Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Aristocracy and Social Solidarity

Much as I like and admire Alexander Hamilton, I have never actually agreed with him that democracy is "the most ignoble, unjust and detestable form of government." Rather, I am more inclined (in this as in so many other matters) to align my thinking with Aristotle, for whom democracy was merely the least bad form. The problem, of course, is that in actual politics what are in theory the more ideal forms of government - monarch and aristocracy - easily deteriorate into the evils of tyranny (for Aristotle, the worst form) and oligarchy. The framers of the American constitution - in the tradition of Aristotle and Polybius - attempted to establish a republican "mixed constitution," which, by combining the best aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, would avoid the worst elements of democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. As  is suggested by Benjamin Franklin's often quoted response to the question of what kind of government the constitution had created - "a republic if you can keep it" - maintaining such a republican "mixed constitution" is an ongoing challenge. 

That is eminently obvious today, when civil society seems so much less like a classical republic and more recognizable as an oligarchy. This has been increasingly the case since the destruction of the solidarity-promoting New Deal, post-war consensus in the 1960s and 1970s and the triumph of oligarchy-promoting market-based, global-capitalist, neoliberalism since the 1980s. Economically that led directly to the 2008 financial crisis, and culturally to our current moral malaise, as the 20th-century's historically unprecedented experiment of trying to base a society on the total negation of solidarity has progressed to its inevitable failure.

While demagogic and riddled with its own internal contradictions, Bernie Sanders' bizarre presidential campaign has accomplished one important thing. It has reminded us that it not only doesn't have to be this way, but that as recently as 50 years ago it was't this way. There once existed - and still exists if only we were willing to employ it - an alternative moral language not totally dependent on the values of individual liberty, unrestrained freedom, and self-created personal identity.

Writing in Commonweal yesterday, Peter Annett suggested that Sanders' appeal lay precisely in this fact - that "he spoke an older, barely remembered language ... describing a fundamental moral failure that could be fixed only with a fundamental shift in values and norms" (cf.

Which brings me back to Hamilton and Aristotle and aristocratic government by "the well born and the able." When we hanker for the (admittedly imperfect) social solidarity of the New Deal and post war eras, are we also hankering in a sense for government by the likes of a Roosevelt, a Rockefeller, or a Kennedy? Granted that aristocracy inevitably degenerates into oligarchy and that Roosevelt, Rockefeller, and Kennedy lived at a time when our society was on the verge of an even more pernicious cultural degeneration - that of aristocracy into celebrity - still we look back on such figures as authentic (by American standards) "aristocrats," whose wealth, social position, and education (and their freedom from the experience of having to acquire their wealth themselves) insulated them from the oligarchical impulse to seek to govern primarily in the interest of the rich and freed them to embrace social solidarity as a serious governing value.

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