Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
June 2018 (IV)

26, 27 and 28 June

Tuesday 26th

How many times have I quoted a passage from one of David Brooks’s columns only to say, “Yes, but…”? It doesn’t bear counting. My reservations, my hesitations, my qualifications are usually rooted in the things that Brooks doesn’t spell out. On the face of it, I have no quarrel with this, from today’s Op-Ed piece, “Republican or Conservative, You Have to Choose.”

As Scruton put it in his bracing primer, “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,” “The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.”

The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.

Agreed, but what if those institutions are mildewed, as I believe was the case when I was growing up? What if community and culture have been denatured by discrepancies too great to ignore? What if other institutions, such as the free market economy, are inimical to home and school? What if everything that a conservative treasures is actually ersatz?

When I look back on my home town, Bronxville, New York, and consider it as “the sacred space where individuals are formed,” I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up. Even today, Bronxville is largely white and Christian; when I was a child, there were absolutely no exceptions. The Jewish merchants who owned and ran the shops had to live somewhere else. For all intents and purposes, local culture was a matter of athletics, and manners were insincerely perfunctory. In school, we learned about the American Revolution and the Civil War. The American Revolution that we were taught was not the real revolution (the one that happened in 1789, when the “Founding Fathers” overthrew the ramshackle government concocted when independence from Britain was achieved earlier in that decade), and the Civil War was a civil war only along the border separating Dixie from the Union. Never was it even suggested that both misnamed conflicts were wars of secession. (In the South, at least they get the second one right.) But what difference did it make, if the only point of school was to produce successful executives and their supportive wives? At home, I was supposed to pretend that I was my adoptive parents’ child, or in other words that the weird gulf of alienated misunderstanding that separated us was my doing, and not symptomatic of the lack of shared DNA. It would take years to unlearn all the nonsense that the sacred institutions of Bronxville tried to stuff into my head. I am a born conservative, but I insist on having something worthwhile to conserve!

What seems to me to be the insoluble problem of American conservatism is the corruption of the sacred space by African enslavement. Whites naturally minimize the impact of this wickedness, while blacks are just as determined to deny the effects of persistent degradation. Every day, it becomes harder for me to believe that the Refounding that America needs can be achieved without the preliminaries of a bloody and this time genuine civil war, or perhaps an even worse collapse into paranoiac chaos, with everyone fighting everyone. It becomes difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Donald Trump’s principal contribution to public affairs has been a terrifying clarity.

Finally, I agree that order precedes liberty. But I also believe that this is the fundamental liberal premise, even if it has never been advertised as such. The English liberals of the Seventeenth Century, no matter what John Locke said, sought to replace the constant risk of feudal anarchy, which fluctuated with the character of hereditary monarchs, with a suite of regular processes, or political order, that would encourage cooperative liberty. If they accentuated property rights, that was because they believed that good fences make good neighbors. With trumpeting irony, the liberal régime became, in the course of a century, the sacred space that conservatives sought to defend, from the nightmare of the Jacobin movement.

The phrase “social justice” fills me with Terror. In the end, I’ll sign anything that David Brooks wants me to. But I wish that he were more demanding.

***

Wednesday 27th

Here’s the thing about shaming: it requires consensus. Everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, must agree that shameful behavior has been committed, and that the person who behaved shamefully ought to be isolated by the community’s expressed disapproval.

If the community is divided on the matter, then shaming is tantamount to picking a fight. The shamed person will not be isolated, but on the contrary will probably attract overt support from those who believe that nothing shameful occurred. Considerations of right and wrong give way to partisanship, or, in today’s parlance, tribalism. Shaming without consensus risks the very disturbance that consensus shaming, by isolating and ignoring the offender, makes a point of avoiding. It is also an ugly and intrusive form of protest. It is one thing to picket an office, and quite another to upset someone’s dinner.

I haven’t seen anyone make a connection to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, as a source of provocation for the diners at the Mexican restaurant and the staff at the farm-to-table place. If nothing else, Masterpiece is a further instance of the complicated interactions of righteousness, fairness, and the law. You could say that, if it’s all right for the owners of the Masterpiece Cakeshop to turn down the order for a gay wedding cake, then it’s all right for the management of the Red Hen to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her party to leave the restaurant. But that’s to argue that two wrongs make a right. It also prolongs a train of ill-conceived litigation. I would have argued against bringing the wedding-cake suit in the first place. How else to justify it except as an attempt to shame? While it might be rational to expect a public business to serve its customers without regard to personal opinions — unless, of course, objection is supported by a genuine consensus, as, for example, the general opinion that a wedding cake in the shape of a penis would be in deplorable taste, tantamount to an insult to the ceremony; but of course there could be no talk of such a consensus on the issue of same-sex marriage — it is not reasonable to take a baker to court for refusing to bake a cake. It simply isn’t. If you think that it is, then your righteousness is out of control.

Nor is it reasonable to convert a public facility, without warning, into a private club, where only the like-minded are welcome.

Made somewhat uneasy by the suspicion that I’m having my cake and eating it here, I’ll admit that I’m very sorry that the full force of social-media activism was not available in the fight against Richard Nixon, the true begetter of our presidential calamities.

***

Thursday 28th

John Lanchester, until ten years ago an interesting, even promising novelist, has been a crack, indispensable reporter on political economy ever since he realized that the notes that he was gathering for a novel on the Crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession would probably be more gripping if presented as fact. In the new issue of the London Review of Books, he takes stock of the prediction, made by himself and many others, that “the aftermath of the crash would dominate our economic and political lives for at least ten years.” It looks like understatement now. What he might have said is that it would take ten years for the impact of the crash to become visible.

Because I’m in the middle of Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, I saw, through every paragraph of Lanchester’s lengthy account of that aftermath, a very simple explanation for such wildly unforseeable phenomena as Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit. While finance ministers everywhere continue on the neoliberal course — autopilot, really — voters throughout the developed world have become conscious, if not of the essence of neoliberalism itself, then at least that most of them are likely to suffer collateral damage from its successes. Not without a good deal of confusion, they are trying to throw monkeywrenches into its operations.

Slobodian’s book is a readable, even gripping history of the branch of neoliberalism known as the Geneva School, from its beginnings in the years before World War I, and mostly in the brain of Ludwig von Mises, to the Seattle riots. Unfortunately, it is also depressing. For the first time I think I understand what Friedrich Hayek and his colleagues in the Mont Pèlerin Society had in mind. And I see that what they had in mind has been brought into being: a global consumerist economy that seeks to prevent popular interference with international trade, no matter how much discomfort this imposes on national populations. Neoliberalism envisions a world in which standards of living for workers are equalized, and, as Lanchester points out, we are much closer to that “impossible dream” than we were ten years ago. The percentage of human beings living in what the UN terms “absolute poverty” has dropped from nineteen to nine since the crash, while incomes in the developed world have dropped while also becoming precarious. “Austerity” is the euphemism for this equalizing process. If nothing else, it’s dementedly single-minded. The inevitable result will be that the only shoppers at Wal-Mart will be the people who work there. What kind of business model is that?

Neoliberalism drapes itself as a defender of capitalism, but it is nothing of the kind. Capitalists absorb gains and losses as they come. Neoliberals keep the profits and offload the losses to the public. Noble as the goal of global economic equalization might be, neoliberalism imposes the very heavy tax of the so-called one-percent, the very rich getting richer, as wealth concentrates in the ever-fewer hands that control the insulated global economy. I expect that I’ll have more to say about Globalists when I’m done with it, although that may take a while, because the story that Slobodian has to tell is sickening. Neoliberal contempt for the working classes — which more and more includes everyone who is not living off investments — is so intense that it is unconscious.

Bad as political neoliberalism is, the reaction against it, which seems to be socialism, is worse. Socialism replaces heads for business with faces for beauty contests. It shorts the circuits of political economy, the challenge of which is to keep the two strands, politics and economy, intertwined but distinct. Liberal political economy, democratic by nature, seeks to erect a framework in which everyone is free to go about his business without being oppressed by the state or anyone else. Socialist democracy is a contradiction in terms, and has been ever since Marx wrote about it, postulating a framework that, in theory, dissolves into thin air, while in practice it calcifies everything it touches. We have had a century and a half’s experience to teach us the inexorability of socialism’s failure. Ironically, only twenty years have passed since that failure was universally recognized and celebrated. But that’s time enough for a generation to grow up in ignorance.

We are still so close, on the larger scale of human history, to the Industrial Revolution that we forget that a truly successful ongoing commercial enterprise simply breaks even. It does not incur losses, of course, but neither are its prices excessive. We are still so close to the age of new businesses that we unthinkingly regard managerial remuneration as drawn from profits, not from revenues. We associate not-for-profit enterprises with charity and volunteerism. We persist in the binary simple-mindedness of seeing capitalism and socialism as the only imaginable alternatives, even though capitalism, as I say, is nothing more than the necessarily risky phase of innovation. Very little of a liberal political economy requires capitalist investment.

It’s time for me to reread Jane Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations. It persuaded me thirty years ago that global economy is a chimera, and that only a regional economy, centered on a capital city and heavily reliant on import substitution, is sustainable.

The whole idea of “the nation” is an unfortunate pipe dream of the French Revolution; “kingdoms” are built on the idea of territorial expansion (and defense). Neither nations nor kingdoms are truly capable of political economy. Socialism aspires to a global, unpolitical economy that cannot be squared with what we know about human nature — which it madly proposes to alter. Only in a well-run city-state are we free to disagree, to put our various skills to the test, and to enjoy our privacy; only there can prosperity flourish without great wealth.

Bon week-end à tous!