14 February 2018

Scarcity and Civilization

David Brooks blames the rise in "warrior" politics around the world on the supplanting of a Reaganesque "abundance" mentality with a Trumpian "scarcity" mentality that's been spreading around the world for the past quarter-century, from the time that the Yugoslav civil war disrupted post-Cold War optimism. Brooks characterizes the scarcity mentality as an "anti-philosophy" that is "incompatible with any civilized political creed." It has demoralized left and right, secular and religious alike, he claims, by encouraging a siege-mentality groupthink intolerant of contradiction. The bad news is that "The underlying conditions of scarcity are only going to get worse." The good news, at least in Brooks's prophecy, is that "Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide that they need to break from it structurally." That seems unlikely according to his own deterministic reading of recent history, and his prediction that the break will mean a breakup of the American Bipolarchy doesn't exactly inspire optimism. He's optimistic that it will mean the emergence of a civilized third party, but it could just as easily mean a proliferation of identitarian "warrior" parties. His expectation of a revival of the abundance mentality of optimistic openness in the midst of worsening scarcity reads like wishful thinking, but we might retain some hope if we question Brooks's implicit definition of civilization. His implication that civilized politics depends on an abundance mentality suggests that, like many Americans, Brooks equates civilization with freedom in the Rooseveltian "Four Freedoms" sense that emphasizes freedom from scarcity, fear, etc. Yet I would have thought that, as a conservative, Brooks would more likely take an alternate, older view that equates civilization with discipline, a self-control independent of material conditions. American conservatism has long been torn between the imperatives of freedom and discipline -- and though it may be less obvious, so has the left, where the struggle has left a fundamentally anarchic hedonism ascendant. On the right, Reaganite optimism was a deviation from characteristic conservative pessimism that arguably has made conservatism nearly as hedonistic as liberalism. The real question for the future may not be whether we can revive the abundance mentality but whether we can reimagine a more civilized, more disciplined alternative to the zero-sum tribal populism flourishing today. We may need someone other than David Brooks to imagine it.

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