Sunday, December 09, 2007

Capitalism, Society, Democracy

Tony Judt:

The market requires norms, habits, and "sentiments" external to itself to hold it together, to ensure the very political stability that capitalism needs in order to thrive. But it also tends to corrode those same practices and sentiments. This much has long been clear.[10] The benign "invisible hand"—the unregulated free market—may have been a favorable inaugural condition for commercial societies. But it cannot reproduce the noncommercial institutions and relations—of cohesion, trust, custom, restraint, obligation, morality, authority—that it inherited and which the pursuit of individual economic self-interest tends to undermine rather than reinforce.[11] For similar reasons, the relationship between capitalism and democracy (or capitalism and political freedom) should not be taken for granted: see China, Russia, and perhaps even Singapore today. Efficiency, growth, and profit may not always be a precondition or even a consequence of democracy so much as a substitute for it.

If modern democracies are to survive the shock of Reich's "supercapitalism," they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage, particularly when the latter accrues to ever fewer beneficiaries: the idea of a society held together by pecuniary interests alone is, in Mill's words, "essentially repulsive." A civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose. "The greatest asset of public action is its ability to satisfy vaguely felt needs for higher purpose in the lives of men and women."[12]

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