Tag Archives: benedict option

Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

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American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.