Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

So my friend Carl Scott sent me an email asking if he could contribute a reflection on the Porcher-Pomo debate that is a bit long for a normal comment on the thread below. I usually wouldn’t do this but it’s so good—especially when it criticizes ME—that I’m making an exception. I will post a response later. Here it is:

Pat, you are (again!) unnecessarily thin-skinned . . . but I think your response to Ivan, along w/ Mark’s, is pretty much right.  (And to all and sundry, I really don’t think “lifestyle hypocrisy” charges, humorous or not, amount to much, or at least advance our discussions very much.)  You’re right that the Porcher project has to be about long-term goals and about moving forward incrementally from where we are.  For that reason I thought Ivan’s final sentence highly questionable, and fatal for Pomocon/Porcher dialogue: “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.”  Bah. It depends on how Ivan is defining “local community” and how he envisions it being proposed as the “arrangement for us today,” but against his basic note of resignation I join Mr. T. (Tocqueville) and the A-Team (Aristotelians) in insisting upon the greater naturalness and liberty-fostering character of township/polis life, and thus upon our unavoidable duty to cultivate whatever qualities and institutional features of that life that we can in our circumstances. 


Where do the Porchers want to go?  Or where should they?  Well, it would seem to me the most important sentences in Wendell Berry are the following: 1)  “The destruction of the community begins when its economy is made—not dependent (for no community has ever been entirely independent)—but subject  to a larger external economy.”   2) “ . . . if you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe.”  ( Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community , pp. 126-128)  Hence, the Porchers should want to move from the current system to one in which a) the habits and beliefs of certain Porcher influenced or protected communities, and b) the hard-fought-for legislative prerogatives and jurisdictions of said communities (vis-a-vis national and state authority—esp. judicial) together allow, first, a much larger degree of economic/environmental self-regulation than is now possible, and second, a much larger degree of community-adopted morals legislation than is now possible.  This dual goal assumes that the larger market system, so regulated locally and hopefully also subjected to greater national regulation in fields (esp. environmental and financial) beyond any local scope, nonetheless chugs along.  It does not assume “post-capitalism.”  It does not assume protectionist “post-globalism.” Nor does it seek to get past the far-older-than-Locke need to guarantee private property.  It is even open to the possibility that the wiser communities will recognize that it is in their own interest to adopt a more cooperative than antagonistic stance towards the national corporations that will still inevitably be doing business within them.  Of course, assuming there are many Porcher-type communities, such corporations would nonetheless have to learn to cope with a mind-boggling and ever-changing diversity of community regulations.  A Porcher-type community might still have a Wal-Mart, but it would be more expensive with less selection.  Since the ability of these Porcher-type communities to even be able to legally act upon their Porcher beliefs demands that big govt. advocates and big corporations are forced to accept a much more variegated legal and institutional environment, this would require that the Porchers’ promotion of greater federalism (at all levels) and simpler living had won certain nationwide political victories.  Without a strategic place in the big-tent of one of the two parties, or in both, this could never be.  Obviously, a significant degree of popularity would be necessary.


Well, all the various difficulties in getting to such a political place would have to be thought through.  And perhaps the difficulties do amount to chances pretty near impossibility.  But the menu of “in-between” modernity-mitigating possibilities that might be discovered if such a program was pursued ought not to be sniffed at.


Ivan is right that the agricultural and communally self-reliant nature of the older localities was to a large extent forced upon them by necessity.  Thus, a Porcher movement that resulted in anything remotely similar would have to sell, community-by-community, a communal CHOICE  of self-limitation .  Both the fact of that CHOICE and the fact that many will OPT OUT of that choice(as must be allowed by democratic principles), are going to pose difficulties.  Maintaining a “Berryville” on the inside from “collective action problems” and other what-nots of fallen humanity, and protecting it from voters outside of it offended or inconvenienced by it, is going to require a lot of work.  A lot of meetings, agreements, and working with lawyers.  Continual pressure to join various (and at times unsavory) political alliances with outside forces for self-defense purposes. I think the wiser Porchers mostly know this.  They are willing, I think, to accept that a self-governing Berryville-model could only become adopted, in the very best-case scenario, by a certain portion (say, 20%?) of the American populace.  They are willing, I think, to accept that what is far more likely is that Porcher-thought might encourage more communities and individuals to MITIGATE, not correct, the economic/cultural subjection of communities to corporate and government bodies, and to the market. 


This is why Porchers focus so much on the community/ecology-restorative ethics that one can personally adopt, such as buying local food, and which arguably pay immediate personal dividends of a saner lifestyle.  Mitigation now, maybe transformation later . . .


This is also why the theoretical Porcher talk that at times seems to assume we can “get beyond” liberalism and capitalism by subjecting them to radical analysis rightly drives Pomocons nuts.  Either you Porchers have a conceivable game plan, even a very long-term one, for creating a nation of Berryvilles, or, you don’t.  And if you don’t, so that according to Berry’s own terms most communities will remain basically subject to the market even in the wildest scenarios of Porcher victory, you cannot seriously talk of getting beyond Lockean liberalism, nor talk so critically of it that it appears “getting beyond” is an option. But as Peter rightly says, perhaps too many Porchers are attracted to the delights of literary politics to give up that sort of talk.  (And it is necessary to note that capital-D Democratic TALK is more in harmony with that sort of talk, and necessary to reflect on what the actual electoral consequences of that illusory spiritual harmony might be.  No Pomocon can want broader Porcher success if its literary “damn-modernity” spirit, which stands to hurt conservative politicians more than liberal ones, becomes its dominant spirit.)

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles