Posts

Index And One Last Introduction To The Public And Its Problems By John Dewey

Posts in this series.

1. Introduction To New Series: The Public And its Problems by John Dewey
2. Why Read Old Books?
3. The Public And Its Problems By John Dewey
4. The Public In John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems
5. What Would John Dewey Say About Court-Packing

I’ve been promising to read this book for some time. I wrote Post 1, the original introduction, last March, but didn’t follow up for some of the reasons in the post; plus Stephanie Kelton’s excellent book The Deficit Myth seemed more important. I wrote Posts 1, 2, and 3 before I got very far into the book. Post 2 seemed like a decent reintroduction. But now that I’m well into the book I see it differently. It’s not a work of political science as I thought. It’s frankly philosophical. It brings Pragmatism to bear on the problem of government. That requires a different introduction, one in which I explain a bit of why I think this book is relevant today.

Early on in my writing here I discussed Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written in 1962.

Kuhn starts by describing what he calls normal science: the day to day practice of scientists. Their work is based on an infrastructure consisting of theories of various strengths, instruments, and techniques that together make up a paradigm. This paradigm organizes their thinking so that they have an idea of what they are doing when they do physical and thought experiments. Kuhn says that normal science uses the paradigm to solve puzzles. The puzzles themselves are set up by the paradigm, and the scientist expects to be able to solve them using the rules and equipment of the paradigm.

That seems obvious in the case of physics and biology, but it’s also true in the social sciences. [1] We understand sociology, psychology, economics and political science through frameworks, which Kuhn calls paradigms, consisting of theories of various strengths, instruments, and techniques which we use to think about how our society works. These fields overlap in politics and government, and the paradigms do too.

There is a battle inside the Democratic Party between a group of centrists and a group of progressives. The battle pits progressive policies against the centrist’s drive for power. Progressives offer a range of policies that they believe will help the American people, such as Medicare For All, The Green New Deal, police and criminal law reform, and changes to laws that unfairly favor the rich and powerful, like tax laws. The centrists include both neoliberal corporatists and a bunch of mushy liberals. They claim there is a middle ground on every issue. They argue that the only important thing is winning more elections, They promise good stuff if they win, presumably mild improvements like the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, or Obamacare. Nothing they propose is sufficient to the actual problems we face.

I think the Democratic Party lacks a paradigm of governance. There is no internal agreement on basic issues of governance or policy. [2] I am a progressive in the sense that I favor the policies they do. Those policies have wide support, but we aren’t winning. It’s worse than that. As a segment of the Democratic Party, progressives also lack a theory of governance, a paradigm shared by a large enough number of people that they would be in a position to actually govern. To see this, imagine that Bernie Sanders had been elected this year. How would he fill the thousands of Presidential appointment slots? Are there that meany people ready to govern who agree with his positions?

One good place to look for a paradigm is at the writings of John Dewey, including The Public And Its Problems. All of Dewey’s thinking is based on the philosophy of Pragmatism. [3] One reason I like Dewey is that he is a champion of small-d democracy. His life was devoted to making life better for all of us, using government at all levels.

In this post I suggestged an economic program for the left, hinged on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech from 1941 and Modern Money Theory. It still seems plausible to me, especially because MMT is based on a pragmatic approach to economics. Now I see that what I forgot was the crucial issue of a philosophy of governing, a philosophy of the reasons for governance, in short, a paraddigm.

To put that in everyday language, I mean a story about our nation that justifies and guides the actual practice of governance. That philosophy should offer a way to justify choice of policies, and a way of identifying the core group of supporters as people who agree with the paradigm and the choices it suggests. One good story is the US as the Can-Do Nation, a nation that loves problems and loves to solve them. I think that is a nice description of pragmatism in action.

A governance paradigm should begin by asking two philosophical questions: what is the nature of the individual, and how do we operate in the world. I think centrists accept the neoliberal answer to the first question: human individuals are atomized utility maximizing creatures, with little or no social connection. They think the problem is explaining why such atomized individuals would stick together. They argue that the answer is the social contract theory. That theory leads them to answer the second question with some form of compulsion as the reason human beings more or less behave.

Dewey flatly disagrees, as we saw in this post. As we go through this book, I plan to look for ideas that might be useful in a paradigm for progressives.

=======
[1] The post goes into a critique of economics that I would state differently today.

[2] I won’t air my grievances with the Democratic Party in detail here. I’ll just note that the party has done nothing for the economic well-being of people it asserts are its core constituencies: working people, unions, and especially Black and Brown working people. It has done practically nothing to restrain corporate power in any sphere of life. It has not tried to educate people about economic issues. For the most part it aligns itself with the Republicans on economic theory. It does little to defend its minor successes on social issues, and less to expand them. Inevitably the limits of action are imposed by the most conservative Senators, whether it’s Joe Lieberman or Joe Manchin.

[3]The word pragmatism refers to the American philosophy. I give a short primer on Pragmatism in three posts, here, here, and here. Also this.

What Would John Dewey Say About Court Packing?

In footnote 2 to the first post in this series, I noted that the American philosopher John Dewey rejects what we now call Social Contract Theory. I was taught this theory in school as an explanation of the rationality of the State, and it was reinforced when I read John Rawls’ A Theory Of Justice. Once again I find myself unlearning a principle I never thought to question.

When I say I was taught Social Contract Theory in school I overstate. My teachers in law school occasionally mentioned it without really arguing it out or describing alternatives. I’m certainly no expert on it. This article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives an overly detailed discussion of contemporary views of the theory. Here’s the article I linked in the previous post from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is more readable. As I noted, the social contract approach is dominant in political thinking.

Dewey flatly rejects this idea. I linked to one source for this in the first post. He discusses it in passing in his book Experience and Nature (1925). [1] Dewey discusses the nature of the mind of the individual, and illustrates it with a discussion of what he calls “social compact” theory. [2] Dewey thinks that human beings have changed as our understanding of nature and human nature have grown and changed.

The conception of the individual changed completely. No longer was the individual something complete, perfect, finished, an organized whole of parts united by the impress of a comprehensive form. What was prized as individuality was now something moving, changing, discrete, and above all initiating instead of final. P, 271 (references are to the Kindle Edition.)

He takes up what he calls the social compact, as a way of illustrating this change. He describes it this way:

The [social compact theory] declared that [the state] existed by means of agreements between individuals who willed the institution of civil order. P. 273.

Dewey says that the originators of this idea might have thought that their forms of government came about through war, accidents, personal interests and other natural occurrences, so naturally they were corrupt and warlike. A new arrangement brought about by actual agreements and enforceable covenants would be better. Dewey agrees with one aspect of social contract theory.

… [S]ocial institutions as they exist can be bettered only through the deliberate interventions of those who free their minds from the standards of the order which obtains. The underlying fact was the perception of the possibility of a change, a change for the better, in social organization. P. 274.

Dewey says that once people became aware of this, they began to change social conditions,

Social conditions were altered so that there were both need and opportunity for inventive and planning activities, initiated by innovating thought, and carried to conclusion only as the initiating mind secured the sympathetic assent of other individuals. P. 274-5

He is careful to point out that new innovative ideas don’t become reified until other individual minds come to agreement.

The wrong part of social contract theory is that once people established a form of government, the newly created form became fixed and immutable. The wrong idea is that there is only one right form, and that once it is in place, we don’t have to think about it again. Dewey thinks this idea is derived directly from social compact theory. It makes it difficult to change as time reveals new needs, new problems. It becomes a barrier to change. [3[

What does this have to do with court-packing?

Corey Robin says that the conservative movement has developed a three-legged stool to gain and hold power. He says they rely on the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts, especially SCOTUS. Each of these is tilts grossly toward the power of the minority. They exploit these ruthlessly to control the exercise of government power. Robin calls this Gonzo Constitutionalism. That seems right.

It isn’t just the Constitution, though. Over the past centuries we have evolved a set of institutions and general theories of government to flesh out Constitutional provisions. Some are simply rules of varying degrees of formality, such as Blue Slips and the filibuster, or at the state level, the convention that redistricting is done only once every ten years following the census. Others are statutory, like the SEC and the Centers for Disease Control. Still others are the result of SCOTUS decisions, like the currently disfavored idea of substantive due process. [4] Robins says that conservatives exploit these, increasing their scope or destroying them as gives them more power.

Robin concludes that the Democrats will have to recognize that the institutions and norms that got us this far are failing because the conservatives have refused to accept them, and to work within their limits. Dewey would add that the point of government is to solve collective problems faced by the public, such as the climate crisis, the pandemic, the ugly disparities in wealth, income and life chances, and the failure to hold elites accountable for their actions. Conservatives deny that these as problems and do not offer any solutions.

Robin says that if the Democrats ever take control of government, they will have to be just as relentless in replacing failed norms as the conservatives are in destroying them. The Democrats will have to create new norms, new institutions, and new ways of understanding our democracy, all of which they will have to enforce remorselessly.

I’ll just add that if Robin’s solution includes court-packing, Dewey would approve. And so would I.

=======
[1] This book is difficult even by Dewey’s standards. It’s a sort of Pragmatist metaphysics. I have hardly scratched the surface, but this part makes sense on its own.

[2] To put this in context, I’m reading from Chapter 6 titled Nature, Mind and The Subject . Dewey describes the views of Plato and Aristotle concerning the nature of the individual. He concludes that they did not look at psychological states. They say that the objects in the world and the patterns they create, and the patterns humans need to recreate them, all are given by nature. The mind of the individual is an observer and learner of those objects and patterns. The artisan follows those patterns to create objects. That is as true of the maker of clay pots as it is of the philosopher looking at human society. I think this means the self is not a subject as we use the term, not exactly a self-driven agent, but simply another kind of object in the world. I could easily be wrong.

He then turns to more modern ideas of the individual.

The idea that generalization, purposes, etc., are individual mental processes did not originate until experience had registered such a change that the functions of individualized mind were productive of objective achievements and hence capable of external observation. P. 270-1, Kindle Edition.

This is a tipping point in our development as a species.

[3] Dewey writes: “The fact that the intent of the perception was veiled and distorted by the myth of an aboriginal single and one-for-all decisive meeting of wills is instructive as an aberration…”. P. 274. So much for John Rawls’ Original Position. Dewey accepted the basic idea of evolution: that there is no purpose to natural evolution, no drive to some perfect state. Purpose comes from people.

[4] Another example is Marbury v. Madison in which the slave-holder John Marshall decided that SCOTUS was the final arbiter of questions of constitutionality. That hasn’t worked out well especially in the protection of our democracy. Consider the absurd holdings in Shelby County v. Holder and Citizens United v. FEC. For serious criticism see The Case Against The Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky.

The Public In Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems

The first chapter of John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems lays out the structure of his conception of political theory. I discuss the method he proposes to follow here. In this post I give his definitions of public and state, and a brief sketch of the argument.

Dewey starts with the observation that we live in groups of people from the beginning to the end of our lives. We are in a strong sense created by those groups. Their influence shapes us in deep as well as shallow ways. All of our actions take place in the context of such groups.

People’s actions have consequences, direct and indirect. Some actions mostly affect the parties to the transaction, as a discussion between friends about the weather. Others have indirect effect, as friends joining for dinner at a restaurant. We call these private, because they don’t affect large numbers of people and do not have any significant impact on others.

Other actions affect a larger group, directly or indirectly, or affect a few people strongly. For example, a Pastor of a church gives a sermon, which causes changes in members of the congregation. A neighbor puts up an ugly fence, hurting property values. If the group is large enough, we call the action public. Most of our actions are private. A few have such an impact that we as a society want to encourage or discourage them.

This leads to this definition:

The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for. P. 69.

We delegate the task of coping with the consequences of public acts to people we designate as officials. This point is necessary to Dewey’s thought, because the thing we call the State only operates through individuals. Some single person issues a regulation. Some single person decides who should be prosecuted for a crime. He takes up the nature of the State in more detail in Chapter 2.

The precise form of the institutions these officials work at, the selection of officials. and other details arise from the historical context. In the US, for example, we have some institutions and forms from England, others from other countries, some created here based on theories current at the time of the founding of the country, some generated here in response to problems that are specific to this place, and some arising in response to subsequent events and changes in social attitudes.

… [W}hen a family connection, a church, a trade union, a business corporation, or an educational institution conducts itself so as to affect large numbers outside of itself, those who are affected form a public which endeavors to act through suitable structures, and thus to organize itself for oversight and regulation. P. 79.

These “suitable structures”, are groups of officials acting through institutions. Of course, these institutions may not suffice. In that case change is necessary. The newly emerging public created by changing conditions may be unable to force the State to adapt to new problems This can have disastrous consequences:

The public which generated political forms is passing away, but the power and lust of possession remains in the hands of the officers and agencies which the dying public instituted. This is why the change of the form of states is so often effected only by revolution. The creation of adequately flexible and responsive political and legal machinery has so far been beyond the wit of man. An epoch in which the needs of a newly forming public are counteracted by established forms of the state is one in which there is increasing disparagement and disregard of the state. General apathy, neglect, and contempt find expression in resort to various short-cuts of direct action. And direct action is taken by many other interests than those which employ “direct action” as a slogan, often most energetically by intrenched class-interests which profess the greatest reverence for the established “law and order” of the existing state. P. 81.

This leads to the assertion that the form of the state must be constantly scrutinized and changed. That doesn’t suit the “intrenched class-interests”. It also leads to this formal definition;

… [T]he state is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members.

Finally Dewey says that the important thing to understand is that we can’t understand the public and the state by looking for or asserting the existence of special forces outside of intentional human action.

Discussion

1. Dewey’s method turns on facts, but not on the kinds of facts we saw in Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism or Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. The latter two trace out long historical sequences and use them to understand the then current situation. If followed this method we’d have to look at the organization of hundreds and thousands of societies, from tribes to clans to kingdoms, to the different city-states of ancient Greece, to the empires of the Persians and the Dynasties of China and on and on. That’s not what Dewey did. [1]

Dewey also relies on facts, but he uses facts about the way human beings interact. They are more like the facts used by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice. [2] It’s a way of weeding out contingency in the hope of finding a generalizable statement of the problem.

2. The most common way to understand the nature of the state is the theory of the Social Contract. The following begins this thorough discussion.

Social contracct theory … is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live.

There is no such a contract, of course, and no one actually assents to it in any meaningful way. It’s merely a construct. Dewey addressed social contract theory in a 1888 essay, The Ethics of Democracy.

The notion, in short, which lay in the minds of those who proposed this theory was that men in their natural state are non-social units, are a mere multitude; and that some artifice must be devised to constitute them into political society. And this artifice they found in a contract which they entered into with one another. …

The fact is, however, that the theory of the “social organism,” that theory that men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations to men, has wholly superseded the theory of men as an aggregate, as a heap of grains of sand needing some factitious mortar to put them into a semblance of order.

Sadly, Dewey got this wrong. Social Contract theory remains dominant and Dewey has receded.

=======
[1] Aristotle seems to have done it, gathering and classifying 170 constitutions.

[2] Here’s an explanation of the veil of ignorance, the basic starting point of the book.

The Public And Its Problems By John Dewey

People don’t agree about things, and they can’t always be brought to consensus on important issues. But we have to do something; we can’t just let problems fester. [1] In The Public And Its Problems John Dewey discusses his ideas for the operation of democratic government. The first posts in this series focus on Chapter One, which you can read here. There are two themes, the method Dewey will follow, and the definition of “public” for his purposes. In this post I look at method.

The basis of Dewey’s method is Pragmatism. [2] He starts with the observation that facts do not carry meanings on their face. That is just as true of scientific facts as it is of social facts. We believe in gravity because we experience it. We believe in Newton’s Law Of Gravity because of the method by which it was developed: careful observation, measurement, the repeatability of the measurement and observation, the trustworthiness of the observer/measurer, and more. In general, it is the method that establishes the law, not any one fact. This is true of social science too.

Dewey writes:

No one is ever forced by just the collection of facts to accept a particular theory of their meaning, so long as one retains intact some other doctrine by which he can marshal them. Only when the facts are allowed free play for the suggestion of new points of view is any significant conversion of conviction as to meaning possible. P. 59. [3]

The first sentence refers us back to Charles Peirce’s idea that we only have a reason to change our minds if we have some conflict. As long as we don’t sense a conflict between two of our beliefs, we feel no necessity to doubt our views or to change our minds.

The second sentence offers another reason to change our mind. When facts are allowed free play, when they are brought into the widest context possible, when we can freely put them together in different ways, we can create new constellations that might give us a wholly new understanding.

This is a step one person can take. Einstein, for example, allowed facts to float free in his own mind, and came up with radically new ideas. But most of us aren’t Einstein. We can do some of this in our own mind, but we can do much more if we interact with other people all looking at the same problem with their own personal points of view. That only works, though, if we are not committed to a doctrinal understanding which we refuse to yield. [1]

Dewey says we can all look at the actions of elected officials, bureaucrats, and other organs of the government and agree on the facts of what they are doing. That isn’t enough, though, because facts don’t carry meanings. He then describes a number of theories of the state, including those more or less attributable to Aristotle, Hume, Rousseau and Marx. [4] These theories conflict in fundamental ways. The societies they produce differ also, in ways large and small. Dewey recognizes that the theories are actually used in the formation of governments, along with the facts on the ground.

Here’s my example. The Founders of the US government inherited many institutions from England, and a few from other countries, including legal structures and general ideas about governance, some of which they accepted, and others they dismissed. Colonial governments had created some institutions and theories. There was a heavy dose of Enlightenment thinkers. There were power/money issues, slavery chief among them, but also the different sizes of the original thirteen colonies. These and many others interact in the formation of our state.

Trying to come up with a causal theory of a real state like the US is useless, according to Dewey.

One way out of the impasse is to consign the whole matter of meaning and interpretation to political philosophy as distinguished from political science. Then it can be pointed out that futile speculation is a companion of all philosophy. The moral is to drop all doctrines of this kind overboard, and stick to facts verifiably ascertained. P. 61.

He defines two different kinds of facts.

But the difference between facts which are what they are independent of human desire and endeavor and facts which are to some extent what they are because of human interest and purpose, and which alter with alteration in the latter, cannot be got rid of by any methodology. P 62.

Gravity is a fact which is utterly independent of human desire, interest or purpose. We can study its effects, and think about it in different ways, but we cannot reject it or affect it. The office of County Assessor is a fact, but it is strictly a fact for human purposes, and can be changed or eliminated. We have to consider this in any effort to understand the state .

The first step in is to find a starting point, a set of facts that will enable us to proceed. I’ll take that up in my next post.

Discussion. One alternative method Dewey sees is something like coming up with explanations that seem to fit one’s intuitive understanding of the way things work. This is how we decided the sun goes around the earth. It might explain Aristotle’s idea that people are political animals. Maybe further explanation didn’t seem useful or necessary. But, as Dewey points out, saying that we have politics because we are political animals is circular reasoning.

Dewey’s method focuses on allowing a broad range of facts free play in our minds. That allows us to form new associations among them and draw new conclusions from them. It allows a collaborative effort to make sure we are considering all of the relevant facts. If we record our assumptions, our facts and our discussions reasonably carefully others can inspect them and offer their own insights; and we will be able to check later to see what mistake we made if it turns out badly. [5]

This method of thinking about social matters is common. We see it very clearly in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt writes entire histories of European anti-Semitism and Imperialism on the way to her examination of the rise of Nazism. It’s at the root of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, and other books I’ve written about here. Without these roots, it is difficult to understand our society, or, indeed, ourselves.

=========
[1] Of course we can do nothing. Just ask any Republican.

[2] The word pragmatism refers to the American philosophy. I give a short primer on Pragmatism in three posts, here, here, and here. Also this, which is a sort of introduction to this series.

[3] Page references are to the Kindle edition, Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Ohio University Press.

[4] I’m just guessing at the latter three as Dewey doesn’t attribute them to anyone.

[5] Compare this to the method of Modern Monetary Theory, which I discuss here. The starting place for MMT is the question How does money work in this society? It deals with facts, not assumptions about human nature or philosophies.

Flood activism Midlothian IL

Introduction To New Series: The Public And Its Problems by John Dewey

In my first post at this site, I said I’d write about neoiberalism. I have held to that for the most part, as you can see from my archive. I’d say that first post held up pretty well substantively (please ignore the ugly typos). My first big step was to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I applied to a number of economic textbooks and papers. Then I looked at the history of the rise of neoliberal economics, mainly through books by Hannah Arendt, Karl Polanyi, and Thorstein Veblen, Eventually I shifted to a somewhat broader viewpoint, looking at books about the ideas of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the Frankfort School, and ultimately read a book by a contemporary Marxist and a student of capitalism.

Along the way I looked at the work of William Stanley Jevons, the inventor of marginal utility theory. Jevons was a follower of Jeremy Bentham, and his work was explicitly intended to produce a calculus of utility for human beings. He invented marginal utility as a way to implement Utilitarianis. Marginal utility is a building block of neoclassical economics. Over time, economists and the rest of us forgot Jevon’s intention, and Bentham’s philosophy was buried under a dome of math and amusing little word pictures in textbooks. Much of economics works this way. People notice some correlation and turn it into a law. For a typical example, look at my posts on the Phillips Curve.

One idea I have repeated many times came from Philip Mirowski’s book, Never Let A Serious Crisis go To Waste: neoliberalism has a specific view of the nature of the person. Human beings are isolated utility maximizers, and nothing more. This view the logical extreme of utilitarianism. We get a good look at this view of the person when economists pitch Pareto optimality and Kaldor-Hicks optimality as justifications for market allocation of resources. Eventually I concluded that neoliberalism is simply the logical culmination of capitalism. Capitalism no longer serves society, society serves capitalism.

Along the way I suggested that we need a different economic theory, and a new political theory, I suggested the possibility of using FDR’s Four Freedoms as a starting place for a theory of political economy, and Modern Monetary Theory as a plausible form of economic theory. I turned to discussions of freedom and equality focusing on the work of Elizabeth Anderson. Most recently I read another current thinker, Bruno Latour. I gave a short primer on Pragmatism, on the ground that Elizabeth Anderson identifies as a Pragmatist. I see Latour as a pragmatist too, though I doubt he does. For what it’s worth, I also identify as a pragmatist. It’s the framework I use to evaluate these texts: do they offer useful tools for thinking about the human condition.

The Current Situation

In this election cycle, two of the Democratic Candidates stated their explanations of the causes of the problems facing this nation. Sanders blames the violently rich, the .1%, for the bulk of our problems. Warren blames corruption, using the term in the way Zephyr Teachout used it in her book Corruption In America. Warren meant that too many of us see leadership as an opportunity for personal gain, either directly, as with Trump, or indirectly, as with John Bolton’s “book” or some other grift. For me, it includes corporate officials who work against corrective legislation to maintain their profits, and who condone or ignore violations of law by the corporations they lead, knowing they won’t be punished personally. These central assertions explain the policies of the two candidates. These explanations are distinguishable, but certainly they don’t conflict.

Their explanations did not penetrate the fog of media coverage of the horse race and the 24-hour news cycle, even though both repeated their theory in every debate, every stump speech, every TV appearance, and every press conference. It’s as if the reporters and talking heads couldn’t conceive of a coherent discussion of causes of problems, or why certain issues were important, and why the candidates propose the policies they endorse. It’s no wonder the average voter couldn’t tell you what either stood for.

I think the deep problem is that people believe things that aren’t true. The government is not like a household. Taxes are not necessary for revenue. The market does not pay people what they are worth. There is no trickle-down. Balanced budgets are not an ideal. The economy does not tend towards equilibrium in the short or long term. There is no separation of the economy from politics. I suggested that part of the problem is that these are all ideas that are drummed into us by teachers, mentors, parents and politicians. These ideas form a barrier preventing most people from understanding the way things actually work.

Once upon a time we thought the internet would give people a platform on which we could as a group address our problems seriously, discuss the issues they raised, and come up with possible solutions. You can find some flashes of discussion among the voters on social media, but for the most part, that’s gone. Worse yet, the idea that good ideas might float up from the voters is gone. Warren and Sanders centered the experience of actual voters in their stump speeches; but those stories never penetrate the fog either. None of this is a reason to give up.

Coming Attractions

I plan to address parts of this problem. I’m going to start with a discussion of a seminal work by John Dewey, perhaps the most well-known Pragmatist. The book, The Public And Its Problems, is available online here. Here’s the Wikipedia entry, which will help explain the context.

Here’s a link to an important paper by Elizabeth Anderson, What Is the Point of Equality, which I discussed in several posts. In one way, this paper helps us see our way to a different future, and I’ll rely on it in future posts.

Personal Note

The pressing issues of this moment, COVID-19 and its repercussions in the economy and our personal lives, are a harsh reminder of our fragility. They drain a good bit of the pleasure out of life. I have had trouble focusing on the kinds of books I usually enjoy, and have been thinking of switching to beach reading even though Spring has yet to reach Chicago. The insane incompetence of this administration is getting to me, and seriously hurting millions of us. There’s no point in writing rage posts, or yelling at the kids to get out of the bars and into Netflix and vitamin C. I hope that having promised to take up this book, I will get past the 12 pages I’ve read so far.

A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

Method

In Part 1 I described Charles S. Peirce’s view of the pragmatic method. William James championed Peirce, and elaborated on his ideas in a series of lectures in 1906-7, published in a book titled Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking, available online here. In Lecture 2, James describes Peirce’s insights.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any-where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. Emphasis in original.

As an example, consider the notions of appearance and reality. The issue is raised by a question: “How can people know the nature of reality when all that people have immediate access to are appearances?” The idea is like Plato’s cave wall. We don’t see reality itself, just the shadows cast on the walls of the cave we inhabit.* The linked article offers a number of replies to this dilemma. The pragmatist rejects it. What difference does this distinction make to any human being? What different behavior would a decision cause? Scientists have done wonders without worrying about the distinction. There isn’t a test to distinguish appearance from reality. No useful information comes from considering the question. True, it’s fun, and it’s interesting to understand the problem it presented to our ancestors. But contemplating this distinction will never produce anything that will make our lives better, or even different.**

The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.

Truth

In Lecture VI, James defines truth as a property of our ideas: whether they agree with reality. Both pragmatists and others agree with this. James describes the dominant view of truth as the copy or correspondence theory. Our ideas are true if they copy or correspond with reality. But that raises two questions: what does copy or correspond mean in this sense? What exactly is the reality we are trying to copy?

Here’s my example: what does it mean for our ideas to agree with gravity? At one point in our history, it meant nothing. Gravity existed and we defied it at our peril, and there was nothing else to say about it. Was that true? Then Newton explained gravity with an equation that included a constant that was hard to measure. Was that true? Then Einstein showed us his equations of general relativity. Are those equations true? Does that mean Newton’s theory was false? That can’t be right, because Newton explains everything we need to function in our day to day lives, without the complexity of Einstein’s theory. And we still defy gravity at our peril.

James says that people who hold to the external reality view have a static view of truth. They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses. Once they find that truth, they can construct a theory that would account for everything. It might be Marx, it might be some form of religion, it might be some economic theory. But it is static and cannot be affected by the growth of human understanding or anything else. They have the truth, and we must all accept it.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (Emphasis in original.)

For pragmatists, truth

… means, {Dewey and Schiller] say, nothing but this, THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ‘work,’ promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.*** Emphasis in original.

Truth is located in the ability of an opinion to work in the real world. In taking this view, James and other pragmatists are following along in the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances. We take Darwin’s ideas as true because they explain our experiences of the real world. Darwin’s ideas enable us to make predictions we could not otherwise make and solve problems we didn’t even know existed. As problems arise, we modify our opinionx, but only as far as necessary to accommodate the new facts, the new opinions or the failure of our opinions to work. Thus, we follow a very conservative path from our current state to the next state.

The cash value, as James calls it, is obvious. We benefit from having opinions that work. They help us predict the future. They are tools to uncover things and processes we can manipulate to make our lives better. They dispel ideas that might cause us harm.

One more thing. James says that all of our oldest beliefs were formed in the same way, as opinions based on the impressions we get through our senses from reality.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the most ancient parts of truth. … They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they ARE true, for ‘to be true’ MEANS only to perform this marriage-function. Emphasis in original.

In Part 3 I will offer some thoughts on these ideas.
====
* This is the image behind Marcy’s occasional references to the Twitter cave wall, an image I really like.

** Roman Catholic theology is grounded in Plato and neo-Platonism, including Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality. The application of pragmatism to religion is far beyond the scope of this primer. James takes it up in Lecture VIII, but there is much more to be said. See also this comment by Drew on the previous post.

*** In this quote “they” refers to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, described in the introduction to the book. Chicago refers to the University of Chicago, where Dewey taught. Schiller taught at Oxford.

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: Conclusion

Posts in this series:

The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination of Capital

Part 1 on Labor

The Politics of the Green New Deal: Part 2 on Capital

The Politics of The Green New Deal: The Opposition Of The Rich

The Green New Deal: OMG It’s Socialism!

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: We Can’t Pay For That

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: More Democracy

The Politics of the Green New Deal: The Conventional Wisdom

The premise of this series is that climate change is going to impose enormous costs on society, whether we do nothing and try to cope with the changes, or whether we try to ameliorate it. In our current version of unrestrained capitalism, those costs will be imposed on the working class*, and the capitalists will enjoy all the profits to be gained whatever we do. The Green New Deal promises to spread the costs and burdens fairly across society, meaning the capitalists will pay more and get less. This is fair, because the capitalists accumulated their wealth by underpaying the working class and by externalizing as much of their costs as possible onto the working class.

I slightly regret using the word politics in the title of this series because I’m no politician, and don’t have much to contribute beyond personal opinion and unlimited optimism about my fellow citizens; think of me as a John Dewey democrat**. (This 2011 post at FDL explains the term, and it holds up really well.) I planned to conclude by saying something like: So everyone has a good reason to support the Green New Deal, even on the off-chance that we have overestimated its effects on the planet and therefore the economy.

Sadly, in the weeks since it was first announced the Trump-led Republicans have poisoned the atmosphere with their unsurpassed and uncontroverted media. Here’s a good discussion of the attack and the results by David Roberts (@DrVox) writing at Vox. And here’s a nice piece on the Climate Change Communication website that shows changes in responses to a number of climate change questions over time and by different segments of the population.

Progressives have nothing like the right-wing media complex, and have utterly failed at reaching the broad public with their rationale for the Green New Deal and its benefits. The media is distracted by the shiny objects Trump skims over our heads daily. Liberals have dozens of critical issues that divide their attention. The Democratic Party lacks any focus at all, other than getting rid of Trump. That leaves huge numbers of people unable to formulate a coherent response to the right-wing media and its capitalist supporters. Far too many of us are unsure about the potential problem or the costs that that will come due as our climate changes.

I’ve read several analyses of the problem by people who know more about politics than I do. This is from the Roosevelt Institute. This is by Ezra Klein at Vox, responding to the Roosevelt Institute’s recommendations.
This one is by the indispensable Eric Levitz at New York Magazine; and there’s lots more on his author page. You won’t have trouble finding more.

I do have two thoughts.

1. I largely agree with this by Thomas Piketty. He writes about the disparity between the views of “voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications” (the “working classes” in his article) and their prosperous fellow citizens as shown in EU elections. The working classes mostly vote against the EU while the prosperous mostly vote for it.

The reason for this, according to those who are better off, is that the working classes are nationalist and xenophobic, perhaps even backwards.

But there’s a better explanation according to Piketty: the current structure of the EU unfairly favors the prosperous at the expense of the working classes, and the latter know this, resent it, and vote to change it.

In the US, many people respond to the obvious fact that their votes don’t change anything by refusing to vote at all. In the 2016 election turnout was about 58% of the voting age population. If the Democrats could get another 10% to the polls, raising turnout to 68%, they wouldn’t need swing voters and nervous Republicans, and they’d likely take the Senate and the House.

In my simple-minded approach, the failure of the Democrats is their absurd unwillingness to act like a political party. To take an obvious example, when Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, some Democrats immediately indicated support. But the centrists just had to weigh in, whining about how radical it is and how much trouble it would be, and it might affect my chances of reelection and we can’t afford that. They just couldn’t keep silent, or say how much they were looking forward to working with their colleagues on this critical issue.

In my simple-minded approach, the Democrats act like a real party, where all of them are on the same team, and assert that they will pass legislation that will benefit non-voters, and will protect them from the depredations of the rich and their corporations. With control of the House, they can prove they will do so by passing legislation now.

2. Movies on TV have really long commercial breaks, three or four minutes or even more. Climate activists could make mini-movies for those breaks, 3-4 minutes long, that would basically be educational, with a very light touch of activism. As I see it, the right wing relies on fear, hatred, nationalism, and other highly emotional triggers. The viewers I would try to reach aren’t hooked on those emotional charges. They either are apathetic, or are turned off by those appeals. And those emotional triggers don’t work well late at night, they interfere with sleeping.

The idea is to show the problem directly, but keep the commentary to a minimum and keep it low-key. So, we could show the heavy rain, ice and floods in Nebraska, interview people who were damaged, like maybe a shot of farmer walking through a muddy field explaining he can’t plant and the financial effect on his business. We could interview the water treatment officials in Omaha whose system was flooded and poured raw sewage into streams and rivers. The commercials would be so long that people would look up during them even while playing with their phones, and the footage would be riveting.

The talk would be short, and focused on the people damaged. There would be large easy to read captions, because I think a lot of viewers mute commercials. There would be two or three open-ended questions in caption format from time to time. Can we afford to take the risk of more climate change? What happens to the price of food if we have wide-spread flooding in the Mid-west? How can we protect ourselves from the increased number of dangerous storms? Maybe we should talk about this with our friends and neighbors. And so on. Non-threatening, easy to understand, and non-judgmental, not didactic or pedantic. A soft approach might have an impact on people’s willingness to consider decarbonization.

The idea is easily expanded to teaching about other issues, including, for example, financial problems facing the 40% of us who can’t pay an unexpected $400 bill without borrowing, or people facing medical problems without decent insurance, people forced to move to chase jobs and so on, all problems addressed by the Green New Deal.

I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but I know we have to do something new, because whatever we think we are doing now isn’t working.
——-
* I define the terms working class and capitalists in the first post in this series.
**Also, I generally agree with the views this post attributes to Sophie de Grouchy and others.

Networks or Newspapers; Dewey or Lippmann?

I’m grateful for Eric Alterman’s long meditation on the future of newspapers, if only because he correctly balances a discussion of Walter Lippmann–who has rather bizarrely been adopted as the patron saint of American journalism–with John Dewey–who would in that formulation be the patron saint of blogging.

Lippmann likened the average American—or “outsider,” as he tellingly named him—to a “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen,” and “he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” In a description that may strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches cable news or listens to talk radio today, Lippmann assumed a public that “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” A committed élitist, Lippmann did not see why anyone should find these conclusions shocking. Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or post-structuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?

Lippmann’s preferred solution was, in essence, to junk democracy entirely. He justified this by arguing that the results were what mattered. Even “if there were a prospect” that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, “it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered.” In his first attempt to consider the issue, in “Liberty and the News” (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in “Public Opinion,” he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by “acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours.” Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of “intelligence bureaus,” which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government’s actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

John Dewey termed “Public Opinion” “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned,” and he spent much of the next five years countering it. Read more