Chapter 4

 

SOCIAL OBSTACLES TO GAINING CONSENSUS

 

 

There is reason to hope that those who have long been opposed to “capitalism” and a commercial society, and have instead favored a “mixed economy” or even socialism per se, will share in the objectives of limiting the powers of the state and of continuing a vigorous market sector. The social-democratic parties in Europe have for several decades acknowledged an important role for the market economy, marking a sharp change in direction from the earlier socialist parties.

          This makes it realistic to pose a question that will be central for us here: whether such readers will desire to share common ground with the classical liberalism that has been one of the underpinnings of American society.  We can well suppose that they will want a system that is humane, respectful of individuals and genuinely participative.  This should cause them to consider it vital to constrain the concentration of governmental power that a major on-going program of economic distribution could potentially entail, if not done right.  

          If so, there will be common ground for people who until now have held widely divergent views.  I mentioned earlier that readers who are not classical liberals, or “conservatives,” would do well to “stay the course” to join our odyssey later.  We have reached that point. It is now possible, in light of the foundation laid in the preceding chapters, to see how such readers can share in a search for answers here.

          A major stumbling-block needs to be faced candidly. During the past forty years, I have devoted much of my writing to a phenomenon called "the alienation of the intellectual" that has been one of the principal forces in modern civilization since Rousseau in the mid-eighteenth century.  Especially since the beginning of the Romantic Movement in the early nineteenth century, the main literary, artistic and academic culture (to which there have been many individual exceptions) has been deeply disaffected from the mainstream "bourgeois" (i.e., middle class, commercial) culture.  Socialist thought arose out of this alienated subculture, in fact, as its members sought out, in succession, every unassimilated or disaffected group as allies in the ideological, political struggle with the commercial middle class and sought to mold an ideology that would appeal to those groups.  Much of the social-political history of the past two hundred years has reflected this bitter division, and the major systems of thought about society and politics have systematized the viewpoints of the antagonists.

          There have been several reasons for this alienation.  I believe they go much deeper than just the complaints the Left has found to make against a market economy.  I analyzed several causes in detail in Chapter 11 of my book Understanding the Modern Predicament.[1]  Just the same, the objections to capitalism certainly were one of them.  To the extent that those complaints have been a significant cause of the disaffection, a move into a common outlook based around a "shared market economy" should remove a major cause of the alienation.  If that happens, the world will literally pass into a new phase of history for a reason additional to those I have already mentioned.  It will not be the end of conflict, since human beings will still retain their mixed nature from which power and avarice, along with much honest disagreement, will never disappear.  But the basis will exist for a reconciliation of many of the antagonisms the world has known for several generations.  (Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order reminds us that civilizational differences embodying religion and culture will offer plentiful sources of conflict.  But much of the ideological conflict typical of the conflict between the Left and the Right during the past 250 years will be lessened.) 

          It is an open question, however, whether the alienation will actually wither away, because of its other causes that are at work.  During the Communist years in Eastern Europe, two Hungarian social scientists, George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi, wrote a book under the title Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power.  That very name raises this question: Is there a yearning by "intellectuals" for power that will continue even into a new, much more egalitarian, age?  I would ask each of you who may identify with what has long been an angry artistic and literary culture to ask yourself, probing deeply into your thoughts and emotions, just how you feel about that.  Fundamentally, there will be conflict, not reconciliation, between those who want an egalitarian society as a vehicle for power and those who want it to serve individual liberty. 

          Eric Hoffer believed that a major cause of the alienation of the intellectual from bourgeois society was that the intelligentsia as a class felt displaced in a commercial society and longed for places of position and prestige.  If a society centered on a “shared market economy” hopes to prevent the kind of cleavage that has split the world into “left” and “right” for two centuries, it will do well to make special provision for its artists, writers and literary figures. To do this if they hate the society will, of course, be self-defeating; but we might hope that under the new conditions they will no longer feel the alienation they have long felt, and can occupy an honored place within a society they respect.

 

An equally fundamental problem will come from the existentially unchanneled nature of a leisured population.  There is potential for a spiritual and cultural breakdown among the population in general, or some significant part of it, when people no longer center their lives around work. In his book In Our Hands, Charles Murray predicts spiritual malaise: “Give people plenty and security, and they will fall into spiritual torpor. When life becomes an extended picnic, with nothing of importance to do, ideas of greatness become an irritant.  Such is the nature of the Europe syndrome.”  If millions turn into Yahoos of the sort described by Jonathan Swift in his most biting satire, going into a stupor of drugged consciousness, sexual license, and the like, the society will be in immense trouble. 

          If, however, a given society strongly acculturates people to make constructive and self-fulfilling use of their retirement-like existence, and the people find it within themselves to respond accordingly, the possibilities for a good life far exceed what our imaginations can now conceive.  It will be imperative to have a culture of civilized values, with strong families and communities.  This will require a vastly different orientation and moral-behavioral tone than recent generations of Americans have come to accept.  This will almost certainly be one of the great issues of the future.  It will be a great civilizational tragedy if it is not resolved constructively.

          A society centered in part on much distribution-without-work will put the various theories of human nature to the test: Were Swift, Thomas Hobbes (and, more recently, Ayn Rand in her view of the great proportion of people) right in expecting a dog-eat-dog humanity?  Or is there something to the classical liberal’s “vitalist perspective” that looks to the energies of ordinary human beings for much good?  Perhaps the two poles will be mixed, and a titanic question will become how the constructive forces deal with the destructive.

          If the vital energies of millions of people are to be the answer, it is true that the life-force within those people will be a major factor.  It would be a mistake, though, to think that culture, institutions, ideas, education – and such contributions as an elevating intellectual subculture can make, assuming it is not alienated and thus turned toward the nihilistic – will not also be imperative elements.

          It is tempting to think that the chance for a constructive answer to the possibility of social breakdown is unlikely, and to think that that gives reason to oppose a broad distribution of income.  What we must realize, however, is that the alternative to such distribution is not the civilized existence we have enjoyed historically; instead, it is the chaos and conflict that will come from a desperate population that has been displaced from work.

          If economic displacement proceeds apace and is not satisfactorily addressed, it is probable that “chaos and conflict” will result from such displacement in the United States and any of the advanced societies, since it is to be supposed that the members of what has been a broad middle class will hardly be inclined to be passive in the face of their displacement.  Hundreds of millions of people worldwide live lethargically in squalor in societies run by a few.  That has been so commonplace in history that we are forced to acknowledge that it is something of a “natural condition” for humanity.  But it isn’t “natural” for the peoples who have known from experience that something else is possible.  We may venture to predict that they won’t stand for being relegated to the trash-strewn lots of urban slums (although the assurance of this is weakened by the fact that the American public is much more passive than it was, say, in the early nineteenth century).  We can add to this prediction a clarion-call for a moral imperative that they not allow that to happen.  If they do, it will be one of history’s calamities.

 

The recent marriage of free-market thinking with a worldwide elite poses a particular problem.  There is a certain naivete in the hope I have expressed that “classical liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and others who have supported a market economy” will join me in reexamining their respective philosophies to face the issues this book is raising.  The reason for the naivete is that in recent decades, with the advent of globalization and the end of the Cold War, a worldwide elite has formed that has adopted as its ideology a deep and self-interested commitment to free-trade and global laissez-faire.  While superficially this seems to have its origins in classical liberal market thinking, it is in fact profoundly at odds with classical liberalism, which has long championed the liberty and well-being of people at large and has opposed aristocracy.  This elite is much-discussed in today’s literature.  It is often called “the Davos culture” (named after the community in Switzerland where a major conference, the World Economic Forum, is held annually).

          This means there is more than ideology or philosophical principles holding many of today’s market enthusiasts both to the theory of a market economy as we have known it and to the peculiar form of state-capitalism that has come to prevail.  To the elite itself, and to the countless tag-alongs (individuals, non-governmental organizations, public officials, politicians, lobbyists, and the like) who prosper on its periphery, there is the likelihood that they will cling to their self-interest as they perceive it. This can cause them to resist any move away from the intellectual edifice that has become so central to their thinking.

          The hold that this elite has on contemporary society and politics in the United States and elsewhere today is so great that it is almost impossible to overstate.  A populist revolt to displace it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.  Since the alternative, ultimately, will probably be revolution, one can hope that at some point members of that elite will come to see the danger they are in if they do not revisit their ideology.  They need to fit the great bulk of mankind into the affluence that the new technology can create, or they will pay the consequences.  The result, if they hold steady to their current position, will be miserable for everybody, not the least for the elite itself.

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

 



[1] This book, and my other writings, are available to read and download at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info