Anyone wondering about the state of the tottering edifice we just a few decades back deemed “the new world order” need only ingest the title of Mariana Mazzucato’s recent New Republic article: “Saving the Climate in a Triple Crisis: A Moon Shot Model for the Transformation of Capitalism.” If our hopes for salvation amount to a moon shot, the new world’s disorder is deep indeed.
Mazzucato, an economist at the University College London, places the pandemic and its accompanying economic devastation against the backdrop of climate change. This “triple crisis,” she concludes, requires a solution that “in a holistic way brings public purpose to the center of how we co-create value.” She calls for a “mission-oriented approach,” turning for inspiration to President Kennedy’s space program, with its government-directed, public-supported “cross-sector collaboration” that led to rapid and unprecedented achievement.
If Mazzucato is right about our current need for intersecting “missions” in the spheres of economics, politics, and beyond—and it surely means something that figures ranging from Pope Francis to Senator Rubio tout her work—then one thing is clear: The age of market-worshipping neoliberal hope is over. Who today argues that the great political-economic faith of the past four decades—the faith that markets will solve whatever ails us—has left us in a foundationally better place? Whoever such advocates are, they aren’t taking victory laps in elections anywhere around the world. The political trust fund bequeathed by Thatcher and Reagan has—remarkably—run out. Its heirs are politically homeless.
But the Thatcher-Reagan bequest lasted long enough to fund the vast defunding of the public sphere. Innumerable politicians around the globe, riding the crest of massively financed global markets, delivered visions of trickled down wealth spent on a planet remaking itself into a consumer paradise. The Great Recession punctured the fantasy, while pop fiction like The Hunger Games issued alternate readings of the times. Trump, Duterte, Putin, Lukashenko, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, and more stepped forward to confirm the plausibility of such readings. And now the pandemic has exposed our profound poverty—subaltern poverty, to be sure, but also the more basic poverty of spirit that bespeaks sustained isolation and alienation.
“Think of the many ways,” Mazzucato implores, “that the signal failures of the social response to the Covid emergency are a kind of dry-run illustration of the weakened institutional and social commitments that we are seeking to deploy to roll back climate change at the eleventh hour.”
Her message: The social bonds that are weak must be made strong. But how?
The answer to that question takes us into a conversation as old as the republic itself.
As the neoliberal era was dawning, sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, published in 1985, was at the center of that conversation: our ongoing consideration—mostly in the form of argument—of American character. Bellah, joined by four co-authors, had sharply revealed our deficits, in a style respectful and cutting at once.
“American cultural traditions,” Bellah and his co-authors wrote, “define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation.” This is worth repeating: Our nation’s most powerful “traditions” were forming us not in union but in “isolation.” It was a claim strong enough to awaken anyone to radical forms of action—anyone with ears to hear, that is.
But to the extent that Bellah’s argument is accurate, we have no such ears. It’s not just that we can’t carry this tune—we have trouble even hearing it. The research undergirding the book revealed us to be a nation filled with people possessing “no reliable way to connect [one’s] own fulfillment to that of other people.” We were suffering the erosion of a “moral ecology” that left us without the nutrients and networks vital for health of any kind. We were dying on the vine.
Not surprisingly, the authors detected considerable levels of dis-ease, fear, and pain among Americans, inchoate, perhaps, but evident all the same. If America’s old moral order had been replaced by a “managerial-therapeutic ethos” that grounds all decisions in solipsistic calculations and aspirations, a “powerful rejection” of it had been mounting on both the left and the right. “The discontents of the present economic order,” as they put it, were on prominent display as the post-Cold War, neoliberal order took shape.
In the ensuing decades, that “powerful rejection” has developed even more potency than the authors likely imagined. But a rejection of the individualism against which the book warns has not been among the hallmarks of these movements. If the individualism that ails us begins at the level of “moral ecology,” any transformational political movement would need to proffer more than policy solutions, glistening ideals, and unmuted rage. The repair of anything at the level of ecology requires infinitely more demanding work than mailing out pamphlets and chanting at rallies, let alone getting proposals through committees. Bellah’s diagnosis demanded a deeper response than the present “rejection” has in the main offered.
Habits of the Heart took pains to spell out the contours of an adequate response. To loosen Americans from their individualist commitments the book’s authors took an ad fontes approach, urging readers to mine the veins of what they termed “the biblical and republican traditions in American politics.”
It was a curious turn—and, as they implicitly acknowledged, a desperate one. The biblical and republican traditions were clearly cut from the very cultural cloth the rending of which their research documented. Which of our institutional matrices could possibly stitch back together such traditions? Given the magnitude of their claims, it’s no wonder they warned that “the time may be approaching when we will either reform our republic or fall into the hands of despotism, as many republics have done before us.” At the end of the book they even suggested that in our quest for renewal, “Perhaps common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself, is the most important thing of all.” Desperate measures for desperate times, indeed.
Crucially, in their preface the book’s authors had specified that their research was in the main limited to “white, middle-class Americans,” whom they saw as having “dominated our culture.” What could not be clearer today is the extent to which the white middle class has failed the challenge Bellah and his team laid out. Cornel West underscored this failure in his incisive 1991 essay, “Nihilism in Black America,” in which he noted that the very conditions that had spawned the “horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” afflicting Black Americans were increasingly affecting white communities, too—a sign of “cultural decay in a declining empire.”
Decay and decline, authoritarianism and despotism: These are macro realities with everyday effects, of the sort to which social psychologist Jean Twenge has recently referred in describing “iGen” teenagers as “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.” Forty years ago we met the crisis of individualism with the most individualistic form of political economy on record: neoliberal capitalism. And we are suffering for it. Had we greeted the new era with Habits’ closing meditation in mind we would have fared better. “We have attempted to deny the human condition in our quest for power after power,” the authors confessed. “It would be well for us to rejoin the human race, to accept our essential poverty as a gift, and to share our material wealth with those in need.”
As nations aim for missional success amid our present crisis, the one mission we must all take up is surely ecological repair: home by home, church by church, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town. Political saviors will not rescue us. Everyday heroes, impelled by deeper visions and sources, just might.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.