Facing inequality after the erosion of civil society, Americans encounter an Aristotelian problem during a Tocquevillian predicament. Our two most elegant theorists can frame this crisis, but can they help us adjudicate it?
Inequality is the major political problem in the mixed-constitutional regime. In Book IV of Politics, Aristotle argues that the emergence and survival of mixed constitutional regimes depends upon a middle class. If rising inequality eviscerates the middle class, citizens will face a politics of dangerous competition between an oligarchic faction of powerful monied interests and demagogues threatening the tyranny of the unwashed masses.
An eroded civil society threatens the historical character of American democracy. In Part III, Chapter 21 of the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville soberly agrees with Aristotle:
Eliminate the secondary causes that have given rise to great social turmoil and you are almost always left with inequality. Either the poor sought to plunder the rich, on the rich tried to clap the poor in irons.
Rich and poor alike vie to wield state power: the poor want redistribution, the rich the myriad ways that the state subsidizes corporations. Against the oligarchic and democratic prongs of statism, Tocqueville argues for the importance of civil society in Part II, Chapter 4 of the first volume of Democracy in America. Only America’s robust civil society preserves a healthy mixed constitutional regime in America.
Democrats no longer have a monopoly on the Aristotelian problem. Inequality is shaping up to be a defining issue for conservatives. Over at National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin have written about how conservatives can respond healthcare reform, restructuring higher education, and lowering the costs of raising a family. Charles Murray opened the door in his 2012 book Coming Apart to linking inequality (or at least the social immobility that preserves inequalities) to the “marriage market”. Kevin Williamson has described a “new segregation” based on income.
At the Sweep we’re not totally convinced. Steve hints that inequality-talk betokens a political shift away from libertarian defenses of the free market. A conservative “spin” on this shift might shake off statism — but this may be waving away the Tocquevillian predicament with wishful thinking. The problem remains for conservatives. How can they make inequality into a political problem without a critique of capitalism?
In a way, we simply duck Aristotle when we invoke the polarization of “liberal progressive” and “free market” ideology in the United States. But the illusion of ideological polarization is merely epiphenomenal. In 1893, Friedrich Engels famously wrote to Franz Mehring that ideology was false consciousness. It is equally true on an Aristotelian analysis — i.e., an explicitly non-Marxian analysis because it does not assume vast inequality as a given — that ideological politics become shrill, irrational, and overblown when the citizens of a particular polis become unequal. Our broken political system is duct-taped together by sticky-fingered deals between plutocrats and populist demagogues.
Tocqueville and Aristotle, both members of the parti de l’Ordre in some fashion, may have a stability agenda behind their works. And yet we are told by Bellah et. al. that even the social protest movements of the Civil Rights era brought together churches and trade unions, student groups and social clubs — i.e., they generated their staying power from civil society. A Facebook page just doesn’t cut it, neither in Tahrir Square nor in Zuccotti Park. Their flashes of energy dissipate without solid institutional structures. (Or else they serve their organized close cousins, the Muslim Brotherhood or the progressive trappings of the Obama Administration. I heard Frances Fox Piven speak last weekend at the 8th Telos Conference, and I wondered how she justified her claim that she was not “romantic” about the Occupy Wall Street protests… especially when she clasped her hands together and said how wonderful they were… leaving the rest of us to ponder their failure.) Inequality may be on the rise, but our Tocquevillian predicament leaves us unequipped to respond.
Any viable political vision, conservative, liberal, or otherwise, will have to respond to our Aristotelian problem in the face of our Tocquevillian predicament.