Author’s Note: I use ‘liberal’ in this sense, not to refer strictly to American Democrats.
The excellent documentary Machines, about a textile factory in India, opens with a shot of a worker stoking a furnace with nothing but a handkerchief to protect them from the embers and sparks. This is what was really meant by the “dark, Satanic Mills” described by William Blake; when industrialization swept Europe, workers left rural settings their families had likely lived in for a very long time — for this and worse. Not a huge surprise that Blake and other Romantics saw the exchange as a raw deal.
I like the phrase in reference to the same epochal shift, but with each term abstracted a little. Take Satanic to mean ‘a kind of deal in which you always get less than what you bargained for’ and a mill to be ‘a machine that grinds many different things down to a uniform substance,’ and you have a pretty good description of the kind of game liberal capitalism has played with tradition, custom, ritual, etc.
Pro-capitalist historians of the phenomenon will usually tell you capitalism was always there, just trapped somehow, constrained by the ignorant mire of religion and its attendant culture and politics. As the incomparable Ellen Meiksins Wood writes, in these liberal narratives, “Capitalism seems always to be there, somewhere; and it needs to be released from its chains — for instance, from the fetters of feudalism—to be allowed to grow and mature.”
This is a pretty good indication that, when liberal capitalism is being self-conscious, it realizes that tradition-as-tradition is nothing but a nuisance for its purposes. Thus if any vestigial tradition is going to exist alongside capitalism, it has to enter into a kind of bargain: These old modes of thinking and living can remain with a certain protected status insofar as they’re unobtrusive, don’t interfere with commerce, and (the most galling, in my opinion) perhaps even support their new master in some sense; this is what people mean when they say Christian virtue is necessary to keep a strong free market in good working order.
So tradition, along with everything else transcendent, customary, and otherwise not ‘rational’ in the liberal capitalist sense becomes subordinate to this other, newer hierarchy — the hierarchy of liberal capitalism, which masquerades as equality. (One hierarchy is actually just replaced by another, which is why Corey Robin rightly points out that, where conservatism is concerned, the preservation of this kind of hierarchical arrangement is much more important than its specific nature, traditional or liberal or whatever.) This new hierarchy has its own emotional logic, though it pretends total bloodless rationality. In many ways, it moves into the old ground covered by tradition and occupies it with a peculiar brutality.
“The hierarchical society was thus reconstructed on the foundations of formal equality,” historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, emphasis mine, “it had merely lost what made it tolerable in the old days, the general social conviction that men had duties and rights, that virtue was not simply the equivalent of money, and that the lower order, though low, had a right to their modest lives in the station to which God had called them.” Now, the market determines virtue, competence, and worthiness. This is why the poor are detested for their alleged laziness and indolence — we’re all expected to know that, if they would just try, they, too, could make it at market, like the best of us do. Virtue is money. Competition is worship. Work is church.
This periodically puts people in funny positions, when they’re pulled in different directions by their competing loyalties to the new hierarchy and the old. Consider the latest NFL comedy.
As I wrote last week in the Post, liberal capitalism can stomach just about anything but the straightforward statement that, contrary to its whole founding narrative, we’re not all readily consenting equals, but rather subjects of a pretty brutal hierarchy. This triggers a kind of bizarre emotional response in liberal capitalist societies — multilayered, for sure; in this case, there’s no question it’s heavily racialized — but I also think it has to do with the fact that liberalism sort of makes no bones about its contempt for the weak. Simply stating: I’m subjugated, I don’t like it, you’re doing it, and I want you to stop, is met with all kinds of fury because it’s seen as an abdication of agency, which liberal capitalism equates with personhood. This is the weird, loopy way in which those at the bottom of the liberal capitalist hierarchy wind up not only blamed but hated for the situation they’re in.
Add to that the genuine anger (some) folks feel when you disrespect their country — or when they feel like you have, thanks to the semi-sacral but inexplicable (at least, in liberal terms) attachment people feel to symbols and soil and other items of customary and traditional import. How to word that deep but shapeless rage?
If you’re basically all id and have no commitments to anything, like Trump, you just say you don’t like it because you hate the people involved. But if you have some kind of commitment — say, if you imagine yourself as fair, rational, supportive of all the liberal principles that went into the founding of the USA, including rights regarding speech, protest, etc. — then you find yourself in an odd situation.
The way people in this situation have squared the circle — and I think all of this unfolds on a very reflexive, intuitive level, not with any kind of careful strategizing — is to reason that their best argument for Colin Kaepernick et al. having to show respect to the flag (as metonym for the USA) is that it’s what these players’ bosses want them to do. And since they’re at work, they have to obey their bosses. It’s simply the rules. Would your boss let you goof off on company time? Never mind the content of whatever they’re doing; when you’re on company time, you follow company rules.
Which is everything you’d expect somebody in favor of liberal capitalism to say: You entered into this contract, you agreed to the terms, now you follow through. That’s the good and virtuous thing to do; it’s how we reckon goodness and virtue around here.
But it’s a funny thing coming from somebody who’d also like to argue, say, that there’s something special or transcendent about the USA that simply deserves respect. If all you’re saying is that people have to stand for the anthem because their bosses say so, then standing for the anthem is no different than putting on a Jack in the Box visor while you purvey fine sourdough Jack, the ambrosial treasure of urbania, or from singing a song when somebody drops a buck in the tip jar at Cold Stone Creamery, or whatever they’re making them do these days. It’s perfunctory, it’s performative, it’s just something you do to smooth the gears of commerce.
Just like everything. There’s your bargain. You get to keep your traditions and your customs, but they’re ground into grist by the same mill as everything else, and your own patriotism is transformed into an argument that capital, not the fatherland or whatever it is you’re on about, deserves more power and deference. It’s a hell of a hat trick. It’s a hell of a mill.