Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Civil Society and Utopia

J. Bradford DeLong



>Anyhow - what am I talking about. I think that we are seeing the
>opening moves in the construction of a post neo-liberal ideology. These
>'new' lefties, 'third-way' types are not simply acceding to the
>Thatcher/reagan agenda. They have accepted the defeat of 'socialism'
>and believe that the state is not capable of interfering in the society
>and economy so as to bring about significant economic growth, wealth
>re-distribution etc. But they don't think that leaving everything to
>the market is a goer either. So they are beginning to think the role of
>civil society in underpinning both market and social relations and
>looking towards policies that reinvigorate the realm of civil society
>and free it from the state so it can provide a ground for the fostering
>of 'autonomy'.
> The kinds of things it leads to are an emphasis on civil
>organisations, such as churches, charities, voluntary agencies, mutuals
>etc. and also democratisation of the work place..

My Comment:

One possible way to think of it:

There have been perhaps seven different Utopian movements in northwest Europe and its settler colonies in the past three centuries:

(1) Adam Smith's--get the government out of the business of detailed mercantilist regulation and let the market carry us to Utopia...

(2) Alexander Hamilton's--in the past human governments oscillated between mob rule, open tyranny, and cruel oligarchy; but advances in the science of government (frequent elections, representation, independent judiciaries, checks and balances, limited powers, and so forth) now allow us to combine the best of Aristotle's conception of aristocracy with the best of democracy, and for the first time in human history to avoid Aristotle's political cycle of decay and degeneration as different unsatisfactory modes of government alternate.

(3) Alexis de Tocqueville's--eliminate class distinctions, multiply the freedom of individuals in private life, and rely on self-interest properly understood to guide people to a degree of civic virtue and fellowship: a recognition that the free development of each requires the free development of all.

(4) Jean-Jacques Rousseau's--seek to emulate ancient Sparta, with citizens raised to virtue and simplicity, because any focus on private life or on luxury leads to decadence.

(5) Karl Marx's--when some have a lot of property and most have no property, the market is an instrument of oppression. Since we cannot (do not?) want to return to a petty-bourgeois equal distribution of property, we must move forward and make everything social property through nationalization.

(6) Max Weber's--Northwest European civilization has brought instrumental rationality to a pitch never before accomplished, but its victories have all been empty: we need new charismatic leaders--new gods and demons--to call us to the pursuit and attainment of new sorts of values and goals.

(7) Mary Wollstonecraft's--the barriers and restrictions on what non-white non-males are allowed to do and think in this civilization are at least as important barriers to human freedom as any other set of barriers to what particular white males are allowed to do and think.


Now of these utopian projects the first is (and continues to be) a smashing success. So does the second: the social-democratic regimes of the North Atlantic and Southwest Pacific appear to be "softer", more benevolent, and more democratic forms of rule than any substantial subgroup of humanity has ever before achieved.

The seventh we are still grappling with, with some (limited) success.

The sixth now causes us to run, screaming, into the night: after Hitler, Stalin,and Mao, we want no more charismatic leaders seeking to lead us into new forms of life and to transvalue our values. The result seems to be very, very ugly...

The fourth, as well, seems to us today to hold too many echoes of Cambodia in the year zero...

The fifth, also, causes many of us to run, screaming, into the night: Marx's main point--that in a society in which a few have property but many do not, the market is a very efficient social mechanism for exploitation--remains true, but all attempts to date to figure out a way around it have generated cures considerably worse than the disease. Most of us today believe (for reasons outlined by von Mises and Hayek in the 1920s and 1930s) that the state's core competence does not lie in organizing the distribution of bread or in running steel mills. Most of us would prefer to deal with Marx's dilemma by moving backward to a petty-bourgeois roughly equal distribution of "property" rather than by moving forward to state ownership of the means of production. The problem is then that a roughly even distribution of property is unstable.

This leaves our generation with, roughly, the following set of historical tasks:

(a) Continue to nurture the development of Adam Smith's utopia, all the while recognizing that its end--the multiplication of human productive powers--is not our end: that we care about what wealth and productive capacity are used for, not just about their amplification.

(b) Continue to nurture the development of Alexander Hamilton's utopia, realizing (it is especially easy to realize this in California) that unmediated direct policy decisions made by those who show up at the polls are not necessarily the most democratic or just decisions: that there is wisdom in separation of powers, independent judiciaries, and so forth.

(c) Attempt to advance more rapidly toward a non-racist, non-sexist society.

(d) Attempt to avoid losing ground with respect to the bandaid that social democracy has placed on Marx's dilemma: recognize that the instrumentalities of social democracy--from rights to education and rights to strike to unemployment insurance, public health insurance, and pensions--have been powerful factors counteracting the tendencies in a market economy toward an unequal distribution of wealth. The victories of social democracy are worth defending (and are under strong attack).


(e) Seek to advance Alexis de Tocqueville's version of utopia--recognize that true civic virtue and fraternity are not the result of a common Freudian identification with a powerful leader, but are the result of an on-the-ground recognition of our mutual dependence. Tocqueville talked about juries, barn-raisings, local self-government, and common worship; Finlayson talks about "churches, charities, voluntary agencies, mutuals etc. and also democratisation of the work place... employee share ownership... releasing state run services (health, education, even the police force) into forms of private or private/public joint ownership you demand that they be more reflexive and responsive and above all responsible attempting to make them into 'stake-holding' organisations." But I think it is the same impulse.

So put me down as one who thinks that the trends spotted by Alan Finlayson are not only there, but are the only reasonable thing that can be done at the moment.

I don't know how to work closer to Marx's vision of utopia without running an unacceptable risk of complete social disaster. I don't even think that Weber's or Rousseau's vision of utopia is desirable at all.

I do think that we are working closer to Mary Wollstonecraft's vision of utopia--and the screams of anguish from the Abigail Thernstroms' of the world (who think that we would have no problems if only African-Americans would shut up, sit down, and move to the back of the bus where their grandparents' lack of wealth has placed them) give me considerable delight. But this shouldn't absorb *all* our energies.

I do think that it is not clear how to work closer to Alexander Hamilton's vision of utopia. Further constitutional adjustments to our present political order that would improve it are hard to think of, and harder to implement).

I do know (as someone recently fingered by Jagdish Bhagwati as a leader of the sinister movement for the continued globalization of world capital markets) how to progress toward Adam Smith's utopia, even though the goal of a jet-ski in every garage might strike many of you as counterproductive. (On the other hand, get rid of the multifiber agreement that puts quotas on the export of textiles from Bangladesh to the United States and double the real incomes of ten million Bengalis for very little adverse economic impact on anyone in the United States: there is considerable honor in putting ten million Bangalis on the escalator to modernity, so that they might someday be able to afford electricity...)

And I suspect that a lot can be done in the way of creating a stakeholder society, in which public services are run not by the government at large but by those who benefit from the programs, and in which active efforts at self-government achieve results and nurture civic virtue.

So sign me up for what I think of as the Tony Blair--Gene Sperling--Bob Reich vision of how to move closer to utopia...


Brad DeLong

You had despaired finding a "general 'solution' to the problems of coercion in the name of social cohesion vs. leaving people the fruits of their labors. After a lot of thought I have come to the conclusion that there must be mechanisms for requiring people not only to refrain from crime, but in fact to contribute something to the general good; but every such mechanism scares me because it is so easily subject to abuse...

But you do know the solution, probably better than I do: people-power--but power to the people that is then exercised in a manner that makes the people free, rather than a manner that makes them Equals or that makes them Patrons and Clients.

As was said long ago:

"...Our system of government favors the many instead of the few. That is why it is called "people-power." Our laws afford equal justice to all. Advancement in public life follows from a reputation for capacity rather than social standing. Social class is not allowed to interfere with merit. Nor does poverty bar the way: a man able to serve the state is not hobbled by obscurity.

"The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to ordinary life. Far from exercising jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbors for doing what they like--or even to indulge in offensive and injurious looks which inflict no positive penalty. But this tolerance in our private life does not make us lawless citizens. Fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws--particularly those that protect the injured--whether they are on the statute book or belong to that code of unwritten laws that cannot be broken without disgrace...

"We trust less in system and policy than in the native spirit of our citizens. In education--where our rivals from their very cradles seek "manliness" by painful discipline--here at Athens we live as we please, and yet are just as ready as our antagonists to encounter every danger.... [w]ith habits not of labor but of ease, and with courage not artificial but natural... We have the double advantage of escaping hardships in anticipation of danger, and yet of facing hardships in the hour of need as fearlessly as those always suffer them.

"Nor are these the only points to admire in our city. We cultivate refinement without extravagance. We cultivate knowledge without effeminacy. We employ wealth for use, not for show. We place the real disgrace not in the fact of poverty but in the declining of the struggle against it.

"Our public men have their private affairs to attend to in addition to politics. Our ordinary citizens--occupied with the pursuits of industry--are still good judges of public matters. Unlike any other nation, we regard those who take no part in these public duties not as lacking ambition but as useless.... Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think debate an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

"Thus in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons. The prize of courage goes most justly to those who know best both hardship and pleasure, and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger..."


The problem, however, is figuring out the best way to implement this solution...


Sincerely yours,


Brad DeLong

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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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