Our Band Could Be Your Model

I’ve been reading Michael Azerrad’s miraculous book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is less a collection of “music writing” than a Plutarchian collection of sketches of the lives of poet-philosophers who exemplify different possibilities for being-in-the-world. Where Plutarch’s Lives was a study in the vice and virtue of individuals, however, Azerrad’s book focuses on the small group. From a different angle: the focus of the book is not so much the person, but the institution. While reading, I find myself asking—and finding answers to—certain practical questions about the life of institutions. How do the relative strengths and weaknesses of a band’s members contribute to—or detract from—the success and flourishing of their small institution? How do personality, interpersonal harmony, and the pressures of necessity affect this success and flourishing?

In Azerrad’s telling, Black Flag were a motley collection of guys who hardly knew each other, united initially around the mysterious brilliance of Greg Ginn and, later, the brooding masculine intensity of Henry Rollins. This pattern—of personality as unifying principle—was repeated by bands like Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Big Black, and Dinosaur Jr, all with roughly the same conclusion: a few years of intense creative output followed by a precipitous decline once interpersonal conflict set in (fomented by, say, a bassist who yearned for recognition on his own terms) to or the power of the frontman’s charisma wore off.

Against this, a few bands found themselves united around an idea. The two principle cases—diametric opposites to one another—are the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi. The former was committed to self-destructive abjection, and whoever might be willing to subject their blood-brain barrier to a psychedelic assault while writhing naked on a stage might be welcomed into the fold. The latter, on the other hand, refined the proletarian frugality of the Minutemen and united it with the Stoic ethical seriousness of MacKaye’s earlier Minor Threat, becoming less a “band” than a roving artistic institution that served as a symbol for how any future DIY endeavor might be done excellently.

The chapter on Fugazi is the climax of the book, and reading it one can feel the Idea of DIY punk rock unfolding toward its fulfillment. What begins in the self-destructive dysfunction of Black Flag ends in the passionate but workmanlike earnestness of Fugazi. This is, I think, the model for how to do almost anything.

See also Chris Morgan’s essay on punk rock, youth culture, and Girolamo Savonarola:

American punk rock has been reliably infused with the creedal. In the decadent southern California scene of the late-1970s, Black Flag was off-putting not for their chaotic performances but for their “Calvinist” ethic of daily rehearsal and seemingly perpetual touring schedules. Big Black’s salacious and dissonant sound was girded by Steve Albini’s rigid commercial and aesthetic asceticism. Greg Sage of The Wipers took the asceticism further, going so far as to abstain from touring, even with Nirvana. This was a disparate idealism driven by a vague notion of “politics,” not unfamiliar in the United States, which prized autonomy from the stultifying effects of mainstream uniformity. Yet the advent of Fugazi reasserted the idealism, both in expression and example, with an unprecedented consistency and accessibility too timeless to be confined to mere political fashion.

Some More Recent Writing

Today at Tablet Magazine: on “Boomers” by Helen Andrews and how the Me Generation is playing fall guy for the foolishness of their elders.

At The New Atlantis: on how a top-down collapse of governmental authority unfairly burdened individuals with the responsibility for coronavirus mitigation.

At Breaking Ground: on how the thought of Ivan Illich might help us find our way out of the crisis of the humanities.

And two pieces for The Point‘s ongoing newsletter series, “Forms of Life”:

  • “Fun Till Death”: on the Capitol protest and the American legacy of creative disruption.
  • “Cash Mob”: on the GameStop stock market raid, the beauty of solidarity, and the danger of crowds.

Lux aeterna luceat eis

From: jk <jk@————.org>
Subject: Re: dear you
To: ————@yahoo.com
Date: Tuesday, September 9, 2008, 2:03 PM

dear you

i just got done being locked up in the richland county jail in mansfield
ohio for 3 days. i’m now in oberlin ohio at a goofy college with a couple
wonderful friends of mine who drove up from louisville to bond my broke
ass out.

let those folks know that regardless of whether or not a real show will
happen, id love to meet them! maybe there could be a small show with me
and —— playing. i have a couple friends in bands who havent played in
a while and i think that if we all got together could have a lot of fun.

i had a dream about you last night that involved some sort of yellow
mustard-based sauce dripping on you while we were cuddling and i wiped it
off with my finger and ate it and it tasted delicious. your dream sounds
fucking awesome. lets ride a wolf someday?

> i just got back to pittsburgh about an hour ago.
> half of — —– —– — —– are in fact not in town, but i did give
> —— your email address but it seems as though he ran off to new
> hampsire to go see —– (aweeee!!!! cute)
> actually, !up to date information!
> i just got this message from him
> “we just got offered to open up for – —– on the 11th, which should
> be a big awesome show, so who knows when we will ever make it out to
> louisville. it’s just going to be me and kevin too, so we will probably
> just busk on bardstown.”
> who knows what those kids will do.
> i had a dream about you the other night , we were sneaking around this
> ancient cliff dwelling waiting for people to spraypaint messages on the
> side of a mountain to tell us if its okay to go inside, i think we
> eventually decided to go to my hometown, we rode a wolf and took our pet
> squirrel.
> very strange
> lisa
> — On Sat, 8/30/08, jk <jk@————.org> wrote:
>> From: jk <jk@————.org>
>> Subject: Re: dear you
>> To: ————@yahoo.com
>> Date: Saturday, August 30, 2008, 10:05 PM
>> hey you
>> me and —— are leaving tomorrow night but i have still
>> been unable to get ahold of —–. do you have a phone number i can reach
>> him at? i’ve also been unable to find your green shirt though ive been
>> looking everywhere.. but ill try to find it still!
>> -joey

On Pain and Its Overcoming

Nerves are in a class of things that work best when you don’t notice them. Like floor joists, plumbing, and your car’s suspension system, we are only ever dimly aware of the existence of one’s nerves and their place in the architecture of our bodies until they stop working. And when normal functioning breaks down, so too does the trust in one’s own body: just as a mysterious front-end rattle might force the cancelation a road trip, the hot, nagging pang of a malfunctioning nerve is an order to halt. The pain is distinct from any other. Most injury and irritation to which our bodies are subjected is temporary; even broken bones and torn muscles whisper a promise of healing. Nerve pain, however, feels ongoing, interminable: less like a wound and more like a glitch in the system. The program might keep running, but with endless compounding errors. You can get used to the messages but they aren’t going away.

In the summer of 2017 I was in my bedroom reading Thucydides when I felt a spasm in my hip and a tingle in my foot. I was healthy, active, and in reasonably good and improving shape: some months before I’d pulled off my all-time best squat and deadlift (385 and 475, respectively), I could run a mile in just under ten minutes with little trouble, and I ate well. Having turned 30 that spring I had begun to think about the importance of “aging gracefully,” and I was determined to make my third decade a story of constant, hard-won self-betterment rather than gradual decline. Sitting at my desk that day, however, I knew at once that a wrench had been thrown into that plan.

The sciatica that hit me like a bolt from the blue would stay with me for the next three years. It would eventually be joined by a mysterious burning sensation that seemed to travel between my knees: always present in one, never both, the location never predictable and no known injury to point to. First, my ailments diminished my performance at the gym, but they quickly added a new dimension of difficulty to everyday life: I went from being able to squat nearly 400 pounds to groaning through 10 reps at body weight. A day of moving furniture in 2019 kept me bedridden with searing knee pain for a weekend; scarcely a month ago a random pulled muscle had me limping for three days. At different points in this span of time (when insurance permitted) I visited an orthopedist, a radiologist, and two physical therapists, most of whom shook their heads and suggested stretching regimens. The last round of PT involved dry needling, which was amazing in the moment but carried no lasting impact.

Last month, though, after being out of the gym for the better part of 2020, I found a place with a decent-enough weight room and decided to get back to work. At sign-up they talked me into personal training, which I’d never once opted for but seemed like a good idea: not only did eight months out of the game mean I probably need some help with form, but it seemed worth trying to address my mobility issues at a fraction of the cost of a physical therapist. Three sessions in, after some preliminary work on my squat, bench, and deadlift form, my trainer recommended some band exercises to address the tightness in my hips. I groaned through a few sets of silly exercises and felt a lightness in my leg I hadn’t experienced in years. I’ve been repeating these same exercises every other day with similar success, and for the first time in over three years I’ve been able to go about my life without tingling or burning in my leg or foot. It’s been a wonderful, totally unexpected change, and I suspect it also hides a more general principle.

The specialists I saw throughout the process were focused on just one thing: alleviation of symptoms. They attempted (minimal) interventions and suggested practices that would serve the singular goal of freeing me from pain, however momentarily, so I could go about everyday business with some sense of normalcy. All seemed to regard my interest in weightlifting as a “form of exercise,” something that “keeps one in shape,” staves off obesity, and kills time. All were either indifferent to or taken aback by my interest in weightlifting as a way to make oneself better, to reach the limits of and then deliberately extend one’s capacity for action, to make oneself “stronger, faster, and harder to kill.” Their expertise was meant to get people back to work, not to help them flip bigger tires for fun.

My trainer, on the other hand, is focused on my excellence. He wants me to get stronger, not only to get better at doing the things I’m in the gym to do, but to become better more generally. Of course, he’s not a philosopher: his sense of “better” is limited to the physical, to the cultivation of strength and the development of my body’s capacity to manipulate the world. Nonetheless, the mobility exercises he showed me were not merely for the sake of pain-alleviation—rather, the pain-alleviation was for the sake of self-improvement, because you can’t get stronger if the movements cause you pain.

One of these forms of expertise suggests easy interventions aimed at returning to a baseline “normalcy”; the other informs far more strenuous activity for the sake of constant personal improvement. The former might restore your functioning, if it works—but the latter strategy aims to restore your functioning for the goal of ultimately enhancing your functioning.

Apply this principle broadly. Avoid the former; seek the latter.

Dizzy With Nostalgia

Aaron Lake Smith, considering the cultural politics of the moment, writes:

These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been. 

Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football.  By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.

And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.

The piece is worth reading, for what it says as much as for what it doesn’t say. Smith nails a feeling that I’ve been struggling to articulate for years: the sense that people who started paying attention in the last five minutes believe they’ve mastered ideas that my friends and I devoted our lives to articulating and shaping 15 years ago (socialism, anarchism, feminism, transgenderism, black bloc “Antifa” stuff, whatever). We questioned and disputed; they sermonize on the basis of assumed expertise. We held these conversations at anarchist conferences, forest rendezvouses, in the pages of clandestine journals and the comments section of anarchistnews.org; they read Verso books in grad school and publish essays in academic journals. We poured blood, sweat, and tears onto the dust of the earth to bring these ideas to life; they inherit them whole-cloth while pretending they’re the first to ever think them. It’s a maddening, disorienting experience to watch as the people who once blinked at you in utter lack of understanding or turned their heads away in apathy now shout vulgarized tirades based upon questions you tried raising decades ago. “While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling,” Smith writes half-sympathetically, “it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops.”

But it’s weird and conspicuous that Smith never considers that this experience sucks because the ideas themselves are bad. That the knowledge we pretended as early-twenties anarchists is false and to be criticized rather than nostalgized. That the newcomers are frustrating not because they’re newcomers, but because they—and by extension, we—are wrong. I’d anticipated a reflective payoff, some kind of soul-searching self-criticism about whether what we’d been doing when nobody was paying attention was worth it after all. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the essay is a smug indictment of the zealous latecomer, the convert who takes the project more seriously than its founders, and whose danger lies in an attitude rather than the content of certain beliefs. It’s not that feminist sexual separatism and the general disparagement of men are bad ideas, it’s that the newcomers are too excited about them. It’s not that vulgar historical narratives about the evils of “white people” are misguided, it’s that the newcomers took it too seriously. We may have subjected people we considered friends to “accountability processes” more cruel and dehumanizing than what the cops do, but at least we were “on time,” whatever that means. We calmer heads may have believed these things—but we did it stylishly, with an ironic detachment that kept us from losing our cool.

There were a lot of praiseworthy aspects of early 2000s counterculturalism: enthusiastic communitarianism, DIY skills-acquisition for its own sake, a passionate engagement with the world and with each other. The ideas, however, were awful. It’s okay to admit that we were wrong. Anyone who participated in this milieu and doesn’t look back on the beliefs they held with some tinge of regret is either dizzy with nostalgia or hopelessly insane, and it’s time we were finally honest about this.

Some Writing Elsewhere

Yesterday I published a piece in The Point Magazine, an expanded and extensively-edited version of my previous post “Philosophy and Alienation”:

I have also been writing and editing at Athwart Magazine, where some recent publications of mine include:

A Eulogy

Learning about death online is surreal. The first mention hits like a sick joke: there’s the pang, then the heat, then the hard lump of doubt you suddenly find in your gut stubbornly reminding you that the virtual is not the real. But then the comments keep flooding in, and old friends start texting, and your desperate messages go conspicuously unanswered: “Are you there? Is it true?”—nothing. Nearer to death, one can sense the coldness emanating from the gap left in the world, feel the air gently tremble as the hearts of loved ones break; from a thousand miles away you can only text back “I don’t know” and frantically hit refresh, hoping for information.

I first met KerryErin in 2005, shortly after my high school graduation. We had many mutual friends who were surprised that we didn’t know each other: we’d been in the same grade at Huntington High School and had many of the same interests (that is, we were both teenage hippies), but we’d never crossed paths. She’d been expelled in her junior year after the principal discovered a weed pipe in her backpack; I kept my own marijuana consumption under far more secrecy. I don’t remember how we got connected—whichever friend arranged it is probably dead now—but we met one warm summer afternoon at the stone circle in Ritter Park. Believing (wrongly) that it was a date, I brought her a tiger lily. We walked aimlessly about the city talking, and then never stopped being friends.

Anyone who ever met KerryErin was, I’m sure, immediately charmed. (Anyone who wasn’t should be regarded as suspect.) Her beauty was obvious and undeniable. Friendliness and benevolence spilled from her like water from a mountain spring: bottomless, overabundant, seemingly impossible. The world she moved in always seemed to overflow, to admit—as her speech did, carrying that extra syllable she unconsciously sang at the end of every sentence—of a little extra that served as a mark of distinction. She lived with an aristocratic grace and generosity that made her always seem out of place, beaming as she did like a light from the darkness of her circumstances. Lodged in a neighborhood full of blight, her house on 20th Street seemed always to be crumbling, facing one catastrophe after another—but she planted the grounds in flowers and filled the house with friends, and life streamed constantly out of her little castle at the bottom of the hill. And this life, as with everything she made and did, was bottomless, overabundant, and—in the soul-devouring, happiness-crushing miasma of Huntington, West Virginia—seemingly impossible.

I’ve never returned to Huntington much after leaving it in 2006, but every time I have I’ve met up with KerryErin. It was always as if no time had passed: we’d stay up talking until the dawn’s rosy fingers began to creep across the sky, reminiscing about old friends and speculating on as-yet-unhatched plans. Our lives played out in uncanny parallel. In our younger years, we’d update one another on our travels: hers with the Rainbow family on the festival circuit, mine among the freight-hopping anarcho-punks. When I eventually landed in a punk house in Louisville, she was living on a pepper farm scarcely an hour north in Columbus, Indiana. We both fell into trouble and clawed our way out, emerging stronger and more dedicated than ever: I became a student of philosophy, chasing relentlessly after the beautiful, the true, and the good, she became an addiction counselor, helping steer others away from the trap into which she had fallen. Over the last few years she had gotten married and I’d become engaged, and we were both moving into our thirties with a sense of purpose, hope, and determination. Or so it seemed to me.

However KerryErin’s life ended, we should never forget the truth: that she was a beacon in a world of fog, something solid when all tends to mist. With her loss, the world has become unmoored. The hard work of tying things down—which she effected simply by existing—is the arduous task that we who knew her now inherit.

So then, friends: to the ropes. And may we learn to work with that grace which is not natural to us, but which so bountifully was to her.

Philosophy and Alienation

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X:

Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

In one of the earliest memories I still have access to I am probably 5 years old, fully awake during kindergarten nap time (I always was), eavesdropping on the teacher and aide as they discuss their plans for the next few days. “I think tomorrow we’re going to do some”—here the teacher pauses, scans the dark classroom, notices the open eyes on the mat next to them, and continues—“M-A-C-R-A-M-E…” With an excited gasp, I leap up, and in a loud, hoarse whisper declare, “Oh, I love macramé!”

I was a bright, curious kid. In my youngest years, this inspired me to do things like take apart household objects and put them back together to figure out how they worked. As I got older, however, it became a source of frustration and alienation. Always being steps ahead of every grade-school lesson made me an object of suspicion for most of my peers (“nerd” was not a term of endearment in the 90s); and my work ethic completely disintegrated after a few years of tedious school projects that sought to train principles I comprehended after only a few exercises. Of course, in all of this I was only the instance of a type: “the gifted kid,” that detestably predictable creature of the late 20th century, marked by a quick wit and a penchant for half-assing and smug self-assurance.

But unlike my peers in the gifted programs I was eventually recruited into, I grew up poor. My classmates dwelled in the suburban cul-de-sacs that curled labyrinthine about the edges of Orlando; I inhabited a double-wide in a swamp. The muddy lot our trailer was parked on had been a patch of palmetto and cypress trees, and the thousands of hand-sized wolf spiders displaced in the clearing took up residence with us, their webs blossoming between the wooden planks of our home’s cheap interior paneling. A family of enormous raccoons dug a burrow in the insulation under our floorboards, lured by the promise of two meals a day for the low price of having to fight off our five cats. (My mom’s airsoft rifle eventually raised the stakes.) Our tap water was full of sand on account of a poorly-dug well, which gave us a wonderful excuse for drinking nothing but Coca-cola. And though it never occurred to me to ask why I always visited my friends’ houses and not the other way round, I did regularly wonder why their homes were free of wild arachnids and mammals. (Eventually I decided it had something to do with the fact that they all had dogs.)

Nothing I learned in school mapped easily onto my home life. Our home was organized around television, not learning; our Sundays were spent contemplating NASCAR, not, say, the mystery of God in Christ. At school I endured my teachers’ dispassionate presentations of history and literature, and at home I drained cans of Coke to a daily succession of Batman cartoons and prime time sitcoms. But all the while I wondered—albeit in an indefinite, directionless way—about what might lay beyond the limits of my little world, populated by its spiders, raccoons, Final Fantasy, and sugary soft drinks. I puzzled over the things my family talked about, wondering what of what they referred to was real or not, what was or wasn’t important. I wondered, as all young people do at some point, whether life had a purpose. But unlike others my age, I failed to find an easy answer to this question, and my concern for it refused to be buried under the quotidian tasks of day-to-day teenage life.

So curiosity turned to agony as I grew into adolescence, and my dissatisfaction over my ability to adequately answer the riddles of the universe grew into a teenage melancholy that gripped me through the entirety of high school. I won’t bore you with the messy details. But though I was a promising student, I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing classes while paying barely attention and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading books. (All I recall of my entire high school curriculum is falling in love with—and eventually memorizing—T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and collapsing into an existential coma in physics class after my teacher spent a day demonstrating the pointlessness of human life in the face of an overwhelming and indifferent cosmos.) After graduating in 2005, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose college—and, by extension, institutional education at large—was supposed to serve. I spent a few years as an anarchist agitator and environmental activist, moved to a farm in southern Kentucky to retire from politics, and eventually went back to college in 2016 because I could do it for free and wanted to find people to talk to who read books and thought about things. Even there I was confronted by a world of people concerned mostly with the acquisition of prestige and profit, and spent the following four years mostly studying alone.

I found myself reflecting on my history after listening to this wonderful conversation between Jennifer Frey, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, the author of the wonderful new book “Lost in Thought: On the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,” and someone I consider a friend. Toward the beginning of their talk they discuss what led each of them to philosophy, and in both cases it was largely a matter of disposition colliding with opportunity: a shared melancholic madness, smug self-assurance, and propensity for questioning that separated them from their peers and made the normal things of life difficult was transmuted from a curse into a blessing by the alchemy of education. Before Zena finished high school she was admitted into St. John’s College by an audacious dean (God bless Eva Brann), while Jennifer followed the more traditional graduation-to-university route, landing at Indiana University in Bloomington. And both of their stories involve meetings with high school college counselors or sympathetic mentors who recognize the promise in these otherwise depressive young women and help show them paths that might be available.

Like them, my propensity toward inquisitiveness and contemplation has been a source of frustration and pain. Like them, when I finally found philosophy—genuine philosophy, after years trying to comprehend abstruse post-Frankfurt-School critical theory without the background to make sense of it—I took to it like a desert wanderer to an oasis. But unlike either of them, my acceptance of philosophy as a way of living never transformed into a source of worldly comfort, and the discomforting gap between thinking and living never closed. And this has been the case for so many people I’ve befriended over the years: the contemplative life hits them as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping them out of the fabric of life they were previous woven into and driving them into libraries and bookstores and open-to-the-public campus events in a desperate effort to whet their intellective appetites and (perhaps more importantly) to make connections with others who speak their same language. But more often than not, their eccentricity and roughness—from a lack of training in academic gentility—makes them alien to their fellows, and isolation persists. Many have struggled with—and far too often, succumbed to—drug and alcohol addiction; others, such as myself, continue to battle crippling anxiety and depression.

I don’t think any of this disproves Aristotle’s contention that happiness is a form of contemplation. Nor do I think that any scholar of philosophy worth their salt would disagree that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom rarely reaps worldly goods. (The Athenians, of course, condemned Socrates.) But I think it’s important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can really be for those who are already locked out of the kinds of aristocratic circles willing to receive individuals possessed by the madness of philosophy, who live in worlds where being an eccentric is greeted with far less understanding. The stakes are often immeasurably high: refusal or inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy—to suck it up, turn the mind off, and flip burgers—can mean isolation, institutionalization, homelessness. (How many homeless guys have I spoken with who spend their days reading magisterial history books in the library, or wandering the sidewalks in rags contemplating the form of the good like out-of-place desert fathers?)

Serious consideration of this asymmetry of conditions and stakes often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. This response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school-day and the gray walls of the classroom. (It’s a thrilling and weird book that could only have become popular within the optimistic social ecology of the 1970s; I highly recommend reading it.) I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. As we begin to imagine—and hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.

Thoughts on Class Conflict and Meritocracy

Chesterton, “Slum Novelists and the Slums,” in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism–that is, selective despotism–is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

The notion that all political belonging is predicated upon the conflict between classes comes to us originally not from Marx, but from Machiavelli. That order at the level of the whole—the city, state, empire, whatever—emerges from irresolvable conflict on the ground is one of the first lessons of modern political philosophy, and so too is the understanding of politics as a means for reconciling this conflict. The modern ruler is not the first principle from which the being of the political body flows, but rather a glorified judge. One can see how the liberal state follows quite neatly from this rewriting of the ontology of the body politic.

If you think liberalism is bad, you might decry this overturning of classical political ontology. Perhaps you wish for an ideal state ruled by a righteous monarch, to whom all subjects turn in awe and reverence as sunflowers to the dawn. But from a different perspective—such as that adopted by Hobbes and later, by Marx—even in such a scenario, the deference of the subjects is precisely what authorizes the ruler: the ruler has authority only inasmuch as that authority is recognized and legitimized by the ruled, whether through reverence or fear. In other words, a la Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right): “The state is an abstrac­tion. The people alone is what is concrete….Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.”

This new vision of the state as a site of ongoing struggle makes it impossible for aristocrats and their fellow travelers to maintain their traditional detached antipathy toward the lower classes. In the modern state, classes are rivals—and being locked in a struggle means having to pay attention to the strategies and goals of your adversary. Machiavelli recognized with a keener eye than any other that this class conflict is productive: the tumult that arises from this permanent antagonism, when mediated by the legal and judicial institutions of the state, results in stability at the level of the state (Nassim Taleb, I believe, would call this “antifragility”) and a kind of harmony between classes as they negotiate (however noisily) their conflicting interests. Class conflict can never be overcome, but it can be managed well or poorly by a governor. The former promotes flourishing; the latter, decadence and decline.

If class conflict is necessary for political flourishing, then abrogating it might be a bad idea. This is precisely what is sought in “meritocracy.” Meritocracy is far more than a heuristic for leadership-selection: it is a story a community tells about itself, a strategy for political self-understanding. At its heart, it is the eternal aristocratic myth dressed up for a new, knowledge- and technique-obsessed civilization: it is a way of reading backwards the story of how the privileged achieved the good things they have, and why they are deserving of them. It is, in essence, a way of neutralizing class antagonism. A community that collectively repeats the story of meritocracy begins to believe that just as those at the top earned their place there, whether by wit or industry, so too are those at the bottom deserving of their place on account of their lack. Like Chesterton’s “rational despotism,” the myth of meritocracy holds that prestige and privilege follow from natural superiority—and since those who are not naturally superior could never perform at the same capacity as the meritocratic victors, there’s no use in contesting the position of one’s superiors. Victory would only end in disappointment and failure; struggle would be futile.

Classes that are not in conflict are castes. Meritocracy seeks the reestablishment of rigid formal hierarchies without the fear of dispossession by those at the bottom.