Sunday, August 05, 2018

John Dewey at his Marxian and democratic best

Hilary Putnam shares a passage from John Dewey at his Marxian and democratic best:
“Dewey’s social philosophy is not simply a restatement of classical liberalism; for, as Dewey says, the real fallacy of classical liberalism [a fallacy which persists with vengeance in neoliberalism]
‘lies in the notion that individuals have such a native or original endowment of rights, powers, and wants that all that is required on the side of institutions and laws is to eliminate the obstructions they offer to the ‘free’ play of the natural equipment of individuals [if you will, the ‘libertarian fallacy’]. The removal of obstructions did have a liberating effect upon such individuals [e.g., the bourgeoisie and the nobility, including declassed aristocrats, with some trickle down and spillover effects on some members of the lower classes] as were antecedently possessed of the means, intellectual and economic, to take advantage of the changed social conditions, but left all others at the mercy of the new social conditions brought about by the free powers of those advantageously situated. The notion that men are equally free to act if only the same legal arrangements apply equally to all—irrespective of differences in education, and command of capital, and that control of the social environment which is furnished by the institution of property—is a pure absurdity, as facts have demonstrated. Since actual, that is, effective, rights and demands are products of interactions and are not found in the original and isolated constitution of human nature, whether moral or psychological, mere elimination of obstructions is not enough. The latter merely liberates force and ability as it happens to be distributed by past accidents of history. The ‘free’ action operates disastrously as far as the many are concerned. The only possible conclusion, both intellectually and practically, is that the attainment of freedom conceived as a power to act in accord with choice turns upon positive and constructive changes in social arrangements.’
We too often forget that Dewey was a radical democrat, not a radical scoffer at ‘bourgeois democracy.’ For Dewey the democracy that we have is not something to be spurned, but also not something to be satisfied with. The democracy that we have is an emblem of what could be. What could be is a society which develops the capacities of all its men and women to think for themselves, to participate in the design and testing of social policies, and to judge results.” — From Putnam’s Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992): 199.


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