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Proletarianization and the Liberal-Democratic Crisis: A Roepkian Analysis

Fri, November 8, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel, Floor: Lobby Level, Betsy Ross I


Transformations in society have increasingly challenged liberal democracy, throughout the world and in the U.S. in particular. Solid majorities of Americans express high levels of dissatisfaction with the Federal government and other institutions, and social discourse has become increasingly uncivil and balkanized, while numerous populist and protest movements have rocked U.S. politics and society. This paper suggests that these phenomena are not transitory but reflect fundamental problems in sustaining the liberal-democratic model in contemporary conditions.

As it emerged, the liberal-democratic order rested upon particular background conditions: (1) a limited scope of governmental activity and a relatively high level of decentralization; and (2) a relatively traditional, religious, and cohesive underlying culture. These conditions have changed dramatically. In 1996 Michael Sandel remarked that “Even as the liberal self-image deepens its hold on American political and constitutional practice, there is a widespread sense that we are caught in the grip of impersonal structures of power that defy our understanding and control.”

Writing in the mid-20th century, the German political economist Wilhelm Roepke referred to growing “proletarianization,” even among those relatively well-off; by this he meant that individuals increasingly find themselves subject to economic, political, and social forces beyond their control, have little sense of meaningful autonomy or security, and tend not to be well-embedded or engaged in communities. Roepke’s thought, combined with that of other thinkers, offers assistance in diagnosing and responding to the present crisis.