Building a Counter-Anticulture

What a surprise to find, in the last chapter of Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen’s incendiary little book Why Liberalism Failed, a shout-out to radical homemaking, a.k.a urban homesteading.

Some background: the “liberalism” of the book’s title does not refer to the popular use of the word as in someone who is on the left end of the political spectrum. Rather, by “liberalism,” Deneen means a political philosophy that has as its central organizing principle the promotion of freedom of the individual. We have two dominant political parties in this country that are markedly different but share a common liberal DNA. One advocates protecting individual rights with more government and the other with less. Liberalism is the invisible operating system of modern life. As Deneen puts it, “This political philosophy has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence.”

What could be wrong with freedom of the individual? How about political, economic and ecological chaos? But Deneen does not suggest turning back the clock. We would not want to walk back on the civil rights movement, for instance. But, Deneen suggests, we really do need to more forward and correct liberalisms consequences: out of touch bureaucracies, an eviscerated educational system, alienated work and, probably worst of all, an impending ecological crisis in the form of climate change. To address these thorny problems we’ll have to pop the hood and look at our culture’s liberal operating system.

Deneen’s mention of radical homemakers (he footnotes Shannon Hayes’ excellent book of that title), comes in the context of offering solutions to liberalism’s “anticultural” tendencies. Deneen says,

Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity, second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience–nature, time and place–form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The radical homemaking alternative is one of the key solutions to our current crisis. Deneen says,

The building up of practices of care, patience, humility, reverence, respect, and modesty is also evident among people of no particular religious belief, homesteaders and “radical homemakers” who–like their religious counterparts–are seeking within households and local communities and marketplaces to rediscover old practices, and create new one, that foster new forms of culture that liberalism otherwise seeks to eviscerate.

Often called a counterculture, such efforts should better understand themselves as a counter-anticulture . . . A counter-anticulture also requires developing economic practices centered on “household economics,” namely, economic habits that are developed to support the flourishing of households but which in turn seek to transform the household into a small economy. Utility and ease must be rejected in preference to practices of local knowledge and virtuosity. The ability to do and make things for oneself–to provision one’s own household through the work of one’s own and one’s children’s hands–should be prized above consumption and waste. The skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting not only undergird the independence and integrity of the home but develop practices and skills that are the basic sources of culture and a shared civic life. They teach each generation the demands, gifts and limits of nature; human participation in and celebration of natural rhythms and patterns; and independence from the culture-destroying ignorance and laziness induced by the ersatz freedom of the modern market.

Deneen, in this passage, summarizes what has been the project of our blog and books for the past ten years.

A related thoughtstyling on Facebook
While we’re on the subject of counter-anticultural activists, in addition to Shannon Hayes, let me also suggest Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler. Reacting to this month’s scandal, Hodgkinson quotes a Guardian article he wrote in 2008, on why he chose not to open a Facebook account,

I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven’t read Keats’ Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own backyard? I don’t want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it’s called talking.

We have a lot of work to do to build that counter-anticulture but that the project unites as eclectic a crew as Patrick Deneen, Shannon Hayes, Tom Hodgkinson, Rod Dreher and Cornell West gives me great hope.

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  1. Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Free is one of my favourite books, and formed the beginning of my counter-anticulture journey. I am so glad to see more voices in this arena. I have managed to surround myself with a radical homemaker community which I am very grateful for. It is what gives meaning to my life, finding a better way to live.

    I do have a Facebook account – ironically I set it up specifically so I could connect with a local poultry group, and other community groups I want to be involved with. Ironic, isn’t it, that the most efficient way for counter-anticulture communities to connect is on Facebook?? I rarely log on to Facebook, and am thinking of quitting.. and every time I see a post like this I become more sure it is the way to go.

    • I still have my Facebook account for the same reason–to communicate with two groups that I’m a part of. For one of the groups I used Meetup, which is a much better platform, but unfortunately many more people go to Facebook than Meetup. I’ve been wondering if we can all find a better way to communicate but I don’t have an easy answer.

  2. Thank you for this post. The perfect thing to wake up to on a Saturday morning as I plan for the day ahead with my 3-year-old. You bring structure, context, and clarity to the sensation that we need to spend today in the garden. Not just because seeds need planting (they do), but because of this bigger job of advancing the counter-anticulture. As usual, an inspiration.

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