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Soulcraft in a Complex Society

In recent years, conservative commentators have criticized how the individualism of the neoliberal age has undermined the moral and ethical foundations of community in America. Yuval Levin’s 2014 essay “Taking the Long Way” argues that too many people on both the right and left are committed to a thin vision of liberty, defined simply as the absence of constraints on individual action. Democracy and the market economy presuppose individuals who are not simply free “from coercion by others” but also “from the tyranny of unre­strained desire.” Citizens, he says, must be “capable of using their freedom well.” Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed similarly criticizes liberalism for seeing liberty as nothing more than the lack of constraints rather than the virtue of self-mastery. The result, in Deneen’s view, has been the destruction of moral and community values that are essential to human flourishing. Both Levin and Deneen seek a richer notion of liberty, one that involves moral formation, or what Levin calls “the long way to liberty.” We might think of Deneen and Levin as seeking a revival of the ethics necessary for democratic citi­zenship and community solidarity. And we might call the process of getting there soulcraft.

Soulcraft, Families, and Communities

Democratic freedom requires more than a mere license to act however one pleases. Because democracy means coming together as a people to govern, the people must consider the needs of others and of the community as a whole. Pure, unrestrained selfishness is simply incompatible with this imperative. The ancient Greeks and Romans thus saw liberty not just as the freedom to act, unconstrained from government or other people, but as freedom to act without being dominated by one’s desires. True liberty involved not being controlled either by another person or by one’s own passions. It required self-restraint and self-mastery. Many of the original Progressives, along with some like Michael Sandel who might be called progressives to­day, envisioned freedom similarly to Levin, Deneen, and the an­cients. They recognized that soulcraft is critical to democracy. Across the board, progressives and conservatives in this tradition believe that one of the most important civic callings today is to reinvigorate the tra­ditional soul-forming institutions of family, work, education, faith, and civil society.

The question is how to do it. And where Deneen, Levin, and con­servatives often go wrong is in restricting soulcraft only to those traditional institutions. These traditional pathways did ease the ten­sion between liberalism and democracy, but so did public institutions. Public schools and public libraries, the jury and military service—these public activities were also the means of soulcraft, of forming citizens with the ethics and morality needed for democracy to survive. In a complex, changing society, it will not be enough simply to reaffirm the private pathways of soulcraft.

This is particularly true because in a polarized era in which people are sorted into tribes, retreating to our neighborhoods or churches only segregates and polarizes us more. It deepens tribalism rather than alleviating it. Levin himself has said, “The biggest problem with our politics of nostalgia is its disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future.” Today, if we hope to move beyond nostalgia, we will need to reform the traditional pathways to soulcraft and, at the same time, to devise new ways to encourage moral formation.

Consider family. Through these most intimate of relationships, we experience not only fulfillment and happiness, but also the suffering and obligations that build responsibility. But the challenge is that the family of today does not look like the idealized 1950s vision of a happy couple with children. Families today are increasingly complex, with stepparents, stepsiblings, and half-siblings, multiple adults com­ing in and out of children’s lives, and grandparents acting as parents. Even the idea of a single-parent household assumes a level of stability that is illusory. Of mothers who are single at the birth of their child, 59 percent experience three or more residential or dating transitions before their child reaches five years old—and 33 percent have another child with a different romantic partner in those first five years.

Family instability and complexity is linked to another shift: mar­riage and childbearing in marriage have increasingly become practices for economic elites. Over the last 140 years, marriage was only prevalent among all Americans during time periods when income inequality was shrinking or relatively low—in other words, only in the middle of the twentieth century. In the old Gilded Age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and in our new Gilded Age, the marriage gap has widened, with marriage rates plummeting among working-class Americans. Likewise, the practice of childbearing dur­ing marriage also seems increasingly to be the province of economic elites. This is not solely a result of the cultural devaluation of the institution of marriage. In their 2005 book Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas showed that many poor women aspire to and respect marriage so much that they don’t believe in divorce. But they choose to have children outside of marriage because they see motherhood as existentially meaningful, independent of mar­riage.

Do these trends and changes mean we should give up on families as soul-forming institutions? Absolutely not. But they imply that we cannot simply advocate for defending the family in some abstract, nostalgic way. If we really want contemporary families to play a role in shaping responsible individuals, we must address the underlying causes that put a strain on families’ ability to play a moral role. Although there is considerable debate over whether culture or eco­nomic security is the main factor, it is hard to argue that economic security isn’t an important factor. The process of building supportive families thus requires, at least in part, policies that build economic democracy.

Levin, however, says little about economic policy and im­plies that liberal redistribution policies have given people license to live how­ever they want. Deneen likewise argues that progressive state-building policies undermine moral formation by sapping the energy of traditional institutions. But these arguments miss important parts of the relationship between economics and soulcraft. An America with­out economic opportunity for everyone isn’t an America that facili­tates soulcraft. When parents have no economic opportunities, it is harder for them to nurture their children and engage in the soul-forming activities Levin and Deneen desire. Likewise, a nation of Sisyphean workers, condemned to an eternity of hard labor without ever making any economic progress, is unlikely to believe that hard work, responsibility, and character lead to just results. What moral lesson does one learn from a lifetime of work without progress? Indeed, the neoliberal era’s policies show little moral value in hard work. Our country’s tax policies, to take just one example, reward heirs and heiresses who gain wealth without work—even as regular people who seek wealth through work pay full freight. The moral message of such a policy is precisely the selfishness that Deneen and Levin decry.

Criminal justice policy also contributes to the challenges that American families face. Over the course of the neoliberal era, between 1980 and 2015, the prison population in the United States quadrupled. This was not a function of rising crime rates, which hit their high-water mark in 1991. It was the result of harsher policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and a shift away from rehabilitation to punishment as the central purpose of incarceration. Mass incarceration puts millions of Americans in prison: one in twelve children in the United States will see one of their parents put in prison. Incarceration breaks up families, leaves children traumatized, and can create distrust in government and institutions among entire communities. Punishment is also not limited to time served. Those who get out of prison have a harder time finding housing and getting a job, leaving them with worse economic opportunities going forward. For African Americans, the consequences are particularly significant be­cause they are more likely to be arrested and more likely to be convicted than whites for precisely the same crimes. If we truly value families, neighborhoods, and economic opportunity as ways to encourage soul formation, we cannot ignore how criminal justice policy has contributed to breakdown in these areas.

Soulcraft at Work

Of course, it is not just family and work that can enable soul formation. Participating actively in civil society and local government can help build essential “habits of freedom,” and both Levin and Deneen celebrate such institutions. But ours is a time when the problem of Bowling Alone has become the phenomenon of bowling online. The decline of civic and social institutions and their replacement with technological and social networks means that we cannot rely solely on participation in civil society groups to cultivate virtue. We must expand the fields of possibility and look for other institutions that can facilitate personal development.

One of the most important sites for soulcraft is the workplace itself. Despite the rise of freelance work, millions of Americans still work for large corporations. Corporations can provide an avenue for soul formation, but only when they are organized to give employees initiative and responsibility. The original Progressives believed that the new industrial age required thinking differently about corporations for precisely this reason. For the Progressives, economic demo­cracy not only prevented the vast accumulations of power that could undermine political freedom, but also helped individuals build self-mastery in the increasingly complex industrial economy.

In some countries, like Germany, corporate leaders believe that workers should have a say in the governance and operations of the company. Workers at Volkswagen, for example, are empowered on the shop floor and even included on the company’s supervisory board. Not only is their narrow personal fate attached to the company, but they are also partly responsible for success of the corporation in the long run. Think of how perspectives might change when work­ers have such great responsibility. Yet neoliberals, especially in the United States, are reflexively hostile to opportunities that would allow corporations to facilitate soulcraft. They fight attempts to allow workers to participate in the governance of their companies, even when, as in the case of Volkswagen in Chattanooga, the corporation wanted to empower workers.

A true commitment to soulcraft requires a willingness to think about how existing institutions like corporations can adapt to facili­tate the moral formation of democratic citizens. For example, we might consider adopting a form of codetermination—requiring the largest corporations to have a percentage of their board be employees. We might also enable works councils on the shop floor, so that line workers have a measure of democratic voice in their work. We could strengthen labor unions by making it easier to join a union. Each of these reforms requires more of workers than merely being cogs in a corporate machine—it empowers them to have a voice in their work and in the future of the company.

Soulcraft and Service

Of course, existing institutions may be insufficient. The family is a site for soulcraft because people are bound together in genuine rela­tionships of care derived from blood or marriage. But we know that in our modern, complex society, families are not the only sites of relationships of care. Consider the U.S. military. Drill sergeants and officers may lecture on the virtues of courage, discipline, integrity, and honesty, but much more than lectures serve to build bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood within a unit—the experience of trusting another with your life, the pain and suffering of friends lost, and the joy of close camaraderie and intense effort with a team. Ser­vice leads to soulcraft. Service for others and service with others builds relation­ships of care that lead to joy and obligation, responsibility and fulfill­ment.

We must facilitate a new culture of service so that everyone has the opportunity to build these relationships of care and experience the moral transformation that accompanies serving others. Some will choose to join the military; others might participate in AmeriCorps. With the challenge of climate change, there are now proposals to create a twenty-first-century Civilian Conservation Corps that would mobilize people to safeguard our public lands and natural resources. There is more than enough mission-driven work to be done, which can produce not only meaningful relationships but a culture of service that counteracts selfishness.

Service for and with others also has one other effect: it develops the virtues of tolerance and compassion for those who are different. Some conservatives critically note that liberals enforce an “ethic of pluralism” for “fear of compromising the freedom of others.” But tolerance and understanding are just as important to the richer vision of freedom that Levin and Deneen advocate. Imagine an individual who encounters someone different and cannot but condemn the stranger’s views, spew hatred for his lifestyle, and reject his opinions. Such a person hardly has self-restraint or self-control, and we would not think him emancipated from the tyranny of his own passions, biases, and emotions. In a complex society, it is not a weakness but a strength to engage productively with those who have different views, and it is a hallmark of a truly free mind to seek first to understand before making judgments.

Ultimately, all individuals operate in a social context, with social institutions, political institutions, culture, and personal actions inter­acting in complex and organic ways. As a result, personal and social transformation are linked. Social transformations shape individuals and can help or hinder their opportunities for personal transformation. Likewise, a thousand personal transformations can recast a community’s views, leading to social transformation. The path to liberty is not unidirectional. It is interactive. And we must not be afraid to look beyond the old ways of moral formation—or to advo­cate for public policies that foster the ethics needed for democracy.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 1 (Spring 2020): 190–96.

Portions of this article have been adapted from the author’s most recent book, The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America (Basic Books, 2019).

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