During commencement season, a number of speakers were deemed politically impure. Earlier in the spring, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was outted as a supporter of traditional marriage by gay bloggers and resigned under pressure. More recently, University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock has been under attack. His sin? He’s a consistent liberal who has worked to defend the religious liberty of those with whom he disagrees about gay marriage and other moral issues. But these are just a few publicized incidents of what we all feel. Anyone working for a major corporation, law firm, university, or other establishment institution knows that deviation from progressive causesespecially gay rightscan bring the professional death penalty.
We’re in a Bolshevik moment of sorts. After the February Revolution and the tsar’s abdication, liberals and other reform-minded leaders attempted to run the country. But they were uncertain of their own legitimacy. Unable to master the ongoing social turmoil and faced with the prospect of a military coup, they empowered the Bolsheviks and their militant Red Guard. Those whose ideological clarity justified assassination and intimidation very quickly assumed control.
America in 2014 certainly is not Russia in 1917. Our society is stable. Our liberal elites are very much in control of the institutions they dominate, and their watchword increasingly is sustainability, not revolution. But theirs is a muddy, ad hoc ruling mentality. We’re to be inclusiveexcept when we’re not to be. We’re to be tolerantexcept when faced with the intolerable. We’re to affirmexcept when we’re to deny and denounce. We’re to think criticallyexcept about liberal pieties. Our Ivy League presidents are all liberals, but I sincerely doubt they could give a coherent explanation of or justification for where the lines are to be drawn. This fuzziness makes them vulnerable. They’re easily intimidated by students and faculty who out-flank them on the left. They’re cowed by the Party of the Pure.
Consider the case of Christine Lagarde, French lawyer, politician, and currently managing director of the International Monetary Fund. She was scheduled to give the Smith College commencement address. But the Righteous and Spotless mobilized, issuing a petition signed by students, faculty, and alumnae, accusing her of working on behalf of “a corrupt system” that strengthens “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” In response to this kerfuffle, Lagarde withdrew, citing her desire to prevent controversy from marring the commencement.
I doubt that’s the real reason. It’s far more likely that Lagarde was peeved that none of the grown-ups at Smith rose to her defense in a public, forceful way. Smith President Kathleen McCartney was missing in action. After the fact, she wrote a letter to the campus community, but it’s tepid at best and ends with a vapid affirmation: “I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.”
The same lack of public support was probably why yet another commencement speaker withdrew, this time at Haverford College. Former Cal Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was subjected to a petition of protest that exhibited a surreal, neo-Puritanical tone of accusation along with demands for proper penance that would have made Nathaniel Hawthorne chuckle. He also received no public support from the college’s administration. On the contrary, Haverford President Daniel Weiss bent over backward to express his “appreciation” of the Haverford students’ views.
Countless lecturers and speakers have been blackballed in academia. For the most part, they’ve been conservatives. What’s telling about the latest round are the impeccable liberal credentials of Lagarde and Birgeneau. That was not good enough. They have to be pure. We’re in a Bolshevik moment.
No one put it quite so clearly as Harvard undergraduate Sandra Korn. In a much-commented-upon column for the Harvard Crimson, she observes that we’ve made too much of academic freedom. It’s more important to promote “academic justice.” The upshot: “When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.” Is she thinking of Nazi-era pseudo-science or medical experiments? No, what she has in mind is any form of latter-day deviationism.
She singles out Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, who has written that “ladylike modesty” helps guard women against male sexual aggression. For this sin against feminist orthodoxy, Korn advocates organizing “to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position,” which would presumably entail depriving him of precisely that position. It’s this approachprofessional assassinationthat’s the preferred tactic of today’s Bolsheviks, who are almost always preoccupied with sexual politics and the advanced doctrines of “inclusion.”
Of course, all cultures and institutions enforce orthodoxies. Pure freedom is an illusionand a foolish one. But usually the establishment does that job, whereas today every gimcrack ideologue on the left seems to have a say in who gets to speakeven who gets a job. This migration of power to the extremists stems in part from the hopeless mush that is establishment liberalism. When college presidents see their roles as “empowering diverse voices,” there’s little substance left to resist the rigid, intolerant moralism of those who won’t tolerate a single sin against today’s progressive orthodoxies.
It’s also a result of a certain momentum. The triumph of gay rights and gay marriage has been so rapid that progressives feel as though they have History on their side. The defeat of the Arizona Religious Freedom Restoration Act last winter demonstrated the extraordinary power of this movement. Gay activists were able to grotesquely mischaracterize the intent and significance of the legislationand do so with the full complicity of the media. They applied the Powell Doctrine to politics, assembling an overwhelming coalition of powerful business interests and politicians. When the dust settled, only “the bigots” supported the act designed to shore up religious freedom in the coming regime of gay rights.
It wasn’t so much the victory that now emboldens our present-day Bolsheviks; it was the ability of gay activists to dehumanize their opponents. Bigots don’t deserve respect; and like the bourgeoisie of old, they don’t deserve protection under the law. This division of society into the clean and impure, just and unjust, is at work in Sandra Korn’s confident dismissal of academic freedom as a distraction from the real task of “academic justice.” She knows who should be in control of the futureand who must be silenced.
Former Princeton President William Bowen replaced Birgeneau as a commencement speaker at Haverford. He’s from an older generation of liberals, battle-hardened by the turmoil of the 1960s. He used the occasion to verbally spank the students, whom he has described as “immature” and “arrogant.” Good for him. Our Bolshevik moment won’t end until we get grown-up leaders willing to stand up to defend our genuinely liberal traditions.
This issue features a fine review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Penn economist Jesús Fernández-Villaverde. He observes that it’s the Big Book of the Year, a fat and fact-filled scholarly tome that has spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. The must read book of 2014. I found myself thinking, “Well, if I must read it, I suppose I will.” And I did. With great enjoyment.
Economists have challenged Piketty’s statistics on a number of fronts, but my quarrel with the book is not statistical. Nor is it with his policy proposals such as a global wealth tax. Instead, my concern is with the way he employs his economic analysis to defend meritocratic values. Piketty exalts merit as a concept integral to democratic culture. What he fails to see is how a social system more rigorously meritocratic is less friendly to democratic culture.
Piketty’s analysis rests largely on his now-famous equation r>g, which means that the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of growth (g). With this assumption in placealong with what he takes to be the “laws of capitalism”he concludes that ownership of capital inevitably comes to predominate over labor. Furthermore, ownership of capital will tend invariably to become more concentrated over time. Thus, “capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”
I’m constitutionally skeptical of anything deemed “inevitable” in human affairs, including economic affairs. But I’ll leave that to the side. Instead, I want to consider the social and political claim that democratic societies are based on meritocratic values, which strikes me as false.
Ralph Waldo Emerson thought a democratic culture is based on a widespread sense of self-worth and independence among citizens. By his way of thinking, when people know that status isn’t the same as virtue and net worth isn’t worthiness, democracy flourishes. The yeoman farmer sees himself as fully entitled to speak, fully entitled to influence public affairs, a confidence that brings alive the principle of one man, one vote. Walt Whitman took a different angle, picturing democracy as based in a “we’re all in this together” sense of solidarity. Democracy flourishes when the well-off and high achievers long to join their fellow citizens shoulder-to-shoulder to meet common challenges, when the top and middle and bottom of society are united for a common purpose. Wartime thus becomes the paradigm of democratic culture. All levels of society join in shared sacrifices.
Meritocratic values tend to undermine these accounts of democracy rather than support them. Piketty makes a case that the top-paid “super-managers” in America are overpaid, and thus their economic status is not justified by meritocratic values. Perhaps. But a rigorous public campaign to ensure that all economic, educational, and social inequalities are meritedPiketty’s political idealwill very likely spell the end of democracy. For if we really believe that some are genuinely entitled to their super-ordination, we’ll be less inclined to think, as did Emerson, that net worth is unrelated to worthiness, status unrelated to virtue. A democratic culture is based on a strong sense of our common humanity and shared citizenship, not a system of justified inequalities, no matter how well calibrated to social utility.
This is not a merely theoretical problem. Piketty wants “democracy” to “invent new tools, adapted to today’s challenges,” which he sees largely as threats stemming from income inequality and a growing concentration of wealth. These tools are technocratic: the right education, taxation, and redistribution policies.
His proposals, especially the idea of a global tax on capital, have garnered a great deal of attention. But they aren’t the sorts of ideas ordinary people are well suited to discuss, involving as they do a facility with economic and legal terminology and data analysis, as well as a capacity for abstraction. Thus, in Piketty’s view, the future of democracy requires us to empower those who have precisely that facility and capacitythe meritocrats whose talents and educational achievements qualify them to manage the economic inequalities generated by capitalism.
Moreover, refining and implementing these policies require larger, transnational governing authorities that will ultimately need to be global in scope. Whatever one thinks of the merits of such an idea, it’s unlikely that such a future will be democratic. Therefore, and in spite of himself, Piketty’s proposals hasten the death of politics and midwife the birth of a new technocratic, managerial, and therapeutic mode of governance that designs “tools” and operates independently of the messy and unreliable democratic process. It’s a form of post-democratic governance by meritocrats already well advanced in the European Union.
Globalization is transforming economic life throughout the world. To an unprecedented degree, business now transcends national boundaries, and companies shift their nominal corporate homes from country to country in search of favorable tax regimes. Piketty may be right that we need bigger governmental structures“regional political integration,” as he puts itin order to deal with the inevitable social and economic problems that arise, now on a global scale. Recent popes have expressed a similar call for supra-national forms of political authority. But we need a clear account of the political and moral goals we seek in this process, an account much clearer than Piketty provides. Otherwise, we may contribute to the destruction of modern democratic culture as we seek to save it.
Our Postmodern Prayer: Sustainability
Whatever one thinks of the economic theory or policy proposals in Capital in the Twenty-First Centuryor in my case, the tacit political theorythere’s little doubt that the book as a cultural phenomenon falls into the same category as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. “The past devours the future,” Piketty writes in his conclusion. He foresees wealth inequalities that are “potentially terrifying,” leading to the rise of plutocracy and the end of democracy. Unchecked, capitalism leads to misery: r>g=m.
Ehrlich outlined a scientific case for a “potentially terrifying” future as well, one that could only be averted by dramatic intervention. His argument was similar to Piketty’s, at least formally. The rate of population growth (r) will far exceed the growth in our capacity to feed and support a large population (g). He too had a law of misery: r>g=m. We’re heading toward the horrors of overpopulation.
The two books thus share an apocalyptic urgency that’s actually quite widespread these days. Otherwise sober scientists very nearly foam at the mouth as they describe coming disasters. Our carbon-based economic system will destroy the planetunless we do something right now! American conservatives also participate in this apocalyptic anxiety. Mitt Romney’s notorious comment about “the 47 percent” reflects a conservative feeling that America is about to go over the cliff. I’ve heard many others say similar things: Unless we reverse _________ (fill in the blank as you wish), our country will go bankrupt, lose its standing as global leader, or in some other way go into irreversible decline. Something of the same apocalyptic drama attends commentary on birthrates and Islam in Europe.
This is not to say that Piketty or climate scientists or conservatives or other doomsday prophets aren’t right about potentially destructive trends. In public life (as in private life), we always face deep, irresolvable difficulties. There is no known cure for original sin. But there’s something more going on than a realistic appraisal of the human condition. Today we see a striking sense of urgency, a judgment that Western culture in its current form is somehow uniquely and perversely trending toward its own self-destruction.
That urgency was also felt in the nineteenth century. The rise of the modern industrial economy led to a great deal of social turmoil. Marx thought the economic and social affairs of those years were unsustainable and could only be resolved by decisive, world-changing, revolutionary action. Social Darwinists on the right were also inclined toward apocalyptic pronouncement: Unless we put an end to misguided charity and social welfare programs, the human race itself will become genetically degraded and thus doomed. They called for a very different sort of revolution that would put the cold truths of evolution in charge of public policy rather than the warm-hearted but misguided teachings of Christianity.
Piketty feels the urgency, but he lacks revolutionary ardor. The central policy proposals of Capital in the Twenty-First Century amount to a cautious global expansion of social democracy, the Western European model of political and economic life that was established after World War II and has been tinkered with in the intervening decades. Instead of suggesting something radical that puts political and economic life on a new footing, he counsels us to commit ourselves to the technocratic management of the capitalist machine. Unlike Marx and other radicals of the last two centuries, Piketty does not want to replace capitalism; he wants to make it sustainable.
This difference is telling. When I was a college student more than thirty years ago, Marx was still being read as offering a possible solution to our problems, or at least as pointing us in the right direction. Some of us felt our social and economic arrangements unsustainable“potentially terrifying.” It therefore seemed obvious that we had to commit ourselves to an alternative social system: socialism, perhaps, or an egalitarian, pacifist dream, or some other utopian ideal. There was a great deal of posturing, of course, as well as self-complimenting pseudo-radicalism. But the radical sentiments were real and influenced our political imaginations: Something like revolution, a turning of the world upside down, was at least an alluring dream, if not a realistic possibility.
Today the libertarian wing of the American right has a revolutionary spirit, along with its close relatives who have transformed the sexual revolution into a political campaign for an ever-expanding array of rights. Redefining marriage certainly constitutes a radical change, as does the larger LGBTQ agenda, which wants to revolutionize our moral intuitions about sex, relationships, and intimate life. There’s also a tinge of revolution in the environmental movement. The more radical forms require us to deconstruct modern industrial society and rebuild economic life on fundamentally different foundations. But in most instances, today’s revolutionary spirit has a narrow scope. Sandra Korn at Harvard wants to execute those who sin against political correctness. She’s not out to remake the relations of labor to capital.
There are exceptions. My son recently graduated from Seattle University, a Jesuit institution. Talking to my brother, he pronounced himself a believer in “communism” (after which he turned and said, “Sorry, Dad”). I wasn’t surprised; Jesuit education manages to preserve a certain kind of political radicalism by combining it with Christian moralism and spiritual idealism. But at Yale and Harvard and elsewhere, political and social imaginations have changed in recent decades. I doubt one finds there much of the old-fashioned political progressivism that still exists, museum-like, at many Catholic schools. Instead, there are multicultural pieties rigorously enforced in a way largely at peace with a wholesale acceptance of the present economic order. In fact, aside from sexual politicsgay rights activists are deadly earnestI think most campus radicalism is thin. After the fact, the Haverford students protesting Birgeneau said that they had just wanted him to apologize. What the majority of students are earnest about is sustainability.
We see the change in consumer culture. Not long ago, companies championed their products as “revolutionary innovations.” Science and technology would change life in dramatic ways: colonies on the moon, a cure for cancer. And we dreamed of a politics capable of transforming society: the civil rights movement, the war on poverty. Now the great selling point for products has a different tenor. Food is marketed as produced by “sustainable agriculture.” And we don’t dream of political transformations. (Again, sexual politics is the exception; revolution has migrated out of the marketplace and into the bedroom.) We want to fix Social Security and Medicare to make them sustainable. Or we hope the Fed will feather the monetary clutch. Or that American power can somehow keep a lid on the worst and most disruptive global conflicts. If we’re Thomas Piketty, our hope is to constrain the excesses of capitalism.
I’m not against sustainability. But we need to recognize that its predominance as an image for public life reflects our postmodern condition. Modernity was an era of ardent commitment to ambitious idealsin many cases, bad ones. In that sense, most campus radicals are throwbacks. Our era is one of ironic detachment. Modernity was biblical in an important sense. History has a goal: freedom, prosperity, democracy, the triumph of science, the triumph of the proletariat. It was a secularized religious vision: “I make all things new.” That’s largely a thing of the pastagain, with the exception of sexual liberation. We’re now increasingly post-biblical. History has no goal. Anyone worried that Thomas Piketty represents a resurgence of radicalism is profoundly mistaken. For him, the great goal of political economy is to preserve what we haveto make capitalism sustainable.
On May 29, a group of graduate students and professors met at the First Things office to discuss the role of Christianity in a pluralistic society. The discussion focused on a paper by George Marsden. (We plan to publish a revised version in a future issue.) One topic was taken up with especial gusto: Why should the secular university welcome self-consciously Christian scholars committed to doing their academic work as Christians?
The group saw some obvious educational benefits. Students need to know about Christianity in order to be culturally literate; Christian professors with religious commitments help students understand religious motivations, an understanding we need to engage religious people throughout the world.
The discussion then turned to deeper ways in which a confessional Christian scholar can contribute to the vitality of academic culture. First, the vigorous intellectual development of a particular tradition is intrinsically valuable. Christianity has a long tradition of doing just that. Second, committed Christians doing intellectual work provide a metaphysical seriousness that our postmodern academic culture sorely needs. Third, including committed Christians in the university creates the possibility for civil discussion of divisive issues, making the culture wars less dire. Finally, convictions give us backbone, which we need when speaking the truth is inconvenient, or even dangerous. Committed Christian scholars encourage conviction by their examplenot necessarily Christian convictions, but serious and heartfelt ones nevertheless.
Toward the end of the day, some participants were feeling particularly clever. Why not argue that putting outspoken confessional Christians into professorial positions will tend to knock off our hard edges? Although in theory tenure is a license to speak your mind, in fact the culture of tenure domesticates faculty and socializes them into the consensus views that happen to predominate. Therefore, by welcoming committed Christians, secular liberals will co-opt us!
I can’t say I was entirely delighted by that Machiavellian scheme to convince the secular university to welcome confessional Christians. I know from experience that domestication by inclusion works. But that’s a danger we must resist in any event. There are committed Christians already teaching in every university in America. To a certain degree, we don’t need to be included. We’re already present. What we need to do is find our voice.