You are on page 1of 17

PERSPECTIVES ON CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY

By Patrick J. Ashton

Preamble: A Parable of Perspectives may feel saddened by the loss of specific


residents who remain vulnerable, no resident
Imagine a town where wealthy residents owes anything to any other resident;
live in strong, well-built homes in the center everyone must take care of themselves.
of town, and poorer residents live in rather
shabby shacks around the edge of the town. Still another set of residents disagrees,
Every few nights, without warning, some saying that it is too easy for the well-to-do
sort of monster or group of terrorists from residents of the center of the town who are
the surrounding countryside carries off one not in danger to say that everyone should
of the residents from the homes around the take care of themselves. In fact, this third
edge of town. The hapless resident is never group argues, the wealthy who are not
heard from again. themselves in danger have a responsibility to
try and help those less-well-off residents
Town residents are divided over what to who, because they happen to live on the edge
do about this situation. One group interprets of town, are more vulnerable to the monster
the situation as a punishment from the gods. or the terrorists. Thus this group proposes
The society has deviated from its religious that some of the poorer residents be brought
traditions, they say, and it is being punished. into the homes of the wealthy each night,
Or, perhaps individuals are being punished where they will apparently be safe. Since
for their own personal wrongdoing. Or it there is not room enough to bring all of the
may be that the disappearance of certain poorer residents in each night, five will be
residents is part of some master plan of the selected randomly each night. This ensures
gods. Since the disappearances have that each vulnerable resident has an equal
occurred for as long as anyone can opportunity to be protected. It is not a
remember, there definitely must be a reason perfect solution, they recognize, but it seems
for them, this group argues, though we as to be the only practical, humane, and fair one
mere mortals cannot know for sure that available.
reason. All that can be done, they say, is for
the town to increase its sacrifices to the gods A fourth set of residents disagrees with
and for individuals to pray either that they all of the others. We should not simply
might escape this tragedy or for the courage endure whatever monster or gang of
to endure whatever suffering may befall terrorists that is endangering us, they say, we
them. should go to the root of the problem and
attempt to eliminate the threat. Yes, it might
Another set of town residents argues that be dangerous, they concede, and the
it is each individual’s responsibility to unknown qualities of the monster or the
protect themselves; there is nothing the town terrorists create a great deal of anxiety. But
as a whole can or should do. People with denying the problem, they say, will not solve
ingenuity and initiative will figure out a way it. Nor will protecting a few residents, no
to take care of themselves. Those who do matter how fairly it is done, eliminate the
not figure out and implement a survival threat. The only way to do that, this group
strategy are, in effect, choosing to submit says, is to take on the monster or the
themselves to the vagaries of the monster or terrorists directly. But where will the
the terrorists. Thus, while certain individuals resources for this task come from, people

Version 10-4 Copyright 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 1


ask. Let the wealthy provide them, responds reflects and simplifies the social world. A
this group. Their wealth allows them to perspective is a system of beliefs. Beliefs
unfairly escape the problem which equally are ideas that are not open to empirical
deserving, but poorer, citizens cannot. This proof; rather we choose to accept them on
injustice must be remedied so that, in faith. This is why no amount of logical
addition to eliminating the current threat, the argumentation or presentation of objective
town can be restructured in such a way that facts will, by itself, change someone’s
no resident will have to be vulnerable to any perspective. People choose to believe what
future monsters or terrorists. they will about human nature and society.
What is most important is that they
The Nature of Perspectives understand why they believe in a certain
perspective, and what the implications of
The parable discussed above illustrates those beliefs are.
the existence of differing perspectives on a
given social problem. Starting from a To say that perspectives are relatively
different set of assumptions, each group coherent means that, given a chance to think
arrived at a different proposed solution. But about it, most people can articulate, more or
why? Why do humans make assumptions less, what they really believe. Perspectives
about the world? And why do different are only relatively consistent because human
groups make different assumptions? thoughts and actions are to some extent
idiosyncratic — i.e., we are not totally
Humans must make assumptions about predictable. This is due to the lack of
the world because, as a species, we lack instinctual determinism in humans, coupled
instinctual determinism. Unlike other with individual free will. Because, as noted
animals, very little of our behavior is a direct earlier, our thoughts and actions are not
result of a biologically produced program of primarily or extensively determined by
understanding and action. We must use our biological impulses, we have a great deal of
extensive cognitive capacities to interpret our flexibility in our ideas and behavioral
experience. This is both a blessing and a choices.
curse in a sense because, on the one hand, we
can creatively and flexibly understand our The flexibility of thought and behavior
experience, reflect upon it, and change our we have as humans generates the need for a
society and our pattern of social change. On perspective. The world is a tremendously
the other hand, we must interpret our complex place; in order not to be
experience — no ready-made, genetically overwhelmed we need some systematic way
produced answers are available. of orienting ourselves within it. A
perspective serves this purpose. It is
Thus interpretation of experience is a essentially a grid that we lay over our
normal process that occurs constantly in experience of social reality in order to make
daily life, for everyone, with regard to every that experience meaningful to us. And in
issue. All humans, whether they realize it or order to provide meaning, the ideas
not, have a general overall view, or comprising the perspective must have some
perspective, on how social life is, and should degree of coherence and consistency. A
be, organized. Here is my definition of a somewhat coherent and consistent
perspective: perspective is thus necessary for every
human individual.
A perspective is a relatively coherent
and consistent system of beliefs that both Although each of us tends to think of our

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 2


perspective as uniquely ours and ours alone ideas held by each individual. If challenged,
— i.e., as a product of our own unique however, we can almost always make these
experience and insights, in fact perspectives ideas explicit. Description is the most
are fundamentally social in origin and nature. accessible component of a perspective. It is
We acquire, maintain, and modify meanings simply the way we view the present state of
and interpretations of life events not as an social affairs — i.e., when we look out at the
isolated individual, but as a member of social world, what do we see? Closely tied
specific social groups. And it is the values, to this is our analysis and evaluation of that
norms, and belief systems of those groups state of affairs — why is the social world
that shape how we interpret the world. That like this, and is this (by our own personal
is, by being a member of a social group we standards) good or bad?
come to see and interpret the world the way
in which that group sees and interprets the This judgment is rendered on the basis
world. of, first of all, a view of human nature. Do
we think humans are inherently selfish,
Perhaps we can better understand this aggressive, altruistic, greedy, lazy, or
point by looking at the acquisition and use of cooperative? Obviously our answer to this
language. Each individual speaks, not a question will go a long way toward
language of their own invention, but one that explaining why we think society is in the
is passed on to them by the social group into state it is. Second, our analysis and
which they were born. The individual learns, evaluation is influenced by our basic values
not all possible sounds, words, and — ideas that serve as criteria for judging
meanings, but only those that reflect the what types of behavior and attitudes are
cultural experience of their society and their appropriate, moral, or desirable. In addition,
primary groups. These words and meanings each of us has in mind a picture of a
in turn shape the individual’s approach to normative social order — i.e., a picture of
comprehending and dealing with both the how we think society should be organized.
physical and social environment. Comparison of this ideal type of society with
the actually existing state of affairs provides
So too with a perspective. This is not, us with both an evaluation of what’s wrong
however, an inflexible and wholly and what’s right with the social order, and an
deterministic process. Just as an individual analysis of why this is so.
can become fluent in another language, so
too can they modify or replace their The final component of a perspective is a
perspective. In fact, we inevitably do just prescription for social change, or a set of
this when we join new social groups or when ideas about how the social order must be
our social experience compels new insights changed to bring it into conformity with our
into the nature of human nature and society. normative view. This prescription is
Thus we can say that the two most important necessarily based on our orientation to social
characteristics of perspectives are that they change — i.e., our notion of how social
are both necessary and social. change comes about and how much social
change is both necessary and possible under
In addition, perspectives have three basic current circumstances.
components: (1) description, (2) analysis
and evaluation, and (3) prescription. General Meaning of the Perspectives
Ordinarily these components are only
implicit within a generalized, often In classifying and discussing what I
amorphous and loosely organized set of consider to be the four basic perspectives on

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 3


the social order, I will make use of the terms a vacuum, however, and each perspective
conservative, liberal, and radical. Some develops, to a certain extent, in conflict with
social scientists and popular writers have other views. Proponents of new perspectives
suggested that, through overuse, misuse, argue that they have arrived at views that are
employment of shifting or abstract, unclear more accurate, appropriate, efficacious,
definitions, and/or their use as political and/or moral than other perspectives.
epithets by those holding opposing views, Advocates of existing views obviously
these terms are no longer meaningful or valid disagree.
for a systematic analysis of social life. I
disagree. The general root meaning of these The chart at the end of this article
terms is clear, I believe, and continues to illustrates the historical relationships among
accurately describe fundamentally different the perspectives discussed here. The
broad orientations to society and social Organic Conservative perspective was the
change. What has changed is the specific, dominant ideology of feudal society. It
detailed content of each perspective. We emphasized the timeless, unchanging nature
would expect this to happen because society of a society conceived of as an organic
itself has changed. These historical changes whole, where people were given their station
in various details do not, however, in my in life by tradition or fate.
judgment alter the basic underlying thrust of
each perspective. Beginning around the 16th century,
however, society in Western Europe began to
To be conservative in any society is to change rapidly. Along with these changes, a
desire to conserve the past in order to protect new ideology grew up to both explain and
and perpetuate tradition. The root meaning advocate for them. This new perspective,
of liberal, on the other hand, is liberty, known as Liberalism, emphasized
implying personal freedom and opportunity. individualism and the necessity for each
Liberals, then, tend to be oriented to individual to be the master of their own fate.
modifying the present in order to allow for The focus on individual liberty and private
progress in the area of individual civil rights property meshed well with the developing
and liberties. The root meaning of radical is economic system of free market capitalism.
root, and radicals wish to go to the roots of
things in that they strive to change the Following a period of political and social
existing society in fundamental ways (i.e., at revolution, capitalism triumphed in Western
the roots) in order to better meet the needs of Europe. Classical Liberalism (as we call it
the future. Thus the name of each today) was its dominant ideology.
perspective connotes a fundamentally Capitalism is an extremely dynamic
important aspect of its orientation. socioeconomic system, however, and it
continued to change. In the late 18th and
Historical Origins of the Perspectives 19th centuries capitalist societies underwent
a further revolution that was technological,
Each of the four perspectives that I will economic, and social in nature. This period
discuss here is rooted in a particular set of of dramatic change is known as the Industrial
historical socioeconomic circumstances. Revolution.
That is, each perspective arose at a specific
point in time and essentially codified basic A relatively small number of
assumptions about society, human nature, entrepreneurs became fabulously wealthy as
and social change held by certain social a result of the Industrial Revolution, but
groups at that time. No perspective exists in millions of people were plunged into almost

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 4


unimaginable misery. Farmers and peasants following, not only among the poor
were forced off of their lands and crowded underclass, but among intellectuals and
into tenement slums in the cities. Skilled middle-class people as well. Under this
craftspeople of all kinds were turned into pressure, the supporters of capitalism — the
mere appendages of machines. Small Classical Liberals — developed a split in
entrepreneurs were driven out of business their ranks. One group conceded that
when they were unable to compete with the changes in capitalist ideology and practice
large industrial concerns. Working were necessary in order to save the system.
conditions routinely included 18-hour days
under unsafe conditions for very low wages. Specifically, these Liberals supported
Child labor — beginning as young as 6 or 7 government intervention to provide some
years old — was common. Factory towns rudimentary economic planning, to insure
everywhere became centers of poverty, fair competition, and to create a safety net
disease, and misery. All of this was for those unable to compete in the
worsened by the seeming irrationality of the marketplace. Because they continued to
capitalist business cycle of boom periods endorse capitalism as the system most
followed by precipitous economic consonant with individual liberty, but at the
depressions. same time promoted significant
modifications, or reforms, in it, this group
Obviously, under these conditions, many became known as Reform Liberals.
people began to lose confidence in
capitalism as an appropriate form of Another segment of the Classical
socioeconomic organization. One important Liberals, however, would have no talk of
new ideology that arose to challenge reform. Tampering with free-market
capitalism was socialism. Socialists argued capitalism, they said, would only make
that capitalism was really about profits for things worse. Capitalism has its own self-
the few and poverty for the masses. As an correcting mechanisms (the “invisible hand”
economic system it was fundamentally of the market, according to Adam Smith)
irrational, they said, and could never meet and, if left to itself, will adjust. Reforms, no
the needs of all citizens. Moreover, they matter how well intentioned, will only make
argued, capitalism set up a kind of dog-eat- things worse in the long run and, more
dog competition in which each individual significantly, reduce individual liberty. The
was encouraged to see everyone else as a best policy for government was the
competitor — or even enemy — in the traditional “hands off” or laissez faire
struggle to gain a share of limited resources. approach. In other words, this group
continued to be advocates for Classical
For all of these reasons, these radicals Liberalism. However, because times had
argued, capitalism needed to be completely changed, and because they were arguing to
replaced. Socialists proposed to supplant conserve a pre-existing way of doing things,
capitalism with socialism, a system that this perspective would now more
would recognize the fundamentally social appropriately be called conservative. But to
nature of human nature and overcome the distinguish it from Organic Conservativism,
alienating individualism of capitalism. we call it Individualist Conservatism, due to
Rational planning would replace the vagaries its fundamental belief in, and celebration of,
of the market and insure that basic needs the individual. Thus we arrive today at four
were met for all. major ideological perspectives: Organic
Conservative, Individualist Conservative,
The socialist ideology attracted a wide Reform Liberal, and Socialist/ Radical.

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 5


Organic Conservative perspective its name.
The Organic Conservative Perspective Society, in their view, is like a living,
breathing organism (like, for example, the
The Organic Conservative perspective is human body). That is, society is a
rooted in the traditional relations of feudal functionally differentiated unified structure
society. Its ideological roots may be found in which the whole — a living organism —
in the Christian paternalism of Thomas is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
Aquinas, in the defense of monarchy put Furthermore, in this scheme, each individual
forth by classical conservatives like Edmund part has its own specific role to play, but is
Burke and Joseph de Maistre in the wake of subordinate to the welfare of the whole.
the French Revolution, and in the view of Thus, according to Organic Conservatives,
human nature expressed by early social the social order takes primacy over the rights
contract theorist Thomas Hobbes. of its individual members. Individual
freedom exists only in the context of social
Organic Conservatives contend that order; individuals are free to act only within
humans have a dual nature: we are, they say, the bounds set by society.
simultaneously biological creatures driven
by base animal instincts and spiritual beings Inequality and hierarchy in society are as
with a higher, nobler moral sense. Our natural and necessary, say Organic
biological drives are inherently selfish and Conservatives, as they are in a functionally
irrational. They well up inside us and drive differentiated biological organism.
us to seek immediate satisfaction, regardless Enlightened elites in society must govern
of the cost to ourselves or others. So and take responsibility for the ignorant and
powerful are these biological drives that the weak. Their rule should not be tyranny,
individuals by themselves cannot control but rather enlightened paternalism or
them. This is why, say Organic noblesse oblige. Society should model the
Conservatives, humans are imperfect and authority relations in the traditional
naturally prone to anarchy, evil, and mutual patriarchal family, where “father knows
destruction (what British philosopher best.” Organic Conservatives explain and
Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all justify society’s social hierarchy in terms of
against all”). the will of God, the laws of nature, or the
inherent and ineradicable differences among
Standing against this aggressive, individuals and social groups.
competitive, and selfish side of human nature
is our morality, as embodied in the norms The central values of the Organic
and values of social institutions, especially Conservative perspective are authority,
the family. It is this social order, according order, and tradition. Authority, which can be
to Organic Conservatives, that provides the defined as legitimate coercion, is crucial to
rules and structure to keep us on the straight the stability of society. Order refers to the
and narrow. As individuals, we need society institutionalized hierarchy of statuses and
to protect us from ourselves (i.e., our base roles within the society. The reliance of
instincts), as well as from each other. Organic Conservatives on tradition reflects
Society, then, is so important that it almost the profoundly conservative nature of this
takes on a life of its own — the whole perspective. Customs established by
(society) is clearly greater than the sum of its tradition are preferred because they have
parts (individuals). proven themselves successful and are stable.
Any deviation from past customs threatens
It is this view of society that gives the instability.

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 6


they say, that every human behavior can be
For Organic Conservatives, the normal explained as a rational, selfish act designed
state of affairs in a hierarchical society based to “look out for #1” — i.e., ourselves.
on tradition is a stable equilibrium. Change
is ordinarily minimal. When social change According to this view — called
does occur, it is episodic, as elites struggle to utilitarianism by British philosopher Jeremy
incorporate the change in such a way that Bentham — each individual operates on the
threats to the traditional order are minimized basis of a rational calculus of pain and
and a new equilibrium is created as quickly pleasure. That is, all of our behavior is based
as possible. Organic Conservatives are on a cost/benefit analysis of what’s in it for
deeply suspicious of, and even hostile to, us. (This view has become the basis for
social change. This is because any social much of modern neoclassical economics in
change is likely to be disruptive to the social the form of marginal utility theory.) In the
order, and any disruption of the social order absence of any strong incentive to
threatens to loosen individuals from the experience pleasure or avoid pain, humans
social bonds that keep their biological drives are not driven by anything and are
in check. Since humans are imperfect, a fundamentally inert or lazy.
perfect society can never be created. It is, in
the view of Organic Conservatives, futile — It is important to point out that
and even dangerous — to try. The ideal Individualist Conservatives believe that
system for the Organic Conservative is humans are highly individualistic: each
paternalistic capitalism, resting on stability individual’s rationally selfish calculus is
through elite-managed growth. unique to that individual. In this case, what
form of society makes most sense?
The Individualist Conservative Obviously, one in which the individual
Perspective experiences the least restraint and fewest
barriers to maximizing their individual
As we saw earlier, the Individualist selfish calculus. Individualist Conservatives
Conservative perspective is identical to believe that this can best be achieved through
Classical Liberalism, which was the the institutions of private property and the
dominant perspective of capitalism during free market.
the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the
roots of this perspective go back at least as The right to own and control private
far as the 16th century, Classical Liberalism property — especially productive property
became dominant with the rise of industrial — assures individuals that they will reap the
capitalism, especially in Great Britain, which rewards of their own labor and maximize
was at the heart of this revolution. control over their own personal security and
At first glance, the Individualist destiny. The free market is the competitive
Conservative perspective seems to possess a arena in which individuals meet to freely
view of human nature that is similar to that exchange goods and services, each according
of Organic Conservatives, in that humans are to their own selfish calculus. Out of this free
seen by this perspective as inherently selfish. exchange, a de facto social order is created.
There is an important difference, however, This is the idea behind Adam Smith’s
and it makes a big difference. Whereas famous notion of the self-regulation of
Organic Conservatives view humans as markets through the “invisible hand” of the
driven by irrational biological urges, for law of supply and demand.
Individualist Conservatives humans are
coldly, calculatingly rational. This means, For Individualist Conservatives, the

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 7


individual is the prime and only reality. marketplace may be expected to use their
Society is thus no more than the sum total of resources in pursuit of their personal goals in
the individuals who make it up; the term is other institutional areas (e.g., politics,
only a convenient fiction for speaking about culture) as well. Any collective attempt to
what is actually just a grouping of redistribute wealth is likely to be disastrous,
individuals. Social order is achieved, Individualist Conservatives would argue, not
according to Individualist Conservatives, least because it goes against human nature
through a social contract arrived at by free and the principles of a rational social order.
and independent individuals. According to
18th-century social contract theorists like From all of this, it is clear that the central
Montesquieu and Rousseau, individuals values of Individualist Conservatives are
agree to a common restriction of their individual liberty and private property.
personal rights in order to achieve a context Freedom is understood as freedom from
in which to realize their own rational selfish restraint on the individual. Change, from the
ends. Individualist Conservative perspective,
occurs in a naturally slow and incremental
For Individualist Conservatives, way, as a result of the accretion of individual
government is the main coercive force in actions. Social change is cyclical, like the
society, because it makes and enforces cycles of the market. The ideal system of the
restrictions on individual decisions and Individualist Conservative is laissez faire
behavior. However, most Individualist capitalism.
Conservatives are not anarchists (i.e., those
who desire a society with no central The Reform Liberal Perspective
governing body whatsoever). Individualist
Conservatives grudgingly accept a limited The Reform Liberal perspective
role for centralized government whose developed in response to the recurring social
authority is restricted to four basic areas: (1) and economic crises of capitalism in the 19th
maintaining a system of national defense; (2) and 20th centuries. Favoring an
dealing with internal threats to the social interventionist approach to dealing with
order through the criminal justice system; (3) these crises, Reform Liberals split with
acting as a referee for contractual disputes Classical Liberals, who maintained their
through the civil court system; and (4) faith in laissez faire capitalism and are
providing needed or desired services which known today as Individualist Conservatives.
are not profitable for the private sector like Not surprisingly, however, given their
parks and schools, or which the private common origins, the two perspectives today
sector cannot accomplish on its own, like still share a number of important
airline and securities regulation. Other than assumptions.
this, Individualist Conservatives argue that
government should stay out of people’s lives First and foremost among these is the
and leave them to the pursuit of their own assumption that humans are basically
selfish rational ends. In the economic rational, selfish, and lazy. Where Reform
sphere, this policy is known as laissez faire, Liberals depart from Individualist
from the French for “leave it alone.” Conservatives, however, is in their belief that
sometimes, under some circumstances,
For Individualist Conservatives, humans can be altruistic. Altruism refers to
inequality and hierarchy are natural putting someone else’s needs ahead of one’s
outcomes of the market process. Individuals own, or concern for others at one’s own
who have achieved success in the economic personal expense. For Individualist

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 8


Conservatives, altruism is nonexistent. Even
acts that, on the face of it, seem self- Equal opportunity thus protects the rights
sacrificing are really meant to satisfy some of individuals to control their own destinies.
selfish individual end, they argue. Reform But how shall equal opportunity be
Liberals, however, believe that all humans, achieved? Since individuals are basically
while basically selfish and individualistic, selfish, no individual can be trusted with the
have at least some shred of altruism in them power to regulate society. Only a collective
that can be tapped through an appeal to their mechanism can balance and cancel out
“better nature” rather than to their “base various selfish individual interests, and that
instincts.” collective mechanism is government.
Government achieves equal opportunity in
It is this belief in the existence of society through a variety of programs and
altruism that gives the Reform Liberal actions, such as affirmative action programs,
perspective its progressive, melioristic slant. creation of the safety net for those who are
With roots in Classical Liberalism, Reform unable to compete, regulation of trade in the
Liberals are vitally interested in preserving interest of fair competition and the protection
individual rights and freedoms. This can of unwitting consumers, and the promotion
best be done, they argue, by tapping the of economic stability and steady growth.
altruism of the citizenry to create certain Though government must on the face of it
reforms. What reforms do Reform Liberals coerce people to follow laws and regulations
want? Basically, those that will enhance and to pay taxes to support these activities,
individual freedom and opportunity by citizens ultimately cooperate, Reform
creating fairness and stability. Reform Liberals believe, because of their deep-down
Liberals, like both of the conservative altruism, through which they really want the
perspectives, believe that inequality is a competition to be fair.
natural part of the human condition. Where
Reform Liberals depart from the In keeping with its roots in Classical
conservatives, however, is in the notion that Liberalism, the central values of the Reform
inequality of outcomes can be made to be Liberal perspective focus on the individual.
fair and just. These values are the protection and
promotion of individual civil rights and the
The Reform Liberal vision of a good creation and maintenance of equal
society is that of a pure meritocracy. In a opportunity for all citizens.
meritocracy, rewards are distributed on the
basis of merit, which consists of both talent Reform Liberals are generally optimistic
and effort. Thus in a meritocracy people about social change. They believe in
“get what they deserve,” based on a progress, and subscribe to an evolutionary
combination of their inborn talent and how model of change. Through appropriate
hard they work at improving and applying it. interventions, humans can rationalize the
Moreover, society benefits as a whole social order and constantly improve it. The
because human talent is used efficiently. ideal system for the Reform Liberal is
There will, of course, be inequality in a welfare state capitalism.
meritocracy, but it will be fair, because
people will deserve what they get. The focus The Socialist/Radical Perspective
of Reform Liberals, then, is not so much on
outcomes as on the structure of opportunity. The Socialist perspective initially arose
What adherents of this perspective want is in response to the spread of market
the “equal opportunity to be unequal.” capitalism which created new forms of

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 9


inequality and disrupted traditional constitute our human nature, we do it
community bonds. The economic and social collectively. Individuals do not and cannot
crisis of industrial capitalism in the 18th and exist in isolation; whether through relations
19th centuries accelerated people’s search of antagonism or cooperation, humans are
for an alternative to capitalism. Socialists bound to one another in order to meet their
provided both a profound critique of the most basic needs. Individuals in this view
existing capitalist social order and a vision of are not automatons or mere products of
an alternative society organized on radically society. They have free will, but that free
different principles. This reflects the dual will can only be meaningfully exercised in
nature of a radical perspective. To be truly the context of relations to others. Society for
radical — that is, to go to the roots — a Socialist/Radicals is clearly more than the
perspective must first of all argue that sum of the individuals that make it up.
something is fundamentally and irretrievably Rather than an organism in stable
wrong with the existing social order. equilibrium, however, Socialists see society
Second, radicals must offer a vision of a as a set of dynamic social relations that are
workable society that operates on capable of qualitative as well as quantitative
fundamentally different principles, such that change.
it overcomes the deep-rooted problems of the
existing order. Socialist/Radicals then, have Karl Marx, one of the most systematic
sort of a double burden, and their perspective proponents of the Socialist perspective,
must necessarily be more complex and argued that humans primarily seek to create
lengthy to present. themselves through their productive activity.
Because of this, he suggested, the most
Perhaps the most radical part of the important feature of any society will be its
Socialist perspective is its view of human mode of production, or way of working.
nature. Unlike the other three perspectives, This is the means by which individuals,
Socialists see human nature as flexible, not working with and against one another,
fixed. That is, humans dynamically produce the goods and services necessary to
constitute their own human nature — not meet their basic needs. These basic needs
separately as individuals, but collectively are not absolute, but are defined by each
according to the structural patterns of the society according to collectively established
institutions of the societies in which they standards in each historical period. All the
live. This is, moreover, a two-way process. labor required to produce the socially-
Not only is human nature shaped by existing defined bundle of necessary goods and
institutions, but collective attempts by services is defined as necessary labor; any
groups of people to remake themselves in labor over and above this is surplus labor.
turn alter the shape and functioning of
institutions. This is indeed a radical insight. In general, Socialists suggest, there are
A society beset with problems can be two basic ways in which the mode of
fundamentally changed, according to production can be organized: either the
Socialist/Radicals, and a new and more people who do the actual producing control
liberating society can be created — but only the process and its outcome, or they don’t.
by appropriate collective action. The “rules of the game” that determine
which of these two outcomes will occur are
Inherent in this view is the assumption called by Socialists the social relations of
that humans are fundamentally social (the production. The social relations of
perspective is, therefore, socialist). production are the rules of authority
Socialist/Radicals believe that, however we governing what is produced, how it is

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 10


produced, who does the producing, and who society provides for more individual choice
controls the final product. Authority is than any other mode of production — a fact
gained by owning and/or controlling the celebrated in Classical Liberal ideology and
means of production, or raw materials and acknowledged by Socialist/Radicals. But
tools used in the production process. When this does not change the fact, say Socialists,
the producers own or control the means of that the basis of capitalism remains the
production, Socialists would say that a exploitation of the producing (or working)
classless society exists. When those who do class by the ruling (or capitalist) class.
the actual work do not control the process,
Socialists say that a class society exists. In a How does this exploitation take place?
class society, the two most important classes In capitalism, most social and economic
are the ruling class and the producing class. interdependencies are mediated by the
market. Unlike previous modes of
In a class society, a fundamentally production where most of what producers
antagonistic relationship exists between the fashioned was for direct use by themselves
ruling and the producing class because the and their kin group, in capitalism nearly
ruling class must essentially coerce surplus everything produced is a commodity — that
labor out of the producing class. That the is something produced with express purpose
producing class will not freely produce of selling it in the market. When producers
surplus, say Socialist/Radicals, can be seen go to work in capitalism, they make things
from the fact that in classless societies (like for anonymous future purchasers. The
hunting and gathering tribes, for instance), market dominates all. Certainly markets
the people perform no or very little surplus and trade existed in previous modes of
labor. The producers decide what is production, but commodity production was
socially necessary, and they stop producing economically and socially peripheral in the
when they have achieved it. In a class wider societal scheme of things. Capitalism
society, on the other hand, producers must is the first mode of production in history in
continue working to satisfy the demands of which commodity production is generalized
the ruling class. This is not primarily a — the vast majority of everything produced
matter of greed on the part of the ruling is funneled through the market.
class, say Socialists, but rather a function of
the institutional arrangements of society. When the market is this extensive, it
For in fact the ability of the ruling class to means that members of society are expected
rule depends upon their capacity to coerce to meet the vast majority of their personal
surplus from the producers. Not only does human needs through the purchase and
the ruling class live off of the social surplus, consumption of commodities. In the
but the conditions of its appropriation help marketplace, one must have enough to sell
to perpetuate its rule. in order to acquire the money needed to
purchase those commodities necessary to
Like feudalism, despotism, and slavery, meet one’s needs. Those who own no
capitalism is, according to material wealth face a dilemma: How are
Socialist/Radicals, a class society. Like they to survive if they can’t buy anything
other class societies, capitalism is because they have nothing to sell? This is
predicated upon the expropriation of surplus not an isolated dilemma because, over time,
labor from the producers by the ruling class. Socialists note, capitalism tends to
What is different about capitalism is the disenfranchise the vast majority of people
hidden way in which this exploitation takes from their ownership of productive
place. On the face of it, after all, capitalist property. At the time of the American

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 11


Revolution, for instance, our best historical depreciation on the machinery. So this
estimates suggest that approximately 80 worker has produced enough to pay for all
percent of the non-slave, non-native expenses. Yet that worker is contracted for,
population (i.e., Europeans) were self- say, an eight hour day. What is that worker
employed independent producers. That is, doing for the next four hours? The answer:
the vast majority of citizens in the nascent engaging in surplus labor, or being
United States owned productive property. exploited, say Socialists.
Today, this figure is less than 10 percent.
So, say Socialist/Radicals, the Classical Since profits come only from the
Liberal value of private property rings production of surplus, each capitalist must
hollow today. compel their workers to produce surplus or
cease being a capitalist and become a
Karl Marx suggested that those who worker themselves. Advocates of pro-
own no productive property in capitalism capitalist perspectives object that the
have only one thing to sell: themselves. worker is not actually enslaved and is free
More specifically, what they have to sell is to quit an exploitative employer at any time.
their labor-power, or their ability to work. But, Socialists reply, that worker is not
Members of the working class sell this really free to remain outside of market
ability to work to an owner of capital in relations. If the worker owns no capital,
return for a wage. What workers are selling then they will have to sell their labor-power
to the capitalist is control — within certain to some capitalist somewhere or starve.
socially-defined legal and ethical limits — This is the “whip of hunger,” as Marx
of their time and creative abilities. In fact, called it, which compels workers to sell
say Socialists, this amounts to selling themselves into the exploitation of wage
oneself into a kind of slavery — wage slavery. In capitalism, say Socialists,
slavery. The mere fact that this relationship workers are really only free to choose who
appears to be voluntarily entered into by will exploit them.
both parties does not change the fact that it
is fundamentally coercive. There is another element of coercion at
work in the labor market. The transaction
In capitalism, coercion of the working between the potential buyer of labor, the
class by the capitalist class has two employer, and the seller of labor-power, the
dimensions: exploitation within the worker, is not an equal one. Rather, it is
working day, and class coercion within weighted in favor of the employer. First of
society. In the course of the working day, all, most workers own little property, and
capitalists are obliged by the logic of therefore are reliant on a paycheck to
capitalism (profit) to compel their workers survive. They are, therefore, more or less
to engage in surplus labor. The ideological desperate to sell their labor-power to an
barrier to observing this, say Socialists, is employer. The desperation of workers is
that the exploitation is hidden within the increased by competition in the labor
workday. Say, for instance, that the market, especially as a result of a large pool
average worker with an average of “surplus” workers who are unemployed
productivity requires four hours of labor to or marginally employed. The vulnerability
produce their share of the goods and and relative powerlessness of workers is
services necessary to maintain the increased by the global expansion of
producers, as well as to replace the value of capitalism. Workers must now compete
raw materials used up in the production with other workers around the globe. This
process, production overhead, and expanded relative surplus population serves

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 12


as a break on the wage and working- consumption of commodities comes to
condition demands of employed workers. substitute for the active development of
As long as employed workers know that human potentials. People come to believe
they can be easily replaced – at home or the illusion that happiness, love, community
abroad – they are vulnerable to coercion. – indeed, any human quality or state – can
Capitalism thus requires unemployment in be purchased through commodities.
order to maintain its class relations. This is
part of the inherent conflict built into Third, people are alienated from each
capitalism as a class society. other in capitalism. The Classical Liberal
ideology of selfish individualism
From the Socialist point of view, encourages people to view social
another problem built into capitalism is relationships as mere instrumental means to
alienation. As Marx described it, alienation some selfish end, instead of ends in them-
refers to a condition wherein humans are selves. Moreover, workers are alienated
separated from their ability to realize their from each other as they fiercely compete in
potentials as humans. Alienation takes four the labor market in order to survive. Buyers
forms in capitalism, according to and sellers are alienated from human
Socialist/Radicals. First, humans are relations with one another as market
alienated from their productive ability. relations triumph over all. Finally,
Because of the coercion within the capitalists and workers are alienated from
workday, work becomes, instead of a one another by the capitalist requirement of
vehicle in which to realize one’s creative exploitation and inherent class conflict.
potential, a mere means to survive. Instead
of living to work, said Marx, workers in Finally, humans are alienated in
capitalism merely work to live. Work capitalism from their own nature and needs
becomes a tyranny, a drudgery, something as humans. Because of the first three types
to be endured. Only through hobbies or of alienation, humans become separated
volunteer work — i.e., outside of the from their ability to develop their own
dominant marketplace — do individuals get human potentials. Instead of recognizing
a glimpse of what really fulfilling work the fundamentally social character of
would be like. human nature, say Socialists, people in
capitalism fall into a misplaced
Because of the social relations of individualism. Instead of allowing the
production or rules of authority of individual to really flourish within and
capitalism, workers are not only alienated because of the group, people are expected
from their productive activity, but from to get ahead at the expense of the group.
their final product as well. Above all, what Not only are people encouraged to view
workers produce in capitalism is profits for each other suspiciously in the marketplace,
their employers. In their pure form, these but, in the ultimate tragedy, they come to be
profits are capital. Yet, due to the formal falsely cynical about human nature and the
relations of ownership in capitalist society, possibilities for social change.
workers do not recognize capital as their
own product. Instead they confront it as an For Socialist/Radicals, social change is
alien, coercive force. Further, the inanimate a constant and inescapable process, the
commodities produced by living human source of which is conflict and tensions
workers come to have a mysterious power within society. Change is thus produced
over these same humans in a process Marx primarily by internal, not external factors.
called commodity fetishism. Passive Moreover, change in the Socialist/Radical

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 13


view is dialectical. This means that welfare recipients when rich “wealthfare”
capitalism, like other class societies, recipients receive many times more “free”
produces, simultaneously with its success, money.
the seeds of its own destruction. In terms
Marx borrowed from Hegel, he suggested In addition to contradictions, Socialist/
that every social phenomenon produces its Radicals see other intrinsic sources of
own opposite, or antithesis. Out of the change as well. In any class society, for
tension between the thing and its opposite, instance, there will be class conflict. This
change is produced. conflict, and the attempts by the classes to
minimize or exacerbate it, is a constant
One way the internal tensions in a class source of change. In capitalism,
society are expressed is as contradictions, or competition among capitalists, workers, and
intrinsic problems that cannot be resolved consumers is also a driving source of
within the framework of the existing system. innovation and change.
The central contradiction of capitalism is the
progressive socialization of production but These structural forces, however, do not
continued private appropriation. What this entirely dictate the course of social change.
means is that, at the same time that Instead, they put social change on the
capitalism creates the preconditions for a agenda and set a context for it. The specific
global society by penetrating all corners of direction and nature of the social change is
the earth and all social relations in search of dictated by human collective action. Thus
profits, control of decisionmaking over no particular future is guaranteed to
ever-larger agglomerations of capital is humans. It is not certain that socialism will
centralized in fewer and fewer hands. follow the demise of capitalism. It could
Moreover, as profits are increasingly just as well be some form of fascism. The
concentrated in the hands of a relatively tiny particulars will be determined by how
global elite, economic, social, people come together to deal with
environmental, and cultural costs are capitalism’s irresolvable problems. All that
socialized by getting the working class to can be guaranteed, from the
pay for them. Socialist/Radical perspective, is that
capitalism, like all other social systems, will
Thus, according to Socialist/Radicals, not last forever. It will eventually collapse
capitalism creates the preconditions for under the weight of its own contradictions.
global democracy while becoming
increasingly autocratic; it increases The central values of the
tremendously humankind’s productive Socialist/Radical perspective are equality
capacity while concentrating the benefits of and solidarity. Equality does not
this capacity in ever-fewer hands; it creates, necessarily refer to income equality but
for the first time in human history, the rather the condition in which everyone has
possibility of economic security for all at the opportunity to satisfy their basic human
the same time that it delivers economic needs. This is summed up in the socialist
insecurity for most. Specific examples of principle “From each according to their
this irrational but irresolvable (within ability, to each according to their need.”
capitalism) contradiction include the Equality also means that everyone has equal
following: paying farmers not to grow food power over decisions affecting their own
while people starve; building luxury resorts lives. Both of these conceptions of equality
and vacation homes when millions have no can only be realized, say Socialist/Radicals,
home at all; attacks by politicians on poor with the dissolution of a class-based

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 14


society. democratic practices and political
participation in all institutional spheres,
The value of solidarity flows from the from the economy and politics to education
Socialist view of human nature, in which and the family. As this process unfolds, the
humans, as fundamentally social beings, basis for overcoming alienation is
can only actualize their potentials through established. Humans are reunited with their
mutual and reciprocal social action. productive activity, develop real
Freedom is conceived as the ability to connections to their products as commodity
develop one’s potential in a situation of fetishism is removed, and begin to construct
real, not just formal, freedom. Not really communal relations with one another.
surprisingly, Socialists argue that real
equality, solidarity, and freedom can only The Socialist focus on community and
occur in a socialist society. solidarity does not mean that the individual
is denied, however. As Marx put it, in
What, then, do Socialists mean by socialism, “the free development of each is
socialism? Most American Socialists see it the precondition to the free development of
as a fundamentally democratic and all.” The democratic socialist community is
egalitarian society in which humans, freed one in which individual differences are not
for the first time in history from economic denied, but celebrated. American socialist
insecurity, begin the project of fully Herbert Gintis puts it this way. “The
realizing their potentials. This most healthy community is not one of well-
emphatically rules out the model of meaning, like-minded individuals, but of
societies like the former Soviet Union. individuals who, through expressing their
While the USSR was not a capitalist needs, develop not only themselves, but
society, it was still a class society, their community and even those whom they
characterized by a ruling class of political oppose.” This means that Socialist politics
elites and exploitation of workers. Any can only be conceived of as a dialectic
model of democratic socialism will have to between the individual and the community,
be homegrown, most American socialists wherein individuals develop their sociality
would argue. Precursors of socialist through negotiating, but not compromising,
relations can be found in religious their differences.
communalism such as the Shakers, the
Oneida community, and New Harmony, in Adherents of the other perspectives
the process of development in post- charge that this is an overly optimistic view
revolutionary Cuba and Sandinista-led of human possibilities, especially given
Nicaragua, in the early planning efforts of what they believe to be the inherently
China and the Soviet Union, and in popular selfish nature of human nature. Democratic
American movements like Populism and the socialists acknowledge that there is plenty
radical wing of the labor and student of selfish, competitive, and individualistic
movements. behavior to be found in contemporary
society. But, they argue, these are not flaws
For Socialists, democratic socialism can of a fixed human nature, nor are they
only be fully realized when ownership of inevitable. Revolution is a social process,
the means of production has been fully not a single event, Socialists argue. In the
socialized in a democratic fashion and is in process of struggling against the
the control of neither a separate class of contradictions of capitalism, people will
owners nor a “new class” of elitist remake themselves as cooperative, solidary
technocrats. Socialism involves developing beings.

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 15


This struggle is already underway, say Conclusion
Socialists, in the efforts of those attempting
to create democracy in the workplace and These, then, are the four basic
throughout the economy, and in the perspectives on the social order. Many
grassroots organizing of communities to people will not find themselves purely or
fight economic dislocation, environmental completely within one perspective or
degradation, global exploitation, crime, and another. In fact, people may be inclined to
poverty. In each case, say Socialists, the pick and choose among the various
actions of these consciously acting human components of several perspectives. The
beings have the potential to not only make important point to remember, however, is
progressive changes in the existing system, that in many ways these perspectives are
but to make irreversible changes in the based upon fundamentally incompatible
people involved and in their vision and assumptions. Once certain assumptions are
expectations for the future. For made about the nature of human nature,
Socialist/Radicals, then, the process of specific values and views of society flow
making democratic socialism is also the from that. So one should choose carefully
process of making socialist — and fully one’s view of human nature.
social — individuals.

Version 10-4 2003 by Patrick J. Ashton 16


HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF THE 4 BASIC PERSPECTIVES
TH
CENTURY …12 13TH 14TH 15TH 16TH 17TH 18TH 19TH 20TH 21ST . . .

SOCIO- FEUDALISM
ECONOMIC
SYSTEM CAPITALISM

I ORGANIC
D CONSERVATIVE
E
O
L
O
G
I INDIVIDUALIST
C CONSERVATIVE
A
L
CLASSICAL
P
E LIBERAL
R REFORM
S LIBERAL
P
E
C
T
I
V
E SOCIALIST