Review #087 May/Jun 1996

Habits of the Heart

Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. 1986. Berkeley, California, University of California Press. Updated with a new introduction […]

Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen,
William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. 1986. Berkeley, California, University of California Press.
Updated with a new introduction 1996.

Habits of the Heart examines one of the most important unresolved problems in American history – the conflict between individuality and community. The authors core argument, that individualism is eating away at the social and moral fabric which Tocqueville saw as taming capitalist America’s destructive tendencies, is as relevant today as when the book was published a decade ago. Our over-emphasis on individualism, the authors contend, undermines our nation’s capacity to seek the common good. The authors take us beyond the right wing values debate by drawing on the wisdom of older biblical and republican traditions. They argue that these diverse religious and civic traditions help us think about the kinds of moral problems Americans currently face. Their analysis brings us the awareness we need to rebuild community and help us renew the cause for social justice.

The political sympathies of the authors are with concerned citizens, civic minded professionals and activists – like most readers of Shelterforce – who understand the dangers of individualism and condemn uncaring landlords and rapacious capitalists who pursue profits at any cost. The authors dismiss these greedy right-wingers, like businessman and Reagan advisor Justin Dart, who says, “I never looked for a business that’s going to render a service to mankind….Greed is involved in everything we do. I find no fault with that.”

Instead, the authors’ critique is directed at the individualism of those who do not pursue money for its own sake or ruthless careerism. “Habits” reveals the tension these people feel in their daily lives as they try to resolve their narrow self interest with their commitment to a higher purpose.

The authors draw on sociology, history, philosophy and hundreds of interviews with ordinary Americans – decent, middle-class people, including several housing activists – talking about work, love, success, religion and civic affairs. They talk with organizers for the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia and the Campaign for Economic Democracy in Santa Monica (“The People’s Republic” – a city that passed the most stringent rent control laws in the country). By directing it against the individualism of concerned citizens, the authors’ critique has added impact.

They show how the language we use to address moral issues – even for many activists – has made it difficult to define the common good. Our language derives from the individualism of Ben Franklin, Hobbes and Locke, the contemporary cost benefit analysis, and from the individualism of modern therapists – the self-made man and the self actualized one, looking out for number one, and being your own best friend. “In the absence of any objective criteria of right and wrong, good or evil,” the authors’ write, “the self and its feelings become our only moral guide.”

One of the activists presented in Habits is Wayne Bauer, a tenant organizer in his mid-30s, who worked in California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy – a product of the 1960s. “During the 60s we saw a dream,” Wayne says, “we had a vision. And we had a belief that things could be much better, on many levels. I mean, it was a time of personal growth as well as political change. And what was exciting about that is that the personal change was what would be leading into a very significant political change in the country.”

Wayne became a tenant-organizer, feeling good about his work. “I feel that the work I’m involved in is directly affecting other people in beneficial ways…” But Wayne had a hard time explaining his vision of the public good. What leads activists to sacrifice their self-interest to the public good?

Wayne talked very much like another character in the book, Mike, a working-class activist concerned that nothing disrupt the quality of life that he and other blue-collar families were trying to create in their single-family homes in Suffolk, Massachusetts. As an activist he experience personal growth; he worked hard to become an effective speaker and a local leader of a group called Concerned Citizens of Suffolk. He and other local residents forced the town to make many improvements in the neighborhood. They also became threatened by efforts to build a low-income housing project in their neighborhood. They organized to prevent the project, believing it would bring the lazy and immoral poor. (Mike also believes the well-to-do are immoral, only their cardinal sins are greed and selfishness rather than lust and drunkenness.)

Both Mike and Wayne say they do what they do in order to help people and to fight for more power for those who have none. These organizers assume that empowering individuals within their communities is a good thing. But their idea of community is truncated. They seem to think that as long as one has the power to get what one wants, why should one care about others who do not? Both tend to view the community in a very narrow sense, and see it largely in terms of a variety of self-interested individuals and groups duking it out. It is hard for them to conceive of a common good or a public interest that recognizes economic, social, and cultural differences between people but sees them all as parts of a single society on which they all depend. The idea of public service in pursuit of the common good is subsumed in either a nostalgic vision of small-town harmony or the tough-minded talk of self-interest.

Most of the concerned citizens talk in terms of personal preferences and the thrill of the power struggle, but as the authors write, one senses “a deeper and more positively defined commitment to the public good than their language can usually articulate.”

From Volunteer to Citizen
Meet Mary Taylor, a member of the California Coastal Commission, a civic-minded professional who the authors present as an example of a person who evolved to “the kind of commitment to the common good that is necessary to assure the integrity of a community.” Mary became involved in politics by volunteering in the League of Women Voters and has since been involved with a broad range of environmental issues in California. Like other civic-minded professionals, Mary recognizes the need to tolerate differences and viewpoints of individuals, and she stresses the importance of ways individuals can negotiate their differences.

Mary has taken some strong stands and made some enemies, especially in carrying out the mandate of the Coastal Commission law to provide mixed income housing. Yet Mary differs from other activists because she remains committed to a “mutual respect among members of a society.” She sees the welfare of society as a whole as more important than selfish interests.

What makes Mary angry about government officials “is that they are not for the public good. They have been given a public trust. But they are just out for the pocketbook. Individuals cannot achieve success or happiness simply by serving themselves…You have a debt to society.”

Mary’s sense of social responsibility came from her grandfather, who was a member of the socialist Wobblies and of the Catholic Worker movement. That influence is reflected in such remarks as: “It’s dangerous for people to have more money than they can be comfortable living on. We all have to learn: it’s a pie, a limited pie, and when you take all the pieces out of it, then it all will be gone. Decision makers should be conscious of their responsibilities toward future generations.”

Caring and being cared for in the course of her volunteer work also provides fuel for her long-run commitment to work for wider vision. She protests against that part of the American cultural heritage that, as Tocqueville noted, makes “men forget their ancestors … clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries.”

The authors convincingly argue that Mary’s spirit “…is a virtue that everyone should strive for…” It is a virtue that goes against the grain of much of the American cultural tradition while remaining a powerful element within that tradition. It is what the authors call a second language that expresses the civic ideal of friends who sustain one another in pursuit of the common good.

The Limits of Individualism
Most Americans hold the core belief that economic success or misfortune is the individual’s responsibility, and his or hers alone. This culture of individualism helps to sustain our free-market ideology. This free-market ideology is determinist. It implies that there are no institutional choices: the market decides. As the authors point out in the new introduction, “Our destiny is controlled by market forces, the profit margins, the global economy, and the stock market.” As long as this ideology prevails, policies seeking to build decent housing, reduce poverty, and strengthen community are unlikely to succeed.

But the virtues embodied in the successful, self-reliant white male and in the values of “rugged or therapeutic individualism” are less clear, its failings more obvious. The problems of the environment, education, violence, transportation, high-priced housing, and the breakdown of family and community do not distinguish between the educated and the uninformed, the middle class and poor, the employed and jobless. A culture that emphasizes individualism provides little guidance when we need to make choices in common – choices that should not be made by a “free market.”

What’s To Be Done?
The authors correctly call for our nation to transcend radical individualism and recover the insights of the older biblical and republican traditions. Not so long ago, this tradition was found in the language and spirit of the New Left of the early 60s and the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. These were social movements anchored in a proud, clear language of higher aspiration – justice, equality, community, and freedom. It can be found in today’s community development and citizen participation efforts, particularly the activism emanating from the churches, mosques, and temples engaged in community building

The authors make a compelling case for more democracy and citizen participation. The language we need to transcend the therapeutic mentality and rugged individualism won’t happen with a dry, emotionally drained, and technocratic approach to affordable housing and politics. The call for “low-income housing” or “rent control,” no matter how just and humane, will not arouse people to a stirring vision of public life. We need something that speaks more directly to the heart and soul.

The right wing in America has been realigning politics, using as its driving force “values,” a rubric on which the public believes – with some merit – liberals and progressives are mushy. The authors of Habits want to counter that force with a values-based call for a grassroots organizing campaign. This effort would change the meaning of work to include public contribution, greater accountability on the part of corporations, and more participation in church and civic groups, culminating in a social movement of transformation with the moral force of the civil rights movement. Their book has stood the test of time and is considered a modern classic on American society. It demands our attention.



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