Conservativism Now?  Market Economies and the Liberal Anti-Culture

June 19, 2018

The persistent purpose of my writing over the past decade has been to reflect in a hopefully complex manner on the sort of culture necessary to “solve” the climate and ecological crisis and create a truly sustainable way of life.

One of my main themes has been that neither liberalism (nor Liberalism[i] ) is suited to that task, in large part because it is fundamentally growthist, requiring for social stability the “simple requirement,” as Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it, of “the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”  As David Fleming wrote, “starting some three centuries ago, the market economy has, with growing confidence, been the source and framework for a loose and easy-going but effective civil society and social order” (85).  Expansion, growth, and the promise of limitless possibility are the foundation of the “effectiveness” mentioned by Fleming.  Growth is the social glue that has held liberal industrial societies together, which is one of several connected reasons why we won’t address our relationship to our natural ecology by becoming “more liberal” or “more progressive.” Sustainability, then, is neither liberal nor progressive.

But, one might ask, why so persistent a critique of our liberal friends?  After all, they (we) seem the most inclined to pay attention to the environment, and to show care and concern for our connection to nature.  One might imagine a story about a contradiction in progressive attitudes, torn between concern and empathy, on the one hand, and growth and prosperity on the other, happily resolved as the empathetic side prevails in the face of growing awareness of the collateral damage of growth and prosperity.  Perhaps.

But my suspicion, in contrast, is this: not only are the liberal beliefs, expectations, and assumptions that require for their satisfaction permanent growth, material progress, and the removal of limits ultimately stronger than any countervailing care and concern, the care and concern (the part that may embrace nurture and restorative values) is unfortunately tied up in the quest for justice through material progress and removal of limits, beneath which is a void of cultural emptiness.  Liberalism, I will argue, is in all its facets wed to the market and market values.

In today’s thoughts, I’m going to extend both aspects of the argument that 1) liberals may be inclined to protect the environment but 2) a stronger set of wants is bent on destroying it; and I’m going to extend this by focusing more explicitly on the market economy, which forms the values both of liberal growthism and, perhaps to our surprise, is the source of liberal empathy.  Just as liberals are soft environmentalists, so also are they soft anti-capitalists.  And while political liberals can be proud of substantial gains that protect our common good from the extremes of worker exploitation and consumerism, these gains are still grounded in a Liberal faith about the market or the freedoms the market secures.  Therefore liberals (as liberals) have nothing to fall back on as a replacement for this consumerism.  Thus the gloomy state of today’s liberal politics: liberals have little substantial to fight for[ii] beyond a somewhat more fair and equitable consumerism—hardly compelling and hardly useful in the fight against the destruction of our biosphere.  Becoming “more liberal” will be of little use.

The Great Annihilation

One of the best ways to appreciate what we might call liberalism’s care and concern or protective tendencies (it’s soft anti-capitalism and nominal support of workers’ rights) is to take a brief tour of Karl Polanyi’s indispensable book, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time.  Polanyi’s subject is the rise of the market society, which he traces with both historical detail and a philosophical sense of its inherent tensions and contradictions.

Of course, the rise of the market economy is hardly a story about the development of protection, nurture, or empathy.  Even before it transformed the entire surface of the globe in its pursuit of gain, early capitalist production destroyed more simple and necessary economies of basic need fulfillment, physical and social. Its first victims were the English peasantry: “at the heart of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century,” says Polanyi, “there was an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production, which was accompanied by a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people” (35).  The sort of change we still think of as “improvements” or praise as “development,” writes Polanyi, “wrought unprecedented havoc with the habitation of the common people.  Before the process had advanced very far, laboring people had been crowded together in new places of desolation, the so-called industrial towns of England; the country folk had been dehumanized into slum dwellers; the family was on the road to perdition; and large parts of the country were disappearing under the slack and scrap heaps vomited forth from the ‘satanic mills’” (41).

Now, all traditional ways of fulfilling physical and social needs were uprooted and cleared away so that nothing would stand in the way of the requirements of capital accumulation. The situation was grave and untenable, as all aspects of life became servants to the “laws” of supply and demand, ruled by the mercurial sovereignty of price.  “Robbed of the protection of cultural institutions human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation.  Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce raw materials destroyed” (76).

The process was very much like that suffered by victims of colonialism in his own day, where the market’s cunning destroys the social and cultural landscape and then claims its inhabitants free: “this effect of the establishment of a labor market is conspicuously apparent in colonial regions today.  The natives are forced to make a living by selling their labor.  To this end, their traditional institutions must be destroyed and prevented from reforming” (171).  As long as traditional means of subsistence remain intact, common people will resist the compulsions of wage-labor. And so, beginning with the enclosure laws followed by a century of domestic colonial violence and disruption, were the English peasantry steadily forced into the misery of the factory or mill.

Of the pure market economy, Polanyi concludes “Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness” (3).  But none of this happened, at least not yet, at least not entirely.   The market economy still stumbles on; or, some say, it has reached a global zenith, now six times as large as it was when Polanyi penned these predictions.

Liberal Equilibrium Points

Why has the market economy not yet annihilated the human and natural substance of society—or at least not entirely?  The answer to this question provides the answer to another one: namely, where did liberals (small “l”) come from?

Because, Polanyi explains, in the face of this coming annihilation “inevitably society took measures to protect itself.”   The moment it revealed its destructive force, the pure market economy was quickly transformed, sometimes fitfully and unevenly, into a managed and regulated market economy.  By ceding the “pure” part of the market economy, capitalism did steady itself, both in the last third of the nineteenth century and again after Polanyi’s writing during the middle of the twentieth century.

This self-steadying by way of regulation and management, Polanyi shows, forms most of the content of nineteenth-century British social and political history; the same could be said for the period between WWII and around 1980, though this history is still viewed mainly with partisan passion.  Most of the political and social struggles and political divisions orbited around a “double movement: the market expanded continuously but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions” (137), an ongoing “conflict between the market and the elementary requirements of an ordered social life” (257)

To our more specific purposes here, this conflict explains the great political divide within a functionally unified Liberal tradition: fostering and fomenting the expansion of the market we have the original “liberals,” those who today might be referred to as conservatives or neo-liberals.  Supporting the countermovement that checked the expansion, we have the side of Liberalism dedicated to social reform.  These were the first “progressives,” today’s “liberals.”  The proud achievement of these liberals has been the humanizing laws and regulations that have indeed relieved wage labor from much of its original misery and uncertainty.

But the more important accomplishment of liberals and progressives, may have been preventing capitalism from dying “from an overdose of itself,” as sociologist Wolfgang Streeck puts it, echoing Polanyi.

Streeck suggest that in a capitalist society such as ours, government policies have traditionally “vacillated between two equilibrium points, one political, the other economic,” thus mediating between the rights of citizens and the requirements of capital accumulation” (16, 90).[iii] The political point, or the rights of citizens, which I have been associating with liberals, concerns itself with civil rights, equality, education, housing, leisure, and a number of other needs that stand outside of a narrow understanding of the economy.  Polanyi referred to these political or social phenomena as labor, nature, and money, which can be treated as commodities and be bought and sold, but only up to a point, after which catastrophic destruction will occur.  Conservatives (who used to be called liberals and now are aptly referred to as neo-liberals) form the other equilibrium point.  They, of course, are more attentive to the economic side, arguing that without sufficient capital accumulation the whole show falls apart and that nothing should therefore stand in the way of the commodification of labor and land, people and nature.

Today, each side pursues its “equilibrium point” with unshaken confidence in the absolute rightness of its cause, wishing to vanquish their opponents who, they claim, stand in the way of progress.  But, as Streeck and Polanyi argue, it is only by finding a middle-ground or by vacillating between the two sides, never pausing too long at either extreme, that the way of life ultimately demanded by all Liberals, liberal and conservative ones alike, has been fitfully sustained.[iv]

One of Polanyi’s main arguments in The Great Transformation thus attacks the “myth of a collectivist conspiracy”—that, in other words, the rise of intervention, regulation, and reform was initiated by workers or peasants, mobilized to destroy the nascent capitalist system.  Rather, it turns out, the liberal reformers and the checks on market expansion put in place were neither external or hostile to the market economy.  Social reform grew out of the explicit and conscious needs of the capitalist, ownership class; reform and regulation have always been an integral, homegrown, part of a successful capitalist system that ensured that it would not devour itself.

The reforms these economic liberals sought may have had an underside of humanistic motivation, and may have helped create a self-conscious working class (in addition to the sympathetic bourgeois progressive); but by tracing it to its legislative roots and discursive explanation and defense, Polanyi shows that the protection of workers or the setting aside of land did not result from class-consciousness or worker self-protection.  Rather, regulation of the markets was performed out of an overriding and quite conscious goal to save the markets in the face of their destructive power, initiated by those most committed to the unrealizable ideal of the self-regulating market who traded ideals for the requirements of practical survival.  As Polanyi summarizes it, “finally, the behavior of [economic laissez-faire] liberals themselves proved that the maintenance of freedom of trade—in our terms of a self-regulating market—far from excluding intervention, in effect, demanded such action, and that liberals themselves regularly called for compulsory action on the part of the state as in the case of trade union laws and anti-trust laws” (157).  Thus did Capitalism demand of the government to pull in the slack, ensuring that they hadn’t enough rope to hang themselves.  Political liberals and progressives are in this view capitalism’s rope handlers.

The Cultural Contradictions of liberals

Liberals want (at least) two contradictory things.  But the liberal creed prevents them from making a workable choice and it is from the point of view of this contradiction that we can understand the liberal paralysis in the face of globalism, the un-regulated dominance of “tech” and social media in the lives of the middle-class, as well as the utter failure to address our growing ecological nightmare.

Polanyi’s description of the Liberal check on itself and its markets, along with Streeck’s discussion of the political and economic poles of society can thus help shed life on our current situation as well as the dull confusion involved with being a liberal today, and thus the increasingly stale fare that passes for a vision or optimism for the future, as liberals swing lazily between hope and change, Clinton and Obama, Sanders and Clinton.  Perhaps liberals will reunite in the face of Trump, but what then?

There is, of course, a “liberal class” that maintains an adversarial self-image.  I’m thinking, as one example, of the fleet of Suburu Outbacks lined up in the university parking lot proudly wearing “RESIST” bumper stickers.  No doubt resistance is necessary, but what or how is certain only in its unspecific generality, while the alternative (should one actually exist) remains a mystery shrouded in vague images of a tastefully appointed liberal utopia.  Such a statement represents a cry of discontent, an important recognition that things are not okay.  The particular complaints may be as diverse as the paint colors and interior packages Subaru offers, but aim their actionless ire towards the not insignificant but still predictable constellation projected in the shape of racial injustice, sex discrimination, economic inequality (because the lawyers and brokers make more than the professors?)[v], environmental destruction, and so on.  “Common Dreams,” which sells one version of the bumper sticker on their website says it all, when they assure us that “displaying a sticker is a small but effective means of being a part of the growing community of resistance” (emphasis added), a notion we will consider later.  This is not to diminish the anguish-filled importance of attending to children cut off from their immigrant parents, but to recognize at the same time that the entire issue has as its broader causal context the commodification of labor.

While part of this resistance is anti-capitalist, at least on a sentimental level, it is a very soft anti-capitalism, a statement more of ambivalence directed towards the true believers.  The market economy—the organization of life into working for wages and pursuing gain, buying from strangers in an endless pursuit of want-fulfillment regulated by supply and demand and thus price—is itself not at stake in liberal resistance: only several of the entirely predictable symptoms of this setup are considered.  At issue, then—and this is true of most Socialisms—is only the uneven distribution of the opportunities the market system promises and the bounty it provides.  While liberal resistors may picture themselves fighting for larger and universal goods like equality and justice for all, and against the many hurdles (often bound up in traditional prejudice) that prevent equality and justice, this is all done within the market context—a context which is never questioned.  Like its nineteenth century predecessor social reformers, even the “Occupy” movement was devoted to making the market economy work more fairly starting with a redistribution of the 1%’s sickening plunder.  But as Polanyi and Streeck point out, making it operate more fairly is necessary for it to operate at all.  Without liberal resistors, in other words, capitalism overdoses on itself—or, I would suggest, will do it sooner.

I think this view helps explain certain contradictions and tensions in the current liberal world view.  Liberals and progressives, the side interested in protecting democracy and civitas, know what to think about abortion rights, school shootings and gun control, or the #metoo movement, not to mention the science behind global warming and the vague notion that we need to “get off of fossil fuels.”  But how should we consider Wall Street and the role it plays in our economy?  What about free trade agreements and globalism that the bankers and Silicon Valley love, but that what is left of the labor movement does not?  But then again globalism may be a requirement of a cosmopolitan progressive, while the (“backwards”) rural working class, at least, is all too ready to embrace the “wrong” side of the several issues that liberals are sure about, thus the ease with which the Democratic Party has become the party of the professional class, as Thomas Frank has noted.  In the meantime, liberals know what to think about Walmart. . . but what about Target, or Amazon with its Orwellian sounding “fulfillment centers[vi]”?  What are we to think of the cheap consumer goods?  Does the activist bourgeoisie resist at the cash register, and if so, which ones?  Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos and their wired-in and linked-up knowledge economy are the way to go.  Never mind, as someone recently pointed out, Facebook was invented by a college sophomore with college sophomore concerns.  But the good people of Google and Facebook, youthfully disrespectful of conservative stodginess, do speak out on issues of discrimination and the environment, and seem prepared to speak truth—or at least a whole lot of something else—to power.  Does the future not belong to innovators and entrepreneurs who will come up with the next great idea?

Someday it may be clear that these contradictions between the various incompatible wants of liberals signified the unravelling of a détente between the two poles of government described by Streeck.  Polanyi and Streeck would both argue that this détente was temporary at best,[vii] even without a serious or detailed understanding of the ecological limits of growth, and I think the unravelling of this détente is the best way to understand the current texture of our politics, as well as those in the European Union.[viii]  For the demands of the market and the demands of politics or social and civic life are easy enough to keep in balance when the economy is growing.  Then, profits and return on capital remains high, but not at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits.  In the absence of growth, tension turns into conflict as society and government is forced to choose between the market and ordinary people, investors and paycheck to paycheck workers.  But to make matters yet more complicated, neither that division nor the decision is very clear. After all, “people” do depend on the markets for a host of their human needs.  Of course, this dependency is historical and conditional, rather than absolute or intrinsic; but for the time being the delivery of our daily bread depends on the current state of continued capital accumulation.

One of the strategies used by industrial democracies to postpone the collapse of a workable and livable balance in the face of lowering growth rates was the development of what Streeck calls the “debt state,” which he contrasts to the earlier “tax state.”  In the debt state, as Thomas Piketty, similarly puts it, we’ve decided to borrow from the wealthy rather than tax them, a view that Hyman Minsky foresaw at the beginning of the 80s.  The debt state is able to buy capitalism time by borrowing and thus creating money earmarked for future riches, instead of redistributing real and current goods and services by taxing the wealthy.  While a tension between the two poles of government that reached its workable heights in the tax state remains visible today, it is clear that governments have been choosing markets over people in a consistent and accelerating way since around 1980.  Another name for this choice might be called neo-liberalism.

A significant task of the “knowledge economy” is devoted to making the choice of markets look like a grand historical reconciliation.[ix]

Liberal Utopia

We live in a strange time.  Confidence in the future is in decline, yet liberals are presented with two utopian options in the face of this impossible balance between the two poles of government and the increasingly self-annihilating market order.  And it is around the issue of the liberal market utopia that I would distinguish liberalism from the deep, anti-market, sustainability of something like the Transition movement.

Liberals adopt one, or a combination, of two types of magical thinking, both of which provide a fantasy of a long-term ecological, political, and economic balance between markets or capital accumulation, on the one hand, and democracy or the needs of the citizen, on the other, according to a stable production and consumption regime.  Both visions are utopian.

Some liberals expect a new technological breakthrough, or a series of super-efficiencies that will return us to high levels of growth, but without further environmental degradation or oil depletion.  This is the clean, green knowledge economy of the future.  One can merely look at the graphics on Bill McKibben’s 350.org website to get a sense of this liberal utopia, which is based largely on the contrast between old, oil-based technologies, and new, renewable ones, each carrying a set of vaguely articulated but ready moral and aesthetic associations.  Here we see mirages projecting an illusory synthesis between creative self-fulfillment and complete commodification, as work becomes recast as innovation and innovation becomes stripped of collateral damage so that its heroic entrepreneurs will miraculously create new efficiencies without uprooting and atomizing human workers.  Imagine beneath the soft hum of wind turbines fit and happy people chatting happily as they attend to their Scandinavian-designed raised bed gardens, pleased with the way they’ve maintained the benefits of globalism without its hazards.

The other utopian vision doesn’t dismiss the possibility of technological breakthroughs but is more focused on purely political decisions.  It imagines that simply bearing down on the democratic or civic aspects of our society and politics will, in and of itself, return us to this balance (which, by virtue of that view, his hardly recognized as a balance).  According to this view, the only thing wrong with our current political and economic order is the excessive focus on the market and its needs.  As Paul Krugman puts it, quoting F.D.R.’s 1936 speech accepting the Democratic nomination: “’We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.’ And that line had never run truer” (xiv).  “Good morals,” in this silly formulation which ignores the material complexities of economics, provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for a liberal paradise of permanent economic growth and fair distribution.  Why and how?  It is precisely the fair distribution, itself, overloaded by Krugman with imaginary causal weight, that makes an economy accelerate without the danger of excessive speed according to this euphoric post-Keynesianism.  If bad morals make for bad economics, then (never mind logic 101) good morals must make for good economics.  All we have to do, then, is nurture the political and social pole and the economics will miraculously recover–a view as naïve as the one, following Hayek, Friedman, and Reagan and his revolution, that holds that the only thing necessary to create political freedom is sufficient market freedom.

The important upshot of the work of Polanyi and Streeck is that the market economy is an improbable and probably temporary balance that has been maintained only under very specific conditions, two of which I’d like to isolate here.  If the market economy were sustainable, then the liberal program of resistance would, perhaps, be an adequate political guide.  One necessary condition, either way, involves the successful liberal and conservative check on each other’s more single-minded concerns.  Just as capitalism can devour itself if we let it–a message that liberals are quite prepared to hear–capitalism can also be dampered by excessive demands made upon it in the name of equality and the common good.  Polanyi could be talking about someone like Chris Hedges or even Thomas Frank when he wrote, “he did not, at that time, foresee that the self-protection of society for which he was calling would prove incompatible with the functioning of the economy itself” (135).

I hate to say it folks, but conservative marketeers are not entirely wrong when they talk about the need, from the standpoint of system-sustaining capital accumulation, that “excessive” democratic demands can upset and upend markets.  As Streeck, no friend to capitalism points out, it is possible for voters to demand “benefits and services in excess of what a democratic-capitalist economy could be made to hand over” without facing insolvency (89).  It is only within a progressive utopia free from the demands of energy, resources, and the requirements of debt and its servicing—where corporations will supply all that we want without requiring substantial profits in the face of an uncertain future–that prosperity might be entirely demand, and not supply, driven.  I don’t say this to diminish the importance of those social goods, as some liberals might interpret me, but to doubt the capacity of capitalism to maintain the profits and liquidity it requires without devouring land, people, and fomenting financial crises.  The friendly capitalism of Subaru drivers is unsustainable.

The second condition necessary for a stable balance between markets and social well-being is, as I noted earlier, the presence of steady, and perhaps relatively high, rates of economic growth.  Remove the growth and a vicious economic and political cycle begins.  As Streeck puts it, “except in special situations of very high economic growth, it would appear that the social corrections of the market that are needed to achieve political equilibrium in a democracy tend to undermine the confidence of capital owners and investors, thereby upsetting the economic equilibrium that is equally necessary for capitalist-democratic stability” (192).  Only growth maintains profits and the “wider and constantly rising standard of living” that Franklin Roosevelt declared a necessary part of a functioning democracy.  Remove the growth and you have to choose financial stability or the rising standard of living.

But, of course, this isn’t really a choice, for each remains a necessary part of the other’s continuation.  I would only underline the unfortunate fact that the market economy’s persistence, which has perhaps surprised many doomsayers, has to do with its ability to increasingly jettison the democracy and social well-being and mobilize enough of the body politic, or the part that is allowed to matter, around the primary national goal of maintaining the solvency of the debt state, in a form that Streeck refers to as the “consolidation state.”

We are now at a point where we can draw a sharper distinction between liberals, on the one hand, and Transitioners or Limit to Growthers, on the other.  Like progressives, the latter value the civic or communal, the realm of human well-being that might be threatened by unregulated markets.  In this way, many progressives and Transitioners will share similar affinities towards nature and empathy with regard to human suffering and injustice.  But there is also an important difference, at least in principle: this difference is the knowledge and acceptance that the market economy will eventually collapse (or devour us and itself)—that the market economy is unsustainable in a number of converging ways.  That means it can’t keep working.  Liberals can’t imagine how human needs (including freedom and justice) might be met without a high-surplus industrial economy whose permanence seems entirely normal (and they are not wrong to sense the difficulty and the dilemma, but without having the courage to identify it), while Transitioners know that we must find a way and do the best we can.  While liberals dream of a socially constrained, sustainable market economy, we in the deep sustainability world are willing (or should be) to let the market economy be damned.  It is not Transition that offers a utopian world view, but the liberals, for it is they who dream of sustaining the unsustainable and of balancing the contradictory, and under increasingly difficult conditions.

Our Progressive Friends

In many of my past essays I have been guilty of portraying Liberalism as a monolithic market-driven belief-system, interested in nothing more than economic growth, material prosperity, and unlimited freedoms.  I haven’t made the distinctions present in the two equilibrium points discussed by Streeck.

To cite Polanyi, Liberalism, as I have often been using the term, is best described as an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution, “a revolution as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians, but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved give an unlimited amount of material commodities” (42).  I more or less stand by that definition of Liberalism, especially in our current era, especially if we add some provisions about the modern liberal “virtue” of unlimited self-creation, and the unconscious role that a high surplus society plays in most liberal wants, hopes, and expectations.

But a monolithic growthist Liberalism does, I will admit, ignore an important aspect of liberalism, namely the history of liberal reformism that has consistently sought protections against market excesses, a history that might also be considered a sort of “feeder” to movements like Transition, as well as a broad host of extra-market values that continue to thrive (if in relative seclusion from market-based norms) in liberal, industrial society.  A monolithic view of Liberalism downplays the real dilemma (unresolvable in Liberalism but still strongly felt) between the needs of the market, and the needs of people outside of the market.

Or to put this another way, I have been fairly determined in my rhetoric, at least, to call for a post-Liberalism, as if Liberalism has nothing to offer for a sustainable future.  Perhaps, in view of the history I’ve been reviewing here, the goal instead might not be to “go beyond” Liberalism, but to encourage and expand an existing side of Liberalism that already has a history of defending human needs and democratic or egalitarian values.

In practical terms this seems the way to go.  In this way we might see part of our outreach mission to nudge people towards the social, common, and human goods that many liberals identify with, slowly showing how we can preserve these extra-market values only if we start untethering ourselves from some of the comforts, amusements, safety, and convenience of bourgeois life and its market economy.  In fact, I am overstating the distinction by talking about a “we” who needs to convince a “them.”  This is as much a matter of “we” convincing “ourselves” and then learning to act on what we’ve determined.  At any rate, all this talk of post-Liberalism might be seen as unhelpful when all that is really required is to get Bernie Sanders to walk back any talk about economic growth and start thinking about progressive degrowthist liberal justice and equality.  Perhaps this is to project values on Sanders that he doesn’t actually share, but the growthist aspects of his platform sometimes appears incidental and an unnecessary part of the “real” Bernie.[x]

Culture and Community

I would admit that there is some merit to this criticism.  But I think there is an additional element at play here that bring us to the crux of my argument.  I’ve been using phrases like social, common, and communal good as if we know what they mean—as if they have a meaningful content, especially within the liberal vernacular.  The same goes for Common Dreams and its reference to a “community of resistance.” For within liberalism-proper, the social and the common good are, following classical market liberalism, other names for the opportunity to consume both life’s material and experiential goods in a fair and equitable way.  As Alasdair MacIntyre explains it, in premodern, non-liberal societies the human good is always an inherently communal or common good, while the modern liberal state is charged with “providing the arena in which each individual seeks his or her own private good” (172).   The main unit of society is the self, a self freed from limits.

“Common good” may of course refers to clean air and water, low crime rates, and intact bridges and pot-hole free roads.  But if we press on the concept with any degree of critical pressure, we will see that it mainly reverts back to the creation of a fair and equitable arena in which individuals can pursue his or her own private, individualized goods, with almost no limits—goods by definition cut off from tradition or kinship requirements. It is not clear that there is any sort of meaningful community in a “community of resistance.”  As Daniel Bell points out, our society stresses “unrestrained appetite,” celebrating those who want and demand without limits, dividing us into “consumption communities” where we create identity through buying or other consumer-like choices, otherwise known as creating a “lifestyle.”

The “good” part of common good is thus largely empty of content, and purposely and necessarily so within Liberalism.  One of the founding tenants of Liberalism is official neutrality with regard to what, following MacIntyre, we referred to as “the human good.” As Bert van den Brink explains in his excellent study of Liberalism, The Tragedy of Liberalism: An Alternative Defense of a Tradition, liberalism has two “highest aims”: “on the one hand, the politically liberal aim for state neutrality towards various conceptions of the good life and, on the other, the necessity for liberalism to affirm—both in theory and in practice—the perfectionist values of personal autonomy and a pluralist social environment” (2).

I’ll unpack these concepts by continuing the contrast I initiated above.  In “traditional” societies, recall, the “good” was generally inherited and bound up in kinship relations or a teleological conception of life as having some overriding purpose.  In most societies, it involved fulfilling a given social role with the table of virtues providing the instruction-guide for fulfilling that role with excellence and dignity.  Social practices involved cherished skill, craft and virtue of the kind we might associate with artisans or farmers.  They are passed down as a precious value, knowledge, and art, necessary not only for community survival but as a sense of cultural identity and personal satisfaction.  As Wendell Berry puts it, the common good, otherwise known as culture, “reveals the human necessities and human limits.  It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and each other.  It assures that the necessary work is done and that it is being done well” (43).  Berry suggests that culture is a “practical necessity,” which it was and may eventually be again.  Though he forgets sometimes that the market society is specifically designed so that this culture is not a practical necessity.  Rather, a lack of this culture, its destruction, is a practical necessity within a Liberal market order.

For wrapped up in these notions of practice, virtue, and excellence is a conception of “the good”—namely what specific sorts of life practices, rituals, associations, and work leads to human well-being.  This is heresy within the liberal creed of choice and of fulfilling our wants whatever they happen to be, regardless of where they come from.  There are, nonetheless, modern and contemporary attempts to resurrect the sort of culture described by Berry and with it a non-liberal conception of the good.  Consider, for instance, the culture of some eco-villages, where there are very specific group goals and an overriding purpose, which ideally is reflected in nearly every aspect of life and sociability in the community, extending to child-rearing and food preparation, reuse of waste and decision-making.  Unlike liberal society, not everything goes and not all “lifestyles” are treated as morally equivalent.  The purpose of the community is not to create the free possibility for everyone to pursue their desires and wants, whatever they are and without limits.  Rather it is to foster a specific kind of culture.  This is most certainly not the mainly empty “culture of resistance” that liberals (as liberals) are able to embrace.

The cultural constraints (and benefits) similar, in structure at least, to our eco-village example used to be found throughout entire societies and continents.  This is no knock against eco-villages, but they exist in Liberal society only because their barriers to entry and exit are low enough to satisfy the demands of liberal individualism.  Otherwise, we’d consider them cults, a concept that only makes sense within a society built around individual freedom.  Prior to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, all human cultures were organized around some concept of “the good,” and one couldn’t scroll through the smartphone all day considering which “good” fits your personal style.  I’m not dismissing the sensibility of the (non) hierarchy of (non) values and (non) requirements in a pluralist society.  The “practical requirement” of culture offers no simple solutions.  But we need to back away, at least enough to set our imaginations free, from the Liberal notion that, prior to its freedoms, all of society was one big cult that everyone would have left if only they could.  This is how we modern liberals tend to judge Puritan society or Medieval culture.

So to return to our historical digest, the way that life, including economic arrangements had previously been embedded in an inherited cultural tradition all changed with the onset of the market economy, which at once disrupted these cultural traditions (creating misery and dismay) while offering a new set of incentives (with anxiety becoming a new social disease).  Liberalism, the market economy’s handmaiden, provided a new ethic based on perpetual critique of tradition.  Because tradition and its norms may attempt to prevent the commodification of some aspects of life, while putting limits on consumption and maintaining old ways of producing, tradition becomes the permanent enemy of Liberalism.  Consider, for instance, the way social mobility has, in David Fleming’s words, “become a defining ethic.  It implies that manual skills and the places left by the socially mobilier present failure.  Community is where the talented want to leave” (435).  As Defoe’s Moll Flanders put it, “with money in your pocket you are at home anywhere in the world,” and it is money, rather than culture, that “assures the necessary work is done.”

Prior to the rise of the market economy, Polanyi shows, “economy is submerged in its social relationships” (48). This means that the rules of the economy are controlled by inherited cultural values, including the means of production and the price of goods.  Now “the running of society,” he quips, “is an adjunct to the market.  Instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system” (60).  The market economy thus reverses the old hierarchy, so that economic laws of supply and demand, and pricing based on self-regulating equilibrium, provide the overriding structure of society, while the primary individual motive is one of gain and accumulation.  And because the wants and gain that provide the structure of incentive are unlimited, we see the rejection of any culture or tradition that urges moderation or that maintains a principle of “enough.”  This is true even as the market is humanized and regulated so as to keep it from devouring itself.

For our purposes and our analysis of the capacity of Liberalism and Liberals to provide social cohesion or even basic operating rules as the market economy falters, it appears that Liberalism has shed most of the cultural resources that might be of use in the absence of a stable and growing economy that has devoured all remaining frontiers and begins a steady and final diet of its own.  To put it in a way that will require some qualifications, Liberalism lacks culture, or at least a culture not “reduced to an optional spectator activity,” as Fleming puts it.

By saying that Liberalism has no culture, I’m not making a highbrow point about kitsch and commodification.  Rather I’m paradoxically thinking about Liberal culture’s response to the common idea of culture as it has evolved through most of human history. Culture is based on experience, specifically shared experience, as we collectively with both strife and cooperation, attempt to situate ourselves in relation to questions of life and death, work and leisure, rest and play, the sacred and profane, the past and future.  Because it is based on experiences and our response to them it cannot be simply created or invented (the best we can do is embed ourselves thoughtfully in experience).

Of course, members in a highly individualistic society have experiences and these experiences naturally have a degree of similarity within the broader social group as well as specific subgroups.  As Americans or citizens of industrial societies, we have stories and myths that we tell, ones that talk about our past, our present, our shared destiny or aspirations for the future.  So of course, as for all human groups, there is a culture here.   The interesting thing about these stories and myths within Liberal societies, though, is that they are dominated by the individual.  True, we may “come together” as a nation (from our normal state of separation), but unless it is to defeat an external enemy, we bond and mobilize over the shared purpose of releasing individuals from any limiting culture or community.

To put it another way, all societies have individual and collective stories.  In our society, our collective story is about the primacy of the individual and his or her solo quest for self-creation, identity, and gain. The primacy of the individual can work in a market economy, where social bonds are primarily contractual, and thus voluntary, and when the market economy is prosperous enough to keep enough money in Moll Flanders’ pocket so he will be at home as he casts about in search of gain or identity or adventure, and able to provide for himself anywhere in the world, far away from reciprocal obligations of kinship and community-based societies.

Liberal culture, then, is a sort of anti-culture because it presents us with a sort of anti-community.  Community is of course an ideal, or perhaps mainly a rhetorical place-holder, that our market-moderating liberals relish. We hear constant talk about communities in Liberal society, some rather absurd if we think about it: “the law-enforcement community,” the “financial community,” “the community of resistance,” and my favorite, “the international community.”  I don’t want to dismiss the value of our loose professional associations, our neighborhood comradery, or our self-selected friendship-groups and their capacity to create safe and caring places.

But their optional and voluntary nature (as much as we count on that with our market-based incentives and cultural training) limit the amount of social work they can perform.  The obligational and limit-setting work performed by traditional communities are precisely the same qualities that required their elimination by market forces.  Fleming again states it with lean precision: “most of us,” he notes, “face no particular challenge and well-being from our local community” (64).  But it is to that same extent that we cannot expect our local community and its culture to provide stability and order, not to mention acceptable limits, if called to do so. In a market society, the civil order is created by a set of laws distinct from morality and beyond that, mainly by prices and the contractual obligations we make to clarify our shared understanding of any given price and the scope of work or the type of product to be provided.

In contrast, a culture that can provide for substantial social order–the sort of culture we need in the absence of a well-functioning market or the one Berry refers to as a “practical necessity”–has high barriers to entry and exit.  Its bonds are just that.  They limit and control—words in the Liberal vernacular that imply injustice, even as the Liberal forgets that society does need limits, control, and order, and that those provided by the market remain largely invisible and importantly impersonal, and as if they were as ineluctable and thus as unobjectionable as gravity itself.

It is the absence of a Liberal culture—one that establishes in non-economic terms the rules of economic engagement, limits on consumption outside the demands of “consumer confidence,” or that “assures that the necessary work is done and that it is being done well” in the absence of a motive geared towards economic stability—that makes Liberalism unable to address our climate or ecological crisis or to offer a reorganizing principle as the market economy falters.  What does this mean for us?  It means that we need to start questioning liberal values and concepts such as unlimited, voluntary, and open, as crucial as they may seem to social justice as we understand it.  It also means that we need to start experimenting with concepts and values eliminated from the Liberal moral vocabulary, concepts like order, need, obligation, even hierarchy, remembering that the cultural transmission of skills and practices are based on criteria of knowledge, experience, and expertise, of master and apprentice, even parent and child–a relationship that is undergoing constant egalitarian pressure in a Liberal market society where wants and desires need to be unlimited and unfettered, even by a tradition as weak and unconstraining as the easy-going modern liberal family.

“Any society,” wrote Daniel Bell, “in the end, is a moral order that has to justify. . . its allocative principles and the balance of freedom and coercions necessary to facilitate or enforce such rules” (250).  Liberalism has ceded that function first to the market, and then to the governmental facilitation of the market, and now, increasingly, to the high finance that holds the gun of economic collapse to our heads. “With the liberal,” Polanyi adds, “the idea of freedom thus degenerates into mere advocacy of free enterprise—which today is reduced to a fiction by the hard reality of giant trusts and princely monopolies” (264).  The most the liberal or progressive can add is a small but market-dependent measure of minor restraint on the unfettered commodification of land and labor.

Old Conservatives

Alasdair MacIntyre, along with Pope Francis, David Fleming, Wendell Berry, even some aspects of Marx, might be assembled as a broad attempt to revive a notion of conservativism, a word too loaded and weighted to be used broadly without misunderstanding, perhaps, until neo-liberals and market fundamentalists relinquish its use.  But maybe we need to think about this project and start thinking about different kinds of conservativism.  As MacIntyre puts it,

The individualism of modernity could find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke’s own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolutions of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market.  The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness.  But the outcome has been that modern conservatives are for the most part engaged in conserving only older rather than later versions of liberal individualism.  Their own core doctrine is as liberal and individualist as the self-avowed liberals.

That is why MacIntyre, Polanyi, and Fleming reach back towards the middle ages, a time subject to the disdain of Liberals matched only, perhaps, by the Liberal contempt of Puritans and their admittedly rigid (but practically necessary) communal obligations.  Perhaps, then, it is in our premodernity that we can find useful concepts and a moral vocabulary, not as an attempt to reverse history, but to escape the corroding iron logic of the market.  Instead of reclaiming a lost side of liberalism, another name for the market economy’s wing designed to protects us from market excess, we need to reclaim a lost side of conservativism, one where nurture and care existed, where limits were observed, and the necessary work was done and done well.



[i] By Liberal or Liberalism I mean the philosophy of Individual Liberalism and its several political parties and positions.   By liberal or liberalism I refer to American Democrats and those somewhat to their left as well as other people who hold similar political, moral, and economic beliefs and values.  While so-called conservatives are also Liberals of  a sort, I don’t imagine my ideas will gain much purchase with the current cohort of conservatives so direct my thoughts mainly towards liberals and progressives.

[ii] What, one may ask, about racial injustice, sex-discrimination, the cruelty of rising nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments.  These are, I agree, certainly worthy of our vigilance and passion.  But there are two ways of addressing them: first is from the model of equitable and fair access to the market and all that it promises; second is according to an alternative cultural model of compassion that I am struggling to describe.  The immediacy of the concerns make fighting the battle within a consumerist model necessary, despite the ultimate failure of the struggle in a world of increased competition over depleting bounty.  As Fleming puts it, “we have a timing problem.”  And a timing problem requires ambivalence.

[iii] In my conclusions, I’m combining Polanyi with Hyman Minsky, in a way that Streeck does, though with a different combination of sources.  Polanyi had more faith than I that industrial production could continue in the absence of capitalist accumulation.  He understood the profit motive, but not the role played by profits in maintaining a high-surplus society.  In his view, industrial society might be able to mature beyond its growthist phase.  He maintains this view by describing economic liberalism as a utopian ideology rather than a necessary pole of industrial society.  The problem with industrial production, removed from capitalism, Polanyi overemphasizes the utopia of self-regulated markets as the center of the capitalist program.  In a way that he actually manages to explain, but not see, the value of growth and expansion may be more fundamental to capitalism as well as industrial production.

[iv] It might be argued that the Democratic party, rightly decried for its rightward moving centrism by true progressives, has in its “stand for nothing” mentality done its level best to hold on to this uninspiring mid-point, a mid-point, I will argue, and have previously, that is moving right in the face of increasingly tough conditions of capital accumulation.

[v] The quasi-symbolic and entirely semiotic nature of RESIST might be confirmed by the fact that you never see these bumper stickers on an Audi, BMW, or Lexus, but only on Toyotas (which of course owns Lexus), Hondas and of course the master trope of moderate liberal pseudo anti-capitalism, Suburus, which, that company’s Mercedes Benz driving marketers thoughtfully assure us, are made from love rather than steel, plastic, copper, glass, and aluminum.

[vi] This observation about Amazon “Fulfillment Centers” was made somewhere by Rob Hopkins

[vii] Though Polanyi is hopeful about the prospects of a managed economy that, by embedding itself in humanist values, might permit a kind of freedom similar in some aspects to the modern liberal one—as sort of permanent New Deal.  While Polanyi understands the way markets ravage nature, he seems unaware about the way industrialism does as well.

[viii] In a brilliant analysis of fascism, Polanyi argues that fascism and Soviet Communism were “rooted in a market society that refused to function” (248).

[ix] I will discuss the neo-liberal synthesis in a forthcoming essay entitled “Hegel’s Smartphone.”

[x] In his Foreword to economist Jeffery Sachs’ latest book, Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable. Senator, and hero of the American progressive class, Bernie Sanders provides a snapshot of his economic views and expectations:

What I have heard and what I continue to hear is that Americans have had enough of establishment politicians and establishment economists who have claimed for far too long that we must choose between economic growth, economic fairness, and environmental sustainability.  They have sold us a bill of goods that says we can’t have all three.  Well they are wrong. (ix-x)


Bell, Daniel. 1996. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Berry, Wendell. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Fleming, David. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

—. 2016. Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Frank, Thomas. 2016. Listen Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Hedges, Chris. 2010. Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation Books.

Krugman, Paul. 2007. The Conscience of a Liberal. New York: Norton.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth.

Minsky, Hyman. 1982. Can it Happen Again? London: Routledge.

Pinketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sachs, Jeffrey D,. 2017. Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable. New York: Columbia University Press.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End. London: Verso.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: building resilient societies, culture, economic growth, liberalism, Transition movement