Building durable new institutions in a corrosive environment requires a dangerous embedding of counter-mainstream DNA.
A few weeks back, the British writer T. M. Suffield wrote an interesting piece on the need to start building counter-institutions. He channels the common lament about the decline of intermediary institutions, and draws on the work of Yuval Levin in thinking about this problem. He writes:
Levin’s thesis can be stated simply enough: America’s social, economic, and political problems are due to the fracturing of its institutions. Specifically, the mediating institutions that unite individuals together. These mediating institutions are weaker than they used to be, with the individual and national institutions ascendant. To make matters worse, these institutions are supposed to be moulds but have become platforms.
His critique of American society in The Fractured Republic revolves around the death of small institutions, with all of their functions being absorbed into the state; he describes the conformity that was required by these mediating institutions fading over the latter half of the twentieth into the radical individualism that’s familiar to us today. This included many of the societal functions that churches performed being absorbed into state welfare systems—in Levin’s view to be run more efficiently—with the consequence that the community-building impact of being involved in churches and working men’s clubs, labour unions and bowling leagues, also faded away.
If we want to shape Christians to live in a world that is counter-forming them, we will need counter-institutions that are forming them in virtue. We need to ask whether or not our churches are doing this….Levin’s major critique, which he spends most of A Time To Build exploring in different arenas of society, is that the institutions that used to shape us—where they still exist—have become platforms. They no longer see forming people into virtue and helping them to live flourishing lives as their purpose. Instead, they display individuals, giving them prominence and attention without ‘stamping them with a particular character, a distinct set of obligations or responsibilities, or an ethic that comes with constraints.'
The institutions we do have, primarily our local churches, are being shaped into platforms of affirmation. There are many wonderful exceptions; but, anecdotally, I see increasing numbers of churches who are keen to tell people that they are loved by God, and will confront the need to change because of our personal sin, but have little sense that the church is intended to form people into virtue or to form our minds into Christian modes of thought. Mostly we affirm people that they are loved (which is wonderfully true!) and try to challenge as little as possible.
One logical response to the decline of institutions is to create new institutions. (I would argue this is a variation of “exit” in Albert O. Hirschman’s voice. vs. exit framework).
The problem is, how do you create an organization that can actually operate contrary to the forces of society that are corrosive of, and in many cases even formally hostile to functional intermediary institutions? The state actively desires to weaken institutions like the family, or at least render them subject to the state. It is already far advanced in this project.
If the old institutions are dying or losing their traditional formational functions, why will not any new ones rapidly meet the same fate? Indeed, we are seeing that many evangelical institutions go into decline rapidly. Many of the earlier 1980s vintage megachurches already have “mainline disease” - an aging member base, fewer families with children, a style that seems stodgy or anachronistic, etc. The New Calvinism movement lasted less than a generation before entering major decline. Tim Keller once said that churches younger than five years attract primarily converts while those that are older attract primarily from existing churches. This seems an admission that the half life of missional effectiveness in churches is extremely short.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to these questions about rejuvenating our institutional life, but they have to be explicitly considered and a solution at least proposed.
It strikes me that in a world that is corrosive of institutions, any new institutions that hope to last, much less have a counter-cultural effect, must embed some degree of antagonism toward mainstream culture and the state into its DNA. This does not necessarily mean hatred or hostility towards those institutions or people. But there must be some definition of the institution and its culture that positions it in opposition to that.
The Amish are something of an example here. Part of what defines them is what they have explicitly decided not to do in terms of adopting technology.
The problem that this sort of oppositional DNA is extremely dangerous and, when put into practice, tends to lead institutions to a bad place. I intend to write a much fuller newsletter on this topic, but oppositional DNA has a tendency to lead to a negative identity. That is, it creates an identity that is rooted in what you are against rather than what you are for.
One of the great examples of this is postwar American conservatism, which had from its beginning a significant component of its DNA being built out of negative identity. It was about “standing athwart history yelling, Stop!” This continues to characterize it to this day, which is why we still don’t have a Republican health care plan - or lots of other things. They can talk a good game of hating Obamacare, but they have no alternative proposal, which is why they couldn’t repeal it even when they had the chance.
Among the many problems of a negative identity is that it leaves an institution in a defensive role against an expansionary opponent, an almost sure recipe for losing. And it roots your own sense of identity in the very thing you claim to oppose.
Groups like the Amish or Hasidic Jews have a strong sense of what they are for, not just what they are against. Hence I don’t think they have fallen prey to negative identity. At the same time, they are also separatist sects. That’s not practical for most people.
Another possible approach is to adopt a post-institutional mindset based on networks of thick interpersonal relationships. Rather than trying to recreate a midcentury style constellation of formative institutions, this looks back further to a premodern approach. But like homesteading, this is somewhat niche or LARP. We aren’t wired to relate that way today - we’re too WEIRD - and society also militates even more strongly against pre-modern relationships structures than it does institutions.
However, I do believe that as trust levels in society continue to decline, this will lead to a greater reliance on high trust relationships such as family and extended family as we see in the developing world.
I’ve written about all of the above in the past, but with no definitive position. There may be no answer to this conundrum. Most likely, any replacement for the above modes of life will be new, taking advantage of technology and 21st century society in new ways.
For example, I’ve asked before about what it would mean to build “blockchain institutions.” I don’t mean this in a literal sense of using Bitcoin or something, though actual blockchain tech could play a role. I’m saying it metaphorically to refer to a new kind of 21st century institution. These would likely be informal, network-based, or even implicit in ways that make them illegible to the state or broader culture. What that might look like in practice I don’t know.
Regardless, for any attempts to fill the gap left by the decline of older intermediary institutions, we need to answer the questions of 1) what will preserve the new in the face of the same forces that destroyed the old? And 2) how do we avoid introducing new fatal flaws like excessive negative identity as part of our attempts to answer the first question?
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Cover image credit: Andre Carrotflower/Wikemedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0