David Brooks & The Matrix

Transpartisan Note #93 - Brooks argues that excessive individualism is undermining important institutions.


In A Renaissance on the Right (NYT 4-12-18) David Brooks writes about an issue he argues underlies the crisis in the Republican Party and in conservative thought that is getting the attention of young conservative writers…

Suddenly fundamental issues, like the values of the liberal democratic order itself, are up for debate. Some conservatives are laying down comprehensive critiques of the way our society is organized. Modern liberal capitalism is too soulless, they say, too atomizing, too destructive of basic institutions like family, faith and village that give life meaning. Liberal individualism doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous, self-restrained people that are required to sustain it.

We think our Four-Quadrant Matrix helps understand Brooks’ issue. We believe he puts his finger on the challenge of order at a time of increasing individualism and individuation. It is an issue that challenges liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and society at large. We believe candidates who best address this issue will greatly enhance their chances of winning elections.

Brooks argues that excessive individualism (freedom) is undermining all forms of institutions (order), which are essential for society to exist. It ‘has left us distrustful and alone—naked Lockeans,’ which explains the recent increase in tribalism, which is undermining basic principles of a liberal democracy. ‘Tribalism, he writes, ‘is the end product of excessive individualism.’

We think Brooks struggles with this problem because he sees freedom and individualism inherently undermining order—by which he means traditional order. He presents no concept of order that emerges out of freedom. He sees freedom and individualism as substantive, conceptually mechanistic, and contradictory to order—inherent enemies of order because separated from it.

An alternative concept of freedom and individualism is instrumental, procedural, related to consciousness not related to any particular outcome—as in freedom of choice. Parents know that rebelling adolescents, rather than rejecting parental values, seek ‘separation’ from parents to find values they can call their own. Such separation may or may not lead them to reject, embrace or selectively choose their parents’ values. Their real purpose is self-discovery for self-determined values. We believe that organizations and societies follow a similar course.

Individuation is a process borne from advancing consciousness of the subjective self. This process weakens traditional influences and habitual behavior and sets people on a path to live consciously and make choices. (Because this process is an individual one, we prefer the word ‘individuation’ to ‘individualism’.)

Brooks focuses on the social effects of this process, tending to see the freedom quadrants as a collective problem that must have a mechanistic, collective answer. Believing in a collective-problem and a solution-answer tends to ignore freedom and consciousness, which are essential for individual and collective significance. This significance is redeemed when someone or group freely chooses the good—an expression of the highest form of idealism. In this moment freedom and order become integrated.

The impulse toward freedom, we believe, originates in an accurate understanding of why Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden—they left for ‘knowledge’, for consciousness.

Individuation is manifest in many intellectual, artistic, and political ways. Two paintings in Room Two of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, of ‘Madonna and Child’, one by Cimabue (created 1280-90) and one by Giotto (1310), represent how, in three decades, expression of consciousness changed from Cimabue’s dreamlike Madonna to Giotto’s figure, who has become self-determined (and alienated?). This shift displayed individuation and marked the launch of the Renaissance.

Lionel Trilling wrote Sincerity and Authenticity(1972) about individuation in literature. Christian mystic Rudolf Steiner (1905), Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli (1965), and the practice of Mindfulness (used by Congressional mindfulness caucus members such as Tim Ryan/D OH and Mark Sanford/R NC) promote individual will-strengthening. With increasing individuation, engaging the self can only happen by strengthening the will as consciousness—to live consciously.

The core challenge here for societies and political systems is imagining a concept of order that earns voluntary allegiance***—order that springs from and is fed by freedom—an order that, in Brook’s terms, ‘produce(s) the sort of virtuous, self-restrained people that are required to sustain’ American democratic life.*

Our suggested answer is counterintuitive and ironic as it looks to economists and free market capitalismfor support for the democratic enterprise. We suggest a key part of the answer is OWNERSHIP—property rights not only inprivate space, which is exclusive and represents traditional economic interests; but also in PUBLIC SPACE, such as schools, housing projects, health programs, and security (policing) systems, for example, which are inclusive.

Real experiences show that shared ownership (property rights in public spaces) can be a powerful instrument for bringing people—everyone, including the most exalted and the most disadvantaged—together in common purpose. The work of our friend and colleague Hernando de Soto, expanding his previous efforts by using blockchain to legally formalize the existing de facto ownership of land by disadvantaged individuals around the world moves in this direction.

We have presented real, powerful, examples of such integrated efforts, like de Soto’s, in previous Notes and articles. We will present more in future writings. They are in fact springing up all around us like seedlings in a newly planted lawn. The political task consists of creating space to effectively nurture and harness the advancing consciousness of millions of individuals across the world. In public spaces ownership belongs to everyone.

(Detail from Giotti’s Ognissanti Madonna found at the Galleria degli Uffizi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.)