Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.
Whether you’re coming from a Hayekian skepticism about big schemes or a Wendell Berry-like belief in protecting traditional communities, the conversation around how to make cities successful has changed quite a bit since the 1960s—when Jane Jacobs waged a one-woman crusade to keep Greenwich Village weird and intact.
Part of Jacobs’ argument was that the current theory and practice of urban planning, as typified in the massive projects of her nemesis, the mega-builder Robert Moses, suffers from a kind of false expertise. It’s a kind of approach that cooperates nicely today with the neoliberal agenda and our collective fantasies around “the smart city” and other such dangerous chimeras.
These days, my favorite Quixote taking up Jane’s lance against these bad ideas is recovering civil engineer and polymath Charles (Chuck) Marohn, the founder of the 2,000-member international movement known as Strong Towns. If you don’t already follow the organization, they just published a new book called Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume III. Here’s why you should buy a copy, read it quickly and then wrap it as a Christmas gift for that urbanophile friend.
About a decade ago, Marohn put down his copies of James Howard Kunstler and Andres Duany, resigned his day job building pointless city sewer extensions and began blogging about what he dubbed the “Growth Ponzi Scheme.” The biggest problem with our cities and towns, he concluded, was simply their long-term fiscal unsustainability. Now that the maintenance bills on our half-century of suburban expansion are coming due, we’re headed for peak debt and a crash unless something changes.
Despite this dark message, Marohn, a genial Minnesotan with an easy public style, probably struck most of his early audiences as a civic-minded Republican with an independent streak. Luckily, he’s turned out to be much more interesting than that.
So what does Strong Towns do? Aside from running a high-traffic blog bursting with ideas, perhaps their major program over the last few years has been the “curbside chat”—which amounts to Marohn flying into town to tell you and your city officials exactly why your place is broke and why the business model you’re using (Kunstler likes to summarize it as “driving forever to Walmart”) is dumb and even deadly.
In front of hundreds of audiences in places as different as Fate, Texas and Yale University, Marohn has popularized sane urbanism by arguing for a return to human-scale, walkable, dense neighborhoods. While nimbly avoiding the usual bipolar political wrangles, Marohn espouses an economic philosophy which can sound vaguely libertarian, while obviously in the service of a kind of communitarian/Catholic vision.
And it’s working. As membership in Strong Towns continued to grow since its founding in 2008, Marohn noticed he was building a very diverse coalition—big city and small town, Republicans, Democrats, and independents. It is a movement of common-sensical citizens who simply care about their town’s well-being and are not completely hag-ridden by ideological fixations.
Rather than offering the usual prescriptions, he and his colleagues challenge audiences to think carefully about buzzwords like gentrification, sprawl, smart growth, and something Marohn calls “the infrastructure cult.”
The new anthology from Strong Towns, with pieces from several contributors in addition to Marohn, touches on these topics and others, such as the rise of suburban poverty, why engineers should not design streets, democratizing the economy, and a call to end routine traffic stops. Like all of the writing from Strong Towns, these articles represent some of the best localist, non-technical social innovation happening today.
Marohn’s original focus on making our towns “strong” now clearly extends to more than fiscal strength. For example, he and his colleagues have begun to talk about community wealth-building as one factor that is important in creating a good or just town.
And yet there is no Strong Towns methodology—which is part of the method—beyond their stress on the incremental, small experiment-based, fine-grained, bottom-up approach to development. Suddenly Chicago planner Daniel Burnham’s oft-quoted advice, “Make no small plans,” seems out of date. Today, a Strong Towns response might be “Big plans: that’s the problem, Dan.”
Drawing on thinkers like Nicholas Nassim Taleb and economist Tomas Sedlacek, Marohn invites his members to think out loud with him about how to make our places anti-fragile—and why the growth economy turns out to be the debt economy. There are no easy answers. But Strong Towns is brilliant at asking questions you won’t hear asked anywhere else.
When I hear the term “smart cities,” I think of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film, Metropolis. The 1927 classic portrays an Art Deco landscape of wealthy industrialists reigning from high-rise towers over masses of catacomb-dwelling uniformed workers who labor underground to keep the city’s huge turbine-driven machines humming. (If you’ve never seen it, it’s visually fantastic, especially with the new soundtrack.)
The builders of contemporary master-planned cities—the Middle East’s Dubai, Asia’s Songdo, or India’s Gurgaon—are smart in some sense. To be sure, these places draw on top talent in their architects, planners, and environmental consultants. They in turn create luxury districts where technology enables a gleaming and growing mix of oligopoly, exploitation, and surveillance.
These arrangements create stark contrasts. As architect Douglas Kelbaugh told James Howard Kunstler, he spent two years in Dubai designing billion of dollars’ worth of “perfume bottle” (beautifully vapid) skyscrapers and abandoned urban projects the size of Manhattan Island—all while encountering daily the thousands of low-wage workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China needed to create this immense Ponzi scheme of the most luxurious city-state on the planet.
But Dubai’s private buses full of mostly manual workers paid $5 a day are only superficially different from Songdo’s legions of programmers and developers: both groups are meant to be invisible and disposable elements in the workings of a neoliberal urbanism with endless ambitions to create a city-state which looks like—in Kunstler’s sardonic phrase—“yesterday’s tomorrow.”
A key aspect of the “smart cities” movement is the promise of personal technology to create new economic opportunities. But the fact is that no sharing actually goes on in most of what’s called the sharing economy—companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Lyft and TaskRabbit extract value from contract employees, not in the service of some dewy-eyed mutualistic scheme, but rather for the benefit of perfectly conventional Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The latter process is sometimes called “Uberization.”
It turns out that the sharing economy is mostly about exploitation of workers and earning yourself an enforced membership in the precariat, that mass of short-term (“flexible”) contract employees who now make up about 40 percent of the worldwide labor force.
These are people who live precariously with no guarantee of a job beyond the short-term, generally less than 40 hours of paid work per week, as well as no unions or industry regulation to speak of, given the dramatic disparity in bargaining power here. Where is this all going, we may well wonder.
To take only one set of dark projections, in Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen foresees a future in which a tiny meritocracy makes millions while the rest of us struggle on anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. It already works quite well in Mexico, Cowen quips.
If you happen to be a millennial or know one, then you’re probably familiar with the issues around digital work. But this economic threat to our democracy—the Internet as an inequality machine—is bigger than one generation. It’s in the process of overturning the traditional rights of workers going back to the 19th century. And it’s quickly scooping in oceans of our personal data—a form of personal property—in order to leverage that asset into creating even more value for the few owners of the digital platforms now driving a large proportion of our lives (Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.).
Thus we see the rise of a new movement employing an old rallying cry: platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership. The urgent goal of these activists and entrepreneurs is nothing less than to reset the norms and culture of work.
What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb? How about if enough Twitter users got together to buy the company in order to share its ownership?
The latter idea comes from Nathan Schneider, co-editor of one of the best guides to this emerging area Ours to Hack and To Own. It’s a fascinating collection of not-all-that-techy articles on cooperative initiatives to resist the cooptation of the Internet.
Platform cooperativism is simply communal ownership (with roughly 170 years of cooperative movement history) brought together with today’s notions of democratic governance. The term platform, as the editors explain, “refers to places where we hang out, work, tinker and generate value after we switch on our phones or computers.”
Principles of cooperativism are well developed and plenty of impressive examples exist worldwide, from the Mondragon Corporation in Spain (actually a network of coop enterprises employing over 74,000 people) to the dozens of consumer, agricultural and healthcare coops in Italy’s economically resilient Emiglia-Romagna region. In this country, some 30,000 coops contribute an estimated $154 billion to our national income.
Further, coops—values-based businesses that operate for member benefit—have a lower failure rate than conventional businesses, are more likely to promote community growth (via local ownership), can have low startup costs, and help stabilize communities in their role as business anchors by multiplying local expertise and social capital.
We’re talking not about socialism but a form of capitalism—algorithmic capitalism—and how to create more capitalists, people who are genuinely owners. We’re also talking about formulating the first charter of workers’ rights for the growing but invisible digital labor force.
Another important topic addressed here—and a key part of “digital commoning”—is that of countering the corporate, surveillance-driven model of the smart city being promoted by big tech companies. Thus models of public ownership of civic data are needed in order to foster new forms of social innovation.
Notable contributors to this collection include Douglas Rushkoff (Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus), Juliet Schor (Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks), Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation), Saskia Sassen (Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy), David Bollier (Think Like a Commoner), and co-editor Trebor Scholz (Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy).
(To follow developments in the platform cooperativism movement, I recommend the clearinghouse website platformcoop.net, which is loaded with resources.)
Building cities that enable true human flourishing—and utilizing new technology to make it happen—is possible. But we must recognize the pitfalls of handing control to a few unaccountable companies. The city that can capitalize on platform cooperativism may yet outsmart the master planners.
Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.
I knew my involvement in civic matters in northwest Indiana would eventually take me to Gary, about 25 miles from my town of Valparaiso. As I’ve driven along Interstate 90 heading to and from Chicago, I’ve often peered down from the expressway into the city’s empty streets and dilapidated neighborhoods. For many long-time residents of the area, the town’s very name is an epithet for a landscape of failure and fear where it’s thought that no one stays who can find a way to leave. I admit I have not been in a hurry to visit the place but in recent months I’ve come to see it quite differently.
Gary was created as a kind of company town (U.S. Steel basically built the city out of dirt in 1906) and reached a population of almost 180,000 in 1960. Today the city (with a geographical area about the same size as downtown Boston’s) has just under 80,000 inhabitants and is about 85 percent African-American. The Gary Works steel plant went from a peak of 25,000 employees to today’s 5,000. Approximately one-third of the city’s housing stock today stands empty and Gary’s public schools have slowly been closing for a number of years.
And yet. The city has an energetic and popular mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson(Harvard Law grad, former attorney general of Indiana). It has an artsy neighborhood called Miller with the obligatory brewpub, a gallery and some nice restaurants. And it has—if it can find more ways to leverage the asset—Lake Michigan.
The friends of a revitalized Gary include the PlaceLab at the University of Chicago, where social practice artist Theaster Gates is deploying a substantial Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to create ArtHouse, “a social kitchen” in downtown Gary. The grand opening was last weekend and an artsy, mostly African-American crowd of 200 listened to Gates, Mayor Karen (as everyone calls her) and the architects talking about why social practice art (you need to know what this is if you don’t already) can achieve placemaking—even in Gary.
I hope that’s so, as I’m bought in. I want our civic incubator, the C-Lab, to host community microfunding dinners (called SOUPs) at ArtHouse. And I’ve met several great Gary people just networking around this project.
But there’s more. The Diocese of Gary got a new leader, Bishop Don Hying, about a year ago. He has a very genial manner and spent his first two or three months personally visiting every one of his 70-plus parishes. I gradually figured out he was a radical in a Boy Scout uniform, so to speak.
Now he’s leading a discussion group (held at the rectory of the cathedral in Gary, where he lives) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement with the aim of collaborating on a Catholic Worker house somewhere in town. Note the term “collaborating”: the Diocese of Gary will not be officially sponsoring the house—such an arrangement would probably not be feasible for various reasons—but Bishop Hying does want to help make this happen for Gary. And we’ve got supporters chiming in from Chicago, South Bend, and elsewhere.
Some of our Catholic Worker team think we should publish a blog about the process of creating a Catholic Worker house, as we consider all the different dimensions to this kind of project.
Elias Crim is a civic entrepreneur in Valparaiso, Indiana.
This post originally appeared at Solidarity Hall.
The hilariously mordant James Howard Kunstler once wrote a blog post about driving through northwest Indiana, noting the “ghostly remnants of factories” and neighborhoods “foreclosed and shuttered,” “places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaining denizens of the endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel…There was a Chernobyl-like grandeur to it, as of the longed-for end of something enormous that hadn’t worked out well.”
My own leafy town of Valparaiso is part of this region of over 700,000 that includes no major urban centers, only small cities and towns, none of them over 80,000. They include such locales as Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Michigan City, La Porte, Crown Point, Portage and Chesterton. Thinking of the map of Lake Michigan, I sometimes describe our post-industrial landscape as “the bottom of the lake.”
Earlier this month, nearby this gritty spectacle at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Front Porch Republic held its annual meeting. (The name of the group sounds like a breakaway comic-opera kingdom, perhaps a cousin of Groucho Marx’s Fredonia. In fact, FPR is a collection of writers, academics and genial cranks who all emphasize the local over the remote.) In comments at Notre Dame, I wondered what exactly is supposed to be our collective fate here in “the region,” as locals like to call it. Is Creative Class guru Richard Florida correct that our lack of information-economy resources means we’re doomed to just fade away? Should we take Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s advice and work to become more integrated into the neoliberal Chicago megaregion?
Perhaps what places like northern Indiana need is not innovation, but unnovation—to use a term coined by Boston-based journalist Ben Schreckinger. The idea is to resist the magical thinking that our little towns can ensure meteoric growth by trying to launch tech companies with virtually no resident tech talent. Forget Silicon Valley and Route 128 and the endless glorification of knowledge work (you might think of proto-Porcher Wendell Berry here): in the rustbelt, we need a return to economic roots. Schreckinger argues that non-urban Massachusetts—he might have said most of Indiana as well—should return to its traditional industries of farming and manufacturing, both of which have deep cultural roots (outside the big cities) as well as new technological tools.
Also worth considering is Catherine Tumber’s contrarian vision of the resilient post-industrial cities and towns of the future. She argues that pace the wiseguys like Florida or Glaeser, it is we rust-belters who are well-positioned for the future economy. That’s because our places will be “small, gritty and green” (from her book of the same name).
Here’s what she means. First, smaller cities and towns (under a half million in population) are built on a more sustainable scale and can often achieve consensus more easily. Second, their “grittiness” is their cultural memory of manufacturing and heavier industry, one example of which is Muncie, Indiana’s current national prominence in the wind energy sector, drawing on its history with corporations such as GM and Westinghouse. Finally, the greenness advantage derives from the way smaller cities and towns can benefit from and contribute to a clean energy economy based on land, manufacturing skills, waterways, and concentrated urban energy markets of their own.
Just for fun, I asked the audience at Notre Dame to guess the location of a real place which had the characteristics of low-rise, high density development; a pedestrian orientation; mixed use (homes above shops); organic architecture (evolves according to need); use of collective action; intricate solidarity networks; and vibrant cultural production. Sounds like Tolkien’s Shire, I know.
The place I had in mind, one I visited several years ago, was in fact the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro. The economy of a Brazilian favela, in many instances, can be an example of a kind of anarchist, self-organizing system, still somewhat free from much governmental involvement—one among several ways in which it typically differs from, say, Chicago’s West Side. These are exuberant, street-lively places built with much more social than economic capital, leading to neighborhood sayings such as “there are no beggars in the favela.” Importantly, they have managed to develop and even prosper outside the usual financial and civic systems.
Given the presence of Rod Dreher at the conference, it was natural to ask: does the Benedict Option have an economic dimension? I suggested that it necessarily had one, citing the Economy of Communion network as a kind of model. The EoC was born within the Focolare organization—a Catholic “ecclesial movement” founded just after World War II—and now has some 700 member businesses worldwide. In its grounding in personalist Christian witness and Catholic social teachings, the group is no quaint collection of handicraft vendors but a sophisticated coalition of triple-bottom line companies. I think their vision offers an important way forward.
This post was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
I was once in Florence’s little Dante museum, the Casa di Dante, on a quiet afternoon when an Italian mom and her son were also having a look around. At one point the boy, who appeared to be about five years old, broke free and proceeded to dart from room to room, sing-songing “Dante! Dante! Dante!”
This year, the 750th anniversary of the poet’s birth, lots of others are singing his praises as well—actor Roberto Benigni, reciting Dante in the Italian Senate; Pope Francis, who recommended the Commedia as preparation for the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy; astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who read Dante aloud from the International Space Station; and “your working boy,” as American Conservative senior editor Rod Dreher likes to refer to himself.
Early in his new book, Dreher takes pains to say, “I am not Dante,” as a way of reassuring the reader that his own highly personal story of exile is rather different from that of the medieval Italian poet, expelled at age 35 from his beloved Florence, never to return. After all, Dreher writes, “circumstances did not destroy my reputation, reduce me to a wandering beggar, or threaten my life.”
Dreher’s tale is instead one of self-imposed exile from his St. Francisville, Louisiana-based family and his attempts to return home in several ways. How Dante Can Save Your Life intersperses scenes from the author’s life with short sections that introduce the reader to Dante and, more importantly, to Dreher’s experience of reading Dante, creating a book that alternates between two worlds, medieval and modern.
The road to Inferno is paved by personal experience. Dreher’s return to Louisiana as the brother of a dying sister was movingly described in his earlier The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, wherein his lingering, guilty sense of the importance of family and place is made vivid as he witnesses firsthand the local community’s outpouring of devotion during his sister’s last weeks before succumbing to cancer and in the aftermath of her passing. This return is complicated, however, by his discovery of the first of several “family secrets”: that Ruthie’s habit of making disparaging comments about her absent brother has jaundiced her children against their Uncle Rod and left them unenthusiastic about his re-entry into their lives.
Next, his return as a kind of prodigal son—a reconciling act that he hoped would affirm his father’s lifelong insistence on the importance of family—leads to a conversation in which his father confesses that he only remained in St. Francisville all these years because he felt trapped there and had no other option. Noble motives of localism did not play a part. Near the end of this emotional scene, Dreher’s father reflects that his earlier opposition to his son’s move to take up a literary career across the country was also wrongheaded, a matter of sheer stubbornness on his part. All of which Dreher finds rather unsettling.
Finally, his return as a cultural exile likewise has had its ambiguous moments, with a mix of joyful scenes amidst what he calls the “bayou Confucians” along with the inevitable frustrations of relative isolation for a young and bookish family. When health problems—a case of Epstein-Barr virus—were added to his situation, it was enough to leave Rod Dreher in precisely that dark wood where Dante knew that each of us, as Everyman, would eventually arrive in our lives.
This realization came in the summer of 2013, as Dreher, aged 46, was standing in a Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge browsing the poetry section. He pulled down a copy of the Inferno and opened at the beginning to read: “Midway in the journey of our life / I came to myself in a dark wood, / For the straight way was lost.”
He read on, through the first two cantos, struck by the poet’s depiction of himself as a man trapped “in a thicket of fear and confusion, powerless to escape,” something close to his own feelings of depression and anxiety at that moment. Wild animals, the symbols of pride, lust, and greed, block the poet’s way until a wise guide—the Roman poet Virgil—appears and promises to show him “the hard road to a good place.”
Taking in these lines, Dreher had an epiphany of own, and his Dantean pilgrimage began.
How Dante Can Save Your Life presents a striking mix of topics, of the kind that has earned his blog its substantial following. Thus, in alternation with his comments on the great poem, he ponders variously his experience as a Catholic convert following the clerical abuse scandals a decade or so ago, the latest neuroscience research on the power of stories—bibliotherapy is the new term—the onset of his illness, the nature of Southern traditions, la vie parisienne, and more. Dreher’s Dante turns out to be a warm companion, “simply a fellow wayfarer who has seen great things, both terrifying and glorious, along life’s way, and wants to tell you all about it.”
The poem, on this reading, is something of an early entry into the self-help sweepstakes—“a practical guide to living” and, as Dreher’s subtitle promises, “life-changing wisdom.”
After some helpful scene-setting and historical background, Dreher plunges into his reading of the Inferno. Like Dante, he realizes he has been sleepwalking through his life and has lost the thread of it—the plot of his own story. “From grand cosmic myths to intimate family tales, it is in stories that we find meaning, purpose, and the truths by which we live—or, if we are unlucky, the lies that lead us astray.”
So we descend through the circles of Hell, a grotesque architecture created by Dante’s extraordinary imagination, reaching in Canto V the famed episode of the lovers Paolo and Francesca, the latter being the literary grandmother of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and other fallen heroines. Here Dreher describes the doomed and eternally adulterous couple’s encounter with the pilgrim Dante. Just as Francesca and her Paolo were drawn into the romantic story of Lancelot and Guinevere, Dreher remembers his own art-inspired love-worship as a younger man and feels dismay at his younger self: “In the music, films, and books closest to my heart, becoming a slave to Lord Love was the summit of all human experience.”
Further on, the inhabitants of the Fourth Circle—the avaricious and the squanderers—inspire another cameo of a family member, Dreher’s great uncle Jimmy, a simple but devoted elderly man whose funeral was the occasion for another revelation about the value of living. The testimonies of Uncle Jimmy’s friends, family and former pastors in his little Southern Baptist church work powerfully to describe the life of a good man and a faithful Christian. “I kept thinking about my late sister Ruthie, and what she and Uncle Jimmy had in common: how they both embodied the principle that there are no sermons more powerful than the loving deeds of a righteous soul.”
Upon reaching the Sixth Circle, the abode of the heretics, Dreher reminds the reader that this journey through Hell eventually brings each of us to confront a sin that has deeply personal relevance. For Dreher, it is here, in the remarkable episode where Dante meets Farinata and Cavalcante, that the “damnable worship of family and place” becomes foremost in his mind:
One way to think of the sin of heresy is mistaking one part of the truth for the whole truth. In this sense, the heresy of Farinata and Cavalcante includes believing that truth consisted in their all-consuming love for family, party, social status, and so forth. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with loving your family, your party, your city, and your creed … . The error comes in believing that these are ultimate ends. To let this disorder reign in one’s heart inevitably results in disorder in the family, in the community, in the city, in the country, everywhere—because everything is connected.
Unlike the doomed Farinata, Dreher comes to realize that he, his father, and his sister loved good things—family and place—too much, allowing them to become idols. Yet further down, amid the false counselors, a voice from a flame—that of the Homeric hero Ulysses, known in the Middle Ages as a legendary voyager—narrates to Dante his tale of sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, traditionally understood as the known limits of the world, until a storm sends him and his crew to the ocean floor for his overreaching.
Dante, a man of fierce intellectual ambition, responds with stunned grief at this story, as though sensing, as he has several times before, his own possible fate here. Dreher comments: “Ulysses’s fault was not in pursuing knowledge; his fault was doing so without being guided by morality or divine decree. The misuse of his eloquence, his intelligence, and his courage cast him into hell.” And he reflects further on how his personal literary ambitions have left him with more Ulysses in him than there ought to have been.
Climbing upward through Purgatorio—“Or, How to Be Healed,” as the section has it—we move into a landscape of music, poetry, and human encounters, several of them joyful reunions between Dante and various figures from his earlier life. Just as their various forms of penance provide a discipline for the penitents here, Dreher describes how he comes to learn of and then adopt Orthodox spiritual practices, including the famous Jesus Prayer, in his own quest for a wise asceticism.
For many, the Paradiso—“Or, The Way Things Ought to Be”—is notoriously the most difficult section of the Commedia, which is precisely how Dreher admits he found it. We now journey through a region of pure light and being where Dante’s verse emanates more metaphysics than “practical life-changing wisdom.” Yet the example of St. Francis of Assisi, praised in the Paradiso by no less than St. Thomas Aquinas, offers Dreher the same spiritual antidote to Farinata-like pride in wealth, position and family as it once offered Dante.
One might wish Dreher had made a little more room for topics beyond the bibliotherapeutic, such as the larger themes of history, tradition, and even economics. Florence in Dante’s time was a boomtown, a mix of brilliant patronage of the arts next to the sheerest fraud and self-dealing. Among the bankers and financial concerns were individuals happy to see their family’s coats of arms become mere symbols of profiteering. The intensity of the poet’s anger over the abuse of wealth—through usury, hoarding, or extravagance—in Inferno’s Cantos XVI and XVII is striking, especially to a socially detached and value-free business culture such as ours has become.
Another theme to consider is Farinata’s great civic pride—shared by Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida elsewhere in the poem—which admittedly has been taken to sinful extremes in his case. Yet it was symptomatic of the distinctive upwelling of civic humanism in the Italian city communes of this time, with the rise of Florence being the most illustrious example of all.
From individuals like Brunetto Latini, Dante’s great teacher, there begins a line that leads to Petrarch and through Coluccio Salutati down to Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus.
Dante felt himself, even at this early date, to be part of this powerful new force aimed at recovering ancient virtú and excellence. The Commedia is, among other things, a great achievement of that recovery. The Florentines sometimes say Dante’s statue should be replaced with one of the obscure Florentine bureaucrat who exiled the poet, for it is he whom we really have to thank for the creation of this great poem. And we have Rod Dreher to thank for reminding us of its greatness today.
Elias Crim is publisher of the group blog Solidarity Hall and will be teaching Dante this fall at Valparaiso University.
The visitor to the Acton Institute’s offices in Grand Rapids may notice on one wall an iconic framed photo. It captures Acton founders Fr. Robert Sirico and Kris Mauren chatting with former president Ronald Reagan in his Los Angeles office, some four years or so after Reagan left the White House.
The photo of the jovial Reagan could be said to capture the afterglow of a time that has itself become symbolic—1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down. Indeed, Acton’s founding in 1990 caught a wave of sorts, as the largely non-violent collapse of the USSR’s Evil Empire was optimistically read by some as a providential endorsement of Our Way of Life—down to the policy level, you might say.
If further proof were needed of our exceptional status in history, Pope John Paul II seemed to supply it in 1991 with his encyclical Centesimus Annus—a document apparently most important, in Acton’s interpretation, not for its call to reflection on a century of Catholic social thought but for its tardy but welcome embrace of the free market as a matrix of human and social virtues. On this reading—one hotly disputed by other interpreters within the Church and without—the encyclical was a singular instance of Catholic social teachings underwriting a specific economic philosophy, despite the Church’s historic insistence that it makes no such endorsements.
Acton’s anointing of American capitalism was an attempt to identify the victory of liberal democracy with the victory of Catholic truth, an effort that has since been met with a good deal of protest from Catholics uncomfortable with this Panglossian—indeed unscriptural—view of our economic arrangements.
In his new book, one of Fr. Sirico’s themes is that of economic freedom as a determinant of all other freedoms. “Political and economic freedom,” he assures us at one point, “leads to an ownership society, as opposed to a rental society…” Ronald Reagan himself spoke about the importance of ownership in 1987:
Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a land of small farmers, of shop owners and merchants. Abraham Lincoln signed into law the “Homestead Act” that ensured that the great western prairies of America would be the realm of independent, property-owning citizens—a mightier guarantee of freedom is difficult to imagine…
In this century, the United States has evolved into a great industrial power. Even though they are now, by and large, employees, our working people still benefit from property ownership. Most of our citizens own the homes in which they reside. In the marketplace, they benefit from direct and indirect business ownership. There are currently close to 10 million self-employed workers in the U.S.—nearly 9 percent of total civilian employment. And, millions more hope to own a business some day. Furthermore, over 47 million individuals reap the rewards of free enterprise through stock ownership in the vast number of companies listed on U. S. stock exchanges.
I can’t help but believe that in the future we will see in the United States and throughout the western world an increasing trend toward the next logical step, employee ownership. It is a path that befits a free people.
A reader of Fr. Sirico’s book will naturally look for his explanation of how economic outcomes since Reagan spoke those words in 1987 could have gone so terribly wrong in this country. And why should the recent history of employee ownership in Germany, for example, be so different?
For Fr. Sirico, the root problem here is “the breakdown of trust, integrity, and responsible freedom that contributed mightily to the continuing financial crisis, which began in 2008.” What we have lost are “certain perennial truths about political, economic, and religious freedom.”
Those truths, it turns out, include such commonsense notions as “not killing the goose that lays the golden egg; not binding down your most creative talent in a regulatory spider’s web; and not teaching your citizens that they can all live at someone’s expense.” How exactly these golden eggs and spiders’ webs apply to the case of the 2008 recession goes unexplored.
But Fr. Sirico’s analysis is not only moral: there is a method—an Austrian one—at work here also. After a misspent education in the 1970s New Left movement (where he says he consorted happily for a time with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda), he discovered the real truth about human choice and action in the pages of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. And the presidential election of 1980 saw these tenets of neoliberal thought translated into a program of tax cuts and deregulation, even as the size of the federal government grew rather than shrinking.
Culturally speaking, Fr. Sirico gradually became an adherent of the Reagan revolution, a movement that seemed to find its vindication in 1989, only to ossify intellectually in the years following. Even without an Evil Empire, the Reaganites seemed only able to think in a binary fashion: capitalism vs. socialism (or anything else). Even as supply-side economics became a matter of Republican institutional dogma, the historical record showed a growing government and increasing income inequality. Reagan’s vision of widespread employee ownership went unfulfilled, and for most members of the American middle class, the unintendended consequence of economically neoliberal policies was a road to serfdom that by 2008 felt more like a superhighway. Wage slavery, with no path to ownership, or welfare: take your pick.
Scarcely a shadow of this history passes over Fr. Sirico’s narrative, one part of which is devoted to celebrating the beneficent effects of markets while criticizing various collectivists and statists, recent and ancient. He observes, for example, that the commandment “thou shalt not steal” only makes sense if the Bible is presupposing the validity of private property. You cannot steal something, after all, if no one owns it. This comment, part of what he refers to as “the biblical case for private property,” may be the first example of capitalistic exegesis I’ve ever come across, unless I’m forgetting some earlier effort of Michael Novak’s.
At the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico reports, discussions about how to help the poor don’t start with the question of what causes poverty. “Instead we ask, What causes wealth?” Fr. Sirico notes that the rise of capitalism between 1800 and 1950 resulted in the proportion of the world’s population living in dire poverty being reduced by half, and from 1950 to 1980 it halved again.
Given the scarcity of authentic socialists and convinced statists at this point in time, it’s hard to see precisely whom the author feels a need to convince by his historical overview. The real trouble with our current arrangements is that free enterprise, in the persons of our business leaders, has scarcely any tradition of virtuous practice within living memory. Otherwise, why would outsourcing or predatory lending, for example, have gone unquestioned or unchecked for so long?
In addition to the rule of law, free markets need participants who value virtues such as contract-keeping, as Fr. Sirico points out, along with a number of other good habits. But the dynamics of the market itself do not somehow constitute, pace our author, a school of such virtue. (It should be said that Acton’s numerous ethics programs for business executives obviously recognize this lack and represent a laudable effort toward supplying it.)
Ethics aside, “Jobs are the world’s best anti-poverty program,” Fr. Sirico declares, as though wages—almost any typical worker’s wages these days—suffice to lift anyone out of economic want for long. It was one of Hilaire Belloc’s frequent complaints about British trade-union members that they could only think in terms of wage increases, never in terms of actual shared ownership, the true, historic path to self-sufficiency.
Admirable as Fr. Sirico’s emphasis on the moral dimensions may be, his Austrian lenses keep him from seeing the limits of an economic ideology that is not scientific but merely scientistic. Thus his title for Chapter 4: “Why the ‘Creative Destruction’ of Capitalism Is More Creative than Destructive.” I wonder if Fr. Sirico is aware that Schumpeter explicitly developed his notion of creative destruction based on a reading of Marx? The term referred to a process described by Marshall Berman as follows:
“All that is solid”—from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighborhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all—all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms. The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development that they celebrate. Even the most beautiful and impressive bourgeois buildings and public works are disposable, capitalized for fast depreciation and planned to be obsolete, closer in their social functions to tents and encampments than to “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals.”
What would buffer or slow such a process? The existence of labor unions? “In a genuinely free economy, the typical relationship between employee and employer is not one of exploitation, as Marx would have it, but of mutual benefit. Free of coercion [such as that employed by unions, presumably] the two parties cooperate in the service of the customer, the employer and the employee,” Fr. Sirico states.
On this view, the continuing decline of labor unions in this country over the last two generations—that is, a subtracting of any coercion in labor-management dealings—should have meant a rise in cooperation and mutual benefit between employers and middle-class employees. Would any informed observer claim that has been the case? Would any Catholic familiar with our tradition of social justice and the dignity of the worker cheerfully accept the outcome we see before us as just?
One of Fr. Sirico’s more remarkable theological points here is his assertion that the process of globalization resembles Jesus’ Great Commission to make Christianity a global religion. “This increasing ability to share our God-given and complementary gifts with one another holds out the possibility of enlarging the scope of our communion and solidarity.” Let the circle of consumption be unbroken, so to speak.
Indeed, “there is a virtuous circle at work here. Christianity, a global religion, played a role in paving the way for economic globalization, and economic globalization then played a role in bringing more people in contact with other cultures and, with it, Christianity, which in turn brings more people into the fold of Christianity.”
I suppose one could argue that NAFTA worked to revitalize American Catholicism by spurring the arrival of millions of Mexican Catholic families with better values than most of us American-born Catholic citizens, but the economic displacement of so many Mexican farmers is surely not a consequence anyone would want.
At one point, Fr. Sirico speaks of the way contracts, markets, languages, trade, and exchange all are “forms of social engagement” and “hallmarks of the market economy.” He refers skeptically to European friends who try to envision a form of capitalism that would temper our individualism with a “social market”—a phrase the author, perhaps forgetting Wilhelm Roepke’s work on the social framework of a free economy, finds redundant.
“What market,” he asks, “is not social?”, going on to suggest that a free labor market, as we ostensibly have today in this country, “encourages employers to behave more sociably toward their employees—to treat them better—since they know that their workers have other opportunities.” To which the reader is tempted to respond, “Or at least they used to.”
One of the consequences of the 2008 crisis has been not only a reevaluation of economics itself but the rise of a new economics, including a resurgence in the field of political economy—the study of the process of wealth creation in societies. Two important strands of this new economics are based in natural law (see John Mueller’s Redeeming Economics) and in a neo-distributist approach (as in John Mèdaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market), while also putting new focus on cooperatives (Stefano Zamagni’s Cooperative Enterprises), on the commons (in the work of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom), and on the economy of communion and gratuitousness (Luigino Bruni). It is noteworthy that references to many of these new approaches can be found in Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
An interest in all these hopeful developments would seem very much within the purview of the Acton Institute, as they represent a welcome return to the kind of personalistic economics Acton hopes to promote. Regrettably, none of them find a reference in Fr. Sirico’s book. Caritas in Veritate earns a single mention, for a small point that Fr. Sirico can only suggest is “worth a vigorous debate.” Thus a gulf remains between Acton’s ostensible commitment toward developing personalistic, virtue-centered economic practices and the complacent neoliberalism into which it has lapsed.
Taking Fr. Sirico’s book and the career of the Acton Institute altogether, it’s a pity these culture warriors have mostly chosen to collaborate with neoliberalism, which is not just Lord Acton’s 19th-century liberalism but, as the crash of 2008 showed, something altogether more pernicious.
Elias Crim is at work on a new webzine to be called Solidarity Hall.
Some 18 years ago, Gregory Wolfe used his position as editor of Image, the excellent arts and letters journal he founded in 1989, to proclaim his position on this country’s unceasing culture wars and their politicization of every corner of our lives: understood to be a man of the cultural right, he had decided to become a conscientious objector.
He went on: “I’ve burnt my draft card to the culture wars. It may sound unpatriotic and irresponsible, but I have come to the conclusion that these wars are unjust and illegitimate, and I will not fight in them. If necessary, I will move to Canada.” (The threat was merely rhetorical; Wolfe continues to reside in Seattle.)
Wolfe argued that without projects like Image, the culture wars would expand and our civic life would be increasingly tribalized. “Our culture will then be like the place in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, a country ‘where ignorant armies clash by night.’”
Regrettably, despite the literate and delightful contributions of Image, the ignorant armies, and even the learned, clash by day as well, having long since adapted to the 24-hour news cycle.
Nevertheless, Wolfe has continued to write essays in his quest to get to the roots, the radices, of our cultural dilemma. And his hopeful answer—one owed to Solzhenitsyn by way of Dostoyevsky and echoed by such eminences as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Russell Kirk—is captured in the disarming title of his new book, Beauty Will Save the World.
Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture … Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.
Yet this is not a retreat into some escapist fantasy, he argues. It rather “involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.”
Moreover, the very phrase “culture wars” is an oxymoron: “culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”
It’s worth noting that Wolfe’s credentials as a movement conservative, had he wanted to create for himself a comfy corner somewhere within the great noise machine that is our current politics, are very solid. His father, on staff with the Foundation for Economic Education in the early 1950s, met with the young William F. Buckley Jr. to discuss a new publication to be called National Review. When Reagan swept into office in 1980, Wolfe, a Hillsdale College graduate, was on staff with NR, where his initial euphoria gradually turned into dismay at the carnival of jobbery and hypocrisy that followed the election among his movement pals, many of them eager to join this well-paying “revolution.”
While Wolfe is partly engaged here in re-grounding the term conservatism, he is perhaps more comfortable borrowing the older notion of Christian humanism, that of Thomas More and Erasmus. (Wolfe’s forthcoming book on Erasmus will surely reflect on his famously eirenic influence amid the more-than-merely-cultural wars of the 16th century.)
In one essay, Wolfe sketches this older notion of humanism and its several hallmarks: 1) a passion for bonae litterae, roughly translatable as the masterpieces of the old Western tradition, in their original languages; 2) the primacy of rhetoric, understood as part of the education that creates engaged and articulate citizens; 3) a return to the sources—in the spirit of, say, the Catholic Ressourcement theological movement—and the development of a historical sensibility. Wolfe surely owes a debt to his teachers Russell Kirk and Gerhard Niemeyer for his appreciation of the latter quality, and this collection includes essays in tribute to both men.
When Wolfe turns to the state of our literary and artistic culture, he puts to use another notion from this Christian humanist tradition: the idea that “secular forms and innovations of a particular time can be assimilated into the larger vision of faith.”
Examples: T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetics, Flannery O’Connor’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s nihilistic style into a redemptive one, G.K. Chesterton’s use of Wildean fin-de-siècle paradox to mount a full-blown cultural critique of his times.
Wolfe has always sought beyond these earlier figures to celebrate contemporary artists and writers such as Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Ron Hansen, Louise Erdrich, Mark Helprin, Geoffrey Hill, Arvo Pärt, Wim Wenders, Makoto Fujimara and Fred Folsom.
Why might these names be unfamiliar to most of us? Because, Wolfe suggests, we have forgotten that the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture. “To abdicate this responsibility is somewhat like a farmer refusing to till a field because it has stones and heavy clay in it. The wise farmer knows that with the proper cultivation that soil will become fertile.”
Putting it another way, we are so hag-ridden with politics by this point that few of us still believe art provides the necessary contemplative space to send us back wiser and more fully human into the realm of action. (There are echoes of, among others, Josef Pieper in this idea.) Our “conservative” materialism in fact resembles the Marxian preference for revolutionary action over the “classical-Christian belief in the primacy of contemplative understanding of transcendent order,” a diagnosis very close to that of Russell Kirk himself.
Even non-religious observers of our slow-motion cultural collapse have noticed it has something to do with a mind-body problem, specifically our growing loss of any sense of being embodied persons. Take James Howard Kunstler’s complaints about the gigantism that has afflicted our civic planning, so that our public spaces no longer have any relation to human scale but are always designed for cars traveling at least 20 to 30 miles per hour.
In response, Wolfe’s humanism is sacramental, based on his sense that culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation. He notes the late Welsh poet David Jones’s observation—in the latter’s “Art and Sacrament”—that the Eucharist, the preeminent Christian sacrament, consists of bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. “In other words, the gifts offered to God at the altar are not the untouched products of the earth but artifacts, transformed through human hands through an art.”
The work of social change thus goes beyond merely offering a cultural critique. Culture-making, especially making new culture, is part of our earthly mission of redeeming the time.
Contrast this analysis with the editorial views of, say, the New Criterion or The Nation. The former often finds the cause of our cultural malaise in the rejection of bourgeois democracy by disaffected radicals. The latter typically reverses that formula in order to come down in sympathy with the dissidents. Both publications share a preoccupation with politics and circular name-calling.
Wolfe highlights two problems with this ideological approach to culture: its liability to be co-opted and, more importantly, its shallowness. Looking deeper at our crisis, he says, will reveal that it has theological and philosophical roots that go far beyond mere political fashion.
And revitalizing the roots of culture is a recovery operation requiring nothing less than the instinct Russell Kirk discovered in Edmund Burke—that of the moral imagination, precisely the faculty that can mediate between the poles of order and freedom, skepticism and faith, the individual and the community.
Wolfe worries that Kirk’s thought will be treated today as a “quaint Tory aesthetic, rather than a substantial intellectual synthesis.” Indeed, it’s difficult not to conclude that Kirk’s authentic conservatism has already been extirpated from the political scene.
The process, Wolfe notes, had already begun in Kirk’s lifetime, as he received invitations to speak from think tanks whose white papers contradicted much of what the author of The Conservative Mind stood for. “Having Kirk in as a guest lecturer thus became a form of guilt money, a nod in the direction of the humanistic tradition on the part of those who had lost sight of that tradition in their own mental and emotional lives.”
As Wolfe suggests, we must begin to imagine another way, one that frees us to cultivate our surroundings and truly make things new.
Elias Crim was the editor and publisher of the Armchair Historian and is at work on a new webzine to be called Solidarity Hall.