Reinhold Niebuhr’s Constructive Criticism of Democracy

[UPDATE: After you read this post, please see also my more recent (1/4/2014) Niebuhr-related post entitled “Niebuhrian Coercion and a Non-Utopian Version of a Vision That Hopefully Will Never Die: Bolivarian-Burnsian International Justice and Solidarity.” Regards, Francisco]

These are interesting times as I learn more about opportunities for the governments of Cuba and the U.S. to make needed changes both separately and in their relationship. I posted the below Reinhold Niebuhr quote in a comment at Generation Y, and I wanted to make it sure that I put it in a post at this website, because it has general relevance to democratic socialism. As I said there:

I believe strongly in democracy, and I want to see deep democracy all around the world, but without a framework of economic justice, political democracy and its institutions and laws can become the essence of hypocrisy. People like the Koch Brothers are quite comfortable with democracy as long as they can control it. If you don’t like Marx, the Jesuits, or Orwell for your social analysis, and want a protestant Christian, perhaps try Reinhold Niebuhr, a favorite of many democratic socialists, including yours truly. Before concluding with the need to ‘discount a still widely held conviction that the democratic movement has given society a permanent solution for its vexing problems of power and justice’ he wrote this monumentally important long paragraph in ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society’ (Scribner, 1932), pp. 14-15.

I “inherited” a paperback 1960 version of the book when a relative passed away. He had read the book in college in the 1960s, and no one else wanted it. I vaguely remembered the name Reinhold Niebuhr from in college myself a decade later. I happened to start reading it one day in my late 30s, and it blew me away. I had never read such a keen and honest socio-political analysis by a Christian. Here is what Cornel West says of Niebuhr in the foreword to the new edition of this classic (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. xiii:

As a revolutionary Christian in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, I view the great Reinhold Niebuhr as a soul companion whose dramatic-historical account of our encounter with the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob in the form of a first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth forever humbles us as redeemed sinners in our obedience and empowers us in our radical freedom to radically love and fight for justice–especially for the “least of these.”

Anyway, without further ado, here is the Niebuhr paragraph I find so fascinating and accurate about democracy:

   The rise of modern democracy, beginning with the Eighteenth Century, is sometimes supposed to have substituted the consent of the governed for the power of royal families and aristocratic classes as the cohesive force of national society. This judgment is partly true but not nearly as true as the uncritical devotees of modern democracy assume. The doctrine of government exists by the consent of the governed, and the democratic technique by which the suffrage of the governed determines the policy of the state, may actually reduce the coercive factor in national life, and provide for peaceful and gradual methods of resolving conflicting social interests and changing political institutions. But the creeds and institutions of democracy have never become fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them. It was their interest to destroy political restraint upon economic activity, and they therefore weakened the authority of the state and made it more pliant to their needs. With the increased centralization of economic power in the period of modern industrialism, this development merely means that society as such does not control economic power as much as social well-being requires; and that the economic, rather than the political and military, power has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions of the state to its purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors. The difference is that owners of factories, rather than owners of land, exert the power, and that it is more purely economic and less military than that which was wielded by the landed aristocrats. Needless to say, it is not completely divorced from military power. It may on occasion appropriate the police and the army of the state to defend its interests against internal and external foes. The military power has become the hired servant and is no longer the progenitor of economic ownership.

In solidarity,

Brother Francisco

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