David Brooks is a Stalinist

Like any other week, the opinion pages of the New York Times two weeks ago brought us another rip-roaring David Brooks piece, wherein he pontificates about moral fibers and “the Cost of Relativism.” If Americans would just get back to enforcing social norms and usher in a “moral revival,” Brooks suggests, somehow we would be better off in unstated ways. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What made that week special, however, was Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of the New Republic’s rebuttal to Brooks, in which she tore apart Brooks’ unstated assumption that “the baseline moral values of poor people… differ… from those of the rich.” It is a pleasure to read.

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However, I must admit, I have to agree with David Brooks that things like values, norms and dispositions differ among social classes.

To explain, I’ll have to refer you to a colleague of Robert Putnam’s (Brooks’ column was a sort of commentary on Putnam’s new book for an audience that will never read it), one from across the Atlantic. Like Putnam, Pierre Bourdieu was interested in inequality, and specifically how inequality manifests itself in things like taste, mannerisms and even social norms.

Both were social scientists who put forward highly influential theories of social capital. Where Putnam surveyed people about things like how often they eat dinner together, one of Bourdieu’s most famous studies examined how they respond to different kinds of artwork or what they like to eat.

The above clip illustrates quite succinctly one of his key findings: that taste is as much about drawing boundaries and displaying our class positions as it is about personal preference, if not more so. Cultural capital, the propensity to have taste and lord it over others, as Diane Keaton does in the clip, is just one of several forms of symbolic capital — such as social capital and educational capital — that we store and expend not unlike concrete, monetary-economic capital.

Class divisions have a very real impact on our perceptions, the way we express them and even our dispositions, values and lifestyles – this much I agree with David Brooks on. But I must also insist that it is David Brooks’ dominant class position that affords him his smug sense of moral superiority.

Those of us with experience in the classroom know, as the above clip illustrates, how class inequalities play out in our schools. But the problem here isn’t “culture;” it’s inequality. One of the key prerequisites to invest in symbolic capital like cultural capital (i.e., to gain an appreciation for abstract expressionism) is leisure, something in short supply across working America. And when we have leisure time, we tend to use it differently anyway. Building cultural capital (going to the museum) sounds more enticing if you have social capital (are friends with) with someone who has cultural capital (likes museums), and so on and so forth. 

At any rate, what we’re missing from this endless circular discussion about the primacy of culture over class or class over culture is how Stalinist it is to suggest that the answer to all our problems is a healthy dose of moral absolutism.

Nobody wanted a revival of moral standards more than Stalin. Under Stalin the U.S.S.R. banned abortion, made divorces more difficult to acquire and subsidized the family. His purges were as much culture war as they were a declaration of class war from on high. The Bolsheviks imposed a set of “ideals and standards” for the people to repair to, and the people were encouraged or coerced to report any of their friends and neighbors who did not meet the proletarian ideal. Everyone ended up reporting everyone else, and tons of people died. And just to be sure, the Stalinist regime went out of its way to make sure non-collectivized peasant workers starved because their ability to subsist independent of the State became cause for paranoia.

This was after World War One and a Civil War had already decimated the population, and World War Two left even more dead in its wake.

“As a result of all this violence,” as Georgi Derluguian’s mind-bending account of the rise and fall of the Soviet system describes, “no landowners or aristocrats, no capitalists or petty bourgeoisie, no autonomous intelligentsia or liberal professionals remained… the social hierarchy was drastically reduced to a semi-closed caste of cadre bureaucrats and a newly created mass who could be described as proletarian in the most fundamental sense: a social class whose livelihood was rigidly tied to wage employment.” At last a classless society – forged by the survival of the fittest and, finally, pure, moral standards. (“From the late 1950’s the Soviet Union experienced a tremendous expansion in the practice of high culture,” Derluguian notes). That’s what David Brooks wants. That’s what Vladimir Putin wants.

I always knew David Brooks was a Trojan horse for the Communists seeking to undermine American freedom, I just never knew the National Review would be in such a rush to defend him.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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