January 16, 1983
In “Beyond Good and Evil,” Nietzsche inveighed against “socialist dolts and flat heads”—positive thinkers who would tidy up the chaos wrought by the devaluation of all values, preaching a new form of salvation and assuring everyone that conflict, perhaps even “suffering itself,” is merely “something that must be abolished.” It was not only their dream of reconciliation and community that offended Nietzsche; it was their piety, their sentimentality, their conventionality, their opportunism. Socialist humanism was bogus, he concluded disgustedly: “the democratic movement is the heir of the Christian movement.”
Michael Harrington is nothing if not a positive thinker. For some time he has been America’s most visible and energetic social democrat, spiritual leader of a doughty, beleaguered sect who now call themselves the Democratic Socialists of America. This is a fallow period for democratic socialist politics, so Harrington has turned, for the interim, to other tasks. His latest book is personal, pastoral, and ecumenical: a testament, an attempt to shore up the faith of the believing band, and an effort to bring the socialist evangel to the “morally serious”—to all those grieved (rather than relieved by the “spiritual crisis of Western Civilization.”
The crisis in question is the death of God, at least in his Judeo-Christian manifestation. That is a large and familiar story, and Harrington concentrates on one part of it: the political consequences of the decline of institutional religion. The Christian God was not only a mighty fortress and most holy Light, but also a principal of order, fountainhead of authority, summit and guarantor of a Great Chain of Legitimacy. Hegel, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and many others have theorized about the social origins and functions of religion. From this dense thicket of intellectual history Harrington extracts and emphasizes the point that religion was always something more than a ruling-class plot; or as Durkheim put it, “a human institution cannot rest upon an error and a lie.” The truth of Judeo-Christianity—its social truth—was solidarity the dream of a universal community, unified in value and belief.
But that solidarity rested too much on subjugation and superstition, and so was ripe for subversion by science and capitalism. The best thing in “The Politics at God’s Funeral” is an account of why capitalism developed into “the first ‘structurally agnostic’ social formation.” Its rulers having found a way to extract the social surplus “behind the backs” of all concerned, through “voluntary” market exchanges, the capitalist polity can dispense with archaic ideologies of cosmic hierarchy and divine right. Harrington explains, rather better than Irving Kristol or Michael Novak, why capitalism and democracy have often managed, however uneasily, to coexist.
In the West, epistemology replaced ontology, interests replaced ideals, bureaucracies replaced aristocracies and priest-hoods. Methodological individualism became the ideology of politics. Without a public function, religion became more and mere a private matter, no longer the organizing principle of public life but a refuge from it. This, in broad strokes, is the meaning of “secularization.” It is, I repeat, an extremely familiar story. Harrington’s rendition is competent but unoriginal, and is mainly intended to motivate the most important part of the book: his “prolegomena to a political morality.”
Individualism clearly won’t do. As the public world grows more complex, interdependence is inescapable; but untempered competitiveness makes interdependence difficult, if not impossible. In the absence of moral community and a widely shared ethic of responsibility, the individual costs of not bribing, not engineering obsolescence, not mar mi7ng I capital mobility (i.e., wrecking established communities) can be prohibitive. Yet when generally adopted, these practices impose general costs, including societal breakdown.
Where is that moral community, that ethic, to come from? Not from liberalism, which—even in its social-democratic form—can only offer a patchwork of incentives and sanctions. The modern welfare state, in words that Harrington quotes from Fred Hirsch’s “Social Limits to Growth”, “involves the progressive extension of explicit social organization without the support of a matching social morality—more rules for the common good, having to be preached and adhered to in a culture oriented increasingly to the private good.”
As modernity’s many critics have shown, and as Harrington grants, only solidarity can keep a complex society functioning. The solidarity envisioned by conservatives is based on traditionalist illusions. Liberalism does not even aspire to solidarity. What might socialist solidarity be based on? Having raised this all-important question, Harrington mumbles a few platitudes about “participation” arid “consensus,” invokes a “united front of believers and atheists in search of a common transcendental,” refers the reader to his previous books, and brings the service to a close.
It is a bitterly disappointing ending to a promising book. Other, braver contemporary social theorists have posed the same utopian question and worked out ambiguous or incomplete but suggestive answers. Ernest Callenbach has proposed that we take the biological phenomena of embeddedness and the stable state as social paradigms. Lewis Hyde has wondered whether the relations of artistic and scientific colleagues might serve as a model for societal relations. Marshall Berman has reminded us of the uses of modern disorder and speculated that a commitment to our own—and each other’s—development may bring us together through the modernist whirlwind. And Paul Goodman used to insist that the ultimate revolutionary utopian demand is simply the freedom to do good work. Compared with these splendid flights, Harrington’s “prolegomena” doesn’t even get off the ground.
“The Politics at God’s Funeral” is, in many ways, a sermon: tiresomely didactic, relentlessly optimistic, oppressively healthy-minded. When faced with ultimate questions, either visionary radiance or stark nihilism is acceptable. Conventional good taste is insufferable. Any one who has stared into the abyss will exhibit occasional signs of vertigo; Harrington never does. At one point he remarks that, unlike poor Freud, he is “religiously musical” (Weber’s phrase)— which he goes on to explicate in this comically solemn and pedantic way: “In saying that, I do not merely mean that I respond to the sacred music and liturgy of the Judeo-Christian West. More than that, I resonate to the significant reality which those rites and theologies articulate. Only I do not regard that reality as pointing to a being, or even a sphere, located on the far side of humanity.” Anyone who writes like that is tone-deaf, religiously and otherwise.
As a devout socialist flathead, I can sympathize with Harrington’s desire to instill in nonbelievers the conviction of liberal-individualist sin and then to bring them our amazing socialist grace. I can even admire the energy and erudition he devotes to that godly labor. Still, there’s something slightly smug and vaguely opportunistic about this book. Harrington’s pious horror at “mindless, self-destructive hedonism” and “the substitute religions of sex and drugs” is almost enough to make me yearn to see mere anarchy loosed upon the world. Most of the time I fervently believe that outside the democratic-socialist church there is no salvation. But “The Politics at God’s Funeral” is so formidably prosaic that one ends up wanting to hang out with the poets, who are, as we know, of a different party.