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Overview

Despite the fall of its ideological enemies—the political messianisms of communism and national socialism—democratic capitalism faces extraordinary challenges in the new millennium, argues City Journal editor and South Park Conservatives author Brian C. Anderson in this thought-provoking new book. Not only has a fanatical form of Islam distrupted the peace and prosperity of the postcommunist era, which some had wrongly heralded as a liberal-democratic “end of history”; our free societies also remain haunted by internal demons—egalitarian fantasies, moral libertinism, an arid and unsustainable secularism, a suicide of culture.

 

Yet nothing ordains the triumph of these demons over the democratic capitalist prospect, Anderson believes. Drawing on a rich anti-utopian tradition of political thought, he defends the real achievements of the free society against an array of critics, ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre to British anti-market conservative John Gray to the quietly authoritarian social democrat John Rawls to the postmodern Marxist and one-time terrorist Antonio Negri.

 

Anderson pays particularly close attention to the United States, the democratic capitalist nation par excellence, showing how it differs from other liberal democracies in its robust religiosity, vigorous civil society, and constitutionalism—all under threat from the American Left. Finally, Anderson explores the thought of some of the deepest anti-utopian thinkers who are friends—albeit critical ones—of the modern regime of liberty, including the brilliant French political theorist Pierre Manent and the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol.

 

Crisply and vividly presented, Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents is an essential guide to the conflicts of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Rauch
It's in his six chapters grappling with potent thinkers of the right and left—Rawls, Sartre, Bertrand de Jouvenel, John Kekes and others—that Anderson establishes himself among the most probing and erudite political essayists of our day…To read Anderson at his luminous best is to be reminded of conservatism at its wisest—not least in its understanding of its own limitations.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933859248
  • Publisher: ISI Books
  • Publication date: 6/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 225
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian C. Anderson is the editor of City Journal, the cultural and political quarterly published by the Manhattan Institute, where he writes extensively on social and political trends. Aside from his articles in City Journal, his work has appeared in First Things, the Public Interest, Wilson Quarterly, the New York Post, and the Washington Times. Along with South Park Conservatives, Anderson is the author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political.

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Read an Excerpt

Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents


By Brian C. Anderson

ISI Books

Copyright © 2007 ISI Books
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933859-24-8


Chapter One

Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture

Not long before he died, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin somberly summed up his, and our, age: "I have lived through most of the twentieth century without ... suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history." What made it so terrible is politics-or, more precisely, the secular religions of National Socialism and communism, which violently sought to transfigure the bourgeois economic and political condition of modern man. The exact number of people killed by these political adventures will never be known, but it exceeds 125 million.

Those secular religions are now gone, leaving behind only ruin. Communism, as an ongoing political experiment, expired with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989; National Socialism didn't survive the crushing military defeat delivered by the Allies in World War II. In the early days of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine a serious ideological challenger to what communism and National Socialism wanted to destroy: prosaic bourgeois liberal democracy-what others call democratic capitalism.

Despite the fall of these political messianisms, however, the future of democratic capitalism is by no means unclouded, and not just because of the very serious physical threat posed by radical Islam, which some see as itself a new form of ideological politics. The hubris of the secular religions was to think that they had solved "the political problem." Properly understood, democratic capitalism makes no such claims. It has been a virtue of the richest current of liberal democratic thought, from James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville to Irving Kristol and Pierre Manent, to explore bourgeois society's inherent limitations and failings without losing sight of its basic decency and relative justness.

The work of three leading contemporary thinkers-none of them on the conventional left-enables us to confirm the relevance of that anti-utopian tradition and gain a better understanding of what troubles democratic capitalism today.

The Dream of Transcending Politics

We begin with the late French historian François Furet, who provides striking insights into the political tensions of democratic capitalism. At the time of his death in 1997, Furet was France's foremost historian and the world's preeminent authority on the French Revolution. Though once a Marxist himself, Furet broke with the Marxist view of the French Revolution-long dominant in French historiography-which saw it as an economically determined bourgeois warm-up for the Russian Revolution of October 1917. In the Marxian optic, 1789 was the inevitable result of a rising bourgeoisie overthrowing the ancien régime and the agricultural society that it represented. Furet, however, rejected the notion of historical inevitability and gave human political actions a central explanatory role. In a Tocquevillian register of conservative liberalism, he also claimed that the revolution had released utopian hopes for a humanity at last reconciled with itself and in control of its destiny, hopes that neither liberal democracy nor any other political regime, including socialism, could ever satisfactorily fulfill.

In The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, which appeared in France in 1995 and quickly became a controversial bestseller across Europe, Furet shifted his focus to the twentieth century and specifically to the rise and decline of the communist dream, the shape finally taken by those profound but-when directed into politics-destructive longings first unleashed by the French revolutionaries. Disabused, attentive to the complex interactions of "ideas, intentions, and circumstances" that give meaning to history, Furet's final testament was written on the far side of the revolutionary passions of the epoch. It serves as a kind of warning: we must not expect too much from politics.

Communism's seductive appeal, Furet argues, came in considerable part from its coupling of the inherently incompatible ideas of human volition and the science of history. The Bolsheviks showed the true capacity of man's revolutionary will, which, in the most backward nation of Europe, promised the achievement of human liberation first announced by the French Revolution. To this "cult of volition," Furet explains, "Lenin would add the certainties of science, drawn from Marx's Capital." History has a predetermined outcome and, thanks to Marxist "science," we know exactly what it is, the revolutionaries claimed. Knowledge would transform proletarian man into the lord of time, ushering in the classless society.

It was never clear how a science of historical inevitability could be reconciled with the allegedly Promethean will that forged the Russian Revolution, but no matter. Berlin describes the emotional lure: "There is a curious human feeling that if the stars in their courses are fighting for you, so that your cause will triumph, then you should sacrifice yourself in order to shorten the process, to bring the birth pangs of the new order nearer." Will and science: "By combining these two supremely modern elixirs with their contempt for logic," Furet stringently notes, "the revolutionaries of 1917 had finally concocted a brew sufficiently potent to inebriate militants for generations to come."

Yet, however intoxicating communism's blend of revolutionary will and pseudoscience, it inebriated as many as it did because it both grew out of and exploited two fundamental political weaknesses of the bourgeois regime. The first weakness: liberal democracy had set loose an egalitarian spirit that it could never fully tame. The notion of the universal equality of man, which liberal democracy claims as its foundation, easily becomes subject to egalitarian overbidding. Equality constantly finds itself undermined by the freedoms that the liberal order secures. The liberty to pursue wealth, to seek to better one's condition, to create, to strive for power or achievement-all these freedoms unceasingly generate inequality, since not all people are equally gifted, equally nurtured, equally hardworking, equally lucky. Equality works in democratic capitalist societies like an imaginary horizon, forever retreating as one approaches it.

Communism professed to fulfill the democratic promise of equality. Real liberty could only be the achievement of a more equal world-a world, that is, sans bourgeoisie. And if what the communists derisively called the "formal" liberties of expression and political representation had to be sacrificed in order to establish the true freedom of a classless society, well, so be it. Thus was the "egalitarian apocalypse" set in motion, as Furet observes.

The second weakness of liberal democracy is more complex, though its consequences are increasingly evident: liberal democracy's moral indeterminacy. The "bourgeois city," as Furet terms it, is morally indeterminate because, basing itself on the sovereign individual, it constitutes itself as a rebellion against, or at least as a downplaying of, any extra-human or ontological dimension that might provide moral direction to life. For all the inestimable benefits of the bourgeois city-its threefold liberation, in Michael Novak's formulation, from tyranny, from the oppression of conscience, and from the pervasive material poverty of the premodern world-its deliverance from the past has come at a price.

Furet suggests that as the "self" moves to the center of the bourgeois world, existential questions-what is man? what is the meaning of life?-become difficult to answer. Communism, usurping the role of religion in checking the individualizing excesses of democratic modernity, falsely promised to resolve such pressing existential questions by providing a political articulation-horribly perverse, as it turned out-of human ends.

The two political weaknesses of the bourgeois order have their psychological corollaries: self-doubt and self-hatred. The bourgeois man finds himself unsettled by a guilty conscience and spiritual dissatisfaction. "Self-doubt," Furet writes, "has led to a characteristic of modern democracy probably unique in universal history, the infinite capacity to produce offspring who detest the social and political regime into which they were born-hating the very air they breathe, though they cannot survive without it and have known no other." Hatred of the bourgeoisie, on the right as well as the left, is a tale as old as modernity itself, of course, but it is jarring to reflect on how much ire has come not from aristocratic revenants or fiery proles, but from the cerebral sons of businessmen. Historian Perry Anderson points out that most leading Marxist thinkers originally came from bourgeois money: Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, even Marx himself-all had fathers who were bankers, bureaucrats, lawyers, manufacturers, or merchants.

The end of World War I-a bourgeois war motivated by bourgeois concerns and supported by the bourgeois class-left middle-class Europe exhausted. Into the breach stepped the Soviet Union, the antibourgeois society with all the answers. In the interwar years, liberal democratic societies seemed powerless to control their fate, while the Soviet Union's "five-year plans," constructing the socialist future, appeared to many as models of human rationality. But as credible reports of purges, political terror, and starvation began to leak from Stalin's totalitarian netherworld during the 1930s, doubts about the communist system began to arise.

The chaotic aftermath of the Great War also spurred the rise of fascism, a second and rival critique of bourgeois modernity. Where communism embraced the universal ideals of 1789, fascism drew its revolutionary force from the ideal of the nation and-with its darkest star, National Socialism-racial ideology, making it what Furet calls the "pathology of the particular." Although professed mortal enemies, communism and fascism shared many affinities, including a loathing of the bourgeoisie.

Despite the failures of communism and fascism, the political weaknesses of the democracies-their susceptibility to egalitarian overbidding and their moral indeterminacy-are with us still. Nor are we free from hatred of the bourgeoisie; it remains virulent in both high and popular culture. The liberal democratic regime, by its very nature, observes Furet, "creates the need for a world beyond the bourgeoisie and beyond Capital, a world in which a genuine human community can flourish"-a need, he persuasively shows, that will never be met. With the fall of communism, "The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject or even trying to formulate a new concept." "Here we are, condemned to live in the world as it is."

Is this strange antinomy of the human political condition-between the utopian impulse and prosaic reality-sustainable? Though communism and fascism have exited the stage of history, one should resist the temptation to conclude that the history of politics culminates in the bourgeois regime. New political monsters may yet arise from the unstable and ultimately dissatisfying bourgeois world. (The threat of Islamic radicalism is less an internal than an external challenge to that world, in my view.) More likely, liberal democratic societies will struggle with a generalized moral nihilism that is subversive of the social order, a concern I will return to later. In any case, the task of political thought is to guard against these threats, whatever shape they might take, through what Furet terms "the sad analysis of reality."

Economic Globalization: Bane or Boon?

If the political future of democratic capitalism remains uncertain, requiring both vigilance and reconciliation to this-worldly imperfections, what about its economic prospect? Though communism now rests in history's dustbin, anticapitalism is not without its influential adherents. Chief among them, perhaps, is the British political theorist John Gray. Gray is no traditional leftist. But having moved from Margaret Thatcher's camp in the 1980s to become a fierce critic of Thatcher's legacy during the 1990s, he is certainly no longer the free-market conservative he once was. His book False Dawn, published in 1998, along with other recent writings constitute blistering assaults on the global capitalism of competitive free markets, fast-moving entrepreneurs, and volatile stock exchanges.

In False Dawn Gray dismisses the assumption that global capitalism will spread wealth across the planet. Inverting Montesquieu's dictum, "Commerce ... polishes and softens barbarian ways," Gray believes that capitalism is leading inexorably to a new, late-modern barbarism. Indeed, he argues, the project of creating a world market is as utopian as was Soviet communism-he stresses that both are Enlightenment ideologies wedded to the cult of reason and blind to history-and could ultimately "rival it in the suffering that it inflicts."

For Gray, the project for a world market is utopian because it seeks to transplant a U.S.-forged "unfettered" capitalism, characterized by flexible labor markets, low taxes, spirited competition, and relatively restrained welfare benefits, to cultures with radically different, "embedded" markets in which man's desire to barter and trade is constrained. The transplant will never take, he concludes, since unfettered markets are humanly unsatisfying. But global capitalism's "gale of creative destruction"-Gray borrows the language, though not the sobriety, of economist Joseph Schumpeter-will erode social cohesion by destroying settled ways of life, ignite fundamentalist movements (including Islamist ones) that will struggle to restore order by force, and lead rival powers to exploit natural resources ruthlessly until the earth is left cracked and barren. The world will face the "return of history, with its familiar intractable conflicts, tragic choices, and ruined illusions."

Gray paints global capitalism in lurid colors. "Already it has resulted in over a hundred million peasants becoming migrant laborers in China, the exclusion from work and participation in society of tens of millions in the advanced societies, a condition of near-anarchy and rule by organized crime in parts of the post-Communist world, and further devastation of the environment." In the United States, where the market is most free and its unyielding logic most visible, the technological innovation and cutthroat competition that characterize the creative destruction of capitalism have "proletarianized" the middle classes by eliminating stable careers and suppressing income growth, undermined the family, bred resentment over fast-rising inequality, and pushed innumerable uprooted and alienated individuals into criminality. Gray predicts that the dismal realities of the American economy will soon consume the world. Supporting his contention, he interprets the 1990s crisis of Asian capitalism as a harbinger of a "fast-developing crisis of global capitalism," a sign that global free markets have become ungovernable.

Gray sees no truly viable political response to global capitalism. He hopes for what one might call "market pluralism," the flourishing of varied kinds of market economies within different cultural and political forms. But his hope burns dimly, since he foresees no world power encouraging such a vision. The United States is the global market's chief sponsor, while socialism is dead, acknowledges Gray, and for good reason: "The legacy of socialist central planning has been ruinous." But Gray thinks that his preferred kind of "social democracy" has also gone into "final retreat," unable to resist the capitalist storm. Global markets, obeying a "New Gresham's Law" in which bad forms of capitalism drive out good, punish governments that borrow too much money or boost taxes to achieve full employment. A "race to the bottom" ensues, with governments stripping away social protections in order to remain economically competitive, and firms relocating to whatever global backwaters offer the cheapest labor costs.

This is a bleak picture. Fortunately, it's also fantasy. Gray's description of contemporary capitalism is wildly exaggerated. He overestimates the degree of the historical ascendancy of American-style capitalism as well as the destructive effects of economic globalization. Market pluralism is, in fact, a fairly accurate way of describing the global economy, and it is likely to remain so. To the "unfettered" capitalism of the United States-itself a caricature, since the American economy is heavily regulated-we can contrast Japanese capitalism, which still features long-term employment and tight relations between banks and other firms; the German social-market model, with generous welfare benefits, powerful trade unions, and high taxes; and the touted "Third Way" of Tony Blair's Labour Party in England. One needn't stake a claim on the merits of any particular brand of capitalism to grasp the reality of market pluralism.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents by Brian C. Anderson Copyright © 2007 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface....................vii
I. The Bourgeois Prospect 1 Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture....................3
2 The Ineducable Left....................23
II. The American Difference 3 From State to Civil Society....................37
4 Religious America, Secular Europe....................51
5 A Brief History of Judicial Activism....................69
III. Recto/Verso 6 The Antipolitical Philosophy of John Rawls....................91
7 Bertrand de Jouvenel's Melancholy Liberalism....................107
8 The Absolute Intellectual....................129
9 Liberal Folly and Conservative Peace....................141
10 What Is Democratic Modernity?....................151
Index....................179
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