Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why Nothing Works

The anthropologist Marvin Harris was a developer and proponent of cultural materialism, a theory that emphasizes factors of production and demographics in the analysis of social phenomena. While this may sound somewhat esoteric, its main implication is fairly simple. It is the infrastructure of everyday life, the methods of producing goods and services, and the pattern of economic relationships in a society that determine that society's attitudes, beliefs, and ideology...and not, as we often assume, the other way around. Most often, a culture conforms its ideas to its conditions as a way of explaining and coping with them. Harris' popular book Why Nothing Works, published in the 1980s, dealt with the rapid changes in American social life following World War II and tried to explain, among other things, feminism, the gay rights movement, increasing crime rates, inflation, cults, fundamentalism, and the decline of marriage and the single-income family.

Harris' theory stands in contrast to some conservative modes of analysis, which tend to privilege (or vilify) abstract ideas as the source of social change. For example, champions of "family values" see the 1960s as a true pivot point in the history of American domestic life. In this reading, the change in mindset brought about by the feminist movement caused women to leave the home and pursue careers, which in turn had various detrimental consequences for children and society. Harris points out, however, that the entry of women into the workforce actually preceded the women's liberation movement by at least a decade. Women went to work for other, more mundane reasons and developed a theory of equality and liberation as a response to the new problems they faced. In Harris' view, most of the changes in American life in the last few generations can be explained by the increasingly dominant influence of corporate monopolies (or oligopolies) and government bureaucracy.

The question then arises, who is right? Did Harris find the real answer in economics? Or are there deeper forces at work, as reactionaries would have it, like the loss of religious faith or a general "moral decline?" As convincing as much of Harris' argument is, there is still something compelling about the thought that ideas matter in and of themselves. If we can shape our own ideas, and in turn shape the world with them, we are empowered. If our ideas are simply a function of technology and convention, we are reduced.

To begin with, Harris has some things in common with conservatives. Although he sees feminism as an understandable (and perhaps inevitable) response to certain economic realities, it doesn't follow that the two-income family is entirely a good thing. In fact, Harris sees the employment of married females as an adjustment to the increasing power of large corporations and increasing economic pressure on employees. To the extent that the women's movement compensated for this shift in power by winning more equal treatment, it was beneficial. But at the same time it also served to entrench and legitimize the forces that drove women out of the home in the first place, often against their preference. In this sense it has actually left women, and workers generally, with less power and fewer options. Thus Harris stands somewhat apart from political feminism. And while he borrows the Marxian emphasis on factors of production, he does not seem to be an ideological Marxist. In Why Nothing Works he explicitly rejects the post-modern agenda, which is based on Marxist critical theory. Indeed, he devoted his final work, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, to denouncing the political effects of post-modernism.

To the second generation Marxists who laid the groundwork for post-modernist theory, ideology was of course all important. With his concepts of quiet revolution and the long march through the institutions, Antonio Gramsci located the battlefield squarely in the ideological realm. Economic change was the goal, but cultural change had to come first. Christianity was particularly an obstacle, as Gramsci wrote, because the civilized world had been saturated with it for 2000 years. If only because of the sense of continuity it provided, religion was a kind of immune system against radical change.

On the other side we find those I'll label as traditionalists, opponents of political correctness, Marxism, feminism, etc. They are mostly religious and conservative in the broad sense and are often, but not always, identified with the political right. They agree with post-modernists on one essential point, which is the importance of ideology and especially religion. They would look with suspicion at Harris' thesis that big business is to blame for social chaos (though it should be mentioned that Harris also includes big government monopolies as part of the problem, a point that would likely draw some selective agreement). Instead, traditionalists blame the leftists who claimed to have planned capitalism's demise. As the communist activist Willi Münzenberg put it, "We will make the West so corrupt that it stinks." Where Harris asks a series of questions and finds corporate oligopoly as the answer to each--why nothing works, why the help won't help you, why America changed--traditionalists would instead find a lack of spiritual sense, right morality, and respect for authority both human and divine. To them, a declining economy is the direct and visible result of the West's broken immune system.

So, back to the question of who's right. There is potentially a lot of common ground between the traditionalist approach and Harris' materialistic analysis. If religion is our society's immune system, and the immune system is weakened, this is certainly a significant fact, just as a weakened immune system in a medical patient is significant in all kinds of ways. An observation of compromised immunity, however, is not the same as a diagnosis. It remains to be discovered what is actually causing the disease and by what mechanism. It seems plausible that faith gives a us a certain amount of immunity from the vagaries of economic life. That is to say, it's plausible that a more spiritual people might also be more civil despite the growing influence of impersonal corporations and bureaucracies. Yet it's doubtless also true that our economic infrastructure affects our character, and that the effects are at least somewhat predictable.

Of course this all begs the question of what role religion plays in sustaining morality and civility, whether it is a necessary role, and how exactly it works if it works at all. These are issues I plan to visit in a later post. They're beyond the scope of a book like Why Nothing Works, which shouldn't be understood as offering any answers to "why" questions of the philosophical sort. But Harris certainly does offer insight into what doesn't work, or perhaps how nothing works. If anything, his answers seem even more valid after 25 years.

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