Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives.

What makes for a successful public-sector workplace? 

By Monte Bute

January 13, 2017

Wherever we work, employers use a fundamental mission to shape our daily labor. For the private sector, it is profit maximization. For nonprofits, it is service to others. For the public sector, well, that has become increasingly murky. I contend that the purpose of public employment is a stewardship of the common good.

However, the means by which an organization seeks to achieve those various ends is more important than the goal itself. Means reflect a workplace’s ethos, its character, moral nature, or norms. In other words, an ethos is the oxygen of an organization, the cognitive, sensory, and emotional atmosphere that envelops our daily work — and it may be benign or malignant.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all successful workplaces are alike; each unsuccessful workplace is unsuccessful in its own way. Having been in the public sector for 33 years, I will attempt to sketch what makes for a successful public workplace, and what may derail it. I will use as an example my employer, Metropolitan State University.

At a tipping point

While our new president, Ginny Arthur, is a strong advocate of stewardship, our institutional ethos is currently at a tipping point. In 2016, the administration proposed measures to resolve a significant budget shortfall. The faculty union pushed back, rejecting changes to the status quo. Management claimed that these solutions were temporary measures; some faculty saw a Trojan horse, a hidden agenda for an irreversible reduction of compensation. Compromise became elusive.

Consequently, the administration went ahead and made cutbacks that the union did not agree to, adding toxins to the atmosphere. In turn, the faculty’s rampant mistrust of management’s motives is further polluting the institution’s ethos.

The faculty is not exempt from self-scrutiny. While we deserve a just wage for our labors of stewardship, do we have any obligation to shoulder part of a shortfall that was not of our making? Under normal circumstances, the faculty has a right to seek whatever compensation is available. In a financial emergency, does that still hold true?

Distortions abound

Welcome to a hall of mirrors, where distortions abound. Nearly every fact in this workplace drama is contestable: The cause and scope of the budget crisis; the parties responsible for it; the appropriateness of responses to it; the need for faculty to share its burden. Is there a way out of this impasse?

What every organization needs to avoid is an institutional ethos that fosters a constant zero-sum game; rather, what it requires is an ethos where both managers and employees agree that everyone is in this together. However, that also means everyone, from the president to the janitor, is accountable for his or her fair share of the load. If the distribution of that burden is unjust (or perceived as unjust), discontent spreads like a contagion.

That often leads to conflict, something that is too often discouraged. Conflict is essential for the well-being of any institution. The distinction that we fail to make clear enough is between realistic and constructive conflict and unrealistic and destructive conflict. The former actually fosters a positive ethos; the latter is nihilistic and the enemy of all organizations.

A successful public workplace needs both an aspirational mission and a corresponding ethos that encourages both managers and employees to walk the walk. Will Metro State resolve its present discord in a manner that strengthens its long-term heritage of stewardship? Conversely, will ongoing strife push the university into a future of zero-sum hostilities? It could go either way. The onus is upon the leaders and followers of the institution’s various constituencies.

Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. This article reflects his opinions alone.

With multiple symptoms worsening, I went to Mayo Clinic for a week of testing: Heart disease stable; cancer in remission; kidney disease no change; emphysema still moderately severe; congestive heart failure steady. Extensive testing provided no answer for the mysterious neurological episode in July.
In the depths of seasonal affect disorder, I was at the end of my tether. The fatigue persisted, requiring 15-16 hours of sleep a day. Fogged in, my mind could not navigate. My legs and feet were shackled by neuropathy. Panicked thoughts of retirement and assisted living fluttered about.
As I was leaving, they gave me an, “Oh, by the way. We want you to return next week for an overnight sleep study.” I packed my jammies and a supply of dark chocolate and headed back to Rochester. The next morning, I met with the Doctor. Disturbed by the pattern of my sleep APNA, he dramatically re-calibrated my CPAP machine.
One should never underestimate the power of mere chance. Day by day, the fatigue is diminishing, the fog is lifting, and mere numbness is replacing the shackles. I am on the road again: Vitality, quick-witted repartee, and the foolish illusion of invincibility are back.
“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must
imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays”
  • This NY Times column captures Rorty’s lament about the cultural left’s abandonment of economic justice.
During my adult life, it has been a rare week when I didn’t visit at least a couple of used book stores. I suffer from Biblioholism: n. [BIBLIO + HOLISM] book, of books: the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess. I have always been steadfast in resisting treatment for my passion.
Since July, I have been so consumed by illness that I have not even thought of a used bookstore. On Saturday the old urge was upon me. While it was exhausting, I ventured out for a couple of hours. Immersion in that sacred space lifted the fog and fatigue a bit. I bought volumes on Hume and Arendt and came home and read some Chekhov.
I concur with Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

If the author is correct, constitutional democracy will protect us from the worst possible abuses. If he is wrong, within four years we will be well on our way to American Fascism . . .

I am old and should know better. It is my annual season of despair and my health is in decline. As I wallow in an insecure and stagnant limbo, I escape into second and third-rate literature. Yesterday I thought, enough is enough. Late last night, I went to my shelves and picked out one of the great novels of the 20th century that I had never read (one reason why personal libraries are never obsolete). After an hour of reading, I fell into a deep sleep. My dreams were vibrant and exhilarating. For the first morning in nearly two months, I awoke with anticipation and firing on all eight cylinders (I am an old-fashioned, large engine. Yes, I consume an inordinate amount of fuel but, on the open road, it is worth the expenditure of my energy.). Great literature is a balm that soothes the soul.
Love in the time of cholera

“The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin 1963

“The Portable Hannah Arendt”
“Facing Unpleasant Facts” George Orwell
“Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom”
“The Heart of William James”
Reinhold Niebuhr: “Major Works on Religion and Politiacs”

COMMENTARY 383871161

Is MnSCU (as it’s been known) ‘too big to fail’?

The numbers say it’s an ailing behemoth. Its management is engaged in some peculiar responses. (Such as desperate rebranding.) 


The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system is the nation’s fifth-largest higher education conglomerate, educating nearly 400,000 students annually, with 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses, more than 16,000 employees, and an annual budget of $1.9 billion. Chancellor Steven Rosenstone proudly proclaims that he is running a $2 billion business.

Is this behemoth “too big to fail”? A comparison with the big banks is not rhetorical. In 2015, MnSCU announced that 11 of its 31 institutions had failed a financial stress test; four universities and seven colleges had to submit financial recovery plans to the MnSCU office.

In January 2016, the situation was even direr when 19 schools failed the test, with 10 of them in particularly bad shape. This year, six of seven universities and 13 of 24 colleges are operating under strict financial monitoring.

Providing further evidence that this is not a short-term crisis, MnSCU recently announced that it projects a shortfall of between $66 million and $475 million by 2025. The only variable accounting for the differential at this time is whether the market will bear even higher student tuition rates.

Completing a trifecta of doom and gloom is a loss of student market share. From a peak enrollment in 2011 of 158,000, attendance had dropped to only 139,000 by 2015, a decline of 12 percent.

In a report from the Workgroup on Long-Term Financial Stability to the Board of Trustees (which is meeting this week), MnSCU’s management team attempts to deflect responsibility for the fiscal disaster, blaming instead external factors such as a structural decline in state appropriations, tuition freezes and declining enrollment.

MnSCU’s management team would do well to heed Shakespeare: “The fault, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The administration’s claim of a long-term decline in state appropriations is an argument of half-truths. While the biennial funding for 2010-11 and 2012-13 did drop precipitously and appeared to be flatlining, it has little contemporary relevance for MnSCU’s current mismanagement.

The evidence is clear that under Gov. Mark Dayton, the last two biennial budgets indicate that a structural increase in higher education funding is underway. MnSCU received a 9.4 percent increase in 2014-15 and another bump of 9.5 percent for 2016-17. While uncertain as of this writing, the governor’s final biennial budget request in 2017 likely will again call for a double-digit increase for higher education.

In order to offset a decline in state funding for higher education in the early 2000s, MnSCU imposed wildly disproportionate increases in student tuition rates. By 2014, students and legislators finally had had enough. The governor and the Legislature imposed a tuition freeze for 2014-15. For that biennium, the state designated $78 million to subsidize MnSCU for the loss of tuition. MnSCU received an additional $100 million to cover the bulk of further tuition relief for 2016-17.

MnSCU’s persistent claim of financial harm from the tuition freezes is, at best, disingenuous. The system behaves as if the freeze in the current biennium will bankrupt it. Please. After more than a decade of using tuition increases as a limitless ATM, MnSCU need cover only an additional $21 million of tuition relief — mere chump change in a $1.9 billion budget.

MnSCU is now searching for an explanation for the dramatic decline in student enrollment since 2011. Really? From 2002-03 to 2012-13, state appropriations declined by 9.3 percent. During the same years, tuition for college students jumped 77 percent and for university students 87 percent. Unable to keep up any longer with the tuition increases, some students prudently exited MnSCU colleges and universities.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Rosenstone’s first act of desperation came in 2013 when he (unbeknown even to the Board of Trustees) signed a $2 million consulting contract with the multinational firm McKinsey & Co. The firm then wrote the script for a covert systemwide initiative directed by Rosenstone called “Charting the Future.”

Forty-six stakeholders who were members of a task force believed that they were full participants in an ensuing process. Only later, after devoting hundreds of hours to the task, did they learn of their deception by an elaborate charade. All of their work had been for naught, as the secret McKinsey plan superseded their efforts.

To this day, MnSCU has not revealed to the public what the $2 million bought. MnSCU’s administration will not disclose the report for “proprietary” reasons.

Under constant scrutiny from a wide range of stakeholders for its missteps, MnSCU recently grasped onto the latest organizational fad — rebranding. Rebranding seeks to change a corporate image. Three common reasons for rebranding are a loss of market share, a negative reputation and a financial calamity. Unfortunately, MnSCU’s situation fulfills all three.

Consistent with its previous pattern of poor leadership, MnSCU contracted with a public-relations firm, PadillaCRT, for branding research. Cost: $272,000. It has now signed an additional $345,000 contract with the same firm for the rebranding effort. What exactly has it gotten for $617,000? A new logo and a cutting-edge “nickname” for the system — Minnesota State.

Obviously, Padilla’s research was perfunctory, because for many non-Minnesotans, the first thing that “Minnesota State” conjures up is a TV show. “Coach” is an American television sitcom that aired for nine seasons on ABC from 1989 to 1997. It is still showing in syndication. Minnesota State is its fictional home; it is a university of mocking derision, run by blustering buffoons.

I have no doubt that a $1,000 prize offered to graduate students in a marketing class would have led to something more inspiring and endearing than Padilla’s pedestrian product.

No one, save the Board of Trustees and a portion of the central office’s nearly 400 employees, has much allegiance to the organization formerly known as MnSCU. Students and their families, faculty and staff members, local communities, and legislators continue to identify strongly with their local colleges and universities, cherishing their distinctiveness and relative autonomy.

MnSCU is not too big to fail. It is time for it to go the way of Lehman Brothers. However, MNSCU’s Wells Fargo bunker should remain as a historical monument to the hubris of autocrats who seek to impose upon us their über-centralized empires.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University. This article is intended to reflect his opinions alone.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philosophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness was published in 1944 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. This material is from Chapter 1: The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness.


Democracy, as every other historic ideal and institution, contains both ephemeral and more permanently valid elements. Democracy is on the one hand the characteristic fruit of a bourgeois civilization; on the other hand it is a perennially valuable form of social organization in which freedom and order are made to support, and not to contradict, each other.

Democracy is a “bourgeois ideology” in so far as it expresses the typical viewpoints of the middle classes who have risen to power in European civilization in the past three or four centuries. Most of the democratic ideals, as we know them, were weapons of the commercial classes who engaged in stubborn, and ultimately victorious, conflict with the ecclesiastical and aristocratic rulers of the feudal-medieval world. The ideal of equality, unknown in the democratic life of the Greek city states and derived partly from Christian and partly from Stoic sources, gave the bourgeois classes a sense of self-respect in overcoming the aristocratic pretension and condescension of the feudal overlords of medieval society. The middle classes defeated the combination of economic and political power of mercantilism by stressing economic liberty; and, through the principles of political liberty, they added the political power of suffrage to their growing economic power. The implicit assumptions, as well as the explicit ideals, of democratic civilization were also largely the fruit of middle-class existence. The social and historical optimism of democratic life, for instance, represents the typical illusion of an advancing class which mistook its own progress for the progress of the world.

Since bourgeois civilization, which came to birth in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, is now obviously in grave peril, if not actually in rigor mortis in the twentieth century, it must be obvious that democracy, in so far as it is a middle-class ideology, also faces its doom.

This fate of democracy might be viewed with equanimity, but for the fact that it has a deeper dimension and broader validity than its middle-class character. Ideally democracy is a permanently valid form of social and political organization which does justice to two dimensions of human existence: to man’s spiritual stature and his social character; to the uniqueness and variety of life, as well as to the common necessities of all men. Bourgeois democracy frequently exalted the individual at the expense of the community; but its emphasis upon liberty contained a valid element, which transcended its excessive individualism. The community requires liberty as much as does the individual; and the individual requires community more than bourgeois thought comprehended. Democracy can therefore not be equated with freedom. An ideal democratic order seeks unity within the conditions of freedom; and maintains freedom within the framework of order.

Man requires freedom in his social organization because he is “essentially” free, which is to say, that he has the capacity for indeterminate transcendence over the processes and limitations of nature. This freedom enables him to make history and to elaborate communal organizations in boundless variety and in endless breadth and extent. But he also requires community because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfill his life within himself but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows.

Bourgeois democrats are inclined to believe that freedom is primarily a necessity for the individual, and that community and social order are necessary only because there are many individuals in a small world, so that minimal restrictions are required to prevent confusion. Actually the community requires freedom as much as the individual; and the individual requires order as much as does the community.

Both the individual and the community require freedom so that neither communal nor historical restraints may prematurely arrest the potencies which inhere in man’s essential freedom and which express themselves collectively as well as individually. It is true that individuals are usually the initiators of new insights and the proponents of novel methods. Yet there are collective forces at work in society which are not the conscious contrivance of individuals. In any event society is as much the beneficiary of freedom as the individual. In a free society new forces may enter into competition with the old and gradually establish themselves. In a traditional or tyrannical form of social organization new forces are either suppressed, or they establish themselves at the price of social convulsion and upheaval.

The order of a community is, on the other hand, a boon to the individual as well as to the community. The individual cannot be a true self in isolation. Nor can he live within the confines of the community which “nature” establishes in the minimal cohesion of family and herd. His freedom transcends these limits of nature, and therefore makes larger and larger social units both possible and necessary. It is precisely because of the essential freedom of man that he requires a contrived order in his community.

The democratic ideal is thus more valid than the libertarian and individualistic version of it which bourgeois civilization elaborated. Since the bourgeois version has been discredited by the events of contemporary history and since, in any event, bourgeois civilization is in process of disintegration, it becomes important to distinguish and save what is permanently valid from what is ephemeral in the democratic order.

If democracy is to survive it must find a more adequate cultural basis than the philosophy which has informed the building of the bourgeois world. The inadequacy of the presuppositions upon which the democratic experiment rests does not consist merely in the excessive individualism and libertarianism of the bourgeois world view; though it must be noted that this excessive individualism prompted a civil war in the whole western world in which the rising proletarian classes pitted an excessive collectivism against the false individualism of middle-class life. This civil conflict contributed to the weakness of democratic civilization when faced with the threat of barbarism. Neither the individualism nor the collectivism did justice to all the requirements of man’s social life, and the conflict between half-truth and half-truth divided the civilized world in such a way that the barbarians were able to claim first one side and then the other in this civil conflict as their provisional allies.1

But there is a more fundamental error in the social philosophy of democratic civilization than the individualism of bourgeois democracy and the collectivism of Marxism. It is the confidence of both bourgeois and proletarian idealists in the possibility of achieving an easy resolution of the tension and conflict between self-interest and the general interest. Modern bourgeois civilization is not, as Catholic philosophers and medievalists generally assert, a rebellion against universal law, or a defiance of universal standards of justice, or a war against the historic institutions which sought to achieve and preserve some general social and international harmony. Modern secularism is not, as religious idealists usually aver, merely a rationalization of self-interest, either individual or collective. Bourgeois individualism may be excessive and it may destroy the individual’s organic relation to the community; but it was not intended to destroy either the national or the international order. On the contrary the social idealism which informs our democratic civilization had a touching faith in the possibility of achieving a simple harmony between self-interest and the general welfare on every level.

It is not true that Nazism is the final fruit of a moral cynicism which had its rise in the Renaissance and Reformation, as Catholic apologists aver. Nazi barbarism is the final fruit of a moral cynicism which was only a subordinate note in the cultural life of the modern period, and which remained subordinate until very recently. Modern civilization did indeed seek to give the individual a greater freedom in the national community than the traditional feudal order had given him; and it did seek to free the nations of restraints placed upon their freedom by the international church. But it never cynically defied the general interest in the name of self interest, either individual or collective. It came closer to doing this nationally than individually. Machiavelli’s amoral “Prince,” who knows no law beyond his own will and power, is made to bear the whole burden of the Catholic polemic against the modern world. It must be admitted that Machiavelli is the first of a long line of moral cynics in the field of international relations. But this moral cynicism only qualifies, and does not efface, the general universalistic overtone of modern liberal idealism. In the field of domestic politics the war of uncontrolled interests may have been the consequence, but it was certainly not the intention, of middle-class individualists. Nor was the conflict between nations in our modern world their intention. They did demand a greater degree of freedom for the nations; but they believed that it was possible to achieve an uncontrolled harmony between them, once the allegedly irrelevant restrictions of the old religio-political order were removed. In this they proved to be mistaken. They did not make the mistake, however, of giving simple moral sanction to self-interest. They depended rather upon controls and restraints which proved to be inadequate.


In illumining this important distinction more fully, we may well designate the moral cynics, who know no law beyond their will and interest, with a scriptural designation of “children of this world” or “children of darkness.” Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed “the children of light.” This is no mere arbitrary device; for evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature “whole” such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. The “children of light” may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good.


According to the scripture “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It has been under attack by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics; but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor.

It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves The democratic world came so close to disaster not merely because it never believed that Nazism possessed the demonic fury which it avowed. Civilization refused to recognize the power of class interest in its own communities. It also spoke glibly of an international conscience; but the children of darkness meanwhile skillfully set nation against nation. They were thereby enabled to despoil one nation after another, without every civilized nation coming to the defence of each. Moral cynicism had a provisional advantage over moral sentimentality. Its advantage lay not merely in its own lack of moral scruple but also in its shrewd assessment of the power of self-interest, individual and national, among the children of light, despite their moral protestations.

While our modern children of light, the secularized idealists, were particularly foolish and blind, the more “Christian” children of light have been almost equally guilty of this error. Modern liberal Protestantism was probably even more sentimental in its appraisal of the moral realities in our political life than secular idealism, and Catholicism could see nothing but cynical rebellion in the modern secular revolt against Catholic universalism and a Catholic “Christian” civilization. In Catholic thought medieval political universalism is always accepted at face value. Rebellion against medieval culture is therefore invariably regarded as the fruit of moral cynicism. Actually the middle-class revolt against the feudal order was partially prompted by a generous idealism, not unmixed of course with peculiar middle-class interests. The feudal order was not so simply a Christian civilization as Catholic defenders of it aver. It compounded its devotion to a universal order with the special interests of the priestly and aristocratic bearers of effective social power. The rationalization of their unique position in the feudal order may not have been more marked than the subsequent rationalization of bourgeois interests in the liberal world. But it is idle to deny this “ideological taint” in the feudal order and to pretend that rebels against the order were merely rebels against order as such. They were rebels against a particular order which gave an undue advantage to the aristocratic opponents of the middle classes.2 The blindness of Catholicism to its own ideological taint is typical of the blindness of the children of light.

Our modern civilization, as a middle-class revolt against an aristocratic and clerical order, was irreligious partly because a Catholic civilization had so compounded the eternal sanctities with the contingent and relative justice and injustice of an agrarian-feudal order, that the new and dynamic bourgeois social force was compelled to challenge not only the political-economic arrangements of the order but also the eternal sanctities which hallowed it.

If modern civilization represents a bourgeois revolt against feudalism, modern culture represents the revolt of new thought, informed by modern science, against a culture in which religious authority had fixed premature and too narrow limits for the expansion of science and had sought to restrain the curiosity of the human mind from inquiring into “secondary causes.” The culture which venerated science in place of religion, worshiped natural causation in place of God, and which regarded the cool prudence of bourgeois man as morally more normative than Christian love, has proved itself to be less profound than it appeared to be in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But these inadequacies, which must be further examined as typical of The foolishness of modern children of light, do not validate the judgment that these modern rebels were really children of darkness, intent upon defying the truth or destroying universal order.

The modern revolt against the feudal order and the medieval culture was occasioned by the assertion of new vitalities in the social order and the discovery of new dimensions in the cultural enterprise of mankind. It was truly democratic in so far as it challenged the premature and tentative unity of a society and the stabilization of a culture, and in so far as it developed new social and cultural possibilities. The conflict between the middle classes and the aristocrats, between the scientists and the priests, was not a conflict between children of darkness and children of light. It was a conflict between pious and less pious children of light, both of whom were unconscious of the corruption of self-interest in all ideal achievements and pretensions of human culture.


In this conflict the devotees of medieval religion were largely unconscious of the corruption of self-interest in their own position; but it must be admitted that they were not as foolish as their secular successors in their estimate of the force of self- interest in human society. Catholicism did strive for an inner and religious discipline upon inordinate desire; and it had a statesmanlike conception of the necessity of legal and political restraint upon the power of egotism, both individual and collective, in the national and the more universal human community.

Our modern civilization, on the other hand, was ushered in on a wave of boundless social optimism. Modern secularism is divided into many schools. But all the various schools agreed in rejecting the Christian doctrine of original sin. It is not possible to explain the subtleties or to measure the profundity of this doctrine in this connection. But it is necessary to point out that the doctrine makes an important contribution to any adequate social and political theory the lack of which has robbed bourgeois theory of real wisdom; for it emphasizes a fact which every page of human history attests. Through it one may understand that no matter how wide the perspectives which the human mind may reach, how broad the loyalties which the human imagination may conceive, how universal the community which human statecraft may organize, or how pure the aspirations of the saintliest idealists may be, there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love.

This sober and true view of the human situation was neatly rejected by modern culture. That is why it conceived so many fatuous and futile plans for resolving the conflict between the self and the community; and between the national and the world community. Whenever modern idealists are confronted with the divisive and corrosive effects of man’s self-love, they look for some immediate cause of this perennial tendency, usually in some specific form of social organization. One school holds that men would be good if only political institutions would not corrupt them; another believes that they would be good if the prior evil of a faulty economic organization could be eliminated. Or another school thinks of this evil as no more than ignorance, and therefore waits for a more perfect educational process to redeem man from his partial and particular loyalties. But no school asks how it is that an essentially good man could have produced corrupting and tyrannical political organizations or exploiting economic organizations, or fanatical and superstitious religious organizations.

The result of this persistent blindness to the obvious and tragic facts of man’s social history is that democracy has had to maintain itself precariously against the guile and the malice of the children of darkness, while its statesmen and guides conjured up all sorts of abstract and abortive plans for the creation of perfect national and international communities.

The confidence of modern secular idealism in the possibility of an easy resolution of the tension between individual and community, or between classes, races and nations is derived from a too optimistic view of human nature. This too generous estimate of human virtue is intimately related to an erroneous estimate of the dimensions of the human stature. The conception of human nature which underlies the social and political attitudes of a liberal democratic culture is that of an essentially harmless individual. The survival impulse, which man shares with the animals, is regarded as the normative form of his egoistic drive. If this were a true picture of the human situation man might be, or might become, as harmless as seventeenth- and eighteenth century thought assumed. Unfortunately for the validity of this picture of man, the most significant distinction between the human and the animal world is that the impulses of the former are “spiritualized” in the human world. Human capacities for evil as well as for good are derived from this spiritualization. There is of course always a natural survival impulse at the core of all human ambition. But this survival impulse cannot be neatly disentangled from two forms of its spiritualization. The one form is the desire to fulfill the potentialities of life and not merely to maintain its existence. Man is the kind of animal who cannot merely live. If he lives at all he is bound to seek the realization of his true nature; and to his true nature belongs his fulfillment in the lives of others. The will to live is thus transmuted into the will to self realization; and self-realization involves self-giving in relations to others. When this desire for self-realization is fully explored it becomes apparent that it is subject to the paradox that the highest form of self-realization is the consequence of self-giving, but that it cannot be the intended consequence without being prematurely limited. Thus the will to live is finally transmuted into its opposite in the sense that only in self-giving can the self be fulfilled, for: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”3

On the other hand the will-to-live is also spiritually transmuted into the will-to-power or into the desire for “power and glory.” Man, being more than a natural creature, is not interested merely in physical survival but in prestige and social approval. Having the intelligence to anticipate the perils in which he stands in nature and history, he invariably seeks to gain security against these perils by enhancing his power, individually and collectively. Possessing a darkly unconscious sense of his insignificance in the total scheme of things, he seeks to compensate for his insignificance by pretensions of pride. The conflicts between men are thus never simple conflicts between competing survival impulses. They are conflicts in which each man or group seeks to guard its power and prestige against the peril of competing expressions of power and pride. Since the very possession of power and prestige always involves some encroachment upon the prestige and power of others, this conflict is by its very nature a more stubborn and difficult one than the mere competition between various survival impulses in nature. It remains to be added that this conflict expresses itself even more cruelly in collective than in individual terms. Human behaviour being less individualistic than secular liberalism assumed, the struggle between classes, races and other groups in human society is not as easily resolved by the expedient of dissolving the groups as liberal democratic idealists assumed.

Since the survival impulse in nature is transmuted into two different and contradictory spiritualized forms, which we may briefly designate as the will-to-live-truly and the will-to-power, man is at variance with himself. The power of the second impulse places him more fundamentally in conflict with his fellowman than democratic liberalism realizes. The fact he cannot realize himself, except in organic relation with his fellows, makes the community more important than bourgeois individualism understands. The fact that the two impulses, though standing in contradiction to each other, are also mixed and compounded with each other on every level of human life, makes the simple distinctions between good and evil, between selfishness and altruism, with which liberal idealism has tried to estimate moral and political facts, invalid. The fact that the will-to-power inevitably justifies itself in terms of the morally more acceptable will to realize man’s true nature means that the egoistic corruption of universal ideals is a much more persistent fact in human conduct than any moralistic creed is inclined to admit.

If we survey any period of history, and not merely the present tragic era of world catastrophe, it becomes quite apparent that human ambitions, lusts and desires; are more inevitably inordinate, that both human creativity and human evil reach greater heights, and that conflicts in the community between varying conceptions of the good and between competing expressions of vitality are of more tragic proportions than was anticipated in the basic philosophy underlies democratic civilization.

There is a specially ironic element in the effort of the seventeenth century to confine man to the limits of a harmless “nature” or to bring all his actions under the discipline of a cool prudence. For while democratic social philosophy was elaborating the picture of a harmless individual, moved by no more than a survival impulse, living in a social peace guaranteed by a pre-established harmony of nature, the advancing natural sciences were enabling man to harness the powers of nature, and to give his desires and ambitions a more limitless scope than they previously had. The static inequalities of an agrarian society were transmuted into the dynamic inequalities of an industrial age. The temptation to inordinate expressions of the possessive impulse, created by the new wealth of a technical civilization, stood in curious and ironic contradiction to the picture of essentially moderate and ordinate desires which underlay the social philosophy of the physiocrats and of Adam Smith. Furthermore a technical society developed new and more intensive forms of social cohesion and a greater centralization of economic process in defiance of the individualistic conception of social relations which informed the liberal philosophy.4

The demonic fury of fascist politics in which a collective will expresses boundless ambitions and imperial desires and in which the instruments of a technical civilization are used to arm this will with a destructive power, previously unknown in history, represents a melancholy historical refutation of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of a harmless and essentially individual human life. Human desires are expressed more collectively, are less under the discipline of prudent calculation, and are more the masters of, and less limited by, natural forces than the democratic creed had understood.

While the fury of fascist politics represents a particularly vivid refutation of the democratic view of human nature, the developments within the confines of democratic civilization itself offer almost as telling a refutation. The liberal creed is never an explicit instrument of the children of darkness. But it is surprising to what degree the forces of darkness are able to make covert use of the creed. One must therefore, in analyzing the liberal hope of a simple social and political harmony, be equally aware of the universalistic presuppositions which underlie the hope and of the egoistic corruptions (both individual and collective) which inevitably express themselves in our culture in terms of, and in despite of, the creed. One must understand that it is a creed of children of light; but also that it betrays their blindness to the forces of darkness. . . .


. . . . It is this fact which a few pessimists in our modern culture have realized, only to draw undemocratic and sometimes completely cynical conclusions from it. The democratic idealists of practically all schools of thought have managed to remain remarkably oblivious to the obvious facts. Democratic theory therefore has not squared with the facts of history. This grave defect in democratic theory was comparatively innocuous in the heyday of the bourgeois period, when the youth and the power of democratic civilization surmounted all errors of judgment and confusions of mind. But in this latter day, when it has become important to save what is valuable in democratic life from the destruction of what is false in bourgeois civilization, it has also become necessary to distinguish what is false in democratic theory from what is true in democratic life. The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.


  1. The success of Nazi diplomacy and propaganda in claiming the poor in democratic civilization as their allies against the “plutocrats” in one moment, and in the next seeking to ally the privileged classes in their battle against “communism,” is a nice indication of the part which the civil war in democratic civilization played in allowing barbarism to come so near to a triumph over civilization.
  2. John of Salisbury expresses a quite perfect rationalization of clerical political authority in his Policraticus in the twelfth century. He writes: “Those who preside over the practice of religion should be looked up to and venerated as the soul of the body. . . Furthermore since the soul is, as it were, the prince of the body and has a rule over the whole thereof, so those whom our author calls the prefects of religion preside over the entire body.” Book V. ch. ii. A modern Catholic historian accepts this justification of clerical rule at its face value as he speaks of Machiavelli’s politics as a “total assault upon the principles of men like John, of Salisbury, preferring to the goodness of Christ, the stamina of Caesar.” (Emmet John Hughes, The Church and the Liberal Society, p. 33.) John of Salisbury’s political principles were undoubtedly more moral than Machiavelli’s. But the simple identification of his justification of clericalism with the “goodness of Christ” is a nice illustration of the blindness of the children of light, whether Christian or secular.
  3. Matthew 10:39
  4. Thus vast collective forms of “free enterprise,” embodied in monopolistic and large-scale financial and industrial institutions, still rationalize their desire for freedom from political control in terms of a social philosophy which Adam Smith elaborated for individuals. Smith was highly critical of the budding large-scale enterprise of his day and thought it ought to be restricted to insurance companies and banks