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Mr. Brooks's Miracle Elixir

Mr. Brooks's Miracle Elixir

Mini Teaser: The Social Animal is an instruction manual for politicians, the chief virtue of which is that it is practically useless. Faced with geopolitical and economic upheaval, the New York Times columnist offers a reassuring refuge from reality.

by Author(s): John Gray

David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011), 448 pp., $27.00.

[amazon 140006760X full]DAVID BROOKS is not the first contributor to the airport book stand to whom our leaders have turned for enlightenment and instruction. In the search for insight on the issues of the day, the politicians who are meant to be guiding us toward a better world have nudged, blinked, pirouetted on tipping points and anxiously pondered the wisdom of crowds. Yet none of these brightly packaged manuals has proved to have the practical usefulness that was promised. But not to worry, those who govern us are invincible positive thinkers who will never give up the hope of finding someone who will tell them how to conjure away all our problems. The political appeal of Brooks’s book The Social Animal has been nowhere more pronounced than in Britain, where the youthful David Cameron leads a rebranded Conservative Party in a coalition government. Having instructed all members of his cabinet to read this best seller, Cameron then sought the author’s counsel when Brooks was promoting the book in the UK. A seminar at 10 Downing Street was duly arranged and the prime minister’s media advisers seem to have been much impressed by Brooks’s performance. Not to be left on the sidelines, the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, also met the writer. What is it about the New York Times columnist’s book that gives it such an irresistible appeal to politicians?

“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read. It’s about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world.” These first lines go a long way toward explaining why Brooks’s book litters the desks and bedside tables of elected officials.

For what Brooks is attempting to sell the world is his brand of positive thinking, a vision of the power of the individual as an emotional being with the capacity to lead the “good life,” all the while bettering himself and those around him by empowering his mind with the definitive knowledge of what it means to be “moral.” Presented in the form of a life history of two fictional characters, Erica and Harold, it ends with Harold’s death and a capsule version of Brooks’s message. Harold reaches the end of his life on earth satisfied that he “had achieved an important thing in his life. He had constructed a viewpoint. Other people see life primarily as a chess match played by reasoning machines. Harold saw life as a neverending interpenetration of souls.” Despite its pretensions to realism, Brooks’s account of Harold and Erica’s journey is a morality tale of the most transparent—and unconvincing—kind.

So we see the attraction of Brooks’s fable to politicians in the face of overwhelming difficulties and Brooks’s promise that all will be well if they place the burden of responsibility on the individual and small communities. Our rulers are noted for their adamant protestations of unconquerable hope; but the precise content of that hope is nebulous, if not wholly indeterminate. It is not hard to discern that those who govern us—along with sizable sections of those they govern—are actually becoming just a little desperate. A fable of happiness is never more appealing than in circumstances such as these, when the future seems to have become dauntingly problematic, and from one point of view The Social Animal can be seen as an early-twenty-first-century version of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life—a tale in which a decent, ordinary guy ends up happily reconciled to the world. One difference between Capra’s film and Brooks’s book is that the hero of the movie is saved from disaster by a miracle—it is supernatural intervention, not his own sterling qualities, that allows the central protagonist (magnificently played by James Stewart) to prevent his savings-and-loan company from going under. The charm of Capra’s film comes from the fact that it is a fairy tale in which the fatal chain of events is broken and shattered lives are made whole again by magic. In Brooks’s novelettish study in pop psychology, by contrast, there is nothing that can remotely be seen as miraculous. The two central characters spend their lives striving for a remarkably insipid version of self-realization, which despite setbacks—such as a spot of infidelity by Erica, which she soon regrets—they succeed in achieving. “Harold and his friends were not rebels,” Brooks writes. “By and large, they still wanted a stable marriage, two kids, a house in the suburbs, and a secure income.” The trouble with this vision of the good life is not only that it is beyond the reach of growing numbers of people. It is also a vision that many of his readers will not share. Where are the millions of happy singletons and gays and cheerful individualists in Brooks’s “happiest story”? It is in fact an unrelentingly banal tale, lacking not only the charm of Capra’s narrative but also the compelling interest and unexpectedness of ordinary human life.

WHEN CAPRA’S film was released in 1946, America was rebuilding itself (and much of the world) after a global conflict in which the United States had acted decisively to defeat an unprecedented threat to civilization. Certainly the postwar scene was showing signs of major problems—an emerging cold war, for one—but having triumphed over Nazism, America had every reason to feel confident of its strength. The world’s preeminent power, it could be sure that when it spoke, other countries would listen. Today, the United States is undergoing an irreversible shift in its international position—from being the only hegemonic actor to being one among a number of great powers. The “Arab Spring” may prove to be significant not so much for the changes it brings to the Middle East and North Africa—changes that are still far from clear—but for marking the time when American power began unmistakably to retreat and U.S. economic primacy passed into history. No longer the most successful economy—Germany’s boom shows how a quite different version of market capitalism has adapted better to globalization, while China’s experiment in turbocharged state capitalism has produced over thirty years of fast growth—Americans cannot claim to enjoy the highest living standards. Worse, U.S. decline is not only relative but also absolute. Stagnant for decades, the incomes of the American majority are now falling, or else are maintained only by taking on multiple jobs in a depressed and insecure labor market. Worse yet, there is no prospect of this process ending anytime soon. How the United States can fix its federal-debt overhang remains obscure; quite possibly it will not be resolved by any act of Washington, but instead by a write-down of U.S. credit and the dollar in global markets. However that drama plays out, there can be no realistic basis for the hope that the American majority will be better off in the near or medium term than it is today.

The unstoppable momentum of decline is but one reason for the appeal of Brooks’s book, laden as it is with optimism for the future. Nowadays the very idea of decline has ceased to be legitimate—as soon as any sign of such a thing emerges, we are told, action can be taken to reverse the process. The result is that the fact of the decline is adamantly denied, while history—the fall and rise of great powers—goes on as it has always done. It might be thought that in Britain, with its long experience of accepting decline, the situation would be different. But the present generation of British leaders is innocent of history, and it has not noticed how the crash has accelerated Britain’s multigenerational retreat from power. While a further process of contraction is under way with planned reductions in the UK’s armed forces, the leaders of all three main political parties have endorsed an open-ended intervention in Libya that Britain will soon lack the capability to maintain. Britain’s economic position is dangerously exposed. The policy of austerity pursued by the Cameron government is as much of a gamble as the American policy of expecting emerging economies to bail out U.S. debt by accepting the ongoing debasement of the dollar. Along with other Western countries, Britain and America are struggling to cope with a financial crisis that has left problems in its wake that can only be solved by accepting a diminished place in the world.

IT IS a commonplace that the economics profession failed to foresee the crisis that definitively ushered in the end of American primacy. What may be more pertinent is that with a few honorable exceptions, so many economists refused to accept that such a crisis was possible—captivated as they were by the belief that quantitative models could predict the future, sheltering the field from messy reality. Economists were thus incapable of perceiving the dangers that were mounting around them. The attempt to domesticate the uncertainties of the future by turning them into calculable risks was discredited by the crash. A mode of thinking that was supposed to be supremely rational has proved in practice to be little more than an exercise in harebrained cleverness.

The discrediting of economics is the second reason for the success of Brooks’s book with its emphasis on the power of emotion and intuition and its debunking of the power of reason devoid of sentiment. Yet who—aside from one or two recent Nobel Prize–winning economists—has ever imagined humans to be calculating machines? After all, classical economics fully acknowledged the central role of emotion in human conduct. It was not for nothing that Adam Smith entitled his treatise on ethics The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Brooks acknowledges that there are strands in Enlightenment thinking that stress the limitations of reason. As he writes, “If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.” Brooks may overpraise British Enlightenment thinkers—who include Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism and a thoroughgoing rationalist—but he is right in noting that the Enlightenment has not entirely neglected the limits of reason. Regarded by many as the supreme Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant was quite explicit in stating that there are questions that human reason cannot answer. One could go back further and note that Aristotle—commonly regarded as one of the greatest Western rationalists—insisted that virtuous conduct was a matter of habit and character just as much as rational deliberation.

Of course there is more to Brooks’s message than these familiar observations. The core of Brooks’s argument is his claim that the forces controlling human behavior are not just nonrational, they are unconscious—and can be controlled. As he puts it, “The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most.” Significantly, Sigmund Freud appears hardly at all in the four hundred or so pages of this treatise on the role of the unconscious in social life. According to Brooks, this is because Freud has been superseded:

When Freud came up with his conception of the unconscious, it had a radical influence on literary criticism, social thinking, and even political analysis. We now have a more accurate conception of the unconscious. But these findings haven’t yet had a broad impact on social thought.

Freud’s view of the unconscious has been rendered obsolete by the new cognitive science: “Brain research rarely creates new philosophies, but it does vindicate some old ones.” It is true that Freud’s theorizing was not exactly scientific—as he accepted in some of his later work. But I suspect it is not because Freud’s thinking has been scientifically superseded that Brooks is so quick to dismiss it. Rather, it is because Freud did not share Brooks’s hopes of happiness. The greatest twentieth-century Enlightenment thinker had more than a little in common with the ancient Stoics. He was not preaching anything resembling Brooks’s sunny optimism when he wrote to a patient,

I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Having restored your inner life, you will be better able to arm yourself against that unhappiness.

Freud never imagined that his research into the unconscious mind would open the way to happiness. Instead, it could be used to fortify the mind against unhappiness, which the founder of psychoanalysis accepted as the normal human experience.

In stark opposition to Freud, Brooks thinks he has found in the unconscious something like a technology of human fulfillment. “The central humanistic truth,” he writes, “is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.” Because of the advance of science, we can now do what Freud believed was impossible—take control of the unconscious mind, so that it functions to promote happiness:

We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. . . . The unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind—where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. These submerged processes are the seedbeds of accomplishment.

It is not just individuals who can reshape their lives by tapping the power of the unconscious. By applying these new findings, governments can enable society to function more harmoniously. The “big policies”—of education reform, poverty alleviation, democracy promotion—pursued over the past generations failed, Brooks believes, because they did not harness the unconscious. But for Brooks they failed for another reason, too: they did not understand that humans are above all social animals.

Again, this is hardly news. David Hume criticized Thomas Hobbes for having a view of human beings that was asocial, while Aristotle pronounced members of our species to be political animals (where “political” meant something more like what we now mean by “social”). It is only because economists have in recent times operated with an abstract conception of human motivation as maximizing the satisfaction of individual preferences that the idea that humans are au fond social beings seems at all striking. Here as elsewhere the illusion of novelty is kept alive by a loss of memory. No one who had read and digested Adam Smith or Edmund Burke—or indeed John Maynard Keynes—could possibly imagine that the life of man would ever be carried on by unaided reason, or believe that humans were anything other than quintessentially social. Only those who have forgotten most of the Western tradition could find Brooks’s propositions arresting or in any way instructive.

ONE MIGHT be tempted to say that the political success of Brooks’s book is testimony to the callowness of our leaders, who have lost touch with the intellectual traditions that shaped Western cultures. This would be a little unfair, for what our rulers have to cope with is a larger loss of continuity in society. The deep changes that go with globalization have left governments depleted of authority. One response is a more modest conception of government: let it attend to the framework in which society does its business—including dealing with social problems—while leaving that business largely to voluntary organizations. A view of this kind is congenial to politicians at a time when resources are tight and the scope of state action is limited. (In Britain, it is the necessity of spending cuts that drives Cameron’s otherwise inchoate “big society” program, based as it is on empowering individuals and communities in order to lessen the burdens on government.) But this does not solve the problem of authority. Governments may decide to delegate to society the task of promoting the good life. But they will still find themselves—even in the very act of devolving its pursuit—having to take a view on what the good life consists of. How do our rulers decide what values to promote?

At this point we can discern a third factor in the success of Brooks’s book: the fashionable cult of science. Over the past few years, a succession of writers has claimed that science can instruct us as to how to live. Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values shares with Brooks the faith that what humans need in order to flourish is a matter that can be decided by scientific investigation. For Harris, the moral quandaries of the past were the result of ignorance; now that science has revealed the “moral facts” of human nature there is little room for doubt in ethics, since knowledge can replace faith and intuition in settling disputes about the essence of human well-being. Without emulating Harris’s dogmatism or sharing his enmity toward religion, Brooks also seems to believe that science has made these ethical dilemmas of the past redundant. Like Harris, he is sure that human progress will continue, and even accelerate, as long as people and governments are prepared to make use of the results of advancing scientific knowledge.

There are several problems with this view. If there are moral facts, the ethical ambiguity of science must be among the most important of them. It may be true that humans cannot flourish under tyranny, at least of a severe kind; but if the realistic alternative to such tyranny is anarchy, which also thwarts any prospect of human flourishing, there is a dilemma that no scientific advance can resolve. More importantly, there is no reason to assume those who know the human cost of tyranny will cease being tyrannous. The knowledge provided by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology—the disciplines in which those who worship at the altar of science have the most faith—is no different from any other kind of understanding: it can be used for all manner of purposes, including the most atrocious. The Nazis understood the workings of crowd psychology better than almost anyone at the time; if they had remained in power long enough to benefit from scientific advance, their ability to perpetuate their peculiarly horrible form of tyranny would undoubtedly have been improved upon. Contrary to postmodern relativists, the growth of human knowledge is a fact. But that fact does not make human beings any more likely to be virtuous, or rational. However fast and far science may advance the dilemmas that beset us, ethics will remain as problematic as before. Indeed, since the increase in knowledge enlarges the power to do evil, these dilemmas may be more formidable.

The dangers that come with this increased knowledge are captured in the story of Genesis, which used to be one of the West’s guiding myths. Now this biblical story has lost its power, and another—the Socratic myth that says knowledge and virtue go together—has replaced it. Even among those who profess to be religious, the idea that advancing knowledge can deliver us from moral and political conflict has a powerful allure. Brooks’s book is testimony to this faith in science. To be sure, his grip on the new sciences of human behavior is shaky, and he exaggerates what we can learn from them. A great deal in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology remains speculative and controversial. Where they seem reasonably well established, the findings of these new sciences do not always support Brooks’s conception of virtue. Recent inquiry—as well as centuries of literature—may suggest that we should favor “the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self”; but it is hard to square this plural view of selfhood with old-fashioned notions of character. Advancing knowledge may undermine simpleminded rationalism, but it also undercuts traditional morality. As to the overall impact that science may have on human values, no one knows.

THE FACT that the new sciences of human nature are in their infancy will not diminish their appeal to governments. The deflation of economics as a discipline has not shaken their hope that science can show us how to live; it has only led them to embrace another kind of scientism. Importantly, it is a version that has the advantage of not requiring any radical reassessment of economic orthodoxies. For the present generation of politicians—here the charge of callowness is not unjust—the hegemony of the market is all they have ever known. Even now, when global markets are falling apart under the strains of sovereign bankruptcy, currency wars and resource conflicts, our rulers continue to insist that there is no alternative. Rather than making the effort—intellectual as much as political—of deciding what can be entrusted to the market and what cannot, they look for gimmicks that will serve as proxies for new thinking.

This is where Brooks comes in. Whatever he may say, the view of human beings that is presented in The Social Animal has no definite implications for public policy. For our rulers, that is a positive feature: it allows them to use Brooks’s ideas as they please. Most of the books that have purported to show how to reinvigorate government over the past decades—consultant David Osborne and government official Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government comes to mind—made the mistake of being too specific in their prescriptions, whose ineffectiveness was soon apparent. Brooks is more prudent. Offering little in the way of specific advice, he is really selling a tone of voice—a way of talking about politics rather than anything more substantive. In the United States and Britain (it is difficult to imagine it being taken seriously anywhere else) the book’s appeal seems to lie precisely in this lack of specificity. In America, Brooks’s disdain for “big policies” can be invoked to evade the painful fact of ongoing impoverishment. The consoling message is that if only American creativity can be freed from the dead hand of government, the cycle of decline can be reversed. Brooks’s readers can then turn their minds from the discomforting shifts that are under way—such as the palpable erosion of public infrastructure, which leaves the United States looking more and more like the third-world countries of a few decades ago—and seek refuge in an American pastoral. How the United States fits into a post-American world can be left to future generations to decide.

In Britain, The Social Animal can be used to reinforce a Burkean conceit of sound government. The reality has long been a succession of dodges, slogans and ephemeral “initiatives” which serve to conceal the government’s inability to control—or for that matter understand—history as it happens. Here too the fact that it gives no clear guidance may be the book’s principal strength. Brooks cites Michael Oakeshott’s observation that in politics we “sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination.” It is a refreshing reminder of what conservative thinking might once have been. But Brooks would have done better to cite another passage from the same volume, where the skeptical British philosopher notes that

there seems little to stand in the way of the appearance of a vulgar counterpart to this literature of political inquiry. . . . A little book on How to Restore old Cottages may be flanked on the bookstalls by one on How to Restore old Monarchies; an article on “A face-lift for the kitchen: new and exciting materials” in a Do It Yourself magazine will be followed by others on “Dos and Don’ts in making a Revolution,” “How to win an Election.”

Oakeshott comments that “writings of this kind (with perhaps less obvious titles) have been available for more than a century.” It is doubtful, though, whether Oakeshott envisioned a book like The Social Animal: an instruction manual for politicians, the chief virtue of which is that it is practically useless.

This appealing emptiness will not ensure the book’s longevity, however. Soon enough, Brooks’s manual of positive thinking will be consumed and discarded. History will move on and yesterday’s gurus will be remaindered and forgotten. But if Brooks’s book will hardly be remembered, the reverence with which it has been received tells us something important about how we have come to be ruled. The Social Animal is an exemplar of political discourse as we know it today; the chief function is to distract attention from intractable realities, which governments and those they govern prefer not to think about.

Pullquote: Brooks is attempting to sell the world his brand of positive thinking. It is a morality tale of the most transparent—and unconvincing—kind.Image: Essay Types: Book Review