Sunday, October 12, 2008

On the good life and where it went

I lived through the sixties. It was very nice. Thank you for asking.

No one ever asks: from where did we get all these nice things? Why do we have this democracy and its reassurance of comfort, free from oppression or harm of all kinds? Weber says that capitalism, which means our stage of life at present is made possible in a social and cultural sense by the adherence of large numbers to Calvinism. And what does Calvinism tell us? Calvinism tells us that hard work and prosperity go together. I think he probably says (too lazy to look it up) to be humble and apply oneself. If we work hard and apply ourselves, and don't talk much to others, maybe we'll be alright.
But as capitalism became more successful, it did not work out that way at all, in fact the less serious we became or the more frivolous, the more money we made. So then, money or the making thereof must be based on something other than these quiet, stubborn virtues.
In fact, the virtues capitalism rewards are the virtues more like socializing a lot; making a lot of friends --- especially ones who will let you in on mortgage banker scams (yeah, this is written the week after the 700 billion bail-out bill was passed). If you are an artist, for example, and you know a lot of other artists, it will be a lot easier to sell your work than if you do not know anyone at all.
So, Calvin's prediction - bless his heart - did not work out. But then neither did the prediction that the Dow would keep going up forever. All we would've had to do is use Mars as a waste dump.

OK, so now where does that leave us: in the ever vibrant "present." All that you can say about the present is that its definitely here and its definitely right now. We have never really dug down to the matter of why this apparent peace and prosperity. We seem to have some of it --- for example during much of the twentieth century like when I grew up after the Korean War, a thing that I hardly heard much about, and before as well as during the Vietnam Era. That one? We were actually quite upset about it and disavowed it. If these wars were not a part of my life then what was? There was a feeling of social inclusion. There was a sense that we had a system of democracy and we could work things out.
We had some idea that we were a democracy where cool heads reigned. At the same time, no one had really figured it out and, in retrospect, I feel that there may not have been that much understanding of the nature of the root benefits we had.
In fact, these conditions of peace and what we call by that soothing/paralyzing word "democracy" may have had more to do with a centuries-old tradition of law: that, and a trade system that used all of our energies to build a network of human social connection that itself mitigated against wars, although that alone was not enough and hardly stopped the phenomenon of political leaders who are mysteriously moved to direct shiny little abstractions called soldiers to blow others up. War, in short, never proved anything. Neither did trade. Still, that is where most of the prosperity actually came from by which in the context of the present paragraph I suppose I probably mean or should mean the practice of law and of trade. Or, I would mean law and trade, not knowing much about war. But who does? McCain? If these guys know something, they sure don't talk about it much. (Maybe if someone would read my blog, some of you war guys could comment on it.)
So, where then did the good life in the sixties come from? It's a really important question. I remember from my childhood a lot of nice liberal people. These would surely include schoolteachers. The schoolteachers teach, while the Wall Street brokers trade. Schoolteachers put things together, Wall Street guys broke them. The syntax works suspiciously well in my opinion.
I'm a good person. The problem is, my neighbor's not. What's he got to do with me? I think in the Bible someone asks: "am I my brother's keeper?"
Not in suburban capitalism. So we find a different truth here, different from the usual cant and spiel (I'm not sure how you say "spiel" in French, but I think Calvin was French or lived there awhile), and this different truth is that we are decentralized, yet held together somewhat, by trade as well as the law or the legal tradition, and with a few benevolent leaders maybe pitching in a little, and each going his or her own way this society is able to stumble along for awhile.
Well, sometime it has to end and we just might as well hear the N.Y. stock exchange bell of the last weeks as inevitable: neither the end of history nor its eternal continuance, but rather the end of the era when democracy could be fudged on, and armchairs relaxed into.

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