For awhile in the Mere O Writers Room we had a quote from one of our members pinned as the channel topic: “It’s hard to transgress liberalism with strippers.” It’s a memorable way of making an important point: Once you adopt a certain understanding of the human body and sexuality, then you have given up all possible grounds for objecting to the various perversions regarding the human person and human community that are baked into contemporary liberalism—the commodification of the person (see: “sex work”), the isolation of the person from their people (see: pornography and, in a different way, the isolation from life inherent in rampant contraceptive use), the turning out of the person into a heartless world in which they must narrate their own identity (see: sexting).
To adopt a modernistic understanding of sexuality is necessarily to approve of all these things more generally as they are also expressed in educational, ecological, political, and economic spheres—or to simply attempt a kind of special pleading to explain why these things are bad in most areas but are entirely acceptable in the domain of sexuality. And this is, sadly, where we have to spend much of our time as we consider Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, a book which is quite splendid in many ways but which gives the game away at key points, even while still offering some genuinely insightful and devastating critiques of our current order.
Let’s begin with the insightful: Harris’s book is built around a particularly helpful concept he calls “the pedagogical mask.” The idea of the pedagogical mask is that capital outsources many of the costs inherent in propagating itself to the worker, but they do it under guise of providing some kind of “educational” benefit. Consequently, the worker does not recognize the run around and ends up giving away their work for far less than it is worth. It also goes without saying that if workers do not even recognize when they are working, they cannot organize amongst themselves in order to better their condition.
He begins to explain this with a short story from the 1950s called “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.” In the story, Danny is a young boy who creates a machine that does his homework for him. He also allows his classmates to use the machine, so that none of them have homework and they can have more time to play—or that is the theory at least. It is not what actually happens: The teacher responds to the machine by simply assigning more work. So efficiency goes up, but this doesn’t create margin or rest; it simply increases workload as the students are still expected to spend the same amount of time working.
There are two basic things you can do with technologies that make work faster: reduce work-time or intensify work. If a widget maker makes 100 widgets a day full-time, and a new machine allows the worker to make them twice as fast, they can either make 200 widgets a day or knock off at noon. It’s not hard to see which way it has gone in America.
This is the central framing device for Harris’s entire book—and it’s persuasive. He documents how millennials are put in impossible situations from birth onward—from helicopter parenting and programmed childhoods to learning how to take tests well and be excellent sheep in school to building a good CV through college and then landing a good entry level job after graduation. The process is defined by constantly straining after a future goal that never actually arrives because as soon as you achieve one goal a new one, even more challenging to reach, is set before you.
Another value of Harris’s book is that his truly is a pervasive criticism of the entire system in which American millennials live. This is not a book intended to defend the partisan interests of the Democrats. Indeed, his discussion of student loans is quite critical of changes introduced under President Obama. Noting that reforms tied to the Affordable Care Act had the effect of nationalizing student loan debt, Harris writes that,
Treasury rates (the interest rates the government pays to borrow money) are still low, which has produced some unforeseen consequences for the federal government’s takeover of the student loan industry. Because the government’s borrowing costs are so low, student lending is incredibly profitable. The Department of Education expects to reap $18.99 in profit on every $100 in loans originated in 2014. Multiply that by 140 billion and we’re talking over $25 billion in projected negative subsidy—that is, profit—off the 2014 cohort alone. That is the current financial foundation for the American higher education system, but we don’t like to talk about it that much.
The above is representative of the book at its best: Harris is enough of a wonk to analyze complex policy, he’s a complex enough thinker that he can relate the policies to other cultural questions and very practical day-to-day issues, and he’s a good enough writer to do all of this in an engaging, accessible style. It’s a marvel of a book in that respect.
One more note on the book’s strengths, as this note will allow me to transition into my critique: At the end of the book, Harris likens the prescriptive ideas often put forward at the end of books like his to a kind of policy version of the Bop It! game that many millennials played in the 90s. Specifically, we’re often presented with a few particular ideas that will supposedly help solve all the problems:
- Buy It!
- Vote It!
- Give It!
- Protest It!
In each case, he notes that any proposed actions involved in such a strategy will by definition be working within the system as it is given to us, which is to say ‘working according to the rules set by the powerful for how the system ought to work.’ If we do not really have a democracy anymore—and we do not—then voting and protesting are mostly symbolic exercises. If the control of our economy has been placed almost entirely in the hands of a small group of corporations—which it has—then likewise buying and giving will all happen within a space governed by rules defined by the corporations. Thus these Bop It! solutions ultimately end up being more a means of personal therapy, a way of feeling as if you are doing something, rather than actually doing anything to fix the real issues troubling America.
But, then, this gets to the problem I have with Harris’s argument. Harris, whose bio (fittingly) only includes his political affiliation (communist) and places where he has worked, necessarily has to argue for a communist revolutionary solution to the problem. This isn’t terribly satisfying: As we are currently seeing in China, Communist revolutions seldom have any more regard for the individual person than does the system that Harris so rightly assails in this book. The appeal of communism is rapped up entirely in the obviously false belief that “the people” can truly control and govern a nation under a communist order. But this is, to my knowledge, never how things have actually worked out—whether it is the Soviet Union, modern China, or the old East German state, the move of Communism is always a mirroring of the move inherent in late capitalism—the marginalization of the human person and the magnification of impersonal power agents.
Emil Brunner seems, to me at least, to be obviously correct when he writes,
Rational Communism is therefore just as much a believer in ‘progress’ as its twin-brother: rational individualism. Actually, however, as the Russian experiment shows, this Communism can only be kept a live by force as it was born out of force. Therefore it is just as much opposed to the Divine order in creation as its counterpart; it is the same system, with the signs reversed.
In other words, once you grant the progressive argument that history is defined by a gradual improvement as mankind uses its natural abilities to elevate its own life, take control of nature, and emancipate itself from unchosen restraints, it doesn’t really matter if you are on the economic left or right. In both cases, you’ve denied the natural wholeness of the given world, you’ve denied man’s natural place in the world as a creature, and thus you have deprived yourself of all means of organizing social life save force.
The tell for Harris comes in a throwaway line near the end of the book as Harris is talking about the sex lives of millennials:
At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that the time diaries in chapter 1 tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.
Sexuality, like work and like eating, is something that ties us to the life of the natural order. But once you see the natural order as being no more than raw material which humanity can use to improve itself and liberate itself, then you must account for all of these things in a new way. Thus eating becomes refueling the human machine, work becomes a means of self-creation and -preservation, and sex becomes “unstructured play with friends.”
There is, of course, a very limited sense in which Harris is not wrong—there is a playful element inherent in sexuality and Christians prone to stern sermonizing about such things would do well to remember that. But to speak of it as being only that without any connection to the oneness inherent in the sexual embrace or the obvious fruitfulness of said embrace is to speak of a fantasy—and a particularly brutal fantasy at that given that it is only preserved through legalized abortion.
This is the broader problem Harris repeatedly runs up against: He rightly despises the vision of humanity that sees human beings as hubs of capital, some of which are more valuable (because of their talents, experiences, resources, and so on) and some less valuable. But because he lacks an account of personhood, all he can do is swap one dehumanizing sort of revolutionary liberalism for a similarly dehumanizing revolutionary communism. Thus one of the lines of inquiry that is mostly absent from the book is the question of leisure. Much of Harris’s argument presupposes that we are primarily workers who are being exploited by the capitalist class. And the latter half of that presupposition seems fairly self-evident to me. But the first half should give Christian readers more pause—is “work” the primary mode by which human personhood is expressed?
Certainly, it is one form of expression. But in the first place much of the work that Scripture seems to call God’s people to is not really work that maps onto modern ideas of “work” in any obvious way. And second, there are other modes of expression of the person as well: communities of membership and practices of rest and worship both spring quickly to mind. (Shameless plug: My In Search of the Common Good is trying to wrestle with many of the same problems Harris is raising, but I am trying to contextualize economic issues alongside other issues that seem to me equally essential to personhood and yet are almost entirely absent from Harris’s book.)
It seems to me that the central challenge of our moment, the challenge that necessarily shapes all others, is not chiefly economic, though the most obvious expressions of the problem are certainly economic. But the basic question is “what is the human person?” I don’t know how Harris answers that question in a way that substantively distinguishes him from the world he has, rightly, set himself against. But for Christians the human person is, as Julian Marias wrote, “myself and my circumstances.” The person, endowed with the divine image, is a creature that exists within a complex web of mutual love and whose health depends upon the preservation of that web. When it is broken, the person is stranded and isolated. The task before us today is chiefly one of finding our way back home.