One of the great benefits of having Nate Oman and Frank McIntyre as regular bloggers here at T&S is that they can rapidly and thoroughly devastate the flakey assumptions which underlie my repetetive calls for social arrangements which prioritize public goods and community maintenance over individual choice and economic growth. This is a good thing: it’s good to be corrected by people who have more knowledge than you, and it’s good to be humbled. I’m confident this post will continue in that tradition.
The title of this post imitates a recent post of Greg’s, which–along with another post from Ryan Bell–asked hard questions about class, merit, and education, and what perspective, if any, Mormonism could bring to bear on that thorny mix of issues. It’s worth imitating, because the reasons why socialism (or social democracy, if you prefer) is a good fit with Mormon doctrine and thought–if not practice, at least in the U.S.–have very little to do with narrow economic concerns and have, instead, almost everything to do with the sort of broad social matters which Greg brought up. Of course, most people (or, again, most Americans at least) associate socialism with the former, rather than the latter: socialism equals state socialism which equals a restrictive, narrow, oppressive, bureaucratic tyranny over human economic behavior, right? Wrong. But socialists themselves deserve most of the blame for this state of affairs.
Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, at its heart, is a profoundly conservative complaint. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century had resulted in wrenching and often horrifying changes in the fabric of European society, and the then-dominant ideology of classical liberalism made political room for viciously individualistic and Darwinistic arguments which treated the social consequences of this revolution–the impoverishment of the countryside, the crowded and deadly conditions of the cities, the corruption and immense wealth of the fortunate few–as negligible, or even laudable. Socialism began then, as did modern conservatism and a host of other reformist and utopian movements, as an attempt to preserve something under attack, a way of life wherein social status was recognized, but also held fast within a constrained and more mutualistic world. In other words, an attempt to prevent “economics” from being changed from a larger, more comprehensive set of moral concerns, and into a dry and impersonal set of priorities:
The bourgeoisie . . . has put an end to all fuedal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining not other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy waters of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom, Free Trade. . . . The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. . . . All fixed relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Edmund Burke couldn’t have put it better (and, indeed, he didn’t). There were costs to the emergence of the modern marketplace, costs that were collective, historical, affective, aesthetic, and thus not easily reduced to issues of property or right, which meant they by and large had no traction in the liberal economic world. Of course, as the above passage makes clear, it’s not as though Marx had any real attachment to the older world that was being lost; on the contrary, he thought that world was a similarly materialistic achievement, and its passing was inevitable given the historical laws which he believed held all human behavior in its grip. Nonetheless, he still acknowledged that such a world–and any possible material world, for that matter–constituted something more than just a random set of personal preferences which could be changed, expanded, abandoned, traded, bought, maximized, or bargained away; it was, rather, a lifeworld which sustained and enabled and embedded the construction and recognition of human meaning. Losing it meant being alienated, being lost oneself. In this sense, Marx and every other socialist or conservative or anarchist who has ever challenged liberal political and economics has simply been following in the footsteps of Rousseau, who correctly identified modern alienation as an insurmountable obstacle to both personal virtue or political legitimacy; if either are desired, than somehow “the social” has to be recreated. People who complain about the dismissiveness with which tradition, public religion, common sense, and communal concern is treated in the competitive and legally exacting ethos of modern society, but are unwilling to follow through on Rousseau’s diagnosis of what liberalism hath wrought, are untrue to their convictions. Despise the direction which Marx pushed socialism all you want, but it can’t be said that he wasn’t serious about change.
As have been the modern prophets, like, for example, Lorenzo Snow:
Zion cannot be built except on the principles of union required by celestial law. It is high time for us to enter into these things. It is more pleasant and agreeable for the Latter-day Saints to enter into this work and build up Zion, than to build up ourselves and have this great competition which is destroying us. Now let things go on in our midst in our Gentile fashion, and you would see an aristocracy growing amongst us, whose language to the poor would be, “we do not require your company; we are going to have things very fine; we are quite busy now, please call some other time.” Your would have classes established here, some very poor and some very rich. Now, the Lord is not going to have anything of that kind. There has to be an equality; and we have to observe these principles that are designed to giver every one the privilege of gathering around him the comforts and conveniences of life. The Lord, in his economy of spiritual things, has fixed that every man, according to his preserverance and faithfulness, will receive exaltation and glory in the eternal worlds–a fullness of the Priesthood, and a fullness of the glory of God. This is the economy of God’s system by which men and women can be exalted spiritually. The same with regard to temporal affairs.
This is as fine a condemnation of alienation as one is likely to ever find outside the philosophical literature: not just that those who lose their place in society lack in comforts and conveniences (though they almost invariably do), but more importantly are excluded, marginalized, distinguished as less interesting, less worthy of the company of society’s winners, less needful of their (our?) time. This is why Marx condemn those early capitalist reformers who assumed that the problems of capitalism–including, perhaps, violent retribution by poor–could best be satisfied through various progressive tricks, setting up welfare schemes, minimum-wage laws, redistributing taxes and so forth. Buying off the proletariat can only work for so long, Marx believed; in the end, the deep and profoundly condescending noneconomic cost of being wrenched out of one’s material social world and sent forth, a solitary agent, to go to work for some man, in some place, doing some job, for some wage, will be too much; no matter how solictious or open-minded one’s employers, in the end the contradictions in the system will bring it all down.
Of course, it didn’t come down. Marx never imagined that there could be a middle class, and that the affective as well as financial benefits of property could actually someday fall into workers’ hands. The simple truth that the individual accumulation of wealth could make possible a little bit of home-creation, or at least enough to minimize the pain of humankind’s larger social condition, was utterly beyond him. Tragically, it was beyond most of Marx’s followers as well, who–once they realized that the revolution wasn’t going to happen by itself–decided that they’d just have to jump-start some revolutions of their own, complete with a “vanguard” (the intellectuals, in Russia; the peasants, in China and Cambodia) that would help “purify” things (to the tune of tens of millions of deaths) for the communism which they believed would invariably follow. So, Marx’s economic imagination was limited and wrong, so wrong that it has tragically poisoned the deeper truth of socialist thinking: that growth isn’t enough, and distribution isn’t enough–what matters is socio-economic belonging. Which is, as far as I can tell, the Mormon position as well. The equality which President Snow vigorously defended didn’t depend upon a dole which would make certain that everyone had more or less the same amount of stuff; as anyone familiar with the history of the United Order can tell you, the prophets constantly rejected communism, insisted on individual stewardships, and condemned economic “leveling.” Despite Orderville and a few other exceptions, the basic goal had never been to embrace the abolition of private property. But that did not make the economic aims of the 19th-century church any less socialistic, properly speaking, despite what some later general authorities insisted. The very idea of consecrated property joined in cooperative enterprises–or, in a more contemporary context, the establishment of protective conditions of production, education, employment and trade that make possible the extension of a labor-centered, participatory market where none are excluded because of their schooling or neighborhood or profession or social habits . . . that is a socially democratic economic practice; or in other words, the sort of capitalism which is not alienating. It is also, of course, profoundly, even ruinously, inefficient, especially as the wider economic world becomes less and less interested in drawing upon the particularities of persons and their places, and more and more dominated by borderless, infinitely pliable and socially transparent movements of wealth. But then, families–those constrained, conservative, embedded entities, with their traditions and limitations–are inefficient too; and either way, inefficiency doesn’t seem to come in for much condemnation in the scriptures.
In Europe and Latin America, where social democratic parties that survived the wreckage of Marxism have long had a beneficial influence, it’s understood that socialism has meaning separate from the totalitarian, anti-religious, warped historical determinism which captured the collectivist response to liberalism and turned into a vehicle of death and destruction. While such an understanding of the personal and morally comprehensive roots socialism is pretty rare in the U.S., you can still find it–in Dorothy Day’s Catholic “transformation of work,” in the “distributionism” (actually regionalism) of the Southern Agrarians, and in the Midwestern populism and progressivism of any number of political leaders from William Jennings Bryant to Robert LaFollette. And you can find it in Mormonism, whose prophets called for policies of full employment through public works and cooperative enterprise in Nauvoo and again later in Utah, decades before John Maynard Keynes was born. I can understand the desire to dump the socialist label of course (I rarely use it myself, preferring “social democrat” or “Christian socialist”), given the fact that many actually existing socialist parties aren’t friends of religion, or religious freedom for that matter. Still, the connection isn’t worth ignoring, because the power and rightness of connecting Mormonism with social justice and democracy is too strong, as Arthur Henry King once noted: “I read Marx almost exactly fifty years ago. If it had not been for Marx, I should not yet be in this Church, if any at all.” No, Marx doesn’t have the key to Zion, and there is likely no single economic measure in the social democratic toolkit (whether regarding taxes, trade, schooling, or anything else) that will get us anywhere near it. Zion will require a purity of heart, not of policy. But in the meantime, if the ideal is there, I don’t see why it isn’t worth fighting for. Indeed, I think all Mormons should.