Monday, October 19, 2009

a progressive terrain

In my last post, I referred to a “Progressive” landscape. Here’s what I had in mind.

A place to begin is with a geographic and ecological idea: waste. In older use, including for early American settlers, the word meant an empty space – not empty of natural features or species, that is, but unredeemed by human labor. Most of the tracts we now call wilderness would have counted as waste. But where today’s wilderness is aesthetically and even spiritually charged (John Muir described it as “full of divine lessons”) waste is etymologically close to vastness, emptiness, a void. A waste could be open heath outside English village lands, uncleared jungle in Bengal, or most of North America. The opposite of waste was settlement, cultivation, making the land bloom – or, as Thoreau wrote, making the land say beans, rather than tall trees.

Waste got a new meaning in the thinking of reformers in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, these were people who believed that the economic theory on which the continent had been settled – every man the author of his own fate in a land of plenty – had produced a festival of exploitation and destruction. Some thought those broadly Lockean and free-labor ideas had been wrong from the beginning, others that they had suited a frontier society but not a crowded, industrialized democracy. (The second, less radical formula was the go-to in political argument: it is a major theme, for instance, in the speeches of both Teddy Roosevelt and FDR.) Either way, they saw in their time a landscape of fever-ridden slums, factories housing machines that broke workers’ bodies, and, in the countryside, erosion, soil exhaustion, and massive looting of the timber and minerals of the federal public lands. They called all these things waste, and it tied together their complaints about public health, labor conditions, and the use of land. The word comes up again and again in addresses by the pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, but also in the first inaugural address of Woodrow Wilson, where it stands for all the social harms and human neglect of the laissez-faire old regime that the Progressives saw themselves as repudiating. (Incidentally, in praising the divinity of the high Sierra, Muir explicitly denied that it contained any “waste,” and contrasted it n that score with the ruinous factories of the lowlands.)

The opposite of waste – the remedy for it – was conservation. In its best-remembered sense, this meant managing land in ways informed by scientific expertise and, for federal lands, moving from handing out acres to settlers and railroad companies to retaining them for management by trained bureaucrats. (This is the origin of the US Forest Service, which Pinchot ran and shaped in its early years.) But, like waste, conservation was a broad word. TR called it a great moral principle that defined the relations among generations of a polity – the way the present ensured survival into the future. Even more important, he called all of Progressive economic and social regulation – again, public health, labor law, and city planning – applications of the “the principle of conservation.”

In one way, “waste” remained for the Progressives what it had been for earlier settlers: a wrong use of nature. But there had been important change. The old sense of waste arose from passivity, neglect, or incapacity – failing to bring land under the axe and plow. The new sense arose from use of land, human labor, or the power of industrial organization (including its literal power sources, such as coal and steam) in selfish, short-sighted ways that diminished its health and/or productive capacity.

The new sense of waste treated people as a part of nature, part of what was to be managed, along with soil and canals. In this spirit, Wilson’s inaugural address was the first ever to describe citizens as women and children, rather than only upright men, and as having bodies vulnerable to injury and sickness, rather than only masterful wills. But, unlike the settlers of the Lockean utopia (which, by the way, gets model expression in Jefferson’s first inaugural address), they were not the agents of American history. Agency lay in the panoptic eye of government and the heroic democratic leader – in that case, Wilson himself. In this respect, the idea of conservation was central to development of the American version of what today we would call biopolitics, the political management of biological life. It was also a key event in a major rhetorical and imaginative problem in American politics: how to think of the dignity of citizenship after the settler ideal of self-mastery was eclipsed by an (ideally) all-seeing, all-shaping state, and individual Americans became, in part, resource problems to be managed.

It seems to me that the idea of conservation, with its touchstone of land and forest management in the long-term public interest, was ideologically very important for Progressives who were trying to navigate a social landscape of labor conflict and the heterogeneity carried by waves of migration. The ideal of meliorist reformers like TR was to calibrate the economic system so that each citizen what he deserved, measured by talent and effort – the old frontier idea, recast by regulation for a complex economy. That meant that capital and labor had no essentially opposed interests, only conflicts that arose, like soil exhaustion and timber looting, from failures of conservation. Social conflict was avoidable waste. This was not always the easiest case to make about capital and labor. It was more easily said of, say, public forests. They made the principle concrete – the word made not flesh but cellulose and soil. With that anchor in place, it was much easier to assert that something like rational resource management could extend from forests and grazing land to cover the whole social landscape.

In Progressive hands, the conservation idea was also tied to a visionary way of talking about legitimacy. Let’s say that one of the ways nationalism (meaning the word in a morally neutral way) works is by enabling citizens to recognize themselves in their country – a recognition that depends on seeing both oneself and one’s country in a certain way. In a political culture shaped by nationalism, this recognition becomes a criterion of legitimacy for the state. Of course, what it means for people to recognize themselves in the country could imply many tasks for the state, from ethnic cleansing to protecting the frontiersmen’s right to expropriate land (these two went together in US history, obviously) to securing the negative liberty of the laissez-faire state. In Progressive thought and rhetoric, this kind of nationalism – self-recognition in an idea of the country, a concept Charles Taylor has associated with “authenticity” – became much more important. So Woodrow Wilson, in the same inaugural in which waste plays such a large role, also announced that, for the first time, the country had been “vouchsafed a vision of our life a whole,” a shared moral self-understanding. One anchor of that vision was a landscape of conservation, where mutuality and public interest were secured by benign and expert management.

The ideal of conservation was thus not only about prudent use of resources: it was also about achieving a country that could support “a vision of our life as a whole.” It’s easy to lose sight of this Romantic aspect Progressive conservation and suppose that reformers were just interested in promoting well-being; on that view, the Progressive project can seem to begin and end in rational management. But the Progressive program was also one of political authenticity, and conservation was key to that dimension of it. Regulating resource use and economic life to reconcile otherwise hostile interests and serve posterity meant adopting a model of a great community, in which citizens could see their own ideals of generosity and caretaking.

The ideal supposed not just an image of the country, but also a way of seeing that could contain such an image. A striking aspect of this era of Progressivism is how recurrently conservation rhetoric returned to the image of the “civilized” or “cultured” man who could perceive the interest of the whole community, not just his selfish interests. The common interest included the well-being of all members of the national community and of future generations. One knows in the abstract that it’s unfair to think of utilitarianism as selfish and instrumentalist, that it was a morally inspired program of egalitarian social reform; but it’s striking nonetheless to see in the Progressive reformers an explicit ideal of character, the (usually elite) citizen-manager whose moral excellence lay in a certain quality of vision and refined moral sentiment. The utilitarian manager and reformer, and the public-minded citizen who would support him, were offered as civic aristocrats for a democratic age. Although much of their aim was social, their paradigm was the management of nature, and the two were closely connected.

PS: The use of landscapes to support claims to aristocratic status is its own very important theme, which I hope to give independent treatment at some point: the wilderness idea, a refined perception of nature, and a sense of the community interest have all served as markers of superiority in contrast to democracy’s perceived tendency to produce selfishness and mediocrity (perceived particularly among those whose status was threatened by the social churn of capitalist democracy.

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