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Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To Form Community

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only exists in communities. Just as there has never been and will never be an ideal democracy, there has never been and will never be a perfect community.

Human beings have always worked together on joint projects as a matter of course. Dewey says community arises when people begin to share signs and symbols that enable communication. They talk about their conjoint efforts, to remember and record them, to discuss them, to take pleasure in the accomplishment, to work out how to share in the accomplishment, to talk about ways to do the project better, and to talk about other possible conjoint activity. [1]

1. He starts with this simple proposition, which we’ve seen before in other discussions of his work:

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native, even though it could not be learned without native structures which mark man off from other animals. To learn in a human way and to human effect is not just to acquire added skill through refinement of original capacities.

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

The communication Dewey describes lies in sharing the meanings attached to our words and symbols. It only works if there is shared understanding of those meanings and accurate recounting and recording of beliefs, desires, and methods. This enables the group to come to a reasonably clear view of the situation facing the community, to resolve problems, and to make decisions about the future course of conjoint activity.

2. Knowledge can be kept private, or held close by a few. In the latter case, it can be used to further the interests of the few instead of the community at large. That is the usual case in societies controlled by economic interests. When knowledge is widely and freely held, the community can give careful consideration to the potential outcomes of different uses and results, and it is more likely that those usages will be broader in scope and that the outcomes will benefit the community as a whole.

3. The formation of habits of behavior and thinking makes it possible for us to cope with a complex and changing environment by freeing us to focus on significant changes in the environment. When we experience something that calls our habits into question, we move out of the realm of habit into the realm of actual thinking, which Dewey calls inquiry. Rational directed linear thought is itself a specialized habit, learned with great effort by a few, scientists, philosophers, writers, and only infrequently practiced by them. This is Dewey’s flat dismissal of neoliberalism’s rational man perspective.

4. Dewey says that people expected that with new democratic forms of government the industrial revolution would change things and lead to greater community control. But the habit of kowtowing to the social hierarchy intervened, and nothing really changed. Most of the same people stayed in power, with some new people added from the industrialist class and some of the aristos dropped.

Discussion

Dewey’s thoughts on habit are close to those of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus, discussed in this series. Bourdieu made it his life’s work to study how the dominant class reproduces itself in ways that hide the continuity of domination from itself as well as from the submissive class, so that it seems natural and just and the submissive class doesn’t revolt. That’s what Dewey is talking about when he says that habits of thought were so strong that even the tumultuous changes of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy were unable to shake up long-standing power structures,

Bourdieu offers a modified explanation: he says habitus comes from experience and from class structures. See this post for a discussion of habitus.

ONe obvious bad habit is trusting authorities blindly. We think “Tucker Carlson said it” or “I saw it in the New York Times”; and then we just accept it as true, even if a bit of thought would cause us to question it.

Our habits of thought can also be obstacles to learning new things, especially things that seem radically new. Think about what it would be like to be a farmer in Copernicus’ time, and to be told that the earth revolves around the sun. Or think about what it would be like to be a devout Christian when Darwin explained the origins of the species homo sapiens. If you didn’t understand the methods used by Copernicus and Darwin, and didn’t understand the chains of thought that led to their theories, it would be very hard to accept them. Then add to that the threat to your religious beliefs, and the possibility that accepting these new views would lead to eternal damnation.

Your original ideas were engrained from infancy. One you learned from direct experience. The other was taught by your whole society and was reinforced regularly throughout your life. Changing one’s mind about these things requires a tremendous commitment, intellectual daring, and at least some community support.

Now think about the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. The mechanism is new for most of us. The technology seems exotic, and even scary. There are links to fetal stem cells. Management of the pandemic was politicized by Republican politicians. Some Democrats publicly worried about the possible politicization of the FDA, which was sadly realistic, but added to the idea that politics was involved.

Black and Brown people had reason to worry that the testing was inadequate, and that they were being made test subjects as their forebears were, repeatedly. Anti-vaxxers made all sorts of maddening claims about the dangers. The new technology scared people who had previously driven themselves into conniptions over earlier vaccines. Very few of us understand the science behind the creation, manufacture and testing of mRNA vaccines.

The government did nothing to teach the facts. People wallowed in ignorance. And now we may never achieve herd immunity, meaning we are condemned to a future of regular and unpleasant vaccinations.

Far too many of us have lost the ability to reconsider our habits of thought even when they produce absurd or dangerous outcomes. Prominent Democrats drink the blood of children? Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines? But I’m not sure how open our society is to new ideas at any level, particularly ideas around status, dominance and power.

As Dewey says,

Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines; a specialized occupation. Scientific men, philosophers, literary persons, are not men and women who have so broken the bonds of habits that pure reason and emotion undefiled by use and wont speak through them. They are persons of a specialized infrequent habit. P 185.

This is an ugly picture of almost all politicians, and almost all of the pundits and media personalities who cover them, and far too many of us. It’s hard to see how the nascent US Public can identify itself when so many of us have such bad habits of thought. It makes you wonder if the dominant class uses this failure to cement itself in power.
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[1] Here’s the text summarizing several pages from which I gathered this idea:

A community thus presents an order of energies transmuted into one of meanings which are appreciated and mutually referred by each to every other on the part of those engaged in combined action. “Force” is not eliminated but is transformed in use and direction by ideas and sentiments made possible by means of symbols. P. 179-80.

Democratic Values In Practice

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In earlier chapters of The Public And Its Problems John Dewey described the social ideal of democracy as distinguished from the form democracy takes in an actual government. Chapter 5 begins his answer to the question how can we move from our current politics to forms closer to an ideal democracy. That could mean minor fixes to the current form, or adding similar institutions. But if the problems we need to solve exceed the capabilities of our institutions, then we may have to examine the entire structure and make major changes to produce new institutions, laws and regulations that can solve our problems.

The controlling factor must be the interest of the Public, using the term as Dewey does. Steps that bring more of a Public into the decision-making processes are improvements. That could just mean making it easier for everyone to vote, so they can participate at the level of selecting officials. It can also mean taking those interested enough into the decision-making process. That could be as simple as listening to their concerns. It could mean listening to their ideas about who should speak for them, who they trust, and to their solutions. And this isn’t just about government. For Dewey, democracy is valuable in all aspects of our social lives, work, Church, voluntary associations, and involuntary associations like Homeowners Associations.

Dewey offers the following working descriptions of democratic life:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. P. 174-5.

Among the characteristics of democracy are liberty, fraternity and equality. These words make no sense apart from communal life. If society is just a large group of isolated individuals, equality comes to mean merely average, leaving no room for the brilliant, the incompetent, and the uninterested. Liberty means freedom from the bonds of community, ending in anarchy. Fraternity, brotherhood, is meaningless absent community. From this Dewey concludes that democracy is meaningful only in the context of community.

In the context of a community, fraternity becomes the conscious appreciation of the common goods created by our joint efforts and which give direction to our lives. Liberty frees us to flourish, to live our best lives in the company of others, and with their assistance and encouragement. Equality becomes the share of the jointly created goods accruing to each according to need and capacity to use, unhampered by other concerns.

Dewey uses babies as a way of understanding equality. We give babies what they need, not because they’ve earned it, but because they need it or because it makes them happy. When we do this across society, we are our best selves.

Group behavior arises naturally. People work together, live together, and interact. Community arises naturally as we begin to appreciate the contributions of our neighbors and see that they appreciate our contributions. To Dewey, the key point is not the physical actions or the emotions that might attach to them, but the moral implication. By “moral” Dewey means that community life “… is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.” We pay attention to each other and to ourselves in our relations with others; and our community supports our drive to become our best selves.

In an early work, The Ethics of Democracy, Dewey discusses this moral or ethical vision of democracy.

There is an individualism in democracy … it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. It admits that the full significance of personality can be learned by the individual only as it is already presented to him in objective form in society; it admits that the chief stimuli and encouragements to the realization of personality come from society; …. It holds that the spirit of personality indwells in every individual .… From this central position of personality result the other notes of democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity – words which are not mere words to catch the mob, but symbols of the highest ethical idea which humanity has yet reached – the idea that personality is the one thing of permanent and abiding worth, and that in every human individual there lies personality.

This idea, that each individual personality flourishes only in the context of society, under its guidance and inspiration, is a brilliant justification for democracy.

Discussion

1. The Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to the view that society is a mass of isolated individuals. It’s an idea which has deep roots in the American psyche, the lonely settler, the Lone Ranger, the rugged individual, John Galt and Howard Roark, Homo Economicus, all are examples of this theory of human nature. In The Ethics Of Democracy, Dewey dismisses this theory.

Just as Dewey predicted, the consequences of treating humans as isolated grains in a huge sand pile are dire. The bulk of the Republican Party detests people who disagree with them, particularly what they call the Left, meaning anyone who sees systemic racism, gun violence, unfair taxation, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, abuse of workers, and Covid-19 as serious problems that must be solved, and can only be solved if we act as a community.

The idea of fraternity among all Americans is meaningless to the Republican Party. Equality is a sour joke, a tool to help the weak and the moochers. Liberty means freedom from laws they don’t like, and from social restraints. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Dewey’s sense have no place in Republican politics or discourse. For the entire party, there are no problems that require joint action, only pseudo-problems defined in right-wing spaces: attacks on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head; unfounded and inexplicable fears of immigration, violent crime, and budget deficits. Take a look at this chart.

Dewey says that our individuality is formed by the society around us. This too is reflected in the Republican Party. Adherents are taught, and teach their children, to ignore science unless it produces results acceptable to the hall monitors at Fox News. Fighting Covid-19 restrictions, gun fetishization, attacking legislatures, these are regarded as manly and appropriate behaviors. Police attacks on random Brown and Black people, and protestors of all colors are righteous. Exactly as Dewey said, the result of hyper-individualism is anarchy.

2. Only a few politicians, mostly local, do a decent job of involving the public in matters of public policy. Think about policing. What exactly do we as a community want to accomplish with policing? I bet the answer is different on the North Side of Chicago than the South and Southwest sides. But no one ever asks, and no one cares. We just keep doing the same things and throwing money at the problems.

3. I’m imagining a series of meetings in Churches and Schools around the city where people can talk about what they want in small groups, maybe with non-ideological facilitators, maybe live-streamed; taking in reactions from the public; more meetings. Then select from among themselves two or three people to meet with other similarly selected; talking and taking the new ideas back to their groups; meeting and discussing, trying to come to grips with this complex social problem. Maybe add some professional polling or non-ideological focus groups. Surely someone has better ideas than mine.

Democracy is possible. We just have to make it happen.

The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and adjusted and accepted by the SDS, asserts that the left needs both a program and a vision. The value section gives the vision. Those values are reflected in the critique of society. Hayden says that social structures of the early 60s were stultifying. Young people go from formative experiences in college to positions in the adult world for which they were prepared.

The fraternity president is seen at the junior manager levels; the sorority queen has gone to Grosse Pointe: the serious poet burns for a place, any place, or work; the once-serious and never serious poets work at the advertising agencies.

No one questions the system. The elites explain this passivity as evidence that people are satisfied with the status quo. But how can that be if people haven’t learned about alternatives, or how to change things, or about the actual power that have? Or, the elites claim that actual issues are disappearing. But they control the media and the education system, so how would we know otherwise? Other elites claim that “democracy never worked anywhere in the past”. But “… how can a social order work well if its best thinkers are skeptics, and is man really doomed forever to the domination of today?”

Universal apathy is reinforced by the existing power structure, which separates the public from full knowledge of the facts, and protects decision-makers from the public. Socially isolated citizens have no way to grasp how their world works. Hayden uses Dewey’s language around “publics”.

The very isolation of the individual — from power and community and ability to aspire — means the rise of a democracy without publics.

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Hayden identifies several reasons for this. First, the policy differences within both of the main parties are greater than the differences between the parties. Mostly this means that the Dixiecrats are more like the Republicans than they are either mainstream Democrats or liberal Republicans. The rigidity is increased by the seniority system in the Democratic Party, where most committees are chaired by Dixiecrats, and the system gives these chairs enormous power to enforce their wills.

Second, there is a bias towards local concerns. Legislators are more interested in trying to stay on the good side of their voters, even when the interests of those voters runs contrary to the national interest. Therefore politics fails to confront national and international issues in a smart way.

Third, whole communities are unrepresented: Black people, particularly in the South, migrant workers, poor people, and urban and suburban people gerrymandered into districts where they do not count

Fourth, all of this is made much worse by corporate power, expressed through lobbying and special access.

These forces work together to calcify politics, and weaken government, especially the legislature. Image and charisma replace thoughtfulness and insight. Voters are confronted with “pseudo-problems”, but actual problems are not addressed, let alone solved, by a weakened government. The confusion and lack of results lead to worse apathy. Politicians do nothing about this state of affairs; in fact, they support it.

The dominant feature of politics in 1962 was anti-communism. Public apathy and ignorance open the way for highly nationalistic, conservative anti-communists. These people took over the Republican party under the leadership of Barry Goldwater.

Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.

The economy has a few elements of social support, but for the most part it contributes to the malaise. Hayden says we live in a “national celebration of economic prosperity”, but millions live in poverty and deprivation. Work is “unfulfilling and victimizing”, but it’s the only means to achieve financial security. We think we are free because we live in a free enterprise world.

People are excluded from control over their work lives. The rich and their corporations run the country. They dominate the fabric of social life. Government is not a countervailing force protecting citizens.

The military industrial complex is another dominant force. The cooperation between corporations and the military is crystalized by the statement of Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, who lauded the creation of the “permanent war economy.”

There’s more, but that gives a good flavor of the critique.

Discussion

1. The Port Huron Statement was written nearly 60 years ago, and 35 years after the publication of The Public And Its problems. I think it still serves both as a statement of values and as a social critique. True, it doesn’t mention women or the LGBTQ community, and its discussion of racism and the labor movements is weak. Some of the issues are no longer relevant, like the Dixiecrats. But these criticisms can be addressed within its framework.

2. Dewey says that corporations and the rich control political discussion. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the vast majority. Most people can’t even articulate their own interests because of the confusion and dissembling of the wealthy and their minions. Dewey thinks that a good society is one in which individuals have agency in all aspects of their lives.

The Port Huron Statement puts those concerns in the center of the discussion. Hayden adds discussion of the role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it. That shows the influence of C. Wright Mills, especially his book The Power Elite.

3. The critiques of Dewey, Mills, and Hayden of the way democracy is actually working in America could all have been written today, with only minor changes. Mill’s power elites still run things. Issues of social inclusion are still a huge problem. National discourse is still confused by lies and distortions that serve the rich at the expense of everyone else. It is still difficult for citizens to recognize themselves as publics, capable of pursuing their own interests. The average person has little agency. Americans are divided by manipulation of pseudo-issues.

As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs. At the same time, a huge number of Americans are suffering under a catastrophic pandemic and the effects of deteriorating infrastructure, chemical pollution, and climate change.

A significant majority of us want the government to act. Courts offer years of delay to any objection from almost anyone. Most legislators are locked into their ancient games. Legislators who have internalized the values of the rich, or who are corrupt, or just stupid and indifferent, use senate procedure to block necessary changes. The dissemblers and liars raise absurd questions like “do they deserve it?” and “how do we pay for it?”, questions never asked about the demands of the rich. Anything that works for the common good is labeled Communist. Those arguments and tactics have been used at least 120 years.

This history is evidence of another of Dewey’s basic principles: democracy is a project of a community, never a finished product.

Finding The Public In A Complex Society

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In the last two posts we looked at Dewey’s idealized form of democracy. In Chapter 4 of The Public And Its Problems, Dewey desribes some of the obstacles citizens face in identifying themselves as a public, as a group capable of organizing to solve its problems. The obstacles he describes never went away.

He begins by pointing out that our form of democracy originated in small communities, based on town meetings and elections of neighbors to carry out the solutions reached through those meetings. Waves of industrialization and immigration created giant urban communities. Absorbing and socializing those groups into urban American life went quite well considering the enormous difficulties. But:

In spite of attained integration, or rather perhaps because of its nature, the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered. The government, officials and their activities are plainly with us. … But where is the public which these officials are supposed to represent? How much more is it than geographical names and official titles? P. 149-50; fn omitted.

The effort to adapt the politics of the small town to densely packed urban areas worked well enough to prevent the nation from falling into civil strife, but was not robust enough to deal with urban problems let alone national issues. Dewey describes the drop in the percentage of the population who voted and the cynicism that many show to the process.

Those still more inclined to generalization assert that the whole apparatus of political activities is a kind of protective coloration to conceal the fact that big business rules the governmental roost in any case. Business is the order of the day, and the attempt to stop or deflect its course is as futile as Mrs. Partington essaying to sweep back the tides with a broom. P. 151; fn omitted]

This accords with what he wrote in Chapter 3. We are not so much a nation of self-motivated individuals as a interchangeable group of “standardized units”, a phrase with echoes of neoliberal Homo Economics. These units are driven into corporations or other huge organizations for economic purposes not voluntarily but by the need to make a living.

[Corporations] are so massive and extensive that they determine the most significant constituents of the public and the residence of power. Inevitably they reach out to grasp the agencies of government; they are controlling factors in legislation and administration. Not chiefly because of deliberate and planned self-interest, large as may be its rôle, but because they are the most potent and best organized of social forces. P. 142.

This obstacle is exacerbated by the existence of political machines and other groups who insert themselves between individuals and the state; and use this position for their own ends.

Dewey identifies other things standing in the way of a public trying to recognize itself.

1. Political parties don’t do policy, and policy is never the issue in elections. He points to the fact that child labor laws are supported by a large public majority, but neither party makes them an election issue, or pushes the necessary Constitutional Amendment. This reminds us that SCOTUS struck down Child Labor Laws in a typical anti-democratic action by a 5-4 majority of conservatives.

2. Elected officials are rarely held to account by the electorate for specific votes or positions. Instead, the primary determinant seems to be a general consensus about the overall state of things.

3. Public relations experts manipulate the attention and energy of the public to focus on non-political matters. This leaves the experts and their sponsors to manage political activity for their own ends. Even non-corrupt leaders use theories developed for altogether different purposes and developed in different circumstances.

4. Mass societies lead to the disintegration of small communities where people develop the habit of participation in politics.

5. Mass societies create complex problems beyond the ability of a non-specialist to grasp. Of course, the consequences of the decisions made by specialists are clear. But see point 2.

6. It is difficult to apply even a simple political principle in a large society. Dewey gives two examples. Southerners claim to favor small government. They also claim to want to prevent drinking alcohol. But Prohibition requires a larger government. Farmers want small government, but also want fair railroad freight rates. That requires a large government bureaucracy.

7. Apathy sets in when it becomes difficult to identify issues, as is the case in a complex society, especially when traditional political slogans lose their meaning. People vote against one or the other party based on adherence to worn-out ideas when they bother to vote.

8.

The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public. Man is a consuming and sportive animal as well as a political one. P. 167.

9. Earlier American communities were stable. But technological forces create instability, mobility and constant change. “Steam and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all the agencies which affected human relationships before our time.” P. 169. This makes if difficult to formulate a sense of solidarity that is necessary to create a public.

These factors have confused citizens and made it difficult for them to recognize themselves as a public with problems that require organization to create a solution. Dewey offers his thoughts on solutions in chapter 5.

Discussion

The problems Dewey identifies are worse today that they were 100 years ago. Occasionally catastrophes have forced us to demolish those obstacles, and face up to life and death situations that can only be solved as a group. After WWII, there was a brief time, the time of my childhood, when the problems had not completely overwhelmed a sense of national community, when we slowly began to see real changes. It was short-lived, partly destroyed by endemic racism and an immoral war, and partly by a group of right-wing rich people and their economic theorist enablers. It was finished off by yet another economic nightmare. Catastrophic stagflation in the mid- to late 70s was met with neoliberal solutions, and the same for the following economic crashes, through the Great Crash and the Great Recession. We were distracted, unable to protect ourselves while our nation slowly fell apart.

Then came the pandemic. While we were locked down we saw the horrifying killing of George Floyd, which came on the heels of so many other police killings of unarmed Black people. We saw massive protests often met with state and right-wing violence. We saw the horror of the second and third waves of the pandemic, and the disgusting behavior of the former guy and the antics of his incompetent administration. We watched his absurd lawyers hack at our election. Then we saw the Capitol Insurrection. There weren’t any distractions, no manipulations that could hide it. [1] We were able to see ourselves as a public.

I hope this is a permanent change.
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[1] I first saw this observation in a tweet from Jemele Hill (@jemelehill). Added on edit.

Dewey’s Aspirational View of Democracy

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In the last post we looked at John Dewey’s view of democracy based on The Public And Its Problems, which I called a functional view. He explains the minimum requirements for maintaining a democratic form of government. The text for this post is The Ethics of Democracy, published in 1888, when Dewey was 29 and a professor at the University of Michigan. It offers the uplifting vision of democracy that was missing in the prior post. [1]

This is a philosophy paper. I take it to be a statement of the ideal, grounded in the reality Dewey sees, but laying out his hopes for the future if we pursue this ideal. It’s aspirational, not descriptive.

Dewey doesn’t assert that there a foundational principle from which he can reason his way to his views. His argument responds to the ideas of other writers, using them as a way of demonstrating his own thinking. Dewey takes up the ideas of Sir Henry Maines in his book Popular Government, and Plato’s Republic. Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers took as the highest virtue is excellence, arete, in action and contemplation. I think it helps to keep this in mind as we examine this work.

Maine was a British jurist. Dewey reads his book to say that democracy is fragile, accidental, and bound to failure. Dewey quotes Maine saying democracy will end “… in producing monstrous and morbid forms of monarchy and aristocracy.” In short Maine writes a defense of rule by an aristocracy of the best people, which I assume he derives from Plato’s Republic. Maine says democracy is the rule of the many, by which he means a quantitative, numerical form of government derived from the votes of a horde of isolated atomized individuals, all acting solely in their own interest. Dewey says that for Maine, “Democracy is othing but a numerical aggregate, a conglomeration of units.”

Dewey compares society to an organism whose existence emerges from the actions of the people who make it up. Society exists only through the actions of its members, and we only know society by looking at the actions of the members. The success of the society depends on the success of the individuals and vice versa. Dewey claims that this view arises from the Republic.

Dewey thinks that our actions are mediated by our socialization (my word), so that in acting we are not isolated atoms. Instead, each of us is different way of expressing that socialization, and thus part of the group. Dewey thinks that the will of society is expressed in this way, through the combined acts of members. The will of society gains some expression through the functional definition of democracy as selecting and overseeing our officials.

The key point of the paper for me is Dewey’s explanation of the value of democracy, the ethical justification for it. [2] In the first part of the paper, Dewey compares and contrasts aristocracy and democracy, as if they were merely two possible forms of government.

Democracy, like any other polity, has been finely termed the memory of a historic past, the consciousness of a living present, the ideal of the coming future. Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.

Dewey says that aristocracy can make the same claims. But appointing the best and wisest doesn’t work. They become corrupt, or lose sight of the needs and desires of the majority. Every movement to greater democracy increases the number and diversity of the people who operate as the government and who oversee that operation.

Every forward democratic movement is followed by the broadening of the circle of the state, and by more effective oversight that every citizen may be insured the rights belonging to him. P. 21.

The aristocratic ideal is that the wisest force people into the spheres in which they can best serve the state. Dewey is appalled by the idea that the individuals in a society can be pushed around by anyone, let alone a group identifying itself as the best and wisest. He doesn’t say it, but the idea that the wisest know the needs of society is absurdly hubristic. In a democracy, people find their own way into what Dewey calls “their proper positions in the social organism.” P. 21. They take up roles in which they can best carry out the goals of society. They do this as individual persons, each with their own set of attributes.

There is an individualism in democracy which there is not in aristocracy; but it is an ethical, not a numerical individualism; it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. P. 23.

I think we would use personhood instead of personality. I think this means that the full flowering of the individual, with all the influence of society, is the driving force of democracy. It is from this personhood, this ethical individual, that other aspects of democracy emerge: including liberty, equality and fraternity. Dewey gives illustrations of the first two.

Liberty in the dominant view means the freedom to do as one chooses, without regard to any other concern. In this view, the law is meant to punish actions that society deems unacceptable.

Dewey rejects this view. Society creates law, using that term in a broad way to cover statutes and formal rules of the state, moral and cultural demands and taboos, and informal rules of behavior. The law of a society represents its will at any time. The personhood of each individual is formed under the influence of this law. Today we would say that each individual internalizes the law. Thus the exercise of liberty by an individual is controlled by the law as instantiated in that individual. [3]

In this way, liberty is self-restricted, but at the same time, the individual is free to explore the limits imposed by the law, and to seek changes. The individual is required to follow the formal laws and rules, but is free to flout the moral and cultural demands and taboos, and the informal rules, subject, of course, to social sanctions, like shunning and shaming. At bottom, in a democracy, the law is not imposed by an external force. It is shaped by individuals as one of their social roles, and internalized. It’s function is to channel the exercise of liberty.

Turning to equality, the vulgar meaning is numerical equality, equal portions of each desirable good. Dewey says that in a democracy equality has an ethical meaning. It begins with the view that each individual person is equivalent in moral worth to every other individual.

Wherever you have a man, there you have personality, and there is no trace by which one personality may be distinguished from another so as to be set above or below. It means that in every individual there lives an infinite and universal possibility; … . P. 25.

This is the beauty of democracy: every person has the opportunity to become all that they can be, and those possibilities are unlimited. [4]

Discussion

This is a strikingly contemporary vision of democracy. Dewey lays out a set of values associated with democracy that resonate with my own. I wonder how many Republican legislators would support Dewey’s understanding of democracy.
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[1]The views in this paper did not change throughout his life.

At the core of his political thinking are the beliefs that science and democracy are mutually supportive and interdependent enterprises, that they are egalitarian, progressive and rest on habits of open social communication, and that powerful interpretations of liberal individualism and democracy have become ossified and self-defeating.

[2] See pages 19-24. I’m skipping a large part of this paper, There is a lot of it that is obscure. Some of the reasoning feels dated to me. I’m not familiar with the writings of some of the people he quotes. None of that detracts from my admiration for his overall conclusions.

[3] See page 23. I think I have summarized it correctly, but the language is obscure. Comments are welcome.

[4] This conception comports with the views of Elizabeth Anderson, which I discuss in this series. Anderson identifies as a follower of Dewey and a Pragmatist.

Dewey’s Functional Description Of Democracy

Posts in this series

In this post I described Dewey’s theoretical description of democracy:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s a functional definition, not a poetic one; it doesn’t conjure up images of purple mountain majesties. It’s not even exactly a definition, though I’ll use the word. In the same way Dewey’s descriptions of the public and the state aren’t exactly definitions. I have high hopes for Dewey’s conception of government, this bare theory, this skeleton on which we can build. As we consider these descriptions we can see the limits of theory, and particularly the limits of philosophy. [1]

The Problem of the Public

Dewey says that the Public is a group of people who face problems arising from the conjoint actions of others. That makes a lot of sense in a small community. People might be worried about speeding in their neighborhood. That’s a specific group of people, a public, facing a specific problem with a relatively small set of solutions, and a hierarchy of officials who are charged with handling problems like this.

The problem is that this description doesn’t translate well to a larger society. Our huge society contains an enormous number of publics, and we’re all members of more than one. What does this mean for actual practice? In Chapter 4, Dewey says that publics are confused by their own multiplicity and find it hard to identify themselves as publics. This problem is hard to unravel. For now, I’ll just point out that this creates problem when others in a public have different priorities, and even bigger problems as more people are drawn into a single public.

Selecting Officials

The two legacy parties each select one person to run in the general election in what is most often a two-person contest. Some people assert allegiance to one of the parties, and others pick and choose candidates from both. One wins. The elected group meets and carries out its duties, representing the public interests. The idea is that the group representing one public will work with the group representing the opposing public to come to a decision that somehow reflects the interests of both. That presents many problems, not least of which is the plain fact that some of those winners refuse to compromise.

1. The schematic story hides the influence of the rich and powerful, who come to dominate the system, a point Dewey discusses. If there is a large group of single-issue voters, they can have similar power on that issue, even if their demand on that issue is rejected by a substantial majority. A politician might work to create large group of single-issue voters as a springboard to election.

2. Is there a common ground between two opposing publics? We might think there is common ground in the center, with the two wings complaining about losing. How does that work with racism? Consider abortion. If there were a middle ground, why isn’t it Roe v. Wade?

3. It’s one thing for officials to make decisions about how to proceed with legislation or administration of law when there is general agreement. But it’s extremely hard when the public is genuinely divided. Consider systemic racism. Apart from a significant number of outright racists and white supremacists, a huge number of us refuse even to examine the question seriously, as was demonstrated in the Merrick Garland hearings by Louisiana Sen. Kennedy:

Later, Kennedy pushed Garland on the “concept” of implicit bias, asking, “Does that mean I am a racist no matter what I do or what I think?”

Garland said everyone has biases and stereotypes. The department would investigate when an institution has a pattern of biased behavior that could be identified and remedied.

“You shouldn’t take it as pejorative,” Garland said. “It’s an element of the human condition.”

4. What kind of problem is amenable to solution by the state? People can claim that many of the actions of others are a problem for them, and demand state action. Dewey’s descriptions don’t give us any help deciding which problems we should hand over to the state for solution.

What can we learn from Dewey?

A. The definitions and concepts Dewey uses to deal with government don’t lead to normative conclusions. The idea of democracy is that the best solutions for specific problems arise from open-ended informed discussion. There are no foundational concepts [3] that we can use to reason our way to answers. Put another way, politics is the realm of persuasion, not of deterministic rationality. Dewey’s approach establishes a framework for persuasion.

B. I think it’s helpful in stressful times to remember that the goal of a public is to deal with a certain kind of problem.

Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences. P. 157.

Consider prayer in public school. What is the conjoint action that has extensive, enduring and serious consequences of barring prayer in public schools?

I think we should be very careful about forcing public officials to deal with abstract harms; and I think, or hope, Dewey would agree. If an issue doesn’t involve a tangible harm caused by the conjoint action of other people, it should be avoided. Most culture war issues only raise abstract harm, if they bother claiming any kind of harm. Marriage is the perfect example. Not a single person is harmed when people are allowed to marry the people they love. But denying that right harms real people. There are real problems causing tremendous damage to all of us: the pandemic, racism, climate destruction and more. We need to focus on problems we can actually fix.

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[1] As we will see, the rest of the book is about how things work in the real world.

[2] Oddly, these are the same people waving Don’t Tread On Me flags.

[3] I’ve been trying to learn about conservative political philosophy as in Oakeshott and Strauss. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it later. Here I’ll just note that systems that claim to be able to identify the foundations of political philosophy seem likely to lead to bad outcomes. If you are certain of the truth, why shouldn’t you use force to bring it about?

Failing At Democracy

Posts in this series.

One of the reasons I read old books is that they help me understand the chaotic events of our current times. In The Public And Its Problems, John Dewey lays out a theory of the democratic state, and as we shall see, we are doing badly at it.

Recall that the public is a group of people who have common interests that need to be addressed, usually arising from the actions of other people. The public empowers certain of its members with the task of representing and protecting those interests. We call the aggregate of those people the state. [1]

The origins of the state.

This description implicitly separates “the state” from specific forms of government. Any reasonably large group of people has some form of government, and the bigger the group the more complex the government. In order for there to be a state, there must be a public.

It may be said that not until recently have publics been conscious that they were publics, so that it is absurd to speak of their organizing themselves to protect and secure their interests. Hence states are a recent development. Chapter 3, The Democratic State, p. 116.

One way to think about this is that the modern self-aware public evolved from prior traditional societies. The serfs in a feudal society generally do not see themselves as participants in government, but as fulfilling pre-ordained social roles.

What is a Democratic State?

Dewey likes this definition:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s not a soaring aspiration. It’s a functional description of what has to be done. The democratic state needs two things: 1) a system for the public to select its officials; and 2) a system for regulating the conduct of officials.

Selection of officials.

In the US, we elect a small group of officials, and they in turn select others for subsidiary roles. The public, all of us, are responsible for selecting officials who will represent our interests in conflicts with individuals or groups of people, as corporations and militias. The public may fail at its task by selecting people who use their position to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the public or otherwise. Dewey says the crucial step is the selection of the right people. [2]

Regulating the Conduct of Officials.

The US Constitution provides two methods for regulating officials. These are impeachment, in the case of the executive and judicial branches, and expulsion, for the legislative branch. These are supplemented by rules that allow for sanctions short of removal, such as censure, and formal means for investigation through committees. There are statutes and formal regulations that constrain conduct of other officials, and many informal rules, now called norms. These laws and rules provide for sanctions.

The evolution of political democracy.

Political democratic states in Western Europe and North America evolved from older forms of government as the result of many small non-political developments. Dewey emphatically denies that these changes were driven by some overarching cause, such as an innate desire for democracy, or by dramatic changes in philosophical theories.

But theories of the nature of the individual and his rights, of freedom and authority, progress and order, liberty and law, of the common good and a general will, of democracy itself, did not produce the movement. They reflected it in thought; after they emerged, they entered into subsequent strivings and had practical effect. P. 123.

As an example, the ideas of John Locke were one of the theoretical sources for the Founding Fathers. His ideas are grounded in the rising economics of mercantilism, the attenuation of religious hegemony, and rising scientific understanding. He seems to be arguing against earlier thinkers grounded in earlier social, cultural, and intellectual structures. [3] Democracy was not the driving force of any of these changes. It emerged as a solution to the societal problems these non-political changes created.

Dewey doesn’t try to explain the entire evolution. He points to just two factors. First, the changes that led to democracy were driven by a fear of government and a desire to keep it to a minimum. This seems like a plausible reaction to an all-powerful monarchy, as existed in England and France, for example. Earlier governments were tied into other institutions, like the Church, and these too were feared or loathed. These institutions came to be seen as oppressive, not to groups of people but to individuals. There was already a growing tendency to think of the individual as the atomic unit. [4[ For Dewey, individualism was the result. [5]

The second important factor is the rise of science and technology. Over time it created changes in the nature of productive work and increased the range of consumer goods. People of all classes wanted more. The old rules became obstacles, and people began to question these rules and the system that produced them.

The old conception of Natural Law as the source of morality merged with the new idea that laissez-faire economics was a natural law in a synthesis that opposed artificial political laws. This led to the conclusion that government interference in property was bad, if not a moral evil, and the role of government should be little more than to protect property rights and personal integrity.

This is an overly simplified history, even more simplified by me, but it gives an idea of the genesis democracy as Dewey defines it. It leads to the conclusion that government officials are likely to be bad, so we should have short terms and serious control.

Problems arising from large organizations.

In earlier times, people’s primary relationships were face-to-face, family, friends, co-workers, church members, local people. The government was hardly relevant in day-to-day life. Its primary impact was taxes, the occasional war, and a few laws. By the time Dewey is writing, the primary relationships were impersonal, the individual was facing large corporate organizations in many aspects of life, including productive work. The state acted directly acted on individuals, touching their lives in many ways.

Group, or conjoint, action through business entities rivals the government in impact on individuals. Businesses “reach out to grasp the agencies of government;” not out of evil intent necessarily, but because they are the best organized groups of people. Even so, the power of these organizations has been controlled and directed by the state to some extent, and more is possible.

Discussion.

The second impeachment of Trump shows us that as a nation we have done badly at democracy. We elected unfit officials, people who are stupid, venal, conspiracy-ridden, power-maddened or a combination. Unfit legislators have for decades let the executive branch do monstrous things and refused to hold any of them accountable. The unfit people who staff our courts at all levels, but especially the unconstrained ideologues of SCOTUS have stymied legislative power, and have limited accountability of government and business elites with their pronouncements. Prosecutors are at fault as well, because they refuse even to investigate powerful private entities and their executives.

We fail democracy if we do not carry out our responsibility to regulate the conduct of our officials, and continue to select unfit people as our officials.

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[1] I discuss these matter in detail in earlier posts, especially … and ….

[2] Dewey discusses different ways in which leaders were selected in earlier times, which I skip. It’s worth noting that we still elect people who met those irrelevant criteria: military and religious leaders, children of officials, charismatic people, and old white men. Pp. 117-9.

[3] I agree with Dewey about this, but it’s very far afield.

[4] Think of Descartes, sunk in self-contemplation. We also see it in Locke.

[5] Individualism lies at the heart of social contract theory and neoliberalism. Dewey rejects social contract theory.

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
6. Dewey On The State
7. Failing At Democracy
8. Dewey’s Functional Definition of Democracy
9. Dewey’s Aspirational View Of Democracy
10. Dewey’s Aspirational View Of Democracy
11. The Port Huron Statement
12. The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement
13. Democratic Values In Practice
14. Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To From Community

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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.