Saturday, March 17, 2018

John Dewey on the United States, Inc. … or, Liberalism’s flaccid response to Capitalism

Apologia
Two philosophers, (the late) Hilary Putnam and his wife, Ruth Anna Putnam, are together largely responsible for re-awakening my interest in the work of John Dewey (Robert Westbrook’s excellent intellectual biography shares some blame as well). The language in much of Dewey’s philosophical writing appears deceptively simple. And some have complained about his prose style, but in both composition and meaning, his writing proves to be rather complex and provocative. As Tom Leddy states in his SEP entry on “Dewey’s Aesthetics,” “although Dewey seems to write in an almost folksy style, his philosophical prose is often difficult and dense” (however, what I share below from Dewey is not, strictly speaking, a sample of his philosophical prose). One should therefore read him rather slowly and carefully (in principle, of course, that is what one should do with all philosophical writing, but I’ve found that, at least with some philosophers, one can at once read carefully and quickly!). Dewey and Wittgenstein strike me as two very different kinds of characters of very different sorts of upbringing and cultural background, and yet there appears, in the end, to be considerable overlap, at least in spirit, in what they are trying to convey to us in their philosophical work (I wouldn’t label Wittgenstein a ‘pragmatist’ however, even if there’s a significant pragmatic quality to his later work). That is only a tentative conclusion, subject to possible qualification or revision at a later date (as I’m also reading Wittgenstein afresh).
I recently initiated a series on one fairly well-known facet of Dewey’s philosophy titled “Philosophy of Education, Education as Philosophy & Education for Democracy,” but this post is not part of that project, even if it has obvious or implicit ties to the principled democratic motivations of the moral psychology and political philosophy incarnate in his philosophy of education. Indeed, as it strikes my fancy, I may end up posting on sundry topics from Dewey’s corpus.
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Close to 90 years ago the wide-ranging (pragmatist) philosopher, political commentator, and activist John Dewey (1859–1952) wrote a series of powerful essays for the New Republic* criticizing this country’s “materialism” and “money culture,” including the wholesale “corporatization” of American life. In short, these contribute to a compelling indictment of capitalism that presciently identified its myriad distortions and deformations of democracy, be they patent or insidious. What follows are a few snippets I think are representative of the righteous anger (in part sublimated by the written word) and incisive critique of these pieces. It is utterly remarkable and equally telling that, with a little updating or tweaking here and there, these essays are no less trenchant and discerning when viewed through the prism of our time and place.
Dewey begins this series with reflections prompted in part by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s pioneering work in sociology (using methods borrowed from cultural anthropology), Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929), which was followed some years later by Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (1937). The Lynds’ case studies focused on the white residents of Muncie, Indiana:
“The word ‘middletown’ was meant to suggest the average or typical American small city. While there are many places in the U.S. actually named Middletown (in Connecticut, in New Jersey, in New York, in Ohio and elsewhere), the Lynds were interested in an idealized conceptual American type, and concealed the identity of the city by referring to it by this term. Sometime after publication, however, the residents of Muncie began to guess that their town had been the subject of the book.” [….]
*Written for the New Republic in 1929 and 1930, these articles are available in book form: Individualism Old and New (Prometheus Books, 1999).
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  • “Anthropologically speaking, we are living in a money culture. Its cult and rites dominate. ‘The money-medium of exchange and the cluster of activities associated with its acquisition drastically condition the other activities of the people.’”
  • “We live as if economic forces determined the growth and decay of institutions and settled the fate of individuals. Liberty becomes a well-nigh obsolete term; we start, go, and stop at the signal of a vast industrial machine. [….] The philosophy appropriate to such a situation is that of struggle for existence and survival of the economically fit [elsewhere he describes this in terms of a Social Darwinism, which probably owes more to Herbert Spencer and an argument from Thomas Malthus than it does Darwin].”
  • We loath to admit our everyday subscription to a “materialist scheme of value” as it would lay bare the “obvious contradictions between our institutions and practices on one hand, and our creeds and theories on the other.”
  • “The glorification of religion as setting the final seal of approval on pecuniary success, and supplying the active motive to more energetic struggle for such success [this is not limited to the influence of what today is known as ‘prosperity gospel’ or ‘prosperity theology,’ as both Max Weber and R.H. Tawney remind us], and the adoption by the churches of the latest devices of the movies and the advertiser approach to close to the obscene.”
  • “It is evident enough that the rapid industrialization of our civilization took us unawares. Being mentally and morally unprepared, our older creeds have become ingrowing; the more we depart from them in fact, the more loudly we proclaim them [among other things, this speaks volumes for the sorry state of evangelical Christianity, at least as it is expressed among those conservative white evangelicals that enthusiastically support Donald Trump’s xenophobic and racist populist nationalism]. In effect, we treat them as magic formulae. By repeating them often enough we hope to ward off the evils of the new situation, or at least to prevent ourselves from seeing them—and this latter function is ably performed by our nominal beliefs [in ‘individualism,’ in the ‘free market,’ in ‘liberty,’ and so forth].”
  • “With an enormous command of instrumentalities, with possession of a secure technology, we glorify the past, and legalize and idealize the status quo, instead of seriously asking how we are able to employ the means at our disposal so as to form an equitable and stable society. This is our great abdication. It explains how and why we are a house divided against itself. Our tradition, our heritage, is itself double. It contains in itself the ideal of equality of opportunity and of freedom for all, without regard to birth and status, as a condition for the realization of that equality. This ideal and endeavor in its behalf once constituted our essential Americanism; that which was prized as the note of a new world. It is the genuinely spiritual element of our tradition. No one can truthfully say that it has entirely disappeared. But its promise of a new moral and religious outlook has not been attained. It has not become the well-spring of a new intellectual consensus; it is not (even unconsciously) the vital source of any distinctive and shared philosophy. It directs our politics only spasmodically, and while it has generously provided schools, it does not control their aims or their methods.” [emphasis added]
  • “Our law and politics and the incidents of human association depend upon a novel combination of machine and money, and the result is the pecuniary culture characteristic of our civilization. The spiritual factor of our tradition, equal opportunity and free association and intercommunication, is obscured and crowded out. Instead of the development of individualities which it prophetically set forth, there is a perversion of the whole ideal of individualism to conform to the practices of a pecuniary culture [cf. conservative claptrap about capitalism as a unique and unassailable fount of our ‘liberty’]. It has become the source and justification of inequalities and oppressions.”
  • “ … [T]he growth of legal corporations in manufacturing, transportation, distribution and finance is symbolic of the development of corporateness in all phases of life. The era of trust-busting is an almost forgotten age. Not only are big mergers the order of the day, but popular sentiment now looks upon them with pride rather than with fear [this may be less true today, as such corporate behavior generates at least a modest amount of skepticism or distrust, even if it is rarely prohibited]. Size is our current measure of greatness in this as in other matters [Donald Trump has an uncanny appreciation and inordinate fondness for this fact]. It is not necessary to ask whether the opportunity for speculative manipulation for the sake of private gain, or increased public service at a lower cost, is the dominant motive. Personal motives hardly count as productive causes in comparison with impersonal forces. [….] Aggregated capital and concentrated control are the contemporary responses. Political control is needed, but the movement cannot be arrested by legislation.” [One can well imagine what Dewey would have thought about the prevailing ‘neoliberal’ logic of de-regulation and privatization of public goods.]
  • “We live exposed to the greatest flood of mass suggestion that any people has ever experienced. [….] The publicity agent is perhaps the most significant symbol of our present social life.”
  • “The significant thing is that the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared. In consequence, individuals are confused and bewildered. It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action as in the present. Stability of individuality is dependent upon stable objects to which allegiance firmly attaches itself. There are, of course, those who are militantly fundamentalist in religious and social creed. But their very clamor is evidence that the tide is set against them. For others, traditional objects of loyalty have become hollow or are openly repudiated, and they drift without sure anchorage.”
  • “The most marked trait of present life, economically speaking, is insecurity. It is tragic that millions of men desirous of working should be recurrently out of employment; aside from cyclical depressions there is a standing army at all times who have no regular work. We have not any adequate information as to the number of these persons. But the ignorance even as to numbers is slight compared with our inability to grasp the psychological and moral consequences of the precarious conditions in which vast multitudes live. Insecurity cuts deeper and extends more widely than bare unemployment. Fear of loss of work, dread of the oncoming of old age, create anxiety and eat into self-respect in a way that impairs personal dignity. Where fears abound, courageous and robust individuality is undermined. The vast development of technological resources that might bring security in its train has actually brought a new mode of insecurity, as mechanization displaces labor. The mergers and consolidations that mark a corporate age are beginning to bring uncertainty into the economic lives of the higher salaried [i.e., managerial and professional] class, and that tendency is only just in its early stage. Realization that honest and industrious pursuit of a calling or business will not guarantee any stable level of life lessens respect for work and stirs large numbers to take a chance of some adventitious way of getting the wealth that will make security possible: witness the orgies of the stock-market in recent days [we might come up with any number of legal and illegal examples to illustrate Dewey’s point there].” [emphasis added]

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