The Long View: The Politics of Meaning

I don't think I can improve on this concluding paragraph.

The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism

By Michael Lerner
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996
$24.00, 355 pages
ISBN: 0-201-47966-4

The '60s Left Tries God

Remember back in 1993 when First Lady Hillary Clinton began to wax eloquent about The Politics of Virtue? Remember that you could not understand what she was talking about? Because she and her husband had picked up a lot of the vocabulary for their new enthusiasm from Tikkun magazine, its editor, Michael Lerner, was briefly designated White House Guru by members of the press. In this book, Dr. Lerner (he holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology) tries to explain what the First Lady was talking about, or at least what she would have been talking about if she had understood the magazine better. This is scarcely a campaign book; only an Epilogue deals with the Clinton presidency at length, and that critically. Rather, the book is nothing less than an attempt to sketch a general theory of leftist politics for a post-secular age.

In fairness, it should be said that Lerner speaks of a "progressive" politics that "goes beyond Right and Left." However, as with so many other calls to go "beyond" those categories, Lerner seeks to do so by assuming unconditional victory for the Left on almost every controversial point. The book is most interesting for its critique of liberalism. Like Christopher Lasch, Lerner sees it as basically a servant of the market. The argument might have been more persuasive were it not for the repetitive psychobabble in which it is written. In any event, Lerner's psychoanalytical bent has unfortunate consequences that go beyond style. The author's critique of contemporary conservatism, for instance, fails to engage the ideas of its subject as anything but symptoms of the psychological distress inherent in a repressive social system. The real problem with the book is far more fundamental, however. Lerner seeks to reconstruct "progressive" politics around a spiritual core, but the fact is that late modern cultural liberalism is flatly incompatible with piety. One will eventually destroy the other. It is as simple as that.

The author has two fears, one general and one more specific. The general fear is that the Right, both cultural and economic, will achieve permanent hegemony in the United States because it speaks to the spiritual dimension of life that liberalism has traditionally disparaged or ignored. Lerner is willing, indeed anxious, to acknowledge that the religious and cultural Right perceives real flaws in liberal society. However, since he is an economic leftist of the old school who has little sympathy with the actual program of today's Right, he is not pleased.

Lerner uses a slightly repulsive term, "meaning-needs," to refer to this element missing from the mind of modernity, but his point is clear enough. No society worth living in can be grounded in pure procedure, even just and equitable procedures. Healthy societies must look to a transcendent point of reference. Traditional religions do this, though Lerner is careful to allow that the same function could be served by nondenominational metaphysics. When a society loses sight of the transcendent, he suggests, it becomes disoriented. Families fall apart, people hate their jobs, some people become literally ill, either physically or psychologically. Where people are not seen to be images of God, they soon become objects rather than subjects, and then hated objects. Lerner has a quite lively sense that this is precisely the kind of cultural world that secular liberalism, or liberal secularism if you prefer, has been creating since the Enlightenment, and that people naturally loathe it.

His more specific fear is touched on directly only a few times, but the author clearly regards it as important. It is his belief that the Jews have been peculiarly associated with the progress of modernity, and so might be expected to be peculiarly subject to attack when modernity, at least in its liberal form, goes into retreat. This argument perhaps works better for continental European history than for American or even British history. Since the French Revolution, the "conservative" wing in the politics of most European countries has usually been based on an alliance of throne-and-altar, one to which non-Christians of any description were almost by definition in opposition. Even in the United States, however, the law regarding the separation of church and state was in large measure created to accommodate Jewish demands for purely secular public institutions, particularly with regard to education. According to Lerner, Jewish Americans are wrong to congratulate themselves on living in a country where most traces of Christianity have been removed from public life and the rest are under litigation. It is, for instance, conceivable that a resurgent Christian Right, which arose precisely to oppose this trend in the nation's civil life, would hold a grudge if it came to power. The more fundamental problem, however, is that secularization has been correlated with an appreciable decline in the public and private ethics of the American people. A godless America is not good for anybody, the Jews included.

This account of the theses of "The Politics of Meaning" is a kind of translation, since the intended audience for the book lives in a special mental universe where people speak a special language. The people Lerner seeks to persuade are old New Leftists, people for whom the 1960s was the acme of the moral evolution of the human race. In that universe, corporations are assumed to be criminal enterprises and the people who manage them are on the moral level of muggers and rapists. In that universe, feminism is an unalloyed success whose methods of consciousness-raising and mass action are models for every other form of social change. In that universe, private enterprise is the chief danger to the ecological health of the planet. (This may be because in that universe socialism has not really been tried, so the layer of toxic soot that covers so much of Eastern Europe in our own world is no evidence.) Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this other universe is that, there, Wilhelm Reich is a great psychoanalytic thinker. (Indeed, Lerner bandies Reichian-sounding terms like "spiritual energy" and even "God-energy" so freely that you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the "transcendent" is screwed on.) The inhabitants of that other universe have interests different from those of the people we know. Lerner's argument in the book, in fact, has less to do with demonstrating the reality of the transcendent than with showing why the "politics of meaning" is necessary for the fight against capitalism.

One of the many sixty-ish things about the book is that its attack on liberalism is from the Left. We are given to understand that the problem with the ACLU is that it is not radical enough. Lerner attacks the traditional liberal program of identifying and protecting ever more rights as essentially a diversion. "Rights talk," as it has come to be called, assumes the licitness of the market economy and seeks to make that economy more palatable. In fact, the whole problem with civil liberties as liberalism has conceived them is that they are based on the notion of contract, of free agreement between equal adults who have no history and no community. In order to disparage this notion, Lerner even goes so far as to nibble at the rationale for the abortion right, saying that abortion is a matter not just between a woman and her doctor, but a woman, her community and her doctor. (As I said, you have to wonder how tightly his notion of the transcendent is screwed on.) Lerner suggests an alternative model of rights, one proposed by certain feminists. Instead of thinking of rights as entitlements that flow from the implicit "social contract" between adults, we should think of them as arising from a social nurturing relationship like that which exists between a mother and child. My own reaction to this idea is that it gives new meaning to the term "nanny state," but in the universe where Lerner's audience lives, such a characterization is not an objection.

Lerner's postulate that market economies dissolve the cultures of the societies in which they exist is not new, and I can see how a few years ago it might have seemed to be obviously true. Lately, though, many people have begun to wonder. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, has taken to assessing the developmental potential of different countries by assessing the level of certain virtues among their inhabitants. So many societies have attempted to build capitalist economies since 1989, and with such varying success, that you have to question the assumption that the market economy is a universal anticulture. Lerner, however, remains fixed in the undergraduate certitudes of thirty years ago. For him, business is just a kind of predation. Competitors are obstacles to be overcome, employees are tools to be expended, consumers are cattle for the slaughter. Now, there are indeed post-Communist countries were business really is a war of all against all, one fought with real bullets that leaves real dead bodies. And of course, managers even in sophisticated capitalist countries are sometimes possessed by strange fashions, such as the recent practice of downsizing companies even in the face of expanding markets. However, I think that one lesson we can learn from the events of the past decade, if we did not already know it, is that businesses are normal human associations that depend on such virtues as trust, loyalty and hard work. Furthermore, far from relentlessly destroying these virtues, they normally promote them.

Successful market economies are culture specific phenomena that depend on the Post Office not stealing the mail, on accountants honestly totaling the receipts, on workers not sabotaging machines. Successful business pay their suppliers promptly. Their bosses look for new markets rather than try to bribe the government to give them monopolies. The sorry state of so much of the post-Communist world can be explained by the lack of cultural reflexes of this sort. Private enterprise does not run on "greed" or any other vice, though Lerner seems to think that greed is the sum of the morality of the market. Additionally, the notion that capitalist economies run on false needs generated by wicked marketers is an unsupportable piece of ancient leftist polemic. Doubtless most of the needs to which market economies cater are "false needs," in the sense that they far exceed the needs of bare subsistence. However, the fact that capitalist countries keep most of their citizens far above the level of bare subsistence can appear to be a fault only to people who hope for universal misery as a necessary predicate to revolution.

There is a distinct Gnostic flavor to Lerner's belief that most people in advanced countries spend most of their days in the service of criminal enterprises. (He allows, of course, that the guilt of business executives, like that of drug dealers, may be mitigated by the warped social environment in which they grew up.) Just as the ancient Gnostics thought that the body was evil in itself and the world therefore the doomed kingdom of the devil, so Lerner regards the normal activities of everyday life with a sort of disgust, tempered by the hope that people will someday abandon their inhuman market practices and instead deal with each other in a humane and loving way.

Lerner's model of truly human social interaction seems to be therapy. In the 1970s he was part of an institute dedicated to relieving the burdens of work-related stress. From what I can gather from this book, therapy consisted of awakening the workers to the harm that market competition was doing to their lives. The enterprise did not go far, and to his credit, Lerner realized that his clients had moral and spiritual concerns that could not be addressed in the language of the New Left or that of psychotherapy. "The Politics of Meaning" is an attempt to outline a language that could be used for just such a purpose. The "democratization" of the economy (which seems to mean establishing markets and prices by vote) and the "humanization" of the workplace (which seems to mean the old Soviet model of folding social services into the operations of factories and offices) would not be undertaken to comply with some economic theory. That would be just as dehumanizing as market economics. Rather, the truly human society would be created through a process of healing. The cure is to be found in a reformation of consciousness, to be accomplished through the familiar means of group therapy and other tools of progressive politics. The key to a new society is a transforming knowledge, a gnosis. To focus on mere details is not just unnecessary, but an evasion of the task at hand.

Tikkun, the name of the magazine that Lerner edits, means "reconstruction." In kabbalah, it means healing the damage done to the world by the primordial disaster that marred it. Traditionally, this was supposed to be accomplished by the devotion of the pious, but the idea lends itself to a theory of social progress as readily as does St. Augustine's model of history. The life's work of every participant in the society for which Lerner hopes would be to become a fully actualized human being, a creature that reflects the image of God. Nevertheless, the fact that the whole business sounds more than a bit like the Chinese Cultural Revolution with facilitators is not perhaps entirely coincidental.

Lerner remarks at one point that "to be human is to be commanded." There is something to be said for this formula, if you believe that morality is objective. The problem is that he seems singularly unwilling to be commanded by scripture, tradition or history. There is no significant feature of America's own cultural revolution in the 1960s that he is willing to repudiate. Certainly no laws, like those relating to divorce or abortion, are to be changed. The only problem with homosexual culture for him is homophobia. Even his willingness to allow instruction about religion in the schools is tempered by the proviso that Christianity is to have no greater part in the curriculum than any other religion, an odd restriction in a largely Christian country, even from a purely academic point of view. One of his refrains is that we should not limit our thinking to the practical, but should try to implement our highest ideals. The problem is that in Lerner's case, the social ideal is a religiously observant kibbutz. In contrast, the ideal for most people most of the time has been their own house with a bit of garden. When most Americans actually got something like that after the Second World War, the Left derided the ideal with songs about "little houses made of ticky-tacky" and began trying to make people want what they are supposed to want. Michael Lerner is still at it.

The lesson of the 1960s Lerner has refused to learn is perhaps the chief lesson of the whole revolutionary tradition of the modern West: we are commanded to be practical. To do otherwise, when contemplating so grave a matter as reconstructing a society, is to practice depraved indifference to human life. Lerner thinks that society as it exists is composed of criminals and psychopaths, of people who oppress each other and who steal valuable resources from the future. Nevertheless, he holds out the hope that they can be rehabilitated through a reeducation process in which they will have the sort of rights that children have in relation to their parents. Frankly, this has been the formula for bloody mass murder in so many places in the 20th century that it is hard to see how anyone who is not a moral idiot could propose it yet again.

One of the important points about the linear model of history shared by Judaism and Christianity is that you are supposed to learn something as you go along. We learn about the world through induction, through planned experiment and everyday experience. This is how we derive meaning from history. It is how we get some inkling of the influence of the transcendent on our world. The rejection by modernity of this source of guidance is what made modernity what it is. Nevertheless, something we have indeed learned is that market economics is true as far as it goes. It is, after all, just a set of theorems about the interrelation of prices. We have also learned that the market is not what is wrong with the world, and that those who say that it is usually have an agenda for which economics is just an excuse. These small insights do not exhaust the meaning of the twentieth century. However, they must be the basis for any humane practical politics of the twenty-first.


This article first appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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  The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in An Age of Cynicism By Michael Lerner