Democratic Capitalism and Psycho-Cultural Evolution

Some scholars consider culture from the standpoint of material wealth. They look at the entire world and divide the countries up into the first, the second, and the third worlds based on the development of material goods in the various countries. Other scholars measure the amount of wealth held by various persons in first world countries and then divide the people up into classes on the basis of quantifiable measures. Sometimes even the people themselves divide themselves into groups based on degrees of wealth.

But when Walter J. Ong, S.J., looks at the world of today and of the past, he looks at the media of communication used in various cultures and classifies them accordingly, as oral-aural cultures (innocent of reading and writing), manuscript cultures, print cultures, and electronic (or electronically oral) cultures. He describes these stages of culture in his famous trilogy: The Presence of the Word; Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology; and Interfaces of the Word.

Ong posits the existence of the sensorium, and I would point out that in A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behaviour Paul D. MacLean reports that all the sensory systems converge in the hippocampal gyrus which lies next to and projects to the hippocampus in the brain. In The Presence of the Word, Ong suggests that the sensory mix in the sensorium differs in cultures depending on the auditory or visual dominance fostered by the media which dominate in the culture. Consequently, he ends up with what he styles psycho-cultural analysis. Readers familiar with Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents will have some sense of why Ong speaks of the psychological and the cultural as inter-dependent.

Where the auditory dominates the sensory mix, strong tendencies towards corporate bonding and authoritarianism occur. The auditory was still dominant in the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages, and so it is not surprising to find Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism berating the authoritarianism of feudal society. What is surprising to find is that this champion of corporations does not acknowledge that medieval monasteries are the prototypes of modern corporations, a fact Marshall McLuhan points out in The Mechanical Bride. But while the corporatism of the medieval monasteries did produce a certain amount of material wealth, it did not produce democratic capitalism.

Democratic capitalism emerged in print cultures. The invention of the movable printing press led eventually to visual dominance of the sensory mix. This shift in the sensorium fostered tendencies towards individuation and reflective analysis, and these tendencies helped form the personality structures needed to sustain democratic capitalism. Because Protestants emphasized individual interpretation of the Bible — a practice which was inconceivable before printed Bibles became widely available — and because the industrial revolution flowered in countries such as England, Germany, and the United States where Protestants predominated, some scholars have concluded that the rise of democratic capitalism is connected with Protestantism. I think that it is more precisely connected with the ready availability of good English and German translations of the Bible. Of course the religious impulse put a premium on reading the Bible, but it was the reading which restructured the sensorium and thereby fostered the development of the personality structures needed for democratic capitalism.

Contemporary electronically oral cultures seem to foster corporations (1) predicated on an “authoritarian” or hierarchical chain of command, (2) which corporations necessitate commands or decisions predicated on reflective analysis, (3) which in turn necessitates specialization/individuation in work roles.

But some parts of the world today have residual forms of oral-aural cultural (e.g., rural Africa) while other parts have residual forms of manuscript culture (e.g., China). In other words, the personality structures needed to sustain democratic capitalism have not yet been developed in those parts of the world. Of course they should be encouraged to move towards print culture and democratic capitalism, but that movement will probably be somewhat discomforting for them. In the meantime, the auditory dominance in those parts of the world will probably make state capitalism, instead of democratic capitalism, seem appealing to them because of their kind of orientation towards corporatism.

State capitalism of the sort found in socialist and communist regimes will probably also appeal to some people in our electronically oral cultures because of the new emphasis on the auditory in first world countries. Moreover, persons who carry memories of a feudal past in their unconscious psyche will probably be especially prone to favor state capitalism. But central planning seems to be at odds with God’s plan, for it does not work. Furthermore, the experience of the United States of America attests to the strength of a free market economic system subject to rules formulated by the legal system and what Novak styles the moral-cultural system. But it follows from Novak’s analysis that since we have multi-national corporations in the world today, we need to have a world law-making system, as Mortimer J. Adler suggests in How to Speak, How to Listen, and a worldwide moral-cultural system, which Pope John-Paul II is doing his best to start. And given the potentialities of electronics these things are possible. But in the meantime let us pray to God to grant us a miracle — the mechanical failure of the Soviet missiles.

But while it is good to look at the American experience of material prosperity and to see the arrangements that contribute to enabling this prosperity to occur — (1) the triune societal arrangement of the economic system, the legal system, and the moral-cultural system; (2) the triune arrangement of the legal system itself with its legislative, executive, and judicial branches; and (3) the practice of the principle of subsidiarity in the scope afforded federal, state, and local governments — it is wise to remember that Colonel John Sartoris, Thomas Sutpen, Jason Compson IV, and Flem Snopes are all characters who grew out of the American experience, and they are not examples worthy of emulation but examples that should terrify us.

William Faulkner understood that God’s plan calls for us to listen to his commands and to endure suffering and yet to love, as do Judith Sutpen and Dilsey. Novak argues that democratic capitalism is in spirit consonant with God’s plan because of the freedom it allows, and I have no doubt that he is right. Democratic capitalism is predicated in part on self-interest and in part on serving others, and this can be one way to love our neighbors (serve others) as ourselves (take care of ourselves in the right kind of way) — if we do indeed obey God’s commands and love Him. But as Faulkner well knew democratic capitalism can also degenerate into unprincipled greed, the wrong kind of self-interest. God has left us free to follow such an absurd way of life, but He has also assured us that His kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven when His will is done on earth as it is done in heaven. We are free to obey or to be deaf to God’s commands.


  • Thomas J. Farrell

    Thomas J. Farrell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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