For the preservation of a tyranny, in so far as this is possible; viz., that the tyrant should lop off those who are too high; he must put to death men of spirit; he must not allow common meals, clubs, education, and the like; he must be upon his guard against anything which is likely to inspire either courage or confidence among his subjects; he must prohibit literary assemblies or other meetings for discussion, and he must take every means to prevent people from knowing one another (for acquaintance begets mutual confidence) – Aristotle, Politics, Book V, 11
I have vehemently criticized R. J. Snell’s article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Decline of Soul,” which recently appeared on Ethika Politika. In this article, Snell compares the Occupy Wall Street protestors to the arbitrary, irrational, and nihilistic masses of the defective democratic state described in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic. What upset me was not just the unjustified and inaccurate depiction of the protestors, but also his non-depiction of the depredations of the criminals and psychopaths in U.S. and global finance and government, the consequence-free exploitation and looting of the masses—99% of the world’s citizens in fact. Snell’s piece is just a more sophisticated and less hostile instance of the whole-scale attack of committed Christians against OWS (Fox News, Acton Institute, and Rush Limbaugh, just to name a few). To me, this is indicative of an institutional (media) sin against mercy, for many in this movement are financially impoverished and socially alienated as the direct result of economic crime and a system that enables and rewards it, a system in which—as John Médaille has put it—profits are privatized and losses are socialized. In other words, though many have ipods, they are still the poor—those alienated from an oligarchic social, political, and economic system—and they are being attacked merely for making their plight known in public. But what I would like to focus upon here is not the errors in the anti-OWS narrative. That the criminality among the Wall Streeters is real, widespread, and unpunished is beyond question—even the massive propaganda machine cannot hide it anymore; and that the global protest movement is at its core a bunch of whining hippies and societal rejects wanting a handout or something to do to pass the nihilistic time is, to me, beyond absurdity. Yet, it is not so to many of my colleagues and peers, that is, those with I whom I share a similar intellectual, cultural, and spiritual formation, nearly identical philosophical and theological beliefs, and comparable social and economic class status. What could be the cause of such radical disagreement? The answer is not access to correct information. Nowadays, we all have the same access to the outside world through the Internet, which provides unmediated, uninterpreted streaming coverage and descriptions of events, if you know where to look. And in the case of OWS, anyone can just go there. I do not think that merely going to Zuccotti park, looking at the park though a streaming feed, or reading someone else’s picture-perfect blog description of the protest would be sufficient to change a certain mindset regarding the character of the movement. In other words, the phenomenon of radically incompatible interpretations of the same social, economic, cultural and political event is not explicable in terms of experiential contact or factually accurate media. Are my fellow Christians just wicked hypocrites contemptuous of human suffering? Am I just holy enough to see the truth? Of course not. Rather, I think the reason for the radical disagreement is a matter of loyalty, whether conscious or not, to an ideology, the ideology of economic and political liberalism, which many good Christians deem reconcilable with the Gospel. I propose that the OWS movement and its global derivatives are, up until now, the most public, vivid, and unmistakable sign of the bankruptcy and mendacity of economic and political liberalism. Those who see OWS for what it really is and thus support it do so either because liberalism has not worked for them—a partial-justice, self-interested view—or because they see that it isn’t good for anyone and will only get worse—the whole-justice, common-good view. In any event, they are ready to discard liberalism for something new. On the other hand, those who condemn the movement do not see if it for what it really is, for they are wedded to liberalism, either pragmatically or in principle. OWS represents the death throes of liberalism and the birth pangs of something, hopefully, better, and the latter are both in denial about the death and abortive about any new birth. Aristotle wrote in Politics:
These considerations will help us to understand why most governments are either democratical or oligarchical. The reason is that the middle class is seldom numerous in them, and whichever party, whether the rich or the common people, transgresses the mean and predominates, draws the constitution its own way, and thus arises either oligarchy or democracy. There is another reason—the poor and the rich quarrel with one another, and whichever side gets the better, instead of establishing a just or popular government, regards political supremacy as the prize of victory, and the one party sets up a democracy and the other an oligarchy.
Liberalism, in both theory and practice, is the modern system of political, economic, and cultural order in which the common welfare is secured, and the perennial poor vs. rich factionalism described by Aristotle in the Politics neutralized, in virtue of the existence of a “good-neutral” market and state. For Aristotle, both the poor and the rich will always be among us, and without a common-good oriented polity reconciling their interests to the good of the whole through virtue-inculcating legislation, tyrannical dictatorship, oligarchy or democracy, in which a faction rules for its own interest, is the inevitable result. Liberalism, however, boasts to have avoided both factionalism and the need for legislatively embodied conceptions of the good. The state and market are “common-good neutral” because they are charged not with ordering things deliberately towards any determinate good, but only providing the private space for individuals to order their own lives, and only their own lives, towards whatever good they happen to choose, as long as it doesn’t preclude the private choices of others. Thus, the state and market may limit but not interfere with or judge the free economic and social/cultural/moral behavior of private individuals. The system works, or so says James Madison, because unlike the “old” system where one faction of society tends to gain power and rule over others, hopefully for the common good but often not, liberal democracy and the free market render all factions politically and economically powerless by multiplying their quantity, extending their field of activity, and preventing solidarity among them. Read Federalist Ten for the details. Somehow, the common good is to result from good-prescinding such management. This system of vector-force-neutralizing, faction-free liberalism is now being exposed, on a global-wide scale, as a lie. The truth is not that all factions are rendered politically and economically powerless by the liberal system, for one faction is always left over, namely, the one in charge of politically and economically neutering all the others, the faction of the state. Of course, by liberal definition the government is not a faction, for its only interest is ensuring that no other faction dominates and imposes on others a conception of the good; the state, remember, is “neutral” regarding conceptions of the good and thus doesn’t have any interest of its own. After all, it is just an amoral machine, a pragmatic tool—not a person or an ideology. However, what is obvious now is that liberalism is not neutral, and a faction of real persons, in this case, the most powerful, ruthless, and selfish in the world, has arisen to a position of global-wide dominance, and it has done so with the help of the state. Indeed, the faction is none other than the state, that is, the ruling class, now exposed as the political/military/financial cabal it has always been since, say, the “wars of religion,” where we witnessed the birth pangs of the invention of “private” religion and the power-centralizing nation-state. For a few centuries in America, liberalism was able to conceal the increasing dominance and tyranny of the oligarchs and the incremental enslavement and disenfranchisement of the masses; it was a gradual process, and the oligarchs were able to manipulate public opinion so that exploitation and enslavement were self-translated by the masses into freedom and prosperity. The fact is that liberalism is no longer able to conceal the truth about itself, and the proof is the emergence of another “faction” to oppose the oligarchic one. However, and this is the essential point, it is not a faction at all. The OWS movement is nothing but the unveiling of a faction, the unmasking of the constitutively faction-based nature of liberalism. That which has presented itself in theory as the manager and coordinator of factions has now been exposed in practice as just another faction, but one as pure in self-interest and contemptuous for others’ interests as possible as David Harvey suggests:
The Party of Wall Street has one universal principle of rule: that there shall be no serious challenge to the absolute power of money to rule absolutely. And that power is to be exercised with one objective. Those possessed of money power shall not only be privileged to accumulate wealth endlessly at will, but they shall have the right to inherit the earth, taking either direct or indirect dominion not only of the land and all the resources and productive capacities that reside therein, but also assume absolute command, directly or indirectly, over the labor and creative potentialities of all those others it needs. The rest of humanity shall be deemed disposable.
If the OWS were merely a faction, if it were merely the flip side of the criminal, oligarchic faction, that is, a mob of envious, deracinated, libidos wishing to dismantle society for their own interests, then the lie of liberalism would still be hidden, for then the protestors would just be criminal, anti-liberals seeking to impose their conception of the good on others, and hence in need of neutralization, as all factions are, by the non-factional state. And here we seen the crux of the issue, the reason for the Christian mischaracterization of OWS. In order for liberalism to stay cloaked, the protestors must be seen as just another subversive faction seeking domination, one that has managed to escape the safe confines of the liberal state and market’s peaceful and prosperous managing hand. For, the very presence in public space of a community of persons talking together about the common good, about how to manage political and economic life in light of the good for all humans, about the real needs of real human beings and not merely the infinite, autonomous freedom of non-existent, abstract individuals, is the unmasking of liberalism. OWS is immune to characterization as just another faction, and thus it transcends the factionalism at the heart of liberalism. Liberalism’s very existence is predicated upon the non-existence of any faction-transcending agent other than the state. For liberalism to exist, OWS must not exist. Because OWS does exist, it must be interpreted out of existence. Since many Christians in America have been seduced into giving more loyalty to liberalism than Christ and His Church, attacking OWS is what they think they must do. Aristotle again:
For if men met and associated out of regard to wealth only, their share in the state would be proportioned to their property, and the oligarchical doctrine would then seem to carry the day. It would not be just that he who paid one mina should have the same share of a hundred minae, whether of the principal or of the profits, as he who paid the remaining ninety-nine. But a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only: …Nor does a state exist for the sake of alliance and security from injustice, nor yet for the sake of exchange and mutual intercourse … Whence it may be further inferred that virtue must be the care of a state which is truly so called, and not merely enjoys the name: for without this end the community becomes a mere alliance which differs only in place from alliances of which the members live apart; and law is only a convention, ‘a surety to one another of justice,’ as the sophist Lycophron says, and has no real power to make the citizens good and just.
The OWS movement has proven Aristotle right and wrong. An alliance alone cannot make citizens good and just, and liberalism is an alliance pretending to be a polis, which is the worst of all options, worse than even a tyranny, for at least a tyranny is a genuine polis, albeit a defective one. As Alasdair MacIntyre has stated, when the state requires you to sacrifice your life in war, “It’s like dying for the telephone company.” The oligarchical doctrine is not “carrying the day,” and though the oligarchs have managed to centralize power and money, conduct several illegal and murderous wars to stuff their coffers, institute a police state where any citizen can be murdered by the President without a trial, and exert almost complete control over the media “presstitutes,” to use Paul Craig Robert’s term, men are still associating for purposes other than with “regard to wealth only”—and many do appear good and just. Aristotle would not have thought that possible. I think we have the Internet to thank for this, for it permits educational formation and communication outside a mind-constricting and person-isolating regime. Instead of ridiculing and attacking this movement, we should be on our knees thanking God, His Church, and the actual graces that He has bestowed on those both inside and outside her, as well as a marginalized, exploited, alienated, and poor citizenry who have refused to morph into a selfish democratic faction in imitation of the oligarchic faction they justifiably protest. Of course, some in this movement are subversive, seek domination, and are replete with ideologies as false as liberalism. But this is to be expected. Liberalism produces its own mirror images. The miracle is that there are so many who have escaped the liberal dialectic. Let us reject the idol of liberalism by refusing to sacrifice the poor and oppressed on its altar, the altar of Mammon.
© Ethika Politika. Reprinted by permission.