COLUMN: The moral way to distribute social wealth -- Part One

COLUMN: The moral way to distribute social wealth -- Part One

Capitalists,Liberals, Nationalists, Intellectuals

News about money

We have been treated to the spectacle this month of a half-dozen Bombardier executives planning to split 32 million dollars among themselves as bonuses, at the same time as the corporation has announced it is about to lay off 14, 000 workers worldwide.

It was also announced that the world will officially have its first trillionaire this year. No doubt we already do, we just don’t have his name.

Fox News has paid out 13 million dollars to women in settlements of cases of sexual harassment by Fox anchor Bill Reilly.

An Edmonton couple has won a lottery three times in a few years, the most recent win amounting to six million.

Keep these facts in mind. They are what set my mind to thinking about wealth and how we share it in society. How I think about the subject is not without prejudices, I freely admit.

Threatened by capitalism

People today, as reported in polling conducted by university researchers and journalist investigations, do not feel morally comfortable with capitalism, nor confident it has the interests of most humans at heart, yet we have no clue how to change our systems to a more human-centred way of making and doing economic activity.

It’s commonplace for research into public attitudes to find people in wealthy Western nations, generally middle-class rather than rich, generally with post-secondary education, express feelings of dislike for capitalism, for its immoral/amoral values, its materialism/consumerism and its destructive effects on society, planet, and other species. Intellectuals in particular have a well-documented antipathy to capitalism.

Robert Nozick has written an oft-cited essay on intellectuals' hostility to capitalism.  He titles it succinctly: Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?

[Read it at http://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/why-do-intellectuals-oppose-capitalism]

I am what Robert Nozick calls a “word-smith intellectual” – I am a person predominantly engaged in my professional life in thinking and writing and speaking, as a teacher, journalist, and radio-show host.

Intellectuals have a social and cultural role. Do they do it well in capitalist society? Robert Nozick hypothesizes that the wordsmith-intellectual is wrongly, irrationally hostile to capitalism and needs to change this habit, which he traced to Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.

“[--] contemporary intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards their society has to offer and resentful when they do not receive this. [--] Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accord with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution of ‘to each according to his merit or value.’ [--] [T]he (capitalist) Market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, or entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

I am not convinced. Nozick has not made a persuasive case here, to explain why intellectuals oppose capitalism.

My tribe: labels I put on

This column is not about me, but I have to tell you my bias and my blind spots.

If I have to give a quick description of myself as an individual, using a few nouns and adjectives to be as clear as I can as briefly as I can, I simply cannot do without the words “intellectual” and “humanist.” There are disadvantages with these words. They are not commonly understood by people who are not in this tribe. Intellectual is not a synonym for intelligent, and humanist is not synonymous with humanitarian, but I frequently find these misunderstandings among students and audiences.

I am “mind-oriented.” I might wish I were “heart-centred” but I know myself better than that. I read a lot, I write quite a bit. I employ words a lot, in my silent thinking and when I’m with people, although I am an introvert. I feel strong attraction to ideas, theories and arguments in words; I work constantly to expand my vocabulary and delight in new words. These are the traits of an intellectual; there is no value in being apologetic nor boastful about them. I am what my history and inherent characteristics have made me.

I study the subjects called “the humanities” quite a lot, history foremost but also politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and literature. These personal interests, and a non-religious, secular orientation toward my life, earn me the label of “humanist.”

I am not going to take on the role of responding to Nozick’s charge against intellectuals of my ilk. I think he is in error ascribing a motive to intellectuals; he has hypothesized that it is simply their reaction against feeling their talents are not properly or worthily rewarded in free-market-capitalist society. I speak for myself only, not my tribe, when I say that is not why I loathe capitalism.

The moral culture of capitalism is founded on an ethical egotism, the faith that the capitalist pursues self-interest in what Smith called an “enlightened” fashion, and that somehow, with the help of Smith’s mysterious moral force called “the Invisible Hand,” the ultimate effect of all the selfish interests colliding in the competitive arena of the Market will be an enlightened social order. Hmm. How d’you like the global order of 2017, Mr. Smith?

According to Alan Kahan, fierce criticism is the attitude of Western intellectuals toward capitalism ever since the time of the Old Testament and Plato. Kahan is author of Mind vs. Money: the war between Intellectuals and Capitalism (2010). Like Robert Nozick, Kahan wonders why in the West we have come to expect the “humanist intelligentsia” to be negative toward capitalist society; he argues that intellectuals ought to take a positive attitude instead.

Here is Kahan on the subject of “moral culture”:

“From the Protestant/Kantian point-of-view there is no moral benefit to be derived from [enlightened] self-interest [--] and selfish motives. If businessmen do not have good intentions, they are not morally good. [--]

“Intellectuals will never devote themselves to simply justifying capitalists’ profits… The struggle between mind and money is inevitable… The proper role of intellectuals in a democratic society is not to revolutionize the world, but to interpret it. Their political role is to provide capitalism with a better moral culture. [--] It is time for the intellectuals to leave behind their self-imposed immaturity and assume their proper roles in a capitalist society that needs them.”

Kahan knows what’s right for intellectuals. I know what’s right for capitalism – a better practice of distributing wealth in society in a way approaching justice.

Kahan wants intellectuals to help reform capitalism. I say, blow it up.

Intellectuals have not always been hostile to capitalism, as Kahan has written. I think Kahan is wrong to write that the issue today is “mind against money” just as it was in ages past. No, it is conscience and morality against Capital, and Capital (as Marx surely established in his greatest work) is not a phenomenon of ancient nor medieval times, but only of recent, modern history. Never mind what Plato or the Church clergy said about commerce and money, for until there was modern capitalism from about the late eighteenth century, there could be no intellectuals opposed to Capital.

Now I am turning the conversation at right angles, for I raise the subject of intellectuals who are the cutting edge of political correctness, neo-liberal trade policy, globalizing propaganda, and the “progressive” political agenda. These are not anti-capitalist intellectuals, and not the subject of Kahan’s and Nozick’s investigations. The progressive left-liberal globalist agenda is my target now.

Tired of progressives

Intellectuals are distributed across the political spectrum from left to right, but here I am only interested in those who are on the leftward end of the continuum. I have self-identified as a socialist all my adult life.

I am weary of liberalism and progressivism as a variety of mainstream thinking, despite situating myself on the leftward end of the political spectrum.

I sympathize with the sentiment of those who defy “political correctness” and “cultural elites” -- even while I am quite aware that my education, political activism, and general attitudes toward social and cultural issues actually put me in the camp of progressive/liberal opinion. I would not have voted for Brexit nor Trump, but I surely place no high worth on E. U. self-promotion nor Hilary Clinton’s political and economic priorities.

I am as tired of the liberal globalizers’ certainty of their superiority as any U.S. secular conservative who loves his nation. A nationalist (or perhaps, a patriot) wants to protect something good in “Americanism” against the cultural elite’s propaganda in favour of cosmopolitan values in one-world, neo-liberal economic plans.

Writer Jonathan Haidt does not approve the globalists’ prejudice against their opponents. Haidt, writing for an online journal called The American Interest, has much to say about liberal globalists’ attitude to people who do not agree with their worldview.  [Read his article at http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/]

 “Globalists see nationalists as hopelessly parochial. [--] as it is commonly used, the word (parochial) is an insult [along with] these synonyms: narrow-minded, illiberal, intolerant, conservative. Indeed, English voters who favoured Brexit were often mocked as racist xenophobes who wanted to raise the drawbridge and turn their backs on the world.”

Haidt cites a fine example of a globalist left-liberal, the English journalist George Monbiot, who wrote these words:

“Internationalism [--] means choosing the option which delivers most good or least harm to people regardless of where they live.

“Patriotism [--] tells us we should favour the interests of the British people. How do you reconcile this with liberalism? How, for that matter, do you distinguish it from racism?”

I am offended by the self-righteousness oozing from Monbiot’s definitions of liberalism and patriotism, and I cite Haidt’s perspective as a correction to such bias:

“To be a nationalist, in America or in Europe, is to be frequently lectured to and called a rube by the globalist elite. The globalists assert things to be obvious and indisputable facts [--] that seem to nationalists to be obvious and indisputable falsehoods. Brexit leader Michael Gove said, ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’ Donald Trump’s attacks on ‘political correctness’ have won him the gratitude of so many working-class and rural white voters. Even if you are a globalist, can you see why nationalists are often full of seething resentment?”   

I am a nationalist in the context of the divide Haidt outlines. I adopt a liberal position in questions around social attitudes, but I detest the globalist neo-liberal ideologues. I do not want a Canada modelled on globalist assumptions.

Drawn toward community

I want a community that is not “the world,” but not too small; it will be open-hearted and welcoming to a great number of differences. But my Canada has to know what it means by “our culture” in a very articulate and intelligent way. A valuable public intellectual writing for Canadians is John Ralston Saul. He aims to ground us in our history, to employ our real, concrete past as the explanation for how our particular society – a tolerant, fairly open one, with a generally-liberal ethos – has come into being. Top of the list for my moral imperatives structuring this community: social justice in distributing wealth.

Canada is that national community I would like to see realized as my ideal community, not the utopian world-community of all humanity that the socialist George Monbiot, for example, or John Lennon in his most-loved song  Imagine, describe. Lennon missed his chance to sing, “imagine no unequal classes.”

Haidt characterizes the debate between global and nationalist values as “LvD” – meaning “John Lennon vs. Emile Durkheim”. Everyone knows the words of Lennon’s song Imagine. Durkheim is not well-known at all outside of academic circles, but his observation of how people really live in community is more valid than Lennon’s one-world, anti-religious utopianism. Durkheim knew, as I know, that real humans need a community, smaller than planet Earth or the imagined society of all human beings in one big happy family. Humans need moral bonds uniting them with their fellows: as Haidt summarizes it, “people who are tightly bound by ties of family, religion, and local community.”

Canada is not accidentally a democratic nation with rule of law, tolerant and generally open-minded social attitudes, and many liberties and rights. We made this nation by our history, and that history is very long and has very deep roots. Our fabric of society, politics, law, and economy, has its deepest roots in: English, British, European, Christian, Greek, Roman, and Israelite cultures across a three-thousand year history. We are the people we are, not because of mysterious good fortune, but due to our past. It is absolutely unfashionable to mention the labels of our historical origins that I just named.

Multiculturalism takes note that Muslim Arabs taught medieval Christians many powerful lessons in mathematics (the uses of zero, the fundamentals of algebra) and medicine. I am an historian; naturally I value teaching historical knowledge. Our common law tradition is Anglo-Saxon and our parliamentary democracy was evolved in English-Christian historical contexts. When was the last time you heard a prominent Canadian say this? More likely you heard praise for a Native or African, who made a contribution to Canada.

There was a time we heard only of the British tradition, and not enough about others. Now the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. Knowing one’s history grounds a distinct national identity. The neo-liberal globalization agenda does not value such history.

Canadians benefit by being bound in a community that knows itself distinct from humanity in general. Our society, our systems and norms, are the project of a shared history. It is past time that it become a normal thing to refer to our inheritance of culture as European, Christian and British. Who among our elite actually acknowledge this? -- not in a boastful nor chauvinist way, but as a way of making our “Canadian values” concrete, not an abstract, universalist notion of “being good people” without reference to a past.

In Haidt’s described globalist vs. nationalist contest, I position myself with the latter. The credit that is due to our past national traditions and cultural ingredients does not have to be given in any boastful way, nor in a way that names other traditions by comparison and declares that ours is “better” than others. It merely needs to be asserted.

The multi-cultural ideals of neo-liberal globalists in Canada seem in practice to forbid giving credit to white, Christian, European historical cultures for what Canada has become. That offends me. That is the kind of error and arrogance of neoliberals and globalists that Haidt is addressing.

Canada the Beautiful

Because Canada’s elites in politics, culture and economy refuse to speak about the historical origin of Canada’s social order, Canadians are hopelessly vague and inarticulate about how Canada became Canada, the land of freedom, acceptance, law, democracy, opportunity, and optimism.

CBC has lately begun to sound like a propaganda organ for Canada the Beautiful; I regularly see smiling faces of all colours and ethnicities and sexual leanings telling me why they love Canada and never saying word one that demonstrates they know some concrete history of pre-colonial times.

The CBC is currently airing a history documentary on Sunday evenings, titled “The Story of Us.” The narrative steers away from large historic topics such as democracy and our legal traditions, to concentrate on individual stories. The concentration on individual personalities, their history-making ambitions and drives, steers minds toward exaggerated respect for the individual and away from recognizing that every leader needs a collective society around them, making “big accomplishments” possible. Capitalism exalts the entrepreneur and exults in single-person exploits in the Market; CBC is doing the work of propagating a pro-capitalist ideological mindset.

Globalists being sneaky

As outlined above, globalizing neo-liberal ideology is positive toward market capitalism, promoting a benign world order for free trade, for the free movement of capital around the world, and for “raising people from poverty” in developing nations. As Haidt shows, nationalist-patriot ideology is the foe of the liberal-globalists. So, when the elites who promote the neo-liberal agenda for world capitalism see nationalist sentiment on the rise, they counter it with messages about “inclusivity” and “diversity” and thereby try to make the nationalist feel guilty about being quasi-racist or intolerant or xenophobic.

One way to change a conversation about national interest into an accusation about red-neck attitudes, is to point to immigrants in one’s country and ask, “do refugees who come here not have a right to share our peace and security?” This question puts the nationalist on the defensive.

Ryan Landry believes the elites driving the neo-liberal global agenda foresaw the possibility of a nationalist reaction against them, and calculated how to weaken nationalism by a stealthy immigration policy: “Nationalism is just the first step and one that even the Marxist academic Michel Clousard cites as the means to fight back against capitalism and globalization.  The elites anticipated this nationalism, and stuffed the wealthy nations with enough aliens and minorities to create easy to mould, yet too-weak-to-fight grievance groups. [This plan] blocks nationalist politicians like Marine Le Pen.” For Landry's full article, go to: http://www.socialmatter.net/2015/12/13/the-elites-anticipated-nationalism-vs-globalism/

Landry might be very subtle and insightful in this argument; maybe the liberal elites behind globalization are as Machiavellian as he thinks. For myself, he seems to border on the paranoid. Yet he makes a good point, that nationalist feeling can be a defence against global capitalism. We need this defence.

I give the last word on nationalism to American economist Larry Summers:

“What is needed is a responsible nationalism – an approach where it is understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective. [--] International agreements would be judged by [--] whether citizens are empowered.”

Summers uses a feeble verb, “empowered”, where I would say “guaranteed a just share of national wealth.” This is the morality that capitalism lacks and is the basis of my intellectual opposition to capitalism: It makes us all selfish.

In the present state of absence of a historical consciousness, a grounding for the Canadian national ethos, we have no community. And so the poet says truly, “Canada is a hotel.” Hotel guests are not a community.

One nation within Canada, Quebec, (whose people are a “nation” according to a federal parliamentary resolution passed unanimously when Stephen Harper was our prime minister) is a fine model for a society which takes care of its citizens’ welfare. I see Quebec as similar to the kind of social-democratic jurisdiction the Scandinavians, Dutch, Finns and Swiss have evolved, with appropriate attention to the support of ordinary people – as evidenced by Quebec’s progressive policies for affordable childcare, poverty-reduction, and post-secondary student debt. Quebec models the kind of national community Canada needs to be, not a laissez-faire capitalist marketplace; Quebec has a historical consciousness distinct from Anglo-Canada and that makes a difference.

Quebec’s particular set of issues around the “charter of values” and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are not worrisome to me. A national community can manage such conflicts, and Quebec will do that in a humanist manner.

Part Two will continue this discussion next week.

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