U.S. Intellectual History Blog

But is there a safe word for this? – Conservative concerns about civil bonds

This morning I read a clear-headed piece by Matt Bruenig at the Washington Post arguing for a universal basic income. Although I would certainly quibble with how Bruenig implies that a universal income would somehow instantly create something other than capitalism (grumble grumble who still owns the means of production? asks my inner grumpy Marxist) I certainly agree with the rest of his argument.

But the Post apparently runs these “In Theory” big idea pieces with opposing viewpoints, as well. Originally I was not going to click on the opposing piece by Jonathan Coppage, but the title piqued my curiosity: “The terrible cost of universal basic income.” Terrible, he says! Not economically unfeasible, or culture-of-creativity-killing, but a terrible cost! Alright, what could possibly merit such a title?, I thought. Would a basic minimum income somehow result in a drastic decline of puppies?[1]

So I read the piece. And I found out that this terrible cost is the loss of your deeply meaningful relationship with your boss. This sounds like I am exaggerating, but not really. Without the coercive force of the market to get us all out of the house each morning and out and about interacting with one another, Coppage seems to believe, civil society will wither and decay. He writes:

“When we enter the marketplace, ties are formed between people: between employer and employee, between customer and salesperson, between coworkers and suppliers and the sandwich shop next door. These transactions and interactions are the threads that bind individuals together at the most granular level, weaving them into the multi-layered, tight-knit, resilient fabric of civil society. And it is necessity — our reliance on work to provide for our material concerns — that draws us into that essential weave.”

I’m not entirely sure what sort of jobs Coppage is imagining here – although the quaint reference to the sandwich shops seems to imply that he’s picturing something along the lines of Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood – but as someone who briefly worked in a service job, this struck me as incredibly naïve to the actual conditions of the type of workplaces most Americans (especially those who would be most in need of the liberating effects of a minimum income) have to labor in. Let me just say that the “ties” between “customer and salesperson,” if you have the Orwellian title of “Sales Associate” in any strip-mall home décor store, are about 10,000 times more likely to be tales of rudeness, condescension and the occasional complete meltdown that are immediately related to your spouse as soon as you arrive home in exasperated sentences punctuated by “oh my God when can I quit this job?!” than they are anything approaching a tale of what a meaningful civic interaction you had today with the lovely customer that has really enhanced your appreciation of the importance of human bonds.

So while my brain was processing the mind-blowing stupidity and/or ignorance of this line of argument, it occurred to me that David Brooks recently made the parallel argument about the “terrible cost” of making cops wear cameras. Despite thinking the cameras necessary, Brooks bemoaned how the cameras will deprive an already sickly civil society of any last vestige of intimacy:

“The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional.”

So it seems there is a trend in conservative defenses of objectively awful conditions (an exploitative marketplace, on the one hand, and a culture of violence and racism in the police force, on the other). We could, of course, talk about the hundreds of ways in which this argument is wrong – how it totally ignores all the other ways human beings create civil societies, how doing so outside of the context of your local police district is a million times more possible today than ever before in history, and so on, and so forth. But I am more interested in how these unconventional (or “moderate,” if you will) conservatives found themselves in the position of needing to come up with such a creative load of nonsense in the first place.

Consider that both Brooks and Coppage begin to build their arguments by conceding the main premises of their opponent’s argument. Yes, cops are too frequently abusing their power says Brooks and yes, the marketplace coerces people into selling their labor in order to survive, says Coppage. This seems a little extraordinary; what drives them to this concession? Is it the abundance of statistical and video evidence that forces a conservative like Brooks, who fancies himself one of the “reasonable” ones, to admit the problem that is self-evident in order to then have anything he says afterwards taken seriously? And as for Coppage, has the inequality created by neoliberalism finally gotten bad enough that any remotely sane discussion of welfare policy (which we know doesn’t characterize most of American political discourse, anyway) has to start with acknowledging that the marketplace is horribly coercive?

The first question, then, is why they feel as though they have to concede this ground. The second question, however, is why they then make the pivot they do. And the pivot, in both cases, basically comes down to this: Yes, social authority/economic relations are abusive and broken in our society; but they are relations, and if you try to equalize the power balance here, you will be left with nothing and we will be even more lost than we ever were before! So basically, they are positing that the social relations of being oppressed are better than no social relations at all. You might hate your boss, or that cop that arrested you for no good reason, but at least they are in your life, man. What would you do without them? Would you really want to have to rely on an impersonal bureaucracy empowered to punish abusive cops or be able to stay at home and work on carpentry or teach a free yoga class instead of being forced to interact with petty supervisors all day? Again, the snark in this reply indicates how befuddled I am as to what these men (and I wonder if it is significant that they are both men) think most people would do with their time, if they had it.

But back to my second question – where does this argument come from? Of course, I am roughly familiar with the tradition, in conservative thought, of seeing unequal social relations as the necessary prerequisite to meaning – or at least, any meaning that is considered socially viable and/or desirable by the conservative theorists who argue for it. Indeed, another version of this viewpoint, from a traditionalist perspective, is that unless relations between men and women are based on an essentialist understanding of proper gender roles and unequal authority, we are all doomed to suffer the evils of capitalism. However, I confess ignorance as to more specific knowledge of the genealogical heritage of such an argument – and, in particular, I am wondering if the versions of it we are seeing lately are particular products of this historical moment, a kind of neotraditionalism  driven by the increasingly unavoidably obvious fact that our neoliberal capitalist order, to put it bluntly, sucks. However, even if this is the case, these are usually arguments put forward, nonetheless, in the service of capitalism! So, I ask our readers, what is going on? Both well-researched explanations and speculative observations welcome.

[1] Which, considering how many dogs are tragically euthanized in overcrowded shelters, would actually probably be a good thing, as well.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I loved this piece you wrote and will briefly rise to the challenge you so painstakingly outline here. First, I entirely agree with your defense of the need for something like the author describes in terms of a guaranteed income. But I’d like to harbor a guess as to the origins of the opposition to the idea. It is not as simple as a Right wing reaction or love of inequality, though hostile psychology may play a role in the form of certain notions of desert or lack of desert which brings me to my guess.

    My guess is that it is rooted actually in, for lack of a better label, communitarianism and the various forms of defenses of cultural tradition in itself that have come into discourse over the past thirty years or so. This tradition defines human subjectivity as not given or random (as Rawls would probably define it) but as earned over time and sees attempts at redistribution as alienating and denatured attacks upon such social bonds. What is interesting about this is that this view in a way parallels that of their historical opposition, say, the Marxist Left, in that it sees the human being as fundamentally social and situated. That is, the attack upon the basic income idea is part of the anti-individualist strain of current thought more generally, an irony when though of in this way. Just a thought. I could be totally off.

    • Thanks for this comment! I agree that the issue of social subjectivity is one of those weird spaces where the left and certain manifestations of the right can come together, insofar as they view the human being as necessarily a social creation. But the weird thing about someone like Brooks, for example, is that he’s not pushing an anti-capitalist line when he goes to such arguments; indeed, on the contrary, these objections tend to pop up when either liberals or the left are trying to push back against unlimited neoliberalism. So maybe they have some communitarian romanticism going on in their heads, for sure, but I find when and to what purpose these arguments are employed as important and compelling.

      Now as for genuine traditionalists, who do open attack against capitalism, that is a bit of another can of worms. Suffice to say that where they differ from the left is in the belief that old hierarchies, based on now-discredited ideas (whether the ultimate value of women being baby making or the capacity for a submission to a supposedly kind Jesus) that didn’t prevent power abuses in the past can somehow be resurrected and serve their rightful purposes now. But yeah, there are longings in the more mainstream likes of Brooks and company, but coherence there is none of.

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