a rambling attempt to get to the heart of the progressive vision
After the mid-term elections I lamented that “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” While Democrats had a lot of specific issues to sell to segments of the electorate — increase the minimum wage, protect access to health care, pay women the same as men, fix the immigration system, preserve access to abortion and contraception, subsidize renewable energy, and so on — it didn’t add up to a mythic vision on the scale of the conservative vision, which I summed up as: America is a city on a hill with barbarians at the gates.
Conservative zeal comes from a deep, almost mystical, sense of destiny thwarted, purity corrupted, and one last chance to set things right. In that vision, every tiny issue becomes a symbol of the larger struggle. When you hear about a 12-year-old Guatemalan girl fleeing the gang warfare in her country and showing up at our border, you instantly grasp her role in the cosmic threat to everything you hold dear. If somebody somewhere is scamming Food Stamps to avoid working, that’s not a fraction of a cent on your tax bill, to be weighed against all the genuinely needy people the program helps, it’s an invitation to God’s judgment against our nation.
To them, every race for every office is part of one big apocalyptic battle. That’s why their voters show up at mid-term elections and ours don’t.
But I don’t believe conservatism is inherently mythic and liberalism inherently pedestrian. I just think we’ve lost touch with the heart of our own vision and so lost our ability to tell the story of what we’re trying to do. At the end of that post, I pledged to spend my time in the metaphorical wilderness trying to get those things back.
The purpose of this post is to catch you up on what I’ve been thinking. I realize it’s less polished than the usual Weekly Sift post, but rather than wait for everything to come into perfect focus, I thought I’d toss the raw ideas out there in hopes of starting a productive discussion.
Roots of myth. I believe that the truly mythic ideas — the ones that just feel right, independent of current evidence — go way, way back. I’m agnostic about whether they have biological roots, but I think they’re older than civilization and are already present in some form in hunter-gatherer cultures.
In particular, as I meditate on my own deepest political intuitions, I find three hunter-gatherer notions at the root of both my liberal and my conservative impulses. The three don’t fit together cleanly in the modern world, which is why I’m vulnerable to framing: If an issue arises in the context of one of the notions, I might have a liberal response; but if you describe the same issue in terms of a different notion, my snap reaction my be conservative. The three notions are:
- Nature belongs to everyone.
- We’re all in this together.
- The tribe has to defend its territory.
Nature belongs to everyone. In hunter-gatherer society, the forest, the lake, and the field are all there for you. If you’re hungry, go hunt, go fish, go gather. There’s no gatekeeper, no owner whose permission is required. There’s no such thing as an unemployed hunter-gatherer, because nobody has to hire you and nobody can fire you.
In the modern world, this notion cuts in both liberal and conservative directions. When Marx talks about public ownership of the means of production, or Pope John Paul II frames the ideal economy as a “Great Workbench“, or liberals want the government to be the “employer of last resort” they’re trying to preserve or restore this direct relationship to the Earth’s productive potential: If you’re able and willing to work productively, no one should be able to stand in your way.
In today’s economy, though, someone does stand in your way. Not just the forests, lakes, and fields, but also the factories, mines, malls, offices, and laboratories are all owned by someone. If you aren’t one of the owners and you want to work, someone with better access to the means of production has to hire you — and (depending on market conditions) may take a substantial cut of what you produce. If no one does hire you, you’re cut off from the productive economy in a way that no hunter-gatherer ever could be. [I explored these ideas in more depth in “Who Owns the World?“.]
That’s the liberal side of this notion. The conservative side arises when you either ignore the owner/gatekeeper role or assume that the hurdle it constructs is trivial: “You want something? Go work for it.”
We’re all in this together. A conservative take on the first notion might justify you gorging on a deer you’ve killed while less successful hunters look on in hunger. “There’s a forest out there,” you could tell them, “go get your own.”
But actual hunter-gatherers rarely act this way. Generosity gains you friendship and respect — social goods that don’t spoil like deer meat. In a world without money, banks, or privately owned land, honor among your tribesmen is the best kind of wealth you can accumulate. Some day you’ll be the hunter without a catch. Some day you’ll be the one with the bad ankle or the concussion, who needs help to get home. Having tribesmen around who owe you favors is a very valuable asset.
Today, this is the spirit behind social insurance and social goods of all sorts. Maybe today I’m the one with a job and money and health insurance. Maybe today my family is healthy and I’m still in my prime. Maybe I don’t have kids, or my kids are grown. Why should I pay for other people’s unemployment compensation and Social Security and Food Stamps and public schools? Because although there’s a lot of skill and hard work involved in success, there’s a lot of luck too, and nobody’s luck lasts forever. A society where we all look out for each other isn’t just friendlier, it’s also more secure.
Today, you are in a position to be generous. Tomorrow, someone else might be, and you might need generosity.
The tribe has to defend its territory. Hunter-gatherers usually aren’t humanists, they’re tribalists. The “everyone” in the first notion and the “we” in the second isn’t humankind, it’s the tribe. And “Nature” isn’t the whole world, it’s the tribe’s territory. Our forest, our lake, our field, our people. The tribe needs to command the resources necessary to provide its people with a good life.
Outside the tribe’s territory are strangers without number. They come and go, and they think differently. You can’t reach the kind of understandings with them that you can reach with your tribesmen. In some situations you may take pity on them and help them, but in others you may see them as wolves who want to kill our game and leave us with nothing, or as locusts or rats who will multiply to eat up any surplus we might generate.
This configuration of images and ideas also survives in the modern world, even though it’s not so clear exactly who our “tribe” is. But whoever we identify with — country, race, language group, social class, religion, neighborhood, family — it’s tempting to restrict our vision of the good life to people “like us”. We have to hang on to what we need to have a good life. What happens out there — outside the tribe, over the wall, beyond the oceans — is not our problem unless the outsiders try to take what’s ours. The world outside the tribe is full of greedy predators and teeming masses who carry strange diseases and can’t be reasoned with.
This idea is inherently conservative — it’s the root of the City-on-a-Hill-with-Barbarians-at-the-Gates vision. Under its influence, expansive notions of Nature belonging to everyone and all of us being in this together seem naive. Scarcity is the fundamental fact of economics. There is not enough for everybody, so the good life can only happen within walls, within fences, within borders. The Gospel of Malthus says that the poor will multiply to consume any surplus, so the privileged classes have to control their soft-hearted generosity. If no one is starving, then the good life that we enjoy is not secure.
If you focus on the third notion, the possibility of universal justice — justice outside the tribe — goes away. Some tribe will seize the best resources and live the good life, while pushing all the others into poverty. Will that be our tribe our some other? In the words of Humpty Dumpty: “The question is which is to be master — that’s all.”
In the context of global capitalism, this means that some comparatively small group of people will control the world’s oil, its drinkable water, its productive land. Some group will own the Great Workbench, and anyone who wants a seat there must buy it or inherit it or occupy it as a vassal for some lord. Some group of people will have their hands on the valves that control the flow of the world’s production, and can turn it on or cut it off according to its interests. Will that be our tribe, or somebody else’s?
One of the best expressions of the conservative horror of sharing the world comes from a minor character in Atlas Shrugged, a tramp who survived the fall of the once-great 20th Century Motor Company, which disastrously turned itself into a socialist enterprise. How awful it would be, he thinks, if such socialist ideas took hold on a worldwide scale.
Do you care to imagine what it would be like, if you had to live and to work, when you’re tied to all the disasters and all the malingering of the globe? To work — and whenever any men failed anywhere, it’s you who would have to make up for it. To work — with no chance to rise, with your meals and your clothes and your home and your pleasure depending on any swindle, any famine, any pestilence anywhere on Earth. To work — with no chance for an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians sent through college.
In this vision, the needs of the outside world are infinite and will never be satisfied. What’s more, the benefits of investing in those people will never come back to you. It will never be the well-fed Cambodians who pick up the slack, and no college-educated Patagonian will ever be your doctor or invent a product you need. To see yourself as a tribesman of the World, rather than a defender of a territory sufficient to sustain your small group of people, is to be sentenced to endless labor with no hope of reward.
The small world. Today, we know some things the hunter-gatherers — and previous eras of civilization — didn’t know. We know the world is finite and has a finite number of people in it. We know that Malthus was wrong: As women become more educated and more confident that their children will survive, they have fewer of them, not more. We know that the Earth is one big productive system, and that the garbage we throw over the wall or let the waters and winds carry away isn’t really gone.
The world outside the walls isn’t vast and incalculable any more. In fact, it’s actually kind of a small world. It’s so small that the world inside the walls can’t really be managed without accounting for what’s outside.
Can we share the world? As I’m coming to see it, the liberal challenge — I’m calling it a challenge rather than a vision because I don’t think we have it that worked out yet — is to ask whether we can come to view humanity as one tribe with the Earth as its territory.
It’s tempting to jump forward right away and say, “Why yes, of course we can. In fact we have to.” But it’s a real challenge: Can we square some vision of the Good Life with what the Earth can provide for everyone? Because if not, then the City on a Hill dominating the teeming masses around it is the only good life we can hope for. If the choice is to live in hopeless squalor or to be part of the Master Race, then a sizable chunk of people in every generation are going to choose to be fascists. And who’s to say that they’re wrong?
Just as obviously, we can’t simply declare Universal Justice starting tomorrow. That really is naive. Because the world economy isn’t just a distribution system, it’s a production system, and the two are interdependent. Adding up global GDP and sending everybody a check for the average amount would be like carving a factory into pieces and sending one home with each worker.
And there really are predators in the world, and good people separated by such large and ancient walls of misunderstanding that they can’t possibly trust one another. What happens to them?
But still: One tribe with the world as its territory, offering each person a chance to work for the good life, and providing some kind of safety net for those who fail. Is there a way to make sense of that? Is there a way to get from here to there?
Don’t just say, “Yes. Of course.” If you take it seriously, you’ll see that it’s a real question, and the answer might be No.