Soc Sec XVI: Democracy and Reaction

Well this is even less of an economics post than XV and in thinking on this the last couple days I realized I didn’t have a firm enough grip on the historical particulars to make it as definitive as I wanted. But still the concept is important and I could use some feedback so here goes.

When we talk about a Reactionary today we generally mean nothing more than ‘very Conservative’. But the term has a specific historical reference, it describes those who lined up behind the forces of Reaction in the years on either side of the nineteenth century. This Reaction was to specific events, notably the American and French Revolutions which were perceived, and rightly, as being systemic risks to the political, economic, and religious structure of society as it existed, not just to crowned monarchs (though Louis XVI showed that had to be taken into consideration), but to the aristocracy, the merchant and industrial class, and to the landowners. The key point to understand is that for the original Reactionaries ‘Democracy’ was quite literally a dirty word, it was considered and called ‘Mob Rule’. Then further consider that the forces of Reaction did not at all believe that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ and rejected all three parts of the French slogan ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’, at least as they pertained to the working class in relation to them. These Revolutions unleashed forces that put the whole concept of Privilege and Birth at risk, because once you start leveling things who knows where the stopping point is.

Which leads to the second point. In nineteenth century it was nearly impossible to draw any kind of clear lines between the drives for universal franchise, for the right to organize and bargain collectively, and for socialism. Indeed when the British Labour Party came into being at the end of the century it was organized specifically on all three lines.

Which leads to two questions. One was the classical economics stemming from Adam Smith shaped by the fact that its practitioners by and large lived in a society where exclusive privilege was a societal norm and where democracy was seen as an existential threat to that society? Two can the continued hostility to Social Security be explained as a simple continuation of a politics and an economics formed within a framework of Reaction?

Personally I think the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’. Orthodox economists tend to look at the world through the lens of a discipline formed in days when democracy and hence pragmatic greatest good solutions could not be distinguished from socialism and class warfare. If we accept this frame much of the mystery behind the denials of income inequality, resistance to minimum wage, denial that wages are set by power relations to begin with, and yes opposition to Social Security all can be explained as stemming from the same source, that of Reaction pushing back on perceived Socialism.