In response to Adam's question regarding the significance of the religious right, I thought of a brilliant article in the latest addition of Harper's. David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, provides an insightful analysis of the relationship between economics and "values." He succinctly argues that the right has been successful at appealing to populist sentiments because they effectively accuse liberals "of cutting ordinary Americans off from the right to do good in the world."
Though this may seem counter intuitive, Graeber makes three general Propositions:
Neither Egoism nor Altruism is a natural urge; They in fact arise in relation to each other and neither would be conceivable without the market.
Broadly speaking, Graeber uses the terms "Egoism" and "Altruism" to reference not only patterns of behavior, but the social realms and institutions that support them. This means he takes a historical approach, noting that these concepts generally arise in tandem with each other:
In the ancient world, for example, it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. If one sets aside a space and says, "Here you shall think only about acquiring material things for yourself," then it is hardly surprising that before long someone else will set aside a countervailing space and declare, in effect: "Yes, but here we must contemplate the fact that the self, and material things, are ultimately unimportant." It was these latter institutions, of course, that first developed our modern notions of charity.
The political right has always tried to enhance the division and thus claims to be the champion of both egoism and altruism simultaneously. The Left has tried to efface it.
This proposition is fairly straight forward if one simply looks at American politics over the last 30 years. In general, the political left has attempted, in various ways, to eliminate the division by either creating economic systems that are not driven by profit (communism, co-operatives) or replacing private charity with the social safety net of the welfare state. In contrast, the right thrives by constantly reaffirming the antagonism, and even championing it.
In the United States, for example, the Republican Party is dominated by two ideological wings: the libertarians and the "Christian right." At one extreme, Republicans are free market fundamentalists and advocates of individual liberties (even if they see those liberties largely as a matter of consumer choice); on the other, they are fundamentalists of a more literal variety, suspicious of most individual liberties but enthusiastic about biblical injunctions, "family values," and charitable good works. At first glance it might seem remarkable that such an alliance manages to hold together at all (and certainly they have ongoing tensions, most famously over abortion). But, in fact, right-wing coalitions almost always take some variation of this form. One might say that the right's approach is to release the dogs of the market, throwing all traditional verities into disarray: and then, in the tumult of insecurity, offer themselves up as the last bastion of order and hierarchy, the stalwart defenders of the authority of churches and fathers against the barbarians they have themselves unleashed. A scam it may be, but it is a remarkably effective one; and one result is that the right ends up seeming to have a monopoly on value. It manages, one might say, to occupy both positions, on either side of the divide: extreme egoism and extreme altruism.
The Real problem of the American left is that although it does try in certain ways to efface the division between egoism and altruism, value and values, it largely does so for its own children. This has allowed the Right, paradoxically, to represent itself as the champion of the working class.
I must admit that at first glance, this claim seems counter-intuitive. Progressives generally argue for policies that call for a fairer distribution of wealth and resources, along with programs that support working families having access to better health care and education. But Graeber's argument is more subtle - from the end of World War II through the late 60's and early 70's, vast resources were put into expanding access to higher education. This was done with the stated purpose of promoting social mobility, to provide the working class the opportunity to "move up" the economic ladder. But by the 1970's, there was an end to the expansion, just as college campuses were exploding with radical, anti-capitalist sentiment.
Graeber believes the system offered many radicals a sort of "settlement." These folks became "reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite." As education costs have increased exponentially, the number of working class students at major universities has been trending down for decades.
And this brings us to the key to answering a larger question: "Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich?"
They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.... 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, however, 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 of 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 salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid... The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.
If "the mechanic's daughter" wishes to pursue a career that maybe "higher" or "more noble" she only has two realistic options: she can either try to find employment at a local church or she can join the army. Graeber's point is that to pursue a "high-minded, altruistic" career, it is best not to have to worry about money. This also helps explain how 60's radicals became so easily compromised:
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 hating them for it. 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.