Do we not also care about the welfare of the entire community? Do we not agree that individual choices can do serious harm to the collective? Do we not also want everyone to enjoy the blessings of liberty? Are we not disgusted by any governmental attempts to prevent people from this enjoyment because of minority group discrimination? Are we not equally committed to a Constitution that reflects the actual needs of the nation?
With a few exceptions—important ones, no doubt—the average leftist and the average conservative probably are in agreement about the kinds of outcomes we would wish each of us to enjoy. So what prevents consensus?
In the fifth century BC Socrates famously asked about what constitutes “the good life” which Plato chronicles in The Symposium, The Republic, and other dialogues.
We humans have been debating this ever since. And what keeps liberals and conservatives apart are very different approaches to answering this fundamental question.
The evidence for this divergence can be found in the unconscious framework of our internalized narratives. The Recovering Bureaucrat was recently reminded of this by a post on Facebook by the great author Robert Bidinotto, whose salient work on the “clash of Narratives” helped him better understand the stubborn consistency of leftist beliefs even against hard evidence of their nonviability, or, as they might like to put in, their unsustainability.
Facts may be stubborn things, but denial is even more tenacious. The RB would bet on denial over facts any day. Our determination to cling to a Narrative about “reality” appears to be a hard-wired developmental structure, an element in the trajectory of our individual and collective human evolution. The relatively rare capability to witness our mentation is essential to noticing that we are, indeed, adhering to a narrative in the first place—and how many of us have engaged in a meditative practice effective enough to develop this witnessing capacity in the first place? It tends to happen only in matured individuals, people whose self-sense is autonomous and responsible, and how many of us fall into that category?
For the most of human history, we dumbly accepted the local mythologies that promoted our being good little members of the tribe, playing a pre-assigned role without complaint or even awareness. If we played our part, we would have enough to eat and perhaps avoid being killed or pressed into slavery during clashes with rival tribes. This was part of the zero-sum world Bidinotto describes as foundational to the leftist Narrative (which the RB also identifies as the creed of the Church of the All Powerful State):
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 RB quibbles only slightly with Bidinotto’s characterization of the Agricultural Age: while it was indeed where social surplus was first invented, during its ten-millennium reign that surplus was not, nor could it be, invested in measurable improvements in per capita wealth, social mobility, life expectancy, or human dignity. The zero sum narrative remained firmly in place, even as the pre-Socratic philosophers and their successors in Greece were making the discoveries about the nature of mankind that would eventually characterize society as the Industrial Age moved toward global hegemony.
Change occurred only imperceptibly in this era because a tribe cannot invent a labor-saving device; only an individual can. Tribes cannot challenge orthodoxy or a fixed social system; only an individual can. Tribes cannot read and reflect, nor feel and intend; only an individual can. Finally, tribes cannot love and transcend their internal beliefs; only an individual can.
Of course during this period individuals appeared who were determined to escape the tribal straightjacket. The most famous, Jesus the Christ, was savagely executed for the crime of blasphemy. His proclamation of the divine nature of human beings made a mockery of the tribal assumptions of the unbridgeable gap between the divine and the human, and so he had to be eliminated.
Yet there is little reason to doubt that the creed that arose swiftly after his crucifixion, with its emphasis on God’s unconditional love for each of His children, played an essential role in the eventual emergence of individual human dignity as a social principle.
The Birth of Modernity
With the Renaissance and, more emphatically, the Protestant Reformation arose the collective awareness that individuality was superior to the previous tribal structure. (The imperial political systems that characterized governance from Egypt to China in this era, particularly after 4000 BC, were just tribal structures writ large.) The self-governing individual, freed from the unyielding conformity of the previous millennia’s social systems, was responsible for the exponential growth of wealth, health, life expectancy, knowledge, and virtue in the short two centuries from the birth of modernity.
Even though its concrete results are indeed breathtaking, nonetheless most us cannot fully appreciate the radical nature of this emergence. The magnitude of the shift from the predominance of group thought to individual discovery and determination is so unprecedented in human experience as to be all but impossible to truly grasp. One way we in the Advanced Sector can glimpse this is to talk to immigrants from places still in the thrall of tribal mores. Their gratitude for deliverance from the stifling cultures they grew up in is always palpable and touching. (You’ll notice this is one-way traffic; almost nobody migrates from the Advanced Sector to these tribal worlds.)
Another way is to look within and observe the elements of tribal consciousness still surviving in our own psyches. As the great integralist Ken Wilber avers, evolution is characterized by a “transcend and include” dynamic. All earlier structures of consciousness are still accessible to us even as we move on to higher consciousness. Thus our childhood and adolescent experiences are still with us, even as we have moved into mature adulthood. When we learn to access and embrace these with equanimity, we will find another way to discern our internal narratives and decide if they really serve us.
George Orwell grasped over a half a century ago that communism, socialism, and other totalitarian forms at war with modernity were the counterrevolution of tribal consciousness. In spite of the blather about the plight of the working class, the greed of the haute-bourgeoisie, the parasitic capitalists, etc., Lenin, Hitler, and their fellow imperialists hated the individuality and freedom that characterized the maturing modern Industrial Age. Their dictatorship of the proletariat or the party was just an updated, more sophisticated version of the rule of Pharaoh, the emperor, the czar, the shogun, or the Inca. They still sought to impose conformity and rigidity throughout their entire realms, and applied terror and murder to ensure compliance.
The Webbs and their cohorts in the British Fabian Society determined to ameliorate the more brutal aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat by adopting a soi-disant “gradualist” approach to its imposition. And it’s this Fabian unctuousness and disingenuousness that now characterizes the acolytes of the Church of the All-Powerful State in the Advanced Sector. (Almost makes one miss the likes of William Z. Foster, Maurice Thorez, and Palmiro Togliatti, honest communists all!)
You can put the iron fist in the velvet glove, but the menace is not ameliorated. The Fabians were among many that fit Lenin’s alleged quip about “useful idiots,” and their numbers have not, alas, diminished in the intervening years.
It’s appropriate to note here that neither overt communism nor socialism ever made direct political progress in the United States. Until the muscular government interventions of the Great Society began to create increasing numbers of wards of the State, American working people considered themselves middle-class and wanted nothing to do with the counterrevolution, no matter how seductively packaged. In fact, the American labor movement decisively defeated communist attempts to take it over in the aftermath of World War II and Stalin’s initiation of the Cold War.
Back to Bidinotto:
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.Again, it is essential to note that this mindset of fear is an element of human development from the very beginning. As the infant begins its separation from the mother, it will likely feel abandoned to an unfriendly world, where things conspire against its well-being. This modern world of individual autonomy, its material successes notwithstanding, is a brave departure from the tribal womb. No wonder the Romantics’ rhapsodies about a supposed lost Eden are still so attractive to us today. It takes a lot of courage and energy to develop an individual self uncontrolled by the tribe (or family or peer group).
It is fair to say that the emergence of modernity triggered a civil war within humanity, both on an individual and collective basis, that still rages today.
No Going Back
Yet there is no going back. This is the essential mistake of the global warmists, whose anti-carbon prescriptions require the masses in China and India to agree to remain on the premodern farm, even after they’ve seen the Paree of the modern breakthroughs. No one will agree to do this voluntarily—not even the warmists.
Once one has experienced individual autonomy, he will not want to eradicate its blessings and return blissfully to the tribe. This has never happened in human history, and will not happen now.
And yet the zero-sum, missing Eden narrative survives, its power derived from its venerable duration in human evolution.
The antidote, the Narrative of Individual Creativity, superior though it may be to its predecessor narrative, is still so young that it has not rooted itself as powerfully and permanently as it could. The modern world with its capitalist political economy co-exists with the earlier tribal order—and not just in Asia and Africa, but within the psyche of each of us in the Advanced Sector.
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.
In this, the Twenty-First Century, it is ironic that a Narrative drawn from mankind's primitive, brutal, tribal past is labeled "progressive."
And it is a sad commentary on the current state of philosophy and politics that individuals who bitterly cling to this childish, atavistic Narrative occupy editorial offices of our major newspapers, positions of leadership in our cultural institutions, and, of all places, the Oval Office of the White House.Sad, indeed, but real. We cannot wish it away; we must confront it with all the tools available to us.
Self Governance Requires Self Mastery
That requires each of us who believe in the modern ideals of individual liberty and the voluntary commonwealth to complete our own individuation. If we don’t look inside and discover our own internal leftist we cannot hope to demonstrate the superiority of the modern breakthrough. If we cannot develop genuine compassion for the fears that drive the older Narrative, we cannot rally those hopeful of transcending it into a modern world of greater wealth and health that is available to every human being on the planet.
This is not a call for accommodation but rather a call for embrace of the founding principles of the United States, the only nation self-consciously founded on the insights of the Enlightenment regarding the supremacy of individual dignity over the pull of the tribe.
Bidinotto calls this “the Narrative of American Individualism,” although as Lincoln repeatedly asserted, this is the birthright of every human being, not just Americans.
In this Narrative, prosperity comes, not as "fair shares" doled out from a zero-sum, collective tribal pot, but from individual creativity. The American individualist Narrative is one of personal productivity and free trade. It is an inspirational Narrative of private economic growth and expansion. It is an aspirational Narrative of seeking opportunity—not subsistence. It is a harmonious Narrative of peaceful, voluntary, win-win market exchanges—not of ruthless gang warfare over fixed chunks of wealth. It is an uplifting Narrative filled with the names of heroes: of Edison, Eli Whitney, James J. Hill, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Wright Brothers, and all the great inventors and achievers of today's Information Age.The great British essayist Matt Ridgely elaborates on this in his masterful book The Rational Optimist. He makes the powerful case, echoed compellingly by Dierdre McCluskey in her Bourgeois Era trilogy, that market economies thrive precisely because individuals are free to make voluntary trades that have the overall effect of benefiting not just the particular participants, but everyone in the market.
Like biological evolution, the market is a bottom-up world with nobody in charge. As the Australian economist Peter Saunders argues, “Nobody planned the global capitalist system, nobody runs it, and nobody really comprehends it. This particularly offends intellectuals [aka the clerisy of the Church of the All Powerful State], for capitalism renders them redundant. It gets on perfectly well without them.” There is nothing new about this. The intelligentsia has disdained commerce throughout Western history. Homer and Isaiah despised traders. St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther considered usury a sin. Shakespeare could not bring himself to make the persecuted Shylock a hero. Of 1900, Brink Lindsey writes: “Many of the brightest minds of the age mistook the engine of eventual mass deliverance—the competitive market system—for the chief bulwark of domination and oppression.” Economists like Thorstein Veblen longed to replace the profit motive with a combination of public-spiritedness and centralised government decision-making.
. . . But both the premise and conclusion are wrong. The notion that the market is a necessary evil, which allows people to be wealthy enough to offset its corrosive drawbacks, is wide of the mark. In market societies, if you get a reputation for unfairness, people will not deal with you. In places where traditional, time-honored feudal societies gave way to commercial, prudence-based economies—say, Italy in 1400, Scotland in 1700, Japan in 1945—the effect is civilising, not coarsening. When John Padgett at the University of Chicago compiled data on the commercial revolution in fourteenth-century Florence, he found that far from self-interest increasing, it withered, as a system of “reciprocal credit” emerged in which business partners gradually extended more and more trust and support to each other. There was a “trust explosion.” “Wherever the ways of man are gentle, there is commerce, and wherever there is commerce, the ways of men are gentle,” observed Charles, Baron de Montesquieu. . . . David Hume thought commerce “rather favourable to liberty, and has a natural tendency to preserve, if not produce a free government” and that “nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy.”
. . . There is a direct link between commerce and virtue. “Far from being a vice,” says Eamonn Butler, “the market system makes self interest into something thoroughly virtuous.” This is the extraordinary feature of markets: just as they can turn many individually irrational individuals into a collectively rational outcome, so they can turn many individually selfish motives into a collectively kind result.In the previous post the Recovering Bureaucrat analyzed the mindset of the average leftist and hypothesized that he or she
is concerned with the welfare of the entire community. He sees elements of what constitute and promote this welfare in ways that too many of his fellow citizens do not. He is able to see these because he is bright and moral enough to account for the impacts of human activity that cause harm to health and liberty. He believes that a nation that promotes the blessings of liberty but does not deliver them is hypocritical and immoral. He accepts that government generally and the federal government particularly constitute the only effective instrument of redress. He will not rest until all groups enjoy equally in the prosperity of the nation. He believes that the chief resistance to his policy goals are selfish individuals who either don’t see or don’t care about the impacts of their behaviors upon others and the community as a whole. He has no particular allegiance to the nation’s founding principles or the U. S. Constitution when these tend to stand in the way of universal prosperity.It is also safe to say that he “feels” these things rather than thinks about them; as a thoroughly postmodernized citizen he shares the pomo conviction that Reason is a dead white man’s tool of oppression. Feeling therefore trumps logic and rationality. The embrace of this pattern of emotional impressions makes him a good and reliable congregant in the Church of the All Powerful State, whose clerisy promises him delivery of his most fervent desires on behalf of “the community.”
It also enables a species of groupthink that is characteristic of tribal forms of consciousness: disagreement with the prevailing mythos is grounds for expulsion because it threatens the viability of the tribe. Orwell was particularly devastating in his critique of this unfortunate tendency.
Even so, the RB hypothesized that “the average leftist and the average conservative probably are in agreement about the kinds of outcomes we would wish each of us to enjoy”—differences in how we get there notwithstanding. So what, he wondered, prevents consensus?
Robert Bidinotto put his finger on the answer by describing two distinct narratives dominating American—and by extension, the Advanced Sector—politics. One takes counsel of our fears and advocates the futile attempt to control the world to prevent further damage, while the other expresses our hopes and seeks to free people so we can each achieve our own dreams.
The RB notes further that all of us have access to both fear and hope; what we choose to emphasize is what distinguishes the left from the conservatives. For all our faults, conservatives champion the great individuation project that is the hallmark of modernity; our friends on the left would turn back the clock to a mythological Eden rather than grapple with the good, the bad, and the ugly of today's world.
But there is, as the RB noted above, no going back. The left will have to come to grips with the truth that billions of people in India and China today, and in Africa and the rest of Asia tomorrow, want the blessings of the modern world. The right will have to face the reality that the counterrevolution is based on emotion, not rationality, and so will need to develop the compassion and discipline to demonstrate that the modern world offers greater security as well as standards of living than can the days gone past.
Our friends on the Left have a vision of the good life that focuses on establishing and defending external conditions that can guarantee human happiness and contentment, while adherents of modern classical liberalism focus on the drive toward self-fulfillment and mastery. Modernity through its dignifying the individual over the tribe introduced an element of social, political, and economic dynamism that required a different kind of relationship between the individual and society. Even as we in the Advanced Sector still struggle with the optimum expression of this relationship, billions of others are crowding in behind us, seeking to join the post-tribal experiment and enjoy its manifest blessings.
The RB is optimistic that the values of the modern world will not recede but breakthrough to something even more powerful, but is realistic in believing that this dynamic will be accompanied by humanity’s ongoing internal civil war about how best to answer Socrates’ fundamental existential question about “the good life.” The Left’s hope that the chaos unleashed by individual autonomy can be tamed by enforcing collective adherence to society’s common needs cannot be achieved by force. The vile communist and Nazi counterrevolutions of the 20th century, with their unremitting terror and oppression, have proven this beyond rational argument.
Only by completing modernity’s individuation project, however, can the voluntary assent necessary to consciously uniting individual and social needs be realized. By its very nature the achievement of this as a permanent social compact can only be done by free choice. Conservatives can no more successfully force liberals to agree to this than can liberals force conservatives to embrace the collectivist program.
The RB is convinced that the classical liberal project is the prerequisite to transcending the impasse, which requires conservatives to think bigger and more compassionately than we have so far been able to do. The Founders, with Lincoln’s necessary improvements, bequeathed us the formula for accomplishing this. As Bidinotto urges, we must champion the Narrative of Individual Freedom with gusto and conviction without belittling or dismissing the views of our friends on the Left.