A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance on the other hand that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human rights lawyer, or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education, but also the role that unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than the money, for the first year or two one will not be paid. This is certainly true if one wishes to be involved in altruistic pursuits: say, to join the world of charities, or NGOs, or to become a political activist. But it is equally true if one wants to pursue values like Beauty or Truth: to become part of the world of books, or the art world, or an investigative reporter. The custom effectively seals off any such career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed of course, especially at the top, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.
If that mechanic’s son – or daughter – wishes to pursue something higher, more noble, for a career, what options does she really have? Likely just two. She can seek employment with her local church, which is hard to get. Or she can join the Army.
This is, of course, the secret of nobility. To be noble is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value. But it is also to be able to do so because one does not really have to think too much about money. This is precisely what our soldiers are doing when they give free dental examinations to villagers: they are being paid (modestly, but adequately) to do good in the world. Seen in this light, it is also easier to see what really happened at universities in the wake of the 1960s – the “settlement” I mentioned above. Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for resenting the hell out of them. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about.
As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working class kids join the Army anyway? Because like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the Army because they want to be like you.--David Graeber (2007) "Army of Altruists: On the alienated right to do good"@The Anarchist Library. [HT David Jacobs.]
After yesterday's post [in response to Dennett, on meritocracy and the crisis of liberalism], David Jacobs called my attention to Graeber's essay. A regular (recall) inspiration for these Impressions, Graeber fails to acknowledge the exceptions that prove the rule to his analysis, but otherwise his essay has aged well and is very much worth reading.* (I have quoted the concluding paragraph.) It's rhetoric is also nice instance of what I call cosmopolitan patriotism. While the occasion of the piece is political, it's significance is a two-fold conceptual, even axiological distinction (familiar, in fact, from Seneca amongst others [recall for example here]).
First, Graeber treats altruism and egoism as conceptual opposites made possible -- and made intelligible -- by market relations even if, and, perhaps precisely because, the distinction is preached by missionaries. In fact, he treats Christianity as a response to the development of markets and also as a means of the global extension of the cultural-conceptual logic of markets. Graeber draws on anthropology, but one senses a debate with Nietzsche hovering above the whole essay.
Second, orthogonal to the altruism-egoism axis, there is nobility, which is (a) made possible by wealth, and (b) just "is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value." I think it is a bit unfortunate that Graeber list altruism here, too. Unfortunate, because this higher kind of altruism relies on "not really" having "to think too much about money" whereas the first kind of altruism is infused by thinking about money if only because money is either the explicit or unspoken other (in terms of self-denial, vows of poverty, pure wills, etc. ) or a measure of the size of the altruistic effort. So, to avoid confusion, when talking about higher forms of altruism (as a species of nobility) I'll use 'generosity' instead.
Such nobility and generosity are not essentially dependent on markets. For markets are not the only source of wealth. But it does not follow that they are incompatible with markets. As even Graeber implicitly allows, commercial society can generate the kind of wealth that makes such nobility and generosity possible. I have argued, in fact, that the original meaning of liberty in liberalism presupposes 'the sense of security that is a consequence of living under the impartial rule of law, and this liberty involves a kind of self- ownership that allows one to exercise one’s judgment in order to make meaningful choices.' Among some such choices are the kind of things Graeber and Adam Smith both call 'noble.' As I have emphasized before, Smith thinks a peculiar form of love of it, which is simultaneously an elevated form of self-love, provides the motivational pull for generosity: "the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters" (recall here, here; here).
As an aside, I do not mean to deny that Smith was a critic of the rigor-ism that Graeber associates with the missionary; not unlike Hume, he argued that the opposition between egoism and altruism in a way distorts even debases the logic of markets, even morality itself; that prudence, self-care, and market participation can be (inferior) features of a morality worth having. (I think Graber agrees [his Nebraskan mechanic is a dignified character, after all.])**
Now you may be suspicious that I am turning Graeber's critique of the structures of exclusion into a defense of true liberalism worth having. That I am ignoring his point that in modern liberalism, American society demands from those that pursue nobility an initial sacrifice--a sacrifice that is financially un-problematic for those with easy access to family capital, where such capital exists, or that demands considerable self-abnegation and pre-commitment. It is as if contemporary society is saying to those that wish to leave the logic of market relations behind, prove it by cleansing yourself from the habit of financial acquisition.
This purification ritual has two obvious problems: first, the structures of exclusion mean (as Graeber notes) that the possibility of becoming generous in the sense meant here is unfairly distributed. Second, and this echoes the argument of my recent posts on the crisis of liberalism [here, here, and here], the rewards of generosity are increasingly, as one moves up the status hierarchy, measured by money. This is even true of soldiering, which -- let's stipulate in agreement with Graeber -- starts with a desire for 'adventure and camaraderie,' and then is turned into dedication to the mission, even love of country (or constitution), but at the end of a career -- of service and self-improvement -- then is turned into a well paid consultancy gig for a military contractor.+ That is, the purification and sacrifice are blemished by the monetary corruption that beckons at the end. (The corruption I have in mind here is the undermining of the values that intrinsically belong to the great intermediary social orders; read yesterday's post.) So, the sacrifice ritual becomes kind of vacuous because the holiness it is meant to ensure turns out to be unavailable. Perhaps I have taken Graeber's ideas here a bit beyond his intentions (he actually knows something about the anthropology of sacrifice, after all). But they are not meant as criticism.
But there is a third, more fundamental, problem lurking here, and it is one of the central problems for the revived form of true liberalism I wish to help articulate, but it is also a problem for Graeber (whose political ends are different). Earlier I had agreed with Graeber that generosity and nobility are made possible by wealth. But that was a deliberate euphemism. For while wealth is necessary it is not sufficient; (c) it must be accompanied by some sense of aristocracy. Of course the nature of and entry into aristocracy is very varied in space and time and may -- even if necessarily grounded in capital in some way -- be highly spiritualized.++
Graeber rightly notes that it is natural to wish to be part of something higher. But the moral program of recent liberalism, with its embrace of equal dignity, is highly suspicious of any distinction between higher and lower values [unless the private values are strictly private]; and the foreseeable effect of the embrace (by my neo-liberal friends) of revealed preference in modern market economies is to undermine any such distinction. That's a feature not a bug. Graeber rejects the economists (see his Debt), of course, but not the methodological and even moral egalitarianism that lurks below. My point here is not to make trouble for Graeber's project(s);+++ rather to say his insights make trouble for mine: so, yet another way to think the problem of [reviving] liberalism, is how are generosity and nobility possible today?