Men and women need to believe that “life is a critical affair,” in Richard Niebuhr’s words. They cannot be satisfied merely with the opportunity to choose their goals and “life-styles,” in the current jargon; they need to believe their choices carry serious consequences–Christopher Lasch
I recently had an exchange with a customer[i] that would appear to of the most ordinary and unremarkable nature–unless we pan back and so that we can glimpse from a broader perspective the beliefs and expectations that pass for ordinary and unremarkable and make life in the American middle class largely an uncritical affair. This is true, even though in this case the middle-class people in question hold among them two Ph.D.’s in the humanities, my interlocutor serving for many years as a professor in a major research University.
At issue was a delay in a set of wood combination storm windows. While they have a wood frame, the glass and screen inserts have a narrow metal surround. My customer was unhappy with how long the order was taking. When I inquired with my supplier, who in turn contacted the manufacturer, I learned that the manufacturer, a major American window company, had run short on aluminum.
I passed this information to the customer, wondering out loud if it had anything to do with the recent Trump tariffs, no doubt a (perhaps disingenuous) attempt on my part to refocus my customer’s frustration. The customer’s response was on one hand an example of the ordinary banter that exists between people of apparently political mindsets. But on the other hand, it shines a light on the inner lives of the bourgeoisie, especially those interior spaces where demands intersect with politics, even political advocacy if not activism. To my explanation, the customer responded, “another good reason to vote in this coming and all elections.”[ii]
For someone like me who believes we ultimately need to strengthen local economies but doesn’t believe heavy industry (like mining and aluminum extrusion) should form the heart of these economies, the issue of tariffs has no clear answer. In the abstract it is possible to imagine tariffs as part of a new commitment to the protection of local livelihoods, sheltering them from the shocks of an unstable global economy. But I don’t believe that Trump’s tariffs have anything to do with strengthening local economies, but are nationalistic in commitment, to the extent they have a coherent intent beyond the political considerations and the attempt to misinform the voting public about the future prospects of the global economy. And from the perspective of a liberal world view, in which, as a member of the American middle class and a small business owner, I have at least one foot, the tariffs don’t make sense, unlikely as they are to create jobs or improve international relations. They don’t accomplish any immediate political goals and fit only uncertainly, at best, into a longer-term ones that emerge from my postcarbon, rather than liberal, allegiances.
I don’t want to overstate the current liberal devotion to free trade. Rather than a centerpiece of the liberal agenda, except perhaps in banking and investment circles, free trade is another item in a long list of gripes that liberals have at the ready to complain about life in Trump’s America. Democrats, who may have recently protested globalism (as long as the protests didn’t result in any actual consumer inconvenience) have flip-flopped on free trade as much as Republicans. Even as the tariffs are unlikely to accomplish their stated goals, liberals dislike them mainly because they are Trump’s tariffs.
In addition to garden-variety thoughtlessness, the comment in question betrays a more persistent belief characteristic of the liberal world view, one that may also explain its ability to inspire a robust civic life. Although you won’t discover this by watching or reading the news, the heart of our political commitments might be found in our very ordinary demand and expectations and how we think the world ought to work. To the average American, one key aspect of a well-functioning world is the immediate availability of what we want, such that the American liberal agenda has in some sense been reduced to the demand for the free-flow of aluminum and other natural resources.
We complain, get upset, scoff in disgust, and find someone or something to blame when, for instance, the international flow of goods and materials causes minor inconveniences, such as a few weeks wait for some storm windows. There is a sense in which the elimination of shortages and delays are what we stand and fight for, regardless of political party or affiliation. Although we express it in terms of economic growth or a healthy economy, our society has mobilized the greatest assembly of technology and energy consumption to ensure the world works as we are told and tell ourselves that it should.
As liberals, it is true, we may also fight for the rights of immigrants or ethnic minorities, protest the NRA or walk in the “people’s climate march.” But there always remains the demand and expectations that we can buy whatever we want at a price we deem “reasonable.” It remains a main pillar of our political beliefs. As liberals, we may want social justice, but we often want our storm windows more urgently, reluctant to make a connection between social injustice and our consumer demands. To say that this sort of desire animates our hopes would be misleading, for our politics remain largely devoid of hope, settling often for the elimination of plaints. Our political commitments, in other words, revolve around the most mundane wants that ensure marginal convenience and comforts.
As long as this sort of soul-emptying demands remain part of the liberal consciousness, or unconsciousness we can scarcely expect candidates more inspiring Hillary Clinton. The novelty of a Social Democrat here and there will never add up not to a new kind of solidarity[iii]; for a lingering consumerism remains central to its promise and ideals. Only a fresh and bold sense of purpose that demands sacrifice might form the basis for a meaningful politics that will inspire commitment, engagement, and involvement.
[i] My troublesome day job is ownership and management of a company called Community Building and Restoration, which specializes in historic home restoration.
[ii] Two thoughts. I am equally culpable, if that is the right word. I’m the guy selling these storm windows after all. My customers, I should be clear, are the salt of the liberal bourgeois world. If I thought there was any chance that the customer in question or any of them for that matter would read these words I would likely keep them to myself.
[iii] As Christopher Lasch suggests, “the goal of socialism was the fullest development of the individual” and thus the fulfillment of his or her material demands (152). While Marx notes that many “needs” are socially constructed wants, he arguably is not willing to relinquish the bounty of industrial production on some existential or communitarian grounds. At best, with Keynes and others, he believed that economic efficiency (and in Marx’s case economic equality) would provide the opportunity for humans to pursue non-economic goals. At nearly 90 million barrels a day and growing, today we realize that the “fullest development of the individual” may result in the desire and demand, only, for more.
Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Teaser photo credit: By Unknown