Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Big Government and Big Business: What They Leave Out

In the middle of the 19th century, when sensitive souls first noticed the industrial revolution, they all agreed that the solution to the Moloch of bourgeois capitalism was more government.

And they had a point, for it looked as though the capitalists would rule the world. It took another 50 years to demonstrate that capitalists weren't much interested in power. After building their businesses, they turned to philanthropy, eradicating hookworm in the South and building universities and medical research insititutes and peace foundations.

But by then the momentum towards big government was irreversible, and so big government is what we got.

The trouble with government, all government, is that it is just an armed minority occupying territory and taxing its people, and it stays in power by rewarding its supporters with pensions and subsidies. It really doesn't give a damn about the rest of the people, the ones that don't support it. In fact it typically brands them as dangerous radicals and extremists.

The other little problem with government arises out of its nature as an "armed minority." It is organized for warfare, whether warfare against foreign enemies or domestic enemies. To government everything looks like a war to fight, because to a hammer everything looks like a nail. Republicans, over the years, have preferred foreign wars, but Democrats have concentrated upon domestic wars: against poverty, against pollution, against the rich, against fundamentalists, against the Koch Brothers. And there's one very tricky problem with government. Like an army, it is organized to pursue victory at all costs; it does not demonstrate the flexibility needed to navigate a complex world. It is very difficult for government to change its mind, on entitlements, on dietary fat, on health care, on education, on anything.

Now the other great modern invention, capitalism, is different, but similar. It ceaselessly roams the world looking for business opportunities, and when it finds them it turns things upside down. We talk easily about buggy-whip makers, but the truth is that business is putting people out of business and workers out of jobs all the time. Joseph Schumpeter called it "creative destruction" and people on the receiving end of creative destruction don't like it at all.

But there is another thing about business that people don't like. It is a certain blindness to people that aren't in the swim, that aren't one of us. The Venetians and the Genoese ran a pretty good trading system bringing goods from the East to Europe. But they also did a nice little trade in slaves: Circassian girls for the harems of Arabia, and young men for the slave armies of the Mamluks. Then, of course, it was Venice that invented the western sugar plantation, starting with Muslim slaves on Cyprus and then expanding westward across the Atlantic using slaves from Africa. Nobody seemed to have a problem with that, from the 13th century to the 18th century.

The Frankfurt School and J├╝rgen Habermas explain why both government and business can be so blind to other people, and use them up like resources rather than treat them like fellow humans. The problem is that both government and business are "systems" based on the application of instrumental reason, in which people act strategically. In government the strategic aim is to increase raw power over people and minds. In business the strategic aim is to increase power in the market, wealth and profits.

The solution is not hard to find. It is do develop the moral and cultural consensus that government's power over people should be limited, and that business's "creative destruction" should not destroy people.

This means that we have to look into the very foundation of our modern world and its worship of reason, for, as Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in the 1940s, we use reason to dominate nature and other men, for "What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men."

Now the point about human society and humans as social animals is that within the bounds of society we do not use pure reason and domination to force our way. We abjure force and resort to communication and cooperation. If we disagree about means and ends we talk with each other to try to discover a way that we can compromise our objectives so that everyone gets something out of the compromise. We set limits on what can be done to other people, the limits on treating them as means to an end. We think a little about other peoples' needs as well as our own needs. We "care" about other people, and we share in their suffering, through "com-passion" rather than merely obsess on our own problems and needs.

What is this thing that can moderate the strategic impulse of instrumental reason and its systems? It is, of course, everything, from friendship to kindness, to neighborhood groups to churches to charities to love. As Kant said, it is treating people as ends in themselves rather than means.

The question is, of course, how? In our society of vast instrumental forces from government to business to political movements, how do we dial back the relentless strategic drive for power and substitute communicative dialog and friendship?

That is indeed the question.

No comments:

Post a Comment