Monastic Temptation

After assembling a collection of “factlets” concerning the “pretty bad” state of things in and regarding the U.S. of A. – large-scale civic illiteracy; world-leading incarceration and homicide rates; unrivaled military expenditures; highest health care investment, relatively poor health results; morally-indicatively low relative spending on development and humanitarian assistance, and on and on – George Scialabba at The New Inquiry provides the following summary:

…[O]ne might well conclude that the United States is — to a distressing extent — a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, passive, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.

Anyone with any remnant hope for republican-democratic governance might, indeed, struggle with the idea of majorites able to name all three Stooges, but not all three branches of government. On the other hand, many of the numbers cited, when scrutinized closely, may not be quite what they seem, and not just because basic Stooge knowledge may already have eroded significantly since the time of the relevant study.

Statistics may fail to account for differences between the U.S. and other “advanced industrial nations” that a democratic-republican sensibility might favor, especially where they reflect rational decisions, or a history of high immigration and social dynamism. Higher infant mortality rates may actually reflect the benefits of advanced pre-natal medicine, resulting in a larger number of vulnerable infants actually being born. Higher overall healthcare costs may also reflect a collective social decision in favor of intensive end-of-life care. Intergovernmental development aid obviously excludes charity and other private transfers, and the narrow comparisons in this context reflect a common prejudice among sociologists, professional and amateur, against security assistance, as though military aid and indeed the U.S. military itself cannot be thought by any reasonable person to serve any good purpose.

Because the case as presented by Scialabba is itself merely a summary based on the no doubt relentlessly persuasive “three-volume survey of America’s decline” by Morris Berman, I will refrain from further rebuttal. I am more interested in the argument that Scialabba outlines than in whatever “factlets,” especially since I do not need the latter to convince myself that, as far as bad goes, America 2012 brings a whole lot of the “pretty” along with whatever “not so.”

That argument, as described by Scialabba, is also a comprehensive narrative. Taken as a whole, it looks like a story less of “decline” than of the progress of a disease, an etiology of “ceaseless, soulless acquisitiveness” from colonial infection to imperial full bloom. Even after the host finally meets its certain “demise,” Berman/Scialabba seem to expect the syndrome itself, the “economic Moloch,” to continue somehow to function, as “mass production and consumption” survive for a century or two at least under an “oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner– or Fahrenheit 451-style.”

The sole basis for hope, or sole direction for those enlightened by this new dark age teaching, is the “monastic option,” summarized by Scialabba as follows:

Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.

Scialabba does not quite commit to the monastic option for himself, but he does call Berman’s performance “immensely refreshing, even cathartic,” in part because, unlike most everyone else, Berman refrains from “hustling” us for “our money or votes or hopes,” and “simply look[s] into the depths, into our catastrophic future.”

The problems with this conclusion are many, the first and most obvious being its dependence on a familiar anti-hustle hustle, the essence of all intellectual-spiritual confidence games. The larger, connected problem lies in the possibly great extent to which the “catastrophic future” must be considered already here, according to the same logic that foretells it, for, in Berman/Scialabba’s rendering, there never really was, nor seemingly could have been, an authentic and practicable democratic American project: There has only ever been one hustle among others – the democratic-republican one being another version of that very same anti-hustle hustle that a certain kind of intellectual may find attractive until the day that he or she tires of or sees through it.  From this perspective there neither was nor ever could have been any “failure” or “decline” except of certain illusions (or hustles) regarding the material working out of implacable destiny.

The overall impression is that, now and then, certain intellectuals look up from their books and discern what all of those ignorant illiterates figured out on day 0: Human beings are, generally speaking, “violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, passive, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy” and “unhappy.” They are easily distracted by or “addicted to” shallow entertainments, and they generally remain “incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend [whatever] political sovereignty.” Yet if the main agent of democracy – the demos, the mob – has proven itself, as always expected by those not taken in by the hustle, unworthy of respect or responsibility, then what basis do Berman, Scialabba, or any of the rest of us have for deeming whatever “Fahrenheit 451- or Blade Runner-style” authoritarian oligarchy to be “catastrophic”? Catastrophe becomes just another name for life on Earth as ever, “Situation Normal…,” and authoritarian oligarchy, with whatever actual or virtual or interstitial space set aside for whatever monks and reprobates, looks like the best anyone ever could have expected. How else are we supposed to keep billions of ignorant, violent, etc., people from destroying themselves?

The dialectic evokes a very old one, at least as old as political philosophy itself (with a stopover at the Grand Inquisitor‘s place). Among its inevitable destinations is a new set of parameters, a soft progressivism of more reasonable expectations: Maybe teaching 40% of High School seniors to name three branches of government, 85% of all Americans to locate the United States on a map of the world, and so on, qualifies as real accomplishment, a sure success of some kind. Maybe, in fact, it speaks to something important. Maybe, by Berman’s or Scialabba’s own analysis, if half-hidden, it is the only possibly important thing left, at least from the perspective on the social-political whole: The concrete differences between one “Blade Runner or Fahrenheit 451-style… authoritarian oligarchy” and another and another.

Assuming for now that it really is a choice among a.o.’s only, it could be that in some “styles” there may remain more rather than less productive tension between oligarchic and democratic sensibilities, more rather than less societal space for free inquiry and even for further or renewed real progress. It could even be – many have thought so – that it is possible to influence whatever powers that be – popular, or tyrannical, or mixed – in one direction or another, presuming at least that those capable of making the case have not utterly and irretrievably retreated from the field.

Could be something to think about at “the monastery,” though not, at least under Scialabba/Berman’s program to any present purpose, since the new monastery is defined by its isolation and secrecy, in short by its insignificance, while the old monasteries were, generally speaking, deeply embedded within and central to their social-economic settings, and maintained by a continent-spanning, wealth- and resource-accumulating, politically and ideologically very highly engaged and ambitious superstructure.

Cancel my reservations.  For now.


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3 comments on “Monastic Temptation

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  1. Well Bradbury did speak of the shells, the analog to the I pod, Space X may be delivering us to the off world colonies, maybe
    a little later than projected, the diatribe of Jericho X, in ‘Strange Days’ does have an certain resonance with the political formation of a political figure, the Lysenkoist campaign against vaccination, is troubling, but that is the Huffington Post for you,
    Are we in the Jugurthan war antecedent to the Social Wars and the Triumvirates, that is yet to be seen, but unlike Panarin, I don’t see the breakup of the American polity any time soon, do you.?

    • Not really, but, then again, I wouldn’t. Really, to make sense of the question of the breakup of the American polity, you’d have to define the American polity. What conditions would have to be absent or altered for us to call it broken up or fundamentally altered?

  2. Your piece does “get down to it.” I commend you for that, and for its objectivity. Very even and balanced. Did you ever read White’s “Middle Mind.” I have a copy. I know you didn’t respond favorably to the last one, but I still think you and White think alike in some ways. He, too, doesn’t have reservations because of the ties that monasteries maintain. That’s my biggest complaint about the whole Tibetan Buddhist monastery system. It thrived off the sweat of peasants and established a lottery system that kept peasants hopeful that some lifetime they would give birth to a dalai lama or at least a rinpoche. Still, there are other things to consider. In a sense, our yoga community is an example of a “small group preserv(ing) the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘a zone of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping (ourselves) out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.”
    But we also recognize the problems with the monastic option so we’re not really out of the public eye, not totally intelligent, and not totally living against the grain. I do think all the moral problems with the monastic option apply to us and I don’t blame you for canceling your reservations. But the real monastic option has been exercised by some deeper monastic living within very bad off social structures. I read recently about a guy who left the level of monastic structure that he couldn’t morally defend for the next level, just wandering around, begging for food from poor people like the monastics of old. He’s still living off a social structure, but it’s not super, or even okay. His fellow monks were very concerned, but they also understood.

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