going to war with the army you have

“Rather than deep moral and spiritual renewal leading to civic health, what if it’s our national solipsism and susceptibility to suggestion that pull us together, and pull us through? What if, rather than being stuck with virtue, we discover that, after a few initially painful changes in lifestyle, we can buy spray-on virtue in a can? If enough Americans decide that the TV show of their lives should feature them acting like engaged, conscientious citizens, might that not be just as good as a more “authentic” conversion?”  ~ Matt Frost

Matt has a point.  In fact, one reason why in my search for a workable localism I have dedicated a great deal of virtual ink searching for practical rather than moral solutions, is that I don’t think we will see any sort of moral sea change as a nation any time soon.  National reckonings are at best temporary.   I don’t think we will willingly change or restructure our spending habits – or even that spending in and of itself is a bad thing.  Rather we need to move back toward a style of consumerism which is more responsible – as in, less built on debt, and more on savings and hard work.  It’s much more likely that this sort of shift occurs through the tightening of credit, rather than the voluntary reduction of our appetites.

So what are these “practical” solutions?  There are a number, including reducing our dependence on foreign economies and cutting back military spending.  Restructuring our financial system is also vital.

For instance, we should seriously consider nationalizing troubled banks and then selling them back off with size or regional restrictions.  This would benefit the financial industry in a number of ways.  We need to do away with the terrible anti-capitalist notion of “too big to fail” which props up our oligarchy at the expense of the tax payer and to the detriment of healthy competition; in fact, the continued presence of these “too big” financial institutions may be directly impeding any sort of reasonable recovery that the stimulus at large hopes to usher in.  Commerce is at its best at smaller scales (even if these smaller operations do attain global reach), in which merchants, bankers, investors, etc. operate within communities and the dollars involved remain flowing through those communities, rather than bleeding out into the pockets of distant executives and share-holders, more concerned with quarterly profits than the long term.  This is not always possible, of course, but it’s worth shooting for, especially in our financial sector which obviously, when mismanaged, carries far too great a risk to the health of the global economy.

New urbanism – which should mix broad city planning with smart deregulation of anti-community (pro big box) zoning laws – can help create cities and towns more amenable to the pedestrian and the window shopper.  Quite frankly this works toward economic and environmental ends, not simply toward “community” building.  Aesthetically pleasing, walkable shopping areas encourage people to come down and diversify their shopping experience tying in a stop at a local restaurant or pub with their perusal of shoe shops and art galleries.  Being able to also do some grocery shopping wouldn’t hurt.  Being able to walk there or take some easy, affordable mass transit would be an added bonus to our wallets as well as to the environment.  Besides mass transit could be a good way to keep people in closer quarters with their neighbors – and that means more tight-knit communities.

Listen, there’s lots to learn from all these various ideological nooks.  I am the type to become enamored easily, and then – when the initial excitement wears off – tone down my own idealism when the reality of the counter-arguments comes into play.  So I’ve backed away from lots of positions that seemed quite sensible on the surface, but in reality have more than a few problems with them.  Certainly while one can have a strong fondness for Chesterton and his distributist writing and still think that in the end, his glorification of the medieval peasant over the modern “wage slave” is more than a little ill-advised.  But is there still wisdom in the broader concept?  Does capitalism unfairly harness us to our wages and divorce the vast majority of people from any actual possession of capital?  Of course.  And so we should read each of our philosophers and economists with a critical eye and an open mind.

Back to Matt’s notion of a sort of manufactured sense of community as opposed to one of true virtue: can values and communities be spread vis-a-vis marketing?  Can they be “popularized?”   I think to some degree they must be.  We have to meld the core, essential nature of the virtuous society with the practical, and in this case, practical translates at least in part to “markets.”  Quite honestly, if you’ve ever lived in a walkable community, or seen some of the new urbanist projects, you’ll see that they are in fact very marketable.  The problem is often that there are often dozens of zoning hurdles to get through to even get them built, so that makes what is quite marketable often quite unaffordable as well, or not nearly profitable enough.  That’s a shame.  That needs to change, and that’s where real, practical policy can make a difference.  Then, too, the strongest corporate entities in most communities are the Big Boxes, and they’ll lobby this sort of development to the death.

I have seen Safeway grocery stores located in corner spaces in very walkable communities, so I know it can be done, but stores like Safeway and Target want really big parking lots and in walkable communities, parking lots are usually really small.

But a larger point that I’m trying to make is that purists always have to find pragmatists to help sell their ideas; or as Matt explains:

[Y}ou go to war with the army you have, and if Americans are going to pull through a tough recession and discover the virtues of mutual support and community engagement, it will probably not be through a wholesale reorganization of our priorities — it will happen in a way that flatters and accommodates our peculiar (and peculiarly American) flaws and fantasies.

And therein lies the compromise.  That’s the problem with liberty, I suppose.  Nobody can force us to be more virtuous or live as better neighbors, and so sometimes these things have to be cleverly marketed.  That doesn’t dampen the need for strong voices to poise counter approaches to how we live in the world – indeed, it may make the burden fall even greater on those who are leveling the critique, on both the left and the right.  People – the masses – yearn however subconsciously for prophets and poets and  philosophers, and their wisdom tends to percolate through our popular culture, often far later and in a much-distilled form.  Still, that’s society.  Western Civilization is, after all, little more than the distillation of purists and pragmatists; soldiers and scientists; revolutionaries and conservationists; artists and kings; philosophers and engineers.  A mixed bag, in other words, built out of all the little nooks of a thousand different ideologies, philosophies, and conflicting visions.


Jaybird raises an important objection to this post in the comments, essentially worrying that what I’m describing in the above post is a form of stealth religiosity or virtue, marketed to the public.  That is not my intent.  I think everyone writing about politics or culture in a critical way has some vision of a more ideal or “virtuous” society in mind from which to base their arguments.  I only mean to say that my vision – of a more walkable, local, communal, “small is better” society – may not be palatable on the face of things to many; and that it will certainly not take the world by storm vis-a-vis arguments alone.  Philosophy must be coupled with pragmatism – and good ideas (or philosophies) need to be marketed.  New urbanist projects are fine and good but they still need to be sold to communities, home-buyers, etc.

I am not in any way saying that my morality ought to be imposed in any way, or that people should start evangelizing and so forth, but only that if we do want to create stronger communities by means of making them more human-friendly we’re going to need to find ways to do this within the larger, capitalist system.  I think the Ted Haggard comparison in many ways falls on its face for this reason.

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13 thoughts on “going to war with the army you have

  1. I think a possible “moral sea change” is going to depend on how severe the economic crisis really is. Everyone who went through the Great Depression become hard-working disciplined virtuous savers for the rest of their lives. Of course their kids turned out to be colossal fuckups, but because THEY grew up in a time of material prosperity.

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  2. True raft – but I’m of the opinion that it won’t be that bad. I hope it isn’t, in fact. The pain is not worth the outcome. This sort of thing needs to happen gently. Of course, I fear that it will be…

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  3. “Nobody can force us to be more virtuous or live as better neighbors, and so sometimes these things have to be cleverly marketed. ”

    I imagine Ted Haggard saying such a thing and then I snarl.

    Why should I not snarl when I see you saying it?

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  4. Because we mean two very different things (obviously). My definition of a virtuous society is one in which we live as communities. Haggards is one in which the Christian theocrats have ultimate power over others. My idea behind “cleverly marketed” is that we promote virtue via more walkable communities that people choose to live in.

    Is there something wrong with wanting a world that is less atomized? Is there something wrong with thinking we’d be better off if we had stronger communities? Is it then wrong to market these things since philosophy will only get you so far?

    Your concept of a virtuous society is one in which there is total freedom, correct? The libertarian ideal essentially? Do you think marketing your ideal society is worthy of a snarl? It’s marketed all the time.

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  5. I have my idea of a virtuous society and it probably looks very much like what Marx envisioned. Honest, educated people working in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and walking to the pub in the evening to argue literary theory as well as share the fruits of the day’s labor and leisure with the less fortunate.

    My problem is not the whole “wouldn’t it be nice” thing… it’s the “well, they didn’t buy it… now what do we do?” thing that inevitably follows.

    And it will, inevitably, follow.

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  6. See – that’s very much like my ideal society, jaybird, and the point I’m laboring to make is that there are communities more predisposed to encouraging that kind of thing and we should do our best to create them. That’s my whole new urbanist kick. And when it comes to my writings on localism I tend to focus on what local communities can do. I don’t want any national imposition of proper community building forced on anybody.

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  7. Any society, even the libertarian paradise, has inherent values that are in some way pushed on somebody else. Compromise is a fact of living in groups. At the least values should be openly acknowledged and transparent, so they can be democratically discussed and complained about.

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  8. The entire purpose of strengthening communities is to strengthen their democratic impulses – to ease and encourage personal and political relations through collective choice.

    The community is the smallest unit capable of acting in a democratic manner. The two smaller units are the individual, and the family. In the individual, one is authoritarian of himself. In the family, differences in age and gender automatically put people at different levels of power.

    In previous times there were what I would consider near-utopias (the best we’ve ever done, basically) such as Athens, which a nearly perfect direct democracy.

    The problem we face nowadays is that there are larger forces at work. If a community does not actively exert it’s power, it’s simply left with a nearly non-existent governance, and basically at the mercy of the state and more and more, the federal government.

    When E.D. discusses practical versus moral, I think this is hard to define. Perhaps by practical you mean the pre-requisite steps to be taken (zoning to remove big-box) against corporate and state power. We no longer live in subsistence or agricultural societies, communities cannot be grow organically as a result of geography or such. They must be actively designed, actively fought for.

    As far as being a moral good, my view is that creation of civil society in general is one of the most important moral goods. Human beings are of little value as a monadic unit, as we teach and learn from eachother we derive not a linear, but an exponential benefit from those relations. By asserting our individual sovereignty, than our communal sovereignty, (state, ect.) we make more and more of our relations voluntary/cooperative, rather than being at the mercy of fewer, more centralized and powerful entities that tend towards subservience and monoculture.

    A libertarian should identify this localism as an extension of their beliefs or a practical compromise: If we’re going to have s state, let’s make it as small as possible and have the most democratic investment in it from individuals as we can, in order to limit coercive elements that are distant, abstract, and which we have little to no power over.


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  9. well aside from anything else, Athens was a near perfect democracy if you were in the select group who had a vote.

    Localism is fine and good where is fits, but in our information and computer age, globlelized world that doesn’t seem to fit some problems.

    I think there is just a misconect in these discussions among those who seem to see the federal level of government as inherently evil/bad/oppressive and those who don’t. I’m not really sure how to get past that. Although i would love to hear somebody tell me about a localized health care system or all the great examples of libertarian health care systems that cover everybody.

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  10. Athens allowed any male to be a citizen regardless of wealth/class. Those citizens then were the government; there were no elected representatives. Other than lacking women’s suffrage, this is inarguably better than our system: You can choose the democrat or republican (though usually, seats are gerrymandered and safe. And we have no term limits)

    There’s a reason why all students of philosophy read both Plato and Aristotle. All Historians read Herodotus, doctors take the Hippocratic oath, the first astrometry satellite is named after Hipparchus (developed stellar parallax, accurately measurement of distance of the moon, later used for stars). I could go on with biology, architecture, seige weapons, ect. But it would be tiring. Point is, this small city that only existed independent for a short time, was more influential than any other on western civilization, and I think it has something to do with it’s form of government.

    “I think there is just a misconect in these discussions among those who seem to see the federal level of government as inherently evil/bad/oppressive and those who don’t.”

    The more centralized, large and distant the command structure, the worse it is (corruption, monoculture, power, ect). This applies to corporations and governments. I would like to see the eventual abolition of corporate personhood (sole proprietorships and partnerships, lack limited liability and still tends to allow individuals to act morally) I also think that it’s possible to outgrow our federal government.

    As for localized healthcare. Yes, we had it. For a very long time. Throughout the 1800’s-early 1900’s, most people belonged to a fraternal organization. These organizations had large dues, but in exchange would provide health insurance, funeral, and many, many other services. They also provided companionship and meeting of minds that money can’t buy. This was in the grand American tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s Junto.

    Then the rise of the patent system, corporate personhood, the HMO Act, and many other interventions, eventually killed it.

    Our current system is so bad, I think Socialized medicine just might be better than what we have now. Maybe we can start with such as system and eventually put the medicine/devices/procedure patents in the public domain, develop open standards and open source medical records, claims, a diagnosis helper, than it wouldn’t be that hard to make it all voluntary and local. At that point it would be easy to start your own, regardless.

    Next, I agree with E.D. Kain about smaller banks, but I’d rather see a rise in credit unions instead. There’s no reason that certain services, like credit cards, stock trading, can’t be performed by credit unions if open standards and software were developed.

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  11. Kain, a few further thoughts.

    Distributionism seems (in my limited knowledge) to not recognize that physical capital is worth very, very little in the modern economy compared to “intellectual property”, especially patents. The problem is patents are becoming so prevalent, so vague, and so litigious, that they are choking the economy. (copyrights are not near as egregious, being related to a well-defined work, not a vague idea)

    Intellectual property, and Limited Liability are essentially the two legs of the modern, multinational corporation. If we are to attempt to replace the for-profit corporation with a Utopian civil society in which ALL organizations are non-profit, we need to start with attacking corporations (and use the federal government to do so; it is the only organization with the power to) We must attack those two legs.

    Now for the opening up of patents for the medical system, I would 1. nationalize current medical software companies(optional) 2. Develop/perfect said software, develop many nonexistent ones such as diagnosis software to reduce medical expertise needed 3. Open Source all such software.

    A similar process would take place for education – textbooks become collaborative like Wikipedia (but with university professors doing-and being paid for- the editing). Same thing with curriculums. Lectures go online, class is only for face-to-face discussions with teacher and students, Socratic method, and tests and quizzes. Much, much more focus is done on practical apprenticeship-like projects. If R&D projects are being done by other nonprofits, there can be collaboration and the transitions made seamless. This all vastly reduces the cost of education.

    A similar process could take place for the hardware (The reality is that, China and other countries are already completely ignoring all of our hardware patents and reverse-engineering our hardware, anyway. For software, they can copy it, but they remain reliant on companies like Microsoft because they can’t get the source code). Finally, the further research and development must be financed somehow. Maybe we can let our companies to exist for a while, while we weaken their patent lengths.

    If my utopia is achieved, they can be converted into non-profits. The shared knowledge of mankind is almost entirely public and free. R&D for science, space exploration is done heavily. By this time we have achieved a lasting peace amongst “nations”, a permanent pax terra. Yes, Kain, this WAS ultimately a moral revolution.

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  12. Jivatman – lots to chew on in those comments. I think your notion of “open-source” is really fantastic. I know the mutualists have gotten into that some, with ideas of open-source building materials and architecture, etc.

    One thing I certainly agree with is breaking the corporations – especially the financials – at the knees. And yes, I didn’t mention it in this post, but I’m a huge proponent of the credit union over the standard bank…

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