Dao Du Jour II, Day 61: Good Trouble

Chapter 60: Staying Put

“If you keep control by following the Way, 

Troubled spirits won’t act up.

They won’t lose their immaterial strength,

But they won’t harm people with it,

Nor will wise people come to harm.

And so, neither harming the other,

These powers will come together in a unity.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

What Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world”—the shift from a society ordered around spiritual flows to one built around material flows—never really happened. What happened was a re-enchantment, but not of the kind that critics of modernity pine for. In rather the same way that “de-regulation” is really just “re-regulation—the question is not whether there are rules, what but they are and who they benefit—the burning of one sacred canopy is the erection of another. This is the case made by Eugene McCarraher is his magisterial book, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. It’s an old argument, really, showing up from Moses’s critique of the golden calf to Marx’s critique of money. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as the economy. There are only individuals, families, communities, states, and nature.

If you try to snuff out the troubled spirits of humanity, you’re really just sweeping them under the carpet. What we call neoliberalism—the grab bag of deregulation, privatization, and the free flow of labor, goods, services, and capital across national borders that has dominated our world for the last four score—is not just an approach to economics or a form of political economy, but a total worldview that has come to govern the way we think about ourselves and what we value. And the main problem is that it has no room for actual human beings—only human capital, Human Resources, and what can fit on a ledger or balance sheet.

If the Great Recession of 2008 was the moment of conception for the birth of neoliberalism’s successor, the 2016 campaign was the quickening. One of the most important developments of our age is the emergence, on not just on the left but on the right, of opposition to neoliberalism. The brandishing of “neoliberal” as an epithet used to be a tic of leftists tarring moderate Democrats as “neoliberal shills,” but a new breed of Republican politicians is openly using the “n-word.” Though Trump surely has no idea what the word means, his entire political being was and is a revolt against the forces it describes, the forces that wrought what he correctly described in his inaugural address as “American carnage.” 

The problem is that the attack on neoliberalism is not so much from the left and the right, but from above and below. Perhaps the most interesting Trump 2016 voters were the ones who supported Bernie Sanders, but switched to Trump once Hillary put him away. While the spirits Sanders and Trump channeled were troubled by the same thing, they were and are separated by a chasm. Where Sanders called for fixing the problems of modernity by moving the system toward a social democracy, Trump gave voice to a growing sentiment on the right: to retreat from modernity into ethnic and national enclaves, to withdraw into Fortress America. Both agree with John Adams that “the merchant has no country.” Where they diverge is what “country” means, and who belongs in it. One hopes to continue the march of progress, the other to drag us back into history, the stuff of fourth turnings, Thucydides Traps, and great wars of the spirit.

What both understand is that the worldview that has dominated our lives for an age has run its course. What used to be called the “vital center” has now become a black hole. It gobbles the traditional communities that are its heart, and destroys the environment that is its fuel, slowly eating away at its pith and periphery. And the troubling, terrifying tug of its hideous gravity has led these two kindred spirits not to build a better spaceship, but to hasten the hole’s work by tearing each other apart. 

The good news, though, is that we are witnessing not the troubled spirits themselves, but they’re terrified form twisted into a tribal snarl; strong, yes, but not the “immaterial strength” they possess. Hated is powerful and harbors a hideous strength. But hatred is merely hope denied a hearing, a lame trickle siphoned off the one true power. We forget that, as abysmal a candidate as she was, Hillary’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together.” Properly channeled, these troubled spirits could come together to make good trouble and forge a more vital center. This is the way.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

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