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Between the Servile State and Social Pluralism: Essays on Work, Well-Being, and Political Economy

As many authors and essays have argued in the pages of American Affairs, and more recently in other prominent outlets, the polarities which have organized American political and economic life for the past several generations are proving increasingly irrelevant to contemporary developments and challenges. Right-libertarians sloganeer against big government or “tyrannical” state intervention in the otherwise fair and competitive market economy, while left-libertarians call for state intervention against the excesses of greedy corporations. But each of these perspectives, whatever their partial insights, obfuscates the increasingly tight alliance between overweening states and the corporate clients they subsidize and support. Neither pole of the post-Reagan political spectrum adequately addresses the danger posed by this neoliberal alliance, not only to the economic prospects of the frustrated and demoralized American middle class, but also to the network of subsidiary communities—families, churches, unions, clubs—which make for a flourishing life.

The (deliberate?) obtuseness of either libertarian posture likewise works to close off theoretically interesting innovations from outside the liberal tradition. Polarizing the state-market distinction oversimplifies and distorts fundamental social, economic, and political realities that can be better known by more realist intellectual frameworks. It seems to us that opening up the conversation about work, well-being, and the political economy to developments, perspectives, and paradigms which remain relatively neglected on mainstream platforms, be they “left” or “right,” can elicit more fruitful thought from all quarters.

To address some of these themes and trends, we at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and the Abigail Adams Institute recently hosted a virtual symposium on “Work and Well-Being.” This event included presentations from the well-known political economist and public intellectual, Michael Lind; Russell Hittinger, a notable Catholic theologian and social theorist; Laurie DeRose, a sociologist and demographer at the Catholic University of America; and Matt Stoller, a policy analyst focusing on monopoly power.

We were pleased at the convergence among the four papers, each of which touched in various ways on the enmity between the neoliberal state with its corporate clients and the intermediate social bodies which stand between them and the atomized worker or consumer. Lind offers the most comprehensive and synthetic depiction of the issue, which he describes as an existential contest between (following Hilaire Belloc) “the servile state,” which recognizes no legitimate intermediaries between itself and its creatures and dependents, and “democratic pluralism,” with its “communitarian anthropology.” Hittinger goes on to develop the theoretical underpinnings of this conflict in terms of a normative theory of “social pluralism” or “subsidiary relations [among intermediate societies] within a more comprehensive community,” and diagnoses many of our contemporary ills in terms of a false understanding of subsidiarity as “mere devolution.”

The other two papers each offer case studies in the conflict between the servile state and intermediate societies. DeRose’s paper explores how “workism”—a measurable cultural complex in which work enjoys pride of place in one’s values and aspirations—saps the vitality of family life, and ultimately depresses fertility. And Stoller examines a range of ways in which monopolistic or oligopolistic corporations, absent the checks of union power, add constant and petty insults to economic injury, inflicting diverse humiliations on their employees and customers alike.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the mitigation strategies adopted to combat it have only accelerated the concentration of economic and social power in the servile state, as measured by the explosive growth of Amazon revenues at the expense of local businesses, or in steepening declines in church attendance and family formation alike. All people of goodwill need to recognize that the true battle is no longer between the individualism of the right and the collectivism of the left, but rather between the neoliberal marriage of individualism and collectivism and a genuinely humane pluralism.

Essays in this symposium:

The Pluralist Alternative To Neoliberalism

Social Pluralism and the Principle of Subsidiarity

Monopolies and Humiliation

Workism and Falling Fertility

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