MacIntyre's critique of the market-cum-state
Alasdair MacIntyre has spent his entire life arguing against the modern nation state and market capitalism (which he sees as two sides of the same coin). In a way, all his work, particularly post-After Virtue, can be see as an attempt to provide the philosophical underpinnings for a critique of the modern market-cum-state.
I can't emphasize enough how important I think this critique is. Most political discourse is, I believe, already defeated by its presupposition of the modern state and market as a neutral given; on the contrary, I have come to the conclusion that is must be resisted and the work of building a new culture of life (i.e. islands and oases) is as much a work of creativity and imagination, conceiving new forms and practices independent of this status quo.
Most have heard MacIntyre's famous quip that modern liberals and conservatives are in reality two sides of the same coin, and thus in reality, liberal-liberals or conservative-liberals (whose differences in the end amount to little insofar as this dialectic perpetuates the status quo of the market-cum-state). In fact, the market and the state, and the way in which these two poles are dialectically co-opted by Republicans and Democrats, posit the same conclusion: two sides of the same coin. Therefore, to serve or aid one is to serve or aid the other, full stop.
There is a great summary of MacIntyre's political thought in a paper by Ronald Beiner: "Community Versus Citzenship: MacIntyre's Revolt Against the Modern State" (Critical Review 14  n. 4; pp. 459-479). It is really the best summary I have found, and I highly recommend a close study. Here is a selection (pp. 464-469); nota bene.
MacIntyre’s Political Philosophy
MacIntyre is not the only one of our four thinkers to disown the communitarian label, but his denials have been more adamant and more fleshed-out than those of the other three. So a good place to start our consideration of MacIntyre’s politics may be with a careful examination of his explanations of why he doesn’t consider himself a communitarian.
Basically, there are two reasons. The first is that he considers it a “mistake to suppose that there is anything good about local community as such.... Local communities are always open to corruption by narrowness, by complacency, by prejudice against outsiders and by a whole range of other deformities, including those that arise from a cult of local community.” This is a perfectly good reason not to enshrine community as such as a normative standard: the standard, rather, is the quality of social practices that various communities enable us to realize. What concerns MacIntyre is the flourishing of humanly worthwhile practices and the virtues and excellences that they bring into play, and he is interested in communities insofar as they provide sites for these practices and virtues (and for no other reason). This is a good reason for rejecting the communitarian label, and other communitarians such as Sandel and Taylor would be in full agreement with MacIntyre on this point.
The second, more distinctive reason is that MacIntyre associates communitarianism with the project of applying the language of common good to the modern nation-state, and he thoroughly and wholeheartedly rejects this project. As he puts it: “The communitarian mistake [is] to attempt to infuse the politics of the state with the values and modes of participation in local community.”
For anyone who takes the basic structures of modern political life as given, it is not easy to fathom the depth of MacIntyre’s hostility to the state as a mode of organizing political activity. His essay, “Poetry as Political Philosophy,” probably conveys the tenor of his antistatist rhetoric as well as any of his writings. The purpose of the essay is to investigate a thesis that MacIntyre attributes to W. B. Yeats, namely “that no coherent political imagination is any longer possible for those condemned to inhabit, and to think and act in terms of the modernity of the twentieth-century nation-state,” and there is no question but that MacIntyre affirms the truth of what he takes to be Yeats’s insight.
MacIntyre highlights Yeats’s image of the modern nation-state “as a tree dead from half-way up.” Insofar as Yeats himself intends to apply this image specifically to the Irish state of the 1920s and 1930s, he understates the generality of his insight: what Yeats sees and condemns in the Irish state “belong[s] to it not as Irish, but as state. They are features of the modern state as such... [expressing] the imaginative poverty not of a particular regime or type of regime, but of the structure of every modern state.” To overcome the “imaginative sterility of the modern state” and to engage in “a less barren politics,” one must seek out other forms of institutionalized community, beyond the boundaries of “the conventional politics of the contemporary state.”
It’s not obvious where MacIntyre gets his view that what defines communitarianism is a commitment to the nation-state as the primary location for community (and that therefore he’s not a communitarian). To be sure, other communitarians don’t necessarily rule out the nation-state as a possible location for community, but neither do they privilege the nation-state as the preferred location for community. In truth, Sandel, Taylor, and Walzer tend to be ambivalent about whether they want an enhanced community at the level of the polity as a whole, or whether they want a decentralized politics that would enhance community in more local settings at the expense of the national political arena; they sometimes fudge this question rather than express a clear preference. It seems implausible, however, to insist that a preference for the nation-state is what defines their communitarianism; rather, the most that one can say is that they stand closer to the commonsensical mainstream view that certain important forms of human community are realized (or can be realized) at the national level, whereas MacIntyre embraces the quite radical view that genuine community, and the goods that a genuine community subserves, are entirely ruled out within the horizon of the modern state.
MacIntyre’s attitude to the state can be summed up in the simple injunction: “Have no truck with the Devil!” In place of state-related politics, he substitutes what he calls “the politics of local community.” MacIntyre is very clear about the sorts of communities that qualify as communities of common good: “fishing communities in New England over the past hundred and fifty years...Welsh mining communities [instantiating] a way of life informed by the ethics of work at the coal face, by a passion for the goods of choral singing and of rugby football and by the virtues of trade union struggle against first coal-owners and then the state... farming cooperatives in Donegal, Mayan towns in Guatemala and Mexico, some city-states from a more distant past.” Communities of this sort qualify as possible sites for common good. It is equally clear, for MacIntyre, that the politics of the national state don’t come anywhere near qualifying as a possible site of common good. Why not?
Modern nation-states are governed through a series of compromises between a range of more or less conflicting economic and social interests. What weight is given to different interests varies with the political and economic bargaining power of each and with its ability to ensure that the voices of its protagonists are heard at the relevant bargaining tables. What determines both bargaining power and such ability is in key part money, money used to provide the resources to sustain political power: electoral resources, media resources, relationships to corporations. This use of money procures very different degrees and kinds of political influence for different interests. And the outcome is that although most citizens share, although to greatly varying extents, in such public goods as those of a minimally secure order, the distribution of goods by government in no way reflects a common mind arrived at through widespread shared deliberation governed by norms of rational enquiry. Indeed the size of modern states would itself preclude this. It does not follow that relationships to the nation-state, or rather to the various agencies of government that collectively compose it, are unimportant to those who practice the politics of the virtues of acknowledged dependence. No one can avoid having some significant interest in her or his relationships to the nation-state just because of its massive resources, its coercive legal powers, and the threats that its blundering and distorted benevolence presents. But any rational relationship of the governed to the government of modern states requires individuals and groups to weigh any benefits to be derived from it against the costs of entanglement with it.
Our formulation above should probably be qualified somewhat, as follows: “To the extent that you must have truck with the Devil, in order to avail yourself of the necessary benefits that it confers, you should not fool yourself into thinking that receiving these benefits joins you in a relationship to the Devil expressive of a common good.”
Central to this conception is an understanding of rational deliberation. Members of a community can join in a politics of common good only when it is possible for them “to come through rational deliberation to a common mind.” Clearly, political association on the modern scale cannot imaginably meet this standard. According to
the conception of political activity embodied in the modern state, . . . there is a small minority of the population who are to make politics their active occupation and preoccupation, professional and semiprofessional politicians, and a huge largely passive majority who are to be mobilized only at periodic intervals, for elections or national crises. Between the political elites on the one hand and the larger population on the other there are important differences, as in, for example, how much or how little information is required and provided for each. A modern electorate can only function as it does, so long as it has only a highly simplified and impoverished account of the issues that are presented to it. And the modes of presentation through which elites address electorates are designed to conceal as much as to reveal. These are not accidental features of the politics of modern states any more than is the part that money plays in affording influence upon the decision-making process.
Given the theoretical standards by which MacIntyre defines a genuine deliberative community, it would be ludicrous to characterize this general system as a process of shared rational deliberation. Without moral-political deliberation there is no possibility of arriving at “a common mind,” and without a common mind shaped by shared rational deliberation, there is no common good. The conclusion, following inescapable from MacIntyre’s premises, is that politics as we know it in the modern world cannot be characterized as anything other than “fragmentation through the conflicts of group interests and individual preferences, defined without reference to a common good.”
Two responses seem called for. The first is to recognize the theoretical force and philosophical stringency of the notion of a common good that MacIntyre here applies. Only very special kinds of communities and very particular types of social situation permit one to speak of a common good (“a common mind arrived at through widespread shared deliberation governed by norms of rational enquiry”), and one can pretty much define modernity as that constellation of social life that rules out, or at least drives to the margins, precisely those kinds of community and types of social situation that warrant the language of a common good. The second response is to note just how harsh a picture this account gives us of the politics of the modern state. It more or less has the effect of disqualifying any concept of political community within the boundaries of modern social life.
It’s true that the goods provided by the modern state are not products of communal deliberation in any rigorous sense, but they are still goods, and expressive surely of some mode of political community, however attenuated (and capable, in principle, of building up more of a sense of political community in proportion to its goods being perceived as real ones). In
, for instance, there is more or less a national consensus, shared in even by political parties on the right end of the political spectrum, that a nationally funded public-health system is a shared civic good. The state, in providing this good, is seen as the agent of the national consensus. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t controversies about the adequacy and efficiency of the Medicare system; but it does seem to suggest that the state can provide civic goods, and that there is, in this respect, a civic community on behalf of which such goods are provided. Canada
There is no question that MacIntyre’s political commitments remain those of a radical egalitarian, and that his revulsion against capitalism has not diminished at all from what it was at the start of his intellectual career. (As John Haldane has remarked: “In certain respects MacIntyre’s position is like that of old-style Christian socialists: at once critical of society for its failure to attend to the needs of the weak, the dispossessed, the overlooked and the socially marginalized, yet also firm in defense of traditional morality.”) This makes his root-and-branch rejection of state-based politics all the more startling, since so much of twentieth-century left-wing politics has revolved around hopes to make the state the agent of egalitarian transformations of the political community as a whole.
In a discussion in 1997, I asked MacIntyre how he squares his residual Marxism with his antipathy to the state, since, in our situation—in the political world in which we live—the state offers the only restraint upon the capitalist market, both in its provision of regulatory mechanisms and in its capacity as an agent of distributive justice. Here is the gist of his interesting reply.
MacIntyre said that what we’ve had since 1945 is the state-cum-market. The welfare state was invented by Bismarck, as well as Disraeli, Lloyd George, and Balfour—that is, not by social democrats, but by conservatives trying to preserve an orderly capitalist society. Operation of the resulting state/market produces a certain amount of disorder, which in turn needs to be corrected by welfare-state policies. Welfare is therefore bound to a cycle: the state promotes growth, it regulates the market with welfare, then it needs to cut back. It issues promissory notes that have to be paid for (in the context of
politics) by Republican policies. Democrats and Republicans occupy different positions within this cycle, yet they are bound to the same process. U.S.
MacIntyre rejects the whole package, namely a growth economy managed by the state, with occasional corrections with welfare and so on. Consequently, the welfare state is not an alternative to the state/market; it is, on the contrary, part and parcel of the kind of state entirely implicated in the operation of market capitalism. Most political contests in the contemporary West revolve around competing views of what constitutes the right balance between state and market (the power of the market versus the authority of the state). For MacIntyre, by contrast, market and state are two sides of the same coin, and rather than choosing between them, or deciding how to give greater weight to one or the other, we should toss away the whole coin. MacIntyre doesn’t go so far as to assert that there are no goods associated with state-based politics; what he does assert is that the basic structures of the modern state, and the form of political community it makes available, are essentially and not just incidentally inimical to a common good-based politics (and it is precisely this insight into our prevailing political reality that, on his view, “communitarians” have failed to grasp).