James Poulos, whom the Bookman interviewed in 2009 about “postmodern conservatism,” recently wrote a series of pieces for The Federalist on what he describes as the “pink police state,” a kind of totalitarian regime that neither contemporary liberalism nor conservatism quite captures. We invited Jordan Bloom and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to commenton Poulos’s analysis.
I am enormously grateful to my friend James Poulos for finally laying out in a fully thought-out frame his analysis of the regime in which we now live, and I must state right off the bat that I am in near-complete agreement with him on the reality, nature, and inner logic of the new regime. Like all great explanatory schemas, Poulos’s “pink police state” gives us new insight into the past, the present, and the future, and a new—and true—way to read and understand hitherto puzzling phenomena.
Since I have been invited to do so, I now intend to do to Poulos what every intellectual hates: to press his hobbyhorse into a yoke driven by of one of my own. In doing so I am not intending at all to criticize or contest his framework, but perhaps to pickup on what I see as an underlying, implicit theme, deeply resonant with the framework, and by bringing it to light perhaps give an even fuller account of the problem—and point us to potential solutions.
The theme I have in mind is: risk.
The pink police state, Poulos informs us, is what happens (under our present circumstances at least) when most people in the polity end up valuing interpersonal freedom more than they value political freedom.
Of course, to affirm political freedom is always and everywhere to take a risk; it is always and everywhere to put chips on the table. Any affirmation of political freedom, no matter how implicitly, carries the message of “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Better to die on my feet than live on my knees.” The message may most often be a bluff, but bluffing is the risky move par excellence. Denizens of the pink police state, meanwhile, are quite happy to live on their knees—so long as they can do other things while they’re there.
To take another angle, Poulos is quite right to highlight that the pink police state is replacing the public-private divide of classical liberalism with the health-disease/safety-danger divide. This in itself speaks volumes about the pink police state’s attitude towards risk.
But where Poulos is particularly perceptive is in placing fertility on the disease/danger side of the divide. Fertility, after all, in its natural state, represents an act of cosmic risk-taking: the risk of bringing forth (and being cosmically tied to) a new life. Fertility carries within itself the risk of loss, or at least irretrievable change, of personal and interpersonal autonomy. Fertility means the certainty of sorrow and anguish, for the possibility of bliss. And fertility, indeed, carries medical risks as well, reminding us of our bodily condition and, ultimately, our mortality. Fertility is where human creatureliness is at its rawest, where we are at our most animal and yet, with our power to generate new life, at our most divine. Fertility reminds us of the sheer givenness of life. Fertility is gloriously smelly and dirty and gritty and full to the brim of consequences, quite unlike the contextless sexuality of the invariably clean, smooth, odorless bodies we find in Cosmo and on YouPorn. Fertility, in other words, represents the embrace of “life” not as a bumper-sticker slogan, but as the great cosmic roll of the dice.
This is also why “libertinism,” or “decadence,” at least without qualification, is the wrong category whence to reckon with the pink police state’s very strange sexual mores. Libertinism may not be a friend to fertility, but it represents, first and foremost, an abandon, and therefore a risk. A libertine is a fundamental risk-taker (after all, the classical libertinism of the eighteenth century was as, if not more, concerned with gambling and dueling as with sex, and we catch a bit the difference between the current regime and ordinary decadence when we think of the current unthinkability of the institution of the duel). And if I may be French for a second, the pink police state’s sexual mores differ from libertinism in their lack of sophistication. Viewed from this shore, Americans seem to have the same attitude towards sexuality as with food: voracious when it comes to quantity, undiscriminating and ignorant when it comes to quality. The old word “sensualism” sounds utterly passé, because to be a sensualist is to have a cultured framework of appreciation within which your sensuality then roams free.
I think David Bentley Hart is right that the reason why the mythic figure of Don Juan holds no appeal anymore after resonating so powerfully with Western culture for centuries, is not simply because Don Juan was a rebel against a now-forgotten God, but also because Don Juan enjoyed sex, instead of just having it (or, as the case may be, vicariously consuming it). The ethos of the pink police state is completely different: sex must take place within what is understood as an ethic of responsibility (even as the ethic ends propagating catastrophically irresponsible consequences). Safety is paramount on every spectrum. And so we forget Don Juan and become Michel Houellebecq characters. In Nietzschean terms, the libertine’s attitude towards sex is a thoroughly Dionysian embrace of sex as an untamable elemental force (with the added frisson of rebellion against the God of the Bible); the pink police state’s is an Apollonic domestication as harmless entertainment. Do whatever you want, so long as the risk is contained. Bro-choice is pro-choice.
The writer Tristyn Bloom hit the nail on the head when she convincingly argued that the pro-choice “ethos” is, at bottom, fueled by a deep and powerful risk-aversion, a holy terror of risk. A culture of life, Bloom argues, is a culture with a fundamental openness to risk-taking, with openness to the risk of fertility finding its natural place within this broader comfort with the givenness of all existence.
How else can we account for the combination of the sacralization of the escape hatch of no-fault divorce (it is always entertaining to watch the horror on the face of my happily married friends when I say I oppose no-fault divorce) with serial monogamy and premarital cohabitation, which are understood not under the lens of sexual liberation or libertinism, but of an ethic of responsibility designed to avoid the dreaded divorce. On the other end of the spectrum to this ethic of responsibility, early marriage (particularly early marriage not preceded by sexual experimentation) is seen as the most fundamentally irresponsible life choice. Of course, these attitudes carry over into parenting.
Once we have said all this, it becomes obvious why the pink police state must be a command economy. An economy built on the principle of creative destruction is a fundamentally uncontrollable thing—fundamentally a risky thing. There is a tension there, as the neoliberal elite who represent one component of the pink police state understand some creative destruction to be necessary. But the pink police state is not about what one understands, it is about what one fears. Think of the man standing on the edge of a burning oil platform. The man’s rational mind might know that his choice is between certain death and merely almost-certain death and that therefore the obvious rational choice, no matter how desperate, is to jump, but he may still be too paralyzed by fear to do so. In its attempt at a power-grab over the (already hyper-regulated) healthcare sector, its implied insurer and hospital bailouts, its expansion of government, its food-safety regulations, and what can only be called its sacramentalization of contraception, Obamacare represents a comically perfect avatar of the pink police state.
Etiolating political freedom, “libertinism” of a very specific sort, and command economy: we’ve accounted for all three of the most obvious manifestations of the pink police state on the basis of a fundamental, and fundamentally unspoken, risk aversion.
If this is said, the question naturally arises: whence this risk-aversion? And what can be done about it?
I have a few ideas, but none of them definitive.
With regard to the origins of the risk-aversion, I am skeptical of any straightforwardly nihilistic-hedonic narrative: there is no God, the Universe is a meaningless void, the twentieth century showed utopia to be impossible, therefore the last thing left to do is enjoy ourselves, but also work very hard at making sure nothing ever goes wrong, because if someone should ever die they would lose everything. This narrative is probably part of it, but doesn’t feel like the whole story (not enough people in the pink police state are chastened about utopia, for one thing).
One narrative which I like at a subconceptual level, but which I also hold up gingerly because of its obvious wobbliness, would be a pop-evo-psych narrative (yes, I know), which would go something like this: mass affluence is not something we humans evolved with and for; we evolved with and for scarcity. Hence the nagging worry, all through the Industrial Revolution, from all the Malthusianisms, whether Marxian, socialist, or reactionary, that post-scarcity economics—and the peace of commerce—has all been just a sham, an illusion, a house of cards that will surely collapse at any minute. Hence: the greater the affluence, the greater, at the subconscious level, the terrifying fear that it will all vanish overnight, and the need to exorcise this fear through the empowerment of Leviathan and License, and the refusal to take any risk that would jeopardize the foundation of the house of cards. (Of obvious note here is the deep resonance between Malthusianism and the current hostility to fertility.)
Here, we would have a perfect reason for locating, with Poulos, the birth of the pink police state in the late 1990s, the brief peak of peaceful post-scarcity prosperity. Both Fight Club and The Matrix, in their different ways, which Poulos rightly flags as late-nineties penumbras of the pink police state, insisted that post-scarcity civilization was (a) an illusion; (b) easy to topple; (c) oughtto be toppled.
But the point of philosophy is not to analyze the world, it’s to change it. Что делать?
Poulos finds a potential solution, taking after Socrates and Tocqueville, in a rediscovery of an anthropology of encounter. (Pope Francis’s words about a “culture of encounter” echo in the ear.) One may gladly acquiesce and yet feel that more may be needed.
I think that what we need is to find some way to reeducate most people to risk. Risk is the instrument of virtue, in the sense of the Ancients, because, at its best, it is the relativization of what ought to be relativized in pursuit of what ought to be pursued. Openness to risk-taking results naturally from meditation on the mystery of limited human existence within the context of a metaphysical universe whose sheer givenness, gratuity, and generosity is clear to all who have eyes to see.
Hence the proposal I have made elsewhere for a reinvigorated and rethought military service. I will leave to others to speculate about how “modest” my proposal is, but I do think it is a fractally useful heuristic for thinking through the issues we have been concerned with here. To be a good soldier is, fundamentally, to be a good risk-taker, that is to say, judicious and radical at the same time. And the military life, even with its traumatizing potential, still acquaints most, at the marrow level, with the way in which risk, for all its inherent unpredictability, can nonetheless be, like fire, channelled through the application of virtue, and more importantly that risk is a necessary part of all life worth living—domesticable precisely in its ineradicable indomesticability. (If we keep in mind our previous scenario where the pink police state is born of the anguish of mass affluence, we might note that the previous period of mass affluence, the fifties, did not become a pink police state, and was one with a critical mass of veterans.)
We can think of other cultural means of reacquainting ourselves with risk-comfort (obvious candidates: a revival of authentic Christianity; a complete rethink of education; reacquaintance with the classical liberal arts), but military service is uniquely interesting insofar as its risk dimension concerns the most fundamental risk of all: the risk of one’s life, and, heavier for the virtuous leader, the moral risk of others’ lives.
Again, the point is not so much to make any policy proposal as to encourage a particular line of thought, one which has to do with the cultural encouragement of good risk-comfort and, within (and symbiotically with) that, a rediscovery of the ancient notion of virtue as a praxis and habit of the integration of mind, body, and soul rather than mere conformity to an abstract moral law. Within such a cultural ethos, the pink police state finds no purchase.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is an entrepreneur and writer based in Paris. He writes for publications including The Week, Forbes, The Atlantic, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz, and other outlets.
Second of two reflections on the “Pink Police State” thesis of James Poulos. Gobry sees severe risk-aversion behind the rise of the pink police state and suggests some possible responses.