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The Way of Mutual Aid How the Democrats Could take Over, and Why They Won't

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Liberals Just Don't Get It

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 1:47 pm


THE FOURTH Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism
by Robert William Fogel, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000, 383 pages, $25

Even liberals are beginning to catch on to the dirty little secret that the welfare state is in trouble. Although they still proudly boast that the material condition of the poor has increased remarkably and all because of them, they have to admit that there is something in the underclass culture that is less than admirable. All those benefits and programs may have done wonders for the material condition of the poor, but haven’t done much for their moral and spiritual condition. Morally and spiritually, they are in a mess. What’s the solution?

The answer is obvious. Announce a “maldistribution of spiritual resources” and propose a comprehensive national program to eliminate spiritual inequality and address the struggle for self-realization and the desire for a deeper meaning in life.

Wouldn’t a national program to eliminate spiritual inequality come perilously close to a national church? Wouldn’t that create a minor problem with the First Amendment? Apparently not. Because Robert William Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism never even mentions the First Amendment.

Not for him the niceties of the separation of church and state. He’s concerned about power. Fogel realizes that the abysmal record of the welfare state on the moral and spiritual front creates a mortal danger. The U.S. voter might easily develop a bad attitude towards the welfare-industrial complex (was that the one that President Eisenhower warned us about?). And if the voters got a bad attitude they might decide to take away all the money, power, and the love of beautiful women that the welfare-industrial complex has enjoyed over the last century.

Fogel has to deal with a rather embarrassing fact. The moral and spiritual crisis occurred on his watch. Why should people trust him and his kind to solve it? His solution is to change the subject. He reminds his readers of all the wonderful things that progressives did over the last century and weaves this into a theory of religious and political cycles that proves that the progressives are uniquely qualified to implement a national program to eliminate spiritual inequality.

Fogel cites a wealth of fascinating data to show that, despite the industrial revolution in nineteenth century America, the workers didn’t share in the bounty. Measures of adult height and body mass index show that workers were, if anything, worse off at the end of the century than the beginning. But the twentieth century has seen a dramatic improvement in the life of the poor. A century ago, the average poor man was up to eight inches lower than his rich cousin. By mid century the difference had decreased to one inch. The income of the poor had increased by nine times. And it was all due to the social reformers, of course.

Or was it? Let’s take a closer look at his claims.

Fogel claims that life expectancy was improved by “the pure-water movement, by the improvement in sewage systems, and the provision of vaccines to all children regardless of income” and also by “medical education and hospitals.” But the value of pure water and sewerage was demonstrated back in the 1850s in London when an outbreak of cholera was traced to a well polluted by an overflowing cesspit, and when authorities discovered that death rates dropped dramatically when water was purified by sand filters. Surely Fogel is not suggesting that Americans were blind to this momentous discovery until bludgeoned into action by Progressive reformers?

Fogel takes credit for improvements in health. He cites eradication of tuberculosis, rheumatic heart disease, elimination of smallpox and poliomyelitis. “Social reform contributed to the speed of technological change in health... systems by subsidizing... research and... medical education.” Is he suggesting that the bourgeoisie would have opposed these initiatives without the intervention of the social reformers?

Then he turns to the gains of labor, noting that the “earnings of industrial workers have risen by nine times between 1890 and 1996... while hours of work per year have declined dramatically.” Evidently, we are just to assume that this improvement was due to social reform, although Fogel only claims that unions were able to raise compensation for their members “by an estimated 15 percent” over the wages of non-union members.

Of course, the real driving force has been education, according to university professor Fogel. He takes credit for universal government elementary education in promoting greater welfare. But there is a growing literature that asserts that primary education was almost universal before the government takeover around 1870, and that education standards since then have uniformly declined as the enthusiasm of the education reformers has been dissipated into bureaucracy and special interest rent-seeking. No doubt there has been a massive increase in education, and a stunning increase in taxpayer funding of education at all levels from elementary school to graduate research. Yet today the United States must import planeloads of technological talent from overseas to staff the new economy.

So much for the successes. When it comes to the discussion of the failure of social reform, Fogel is frank. “Such problems [in cities] as drug addiction, alcoholism, births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken families, violent teenage death, and crime are generally more severe today than they were a century ago.” “Oddly [sic], the sharpest increases in indicators of moral decay came after, not before, the ‘war on poverty’ of the 1960s and 1970s.” Fogel is frank about the reason for the failure: “Poverty [was seen by the social reformers as] not a personal failure, but a failure of society, and evil would have to be seen, not as a personal sin, but as a sin of society.” In other words, the social reformers were flat wrong.

The truth has to be faced, he writes. The nation is suffering from spiritual inequality. What is needed, he says, is a program of spiritual equality using the team of experts, professors, and activists that so successfully implemented the material equality achieved in the previous century. It will correct the huge inequality in non-material resources, the “maldistribution of vital spiritual resources,” and provide the poor in spirit with fifteen spiritual values such as a “sense of purpose,” a “vision of opportunity,” a “sense of the mainstream of work and life,” a “strong family ethic,” “a sense of community,” “a capacity to engage with diverse groups,” a “sense of benevolence,” “a sense of discipline,” a “capacity to focus and concentrate one’s efforts,” a “capacity to resist the lure of hedonism,” a “capacity for self-education,” “a thirst for knowledge,” “an appreciation of quality,” and “self-esteem.” Experts and elitists will provide “spiritual enrichment of nursery and day care” for, after all, “some young mothers and fathers are too deprived, or too young, to call on their own life experiences to transmit a sense of discipline” etc. to their children. In the new millennium, people will be less focused on “earnwork,” work performed primarily to earn money, and more upon “volwork,” work done to satisfy their personal needs and interests. We will need a program to dismantle standard working hours, fund abundant leisure, health care, lifetime learning, and democratize self-realization. “At the dawn of the new millennium it is necessary to address... the struggle for self realization, the desire for a deeper meaning in life than... consumer durables and the pursuit of pleasure.”

With this, the liberal program would indeed be complete. The government, already guarantor of material prosperity, would assume the role of spiritual counselor and minister New Age nostrums to a populace now completely dependent on government, materially, spiritually and morally.

If that were all (and it’s certainly more than enough) Fogel’s book could be called The Future of Egalitarianism. But he understands that not only have liberals failed on the spiritual front, but that a number of Americans are pretty upset about it. Unless he and his liberal buddies can learn some fancy footwork, there is a danger that the whole liberal edifice that has done so much good and done so well for its advocates might be rolled back by the Religious Right in unholy alliance with assorted other Rights. Fogel may be able to convince himself that the record of Progressivism is a glorious success marred by one little minor failure, but others might find grounds for evaluating his whole program as a fraud that claimed credit for improvements that would have happened anyway, and then used the fraudulent results as a qualification for fixing the failure that was a direct result of policy errors. Fogel needs to distract his audience; he needs a dodge. To do this, he reaches for a theory of politics developed in the 1970s by history professor William G. McLoughlin.

McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform proposed that the great political realignments in the United States have always been anticipated by a period of spiritual renewal. The Puritan Awakening of 1610-1640 provoked the English Civil War and the exodus of the “godly” to the American colonies, and the Great Awakening of 1738-40 provoked the notorious political alignment that began with the Declaration of Independence. In 1800-1830, the Second Great Awakening gave birth to the abolition and temperance movements that provoked the political realignment of the 1850s and the US Civil War. These were grass-roots movements; they stirred millions and changed millions of lives.

The Third Great Awakening, he wrote, began in the Progressive era, starting about 1890, and it inspired the twentieth century era of social reform and the New Deal realignment that ushered in the welfare state. But here McLoughlin had to deal with an inconvenient fact. The Progressives and their allies the Social Gospelers were not grass-roots activists. They were college professors and middle class social activists. How did they fit into a paradigm of grass roots religious movements driving politics? McLoughlin had an explanation. He found that the religious phase of each Awakening began with agitation among the “old lights” (the revivalists) but the political phase was managed by “new lights” (the enlightened reformers who had the skills to manage change).

Picking up McLoughlin’s model, Fogel decides that in the Progressive era, the revivalists like Billy Sunday identified the spiritual malaise, and then the enlightened Progressives developed the programs that resulted in the improvements of life expectancy, health, labor rights, and education that we all enjoy today. They just screwed up on the spiritual front.

Then he applies the model to the present spiritual malaise. In the 1950s, the “old lights” like Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale identified a moral crisis. Excellent! Fogel and his crew of “new light” neo-progressives will develop a program of spiritual equality that will solve the problem, just like the Third Great Awakening in the original Progressive era.

Thanks, but no thanks. What Fogel doesn’t tell us, perhaps because he doesn’t know, is that back in 1900 America already had a functioning system of material and spiritual welfare. It was a great sprawling web of churches, missions, fraternal organizations, labor unions, orphanages, charities, foundations, and neighbors. Even in the big cities the immigrants set up a dense network of mutual aid organizations. During the next century, Progressives and their allies nationalized the material side of this system and, in a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, effectively destroyed the spiritual welfare system that was invisibly integrated with it. Conveniently ignorant of the inconvenient past, Fogel is shocked to discover the chaos left by the Progressive wrecking crew and wants to start up a government program to clean up the mess.

That brings us back to the initial problem. Even if the Progressives were not guilty of destroying the spiritual welfare system over the last century, and even if Fogel’s vision of a national spiritual welfare system should prove the most wonderful thing in the world, it still amounts to a national church of positive self-esteem. What is it about “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” that isn’t clear to these liberals?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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