Saturday, April 20, 2013

Russell Arben Fox Reviews Mark Mitchell's Book

Mark Mitchell’s Politics of Gratitude (Theoretical and Otherwise)

The last liberal at FPR? His main critique of the book:

In terms of putting some fleshing out the implications of his preferences for a culture characterized by greater humbleness and gratitude, Mitchell addresses politics, economics, the environment, the family, and education. Here, while the strong and passionate insights continue, I think his attempt to knit them together into a new political alternative to contemporary American liberalism and conservatism falters somewhat. This is no fault of Mitchell’s arguments, which remain compelling even when I disagree with them (and as someone whose localism and communitarianism is more left-leaning than his, the number of my disagreements mounted as I read). It is, rather, a matter of the missing, common thread through his arguments, one which cannot possibly be supplied by mere political and philosophical argument.

Consider how his argument in the chapter on politics develops. Here his guiding light is Tocqueville, and his prescient observations about how self-government and democracy give rise to demands for equality, and how that demand will likely result in greater centralization, as people look for systems of government and economy capable of ensuring equal treatment across borders. Mitchell correctly observes that the real problem which Tocqueville’s observations lead us to confront is the fact that perfect equality is impossible, at least so long as technology fails to completely overcome nature (which is the heart, as he sees it, of the technological scientistic project), and hence that when the desire for equality runs up against such natural differences, “vast energy will be expended to alleviate the incongruity,” which obviously points towards the creation of a vast regulatory state (p. 85). I respect the author for reluctantly acknowledging that America’s federal arrangement was probably fated, “right from the beginning,” to move power away from the states and towards the national government (p. 94), and his subsequent recommendation that the 17th Amendment–which provided for the direct election of senators–be reconsidered has merit. But in the end, as part of his consideration of subsidiarity, he confess that “a metaphysical account of human nature and human society is necessary for sustaining the independence of various spheres of authority” and that “the revitalization of religious belief may be a necessary long-term solution to the problem of centralization” (pp. 97-98). And while Mitchell’s book never turns to outright proselytism, this becomes a recurring theme throughout the rest of the book: a politics of gratitude will likely be impossible until the American people return to taking as a baseline the fact that they are divinely created beings with a need to be grateful for their lives and livelihoods.

Now there is nothing wrong with this connection of religion and political reflection; Tocqueville, among others, does this expertly. But if it is to be done persuasively in our pluralistic, democratic, and individualistic society, it should not, I think, be so entwined with a specific worldview, as it is in this book, whether Mitchell intended to communicate that worldview or not. But communicate it he did: religious humility and gratitude, for Mitchell, is the obvious concomitant of an agrarian, land-center economy, and outside of that kind of economic environment, the rational appeal of religious faith and the persuasiveness of our need for such a revival is simply not much there. Though Mitchell insists that “many of the virtues” he praises can be “encouraged by owning a small business,” he gives no convincing examples of how that might be so (p. 120). His discussion of neighborliness makes reference to barn raising (p. 122); his discussion of the natural world becomes most impassioned when talking about growing a garden (pp. 147-148); his discussion of the family revolves around personal examples of families escaping technological tools and engaging themselves with the land (pp. 164-166). Again and again, the grateful sensibility he urges upon his readers is connected to turning towards a more rural, more agricultural, less specialized and complex, more earthy and religious way of life.

Fox believes that Mitchell's agrarian, localist vision that is laid out in the book is insufficient:
But what it does not do is sketch out an alternative “conservative” political language which could move our modernized, pluralistic society away from an over-reliance upon individualism and towards a different kind of politics. Rather, it is a call for an alternative way of living, a return to a context where politics occupied an entirely different space in our lives–a less important, more participatory, more republican one.

With his obvious sympathy for the ideas of Jefferson and Tocqueville, Mitchell is clearly moved by republicanism, especially in its classic form as a recipe for polities which were small, land-based, agrarian, and religiously (or at least morally) homogenous. But if that was his aim in this book of political theory, one which was obviously addressed to the America which presently exists, then the development of a better language of politics needs to wrestle with the applicability of republicanism and conservatism to our current moment, and there is not much evidence in this book that Mitchell is actually interested in addressing the arguments of Benjamin Barber, Richard Dagger, Philip Pettit, Michael Walzer, or really any other contemporary republican theorist (though he does briefly touch on the ideas of both Rousseau and Hannah Arendt). In short, this book, lacking an applicable comprehensive political theory, but containing instead a host of powerful and evocative arguments on behalf of a constellation of alternative “conservative” positions–mostly united through an emphasis on a return of farming and God–is really more about exploring and advocating on behalf an alternative attitude and lifestyle, rather than providing real, plausible answers to our contemporary ideological stalemates. The language of gratitude alone cannot create or sustain the agricultural or pious conditions by which its rightness will be understood; on the contrary, it is by being pulled by the power of Mitchell’s language into a greater involvement with God or gardening that the rightness of his points about gratitude become likely to be acknowledged.
So how much dialogue with liberalism or political theory is necessary? Is Mitchell preaching to the choir? Or is there a chance that those who are aware of having certain desires for a more agrarian, republican way of life, might be inspired by the book to take action to make this more of a concrete reality in their own lives? For those with enamored with liberalism or pluralism as a good in itself, can anything persuade them of the rightness of another view? Or is liberalism less a governing ideology than a convenient rationalization for how they live? How many inhabitants of the Uhmerican megacity are willing to question their desires and reflect critically upon their lives?

So far Mitchell has not responded to the review - maybe he won't.

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