The Federal Government Shutdown and the Enlightenment

Adam Smith (1723-1790). Image of the 1790 engraving by John Kay courtesy of the US Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not making a cheap joke here. There is actually a deeper irony about a core aspect of European Enlightenment thought and the contemporary American political drive to undermine democratic government in the name of individual freedom. The Enlightenment–and especially the political economic philosophy of Adam Smith–can really get Americans’ attention and emotional focus. Smith’s notion of the invisible hand mythically evokes a mysterious but wonderful harmony that free trade and profit-seeking are believed to offer–if only we get enough individual liberty, free from the yoke of government, that is. Yet, the Enlightenment’s fundamental focus is actually different. It is on liberty as especially important for protecting the right to question, apply reason, and act on novel conclusions based on carefully recorded evidence. This certainly isn’t the kind of liberty that gets evoked in most American political discourse.

Of course, this is on my mind because, as of this writing, the US Federal Government has been shut down except for “essential functions” for about 48 hours. In the name of non-partisan critique, I openly acknowledge that there is plenty unenlightened about Democratic Party rhetoric and leadership, but my anthropological focus is on the uncritical, intensely visceral Tea Party Republican appeal that less government results in more liberty, which is seen as always a good thing. This political rhetoric brings our attention straight back to the issue of symbolic violence in American contemporary culture. Here, the Enlightenment-associated symbolic construction of Individual Liberty=Good becomes a rhetorical smokescreen for emotionally mobilizing and exercising raw power: arbitrarily deciding what is non-essential to the function of government in order to make a dramatic, ritualized show of who’s in (hardworking job creators and aspiring, loyal workers and their families) and who’s out (those out to fraudulently take advantage of taxpayer-funded programs) in order to produce a form of domestic sovereign power. The power to decide arbitrarily that whole categories of people risk not being able to pay their bills. Or worse, that they and their children go hungry.

If Anthropology can offer any insight into the history of Western thought (from which Anthropology as a discipline sprang, of course) and how prestige symbols from Western history influence our political thoughts and actions, it is to take the all-important comparative step back–taking the view from afar, seeing Western thought in a broader cultural context. Otherwise, the Enlightenment’s evocative, usually high symbolic value–based as it is on general, often far-too-vague associations with abstract existential conditions we’d usually like to have more of, now and forever, including liberty, improvement, progress, and a real shot at successfully pursuing happiness–becomes symbolic collateral for emotionally investing in positions or desires that hardly invite reason, careful consideration of evidence, logical articulation of your claims or political aims, and committed self-critical examination of your own assumptions, social judgments and goals.

St. Augustine (354-430 AD). Painting by Boticelli from 1480 courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It was the latter (that is, critical reason) that was the concern of still-influential Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant. The commitment to reason and critique was the justification for wanting more liberty–that is, having the liberty to make decisions that may involve change, even radical change, albeit based on evidence, logical argument, and learned discourse. To be sure, it was really only in the 20th Century that reasoning through evidence, logical argument, and learned discourse authoritatively established why reason cannot do away with uncertainty, dilemma, and paradox, making the relationship between reason, emotion, and action sometimes hopelessly, ambiguously fraught. Thus, we can see now that an Enlightenment political commitment to reason as a symbol was not the same as the committed exercise of reason. The frankly ignorant optimism and arrogance of this political stance contributed directly to the rise of scientific racism that ideologically supported the slave trade and Euro-American colonial expansion. Yet, it is worth remembering that the Western Enlightenment cultural construction of Reason involved a more humane, universalizable political goal of opening space for thoughtful, tolerant discussion of legal, tax, educational, transportation, and trade policy, increasing the varieties of opportunities for making a living, influencing political decision-making, and expressing your opinions without fear of political oppression. Still, liberty in and of itself … or the liberty to act in the name of a religious cause or entrepreneurial economic venture was not seen as a self-evident value during the 17th and 18th Centuries. This created an uneasy tension among Enlightenment principles of individual reason, Protestant agitation for the liberty to form alternative religiously integrated communities, the military power afforded by naval and ballistic technologies, and the economic interests of trading companies and banks. And a complex cultural genealogy of Enlightenment thought, of which Descartes may have been most influential founder, may be traced back to the European cultural and political turmoil of 16th and 17th Centuries that involved–among other remarkable intellectual and ideological developments–a kind of inversion of the theological argument of St. Augustine. The Augustinian view was basically that reason–as an exercise of free will–must logically lead to a moral commitment to faith in the divine order (as represented in the Holy Trinity) and in turn, that cosmological order will be manifested in earthly, stable order (at least until the return of the Messiah). The Enlightenment version that Descartes emphasized–and had a much more charged political context at the time of his writing–was that critical questioning and deductive logic can lay bare the falsity of received wisdom about the cosmological order; that surface appearances taken as simple may reveal an intricate complexity upon closer, systematic investigation; and that the knowledge gained through application of reason may lead us to change our world, entailing that the cosmological order may not be quite as stable as St. Augustine and other early Christian theologians claimed.

What got me thinking about the relationship between the Enlightenment and the current US government shutdown is Adam Smith. Due to historical priority, no thinker has as much symbolic value as Smith does if you want to evoke liberty, choice, and profit-seeking as absolute values, positively desirable regardless of circumstances. In fact, Smith’s argument–which he assembled at a time and place when enough growth in the productivity of private commercial capital, domestically and globally, could be cited as evidence that free trade was preferable to 17th Century-style state-dominated mercantilism–can be simplified to revert to the Augustinian structure. “Commitment to free trade and profit-seeking will lead to stable well-being and peace on earth.” Talk about ideological dialectic. Without recourse to reason, I might add. Of course, this isn’t what Smith was arguing when he published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, although this is the implicit mythical representation of Adam Smith’s philosophy among many conservative thinkers, politicians, and voters in the United States today. Yet, no thinker from the 18th Century European Enlightenment was as careful and detailed and moderate in his claims as Adam Smith, who built cautiously and meticulously on the Enlightenment tradition of arguing that if evidence and reason clearly lead us there, then maybe we’ve been wrong and should change the way we act and work. Whether it has to do with how we treat each other or the environment … or both.