The blog Throne and Altar posted a neofeudalism manifesto last month that I found interesting. Bonald follows a long line of Roman Catholics in modernity who attempt to articulate a third way in social economic arrangements besides capitalism and socialism. I heartily agree that we need to think beyond the framework of a sickly society, though I have reservations about Bonald’s diagnosis of our political disease.
Bonald argues that the distinction between public and private is flawed and contributes to social and economic disorder. I would say that there are various meanings of public and private that people frequently confuse, and yet the various meanings do have a place in a well regulated society. For example, contemporary Americans customarily confuse public in the sense of government owned with public in the sense of the social space wherein people interact in commercial and non-familial matters. Consider the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that regulate “public” institutions like private businesses, schools, and places of “public accommodations.” Compare such with previous orders and legislation that concerned “public” institutions like the military, public schools, and government offices. There is a real distinction between those senses of public, and the collapse of both into one betrays creeping totalitarianism to my inner liberal.
I would argue that an essential characteristic of totalitarian societies is the flattening of social space and social commitments. Aristotle teaches that politics involves many levels of community, from the family household to the most complex level of social organization. Each level has its own integrity and its own set of rules and responsibilities. The totalitarian state, by contrast, reduces all politics to the state, leaving no room for loyalties or duties to other social relationships. Such is perverse and begets inhuman disorder.
Instead of abolishing the concepts of public and private, I think that we rather need to articulate better the various levels of society and what is demanded at each level. Recognizing and respecting the different social levels are important, but the correct management of each level is much more difficult to decide, of course. We ought to aim for the good in all things, and every level of social organization has its own proper orientation to the good. I recommend Yve Simon’s A General Theory of Authority, which has some insightful analysis about the relationship between pursuing private interests and aiming for the common good. For both are needed, and both must relate in a well ordered society. Just because sinful human beings frequently err in these matters does not mean that we should abolish the distinction between the private and the public. The Republic demonstrates rather well what such a simplified correction of human tendencies demands and what violence toward our nature is necessary to fulfill the identification of the public with the private.
Bonald’s larger point remains a sensible one, though. The individualism rampant in our society chisels away at our sense of obligation and duty toward anything and anyone besides ourselves and the favored and freely willed objects of our affection. It is interesting to me how this creeping individualism coexists so well with creeping state totalitarianism. For the latter uses the former to justify accumulation of power, and the former finds the latter to be an excuse for dereliction of duty. They are remarkable opposites sides of the same demonic coin. Instead of a republic of generous free men, we are becoming selfish slaves to bureaucratic despotism. How Madison, Adams, and the gang would be horrified!