Sunday, January 26, 2014

1000 points of light for liberals

I just read Habits of the Heart for the first time since it came out, and whoa is it a period piece, sure to be at the center of reading lists about the 1980s. A quintessential examination of the mental space of middle class white America, in the late Cold War years, the book is a curiously normative document framed as a piece of positive sociology. Its immense popularity no doubt stemmed from this balancing act, as well as the great learning wrapped up within Bellah's mellifluous if curiously relaxed and at times repetitive prose.

Despite the nuances, at the end of the day, the argument is quite simple: that the narcissistic pursuit of material abundance (what Bellah in an earlier phase of his career had celebrated as "modernization") has revealed itself to Americans as quite empty (the book refuses the Marxist language of "alienation" though it could well be rewritten in that frame), and the choice over how to move forward is between what they refer to as the "therapeutic model," on the one hand, and a return to communitarian integration, focused around family and religion.

 Certainly the critique of therapeutalism is sound. Basically, therapy is designed to make people accept the purely individualistic premises of American social life that are the primary target of HotH: "The problem with therapy is not that intimacy is tyrannically taking over too much of public life. It is that too much of the purely contractual structure of the economic and bureaucratic world is becoming an ideological model for personal life.... The prevalence of contractual intimacy and procedural cooperation, carried over from the boardroom to bedroom and back again, is what threatens to obscure the ideals of both personal virtue and public good." (127) "While the emphasis on connectedness and community would seem to be an advance over 'noncaring self-actualization,' one must ask whether the relentless emphasis on self-interest does not raise doubts as to whether there has really been a shift." (135).

These quotes shows why HotH typifies one of the main directions that people could go as the invested technocratic hopes for what is here referred to as "the Administered society" fade away, especially if they refused to embrace what was not yet being called neoliberalism (e.g. the contractual structure of the economic as an ideological model for personal life) -- e.g. communitarianism, of which it is the great representative. Turning away from technocratic managerialism, the book also offers a deep critique of the enduring American cult of individualism, both in its "utilitarian" form (the rush to get ahead and/or keep up) and in its "expressive" form (the desire to "find oneself" by define one's own private ethics and system of belief). So what should Americans do once the give up on these materialistic and personalized conception of fulfillment? At every page, the book reinforces the notion that the proper cure to what ails the American soul (here called "heart") is to return to republican political values and the communal integration, especially those offered by tolerant religious sects. Enlightenment universalism was a noble fiction, the book suggests, one that we are too sophisticated to believe in any longer. The book closes with a methodological call for sociology to reassert itself as "public philosophy," that is, as the profession of norms: the assertion of belief and moral advocacy, presumably in the cause of the norms the book has drummed into the reader for 300 pages.

In other words, to be slightly anachronistic (and a little mean), HofH is "1000 points of light" for liberals. The text is highly symptomatic of that worldview for all the things it doesn't do, and for all the things it doesn't acknowledge not doing. It barely acknowledges that it is not about all of America, but specifically about white middle class, suburban America. It remains completely uninterested in any broader transnational context for the struggles it talks about. Its critique of contemporary economic life focuses more on what corporate practices does to the interior lives of workers, rather than on social injustices perpetrated or reinforced by these structures. It shamelessly blends fact and value, claiming that all Americans yearn for the solutions that they pose, whether or not they quite realize it (again, while they studiously avoid Marxist jargon, the shadow of "false consciousness" shrouds much of the argument). There is no acknowledgement of the darker aspects of American history, not just in the vicious inter-communal hatreds (these are treated as having faded, making the same sorts of assumptions about historical directionality that Bellah made in his modernization-advocating days), but also in the intra-communal repressiveness which is essential to the integrating function that communities serve. Bellah implicitly assumes that there is a basic compatibility between community and individual, that is, that communal endeavor is the best way to achieve individual fulfillment, rather than the abnegation of the same. To which one can only say, that really depends on what your community makes of your individual desires.

Finally, there is a curious note about the anxiety of influence: while Bellah returns obsessively to Tocqueville as the touchstone for the communitarianism he calls for, the book barely acknowledges (except via brief, largely dismissive footnotes) other sociological investigators who have plowed the same terrain with striking different results, notably the Lynds, David Riesman, and Christopher Lasch.