Despite its triumphant defeat over totalitarianism and socialism, democratic capitalism still faces angry and aggressive opposition from inside the West. In his new book, Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, Brian Anderson carefully examines this opposition and investigates the erosion of liberal democracy by contrasting the thought of classical liberal philosophers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, with the thought of the heroes of the contemporary academy, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Negri.
Explaining what he calls the “suicide of culture,” Anderson appeals to Rocco Buttiglione’s view that libertinism is more dangerous to democratic capitalism than Marxism. Anderson explains, “Instead of crushing man’s reason and passions, as did communism, moral libertinism turns man’s passion against the truth.”
However, this doesn’t mean that communist thinking is no longer a threat. Anderson also provides a thorough analysis of the recycled Marxist jargon of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire, a book unsurprisingly fawned over by the likes of Time magazine and The New York Times despite its painstakingly abstract theory analysis. Anderson wonders, “Does Time really think it’s ‘smart’ to call for the eradication of poverty, celebrate revolutionary violence, whitewash totalitarianism, and pour contempt on the genuine achievements of liberal democracies and capitalist economics?”
But the West is not only caught between libertinism and Marxism; Anderson also vividly sketches the rising tension between religion and secularism by examining the widening disparity between America and much of Western Europe. This rift is caused not only by Europe’s growing practical agnosticism, but also by what appears to be America’s increasing piety (compared with previous generations).
And yet, secularizing forces are also hard at work in American society, particularly among left-leaning educated elites. Anderson deftly traces their influence in higher education and the entertainment industry, and their success in using the courts to chip away at religious displays and influence, even though they have yet to garner popular support.
An important catalyst of much of culture’s dramatic decline, Anderson suggests, is the existentialist influence of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s brand of existentialism highlighted the meaninglessness of existence and the death of God, and, as historian Paul Johnson has noted, offered “self liberation through murder.” Sadly, these ideas have attracted many followers and applauders in the West. According to Anderson, Sartre—who had supported nuclear strikes against the United States to check what he dubbed its “imperialist tendencies”—“had become nothing more than an apologist for tyranny and terror.”
Balanced against Sartre’s philosophy of despair—if balanced is the right word—is another error undermining culture: egalitarianism, or rather, a misunderstanding of equality for every American. Anderson examines the thought and writings of Harvard professor and philosopher John Rawls, known for his theory of justice as fairness. The logical conclusion of justice as fairness is simply more radicalized redistribution of wealth schemes, which continue indefinitely. Anderson notes, “To see that spirit in action, attend a city council meeting in New York or Oakland when a ‘living wage’ or reparations for black Americans is being debated.” But going deeper inside Rawls’s theories, Anderson points out that Rawls calls for genetic engineering, that which ultimately may be needed to totally wipe out unfairness.
Fortunately there is hope against the rising influence of angry secularists, moral relativism, and recycled Marxism. Anderson’s arguments themselves—his defense of the civil society and religious virtue—might be an important first step to roll back the decay of democratic capitalism. At the very least, we will need such arguments as his to oppose the ever-surfacing foes of liberty, prosperity, and the rule of law.