The Magazine

FORWARD TO THE FUTURE

Virginia Postrel's Dynamist Manifesto

Jan 18, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 17 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Move over Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, there's new cleavage in town: stasists versus dynamists. And their embryonic conflict will soon -- or so argues Virginia Postrel in her new book, The Future and Its Enemies -- become the main division in American politics.


Signs of this growing split can already be glimpsed: in disputes over international trade, where Buchananites and Naderites join to fight proponents of a high-tech economy, or in battles over immigration, where the Sierra Club locks arms with the editors of National Review.


Stasists are those who desire stasis and fear open-ended change. They want to hold onto something from the past or (what amounts to the same thing) to impose a preconceived image on the future; they feel that "the world has gone terribly wrong, and someone needs to take control and make things right."


Stasism is divided into a reactionary and a technocratic wing. In economic matters, the reactionaries -- Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Richard Gephardt -- are wedded to current modes of production and spooked by globalism. In cultural affairs, the reactionaries -- like the prigs who run THE WEEKLY STANDARD -- cling to outmoded Victorian values and detest such spontaneous cultural creations as beach volleyball. The technocratic wing of stasism, represented by the likes of Al Gore with his information superhighway, is a bit of a wolf in sheep's clothing: The technocrats may speak the language of progress, but their adherence to centrally imposed plans for the future inevitably ends up thwarting genuine progress.


Dynamists, by contrast, are those who wish to press ahead, to go where no man has gone before. They understand that progress cannot be charted. Dynamists take their progress piecemeal -- which is, they say, the only way it can come. There are believers not in outcomes but in process: "The dynamist promise is not of a particular, carefully outlined future." Nevertheless, they know that this process will bring us something better: "They future will be as grand, and as particular, as we are."


The Future and Its Enemies is more than an analysis of the emerging political cleavage in America. It is a fervent partisan statement, "an unabashedly dynamist work." Postrel's conviction displays itself not just in the content of the book, but in the style she has developed to explain it. Postrel writes like a dynamo: Just as you are digesting the ideas she presents form Hume or Hayek, she bombards you with clusters of vignettes from pop music, movies, television sitcoms, and the techie software universe. No rest is offered for the weary, no moment for intellectual stasis. Too much time for reflection, it seems, violates the dynamist's credo to move, strive, seek, and find. Overpowered by Postrel's twin strikes from neoclassical economics and new-age philosophy, the reader is supposed to have no choice but to submit.


It is a measure of Postrel's intense partisanship that she calls dynamism the "party of life." As the title of her book indicates, the future is not a neutral period of time, but something with an aim or direction. The future wants to be better. And better it will be if only its "enemy" -- the stasist party of death -- does not stand in its way. Progress is in the nature of things; only willful human action can hold it back.


Postrel is editor of the libertarian magazine Reason. But while she does not exactly reject the label of libertarian, neither does she embrace it. And there would seems to be a difference between libertarianism and dynamism. For the libertarian, the liberty of the individual is and end in itself -- indeed, the highest end. For the dynamist, liberty seems to be primarily a means, vindicated by the progress it brings.


This shift from libertarianism to dynamism reflects the strikingly theoretical character of Postrel's argument. She grounds her position not on a particular view of the human good, but on a universal "principle of reality" that governs everything -- physical, cultural, economic, and historic. The principle is one of organic growth: The individual parts of any system follow their own limited nature or ends, and the result is a progressive evolution of the whole. It is this cunning of systems that allows development of ecosystems, languages, and economies. All follow the same law of spontaneous growth.


Humans, it is true, fit oddly into this universe because we can picture a system as a whole. We can conceive of imposing, by conscious design, an architecture on politics or economics. But when we do so, Postrel argues, we go astray. By trying to command what cannot be commanded and rule what cannot be ruled, humans violate the reality principle and muck things up.


Of course, we should try to be rational in the conduct of our own little pieces of reality, but the whole is properly the business of no one. It belongs to the process. The only spontaneous urge that humans are obliged to suppers -- obliged, as it were, by a law that reveals the secret of progress -- is the desire to rule or command a general system.


For Postrel, the fingerprints of an invisible hand are everywhere. The marketplace is merely one manifestation of a larger principle at work throughout the universe. Postrel offers no speculation on why this harmony should exist -- she does not speak of a First Cause or God -- nor does she indulge many expressions of awe other than to sing the praises of our "enchanted world" that includes "beach volleyball and bread machines, pianos and Post-it notes."


While Postrel is surely not the first to argue this principle she seems to have embraced it with a passion unknown to any of her predecessors. Previous proponents -- one thinks of Locke, Hume, and Smith -- tended to make an exception of sorts for the cultivation of human beings. But Postrel extends the notion of spontaneous development to the human soul itself.


She has had enough of the fuddyduddies who preach "the repression theory of progress," enough of the East Coast intellectuals who amuse themselves by ridiculing what they snidely label the oxymoron of California culture. In place of repression, she elevates play and the spontaneous, desire for fun. Nor is she afraid to celebrate the welltanned culture of the beach, praising "the bronze and the brown," for which she is, admittedly, a more plausible advocate than Steve Forbes.


But this turn to play is not a critique of progress. Drawing on the example of techies whose fortunes derive from solving puzzles for the sheer joy of it, Postrel contends that the more we play, the more we succeed. "Play is what we do for its won sake, yet is tis a spur to our most creative, significant work."


Conservatives -- if one dares still to speak in such outmoded categories -- will find much to admire in this irrepressible and ingenious work. The Future and Its Enemies updates conservative arguments against centralized economic control and applies them to features of our economy that snobs like to disdain. Where academics make careers trashing Disneyland, McDonald's, and Wal-Mart, Postrel shows both the genius that lies behind such business enterprises and the reasonable human needs they fulfill. She is especially effective in exposing the elitism of the communitarians who preach about people's right to choose -- but only after they have been instructed on how they must think. And she reminds a certain branch of conservatives, those who revel in the gloomy fantasy of a return to the medieval city, of the link between liberty and progress.


Yet the reader may well wonder about the wisdom of basing a whole political theory on the principle of spontaneous organic development. This principles appears to guard against the temptation of imposing a rigid image of the Good Society on human affairs, stifling the energies that promote innovation. But the best modern conservative models have long recognized the difference between such intrusive visions and a more modest understanding of nature that underwrites liberty and keeps humans worthy of being free.


It is not the case, moreover, that all systems of liberty have developed spontaneously or that they can be maintained without any knowledge of the whole of the political order. Indeed, Postrel herself is of two minds on this point. While praising spontaneous development, she cannot fail on occasion to notice the mysterious "architects" who construct the edifices that allow successful organic growth. Although she does not like to speak much about these architects, without their edifices and without eh knowledge they employed to construct them, we would be nowhere today and heading for tyranny or barbarism tomorrow.


Conservatives may similarly doubt whether Postrel leaves any room for politics. Political life cannot be subsumed under a single reality principle. For some who sees the future as unpredictable and open-ended, Postrel is remarkably certain about the coming cleavage in American politics. If previous experience is any guide, it is likely that a decade from now our political parties will not be divided between stasists and dynamists. It is far more likely that out political conflicts will turn on traditional questions of justice, and that the source of America's problems will not be stasists by some hostile force on the international scene.


Even for those conservatives who share with Postrel a partiality for dynamist ideas as a guide to public policy, the question remains whether the principle of spontaneous growth is an adequate philosophical support. Has any society of liberty been based on spontaneous growth? Is a philosophy that speaks only of blind process, unconnected to any image of the good, sufficient to ground a political order, especially one promoting liberty?


Try as she might, Postrel herself cannot remain unabashedly dynamist in her responses to such questions. And the alternative she offers, one that elevates the playful spirit to the apex of the human hierarchy, does not strike me as plausible. I can readily accept a playful soul as head of the computer-programming Microsoft or the movie-making Dream Works, but must I have one as my university's dean or, God forbid, my nation's commander-in-chief?




James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.