David Brooks has written another thought provoking piece on what he calls the materialist fallacy. He summarizes what he sees as different perspectives on what is generally accepted as the lack of social cohesion in the United States (or put in another way, the loss of social capital): liberals who see it as an economic issue, “the lack of good working-class jobs”; libertarians who blame the government and the ideals and progams of the Great Society project; and neo-conservatives who see it from a culturally-deterministic perspective, from the loss of traditional norms. Brooks argues that there is an alternative vision that has emerged over the past 25 years, which he says centers around three themes:
First, no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.
Second, it’s not true that people in disorganized neighborhoods have bad values. Their goals are not different from everybody else’s. It’s that they lack the social capital to enact those values.
Third, while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.
This is startlingly similar to what I lectured in my Food and Culture class today. We’ve been reading Melissa Caldwell’s Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia, where we focused on a concept that she brings up towards the end of her ethnography on “the social life of hunger” (a play on Appadurai’s social life of things): one of the key points in her book is the importance of social relations for economic survival, which is more than just a Russian cultural idiom that is instrumentally-used to gain access to necessary goods such as food. One of the questions that I asked the students to think about in lecture was whether hunger was caused by failures in economic development or by social factors (obviously a false dichotomy that I employed pedagogically to sharpen their analysis of the issue). The key conclusion that my class reached was that if it is more than just economics (what Brooks calls the materialist fallacy), then throwing money at the problem is clearly not the solution. But how does one solve the social issues?
Brooks suggests one solution: bourgeois paternalism.
The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.
This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
While I’m not sure that bourgeois paternalism is the solution (we’ve tried it before, and still are surprised when the feeding hand gets bitten), at least Brooks is trying to get at a solution to fixing social issues. I clearly do not know the liberals that Brooks must be talking to who are fixated on only economic solutions (I don’t think Mark Shields would say that), and I don’t think many liberal academics would conclude that it’s just the economy. Nonetheless, Brooks is at least grappling with the need to address social issues, to get at the underlying causes for problems in our world today. Maybe he should talk to more anthropologists, so that he can see that social repair does not only require sociological thinking (as he concludes his essay). Social and cultural repair needs anthropological thinking.