Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

What Meaning Really Means

Summer 1996

Michael Lerner
Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1996, xi + 355 pgs.

Michael Lerner fears ridicule, with good reason. His "politics of meaning" is a farrago of nonsense, one absurd assertion tumbling over another. But we dare not laugh too much: this man is dangerous. Hillary Clinton takes him seriously.

Of that fact there can be little doubt. In a speech delivered on April 6, 1993, Hillary sounded just like him. Lerner reprints a long passage from her talk (pp. 311-12), with extravagant praise.

It was, he avers, "an extraordinary speech." Here "was the president's wife willing to challenge the market itself" (p.312). Readers will have no difficulty seeing why her remarks induce palpitations in our prophet of spiritual renewal. The brand of tripe being peddled in the talk could only have come from one person: Lerner is praising himself.

The speech drew national attention to Lerner, and stories about him appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and other scientific periodicals. Hillary quickly distanced herself from her alleged guru, and Lerner now criticizes the Clintons for a retreat to the "old politics." But I strongly suspect that we have not heard the last of Lerner's influence at the White House.

As I write, President Clinton has proposed that high school students receive national awards for "community service," a suggestion that might have come straight out of The Politics of Meaning. "Honors awards at graduations from such schools should be based on moral achievement. The primary focus of ceremonies should go to these who, regardless of academic competence in other areas, have shown themselves most capable of sensitivity, caring for others, and commitment to the common good" (p. 273). Lerners views merit scrutiny, though clearly not on grounds of their intrinsic value.

Our author begins from a question: why are peoples lives full of pain and experienced as meaningless? (Lerner has principally, though not entirely, in mind middle-class Americans.) Before assessing Lerners response, we need to ask a question of our own: Do most Americans in fact experience life as painful and meaningless? To say that they do is a rather large claim, one would have thought; and one wonders what evidence Lerner will supply for his sad news.

I fear that we must wait in vain: Lerner offers nothing whatever to document his gloomy view of American life. He does at one point refer to the experiences of "thousands of people" at a Stress Clinic in Oakland, California, in which he worked in the 1970s. Unfortunately, he presents no data on these people. It of course would be asking too much for an argument that the group is a representative sample of the public. Did it ever occur to Lerner that those who check themselves into a Stress Clinic may not be typical?

Regardless of whether Lerners problem is real, he clearly believes that it is. What, then, is his solution? How has paradise been lost, and how may it be regained? People, in his view, have become alienated from the spiritual energy that pervades the universe. We have become selfish, concentrating only on our own material wants, or, at best, the needs of our families. We lack the recognition from others that we need to cure our pain.

But, once more, our question returns: what is the source of pain and suffering, and all our woe? It is (surprise!) the free market, especially powerful corporations that act selfishly. "[T]he ethos of selfishness sanctified by market-dominated societies soon yields deep unhappiness" (p. 60).

When I read the book, I at first did not understand very well what Lerner means by "meaning." He obviously wants people to change their thought and behavior in some fundamental way, but what is it? He gives the game away, I think, with a reference to the "brilliant account" of the rise of fascism in Germany by Wilhelm Reich (p. 77; see also pp. x, 88, and Jewish Renewal [New York: Harper Perennial, 1994] p. 194). It is Reich, I suggest, who provides the key to Lerners thought; and a brief digression on him will prove useful.

Reich studied psychoanalysis with Freud but was expelled from the guild because his ideas were judged heretical by the Master. Reich endeavored to combine psychoanalysis with Marxism, and founded an Institute for Sexual Politics in Berlin. After a sojourn in Norway, he wound up in the United States, where he continued his work. Among other discoveries, he claimed to have found a cure for cancer, the "orgone energy box." The FDA did not find Reichs radical research impressive, and he died while serving a term in a federal penitentiary. I venture to suggest that a long rest cure would have been a better solution.

Reichs basic idea was that the universe is pervaded by "orgone energy," a force, unknown to conventional physics, that emits a blue light in suitable circumstances. Happiness depends on contact with this force: the chief means to secure this is sexual satisfaction.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, the book that Lerner terms "a brilliant account," Reich explains the rise of Hitler by means of this revolutionary theory. The Germans, owing to their rigid "character armor," were unable to have satisfactory sex. They were hence unable to be united with orgone energy; in rage and despair, they turned to Hitler. As the proverb has it, difficile est satiram non scribere.

I hasten to add that Lerner is not an orthodox Reichian. He thinks that Reich held too materialistic a view of "spiritual energy." Essentially, Lerners system is a redescription of Reichs view in ostensibly spiritual terms. Instead of saying that rigid character armor blocks satisfactory sex, Lerner says that repression and selfishness block our connection with spiritual energy. Though Reich was, if anything, loonier than Lerner, his system is much more intelligible and enables us readily to grasp what Lerner is about.

If Lerners metaphysics is a prettified Reichianism, his economics is vulgar Marxism, once again in pseudo-spiritual language. According to our author, the "merchants, traders, shopkeepers, bankers, and independent professionals of the social middle class" (p. 35) led a revolt that began about four hundred years ago against the "patriarchal system" dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

"The new emerging middle classes," he says, "jettisoned the language of spirituality and ethics--and replaced it with a new theory of reality and a new theory of knowledge." Why did the empiricist view catch on? "It responded to peoples anger toward feudal and religious systems that had been using spirituality and moral judgments to subjugate them" (p. 36).

Readers will have no difficulty in seeing the underlying Marxist framework here--the class struggle that replaced feudalism with capitalism. What Lerner has added to that framework is hardly an improvement. He can be excused for thinking that the scholastic doctrine of "fair price" impeded the growth of a market economy. To realize the error here, he would have had to be conversant with the history of economic thought; and his efforts to commune with the spiritual energy of the universe can hardly have left him time to pursue this inquiry.

But why does he think that traders and merchants rejected religion? When did they do this? And why does he think that empiricism is an anti-religious philosophy? The thought of John Locke, the founder of British empiricism, is suffused with Christianity. It does not reflect favorably on American higher education that Lerner holds a doctorate in philosophy.

The bourgeoisie, successful in its revolution, installed an economic system that "unashamedly adheres to eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smiths view that our collective well-being is best served when everyone pursues his or her own narrow self-interest without regard to the well-being of others" (p. 43).

Of course Lerner has got Smith completely wrong. Smith did not think that people ought to act selfishly: his point is rather that the market does not depend on benevolence in order to function. Smiths own ethics has sympathy for others as a fundamental principle.

Incidentally, Lerner manages to get Marxism wrong also. He claims that "the Marxists and other leftists who attacked the absence of social justice in the bourgeois world nevertheless bought into its [empiricist] epistemology and ontology" (p. 38). Mistaken as usual: Marx rejected the language of justice and rights and was not an empiricist.

However bizarre his history, Lerner of course is right that a capitalist economy somehow arrived on the scene. For Lerner, the free enterprise economy is close to pure evil. (He at one point has the gall to tell us that he is "agnostic" about capitalism; but what he there has in mind is a "market" under the control of his agents of sweetness and light [pp. 233-36].) Exactly what does he have against it?

Almost all of his comments on the market are fustian and rodomontade, but even Homer nods: at one point he actually offers an argument against the market. He raises three criticisms of the free market, two of which have some interest. (The remaining one is the familiar Galbraithian complaint, long ago demolished by Hayek in a brilliant essay, that corporations create the needs their products satisfy [p. 133].)

Lerner disputes the claim of market proponents that a free economy responds to the needs of consumers. Since businesses aim at profit, consumers in effect cast "dollar votes" for the products they want. Against this, Lerner directs two criticisms: "[S]ince dollars are not equally distributed" the market "reflects the wishes of people unequally, depending on how much disposable cash they have available." Further, "the corporate argument is false because the market has no mechanism for registering desires by a majority that a certain kind of product or process not be produced, as long as there is a small minority that wishes to purchase it" (p. 133).

Lerners second point in effect answers his first. Precisely because the market is not a system in which a product must obtain a majority of "votes" in order to be produced, the fact that some have more money than others has little force. Even minorities can get their way, exactly as he recognizes in his second criticism.

And he is mistaken that the poor must have fewer votes than the rich. As Mises noted, the poor outnumber the rich: even though any rich person has more resources than any poor person, it does not follow that "the rich" can outvote "the poor." Mises rightly called capitalism a system of "mass production for the masses."

Lerners claim that the majority cannot on the market prevent an item desired by a minority from being produced is, then, precisely right. But why does he take this to be grounds for criticism? Why should a majority (of people? "votes"?) be able to block others from obtaining satisfaction? Perhaps my insufficient contact with the spiritual energy of the universe inclines me to be uncharitable, but Lerner seems in this instance to be a pretentious busybody.

Lerner further claims that "a product that pours carcinogens into the air" will continue to be produced, even though the majority wishes to stop it, so long as some find it a source of profit. But if the emission is serious enough to be invasive of rights, why would its production be allowed in a free-market society?

When Lerner informs us that economists call "such issues as environmental consequences 'externalities, and recognize that the market has no mechanism for dealing with them" (p. 133), one can only be astonished that even Lerner can be so ignorant. Why didnt his friends among Marxist economists, such as Herbert Gintis (p. x), inform him that market mechanisms to cope with externalities have been widely canvassed in the literature? I could easily go on, but Im afraid that Ive had it with this book. Three hundred pages of buffoonery is too much.


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