The Demon Barber of Main Street

Benjamin Barber is very concerned about the destruction of independent democratic countries like ours at the hands of globalized consumerism. Barber tells of a coming (or is it already here?) “American emptiness,” a smithereens in which civil society has been denatured by radical, infantile Lockeanism and political sovereignty has been extinguished by the prerogatives of the market. What alarms Barber gives me a wave or two of nausea, so what follows is sympathetic criticism. But in his longing to save what’s quintessentially and uniquely American about the United States, Barber lapses into a style of political theorization that’s all too European.

The trouble begins with his attack on Margaret Thatcher…

who famously denied the existence of “society.” For Barber this is only a cynical echo of an

astonishing faith in the limitless capacity of markets to “coordinate human behavior or activity with a range and a precision beyond that of any other system, institution, or social process,” as political and economic theorist Charles E. Lindblom has put it.

From here, Barber quickly turns to condemn all “libertarians and privatizers,” villains who

actually pervert and undermine real autonomy, given that as Hannah Arendt argued, “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participant in government,’ or it means nothing.” The tension between private choice and public participation is clearly embodied in the tension between the consumer as private chooser and the citizen as public chooser. Citizens cannot be understood as mere consumers because individual desire is not the same thing as common ground; public goods are something more than a collection of private wants. A republic is by definition public, and what is public cannot be determined by aggregating private desires. Asking what “I want” and asking what “we need” are two different things: the first question is ideally answered by the market, the second by the community. When the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is deformed and the character of our commonwealth undermined.

My sympathies with Barber here run deep enough, insofar as pitfalls of ‘the market’ are of a piece with its formless, shapeless abstraction. The most basic necessity for common ground is that there be actual ground, and I am happy enough to credit Marx’s critique of capitalism as that which turns everything to air. Tocqueville alleged clearly enough the way this is merely a symptom of the spread of equality itself — though public opinion is king, it’s no corporeal, comprehensive body like Hobbes’ sovereign; it’s a smog cloud of “mental dust.” It’s unfortunate, then, that to combat one totalistic abstraction Barber musters several others: “society,” “community,” and “government” (listed in decreasing order of abstraction). Rather than trying out some hermeneutics on Thatcherism, we should be able to readily agree that the brief against the existence of society has less to do with radical individualism than it does with the contention that both individuals as well as kin or affinity groups can make little sense of this shapeless, formless beast. ‘Society’ is the unit of people analysis taken at its highest possible level of abstraction. Working with society as the unit of analysis generalizes and makes generic all human relationships in whatever ‘society’ is at hand; the leverage gained is in the swift, putatively unimpeachable comparative study of large-n human populations, the better to generate standard predictive statements of causality which in turn produce unitary, rational, one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ for ‘social’ problems. The result, rather than a great battery of solutions, is one long ‘problematization’ — the fertile problem raised by trying to consider human beings at a scale that wipes them of that which makes them recognizably human.

But Barber’s willingness to defend the existence of society is contingent on, and leavened by, his enthusiasm for the reality of community and government. And here we can begin to see the unmistakable shape of Helmut Kohl shifting its bulk behind the curtain. For Barber would like, as much as possible, to make community and government coextensive. At the heart of his civic republicanism is an indelible, non-negotiable Europeanism — the inability to conceive of justice outside the context of the commonwealth, which is community and government combined. (There is a parallel, or more fundamental, argument going on here between Catholic and Protestant political thought which you can probably track easily but which I will have to leave aside for now.) First, consider ‘community.’ It is impossible to imagine what ‘community’ could mean without reference to widely, intersubjectively held convictions as to the verity of moral virtues and vices. But as it is most commonly used, community means something more. Drawing from Aristotle and his Christian inheritors, community theorists describe a group of human beings who not only share ideas, passions, and interests, but share their lives and fates with one another in a rich, complex tapestry of relationships — individual to individual, parent to child, family to family, priest to flock, elders to youngers, and on and on. The citizen-citizen relationship, in a true community, is just one of the many ties that bind. So, for that matter, is the state-citizen relationship.

But wait a minute! What am I doing saying “state” instead of “government,” as Barber does? As it happens, when there is merely government, meaning the government, there is only one share in governing that a citizen can take because there is only one governing institution. And that institution is the state — since Hobbes, at any rate, who recovered unitary government from the ancient city-states with which it had been buried. Drawing from Machiavelli, civic republicans can claim that, just as a republic is a single country, its government is that of a single state. Drawing from Arendt, they can claim that political equality affords the goods that it does because it places all citizens within a single shared arena (one which, albeit, they can choose to stay silent within). The root of the whole principle of commonwealth reaches clear back to Aristotle and Plato, for whom, say, federalism was not only incomprehensible but a detour away from the best life humans could lead.

But the gradual birth of the United States marked a massive detour — a nearly complete break — from the long, torturous collective memory of Europe, which frustrated itself to no end attempting to realize the human good in commonwealth form. America was a land of smaller, weaker, less perfect, and more permeable commonweals and individual smallholdings which assembled themselves into sovereign states (or, occasionally, ‘commonwealths’) — which, of course, configured themselves uneasily into some strange new kind of political order called a federal republic. This arrangement provided for a new secular order unthinkable in European political philosophy — a stable but contingent diversity of communities, combined with a concert of equal states with voluntarily incomplete sovereignty. The result was both to (a) divide community from government and (b) divide community and government alike into shifting, overlapping, layered, and only ambiguously hierarchical groupings — all while maintaining a regime of political liberty that provided ‘freedom from’ some forms of tyrannical government and ‘freedom to’ participate in a variety of governments (state, township, federal union) for a variety of purposes.

Viewed against the organic, providential genius of that arrangement, Barber’s defense of citizenship takes on the character of a very well-intentioned but quite ill-fitting brief. Possibly Barber sees in the loamy soil of America’s strange political nature the seeds of alienation and infantilization that troubled Tocqueville so. But Tocqueville, like Constant and other 19th-century liberals, held no typically European illusions about the possibility of transforming America (or anywhere else!) into a fulfillment of the ancient utopian ideal of community and government united in commonwealth. As a matter of Western development, the Spartan style of order (Constant’s favorite example when critiquing Rousseau) had become more impractical, more costly, less rewarding, and less necessary. But as a matter of American uniqueness, the mimetically reproduced Greco-Christian dream of commonwealth never made a great deal of sense. The closest thing one can find in the American cultural DNA is the “city on the hill” — something which, I would argue, carries far different valences and implications, for all its apparent Aristotelian Thomism. If the United States is in danger of losing the goods secured by its unique and complexly distancing arrangement of communities and governments, the cure is certainly not to try emulating the Kingdom of Bavaria. Even if such a thing were possible, which it is not, it would be undesirable.

The silver lining for my MacIntyrean friends? You are always free to develop and nest little commonwealths in the broad, shifting framework of the American order. I think this is a pretty generous deal. But I wonder if it will ever seem to be enough for those who take MacIntyre, or Barber, seriously. It makes all too little sense without the Hebraic conception of pilgrimage handy — which, I would argue, is one of the several key Hebraic inheritances at the heart of the American order. But that is a story for another day.