When the Soviet Union collapsed, socialist ideas were so discredited that no one believed they could rise again. Democracy and capitalism had shown itself as politically and morally superior, millions of people were liberated from oppression and socialism was relegated to the “dustbin of history.”
Yet at the time, some worried that this victory was not as clear cut as it seemed. Russian historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that, despite the failure of communism, many of its anthropological and moral assumptions animated the West. In the early 1990s, then- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed similar concerns. He argued that though applied communist regimes fell, the dominant ideas of Marxism — the myth of progress; the self-sufficiency of the scientific, technological mindset; political utopianism; materialism; and the denial of God still characterize Western civilization as a whole.
Too often we’ve mistakenly reduced socialism to economics, but the socialist vision has always been more than that — it’s a holistic vision of man and society. While its economic ideas went out of favor, many of its cultural ideas continued to gain ground. Things that would have been radical 20 years ago have become the norm. The dominance of secularism and its view on life, marriage, family and society are the most obvious examples. In this this light, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not really surprising.
What has emerged in the last decades is not so much the victory of democracy and free market economies, but rather a political hybrid — technocracy (management of society or government by technical experts) that combines bureaucratic political centralization, managerial capitalism and a socialist-liberal culture.
Political centralization: In contemporary social democracies, the state is involved in all sectors of life from health, family policy, care for children and the elderly, charity, business, science and education. States create layers of complex rules — what Alexis de Tocqueville called “soft despotism” — that encourage individualism and crowd out intermediary institutions and reshape and redefine the family. Modern democracies identify community and solidarity with the political community and increasingly see other forms of attachments — such as religion — as obstacles to political consolidation. As Tocqueville summarizes: “The tyrant does not care whether you love him as long as you do not love one another.”
Managerial capitalism: In contrast to the popular image of unrestrained capitalism and free markets, the reality is very different. What we have instead are highly managed economies that benefit the elites and well-connected.
Europe and the U.S. control, on average, about 40% of the world economy. This has led to a “crony capitalism” where elites get benefits at the expense of everyone else. The U.S. financial crisis and the subsequent bailout are prime examples of this crony capitalism.
Even worse is the global poverty industry where, for example, Europe and the U.S. put up tariffs on imports and subsidize agriculture to protect large corporations, overproduce, and then either give the food away as foreign aid or pressure poor nations to lower tariffs and then dump this subsidized food into poor economies, which harms local producers. The Guardian reports that out of $1 billion in food aid, $700 million went to three large U.S. companies.
We often hear religious leaders talk about how poor people are dominated by markets, but the reality is they are excluded from markets. What they are dominated by is managerial, crony capitalism and the collusion of the state with large corporations and powerful interest groups like trade unions.
Secular liberal/socialist culture: The most influential element of the new technocracy is cultural. Italian neo-Marxist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote of a “long march through the institutions of culture.” If we look at the universities, media, arts and major cultural institutions, it’s clear they’re guided by relativism, materialism, radical equality, plastic anthropology and a techno-utopian view of progress. Socialist ideas about autonomy, family, marriage, culture and the arts have moved from a small minority to widespread influence. In 1972, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “Marxism was only the radical execution of an ideological concept that, even without Marxism, largely determines the signature of our age.”
The battles between right and left, capitalism and socialism have been redrawn. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are variations on a modernist theme. The ideological battle of our time is against a type of technocracy and a state that no longer wants citizens to participate in self-government, but distracted consumers who can be molded to serve ideological purposes
MICHAEL MATHESON MILLER is a research fellow and director of Acton Media at the Acton Institute. He is director of PovertyCure, which promotes entrepreneurial solutions to poverty in the developing world.