In 1997 George Soros, writing in The Atlantic, declared: “The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.”

The words marked the beginning of a decade and a half of plutocratic progressivism. In July 2003, AFL-CIO political director Steven Rosenthal conferred with some of America’s richest tycoons at El Mirador, Soros’s estate in Southampton, to figure out how to defeat George W. Bush. In August 2004, the president of the Service Employees International Union, Andy Stern—the “most important labor boss in America”—traveled to Aspen to plot strategy in a moneyed conclave that included savings and loan moguls Herbert and Marion Sandler, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis, and businessman John Sperling. Warren Buffett, de facto chairman of the country’s billionaires’ club, endorsed the candidacy of presidential aspirant Barack Obama, while the Democracy Alliance, which Matthew Vadum and James Dellinger dub “Billionaires for Big Government,” bankrolled progressive groups like ACORN and the Center for American Progress.

Is there something novel in these alliances which, Demos scholar David Callahan observes, have brought some of the nation’s most notable elites together during the last decade to make common cause with some of the country’s most progressive leaders? Hardly: pacts between munificent plutocrats and progressive reformers are one of the oldest tricks in oligarchy’s playbook.

More than a century and a half ago, Benjamin Disraeli, affecting to believe that Britain’s Tory elite was “the really democratic party of England,” showed that the well-to-do could more easily maintain their ascendancy if they became paternalist champions of working people. By adopting socially progressive policies, they could “dish the Whigs” and stave off free-market reformers like Richard Cobden and John Bright. In a no less duplicitous spirit, Otto von Bismarck invited Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of the General Union of German Workers, to the Wilhelmstrasse, where the two explored an alliance between Bismarck’s Junker ministry and the working classes. Bismarck did not “promote social reform out of love for the German workers,” historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote. Following, by turns, Marx and Metternich, Bismarck sought to make workers “more subservient” to the Junker-dominated state.

Elites who seek alliances with progressive tribunes are not always feudal aristocrats (like Bismarck) or feudal retainers (like Disraeli). They may, like the Roosevelts, be high bourgeois who have succumbed to the Medici Syndrome. Abandoning, as the Medici did, the tradition of their forebears, who were proud of their market squares, the high bourgeois find commerce vulgar and ape the manners of the nobility.

As part of its acquired feudal style, the haute bourgeoisie dabbles in social policy as a form of noblesse oblige. Theodore Roosevelt made common cause with progressive leaders in his ill-starred 1912 Bull Moose campaign. A number of plutocrats rallied around the former president when he criticized market competition, among them Morgan financier George Perkins, who believed that “competition in the marketplace was a waste of energy.” Perkins persuaded Roosevelt to drop antitrust law—an essential feature of competitive markets—from the Bull Moose platform, and together the two men advocated a form of state capitalism, “an entente,” Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris writes, “between socially responsible entrepreneurs and a powerful, yet non-prosecutorial government.” So close were Franklin Roosevelt’s ties to CIO leader Sidney Hillman that the mantra “Clear it with Sidney” became an issue in the 1944 presidential campaign.

Principle plays a part in motivating elites who hoist the flag of social reform: the free-market ideal, they argue, is a source of misery when pursued too unrestrainedly. But Henry James pointed to another, suppressed motive. Lionel Trilling remarked of the character who gives her name to James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima—a princess who befriends working-class social reformers—that she “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.”

James’s and Trilling’s belief that social pity conceals an unacknowledged desire for power finds corroboration in the behavior of today’s elites, who in promoting the ostensibly virtuous cause of social reform are making a shrewd investment in their own continued dominance. Much of today’s big money was made during the extraordinary period of market liberalization that began around 1980 and came to an end with the crash of 2008. In pushing for a revival of the social state, tycoons who benefited from freer markets seek to limit market competition. If they succeed, they will forestall the emergence of a new generation of innovators, young Turks who would otherwise push the old Croesuses aside. Disraeli and Bismarck favored the social state precisely because it is a means of perpetuating indefinitely the authority of the elite instituting it: like the state capitalism that so often accompanies it, a social regime promotes morbidity and stasis, the petrification of the social organism.

Soros wrote in 1997 that he feared “the spread of market values into all areas of life.” The fear is not unwarranted. But if compassion for the less fortunate—and not a solicitude for their own power—were truly at the heart of the elites’ social vision, they would almost certainly favor, not the extension of progressive programs that have failed in the past and are now bankrupting the West, but local and non-coercive forms of compassionate care which for centuries had their source in the old market-square life of Europe. A number of contemporary reformers, among them Prince Charles (a renegade elitist in this respect) and the New Urbanist architect Léon Krier, are attempting to revive this agora culture today.

Where the remedial agencies of the social state have abridged freedom in the name of social control, the old market sanctuaries relied on uncoerced efforts to relieve suffering. Such voluntary associations as the confraternity and the sodality, the almonry and the charité, tended the strayed “lambs” of the community—and did so in ages much poorer in material wealth than our own.

We don’t know why agora culture was able to nurture the compassionate impulse in ways that we, with all our social-scientific tools, seem unable to do. Wordsworth, enamored of the “old usages and local privilege” of the traditional marketplace, pointed to the virtues of its civic artistry. He contrasted the savageness of communities where men live “irregularly massed” with Bruges, where the interblent poetries of music, art, and architecture regulated life rhythmically and promoted a “harmonious decency” in manners.

Wordsworth’s insight finds some support in modern science. Oxford’s Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, believes that rhythm filled the void that developed when primitive human communities grew so large that they could no longer “be bonded in the conventional primate manner.” The metrical patterns of sound inherent in language, laughter, and singing, Dunbar maintains, made it possible for humans to engage in “grooming at a distance,” and to build new and more durable forms of community.

The same grooming gift that (if Dunbar is right) bound together the earliest human communities united also those that for millennia had their core and center in the marketplace. The grooming instruments of the market enclaves—from painting and sculpture to drama and dance—were rhythmically ordered. With uncanny intuition the Greeks, who laid the foundation of the Western market square, divined the grooming potential of the rhythmic arts when they are concentrated in a public place. Because rhythm sinks “furthest into the depths of the soul,” the Greeks made it the basis of education and used the word mousikē to denote, not only music in our sense, but culture generally, those arts over which the Muses preside and which make the more civilized forms of congregation possible.

Whatever the source of the agora’s power, the nineteenth-century writers who composed its epitaph took it for granted that it promoted the kind of community in which compassionate impulses could work most effectually. Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Bishop of Digne in Hugo’s Les Misérables, the pastor in Wordsworth’s Excursion, and Josiah Crawley in Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset are agora shepherds who dispense a genuine compassion—not the frigid pity Hannah Arendt thought characteristic of the social state.

A revival of the agora culture that once flourished throughout the West would preserve the virtues of market freedom and at the same time prevent the intrusion of market values into areas of life where they have no place. But don’t look to our progressive plutocrats to join Krier and the Prince of Wales in their effort to recover a humane civic life. There is nothing in it for them.


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