Dominance and Monopoly (and Ideology)
In the next section, Walzer presents two new concepts, to go along with the discussion of goods and social meanings in the beginning of the chapter: dominance and monopoly. A dominant good is one that will get its possessor some other, unrelated goods. If you have money, you can buy food, but it doesn’t work the other way around, because money is the dominant good in a market society. And it is often—in fact, usually—the case that one group of people has a monopoly over that good. Thus, when land ownership was the dominant good in Europe, those who owned land tended also to have political power, office, religious honors, and so on, and this was the class of aristocrats. When ownership of capital or financial wealth became the dominant good, the society’s other goods shifted to them, as well, and to the new moneyed middle classes. Thus, societies can be classified and characterized by identifying the good dominant in each, and the class that tends to hold that good.
This is a framework for understanding and categorizing societies, not a full explanation. The shift of other goods to the newly dominant class wasn’t immediate, and in some cases may never have been complete. I’m sure Walzer would agree that the framework isn’t the be-all and end-all. And it’s a useful analysis, but it does appear to blur into dogmatism: In every society, one good is dominant over all others. In every society, one group monopolizes the dominant good and thus dominates over all realms of activity. To suggest that the dominant good might be more equally or fairly distributed is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that monopoly is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that non-dominant goods should be distributed more independently of the dominant good is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that dominance is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that a different good ought perhaps to be dominant is to propose Marxism, and is in any case not interesting because it basically accepts the status quo.
It isn’t easy to take this seriously. To suggest that party loyalty, religious affiliation, or moral rectitude be a requisite for holding political office may not be wise, but it is hardly Marxist. Similarly, to suggest that it not be a requisite for holding office, if it is, one does not have to agree that it is irrational or unjust to suggest that there be other requirements in other situations. Surely, to suggest a reform, one does not have to agree that the whole idea of society is unjust.
The ideal of complex equality and pluralism of goods is attractive but unpersuasive.
In the next section, Walzer presents what he calls simple equality as equality of the dominant good. In our society, this would be money: Suppose everyone had the same amount of money. Then other goods would also be distributed equally (because money still dominates). He follows a fairly well-worn narrative to show how this might go. First, the government would have to intervene to make sure no one accumulates too much, over time. Then, some people might start to monopolize education, just because they cared about it. And because education is important, it would become the dominant good and the bad kind of meritocracy would develop, so that educated people and their families would begin to monopolize office and political power, and eventually even money. So, something like Rawls’s theory of justice would have to be imposed to ensure that they don’t take over too much. This is not the only critique of commercial society that could be made, but it’s a pretty common one, especially among those who object to the dominance of money and of the rich over society in both its traditionally public and private aspects.
Complex equality, then (the topic of the section after that), is instead the removal of the dominance of money, and in fact the removal of every kind of dominance. Because there are so many different kinds of goods, they will all be distributed evenly enough, around the population, that no one person or group will accumulate too many goods for themselves. Because each good is self-policing, or rather policed within its own sphere, there will be no need for coercive government intervention. Instead, each good will be policed by those who are agreed by everyone involved to be the right person to do it.
That there’s no narrative, here, of how it might go wrong, might suggest an important asymmetry in Walzer’s exposition. Moreover, the dogmatism of the preceding section reappears here, in the glib mention, in passing, of the assumption that there will still be monopoly within each individual sphere. The problem of ideology goes unmentioned in this section, as well (even though it’s considered elsewhere in the chapter). Are the goings-on within each sphere simply immune to criticism? Walzer doesn’t say. The idea of complex equality is attractive but unpersuasive. Yet Walzer proceeds without appearing to have recognized this. These question are raised for the reader but the book shows no hint of how they should be resolved.
Pluralism of goods, again.
At the end of the section titled “A theory of goods,” just before the pages discussed in this post, Walzer had listed some criteria for such a theory. Working backwards, the last of these are: Goods must be understood on their own terms; the criteria for one good must not determine the distribution of a different and independent good. Goods are historically determined (so Bernard Williams, and by extension British analytical philosophy as a whole, is wrong, and there is no natural criterion for evaluating the distribution of a given good). Goods are distributed according to social meaning, not material meaning.
This approach rules out a bit. It rules out a scientific approach, wishing to distribute goods according to a natural or material significance or need. It rules out a market approach, treating everything as having its monetary price. On its face, it rules out a lot more: democracy, power politics in general, localism, and tradition—in fact, any extrinsic approach, any approach that doesn’t engage with the goods’ social meanings. Though, in practice, these extrinsic meanings may be incorporated into the social meanings themselves. More specifically, although the terms employed are somewhat broader than what’s strictly needed for this purpose, what’s ruled out is the criticism of one good on grounds appropriate to a different good: suggesting, perhaps, that simony or nepotism is really okay, because money ought to be dominant over all other considerations. Or, even more specifically, what’s ruled out is the assignment of some good or power to a person who is recognized to merit only a different good or power.
It isn’t clear how this fails to risk relativism, however. It would seem that any action, any criticism or suggestion, is potentially subject to the unanswerable objection that (as Stanley Fish put it) “that isn’t the way we do things here.” And Walzer must support that objection. To be very blunt, a society that sincerely believed math could be done only by white men, or that granted university professorship a social meaning, stemming back to the days of the medieval church, which required mathematicians to be morally conforming men from the dominant culture and race, would have to be recognized by this theory as, really, OK. This is clearly not what Walzer intended, but he would appear to have disarmed himself, and others, against those kinds of claims (at least to the extent that he believes his own side must take the claims made by this book seriously, which I think a reader will in most cases take to be true). All he can offer women, people of color, and members of religious minorities, it would appear (barring a thoroughgoing revolution), is something like, “Let the white man have the math professorships, at least they can’t make us starve and they can’t take away our votes.”
Notably missing, so far and in the chapter headings, are any of the goods normally associated with democracy and equal respect. Walzer says nothing about equality in that sense. He is discussing, purely, equality in the holding of some goods and in access to certain other goods. There is no place in this theory for a criticism of some social practice on the grounds that it fails to treat people with equal respect. (Arguably, “equal respect” might possibly be recharacterized as some kind of good.) There is no place in the theory for a criticism of a given social meaning. It might be suggested that space is left for such critiques outside the theory. But the argument here has already preempted any outside criticism, by showing that such criticism is invariably radical: revolutionary or even childish.
This has aged badly.
This approach outlined in these sections runs into the difficulty that it combines the empirical and the theoretical in a slightly awkward way. The empirical part is the description of the actual dominant good, the actual monopolizing class, the actual other goods that are dominated or allowed to follow their course. The theoretical part is the explanation of why a society sustains itself, and why it may be resistant to change (as well as how a scholar can usefully conceptualize it).
Is any given proposal revolutionary? Does it correspond adequately to the social meanings prevalent in the society in question? These aren’t questions that can be answered solely through ivory-tower speculations. If it’s customary and accepted that a good G will dominate over a good H, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that H should be considered as autonomous; if it’s customary that H should be autonomous, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that G should dominate over it. Thus, given a situation in which someone who has G is trying to claim a good H, and a second someone is complaining about it, an observer can’t simply assume either that the holder of G is right and the second person is being naïve or presumptuous, or that the second person is right and the holder of G is claiming an antiquated, premodern, and now non-existent quasi-right.
This does come up. The established, humanist art critic will maintain that the values of art are autonomous. The up-and-coming young essayist, echoing the sociology of art courses she was required to attend in school, will counter that the art world is dominated by the moneyed classes, etc., as is the case all through the world. They cannot both be right; and so we have the usual hysteria about “postmodernism,” which in most cases is not what is at issue, at all.
For the argument outlined here to have been helpful for critique, in the years since 1983, it would have to have been possible to understand the theory as descriptive, and only descriptive. But theory, it would seem, has instead become an explanation of why things are always, everywhere conservative, why every transaction or interaction must always increase the power of the dominant class, why every analysis of a good must always be couched in terms of the dominating good. (Or—for the right—why things are always “liberal,” because they think the dominant class is a liberal one.) There are understandings of this kind of critique that assign it a different meaning; but those would seem to have little to no real currency.
For some ideologies with a historical component, like Marxism or Christianity, perhaps this isn’t a problem. One can understand historical change as something that happens through some other, esoteric means. One can carve out a niche in which to live in a satisfactory way while rejecting the possibility of public criticism of existing norms. Not all have resigned themselves to that, however.
It seems to me that Walzer lowers his sights somewhat in the rest of the book, and confines himself to specific proposals and specific historical-anthropological case studies. These more modest arguments will presumably be easily detachable from the stronger arguments made in the first part of chapter one.