Monday, February 20, 2012

Romanticism and the Clerisy

I'm discussing The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce by Deirdre McCloskey.
One of her arguments got me thinking, even a little worried about some of the things I argue on this blog.

There is a long history of people criticising capitalism for being unfulfulling, shallow, and something worthy of contempt, she says. People want to imagine themselves as subject to deeper motivations and callings than simply trading and exchange.

Clearly, this is not exacty a new or original thing to say. And It would be a little embarrassing if I was just arguing for warmed-over 19th-century romanticism of the kind she criticizes.

But fortunately I'm not. I'll get back to that later.

She says:
The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.
There is a long tradition too of spurning capitalism as being "uncool" or boring.
Respectability looks boring to the Romantic, and if he is comfortable enough to be bored he is repelled. He looks for an exciting life.
We can hear this yearning in Sarah Ahmed's Promise of Happiness book,  which we looked at a few weeks ago. Ahmed values political engagement, stimulation, and possibility - ie, hope - over happiness. In McCloskey's view, this would be a huge imbalance of hope over the other virtues.

You don't have to be a radical or romantic to be uneasy about bourgeois values. There  is much concern about shallow consumerism, and arguments that capitalism undermines feelings of community or solidarity. McCloskey thinks this is misdirected. For example:
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain and the British Commonwealth, sometimes repeats the usual claim of religious leaders, unsubstantiated, that "the dominance of the market [has] had a corrosive effect on the social landscape" and that "the institutions of civil society ... have become seriously eroded in consumption-driven cultures." He is mistaken. It is a mistake for one thing to think of bourgeois life as "consumption-driven," if one means that spend, spend, spend is necessary for its survival. An aristocrat or a peasant will spend, spend, spend when he can, yet his life consists of more.
Of course, it is easy to agree with criticism of shallow consumerism. Incontinent spending is not particularly virtuous either. But it isn't an inherent immovable middle-class vice.
And it is the anti-market, anti-capitalists who have produced misery.
In short, the neoaristocratic, cryptopeasant, proclerisy, antibourgeois theories of the nineteenth century, applied during the twentieth century for taxing, fixing, resisting, modifying, prohibiting, collectivizing, regulating, unionizing, ameliorating, expropriating modern capitalism, failed of their purposes, killed many millions, and nearly killed us all.
So - am I just echoing the rather tedious romantic criticism of the economy, seeing it as shallow besides other selfless goals like nationalism or socialism or environmentalism?

No. I don't want to identify with the romantic or left-wing critique of capitalism. I agree with McCloskey, who believes capitalism has delivered much greater abundance and opportunity than warrior aristocracies or "real, existing socialism" ever did.

Indeed, I think the primarily aesthetic critique of capitalism from many on the left is mostly repellent. Socialist architecture and state-sponsored European art house movies have little to recommend them either.

Problems of success, not failure

Instead, the problems we face are caused by the success of capitalism, not its failure. It's a consequence of the fact the economy is evolving, and we haven't kept up with what that means. The nature of human wants is changing, simply because so many wants have already been met.

Old-school Marxists believed capitalism would suffer from accumulation crises, a critique which has got renewed attention since the beginning of the current crisis. But this is dependent on a naive labor theory of value.

They believe the inherent contradictions of capitalism immiserate the workers, meaning production can no longer be profitably sold. Yet human capital and technological transformation make that debate pointless. We have new needs. We have new wants. We are in the situation of older aristocracies. where we are not materialy constrained. But we have a different set of wants and needs.

The reason we need to change is not because capitalism hasn't delivered the goods. It's because the economy is shifting towards a desire for higher-order goods. And there is more disputation and disagreement about what those ought to be - and more problems if those goods are not excludable, rivalrous, tradable goods.

Aristocracies made up most of the few groups who did not have to worry about material concerns in the past. They valued a subset of the virtues - courage, military honor, display, rank. They despised those who had to work for a living. Those values, those virtues cannot be a way forward for the future. Nor can religious values of hope or love on their own either.

Nor can communitarian or social values in isolation. We need a more realisitic conception of what the good life is. And McCloskey's accont of the seven virtues - going all the way back to medieval and classical tradition - is more convincing than utlitarianism or rights-based liberalism.

(reedit 2/26)

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