In his thoughtful The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama argues that there are three pillars of order that are necessary for the stability of states such as Denmark, Sweden, or the United Kingdom, which he sees as the three best examples of how we might live together: centralized power (including a monopoly on armed force), the rule of law (which applies not just to the people but to the rulers themselves), and accountability (guaranteed not merely through “parchment barriers” but by real checks and balances). The story he tells explains what is necessary for a government of the people and for the people, but it is less compelling as an account of what is necessary for government by the people. Indeed, in focusing on these general structures of governance he overlooks the great in-between, the intermediating associations of civil society such as schools, churches, and unions in which we live much of our lives. Thinkers since Tocqueville have argued that such associations are the bedrock of political life, a point reemphasized in our own time by Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Jean Bethke Elshtain Elshtain, Robert Putnam, and William Galston, all of whom worry about the danger posed by the erosion of such institutions in the age of globalization.
Luke Bretherton’s Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life not only focuses on these intermediating institutions and their decline, it also presents a model for strengthening them and thereby “resurrecting democracy.” In his account of the decline of our common civic life, Bretherton points above all to the neoliberal character of globalization and particularly the role of finance in promoting a pleonexia that is indifferent to the concrete needs of human beings living in community with one another. In sketching out a solution to this problem he draws on a tradition that he sees beginning with Aristotle, later manifested in the medieval commune and the social teaching of the Catholic Church, and reborn in the secular world in Saul Alinsky’s notion of broad-based community organizing. He uses an effort at community organizing in which he played a part in London that employed Alinsky’s techniques as a case study to illustrate his point. It is an exciting story. Bretherton clearly understands himself as a man of the Left dedicated to greater democracy, but he is neither a revolutionary nor a utopian, rejecting the proposed solutions of both the statist and anarchist Left, in large part because he recognizes our finitude and the fact that we always act under conditions of uncertainty. This fact leads him to an epistemic humility that reflects his post-secular Christianity.
Like Fukuyama, Bretherton accepts a Hegelian vision of the necessity and role of state authority. However, he is convinced that the orthodox Hegelian view of the state standing over and above economic and associational life is insufficient because of the growth in the power of money, exemplified in his account by the unfettered powers of the City of London. Like Aristotle and many in the Christian tradition, he is deeply suspicious of money-lenders and of usury, which he sees not merely undermining the clientalist or gift-based notions of friendship essential to a healthy community, but also corrupting the institutions of governance themselves. All of these are quite reasonable concerns that anyone of sense must acknowledge and deal with in the era of globalization, but to my mind Bretherton is so concerned with these problems that he overlooks the enormous corresponding benefits of the accumulation of capital and debt that he decries.
He sees the natural world as God’s creation, a divine gift to human beings. This view is rooted in a Neoplatonic vision that is extraordinarily difficult to justify on the basis of modern science. Even on Biblical grounds it is questionable. Nature in the purest sense is exemplified in scripture by the garden of Eden, but the nature that humanity comes to inhabit after the Fall is not Edenic, thus less obviously a divine gift, and at least potentially a divine punishment, a world in which Adam and his successors have to eke out their living by the sweat of their brows. Examined from an evolutionary point of view, nature is even less hospitable, a constant competition for survival in which, to paraphrase the Red Queen, every member of a species has to keep running as fast as they can to stay in the same place, and in which every species eventually loses the race and becomes extinct. In this natural world, the good life, which Bretherton sees as our goal, is always something that has to be achieved, and that requires constant and extraordinary effort and intelligence. Indeed, a good life is only possible if one has leisure, and leisure is only possible when there is an excess of production over consumption. But how is this excess produced? In the ancient world that Aristotle describes and that Bretherton admires, the good life for some is made possible by the work of slaves, which freed the elite to live in community with one another. Modern science, technology, and commerce have vastly reduced our dependence on the contingencies of nature. Wealth and well-being no longer depend upon conquest and enslavement but upon the division of labor, the expansion of trade, the application of human intelligence to production, and the use of accumulated capital to more efficiently produce what humans need for survival and commodious living. We have thus witnessed an enormous growth of the human species and an alleviation of human suffering and poverty of unparallelled proportions.
The fact that capitalism and modern science have liberated us from the accidents of nature and from the need for slavery does not mean that all our problems have been solved. In fact, as many thinkers have pointed out, our dependence on capital creates a dependence on the owners of capital that can be both onerous and degrading. In its most extreme form it leads to debt-slavery, which, as Bretherton points out, afflicts 20.6 million people. As large and as lamentable as this number is, it is important to recognize that it constitutes only .034% of the world’s population, compared to an estimated 30% of the population of ancient Athens (one of the freest cities of its time) who were slaves or 50% of the people in medieval England who were unfree, either slaves (10%) or serfs (40%). It was certainly the case that at least in medieval England the reciprocal obligations between classes mitigated bondage, but the vast differences in the percentage of people held in bondage of one kind or another cannot be overlooked without significantly distorting the reality of what has been achieved.
Recognizing these tremendous improvements, however, does not mean that we can or should overlook the baneful consequences these changes have had for social life. Bretherton helps us think about these problems and explore ways in which we might mitigate their effect. He believes that the solution is to resurrect democracy. What he proposes, however, is to my mind neither democratic in the ordinary sense of the term nor a resurrection. The common life he longs for never existed for the mass of the population and if it were to come into being as he imagines it, it would not be especially democratic. It was and would be an aristocratic existence. That said, I do not count either of these factors as a mark against his argument. What Bretherton actually wants to do is to improve our current social world by grafting onto it institutions and practices drawn from the ancient Athens, ancient Israel, and medieval Europe. He sees this as a revivification or revitalization of an existing tradition but in fact it is more a postmodern amalgamation of traditions, based on something like what Gadamer called a fusion of horizons. A more accurate, if less rhetorically persuasive, title for this book thus might have been “reinvigorating our common life by organizing communities of faith and other associations of ordinary human beings to play a larger role in a more polyarchic community than the one now overly dominated by financial elites.” This is a goal that almost anyone of sense anywhere on the political spectrum would want to support. It is one of the great strengths of the book that it presents such an attractive vision of what we could be and gives us clear direction about how we might bring this about. The question, of course, is whether this is a goal that can be achieved and if so whether it can be achieved in the way Bretherton suggests.
Bretherton is very careful to avoid any suggestion that a radical and abrupt transformation of civil society is possible. His goal is not revolution or even reformation but remediation. He is clearly cognizant of the power of the forces that are shaping the globalizing world. His hope for change is to seek general improvements in key strategic spaces that will improve the local neighborhood but that at the same time may have a larger and perhaps even global impact. One issue that he and his colleagues worked very hard to obtain in London was a living wage. While such a goal is certainly reasonable and limited, one has to wonder whether this notion is not outdated and economically unattainable. For example, even many libertarians have come to recognize that the state will have to take care of an increasing number of our poorest citizens as the sharing economy and robotic production vastly reduce the number of jobs, but they more realistically point not to a living wage but to a guaranteed minimum income of the kind Milton Friedman proposed years ago. Work may be essential to human dignity, as Hegel and Bretherton believe, but what will we do when little work is available? Focusing political efforts on raising wages for jobs that are going out of existence may simply be a recipe for economic decline. This would be an interesting question for Bretherton to address.
Bretherton quite reasonably wants us to care more for and work with our neighbors, but in a globalizing world, who are our neighbors? More and more they are not the people that live in our actual neighborhoods but rather people we are connected with electronically who live in various places around the world. And even where neighborhoods continue to exist they are often gated and increasingly homogeneous. Bretherton’s experience in London, of course, was quite different, and involved a mobilization effort in a multicultural environment. But is the creation of such a neighborhood likely in a post-secular age? Bretherton reasonably suggests that existing institutions that are moored in the neighborhood—hospitals, churches, and universities—can play a leading role, but outside of our great metropolitan cities, stable collections of such organizations are more difficult to find. In this regard, Bretherton’s examples of ancient Athens and Jerusalem are not particularly hopeful. His example of interwar Vienna is more hopeful but still beset by its brevity and its ultimate collapse in the face of National Socialism.
The longing for greater community is powerful in much of the modern world. Bretherton shows us one way in which such a sense of community can be strengthened. His proposals are in my view likely to be effective, but they are limited and not a universal panacea for a transformation that may well be as great as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. But the modesty of his proposal is one of its strengths. Panaceas that are touted as universal all too often become final solutions. Moreover, without such modest efforts at improving our situation, we will be left as mere playthings of titanic forces that push us hither, thither and yon. Bretherton in this sense has lit a candle from which we can all take light, perhaps become more prone to take action, and less likely merely to curse the darkness.