The Anxiety of Optimism

Hume had been concerned in all his writings with the superiority of a modern society based on commerce over an ancient society based on naked individuality, but he had reached the point of imagining a society so far in debt to faceless creditors that the value of all property, the liberty of every individual, and the meaning of every thing or idea, would be reduced to its capacity to persuade creditors to continue an economy based exclusively on speculation. — J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment

Against this headlong rush into the Rule of Contract, under which citizens enjoy “an equality of rights,” Pocock, in Arendtian (and Aristotelian) fashion, counterposes the discipline of republican virtue, through which citizens practice “an equality of rule.” But no matter how deep the tension between law and politics, the closest to civic republicanism that America has come in recent years is Christopher Lasch. And Lasch’s offering isn’t selling — not just because we’ve grown corrupt, or because Lasch’s offer rejects the whole model of buying and selling, but because of our deep culture and our American souls. Even for Tocqueville, the possible virtue of democratic politics had little to do with representation — either of others or of the self. Unlike Arendt and Pocock, Tocqueville declines to view politics as a special, privileged site for the construction, performance, and maintenance of selfhood. Democracy in America services not the self, which can get by just fine under soft despotism, but the other. When citizens are forced to plunge over and again into the details of shared governance, says Tocqueville, they are pulled out of themselves; they are made to keep up relationships with people — neighbors — whom they neither sired nor self-selected (cf. Facebook, eHarmony). Though this be salutary for political liberty, it is, we conclude with Tocqueville, incidental to the success of a typical modern liberal’s self-actualizing personality projects.

Note: this approach hints that a certain sort of capitalism isn’t the cause of our cultural contradictions but rather their consequence. Can a culture based on relentless speculation in varieties of selfhood help but produce, and reproduce, a civilization — and thus economy — based ever-more-exclusively on economic speculation? So we ask in our anxiety of optimism. The apparent affinity and harmony of our speculative ends suggests an uncanny antagonism. In modern, democratic times, do our techniques of selfhood produce a social order that always calls our personal authenticity into question? If so — what do we do about it? How do we react, or lash out?

Obviously not through politics. Americans who really do the work of citizenship are usually the ones least anxious about their selfhood. (Contrast those who agitate for legal, not political, recognition.) Our beastly reactions to our sense of authentic autonomy lost are severely unpolitical. They intensify the trouble facing those who call for a renaissance of republican virtue … and intensify the need for a nonpolitical substitute. Of course, we already have one: therapy, which works so well as an economic model against, yet parasitic upon, our ‘charismatic economy’ of amateur and professional star transgressors.