Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More on Breakthrough

Americans today aspire as much to uncommon greatness as they do to the common good. They aspire to be unique, not common. None of this undermines empathy, compassion or generosity. On the contrary, it is only when people are feeling in control, secure and free to create their lives that they behave expansively and generously toward the collective.
The new social contract must thus provide a basis for people to seek individuation and self-creation.
The second half of N&S's book is called "The Politics of Possibility," and I must admit to genuine ambivalence on seeing how they develop their argument. I am, on the one hand, startled and pleased to see that they invoke some of the theorists that I find most interesting: Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Bill Chaloupka--all of whom argue persuasively against the sanctification of Nature and for a much more mixed "post-natural" conception of the relations between the human and the non-human world. The ability to shake off the resentful moralism--what Bennett and Chaloupka called the "moraline drift"--behind some environmental positions does seem to allow for some fresh thought.

On the other hand, I'm made uneasy by their embrace of self-actualizing liberalism as the basis for environmental policy-making. "Farewell to the common good" seems like shaky ground for politics. N&S are, it seems, primarily political strategists, conversant with the latest in values research and public opinion polling, and there's something vaguely opportunistic about the way they smack around the old environmentalist religion and its acolytes. On the most generous reading, they're motivated by the need to address global warming/climate change, which--in their analysis--makes the "pollution paradigm" obsolete. It's not a local problem, but a global one, going to the heart of the industrial system: it's a life-politics issue. But, like George Lakoff, they seem pretty quick to declare that paradigms are "merely" about rhetoric, rather than having cognitive and ethical value in themselves.

Most persuasive--to me, anyway--is their analysis of "insecure affluence" as the problem confronting American politics: it's not material deprivation we suffer from most, but rather a pervasive insecurity (consequent on what Jacob Hacker called The Great Risk-Shift). As a result, N&S diagnose a "post-materialist materialism," where the desire for goods is driven more by status anxiety and lack of meaning than by material need (this is their response to Thomas Franks' idea about people voting against their material interests).

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