A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom
By Jedediah Purdy
Knopf, 296 pp.

Thank God for Bernie Madoff. Without him, who would be the face of the Great Collapse of 2008? Before “the Ponz” pled guilty to running what is surely the biggest investor scam in American history, wrote Chadwick Matlin last week in a cheeky piece for Slate‘s business news Web site, The Big Money, we didn’t have anyone to blame for the economic meltdown.

The real causes, Matlin wrote, were “too nuanced, too impossible to cause total agreement.” You can get only so mad at Wall Street greed if you didn’t know “what in God’s name a credit-default swap was.” Instead of conning America with “derivatives,” Madoff swindled us with good old-fashioned deceit. Though he in fact had nothing to do with the housing bubble, government bailouts and toxic assets, we all can find some degree of satisfaction in blaming him anyway.

Of course, Madoff wasn’t the cause of our current collapse but a product of a financial system so large, complex and opaque as to fool even the people who were supposed to police itthe Securities and Exchange Commission, which failed to do anything about Madoff’s multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme despite repeated attempts by Henry Markopolos to blow the whistle.

Jedediah Purdy
March 19, 7 p.m.
Presented by The Regulator Bookshop at Duke Law School

Matlin wasn’t being wholly serious, but he echoes, in an ironic way, an interesting question explored by Jedediah Purdy in a fascinating little book called A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom. That question involves the constant remaking of freedom amid not just today’s economic crisis but today’s crisis of ideals as well.

“The best aspects of our tradition come from moments of great instability,” Purdy, a professor of law at Duke University, says from his office in New Haven, Conn., where he’s teaching at Yale this semester. “Radical demands made in the name of freedom were met every time by a redefined community. The current question is, How will that happen now?”

Apropos to the meltdown is America’s notion of free labor: the deep-seated belief that an individual’s freedom depends on his power to choose work, acquire property and gain social status. A more familiar formulation is Thomas Jefferson’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s an ideal borne of revolution and a doctrine ratified by intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson who preached the principles of self-reliance (and whom Harold Bloom called the “prophet of the American religion”). We are the masters of our destinies, according to free labor. We are solely responsible for our achievements, and we bear the sole blame for our failures.

But the Great Collapse, like the Great Depression, is challenging this, one of our closest-held ideals. Millions have lost their homes since September. Foreclosures shot up 30 percent last month. Unemployment hasn’t been this bad since 1983. And the stock market has lost more than half its value. Writers are starting to sense a broad paradigm shift in America’s spiritual and economic geography: Richard Florida argues in The Atlantic this month that the notion of homeownership’s place in the America dream is a very recent one, and that the perverse effect of high rates of ownership is that people are less free to respond to changing labor conditionsthey become tied to their homes and less free as a result.

Who’s to blame for this mess we’re in? Matlin fingers Madoff, but he’s being cheeky. We understand fraud, so Madoff is a target of convenience for most people. Many of us don’t understand the faceless matrix of power, money and randomness that is the financial markets. Clearly, today’s economic collapse is not the cumulative result of millions of individual failures. This is an apoplexy of a complex socioeconomic system partly understood by some of us and wholly out of control for most.

So the question keeps asking us: If we cannot understand forces that affect us, if we are not in control of our lives, what does that say about our freedom?

Freedom, Purdy writes, has been key to the American identity since the beginning of the republic. We are Americans because we are freea truth, we believe, that’s self-evident. Early critics, particularly the English Samuel Johnson, dismissed rebels in the colonies as “zealots of anarchy.” It was illogical, Johnson said, to claim the ideals of liberty while denying liberty to others.

But Edmund Burke, Johnson’s contemporary and an influential political writer in the British Empire, took the American claims more seriously. He concluded that American freedom was based on something they knew intimately: its total opposite, slavery.

“Burke understood that if the American rebellion worked, it was because they had made a political tradition in which freedom was part of their identity,” Purdy says. “And because of this, people can make outrageous demands on the political and social order. The book is a history of that tradition, of impossible demands that have become over time ordinary and obvious.”

Purdy finished A Tolerable Anarchy last spring, so it doesn’t comment on the current economic crisis. But it does illuminate the mind of the current president. Purdy was inspired to think about definitions of freedom by Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“I was trying to figure out what was appealing to me about it,” he says. “It seemed fresh and new and offered ideas about dignity and citizenship and what government does. I’d never heard anything like it in my lifetime.”

That’s because the 35-year-old Purdy and others his age have lived under the ideological shadow of Ronald Reagan. Prior to Reagan, presidents took for granted the idea that the world had become, since the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the consolidation of capital, a big, messy, complicated place in which individuals were threatened by forces beyond their control. This notion started to lose its grip with Jimmy Carter, but it was Reagan who put the last nail in the coffin.

“Everyone before him said that people can’t be the authors of their own lives,” Purdy says. “The role of government was to create order out of disorder, so that if we can’t control these forces alone, we can together. Reagan rejected what was a consensus for most of the 20th century.”

Reagan was influenced by economic thinkers such as Milton Friedman and polemicists such as Ayn Rand, but he also believed in a mythical American type previously envisaged by Jefferson and Emersonrugged, individualist, self-reliant. And though he replaced regulation with a sink-or-swim ideology, it was very inspiring. No president since has dared to say Americans can’t do anything.

“Reagan seized the moment,” Purdy says of the 1980s, a time when people were still feeling disaffected by Vietnam and soured by the Civil Rights Movement and economic stagflation. “He said we are all free to dictate our own lives. As long as the idea works, it’s powerful.”

But does it work anymore? And if it doesn’t, what ideas will emerge to replace Reagan’s politically influential dogma of individualistic freedom?

Obama’s 2004 speech offers a glimpse, Purdy says. In that celebrated speech, which contained themes that Obama would continue to employ, the freshman senator from Illinois said others’ hardshipsthe grandmother who can’t pay for prescriptions or the high school student who can’t afford college”diminish me.”

What he’s doing, Purdy says, is making the private political after 30 years of the opposite trend. Starting with Nixon, political language has become apolitical, with emphasis put on personal virtueto a degree at which a government is not liable to its governed (e.g., Hurricane Katrina).

Obama, Purdy says, seems to be developing a political language based on concrete terms of community and service. When Obama said, at his faux-State of the Union Address this month, that a high school drop-out is not quitting just on himself, but “quitting on your country,” he reminded us of a part of America’s tradition of freedom that needs some dusting offindividual strength, standing and civic dignity drawn from establishing and maintaining the common good.

“He’s expanding the moral imagination to give people a way of saying what they haven’t been able to say,” Purdy says. “But he’s not there yet.”

Until then, we have Bernie Madoff. For now, “the Ponz” will have to do.

John Stoehr is the arts editor of the Charleston City Paper.