The most crucial element to the success of a moral order (anti-political space) is that it accurately represents (or close to) the values of those who choose to live in it. That these values support human thriving is of also of vital importance – but that issue is fiendishly difficult for a political order to make judgments about. The choice of whether to live in a community or not is one that a political apparatus can unambiguously support – but the fact that we don’t have a common definition of human thriving and what values are truly important to live out is why we need a diverse ecosystem of moral orders in the first place.
While it had a very mixed record of utilizing them in practice, Western modernity clearly had developed many of the tools necessary to help people create communities that share their values. To the extent that the challenge of setting up moral orders is a lack of prosperity and logistical support, Western modernity was in fact the most advanced civilization in history at generating prosperity and solving logistical issues. Those tools should not be abandoned.
But we must likewise learn from its failures, and this is as true, or even more true, in the bastions of progressive politics as it is anywhere else.
A host of radical academics made it their life’s work to condemn American businesses for their rank consumerism, while living in perches paid for by colleges that used every marketing trick in the book to increase applications, and exploited their custodial and graduate student labor.
The New York City school system is more segregated than any school system in a red state. The American south, in fact, has the least segregated school systems in the nation. Liberal, cosmopolitan New York was also the home of “stop-and-frisk” … and can claim Donald Trump as a hometown boy.
The Chicago police department has likely been far more brutal to black bodies than any contemporary red state system — they had an off-the-books torture sight, for Christ sake. Similarly, liberal Silicon Valley has perhaps the highest degree of income inequality in the nation, and the diversity hiring record of its flagship companies is absurdly close to “zero.”
The idea that progressives have in fact built a better mouse trap by making it vegan, gluten free, and conscious of micro-aggressions, seems difficult to prove when faced with the messy reality of the results it gets. I say this, absolutely, as someone who supports the majority of progressive policy ideas — but surely we can pause for a moment to acknowledge the irony of liberals whose cities are full of segregation, police brutality, and income inequality lecturing conservatives on the evils of institutional racism. After a certain point this doesn’t look like improving society so much as building a higher horse on which to sit and lecture.
Western modernity simply never lived up to its own talking points. But the problem was not with the talking points. Indeed, at its height the vision that was put forward appealed to most of the world – so much so that it became a hegemony.
But once Western modernity became hegemonic, its increased emphasis on “the market” at the expense of all other aspects of cultured turned it into a gated community.
If you live outside of a major metropolitian area, it has become increasingly difficult to participate in Western modernity, even if you want to. It has become depressingly obvious that Western modernity, at least as it has been reconceived after the fall of the Soviet Union, simply has no model for people who want to live in small communities and are not already rich. It’s not that Western modernity won’t help support these people and their communities – it’s that it doesn’t even know how. Thus if one lives in a smaller community, one is forced to either move to a place that is less appealing to one’s character, or to give up the advantages of society.
The same dynamic exists in many mid-sized cities: those that are not already economic powerhouses are struggling with the exact same problem … and Western modernity has nothing to offer them.
But even if someone does move to a major metropolis, one’s ability to actually live as a fully vested citizen in the culture of Western modernity is usually curtailed. These are, let us remember, the most expensive cities on earth. If one wishes to live in a major metropolitan area as a teacher, a barista, a police officer, a graphic designer, a secretary … in fact, any career in which one does not pull down a top salary … the obstacles are extraordinary. If one wishes to live there and raise a family, the obstacles are nearly impenetrable.
The problem is not income equality itself, it is not that some have more than others, it is that Western modernity has created a situation in which significant numbers of people have very few options, and are forced to live in communities or circumstances that do not represent their vision of a meaningful life.
What we must learn from this is to design future communities and systems along two lines that have not previously been emphasized: accessibility and portability.
Accessibility is the ability to welcome newcomers to a community and have them actively participate in both the civic benefits and responsibilities therein. These can be formal barriers to entry, but far more often in Western modernity they are informal barriers: technically anyone can rent an apartment in New York City – in practice, it is extremely onerous for a significant portions of the population. By this point in the modern period, most Western metropolises are at least discussing this kind of accessibility, but mostly as lip service. Yet to succeed, whatever kind of community is designed, whatever vision of the good life it is meant to represent, accessibility must be a design principle from the beginning. This does not just benefit those who are seeking to enter, but those who are already present – an established procedure for integrating new arrivals creates clear expectations (or should, if it’s done well) and correspondingly reduce fears of displacement and gentrification.
Portability is the inverse: if enough people wish to engage in a cultural vision of the good life where they are, how can they successfully establish it? What steps can be taken? What processes engaged?
Portability and accessibility together serve to reduce the strain on one another. To use the case of Western modernity as an example: if someone doesn’t have to go to the metropolis to get a first rate education, encounter advanced culture, and participate in the global economy, then it will alleviate many of the most significant pressures on the metropolises to absorb new populations. Plenty of people would gladly stay put and build communities where they are, or leave the metropolises to establish smaller cultural havens, if the cultural advantages of the metropolis were in fact portable.
Again, the key is not to create political systems that can create accessibility and portability for one moral order, but for a diverse ecosystem of them. Which in many ways we already know how to do. Western modernity has generated more prosperity than the world has ever known – we are at the high point in history for resources. Using those resources to create different kinds of communities has well established precedents: for an extended period of time, were were even reasonably good at keeping these communities connected to one another. Making them accessible and portable are the major community design principles that we are now desperately lacking.
This post is part of a series which first appeared on my Patreon.