Jedediah Purdy, a professor of law at Duke University Law School, is vexed by the two biggest problems facing the United States. No, not a chronically low labor participation rate, not an economic recovery which often looks more like a recession, not the renewed aggression of great powers like China or Russia, or the collapse of smaller powers in Central America and the Middle East. Taking to the pages of Politico Magazine, Purdy warned in stark terms of the real problems facing the country. They just happen to be problems which have always been and always will be problems; the disparity of wealth, which is a permanent feature of free societies, and the weather.
What’s more, Purdy says that American national comity is overrated, and the political class should embrace “conflict” over these issues – they are that dire. “Talk about embracing conflict seems divisive, which is automatically taken as a bad thing these days,” he wrote. “But division as such is not a bad thing.”
It is, in his opinion, cynicism which is the real evil, by which he more accurately means skepticism. Purdy’s brand of zealotry is the only truly virtuous course and, as zealots are wont to do, he seeks to impose his views on the public through the successful prosecution of “conflict.”
“So why am I calling for conflict—real conflict, not its facsimile?” Purdy continued ominously. “Because the United States got two big doses of reality in the last six months. One was the explosive arrival of Thomas Piketty’s finding that inequality is vast and that we are headed toward a second Gilded Age, if we aren’t there already. The other was the new set of U.N. reports on climate change, which confirmed, yet again, that the problem is real and accelerating.”
He suggests that, if the United States allows the phenomenon of income inequality to grow, it will eventually lead to political pressures on a representative government which might result in increased tax burden on the wealthy. This fundamentally democratic outcome, Purdy seems to suggest, is a wholly undesirable half measure. He appears to prefer that the Cheka simply confiscate wealth.
Without bubble-driven illusions of shared prosperity, those who lose out from inequality might demand greater tax contributions from the winners—higher taxes on the highest incomes and taxes on wealth, where the money is. On average, people are richer than they have ever been. It’s just that a tax system that focuses on income from work and treats insanely wealthy people the same as (or better than) ordinary high earners misses where most of national wealth has been accumulating, giving the impression that “we” are sharing a tight period—when, in fact, the burden is disproportionately on the middle class and professionals, who have missed the biggest gains.
Similarly, he wrote, climate change represents an existential threat to the planet. It is a threat so great that onerous carbon taxes must be imposed on businesses to decrease their productivity, curtail supply, and reduce demand. In clearer terms, the economy as we know it must be destroyed and remade.
“These kinds of measures would be worth some conflict,” Purdy again asserts. By this, he says he means titanic clashes on political battlefields as opposed to the literal kind.
Calling for a more divisive politics does not mean embracing polarization for its own sake. It also doesn’t mean denying that, in the end, we really are all in this together. But we need versions of patriotism and solidarity based in real—which means conflictual—responses to our big problems. We have some fighting to do.
“What’s especially tricky now is that some of the conflicts we need to embrace are transnational,” Purdy closes. Why, there could even be a song about it. The “Transnationale,” perhaps. Uniting the human race.
“[F]or patriotism and solidarity that go beyond denial, the fighting starts at home,” Purdy’s opus concludes. “Let the fireworks begin.”
It is difficult to craft a rebuttal to this form of thought as it is a theological construct rather than a logical one. Purdy’s piece is a declaration of faith in a cause, one which would be perfectly recognizable to the socialist revolutionaries of the early 20th Century. The global problem of income disparity, the need for the redistribution of wealth rather than income, curtailing the first world’s ability to produce in order to level the fundamentally unfair international playing field, and appealing to “conflict” in order to effect this grand change; it is all quite familiar.
Rebutting this ideology would be like rebutting Bogomilism. While the philosophical underpinnings of Gnosticism remain a valued component of Christianity’s metaphysical whole, the sect of Bogomil died out a millennium ago when it could no longer address the challenges that had once made it relevant. Are there adherents of the faith to which Purdy declared fealty? Of course, but their ideas have been defanged by the admonitions of history.
It is nevertheless important to highlight Purdy’s work particularly because of his reliance on “conflict” as a means of achieving his preferred end. He is not suggesting violence, but what’s a revolution without a little terror? The Purdys of this world are the fire-eaters of our time. The fire-eaters got their “real conflict,” even though it seemed an unthinkable prospect right up until the minute the first shots rang out.
This warning will be mocked and derided by those sophisticated types for whom nothing is more important than consensus and a sense of superiority. Let them. There is more honor in speaking out against agitators than ridiculing those who do.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” Lincoln said famously in his second inaugural address, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Those wounds remain bound despite the best efforts of men like Purdy to reopen them.