I have a guest post on the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
During the main library’s closing, I saw a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails staring up at me from the small branch library’s small “new books” shelf (it’s easier to see interesting things on the small shelves, because they’re not surrounded by too many other books, and because frankly, it would almost no one uses the branch library, so things are very much more often still on the shelves), and although it had sounded to me like something I wouldn’t like, I picked it up. (Bakewell has also written a kind of self-help book based on the essays of Montesquieu.) I was pleasantly surprised.
At the Existentialist Café is framed as an exploration of the writers Bakewell had been fascinated by in college, and almost got a postgraduate degree in, before leaving the academic world. The book traces the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard through to Sartre, following its fate as an inspiration for the rebels of 1968 whom Sartre championed. The text moves easily between personal reflection on the meaning of the writers’ philosophies, history and biography, and explications of the works themselves.
Bakewell’s book is very much the clearest explanation of the central parts of Heidegger’s, Husserl’s, and Kierkegaard’s philosophies that I’ve read: aimed at the general reader, not the specialist or the student who’ll need to read the originals themselves anyway. These philosophers don’t (to use the historical present, as I’ve been taught to do in these contexts) concern themselves with the traditional concerns of philosophy, as they’ve been understood in the line from Plato through to Bertrand Russell. They aren’t concerned with epistemology: how we know things, how we find out we’re wrong about them. They aren’t concerned with distinguishing reality from appearance or illusion. They aren’t concerned with determining the boundaries of true knowledge, or with deciding whether true knowledge is possible outside the borders of “science,” or what “science” is. Many philosophical texts try (especially in the cases of Husserl and Heidegger) to fit them into this tradition anyway. They focus not on what Husserl and Heidegger said about life, so much, as on what presuppositions about the nature of Knowledge Husserl and Heidegger must be making in order to say what they do. They ask the question, what is happening in the history of philosophy, that philosophers of such important are turning against (deliberately or otherwise) parts of the tradition. Primarily, they try to construct a bulwark to protect this tradition.
Bakewell ignores that, ignores the epistemological presuppositions a student of philosophy might want to consider if she were to reconcile, say, Heidegger and Kant. She focuses instead on (something that is hard even to describe from within the worldview of traditional English-language philosophy) their recommendations for life. For this reason, however, Bakewell gets across quite strongly the fact that these theorists—at least as they’ve been received—don’t worry themselves much over the ontological or moral statuses (whether they’re real, roughly, and whether they’re good, respectively) of the truths they recommend the reader grasp. The nuances of how truths are grasped—whether through reading, through social activity, scientific research, or quiet reflection—differ from theorist to theorist. Each, though—Sartre, possibly, excepted—did, she suggests, assume their nature and status would or should be obvious to the reader. Sartre makes extremely clear that the choice of project is moral and not epistemological or scientific.
Each of these writers viewed life as a kind of project in the world, a projecting outward of the self into reality, and a taking in through listening of truths compelled in the course of that projection. Bakewell traces the differences in expression and emphasis between the kinds of “listening” recommended by Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, and her other subjects, though not in so much detail as to become boring. She doesn’t ignore Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations, and indeed presents a convincing explanation of how closely his philosophy meshed with those, but these aren’t her focus. She does mention Sartre’s membership of the Communist Party, perhaps at less length than previous, more critical, writers have done; she makes rather less of Merleau-Ponty’s political sins than those writing with less distance from the events have done. She narrates the central figures’ interactions as teachers, students, colleagues, and archivists: her account of how Jesuit students saved Husserl’s papers, and his widow, from the approaching German invasion is especially interesting.
As the title suggests, the book’s center is the social world dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre, and secondarily by Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is told well, in a manner not at all as precious as might be suggested by some of Bakewell’s interviewers, and in a way that doesn’t assume the reader already knows material like the true identities of people from Beauvoir’s memoirs. As Bakewell tells it, existentialism spiraled finally into the social theories Sartre expounded: in its essence, first, refusing to excuse one’s own behavior as caused by external forces, and refusing to escape freedom by denying ones actions are a result of one’s own choice; and second, “tr[ying] to adopt the gaze of the outsider, turned against the privileged caste—even when that caste includes himself.” (Sartre believed this required membership in the Communist Party, or at least what was then called fellow-traveling, though as time went on other choices became more popular.)
The first part of this, particularly, was not fully agreed to by everyone in the circle. The story Bakewell tells raises the question whether Sartre’s thinking about choice and responsibility works best for someone like him—white, male, privileged, in fact the center of his social and intellectual circle—and not for everyone else. Camus, an exile, a European alien in Africa and an African, provincial foreigner in France, someone with political projects and concerns that didn’t neatly align with those of lifelong Parisians, might have found it more difficult to “choose freedom” than his friend. Beauvoir wrote an entire book explaining how and why women might find it difficult or impossible to choose as Sartre did.
Whether this has anything to do with the Heideggerian (or more generally phenomenological) project is another question. It’s not only that the ability to sit in the woods and listen for the voice of reality is an activity that demands privilege and time. It’s that some might find the revelations of that voice more congenial, more supportive of their everyday lives, than others. Camus and Beauvoir might be seen to have worked to tease out the implications of some of those difficulties (with differing levels of conflict between themselves and Sartre).
This circles back to the questions raised traditionally by philosophy. What is reality? Where do moral imperatives come from? The Kantian tradition answers in one way. Heidegger answers differently. He gestures toward a philosophy for people who work directly with physical reality—people who use, in his example, hammers, for instance—but Bakewell shows that the connection between tools and the “clearing” where imperatives appear to the thinker is murky. He famously stated that “only a god can save us”; but which God? For Heidegger, it was the god—the forced willing of the existence of a god everyone knew was not present in the world in any form—of Nazism (however much he may have disliked the reality of the Führer and his minions). For Sartre, it was the god of the people and the prophecy of the Communist International. For most of their present-day followers, it is neither of these things. Whether what the existentialists (and phenomenologists) wrote can guarantee present-day existentialists’ beliefs will remain consistent with the results of their encounter with the world, would seem to be an open one. Maybe we do need traditional philosophy after all; maybe the existentialist tradition is actually not sufficient unto itself.
I’ve tried to puzzle through some writings by Judith Butler over the years, and finally think I’ve gotten a handle on some of them—not Gender Trouble, though, for which I only downloaded a sample, once, that turned out to consist only of the introduction to the revised edition. I’ve even looked into the kerfuffle with Nussbaum. (New York magazine recently published a profile of Butler, linked to by Dennis Dutton's Arts & Letters Daily site: you can still see it if you load the non-mobile version of the page.)
There are a lot of interesting things to be thought and said, in my opinion, by examining what Butler actually wrote. There are a lot of interesting things to be considered about her influence on life today.
But Judith Butler is a philosopher and her book is philosophy. What it “means” depends on a lot of philosophical presuppositions that, first of all, few people who aren’t philosophers know about, and second of all, are not universally shared even among philosophers (let alone non-experts). One can say things about Derrida and the transformation of philosophical texts into literary ones, the replacement of philosophy by literary criticism, and so on, and still, eventually, one runs into the question of ideology.
And obviously there is more than one ideology in the world. More, even, than two.
I sometimes picture a certain kind of writer sitting back and watching as we non-expert readers thrash blindly about trying to figure out what’s going on with them, waiting patiently for us to grasp the currently correct way of understanding the kind of thing they do, gently ignoring our coherent but inaccurate attempts. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize this kind of thing is ivory-tower theorizing and—by design—can have no direct connection with practical or political concerns, which never—never, ever—derive from the theoretical in any kind of simple way.
The Internet is full of people who’ve read one book, one time, or participated in one discussion group, and learned one or two vocabulary words to describe parts of the world, and maybe a third to describe the world as a whole, and—similarly—sit back and wait patiently while they try to needle other people into coming around to their own point of view. To use the term Rorty invented, it’s a game of “Guess My Final Vocabulary.” For those who don’t realize there’s more than one, it’s easy. But the big one is “anti-capitalism,” or “anti-liberalism.” It’s easy for someone to just slap “and it’s capitalism’s fault” to the end of every critique. Readers can fill in the blanks the way they like.
Freddie de Boer recently complained (as he so often does - UPDATE: Freddie has updated his comment so that the quote I used is no longer there - the original version can be found here) of Butler that, while she criticizes capitalism frequently, the “pop” version of her theories leaves that part out. (It also leaves out much of the criticism of the gender binary and of the idea of femininity, but Freddie doesn’t seem interested in that part.) But no one is unaware that Butler is on the left, so that complaint seems a little off-target. It’s interesting that Freddie does not complain that attacking “capitalism” is often more than a little vague. What, specifically, is wrong with “capitalism”? What is “capitalism,” other than a handy word for “the way we live now”? What is he proposing we should have in its place? Is there anything around right now that could serve as the basis for an alternative way of thinking, or is everything actually existing right now tainted by “capitalism”? Maybe these questions seem academic, I don’t know. But people have been criticizing “the way we live now” for centuries. What does the word “capitalism” add?
One definition of socialism used to be that there was something that the modern world had lost from the world that came before, and it was socialism’s job to reincorporate those things. Now, apparently (if writers like Freddie are typical, especially of "socialists" whose concerns aren't primarily economic at all, but more all-embracing and "revolutionary"), socialism instead means nihilistically opposing everything about the status quo in the name of those worst off. You don’t have to know anything about anything: you just have to prove your passion by your willingness to go all the way and use the “S” word. But then you have to believe this makes you better than people who actually know the details of the critique and how they might be ameliorated, and you have to believe your call to tear it all down is superior to their step-by-step plans. People like Freddie seem to be waiting, patiently, for people who have other things to do, to realize they ought to abandon everything they know and accept his (left) critique of capitalism in its place: to have it suddenly dawn on them that they need people like Freddie to lead them. (The similarity of that last sentence to a statement about “religion,” or “psychoanalysis,” or “the Twelve Steps,” or “Reality,” is not a coincidence.)
I was going to say something about how gender fits into all of this. I guess there isn’t time.
When the news broke that Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had set up a private e-mail server, outside the bounds of what government IT people controlled, for her own use, I said to myself, “This is bad.” People on both right and left now seem to think this is very, very true.
And at the time, I expected to see a lot of coverage to this effect in the press. Instead, what I saw was sincere incomprehension that this was even an issue, and eventually I realized that I’d been wrong to expect otherwise. We have a press, remember, that can’t see even the slightest problem with keeping the most sensitive information in the cloud . . . with the idea that every company and organization in the world, and even the federal government, should get rid of their own e-mail servers outright and use free servers instead. They had convinced themselves that we ordinary people shouldn’t worry about the security of our data, and that nobody should, because there was nothing to worry about.
They were wrong, and arguably what Clinton did was not likely to be secure. But my first take was that if they didn’t understand this, Clinton and her people, and maybe even lots of people in the government, didn’t understand this either.
On the other hand, . . . my second take was different.
I started to ask myself, what sequence of events could have led to this taking place? Did no one step up and say, “this is insecure; this is not proper; this may not even be legal”? And I realized that almost certainly someone did. The popular conception of what happened seems to be that Clinton and some computer-illiterate people said they had to do this, for weird private reasons of their own, probably having to do with power. But the most likely thing that happened is quite different. Most likely, a bunch of IT people and a bunch of security people got together in a room. Some of them said they had certain requirements, either because the Secretary had to use certain devices, or because she had a certain setup in her house, or simply because they had investigated the standard IT setup and they found it wanting. Some regular IT people at State, it seems plausible to assume, made objections, raising regulatory issues, the fact that they didn’t do things that way, that they didn’t have or couldn’t spare personnel and resources to handle it, technical issues around opening things up for the Secretary in a way that they didn’t want to make available for other employees, or allowing her to be on the network without becoming vulnerable to them. At some point, I think it’s safe to guess, one of two things happened: either the high-level security people said to the regular State Department IT people, “I don’t care about your objections, this is the way it has to be,” or the high-level security people convinced the regular IT people that they couldn’t meet the requirements in the usual way, and the requirements did have to be met, and all things considered this was the best possible way to do it.
It comes down to whether you think it’s likely that Hillary Clinton made those requirements up, that she overrode the opinions of qualified IT and security people and made up her own server system according to her own whim. And that seems unlikely. On the other hand, a small number of high-powered security people with access to classified information, overriding the rules-following of less highly placed IT people, does seem very likely to me. And it’s not obvious to me that they would have been a hundred percent wrong.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a decent number of page views on this blog, for some reason—until a couple of days ago, when they went off a cliff. I’m not sure why. It could be totally random. It could be that I used the word “bros.” It could even be that I wrote something about David Foster Wallace. It’s kind of weird. It’s hard to judge who’s really out there. Is there a real correlation between writing something that could have made someone mad, and seemingly correlated changes in readership? (If I can’t match things I write to drop-offs in page views, how can I consider matching things I write to increases in them? Surely, they’re either random in both cases, or in neither.) Or is it just in my imagination, a matter of how I choose to think about it?
In any event, I’ll make amends by writing something in favor of Bernie Sanders’s appeal. Not that there’s any connection between him and the word “bro.” (Though I’m sure everyone remembers that opposition to the word started at least a year before the Sanders campaign’s start, and the campaign against it only started to pick up steam when it acquired some electoral valence.)
Corey Robin recently wrote an astute post, remarking that the surprising success, so far, of the Sanders campaign has to seem even more incredible to anyone approximately his age who was taught that it’s important to be realistic and measured when proposing progressive reforms. Sanders seems to prove that was wrong. Here’s a similar argument, from the blog at Dissent magazine.
If you’re my age or a little younger (I’m only a few years older than Robin is), you were probably taught to regard the late nineteenth-century Populist and Progressive movements with some disdain. Robert Hoftstadter’s The Age of Reform, which I was assigned in AP American History, my last year in high school, tried hard not to condemn the Populists and their candidate, William Jennings Bryan, but seemed content not entirely to succeed. At the same time, Hofstadter emphasized the greater sense of responsibility possessed by the Progressive movement, but couldn’t disguise its lack of attraction in our own liberal days, with its overt racism, anti-Catholicism, patronizing attitude to workers and the poor, and support for Prohibition. Regardless, if you’re about my age, probably you were taught to respect the political and economic achievements of those movements, their attitude of opposition to big corporations and support for the small businessman and farmer, and their openness to the idea of economic reform.
Within the past ten or twenty years. however, a different attitude has become evident. Nominally progressive writers, a bit younger than I am, people like Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein (now both at Vox), have laid heavy emphasis on the unacceptability of populism in today’s politics, and on the impossibility of criticizing once-contentious ideas like the perfect “efficiency” of the labor market (“efficiency” here means that everybody is paid exactly what they’re worth, all the time, without any forces operating except the purest supply and demand).
Part of this attitude has been based in the association of populism with racism. As Michael Kazin shows in The Populist Persuasion, a leftist class-based politics has been stalled in the US, in part, because of historical white racism within the labor movement. Kazin argues that it is nearly impossible to think of a broad-based popular or working-class movement for just this reason.
The Sanders campaign appears to have transcended this, appealing to white people in the heartland as much as to Black Lives Matter activists. If they have, that’s a pretty big achievement.
As big an achievement, though, is the questioning of the neo-Hayekian status quo among the “Very Serious People” establishment. When Thomas Piketty showed incontrovertibly that inequality is real, and really increasingly, and not coincidentally that measures like GDP have limitations for measuring the health of an economy, the growing concern about the GINI coefficient became unquestionably respectable. This meant, therefore, that “skills-based technological change” could no longer be used as a catch-all explanation for discomfort with the state of employment statistics—nor could its soothing prescription of “more education,” or its desperate hope that things would change for the better in a couple of years, continue to seem plausible. This, in turn, took away part of the force of the anti-populist argument: it was no longer able to simply dismiss populists as people who refused to get sufficiently educated.
What this is going to mean, in terms of future policy change, is still in doubt. As far as I can tell, the Sanders campaign’s proposals are of two kinds: incontrovertibly left-progressive or social-democratic reforms to make parts of the economy less “market-based,” and almost old-fashioned policies seemingly intended to recreate the ideals of the mid-twentieth century liberal consensus. The call for universal free higher education, in particular, seems like it is still very much in thrall to ideas about “skills-based technological change.” Helping more people to be able to do well for themselves is a terrific idea, and so is listening to people attracted to populism, instead of disparaging them. But it might be worth thinking about why populism was discredited for so long, and whether those reasons have fully gone away.
I’ll be getting soon to the last couple of sections of the first chapter, which discuss different ways of understanding the distribution of goods, in a little while. I want to say something, first, about the bulk of the book. The rest of the chapters consist of a series of examinations of different social goods, illustrated through historical and sociological case studies. Since I’ve committed myself to reading these and looking for a purpose in them, it’s more than possible I’ll find a reason for each of these. As a whole, though, o my first reading these seem to imply a certain political argument that, it seems to me, hasn’t panned out as expected.
What it reminds me of is something like the New Historicism of the subsequent decade, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt’s book on religion in Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt sets out to provide readers with the religious and social context that he believes lies behind the text of Hamlet. He covers the religious institutions as they existed at the time, popular narratives of ghosts and hauntings, indulgences and masses said for the dead and how they relied on the doctrine of Purgatory that was rejected by the established church, paintings and illustrated books for clergy and the laity (including popular piety, especially that of women), as well as high literature. He introduces readers to the fascinating story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave in Ireland where people were said to experience visions of the afterlife. He explains how the pain experienced by the dead in Purgatory and Hell was conveyed to the living, and bound them to the institutions of the church. Finally he explains how all this historical and cultural context informs Shakespeare’s imagery and dialogue.
The New Historicism is generally taken to have a left political purpose. But Greenblatt doesn’t make any such argument explicitly, and it’s not obvious how a reader should draw one out of the book. There are a small number of clear points made: The kind of burial society that was common in the Old World, and among immigrants to the US, is a democratic way of serving the social need to support people whose loved ones have died, by helping with burial costs and the support of the survivors; in Tudor England this purpose was served by the bureaucracy of the church. People who are mourning often feel their deceased loved ones are still present in some way, often dream about them, and when they believe in an afterlife, often worry about their wellbeing after death; and culture and religion provide a way of thinking about these. Institutions, and also people out for profit, can often benefit financially from the worries of those mourners; thus, the people who controlled the cave known as “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” could charge entrance fees to people who believed they could learn something important from the visions induced there, and the Catholic Church could charge for masses said in order to speed the souls of dead rich people out of Purgatory (and thereby pay artists and musicians who created a culture around those masses). Most of the book is about the second of these three: the way cultural and religious assumptions structure the way people experience the feelings that arise out of mourning, and specifically the details of the structure that existed at the time Hamlet was written (assuming, as Greenblatt does, that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the Catholic doctrines that the Tudor monarchy had put under a legal ban).
So how does this kind of historicizing literary criticism get read into politics? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s generally read into a theoretical context in which the structuralism of people like Lévi-Strauss and the poststructuralism of people like Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu are taken for granted, along with their reworking by Marxian theorists like Althusser. The leftism, that is, like the metaphysics, is incorporated into the literary criticism, basically, by reference; it no longer needs to be stated explicitly (though Greenblatt’s book has a lot of footnotes, with citations to works in social science). Without the Marxian element, of course, this is just poststructuralism, which might have any political valence, or none at all. The politics (for the reader), then, is optional. To the extent that this is true, and that the book itself doesn’t explain the theory, most of the political work is done elsewhere. Greenblatt does often enough explain the theory, but it’s not uncommon to find thoroughly straightforward accounts of literature or culture that do not, yet seem to be intended as political interventions on the left.
It’s this kind of account, superficially naïve even if intended to allude to some deeper, unspoken theory, that Walzer’s case studies seem most to resemble. His chapters don’t have anything like the depth of New Historicist research, which mostly postdates his book. They don’t make obvious reference to a theoretical basis as Greenblatt’s do. Their purpose seems to be intended as obvious and literal. And given Walzer’s emphatic renunciation of abstract philosophizing, any other purpose seems impossible. One kind of reader might, on the contrary, assume that Walzer is writing as some kind of Straussian here, hiding his true, philosophical intentions behind a scrim of unobjectionable facts. Such a reader would expect the true response to Walzer’s book to be some deep thought about his premises and logic, and a thoroughgoing reworking of the ideas he expresses into something resembling more an unexpressed truth. I see no need for that assumption. I think I’d argue, from what I’ve seen of them both so far, that the true continuation of Walzer’s work in this book is to be found in Greenblatt’s.
There’s a new book out, called Exit Right, that looks interesting if you’re interested in the political or intellectual history of the middle and end of the twentieth century. It’s a new history of men who started out on the far left and then moved to the far right: Chambers, Burnham, Reagan, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens. There are new reviews by Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic and Alan Wolfe in The New Republic.
Near the beginning of Wolfe’s review, he discusses his personal encounters with David Horowitz. One is related by Daniel Oppenheimer in the book under review:
before Horowitz came to this realization [the loss of faith in revolution], he “participated in a small seminar at Berkeley, on the topic of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism,’ with a number of his fellow New Left veterans.” I was one of those participants; the seminar helped me rethink my radicalism to emerge as more of a liberal than a leftist. It was not so much the books we discussed—I can barely remember what they were—so much as our attitudes toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, neither of which, to most of us, held out any hope for progressive change.
Wolfe says no more about this fascinating fact. Who else was part of that seminar at Berkeley? How many of them left the movement around the same time? What was the nature of Wolfe’s own change (to, as TNR readers know, a form of consensus liberalism), and why? We find out something about the passions and concerns that led his former friend Horowitz to drastically change, but little about the historical context in which he did so.
We seem to know so little about the people who were involved in political debate and action over the past hundred years. We know about the people who left Communism, and we know about the people who became neoconservatives, and that’s about it. And we know even less about people who are younger. Most historians of the 1960s and the New Left have written histories of their contemporaries but almost nothing about themselves (there are scattered exceptions, like Mark Rudd, who’ve written memoirs). Younger writers, like P.J. O’Roarke, those socially but not especially politically inclined, have written of their move from a libertarian liberalism to more of a right-wing conservatism, driven apparently largely by their rejection of drug use. Even younger writers have often written narratives of addiction and recovery (culminating in the notorious case of James Frey), implicitly assimilating “growing up” itself to a certain vision of sobriety. There’s the occasional spiritual journey, like that of Elizabeth Gilbert, and perhaps, not much more. Perhaps there’s little space for other stories in the accepted and expected narratives. Why that’s the case isn’t entirely clear.
Suppose we say that some percentage of a society holds the belief system that elites are in charge, the media plays a mediating role, education is part of the process of elite formation, and so on. Some percentage of the society holds a different belief system, maybe that the will of the people is important. Maybe some smaller or larger third percentage, making up the rest of the population, holds neither one.
What can we conclude from this about the makeup and relative power of the two groups, about which of these is closer to reality, about what kind of mobility is possible between groups, or what kind of lives are possible within groups or for those who attempt to move or communicate between them?
My answer: We can conclude nothing at all.
We don’t even know that within each group, there aren’t divergences significant enough to overwhelm the similarities.
We certainly don’t know whether movement between the groups is considered impermissible, difficult but possible, or even mandatory.
We don’t know whether everybody knows that there are three basic kinds of belief systems in this society, or whether they don’t. We don’t know how the disclosure of this information will be understood.
If there’s a general practice among some people of movement from one sphere to another, we don’t know, from this barebones account, how it’s carried out. We don’t know whether some children are selected for education from the start into a different group’s belief system, whether they’re expected to make a kind of conversion later on, whether they’re expected to see that their beliefs had always already been the same, or what.
Social scientists can use this general kind of form of analysis to organize facts about a society, to understand what’s going on. They can say that in the West in the twenty-first century, only a few combinations are possible. They can use this kind of category to structure an examination of some specific place and time in a way that will make sense. They can even draw conclusions from the general forms of the statement.
But what I say above is a basic truth of epistemology and the scientific worldview. Someone (a layperson, non-expert like yourself, not a social scientist, someone not associated with an institution that backs up their knowledge and makes it important or interesting for you to know) who tells you that this kind of abstract, mathematical (almost) analysis tells you substantive truths about the world—in my experience—is either a member of a group like Marxism who thinks you’re going to intuit that you can find your way to your local socialist party group, or ask the socialist of your nearest acquaintance what advice he has for you—or else an autodidact without much academic exposure to social science or the humanities, who believes he’s intuited a factual meaning from the theoretical statement and whose metaphysical assumptions lead him to expect you to draw the same conclusions.
Matthew Yglesias doesn’t fall into either of those categories. He knows that it simply does not follow, from an abstract analysis like the above, that the world is any particular way. But he was educated to believe that only one or two, at most a handful, of particular ways, are relevant for us, here, now. He knows perfectly well that most of his readers didn’t go to Harvard and didn’t learn what he did, but still he believes, apparently, that what he was taught is true. That there could be more than one interpretation of that kind of analysis—he has never seemed to understand this.
So he seems shocked, and almost bitter, that the 2016 presidential election would seem very much to be refuting the kinds of home truths he’s been “explaining” to the world since he got his first blog.
(Of course, I don't know what he thinks about reality refuting the conventional wisdom, since all he does is list a bunch of factual assertions.)
Dominance and Monopoly (and Ideology)
In the next section, Walzer presents two new concepts, to go along with the discussion of goods and social meanings in the beginning of the chapter: dominance and monopoly. A dominant good is one that will get its possessor some other, unrelated goods. If you have money, you can buy food, but it doesn’t work the other way around, because money is the dominant good in a market society. And it is often—in fact, usually—the case that one group of people has a monopoly over that good. Thus, when land ownership was the dominant good in Europe, those who owned land tended also to have political power, office, religious honors, and so on, and this was the class of aristocrats. When ownership of capital or financial wealth became the dominant good, the society’s other goods shifted to them, as well, and to the new moneyed middle classes. Thus, societies can be classified and characterized by identifying the good dominant in each, and the class that tends to hold that good.
This is a framework for understanding and categorizing societies, not a full explanation. The shift of other goods to the newly dominant class wasn’t immediate, and in some cases may never have been complete. I’m sure Walzer would agree that the framework isn’t the be-all and end-all. And it’s a useful analysis, but it does appear to blur into dogmatism: In every society, one good is dominant over all others. In every society, one group monopolizes the dominant good and thus dominates over all realms of activity. To suggest that the dominant good might be more equally or fairly distributed is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that monopoly is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that non-dominant goods should be distributed more independently of the dominant good is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that dominance is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that a different good ought perhaps to be dominant is to propose Marxism, and is in any case not interesting because it basically accepts the status quo.
It isn’t easy to take this seriously. To suggest that party loyalty, religious affiliation, or moral rectitude be a requisite for holding political office may not be wise, but it is hardly Marxist. Similarly, to suggest that it not be a requisite for holding office, if it is, one does not have to agree that it is irrational or unjust to suggest that there be other requirements in other situations. Surely, to suggest a reform, one does not have to agree that the whole idea of society is unjust.
The ideal of complex equality and pluralism of goods is attractive but unpersuasive.
In the next section, Walzer presents what he calls simple equality as equality of the dominant good. In our society, this would be money: Suppose everyone had the same amount of money. Then other goods would also be distributed equally (because money still dominates). He follows a fairly well-worn narrative to show how this might go. First, the government would have to intervene to make sure no one accumulates too much, over time. Then, some people might start to monopolize education, just because they cared about it. And because education is important, it would become the dominant good and the bad kind of meritocracy would develop, so that educated people and their families would begin to monopolize office and political power, and eventually even money. So, something like Rawls’s theory of justice would have to be imposed to ensure that they don’t take over too much. This is not the only critique of commercial society that could be made, but it’s a pretty common one, especially among those who object to the dominance of money and of the rich over society in both its traditionally public and private aspects.
Complex equality, then (the topic of the section after that), is instead the removal of the dominance of money, and in fact the removal of every kind of dominance. Because there are so many different kinds of goods, they will all be distributed evenly enough, around the population, that no one person or group will accumulate too many goods for themselves. Because each good is self-policing, or rather policed within its own sphere, there will be no need for coercive government intervention. Instead, each good will be policed by those who are agreed by everyone involved to be the right person to do it.
That there’s no narrative, here, of how it might go wrong, might suggest an important asymmetry in Walzer’s exposition. Moreover, the dogmatism of the preceding section reappears here, in the glib mention, in passing, of the assumption that there will still be monopoly within each individual sphere. The problem of ideology goes unmentioned in this section, as well (even though it’s considered elsewhere in the chapter). Are the goings-on within each sphere simply immune to criticism? Walzer doesn’t say. The idea of complex equality is attractive but unpersuasive. Yet Walzer proceeds without appearing to have recognized this. These question are raised for the reader but the book shows no hint of how they should be resolved.
Pluralism of goods, again.
At the end of the section titled “A theory of goods,” just before the pages discussed in this post, Walzer had listed some criteria for such a theory. Working backwards, the last of these are: Goods must be understood on their own terms; the criteria for one good must not determine the distribution of a different and independent good. Goods are historically determined (so Bernard Williams, and by extension British analytical philosophy as a whole, is wrong, and there is no natural criterion for evaluating the distribution of a given good). Goods are distributed according to social meaning, not material meaning.
This approach rules out a bit. It rules out a scientific approach, wishing to distribute goods according to a natural or material significance or need. It rules out a market approach, treating everything as having its monetary price. On its face, it rules out a lot more: democracy, power politics in general, localism, and tradition—in fact, any extrinsic approach, any approach that doesn’t engage with the goods’ social meanings. Though, in practice, these extrinsic meanings may be incorporated into the social meanings themselves. More specifically, although the terms employed are somewhat broader than what’s strictly needed for this purpose, what’s ruled out is the criticism of one good on grounds appropriate to a different good: suggesting, perhaps, that simony or nepotism is really okay, because money ought to be dominant over all other considerations. Or, even more specifically, what’s ruled out is the assignment of some good or power to a person who is recognized to merit only a different good or power.
It isn’t clear how this fails to risk relativism, however. It would seem that any action, any criticism or suggestion, is potentially subject to the unanswerable objection that (as Stanley Fish put it) “that isn’t the way we do things here.” And Walzer must support that objection. To be very blunt, a society that sincerely believed math could be done only by white men, or that granted university professorship a social meaning, stemming back to the days of the medieval church, which required mathematicians to be morally conforming men from the dominant culture and race, would have to be recognized by this theory as, really, OK. This is clearly not what Walzer intended, but he would appear to have disarmed himself, and others, against those kinds of claims (at least to the extent that he believes his own side must take the claims made by this book seriously, which I think a reader will in most cases take to be true). All he can offer women, people of color, and members of religious minorities, it would appear (barring a thoroughgoing revolution), is something like, “Let the white man have the math professorships, at least they can’t make us starve and they can’t take away our votes.”
Notably missing, so far and in the chapter headings, are any of the goods normally associated with democracy and equal respect. Walzer says nothing about equality in that sense. He is discussing, purely, equality in the holding of some goods and in access to certain other goods. There is no place in this theory for a criticism of some social practice on the grounds that it fails to treat people with equal respect. (Arguably, “equal respect” might possibly be recharacterized as some kind of good.) There is no place in the theory for a criticism of a given social meaning. It might be suggested that space is left for such critiques outside the theory. But the argument here has already preempted any outside criticism, by showing that such criticism is invariably radical: revolutionary or even childish.
This has aged badly.
This approach outlined in these sections runs into the difficulty that it combines the empirical and the theoretical in a slightly awkward way. The empirical part is the description of the actual dominant good, the actual monopolizing class, the actual other goods that are dominated or allowed to follow their course. The theoretical part is the explanation of why a society sustains itself, and why it may be resistant to change (as well as how a scholar can usefully conceptualize it).
Is any given proposal revolutionary? Does it correspond adequately to the social meanings prevalent in the society in question? These aren’t questions that can be answered solely through ivory-tower speculations. If it’s customary and accepted that a good G will dominate over a good H, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that H should be considered as autonomous; if it’s customary that H should be autonomous, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that G should dominate over it. Thus, given a situation in which someone who has G is trying to claim a good H, and a second someone is complaining about it, an observer can’t simply assume either that the holder of G is right and the second person is being naïve or presumptuous, or that the second person is right and the holder of G is claiming an antiquated, premodern, and now non-existent quasi-right.
This does come up. The established, humanist art critic will maintain that the values of art are autonomous. The up-and-coming young essayist, echoing the sociology of art courses she was required to attend in school, will counter that the art world is dominated by the moneyed classes, etc., as is the case all through the world. They cannot both be right; and so we have the usual hysteria about “postmodernism,” which in most cases is not what is at issue, at all.
For the argument outlined here to have been helpful for critique, in the years since 1983, it would have to have been possible to understand the theory as descriptive, and only descriptive. But theory, it would seem, has instead become an explanation of why things are always, everywhere conservative, why every transaction or interaction must always increase the power of the dominant class, why every analysis of a good must always be couched in terms of the dominating good. (Or—for the right—why things are always “liberal,” because they think the dominant class is a liberal one.) There are understandings of this kind of critique that assign it a different meaning; but those would seem to have little to no real currency.
For some ideologies with a historical component, like Marxism or Christianity, perhaps this isn’t a problem. One can understand historical change as something that happens through some other, esoteric means. One can carve out a niche in which to live in a satisfactory way while rejecting the possibility of public criticism of existing norms. Not all have resigned themselves to that, however.
It seems to me that Walzer lowers his sights somewhat in the rest of the book, and confines himself to specific proposals and specific historical-anthropological case studies. These more modest arguments will presumably be easily detachable from the stronger arguments made in the first part of chapter one.
Chapter One is titled “Complex Equality” and begins with sections titled “Pluralism” and “A Theory of Goods.” Each of these first two sections contains a kind of analysis of a small number of concepts from political theory. As a non-scholar, I feel I have to know how these should be taken. Are these Walzer’s proposals, or are they Walzer’s summaries of the scholarly consensus?
Walzer describes “distributive justice” as a theory about the distribution of everything within a society, even things that aren’t normally transferable, and so on. This sounds like a good idea, and almost obvious. How else could philosophers and other thinkers evaluate the justice of a society, other than by characterizing the distribution of various bad or good things among its members? Why should questions of the distribution of one thing be discussed in different terms than the distribution of others? Moreover, as will be seen in the following pages, Walzer is responding to A Theory of Justice, a far-reaching theory published about a decade earlier by John Rawls. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Rawls is interested in justice as it applies to everything that might be shared either justly or unjustly.
However, this is not what Rawls was doing. (At least, it’s not what he’s taken to have been doing, from the vantage point of today. It would be interested to learn whether he addressed this question somewhere in the very long text of his book, but for me, that’s a research project for another day.) Moreover, it’s not what philosophers mean by “distributive justice.” Distributive justice is pretty much about economics, and economics-like things. It doesn’t expand the concern with distribution until everything that might fall under a discussion of justice is rephrased in distributive terms. Rather—although it sometimes generalizes its concerns from money to “happiness” or “utility,” or something along those lines—it narrows the concern with justice to what can in fact be measured and in some way seen as distributed.
Walzer offers some criticism of Rawls in this introductory chapter, and in this he seems to me to approach the issues along the same lines as Michael Sandel (in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) does. I don’t fully understand Sandel, either, but he seems to take Rawls to be attempting to encompass the entire social world in something of the same way Walzer does here. His objection to Rawls is that Rawls asks people to consider things that are important to their sense of being who they are as, instead, something they could alienate from themselves, whether to engage in the reasoning of the original position or to accept the results of its reasoning as binding on themselves. I think a better way of putting this is expressed by Martha Nussbaum and Charles Larmore as that Rawls pays insufficient attention to the fact that people in modern society in fact disagree about what “the good life” is (to use the terms traditionally taken from Plato and Aristotle), and that modern philosophers on the whole reject the idea that a consideration of what the good life might be is essential to doing philosophy at all.
“Pluralism,” here, means pluralism of goods. There isn’t just one kind of good, like pleasure, happiness, or money (as there is in certain kinds of utilitarianism). There are other goods, like honor and divine grace. “Pluralism” does not mean, however, pluralism of different groups: that every group should be able to do as it likes (see the previous post on this topic). More about this will become clear in the next section (which I’ll discuss in a future post).
Here, I’ll just say that pluralism in this sense feels very plausible. It seems to be in line with what liberals of a few decades earlier had called “minority living”: the ability to pursue tastes and values that aren’t shared by the rest of the population. It seems to be in line with a sense that society as it’s currently constituted is leaving some important things out of consideration.
From a philosophical view, part of his argument might seem to fit fairly well with that of Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre would hold that arguments about, say, divine grace, can only be made within the limits set by previous discussions about divine grace. People educated in those existing discussions have no real reason to listen to outsiders who criticize the distribution that results from the insiders’ ideas, unless they are given a reason to do so. So this might seem to be the upshot of Walzer’s discussions of how different societies have understood such a thing. But it isn’t immediately obvious that Walzer’s purpose in bringing up all these different kinds of goods is to argue that people who find them important, today, have to be listened to. “Divine grace” and “membership” may turn out to be very different types of goods, with very different levels of importance.
So “pluralism” for Walzer might seem to be more philosophical or even methodological: a reluctance to reduce all possible goods to the same scale, to be measured and compared using the same tools. It seems connected to the suspicion that people from different backgrounds will be insufficiently convinced that the comparisons offered by the majority are correct ones.
Walzer insists that all goods are both distributed and given meaning by society. By “society” he means, not some kind of structure (of the sort that was presumably being discussed a lot at the time he wrote the book), but the society’s members taken individually and collectively. He states explicitly that money has no actual meaning unless society decides to give it one. The same is true of individual attributes like talent or divine grace.
On the one hand, this appears to be an argument about the importance of society and institutions for any individual endeavor—something like what was simplified into “you didn’t build that.” On the other, it sounds like the argument John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality to show how money does acquire its meaning and significance from social arrangements. But it seems overstated. For one thing, there’s a difference between saying that society or culture determines the meaning of something like talent, why talent matters, what will count as talent, and so on (as well as that the way in which talent is recognized and developed depends on social arrangements), and saying that a person only has talent because other people agree to grant them talent. The second version suggests not only that it might be possible to take a vote as to whether a person should be talented, but that something like a vote does actually happen, and would be seen to have happened if the situation were correctly understood.
But even more than that, the argument is a very extreme version of the social constructionism hypothesis, which has in the intervening time been pretty thoroughly discredited, in its strong form (see Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?). Richard Rorty (in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity) shows how something like Walzer’s statements here can be true but have less strong consequences than might appear on a naïve reading like the one that’s natural to me, as a non-expert, and his is the interpretation I prefer. This may or may not turn out to be incompatible with what Walzer actually says. On the weaker reading, all Walzer’s saying here is that the distribution and meaning of personal traits are mediated by culture and by the institutions that structure social interactions. On the stronger reading, he’s providing fuel for something like Steven Pinker’s attacks on what he views as a social-science consensus—something actual social scientists deny. This seems to leave Walzer here arguing for something without real support.
It also leads him into a kind of misguided nonbeliever’s defense of religion that can actually come across as insulting, as when he insists that actual, existing religions find the spiritual meaning of “bread” to be so much more important than the material meaning that they might conceivably—deliberately—let people starve—and that they would be right to do so. Walzer allows no room at all for anything, even food, to have a sheerly material significance. This seems, again, overstated. Surely, in anthropology and literary criticism, it’s important to recognize that a social (or as a believer would say, spiritual) meaning has a place. That’s not to insist that everybody must deny the existence of everything else. Saying it is displays a severe misunderstanding of religious discourse, not a decent respect for believers in religions.
There’s a discussion going on at the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians about a new book by Jacob T. Levy on pluralism. Reading the posts, I noticed that Levy uses the word “pluralism” in a different way than Michael Walzer does. Levy’s use of the word is more like what I’d expect (partly, probably, because I’ve read a lot of things by him and the people he’s in dialogue with, published a lot more recently than Spheres of Justice was). By “pluralism,” Walzer means something like (to put it in more MacIntyrean terms, which are the only ones I know for raising my understanding of it to this level of abstraction) that there are different methods and logics that are appropriate to different realms of inquiry. He doesn’t (that I see) discuss the idea that there are different groups or institutions within society. In fact, he explicitly talks in terms of “society” as a whole. He takes it for granted that anybody in the society can criticize any aspect of it, as long as they do so in appropriate terms. Levy, though, means that there are different groups in society, and some of them should be protected from criticism by the others. I think Walzer would reject this. However, I don’t think Walzer provides much support for fending off Levy’s interpretation. After about thirty years, it seems to me that Spheres of Justice—though it clearly is not offered as an argument in favor of something like what Levy proposes—can fit pretty well, even surprisingly well, alongside Levy’s argument.
As far as I can tell, Jacob Levy’s ideas fit easily alongside a lot of “liberaltarian” type argument that try to assimilate libertarianism to liberalism. They have a lot in common with the right-libertarianism found in many places in contemporary North America. They’re in favor of the free market, though not absolutely opposed to all regulation. They’re in favor of health regulations. They’re opposed to government control of schools. They accept a lot of communitarian or traditionalist arguments in favor of the autonomy of small “local” groups, by which they mean groups that are ethnically and religiously homogeneous, practicing traditional “unliberated” ways of life. They’re in favor of scientific research, including social science, and accept the difference between modern and premodern ways of thought. They accept modern constitutionalism and modern ways of thinking about political theory.
But they generally fall on the right side of the political spectrum. They may support feminism and gay rights in principle, but in practice they support the rights of people who’ve traditionally had power to act in ways liberals consider bigoted. Moreover, they argue that social science research supports (and some of it does appear to do so) their opposition to what they consider excessively accelerated progress.
And parts of their views are accepted, to some extent, by liberals, and by some (mostly communitarian-leaning thinkers) on the left.
The relevant part of the theory seems to go something like this:
We do, in fact, right now, have a bunch of institutions. These include religions, families, and so on. People spend a good amount of their lives in these institutions—for the most part, most people are raised in them—and in fact they operate according to their own rules which are often different from what you’d expect if you started with liberal principles and deduced these institutions from them
We also, in fact, right now, have liberalism, which operates in certain parts of society, such as academia, the learned professions, the marketplace, and so on. People operate in liberal society—sometimes called the public realm, or civil society, or by some other term—as adults, in the workplace, when they participate in national or global or culture, and so on.
The idea seems to be that we don’t have to investigate the two realms farther than that. The liberal parts of society are what they are, and the institutions are what they are, and society works pretty well this way. The libertarian kind of idea Levy proposes holds that, however, liberalism is always trying to criticize the institutions, and that liberalism should change its ways and thereby back off a bit and let institutions make their own decisions. From this point of view, for people to be free and to live in a free society, they have to be rooted some of the time in a less liberal, perhaps less free community. Or, at least, if free people choose to live part of the time in such a community, they have to be allowed to do that. This is held by a number of liberals, not only by libertarians. And so it’s held that nothing really needs to be done in this area. Liberalism can go on criticizing the institutions, but keep its gloves on and recognize that criticism won’t always be taken seriously, and the institutions can keep on doing what they’re doing, and it’s all good.
But, I would object, in a lot of cases, institutions aren’t present in that way. They’re often not present (in the way expected by the theory) where there’s been cultural disruption, as from immigration, or poverty, or slavery, or on the reservation. They’re usually not present where there’s been modernization and urbanization. It is unrealistic in the modern era to assume that religion is mandatory in the way it was in the past. It’s unrealistic to assume that the arguments about the need for premodern institutions hold equally well in a diverse society as in an ethnic monoculture. Those arguments seem to assume that those traditional institutions are always there to fall back on, and are a kind of base of operations for those who aren’t or can’t be fully immersed in the liberal world; and this is often not the case—most obviously, for those who are engaged in child-rearing.
More than that, there’s reason to believe that the parts of society called liberal share more with those institutions than the theory would predict. This has been urged by scholarship increasingly, over the past three or four decades, by thoroughly respectable thinkers who are not extremists or cranks. They are more infused with religion, for example, and not only because they rely on religious institutions to form the personalities of their members. Or their ideas stem from a more narrow slice of history than has usually been recognized.
And so the argument seems itself to be a little abstract: uninterested in the details of what institutions exist, what they’re like, or how they interact with one another and with the liberal aspects of society. Philosophy doesn’t get its hands dirty with details like that, and presumably the points would be raised by a different field of knowledge. But those fields of knowledge are themselves constrained, in what they can argue, by what’s accepted as philosophically correct.
Moreover, the points I’ve raised are relevant to criticisms of liberalism and its attitude toward institutions. There are further objections I’d make with regard to traditional institutions themselves. The argument seems usually to suppose that institutions are unitary and unchanging, without internal conflict. Thus, it seems easily to collapse into the assumption that internal conflict within traditions is caused by external influence (usually from liberalism, or at least from tensions caused by liberalism, for example as a result of globalization). It lends itself to use from within a traditional institution as a mechanism for demonizing all change—or one side of a longstanding conflict—as deserving criticism along the lines of the arguments Levy suggests.
I don’t want to suggest that Jacob Levy would agree with the implications I’ve drawn out from the context I’m trying to set him in. I do think that these points are relevant to my understanding of Spheres of Justice, which was written before some of these argument were drawn out at such length, at a time when the political options on offer were different than they are now.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy has written an essay on class diversity in fiction: namely, the lack of it. She raises a lot of good questions, though her conclusion seems to me to be overly pessimistic.
In her first paragraph, Bovy equivocates on the meaning of the word “representation.” In discussions of diversity, representation means that people from different groups are represented in the group of people doing something. In art, representation, of course, means something different. Representation means showing people who belong to a certain group, or a certain type. It also refers to the way in which they are shown. Bovy conflates these two meanings in order to suggest that what people who call for diversity of novelists really want is to see people like themselves in fiction or in films, and to allow her to explore the latter question. I do think this question is interesting. I’m not in a hurry, though, to tell people who are asking for, say, more women novelists reviewed in important venues, that they should be satisfied with really good depictions of women by male authors, much less that a meditation on why “representation” is important is something on which they should spend their time.
She next gets to the meat of her argument: the representation of socioeconomic class in fiction. Specifically, she is riffing off recent essays by working-class writers who’ve discussed issues of personal import to themselves. They’ve felt uncomfortable in writing programs, or felt compelled to censor themselves, or they find it difficult to combine their concerns about class with their concerns about race. Bovy rewords their concerns in the following fashion:
When reading both of these essays, though, I wondered whether class is, in this context, just one more box to check, one more injustice to correct. Is it simply a matter of locating structural obstacles and raising awareness?
She is going to combine the political question with the aesthetic one. Representation promises a way of better understanding the way class concerns interact with aesthetic considerations.
The meat of Bovy’s essay begins as follows:
It seems to me that socioeconomic class is a tougher sort of diversity to bring to writing. Unlike the other varieties, it’s at odds with what readers are used to and what they’re likely to want—namely wealthier, more glamorous, or just less drudgery-having versions of themselves. Which is to say: What does aspirational look like? As a rule, I suspect, those of us who aren’t white men don’t dream of becoming white men, (and more to the point, becoming a white guy because they sure seem to have it easier isn’t an option). But rich isn’t an identity, exactly. You get to be yourself, but you can afford a hi-tech Japanese bidet-toilet.
This is certainly true to some extent. People who work in the music industry, say, want to see movies and read books about very talented people in the industry. People with families like entertainment that depicts people with happy families. Of course, this leaves out movies and novels about “problems,” but even in those cases, for the most part, everything else is heightened or improved—and the problem, of course, is resolved by the end. People, generally, like to see pretty people onscreen, healthy people, strong people, happy people, rich people. The typical movie house isn’t a modest ranch, but a roomy split-level, garrison Colonial, or contemporary, with a big yard. The default, especially in film, is the ideal (just as the default bad person is the worst possible: a movie that could have been about a club kid is made about a prostitute instead).
This kind of thing helps readers and filmgoers identify with the characters and with the essential aspect of the story. Freud had a lot to say about this kind of thing. He pointed out that in classical drama, we don’t see stories about ordinary families. Instead, we see family dynamics playing out in a heightened fashion among kings, queens, and princes. Freud believed that this was the best way to get playgoers to experience the feelings that would let them fix their own lives. We don’t write literature about royalty anymore—the novel is the literature of the middle class (though we would now say “upper middle class”)—but Freud’s theory is still influential, in certain circles.
This isn’t the same thing, however, as the idea that people of different types like to see idealized versions of those types onscreen or in the books they read. Freud wasn’t talking about people of different types. He wrote about psychologies he believed were universal. It’s true that people don’t like to see types they identify with made fun of. It’s also true that what constitutes “making fun” differs from person to person and from group to group. Some people might feel that a geek who acts like a geek is being made fun of, while others might feel that a geek who acts like a club kid is disrespectful of actual geeks. Moreover, books and films for a broad audience have to consider what that broad audience will like. If a geek who acts like a geek—or a working-class person who acts like a working-class person—screams “bad” or “weird” to people who aren’t geeks or working-class, it will actually give the message that geeks or working-class people are themselves bad or weird.
And anyway, people who write “mainstream” literature do tend to be fairly well-off, as Bovy and her sources observe. They write what they know, and moreover, they write what will sell. And the audience, too, for that kind of fiction, tends to be well-off, one supposes. They’ve gone from college to grad school to published novelist, in many cases, without having much workday contact with non-writers, except to the extent they themselves have jobs, which tend not to be in the broad middle straddling “barista” and “CEO.” To the extent they’re successful, the non-writers they come in contact with are usually members of a cultural elite that’s itself increasingly an economic elite. If people who fit that description would like to write about ordinary people, they can do research, or write about their childhood and the lives of their less-privileged ancestors, or they can pick up an ideology like Freud’s that tells them it’s actually best to focus on people who are at one extreme, that the best art has the most attenuated connection with the real, everyday or workaday world. And people who don’t fit that description can find themselves wanting to do things that don’t fit the generally accepted patterns.
A few years ago a woman writer, I forget who, said something about the need to realize one’s reading has been aspirational in a bad way, that one has been reading things written for, intended for, only making sense for, the very wealthy. I think it’s possible to go too far in that direction. You run the risk of dismissing all fiction as trivial, fluff, something only for leisured ladies in between rounds of bonbons. You run the risk of allowing the wealthy—rather than the elite of the spirit—to take over the realms belonging to literature. (In the US these have historically been separate.) It’s possible to decide one doesn’t want to read books, any longer, about rich people.
And in one way, this can make sense. At some point in your life, you decide that books about people just out of college who are deciding whether to go to Europe without a job or to Japan are saying less than they could be saying about the things that are important to you. You realize that coming-of-age novels can perhaps be written to appeal to readers from any background, regardless of the milieu in which they’re set, but that novels for older people don’t work as well that way. You just get tired of the same thing, over and over again, and you lose interest in the minutiae of upper-class fashion and its changes from year to year. You find it more difficult, as you mature and the demands you make on books evolve, to find something meaningful in what’s being published.
And this somehow ends up seeming related to the fact that books (maybe increasingly) tend to be set among an economic elite.
It’s too bad.
Beyond what the author is doing in writing the book, what does this book set out to do?
I think it is reasonable to assume that the book will describe a theory of equality and of justice from a leftist point of view. We can assume that it will be critical of the status quo and of laissez-faire, and will be supportive of attempts to reform society to make it more equal and more fair, to more broadly distribute the goods of society, both material and immaterial (education and so on), and to weaken reaction’s hold on society as a whole. We can assume that it will embrace the liberal and left-wing critiques of the ten or twenty years preceding its writing, like John Kenneth Galbraith’s and Michael Harrington’s. We can assume that a young reader of left-wing or reformist sympathies will find in Spheres of Justice many good ideas that will help him or her understand their allies. (Conversely, we could assume that a reader opposed to liberal ideas will find information about what their opponents believe.)
And this is what we find. In this preface, Walzer offers a brief positive defense of equality, grounded in the opposition to domination, and especially to illegitimate domination. He sets up a contrast between equality and egalitarianism. The latter is absolutist, and he does not defend it. He doesn’t defend the idea that equality means one group imposing its values on others. He doesn’t defend the idea that one form of equality (say, of material things) is more important than others (of education and culture, perhaps). For these would themselves involve domination over others.
And he gives some examples that appear to be directed toward people on the left. He gives the example of a revolutionary or progressive movement that becomes, internally, less and less equal, itself. He provides a description of the process by which this happens (it has something in common with the social types Malcolm Gladwell would later popularize in books like The Tipping Point), as people find their natural level and positions are doled out according to talent and contribution. Presumably he intends to aim this part of the argument towards leftists and activists who’ve experienced that kind of thing already, and can fill in the details themselves, but the argument could equally apply to any group or place of business.
Walzer next alludes to cases—presumably the Soviet Union is intended—where equality, or rather egalitarianism (its extreme form), was imposed by force. The process he’d just described should have happened, in those cases, but didn’t; and the reason was that someone had prevented the natural process from working itself out, and done so using force—domination—against other people. The point here is that initial equality might not last, and that expecting it to last—or insisting that it must—is a bad idea.
He notes that the desire for equality is always a reaction to a particular form of domination that is felt to be illegitimate. This is important. Just as the present-day debate on inequality doesn’t propose absolute equality as a remedy, but objects to the extreme and unjustifiable inequality we in fact do have, every demand for equality is actually a demand that one, specific inequality be remedied, not a demand for immediate egalitarianism.
But then Walzer asserts that those who suffer under inequality and domination are overwhelmed with the negative emotions of envy and resentment. He goes on to say that they actually don’t really care about the actual inequality, but rather only really about finding some way—any way—to make themselves feel good.
He follows this by characterizing redistribution through taxation as, on its face, illegitimate, because it requires domination. People might not freely consent to pay taxes, but they are compelled to do so; and Walzer uses the same language of domination to describe this circumstance that he had used in describing injustices like slavery.
Both these statements are odd, coming from the left, and I don’t think my feeling that they’re odd is a simple matter of “presentism.” They would be less odd if they came from a mid-twentieth century anti-communist who was finding it difficult to follow his fellow leftists as their movement changed towards the end of the century. But this does not describe Michael Walzer.
One possibility is that the split between older anticommunists and the members of the New Left had not yet, by 1983 (when Spheres of Justice appeared), become absolute. Another is that Walzer felt a need to respond to the changes America was undergoing in the course of Reagan’s presidency. Another, related, is that he might have wished to develop an argument that would be persuasive to people who weren’t already on the left. The way in which Walzer was often placed within the communitarian movement of those years might support this. Just as, for Alasdair MacIntyre, the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy to the Catholic Christian tradition required an argument directed toward existing Catholic Christians, in the same way, for Walzer, perhaps, the introduction of left-liberal reforms into existing American society, in an enduring way, required an argument directed toward existing Americans.
The question does arise, in this case, why these communitarian arguments so frequently give the impression that they understand “existing” people as necessarily “conservative” people. They elide or ignore the questions raised by a multicultural, multiethnic society. They similarly ignore the questions raised, for their theories, by a modern or modernizing society or a predominantly bourgeois one. And in the case of Spheres of Justice, to assume that equality is undesirable, until proved otherwise, ignores the historical and constitutional foundations of the (existing) United States. It also remains to be seen what communitarianism can make of a situation in which different groups within a nation, or a region, have different ideas about the values (hierarchy, divine grace, education) that Walzer is going to discuss in further chapters.
Not long after Spheres of Justice came out, Walzer denied being a communitarian and declared himself a liberal instead. And maybe the problems of communitarianism won’t become issues in this book. But the question does remain what those examples are doing in a book about leftist ideas, and the question does remain how this book is to be read.
It is possible that again, the preface is essentially extraneous to the rest of the book. Or maybe the questions I asked in my previous post might be helpful here. Maybe Walzer is engaging in a kind of critical-theoretical analysis, rather than an ordinarily politically persuasive kind of argument at all. Or maybe his book is best understood as belonging to the continental-philosophical tradition, rather than the Anglo analytic-philosophical one that’s more familiar to many American readers today (or at least to readers my age). I’d guess Walzer is more likely to recognize himself as a pragmatist than a “continental. Then again, Richard Rorty has argued that pragmatism and some continental poststructuralism are a lot alike.
Be that as it may, so far it seems to me that communitarianism shares, with some forms of pragmatism (like that of Stanley Fish), a difficulty in conceptualizing the possibility that the substantive positions it takes are wrong. It may offer conceptual space for a certain amount of theoretical, “pie in the sky” theorizing about ideals (of the kind Walzer here deplores), but omits a clear way of connecting any criticism with “on the ground” reality. Instead, this sort of pragmatist, or communitarian, tends to defer substantive discussions to other people, and to defer questions about when and how to criticize those people to another time and place. The pragmatist would normally defer those discussions to professionals, on the one hand, and people directly affected by their outcome, on the other, and might have no strong opinion as to which was consulted when, except to insist that ivory-tower philosophy should have no input into them. The communitarian, on the other hand, might be able to say little or nothing in criticism of a group’s communal beliefs, especially if the group is not one to which he, himself, belongs.
Spheres of Justice is obviously in some ways an academic book. It’s written by a professor of its subject matter and it clearly is intended to provide its readers access to a current academic debate. But Spheres of Justice, as I mentioned earlier, has few footnotes and few references to the historical and scholarly literature, and was put out by a general-interest publisher. It is presumably for the general-interest reader. It’s worth mentioning, I think, that this kind of book is very rarely seen these days.
These days there is more of a distinct split between books that presuppose readers will have a certain academic background, or at least the ability to follow academic prose, and will want the kind of citations of sources that would be sufficient in an academic book—and books that are intended more for entertainment, or at most a journalistic kind of narrative instruction, which have to use narrative and common language to engage the reader and make the book’s contents go down easily. There are essayists, intellectuals, and journalists out there, some of them academics, as well, who write the latter kind of thing in generalist magazines; but there seems to be little call for books that contain original academic ideas but make their appeal directly to the common reader. It’s possible to argue, probably, that the reason for this has to do with publishers’ mergers and the lack of publishers willing to support mid-range books.
Walzer states that he intends “to stand in the [Platonic] cave, in the city, on the ground . . . to interpret to [his] fellow citizens the meanings that they share.” He sets up a contrast between what he is doing, which he calls “particularism,” and “philosophy,” or at least the usual kind of philosophy. (The same contrast is picked up again in chapter one.) He defines philosophy as something that involves a thinker going away from the community, metaphorically climbing to a mountaintop, and thinking on his own. He does not want to do that kind of thing, which has indeed been criticized on a number of different levels. The idea of standing with the community and speaking with or for them, rather than to or at them, suggests a certain kind of non-academic approach to writing, one that won’t make use of obscure texts or difficult concepts, that won’t require a reader to engage in complicated thought processes or in abstract mathematics and logic in order to understand it, and that will come to conclusions that are acceptable to the majority. It also will, presumably, not tell the community that there is something wrong with it.
To some extent, this does seem to be what we’ll find. The rest of the book, at a first glance, appears to consist of many short narratives about societies in different times and places, tied to the concrete, with little or no academic, scientific, or theoretical jargon, and tied together with a few short discussions of the ideas that hold the book’s chapters together. In its form, the book will probably not alienate a general reader.
A reader who knows just a little bit about the subject matter, on the other hand, may find herself in difficulties. Walzer cites a number of introductory or popularizing texts in social science for his narratives; but he doesn’t engage with them as research. Instead, he cites them as authoritative, final accounts of what the reader may presumably take as true about the past and about other cultures. But these summaries of the social science research aren’t, in fact, nuanced enough to be accurate. It’s possible that at one time they were considered authoritative, but I’m guessing that even at the time, a student would have been ill-advised to use them as such, without delving further into the sources cited, and investigating alternative opinions. (It may be, in part, for this reason, that the market for this kind of book has diminished, and that even journalistic books need extensive bibliographies to be taken seriously.)
So, here, Walzer has educated what might be called “the general reader” about social science and history; but in doing so, Walzer has caused readers of his book to separate themselves in some small part from the community, which he also says is a bad thing to do. And for educated readers, Walzer might seem to be saying that their objections are founded on beliefs and commitments that separate them from the community, and thus don’t carry much weight. Who is this community, then, whom he wishes to be standing firmly among?
Moreover, one might ask whether it’s really possible to think in terms of writing an academic book while remaining entirely within Plato’s cave.
If the social science research, on which the bulk of Walzer’s book is based, is after thirty years no longer considered authoritative (and I think a reader in 2015 has to start by assuming it is not), then what remains of his argument? It is entirely possible that something of value remains. Again, though, it isn’t obvious that extracting that value is going to be possible for someone who rejects the kind of philosophy that Walzer suggests one ought to reject.
And the point of view of the subjects of this research should also be taken into account. Do the social scientists on whose work Walzer draws also themselves, really, stand on the same ground as their subjects and speak for them?
And returning to the readers, is it possible to remain within Plato’s cave while considering that other societies have done things differently? (Many thinkers have held that it is not.) And how are they, in turn, to think of themselves as potential subjects for social scientists?
Obviously this approach raises a number of questions, along a variety of different lines.
There is a kind of writing that can be philosophical and that does stick to the language and concepts of the wider community. Critical theory, of the sort promoted by Europeward-looking Marxists like Raymond Geuss, might be this kind of writing, or what’s known in the English-speaking world, generally, as “continental philosophy.” And then there’s literary writing, which can aspire to a certain philosophical significance, but which puts language, feeling, and real life ahead of abstract cognitive considerations. Walzer might be engaging in one of these practices, and there’s no need to dismiss the book simply because its rhetorical and ideological purpose is mixed or unusual.
These questions will probably return, however, in the course of reading the rest of the book.