Tragedy of the Common Good
Musings Politics

Tragedy of the Common Good

Joseph M. Keegin
Joseph M. Keegin

A few weeks ago I joined Athwart editors Bradley Davis and William Lombardo for an episode of their Phronesis podcast. We discussed a lecture by the Austrian Catholic priest and social critic Ivan Illich, titled “Silence is a Commons,” in which Illich provocatively suggests that one of the defining characteristics of what we call modernity is a perpetual movement toward the enclosure of everything given in human existence: land, water, the air we breathe, even the ability to sit in silence and think. Just as the division of the English countryside into privately-owned plots destroyed the common land of the peasantry, and industrial food production makes water into a resource to be packaged and resold to consumers, so too does modern communications technology obliterate the naturalness of silence and sell it back to us in the form of airport executive lounges, mindfulness workshops, and meditation retreats. Where the relative quiet of the world was once the norm, we now take as natural the chatter of television screens and the captivating lures of advertising. Silence is now yet another luxury commodity on the open market, shelved (figuratively speaking) alongside Teslas, blood diamonds, and sex robots.

Matthew Crawford has addressed this phenomenon as a crisis of attention. “Lately,” he writes, “our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention.” What was once taken for granted—our ability to sit quietly with ourselves or each other, to make decisions about which features of our world we will concern ourselves with—has been transformed into a development zone for industrial planning and extraction. Architecture, interior design, advertising, sociology, neurobiology, and countless other sciences and industries have coordinated to siphon as much profit as possible from our capacity for noticing and thinking about the world, with a rearguard of psychiatrists and app developers rushing in to sell us fixes. What was once given is now for sale. And in the process of strip mining attention, “we’ve sacrificed silence—the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.”

Illich’s lecture ends with a call to defend the commons of silence; for us reading four decades later, the conclusion is long foregone. English peasants born in the 18th century after the passing of enclosure laws could no longer conceive of a life of leisurely subsistence; those born in our day struggle to articulate the importance of silence against the loudspeaker logic of “free speech” and “platforms.” It is always easier to destroy something than to build, immeasurably so when the object in question was made by God or nature rather than by human hands. And when a commons is destroyed, so too is a way of thinking or understanding that takes the common for granted. When the world becomes enclosed and privatized, so too does our imagination: the logic of the market creeps into even the most intimate of domains. No wonder, then, that today’s young people lack any intellectual defenses against the encroachment of OnlyFans and industrial surrogacy.

Perhaps tautological, but anything we might call “the common good” can exist only where something exists in common, whether land, space, goods, or silence. All of these are lost to us. The modus operandi of postmillennial America is what Albert Borgmann calls “hypermodernism,” a delirious, future-oriented attitude of total limitlessness joined to the complete schematization of human existence. Americans today are subjected to an endless cascade of utopian schemes from entities both public and private, as if the high modernism of Le Corbusier had leaked beyond the bounds of architecture and public planning and invaded every conceivable aspect of human life. America has weathered nearly 60 years of aggressive privatization and bureaucratization, those twin marauders of modernity, and their campaign gives no sign of abating.

So when high-profile law professor Adrian Vermeule—celebrated or notorious, depending upon the extent to which you agree with him—argues for a restoration of the common good by way of a legal exercise, my foot taps with impatience. “Such an approach,” he writes in his treatise on “Common-Good Constitutionalism,” “should be based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate.” It is indeed good for good things to happen—and like my good friend Micah Meadowcroft, my only political position is simply to be “for good things and against bad things.” But what’s the point of being shoved toward a beautiful idea that lacks any substantial reality in the world?

Deploying the full force of the regime’s regulatory apparatus to “strong rule” me toward the common good in the America of 2021 would leave me standing dumbfounded before a void. Unions are largely corrupt or gone, social clubs are long shuttered, families are groaning under increasing financial pressure and near-universal conditions of diminishing returns. An administered common good makes me envision a panel of functionaries obliging me to spend a day with strangers collecting trash in the park. Government agencies at all levels have spent decades thwarting human flourishing; the phrase “common good” from the mouth of a bureaucrat evokes little more than cynical disbelief.

Using government force to realize the common good in spite of the current material conditions of society is to be, like Pound’s Mauberley, “bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn.” This is the stuff of poetry, perhaps of science fiction—not of politics. And pace Illich, I doubt that our sprawling administrative state can have much of a positive impact on what it has so gleefully destroyed over the last half century. The unholy alliance of monopolistic corporate power and centralized technocratic governance is the 20th Century’s most abiding political innovation, its brutality felt anywhere Americans once congregated in a mood of conviviality. Labor unions didn’t disappear because the rank-and-file forgot to read their Aristotle; laid-off factory workers didn’t take to OxyContin en masse because they lacked moral fortitude; hillbillies like Ed Wiley didn’t become radical environmentalists because they succumbed to liberal propaganda. Show me a “Common-Good Constitutionalism” that takes monopoly power and industrial devastation seriously and I’ll happily change my tune.

Vermeule and his followers, to their credit, do wish to rescue one of the last remaining fragile, threatened human things—the family—from the acid bath of liquid modernity. But here, I think, they’ll find that the only way the government can actually help is to assist normal people in winning the space and time to rediscover and recultivate those bonds and sentiments that make up the fabric of society, and then—like Cincinnatus returning to the plow—to leave them alone. There may well be some good in exercising “strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good,” but that strength would be best put to use against the selfsame corporate-administrative dyarchy that has been attacking the common good in the first place. Law may indeed be a “wise teacher”—but maybe this time the professors should do some learning.

Featured image: Times Square in photo by Joshua Chua via Unsplash.

Joseph M. Keegin is our Senior Editor. He is a graduate of the St. John's College Graduate Institute (Annapolis) and a former teacher.