American Creed vs Social Justice – III
by Michael Brenner on 24 Oct 2022 0 Comment

This is the concluding essay in a series of pieces on social justice in a reactionary era. It is a revision of a commentary written and distributed about six years ago. Hence, there are a number of references to the acute debt crises in the EU at the time.


No Xin, no Ren - The crisis of Western Humanism


The Western World is being shaken by a reactionary movement that is reversing the historic accomplishments of the 20th century in building humane societies of social justice and caring. The assault is registering remarkable victories – especially in North America and Britain but in continental Europe as well. Within the European Union, country after country in the community’s periphery has been reduced to debt serfdom (destitution in Greece) in the name of an austerity ‘cure’ based on a misdiagnosis by dogmatists who have learned nothing from history.


The “lost decade” – now extended into its 15th year thanks to Covid and the suicidal sanctions war against Russia – refers not only to aggregate growth but the network of social programs and public services which have been slashed while income gaps widen drastically. Everywhere, it is the moneyed interests and their political comrades in arms who are leading the charge. Everywhere, they have seized the commanding heights of public discourse from which they shape the thinking and attitudes of the political class, the populace and those intellectuals who have chosen to serve them. This entire exercise in regression is cast in moralistic terms, moreover. The great beneficiaries of this backwards progression cynically condemn the losers for a self-indulgence that is the alleged cause of their, and their nations’ troubles. That is pure “projection” – in the psychiatrists’ jargon.


Two aspects of this stunning phenomenon are arresting and puzzling. First, it runs against the grain of strong currents that have shaped our civilization over three centuries. Enlightenment ideas of a reasoned and reasonable society that acknowledged the basic humanity of all its members spread – most often gradually, at times by fits and starts – to shape a communal consensus which was largely reified after WW II.  


An ethic of caring through collective institutions drew further ethical sustenance from religious ideals even as the influence of formal religious organizations itself faded. This sense of common interest was reconciled with the individualism that is a hallmark of modernity through the mechanism of constitutional democracy and the assiduous protection of civil liberties (politically) and the protection of property rights in free, but regulated, markets (economically). Domestic prosperity and tranquillity was matched by the fostering of a transnational community wherein violent conflict (war) became a vestigial memory and collaboration to advance economic well-being the norm.


Today, almost every feature of that Social Compact either is being rejected or called into question: social equity, narrowing disparities in wealth distribution, ensconcing government as the legitimate and necessary guardian of the public good, giving everyone a piece of the action as well as a slice of the pie, valuing compromise and conciliation.


The other peculiar feature is that the mounting challenge to the West’s great construction is not a reaction to failure. By any conceivable measure, those societies are the most successful in satisfying most human needs that the world has ever known. They met the needs and most desires of their members in every sphere of life to a greater extent and for more people than anywhere else ever before. There were no deep pools of discontent that spawn internal threats to the existing framework of values and institutions, with the partial and recent exception of refugee inflows.


The one big shock that we had experienced was the financial meltdown of 2008. However, those events did not spring from the workings and principles of the humanistic society. Rather, they were caused by deviation from them: subordination of the public interest to private greed, governments’ failure to exercise their regulatory responsibilities, reckless behaviour by financial elites who lost the sense of limits and prudence, and the legitimation of the alien notion that money rather than human welfare is the standard measure of a successful society.



Confucian ethics admonishes us that “Humanity is the ultimate measure of all that we do.”  That ethos is one expression of the transformation in individuals’ understanding of their social identity and moral obligation that occurred almost simultaneously in the world’s great civilizations during the Axial Age – roughly between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. It was personified by the cohort of extraordinary sages and teachers: Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mahavira, Siddhartha, Socrates and prophets among the exiled Hebrews in Babylonia. The revolution had three overlapping dimensions: the Cosmos as a unifying order; the human community on earth in the here and now as its extension; and each person’s moral conduct in relation to both following an enlarged conception of kinship.


To abbreviate in a few lines the nature of these epochal changes, here are the core propositions integral to all these traditions:

Tribal community is enveloped in a wider community of humankind. The ethical precepts that had been applicable within the narrower society should be universalized. This is the implicit imperative of being one with the Cosmos and the creative force that formed us. The Divine, whatever its exact form, does not extend blessings to one parochial grouping at the expense of others but to everyone everywhere.  All are equal before the Divine, we should treat each other accordingly. Realization of these elemental truths should guide how we organize our societies, how we behave toward its fellow members, and how we behave toward those outside it.


The ethical saga of humankind has been the sporadic, imperfect movement toward a condition that approximates this ideal. Our dominant creeds and philosophies give statement to it. Challenges have come from a variety of exclusive sects and cults, including modern nationalism. The fundamental obstacle, though, has been human nature, the unaccommodating traits of our personality – the impulses to dominate, to differentiate, to secure privilege. They were surmounted or circumvented in the West (and a few other places) after 1945 thanks to the fortuitous convergence of several favourable factors. The constructions, the understandings, the communalities that followed are now under siege. They will not collapse or disintegrate entirely. But they are being badly damaged and at a remarkable rate.



How do we explain what is happening? The motor energy and the driving force derive from three sources. Special interests in the financial and business worlds ruthlessly pushing to grab what they can; self-styled innovators and iconoclasts – mainly pseudo-intellectuals, inside academia and out – whose studied rejection of inherited truths is a crude way to demonstrate supposed superiority; and politicos expediently using a crisis to gain and hold onto power. The mix varies from country to country, and there are modalities of style, but these elements pull together everywhere to threaten an overturning of the socio-economic-political world as we have come to know it. 


A fuller analysis has to explore the psychological mainsprings that move individuals whose personal lives are ones of comfort and status to pursue this radical turn to a discredited past. Surely, there are insecurities and status anxieties that go deeper than the appetite for greed and power. But this brief depiction must suffice for the purpose of this essay.


A related puzzle is the passive acceptance of this march backwards by other segments of the political elite, by religious institutions, by professional guilds, and by the many victims of this reactionary project. That, too, must remain a mystery for the time being. What can be said with some confidence is that all parties have lost a sense of historical perspective. The uniqueness of the present and recent past eludes them – as does certainly the enormities of the costs and risks that impend.


Historical amnesia also helps to explain why the leaders of the march in reverse can get away with justifications that are rooted in stale, long abandoned ideas of no proven worth. Those doctrines and ideologies all hark back to the dark and scary days of the 20th century’s first forty-five years and beyond. The underlying economic doctrines and social philosophies animating the current strategy are revivals of ideas whose pedigree dates from the Great Depression.


Quotes from the public remarks of successive Directors of the European Central Bank – Claude Trichet, Mario Draghi and Christine Lagarde; from Ms. Merkel and her brothers-in-Hayek elsewhere in Britain, in France, in the Netherlands, from the non-elected prefects appointed to run Greece and Italy in the name of the new found financial dogma – Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti – all match almost word for word the utterances of Herbert Hoover and the officials of his era who nearly buried capitalism in the rubble of greed, selfishness and incompetence.


This is not coincidence nor simple fashion among those steeped in the heady brew of market fundamentalism (although there is an element of intellectual fad at work).  Indeed, the situation would be less dangerous were it the case that the shift from Keynes back to Ricardo was like the alternation in the width of men’s ties. Then, at least, we could just hold on until tastes in economic doctrines reversed themselves. Instead, there is a strong synergistic logic among powerful financial interests, ascendant elements of the economic profession who have rediscovered the flat wheel, and politicians who have abandoned the Social/ Christian Democracy model for trendy private sector-based models of American inspiration.


What of compassionate humanism? In the United States, there are many who can hardly contain their delight in calling for as much pain and shame as the political traffic can bear to be imposed on the poor, the weak, the elderly. That is the prevailing ethos among Republicans. The Congressional Party has voted en masse, with a discipline not seen outside the old Soviet Central Committee, to loot the economy for the rich and to kill social services. Their proclaimed next targets – Medicare and Social Security, among others – in effect will repeal the 20th Century. There are others, like former President Obama and the Democratic leadership, who show no signs of losing any sleep at the prospect of the vulnerable falling prey to cuts in social programs or having their homes foreclosed by predatory bankers. 


In Europe, Troika leaders and their agents predictably have claimed that they are simply doctors whose prescription of tough medicine is the only thing that will return the patient to good health. Like the application of leaches and purges to treat illness. There is more at work, though, than the normal rigidities of dogmatists deeply invested in the fixed collective mindset. For there is clear evidence of suffering that humane instinct should impel us to prevent or mitigate. Yet, there is no evident compassion or concern for actions that could alleviate that suffering.


Instead, there is a disengaged, distant attitude that is the antithesis of the conviction and sentiments that have shaped the social conscience of the post-war West. In Europe, that meant relegating Greeks, Irish, Italians, Portuguese et al to a condition of debt servitude for the foreseeable future. Severest penalties will be imposed on the poor and those of modest means, on all whose well-being depends on the network of social programs which, all across the continent, was woven according to an enlightened design.


Workers in the public sector naturally are targeted as drags on an economy that must be ‘reformed’ to make it more ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ – read, ‘business friendly’. Hence, labour unions too have to be reined in so that workers can be rendered as pliable, and disposable as their American counterparts. In France, President Macron goes so far as to threaten to call in the military to drag striking workers at oil refineries back to their workplace by the scruff of the neck. An attitude that bespeaks his breeding at Rothschild’s Bank in Paris.


Moral instruction by the righteous is part of the package. Stern warnings and fatwas are issued repeatedly like liturgical reinforcement of righteous dogma. Remember how Angela Merkel vented her fury at Cypriotes who balked at accepting the looting of their savings. How dare they spurn steps to deal with a threat to the Euro (and Ms. Merkel’s re-election) that their obstinance caused. She and others visited Greece and Italy to offer moral instruction in the flesh. 


There is an odd streak of lurking ‘Puritanism’ in the otherwise secular persona of Europe’s new political elite. It is even more pronounced in the United States where it taps residues of the once pervasive Protestant Ethic. There, a long tradition of masking greed with evangelism creates receptive ears for these moralistic denunciations of social “parasites”. In America, politicos use God as a religious Swiss army knife – multi-purpose, always at the ready, and manipulable. It is a personal and partisan possession like Yahweh was for the tribal Israelites before the Axial Age.


On both sides of the Atlantic, there is much noise and agonizing – real or confected – decrying shiftless lay-abouts who reject the prescribed penance of a hair shirt. Of course, much of this is a show put on by self-designated guardians of economic rectitude who know exactly whose particular interests are being served and the sacrifices that are being extracted from the common folk to satisfy them.


In Europe and America both, there is a manifest callousness and insensitivity to the plight of one’s fellows, that is alien to the modern social ethic. No European leader of the first two post-war generations, apart from Margaret Thatcher, would have acted in this way or said these things. The now beatified Thatcher prefigured today’s politicos in her ignorant disregard for centuries of human experience as pithily stated in the obtuse and puerile remark that “there is no such thing as society.”  


For the current generation of leaders generally, the full meaning of the Social Compact has lost its saliency – even its meaning.  What was second nature for their predecessors now is a mental stretch – their former’s construction something that should be picked apart in the name of market fundamentalist New Thinking. 


No American national politician between 1945 and 2000 would do or say what has become commonplace in justifying the promotion of plutocracy by chastising the vulnerable – although the seeds were sown by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Something has changed – something that is to be feared. For what is being placed in doubt are the very instincts of empathy, of communal solidarity and of compassion that provided a natural grounding for the ethic of universal humanism. 


Everywhere, Social Democrats and progressives are deflated. They increasingly feel like also-rans and act as also-rans. In America there is the odd phenomenon that the locus of public opinion on most salient issues align with the Democrats; indeed, it is to the ‘left’ of Biden, Obama and the Clintons. Yet, they cannot muster the conviction or political acumen to press their case. When we can provide an answer to that puzzle, we will have gone a-ways to explain what now strikes us as inexplicable.



Let us go back to the Chinese.  The Confucian philosophers saw what was humane as stemming from what was natural. Mencius said that ethical behaviour conformed to human instinct – as in the impulse to spring forward in order to save an endangered child. (The principle of xin, benevolence). Xin inspires a more considered ethical precept to express kindness and to aid others out of common humanity. This cultivated humanism (ren, trustworthy, integrity), in turn, forms the ethos that is essential to a responsible society of responsible persons with responsible leaders. Ren is the thread that unites Heaven or Nature with individual conduct and rulership in a society of mutual respect and mutual regard where leaders act with sincerity and conscientiousness – observing the philosophy of humaneness (jian ai, inclusive, impartial caring).


Can a modern West whose xin is being dulled or limited to one’s immediate family and coterie, whose ren is weakened, behave responsibly with due regard for the common humanity of its members?


Ren is the counter to the inclination to behave with unbridled selfishness. It is an omni-present tug on our selfish impulses to remind us that egotism is a contagious social disease. Selfishness will only beget selfishness to everyone’s eventual harm. It will come back to haunt the initiator in the form of another’s hurtful conduct and deny society the capacity to achieve collective purposes. With a diminished ren we are fated to live among the self-absorbed atoms of an anti-social society a la Thatcher.


Is it conceivable that our small-minded and mean-spirited elites bear such an envy of their predecessors as to tear down what has been built – and thereby leave their mark on the world by the only accomplishment of which they are capable?


In the 1920s and 1930s, Liberal Democracy found itself in a three-way contest for the soul of Western civilization with Communism and Fascism. Democracy was not the obvious betting favourite. Yet, it beat back those challengers and thrived. Today, it seems bent on self-mutilation – if not self-destruction. In parts of Europe, and in some aspects America, its ideals and enlightened politics are yielding to a novel form of neo-Fascism. All of this is occurring with no significant external threat. Such a perverse accomplishment is historic.




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