As noted below, Greg Forster has an essay up at Public Discourse defending George Bailey’s now-infamous sub-development. In doing so, he professes his enthusiasm for the destruction businesspeople are able to inflict on old, “corrupted” social structures.

I have a few questions for him that seem unanswered in his piece: First, most basically and most broadly, why the implicit confidence that this process, which “liberated” the nuclear family from a number of wider ties, should (or can) cease its sledgehammering with this accomplishment? Why shouldn’t the same people who brought us better living through detached houses and car-centric living next turn their attention to “improving” the natural process of reproduction, offering us a pill that allows us to sever sex from reproduction? Or from re-engineering what the (eventual) children do in their free time, producing an array of electronic distractions? Or from fabricating and selling any other kinds of products or modes of living that ultimately undermine the community, peoples’ faith, the natural world, or the bonds of the family? How easy is it to slow or redirect the solvent power of this force, once unleashed?

Forster is also unrelentingly negative in his portrayal of the premodern arrangements. In fact, he basically reduces them to a tyranny: “the arms of Potter,” from which our true dignity and freedom as human beings is liberated by a combination of technology and business acumen. On this score, I’d ask him to reconsider the character of the essentially premodern “small town” life as opposed to modern individualism, and the ways “oppression” might be enacted in both. In the spirit of Tocqueville, whom he alludes to: Is it actually possible that modernity brings greater possibilities for tyranny than anything seen in the polis or small town? Are provincial boundaries and restrictions and “forced” personal encounters (say, to the pharmacist who sees us grow up, or the minister who understands town couples’ marital problems) all necessarily “oppressive,” or might also they help shape character and control ambition? Original sin being what it is, there are of course self-interested, power-craving, and sinful authority figures in premodern social networks. But is it possible that their reach is in some way limited and attenuated by rival networks of support and a more strongly felt lateral solidarity?

On the flip side, does our “liberation” from tight-knit community bonds necessarily give us true self-ownership and a wider spectrum of options, or the illusion of independence? Do we really attain “an increased level of autonomy from the grasp of controlling social elites,” or does this upending in itself necessitate the creation of new, perhaps more subtle or impersonal, hierarchies, justified in the name of things like “merit” or “rational planning” or “health”? And what makes Forster so confident that, in global capitalism (for which he interestingly feels compelled to put in a good word even while purporting to offer a defense of the humble shopkeeper) we aren’t simply groveling at the feet of other, more distant Mr. Potters, ones whom we can’t even challenge effectively as George Bailey and his friends did?

There’s a much longer debate to be had here, but I just find Forster’s basic premise—feting the “creative destruction” of a long-standing way of life—rather astonishingly wide-eyed for someone who at the same time professes to want to preserve tradition. I fail to see how a culture that cheerfully turns on its guiding institutions and structures as soon as they begin to seem “corrupt” or “outmoded” with the quick aside that, anyway, ”permanence in human affairs is always a pretense,” can long accord anything respect, reverence, or awe.

Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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