from all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder met one another face-to-face at the pool on equal terms. If you had 2,50 € you could get in, and who didn’t have that much? They might have been from the lowest-rent apartment block or from a deluxe 2 million € custom built home on the city’s forest edge, but at the pool they jostled for the same picnic space, stood in line for the same water slide, overwatched their toddlers flank-by-flank, and of course, did it all for fun.

Here is something special I loved about the pool: there was no body policing. While the town’s lithe young princes and princesses of course showed up to parade as required by standard mating rituals, for everyone else, there simply were no aesthetic standards to live up to. New moms looked like new moms, not like Hollywood starlets back in bikini shape four weeks after childbirth. Over-the-hill Greek guys looked like over-the-hill Greek guys. And so forth. People showed up in all ages and forms.

Why did this matter to me? Because it saved me a huge amount of work trying to teach my kids to resist the tyranny of mass culture and especially the impossible aesthetic hierarchy it imposes on our judgment. I might have them read about such things in books some day, but I don’t have to. Because of the Griesheim pool, my kids accept other people’s presumptive right to enjoy themselves in public without bowing to standards set by trash culture.

Robust civic life is based on the principle of equity among citizens, and it reinforces that principle in as many ways as possible. The pool at Griesheim did precisely this for me and my family. I love this principle so much that I came to love the sweaty, noisy crowds who taught me a new aspect of it.

A few months ago I ran past a new housing development in the suburban neighborhood where I live now. As sign boasted of its amenities, which included a “private park.” My hear sank at how bleak that sounded. I see a lot of signs like that–private pool, private playground, keep out. They are indicative of a low-grade war on civic life.

Tooth and nail, we are clawing back the public spaces where it was once possible for Americans to meet as equals. Everywhere we go requires a car, and in my city 30 percent of the people don’t own one. How equal is that? Everywhere really worth going requires money, and most places vie for a special level of exclusivity defined by income bracket. From our schools to our churches to our shopping areas, we set an unspoken price of admission based on our private wealth. That admission price says to everyone else, “Don’t come here.”

Which brings me back to the ideas of accessibility and “compelling destinations.” Back in Griesheim (as all across Germany) kids are trained to walk to school, from the first grade. I say “trained” because the experience prepares them to walk other places they will soon need to–the doctor’s office, the library, the sports club, the ice cream shop and so forth. In this way they learn that their town belongs to them and to whoever else can move through its streets and squares. If you tried to talk to someone in Griesheim about compelling destinations, I doubt they would understand. When everywhere is a compelling destination, and they’re all accessible, none of them really stands out.

When German kids are in the fifth grade and start attending secondary school, they might go to the next town over, as ours did. No problem. They get on the bus or street car with dozens of other kids, and off they go. Without applying their young minds to any particular issues of political ideology, they are re-learning and expanding the lessons they absorbed walking to elementary school–the space around them belongs to the public, and everyone has a presumptive right to use it for reasonable purposes.

With our talk of private parks and other abominations. Americans have set forth on a doomed project. We wish to transpose all the features of the private sphere to the public sphere. We wish to be kings or queens of our own castle. We will either fail in this project because no one can survive, still less thrive, alone, or we will succeed and commit some new and interesting kind of national suicide. “America stopped believing in the public,” future historians will write, “and of course you can’t have a res publica–the public thing–without that basic mode of community.” So it goes.

I opened this argument with a bold abstraction: we are other people. I continue it with a concrete notion that many people might find just as strange: we must build an environment that prioritizes the public sphere over the private one. Building the right physical stuff is the key to the future. If we fail to advance the public sphere, we may lose the thing we’re trying to protect, human individuality capable of flourishing.


What Is to Be Done? Part One


Occasionally a reader will ask me what’s to be done about the things that horrify me–gun violence, cultural illiteracy, bad schools, structural racism, lack of sidewalks, vulgar money worship, undifferentiated assholery.

Fair questions. For the most part, I have no practical solutions. I’m all talk. I was born with the pious but unimaginative conviction that people will believe and act on the truth if they just hear a good unmasking of falsehoods. And so I do my best to unmask, but little else. Some of my critics have noticed this lack of oomph in me. I recognized it in myself the first time I read Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens.”

Dickens, Orwell wrote, tripped over himself pointing out all the world’s sorrows, but he never mounted anything like a political response to them. He held back because he was horrified of revolution, as you can gather from A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens simply thought everyone should spend time dwelling on what was wrong with the world and try harder to be better. Improve human nature, and you improve society, if only by tiny increments.

Raised as I was in country churches, this is more or less the attitude I inherited. It’s up to each individual to avoid coveting their neighbor’s ass and to cultivate the other noble virtues. If you can’t do it on your own, you really shouldn’t expect a government agency or anyone else to step in and do the work for you. If you end up burning in hell for your sins, well, you simply didn’t take advantage of the opportunities you had for moral improvement.

I think this rugged individualist attitude is characteristic of a large swathe of Anglophile Christendom, for whom John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is a formative myth. Each of us is on a lone, dangerous quest for heavenly virtue that may only be aided by supernatural intervention or internal moral suasion. There is no legitimate role for social benevolence in a truly heroic epic. The hero must go it alone.

But I digress.

In my latest indictment of Trumpism, I said those who were most exploited by America’s corporate masters appeared the most likely to swear loyalty to the vulgar idols Trump promoted–money, celebrity and militarism. I called his politics “malevolent yokelism” and other bad names. Despite my poor manners, I believe I supported my views with facts and reasons. For me, this is sort of where the story would normally end, at the same place where Charles Dickens’s moral imagination leaves off. I did my best to make my point, and anyone who finds sympathy with it can act on it as they see fit.

This will never happen, of course. People never change their minds, still less act, based on arguments in social media.

The question that was posed to me, though, was about changing minds. Specifically: If Trumpism is a mass response to a crisis that preceded his presidency, and if 60-odd percent of the country does not wish to see a repeat of Trump, what actions can we take to address the conditions that produced his election?

I’ll take my best shot.

I will need three parts. Sorry, but philosophers, being longwinded, do chop things up like that.

In this part, I will lay some necessary groundwork. You can’t jump right in to a to-do list without first considering what it’s for, what kind of resources can be drawn on, and so forth.

Today I will do my best to deflate the myth of rugged individualism, which causes us to denigrate the public sphere and devalue social cohesion. Whether we articulate this myth vigorously or not, Americans pretty obviously believe something like Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous pronouncement in 1987 that “there’s no such thing as society,” just individuals. Unaided and alone, we each pursue our self interest, and together these pursuits makes something we call a market, whose operations are as close to perfect as humans can come.

This idea runs deep in America. We tend to take it for granted that we are all going it marvelously alone, as free and unprotected as Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build a Fire.” Each of us does our level best to reason out strategies for coping with impersonal nature and abstract market forces. Even the well-networked citizen of the 21st century tends to believe success comes down to individual effort and nothing more. Clubs, churches and sports teams are good for teaching, enhancing or showcasing individual success, but they have little intrinsic value.

The rugged individual (Image: lynnhpryor.com)

Government, on the rugged individualist view, is the lowest depth of the necessary evil of collectivism. H.L. Mencken summed up this quintessentially American attitude in a 1926 book review when he said government “still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.”

The idea that humans left alone can achieve their full measure of dignity is a bracing one. It is also entirely false. Mencken’s “industrious man” depends for his success on a body of regulations capable of restricting everyone’s freedom (so that others cannot simply copy his inventions, steal his farm or factory, sell inferior knock-offs of his products, hack his bank accounts, etc.). As for being decent, one cannot even contemplate this happy state unless s/he feels secure in her life and property. Decent behavior is not an individual virtue; it requires other people, interested in our lives, some entrusted with the force of law and organized to carry it out. It is impossible to be well-disposed without the prior existence of lawmakers, cops, courts and lots of other people acting with the collective purpose of institutions.

I know President Obama got a bad press when he scolded business owners in 2012, “You did’t build that,” but his essential meaning rings true: There is a whole matrix of social constructs on which your individual achievements depend and from which your choices take shape. What you perceive to be an austere, abstract starting line in life is actually a rich interplay of institutions built up by millions of your forebears and expanded and borne along by millions more of your contemporaries. This rich institutional life is what de Tocqueville so admired about America. We are joiners, or at least we once were.

We depend crucially on others for what appear to be individual choices, achievements, experiences, and, I believe, even personal characteristics. I actually believe something fairly radical in this vein. I believe we are other people.

The germ of this idea is trivially true. Biologically, we are an admixture of our parents’ genes. Psychologically, we are imprinted with their behaviors (or those of other caregivers). Culturally, we receive humanity’s whole endowment of knowledge from our teachers–a miracle I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Our brain is the seat of our soul. I don’t know about yours, but mine is populated with other people–images of my family, things they have said to me throughout my life, lessons I learned from my teachers, and so forth. Remove the neural signatures of these other people from my brain, and I am not me anymore.

The philosopher W.G.F. Hegel, although he lacked the knowledge of brain science we have today, recognized the deepest implications of the critical importance of other people for individual identity. The human person, Hegel argued, can only become self-conscious if its consciousness is mirrored in the regard of others. In other words, other people’s recognition of me is part of what makes me myself. The writer Wittold Gombrowicz expressed this idea beautifully in his novel Ferdydurke: “Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul.”

The idea I am leading up to (in my next post) is that, if there is no such thing as the rugged individual, it follows that the public is of primary importance to society. And so it is the public sphere that politics must primarily attend to. When government thinks its only job is to create markets and stay out of the way of “rugged individuals” contending for wealth, it is bound to go seriously wrong.

Our moral and political landscape today is as blasted one, bereft of any sense of collective purpose. As the historian Tony Judt put it in his last book , in 2010, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.” The result has been a dramatic–I would say pathological–steepening of income inequality. In 2005 the Walton family (founders of Walmart) held $90 billion of wealth, as much as the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population.

This dramatic inequality has had horrific consequences: poverty, ill-health, deaths of despair, skyrocketing incarceration, and the extinction of the American dream–the idea that each new generation starts with more advantages than its predecessor did. Why do we go on like this? Because we have learned to valuate our lives in terms of material possessions. This seems insane, but it has become possible because we buy into its underlying myth of rugged individualism: each of us must simply do our best to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

But if this myth is true, it is a truth that has made us a nation of losers. When the bottom ninety percent of our society holds as much wealth as the top one percent, deprivation has become the statistical norm. It cannot be regarded as an anomaly. It is a condition that our society is designed to produce. No one tells you when you start life that taking your best shot at wealth and security is much more likely to end in failure than success. What they tell you instead is that you are a hero of your own epic, possibly the next Sam Walton, which is a very attractive thing to believe, or at least it’s supposed to be.

So even if you don’t go as far as I do in my goofy, mystic belief that we are other people, it would be worth your while to consider that we nonetheless have vital, inextricable ties to one another. The idea that we are rugged individuals and we should measure our worth in material wealth is the propaganda of the rich. It is an immoral way to think of ourselves, and it has failed us. It is time to recast ourselves as an interdependent public, none of whose members need to starve because they are losers.


America is Already a Socialist Country


I will be uncharacteristically brief today.

My point is simple: we are wasting our breath arguing whether our country should become socialist or not. According to the only definition that matters to the people, we already are socialists.

Our government taxes freely and spends lavishly to fund unaccountable special interests and tells more than the usual amount of lies to disguise the arrangement.

Orwell was one of the first to understand the paradox of supposedly capitalist countries behaving as socialists where it really counted.

Shortly after World War Two, Orwell made the dubious-sounding observation that only socialist countries were capable of winning large wars. What? Hadn’t he been paying attention? Capitalist America, although making the smallest military sacrifice of the Allies, stepped in to win the war with industrial know-how, robust logistics, and, of course, wonder weapons. It was our capital that got the job done. How, I wondered, had Orwell missed that?

It took me years to understand what Orwell really meant and to appreciate that he was right after all.

The Soviets turned the tide against the Nazis by producing the cheap, effective T-34 tank in massive quantities. America produced flashier stuff, such as the P-51 Mustang, a sleek, deadly fighter plane that knocked the Luftwaffe out of the sky and enabled the Red Army to roll to Berlin unmenaced from above. Orwell’s point is that the T-34, the Mustang, and many other similar achievements (not to mention conscriptions) were the outcomes of planned economies in which the government directed industrial production.

Consolidated TB-32
America’s planned economy was instrumental to winning World War Two. When the war ended, industrialists and politicians kept it going, profitable as it was.

(If you are interested in the arcana of this history, see the surprising reasons why Germany lost. Rather than mobilizing its entire industrial base to counter the Allies’ wartime production, Germany under Hitler allowed economic markets to function relatively freely so that the people would not lose access to the “normal” range of consumer goods. As Red Army soldiers rolled through eastern Germany in 1945, they were shocked and enraged to see how comfortably ordinary Germans were still living after five years of war.)

The Cold War enabled us to do what Eisenhower warned we should not–maintain a permanent war footing that would incentivize a planned economy like the one that WWII had forced on us. A few well-placed industrialists grasped clearly that there was too much money to be made in following the same model of production that had won the war. And voila–we had our military industrial complex.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan would give the MIC permanent political cover by proclaiming that “defense is not a budget item.” In other words, the citizens’ taxes are first to be spent (unaccountably) on anything that can be construed as militarily prudent and only then are spreadsheets drawn up to account for the paltry remainder. People, being stupid and fearful, accepted Reagan’s formula. We would have the world’s most kick-ass military, at any cost.

The result, eventually, was a corporate coup. Large companies heard the people willingly surrender their claim to their own tax dollars and decided these were pretty good conditions for taking over the economy. So they did. They got all the money and the political power to protect it. We got the opioid crisis, gun violence, and the worst schools in the developed world. That’s the price of freedom, though, right? As long as our taxes keep sluicing their way into “defense,” we will bear any burden.

The results have spoken for themselves. Although we call ourselves a capitalist democracy, we resemble in too many ways a socialist oligarchy. A tiny nomenklatura of wealthy insiders plans an economy of weapons, drugs, junk food, low culture, and meaningless “services.” When they make bad bets, such as the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, we hurry our tax dollars to them to bail them out. We love them so.

Today our government has added another feature of (what is widely perceived to be) socialist rule–the acquisition of an official propaganda wing. Now, whenever the worker’s affection for the rich begins to flag, he may tune in to America’s most trusted news network to hear praise of the Dear Leader or, even better, to join in castigating one of our many enemies in a Two Minute Hate.

We are already a socialist country, at least according to the fatuous definition of socialism which the illiterate have entrenched. Rather than quibbling about terms, we should decide whether our socialism will be for us or for the nomenklatura.