REVIEW OF JOHN MCMURTRY, UNEQUAL FREEDOMS: THE GLOBAL MARKET AS AN ETHICAL SYSTEM (GARAMOND, 1998).
Catholic New Times, 25 October 1998; on the web by permission, August 2003
The two most important social facts of our time are these. First, the global capitalist system is corralling steadily more of life and subjecting it to market rules. Second, lots of people do not like this trend.
Dissent takes varied forms. By going on strike, Ontario teachers have sought to turn back the Harris government's attempt to press schools more firmly into the service of the corporate economy. The city council in my hometown is trying to block construction of a Walmart by refusing hookup to municipal utilities. The most common technique of resistance is silent defiance, the individual citizen's refusal now and then to go for top dollar or to buy at lowest cost, despite what mass media recommend.
Dissent takes varied forms also among intellectuals writing books about the capitalist system's flaws. The variation turns in part on which profession an author comes from. Theologian Gregory Baum weighs the system against Christian and Catholic principles. Journalist Linda McQuaig writes exposés of how big corporations rule politics. Biologist David Suzuki surveys damage to the ecosystem. David Korten analyzes the human costs of foreign aid from the perspective of an MBA who tried to make it work. Story-teller Wendell Berry describes a fun way of life outside the system.
John McMurtry writes as a philosopher, a long-time professor in that field at the University of Guelph. He is widely travelled and well-read, thoroughly conversant with economics, religion, politics, and the current news. What distinguishes his contribution to the critical literature is his integration of more specialized fields of knowledge, also the logic and linguistic precision that are hallmarks of his discipline. Here is philosophy at its best, a calm, reasoned, devastating critique of the system bearing down on all of us.
A student reading this book for a course has told me she finds it tough sledding but satisfying in the end. She will have lots of company. Unlike a tabloid newspaper, this book makes demands on its readers. You have to follow an argument and then a counterargument, pit evidence against counterevidence, look for anomalies and non sequiturs. On the work of reading a book like this, the survival of democracy depends.
McMurtry's key concept is what he calls the civil commons, "the organized, unified, and community-funded capacity of universally accessible resources of society to protect and to enable the lives of its members as an end in itself" (p. 376). It is clean air and drinkable water. More than that, the civil commons is public schools, public conversation, politics and public services: all the goods whose worth cannot be priced and whose provision must therefore not be left to market forces, least of all a global market wherein a whole society might be sacrified to the profit motive.
It is a measure of McMurtry's intellectual power that the Globe & Mail has not been able to ignore him, but has instead lambasted him as a wooly-headed socialist enemy of markets in general. This book makes clear how wrong this characterization is.
McMurtry applauds the marketplace as "a negotiating site through which independent, individual producers and buyers can exercise their free choices and wills to each other's mutual advantage in an equal-opportunity framework of supply and demand" (p. 141). What he shows to be ethically indefensible is a global market controlled by a handful of corporations so powerful that they can shape public policy and public opinion to their private, profit-centred interests.
Thirty years ago, I abandoned philosophy as a career. The queen of the sciences seemed to me to have been reduced to word games in an ivory tower. Unequal Freedoms is evidence that all is not lost. Brimming with insight, provoking new thought on every page, this book is a rich and worthy contribution to the civil commons it describes.