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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Orestes Brownson and Socialism, III: The Constitution

What baffles many people who take the "capitalist/individualist" side today is the claim that the Just Third Way is not socialist, even though there is a strong objection to concentrated ownership of capital in private hands. The only people even more puzzled about the Just Third Way are the socialists/collectivists, who believe that any system that appears to subordinate their demand for a guarantee of an adequate material life for all to humanity's natural rights of life, liberty and property is necessarily capitalist.

Consciously or not, both sides take for granted that humanity is either socialist/collectivist, or capitalist/individualist. No other arrangement is possible. Thus, whatever is not socialism must be capitalism, and whatever is not capitalism, must be socialism.

This belief is conditioned primarily by two assumptions. One assumption is the conviction that humanity is either a social creature or an individual. There is no appreciation of what Aristotle meant by his statement in The Politics that "man is by nature a political animal" — a possibly unique combination of individual and social. The politikos bios — the life of the citizen in the State — is an arrangement of the common good by means of which individual rights are only truly realized within a social context. The art of politics involves arranging the institutions of society to optimize the exercise of individual rights within a framework that naturally and necessarily takes into account not only the rights of the individual, but of other individuals, groups, and the common good (that network of institutions within which we exercise rights and so acquire and develop virtue) as a whole.

The other assumption is the idea that the only way to finance new capital formation is to cut consumption, accumulate money savings, then invest. This necessarily restricts ownership of all new capital either to private individuals who have been fortunate enough already to have wealth and can afford to cut consumption, or to the State, that presumably has the power (as John Maynard Keynes put it) to re-edit the dictionary, that is, change what it means for something to be a right, thereby controlling who may "own" and how that "ownership" may be exercised.

In view of these two assumptions, society seems locked into an irreconcilable conflict between individualism/capitalism on one hand, and collectivism/socialism on the other. In the analysis of Orestes Brownson, the American Civil War brought this conflict to its highest pitch.

In Brownson's opinion, the conflict between individualism and collectivism had been present from the beginning of the United States. Both were in contrast to the system embodied in the Constitution. The individualist element had been strong from independence up to the Civil War. The most obvious representation of this was slavery, according to de Tocqueville the only serious problem with democracy in America. The collectivist element had, however, been gaining strength, largely through opposition to slavery. It was to gain ascendancy after the war in reaction against the growing power of the industrial and commercial sectors, the ownership of which was rapidly becoming concentrated at an accelerating rate. While Brownson died in 1876, he would not have been surprised — although possibly profoundly shocked — at the degree to which American society has managed to take on the worst aspects of both capitalism and socialism, the latter not unjustly termed "State capitalism."

Brownson was adamant that slavery was a profound evil, and that the abolitionists were right in opposing it. Where they were wrong, he believed, was in opposing slavery on "humanitarian" or "socialistic" grounds. Slavery was wrong not because it was cruel and inhuman. Life itself, in many respects, is cruel and inhuman. Slavery is wrong because it is contrary to human nature, constituting an unnecessary cruelty, "a barbaric element, . . . in direct antagonism to American civilization."

Even then, slavery was abolished not on humanitarian grounds, but because abolition was an effective weapon in the fight to save the Union. Thus, as far as Brownson was concerned, the right thing was done, but for the wrong reason. Political pragmatism had won out over both socialist humanitarianism and capitalist individualism, as well as the true American spirit and philosophy. Ironically, this led to the belief that capitalist expedience, rather than socialist humanitarianism was the ruling philosophy of America, a conclusion seemingly validated by the rapid commercial and industrial expansion after the war. Paradoxically, this led to the widespread belief that socialism, albeit under many names and in many forms, is the only possible remedy to the horrors of capitalism.

Not that Brownson, despite his condemnation of socialism, was "soft" on capitalism. He viewed them as two sides of a very bad coin. This non-Catholic and thus non-American philosophy imposed actual slavery in the south, and virtual slavery in the north through the wage system. With respect to the material condition of the non-owning worker he believed that chattel slavery was better for the worker than wage slavery — a conclusion with which you are free to disagree, but it illustrates what are, in Brownson's eyes, the chief evils of the wage system. An owner of men has, at least, to keep the people who are his property alive even when they are not working if he hopes to remain profitable. The propertyless free worker, however, is on his own, free to starve, if nothing else, and the employer of nominally free men makes more profit the worse he treats his workers — in the short run. In an analysis that Brownson could have lifted directly from Aristotle, he stated,

"In regard to labor two systems obtain; one that of slave labor, the other that of free labor. Of the two, the first is, in our judgment, except so far as the feelings are concerned, decidedly the least oppressive. If the slave has never been a free man, we think, as a general rule, his sufferings are less than those of the free laborer at wages. As to actual freedom one has just about as much as the other. The laborer at wages has all the disadvantages of freedom and none of its blessings, while the slave, if denied the blessings, is freed from the disadvantages. We are no advocates of slavery, we are as heartily opposed to it as any modern abolitionist can be; but we say frankly that, if there must always be a laboring population distinct from proprietors and employers, we regard the slave system as decidedly preferable to the system at wages." (Orestes Brownson, "The Laboring Classes," The Boston Quarterly Review, July 1840.)

Brownson might as well have added, "own or be owned." As it was, the Civil War created the illusion that the northern version of capitalism had won, but this — at least in Brownson's eyes — was no victory. All it did was give socialism its justification, and provide the basis for the gradual implementation, decades later, of social welfare programs that eventually bankrupt the State in an effort, as Goetz Briefs noted, to save capitalism by having the State guarantee each person's material welfare.

Nevertheless, in 1865 Brownson, while he could see the dangers of the spread of propertylessness among the great mass of people, saw great promise in the Homestead Act.  He likened it to the spread of the benefits of the Roman Republic to every inhabitant in the empire — only on a more just and equitable basis. He continued to hold fast to what he believed to be the true American philosophy found in the Constitution, especially what in the framework of the Just Third Way is called the "Four Pillars of an Economically Just Society":

1. A limited economic role for the State,

2. Free and open markets as the best means of determining just wages, just prices, and just profits,

3. Restoration of the rights of private property, especially in corporate or other business equity, and

4. Widespread direct ownership of capital.

A Limited Economic Role for the State

As far as Brownson was concerned, the State's role is to protect individual rights, but within a strong juridical framework that respects human liberty and dignity. As he explained, "its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the State, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual — the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society. . . . The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other."

Free and Open Markets

A free market is not one in which "anything goes," but one to which everyone has equal access and equal rights to participate. Brownson saw a free market — "commerce" — as essential to a government of sovereign people. "[I]t was necessary to place [commerce] under the General government, in order that laws on the subject might be uniform throughout the Union, and that the citizens of all the States, and foreigners trading with them, should be placed on an equal footing, and have the same remedies."

Restoration of Private Property

When Brownson wrote, in 1865, the serious inroads that would be made on private property even as soon as 1873 with the "Slaughterhouse Cases" were far from evident. The war had been fought — in part — to secure natural rights to people who had been deprived of their exercise. Still, Brownson appears to have had an inkling of what could come, for he stressed the importance of protecting natural rights many times, e.g., "Communion with God through Creation and Incarnation is religion, distinctively taken, which binds man to God as his first cause, and carries him onward to God as his final cause; communion through the material world is expressed by the word property; and communion with God through humanity is society. Religion, society, property, are the three terms that embrace the whole of man's life, and express the essential means and conditions of his existence, his development, and his perfection, or the fulfillment of his existence, the attainment of the end for which he is created." This is a concise description of the role and importance of religious society, civil society and domestic society in the politikos bios.

Widespread Capital Ownership

Private property in capital was for Brownson the underpinning of a free and democratic society, providing the foundation for the family, the basic unit of society. In America, the people govern — both implying and requiring widespread ownership of capital. As Brownson explained, "The right to govern rests on ownership or dominion. Where there is no proprietorship, there is no dominion; and where there is no dominion, there is no right to govern. Only he who is sovereign proprietor is sovereign lord."

Interestingly, Brownson's analysis of the U.S. Constitution, even flawed as it is in parts by an incomplete understanding of Catholic political philosophy (a weakness Brownson himself admitted) — except for his evident admiration of James Madison — bears a strong resemblance to that of William Winslow Crosskey (1894-1968) possibly the greatest Constitutional scholar of the 20th century. This is understandable. Both men seemed to have an almost inborn sense of the natural law that necessarily underpins any sound government or State. Applying Aristotelian and Thomist common sense in their respective analyses (even if unconscious of the provenance of the principles they employed), leads to similar, if not identical conclusions.

Crosskey used different words, but he expressed the same sentiments in his monumental Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953). As Brownson reflected,

"The United States, or the American Republic, has a mission, and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea. It has been chosen not only to continue the work assigned to Greece and Rome, but to accomplish a greater work than was assigned to either. In art, it will prove false to its mission if it do not rival Greece; and in science and philosophy, if it do not surpass it. In the State, in law, in jurisprudence, it must continue and surpass Rome."