Dick, however, was no defeatist. Inspired by some mystical experiences he had at around this time, he saw that hope yet persisted. As we writes,
“But nevertheless something shines in the dark ahead that is alive and makes no sound. We saw it once before, but that was a long time ago, or maybe our first ancestors did. Or we did as small children. It spoke to us and directed and educated us then; now perhaps it does so again. It sought us out, in the climax of peril. There was no way we could find it; we had to wait for it to come to us.”
So far this year, 16 percent of all retail industry loans are delinquent, according to statistics tracked by the data firm Trepp. Major retailers, including J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Modell’s Sporting Goods, have filed for bankruptcy, and new tenant demand for mall space has never been weaker, according to an analysis of national malls by the advisory firm Green Street. The closure of anchor stores only exacerbated the financial duress, given that, as Green Street noted in a recent mall survey, their departure can allow other tenants to reduce the rent they pay. Some landlords have opted to hand ownership of their struggling malls back to their lenders, making distressed sales of those investments very likely.
In her journalistic memoir Attention: A Love Story, Casey Schwartz participates in the technological lament, but the personal nature of her reflections allows her contribution to achieve something that The Shallows and The Attention Merchants cannot. Starting with her own addiction to Adderall and proceeding to investigate modern attempts to regain our lost attention, she plumbs the existential questions that underlie our collective escape into our screens. When we willingly cede our focus to Silicon Valley, she wonders, what is it that we are fleeing? What about the present moment makes it inadequate to the demands of our attention?
Christian contemplative prayer asks the same questions. The tradition that stretches from the Desert Fathers through the Spanish Mystics to Thomas Merton unites itself around the practice of silent prayer, which aims at, in Evelyn Underhill’s words, “the art of union with Reality.” Contemplation constantly calls our attention to the present moment to uncover the divine presence which animates it. Though Schwartz does not address the contemplative tradition directly in her book, she connects with it tangentially through her fascination with someone heavily influenced by it: the twentieth century thinker Simone Weil. Drawn to Weil’s insight that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Schwartz is not content to situate attention inside the self; instead, she insists on the necessary link between attention and our moral obligations to others. In doing so her book opens a space for dialogue with the Christian mystical tradition.
Finally, as we have seen, Hegel’s approach investigates the social bonds necessary at a time for a society to generate allegiance to a regime and a social order, and so to be able to inspire sacrifices for it when required. I have been concentrating on the potential ethical harms to individuals that worried Hegel even before Fordism and a massive expansion of the productive power of capitalism would greatly exacerbate those dangers. But if Hegel is right about the harm done by inequality in the social bases of self-respect, and so the lack of standing, acknowledgment and recognition that for him are essential to a free and thus worthy life, we should certainly expect that harm to have disastrous consequences for the social bond itself. It could easily promote a culture of grievance, resentment, suspicion, paranoia and various compensatory pathologies, all the way to what are now rightly described as “deaths of despair.”
We have been experiencing for several years now the political consequences of such a culture of grievance driven by an “unleashed” globalized attempt at the maximization of profit. For reasons we have been exploring, it would also be a great mistake to think of all of this as remediable by greater income equality alone (however important that is) or the “return” of supposedly wonderful and fulfilling “factory jobs,” or some supposed liberation from work itself. Without a greatly reformed economic system in which men and women can come to feel respected for meaningful work, we should also expect that it will be hard to persuade anyone of the value of sacrificing much of anything for the sake of a social whole they do not experience themselves as a real part of. Appealing only to self-interest and the interests of loved ones has always been an argument with very little appeal to those who are willing to “take their chances,” and it implicitly concedes there is no basis in our social world for a wider appeal. In that case, we could expect there to be dangerous and widespread noncompliance, and thoughtless impatience from populist political leaders whose rise was fueled by such resentment, should there ever be a need to ask for sacrifices, for example, like lockdowns and quarantines in the case of a global pandemic.
Perhaps the intensity of adolescent belonging, when the metal door opens for you and then clamps shut to keep out the uninitiated, is a chimera of youth, dangerous to desire in adulthood. Still, the community I felt in those sweaty crowds during those nights can remain a goal. In my relative cultural homelessness now, I still find some version of it in little pockets when I really connect with other people – they need not share my taste in music or clothing to make connection possible, though now as ever, these commonalities make it easier.
Is it cruel to have the experience of total belonging for a short time, and then have to settle into wider worlds where treaties must be made and maintained one by one, where commonality and strangeness intermingle even in the person of our closest partners? What is the lasting effect of such intense but transient communion?
On one hand, maybe it sets us up to ask too much. A few hours in a music-saturated room is like the erotic thrill you have early in a relationship, before children enter the picture and then only sporadically afterward. You wouldn’t want to trade those things away. They set a standard that serves to bound the range of our experience, some ideal that makes sense of the realities we live with more regularly. We can and should desire to have more of them; ecstatic self-abandon should be a recurring feature of our lives. We need to lose ourselves now and then.
But of course, these are peak experiences, oases in the desert. No politics – God help us – should be aimed toward that kind of belonging. No family life or romantic relationship will consistently exist in that haze. To demand it is to court resentment, failure, and the deformation of the community and its members. It is to remain an adolescent far past when one should.
The fundamental point of the Ostroms’ research on the commons is the distinction between “open-access” conditions—such as Hardin’s tragic pastureland—and careful, rule-bound management of natural resources, examples of which are found the world over. Governing the Commons showcases a series of these. Some are of ancient origin, such as Spain’s Tribunal de las Aguas, “a water court that has for centuries met on Thursday mornings outside the Apostles’ Door of the Cathedral of Valencia.” A whole chapter is dedicated to the de novo creation of the Central and West Basin Water Replenishment District in Los Angeles in 1959, the subject of Elinor’s dissertation. Yet another chapter is devoted to analyzing “several cases of outright failure,” including the acrimonious negotiations that continue to undermine good management of the San Bernardino County water supply adjacent to LA.
The cases in the book were selected from among the hundreds that the Ostroms had examined over the years. Although heterogeneous in other ways, all the examples were based in grassroots organizing, as exemplified by a Turkish inshore fishing ground threatened with collapse from overuse. By the early Seventies, competition for the most productive trawling spots had become violent. Faced with social and economic breakdown, the fishers began to experiment with ways to share the catch more fairly. A decade of trial and error resulted in an ingenious set of rules for rotating boats throughout the season, spacing the trawling grounds far enough apart so that production is optimized, and giving every boat an equal chance at the highest-yielding spots. A list of fishing grounds is endorsed by every fisher at the beginning of the season, and shared with the local mayor and gendarme. Despite the power of local officials to impose fines for violations, monitoring and enforcement of the rules ended up being carried out primarily by the fishers themselves.
In their pursuit of practical guidelines for organizing commons management regimes, the Ostroms derived some abstract models and rules from their observations of real-world success and failure. Like Hardin, they deployed game theory to this end. Their version of game theory was more variegated, generous and sophisticated than his, but it still featured the autonomous, self-interested individuals of classical economics, figuring out how to solve collective problems for the sake of ecological sustainability.
For some on the left, the fact that the Ostroms base their models on the assumption of individual self-interest is enough to condemn the approach as hopelessly neoliberal. I submit that this is precisely the strength of their commons governance research. As Elinor Ostrom put it in one of her syllabi: “How can fallible human beings achieve and sustain self-governing ways of life and self-governing entities as well as sustaining ecological systems at multiple scales?” The assumption of selfishness is a critical analytical tool for answering this question. Without it, it is all but impossible to implement strategies for overcoming such perennial difficulties as the free-rider problem. If you’ve ever lived in a communal house and noticed how dirty dishes pile up in the sink during the day, you will know what I mean. With apologies to Audre Lorde, this is one case where we can and must use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
As it happens, the Ostroms’ research has yielded such a wealth of information about what works and what doesn’t that psychologists have begun to formulate some practical wisdom from the data. One group, for example, has identified “four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas: understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing.” None of this is particularly utopian. It turns out that we needn’t be selfless communards in order to escape the trap of Hardin’s “rational” herdsmen. The portrait of human nature that emerges from work on commons governance is that of a species fundamentally self-interested, incorrigibly social and perfectly capable—under the right conditions—of rational, bottom-up stewardship of commonly owned resources.
Distrusted by his royal Sardinian masters, de Maistre, now a wanderer without revenue, accepted the ambassadorship to St Petersburg. He was to spend 14 years in Imperial Russia and became a Russian subject while retaining his full diplomatic status. He fished deeply in the murky waters of Russian political and educational reform. He strove to Catholicise an aristocratic coterie of Russian friends. He advised the Czar on European affairs. He steeped himself in military theory during the Napoleonic wars. He conspired more or less transparently to secure a toehold in Russia for the Jesuits (it was the Russian turn to nationalist, mystical Orthodoxy after 1815 which was to bring on the grievous termination of de Maistre’s illustrious embassy). But, above all, it was on the banks of the Neva, during the white nights and the auroral hours unique to that haunting city, that Joseph de Maistre, most probably between 1809 and 1813, composed his Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg. These are, together with Galileo’s Dialogo, the most powerful philosophic-dramatic dialogues written in the West after Plato.
Though a full translation into English is at last in progress, the flavour of the original will be difficult to capture. De Maistre’s handling of the pulse and cadence of argument, of exposition, of challenge, of momentary mundane détente, has a Platonic suppleness and variousness. The unique light of St Petersburg, as it plays across the waters, the privileged strangeness of the extraterritorial setting, the Ambassador’s salon, the distant drumming of thunder, both literal and symbolic (Europe is blazing under the march of the Grandes Armées), are incomparably evoked. The successive soirées are nothing less than a conspectus, metaphysical and political anthropological and historical, of the humar condition. Exactly like Milton, whom he admired and read closely, de Maistre sets out to justify the ways of God to man.
The crux is that of Original Sin. Man is fallen from original grace. History is the blood-stained enactment of that Fall. How else can one provide any rational view of the sum of massacres, torture, folly, self-destruction, which make up the works and days of humanity? How else can one even hope to grasp why it should be that scientific and technological progress, economic expansion, intellectual and artistic invention, have not only left mankind unenfranchised from private and public anguish, but have, in plain fact, made human existence more naked to barbarism and the menace of mass-extermination? How shallow are the utopian promises of the Humanists and the Enlightenment, how myopic Rousseauist or Jeffersonian expectations of progress. What lies ahead, in a 20th century yet to come, is world war and the carnival of torture, is censorship and the regimen of the inhuman.
Joseph de Maistre’s ‘night-vision’ in the Soirées may well be the principal feat of precise foresight in the history of modern political thought and theory. It makes the ‘futurology’ of Rousseau, of Hegel and Marx look utterly shallow. The age of the Gulag and of Auschwitz, of famine and of ubiquitous torture, of Idi Amin, of Pol Pot and of Ceaucescu is exactly that which de Maistre announced. The nuclear threat, the ecological laying waste of our planet, the leap of endemic, possibly pandemic, illness out of the very matrix of libertarian progress, are correspondent to the analysis and prevision of the Soirées. The axiom of Original Sin, however we interpret its existential content, offers a key to the facts of our historical condition (there is, of course, in both Marxist and Freudian aetiologies of the human circumstance a scarcely-concealed borrowing of the axiom of the Fall). No secularist-liberal model can match either the logic or the predictive force of de Maistre’s political theology.
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