In a recent article in the New Republic, re-posted in the Dissent Magazine blog “Arguing the World”, Michael Kazin wonders why there are so few contemporary books containing big ideas. “Fifty years ago,” writes Kazin, “liberals and radicals were eager and able to think big.” Today the most famous radicals like Michael Moore and Naomi Klein “produce witty critiques of global capitalism, but they lack both a credible alternative and a sensible strategy to achieve it.” What accounts for the scarcity of big ideas today? Has there been a culture wide failure of nerve? or are the needs of the day simply different – that is, is there no longer a need for risk-taking in the realm of ideas? Kazin – who is an editor of Dissent Magazine – cites some classic works of the 1960s like Betty Frieden’s Feminine Mystique, as well as Jane Jacobs, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement.

The American Left seems no long eager and able to think big. But if this is true, it is no less true for the American Right, whose classics were written in the same era or even two decades prior to the 60s. Kazin calls to mind Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, but he might have also added William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk to the list. Two popular conservative writers today – Mark Steyn and Jonah Goldberg – are second rate compared to their predecessors.  Like Michael Moore and Naomi Klein, they too produce “witty critiques” without offering anything like a credible alternative.  Steyn’s latest book is a witty Jeremiad, an extended essay in pessimism about America’s prospects for the future.  Fifty years ago conservatives were also more eager and able to ‘think big’.  So what has happened?

Whether written from the Left or Right, these books were written for a generally educated audience, not specialists.  Today, according to Kazin, books are either written for other professionals, or writers become involved in a narrow sort of political activism:

“The present cultural environment discourages writers from attempting the kind of lucid, extended essays about “social problems” that were the basis of those landmark books from the early 1960s. Not a single one of the now-famous authors from that era had earned a Ph.D. But today, most intellectuals on the left hold academic jobs, and the pressure to write primarily for one’s peers is hard to resist. Professors who do break from the pack tend to produce syntheses of existing knowledge fit for a PBS special instead of seeking to engage the public with original ideas and compelling prose. Or they throw themselves into an activism of the moment—narrowing their role as critics to giving speeches, drafting op-eds, and appearing on cable television.”

One explanation offered by the Left for the disappearance of fresh original ideas is that today’s circumstances are different: this is neither the time nor the place for visionary thinking.  In the understanding of Kazin and others, the Right is entrenched in today’s institutions, for they are supported by unlimited funds upholding only a very limited welfare state. Many on the Left argue that big ideas are ineffective tools, and that the key is a combination of making information available and populist activism. Kazin argues that the power of the Right is exactly why the Left still needs big ideas.  But if the American Right has not produced new ideas in several decades, then what we are facing requires an account deeper than the one offered by Kazin and others.

For a deeper account of the exhaustion of ideas today, we might turn to Alexis de Tocqueville in his surprisingly contemporary Democracy in America.

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, the democratic revolutions had already taken place: the young America was in its ascendancy, but a retreat of democratic ideas had taken place in many quarters of the European continent. The growing equality conditions which had caused the political and social tumult of the 18th century was perceived by elites as a threat to European civilization not unlike the barbarian invasions which formed one of the causes of the Roman downfall.

The reason for the fall of Roman Empire had been generally accepted, on account of which Tocqueville argued that his contemporaries were too inclined to think that civilization is always threatened only by external factors such as ‘barbarians’.  But – as we are aware after World War I and II – civilization may be threatened also by internal factors.  One of the perennial internal factors causing the dissolution of societies is faction – in which the body politic is torn apart in civil strife – but Tocqueville points us to what he regards as the more serious problem for modern civilization.

Because modern European societies are increasingly confined to practice or utilitarian ends, theory is neglected; or what is the same, the underlying principles of practice are forgotten. Consequently practice itself becomes sclerotic or ineffective, because the sources of inventiveness and creativity – the sources of our ability to conceive of alternatives – are obscured. Tocqueville holds up Chinese culture of the 19th century as an example of this obscuration and sedimentation of original sources: what results is a culture of imitation. Europeans were astonished at the novel  inventions of the Chinese, but wondered why they had never advanced beyond a certain stage.  Tocqueville’s assessment was that the Chinese were content to follow the practices – likely on account of a degraded Confucian morality – without a clear understanding of the underlying principles of their own inventions.  Human inventiveness depends upon an awareness of underlying principles of practice: awareness of the difference between principle and case forms the basis of our ability to conceive of alternatives.  The forgetfulness which overtakes a society committed solely or predominantly to action amounts to a forgetfulness of purpose or purposes of our civilization, since it involves a pervasive intellectual habit of neglecting the underlying principles in all areas of human endeavor for the sake of “action”.

If we are lacking big ideas today, it may be on account of an habitual forgetfulness of the sources and first principles of our own thinking.  According to this argument, commitment to action has a price: it produces a culture of imitation and blindness to the principles which are the sources of our ability to imagine or conceive of alternatives.  As it concerns “social problems”, the fundamental question concerns not only solutions to those problems, but also and more importantly the ability to conceive of a better way of life or the good life.

The most creative task today, therefore, may in fact involve a return to the sources. It is ironic: one would expect that the past ought to be rejected in order to come up with fresh ideas for the future.  But the two impulses here – rejecting the past, on the one hand, and rejecting ‘thought’ in favor of action, on the other – may be precisely what is blocking our way to the future.  In order to break down the sclerotic pastiche thinking of today, in order to ‘think big’, a return to first principles and to the roots and sources of our own thinking becomes of chief importance.  Perhaps we ought to seriously inquire into the sources of those 1960s authors of the American Left or Right.  We might then begin to understand what original thinking really looks like.

The authors mentioned in Kazin’s article and the sources of their thinking  can be found on the Symposium list of books.

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