The Life And Death Of Money

Inflation, like most society-wide monetary happenings, is always complex and often incompletely grasped. At least this is true of its causes; of its effects, most of all its social effects, there is now little doubt.

We learned much about inflation during the twentieth century, when the advent of permanent fiat money made hyperinflation possible for the first time. But as this book shows, the infamous German hyperinflation of 1923 was poorly understood by those who lived through it. And whatever we understand now, the past several years, and in particular the past few months, have demonstrated that we still often ignore what we know. When Money Dies shows what happens when reality reasserts itself. It’s not pretty.

This classic study by Adam Fergusson, first published in 1975, thus has new resonance. Whether and to what extent we face the same fate as the Germany of 1923 we will discuss later. One key to understanding Fergusson’s history is that a society, or at least some societies, can absorb a lot of punishment and keep functioning. The author points out that for half a decade after 1918, looking at German diaries, newspapers, and diplomatic dispatches, a common theme was that things could not go on “like this” any longer. Yet they did, and they got worse, month after month, year after year. Many Germans, Fergusson says, became convinced “that because conditions had been getting worse for four years they could go on getting worse forever.” The lesson is that things that once seemed impossible can easily become the new normal, and there is rarely any obvious fix.

As with most modern inflations, the process began some time before it spun out of control. It started during World War I, when the German government decided that borrowing, not taxation, would finance the war. Borrowing in the form of war loans from the populace constituted sixty percent of German spending on the war, at a time when a gold mark was, by iron definition, equal to a paper mark, and any variation was inconceivable.

The Bank Law of 1875 had required currency to be backed one-third by gold and two-thirds by loans to adequately-capitalized borrowers (i.e., if I understand this correctly, fiat money was limited to being sent into circulation by borrowing by those who could repay).

During the First World War, gold redemption was suspended, but more important for inflation, newly-created loan banks were allowed to simply create money by first printing it, then lending it to practically anyone who asked. Moreover, and most important, limitless fiat money was created by having the Reichsbank accept government securities as security for loans to the government and others—in essence, bootstrapping the money supply (an early form of quantitative easing).

Today, of course, United States government securities are regarded as risk-free, and presumably German government bills were so regarded as well, though that’s not the way it turned out. But this system removes any limit to the amount of money that can be created by government mandate.

The effect of this increase in paper marks in circulation was inflation. This seems obvious to us today. But it wasn’t to the Germans—not to the average person, and not to banking experts or the government, either. Hard as it is to believe, almost nobody, and nobody in charge, recognized at the time that what created inflation was increasing the money supply. Today we cite Milton Friedman, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” But that Friedman said it, and we remember it, implies that truth was not always recognized.

In postwar Germany, all those responsible for the government’s responses, politicians and bankers, believed that the problem was not that the mark was losing value through increased supply, rather that it was depreciating against foreign currencies due to Germany’s postwar economic struggles, most of all crushing reparations demanded by the French. People thought that goods were becoming objectively more dear, not just subjectively, so their prices were rising.

This belief held at the highest levels of government, where Rudolf Havenstein, the president of the Reichsbank, held that his most important duty was printing more money, since, after all, the people clearly needed it to make purchases, and that could only be done, in those days, with physical money. Naturally, this only made the problem worse.

But since stock exchanges were closed, foreign exchange rates were not published, and shortages and chaos also raised prices, the real source of inflation was opaque. In a vicious circle, monetary velocity sped ever higher, further increasing inflation, since nobody wanted to hold cash that would quickly devalue, instead spending it as quickly as possible, preferably on something that would hold value. And the law permitted what were, in effect, private currencies, further exacerbating the increase in the money supply.

Fergusson narrates the gradual descent to hyperinflation, through 1922 and 1923, month-by-month, blow-by-blow. He extracts the flavor of the time through German diarists, who grasped what was happening, but not why. Tellingly, Germans first assumed the value of their war loans, still owed by the government, was secure, and were aghast when it became obvious that what was formerly a small fortune was not enough to live on anymore. But that was merely a small element of the pain and confusion.

To some observers, Germany’s economy seemed in great shape, because its heavy industry, geared to exporting, boomed immediately after the war, in part because of the mark’s weakness. As a result, and because of their tight organization, wage workers suffered little initially, since employment was high and wages kept pace with inflation, due to the threat of work stoppages. By the end, though, wage workers suffered too.

For different reasons, the rural populace also did not suffer much at all—yes, their war loans might have become worthless, but they had food and shelter, both rich and poor. (The rural populace appears very little in this book, except as the object of distrust from city dwellers for refusing to sell food for worthless paper; I am sure there are detailed studies of the country dwellers, which perhaps give a more nuanced picture.) It was the traditionally silent middle and upper-middle classes, the backbone of the society, who suffered.

The people did what they could to secure their positions, even as those positions eroded daily. The stock market rose as money was dumped into anything that seemed it might have tangible value. The purchase of foreign currency allowed hedging, since the mark depreciated continuously against all foreign currencies.

Soon enough, average Germans thronged all the shops, buying anything for sale that might hold its value. And as things fell apart, city dwellers had to sell anything they had in exchange for food—profiting those who had food to sell. Often these were speculators sharp enough to profit by, for example, borrowing huge sums from the government, immediately converting it into foreign currency, then, after a few weeks or months, re-converting into a vastly greater quantity of marks, repaying the government loan, and using the profits to buy and resell goods.

The inevitable impact of this was social corrosion, as every man looked to himself. The great industrialists, best able to both move large amounts of capital and engage in cross-border transactions, lined their pockets. (The now-forgotten Hugo Stinnes, once the greatest magnate of Germany, gets a lot of play in these pages. He’s forgotten mostly because he died, young and unexpectedly, in 1924, so he played no role in later German history).

Those with dollars or other foreign currency to spend lived like kings, eating and drinking at fine restaurants while thin and hungry men, not long before the social elite, passed bitterly by. Middle-class apartments emptied as books, pianos, and furniture were exchanged for food. Petty crime soared and political stability plunged. Fergusson does not discuss the political turmoil in detail, other than to note that the left-wing and right-wing parties both benefited from the chaos and dissatisfaction, leading, among other events, to the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. But there was plenty of political turmoil, and let’s not forget, putting down Communist revolts by force had been necessary only a few years before, so the political fabric was still fragile.

Much else was happening in 1922 and 1923—for a time, Germany pulled together during the occupation by the French of the Ruhr. But the general path, financially and socially, was clearly downwards, and rapidly. The government tried to plug the ever-increasing gaps in its budget, and meet French reparations demands, by taxation—leading first to tax evasion, and then to failure to collect any but a fraction of the value taxed, as inflation eroded tax receipts to nothing between the passing of a law and the collection of the tax.

But the government, perfectly aware of the problem, though not of its roots, refused to take any real action. They did not stop printing money, nor did they stop various forms of subsidies that the government could no longer afford. Politicians and bankers were caught between two stones: aware that reversing inflation, if they could, would cripple German industry, resulting in massive labor unrest and likely chaos, but also aware of the deleterious effects of the inflation on the rest of the German populace.

In essence, to the extent there was any coherent policy, the government tried to steer a non-existent middle path, hoping to muddle through, while looking for foreign help to stabilize the currency through loans, which were not forthcoming. As with most middle paths, this accomplished nothing.

By September 1923, though, with inflation accelerating to inconceivable speed, the desperate government took measures to suspend the constitution and passed laws to confiscate foreign currency, gold and other precious metals, and increase the penalties for evasion. Warrantless house searches were authorized and “incitement to disobedience” led to prison. City dwellers began organizing expeditions to loot the countryside.

The government tried halfhearted schemes to issue money backed by agricultural goods such as rye or mortgages on agricultural land. None of this had any effect at all on the core problem, which is that everyone did what he saw that he had to do. Whatever respect for the government was left disappeared when its resistance to the French in the Ruhr crumpled and “[c]ontempt for the Republic and its servants became almost universal.”

So, what solved the problem, given that something that can’t go on forever, won’t? In essence, an agreement by everyone to accept their losses and pretend that things were normal again, through the device of a new currency, the Rentenmark, brainchild of Hjalmar Schacht, the new Commissioner for National Currency. One Rentenmark, put into circulation in October 1923, was again equal to one gold mark, and Rentenmarks were put into circulation at the point where one gold mark precisely equaled a trillion paper marks, for easy figuring of conversion.

The Rentenmark was backed not by gold, which had all disappeared from government coffers (most of it gone to the French), but by mortgages on landed property and bonds on German industry. (I don’t really understand this. It appears that money was put into circulation by those with property borrowing money using their property as a guarantee, such that the amount of currency was limited by the value of those properties, and the value of those properties acted as a type of fixed index against which the currency could be valued, though not exchanged).

The effect of this conversion was, however, to eliminate all assets denominated in paper marks, which mean that savings were now completely gone, with no hope of return, as were all debts based on paper marks—whether the debtor was the government, as with war loans, or a business, or a private individual.

The Rentenmark was a collective delusion, however. It is not clear how much this was understood at the time; as with inflation being a monetary phenomenon, they understood less than we do. The mortgage “guarantees” were essentially illusory, yet the Rentenmark’s value held steady, because the populace either willed it to be so, or did not really understand. In fact, the Rentenmark was not precisely legal tender, and not convertible into any hard asset. Paper marks and private currencies continued to circulate and be printed, on a reduced scale, though.

On the positive side, Schacht ensured some degree of confidence in the new currency by forbidding government borrowing through central bank discounting of government bills, which had been the major initial cause of the hyperinflation. Regardless of the precise mechanism, things began to return to normal, because of the Rentenmark.

The new normal was not like the old normal, though. Social ruptures are hard to cure, and when they are cured, the new society is much different. Trust was in short supply. No surprise, there was a lot of irrational thought and scapegoat-seeking, and again no surprise, much of this was directed against the Jews, whom most people viewed as in some uncertain way responsible. Some Jews did profit, of course, having liquid assets and cross-border connections, but so did many non-Jews, yet blame attached to Jews in general, not specific Jews. (The peasantry, unwilling to take paper marks for food, called them “Jew confetti”).

Many people to whom poverty had been a mere abstract concept were now desperately poor with no path to get back their social status. Of course, not all societies are equal, and Germans are, or were, much better at recovering than nearly any other society in history. Various laws were passed to try to offer a few pfennigs to those with worthless mortgages and bank accounts, and to adjust taxes, all of limited real benefit to the populace.

It was a hard road, made harder by many businesses shuttering and unemployment soaring, since businesses had artificially expanded during times of distorted credit and foreign sales based on the weak mark. Nonetheless, the economy strengthened, and continued strengthening for a few years—until the Great Depression. But that is another story.

So, could this happen here? Probably not, no matter how much money we borrow or print to cover our government’s sins, as long as all currencies are fiat currencies and the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. As with the Rentenmark, though, continued faith in fiat currency is in large part a collective delusion.

If that ever fails, probably from some collapse in faith in both the government and the future, perhaps combined with a new reserve currency, all bets are off. In the modern world, too, it’s not necessary to run physical printing presses (thousands of which worked around the clock for the Reichsbank in 1923); infinite money can be created by pushing a button, and velocity accelerated to hyperspeed by the internet and credit cards. What a hyperinflation would look like in a modern, advanced society, I don’t know. That Zimbabwe has experienced a recent hyperinflation is unlikely to lend us much of a clue. But I do know that we’re not Germans, and our social cohesion is already on the ropes, so our society would likely fracture permanently, and not weld itself back together like the Germans.

In fact, such a scenario is the backdrop for Lionel Shriver’s excellent dystopian The Mandibles, where a new global currency backed by commodities, similar to John Maynard Keynes’s proposed bancor, underwrites a new Chinese hegemony. In that book, the United States can do nothing, since it has become a stupid stew of irrational and hate-filled identity politics where the ruling classes reject any attempt at objective excellence and achievement and insist that their failures are due to racism and wreckers. A silly fantasy, though, of course, since we know that such a thing could never happen here. We know that only an idiot could read history and conclude that an unstable, unaccomplished society run on an extractive, tribal basis is the natural state of humanity, and only a very bad person would let himself see that lately quite a few people in America seem very eager to turn America into such a society.

Perhaps the key lesson to take away from this book is that in any society experiencing massive economic trouble, those tasked with fixing it, no matter how earnest and hardworking, are almost always incapable not just of fixing the problems, but understanding them.

That’s true not just in economics, but in every area of life in a complex modern society, even one cohesive and competent, even more so one fragmented and anti-reality. Thus, in every crisis, every man must look to himself and his family, not hope for safety and stability from above. If he relies on those in charge, sooner or later, he’s going to be disappointed, perhaps fatally so. Maybe it won’t be hyperinflation here, but it’ll be something.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.

The image shows a caricature by the illustrator, Erich Schilling, from the satirical magazine, Simplicissimus, 1922. The caption above reads, “Gutenberg and the Billions Printing Press.” The caption below, spoken by Gutenberg, reads: “Not what I wanted.”

The Case Against The SAT And The ACT

The pro bono law from Public Counsel, based in Los Angeles, plans to file a lawsuit against the University of California system for its mandated use of SAT and Act scores for purposes of admission.

California Governor Newsom acknowledged the SAT and ACT “exacerbates the inequities for underrepresented students, given that performance on these tests is highly correlated with race and parental income, and is not the best predictor for college success.”

Stated UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said of these test scores that they “really contribute to the inequities of our system.”

According to Mark Rosenbaum, Directing Attorney at Public Counsel, “Use of the SAT/ACT is not merely bad policy; it violates the California Constitution and anti-discrimination statutes, and is therefore legally and morally impermissible. Students should not have to endure the stress and expense of preparing for and taking the SAT, and the admissions process should no longer be contaminated by this discriminatory metric.”

I see these plaintiffs, and their supporters, and I raise them one. These scores ought to be prohibited outright, at least for public institutions of higher learning, and those in the private sector subsidized by the government. Our friends on the left might favor this extreme view on the ground that these tests discriminate against the poor and racial minorities (not Asians though). My argument is that they vitiate against the stupid and ignorant, and government has no business doing any such thing. Low information folk pay taxes, just like anyone else. Public libraries, museums, roadways, parks, recreation centers do not discriminate against those with low IQs. Why should colleges and universities engage in such a dastardly act?

What will be the effect on the incoming freshman class if these exams are not made optional but actually prohibited by law? They will at the outset be admitting students who not only “look like America” but, apart from their ages, roughly constitute the average American: some geniuses, others of mediocre intellectual talents, and some who occupy the left tail of the normal distribution in this regard. Boobus americanus, as Mencken would characterize them.

But will not the latter tend to fail out? No. the present intellectual atmosphere on college campuses vitiates against any such result. It would be discriminatory, that is, patently offensive to the wokesters now in charge of higher education. I go further. They should not be allowed to be given failing grades for, wait for it, they pay taxes just like anyone else. They ought to be allowed to partake in this educational benefit on a par with all other taxpayers. After all, we do not first allow Boobus to enter a public bus, train or trolley, a library, museum or playground, give them an exam while he is there, and then expel him for not answering questions correctly. Why should public university be any different?

This will of course spell the intellectual ruination of not only prestigious state universities such as UCLA, Berkeley, Indiana University, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, University of Virginia, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, University of California–Santa Barbara, University of Florida. It will also do precisely that for high-status “private” schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, etc., since they too are heavily subsidized courtesy of the long-suffering taxpayer. With the intellectually gifted forced to sit cheek-by-jowl next to those who can barely read, the level of instruction, if it is to be “inclusive” will be bound to plummet. This goes in spades for subsequent reputation.

But this is precisely the goal that ought to be embraced. There should be no such thing as public education in the first place. Anything that moves us in the direction of obliterating this evil institution, such as more intellectual “diversity” must be considered an asset not a debit.

What is the case against public education? The financing of it is coercive. People are compelled to pay for it, against their will. A synonym for coercive levies, not to be mentioned in polite society, of course, is downright theft.

The charge will be launched that without public or quasi public education, our country will be consigned to mediocrity at best, and outright illiteracy at worst. Not at all. There was no such institution until the early 1800s, and our nation did just fine in that regard.

The critics of the present modest proposal will cry out: external economies. These are spill over benefits from college. These will be radically reduces without the subsidies that only taxation makes possible.

But there are flaws in this criticism. Rothbard’s (1997, 178) reductio absurdum of public goods is as follows: “A and B often benefit, it is held, if they can force C into doing something. . . . [A]ny argument proclaiming the right and goodness of, say, three neighbors, who yearn to form a string quartet, forcing a fourth neighbor at bayonet point to learn and play the viola, is hardly deserving of sober comment.”

Another reductio ad absurdum of against this stance is that the government should subsidize soap, smiles, Bach, since all of them give off benefits to third parties. (The difficulty here is that this phenomenon is very subjective. The Walgreen Pharmacy in New Orleans plays Bach, loudly, in an attempt to discourage street people from camping out on its sidewalks and interfering with customer flow. This music thus constitutes a negative externality, or external diseconomy, to these people. Come to think of it, not everyone likes smiles or other people using soap either. The point is, we are at sea without a rudder here. Anyone can make any claim he wishes, and no one can say him nay.)

Then there is the argument that public education is not at all a positive externality, but rather a negative one. It is a very strong one. What with political correctness rampant on the campus, the preserve of wokesterism, it is perhaps no accident that Marxism (cultural and economic), socialism, communism are riding high in these environs. If this is not a negative for civilization and the preservation of the human race, then nothing is. These tendencies are fueled by feminist “studies,” black “studies,” queer “studies” and other grievance “studies. Using the “logic” of main stream market failure economics, higher education should be taxed, as a public menace, and heavily so, not subsidized to the ornate level which now prevails.

A basic difficulty with this externality market failure argument is that it is too much akin to nailing jelly to the proverbial tree. It can’t be done. How do we know, in the absence of voluntary market exchange, that expenditures of this sort are beneficial? When someone purchases a pair of shoes, we are entitled to deduce mutual benefit, at least in the ex ante sense. No such conclusion is possible to demonstrate in this field.

Early in his career, Milton Friedman supported public education on positive external economy grounds (neighborhood effects). He thought there were important spill over benefits enriching the overall society, that private educators would not incorporate into their decision-making. Hence, the need for educational subsidies, or public education. But as he grew older and wiser and more radical, he changed his mind on this matter. If even this moderate free enterpriser, this luke-warm supporter of economic freedom, can come out in favor of a separation between government and education, akin to separation of church and state, then those of us who take laissez-faire capitalism seriously, e.g., market fundamentalists, can certainly do so too.

The image shows, “Free Rural School,” by Alexander Ivanovich Morosov, painted in 1865.

Subsidiary And Free Enterprise

Subsidiarity is the Catholic social doctrine which recommends that whenever we face a problem, other things equal, the most decentralized institution we have at our disposal should be the one mobilized to solve it.

For example, if it is a choice between the national and the state government as to which should be brought to bear to address a challenge, and there are no other considerations, then we should rely on the latter, not the former. Similarly, we should favor in this regard the city over the state government, the borough rather than the city, the town instead of the borough, and the neighborhood association vis-à-vis the town.

Let us allow a major advocate of this doctrine to put it into his own words.

According to Pope Pius XI, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” (emphasis added)

There are strong parallels between subsidiarity and the free enterprise system. We cannot of course equate the two, but the analogy is strong. Decision-makers such as entrepreneurs, business owners, workers, are subsidiary to government. If there is any clash between them, it is the state that prevails. The government taxes firms, not the other way around. Capitalists are regulated by public servants, not vice versa.

What is the case for preferring free enterprise to government other than subsidiarity? The market consists of nothing but voluntary trade, buying, selling, renting, lending, borrowing. In each and every case, assuming no anti market fraud, both participants necessarily gain at least ex antel and in the overwhelming number of cases, ex post, too. Consumers, under free enterprise, can exercise their dollar vote several times per day; but in the political system, even under full democracy, they can enter the ballot box only once ever several years.

Moreover, the people are constrained with a package deal in the latter case, but not the former; they cannot pick and choose policies except for referendums, as they can in the market. Thus, consumers have far more control over businesses than do voters over politicians.

The empirical evidence attesting to the benefits of the free market system vis-à-vis political regulation is overwhelming; there are several almost controlled experiments that demonstrate that: East and West Germany, North and South Korea, for example. The poorest countries tend to rely on socialism; the wealthiest, on capitalism.

Given the strong parallels between capitalism and subsidiarity, one would expect that advocates of the latter would look positively on the former. They are not quite as alike as the two proverbial “peas in a pod” but the resemblance is strong. But this expectation is erroneous. Supporters of subsidiarity are bitter opponents of the free enterprise system.

Consider the following:

“…all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers….The easy gains that a market unrestricted by any law opens to everybody attracts large numbers to buying and selling goods, and they, their one aim being to make quick profits with the least expenditure of work, raise or lower prices by their uncontrolled business dealings so rapidly according to their own caprice and greed that they nullify the wisest forecasts of producers ” (Pope Pius XI, also in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno)

Continues this author: “… the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life – a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. Therefore, it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.”

How are we to account for this bifurcation? It might well be that this devotee of Catholic social thought suffers from a hate capitalism syndrome, so deeply embedded that no amount of evidence, nor considerations of logic, can overcome it. He wants to support subsidiarity, which means allowing markets to run the economy. But he finds economic freedom objectionable. He wants to have his cake, subsidiarity and hence laissez faire capitalism, and eat it too, support government control of the economy. He does not see the tension in this position, not to say logical contradiction.

The middle name of “free enterprise” is practically “subsidiarity.” No, “free subsidiarity enterprise” does not roll off the tongue all that easily, but that is only, perhaps, because we are not used to it. From a substantive point of view, it is just about a tautology.

If they want to be coherent, the proponents of Catholic social thought are logically obligated to favor capitalism, not condemn it. I’m not going to hold my breath until that happy day comes around. On the other hand, miracles sometimes occur!

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

The image shows, “Vegetable Market in Venice,” By Camillo Bortoluzzi, painted in 1894.

Privatize The Highways

There were problems with highway closures at both ends of Canada. The crisis is over for now, but perhaps we can learn something from this difficulty. Indeed, it will occur again.

Things were so bad in Newfoundland that military troops had to be brought in to engage in blizzard cleanup. Part of this effort was devoted to road clearance.

What is going on at the other end of Canada? A few days ago, there were highway closures in relatively balmy British Columbia. In the Lower Mainland parts of Highway One were covered with sheets of black ice. There were more accidents than you can shake a stick at, particularly in the section of this major roadway between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, B.C.

What was the word from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation? There were lots of excuses, good ones, but gridlock, slowdowns, jack-knifed trucks and fender benders were the order of the day.

According to Ministry of Transportation South Coast regional director Ashok Bhatti: “We are using calcium chloride and a combination of techniques, but it has been challenging … We are hitting it with everything we’ve got.”

He continued: Work has been done overnight, but to no avail. With temperatures below -15C and winds that blow salt and sand off the road, no solution was in the offing.

In the event, safety and transportation were restored when the temperatures rose, and, thanks to the rain, the ice, snow and slush were swept away.

Notice what is missing here? There was no vestige of competition. The presumption of the Ministry was that they were in charge, there was no possible other option, they were doing their best to rectify the situation.

Other firms in other industries, too, face difficult tasks. This occurs all throughout the warp and woof of the economy. Sometimes failure occurs elsewhere as well. But, in the private sector, there is always a “fail-safe” mechanism undergirding the entire process: competition. If a given firm faltered, there would be others anxious and eager to take its place. Moreover, different companies could try alternative strategies. If one of them worked, others could follow suit.

But not on the nation’s highways. There, monopoly, central planning, was the only possibility.

What might have been done had competition been allowed. That is, if there were privately owned highways?

One possibility would be the “conga line:” a long line of specially fitted tractors, one after the other, brushing away the ice. This is the technique utilized at some airports. These vehicles travel at a snail’s pace, but at least roadway connections could remain open. “Slow but sure” is perhaps better than nothing at all. If need be, it would not be beyond the scope of private enterprise to use actual military style tanks as snow plows.

Another is to place metal that can be heated just below the concrete of the roadway. People with sloped driveways use this method of melting the snow and ice. The difficulty here is that this is a tremendously expensive option. Costs could be reduced by treating only one lane in this manner instead of all three, but, even so, the expenses would be vast. Would it be worthwhile to maintain automobile travel and reduce accidents? This is something only the free marketplace can answer. This is at basis an entrepreneurial matter.

Are There Other Options?

It is difficult for a mere economist to anticipate the market. If shoes had always been the province of government, and a wild and crazy free enterprise economist had advocated privatization, the objections would come thick and fast. How would resources be allocated between sneakers, slippers, boots and other kinds of footwear? Where would shoe stores be located? How many of them would there be? Who would supply shoe laces?

In the event the market addresses all these difficulties, these are non-problems. And so would it be in the case of roads. Yes, highways are long thin things. People think their provision must necessarily fall to the government. But railroads exhibit similar geographical elements. Privatization in that realm is not unknown.

There are perhaps more important reasons for engaging in this process than black ice. In Canada, some 4,000 people perish each year in motor vehicle accidents. Competition between road owners, as in the case of every other good and service known to man, would undoubtedly lead to improvements in this regard too. Fatalities are not at all the product of drunken driving, speed, vehicle malfunction, driver inattention; those are only proximate causes.

The ultimate cause is the inability of the road managers to deal with these challenges. How could they do so? This can only be speculative, as in the case of shoes, but, perhaps private highway owners could address not velocity, but its variance. Instead of minima and maxima speed limits for the entire highway, do so for each lane.

For example, 120 kilometers in the left lane, 100 in the middle, and 80 on the right. Would this reduce traffic fatalities. Hard to tell. The problem is, such experiments are not now undertaken. They would be, under free enterprise.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

The image shows, “A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur,” by Claude Monet, painted 1865 or 1867.

Labor Unions


Do labor unions raise wages in the private sector? In order to answer this question, we must first ask what determines wage rates in the first place. Why is it that movie stars earn a ton of money, a college professor garners a middle class salary and the person who asks “Do you want fries with that?” takes home a more modest remuneration.

The answer in technical terms is discounted marginal revenue product. In verbiage more suitable for a family newspaper, it is: productivity. Why does the employer want to have the employee on his payroll? Simple; because in that way his revenue will increase. Suppose a person, call him Joe, can add to the bottom line of the firm at the rate of $20 per hour.

The company might initially offer him an hourly wage of $12, but this cannot long endure. At that rate a profit of $8 will be earned on Joe’s labor. Some other company will offer Joe $8.01, another $8.02, and a third $8.03. You see where we’re going with this.

Eventually his wage will end up exactly equal to his productivity, if we abstract from the costs of finding him, interviewing him, testing him, and other such transactions costs. Nor need the impetus arise only from the perspective of the hirer. Joe himself can look for other jobs, and his pay scale can also rise from that direction. Nor can his wage long remain above his productivity level. At $30, if there are enough Joes, and they are kept on the shop floor for long enough, bankruptcy will eventually ensue.

So, the question of whether labor unions can boost pay packets comes down to one of, do these organizations raise, lower or leave productivity levels unchanged. When put in this manner it is difficult to see how they can do anything other than lower productivity.

Even if they do not strike, their mere existence is costly. Organizing numbers of people so as to act together is not a free good. Then, when we add in all sorts of labor union activities such as slow downs, job reservations, intra-union squabbles, sign-up activities, elections, law suits, work to rule, collective bargaining, leaders’ salaries, beating up scabs, establishing picket lines, publicity, secondary strikes, boycotts, lobbying congress, etc. These may all strengthen unions, but they lower member productivity, and hence wages.

The point we are making is not that unions cannot raise the wages of all workers. It is, rather, that they cannot even boost their own pay, at least not in the long run. Yes, to be sure, it cannot be denied, that in the short run, based upon violence and the threat thereof, the pay scales of the rank and file can indeed rise.

But, if they exceed marginal revenue productivity, which has been decreasing thanks to their activities, their employers will be rendered bankrupt. It is no accident that Detroit is an economic basket case; these types of organizations were very powerful in the automobile industry. Nor should it occasion any surprise that the entire “rust belt” came into being as a result of unions catapulting compensation above productivity levels.

Unions comprised 33% of the labor force in 1955, and were down to single digits in the private sector by the 21st century. Wages rose markedly during that period. If organized labor were really responsible for this increase in worker well-being, it is more than passing curious it occurred during the time this institution was on the descendancy.


Why are labor unions falling on such hard times (except in government employment)?

Union membership in the private sector was 6.2% in 2019, the lowest level since 1910. It is nowadays one fifth that of public sector workers, who have jumped to 33.6%. In 1954, the apex of organized labor, 34.8% of the private labor force were part of the rank and file.

Several hypotheses have been put forth to explain this radical reduction.

We are now much wealthier that we were in the 1950s. Unions are needed only for the poor, to help lift them up out of poverty. That is why MicroSoft, Apple, IBM and their ilk have not been organized; they don’t need this institution, since they already have high pay. But players in major league baseball, the NBA, the NFL, earn more than these high tech nerds, and they are unionized. There might be some explanatory power here, but maybe not all that much.

Here is another. Organized labor has been afflicted by corruption, mobster infiltration. The award winning movie, The Irishman, encapsulates this charge in dramatic fashion. But this has always been roughly true, all throughout labor union history. It is difficult, then, to see this as an accurate account for the rise and then fall of this institution.

Union leaders are invariably supporters of the Democratic party. Once upon a time that was also true of the vast majority of the membership. But it no longer holds. The rank and file in the age of Trump have to a significant degree embraced the Republican party. This might account, at least somewhat, for lessened support of the organized labor movement.

The government has to a significant degree taken over the role played by unions in the past: promoting healthcare, pensions, etc. To the extent this is true, it might well at least partially explain the lessened interest in unionism.

Then there is the fact that labor has in the last little while been allocated away from customary union strengths: manufacturing, construction. It has flowed in the direction of restaurants, hotels, computers, healthcare, which traditionally, and also at present, were and are not now heavily unionized. A not unreasonable explanation, albeit a partial one at best. For it leaves open the question as to why these other zones of the economy have been so resistant to the blandishments of unionism.

Here is yet another entry into this sweepstakes. Before the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, non union members were required to pay so-called “agency fees” to organized labor. Why? It was thought that their wage increases were due to union activity, and that they were thus “free riders” on the efforts of that organization.

But the Janus finding put paid to all of that. It cited the first amendment, claiming that the free speech rights of the so-called beneficiaries were being violated by compelling them to pay their hard earned money against their will to this group of people.

Indeed, the entire pre-Janus justification was dead from the neck up. First of all, wages are determined by productivity, not union threats. Second, even if A benefits from the acts of B does not justify B compelling A to pay him for them. I smile, take a shower once in a while, wear nice clothes, all of which (I claim), inure to your benefit. Yet if I sued you for these costs, I would be properly laughed out of court.

Several of these elucidations are at least partially correct, but none of them, even all together, can paint a complete picture. Here is another consideration to add to the mix. Wages are determined, ultimately, by labor productivity, and unions, with their strikes, work stoppages, internecine battles, downing tools in “sympathy” with their brethren, lower productivity compared to the level that would otherwise have obtained.

Unions are thus akin to a tapeworm, sucking the life out of an otherwise viable company. Detroit, anyone? Once upon the time this was a reasonably viable city. But the unions kept escalating their salary package demands, which choked off the profits of the automobile firms. Several of them headed south, and many of the others are now a shadow of their former selves.

The reason Lebron James earns a stupendous salary has nothing to do with unionism; ditto for your present author taking home more modest remuneration, nor for the guy who asks you “do you want fries with that,” at a still lower level. No, compensation is determined by how much each of us adds to the bottom line.

Wages are set by productivity levels, and unions lower, not raise them. This might be difficult to see, since many members of organized labor are paid generously. But that is despite union activity, not because of it. Without the “help” of this organization, their productivity would be higher, and so would their pay.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

The image shows, “Vote American Labor Party Roosevelt and Lehman,” a poster by the ALP for the Presidential Election, 1936.

Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Never! Labor History Through Song

When labor organizes, it sings. Music has been an integral part of the workers’ struggle since its early days in the Nineteenth Century. The history of organized labor through song is a long story. True to labor’s international ethos, ours is a tale which spans various nations, generations, and language communities. We have a massive corpus of material to sift through in order to take the pulse of the topic at hand. Indeed, making our task hairier still, labor’s is a story whose definite start is hard to ascertain and whose end is nowhere in sight.

In order to respect the essay format, we will strictly hold to some parameters. They are these: We will maintain a general chronological flow whilst using one main song, with some ancillary helpers, to illustrate a various work-related theme as we plod along. In doing so we will maintain both the narrative pace and topical diversity of our story. At the same time, we will ascertain common trends down through the years of struggle.

Further study recommends the 2019 texts by Steven Greenhouse, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, and James Sullivan, Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in Protest Songs.


Workplace organizing is back in the news. From the “Fight for $15” movement in America, to France’s Yellow Vest unrest, to Singapore’s protesting bus drivers, the working man is on the march once more. Even monolithic WalMart and sacrosanct Google, implacable foes of unions, have lately felt the pressure of labor. And with the fallout of the late Coronavirus shutdowns, some American economists are predicting a shockingly high 30% unemployment rate.

With this labor revival – I blush with pride from my pedagogical perch – the vanguard has been led largely by teachers. My profession has been shamefully eager, historically, to cooperate with a wide variety of schemes ginned up by every backroom Yaleie and stockjobbing finance bro who toddles along.

Ranging from a mass phrenology photographic campaign in the last century, to loansharking three generations of 18-year-olds and counting, no debasement, no sellout, has been too humiliating for my once-sublime profession. But, moryah, Saul can be Paul as soon as anyone. Even in labor-hostile America, scholars are fast repairing their deserved infamy. Teachers have hit the picket lines from Wisconsin to West Virginia, and from New York to California these last few years.

To Sing

Men sing from passion, or at least they ought. They sing in war “by the rocket’s red glare,” and they sing for women with “their technicolor cheeks.” Overcome by urban steel, men sing in cities “where seven million are screaming for space,” and humbled by nature, men sing with “sunshine on [their] shoulders.” Men sing because they love, and because they care, and because they are alive.

Of course, the obverse is just as true. That Christians in the so-called First World sing of a Sunday with all the gusto of a late-’80s Soviet Party Congress is one of the ominous portents for Western spirituality.

History does not hesitate to support my melodic social observation. Men sing because they care, and they’ve been at it since day one. In the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th Centuries, all factions busied themselves between bouts of rioting in scribbling out hymnody. The same was certainly true during the Reformation; Protestants explored the vernacular and Catholics doubled-down on chant. And whilst Tories belted out God Save the King, Enlightenment republicans answered with God Save Great Thomas Paine. Trench-up, and Home Office-down, Axis and Allies vied with each other through two world wars to out-sing the foe, this time with the timely aid of radiophone and loudspeaker.

And so, with labor. It’s a struggle that has all the hope and frustration, all the tease and triumph, of love and war and God. Thus, labor is a cause to which songsters have just as soon thrown in their pens and talents and throats for.

Limitations and Failures

At this early hour in our essay, historical impartiality requires that I address a topic which perhaps has occurred to fair-minded readers: What about anti-labor songs? In a fact that is as damning as it is absolute, there actually is no corollary corpus of anti-union songs. Nothing at’ll, so far as I’ve been able to find. There are examples of states co-opting various musical styles for their ends, particularly rock in Europe and country music in America. But as far as organic specimens go, we search in vain.

Never, after an afternoon of beating the skulls of miners or longshoremen, did the police of William Martin Murphy or Allan Pinkerton strike up a chorus of celebration and steeled resolve. They were the baddies, after all. Much less have the spoilers of our day sung, those more recent bureaucrats who delivered the Traffic Controllers’ pink slips in 1981, or General Motors’ ones in 2009, or Ikeas’ today.

An Overview

As mentioned above, labor history is a vast subject. Our main selections in this essay and the topics they raise are as follows. We start with the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution. We witness the transformation of a historic loafing worker into a mythological reformer through songs like, The Triumph of General Ludd.

Then we look at the musical celebration of labor itself through Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and The Fireman’s Song. Next we have There Is Power In The Union, where we consider labor’s tensions with religion. In Banks of Marble we look at transatlantic connections between labor struggles on different continents. Which Side Are You On? gives us an insight into masculine archetypes in workers’ music. And in Solidarity Forever we dissect a fine specimen of hope, reinvention, and continuity in song. The Internationale and the Left’s decision – and ultimate split – in 1917 follows.

We then see the use of existing hymnody by the Catholic Worker Movement. In The Ballad of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire we feel the perennial anxiety of workplace safety, and the biting regret of warnings not heeded. Rounding out our time together and bringing our exploration up to the present day, we have David Rovics’ piece Living On the Streets of LA. It shines a light on the trials of atomized and indigent workers in the modern gig economy. In addition to these main pieces, about a dozen auxiliary works will illuminate our analysis.

From Marx to Uber, but with fall more soul and pizzazz than either Nineteenth Century theoreticians or Twenty-First Century apps conjure, we will sing our way through the basics of labor history.

General Ludd

Many moons before former DNC candidate Andrew Yang alerted us to the dangers of automation, workers were wary of their bosses’ late penchant for machines.

In the throes of the First Industrial Revolution some of Britain’s weavers began destroying the new mechanical looms which were occupying ever-more floor space. The contraptions were able year by year to do the specialized work which men developed over a lifetime. Playing out the future in their heads, the men of Nottingham reasoned that workingmen would soon or late be replaced altogether. These wary weavers formed loose associations of economically astute hooligans, and by 1812 they signed their corporate missives “Ned Ludd.”

The actual Ludd is said to have been a lazy or impassioned youth – the sources differ, though teens have been known to be both b’times – who, a generation before the Luddites arose, destroyed his father’s looms. Historians disagree, but he was probably grounded. The noun became an adjective, and England’s Luddites give us a fine jumping off point in our labor saga.

Folk memory is a slippery thing, and proverbially one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Like other far-sung foes of the Crown before him, like Robin Hood and Roddy McCorley, like Jamie MacPherson and Ned Kelly, the historicity of Ludd takes a backseat to common memory. How Ned Ludd morphed from a moody, loafing youth into an anti-automation hero is the stuff of another essay. What matters is that in peoples’ minds he did, and that those people decided to sing about it.

As early as 1850, Ludd was canonized by a street balladeer in The Triumph of General Ludd. Here he is imagined as a full-blown, doctrinaire revolutionary. We sing, “Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice/ Nor e’er their assistance withdraw/ Till full-fashioned work at the old-fashioned price/ Is established by custom and law.” In a song that was given a studio recording by Chumbawamba (“I Get Knocked Down”) in the late 1980s, Triumph continues with Ned’s manifesto, “Then the trade when this arduous contest is o’er/ Shall raise in full splendor its head/ And colting and cutting and swearing no more/ Shall deprive all his workers of bread.”

Robert Calvert’s 1985 Ned Ludd says, “They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy/ That all he could do was wreck and destroy/ And he turned to his workmates and said,” with Unabomber echoes, we note, “Death to Machines!/ They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

Continuing the common memory of Ludd in Britain, General Ludd from the UK band Seize the Day says, “Cause ‘en if we don’t break ’em [i.e., machines], our lives they will take ’em/ Our croft, our cottage, our village as well/ No freedom or laughter for those who come after/ But a servant and master in a factory hell.” Giving a full-blown first-person narrative, the song goes on, “So the door was kicked in, and the frames were all broken/ And the owner was woken and raised the alarm/ And the yeomen came riding, but we were in hiding/ The people providing, to keep us from harm.”

Steeleye Span deserves many honorable mentions for their innovative career, not the least for making a 16-minute epic on everybody’s favorite frame-breakers.


A little later on I will address the Church’s musical consideration labor in the May 1st commemoration of St. Joseph the Worker. As Joseph Piper reminds us in his fine essay on leisure, all liturgy is celebratory. Thus, we can say labor is sublimated and celebrated in the Church’s ceremonies. However, grace builds on nature, and there is in labor folk a more basic element of rejoicing which we now turn to.

In work’s daily trials, and flow, and mundane happenings, men have sung. The Creamery Song, Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and the Fireman’s Song are our examples.

In The Creamery Song our familiar morning routines are considered. It says, “Paddy Stokes was the first in at daybreak/ The boiler to stoke and ignite/ There was plenty of steam, the machinery sang/ A day’s work in the dairy began.” But mornings are deadly for distraction, and many an idle minute’s been spent on another cigarette or another cup of coffee. “Then the farmer arrived in his pony and car/ And while waiting they’d have an aul spar/ They’d talk of the games and the state of the land/ Then they’d swing the tanks up on the stand.”

All the energy and physicality of industrialization is captured by Gordon Lightfoot in Canadian Railroad Trilogy. It says, “Look away, said they, across this mighty land/ From the eastern shore to the western strand/ Bring in the workers and bring up the rails/ We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails/ Open ‘er heart let the life blood flow/ Gotta get on our way ’cause we’re movin’ too slow!”

A particular type of man all of us have likely worked for is comically memorialized in Greenland Whale Fishery. The whalers deploy in the verse, “The harpoon struck and the line paid out/ With a single flourish of her tail/ She capsized our boat and we lost five men/ And we did not catch that whale, brave boys.” Tragedy has struck, yes, but it’s not where you might think. The song goes on, “The losin’ of those five jolly men/ It grieved our captain sore/ But the losin’ of that sperm whale fish/ Now it grieved him ten times more, brave boys/ Now it grieved him ten times more.”

Not to rag too heavy on on bosses, but in Ian Campbell’s Fireman’s Song the coal stoker-narrator good-naturedly notes, “The driver sits there like a god/ A decent mate but an idle sod/ Though I’ll be shovelling on me knees/ Still he’ll sit there at his ease.” But no matter. This job has given me physical fitness and dexterity, if nothing else. “The pick and shovel are tools of me trade/ And two strong arms to swing the blade/ Hands with palms as hard as leather/ And nimble feet as light as a feather.”

Going forward, it is important to remember that the element which gives labor organizing its artistic energy is because labor itself is worth celebrating.


No treatment of workers’ history, much less labor music, is complete sans mention of the I.W.W. Their motto was their philosophy. “One big union,” they said, and they meant it. Well did these “Wobblies,” as I.W.W. members were called in the slang of the time, know how to fight fire with fire.

The International Workers of the World was formed in 1905. What differentiated it from contemporary movements like the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor was its belief in a united working class, not one segmented by trade. The dynamic of wage-earners organized across professions would allow for “sympathetic strikes.”

With this tool, if a lone factory went on strike, nearby sympathetic strikes could magnify its power. Should management hire scabs to replace the factory workers, for example, sympathetic action called for other sectors to make that bosses’ life hell.

A sympathetic strike would oblige the truckers which supplied the original factory, the operators of the power plant which kept the factory’s lights on, the groundskeepers who plowed the snow and cleaned the gutters, and so forth and so on, to join the factory hands and bring, not just one location, but potentially an entire town, city, or region, to a standstill.

A couple of years ago I greatly expanded The Ballad of James Larkin. Originally written by Donagh McDonald, son of the poet and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh (“I See His Blood Upon the Rose”), the ‘60s Ballad beat contemporary historians to the punch in linking the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 to the Easter Rising of 1916.

As regards a sympathetic strike, my expansion goes, “Then Larkin left us, he’d gone to England/ A Fiery Cross for some sympathy/ From Southampton and from London/ Labor joined hands across the sea.” Presaging the chronic weakness of 20th Century labor leadership, the stanza continues, “But union bosses were worse than useless/ And there’d be no general strike/ With ‘friends’ like this, you’d not need foemen/ Dublin’s heroes pushed on alone.”

Joe Hill and Religious Tunes

Joe Hill, originally an immigrant from Sweden, and himself the subject of no shortage of musical memorials in the wake of his famed (and framed) execution in Utah in 1915, was especially adept at co-opting religious hymns for organizing purposes. During Hill’s I.W.W. junkets through the American West, local capitalists routinely hired Salvation Army bands to play music over the speeches of Wobbly organizers like Joe Hill. There was no electronic amplification in those days, none within the budget of traveling Wobblies, at least. The appearance of a brass band playing There Is Power in the Blood or Onward, Christian Soldiers would be enough to put the kibosh on the most earnest speechifying.

Making lemonade of his lemons, Hill set his prolific compositions to tunes commonly used by churches. We recall that religious observance was much higher a century ago, and thus many tunes were generally known by the public. One example of Hill’s use of a religious anthem is The Preacher and The Slave. It employs the tune of In The Sweet By-And-By, and the song directly aims its barbs at the General Booth’s “Sally Army” interrupters. Hill’s song croons, “The Starvation [sic] Army, they play/ And they sing and they clap and they pray/ ‘Til they get all your coin on the drum/ Then they tell you that you’re on the bum.” Preacher is also notable for containing Hill’s famous expression, “Pie in the sky.” Like the memory of Hill himself, the expression would live on long after its initial appearance.

“Pie in the sky,” wasn’t a baseless phrase. Besides some papal encyclicals and the efforts of the Catholic Worker Movement, popular and institutional Christianity was silent on the labor topic. Any Protestant who brought up organizing a century past was also likely to be as soon fuzzy on doctrine, and thus suspect by the pious.

Culpable of guilt by association, observant upper- and middle-class Catholics joined Protestants in an ecumenical wariness of labor issues. However, the majority of American Catholics were poor, and their support of unions brought them into regular conflict with religious leaders.

As for the Orthodox response to the labor topic, of course there were not enough of them in the West to generate a conversation in that quarter. And indeed, set upon by Modernity far more abruptly than the Western Church, Eastern Christians still are nowhere nearer in 2020 to forming a labor theology than they were in Hill’s day.

Another example of the co-opting of pious tunes for labor purposes is Because All Men Are Brothers. With lyrics which would surely startle Johann Sebastian Bach, who notably used the setting for his St. Matthew’s Passion, labor’s rewriting states, “Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong/ Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done/ Let not our memories fail us, the lost years shall be found/ Let slavery’s chains be broken the whole wide world around.”

Also, from the prolific pen of Joe Hill is the 1913 piece There Is Power In The Union. Ripped from the formerly pious background of its original setting, There Is Power defiantly barks, “If you like sluggers to beat off your head/ Then don’t organize, and unions despise/ If you want nothing before you are dead/ Shake hands with your boss and look wise.”

Occasionally immigrants embody the ethos of a country better than natives. If Europe took our Henry James a century past, they at least had the good manners to trade their talented Joe Hill.

The Gospel of Christ Meets the Gospel of Labor

In juxtaposition to the antipathy or hostility towards labor from bourgeois Christians, the Catholic Worker Movement sought to bridge the gap between secular labor and the Christian tradition. Their Catholic spiritual tradition was an old hand in the ideological use of music.

Founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1933, the CWM sought to make the Church a dynamic social force once again. On the back foot since the French Revolution, it was time to be proactive. As Dan McKannan writes in a contemporary Movement publication, “The Catholic Worker [community] is the place in which the American Catholic Church as a whole meets the American Left as a whole.”

Towards that end, I’ve stumbled across a contemporary mini-retreat inspired by Dorothy Day’s life which is suggested by the Movement. The recollection concludes with I Bind My Heart This Tide, a hymn from the turn of the last century. It contains these verses, “I bind my soul this day/ To the neighbor far away/ And the stranger near at hand/ In this town, and in this land.” With a distinct flavor of St. Patrick’s Lorica, it continues, “I bind my heart in thrall/ To the God, the Lord of all/ To God, the poor one’s friend/ And the Christ whom he did send.” It’s a fitting hymn for a day dedicated to the spirituality of one such as Day, herself an Oblate of St. Benedict and those religious’ commitment to “ora et labora.”

The response of the pious from the 19th Century through the foundation of the Catholic Worker Movement gave fuel to the secular Left’s claim that religion was in the keep of the ruling class. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engles succinctly wrote in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, “Communism abolishes all religion.” However, the plucky Catholic Worker Movement had enough sense to snatch the brand from the fire. Seeing labor quickly spinning off into the worldly, secular arena, they used songs too.

Unlike the I.W.W., the CWM tended to use existing Christian hymns to express their social gospel, a message which saw the Corporal and Spiritual Works as concrete marching orders as adamantine as Marx’s Ten Planks. Much like the inclusion of the Memorial feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the CWM uses existing hymns to sanctify the daily concerns of working men with religious iconography. For their efforts Catholics today still grouse about Dorothey Day being a “communist.” No good deed goes unpunished.

Liturgical Music

Much in the vein of the CWM, the institutional Church appointed May 1st the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. It was a commemoration which had been knocking around since the 19th Century under different titles and ranks. That St. Joseph kept a second liturgical day on the Postconcilior calendar, when many saints lost the one they had, is a testimony to the gravity of the labor issue on the mind of the Church.

On both Joseph’s March 19th major celebration, when his historic and celestial assistance is remembered, and his minor honor on May 1st, when his silent laborings are recalled, the hymn Te Ioseph Celebrant is sung at Vespers. We mightn’t associate Latin liturgical hymnody with folk music, but really it is. It is no harder to sing than any folk piece, and a damn sight easier than many contemporary songs in those horrid missalettes.

When churchmen cease dumbing down the liturgical life of the faithful, once again the Volk can sing the decidedly folk piece Te Ioseph Celebrant. It honors the spiritual ends of labor with the stanza, “Death brings to other saints their rest/ Through toil they win the victor’s place/ Thou happier, like the Angels blest/ Alive, hast seen God face to face.”

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “Protectors of our Industries,” an illustration from Puck Magazine, February, 1883.

The Right-Left Divide: Does It Still Matter?

One of the most debated issues in recent years by European political observers (journalists and political scientists) has been the possibility, or the impossibility, of overcoming the right-left divide. This was particularly the case in the so-called “Latin” European countries of France and Italy, where the “old” dichotomy, established for over a century, seemed to be firmly and lastingly established.

In polls conducted at the end of the year 2000, in these countries, 60–70 percent of citizens stated unequivocally (at least when allowed to do so) that democracy had stopped working properly; that there no longer were substantial differences between right and left governments; and that the divide is no longer really relevant.

I myself contributed to the debate on the permanence or the end of this divide, its transformation or its decline, by publishing Droite/Gauche: pour sortir de l’équivoque. Histoire des idées et des valeurs non conformistes du XIXe au XXIe siècle (Right/Left: Getting Past the Ambiguity. A History of Non-Conformist Ideas and Values from the 19th to the 21st Centuries). What follows is a summary of the important points of this book.

To understand the radical and surprising recent socio-political change happening in European countries (the birth and development of many populist movements in much of the continent, governmental alliance between the League and the 5-Star Movement in Italy; popular rebellions/ insurrections, like the “Red Cap” and the “Yellow Vests” against the self-proclaimed progressive oligarchies or “elites” in France; the emergence of Vox in Spain; Brexit in the United Kingdom, etc.) – it is worth reflecting in depth and more specifically answering a few key questions: What is the Right? What is the Left? What are the arguments for and against the “inevitable” or “accidental” division that articulates the political life of modern representative democracies? Why is the Left-Right dichotomy more and more discredited in public opinion in European countries?

Beyond the multiplicity of definitions of the Right and the Left, two radically different approaches clash one with the other: One is philosophical and the other historical.

The philosophical approach seeks to define the essence, the intimate character of the two phenomena; the historical, empirical and relativistic approach denies that these are isolated absolutes, independent of contingent situations (local and temporal). The first approach leads to strengthening or consolidating of the traditional dichotomy, while the second leads to its criticism, its questioning, or its casting into doubt.

In the background, there is, of course, the triple divide among the major political parties of radical globalization carried out for over thirty years by the dominant oligarchy (political, economic, financial and cultural), whose positions are sometimes alter-globalists, internationalists and crypto-Marxists (Podemos, Syriza or La France insoumise), sometimes anti-globalists.

The latter dividing in their turn between, on the one hand, the liberal-conservatives who pursue the union or the alliance of the rights (like Marion Maréchal Le Pen in France, or the leaders of Vox in Spain), and, on the other hand, the republican and secular tendency “simultaneously of the right and the left” which embodies a line seeking to synthesize identity and sovereigntist aspirations, ideas of fatherland and social justice (like the National Front of yesteryear with Florian Philippot, or the National Rally of Marine Le Pen today).

How is the Left and the Right to be Defined? The Essentialist Point of View: The Divide is Not Over.

The essentialist view has been defended by many authors for more than half a century. From a right-wing position, we can cite, among others, the French Christian Democrat, René Rémond, the Hungarian-American traditionalist, Thomas Molnar, or the Spanish conservative, Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora.

More recently, we can cite in France the former adviser to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Patrick Buisson (and his biographer, close collaborator of the philosopher Alain de Benoist, the journalist François Bousquet), the political scientist Guillaume Bernard, or professor of constitutional law, Jean-Louis Harouel. And we include another of the founders of the New Right, the journalist Michel Marmin.

On the Left, we have to mention, among the best known, the Italian Norberto Bobbio, the Englishman Ted Honderich, the Frenchman Jacques Julliard, and the Spaniard, Esperanza Guisán.

The Right, in the most conventional and the most common sense of the term, would be synonymous with stability, authority, hierarchy, conservatism, loyalty to traditions, respect for public order and religious convictions, protection of family and the protection of private property. Conversely, the Left would embody dissatisfaction, demand, movement, a sense of justice, donation and generosity.

Neo-Marxist, neo-social-democratic and sometimes neoliberal propaganda, which claims to be “progressive,” sees in the Right the reaction against the Enlightenment, against Progress, Science, Equality, Humanism (their deities always written in capital letters).

The Right and the Left would, after all, reflect only the eternal conflict between the rich and the poor, the dominant and the dominated, the oppressors and the oppressed. But when the subject is the object of a slightly more serious investigation, we quickly realize that this identification of the political Right with the economic Right, or the Right of conviction with the Right of interest or money (so widespread in the mainstream media) is just one more myth, more ideological smoke, a propaganda lie.

The readers of Vilfredo Pareto, familiar with his famous thesis on the collusion between plutocrats and revolutionaries, know this well. Examples that lend nuance to, or invalidate, the myth abound – from the bourgeois actors and heirs of the French Revolution, to today’s billionaire magnates and financial speculators, like George Soros.

In reality, there has always been in Europe, at least since the end of the 19th-century, an anti-liberal or “illiberal” (as we say today), traditional, social and anti-capitalist Right, which not only affirms its commitment to the national community, but also defends social justice. And there has always been a socialist or socializing Left which defends, at the same time, republicanism, secularism, the fatherland and the nation.

The essentialist point of view always privileges the “idea” over “existence,” reality or facts. It is developed at different, more or less sophisticated, levels of analysis. Let us recall here the oppositions that this view exhibits:

1) First of all, there is the pessimism of the Right against the optimism of the Left. There is the realism and the tragic sense of life against idealism, against sentimentalism, the triumph of good conscience and naïve optimism. According to this premise, there are ultimately two temperaments which always oppose one another. There is always the same antagonism: The reactionaries/conservatives versus the reformist or revolutionary progressives.

2) At a second level of analysis, there are the two metaphysical positions: Transcendence and immanence. On the one hand, there are those who defend God, and on the other, those who deify man.

Here Christian metaphysics and the correct reading of the Gospels are opposed to the great heresies and falsifying utopias of Christianity, to millenarianism, to Gnosticism (the God of evil against the God of good), or even to belief in the religions of politics with their secularized version of apocatastasis. In the background, there is a kind of eternal fight of light against darkness, of good against evil (each one being of course interpreted and defined differently according to whether one belongs to one of the two poles of the Right or Left).

3) Other authors oppose the Right which believes in human nature without change with the Left which believes in infinite perfectibility of man (a man, of course, not soiled by original sin, as Christianity teaches).

There is thus the Right which believes in the natural order, as opposed to the Left which believes in universal reason; the Right which has a holistic vision of society as opposed to the individualist approach of the Left (this radical individualism which appeared with the French Revolution also explains the subsequent collectivist and totalitarian reaction of Marxist socialism).

Therefore, there exists the right-wing organism (that is to say, the society which develops like a tree, with roots and branches, which cannot be changed with impunity, according to everyone’s will) – which would oppose the left-wing mechanism (i.e. the society that operates like a clock, with the possibility of changing and modifying each part, without limits).

4) A fourth difference would be the importance of family and community ethics, defended by the Right, in the face of the obsession of the Left for the liberation from mores and customs.

5) Another frequently cited antinomy is that between, on the one hand, spiritual aristocratism (not to be confused with social or material aristocratism) and the feeling of freedom, typical of the Right, and, on the other hand, the leveling and materialist egalitarianism, characteristic of the Left. In other words, quality versus quantity.

The main idea of the Left, then, becomes the search for equality which in turn becomes its driving force, while the message of the Right becomes the belief in emulation. The Left is thus a kind of slope towards material equality, and the Right a kind of slope towards spiritual aristocracy.

6) Another significant dissimilarity is also of note: The passion for the unity of the Right (with the usual call for the union of the national community) against the spirit or the will to divide the Left (with the reactivation of the class struggle).

7) Two other major principles are often opposed and declared to be irreducible. There is the conflictual or polemological vision of the world, characteristic of the Right, which opposes the dream of the bright future of humanity, the utopia of the “New Man” obsession of the Left.

It is obviously not a question here of the New Man wanted by the Christian God, but of the New Man desired by modern totalitarianisms – in their Marxist-Leninist, National Socialist, and neoliberal, or neo-social-democratic versions, while not forgetting the recent ideological variant of “anthropological justice,” which is itself intensified by bio-ideologies, delusional ideologies, the strangest seeds of which are almost all found in National Socialism, as noted by the Spanish political scientist, Dalmacio Negro Pavón.

8) Last but not least, there is the eternal struggle between the old and the new, the trendy and the old-fashioned, the current and the obsolete, the old and the modern. Some even do not hesitate to see in the defense of language an authentic Right marker. But on this account, the teachers of the public schools of yesteryear (republicans, secularists, socialists, nationalists and other “progressives,” moderates or extremists, reformists or revolutionaries), would only be vulgar reactionaries or rightists who ignored each other.

In short, from the essentialist point of view, there is always a Right and a Left. Some, like Jacques Anisson du Perron, start from the premise or the intangible axiom that “the Right has always existed, since it merged with the political organization of traditional civilizations. In contrast, the Left only appeared in modern times.” Consequently, we would be eternally condemned to live and to know only two opposite conceptions of the world and life, and at a lower level, two morals, two forms of psychology, even two temperaments.

At this point, it is perhaps worth remembering that the Russian mathematician and dissident, Igor Shafarevich said that, from a philosophical point of view, socialism has always existed as a specific tendency of human societies (and that ‘it did not only appear historically in the 19th-century). Nor should we forget that Nicolai Berdyaev said the same thing about nationalism and/or patriotism (which have a lot of common history in their modern forms): Born on the Left, at the beginning of the 19th-century, they moved partially to the Right at the end of the 19th-century.

That said, there is still a key point to emphasize: Most “essentialist” authors insist on the diversity or the plural character of the Right and the Left. They rightly show that there is no Right and Left, but Right and Left, without however reaching a consensus, when it comes to defining or classifying them.

Thus, for example, the liberal René Rémond distinguished three Rights: Traditionalist, liberal and nationalist, and three Lefts: Libertarian, authoritarian and Marxist. But after him other authors (such as the Israeli socialist, Zeev Sternhell) distinguished two Rights: Radical/revolutionary and conservative, and two Lefts: Progressive and revolutionary. Still others (like the conservative, Stéphane Rials) see a single traditional Right and four Lefts: Authoritarian-nationalist, liberal-bourgeois, anarcho-libertarian and social-Marxist.

More recently, authors like, Marc Crapez (specialist in the nationalist Left or “reactionary”) have pointed out the existence of a good dozen tendencies of the Right and the Left and have discredited or withdrawn a lot of value and interest from educational and university classifications.

Criticism of the Left/Right Divide. The Historico-Relativist Point of View

Historically, the Right/Left divide is barely a century, perhaps a century-and-a-half, old. This is the prosaic reality. After the French Revolution and for decades, division or opposition was limited to a question of parliamentary language (the partisans of power occupied the seats on the right and the opposition those on the left). As the Spanish philosopher, Gustavo Bueno, said very well: “In the Cortes of Cadiz [the Constituent Assembly sitting from 1810 to 1814 during the war of independence against France], there was no Right and Left.” The mythical divide is indeed much more recent.

In common opinion, the birth of this divide hardly dates back to the 1870s and 1900s and perhaps even later, to the 1930s. Consequently, the great cyclical conflict between the eternal Right and the immortal Left has hardly been around for a century. In addition, as Julien Freund rightly noted in 1986, it is a divide “essentially European and even localized in the Latin countries, although it was taken up some time ago by the Anglo-Saxon countries.”

For the historian of political ideas, it is relatively easy to show that the values of the Right and the Left are not immutable, that the crossovers or the exchanges of ideas have been and remain constant. The Rights are diverse and plural like the Left, which explains their divides and permanent conflicts.

The Right and the Left are universalists or particularists; internationalists/globalists and supporters of free trade, or patriotic and anti-capitalist; centralists and Jacobins or regionalists, federalists and separatists; Atlanticists, Westernists and Europeanists (supporters of a federal Europe), or nationalists, Europeanists (defenders of a Europe of nations) and/or non-third-worldists; they may or may not be individualists, rationalists, positivists, organicists, mechanists, atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, theists or Christians.

There is no timeless definition of the Right or the Left that applies everywhere and at any time. The Right and the Left can only be defined historically, in relation to the periods and problems that arise at a given moment.

It is easy to show that the main political issues are constantly shifting from left to right and vice versa. I think I showed this in detail in my book, Droite/Gauche, pour sortir de l’équivoque, to which I refer the interested reader. This is the case with imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Masonism, anti-Christianity, anti-Catholicism, of anti-parliamentarianism, of the criticism of the demo-liberal model, of technocratism and anti-technocratism, of Malthusianism and of Antimalthusianism, of federalism, of centralism, of anti-statism, of regionalism, of separatism, of ecology, human rights criticism and the right to interfere (let us remember the harsh criticisms of the Italian anti-fascist liberal, Benedetto Croce, the socialist Harold Laski or the nationalist Mahatma Gandhi against human rights).

And such is also the case with the denunciation of the Enlightenment, anti-capitalism, the defense of the sovereignty and identity of peoples, immigrationism and anti-immigrationism, national preference, islamophilia and islamophobia, arabophilia and arabophobia, patriotism, nationalism, sovereignism, europhilia and europhobia, russophilia and russophobia, the alliance with the third world, anti-Americanism or American anti-imperialism, etc. All, absolutely all these questions escape the obsessive debate between the Right and the Left.

Many continue to oppose and divide not only between parties, but also within parties. We can therefore better understand why unions or alliances on the Right or on the Left are, and have always been, fragile, volatile, ephemeral or temporary. Added to this is, of course, the weight of the generally oversized ego of political leaders, but also their conflicting interests and career plans, which are poorly masked by the alleged differences on the political lines or the programs to be adopted.

The questioning of the permanent validity of the Left/Right dichotomy is at the same time historical, philosophical and moral. It is by no means the monopoly of an author, an intellectual movement, or a political party. On the contrary, the political sensitivities and opinions of the authors who criticize the Left/Right divide are very diverse.

It is the liberal José Ortega y Gasset who said: “To be on the left or to be on the right is to choose one of the innumerable ways available to man to be a fool; both, in fact, are forms of moral hemiplegia “(La Révolte de masses, Preface for the French Reader, 1930).

It is the liberal Raymond Aron who declared: “We will bring some clarity, in the confrontation of French quarrels, only by rejecting these ambiguous concepts [of Right and Left].”

It is the liberal-conservative Julien Freund who wrote: “The distinction between Left and Right is in the order of a and local; it does not determine essential political categories… Philosophical correctness requires that one exceeds this circumstantial classification… The rivalry between the Right and the Left is not based on a judgment of morality, but it is one of the current forms of the fight for the power.”

It is the national-syndicalist José Antonio Primo de Rivera who invited the rejection of the annealed hatred of the Right and the Left, and who affirms: “To be on the right or to be on the left is always to exclude from the soul the half which it needs to feel. Sometimes, this means the exclusion of everything and to replace that with a caricature of the half” (Ha fenecido el segundo bienio, January 9, 1936).

It is the Marxologist, Costanzo Preve, a representative figure of Italian communism, who stated: “The Right/Left dichotomy is nothing other than an incapacitating residue, or an artificial prosthesis, perpetuated by the ruling class.”

It is the ex-militant soixante-huitard and leftist, Jean Baudrillard, who noted: “If one day political imagination, political requirement and political will may a chance to rebound, it can only be on the basis of the radical abolition of this fossil distinction which has been canceled and fully disowned over the decades, and which no longer holds except by complicity in corruption.”

It is the Greek libertarian socialist, Cornelius Castoriadis, who recognized this: “It has been a long time now that the Left-Right divide, in France as elsewhere, no longer corresponds either to the great problems of our time or to radically opposed political choices.”

In reality, countless authors with very diverse convictions, follow the “skeptical” or critical tradition of the Left/Right divide. Over the years, they have become legion. The names of the traditionalist Donoso Cortés, the liberals José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, the heterodox socialist-Marxist Gustavo Bueno can be cited here as an example.

Among the French, there are Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Maurice Barrès, Charles Péguy, Simone Weil, Daniel-Rops, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Claude Michéa, Christophe Guilluy, Vincent Coussedière, Alain De Benoist, Marcel Gauchet.

Among Americans, there are Christopher Lasch, Paul Piccone and Paul Gottfried.

Among Italians, Costanzo Preve, Augusto del Noce, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Tarchi, Marco Revelli and many others.

The majority of political scientists and journalists agree that the neo-social-democrat Left (with its far-left allies) has stopped proclaiming its will to resolve the social question and to bring about social revolution (with the hope for the liberation of the proletariat), and has assumed the principles of the free market and now prefers to invoke societal and anthropological “values” (defense of the “world citizen,” integration of “victimized” minorities, such as, homosexuals, transsexuals, feminists, immigrants, genderism and multiculturalism).

As for the neoliberal Right (which rejects alliances with the traditional and radical Rights), it has abandoned the defense of the nation, morals, religion and family, to deal exclusively and cynically with the economy.

But what can it mean to be simultaneously of the Right and the Left? For Marxists, neo-social-democrat, Social Liberals and Conservative Liberals, denouncing the Right/Left opposition can only be an extremist and cynical attitude. Among them, many are the commentators who see in this criticism of the traditional dichotomy only the resurgence of fascism, if not to say of National Socialism or Nazism. But in reality, this view is invalidated by historical facts.

Fundamentally, to define oneself simultaneously of the Right and the Left is to express the conviction that a political community needs both justice and freedom, progress and conservation, patriotism and internationalism, personalism and solidarity, order and freedom, economic initiative and social guarantees, respect for human rights and the affirmation of the duties of men, equality and merit, fraternity and competitiveness, nothing more and nothing less.

All these concerns can be summed up in a few words: It is about the political will to defend spiritual, religious, patriotic or national values and, simultaneously, to pursue the common good, or to affirm the need for collective solidarity and social justice. This attempt at synthesis is found in the programs of many intellectual movements, which were born and developed in Europe, from the end of the 19th-century to the present day – movements that are radical, revolutionary and extremist, or moderate and reformist, depending on the place and time.

In my book, I refer to the twenty models or examples that are social-traditionalism (and according to the Italian economist Stefano Solari – Donoso Cortés is even the inventor of the Third Way).

These are:

The Left/Right divide was also often questioned by politicians from the center, by representatives of social liberalism, neo-social democracy and neoliberalism.

This is particularly the case with President Emmanuel Macron, or Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and various other political and intellectual figures. Paradoxically, they are also proven representatives of the globalist oligarchy who, as adept connoisseurs of the magic of words, presented – for electoral purposes – a centrist, watered-down and diluted version of the criticism of the Right/Left divide.

They know that this traditional divide is today widely discredited in public opinion and take this into account, at least verbally, to seduce their constituents.

But the policies of these leaders are nevertheless in line with those of social democratic or Christian democrat politicians, who distinguished themselves several decades ago, like Tony Blair, Schroeder or Clinton. The latter then called themselves the “Third Way,” as theorized by the Englishman Anthony Giddens and the North American Amitai Etzioni.

In Spain, Albert Rivera and his party Ciudadanos, who have embarked on the same path, have obtained significant support from the former French Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

We can summarize the success of this strategy and its positive result electorally (although not definitely, as demonstrated by the considerable difficulties faced by President Macron and his government) – by recalling the famous words of young Tancredi, a character in The Leopard: “If we want that everything stays as it is, everything has to change.”

So, what remains of the Left/Right divide and what is the new divide that seeks to replace it? The criticism of the Left/Right dichotomy consists above all in showing that there are neither “eternal values” on the Right, nor “immortal principles” on the Left. In other words, the Right and the Left are the result of certain opinions about facts and ideas, which do not come from an ideal model, an archetype, or an idea in the Platonic sense of the term.

It is not a question of denying that historically the Right/Left divide explains a large part of the political phenomena of the past, but only of denying that it explains them all. It is a question of showing that the allegedly immutable political debate, which opposes two “essentialized” categories (the eternal Right and the immortal Left) has become an artificial prosthesis that only serves to perpetuate the situation of the dominant oligarchy.

The Right/Left divide seems to be nothing more than a mask, which serves to hide another division, now much more decisive: That which opposes rooted peoples to the self-proclaimed elites, who are the very vectors of uprooting; that which opposes the defenders of sovereignty, identity and national cohesion with the partisans of “world governance.” And that which opposes the excluded from globalization and cast into the peripheral areas of the country (people or citizens who obviously have – or will have – their own leaders under the “iron law of the oligarchy”) with the privileged of the system, to the dominant oligarchy, to the globalized or hyperclass ruling class, which lives in the beautiful districts of the big cities, the most developed zones of the country and which, moreover, rubs shoulders, preferably or exclusively, with the privileged elite of globalism in other countries.

Today, there is clearly a new dualism which replaces the old Right/Left opposition (even the essentialist authors, who reject the possibility of an extinction or disappearance of the dichotomy, recognize that it has undergone profound alteration or modification). Populism versus oligarchy, roots against globalization, community and solidarity culture against liberal and progressive culture – reflect the new dividing line. Whatever the self-proclaimed “experts” and other “specialists” in the media say, these are two entirely new ways of interpreting the confronting reality, two rational but irreconcilable ways of viewing where the greatest danger comes from, of choosing our future and our commitment.

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows, “Fillette de Concarneau à la miche de pain (Girl from Concarneau with a Loaf of Bread”), by Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy, painted in 1886.

America Reborn

Does the world need or want a strong United States? This essential question, whether consciously iterated or not, underlies much of what passes for commentary on the presidency of Donald Trump. Of course, there is the easy caricature that is to be found in the popular media, of Trump as the great villain of the age, who also happens to be stupid, boorish, and well, a “Nazi.” Such vilification has been ongoing ever since the man was elected.

Those who purvey this caricature seem mindless of the consequences of their outrage. They like to imagine that somehow the direct opposite of the Trump presidency will magically be embodied in the Democratic Party, and all will be well again. Such willful naivety, or perhaps confusion, also suggests that the critics of Trump have little interest in understanding what kind of a nation the US is and should be – internally and on the international stage.

But there is also another view. More sober and guided by political realism. And this view understands that the world will always need a strong nation that will pull the rest of the countries towards a particular kind of future. The world has never been so introverted that it does not need leadership. Thus, under whose aegis will be the world be at its best? This question cannot be answered by simply repeating platitudes about social justice. Indeed, justice in the context of politics means alliances with nations that follow a common cause.

There are two questions that must be answered by those who are anti-Trump: Does the world need a strong United States? If not, which nation will be the world-leader? There is an important difference in these two questions – because strength does not necessarily impart leadership, although it is a necessary component. Which nation does the world want to follow? There are, of course, choices.

There is China, which is now busy trying to build a world empire, no matter what the cost. Although it has acquired a lot of wealth, mostly from the USA, it has serious internal fault-lines, chief among them being a population that may or may not be loyal to the Communist state.

There is Russia, which seeks dominance in Eurasia but which is still struggling with decades of Communist destruction; nor does it have the political maturity to take on a decisive leadership role – indeed, what does Russia stand for today?

Then, there is the EU, which is still hoping to become a force to be reckoned with – but it is inherently nothing more than a collection of progressivise, pseudo-moralistic agendas (climate change, third-world migration, multiculturalism). Nor has the EU trading bloc furthered any kind of real economic boom, as it was supposed to do. If it were not for the UK, Germany and France, the EU would be long dead – and the UK has just made its exist from this rule by bureaucrats. The EU will always be an on-going social experiment, with feet of clay; and its various social agendas render it useless for any kind of leadership role. And then there is the USA, which still functions with the ideal of the free market.

Here, an important point needs to be clarified. Leadership is not colonialism, imperialism, or hegemony. It is simply the necessity of hierarchies, if any kind of order is to exist. Otherwise, there is only chaos. So, which nation allows for the greatest freedom (one may argue about the nature of this freedom – but that is simply a rhetorical trick), and which nation promises the best methodology for economic stability.

Drieu Godefridi, in his latest book, Reload! Comment l’Amérique invente le siècle (Reload! How America is Inventing the Century) offers his choice. For him, it is only and always America, which he sees as undergoing a grand economic rebirth (which he calls a “renaissance”), under Trump, whose economic policies have geared America for dominance in the century ahead. That is the premise of the book, which Godefridi then proceeds to elaborate both eloquently and strongly. Currently, the book is only available in French. Perhaps, soon, it will be available in English. Of course, Godefridi is writing for the EU audience, “where the decline of America is a European fantasy.”

Indeed, the tradition of anti-Americanism has deep roots in Europe, going back to Georges-Louis Leclerc and Voltaire, and where it takes on three characteristics: First, there is the envy of American inventiveness and wealth, especially in the area of technology (indeed, the modern world is now defined and determined only by American inventions). The fruit of this ingenuity is massive wealth.

Second, there is the view that American culture is inherently corrupting and destructive and thus must be controlled if it cannot be avoided. This generates a sense of superiority, where European culture is better than what is available in America. Third, there is the wary regard of American military might, which has cast the nation into the role of the “policeman of the world.”

Godefridi boldly addresses this anti-Americanism by first linking it with those easy anti-Trump sentiments that are daily declaimed in the media, and which train people “to hate, despise and dread the figure of Trump.” Such rancor arises from that sense of superiority, wherein Trump embodies the entire caricature of the “ugly American.”

Second, and more importantly, there is the apposition of the American economic model and the EU one. The latter is readily summarized: “That in Europe, the Left does not consider over-regulation a problem is normal. After all, in the socialist worldview it is freedom that oppresses and it is the law that liberates. So, it is not only normal but desirable that human relationships be regulated more and more, often down to the minutest detail.”

Thus, the EU economic model is micromanagement, so that production becomes largely a “department” of the state. This runs counter to the American model which, despite much tampering by the Obama administration, is now being set free. And the result is a US economy that is out-performing all others in the West. It is the “Trump miracle.”

To show how well the US economy is doing, Godefridi points to some cold, hard facts:

  • With a population four times smaller than China, the GDP of the US is 50 percent higher than that of the Asian dragon, having crossed the $20 Trillion mark back in 2018.
  • In world GDP, the US share now is 25 percent – a level not seen since 1980.
  • American GDP per citizen is 50 percent higher than the French GDP per citizen – and the gap is widening.
  • The US is responsible for 40 percent of the world’s entire military spending – and this percentage is increasing.

So, what accounts for this humming economy? Very simply the policies of the man a lot of people love to hate – President Trump – who has ushered in a new American renaissance, “the rebirth of a conquering America, dominant and faithful to its founding values.”

The book is divided into two parts. The first, entitled, “Internal Politics,” deals with the various hurdles that Trump has had to face ever since he became President, from the Russian Collusion delusion and the two-year probe by Mueller – to the economic mess left by Obama – all those regulations which hindered and curtailed free enterprise and which now need to be eliminated.

Thus, Trump has diligently reduced imports in order to boost American prosperity; he has repealed laws that hinder freedom; he has fixed the justice system which had become overly-populated by members of an activist judiciary; he has begun to limit the power of the Deep State; and he has revived the energy industries, by breaking free from the mantra of “renewables” and relaunching coal, oil and shale – so much so that America is now entirely energy-independent. Such is the meaning of, “America First.”

Indeed, it is this freed-up energy that is driving the American miracle economy, which had been made to bend to the dictates of climate alarmist ideologies: “In the energy sector, it is as if Obama never existed!” What we now see is an America being run on the free-market model, rather than an America being run according to the EU model: “Evolution is always richer, more diverse and unpredictable than the wise, ‘apriorist’ theoretical constructions of experts.”

The second part of the book, entitled, “International Relations,” looks at the effect that President Trump is having on the world stage. He has moved the US embassy to Jerusalem; he has re-negotiated free trade; he has dealt decisively with China, NATO, and the UN; he has rejected the Marrakesh Pact and the Paris Accord; and he has signaled an end to foreign military entanglements, thus redefining the meaning of international relations. In each case, Trump has deeply left his mark.

By moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump took the lead in recognizing a simple fact, which everyone likes to ignore – that it is in Jerusalem where the Israeli government is located, and it is to Jerusalem that all foreign missions go when they want to deal with Israel. So, why not locate the embassy where Israeli power resides? The only objection to having the embassy in Jerusalem is a “moral” one, in that Jerusalem is regarded by some as being “occupied land.” Of course, no one bothers to explain what that term actually means in the context of history and contemporary politics.

As for free trade, Trump’s aim is straight forward, and entirely free of ideological blinkers: “…what Trump wants, in fact, is exactly what the American workers and the middle class of the United States both want – to reap a greater share of the fruits of prosperity.” How is this a bad thing?

In regards to China, Trump fully understands the “source” of that nation’s wealth. First, all of its industry is owned by the state, not individuals. Certainly, certain people have become billionaires in such a system – but they are ultimately “managers” of companies that owned by the Communist state. Of course, this wealth has been used to lift many Chinese people into prosperity – but this does not change the fact that wealth itself, within the Communist system, is another mechanism of control, and that the vast majority of the Chinese people have very little share in this prosperity.

Second, the source of China’s wealth is the result of piracy – namely, the outright theft of countless US intellectual property rights (such rights are also stolen from other nations as well). And the products produced from these patents and inventions are then sold back to the West.

In effect, Trump knows very well that the Chinese have not really created anything – they have simply taken American ingenuity and have learned to profit from it vastly. With a new trade deal, Trump has struck a serious blow to China’s entire wealth-generating strategy by shutting down intellectual property theft.

Wryly, Godefridi points out – meanwhile, back in Europe, everyone is worried about climate change!

As for NATO, Trump as simply asserted that the US will no longer foot the bill. If other nations want NATO to exist, then they will have to finance its existence. The US will no longer be paying for everyone else’s defense. Of course, this will mean that in order to keep NATO afloat, Europe will have to wean itself from the many progressive social programs that have become part of “European culture,” and start managing its own defense.

Godefridi then looks at the UN by way of its most recent diktat – the Marrakesh Pact, which allows regular migration into the West from the third-world countries, hand-picked by UN bureaucrats as somehow “endangered” and in need of being relocated to the West. This Pact ignores the will of the people living in the West and simply imposes floods of migrants from disparate parts of the world as a “reality” that cannot be refused by any parliament or any referendum.

Of course, Europe and Canada are eager participants in this disastrous scheme – without bothering to ask their own citizens, whose very tax-money is blithely being used to fund this population transfer. Although opposition is rising, it is hard to predict how effective it can, given what has already been accomplished by the UN. This is what the phrase, “open borders” means. The UN, an unelected agency, nevertheless dictates what a Western nation can and cannot do.

As for the US, Trump has wisely rejected the Marrakesh Pact, as being just one more disastrous socialist scheme. And the stakes are indeed high, for it will lead to migratory anarchy in the West: “The alternative is between the open borders of the contemporary Left, and the practice of our civilization since the dawn of time, that is to say, border control: We only access a country through consent.”

Godefridi describes the UN as, “the privileged means of normative colonization by national democracies.” As many have already pointed out, the UN is an institution that has long outlived its usefulness. A reform is certainly needed, if not an outright dismantlement. Godefridi recognizes that there is certainly a need for institutional exchange between nations, But is the UN the proper institution for such exchange? Most would say that it is not. Whether Trump is able to dismantle the current structure of the UN remains to be seen.

Further, the entire climate change industry has met a formidable foe in Trump, who simply walked away from the madness that is the Paris Accord, which would like see the West entirely deindustrialized, with no real access to any kind of energy, since both solar and wind are disastrous. As Godefridi observed in his earlier book, The Green Reich, fossil fuels have brought freedom to humanity. Take these fuels away, and humanity loses its freedom.

Trump’s decision to minimize involvement in Afghanistan and not to proceed with regime change in Syria has upturned the approach of previous administrations – of bombing other countries into democracy. Instead, he has taken up the greater challenge of reducing American presence in the world, so that the various nations look after themselves rather than look for America “police protection.” Indeed, America has spent Trillions in all kinds of foreign entanglements – and sacrificed the lives of thousands of its young men and women.

And all for what? The gain of this huge sacrifice has been minimal. This is the question before the Trump administration – will it continue to feed the demands of the Industrial Military Complex? It would appear not, for in 2018, Trump ordered a full audit of the Pentagon, which is valued at $2.4 Trillion – that is “equivalent to Apple + Walmart + the state of
California, all doubled.” We will have to wait to see the consequence of this audit.

Godefridi continues his analysis of Trumpian America by examining the current culture war that is now taking place. He rightly sees America, and indeed the entire West, as engaged in a death-struggle of two worldviews. One, which he simply calls “Europe” is fixated on trying to live in the future, by somehow creating a Utopia that will contain no inequality (sexual, religious, or racial); that will function perfectly on renewable, “green” energy; that will have no borders; that will have happy citizens eager to pay ever-increasing taxes to keep the Utopia going. Those who hate Trump want the Utopia for America.

Then, there is the other worldview – one based in the reality of daily life. This worldview regards government of any kind, whether liberal of conservative, as inherently against the people. Thus, it is not politics that is the essential component of a good life, but civil society – which can never be constructed by government regulations: “The individual and the family, capitalism and its progress: such are the bright lights of the conservative American Weltanschauung, from 1776 to the present day.”

This clash of two opposing worldviews leads Godefridi to give a complete explanation of what he calls the “American renaissance.” He astutely observes that America’s rebirth will come about as a result of an agonistic managerial approach, which is “the more sophisticated and realistic conflict management technique,” and which “consists in using the conflicts, within contexts and people, to spark the best for the one the plan that really matters: that of the final decision.”

This agonistic approach is little understood by the commentators and media analysts – because they adhere to another approach, namely, of ataraxia, derived from the Epicureans and the Stoics, which endorses the “idea that happiness is forged in the absence of trouble. Thus, peace, harmony, constancy … calm and tranquility! Every trouble, according to this early utilitarian point of view, comes about because of an avoidance of happiness.” In effect, this is the avoidance of decision-making, which leads to systemic chaos.

Thus, America’s rebirth is coming about because of Trump’s “Management, not in spite of, but because of, conflict. The capacity to decide and stick to decisions that are rooted in principles and riveted to goals, while searching for the new angle.” This approach is transforming America into the economic engine of the world once again. Such is the true meaning of “Make American Great Again.”

Lastly, Godefridi imagines the future, in the year 2075 – and this is what he sees…

  • America will be dominant in most sectors – economic, military, cultural.
  • The 21st-century will not belong to China, because it is simply not built to succeed. Its economy is driven by the dollar, and its political structures are totalitarian. Further, China will lose out to Russia in Asia.
  • As for the European Union, it will fall apart, because of its unsustainable commitment to ecology, which will entirely suffocate freedom, innovation, and the ordinary people’s ability to save. There will be more riots, like the Yellow Vests, because the middle-class will no longer be able to afford necessities, such as, heating, electricity, transportation.
  • Thus, Europe will be partly rebarbarized, before a probable rebound.

But despite all this, the fire of humanity’ advancement will continue to burn in America, from where it will once again rekindle humanity to achieve all that its genius allows.

Godefridi ends his book with this hopeful declaration – “Le XXIe siècle est américain” (The 21st-century is American).

The image shows, “Major Anderson Raising the Flag on the Morning of His Taking Possession of Fort Sumter, Dec. 27, 1860,” by Edwin D. White, painted in 1862.

A Modest Proposal To Rescue Higher Education

There are three issues that reflect crisis in higher education: Rising costs leading to serious student debt; lack of competence of graduates in basic skills; politicization.

Costs of Higher Education

The cost of obtaining a degree has risen at an astronomical rate, compared to the overall rate of inflation. Part of the reason is that when someone else is paying (government-guaranteed loans) we cannot resist the temptation to raise prices and to overspend.

This over-spending is reflected in the fact that academic bureaucracies and support staff have swelled. They have swelled because the increase in people seeking degrees leads to a vast increase in the number of students either incapable of, or unprepared for, college-level work. Lack of preparation reflects the disaster of K-12 schooling.

Culturally, we have not honestly discussed students’ limited ability and disinterest. A large part of the educational establishment sustains the myth that it has a utopian social technology for solving all social problems.

In addition, the higher-education industry refuses to give up market share and prefers to adulterate (dumb-down) the product, as well as pursue its private political agenda, as opposed to its academic mission. It is much more exhilarating to think that you are transforming the world than to admit that you are part of a gigantic fraud.

We continue to camouflage these difficulties by doing away with the evidence – doing away with tests or other forms of objective assessment and by engaging in semantics. Faculty, who are rightly fearful of finding themselves redundant or expendable, are complicit.


Lack of competence reflects the dumbing-down of standards and achievement. The very failure of post-secondary education leads to the claim that students need more education in the form of advanced degrees – which, by the way, increases market share. The major problem here is that we have not distinguished between higher education and longer education.

Higher education, as reflected in serious requirements in multiple disciplines (what the old liberal arts degree used to reflect, like mathematics, science, history, philosophy, foreign languages, the ability to read and write critically, to do research and scholarship, etc.), is only achievable by about 20% of the school-age population – again a difficult statistic for a democratic culture to accept.

Longer education, on the other hand, is achievable by about a further 60% of the school-age population. This is what the vast majority of students really need to function in an increasingly complex economic world.

If we focused resources on this cohort, then we would produce competent graduates relevant to the workforce. The academic establishment would cry that these graduates have not been taught liberal subjects – ignoring the fact that most students are neither interested in, nor capable of, understanding these subjects or critical thinking.

It is also not clear to me that a liberal arts education makes you a better human being or a better citizen. As a result, most students do not learn what they can and should learn. Finally, the liberal arts have by now been totally politicized. For example, instead of reading Shakespeare to learn something about the human predicament, students now are led to discover that the author was racist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth.


There is a hidden political agenda. Since the 18th-century, the intellectual world has been dominated by the ideology of the Enlightenment Project – the view, based on the false assumption that the so-called “social sciences” are like the physical sciences; that there are experts (university professors) who know the fundamental truths; such that they have a social technology which enables them to solve every social problem; and thus they should be in charge of an institution (namely, the government) with the power to implement this technology over every other social institution. In addition to being empty abstractions, mission statements are thinly veiled political agendas.

It should come as no surprise that such intellectuals favor central control and that they seek to silence dissent (including, and especially, other professors who deny the existence of these truths or this technology). If the experts were to disagree, then we would not know who, if any, are the real experts. John Stuart Mill must be turning in his grave.

These ideologues educate the K-12 faculty, the journalists and even the clergy; they dominate the publishing and media world. They offer academic positions to politicians or their spouses – the academic-political complex; they fund propaganda centers; they control who is invited to be a commencement speaker.

Given the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that the political agenda of universities is to indoctrinate students into becoming democratic socialists, i.e., to vote for the left-wing of the Democratic Party. All of this costs money and necessitates a big endowment devoted, not to education or to tuition remission – but to a political agenda.

Given these problems, I therefore propose the following remedies.


All universities should lose their tax-exempt status. They should charge a market-determined price for their services: if degrees are so valuable monetarily with regard to future income then universities should contract with students to pay no tuition (i.e., everybody goes to college for ‘free’) but students would agree to pay a modest percentage of all future earnings. Who would turn down such a great win-win offer? Presumably, some universities could focus on under-prepared students.

Universities cannot contend that they are preserving a cultural and intellectual heritage – in fact, they are trashing it. The heritage is being preserved in many other institutions and should never be the exclusive prerogative of one type of institution. Serious research in all fields is now being done primarily in think-tanks and private laboratories.

All universities should be required to contribute ¾ of their present endowment to defray the costs of student loans by present graduates of their respective schools. In many cases, universities are circumventing donor intent. The endowment is now used to pay huge salaries to administrators and consultants, and as well to turn campuses into country-clubs. Universities have engaged in false advertising by accepting students knowing that many of them will not succeed (e.g., retention rates).

Universities should be encouraged to define themselves and their own requirements – how many years, what courses. We need innovation and experimentation. We need boutique education.

There will no longer be any need for accreditation. Accreditation agencies promote uniformity not competition; they are a disguise for the imposition of the political agenda; they are so inherently corrupt (academic insiders evaluating other academic insiders) that Enron’s accounting/auditing scandal pales by comparison.


Academics favor government regulation, so why not regulate them as well?
All graduates should be required to take a competency exam consisting of four parts:

  • Basic communication skills (write a coherent paragraph)
  • Math skills
  • Technology skills (e.g. computer) [Standards to be set by the Department of Education in consultation with representatives from the top five technology companies, as determined by market value]
  • Knowledge of major public policy debates (see next section on politicization)

Those who pass the exam would be given a certification (like passing the bar exam in law or board exams in medicine). These certifications will be made public so that employers may use them in judging applicants for a position. Perhaps U.S. News and World Report could use these statistics. This is certainly more reliable than the popularity polls they use now.

If the graduate fails the exam three times, the degree must be rescinded; but the student may take the exam as many times as he/she wished. Those who fail the exam five consecutive times should be allowed to participate in a CLASS-ACTION SUIT AGAINST THEIR UNIVERSITY.

The Department of Education should evaluate schools on their certification passage rates. These ratings would be made public; below a certain passage rate would lead to the revocation of their license and eventual closure of the school.

The Department of Education is not going to disappear – every time democratic socialists are elected, they will bring it back. Every regulatory agency runs the risk of politicization. My suggestion brings it out in the open and minimizes it.


The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, should not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such and such grounds, by such and such authors, or schools, or churches. All positions would be studied.
The selection of disputed topics and the acceptable answers would be publicly posted in advance.

The Department of Education would form a special committee, both to formulate the questions and what constitutes an acceptable answer (especially the reasons or arguments for a position). The use of fallacious reasoning (e.g., ad hominem arguments) would result in disqualification.

The membership of the committee would be determined as follows: every political party that polls at least 5% of the national vote will designate their participant(s); and the number of each group’s designees will be proportional to the last presidential election. Terms will be staggered.

The Q&A will be formulated by those who advocate the position. No test is perfect but it is better than no test. Current university students have no idea that there is an alternative position on anything. The point is not to require agreement but merely require knowledge of what is being argued, by whom, and how.

Nicholas Capaldi is Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University New Orleans, where he also serves as Director of the Center for Spiritual Capital. He is the founder and President of the Global Corporate Governance Institute. He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD from Columbia University. His principal research and teaching interest is in public policy and its intersection with political science, philosophy, law, religion, and economics. He is the author of 8 books, over 100 articles, editor of ten anthologies, member of the editorial board of six journals, and has served as editor of Public Affairs Quarterly. He is Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility (Springer). His most recent books are Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present, as well as The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law. He is also the author of the Cambridge intellectual biography, John Stuart Mill.

The image shows, “The School,” by Jan Steen, painted in 1660.

Wilhelm Röpke And The Third “Neo-Liberal” Path

World history has not become a long, tranquil river as some had hoped. Various tragic events tell us otherwise – September 11, 2001, the economic crisis of 2008 and finally the identity crisis of the 2010s (crisis of conscience or perception of cultural and historical roots that affects the countries of Europe and, likely perhaps to a lesser extent, the rest of the West).

Since the 2008 crisis, many have expressed the strongest reservations about the evolution of Western economies and societies. Economic reductionism, the cult of the market, the capitalist logic of interest have never been so denounced in the media.

Combined with liberalization, deregulation (especially the financial markets), the withdrawal of the state, the disproportionate power of the “giants” of business and finance, the concentration of wealth, the explosion of inequality and wild competition, the word “neoliberalism,” ubiquitous in the vocabulary of the general public, has become a kind of synonym for “hypercapitalism,” “market fundamentalism,” an absolute repellent. A label so overused and depreciated in Europe that it can no longer be used openly by neo-liberal or social-liberal political leaders, but only surreptitiously, the French presidential election of 2017 being, in this respect, a real case in point.

A plethora of philosophers and ideologues, a minority of whom seem to want more or less consciously the return of wage and price control, state leadership, and even the resurgence of “sweet collectivism,” also support the thesis of the fundamental unity of liberalism. At the root of political and economic liberalism, they believe, there should be, above all, individualism and universalism.

The neo-liberalism of the turn of the 21st century would only be the logical and inevitable culmination of the individualistic and universalist philosophical project, defined since the 17th century in particular by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Even the most radical of these philosophers and ideologues, risk prophesying that liberalism and neo-liberalism are coming to an end. But for the historian of ideas and facts things are not so simple.

Contrary to what some have suggested, liberalism and neo-liberalism are not univocal or monolithic currents. Their stories are diverse and plural, made up of ruptures and disagreements, as well as continuity and convergence. There is a political liberalism and an economic liberalism, with concomitances, and no doubt, simultaneity, but both of which are far from absolute and permanent.

On the political level alone, we can distinguish five liberalisms: first, a legal-economic liberalism based on a minimum state or “gendarme” (as per David Hume, Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, or even the Chicago School).

Second, there is libertarian liberalism, which regards the state or political power as useless (as per the Austrian School, Murray Rothbard, Walter Block, etc.).

Third, there is the liberalism which wants a state whose mission is to foster a level playing field, and which is close to redistributive and bureaucratic social democracy (as per John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Keynes, etc.).

Fourthly, there is a Jacobin, centralist, egalitarian, statolatry, or even totalitarian liberalism (as per Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

And, finally, there is a realistic or skeptical liberalism, which recognizes the existence and necessity of power as the inevitable component of social and political life – in other words that which considers “the “political (i.e. the essence of politics and not the “policy that it is contingent,” to use Julien Freund’s distinction) as the sociological articulation of the “polemos,” that is, as the inevitable theatre of recurrent conflicts and struggles (as per Tocqueville, Isaiah Berlin, Mosca, Pareto, Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Max Weber, Croce, Wilhelm Röpke, Raymond Aron, Julien Freund, etc.).

With regard to economic liberalism, the differences between the Vienna School (Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek), or the Chicago School (Milton Friedman and George Stigler) at the Fribourg-en-Brisgau School (Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke) are blatant and profound.

Forged to oppose the older liberalism (or paleo-liberalism), the term neo-liberalism is not new. It appeared in the late 1930s; the updated version of the book by the German economist Franz Oppenheimer, Der Staat (1929), undoubtedly played a pioneering role in this field. But at that time, the meaning of the word neo-liberalism was very different. It was almost the opposite of the one it took in the 1970s, following the experience of the “Chicago Boys,” Friedman’s ultra-liberal disciples, who were much under the influence of English and American think-tanks that supported a minimal state, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (London), or the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (Atlanta).

In the emergence of neo-liberal thought, an important first step must be pointed out: the Walter Lippmann Symposium, convened in Paris in 1938 at the initiative of Louis Rougier. For the twenty-six participants, it was a question of defining a neo-liberalism conceived as a third way between the “laisser-faire” of old liberalism (“the providentialism of the invisible hand”), and the dirigisme of Marxist communism, National socialism, fascism, and the various forms of Keynesianism, Planists and Neo-Socialists.

The economists, political scientists and sociologists of the time had largely aligned themselves with Lippmann, Rougier, Jacques Rueff, Alexander Rüstow or Wilhelm Röpke. The “old or paleo-liberals” such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were in the minority at the time. For the majority of participants, it was clear that neo-liberalism had to accept a good deal of interventionism and integrate a political, social and moral dimension. Their neo-liberalism – ordo-liberalism or “rule liberalism” – was defined by four points: priority to the price mechanism, free enterprise, a competitive system, and a strong, impartial state.

The second major stage was the birth of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Vevey, Switzerland), in April 1947. Founded, among others, by Hayek, Albert Hunold and Röpke, this organization was to bring together, at its first conference, thirty-seven members, fifty percent of whom were American. Significantly, the final statement stressed the “need for a legal and institutional framework to preserve the proper functioning of competition” (point 5), and “the need and presupposition of a free society,” namely, “a moral code widely accepted which would govern public and private actions” (point 8). Hayek served as president from 1948 to 1960, and Wilhelm Röpke succeeded him from 1961 to 1962. But it is well known that there were significant disputes within the “Society” over how to understand liberalism.

At the first regular meeting, held in Seelisberg (Switzerland) in 1949, the ordo-liberal, Walter Eucken, opposed the utilitarian, Ludwig von Mises. Dissension broke out again at the Turin assembly in 1961, which saw Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke oppose each other. Severe lamenting of the “tragedy and crisis of historical or Manchesterian capitalism,” German ordo-liberals and more generally European economists who favored third-way neoliberalism (such as, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Rueff, Rougier or Maurice Allais), were all-too-often considered “too socialist,” at times labeled as “reactionary utopians,” and even occasionally accused, perfidiously, of “hidden connivance with fascism.” They were soon relegated to the background by the supporters of the Austrian and Anglo-Saxon schools, all of which favored the return of classical liberalism.

The Mont Pèlerin Society evolved, got radicalized, and became, in the late 1970s, a kind of ultra-liberal think tank. In view of the history and political and economic debates of the turn of the 21st century, the thought of Wilhelm Röpke, a great rival and loser to Friedrich Hayek, takes on an unexpected dimension. Forgotten and unknown for nearly forty years, his intellectual figure deserves all the more to be rediscovered.

Röpke was born in Schwarmstedt, Lower Saxony (near Hanover) on October 10, 1899, and died on February 12, 1966 in Coligny (in the canton of Geneva). His thinking is an interesting synthesis of the defense of market economy and that of political-ethical-religious conservatism.

His respect for traditional life forms, his hostility to the gigantism and cult of the colossal, his denunciation of the consumer society and commercial advertising, his criticism of the catastrophic destruction of urban landscapes and the natural environment, his opposition to globalization and the homogenization of political communities that he considered incompatible with the cultural heterogeneity of European civilization, and finally, his deploring the loss of the sense of community, made him a leading neo-liberal economist who advocated the “third way,” beyond liberalism and socialism. Röpke also used the terms “constructive liberalism” and “economic humanism, but he preferred the designation the “third way” (der dritte Weg).

During his lifetime, Röpke held a prominent position. His prestige even eclipsed that of other ordo-liberal economists and political writers such as Walter Eucken, Franz Boehm, Alexander Rüstow or Alfred Müller-Armack.

Mobilized in September 1917, a year before the end of the First World War, he was wounded in 1918 at the Battle of Cambrai. Decorated with the Iron Cross Second-Class and demobilized, he resumed his studies in law and economics, which he had begun at the University of Göttingen. He then joined the University of Tübingen, and finally the University of Marburg, where he defended his doctoral thesis, under the direction of the economist, Walter Troeltsch, in January 1921.

He was not only a professor and an economic theorist, but also an advisor to the prince. He first worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin as a consultant in charge of payments for war reparations. Between 1924 and 1928, he taught at the University of Jena.

Then, on a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he visited the United States where he studied agrarian economics. In 1928, he gave courses in political economy at the University of Graz (Austria) and, barely a year later, obtained a chair at the University of Marburg. In 1930-31, he was part of a commission of experts charged with proposing counter-cyclical policies against unemployment to the government.

On the eve of the elections of September 14, 1930, which would see a breakthrough by the National Socialist Party, he clearly opposed the NSDAP. A controversy pitted him against the intellectuals of the Die Tat group, which was the emblematic reference-point of the Conservative Revolution up to 1937. He published three articles on anti-capitalism in the magazine, which he considered “catastrophic;” and, in particular, attacked Ferdinand Fried (Friedrich Zimmermann), the outspoken propagator of National Socialist theories about the end of capitalism and the need for autarky.

Once again, in a speech in Frankfurt on February 8, 1933, he criticized the demagoguery of National Socialist rhetoric. His university career ended three weeks later, on February 27, 1933, the day of the Reichstag fire. As Dean of the faculty, and given the responsibility of giving the funeral oration for his teacher, Walter Troeltsch, at the cemetery of Ockershauser (Marburg), Röpke denounced: “an era that likes to convert the garden of civilization into a primitive forest.”

Declared an enemy of the people and expelled from the university on April 25, 1933, he refused to publicly recant and join the NSDAP. He had to leave Germany with his wife, son and two daughters. After a brief exile in England and Holland, the family sailed for Turkey, where the regime of President Ataturk, then considered in the West to be “a good dictator,” welcomed university exiles of the Reich.

At the University of Istanbul, he was reunited with his colleague and friend, Professor Alexander Rüstow. He held the chair of political economy until September 1937, when he joined the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. During the war, he wrote a famous trilogy: Die Gesellschaftskrisis der Gegenwart, 1942 (The Social Crisis of Our Time), Civitas Humana, 1944 (Civitas Humana or the fundamental questions of economic and social reform), and International Ordnung, (The International Community). This trilogy was translated into several languages and helped establish his reputation.

At the end of the Second World War, he published a more polemical essay, Die deutsche Frage, 1945 (The German Question), which earned him the hatred of both the right and the left, because for Röpke the tragedy of Germany was a consequence of the Prussian spirit, romanticism, and a certain fundamentalism in the realization of ideas.

According to him, the solution for Germany could only come from a moral revolution, a re-education of the values of Western civilization, a deproletarization, and a confederation of autonomous states. More specifically, he wanted the absolute prevention of Russian collectivism, which also explained his desire for Germany to join the Atlantic community.

His thinking and rhetoric very soon informed the speeches of Minister Ludwig Erhard, who had obtained allies as early as 1945 to be appointed Economic Minister in the Bavarian government. Röpke was a first-time ministerial and then presidential adviser in Konrad Adenauer’s government. He defended the “social market economy,” a term already used by Muller-Armack and supported in France, Italy and Spain by Jacques Rueff, Luigi Einaudi and Alberto Ullastres.

But he eventually broke with the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) because of his opposition to German integration into the European Communities. The supranational path, which opened in the 1950s, seemed dangerous to the future of the homelands and cultures, spiritually, and damaging to the market, economically.

Röpke’s thinking is marked by the doctrinal criticism of totalitarianism, the welfare state, and Keynesian policies, but also by a stated sympathy for political-moral neo-conservatism. He drew the various strands of his doctrine from Sismondi, Proudhon, Le Play, Kropotkin, Chesterton or Belloc, but his school of thought is that of Ortega y Gasset, Lippmann, Johan Huizinga, Guglielmo Ferrero, Jouvenel, Halévy, Benda or Hazard.

The experience of the crisis of the late 1920s was proof to him that the economy cannot organize itself. Collectivist responses to capitalism are reactions he regarded as understandable in the face of misery, but he also thought that they reinforced the miserable condition of the proletariat and that they inevitably lead to tyranny.

Just as forcefully he rejected the welfare state as “an expression of the emotion and passion of the masses,” which “institutionalizes the proletariat and disempowers the citizen.” But he nevertheless very harshly denounced the blindness of classical liberalism, the so-called liberal apoliticism, which he considered a mystification. His economic liberalism was associated with political realism.

He recognized the social irrationality of capitalism, in particular the inevitable concentration of ownership, the expansion of wage-earning and proletarianization, which were fatal steps on the path of collectivism, and proposed ways to avoid them, in order to restore the entrepreneurial vitality of workers.

The real cause of the discontent of the working class was the devitalization of existence which could not be cured by higher wages, holidays or games. Instead of locking workers in the Welfare State, he said that it was necessary to promote their freedom and responsibility, to make them want to be owner-occupiers.

The ordo-liberalism of Röpke held that markets need an ethico-legal-political framework to ensure the survival of liberal values. For him, competition was essential and the deproletarization of social relations, such as the fight against capitalist concentration and in favor of the promotion of free enterprise, were the duties of the state.

The neo-liberalism of Röpke did not identify with a weak state, at the mercy of economic forces, but rather with a strong state; a state capable of restricting competition and ensuring the social and ideological conditions of a free economy. Economic freedom and political authority are two sides of the same coin for him. There is interdependence of the two; the economy does not have an independent existence.

The free market is unable to provide an integrated society on its own. The tendency towards proletarianization is inherent in capitalist social relations; and when it is not controlled, it results in social crises and disorder. This containment is the responsibility of the state; so, it is a political responsibility.

The market economy cannot survive without moral capital, without the support of tradition, religion and civic sense. The state must intervene in the economic and non-economic spheres to ensure the ethical and social conditions on which effective competition is based.

Röpke wanted economic activity on a human scale, based on the social fabric of small and medium-sized enterprises. He wanted legislation against monopolies, the widest possible dissemination of ownership, market control to ensure healthy competition, state intervention limited to indispensable sectors only, and strict application of the principle of subsidiarity.

Warning of the danger of extreme inequality, he accepted income redistribution and subsidies when they did not interfere with the market economy. He refused to exalt the private sector at the expense of legitimate functions of the state. He deplored the uncritical adoption of all technological advances and concerns, the consequences of the destruction of the traditional family, demographic decline and unlimited immigration.

Hedonism, selfishness, idol pleasure, psychological atomism, naturalism and determinism were values and ideas that were entirely foreign to him. The quarrels over the comparative importance of identity and sovereignty were, in his view, specious, illusory and dissolving.

Identity (linked to the historical-cultural community) and sovereignty (the political power associated with the consent community) could not be opposed. They are two complementary and inseparable aspects of the unity of destiny in the universal. Demassification, deproletarization, decollectivization and social decentralization are the key words of his thinking.

He was a Protestant, but he held in high esteem the social doctrine of the Church with which he sought to build a bridge from liberalism. His concern for the deterioration of the Western Christian tradition and the irreligiousness of contemporary man continued to grow during his life. “Europe’s decadence is not only moral or political,” he wrote, “it is also religious.” And again: “Everything is held together and toppled by religion” (Civitas Humana).

The neo-liberalism of Röpke is, in fact, the perfect alternative to the neo-liberalism of the turn of the 21st century. While the latter defends capitalism against the state, the neo-liberalism of Röpke defends the state against capitalism. The theorist of American conservatism, Russell Kirk, bête noire of present-day neoconservatives and neo-liberals but a fine connoisseur of the disagreements between the utilitarian Mises and the ordo-liberal Röpke, liked to tell the following anecdote.

A professor at the University Institute of Advanced International Studies, Röpke welcomed the success of the workers’ gardens, the plots of land made available to the inhabitants by the municipality of Geneva.

One day he showed Mises, workers digging away in their plots. At this sight, Mises pouted, sadly shook his head and lamented, “A really very inefficient way of producing food.” To which Röpke replied, “Perhaps, yes, but perhaps not, because it is also a very effective way of producing human happiness.”

A pioneer, though pessimistic, as were his most prestigious ordo-liberal and neo-liberal colleagues of the 1930s and 1970s, Röpke had the reasoned conviction that a society obsessed with GNP, exclusively concerned with so-called efficiency and profitability, regardless of the consequences on human beings, inevitably runs out of steam.

Having said that, it is clear that at the beginning of the 21st century the conditions of a democratic, entrenched community, respectful of the human freedom of civic sense and of small and medium-sized property, are no longer compatible with the requirements of a model grossly disfigured free trade economy.

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

This article was translated from the original French by N. Dass.

The image shows Wilhelm Röpke, ca. 1951.