How to Not Critique Capitalism
In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx famously argued that the economic base of a society determines its superstructure. Marx argued, in other words, that the stories a society tells itself — through its literature, art, philosophy, religion, politics, and law — are all generated by impersonal “relations of production.”
It goes without saying that most legal scholars, political scientists, and other intellectuals within the United States are not Marxists. Many nevertheless subscribe to a version of economic determinism not at all unlike Marx’s — a rare convergence between rival ideologies that I attribute to our shared Enlightenment heritage. Significantly, this is a heritage that liberals and conservatives alike share with Marx.
But how can it be? Isn’t Marxism diametrically opposed to everything we in the US stand for? If I am to disagree with the popular wisdom, a few examples are in order. I will begin with a book by a pair of left-leaning legal scholars. In Red Families v. Blue Families, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone search for common ground between red and blue models of the family and manage to offer a number of creative proposals. When it comes to the economy, however, the authors are far less intellectually daring. Take, for example, the following passage:
What the red family paradigm has not acknowledged is that the changing economy has undermined the path from abstinence through courtship to marriage. As a result, abstinence into the mid-20s is unrealistic, shotgun marriages correspond with escalating divorce rates, and early marriages, whether prompted by love or necessity, often founder on the economic realities of the modern economy, which disproportionately rewards investment in higher education. Efforts to insist on a return to traditional pieties thus inevitably clash with the structure of the modern economy and produce recurring cries of moral crisis (p. 2).
Notice Cahn and Carbone’s repetitive use of phrases like “the changing economy,” “the economic realities of the modern economy,” and “the structure of the modern economy.” A fundamental critique of capitalism is apparently not possible. Rather, to the extent that the red family paradigm clashes with economic “realities,” Cahn and Carbone insist that it must be jettisoned. Likewise, if capitalism tends to conflict with the values of Blue America, the best we can do is tinker around the edges — by increasing the minimum wage, reducing the number of hours in the work week, extending health care benefits, and so forth. (These proposals are set out in a later chapter.) In short, we must be — to borrow a word that Cahn and Carbone seem to relish — “realistic” about what can be accomplished.
Like Cahn and Carter, political scientists tend to place a lot of faith the power of in economic fundamentals. In his satirical piece “What if political scientists covered the news?” Christopher Beam summarizes a few common clichés within political science:
Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.
Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.
It is, in other words, not narratives that ultimately matter, but economics. Or, more precisely, the narratives are an effect of the economics.
To reiterate: I don’t at all mean to brand left-leaning academics as crypto-Marxists. Or, at least, if legal scholars and political scientists are crypto-Marxists, so is the editorial board of the National Review crypto-Marxist for publishing Jim Manzi’s piece, “Unbundle the Welfare State,” which likewise takes it for granted that human values are necessarily an outgrowth of economics.
A sane political philosophy — such as that proposed by the British distributists over a century ago — would seek to bring economic relations in line with human nature. Manzi, by contrast, looks for ways to preserve our inhuman economic system, despite plainly acknowledging that it “appears to conflict with human nature.” Manzi summarizes:
The deep anxiety created by the choices offered to individuals in a free society was noted at least as early as ancient Athens, and a modern, extensive capitalist economy exacerbates this condition greatly. We simultaneously seek autonomy and desire to be part of an organic community. Further, while human beings are skilled at the social tasks required to act upon exchange within small face-to-face groups, it is unnatural to build alliances, judge intent, form emotional bonds, and trust others across a vast, impersonal modern market economy.
Based on such remarks, one would expect Manzi to make the case for a generous welfare state or perhaps go on to sharply critique capitalism. As it turns out, Manzi draws attention to the conflict between capitalism and human nature merely as a means of acknowledging that we ought not do away with the welfare state altogether. The bulk of his essay, however, is devoted to “unbundling” the welfare state — which is evidently too ambitious for Manzi’s liking:
We want a welfare system as one part of a political economy that manages the conflict between capitalism and human nature in a fashion that achieves our shared goals, while putting a minimum of drag on market productivity and growth.
Far be it for human nature to put a significant drag on market productivity and growth!
I should be clear that Manzi is not suggesting that capitalism is in every respect at odds with human nature — a position that would be inconsistent with his conservatism. Humans, Manzi tells us, have an instinct for bartering and private property, an instinct with which capitalism is in accord. If I may be permitted a brief rebuttal, consider the following remark by GK Chesterton: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Insofar as it concentrates power in the hands of the few (as does state socialism) capitalism is just as out of sync with the human instinct for private property as it is out of sync with other aspects of human nature. So no dice.
The general tendency of deterministic thinking is, in sum, to reinforce the status quo. For if our economic system is both inevitable and unchangeable, what sense is there in fundamentally critiquing it? Marx himself seems to have recognized this conundrum. His solution, briefly, was to argue that capitalism contains within itself contradictions, the resolution of which is the inevitable transition to communism. Once again, however, Chesterton’s thinking is far more incisive than its rivals. Progressivism, Chesterton quips in Chapter 7 of Orthodoxy, is “the best of all reasons for not being a progressive”:
Some people . . . seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve, we need not trouble to improve.
Authentic progress consists of sketching out a vision of human flourishing — however at odds with current economic “realities” — and working towards it. There is no substitute. Not the endless compromises and minor reforms in which the US ruling class places its hopes. And certainly not in the view that the human race is on an unstoppable march toward utopia.
So where does this discussion leave us? I have quoted Chesterton approvingly and am in agreement with much of the distributist vision. At the same time, I have significant reservations about the neodistributism of John Medaille and others. For one thing, Medaille makes the perfect into the enemy of the good. The truth is that, however theoretically desirable, the reduction of state power at this time would be disastrous. In order to even begin working toward a healthy body politic, we need first to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient. The only practicable way to do this, as Medaille is surely aware, is through Keynesian economics and a generous welfare state. The other problem I have with neodistributism is its reactionary stance. By all means, let us work toward the widespread distribution of property, worker ownership of the means of production, and decentralized political authority. But surely it is possible to achieve these ends without a wholesale return to monarchy (which Medaille has recently defended), patriarchy, or traditional Catholicism.
In order to identify and correct the limitations of the present, we’ll need to draw upon the wisdom of the past. Yet the past has its limitations too!