Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Right Question

Some books cut to the quick, and get the question on the table in a matter of paragraphs. Philip Goodchild's Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety is one such book. I will have more to say about this tomorrow, when I have more internet access than I do today; but, this is just great stuff.

A society which recognizes the claims of property, contract and debt, but does not recognize the claims of need and distress, is fundamentally unjust and immoral. The responsible distribution of [such] attention is particularly difficult in a democracy. For a democracy is founded on the assumption that the commonwealth is composed of a collection of individual rational subjects, unities of thought and existence, whose interests may be served by representation. . . . If [democratic] consensus is formed as the lowest common denominator of collective, conscious interests -- those interests that attract attention because they motivate the buying of self-gratification and self-justification -- then it may fail to represent the true interests of the majority. Moreover, the weakness of democracy is the disenfranchisement of many of the 'stakeholders', especially those of the past and the future, as well as those who participate in circuits of trade without participating in the benefits of the state because they dwell elsewhere. For a polity also includes the claims of 'land' as that which has no say in the property relation, of children, of past and future members, and of those outside in networks opf interdependence through trade and ecology. In an age of the global market and mass media, democracy inevitably degenerates into populism which, intent on short-term interests, has brutally destructive consequences elsewhere, and is incapable of prudent government.

In the second place, democracy cedes its sovereignty to forces from without. Since all democratic relations are mediated through signs, then the self-positing logic of signs may come ot take precedence over the wishes of those represented. Such external forces are evident above all in capital investment. A nation can become enslaved in a form of the debt bondage: while opening a nation to capital investment may be in the short-term interest of the people, the long-term consequences is that economic policy, and any additional policy which may have an impact on the economy, is ultimately controlled by the needs of capital to maximize return on investment. In a global market, the threat of capital flight resulting in economic meltdown is sufficient to direct national policy on the basis of the needs of capital. Such a political reality is not a democracy, neither is it even an oligarchy of transnational corporations, financial speculators and capital investors; it is direct rule by the impersonal forces of the market itself. . . .

In the third place, democracy is subverted by its own logic of representation. For the interests of the representatives, who may be motivated by ambition, financial interest, desire for fame or dogmatic attachment to certain policy objectives, may not correspond with the interests of the people. Moreover, the capacities which lead to political advancement, including appearance, personality, rhetoric, wealth and debating skills, do not correspond to the capacities which contribute to prudent government, including a thorough of international history, politics, economics, law, sociology and philosophy, as well as a powerful ethical sensibility. Ideological commitment to the views of a dominant party does not make for prudent government. Furthermore, the representation of representatives to the people is mediated by the interests of the media, where misinformation, caricature and simplification appeal more directly to the emotions and sell more effectively than faithful representation or intelligent analysis. Representation, being mediated, is overtaken by external interests.

Democracy has no adequate defence against the sacrifice of responsibilities in favour of opportunities, the sacrifice of present demands in favour of future expectations. Alongside the vast amounts of significant need, there are also vast resources of human creativity and human labour which are wasted in a market economy. The problem lies in bringing them together. The mediation of the market is irrational, leading to the creation of artificial needs alongside ignoring many important needs; it leads to many working in pointless occupations which contribute little if any good directly to human society. By contrast, the mediation of reason is unproductive, for planned economies can make gross errors and lead to a fundamental problem in motivation for production.

Goodchild offers some tentative answers to the questions he raises, which are spoken in the most general of terms. But the task of a good philosopher is that of asking the the right question, for it directs our attention to that which matters ... and, to that end, he has knocked it out of the park.