On James Livingston and the New Intellectuals

On James Livingston and the New Intellectuals

Lyle Jeremy Rubin: On James Livingston and the New Intellectuals

This post combines earlier entries at Lyle Jeremy Rubin?s blog, My River City Blues.

I have yet to read James Livingston?s books, including his most recent, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul. This commentary is instead on his online oeuvre?including a recent back-and-forth between Tim Barker and Livingston at Jacobin, an exchange between my friend Mike Fisher and Livingston at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, and the Andrew Hartman vs. Livingston bout a couple years earlier. I?m an incoming PhD student at Rochester, which I only mention because Livingston appears to position himself as something of the anti?Christopher Lasch (who taught history at Rochester for many years), especially here. I too was wooed by the ?anti-modern left tradition??a tradition concerned about the consequences of large-scale institutions and mass consumer society, among other things?and I too quickly came to realize its irrelevance in many respects, and its wrongheadedness in others. (On a tangential note, like Livingston?s son, I?m a Marine, so I?ve read his pieces on the military with total interest.) I think the thrust of his latest work offers a groundwork for my generation?s present and future struggles, so these queries are friendly and preliminary.

1. Judging from what?s online, Livingston is making a lot of arguments all at once, and seems to think they all belong together. There?s the warning against nostalgia for propriety and producerist capitalism; the two-cheers (three-cheers?) argument for corporate and consumer capitalism and socialism; the case for the collective and cosmopolitan potential of ?bigness?; the defense of instant gratification and the liberatory merits of advertising and consumer culture more broadly; the spirited call for leisure; the dismissal of ?hard work? and ?craftsmanship?; the endorsement of Keynesian economics; the push for a sustained pragmatism and optimism in all the above topics; and, most ambitiously, the mapping out of a whole new dialectic that (he implies) has closed the gap between the individual and society, narcissism and socialism. My question is: Is all this stuff really of one piece?

I, for one, still appreciate aspects of the ?master texts? of the ?anti-modern Left.? Or should it all be fed to the wolves? I find Lasch?s writings on ?competence??where he extols the virtues of self-governance and earned craftsmanship?both very convincing and very relevant, while at the same time not finding much use in his beef with feminism or his wistfulness toward religion. I really like historian Robert Westbrook?s recasting of John Dewey as a participatory democrat and even guild socialist, but I?m not pulled in by the final and despairing remarks by Westbrook in a recent book review:

Exuberant modernists have long contended that a world in which all that is solid melts into air presents an exhilarating prospect. Meanwhile, its detractors insist that such a world makes for an unsettling, even frightening, vision of the future. Number Livingston among the exhilarated and [Daniel T.] Rodgers among the unsettled. I will take my stand with the frightened.

At the level of actual organizational politics, the New Economics Institute?which touts itself as the institutional embodiment of the unconventional economist E.F. Schumacher and buys into a lot of the nostalgia for ?smallness,? ?craft,? ?thrift,? ?greenness,? and all the rest that Livingston is eager to overturn?is putting forth a program (as did Schumacher) that is pragmatic, optimistic, and at peace in our world of corporate and consumer capitalism. And they even propose a twenty-one-hour work week! Finally, Livingston?s own reply at Jacobin prescribes ?worker self-management? alongside consumption, Keynesian spending, and wealth redistribution, even though some of the most eloquent and considered exhortations for ?worker self-management? derive from the very ?anti-modern left tradition? with which Livingston has such difficulties.

2. There is an homage to Raymond Williams in Livingston?s blog title, Politics and Letters, and there is continuity between Williams?s thought?in Culture and Society and The Country and The City, for example?and Livingston?s. And yet there was a tension in Williams?s work that I don?t see in Livingston. Like Marx, Williams was respectful of big capitalism?s accomplishments, and saw openings for more humane stages in human evolution to follow. But he was also very fond of another strand of thought, where that next stage would not be just an equally distributed consumerist frenzy undergirded by a Keynesian technocracy, but a society comprised of active citizens and creators, working together on small and large scales to build a better world. Williams distinguishes between passive and active notions of society?ones that only help to reinforce the elitist and conservative apprehensions of ?the mob,? and ones that don?t. And it seems that supporters of an ?active? society will have to turn to ideas like ?participatory democracy,? ?worker self-management,? ?craftsmanship,? ?competence,? ?active citizenry,? ?active creation,? and so on, while simultaneously acknowledging certain benefits and necessities in corporate organization, state-run engineering, and advertising and consumer culture.

3. Livingston sees the environmentalist argument as the last refuge of anti-consumerism. At Jacobin, he writes:

Rich people produce less waste because they can afford to acquire goods that are more durable than the crap the rest of us buy?on credit. They don?t buy Maseratis, they invest in Priuses, and they create green spaces on their roofs. They have fewer children than the rest of us, thus defusing what we used to call the population bomb. And those children go to private schools, where they learn from an early age that the environment is endangered mainly by diabetic fat people, who clearly consume too many calories, too many resources, and too much sidewalk space in Midtown.

In my experience, the only people who boast a Prius are a select few from upper-middle-class enclaves, and perhaps a smattering more in your college-town whereabouts. Where I?d been the past half decade, it?s all Ford F-150s, and that went for pauper-paid enlisted folks at the bottom and the well-compensated generals at the top, not to mention all the non-military folk (bottom and top) who lived within a twenty-mile radius of base. Whenever I found myself in the wealthier neighborhoods in San Diego or LA, the closest I got to a Prius was a Beemer. Otherwise, you?re talking Mercedes, Maserati?I mean, is there really a correlation between wealth and environment-friendly consumption? (Maybe there?s evidence to this effect in Against Thrift?) All the data I?ve seen points in the opposite direction, both inside and outside America. Generally speaking, the more rich an individual or country is, the more of the environment he or she eats up. Am I wrong? I?d like to be.

4. My most harrowing concern about consumer culture?and possibly the most harrowing concern for most of Livingston?s intellectual opponents?is that the habits of mind that a culture of instant gratification and incessant salesmanship encourages are habits that work against social progress. In other words, Livingston says, more consumerism, more social justice?but what if more consumerism leads to less social justice? What if the more a society accepts the ideas that (a) consumer products ?liberate? us, and (b) the more we spend (both in money and time) on our own self-gratification, the better the world will be, the less likely we?ll devote time to keeping up on current affairs, taking part in Occupy Wall Street or student debt protests, starting or joining a union, voting, thinking in socially minded ways that most commercials and television programs and Facebook advertisements don?t offer on display, and staking an active claim to our self-development (not just our self-gratification) and our communities (not just our taxes)? Is this really that crazy a proposition? That maybe, in the great sweep of History, narcissism and social justice don?t meet?

5. I agree with Livingston that the Left spends too much time harping on the problems with consumerism?not because I dismiss these problems, but because I?m a pragmatist. I?m surrounded by friends and families (especially a father) who absolutely can?t wait for the next iPhone, and when I travel abroad I see the absolute ecstasy that an American blockbuster or gadget brings to the face of a local. I realize and I?m accepting of the fact that the consumerist frenzy isn?t going away, and maybe it?s better that way. But I?m unwilling to issue a cheerful endorsement of our buy-and-sell predicament. What I?d like to see is a better consumerism, a better corporate America, a better modernity.

6. I think there?s an unspoken message in Livingston?s latest interventions that basically reads: INTELLECTUAL LEFT?GET OVER YOURSELVES. In that regard, it?s a very welcome intervention indeed. But the question then becomes, exactly how do we get over ourselves? One way is to put down Adbusters, read more Paul Krugman, call for higher taxes and perhaps more union victories here or there, and otherwise join our neighbors at the mall. Another way?my way?would be to embrace the practical, bottom-up, down-to-earth measures found at NEI and elsewhere that attempt to introduce active and collective habits of thought and mind into our corporatist and consumerist universe.

As Raymond Williams put it, the problem isn?t so much corporations or consumerism, but the reality of ?minority capital,? a reality that distorts the everyday wants and needs of individuals and communities, in large part to the benefit of the minority and to the detriment of everyone else. I don?t believe Livingston?s program (online program, that is) goes far enough in challenging this ?minority capital,? either on a practical or cultural plane. I think what?s really needed, what?s really the best way for left intellectuals to accept our marginalized status, is to work toward engaging with and transforming the very institutions we despise, not merely accepting those institutions with a few Keynesian caveats. So in addition to joining our neighbors at the mall, why not join them at the workplace, the union meeting, and the halls of corporate and public governance? This is already happening. I just don?t think it?s happening enough, and quite in the ways I?d like, or the ways hinted at above. (I?m not helping the problem by pursuing a PhD, but I?ll save that defense for another day.)


I think Livingston is pushing the younger generation of intellectuals in the direction of our own oedipal moment of creativity and breakthrough. This doesn?t mean we have to kill our fathers. (My childhood was too good for that.) But it does mean we need to apply as much pressure as possible to our received education, and in doing so, in true dialectical fashion, bring ourselves somewhere else, maybe even somewhere better.

In my lifetime, at least, I?ve never seen such a need and want for new ideas. But this is a relative form of hope. My optimism begins and ends at Brooklyn?s (or the college town?s) gates. The second I venture beyond these cantons of culture, I?m greeted with a world consumed by everything but ideas, especially ideas of social or political relevance. My Facebook feed tells the same story. My own guess is that as all that is solid proceeds to melt into air, this pattern will only accelerate, with or without incidental and intermittent spikes in intellectual life. This has a lot to do with, I think, what Livingston conceives of as the ?plastic self? (as Mike Fisher put it): a shift from receiving and abiding by lessons of truth and virtue from religious, cultural, and intellectual priesthoods to spending nearly all of our leisure time fashioning multifarious identities by way of consumption. We no longer are (nor need to be) hardworking, devout, self-sacrificing, thrifty individuals. That personality type was for another time and place, one that (thank God) has left us. Now we?re instant gratification addicts, obsessive role-players, fashion-conscious playmates?in a word, we?re all consumers now. And this makes most folks happy.

The real painful inquiry is, what do the critics, the intellectual leftists, the book geeks, do in a world where no on cares about us (and what we represent) anymore? The far more important corollary is: what happens to everyone else? To our politics, our society? I read a piece by Mark Greif in the New Statesman, congratulating himself and those around him for reviving a ?little magazine? left literary culture?and the congratulations is very much due. And yet all we?ve really got now is a slightly more robust book club. The depressing fact is, we?re as detached as ever from the larger discourse, from the thoughts and feelings and interactions of everyday life and politics.

If we?re going to start exploring the ?plastic self? as the new paradigm, then we also need to start working toward the notion of ?the plastic intellectual,? or ?the plastic reformer,? or ?the plastic revolutionary.? We can?t just have ?intellectuals? anymore. We need ?intellectuals? who moonlight as politicians, union workers, entrepreneurs, bar club owners, sports analysts, fashion designers. We need intellectuals who don?t just live a few blocks from the university (or in Brooklyn), but who live right next door to everybody else. In other words, we need to get a whole lot more flexible with our vocational and locational outlooks.

We need to become as flexible, as plastic, and as all-encompassing as the reality itself. This means the conventional organs we?ve relied on in the past?the ?little magazines,? the universities, even the street protests?while still exigent, are not enough. Of course, ?intellectuals? should do what they do best. I?m not arguing for the end of the division of labor. What I?m really saying is that we need to take the ?occupy? slogan seriously, and start conceiving of ways to actually occupy everyday life and politics, not just critique it. Because the critique won?t be enough in the ever-encroaching world of advertising and consumption. Occupation needs to become synonymous with infiltration.

There?s a danger here of ?think tank? acquiescence, or becoming an Atlantic intellectual. Alternatively, one can say this flexibility already exists, and has been taking place for some time now, but you still need your ?little magazine? nexus out of New york, Boston, Chicago, and LA. Finally, you could say this transition is already taking place because the market is no longer allowing for as many ?intellectuals qua intellectuals.? (I?m thinking of all the PhDs out there without professorships.) But it?s still a question of mindset, and right now there are still too many bright minds out there who aren?t thinking flexibly enough. For instance, why are so few people in Brooklyn or Boston or the campuses talking about launching a worldwide campaign to fund our own think tanks in DC, our own start-ups in Silicon Valley, or, God forbid, our own corporations and finance rackets out of New York?

Here are a few models, starting with the activist-expert types and then branching outward. Many of these examples could be considered conventionally intellectual, and others are flawed characters, but all of them offer something uniquely helpful as prototypes: Gar Alperovitz, David Graeber (if we get him a seat at the NY Fed?), Andrew Bacevich, Rachel Carson, Cornel West, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Wendell Berry, Studs Terkel, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niehbuhr, Matthew Crawford, David Simon, Gary Trudeau, Asghar Farhadi, and George Soros. Michael Walzer once argued for the virtues of the ?connected critic,? the one who effectively critiques society from within. By doing so?by speaking to and with a public instead of above and at a public?not only does one have a better shot at actually humanizing society, but one?s critique is more humanized in itself. This now calls for not only speaking with the wider public, but living and working with them, too.

Image: “Mad Hatter’s Plastic Wrap,” by Tashiya Mirando, via Flickr creative commons, 2006