We are facing a crisis. Socially, politically, and economically, things are going profoundly wrong in America. For many of us, this realization lurks on the fringes of our conscious minds, manifesting itself as a sense of disquiet, foreboding, and fear for the future.
The financial sector meltdown and the collapse of the residential real estate bubble have left deep scars. And the recession that followed these calamities has produced what Professor Andrew Sum terms a “wageless and jobless recovery.” Today, a historically high level of deep poverty, and massive unemployment, coincides with near-record corporate profits even as we teeter on the brink of another recession.
To understand their significance, these realities must be seen in context. They follow several decades of growing income and wealth disparities- a process termed “the Great Divergence” by Slate’s Timothy Noah. During this period, income for middle and working class Americans has stagnated or declined as we hemorrhaged well-paying manufacturing jobs overseas and replaced them with what economist Umair Haque aptly terms “McJobs” in the service sector. As a result, America’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) is now 0.450- a level more characteristic of developing nations than our industrial democracy peers. Inequality has serious consequences– it reduces opportunity, destabilizes our economy, and impedes recovery.
Economic decline marches in tandem with social decay. Our decadent and distracted materialist culture is fixated on escapism and entertainment- but even the most fabulous spectacles can’t mask anomie and growing alienation. Our families, the bedrock organizational unit in society, are crumbling. So is our education system which, by global standards, is merely average and trending towards subpar. Most tellingly, we have the largest prison population, and highest rate of incarceration, in the world.
Meanwhile, our politics appears incoherent and unequal to the challenge. It’s characterized by bitter ideological divides. However, although our public discourse is increasingly shrill, it has little to offer in the way of solutions- volume, apparently, isn’t a substitute for vision.
This isn’t surprising. Today, neither the left nor the right offers a complete account of what has gone wrong in America and why. Instead, they present us with two equally problematic models- the welfare state and the market state. This is essentially a Hobson’s choice because both empower government and large corporations at our expense.
It’s time for heroic measures- a reform program addressing our interrelated economic, social, and political problems offering real hope and substantive change. To do this, we must move beyond the failed paradigms of the left and the right and chart a new course- one that combines their best insights while jettisoning their worst baggage.
That new course is the civic state, an idea informed by communitarian and distributist thinking championed primarily by Phillip Blond and the ResPublica think-tank in Britain. It is premised on the recognition that, in Blond’s words, “[b]oth the unlimited state and the unrestrained market” pose equally grave threats to personal dignity and the common good- that the “Chicago school” produces a landscape just as blighted as the theories of Marx and Engels. As articulated by Blond, the civic state “privileges the associative above the alienated, the responsible over the self-serving and… the communal over the individual.” It advances a reform agenda aimed at “[t]he re-moralization of the markets, the re-localization of the economy, and the re-capitalization of the poor.” Blond calls his fusionist philosophy “Red Toryism,” and it has influenced the British Conservative Party’s “Big Society” program.
The civic state could also be a vehicle for cultural transformation and renewal. As David Jenkins has observed, the radical libertarian “live for today – let me do what I want mentality” is indistinguishable from the left’s “‘if it feels good do it’ mantra of the 1960s.” Thus, the civic state’s emphasis on stewardship, solidarity, and the common good represents a break with both radical libertarianism on the right, and radical libertinism on the left. It repudiates the cultural process through which liberty has become synonymous with license, and individual rights have been shorn of their corresponding duties and obligations to society. And this- the negation of virtue and the embrace of a disordered version of individualism- is ultimately at the root of the entire constellation of problems we face.
As Russell Kirk recognized, “[i]t is in community that human beings realize their aim in existence.” An Americanized version of Blond’s civic state “Red Toryism” could form the basis of a comprehensive reform agenda that would strike at the deep systemic and cultural forces driving inequality, alienation, and decline. The alternative is bleak: a less equal, increasingly depersonalized, disempowered, and dysfunctional society characterized by diminished horizons, for us all.