Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class.
Mark T. Mitchell.
Front Porch Republic Books, 2022.
Paperback, 180 pages, $23.
Reviewed by Michael P. Federici.
Every age eventually faces the challenge of what in recent times has been called systemic change, what used to be called regime change or revolution. Societies and political systems exist in a tension between preservation of existing institutions and traditions, and new ways of organization, conduct, and thinking. Paradigms shift to varying degrees that range from mild reform that maintains continuity with traditional standards and life, to revolutionary change that radically breaks from them. The temptation to change in more radical and revolutionary ways is greater when the existing order is perceived as inherently flawed and unjust. The United States is grappling with such circumstances. It is struggling to determine its identity and character as a political regime and in a larger cosmological sense. One force of radical change in American politics and culture is socialism.
American attitudes regarding socialism have changed dramatically in recent years. What was once stigmatized as an aberrant, if not tyrannical, form of government and society is now considered by increasing numbers of Americans as a plausible, and in some cases, superior political system. The popularity of socialism has increased in proportion to the concentration of wealth and property and the rise of plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. The Occupy Wall Street movement and presidential campaigns of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have drawn increasing attention to the problem of wealth inequality. Moreover, social justice ideologies and movements have likewise focused attention on gross economic inequality and the disparity of political power between classes, genders, and races. According to the socialist model, the way to rectify wealth inequality is to empower government to redistribute wealth and privilege through enlightened public policies intended to promote social justice and equality.
Mark Mitchell’s Plutocratic Socialism identifies in the title the union of plutocracy and socialism, a strange partnership of convenience between capitalists, socialists, and Marxists. Circumstances are ripe for the rise of plutocratic socialism. The decentralized constitutional republic created in the late eighteenth century has evolved into a centralized oligarchy that is at a critical turning point. Americans have become accustomed to large, centralized government that promotes egalitarian policies. Nevertheless, significant portions of the population resist centralization and place emphasis on liberty rather than equality. It remains to be seen if American constitutionalism can be restored or is destined to evolve into a form of socialism.
Mitchell focuses on several features of the new plutocratic-socialist paradigm, but chief among them is the centralization of political and economic power into the hands of capitalist plutocrats who increasingly embrace a socialist brand of ideology and politics. While the union of capitalism and socialism may seem like a contradiction, Mitchell explains why it makes political sense to its advocates. Plutocrats are typically viewed by socialists as an important part of a class structure that makes oppression of the proletarian class possible. Yet, seemingly astute plutocrats are banking on the possibility that if they adopt parts of the socialist agenda, if they become woke, they will be spared when the revolution turns society upside-down.
The book is an invitation to examine the merits and flaws of plutocratic socialism and restore the middle-class foundations of the American political order. In Mitchell’s view, if the problem is the concentration of political and economic power into fewer hands, then the solution is the decentralization of power and the expansion of the middle class.
Mitchell’s argument hinges on one central point: power is derivative of property; a concentration of property leads to a concentration of political, economic, and social power. Consequently, the health of democracy—a system of government that diffuses and decentralizes power—depends on wide distribution of property. Why? Ownership of property encourages virtues (e.g., self-control, responsibility, independence, generosity, thrift, grit, and community) that are likewise instrumental to democracy. In other words, property ownership prepares citizens to exercise civic duty; it compels them to become active participants in the cultivation of a culture that makes democratic institutions possible and that keeps them functioning properly especially in regard to decentralized institutions and the common good. Just as property owners are stewards of their homes, farms, and businesses, they are stewards of the republic that provides the independence and opportunity to exercise economic and other liberties. They tend to view a large, centralized state as a threat to their way of life.
Because democracy depends on a large, vibrant middle-class that owns property, it is concerning that the middle class has been losing ground, when measured by property ownership, as plutocrats have increasingly concentrated wealth and property. It also matters to the health of American democracy that common labor has become boring and dehumanizing as production is increasingly defined by mass production, and hedonistic consumerism animates participation in the economy. Hedonistic consumerism is, in part, an escape from the boredom of proletarian labor. When workers are not vested in production, when they do not have at least some ownership or interest in it as a craft, they have little reason to support private enterprise and economic liberty that depend on a decentralized government. They do, however, have reason to support a centralized government that guarantees their welfare and standard of living. Democracy cannot flourish in a proletarian society where workers are stunted in the development of civic and moral virtues that are vital to healthy democracy.
Socialism’s response to the centralization of economic power is to centralize political power in the hope that enlightened, progressive elites will use the coercive power of the government to redistribute wealth and/or put it under state control. Classes that have little or no property have an incentive to support such socialist measures. They increasingly rely on government programs for income security and economic wellbeing. They feel entitled to government relief because they resent the economic system that privileges the wealthy who, they are told, do not pay their fair share of taxes and who neglect social responsibility. Plutocrats, however, use government to maintain their wealth and power while pacifying the proletarian class with welfare state programs that discourage the civic and moral virtues engendered by property ownership. Plutocratic socialism is the result of an unlikely relationship between an economic elite intent on maintaining its wealth and power, and socialists who claim to represent the oppressed and are determined to promote equality. The plutocrats embrace woke socialism in order to protect themselves from socialists who would otherwise see them as adversaries. Corporate executives increasingly advocate social justice from the board room which leads socialists to believe that they have friends on the inside. If politics makes strange bedfellows, this coalition proves the point.
Mitchell is sympathetic to parts of the diagnosis made by socialists and Marxists including Karl Marx, but he rejects their prescriptive response. Mitchell argues for reform not revolution or regime change. He defends the constitutional republic created in the eighteenth century, and its underlying political theory, and suggests ways to revive American political institutions and an older, traditional political theory. Chief among his prescriptions is broadening the ownership of private property and especially productive property. Property ownership makes individuals more economically independent from government. It helps to lessen the need for a large, centralized government, and, thus, Mitchell’s refrain: the concentration of wealth and the shrinking of the middle class are destructive to democracy. The answer to this social and economic pathology is not the concentration of political power as socialists suggest but the decentralizing of power that revitalizes the middle-class by increasing its control of production and its acquisition of property.
What stands in the way of decentralization is the marriage of socialism and plutocracy. Plutocrats are inclined to use big government to placate the underclass that feels cheated out of its share of the wealth and to secure their grip on wealth, markets, and capital. Government programs that transfer wealth to the underclass increase the size of the underclass and secure the power of plutocrats. As a consequence, the middle class gets squeezed as it loses its grip on productive property and the wealth/property gap between the wealthy and the middle class increases.
Plutocratic Socialism draws attention to a problem that plagues American political and economic life. Mitchell’s call for a larger middle class, broader ownership of especially productive property, is prudent. How this laudable goal is achieved is not the focus of the book. Mitchell does make a few policy suggestions, e.g., tax policies that prevent plutocrats from avoiding paying their fair share of taxes and that encourage competition. He advocates home ownership, reduction in government regulations, employee stock ownership, trust busting, and small, locally-owned businesses as opposed to large corporations. His diagnosis of plutocratic socialism and his prescriptive response to it are sensible and insightful. It would bolster his argument if more attention was given to the problem of leadership in democratic society and his conception of equality was reformulated.
What is missing in the argument is a sense that not all wealthy or members of the leisure class are plutocrats or the beneficiaries of a rigged political and economic system. Something like the distinction between new and old money or Aristotle’s vulgar and magnanimous personalities would differentiate between competing qualities of economic and cultural elites. Mitchell’s argument places too much emphasis on the middle class and too little emphasis on the role that the wealthy can play to be stewards of the culture on which politics and economics depend. There is little attention paid to the good that the wealthy can do and have done to promote the arts, education, civility, and democracy. For example, Russell Kirk has noted that American democracy “was made possible by the growth of a colonial aristocracy.” There is more than a hint of populism is Mitchell’s argument.
The point is not that the middle class are less important than the wealthy classes, but that all classes need to play their appropriate roles for culture, politics, and economics to function well. The very attitudes that Mitchell advocates are formed in families, schools, universities, churches, entertainment, the news media, and the arts. In the information age of social media, the wealthy have a disproportionate influence on the ideas that are disseminated in these cultural institutions. Consequently, the wealthy have a central role to play as stewards of the culture. The middle class is largely powerless to change the direction of the culture. Mitchell’s book is evidence of the point.
The problem of plutocratic socialism is the consequence of a crisis of leadership. Long before the middle class was shrinking, American cultural institutions were being transformed. The very ideas and ways of life that Mitchell promotes were undermined by ideologies, like liberalism, that revolted against traditional ideas including American constitutionalism. The leadership class was both asleep at the switch and unwilling to push back against radical ideologies. It assumed that sufficient cultural capital existed to ward off the advancement of socialism and other ideologies destructive to the American order. Politics, as it is sometimes said, is downstream from culture. The hope for the type of reforms that Mitchell advocates is that opinion makers and cultural elites will see their wisdom and work toward their implementation. Before prudent policy can have an effect, cultural leaders will have to reorient themselves with the philosophical tradition that gave life to the American order in the first place, the tradition that Mitchell advocates and that Kirk describes in The Roots of American Order. Cultural leaders will also have to be Burkean and find ways to reconstitute the American tradition that resonate with younger generations. Reconstituting a degenerated culture is a project that will take generations. A sign of progress would be a reorientation of educational institutions, a matter largely of culture not politics or public policy.
Finally, Mitchell makes his opposition to perfect or absolute equality as well as extreme inequality clear. He instead argues for a form of equality that makes the scale of property ownership more modest and equitable than what it is. He warns against a “spirit of luxury” that corrupts the “soul of the republic.” Individuals who are bewitched by a spirit of luxury come to despise limits on their expansive material desires and limits on political power. What America needs most are middle-class virtues that Tocqueville witnessed in nineteenth-century America. Plutocracy, however, breeds an industrial aristocracy that ignores its responsibility to others and to the larger culture. Plutocracy and socialism will be avoided if Americans embrace a healthy idea of equality that is not materially based but stems from political equality and equal opportunity. Yet, it may be that equal opportunity has provided plutocrats and Mad Men with the means to flourish and replace a class of aristocrats to which the American Founders belonged, a class of educated individuals imbued with republican virtue. Do we want plutocrats and what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams called natural aristocrats to have equal opportunity? What guarantee is there that equal opportunity will result in the ends that Mitchell advocates? Why not tip the scales in favor of men and women who possess and demonstrate the character and civic virtues on which republican government and social harmony depend?
The argument in favor of expanding property ownership and the middle class is unassailable in the current circumstances. We should be careful, however, not to overstate the case for the virtues of the middle class and at the same time be mindful of the need for a healthy class of leaders in politics and culture who are inspired by civic virtue and have an appreciation for the higher things. The American Framers were such a class of civically minded leaders. They were well aware, as Mitchell notes, that the success of the American republic depended on a large and vibrant middle class. They also recognized that the masses are subject to the persuasion of demagogues who distort truth to gain power. Good leaders are vital because they can inspire and lead the masses away from factions and toward the public good. Unlike in Europe, the Framers opened the ruling class to individuals of all classes. Alexander Hamilton is a prime example of someone who rose from poverty and obscurity to the class of American leaders. Such individuals should be given more than a place at the starting line. They should be put ahead of others who may be equal in ambition and talent but lacking in virtue. Hamilton was imperfect but his contribution to the formation of the American republic was remarkable and imbued with civic virtue. His contribution made a large middle class possible in America because it expanded the means by which one acquires property. We do well to remember that democracies thrive when they produce a leadership class that works toward the ends that Mitchell promotes, a large middle class imbued with civic virtue.
Michael P. Federici is Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University and chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations.
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