So this started as a comment on Peter’s great post below but took on a life of its own. Peter humorously accuses Deneen and his fellow travelers of a kind of insincerity since they seem to take great enjoyment in the many advantages afforded us by the modernity they often disdain. I won’t go so far as to call this an hypocrisy because that really is too strong, and I really do think they’re forwarding their position with the best of intentions, and because the two Porchers I’ve met and worked with in some capacity (Deneen and Shiffman) are about as great a pair of guys as you’re ever going to encounter.
That being said, the charge of insincerity has a serious theoretical component to it since it’s related to their selective romanticization of the pre-modern localism they characteristically embrace. Porcher localism lionizes the community but tends to suppress the extent to which these communities grew out of and existed under the specter of real necessity . . . one lived an agrarian life not primarily because it was the best available option for achieving the Good Life or because one rationally assessed it to be the avenue most consistent with our natural capacity for virtue but rather because no other option presented itself at all.
In the Third Discourse, Descartes playfully and ironically praises the Stoic notion of “making virtue of necessity” which means engendering a salutary sense of resignation in the face of a world that resists our attempts at rational control. The clearest indication that Descartes is insincere is that he uses sickness as an example, precisely one of the conditions we must learn, through the advances of science, to resist, and finally even our very mortality. In this sense Descartes is more Machiavellian than Stoic—virtue is the imposition of one’s own forms on the opportunity provided by fortune.
I bring up Descartes because the Porcher position has an element of Stoicism to it—instead of the destructive modern posture towards nature, that same comportment that eventually corrodes the local ties that bind us together, they recommend that we inculcate a certain measure of resignation in regard to our natural limitations and live more simply. They truly and un-ironically want to make a virtue of necessity. The problem for the Porchers is that their Stoicism doesn’t seem to have a satisfying political program since no one expects the world of modern technology to recede in such a way that it reintroduces the conditions for the kind of community they pine for. They are stuck with a new necessity, the necessity of accomodating themselves to the modern world they have little choice but to inhabit, but they paradoxically confront that new necessity with a conspicuous dearth of Stoic resignation—they want to transform the world they live in, by dint of rational planning and philosophical criticism, into one that powerfully resists the typically modern hubris associated with such planning. They want to manufacture a community that originally arose organically out of the political, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions that both necessitated it and nourished it.
The fact of the matter is that Deneen can partially live the localist ideal and partially experience his cosmopolitan freedom to do quite a bit of traveling around the country and the globe (and yes, so there’s no confusion, I do envy his travel budget). His localism is much more modern than he or the Porchers admit since they have replaced the necessity that typified real, historical, pre-modern communities with a heavy does of choice—instead of making a virtue of necessity they argue for a kind of necessity that no longer tethers them, that they can freely opt of of when it suits their purposes. My tendency is to think they they interpret this localism not through the lens of those who experienced it in its original form, but for those who already live very modern lives-for avowed enemies of modern abstraction their own view of local living is remarkably abstract. My overall point is something like this: we should not confuse the philosophical argument in favor of the local community, or a very reasonable attraction to its many virtues, with either the possibility or desirableness of that arrangement for us today.