Tuesday, January 15, 2008

cooperation and the American experiment

Here's an interesting essay at the Wilson Quarterly -The Lost Art of Cooperation by Benjamin R. Barber

While Darwin famously saw evolution as an exercise in species-enhancing competition, the Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin insisted that it was an exercise in cooperation. In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), he argued that survival was fostered by cooperation within and among species rather than by murderous rivalries. Similar arguments can be found among evolutionary biologists and social scientists today, as Robert Wright shows in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000). The communitarian paradigm offers a portrait of humans as naturally embedded in communities. Here, the political project is one of individuation: creating artificially the conditions for personal freedom from a cooperative democratic process. In this view, democracy is not a product of freedom, freedom is a product of democracy. Democratic societies do not secure cooperation by sacrificing freedom, they create conditions for freedom by associating us in cooperative ­communities.

Let us apply this short lesson in political theory to the American experience. In the American ideal of “liberal democracy,” the two tendencies embodied in this term are supposed to stand in a healthy tension. The “liberal” part of our culture is individualistic and competitive, focused on private freedom and property; the “democratic” part is communitarian and cooperative, focused on public freedom (civic freedom), justice, and the common ground that makes private property possible. Today, the liberal element dominates the democratic communitarian element, upsetting the delicate ­balance.

The American people have always had a healthy distrust of power, especially in its European ­hyper-­collectivist incarnation (the Nazis and the Communists), in which an ideal quest for community and equality becomes an excuse for rampant despotism. But in allowing this understandable caution to morph into a distrust of democratic centralized government and community power tout court, Americans turned a seemingly innocent concern with social justice (welfare government, the safety net society, and a politics of cooperation, for example) into totalitarian vices.

From the start, de­moc­racy itself has bred a certain anxiety in America, an anxiety for which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the defining text. He predicted the formation of a rights-crushing majoritarian tyranny. Yet the specter of majorities run amok that has helped rationalize market neoliberalism and privatization, and has justified advancing the interests of capitalism before establishing civic democracy in places such as Iraq and Russia, has exacted a high cost. For collectivism has never been an American issue. The United States has always been a rights-encased, decentralized, federalist ­“weak-­state” system, relatively impervious to the kinds of dogmatic statism that wrecked Europe in the last century. As my favorite Harvard teacher, Louis Hartz, liked to point out in calling for a more democratic culture, “The American majority has forever been a puppy dog tethered to a lion’s leash.” The new obsession with competition and market liberty constructs an illusory enemy—the supposedly overweening democratic state. The quest for equality and justice is caricatured as a striving for mediocrity and bureaucratic irresponsibility.

At the same time, the actual character of the competitive marketplace is badly misjudged. For the irony is that the rhetoric of market competition often masks private monopolies: less choice, not more. Democratic realists and impartial sociologists recognize that behind the fa├žade of boastful competition lies a world of inequality and domination. While praising the competitive market, those who actually work the marketplace specialize in mergers and acquisitions, takeovers and cartels, liquidations and ­sell­offs. Wealth is not produced, but reshuffled and expropriated. Real competition is avoided, and the risk in whose name profit is supposedly earned is socialized (the taxpayers bail out the corporate failures), while profits, though no longer earned by taking real risks, are kept private, reserved for shareholders and overpaid corporate managers. Deregulation is said to enhance competition, but in the airline and communication industries it has entrenched price fixing and facilitated cartels and the kinds of monopoly that “bundling” makes possible, as when Bill Gates forced computer companies to include the whole Microsoft software platform in the machines they ­sold.

This is not to say that competition is just a ruse. While it may fail to actually define the corporate hierarchies that masquerade as a market economy, it dominates American cultural life and pervades our psyches. It manages to twist our social interactions and pervert our sense of commonality. Most damagingly, perhaps, its relentless ­rhetoric—­now integral to the vast marketing ­industry—­persuades us that our most precious value, freedom, is tied up with privacy and dependent on freedom from democratic governance, whereas it is democratic governance that actually enforces the variety and pluralism the market putatively reflects and reinforces. Government marks the rule of law, and it is law that secures the conditions for ­freedom.

tip via Long Sunday

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