TCS Daily


The Anti-Market Protocols of the Councillor of Zion

By Will Wilkinson - October 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Appearing as an eponymous "Councillor of Zion" in one of the Wachowski Brothers' botched sequels to The Matrix, Cornel West, a tirelessly self-promoting Princeton Professor of Religion, can be heard to exclaim: "Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation!" There may be no doubt that West was expertly cast, for orotund nonsense is his singular genius. A fellow professor once quipped: "Cornel's work tends to be 1,000 miles wide and about two inches deep." In a new book, Democracy Matters, (online excerpt here) West promises to examine a triple threat to democracy: "free-market fundamentalism," "aggressive militarism," and "escalating authoritarianism." Despite the occasional insight and illuminating connection, mostly we observe Professor West in his thousand-mile pool, out of his depth, gurgling in dropped names like a baby face-down in a puddle.

The kernel of West's worry is this:

"Democracy matters are frightening in our time precisely because the three dominant dogmas of free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism are snuffing out the democratic impulses that are so vital for the deepening and spread of democracy in the world. In short, we are experiencing the sad American imperial devouring of American democracy. This historic devouring in our time constitutes an unprecedented gangsterization of America -- an unbridled grasp at power, wealth, and status. And when the most powerful forces in a society -- and an empire -- promote a suffocation of democratic energies, the very future of genuine democracy is jeopardized."

The "American imperial devouring of American democracy" - whatever that might mean -- is certainly "sad," if one really wants to put it that way. But what about "free market fundamentalism"? What's that?

"Market fundamentalism" originated as an epithet with billionaire George Soros's criticisms of knee-jerk pro-market panglossianism. It has been wielded as a cudgel by Bank of Sweden Prize winner and former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz to bash the "Washington Consensus" of economic development bureaucracies. Stiglitz is right to question the imposition of market institutions on societies lacking the necessary moral infrastructure and political will. But the charge of "market fundamentalism" is more often an attempt to short-circuit debate and cast one's opponents as thoughtless ideologues.

West is no Stiglitz, semi-thoughtfully suggesting conditions under which markets can and cannot be effective. For West, markets are pernicious because they are effective. The market is, to exaggerate only slightly, the fountainhead of evil. Militarism and authoritarian are mere symptoms of acquisitive capitalist individualism. According to West, free-market fundamentalism is -- and this is not satire -- "just as dangerous as the religious fundamentalisms of our day."

There is no reason to suspect that Professor West has lately suffered trauma to the head, so we may wonder what he means by this comparison of apples to orangutans. Are we to imagine the George Mason economics department devising terrible schemes to drown innocents by the thousands in their own infidel blood? (What were "terrorism futures" really for, Professor Hanson!?) A color-coded privatization alert system? Grainy videotapes of the heirs of Sam Walton adorned with black hoods beheading faithful Costco shoppers? Something else?

The Philosophy of Anti-Market Democracy Fetishists

Understanding West's absurdity, and the drumbeat of anti-market rhetoric droning through the pages of Democracy Matters, requires recognizing that his idiosyncratic notion of democracy is by definition incompatible with a system of free-markets and voluntary association.

West's notion of democracy is (no surprise!) ideologically loaded. For West, citizens' casting their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of free-markets is, paradoxically, anti-democratic. In the usual unloaded sense, democracy is a system of political administration including more or less universal suffrage and the appointment of public officials on the basis of free, fair and open elections. This kind of democracy is, in principle, consistent with a huge range of political systems, from thoroughgoing breadline socialism to laissez-faire minimalism. It all depends on the beliefs and desires of the electorate

But West has in mind a rather small segment of this spectrum -- a notion of democracy that goes beyond mere mechanisms of collective choice and public administration and saturates all of social life, blurring the line between the public and private sphere, subordinating individual choices to the authority of group consensus. West's loaded notion of democracy is not a mere procedure that tends to limit injustice, but is in itself the substance of justice.

In Democracy Matters, West draws especially on the writings of American transcendentalist litterateur Ralph Waldo Emerson. West says that Emerson

"understood that democracy is not only about the workings of the political system but more profoundly about the individuals being empowered and enlightened (and suspicious of authorities) in order to help create and sustain a genuine democratic community, a type of society that was unprecedented in human history."

Of course, nearly of all American political thought is about more than "the workings of the political system" and seeks justification in terms of the "empowering" benefits provided to individual citizens.

What's special for West about Emerson is his horror of the market. Trade and commerce lack moral and spiritual heft. The activity of the market plunges us into cave-like darkness through which the light of the Good and the Just cannot pierce. If only we could lay down our stupefying charge cards, emerge from the cold shadows of small desire, and raise our faces to the warm sun of Justice, we would come to love it and pine for the Brotherhood of Man (and puppies in wicker baskets, etc.).

West lets Emerson do his talking:

"Men such as they are, very naturally seek money or power . . . And why not? For they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is highest. Wake them, and they shall quit the false good and leap to the true. . . .

"This invasion of nature by trade with its money . . . threatens to upset the balance of man and establish a new Universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome. . .

"There is nothing more important in the culture of man than to resist the dangers of commerce." [Emphasis added.]

Emerson is useful to West because he captures two deep strains in West's philosophy that are not made explicit in Democracy Matters, but which bubble up between the lines: communitarian democracy and quasi-Marxism.

In earlier essays West has endorsed American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey's conception of democracy as a "way of life" and not just a form of government. According to Dewey, democracy requires

"a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized [democracy] must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. And even as far as political arrangements are concerned, governmental institutions are but a mechanism for securing to an ideal channels of effective operation."

West spices his basically Deweyan notion of all-pervading collectivistic democracy with a Christian/Chekovian/blues "sense of the tragic" (Dewey himself is far too sunny for West), and throws in generous dashes of the "sophisticated Marxism" of communist political theorists Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci.

Lukács and Gramsci are the preeminent theorists of market-induced "sleepwalking." They sought to explain, among other things, the failure of the working-class to fulfill Marx's prediction of an "inevitable" revolution. Both rejected crude material determinism and stressed the role of culture and consciousness in social change.

Lukács argued that the mind of the working class has been colonized by the self-serving ideology of its upper-class capitalist masters. We are made by Madison Avenue to have "false" consumer desires, contrary to our true interests. The induced longing for Pop-Tarts and Escalades keeps us in harness, undermining the possibility of human wholeness as we allow our labor, and our souls, to be bought and sold in pieces like so many diapers and ballpoint pens. All of life becomes "commodified."

Similarly, Gramsci maintained that the nascent revolutionary spirit of the proletariat has been smothered by the "cultural hegemony" of the capitalist class. We conceive of our lives and frame our aspirations in terms of the enemy, who controls the culture. There can be no revolution until we, as Emerson said, "wake up," escape from the mind-bending clutches of Chiat/Day, Harvey Weinstein, and AOL/Time Warner, and a create a new "counter-hegemonic" culture to promote the emergence of new mode of consciousness in which our true human interests are seen finally in the clear light of Truth. (If you ever wondered about the intellectual pedigree of No Logo and Adbusters, this is it.)

As West puts it in Democracy Matters:

"The oppressive effect of the prevailing market moralities leads to a form of sleepwalking from womb to tomb, with the majority of citizens content to focus on private careers and be distracted with stimulating amusements."

West's stew of intellectual commitments implies that a formally democratic, more or less capitalist society simply cannot be genuinely democratic. Dewey's notion of democracy itself entails that free and fair elections aren't enough for a "genuinely" democratic society, for that won't ensure an appropriately democratic family, workplace, and everything. Lukács and Gramsci imply that the political preferences of people living in a market order cannot be "authentic," and therefore our electoral choices are not really our own. People embedded in a system of capitalist production and trade -- that's us -- do not act on our own desires, cannot comprehend our own good, and do not know our own minds. Such is the sorry existence of the sleepwalking commodity fetishist.

The implication is that a "genuinely" democratic society must guard against the distorting influence of capitalism. Campaigns must be publicly financed. Advertising and marketing must be strictly regulated. The forces of the market must generally be put in check. We require an informed voting public, so education must be publicly provided. Broadcasters must be forced to show educational programming in the public interest. Social inequalities that generate envy and resentment must be rectified. And so forth.

As far as I can tell, this kind of radical social transformation is a prerequisite of "genuine" democracy, not the outcome of democracy -- although, conveniently, it is what we would vote for should the scales of commodification and reification fall from our glazed capitalist eyes. Indeed, West's views seem to imply the impossibility of a democratic transition to "democracy." If the problem is that we're too drugged by the market to see what would be good for us, then we're not going to vote for what's good for us. Only once all this "democracy" is somehow put in place may a formally democratic vote express the authentic "will of the people." When wide-awake Swedes vote, I guess that's genuine democracy. When Americans sleep-vote for George/John W./F. Bush/Kerry, it's a symptom of Emerson's "Universal Monarchy more tyrannical than Babylon or Rome." Which is just to say, only socialism is "genuinely" democratic. Capitalist democracy? A contradiction in terms.

That's why "free-market fundamentalism" is as dangerous a threat to democracy as bloodthirsty jihadists out to slay infidels, subjugate women, and put an end to liberal society. Under capitalism, democracy, as West conceives it, is impossible.

Rhetoric and Reality

Despite West's intellectual posturing, Democracy Matters is a prime example of the quasi-intellectualism of the far left, a triumph of moralizing, name-dropping rhetoric over argument. West's wide-ranging erudition is impressive, but nowhere provides a curious but skeptical reader with a reason to believe that the market does in fact have this kind of distorting effect on our minds, or a corrosive effect on democracy as it is less tendentiously understood. West engages no advocates of the free market, nor does he even deign to knock down straw men. Overestimating the world-making powers of language, West simply slaps negative labels on his opponents and declares victory. The choir is no doubt delighted.

If nothing else, the Professor is supremely confident. West's website advertises his unintentionally hysterical "rap" album "Sketches of My Culture" thus: "In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history." West's prose is saturated with his signature modesty. He offers as uncontroversial truth the transcendentally arrogant idea that members of a market culture -- his readers -- shamble from cradle to grave in a state of benighted semi-consciousness. He offer no positive intellectual support for his idiosyncratic, ideologically-loaded conception of democracy, or of his democractic-cum-socialist conception of a just society, unless a steady patter of dropped names counts as an argument. West's nearest approach to a positive defense of his position comes when he profoundly asks of democratic (read socialist) ideals, "How can we not fall in love with them if and when we are exposed to them?" How, indeed.

West's reasoning at its best is cozily self-insulating. That we do not fall in love with West's ideals is just proof that we are not exposed to them. That we are zombified by the market nicely explains why no one agrees with Professor West, who, we are compelled to conclude, has heroically (in all modesty) thrown off the blindfold of false consciousness by the amazing counter-hegemonic feat of reading books. West thoughtfully spares our slowly awakening minds from complex chains of thought by instead offering the reader helpful labels that take us straightway to his conclusion. We can be sure that the free-market is bad because it leads to "sleepwalking" and its defense is, you know, a form of fundamentalism. Suppose you were to say something West agrees with. That would make you "prophetic," especially if you said it with uplifting rhetorical gusto. Suppose you present a view contrary to West's own. Well, it's very likely a form of "nihilism." In his chapter on "Nihilism in America" West is kind enough to provide us with a taxonomy of a number of views that are contrary to his own, and, therefore, forms of meaninglessness. Say what you will about the tenets of West's philosophy, at least it's an ethos.

For Free-Market Democracy

This is not to say that West's broad conception of democracy does not have attractive elements. West paints a pretty picture of democratic citizens who govern their own affairs, free to develop unique, meaningful individual identities as they pursue their conceptions of the good on terms fellow citizens can agree upon. However, West fails to appreciate how closely voluntary market cooperation approximates this kind of democratic ideal.

West's anti-market dogma blinds him to the fact that capitalist consumer culture, far from brainwashing and sedating us, provides us with a plenitude of raw materials with which to construct meaningful, authentic identities and modes of community. Only in their fevered dreams do capitalists have the power to implant consumptive desire through diabolical marketing campaigns. In the waking world, businesses are left to grapple with the fact that almost all of their efforts fail as consumers, critics, and competitors interpret, reinterpret, and subvert their messages and products in ways they can barely fathom, much less control. And as Schumpeter once smartly noted, "The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette." Entrepreneurs and innovators constantly recombine the ambient elements of the market culture into new compounds of convenience, identity, and meaning, which consumers are free to take or leave. The overall shape of the market culture is the dynamic sum of these takings and leavings. We each through our choices -- canceling this subscription, trying that new restaurant, refusing to buy an electro-widget until the price comes down -- do our part in this shaping. Market choices bear an uncanny resemblance to votes. Isn't this, too, democracy?

As West's hero Dewey writes in "On Democracy":

"The individuals of the submerged mass may not be very wise. But there is one thing they are wiser about than anybody else can be, and that is where the shoe pinches, the troubles they suffer from."

And it is through the market, and market-subsidized civil society, that the individuals of the submerged mass find better-fitting shoes and find salve for their suffering. West, and other fetishists of socialized democracy, think democracy, because it involves everyone having a say, must involve lots and lots of talking. Everything we do must be talked to death, talked through until we arrive at "consensus" because most of us have become too bored or exhausted to keep on talking. Cornel West (as you know if you've ever seen the great democrat) is a prodigy of talk. But opting in and opting out is another way of having one's say, in many ways more forceful and exacting, and less easily dominated and controlled by those with a strong voice.

The tu quoque is cheap. But it's hard to resist the thought that West's animosity toward the market is projection of his own ideologically fundamentalist impulses. It is perhaps fitting that West, a man who says he is committed to the truth of teachings of Jesus Christ because his sanity depends on it, should level the charge that advocates of the free-market are animated by blind faith. We see in others our weaknesses enlarged. But faith in markets in not West's complaint so much as is the reluctance of Americans to adopt his faith in socialist democracy (which we could only love, if we were exposed to it). Faith can be no objection for West, whose brand of "pragmatism" blurs so utterly the distinction between reason and faith that an accusation of faith in free markets can be no objection at all, for there is nothing of left of reason against which to identify and condemn arbitrary intellectual commitments. The problem with fundamentalism is that it is fundamentalist, that it brooks no dissent, not that it is a kind of faith.

West's postmodernism notwithstanding, reason is one thing and faith is quite another, and the champions of markets are emphatically not engaged in a faith-based enterprise. We praise the market because -- sit down pragmatists -- it works. West, in contrast, has given the reader no reason, pragmatic or principled, to doubt the efficacy of the market in saving and extending human life, spreading peace and freedom, providing the material for meaningful lives, and realizing many of the ideals of grassroots participatory democracy.

Despite the temptation to fling "fundamentalism" right back in West's face, the Professor, it must be admitted, is no more a fundamentalist than the people he wrongly accuses. He's just dreadfully wrong about the source of threats to our freedom. He would be dangerously wrong if anyone was listening. The fight against militarism and authoritarianism -- American or otherwise -- is indeed profoundly important. West, however, provides us little worthwhile moral or practical guidance. Attempting to speak truth to power, Professor West at best manages to speak nonsense to the subscribers of The Nation.

Will Wilkinson is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He maintains a philosophical weblog, The Fly Bottle at http://willwilkinson.net/flybottle


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