The free market or your soul

Two conservative pundits play a game of moral Twister trying to reconcile consumerism and traditional values.

Published June 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It might be hard for the proper readership to find Francis Fukuyama's "The Great Disruption" or James Twitchell's "Lead Us Into Temptation," since neither is destined for the New Age section. But make no mistake: these are treatises of inner striving -- subtle and powerful documents of the soul's grappling with the ineffable. Fukuyama's book is an attempt by a prominent intellectual to demonstrate that community values can flourish under market capitalism; Twitchell's is a slick-jacketed paean to consumer culture by a curmudgeonly English professor. Underneath, though, both are desperate attempts to unravel a Zen-grade contradiction at the root of modern conservatism: How is it possible to want society to go forwards and backwards at the same time?

The question isn't a practical one; it's a genuine paradox -- and the authors strain so hard in solving it that each ends up catapulted into a state of perfect, implosive no-mind. Fukuyama finds refuge in human nature, while Twitchell raises a peculiarly silent round of applause for consumerism, demonstrating the sound of one hand clapping. These are stunning books, if not exactly in the way their authors intended. What sends them over the deep end is a problem that's been plaguing conservative thought since the Reagan years: the difficulty of reconciling the forward-moving principle of free-marketism with the backward-looking principle of "traditional family values."

The right needs to accomplish this in order to shore up its fragile coalition of business elites and concerned citizens; but the task has been seen as essentially wrong-headed since the days of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke -- the fathers, respectively, of market economics and modern conservatism. Smith and Burke regarded unrestrained capitalism and traditional values as mutually hostile entities that, if you take your eye off them for even a minute, will set to work trying to kill and eat each other. Put as simply as possible, the free market offers rewards for antisocial behavior, while societies set up barriers against free trade -- which isn't a radical notion in the least. But neither Fukuyama nor Twitchell is able to acknowledge it without an incredible struggle.

Fukuyama and Twitchell are what you'd call crypto-conservatives -- fellow travelers and fig-leaf-pasters on the rightward side of the academy. Imagine Fukuyama as a moderate gone 'round the bend. After studying classics with Allan Bloom and turning out policy studies at an establishment think tank (the Rand Corporation), he published a wildly influential essay entitled "The End of History" in Irving Kristol's right-intellectual journal, the National Interest, and found himself transformed, almost overnight, into a neoconservative superstar -- his scholarship chained forever to ideology. Fukuyama is a genuine academic celebrity in a field that rewards punditry and wowserism far more handsomely than it does scholarship, but he enjoys his privileges at a cost. Fukuyama is, by all indications, a good and centered man, but he knows why the caged bird sings.

If Fukuyama weren't quite so fortunate (or so brilliant), he might've become Twitchell -- a clever but middling academic pulling his oar at a provincial university who champions, in a deeply inconsistent way, the triumph of consumer capitalism over normative values, and vice versa. Twitchell's 1992 book, "Carnival Culture: The Trashing Of Taste In America," delivers just the high-middlebrow broadside the title promises, while 1995'S "Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture" is a sustained jingle to the is-ness of wow. His "Lead Us Into Temptation" attempts to take both sides at once -- working up a good fair-weather toot for the eternal Christmas of boom capitalism, while pointing at all junctures to the gross spectacle of the American consumer, who drops each new present unexamined only to tear into the next. Significantly, Twitchell holds a dual position in the University of Florida-Gainesville departments of English and advertising.

Fukuyama's solution to the problem starts with the standard complaint that community and family life have been going to hell in recent decades, as shown by increasing rates of divorce, illegitimacy, crime and a general withering-away of trust and common decency. He blames this "great disruption" on such phenomena as the decline of the nuclear family, the liberation of women and the rise of moral relativism -- in short, on all the things that we generally associate with the 1960s. To the book's credit, the statistics that Fukuyama uses to establish the existence of the great disruption are highly convincing, and the idea that morality and community are in decline has become so widespread in America that even much of the left now gets a secret thrill from seeing "moral relativism" worked over the coals. Also to its credit, he says that the overarching cause of the disruption has been the rise of the information age -- which, Fukuyama says, has brought "creative destruction" to both the marketplace and the world of social relationships. But he doesn't examine that idea more closely, and his solution to all the problems he enumerates is simply to trust in the healing power innate in human nature -- to take refuge in biology. Human beings, Fukuyama claims, naturally create social order. The nuclear family is biologically determined, men and women are naturally Mars- and Venus-like, and no matter what the free market (or anything else) might do, society will probably adapt and return to normalacy.

The book gets from the first point to the last in a thundering gallop through ethnobiology, political theory, German philosophy and game theory. It covers every roadside stop along the route, and noses down every detour and footpath, sniffing the pies in every kitchen window. Just when you think it's going somewhere it's already rumbling back the other way, carrying a theorist who's barely holding on for his life. The book is well-grounded -- an impressively thorough, micro-nuanced work of scholarship. But as far as its basic argument goes, the appeal to human nature is the political theorist's equivalent of saying "because-I-said-so." And whatever the biologists might be saying about human behavior (which is lots, these days), Fukuyama himself noted in the September 1997 issue of Commentary that "it should be clear that there is no simple transition from a biological 'is' to a social 'ought.'" The "is" and "ought" dichotomy has, in fact, been a problem for Fukuyama since the beginning.

"The End of History and the Last Man," the book that sprang from his first influential essay, suggested that liberal democracy (i.e. the "capitalist state") represents the final development of human civilization and that eventually the entire world will be ruled by liberal democracies, forever. The idea isn't a new one: It's nipped from Hegel, the most obtuse, boring and influential of all German philosophers, who claimed the same thing about the Prussian state of the early 19th century. But had either man lived in the first century A.D., he might've made the same argument for the Imperial Roman state -- or, some centuries later, for the Roman Catholic Church as it spread throughout Europe. The fact that a system is, is no guarantee that it represents the end of history, or even that it's the best one possible at the time. Without the "ought," in other words, you're left with a book that proves, meticulously, that things are more like they are right now than they've ever been before. Which isn't exactly a "stop the presses" sort of observation. When you detangle the biological "is" from the social "ought" in the great disruption, the first thing you notice is that there's an elephant in the room -- one that Fukuyama keeps tripping over, and that keeps goosing him with its trunk while he's not looking, but an elephant that he's determined to ignore in the hope that it'll just go away. The book's obvious conclusion is that capitalism keeps kicking the props out from under society, which keeps replacing them as fast as it can.

Almost at the end of the book, Fukuyama devotes a brief chapter to the question of capitalism as an agent of disruption, which begins by conceding that there is, in fact, an elephant -- but that it's not really in anyone's way. He dismisses what he calls the "contradictions of capitalism" literature with the observation that capitalism "has not collapsed yet," adding, "We can accept the fact that capitalism is often a destructive, disruptive force that breaks apart traditional loyalties and obligations. But it also creates order and builds new norms to replace the ones it destroyed." To establish this point, he directs the reader to a body of scholarship in the field of spontaneous order research -- which is a playground of radical free-market economists and right-anarchists, founded by the Austrian hypercapitalist F. A. Hayek. It doesn't suffice. This chapter should be the guarded solar plexus of his argument, the omphalos of the text, but it reads like a singularly conflicted attempt at base-covering, in an otherwise stunningly researched piece of work. In the final sentence, Fukuyama at last gives up the ghost. "Capitalism is so dynamic, such a source of creative destruction," he writes, "that it is constantly altering the terms of exchange that go on within human communities, This is true for both economic exchange and moral exchange, and was," one can almost hear the sigh and the faint pop as he vanishes into Nirvana, "the source of the great disruption." Twitchell's "Lead Us Into Temptation" goes even more softly into that good night, but it makes quite a ruckus as it crashes about in search of a position on its topic.

"One of the most helpful ways to understand modern American materialism," it begins, "is to watch Steve Martin in 'The Jerk.'" And right away, you know you're in for a rather flexible analysis. But Twitchell's initial point is indisputable: Americans love stuff. Although people are always saying that consumerism is bad, you can't have consumerism without consumers, and people are paying -- paying -- for the privilege of accumulating all the goods they can stash away. In his introduction, Twitchell pulls a drive-by shooting on the voluntary simplicity movement, backhands the idea of recycling ("Trash is central to commercial culture. It is the remains of our incomplete love affair with stuff."), and tosses a candy wrapper at the academic critic ("a cross between the village idiot and the schoolmarm") who thinks he knows better than the consumer how society and commerce should behave. But as the first chapter rolls past and the arguments begin to pile up, Twitchell's position becomes less cocky and starts folding in upon itself.

Everything that Americans do, feel or believe, Twitchell says, is now caught up in a seamless discourse of buying, selling and advertising. Consumerism, in short, is, and by the logic of the market (and according to the book's premise), that must be a good thing. We've all voted on it with our dollars. But Twitchell can't stop remarking that it's a terrible thing. He notes that it's drowned free speech in advertising chatter, wrecked the fine arts, surrendered community life first to the malls (Twitchell compares the modern shopping mall to a "small, thoroughly policed, fascist medieval city-state") and finally to who-knows-what. It's led to excess, and it's led to numbness to the genuine pleasures that material objects can offer. Personally, Twitchell resists it. But there's no solution for any of us because whether we like it or not, consumerism represents the final development of human civilization, and eventually the entire world will be ruled by consumerism, forever. Hello, there's Fukuyama again. Twitchell, winding down, invokes "The End Of History," calling its claims "demonstrably true," and continuing, "For better or worse, American commercial culture is well on its way to becoming world culture. The Soviets have fallen. Only quixotic French intellectuals and anxious Islamic fundamentalists are trying to stand up to it." He lights up the applause sign, dimly, with the final sentence: "While this is dreary and depressing to some, as it doubtless should be, it is liberating and democratic to many more." But he doesn't seem to be applauding.

The word for all of this is "rubbish." Not the books, because in spite of everything they're good and interesting reading -- but the premise that the future is determined, and that society benefits whenever the invisible hand of the market comes around to administer a spanking. One corny slogan, totally in character with the sprinklings of ad-chatter in Twitchell's book, would've made "Lead Us Into Temptation" about something, rather than about nothing in particular: Just Say No. To Francis Fukuyama, who writes that a resurgence of religion would help in overcoming the great disruption: Matthew 6:24 -- "Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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