Marilynne Robinson: Against Oligarchy
On America's Vanishing Culture of Generosity
Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave us a beautiful model of Christian behavior over, against, and within, a terrible moment in history. Events in Germany in the last century have epitomized for us the deviancy of which a modern society is capable. It seems sometimes as if we feel we have put a period to evil at this scale, or as if the ocean and all the cultural difference it signifies isolates or immunizes us from the impulses behind a moral disaster of such proportions, or, again as though the severity of harm we know we do or permit is less grave intrinsically because it is so much exceeded in scale and ferocity by the events of the last century. Indeed, in some quarters it has been held that to suggest these events were not essentially unique is to minimize their gravity rather than to acknowledge that they tell us how very grave history can be.
In other quarters, of course, there are many who see moral collapse as imminent, brought on by big government, or by departures from whichever construction of religion they consider sufficient to stay divine wrath, or at least to deflect it onto others. These political and religious anxieties are frequently found together. The effect of such insistence that we are already turning on the event horizon of just such a vortex, or that we are already halfway down its throat, is to corrupt the data of contemporary history with frivolous panic.
Still, there are real grounds now for anxiety about the future of the West and the world. The effect of the insistence on the unique horror of the European midcentury should not be to distract us from a true recognition of our vulnerability to cascading error. Out of profound respect for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and with deep faith in the clarifying power of Christian humility, I will look at our moment as he might have looked at his, before the forces that had been gathering strength in Europe at least since the late 19th century became irresistible. I will not be speaking here about skinheads or militias or survivalists or Klansmen, or even about the unashamed racism that has emerged in public life in recent years, not only in America. I will be speaking about a deeper tectonics that, in my opinion, produces the energy behind all these surface tremors and disruptions. If my remarks seem political, the whole of our life together is political, and to banish whatever sounds like politics from a conversation about where we are going and what we are doing is to trivialize and disable the conversation. Partisanism is another thing, of course, and so is ideology. Both of them begin with their conclusions and are loyal to them for reasons that are temperamental or circumstantial. I want to speculate, to ponder, to propose other ways of thinking.
I have read that the terrible destruction the German states suffered in the 17th century as the primary battleground of the Thirty Years’ War created a potent will to recover a place within Europe, and that this accounted for the intensity of their devotion to national and cultural development. Whatever the impetus, the achievements of Germans (including, emphatically, the achievements of German Jews) in the centuries that followed are astonishing, unsurpassed in music, theology and philosophy, physics and mathematics, and distinguished in education, literature, and the visual arts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a stratum of German society where these high achievements were felt in daily life. A musician and theologian, he embodies them. There is a graciousness, a fine warmth, in his writing and in his life, that reflects his character, certainly, but which, before the midcentury, would also have been called German. When he thought about the direction things were taking, he may well have reassured himself by weighing the crudest impulses of the society, the passions of the streets and the press, against the great strength of its humanist traditions. Granting that his family seemed fairly aloof from the suffering of their country after World War I, and that he might not have made a good estimate of it, it is also seldom reasonable or prudent or even charitable to project from the excitements of any moment to their worst imaginable consequences. This seems only truer when they are the excitements of a culture one deeply loves, as Bonhoeffer did Germany. Perhaps at first he felt that in time there must be a correction, a return to equilibrium, and that he could wait out the interval in London or New York.
I know my account of historical circumstance is grossly inadequate. France benefited from the Versailles Treaty and its reparations as Germany suffered from them, yet fascism and anti-Semitism rose early and vigorously in France, and then in all of Europe and in the New World as well. I have mentioned violence in the streets, which implies the stirring of a rabble, but the early fascist movement Action Française, which engaged in murderous political violence, had as founder and guiding spirit the writer and Academician Charles Maurras. Indeed, there has seldom been an instance of more passionate and overt collaboration of the learned and privileged with plain thuggery. Intellectual work of the period is shot through with the theory and the worldview that stirred the mobs. To isolate Germany in any discussion of the events of the midcentury is to err dangerously—and it is also to repeat the narrative that has been dominant from the closing moments of the war. To locate their origins in the mobs and to exonerate intellectuals on the grounds that they were intellectuals is an equally dangerous error, with consequences for university curricula, among other things.
Well, my point is that the present, any present, is unreadable. Neither the best nor the worst propensities of a civilization can be thought of as predictive. This is largely true because we know too little about the past, and for this and other reasons we know too little about the energies that stir, or ebb, in this indefinable and transitory thing, the given moment. I think of Bonhoeffer trying to appraise the Germany of his time and of the near future, because I love a country, too, and am more bewildered by it at present than I would ever have thought I could be.
I do not wish to make the mistake again of isolating one culture with developments that are reinforced and amplified in many countries. If I could have one wish, it might well be that all contact between the economics department of the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics would instantly and forever be impossible. I recognize the unlikelihood of this.
But the wish is germane to my next point. I had always thought that the one thing I could assume about my country was that it was generous. Instinctively and reflexively generous. In our history, and with the power that has settled on us, largely because of the tendency of the old Western powers to burn themselves down and blow themselves up, we have demonstrated fallibilities that are highly recognizable as human sin and error, sometimes colossal in scale, magnified by our relative size and strength. But our saving grace was always generosity, material and, often, intellectual and spiritual. To the extent that we have realized or even aspired to democracy, we have made a generous estimate of the integrity and good will of people in general, and a generous reckoning of their just deserts. I hate even to admit that I fear this might have begun to change. I do believe that we stand at a threshold, as Bonhoeffer did, and that the example of his life obliges me to speak about the gravity of our historical moment as I see it, in the knowledge that no society is at any time immune to moral catastrophe.
As a subcategory of the habit of generosity, Americans are very good at rescuing each other. Under all circumstances, however drastic, there are men and women who bring skill and training, life and limb, into our crises to do every bit of good that can be done. There is considerable drama in life in North America, from a meteorological point of view, and every calamity inspires an urgent civic festival of rescue and reparation, sandbags and pizza, bandages and backhoes and bratwurst. This is as true now as it ever was.
If bankers wrecked the economy, what sense does it make to drug-test the unemployed who need help surviving the wreck?
Recently America, along with much of the rest of the world, has been living through a grand-scale disaster that has cost families their homes, their savings, their livelihoods. It was an effect of practices at major national and international financial institutions. The response to it has been worse than meager. If error or malice had broken a dam or a levee, and George Bush was not president, the National Guard would be there overnight and alleviation would have begun by the next day. The losses to ordinary households, towns, and businesses that have resulted from this breach in the financial system are literally astronomical, and they are ongoing. How can this happen? And the losses are much more profound than they would have been if they were the result of a natural, rather than an unnatural, disaster.
There is a very tired but forever serviceable phrase, “blaming the victim.” We have a new concept now—new or long suppressed, at least in polite company. We speak now, often implicitly, of the unworthy poor. If bankers wrecked the economy, what sense does it make to drug-test the unemployed who need help surviving the wreck? But this has been proposed here and there, in the tones of righteousness, or self-righteousness, to which we have lately become accustomed. It makes its own kind of sense. It would keep taxes down, since the proud, those who have always valued their self-sufficiency, will not seek help under these conditions. And who can deny the objective wonderfulness of low taxes? The Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the rest of them, called themselves socialists. It is hard to believe they weren’t joking, considering all the tedious little plots they spun to lower workers’ already wretched wages, that is to say, their levels of consumption. It is embarrassing to see the questions these supposed socialists posed to themselves. What is to be done about the tendency of the poor to pool money against their own funeral expenses? About their preference for coffins with metal handles? These they said are proof of gross violations of the Iron Law of Wages, a venerable economic doctrine which taught that the effective wage of a worker must be as low as it could be, and still leave him or her standing. Subsistence was the word they used.
The Fabians can tell us important things, of course, for example that making public assistance “less eligible,” a worse option than all but the worst destitution, really does winnow out a great many potential applicants at a great savings to the rate-paying public, though at severe but unmonetized, therefore negligible, cost in misery and humiliation. This kind of calculation goes back to the Poor Laws, in force in England from Edward VI through World War II. And now it has become fashionable among us, in certain quarters. Perhaps moral atavism is a little less ugly than moral degeneration. I find small comfort in the thought. Anti-Semitism in Germany and Europe was also atavistic.
I may be blaming the victim, too, when I note the strong tendency of victims to blame themselves. Again, this is the special affliction of the proud, those who have assigned great value to self-sufficiency, and to their roles as providers and contributors. I will even propose that they are participants in the great shifting of values that seems to me to be in progress. Many people feel that it is slovenly or dishonest to lay blame. They accept in principle that they can extricate themselves from their difficulties, and, what with the resourcefulness of the population in general, many do at least meliorate them. Much as such people are to be admired, they cloud the issue. They discourage a systematic understanding of a systemic failure—assuming that failure is what it was. I am not sure it was altogether a failure in the first place, and to the degree that it was one, it has been very much turned to the advantage of those who triggered it. Now the wealthy are, eo ipso and q.e.d., superior to others. The relatively undamaged nonwealthy can be a little bit flattered, too, by this construction of things. I am moderately wealthy myself, and I hasten to add that many prosperous people find the preening of this vocal subgroup repulsive. Still, their influence has been enormous.
I have mentioned atavism as one source of the authority this narrative of fitness versus unworthiness has had for society. I know there is no such thing as a “reptilian brain,” no part of the human sensorium that has persisted as we seemingly evolved away from our least pleasant ancestors. But if there is a collective sensorium, some part of it retains forever an impressive repertory of bad old impulses, called up by alarm or by tedium or simply at random. Here is an instance. The United States seems at last to be coming to the end of its dalliance with the death penalty. We had effectively given up capital punishment for decades, having proved how unjust, ineffectual, and demoralizing it was. Then the serpent stirred, and we were obliged to learn it all again. Reptilian memory is what makes things seem to make sense, despite reason, experience, compassion, morality, and a prudent fear of God. It nurses the oldest grudges and is proof against any change of mind. Its manifestations are often called fundamentalism, and, because it entails the reenacting of old errors, it is often experienced as traditionalism. It enjoys more or less authority on these grounds.
I confess I sometimes fail to distinguish theory from metaphor, even in my own thoughts. But things must be described before they can begin to be understood. The catastrophe in Germany and in Europe was the conscious and thoroughgoing accommodation of all that was best to all that was worst, corrupting science and philosophy to embrace notions like purity and authenticity and racial memory. And here we have the West, not America uniquely or primarily, but America, too, moving away from the social achievements of the modern past and toward restoring an old order that was and will be exploitive and destructive. There may well be little effective appeal against this restoration for some time, because a significant consensus has emerged around the notion that we cannot afford these provisions meant to create or sustain justice and individual dignity. Another consensus supports the idea that such provisions have created a deadweight of slackers and takers who imperil society by burdening the productive with the cost of their idleness or their fecklessness. This is the old Poor Law language again, the kind of law that required Shakespeare and his company to wear servants’ livery so that they would not be branded as vagrants or sturdy beggars. It is impossible to read about the old social order without wondering how many million good and gifted people fell to its casual brutalities. Shakespeare ponders all this at some length in King Lear. But the Fabians would tell us that the poor were “demoralized” by charity, which in this context means they lost their morals, which in this context means they lost their willingness to work under often terrible conditions for the smallest wage any employer could manage to pay them. This while the disciplining effects of “surplus labor”—the pool of unemployed that sustained anxiety in the employed—were recognized and valued. The theory was that the national wealth was threatened by anything that brought the poor, for any length of time, in any measurable degree, above subsistence, very strictly defined. And “charity” was what kept them alive when work failed or when wages fell, provided they were deemed worthy of “charity.” The meanness of the system was rationalized as moral supervision of the very many by the very few, wealth being the single qualification of those few. We see here the fate of the greatest of the theological virtues when it falls into Mammon’s clutches. Understandably, there was controversy in the 16th century when scholars pointed out that the Greek word in question was better translated as “love.”
The Poor Law system elaborated itself in Britain at the same time that Britain was establishing its colonial presence in the New World, notably, for my purposes, in the American South, which it filled with slaves. Slavery in the South was managed by methods very like those that controlled the great class of the poor in Britain, for example by pass laws. The plantation system was rationalized in the same terms that found poetry in the British system of landed aristocracy. So my references to atavism are not entirely offhand. Our recent economic disaster seems to have had its origins in New York and London, but, disproportionately, its peculiar social consequences have been shaped, one may almost say celebrated, in voices with the distinctive inflection of the South. How much kinder, really, to deny poor children a free lunch! How much better for them, morally speaking. It is because the old paradigm was there, waiting to float up to the surface, that unemployment, directly and spectacularly the result of malfeasance among a highly paid caste of financiers, could be turned almost overnight into idleness, shiftlessness, proof of the evil consequences of a culture of dependency. Of course there are those in the top 1 percent who understand the advantages of all this. Stigmatizing unemployment keeps wages down, because it makes those desperate to work who might otherwise have been only ready and willing. And wages have been a great issue since the first treatise on political economy was written in the 17th century, as they are a great issue now that Western workers have been thrown into a global labor market. As Mitt Romney pointed out, in remarks that became more famous than he might have wished, Chinese factories are full of young women who sleep in crowded dormitories.
The problem that confronts our economy, or so we have been told for decades, is competitiveness. In fact, Western and non-Western workers have been competing for Western capital, and Western products have competed in Western markets for consumers whose buying power has declined and who therefore opt for the goods produced by workers whose wages are yet lower than their own. Economists call this rational choice. And it is a good thing, from the point of view of those whose profits from foreign investment might be much less secure if they lost the advantages in the American market that come with the decline in real wages. In any case, “competitive” is a good choice of words. One might, just out of habit and optimism, think it meant something like “prosperous.” But if it is based on depressed wages, it foresees only the creation of wealth in which most people cannot expect to share no matter how hard they work. This seems obvious enough.
The Poor Laws created and sustained a formidable oligarchy, and slavery did, too. Oligarchy is the new thing now. If it has ever had a basis in institutions that could bear a moment of moral scrutiny, I don’t know when that was. No doubt this is why we apply the word almost exclusively to the economies of Russia and China. But the claims of wealth qua wealth have been asserted lately in America, with notable consequences for our electoral system among other things. Corporations are people. This means that the few who control the resources of a corporation can use them to overwhelm the political choices of their own employees, making these few a species of super-citizen. They have the economy in trust, and added to this a special stewardship of our political culture. So the theory goes. I will point out again that our economy is not managed well by the standards of our history, and add that our political culture is as dysfunctional as it has been since just before the Civil War.
One of our presidents, in bygone days, said that the only solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy. Things tend in another direction now. The word “capitalism” has replaced the word “democracy” as the banner under which we have flourished. This is as much the fault of the left as of the right, of the academics as of the business elite, a synergy a little like the one I mentioned above, where opportunistic judgmentalism in some inspired inappropriate shame in others. If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus. In this case, academics have been as ready as any clutch of plutocrats to assert that capitalism has been the motive and impetus of all things American. It is very easy to interpret this to mean that any acknowledgment of the successes of American culture and society is a recognition of the benign effects of capitalism, indeed, to use capitalism as a standard to measure how truly American a given ethic or institution might be. I speak with all due respect for my academic brothers and sisters when I say I often doubt that they look deeply enough into the meanings of the words they use. From the cynicism of the classroom to the rage against the mailman there are only a few degrees of separation. And since our elites are educated, the rage among them against the whole public sector is come by very honestly. The anxiety caused by the financial crisis, and enhanced by those who have found moral and political advantage in prolonging it, have some people waving the banner of capitalism and many flocking to it, taking capitalism to have meant freedom and progress when the systems it stood for were unimpeded by—in fact—by social reforms meant to secure freedom and progress. So we see nationalism in the service of oligarchy, which really is the synonym we need here, the consolidation of wealth in quantities that make it an overwhelming, self-sustaining force in its own right, in its nature highly mobile and supranational. Which brings us to the present moment.
Oligarchy is solidly founded in poverty. Every historical example demonstrates this fact.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a strategy unfolding, older than the crisis but having the same agents. While I was paying attention to events in Britain, during the Thatcher years, the government announced a goal of making Britain an “ownership society.” This means privatization, of course. People who had been living in public housing would be able to buy their apartments. Considerable fuss was made about this, the state having been so smotheringly overprotective, with consequences so “demoralizing.” And a new day was a-dawning. But then the darnedest thing happened. In Britain all mortgage interest rates are variable, rates went up, and people lost their now-unaffordable homes, which were resold as second homes if they happened to be well located. The best-laid plans and so on.
Then I began to hear my own government talking about making America an “ownership society,” which in fact it had been, at least relatively speaking, since the Homestead Act. And at the same time talk emerged about a “nanny state,” which seemed a bit ill-suited to American experience, since the nanny as dominatrix has never been part of our culture. But the phrase has taken hold nevertheless, valued for its edge of contempt, I suppose. This importation of tendentious language interested me only more as events unfolded. The poor anywhere tend to be naive where finances are concerned, having little experience with them. And a great many Americans were persuaded that they could and should join the respectable circle of homeowners. All sorts of bankerish razzle dazzle, with, as it happens, just the same effect as those variable interest rates in Britain, ended with mass foreclosures and a collapse in the value of homes all across the country. Since their homes are most Americans’ primary asset, the relative wealth of Americans in general fell, often disastrously, and the relative wealth of those immune to such consequences rose dramatically. After all, wealth is measured in ease of access to goods and services. The broad distribution of wealth depresses its value in any individual instance, since the population at large can compete for goods, driving up their cost, and can exercise a degree of choice in their employment, driving up the cost of labor. When there emerge, in name, at least, job creators in the midst of a crisis of unemployment, their effective wealth is very much enhanced. Oligarchy is solidly founded in poverty. Every historical example demonstrates this fact.
This might very well seem right to those who benefit from it, and even to many of those who are harmed by it. When I was last in London, a prominent politician there was musing over the fact that IQs are arrayed along a bell curve, and that 15 percent of people fell in the bottom 15 percent, while only 2 percent were in the top 2 percent—as if in an ideal world there would be some way of squeezing the statistical balloon. Well, he concluded from this that a considerable fraction of society was not intellectually capable of anything better than poverty, so no point in trying to design policy around them. Good old social Darwinism. Its explanatory powers are endless, yet it is in itself so concise.
Which of us with any experience of the world doesn’t know better? I have known a great many people in no degree as well situated as this British politician who would get a good laugh from his thoughts on the bell curve. In my experience, given the chance, people want to be good at what they do, and, ideally, to have the quality of their work recognized. There are people who want to pile money on money, but they are takers, not makers. Easily half of the Bible by weight supports me on this point, and nine-tenths of cultural history. I believe it was Brahms who, like Shakespeare, wore servants’ livery. And Mozart was expected to eat in the kitchen with the servants. How much have these three added to the wealth of the world, however measured?
But this raises an essential question, too important to be more than touched on here. What is wealth, after all? I will not bother with the sentimentalism we in the humanities are prone to. I will not say that Shakespeare has had a profound effect on the English language, sensitizing us to its beauty and subtlety and its great power, or that he has enriched our awareness that human life is charged with meaning. I will speak in the terms of the pragmatists.
For centuries Shakespeare has been a reliable and important contributor to Britain’s gross national product. Much of this contribution comes through his attracting tourism, and also more generally in enhancing the prestige of British intellectual and cultural products. Then there are national identity and solidarity, which have indubitable value in difficult times. The positive economic effect of a “creative class” has been noted by economists. What is less often noted is that the word “value” can be paraphrased, or expanded, without any change of meaning, to “that which people value.” The economic importance to the airline industry of Lourdes or Mecca is vast yet purely secondary to the fact that they are sacred places for a great many people. The intrinsic significance of one or the other or both can be rejected by skeptics, and this fact only underscores the economic importance of the possibly arbitrary assigning of significance to them. Americans travel en masse on a particular Thursday in November. I happened to be lecturing in London on that day last year and was asked from the audience what kind of American would not be home for Thanksgiving. These arbitrary valuations (I feel compelled to assure you that I had an excuse) are expected to override practical considerations, though it could certainly be argued that their importance makes them practical considerations in their own right. If there are, and surely there are, economists who find these intangibles as irksome as the Fabians found metal coffin handles, they are not attending to actual economics but to a privileging of materiality that takes no account of actual human experience and behavior. And it is as true of economics as of poetry that if it has no bearing on human experience it is simply nonsense and cliché. If the pillars of the modern world sometime tremble and fall, the hajj will continue. Does anyone doubt this? If half the Americans who exchange presents on Christmas gave them on Epiphany instead, the national economy would have to reconfigure itself around the change.
These supposed economic realists have an arbitrarily narrow conception of value. They promote on one hand toil whose primary purpose is to create relative advantage for the plutocracy, and on the other, wealth that exists in excess of any rational use that can be had for it or any satisfaction that can be taken from it. Are three yachts better than two? There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system. I am sure this is more exciting than keeping a stable of racehorses, or buying that fourth yacht. After a certain point there isn’t much of real interest that can be done with yet more money. But imagine how great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation’s fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping it to one’s particular lights—which may not be, in fact, enlightened, even rational, and whose wisdom that same nation would never see or endorse if it were tested in the crude theater of actual politics.
I am proposing that the West is giving up its legal and cultural democracy, leaving it open to, or ceding it to, the oldest and worst temptations of unbridled power. Nowhere in all this is there a trace of respect for people in general—indeed, its energies seem to be fueled by contempt for them. Nowhere is there any hint of a better future foreseen for people in general than an economically coerced subordination to the treadmill of “competitiveness,” mitigated by the knowledge that at least no poor child expects a free lunch. This is repulsive on its face, destructive of every conception of value. And it proceeds by the destruction of safeguards that would protect us from consequences yet more repulsive. At this moment, world civilization is being wrenched into conformity with a new and primitive order that has minimal sympathy at best with thought and art, with humanity itself as an object of reverence. If we are to try to live up to the challenges of our time, as Bonhoeffer did to his, we owe it to him to acknowledge a bitter lesson he learned before us, that these challenges can be understood too late.
From The Givenness of Things. Used with permission of Picador. Copyright © 2015 by Marilynne Robinson.