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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Democratic Capitalism and it's Discontents -- Review of Brian C. Anderson's book

Attack of the Pseudo Intellectual

Been reading "Capitalism and it's Discontents". I literally disagree with 90% of the author's opinions. But his facts are fascinating even if I find myself drawing opposite conclusions from many of them. The book is worth a critical read.

Critique of Empires

I found myself agreeing with his critique of the book "Empire" by Hardt and Negri, while failing to be convinced by his defense of globalization. The fact is that Negri and Hardt are right when they talk about globalization causing misery. The misery of globalization is blowback from how it occurs. Not the fact that it occurs. At the same time he is right that we don't need to eradicate "private property", celebrate revolutionary violence, whitewash any form of totalitarianism, nor pour contempt on our more democratic republican societies. By not doing a real analysis of what Negri and Hardt says, and dismissing it with a similar kind of contempt to that he sees in their writings -- he sets up the rest of his book as an attack on the same societies that Negri and Hardt attack -- but from the other direction.

An Uncivil attack on States Serving their people

But then after critiquing Negri's attack on the modern world from the left, his next chapter "From State to Civil Society" he tries to level a similar attack on social welfare. He celebrates economic dysfunction, "pour[s] contempt" on "the state" (using the term "statist") to describe social services and ignores the impact of the things that Negri and Hardt rightly described thus whitewashing the impact of laissez faire capitalism.

Misrepresenting Subsidiarity

He also deliberately misrepresents the concept of subsidiarity, using it as a classic strawman. He quotes John Paul II's Centessimus Annus and then claims that:

"These problems flow from the welfare state's violation of the classic Catholic principle of subsidiarity."

He goes on to define the problem:

"a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the later of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help it coordinate its activity with the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

He then goes on to claim that with subsidiarity "responsibility should rest first with the individual and then in ascending order with those nearest..." "and finally-only as a last resort-the state."

Subsidiarity as Dogma versus prescription for improvements

Thus he states dogma when he could offer suggestions for delivering services more efficiently. He rightly criticizes bureaucratic government and the centralization that makes welfare pernicious. But he fails to recognize that the real problem with social welfare is that modern states, like the Catholic Church itself, by centralizing and hoarding resources deprive local authorities of the resources they needy in order to meet their needs. The modern state deprives local communities of the sorts of decision making authorities and structures -- local government -- that they need in order to meet their own needs. It is precisely because poor neighborhoods are poor that drug addiction, illegitimacy, unemployment and blight ravage neighborhoods. It is precisely because our system robs workers of income, robs wannabe workers of work, and makes it impossible for renters to own their homes or be safe and secure in their persons, that welfare became necessary as a kludge to replace functions that once were done by local parishes and community associations. He blames the victims.

He attacks welfare with all the thoughtless tropes of Right Wing intellectuals. In the process he confuses cause with effect, and deliberately ignores the role of racism, classicism and wealth in setting up the poor to fail. He gives lip service to "self governing adults" -- but that has to be part of the setup of local government. It can't be a tool to bash those living in cities or denied the protection of legislative, judicial and executive representation. Public welfare, should indeed be a responsibility of individuals and local government using the principles of financial and political subsidiarity. But they should be supported and supervised by people representing general government.

Using Jouvenal to attack Democracy

Rather than state his own ideas, Anderson quotes Bertrand de Jouvenal, to blame the enlightenment and democracy itself as the cause of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Jouvenal was a fascist in the 30's. And that regressive attitude informs Anderson's book and his review of his writings. He identifies "Power" with the "Minotour" of Minoan myth. He claims that western democracies embrasure of dominance, which he dismissed earlier when he criticized "Empire", leads to totalitarianism. He identifies this with the doctrine of the "people" claiming that the problem is the denial of divine lawmaking in favor of human lawmaking. Rule of law with popular sovereignty. And then claims that a loss of "objective standards" leads to a moral relativism, selfishness and an erosion of civil society. In his mind the threat comes from secularization. His book in general discounts the role that authoritarianism exerts in fueling totalitarianism. Jouvenal himself was an authoritarian. His vision of a restored order to society was fascist.

But Anderson soft pedals that side of the story. He is right that demagogues take advantage of the people and stir up mobs in the name of restoring some vision of a utopian past civil order, that usually never existed. But usually the demagogues use religion as a tool and themselves are expert practitioners of the tools of sophism. Persons who are Exploitive, Manipulative have an Amoral orientation and are Manipulative, tend to be perfectly willing to use notions of rule of law and civil behavior to dominate and control mobs from among the masses of people. Both direct democracy, other forms of order and "thick community" may be impossible in our modern world at the level of general government, but they are possible and plausible if governments are organized as federated hierarchies. He is right to identify that "noxious activities" should be prohibited. But Jouvenal, and therefore Anderson, offers a dour analysis, with no prescriptive power. He argues against redistribution without even trying to refute the evils of monopoly and massive inequality he dismissed so readily earlier but admits in his discussion of Jouvenal.

He finishes his book with an effort to resurrect a zombie version of Sartre and concludes his book "we need no ideologies, no programs...but by connecting with our preliberal past..." Oh God, spare me a return to the middle ages! Read this book critically folks.

Sources and Further Readings

Brian C. Anderson:

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