Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of IN PRAISE OF DECADENCE by Jeff Riggenbach

(Originally published at Amazon.com:)

Jeff Riggenbach defies the authority of "conventional wisdom" in his 1998 book In Praise of Decadence. He claims that the "baby boomer" generation was "more Libertarian than anyone expected" (which explains the phenomenon of "Deadhead stickers on Cadillacs"). Tracing the history of libertarian thought, Riggenbach explains that the unrest of the Sixties was not monolithically Leftist, but co-opted, and that the disenchantment of a growing number of boomers with both the New Left and the YAF, combined with the collapse of the Objectivist movement, provided the motivation to start the Libertarian Party.

Riggenbach goes another step, however, arguing that the boomers embodied a spirit of decadence in contradiction to "conventional wisdom;" not simply decay, but the decay of authority, and that decadence historically has led to vitality in various fields. This is a tempting theory for any liberty-minded person to embrace. But then Riggenbach then takes this to make his case for anarcho-capitalism, arguing for "spontaneous order" over "central planning." Basing his arguments on the theory of natural law described by Adam Smith as "the invisible hand," Riggenbach celebrates the "welcoming attitude" of the baby boomers towards "diversity and eclecticism," or "doing your own thing." This is where Riggenbach's argument crashes into Ayn Rand, who he both damns and praises, and her philosophy of Objectivism, which argues against totalitarianism but rejects the celebration of the eclecticism and hedonism associated with the "vitality" of the hippy lifestyle. Riggenbach argues that there were two perceptions of Rand, the minarchist and the anarchist, that influenced the boomers (an argument mirrored in the 2009 biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right). This is just a microcosm of the larger schism of minarchism and anarchism and the claims by Rand that Libertarianism is a plagiarization of her ideas in a pragmatic pursuit of political short-cuts.

But confined to its own arguments, the praise of "decadence" fails to convince on its own terms. In the absence of an integrated philosophical system, the "spontaneous order" of eclecticism and anarchism did not lead to the "Dionysian" utopia of Woodstock but to the "Orphic dismemberment" of Altamont. It's notable that Riggenbach has to condemn certain aspects of the eclecticism and hedonism associated with the Sixties generation while admitting that the "conventional wisdom" of authority is often there for good REASON. In doing so, Riggenbach is in danger of making Rand's arguments against eclecticism (Rand anticipated the hippies with her portrayal of the "pseudo-individuals" portrayed in The Fountainhead.)

But what place is there for reason in Riggenbach's argument? Quoting Hayek, who defined "spontaneous order" as "the product of human action but not of human design," Riggenbach seems to argue from a teleological viewpoint of final causation: "the natural order of human society, with which rulers and planners tinker at their peril." This simply replaces the authority of "God" or "the State" with the dictates of "human nature" (an "ecological" conception.) While there is the maxim that "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed," Hayek's formulation eliminates the reasoning mind with blind action, which is no guarantee of freedom. (A full analysis of Hayek's nuanced views on reason are beyond the scope of this review, but one notable comparison between Hayek and Rand and their view of reason is found in Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.) And although Riggenbach celebrates human creativity and technology, "human action without human design" does not lead to innovation, but to the retrogression found in Rand's analysis of the
New Left's "Anti-Industrial Revolution."

To use Riggenbach's own arguments demonstrates the limitations of "spontaneous order" in human relations. I give Riggenbach credit for his historical identification of the various makeup of the baby boomer generation, and his insight into his targets that would inhibit freedom and creativity. (His argument against centralized government and the danger of unchecked statist growth is a constant thorn in the minarchist/Objectivist side, and for good reason: "Who watches the watcher?" The very question has created something of a "
Mobius Strip" in the issue, preventing neither side from claiming total victory in the argument.) It is his philosophical underpinnings FOR freedom that I find weak; his arguments against oppressive authority were better met by Ayn Rand, who provided a way to navigate through creative matters without the perils of decadence. And a specific parallel to Riggenbach's thesis can be found in Leonard Peikoff's The Ominous Parallels, which, in contrast, identifies the decadence and philosophy of Berlin and the Weimar Republic in relation to the rise of the Third Reich, and the similarities found in the United States that have led to the current economic and political turmoil.

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