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Social choreography would be a better concept to apply here. Civilization is not properly conceived as a machine, a thing to be designed and constructed. Instead, we should conceive it as a dance, a grand ball sweeping Humanity onward toward a better future for all. As George Kennan once noted, we must be gardeners, not engineers.
But we face an engineering challenge nonetheless in our desire to devise an ideal society. Even a grand ball needs an underlying structure, from the shape of the dance floor to the instruments the musicians play and the music that they play on those instruments. The first question that we must address, then, is that of what kind of structure we want our ideal society to have. What do we want our ideal society to achieve? The simplest answer to that question is We don’t know.
Immediately we face a task like that of designing a machine whose output we cannot describe. In this case that is a good thing. Humanity has had quite enough of well-designed Utopias that have gone hideously wrong. We don’t need any more charismatic leaders with visions of an improved human race, which visions have consistently led to the worst atrocities in History. No, we need to go into this project blind, feigning not to know what an ideal society looks like but confident that we will recognize it when we see it. Thus we must concentrate our efforts on process and not on product.
We must certainly be aware of the law of unintended consequences. History, like the evolution of life, comes from the interplay between chance and determinism. The Black Death that swept across Europe in the mid-Fourteenth Century led, by way of the wealth that the survivors inherited, to the Renaissance. The effort of the Church to increase its splendor accordingly, largely through the sale of indulgences, led to the Protestant Reformation when a German monk took offense at the antics of the pardon pushers.
One thing we know for certain is that whatever kind of society we create, we will be going on an adventure, exploring events that we could not have anticipated.
"Human beings, under the protection of law and guidance of virtue, pursue their own account of the good in debate with those who differ from them and in concord with those who agree. Since in this life we cannot know all that can be known and all human knowledge is conditioned by our own lives and the culture in which we are immersed, we can never transcend this condition and know directly and completely the ultimate principle of everything that exists." – Philip Blond.
What kind of people will be living in our ideal society? That’s a trick question. We can’t sum up the human race, or even a small part of it, in one simple image. Efforts to do so in the design of utopias has almost always led to grievous disasters. The Stalinist effort to create the New Soviet Man immiserated millions. The Nazis, with their ideal Aryan Man, did even worse.
In order to create an ideal society, then, we must accept people pretty much as they are. The coercive power of the state should only be used to prevent people from abusing others. The state can only properly use its power against those who would diminish the well-being of others.
That doctrine faces its greatest test in the presence in our liberal society of individuals who have failed to achieve a proper maturity. We can identify such individuals through the various manifestations of their inferiority complex – envy of others, resentment of others successes, a distrust of their own abilities, a sense of victimization, and self-pity. Such people focus their efforts on avoiding failure, rather than on achieving success, and thus seek to insulate themselves from the challenges of opportunity by dissolving themselves in a community of like-minded individuals. Their concept of society is an intensely controlling one.
But that sense of community is pathological. Instead of umpires overseeing a free society, the immature individuals want a charismatic leader who will relieve them of all responsibility for their own successes. They want an enforced equality of outcomes rather than the Darwinian competition of a free-market economy. Of course, they end up with leaders with whom they can identify, leaders who are as immature as they are and, therefore, just as manipulative and controlling. They end up replacing a flexible market economy and its limited government with a rigid and brittle economic and political tyranny.
We may feel tempted to establish institutions that will change those people, but giving in to such temptation would be a mistake. It is the desire to change others that has led to so much misery in the historical past. Instead we should conceive the existence of such people in our society as a symptom of an underlying disease: instead of treating symptoms, we need to treat the cause. Thus we may take the existence of immature adults in our society as an indicator that we have done something wrong somewhere, that our culture has somehow gone wrong. Then we can look for the source of the problem and act to correct it.
One important feature of that endeavor is educational. If we want to create a society in which few (and ideally no) people suffer from an inferiority complex, we need more people who understand basic psychology. Just as educating people about basic hygiene has led to a huge reduction in the amount of physical disease in our society, so too will educating people about basic psychology lead to a reduction in mental disease. By reshaping our culture in the right way we can achieve that goal, just as reshaping our cities in the right way led to improvements in physical health. We get better people, different though they may be, so we get a better world overall.
The Dance Floor
Better known as infrastructure, it shows the proper role of government in its greatest glory. Here we see that government, properly, does only those things that individuals or groups of individuals cannot or should not do for themselves. We see that doctrine exemplified in public health.
Up until relatively recently people living in cities disposed of their garbage and other wastes by throwing them into the streets. In 1854 Dr. John Snow, studying an outbreak of cholera in London, discerned that such practices breed disease and convinced the City of London to begin a program of building sewers and of bringing clean water into the city from sources in the surrounding countryside.
Over the last half of the Nineteenth Century scientists and doctors discovered the causes of disease and the means of suppressing them. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century the knowledge was seeping into the wider culture. Children were being taught the basics of hygiene in schools and county health departments were cleaning up the breeding places of disease. As a consequence people became healthier and began to live longer.
So here we see how we get into the true engineering challenge. In order to gather the information, to organize it, and to distribute it, we need a suitable infrastructure. We need hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices; we need medical schools and research facilities; and we need to organize doctors, nurses, and clerks into health-care organizations whose members will occupy and use those facilities. And those facilities require roads, clean water, electricity, and medical supplies, all of which require their own infrastructures to enable people to create and maintain them. Over the past few centuries the desire for health care has led to the evolution of a complex structure that we might reasonably compare to a living being. For this we need the engineers.
But we need an even stranger kind of infrastructure to enable the more obvious kinds. Somebody somehow must pay the people who do the work necessary to create and maintain the infrastructure. The foundation of a money-based economy is the act of payment. A farmer gets paid when he sells his crop; a factory worker gets paid by the factory administration; a doctor gets paid by the people she heals. It’s all completely direct: someone wants a certain good or service and pays the person who provides it. But some goods and services are indirect. I benefit from the Interstate Highway System: how do I pay for it? I get clean water delivered to my apartment through pipes: how do I pay for it? Both of those pieces of infrastructure are too big for one person to buy. So we citizens pool our resources by establishing a government that obtains the money to buy infrastructure by levying and collecting taxes.
Taxation provides a means for citizens, through their representatives, to pool their resources in order to do together public things that they cannot or should not do alone. The power to tax supports the power of the people to spend their money in concert to achieve important public goals, such as national defense, public education, or social justice. Taxation empowers us because infrastructure enables us to do what we could not otherwise do.
Because situation conditions human nature, infrastructure shapes society. The ready availability of clean water, along with sewage removal and treatment systems, frees a society of a huge burden of disease and thus disempowers the fatalism that oppressed our ancestors. Tax-funded infrastructure can even be abstract: a national pension system, for example, prevents the old and no-longer-productive members of society from sinking into poverty and squalor, again acting to negate the fatalism under which our ancestors labored.
In the United States of America we call our national pension Social Security. Begun in 1935, it superficially resembles a Ponzi scheme, in which current investors’ money is used to pay off previous investors as the amount of money involved snowballs. The payroll taxes that were taken from my paychecks when I worked don’t add up to the amount that I will receive in benefits from the time I retired (at age 64) until the time I die (at or about age 77 according to the actuaries). But the money, properly invested, will grow, so the fund will not collapse as a Ponzi scheme eventually does.
Given the notion that infrastructure shapes society, we must ask what kind of infrastructure we should want. I noted above that we do not want our society to be any kind of Utopia designed by a small group, so we don’t want an infrastructure that crams people into a narrow mold. We want an infrastructure that does not restrict possibilities, but opens them. We want an infrastructure that enables people to achieve the goals that they set for themselves (under the obvious proviso that those goals do not include oppressing and immiserating other people).
Fundamentally, then, we should want an infrastructure that underlies a Civil Society enacting a liberal order. We want to promote a society of people who take responsibility for themselves and, only as necessary, take recourse to government institutions to defend their associations, civil liberties, and both private property and rights. In contrast, an uncivil society exists as a world mired in structural incompetence, which is fostered by practices of secrecy and coercion (to hide the incompetence from exposure), a culture of suspicion (base on the anxiety of exposure), and promotion of the loyal rather than the capable, the submissive rather than the innovative, the risk-averse rather than the creative. A liberal order consists primarily of the technological project (which transforms Nature to serve human needs and interests), a more-or-less free-market economy, government mostly limited to protecting individual rights and upholding the rule of law, and an emphasis on personal autonomy. A liberal order, properly understood, has no collective end: it exists solely to provide the context within which individuals pursue their personally chosen objectives. It is a kind of infrastructure.
Within the liberal order we find enterprise associations, single-minded institutions that each has a collective goal that subsumes the individual, institutions such as the family, a church, or some other local organization. A Civil Society works best when it manifests a culture in which individuals voluntarily choose to join subsidiary enterprise associations. Such institutions come between the individual and the state and act as a buffer, making society operate more like a neural net; they mediate between anarchic individualism and state authoritarianism and mitigate their effects.
Those institutions determine, ultimately, what a society’s infrastructure will look like and how it will operate. In that way they construct the dance floor.
"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
What music moves a good and decent society? What sweet sounds will seduce people out onto the dance floor? In a strange kind of synesthesia, we derive our music from a vision.
"Fantasia on a Theme of Darwin" might describe a free-enterprise system, over which a benign government ensures fair play. "Rhapsody in Green" denotes an Arcadian vision of garden cities set in a park-like landscape, a society living in harmony with Nature. Or we might have "Hymn to Sophia", which evokes imagery of civilization restructured as a world-spanning university, in which all people are free to pursue philosophy, art, or science as they see fit. Whatever the vision, we want them all to exist in harmony with each other, constituting a vast Harmonium of Humanity.
And among all of those visions will waft the "Grandsong of the Engineers". Changing the dance floor as part of the dance, the engineers will create the structures and the machinery and organize the institutions that constitute the infrastructure of their society. Responding to the expressed needs of their people, and sometimes anticipating those needs, the engineers will build what the fulfillment of those needs requires. If the need is education, they will build schools and libraries. If the need is transportation, they will build roads, seaports, and airports. And if the need is assurance of the continued existence of Humanity in an indifferent Universe, they will build spaceports and the ships that will use them. They will build new homes among the planets and the dance will become grander yet. It may even reach to the stars.
"A Socialist’s Rebuttal"
Associate Professor of Humanities, Villanova University (Radnor Twp., PA)
Published in The Nation, 2011 June 27.
"Why should we want to reinvent capitalism? Rather than reinvent it, we should remind ourselves why capitalism is so pernicious. We could start by stating the obvious (which, apparently, needs restating): the nature and logic of capitalism are incorrigibly avaricious. As a property system driven by the need to maximize profit and production, capitalism is a giant, ever-whirling vortex of accumulation. Anything but conservative, it’s the most dynamic and protean economy in history. As Marx observed in the opening pages of The Communist Manifesto, capitalism thrives on constant reinvention: ‘The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.’ Always seeking new ways to make money, capitalists have reinvented the system several times already. Enclosures, factories, Fordism, automation and ‘flexible production’ – metamorphosis for the sake of profit is the only constant in capitalism. Each incarnation has featured new brands of exploitation and corruption, designed and packaged by masters of economic and managerial sophistry.
To be sure, reformers have been partially successful at shaping these reinventions: collective bargaining, regulations of business, the welfare state. Whatever victories for justice working people have won have been hard-fought and tenuous, the fruit of protracted struggle. But however ingenious or effective the reforms, they’ve been limited, if not eventually subverted, by the intractably mercenary nature of capitalism. As we can see from the history of the past forty years – an era that has been marked by a transatlantic assault on social democracy and New Deal/Great Society liberalism – the rage to accumulate remains the predatory heart and soul of capitalism. We have good reason to assume that capitalists will always seek and find fresh ways to cast off the fetters and vanquish their opponents.
But the iniquity of capitalism goes deeper than its injustice as a political economy, its amoral ingenuity in technical prowess or it rapacious relationship with the natural world. However lissome its face or benign in manner, capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous and petty. It takes what the Greeks called pleonexia – an endless hunger for more and more – and transforms it from a tawdry and dangerous vice into the central virtue of the system. The sanctity of ‘growth’ in capitalist culture stems from this moral alchemy, as does the elevation of market competition into a model of human affairs.
Conscripting us into an economic war, capitalism turns us into soldiers of fortune, steeled against casualties and collateral damage, ransacking the earth to fill the shelves and banks with plunder. Capitalism stands condemned most profoundly not by its maldistribution of wealth or its ecological despoliation but by its systematic cultivation of people inclined toward injustice and predation. And I think we on the left need to start dismissing as utterly irrelevant the standard apologetic riposte: the material prosperity and technological achievement generated by capitalist enterprise. No amount of goods can compensate for the damage wrought on human nature by the deliberate nurturance of our vilest qualities. The desecration of the values we claim to hold most dear is the primary reason we should want to abolish, not reinvent, capitalism.
This suggests that what needs reinvention is not capitalism – leave that to the well-mannered barbarians in the business schools – but our moral and spiritual imagination. I don’t mean only the wisdom that lies in the venerable traditions of the left. Even those who have opposed capitalism have often fallen for its illusions: the ideal of ‘growth,’ the mythology of ‘progress,’ the cipher of ‘innovation.’
Any effort to end the tyranny of Mammon must be leavened by other concerns. What does it mean to be human? What do we really want? These are moral, even religious questions – the kind of questions we often dismiss as politically unserious, or relegate to the hallowed oblivion of ‘private life.’ But they’re also political questions, for the answers determine the ends as well as the means of production. The ancient moral and metaphysical concerns may turn out to be not redoubts for reaction but wellsprings of radical hope."
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