Back in 2012, I read a little book by Niall Ferguson called The Great Degeneration. I didn’t know much about Ferguson (and still don’t, really), but I found his book about the great, pending crisis concerning the decay and death of institutions and economies sobering and challenging. Now, six years later, it (re)reads more and more true.
In the book, Ferguson charted what he saw as the degeneration of four key areas of contemporary life, what he called the four black boxes: the breakdown of inter-generational partnership in democracy, a free/regulated economy, the rule of law, and the evacuation from what was once a more civil society. These four things pop up often in contemporary thinking. And the ideas of institutions is always a horizon we see around us. There are other black boxes, one might say, black boxes tied more closely to our day-to-day lives: institutions like families, churches, schools, communities. Spend enough time on Twitter or reading contemporary journals and you’ll see that these institutions, too, have been degenerating for some time. This is one reason why I keep something like a “Notes for a World’s End” tag in place: this is the world we are only beginning to navigate.
The institution being talked about the most these days is the Catholic church. The last week or so has been a particularly tumultuous time for Catholics as they attempt to make sense of their leadership amidst a number of major crises. And while I’m not Catholic, I have great respect for their heritage and thinking. And I also know that Baptist life in many ways is a smaller mirror reflection of Catholic life . . . at least in a kind of systemic sense. Both, honestly, have seen better days. And while tomorrow I’ll get to a recent article by Michael Brendan Dougherty of the National Review, I’d like to point out some recent thinking from Alan Jacobs about the Catholic church (and the American presidency) as potential stand-ins for many other degenerating institutions. From Jacobs’ blog:
Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.
General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.
Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possess — all the products and enablers of corruption are safe.
Repair, of course, is what we are to be about, I think. Shoring up, reconstructing, re-instituting, as the case may be. But all too often it can feel like Noah, divinely commissioned to build an ark for a world where storms are too easily accepted or ignored. Surely the “great degeneration” can be turned into a “great regeneration,” right?
Jacobs, by the way, has a great “sequel” to the excerpt above where he writes about recency bias. It’s quite interesting and a good companion post to his other work in How to Think. Maybe I’ll get my students to read it for class, too. You can read that here.
(image from goodreads.com)