Kenneth Westhues

Panel presentation at the Symposium on J. McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms: the Global Market as an Ethical System (Garamond, 1998), at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association, Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, Sherbrooke, Quebec, 5 June 1999. Presented in absentia by the session chair, Frank Cunningham. Web publication in August 2003 on the Kenneth Westhues Homepage.

Matching my pleasure in being invited to contribute to this symposium is my regret that a miscommunication about scheduling prevents me from contributing in person. I am grateful to Frank Cunningham for presenting my views. The advantage for those in attendance, including Dr. Cunningham, is freedom to attack these views without fear of rejoinder by their author. I have never aspired to the ideal of detached scholarship, that the subject should be invisible, but, alas, on this occasion, circumstance has thrust it upon me.

I begin by repeating three plaudits I gave McMurtry's book in my review in Catholic New Times (25 October 1998).

First, it combines rigour with relevance. Writing 400 pages of reasoned, logically coherent prose is an achievement even in scholastic or mathematicized philosophy. McMurtry does it while at the same time connecting his prose to the empirically real world, referring page by page to current news, and to research in economics and political science. This book is not an escape from history but an effort to come to terms with history and shape it.

Second, the alarm this book sounds urgently needs to be heard and heeded. Under the influence of the mass media, many Canadians follow the dictates of the market like glassy-eyed true believers in a cult (see McQuaig 1998), or as if ruled by micro-chips implanted in their brains by aliens from the X-files. "The overriding problem," McMurtry writes, "is that the market's value system has not been recognized for what it is" (p. 390). His book compels that recognition. I wanted people to read it, to be awakened by it to the situation at hand, and thereby to be enabled to take conscious control of their lives.

Third, Unequal Freedoms is a work of public, democratic scholarship, in defiance of the trend toward what Jacoby (1987) calls the academization of the intellectual life. It is philosophy not just for illuminati caught up in what McMurtry has called a "self-referential game," but for all. The book not only asserts and analyzes but also arises from and enriches the civil commons. One's basic reaction has to be, "Bravo!"

Beyond these plaudits, I want to offer in this academic setting more critical reactions, since we improve our thinking only through mutual challenge and debate. I will not try to pick McMurtry's system apart or quibble about a few pages here or there. In my view, the work has more than enough integrity. Its argument comes across in gist and in detail.

The kind of criticism I want to raise, as might be expected from a pragmatist sociologist, concerns the practical implications of McMurtry's critique of corporate capitalism and the marketization of life. The question I want to raise is to what extent and in what ways Unequal Freedoms points us, as a political community, in the right direction.

The most dryly entitled chapter of this book is the third one, "The Market as God." Here the author spells out the theology of global capitalism. He shows how its principles and conventions are elevated to the status of cosmic laws. He lists its ten commandments, beginning with private property as an absolute good. He sets forth its theodicy, the way it discounts unpleasant outcomes with that funny word, externalities. Evil, in the eyes of the market god, is anything that contradicts or contravenes the infallible principles of unfettered, money-based exchange—from regulations, tariffs and taxes to environmental safeguards and the protections for labour that define the welfare state.

This chapter held special appeal for me in view of a movement I have observed with amazement over the past 20 years among many of my colleagues in the sociology of religion. Using what they call "rational-choice theory," they try to make sense of religion in market terms, and on this basis to advise churches how to survive in a market society.

Reginald Bibby, a professor at Lethbridge, is the exemplar of this intellectual trend in Canada (see Westhues 1996). Through well-written trade books like Unknown Gods (1993), Bibby has become probably the single most famous sociologist in Canada.

Bibby's fulsome application of the market mentality to religion is beyond what classic critics like Marx, Bellamy and Polanyi ever dreamed. He urges believers to see themselves as religious consumers being fought over by the dominant companies and their franchises. He gives churches pointers about questionable product lines, promotion problems, erosion of customer bases—in general, how to service consumers and increase market share.

I offer this movement among sociologists of religion as conclusive corroboration of McMurtry's proposition that the market order has become god. The old, precapitalist religions that sought to keep the market within bounds (by, for instance, the ban on Sunday shopping) have not only lost ground. What is left of these religions is itself understood increasingly in market terms. Blasphemy is a strong word, but it fits.

McMurtry understands this. He knows that the market God is false, a mere idol. "When people conceive of their surrounding social order," he writes, "as being prescribed by the very structure of the world, they are experiencing something as old as humanity itself: an idol of the tribe" (p. 62).

So far so good. But if the market is not God, what is? If corporate capitalism is not "the very structure of the world," what is? McMurtry counsels against laying up for ourselves the treasures of high return on investment, pointing out that this is destructive, part of a death-sequence of value. Where then would McMurtry have us lay our treasures up? "Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be" (Matthew 6: 21). Where is McMurtry's heart?

Clearly, his heart is in the civil commons, wherein he includes all the "universally accessible goods of life that protect or enable the lives of society's members," natural endowments like water and air plus the "social goods evolved by public sectors since the Industrial Revolution and, in particular, since the end of World War II" (p. 399).

I share McMurtry's view that the civil commons is less of an idol and more of a God than the market is. I have no more confidence than he that a society can prosper or even survive while neglecting and diminishing the goods that sustain us as a species.

Yet, in my view, there is more to God than the civil commons. McMurtry has set forth only a partial vision of the alternative social order toward which we need to move. His book excels in where it points us from, but—I say with respect—falters in where it points us to.

I thought initially of making this point more gently: of saying I don't find the concept of civil commons sufficiently fleshed out. On reflection, I decided that what I really want to argue is that there is more to life than the civil commons, and that a philosophy worthy of the public's heart needs to say what more there is.

Media propaganda is not the only reason for the extent of public support, in Canada as in the United States, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, for the capitalist marketplace and the neoliberal state. The support springs also from public dread of collectivist alternatives.

The major bloodbaths of the twentieth century cannot, except through excruciating twists of logic and evidence, be blamed on capitalism. World War I is best understood as the last and worst of a kind of interimperial war that predates capitalism by millennia. In Nazi Germany, death and destruction were the outcomes of a racist, nationalist, socialist ideology. In Stalinist Russia, these were the result of public policies officially rooted in Marxism-Leninism. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were not free marketeers. Human slaughter in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa in recent years has sprung from precapitalist hatreds on ethnic and religious lines.

By no means do I exonerate global capitalism of war-mongering. The international armaments industry has been intimately tied to all of this century's wars. According to Mokhiber and Weissman (1999), NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia has been instigated by the big armaments companies, which profit handsomely.

My point is that global capitalism is not the only thing that has poisoned life in our time, and the civil commons is not a sufficient antidote. As often happened to the traditional commons, the civil commons can be taken over by authoritarian elites and used in uncivil ways. It is not only the capitalist system but the communal system in many of its forms that has, as McMurtry says, left people declaring "that a war is being waged against their very existence, and they rise up against it" (p. 391).

Reading this book a month ago, typical Ontario voters would have drawn the practical implication that McMurtry would like to boot out the Tories and bring back the NDP. Clearly, in the recent campaign, Howard Hampton represented the idea of the civil commons better than Mike Harris, who appears to embody surrender to what McMurtry describes as an unethical system.

Yet I wager that by the time this paper is read, the Harris Tories will have been returned to power, possibly—perish the thought—with another majority. The NDP will have garnered less than 20 percent of the vote.

Why? Is it only because of media bias in favour of global capitalism? That is part of the answer, but only part. The other part is that Ontarions, like Canadians from sea to sea, rightly fear an intrusive, interventionist state. Their memory of the Rae government keeps that fear alive.

Among the most jarring of this year's crop of books is The New Anti-Liberals by Alan Borovoy. As General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for the past thirty years, and before that as Director of the Jewish Labour Committee, Borovoy has a long, sterling record of devotion to the civil commons, and to equality of access to it.

Borovoy begins his book this way: "It's one thing to periodically disagree with your traditional allies. It is another thing entirely to write a whole book on the subject. Nevertheless, that's what I have decided to do" (p. x). He then proceeds to make a pointed, no-mincing-of-words attack on leading feminists, anti-racists, peace activists and progressive social democrats. "My quarrel," he writes, "with a growing number of my fellow equality seekers is that they have been attempting to promote their objectives in contravention of the liberal values that are the very essence of the democratic system" (p. xi).

Borovoy is one of many leftists who, without cozying up to corporate capitalism, nonetheless shrink from current priorities on the left. There are John Fekete (1994), Donna Laframboise (1996), Patricia Marchak (1996), Martin Loney (1998), Helen Garner (1997), and many more.

Because I abhor concentration of media ownership and Conrad Black's part in it, I welcomed the chance to review Maude Barlow and James Winter's Big Black Book (1998), a critical analysis of his thought. Yet I found their book cultic, scary in a way not unlike Black himself.

In my view, an adequate critique of the current global market must point in two directions: not just toward the civil commons but toward civil liberties. An adequate philosophy has to defend private property vigorously, even while insisting, as McMurtry does, that it is not an absolute good. The contradiction inherent in human life between public and private, community and individual, state and citizen, control and freedom, order and change, needs to be acknowledged. Only by affirming both sides of this dialectic can we come up with practical measures for enhancing our species and planet in the situation at hand.

Perhaps the proper place for McMurtry's Unequal Freedoms on my bookshelf is alongside John Ralston Saul's Unconscious Civilization. In the complementarity and the tension between their respective emphases—acceptance of the civil commons on the one hand, rejection of corporatism on the other—lies the promise of laying up treasure worthy of generations to come.


Bibby, Reginald, 1993. Unknown Gods. Toronto: Stoddart.
Borovoy, A. Alan, 1999. The New Anti-Liberals. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.
Fekete, John, 1994. Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising. Montreal: Robert Davies.
Garner, Helen, 1997. The First Stone. New York: Free Press.
Jacoby, Russell, 1987. The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York: Basic Books.
Laframboise, Donna, 1996. The Princess at the Window. Toronto: Penguin.
Loney, Martin, 1998. The Pursuit of Division. Montreal: McGill-Queens.
Marchak, M. Patricia, 1996. Racism, Sexism, and the University. Montreal: McGill-Queens.
McQuaig, Linda, 1998. The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy. Toronto: Viking.
Mokhiber, Russell, and Robert Weissmann, 1999. "Corporate U.S. has stake in Balkan War," Kitchener-Waterloo Record (21 May): A21.
Saul, John Ralston, 1995. The Unconscious Civilization. Toronto: Anansi.
Westhues, Kenneth, 1996. "Reginald Bibby's Preference for the Market Model in the Sociology of Religion," The Ecumenist 3 (January-March): 5-8.
----------, 1998. Review of M. Barlow and J. Winter, The Big Black Book: the Essential Views of Conrad and Barbara Amiel Black (Toronto: Stoddart, 1997), in Catholic New Times (8 March).