Whether we like it or not, the big idea behind American democracy is to make us like each other more. It’s a faintly embarrassing dimension of our social experiment, carved out of the crack-up of the original British colonies, that the great theorists and practitioners of new world order in America were looking for something more than political independence. They sought to create a basis for the small-r republican ideal of fraternity: a territorially limited, widely participatory, and socially equitable economy made up principally of small producers—home manufacturers, merchants, and farmers. Only on such a basis, the theory went, could America be prevented from regressing into anarchy, despotism, or worse.
But things didn’t exactly go as planned. Come the Jacksonian age, the legal interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, spurred on by the directives of a fast-consolidating national and corporate economy, ratcheted the whole enterprise upward into something that many of the founders would have seen as a blatant contradiction in terms: a “commercial republic,” as the jurisprudence of the Federalist-on-the-make John Marshall (echoing the political rhetoric of his close political ally Daniel Webster) had it.
The Federalists’ great work of constitutional revisionism posed as a hard-bitten brand of realism—a way to revise the airy abstractions of the rights of man and the cradle of liberty so as to make them reflect how the world putatively works. In reality, though, the Federalists’ commercial republic was just utopianism of a different stripe, one that posited a monad-style assemblage of rationally self-interested market actors at the vanguard of American social relations and then remade the nation’s founding political sensibility in their image. Employing the iron-clad, two-dimensional reasoning of judicial review, the jurisprudence of the emerging corporate age effectively rendered the social heart of the republic so much bread-and-circuses shadow play. The lower-born, militia-serving citizenry of civic republican lore gave way to the countinghouse and the bond trader. Thomas Paine’s revolutionary cry for a “brotherhood of man” no longer served any clear purpose in an age that was much closer in spirit to a Cornelius Vanderbilt—or, on the receiving end of the Market Revolution’s less-than-tender mercies, a Bartleby the Scrivener.
So it takes a good deal of work, and no small amount of the old optimism of the will, to begin reengaging with the fraternal ideal in any substantive fashion. “Social media” is every bit the same contradiction in terms that the “commercial republic” of the nineteenth century was—and yet there it sits in its undisturbed glory, rationalizing the many utopian putsches of our own new-millennial Market Revolution. Our social media has converted “friend” into a verb, transacted in the space of a keystroke, while also somehow contriving to make “following” and “unfollowing” badges of fraternity. Surely there must be some more coherent way to summon the battered spirit of American fraternity than to continue miniaturizing it into nothingness—or worse, perhaps, the melancholy, pixelated vapor trail of a retweet or a “Like” button.
And it’s not as if you can look for help in the many high-concept simulacra of fraternity burbling through the placid brooks of our academically respectable and politically opportunistic social commentary. You have your communitarian theorists, peddling requiems for an unmourned age of procedurally recursive Deweyite daydreaming. You have your wonky theorists of the neoliberal “nudge,” your difference-trimming think tanks in hot pursuit of an ever-mythical postideological pragmatism at the heart of a still-more mythical American “vital center.” You’ve got your prim, all-purpose pleas for greater “civility” (or its creepier homiletic variant, “civil religion”), your ritual bemoanings of “hyperpartisanship” in a political culture chronically incapable of getting even the simplest things done, even as it’s funded on an ever more Caligulan scale. Then you’ve got your libertarian Nobelists, busy managing the acceptable bounds of economic debate, and their social-science counterparts, the high priests of “rational choice” and supply-side theories of the traffic in “social capital.” Democratic fellow-feeling in all these contexts functions as little more than a fig leaf, concealing the all-purpose conscription of social virtue into market servitude—and fraternity, like solidarity, its twentieth-century cousin, becomes an even more hushed and forlorn echo of American politics past.
Not only does all this charlatanism of the mushy center make us less disposed to see each other as brothers and sisters; it makes us hate the daily conduct of our public life. A lobbyist’s wish list or an investment firm’s portfolio is embraced as the common good. Meanwhile, political association is assumed to be crude and transactional, destined for a mad scrum of eternally realigning power. All you need to know about how our politics disfigures any basic idea of human decency is right there on the radio, the web, and the Sunday chat-show circuit, where Machiavellian flacks from Ideological Team A gleefully rain down heavy-breathing talking points and character-assailing innuendos on designated targets from Ideological Team B. If you need advanced instruction in these misanthropic minuets of power, you can always order up an episode of House of Cards on your Netflix queue.
The orphaned ideal of fraternity points to something painfully absent from this conception of political society. Partisans of the fraternal ideal have always venerated social understanding as an end in its own right, not a convenient fiction masking the moment’s reformist infatuation or personal ambition. Friendship in politics was never supposed to be anomalous or strategic; it was, weird though it may seem today, supposed to be one of its aspirations.
Fraternity, like solidarity, its twentieth-century cousin, becomes a hushed and forlorn echo of American politics past.
This fine but important distinction has been critical to fraternalism’s gradual, ineluctable submergence in America’s market-driven culture of the main chance. “The public and the people!” announced Herman Melville, perhaps our literary tradition’s most ardent (and therefore most tortured) muse of the fraternal ideal. “Let us hate the one and cleave to the other.” His pledge of allegiance to flesh-and-blood Americans is a far cry from the bloodless schematics of civic life proffered by the founding theorists of the commercial republic. What’s been elevated as the “genius” of the American system, from its Federalist heyday down through today’s inert company of postideological liberals, has, from a fraternalist point of view, been an impoverishment of the social imagination. Small wonder that the rallying cries of “the people” have to be ritually quarantined from the important business of “the public.” Put another way, the corporation and the state, those reassuringly remote and abstract nouns, are universally understood to be (in rhetorical terms, at least) the guarantors of liberty and equality. Fraternity belongs to us, and it’s been made abundantly clear that none of us is supposed to give the slightest shit about what happens to it.
But as Wilson Carey McWilliams notes in his groundbreaking 1973 study The Idea of Fraternity in America, this division has entailed a tragic loss of vision. As the fraternalists have been hounded into the margins of public life by the architects of our market-utopian commercial republic, we’ve lost sight of a great deal of what made life in society worth bothering with in the first place. Our pleasures, moral imaginings, and cultural pursuits have become strictly private matters. In lieu of the toy-soldier face-offs—between Whigs and Federalists, liberals and conservatives, bloodless technocrats and insurgent culture warriors, social engineers and Tea Partiers—that we’ve been urged to accept as the main event in American democratic life, McWilliams’s long-forgotten book gives us access to a neglected trove of anthropological, literary, and religious testimonials to communities of moral purpose.
After all, unlike old-regime ideologies of blood, crown, and soil, the idea of fraternity assumes a steady expansion of fellow feeling rather than a rearguard defense rooted in fear. And unlike the ideology of the “commercial republic” and its latter-day variants, fraternity takes its cue from the fact of our randomized births into families we did nothing to deserve and whose outsize determinations of our fates cannot begin to approximate anything like equality or freedom. McWilliams—who came by his own political patrimony as the son of the crusading investigative journalist Carey McWilliams, a longtime editor of The Nation—thought everything about our politics depended on how we responded to the woeful knowledge that the basic circumstances of our lives are beyond our control from the word go. “Chance,” he says in the book’s early pages,
is a guarantor of fraternity, the assurance that even in the most unpropitious of societies, men are not excluded from the possibility of brotherhood. Fraternity grows from the recognition of kinship, likeness more important than unlikeness. All the fraternal relationships of man, in his progression from birth to death, teach the same lesson. A man is kin to his blood-brothers, like them more than he is unlike, because dependence and society are more important than physical isolation. His fraternity with those who share value and vision is established because man’s recognition of a perfection which he sees but does not embody is a truer measure of human proportions and nature.
That mutual recognition, forged amid the bonds of biological fraternity, now stands as little more than a punch line, as the lobbyists’ paradise known as our public life continues to serve up ever more grandiose and empty promises of Progress. But as McWilliams suggests, there’s still a great deal of value in re-envisioning the fraternal world we have lost, and revisiting just how we have lost it.
Today’s custodians of postpartisan blather are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1801 inaugural appeal to the American citizenry in the wake of the nation’s first, and singularly brutal, party-driven ballot. “We are all republicans, we are all federalists,” the Monticello sage pronounced, as he sought to tamp down the inflamed passions of the electorate and get on with the serious business of governing.
You can see why our pundit class is so enamored of this sentiment. Like Barack Obama’s reputation-making 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address conjuring up the bold spirit of One America in defiance of the scripting of public life along the fixed coordinates of Blue-and-Red-hued Kulturkampf, Jefferson’s refrain gilds the vision of a grand American synthesis. A higher meaning—any higher meaning, really—is rescued from the infinitely baser clashes of interest, class, creed, and section. Such invocations of a Higher America wish away the defining conflicts at the heart of our politics and serve only to dramatize the deeper, counter-fraternal condition of our common life.
To begin with, of course, these invocations were in each case the baldest sort of boot-strapped chicanery, peddling the people’s rites of politicized fraternity at the lowest market proffer. You, dear citizen, cannot afford to disappoint my own preferred vision of the republic’s destiny, both Jefferson and Obama proclaimed, in a flourish of exactly the sort of statesmanlike play-acting that Melville rightly despised.
And soon enough, predictably, such orotund pieties of the postpartisan nation were proven to be abject failures on their own terms. Jefferson’s speech didn’t mark the end of the first American party system, but rather its bitter opening act, with plenty of conflicts ahead on matters ranging from the country’s fledgling banking system to the profoundly anti-republican spread of the American nation’s territorial empire. Obama’s oracular hymning of the One Higher America likewise didn’t come anywhere close to corralling the People within its noble contours; the 2004 presidential vote was, indeed, an exceptionally vicious culture-war set-to, choreographed in time with heartland fears of terrorist appeasement and the alleged excesses of gay-married metropolitan elites. The lesson here was pretty much the opposite of the prim guidance handed down from the great man’s lectern. If such a thing as a saving Higher America were actually plausible, professional political leaders would be the last people you could count on to make it a flesh-and-blood reality. They can continue to summon it, with no end of soaring rhetorical appeals, precisely because they never mean any of it.
Consider instead, from Jefferson’s same speech, a far more heartfelt appeal, and one that could have furnished the epigraph for McWilliams’s study: “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things.” This was no perfunctory nod to the household gods of American democracy. Indeed, it strikes our own ears as a singularly odd and intimate-sounding overture to hear from a president-in-the-making, which is why it will never be brushed off for reassuring sound-bite duty on cable television. But that’s just it: for fraternalists of the Jeffersonian persuasion, a life bereft of genuine social solidarity isn’t much of a life at all. Nor, despite Jefferson’s appeal to harmonious social intercourse, is the fraternal ideal an abolition of conflict; what was regrettable about the election’s partisan rancor, Jefferson claimed, was that “we have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” not that differences of political opinion existed in the first place. Here, weirdly enough, in the democratic reverie of a flawed patrician slave owner, is a paean to the virtues of a fraternal life pursued almost entirely for its own sake.
Nor did Jefferson confine his vision of democratic social life to the inaugural lectern. In laying out his own alternative blueprint for America’s deliberative democracy, Jefferson had correctly surmised that the doctrine of separation of powers would concentrate power continually upward, toward the system’s higher executive reaches. In lieu of the Founders’ patchwork arrangement of rival federal powers, each endowed with its own allegedly self-cancelling ambitions, he had advocated for a federal system arising out of a network of local “wards”; each was to have been small enough to enable the direct participation of ordinary citizens while also supplying a larger, interlocking communications scheme that was to have nosed out parochialism and intolerance. In some ways, Jefferson’s vision of ward-level democracy went on to form the basis of the modern party system, which pivots on the intersection of bottom-up ward participation and top-down national organization. But as McWilliams notes, this outcome perverted Jefferson’s original intent:
His hopes for civic fraternity were intimately tied to conditions in the whole environment of politics, the domestic economy, and the international order. There should be reasonable economic security so that individual citizens need not fear nor suspect their fellows; there should be none of the massive inequality and hierarchy in economic life which could lead to a reemergence of feudalism though in different guise; towns and cities should remain of a size to enable personal feelings of involvement and affection. It was these general principles derived from his fraternal ideal, and not any irrational “mystique,” that made Jefferson suspect industry and favor agriculture. Finally, there must be a comparative absence of external involvement and war, for Jefferson never doubted that such conditions would demand speed of decision, secrecy, and centralization; foreign policy, if it became perilous and vital, might reduce devices like the “ward” system to obstacles to national survival.
Even in McWilliams’s time, however, the democratic implications of the fraternalist vision were fast receding. In the aftermath of the New Left’s many self-dramatizing collapses, McWilliams offered an admirably clear-headed accounting of its late cultural posturing. The notion that “a common ‘life style’ provides the basis for brotherhood,” McWilliams writes in his epilogue, mistakes the baubles of authenticity for the bonds of fraternity:
That notion is integrally related to . . . the product and commodity orientation of industrial society. . . . It implies that what is visible, one’s “style,” is somehow the essence of community, a political behavioralism which looks no better when adopted by the left than when employed by orthodoxy. Taken literally, it would suggest that the common lifestyle of the suburbs reflects “community.” Perhaps it means to make that suggestion. The belief in the community of “life style” reflects the liberal doctrine of a private man, for whom community is always an illusion, a “superstition” to which he is subject or which he induces in others. It is sad that men who feel a desperate need for communion have been so affected by a society whose life and thought deny it, that they can conceive a community only as an image, an illusion no less ephemeral for being willed.
Nowadays, the features of Jefferson’s civic fraternity feel still less recoverable than they were at the time of McWilliams’s dour reckoning. Today, we know more than ever about Jefferson’s friendly attachment to the institution of slavery—and its ugly ramifications throughout his personal life make his reveries of true civic fraternity seem like emptier-than-ever pieties. And as if that weren’t enough, Jefferson’s radical democratic theory has been misappropriated by state’s-rights and Tea Party zealots, brandishing Gadsden flags and overheated quasi-secessionist rhetoric. Meanwhile, a vacuum has opened up within our political imagination. Far from tailoring our political economy to serve the ends of fraternity, we’ve grown accustomed to regard its maintenance as something akin to the Transformers movie franchise, in which an oversized economic oligarchy wages heavy-footed battle against the lumbering incursions of state intervention, all prosecuted very loudly and very far above our heads. It need hardly be added, in the bailout-happy aftermath of the 2008 meltdown and amid the consolidation of a permanent surveillance state, that the twin threats of a neo-feudal labor regime and a runaway executive war-making power have rendered the Jeffersonian reveries of a socially enlivened, ward-based democracy a deader letter than ever. By common pundit acclamation, the sputtering out of 2011’s Occupy movement betokens the sad, fixed truth of things: too much high-frequency information, computer savvy, and expertise is involved in the top-heavy rigging of our financial system for it to admit any merely popular (let alone democratic) deliberation. You might as well try toppling a Transformer with a popgun.
Our social media has converted “friend” into a verb, transacted in the space of a keystroke.
This fatalist mood makes it more, not less, urgent to total up the collateral damage that fraternity’s loss has wreaked upon our moral imaginations. The fading of fraternity into mutely isolated superstition is in equal parts a disfigurement of the American political self and a powerful lament within our republic of letters. A few decades after Jefferson’s death, for instance, Herman Melville bore down sharply on what he viewed as the naive and bankrupt terms of the American social contract of the nineteenth century. Melville’s notoriously restless muse betrayed at its core a kind of existential panic, and his tales of high-seas adventure yielded an unsparing vision of human agency drifting into the void. Almost all the signal tragic turns in Melville’s fiction are failures of the friendship bond, as in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. The outcast protagonists of Melville’s morality tales, his fabled “isolatoes” who take to the sea, find their quests for a higher fraternal purpose thwarted by fate—or worse, in most cases, by rampaging civic indifference.
Especially as Melville chronicled the crucible of the Civil War, much of the false and sunny chatter of national renewal and newfound fraternity struck him as grotesque. The war had transformed “duty” into the “mask of Cain,” he argued. As early as his 1849 novel Redburn, he was already evoking the surreal, and soon all-too-familiar, scene of detached personal comfort in the face of a terrible crucible: “people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead.”
But Melville’s was very much a minority view. Other, more sanguine, bards of progress repressed the suspicion that the foundering of fraternal social relations in the commercial republic came with any tragic costs. Instead, they rushed to conflate the fraternal idea with the sprawling new prerogatives of the American nation. For Melville’s contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, McWilliams writes, the idea of intimate friendship commanded ready rhetorical praise, but in practice it reduced to “a radical individualism and privatism.” As such, Emerson’s cramped celebration of a hyper-individualist will was also an utter repudiation of the soul-constricting demands of politics and public life. According to McWilliams, Emerson believed that
all society is a “descent” into parochial and animal spirits for one of vision. The good man must separate himself from class or party; he must regard all association as only “natural,” “momentary” and hence suspect . . . The individual should reject the “material limitations” which unite him to particular human beings and places.
“Emerson went so far as to argue that an impoverished environment which holds no temptations is peculiarly conducive to the growth of thought,” McWilliams writes. “In effect, Emerson’s was a teaching of sublimation, offering a sense of ‘union’ with the race at the price of separation from individual men.”
The windswept social world envisioned by Emerson seems far removed from the great tumult of commerce and brotherhood descried across all American vistas by his principal poetic heir, Walt Whitman. But in this tireless singer of the body electric, McWilliams likewise discerns a flight from the merely social demands of democratic life—a spiritual complacency that Whitman explicitly identified with the dogmas of progress. Whitman, McWilliams writes, “was sure that culture and society ‘grew,’ that the true human being was being produced by the ‘evolution’ of dialectic forces.”
During Whitman’s age, the faddish formulas of social Darwinism were endemic to American social thought, which displayed a near-maniacal determination to baptize the inequities of industrial capitalism in the image of a benevolent natural order of things. So where Melville, for instance, had found ample grounds for despair in the post-war social predations of the Robber Baron class, Whitman mustered the requisite cosmic optimism to overwhelm the facts of the case. Yes, he confessed, he “brooded” over the glaring public trespasses of the age’s market monopolists, but he returned with redoubled conviction to the ordinary striving nature of Americans, to their “deep integrities” and “quiet ways.” Surely these qualities, he declaimed in high Emersonian fashion, had to be “endless.”
What has proven to be “endless,” of course, is our capacity to sing, and re-sing, the transcendental virtues of our market-besotted nation. The destructive nineteenth-century vogue for progress is now the common currency of our TED Talks, our smarmy web manifestos, and our flailing neoliberal fever dream of bailouts and austerity measures, all hymned as great cosmic unities by the latter-day bards of the redeemed inventive American nation in Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley.
No Friend in Mind
Today, the social ideal of fraternity has taken on many of the ungainly features of Whitman’s heroic effort to recast the love that dare not speak its name as an imperishable romance between self and cosmos. Americans remain a remarkably clubbable people, despite the earnest lamentations to the contrary lodged in scores of social science jeremiads, from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. But where Whitman projected his fraternal fantasies onto the largest canvas imaginable, we’ve tended to confine our fraternal lives to the most practical, instrumental, and inconsequential byways of our public life. Book groups and soccer clubs dot the suburban interior, homages more to our cherished images of ourselves as intellectually inquisitive or athletic team players than to any corresponding reality. The American tradition of the college fraternity, intended to bond its members into lifelong personal and professional alliances, is a multibillion complex of bleary and aimless sybaritism, most commonly associated with an ugly record of sexual assaults and hazing fatalities. Religious congregations—which arguably represent our most robust vindications of the fraternal ideal still going—have bulked up into self-parodic megachurches and prosperity-themed televangelical ministries.
But such halfhearted feints at resurrecting a dubious version of the fraternal ideal are more farce than tragedy. By contrast, the cruelest irony of revisiting McWilliams’s neglected masterwork today is that, after conceding that the curtain was closing on the American dream of fraternity, he detects signs of life in the black nationalist and Black Panther movements, which, at the time his book was published in 1973, still clung to the fringes of American politics. McWilliams invokes the Exodus tradition of black churches, for which the idea of fraternal destiny meant the promise of communal deliverance. This tradition had reappeared in secular black militant movements as something far more urgent than an ideal. “In black militant thought, community and unity are not merely devices, tactical means to win admission to the ‘open society,’ and then to be abandoned,” writes McWilliams. “Community becomes a permanent principle, a constant political need.”
McWilliams, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see our first black president, but he would likely have seen “postracial” politics as yet another effort to propel ourselves beyond the legacy of a painful history of oppression (and a history of resistance). In our “postracial” era, the president’s racial identity, far from allying him with a beloved community of brothers and sisters, has served as just another totem of the surface lifestyle novelty McWilliams cautioned against in 1973. In this respect, it’s no different from Obama’s post-Boomer cultural affinities, or his weakness for phony bipartisan accord that stems from his years basking in the crackpot dialectics of the University of Chicago Law School. Indeed, his administration’s fiscal and economic policies have given a forceful final rebuke to McWilliams’s well-intentioned appeal to black nationalist thought as the modern age’s last preserve of the American fraternal ideal.
This is clearly a “postracial” politics only in the pejorative sense—an effort to fast-forward past the more demanding judgments of history in favor of the empty symbolism of the Higher American Nation. And so it has landed us in much the same spiritual cul-de-sac occupied by Herman Melville’s lost and desperate isolatoes. In place of any evocation of an enduring community nonetheless bound by time and place, Obama has adopted self-help bromides straight out of the Whitman and Emerson playbook. He’s abjured uncomfortable talk of inequality in favor of vacuous sloganeering on behalf of American “opportunity.” Faced with the evidence of unabated economic suffering, he preaches a kinder, gentler brand of neoliberal austerity. And in lieu of rousing citizens into a substantive social intercourse, let alone a more sustained and demanding quest for justice or democracy, he peddles the great meritocratic dream: an individualist, entrepreneurial war against all of history, waged via a prayerful, and terminally unstable, compound of individual and national will. The idea of fraternity, in other words, is the corpse around which the apologists of the state and corporation are now frantically making merry.