Reciprocity, the idea that relationships go both ways, is a bedrock social principle.
Reciprocity doesn’t require equality—I’m not equal to John Roberts or the cop who tickets me for double parking—but it does require mutual obligation. Roberts and the cop have powers I don’t have, but the system that gives them those powers and expects me to submit should apply to them as well, involve consent in some way, and be guided by some reasonable understanding of the common good. They shouldn’t simply have power that they use however they want.
Chattel slavery and the Leninist principle of “who-whom” deny reciprocity pretty much completely: no consent, no common good, no rules that bind the favored side. They do what they want, and you have to swallow it. That makes them radically unjust.
A government that lacks reciprocity in its dealings with its people can be referred to in a variety of ways, for example as dictatorial, authoritarian, or totalitarian.
The broadest is the first, which can apply to anything from a military junta to the Khmer Rouge. It refers to a situation in which one man or group, usually one that has seized power illegally and without popular consent, simply dictates law and policy.
The next two are more specific. “Totalitarian” is the more radical, and refers to a dictatorial attempt to transform all aspects of human life. “Authoritarian” usually refers to a much more limited dictatorship that tries to protect the accustomed course of life in unstable times by getting rid of procedural complications like free elections, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.
Both try to claim the legitimacy that comes with reciprocity. They may not feel bound by the law, but they claim to have popular support and stand for the common good, or at least the interests of the great majority.
Both terms arose in connection with changes in European political life after the First World War. Traditional monarchical government disappeared because of a general loss of faith in the old order. People wanted democracy and self-determination, so throne and altar gave way to parliaments, and Central Europe was partitioned into nation states on ethnic and linguistic grounds.
The new system often didn’t work well. Parliaments weren’t effective, nation states weren’t satisfied with their borders, and national minorities didn’t like their situations. In some places authoritarians stepped in to keep what remained of the inherited order going, while in others totalitarians took over and tried to establish an entirely new order of things. As time went by such tendencies spread elsewhere, for example to Latin America.
That was then, and this is now. People still talk about authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, but in Western countries the terms don’t really fit. There is no longer enough of an inherited order to preserve or rebel against for classical authoritarianism and totalitarianism to make sense. What would the point be if the Joint Chiefs of Staff seized power? And why impose a violent dictatorship of progressive forces when those forces already control all major institutions?
Even so, a public order is now growing up that lacks reciprocity. The people who run things don’t think the Wilsonian principle of democracy within national borders makes sense in an increasingly global world, so they refuse to live by it. But transnational democracy is a non-starter: democracy is rule by the people, and there are no transnational peoples. So we are getting a system that—like the early Roman Empire—maintains the accustomed forms and symbols of free government, but has a spirit and substance very different from that of the past.
In particular, the consensual aspects of the system are becoming increasingly fictional. That’s happening through transfer of power from elected officials to courts, bureaucracies, and transnational organizations. In addition, our governing classes are finding ways to guide democratic processes, for example by controlling information and discussion, and also by defeating or at least dampening—in one way or another—the results of popular votes that go the wrong way.
With regard to the recent U.S. election the last point is extremely contentious. It should be less debatable in other connections, for example with respect to pre-Brexit referenda that went against the EU project, which were repeated or worked around, and Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, which was followed by a string of attempts to get rid of him that continues even now that he is out of office.
Nor does the rule of law have the force it once did. Courts and officials grow increasingly goal-oriented, and the practical application of the law grows ever more different for the governing classes and their favorites and for others. If you perjure yourself or vandalize a public building what happens depends on whose side you’re on.
There is also no reasonable understanding of the common good. Safety, stability, widely-diffused economic prosperity, and abolition of traditional distinctions such as sex in favor of a purely bureaucratic, commercial, and consumerist social order is grossly insufficient as an understanding of the human good. That’s especially true for a political order that increasingly claims the right to remodel the whole of human life. Those who want to run everything should recognize all human goods.
And that raises the most fundamental problem: our governing classes claim the right to remake the world. That is the meaning implicit in political slogans such as “Equity” and “Hope and Change.” We are going to have a new man in a new social order. Given the increasingly one-sided nature of governance, public life is thus taking on a totalitarian quality.
But it is an odd sort of totalitarianism that depends on the radical weakness of the people rather than state terror. We are increasingly a nation of careerists and consumers, of declining faith, disappearing borders, pop culture addicts, weak and broken families, children brought up by professional caregivers, and internally fractured cultural communities with not much in common that come together as a people only through the structure of government.
If we want to discuss things among ourselves we can’t do it at the local bar because it’s closed. If the discussion’s on social media the forum is either controlled or it’s suppressed. And between organized propaganda and free-lance battiness it’s a lot of work to get reliable information. Who has the time, knowledge, and cool judgment to do what’s needed?
Also, where does a leader come from who’s sane, experienced, competent, and well-informed as well as independent? In a credential-crazed and hyper-organized world someone who goes through the process needed to acquire the former qualities is not likely to retain the last. And if someone like that did appear, where among all the careerists would he find the colleagues he would need to govern?
Poorly informed people with no plan, power, or effective leadership can’t do much. They can riot, but so what? If they are the January 6th rioters, they’ll be pursued and crushed, and everything they’re connected to will be discredited. If they are the rioters from last summer or the 2016 presidential inauguration, not much will happen to them, but what they do will not have much effect. Why should it? No one with real power is worried if DC storefronts or downtown Minneapolis get destroyed, especially when the rioters support what the governing classes would like to do anyway. Do such events put the interests of federal officeholders or Jeff Bezos at risk?
So politics is a mess, with no obvious answers. Catholics and others who believe something better is possible need to rebuild from the beginning. If government lacks reciprocity and wants to control everything we need to work very hard to build our own autonomous zones. That will be difficult when our leaders sound an uncertain trumpet and we ourselves lack devotion and unity. But we can only start where we are, and the first step is to understand where that is. After that, the question is whether we want to do better. Vision and determination, if they are present, can do wonders in a fundamentally chaotic setting.
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