Sunday, October 14, 2012

Clashing Narratives

Ed Driscoll at Instapundit recently linked to a fascinating election analysis by Robert James Bidinotto entitled “Election 2012 and the Clash of Narratives.”  It is a crisp summary of the ongoing clash that the Recovering Bureaucrat has been chronicling between supporters of the founding principles of the United States and the counterrevolution against it led by Church of the All Powerful State.

Bidinotto calls this a battle between two narratives: the progressive zero-sum Narrative and the Narrative of American Individualism.

His analysis of the origins of the progressive zero-sum Narrative is spot-on.  He correctly ascribes it as a product of the pre-industrial tribal social organization and consciousness that dominated human evolution from the rise of agriculture at the end of the last Ice Age through the European Renaissance and Reformation.
For progressivism is not a mature, adult philosophy, but a juvenile story—an immature, childish Narrative about how the market economy supposedly works.  More specifically, it is a primitive Narrative, one rooted far back in mankind's distant tribal past.  This timeless Narrative has been resurrected and propagated endlessly in classic myths, allegories, and parables, such as Robin Hood, the Sermon on the Mount, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.  It remains the central plotline of endless novels and films in which rapacious (more recently, carcinogenic) corporate tycoons crush the souls, jobs, and lives of hapless, hard-working "little people."  Arguably, it goes back to the Prometheus myth in ancient Greece: After all, Prometheus didn't create fire as his gift to man, but stole it from the gods (Zeus: "Prometheus, about that fire—you didn't build that!")
This period lasted for almost twelve thousand years, and this dug a deep groove in the collective consciousness of the human race.  And, truth be told, this perspective on life still predominates among the majority of people on the planet today. 
Now, it was understandable that our primitive ancestors would accept a zero-sum, tribal Narrative about wealth.  In their hunter-gatherer world, basic needs were filled mainly by scavenging from nature, not by producing goods. Facing myriad threats, vulnerable individuals grouped together in tribes as a matter of survival.  Threats also came from other tribes, which were competing for access to the same natural resources.  It was a brutal, zero-sum world of privation, of a limited "pie" of wealth—fostering an ethos of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
It was not until the Agricultural Revolution that men began to break free of the zero-sum existence of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  For the first time, production allowed men to increase the food supply—to expand the size of the "pie."  No longer did one person's gain entail another person's deprivation.  With the gradual increase of production under a division of labor, and with free trade among those producing specialized goods, the "pie" of wealth began to grow rapidly.  With the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, living standards, which had remained at subsistence levels since the dawn of man's presence on Earth, suddenly began to soar, and so did life expectancy.
The key shift was the rise of individual consciousness, which was a major factor in the emergence of the Renaissance.  The fifteenth century gave rise to a number of revolutionary forces that together resulted in a new, post-tribal realm of consciousness, that of the individual.  The Modern era was now underway, soon to give way to the industrial and democratic structures of society.

As individuals were being liberated from the rigid social structure of tribal systems, a new energy was unleashed for human endeavors.  This appeared in all realms of activity, from religion to science to the economy.  Ken Wilber has written extensively on this revolution, referring to it as “the dignity of the Modern” arising out of premodern culture.

The Long War of the Premodern v. the Modern

This transformation has not come without titanic struggles.  Europe experienced this in many ways, including the form of the religious wars between the emerging Protestant nation states of western and northern Europe against the Catholic empires of southern and central Europe.  The Thirty Years War in the 17th century presaged many such bloody conflicts over the subsequent centuries.  The two world wars and the Cold War in the last century were a continuation of the conflict.
But while the zero-sum social world was disappearing, the zero-sum Narrative did not vanish from the minds of men.  People still tried to fit the events and changes around them into a familiar explanatory matrix, and to populate the morality play in their heads with new casts of heroes and villains.  As centuries passed, tribalism morphed into feudalism, then nationalism, then various forms of ideological collectivism: socialism, communism, fascism, racism, Nazism, not to mention collectivism's religious-based variants.  Whatever their differences, all still clung to the basic plot of the story: of a brute conflict among individuals and classes for limited wealth in a zero-sum world, and of the need for the tribe to suppress individual greed, for the common good.
The American Revolution, solidified with Lincoln’s triumph over constitutionally protected slavery in the Civil War, was the key political economic breakthrough of this struggle.  For the first time in human history, the dignity of the individual over the tribe found a national home.  The Declaration of Independence was a forthright rejection of the old narrative and a ringing endorsement of the new.  The Constitution then turned theory into practice, establishing a government whose explicit limitations would protect the proposition that all men are equal.

In a real way, the establishment of the United States represented a triumph of the Modern project of individuation created in the Renaissance.   The Founders and Lincoln were all completely aware of the world historic nature of their endeavors; they were equally aware of the fragile nature of this experiment, resting as it did on a revolutionary idea that sought to transcend many millennia of a different assumption about people and society.

The freeing of the individual from the coercion of the tribe completely changed the economic order.  Instead of the zero-sum assumptions of the feudal empires in which a tiny aristocratic group controlled the 99% through serfdom and other enthrallments, individuals became increasingly able to create and profit from wealth they themselves invented and produced.

The feudal/agrarian imperial order began, with the rise of the Tudors in the late 15th century, to give way to first mercantilist and then capitalist forms of political economy.  And when the United States went all the way and enshrined personal freedom as a founding principle, a safe harbor was now available to anyone who yearned to pursue happiness according to his own lights.

And of course, because of this unprecedented world historic opportunity, immigrants poured into the new country in ever greater numbers until irrational fears of socialism and other alleged contagions led to the tight restrictions imposed in the mid-1920s.
Capitalism—which rests on individual productivity and voluntary, "win-win" trading—clashed with the zero-sum, "win-lose" Narrative in every key respect.  Capitalism also represented a dire threat to those whose values, thinking, institutions, and lifestyles remained mired in the zero-sum morality tale.  So, they tried to interpret capitalism and capitalists within the framework of that Narrative.  Not grasping that wealth made by production and trade did not come at someone else's expense, they bitterly clung to the notion that wealthy entrepreneurs must be like the ruthless "robber barons" of the feudal period, and that having wealth was in itself proof of grand-scale theft from the tribe—a worldview summarized by 19th Century muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd in the title of his book Wealth Against Commonwealth.
And so it remains, even now.  Despite the fact that the capitalist system of individual freedom, private property, and free trade has led to the greatest explosion and broadest distribution of wealth in history, it clashes with the interpretive story that gives many people a profound sense of meaning and worth, and with the multitude of social institutions in which that worldview is deeply embedded.
It is ironic, is it not, that one of the consequences of our national commitment to individual freedom has been the necessity of permitting propagation of the old Narrative, which seeks to undermine the new one at every opportunity.  In order to support our founding principles, we must tolerate within our midst even the Church of the All Powerful State.

And that brings us to next month’s election.

The Airhead Conundrum

The Recovering Bureaucrat has documented the ongoing history and practice of the Church’s sabotage of our founding ideals (see, for instance, “Obamacare v. Founding Principles,” or “Priest of the Church of the All Powerful State Denies Its Existence”).  Mr. Bidinotto correctly demonstrates the fact that President Barack Obama and the vast numbers of people he speaks for are the shock troops of the old “progressive zero-sum Narrative,” i.e., the Church of the All Powerful State.  This political formation has its roots in the late 19th century Progressive Movement, and is led by people whom David Gelernter in his new book America Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) labels “post religious, globalist intellectuals,” or PORGIs.  Dr. Gelernter writes:
The PORGIs are followed in turn by the PORGI Airheads, or intellectualizers, who have passed through the schools and colleges and come out seeing the world just as they are supposed to.  For the new establishment, they are freshly minted money in the bank.  One day this nation will belong to the Airheads, who will carry out PORGI theories as faithfully and thoughtfully as a bucket carries water.
The new establishment is “post-religious” in the sense that God and Judeo-Christian religion don’t strike most modern intellectuals as important enough to dismiss.  Mostly they don’t even reach the point of being atheists.  On the other hand, it has long been understood that left-liberalism is itself a religion.  This is the positive side of the left, the low-calorie spiritual sweetener that improves the fresh-squeezed lemon juice of rage, alienation, and envy.
It is the PORGIs who are the latest generation to lead the Church of the All Powerful State here in the United States, who mindlessly embrace the progressive, zero-sum Narrative.  And, much to the disgust of Mr. Bidinotto—and the RB as well—the Republicans seem reluctant to embrace and promote the Narrative of Individual Freedom.
The Democrats were first to “position” Romney’s image with swing voters, by advancing a fabricated-but-toxic personal Narrative about the candidate—and by tying him to a broader-but-equally-toxic philosophical Narrative about the Republican Party.  A Reader’s Digest–style condensation of that storyline would go something like this:
Barack Obama is not responsible for today’s horrible state of affairs. The Republicans, led by George W. Bush, created the terrible economy that's making you suffer.  You are poor because the Greedy Rich, which the GOP champions, are stealing from you by not paying their "fair share" of taxes and by outsourcing your jobs to China.  And Mitt Romney is the poster boy for all of this evil: He’s a cold-blooded rich guy whose Bain Capital outsourced jobs, and who thus made obscene wealth at your expense.  We must repudiate Romney and his greedy Republicans, and compel the thieving rich to pay their “fair share”—by re-electing Barack Obama and endorsing his policies of “fairness.
There is the leftist “social justice” morality play, complete with heroes and villains—a philosophical Narrative also tied to personal Narratives about Romney and Obama. Of course it is a ludicrous distortion of reality. But thanks to the default of the Republicans, it has been the only explanatory Narrative out there for voters to consider.
If you seek a paradise where the Republicans have ceded all power to the Church of the All Powerful State, then by all means come to California, preferably after a stop in Detroit.
The smears have largely worked, because of how deeply ingrained the zero-sum mindset has become.  It provides millions with a simplistic explanation of the world.  Those who hold that outlook, especially those ideologues who purvey it, cannot conceive of "win-win" economic relationships.  The plot structure of their economic Narrative demands that each cast member plays an assigned role either as rapacious villain or exploited victim.  Independent creators?  Peaceful traders?  They are not part of the class-conflict morality play.
Which is, if Professor Gelernter is to be believed, the result of decades of PORGI-inspired dumbing down of elementary and secondary education in the U. S.  “Barack Obama and his generation of airheads,” he writes, “the first ever to come of age after the cultural revolution [of the 1960s], are unique in American history.  All former leftist movements were driven by ideology.  Obama’s is driven by ignorance.”
Airheads have trouble telling fact from fiction, and common wisdom from partisan politics.  When candidate Obama spoke of being “post-political” or “beyond political,” he might easily have meant: “My views are not political; they are just common sense, received wisdom, the simple truth.  Only Republicans make political statements.  I am a simple truth teller.”
When theory guides you, facts don’t count, don’t matter, don’t exist.  That is the way intellectuals act, and they have imparted this worldview to the intellectualizers, the PORGI Airheads, who do the dirty work.

The Strange Republican Abdication

Which might explain, at least in part, the Republican lethargy.  While the moral issues embodied in the abortion and gay marriage issue are important and worth defending, that is the problem: they are acting defensively.  Perhaps the conservatives count too many Airheads among their own number as well, so that the muscular defense of individual freedom that generated the Reagan Revolution against the Great Society has become enervated and slack.

Back to Mr. Bidinotto, on the response of the Romney campaign to the Bain-baiting and liar-epithet-casting of the Obama campaign:
And in response to all of these smears, the Romney camp did . . . exactly nothing.  One year ago, most Americans knew little if anything of Mitt Romney; in their minds, he was an empty suit.  Yet Team Romney sat idly by as the Democrats filled that suit with the image of Ebenezer Scrooge.
This post was written before Romney’s first debate with Obama, where he began to promote the power and effectiveness of our founding principles, especially against the stubborn and reactionary commitment by Obama and his party to the failed “Blue Social Model” of the progressive zero-sum Narrative.

It is telling that even such a tentative embrace of our principles, delivered with vigor in the face of Obama’s passivity, was sufficient to change the dynamics of the campaign.  What, one wonders, would an all-out offensive inspire?

But the general Republican passivity in the face of the relentless aggression of the members of the Church of the All Powerful State against our founding principles has long mystified the Recovering Bureaucrat.  Here in California he has watched the state GOP consciously self-emasculate; little over 30% of the voters of the nation’s largest state are now registered as Republicans, when as recently as 18 years ago they held most of the statewide offices and one of the branches of the legislature.

This is especially galling since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, and the ongoing drama of the Euro’s torturously slow demise.  This has had the ironic political effect of all the Advanced Sector leftwing “progressive” parties rallying to defend the status quo!  This is a time of tremendous political opportunity for reinvigorating the global economy with the time-proven American political economic principles.

It was exactly to take advantage of this that the Tea Party movement spontaneously arose two years ago.  Grassroots American citizens, tired of the passivity of the Republican party leadership against the leftwing undermining of our political economy, decided to take matters into their own hands.  Without official sanction or a formal structure, they nonetheless helped engineer the biggest shift in the House of Representatives since the Great Depression.

And of course in doing so they drew the scornful (and frightened) attack from the Church of the All Powerful State, including its lapdog mainstream media arm.

And so here we are, three weeks until the November election.  Romney’s surprising offensive against Obama in the first debate arrested the President’s momentum and turned it into a true toss-up.  But the RB is not optimistic that Romney will seize the moment to become a champion of the Individual Freedom Narrative.

And here’s the real challenge: whoever wins will face not only divided government but a world economy still on the knife’s edge of significant retreat.  The International Monetary Fund last week reduced its already slight global economic growth estimates.  If the IMF—a pillar of the global establishment—is offering pre-election warnings of long-term economic doldrums, how awful might the situation actually be?  Next year promises to be the toughest of all since the downturn began.

The War Is Not Over

So our challenge remains a herculean one: to turn the tide of the leftist Airhead Narrative and restore, with 21st century content, the Narrative of American Individualism.

Mr. Bidinotto is optimistic about the landscape.
Properly articulated, the positive, upbeat Narrative of American Individualism could inspire voters to reject, decisively and perhaps permanently, the Narrative of Zero-Sum Progressivism.  Consider: Voters consistently tell pollsters that they regard themselves as "conservative" over "liberal" by a two-to-one margin.  Affirming the individualistic inclinations of the electorate, recent polling by Rasmussen confirms that only 31 percent of voters think the government should help troubled mortgage-holders; that only 20 percent of American adults believe it is possible for targeted government programs to help the housing market; that an overwhelming 64 percent of adults think there are too many Americans dependent on the government for financial aid; and that a whopping 83 percent favor a work requirement as a condition for receiving welfare aid.
Does that seem like an electorate philosophically primed or personally motivated to endorse the progressive, zero-sum Narrative and to rehire Barack Hussein Obama?  Or rather, does it seem like an electorate ready for the inspirational appeal of a philosophical and personal Narrative rooted in American Individualism?
This election should not be merely a clash of politicians, but of basic cultural Narratives.  For hundreds of centuries, the Zero-Sum, Tribalist Narrative gripped people in privation, conflict, and tyranny.  It is the Narrative of primitivism and the past.  By contrast, within the course of little more than two hundred years, the American Individualist Narrative established the greatest, freest, wealthiest nation in the history of the world. It is the Narrative of modernism and of the future.

The RB agrees that the American ideals are vastly superior to those of the Church of the All Powerful State and the leftist Airheads.

But that superiority has no guarantee of triumph.  Indeed, the Founders fretted that their handiwork depended entirely upon the civic virtue of the citizenry, who were now the constitutional source of political power.  What would happen, Franklin and others wondered for instance, if citizens began to see the public treasury as free money to which they could help themselves legally?

Sound familiar?

The RB has no formula for restoring the Narrative of American Individualism to its rightful place in our collective consciousness and therefore our governance.  He is aware, as the events of 1989 demonstrated decisively, that the old narrative cannot engender a more prosperous future, but it can delay--and indeed has already delayed--the recovery.

Whatever happens November 6, we still have our work cut out for us.  The citizenry will have to endure the government we elect; that’s the nature of our system.  In the meantime patriots have to take every opportunity to confront the Airheads and promote our Founding Principles.  Perhaps the “objective circumstances” of the global economy will spur us as a nation to do this sooner than later; one can always hope. 

But have no doubt: this is a war, one of a lengthy, centuries-long duration.  We must be prepared for the long haul, and resist all temptation to give in.  As Churchill, a great leader in the Narrative of Individual Freedom, admonished his fellow countrymen in a central battle of that war,
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
In the meantime, let us conduct ourselves as Lincoln recommended in the mighty words that brought his great Second Inaugural Address to a close:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.


  1. RB, you have honored me with an extraordinarily literate and erudite essay that builds upon and fleshes out my thesis considerably. THANK YOU. I'll link to your commentary on my Facebook page tomorrow. It deserves the widest audience.

    --The Other "RB"

  2. Yes, truly excellent! (though my name is not actually James).