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EDWIN HARWOOD, Collectivism in Social Theory - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Collectivism in Social Theory
There is no scientific sense whatever in creating for oneself some metaphysical entity to be called “The Common Good” and a not less metaphysical “State” that, sailing high on the clouds and exempt from and above human struggles and group interests, worships at the shrine of that Common Good.
—Joseph A. Schumpeter1
THE BELIEF THAT THE natural law framework of society is essentially corporative, that society requires a hierarchy of enlightened leadership with its most important social institutions receiving their legitimacy from a common ideological core and their operating directives from a central political directorate, has tended to unite social democrats, fascists, and even, it would seem, some religiously inspired neo-traditionalist thinkers. In the view of these, a government equipped with sufficient powers over human and material resources should be able to achieve a maximum of rationality and morality in society; and market-capitalism, which produces a division of political and economic powers, leads to the deterioration of a moral society.
It is too often forgotten that many liberal bourgeois social thinkers who were not socialists themselves have contributed to this critique of capitalism, partly as a result of their acceptance of that genre of social metaphysics alluded to above. In the case of the French sociological school, an essentially moral critique of capitalist industrial society was abetted by social scientific research and reinterpretation. Aiming to correct basic theoretical flaws in the atomisticutilitarian conception of human action and motivation, these outwardly liberal thinkers emphasized the coercive and regulatory functions of all social organization. They argued that it was necessary to recognize the importance of moral and cultural constraints in human action. As a member of society, man regulates his action in accordance with social values and tempers his hedonism with moral and religious considerations; in any case, his felicific calculus is as much the product of cultural tradition as it is of a basic schedule of biologically fixed needs.
This attack on atomistic utilitarianism (the psychological-methodological basis of English political economy and of its radical off-shoot, Marxism), received its major impetus from the French school of sociology, from men like Saint-Simon and Comte at an earlier period, and later from Durkheim and Mauss.2
It should be noted that while the French sociologists were hostile to capitalism and suspected that it was the chief cause of industrial civilization’s presumed moral anarchy, the French critique of utilitarian theory did not derive from their ideological principles, but rather it rested on the accepted canons of scientific investigation alone. On the other hand, it is clear that if a good case could be made for theories which stressed the social determinants of human action and which asserted that man’s nature is nothing if not social, then societies which appear consistent with the utilitarian analysis would be more likely to appear unnatural; that is, historical aberrations to be corrected by a generous corporative impulse. Hence, there is indeed an ideological bias in the early French sociological theorizing.3 In the writings of Comte, Mauss, and Durkheim one finds many concrete recommendations for a corporative social order, and they attempted to support these recommendations with their scientific studies.4
AMERICAN SOCIOLOGY of the 1930’s manifests a strong imprint of French concepts and the anti-capitalist bias discussed above. This may have been understandable in view of the solid empirical contributions of Durkheim and his students; but the task of carrying forward their program of research on the industrial order and its disabilities extended to more than just scientific considerations. It included, in addition, adapting the French assault against “chaotic capitalism” to the American social terrain of the 1930’s—admittedly a time which was not exactly propitious to theories favorable to capitalism, especially among social scientists not trained in economics. The separation of the moral and political order of society on the one hand from the operations of the market on the other, a separation which is never complete even in advanced capitalist societies, was one of the “natural aberrations” which the French fulminated against. This theme was soon taken up by a group of American sociologists and social-anthropologists, some of them men of indisputably great stature, like Elton Mayo and W. Lloyd Warner. In their work one finds the same admixture of political critiques with scientific explanation. Both of these writers write eloquently about the need for society to re-integrate itself in the interest of all contending factions. Their recommendations for a more rigid and unified hierarchy, and for a greater coordination of economic interest groups by political institutions is consonant with the corporative conception outlined above;5 but if social peace and quiet are such vital needs, why not recommend the proscription of those political freedoms and that type of parliamentary squabbling and naughtiness which—at least in the view of right- and left-wing authoritarians—only serve to magnify and exacerbate rather than resolve existing tensions and social antagonisms! Why not leave off with the terminological trepidation. Call it what it properly is: a fascist solution.
What had been with the French and certain of these American social scientists a critique of existing capitalist society and an argument for a corporative social order, one in which the economic sector of society would again be put to a moral harness, became transformed into a highly general theory of social organization.
INSTRUMENTAL IN THIS development was the work of Talcott Parsons. In a brilliant early work, The Structure of Social Action, Parsons continued the dialogue with utilitarian individualist thought which the French had spearheaded. Ten year later, in The Social System, he developed a distinctive theory of his own. Emphasis in this theory, which was not meant to be a theory of any one type of social system but of all social systems, was given to the postulate of shared values, of norms held in common by the inhabitants of a political community. Basic social antagonisms based on class and political divisions were secondary phenomena which had to be explained but were not of central relevance. What is the difference here between Parsons’ extrapolation of French sociological thought and what the French themselves believed? Parsons’ theory does not allow for distinctions between types of social systems, distinctions which are essential to a proper understanding of different societies at different stages of historical development. There was, for example, no attempt to distinguish between actual ongoing corporate states on the one hand—socialist and feudalist societies are similar in terms of the heavy-handed political centralization and statist natural law premises they advance—and capitalist society with its institutionalized independence of economy from polity. The French recognition of the fact that capitalist society differed from what they conceived of as a more natural social order was lost sight of in the emerging general theory developed by Parsons.
Parsons wanted to talk about society in general. This led him to the kind of pitfalls which I intend to discuss now. We shall consider one application of his general theory, his explanation of social stratification: the way in which men come to differ in terms of income and prestige. This theory of stratification is erroneous because it derives from a wholistic conception of social life and such a conception, I argue, is not at all adequate to the task of describing capitalist societies.
Parsons assumes that the reward and prestige which a given occupation garners depend upon “society’s” evaluation of the contribution of that occupation to the survival needs of the society. Occupations felt to be vital to the continuation of society will receive much more prestige and income than occupations which are not so vital. Sufficient consensus exists, in Parsons’ view, to insure that the income of a position will not be discrepant with its social value. A moral order being common to all men within the social system, such consensus about the relative ranking of services and occupations would never be problematic; but if a discrepancy should occur, if occupations of great importance were to receive less income than would be warranted by their importance, serious strains would be engendered. Some agency would have to intervene to insure that the important occupations received their due share of the economic distribution.6
That is the theory in a nutshell. It assumes that social systems have stable ideological cores from which unambiguous rankings of different occupations can be derived. It assumes that men come to a uniform evaluation of the survival needs of their societies—indeed, that societal survival is foremost in their minds when it comes to ranking jobs and allocating material rewards. It assumes, further, that situations in which a discrepancy exists, as for example in the case of jobs or trades which have high income but are morally reprehensible, can be considered abnormal and productive of social strain. Then, of course, they must be “corrected.” Is it not possible, however, in contrast to Professor Parsons’ view, to think of a market which does not follow the moral guidelines of some social elite, but allocates income to those who best provide for the wants of the mass of consumers?
These individuals may not measure up to the standards of the cultural elitists. They may actually provide services and goods felt to be petty and trivial; but the financial power of the consuming public is a basically democratic power, and it lies at the very roots of those discrepancies between the presumed moral attributes of an occupation and that occupation’s income which are more the rule than the exception in healthy capitalist states. It is often only the elitist intellectuals who must perceive a harmony of social functions where harmony does not in fact exist; and it is usually the intellectuals and the unsuccessful who feel that things moral and material must be brought back “into line.”
IN COLLECTIVIST societies a general consensus regarding the relative worth of different social functions, if it does not actually exist among the populace at large, can indeed be enforced by the intellectual, military, or feudal elites. Only this type of society, approximated by contemporary socialist states and feudalist regimes, can attempt to coerce the flow of income into channels which maintain consistency between the income and the presumed moral worth of a given occupation or social position. It is well known that a market freely organized can be frustrated in its effective allocation on the basis of demand, and thus the central administrative apparatus of the state can assign wages and salaries on the basis of criteria irrelevant to economic efficiency. In feudal and socialist regimes, merchants, entrepreneurs, tradesmen, and kindred social types of the third estate usually do not receive the material rewards that they would otherwise receive for their services in a democratic capitalist society.
Since a free market would have provided these social types with income felt to be inappropriate to the economic worth of their social functions, kings and comrades must have recourse to measures which will bring income into line with social prestige or what they feel to be society’s needs. Heavy taxation continually enforced, as in Bourbon France, or capriciously, as in the England of Charles I, sumptuary legislation—now, with changing fashions, referred to as “rationing”—and downright expropriation are among the measures which a social elite can employ to make certain that income will be allocated on the basis of political or “moral” criteria. I must confess that the socialist elites have carried out their task in this matter with much greater efficiency than the former Western monarchs and feudal princes; but I think that in terms of the ideal-typical distinctions I am trying to draw in this paper, it is safe to contrast feudal and socialist social systems on the one hand with capitalist societies on the other.
Professor Parsons and those sociologists who have followed him in this theory of social stratification never made these crucial distinctions between capitalist societies on the one hand, and socialist and feudal regimes on the other. They are not advocating a return of control over economic operations to a social and political elite—in short, a transformation of capitalist society into a socialist order—because they believe that there are no crucial distinctions. I am not saying that they are not personally aware of important differences. I am arguing that their explanation of social stratification does not take these differences into account.
I CANNOT DEAL WITH all of the underlying assumptions in this theory, in particular, with the assumption that society has a set of survival needs which are clear to most men in society, and which, when clearly understood, give rise to a uniform set of occupational evaluations. I leave this assumption for more versatile metaphysicians than myself to grapple with. The belief, however, that widespread social consensus exists with respect to the value of different economic services and social roles, that men not only agree upon the relative ranking of different social functions but in addition, experience strain and distress when they perceive how occupations and other social functions of high prestige receive modest incomes, strikes me as being contrary not only to common sense but also to historical experience. Consider the social and political upheaval in seventeenth century England. The enclosure movement which developed in the wake of the Tudor Reformation, as a response to the sale of monastery lands to enterprising nobles and burghers, created concern among the highest ruling elements of the society, Church and Crown.
The greater efficiency of the monastery lands, after having been sold to enterprising private individuals, increased the pressure on other landholders to raise rents and rationalize agricultural practices. There were other factors at work here, among them the decline in the purchasing power of the coinage, while rents in many cases had remained unchanged since feudal times. Nobles and gentry responded by jacking up rents, and by turning a large part of their lands into pasture for the production of wool. The lower ranks of the peasantry, the copyholders in particular, had a difficult time defending their rights to their private plots as well as to the commons in manor courts run by the very nobles and gentry they were up against. The Crown was disturbed by the growing social dislocations in the countryside. The rationalization of social relations between peasant and manor brought about by the commercialization of land was felt to undermine the power of the Crown—although Henry’s sale of Church lands and the campaign against the private feudal armies of the nobility were themselves factors in the decline of manorial paternalism.7
In the end, of course, the anti-capitalist measures of Laud, the High Commission, and Charles’ Privy Council were put to the block as squarely as was the Archbishop’s head. The combined triumph of agricultural capitalism in alliance with urban mercantile capitalism meant far more than just the end of a corporate feudal society. It meant, in addition, the end of a coerced consensus on the relative moral worth and prestige of different social functions. It meant that low-born bourgeois would obtain the full value of their economic contributions. They would also have more wealth than many of the high-born, and in time, more power too. Parliament, in denying the Crown’s right to impose arbitrary taxes, in particular, to sell and grant exclusive franchises which interferred with the efficiency of the market system, abolished in the process the use of political power for the control of economic life, for the diverting of the flow of goods and income away from the strata to which they would normally be destined under free market conditions. The sundering of the polity from the market meant—and this is most important for understanding the inadequacy of sociological theories of stratification like Parsons’—that the prestige which some elite judges to be merited by a social function will not necessarily correspond to the income received by that function in a capitalist society. There is also an absence of consensus about the relative importance of different social functions in capitalist society. Leftist intellectuals do not think as highly of businessmen as the latter do of themselves; ward-heelers are thought very highly of by lower-class, ghettoized immigrants, but that doesn’t assure them entry into clubs and upper-class salons.
In seventeenth century England, on the other hand, the nobility and court had sufficient social and political resilience to continue to determine what style of life and family background constituted high social worth, but they lost the ability to insure that the stream of goods and material comforts would correspond to this other dimension of social class. Capitalism’s triumph was not postponed because it had a falling out with some presumed “common-value” system which had assured consensus on the relative worth of different social functions. It triumphed because certain strata, fortunately aided by an aristocratic element with strong commercial interests, the Tory Radicals of their age, took the political initiative in seeing that the market system worked without Stuart political and religious fetters. England attained this goal much earlier because its bourgeoisie was much more advanced. It was favored over France and the other continental countries for a number of other reasons which John U. Nef has dealt with at length in his Industry and Government in France and England: 1540-1640. That work is among the best I know for gaining an understanding of why parliamentary democracy and capitalism triumphed so early in England.
WE HAVE DEALT AT some length with the myth of a “common-value” system, at least as applied to capitalist social systems, and I think that in the process we have learned why collectivist sociological theories apply to collectivist societies and not to the more pluralistic democratic capitalist system. If one considers, for example, R. H. Tawney’s political tracts, Equality and The Acquisitive Society, or Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, one finds a quite stubborn awareness of the fact that capitalist civilization is neither a moral unity with a common ideological core nor a system that assures that income and prestige will follow what these anti-capitalist intellectuals consider to be their proper channels. These men are advocating a unified, morally integrated society, one in which a centralized political directorate would have the power to determine the moral value and “functional contribution” of various occupations and services. Although I heartily disagree with the ideas of these two thinkers, I must confess that they have a more acute understanding of the nature of social class and stratification in capitalist society than non-socialist social scientists such as Parsons and his followers. That the general theory of social stratification advances conceptions unsuited to the contours of capitalism is most clearly revealed in the statement made by two of Parsons’ followers regarding the dilemma of private property and inherited wealth:
. . . as social differentiation becomes highly advanced and yet the institution of inheritance persists, the phenomenon of pure ownership emerges. [By this I assume they mean ownership without unsubtly obvious functions.] In such a case it is difficult to prove that the position is functionally important or that the scarcity involved is anything other than extrinsic or accidental. It is for this reason, doubtless, that the institution of private property in productive goods becomes more subject to criticism as social development proceeds towards industrialization.8
This seems to be a striking admission. Having noted the obdurate legal fact of inherited wealth, Davis and Moore are arguing that with time people will come to reject the right of private ownership of productive firms and will insist that such material reserves be re-allocated on the basis of some more valid criterion of social contribution. This may or may not be an accurate description of current historical tendencies. It is clearly an admission of the inadequacy of their theory to account for the dynamics of class and stratification in capitalist states. What they are saying really is that with time, social reality will “catch up” with the propositions of their theory, the day when some Ministry of the Moral Order will insure that large blocs of wealth do not go into the hands of rentiers—Captains of Non-industry, if I may pervert somewhat a phrase coined by David Riesman; but will go to those who make the most important contributions to that somewhat mysterious and elusive end, societal survival.
These men pretend not to advocate but only to describe what is. The advocates of a collectivist society, however, are not only honest advocates but clearly cognizant of the important differences between the dynamics of class and stratification under capitalism on the one hand, and the mechanisms which operate in collectivist states on the other. I do not care for the collectivist goals of the French sociologists or the Marxian mecca of orthodox socialism; but I am concerned to see that the distinction between corporative and capitalist societies be fully understood for what it is, rather than being submerged by a general theory which admits of no important differences.
For this reason, I tend to feel that the older political polemics which recognize these differences have more scientific relevance and analytic clarity than altogether inapplicable abstractions about society in general. The latter have attained the orthodox scientific goal of universality with the result that we understand not more but less about the functioning of modern western societies.
[* ] Edwin Harwood did his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, is currently a graduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, and has published several articles in scholarly journals.
[1 ] J. A. Schumpeter, “The Communist Manifesto in Sociology and Economics,” The Journal of Political Economy, LVII (June 1949), 208.
[2 ] A good critique of the wholistic presuppositions of the French school of sociology can be found in F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).
[3 ] A. Gerschenkron has given an interesting economic explanation of the attraction which corporative and mildly socialistic ideological currents had in France, even among the entrepreneurial and financial bourgeoise. “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective,” in B. Hoselitz, ed., The Progress of Underdeveloped Areas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
[4 ] Cf. Emile Durkheim, “Preface to the 2nd edition,” The Division of Labor in Society (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).
[5 ] E. Mayo, The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1933), Chs. 6-8; W. L. Warner and J. O. Low, The Social System of the Modern Factory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), pp. 181-196.
[6 ] T. Parsons, “A Revised Analytical Approach to the Theory of Social Stratification,” in R. Bendix and S. M. Lipset, eds., Class, Status and Power (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), pp. 92-129.
[7 ] See R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the 16th Century (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1918); C. Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1962).
[8 ] K. Davis and W. E. Moore, “Some Principles of Stratification,” American Sociological Review, X (April 1945), 242-49. W. L. Warner’s Social Class in America develops a similar theory of stratification. (New York: Stratford Press, Inc., 1949), p. 8.