28 July 2016

Is there an alternative to Democratic 'materialism?'

David Brooks is one of the New York Times' house Republicans, and as might be expected of a New York Times Republican, he has for all intents and purposes endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Presidency. The alternative, to him, is the advent of "American Putinism." It thus becomes his job to advise the Democratic candidate, from the perspective of a sort of conservative, on how not to lose the election. He diagnoses a problem, if not a handicap, in the Democratic approach in his most recent column. The Democratic party, Brooks claims, suffers from "a materialistic mind-set" that reduces everything to economics while ignoring cultural health.

This is a crisis of national purpose. It’s about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans’ anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by G.D.P. statistics. Many Democrats have trouble thinking in these terms. When asked to explain any complex phenomenon, they instinctively reduce it to a materialist cause. If there’s terrorism there must be lack of economic opportunity. If marriage is declining it must be because of joblessness. This materialistic mind-set means that many Democrats are perpetually surprised by events that involve cultural threats and national identity. Why don’t working-class Kansans vote for us? We offer them more programs. Why did the Brits leave the E.U.? It’s against their economic interest.

What's interesting here is that Brooks is implicitly opposing "materialism" not to "spirituality" but to "culture." To be sure, he's been advocating a sort of spiritual revival recently, without being religiously specific, but this particular column doesn't seem to be about religion at all. Nevertheless, his dichotomy of materialism and culture begs the question of the difference between the two. From a post-religious or anti-religious perspective, shouldn't I want the culture itself to be materialist? If Islam is many people's alternative to materialism, shouldn't we be all for materialism insofar as it rejects theology and theocracy? The answer depends on what Brooks ultimately means by "materialism." Obviously he identifies the word with economic reductionism, and there's some truth to his perception that Democrats, not to mention many in the broader Left, tend to trace all the violence and irrationality of the poor, wherever they are found, to poverty; if they're depraved, it's on account of they're deprived, as the kids told Officer Krupke. But is that all Brooks means or implies? I think people on the Left can distinguish and criticize reductionism (or determinism) while remaining essentially materialist, but I'm not sure that would satisfy Brooks. I suspect that on some level he also identifies the "materialism" he criticizes with a kind of crass individualism of the "what's in it for me?" sort. His theoretical Democrat has a ready answer to that question: "We offer them more programs." Perhaps this "materialism" is a sort of social consumerism that sees the citizen (or the Democratic constituent) as a consumer of programs who need be nothing more. This materialism would share in the hedonism I perceive at the heart of 21st century liberalism, which is dedicated above all to an easier life for the working class and disadvantaged minorities. 

By comparison, then, what might "culture" require? Brooks suggests that it has something to do with a "civic religion" that Clinton should "talk bluntly" about, but what that entails remains mysterious. Then he adds, addressing the candidate, "You’re going to have to show you understand the way members of your class have slighted people who are less educated and less cosmopolitan." The implication here is that Democratic "materialism" itself slights these people and thus threatens "the basic health of communal life." I suppose what Brooks wants to say is that citizenship must have a dimension that is not "materialist" in the individualist or consumerist or hedonist sense, a dimension that answers to the description of  "civic religion," providing the nebulous "spiritual" quality Brooks deems necessary without necessarily being theological or mythic. He seems to want to say that the yearning for a civic religious experience among the "less educated and less cosmopolitan" should not be disdained by Democrats who may judge the nation more by the programs it offers and their material benefits than by any other standard. Of course, since what we're talking about now is love of country, the question of whether love of country should be as unconditional or uncritical as many of the less educated and less cosmopolitan seem to demand is inescapable, though we can defer it to another post for now. The question on which I'll close this post is whether the "basic health of communal life," whether it depends on any civic religion or not, requires some compromise of "materialism" in any sense of the word -- in short, whether it demands sacrifice of citizens, not just in war but in peace, not just by the rich but by the poor -- sacrifice of what, to what, for what? -- or whether this is all a false distinction. Despite Brooks's immediate concerns, it's not a question for Democrats or liberals alone, since it's debatable whether Republicans, Libertarians, Greens or anyone else is less materialist, in whatever sense of the word you like, than the party of Clinton, and some are clearly more materialist in certain respects. In fact, it's funny that Brooks is preaching against materialism to the Democrats when there is perhaps no one more materialist in the entire country than their antagonist, who nevertheless arouses feelings in his followers that seem to have a different quality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd think an intelligent repugnican would be more interested in trying to understand why the rank-and-file of his own party chose a candidate that is so distasteful to him. Of course he's not going to bring religion into it, because he is jewish.