Final Thoughts On The Public And Its Problems

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I hoped John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems would help me understand our currant political morass. In a way, it did, as I noted in this post. I am disappointed that there aren’t any usable solutions, but that too is a lesson. In this conclusion I’ll discuss three things I got out of it.

1. Social Contract theory is wrong-headed

Before I read this book, I understood politics through the lens of social contract theory, the idea that a large group of isolated individuals enter into agreements on the organization of society in order to provide themselves a reasonable amount of security and protection from others. Dewey rejects social contract theory because it’s based on the idea of isolated individuals as the basic unit of society. In Dewey’s view we are all linked together from birth in social units, first families, then as we grow, into larger units, clans, tribes, schools, friendship circles, churches, sports teams, and then throughout our lives in larger and larger groups.

I’ve read several books explaining modern physics. I wish I were able to write about the idea of the universe as an energy field, with matter defined as clumps of energy of varying degrees of complexity, and with humans described as very complex clumps of energy. In this picture, everything is connected to everything else; it’s all part of the same energy field.

Even without that lovely image, I agree with Dewey. I can see the influences other people have on me and my thinking. I realize that my ability to cope with the world is the direct outcome of the way I was raised, the information I have been taught, and the ways of thinking I have learned from others.

We are not isolated individuals.

2. The Role Of Theory

A. Thinking

A number of the books I’ve read have a theory embedded in them. This seems especially true of the book about the Frankfurt School, where the grounding is in Marx and Freud, and the foreground is the dialectical method. Other books are grounded in a deeply historical approach. This includes Arendt and Polanyi; and Foucault, who talks about his genealogical approach. Pierre Bourdieu’s work is heavily grounded on data he gathered from observations and surveys of large numbers of people.

Dewey takes a somewhat different approach, free inquiry. I understand this to mean we should start by identifying the problem to be solved. Then look at the facts, including social facts, as carefully as we can. We generate possible solutions through discourse with others. Then we regard the chosen solution as tentative, which requires monitoring the situation continuously to see what needs fixing. It’s free in the sense that it is not affected by the demands of people trying to advance their own ends, or by religious adherence to some universal theory.

Another method of thought is explication and extension. Much of what we inherited from our ancestors is couched in old language and is expressed by discussion of older concepts. So, in philosophy much of the earlier work discusses the nature of being, and abstract ideas like whether we actually know the real world of objects or whether we only know what we receive from our senses. A lot of our new learning ins couched in academic language, which makes it hard to understand. Careful reading and explanation of these texts requires putting ourselves in the position of the writer and restating it in contemporary terms. We are then in a position to examine some of the possible extensions of that thinking, while being careful not to get too far ahead of the actual ideas of the original text. We might call it the student method.

B. The Goal of Theory For Liberals and Progressives

For Dewey, and for Arendt, Polanyi and the Frankfurt School, the goal of theory is to help us come to grips with specific problems and situations. Where are we? How did we get here? What were we thinking when we made the choices we made in the past? What facts did we get right and wrong? What were our goals? How close did we come to meeting them? And so on.

This kind of understanding does not tell us what we should do. It might suggest goals or solutions. But we still have the responsibility to identify our problems. Once we have done so we can use the social facts provided by theory to generate solutions. Then we are in a decent position to examine the question What Should We Do? For Dewey, that is the central question of politics.

C. The Goal of “Theory” for conservatives.

Conservatives use theory differently. They have a theory, a universal world view, valid at all times and places and for all people. Their only goal is to prove their theory is perfect and that the left and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their theory is evil and responsible for the sins of the world.

At the root of conservative theory is the idea of the isolated individual as the fundamental element of society. This leads them to the social contract theory, where voluntary agreements are the only binding force of society.

It’s easy to see this in action. It explains the secessionist movement in the Antebellum South. It explains the refusal to accept the 2020 election results, which were met with violence among a number of conservatives and with pouts and denial among a broad swath of them. It’s visible in the anti-mask and anti-tax movements, and the allegedly religion-based refusal to live with their fellow citizens under majority rule. They are alone and they are all that matters.

D. Conservative Pundits

Here’s a discussion of Michel Foucault by the pseudo-intellectual Ross Douthat. One of his premises is that leftists used to tout Foucault because he offered a radical critique of government power under the heading of biopolitics. Leftists loved this when conservatives were in control. Now they ignore Foucault because Democrats are in power. As evidence, he cites leftist acceptance of the governmental response to Covid-19.

That’s just wrong at every level. Here’s my discussion of Foucault’s biopolitics. It’s clear that Douthat hasn’t tried to read Foucault, or understand the details of his views of biopolitics. He doesn’t know that Foucault is describing what he sees, not prescribing anything.

Douthat isn’t doing any of the things I describe in Part A. He has a universalist world view: he’s a Catholic Conservative. He only reads books and papers to pick out shiny bits to attach to that world view, or to use as springboards for blaming progressives, liberals and Democrats for the sins of the world. This is a common problem among conservative pundits. They are not actively engaged in trying to understand the objective and social facts in front of them. The only problem they see is that the world doesn’t match their theory. Their only solution is to co-opt government into imposing their world view on the majority who don’t care about their world view.

3. Politics Is About Solving Problems

One central premise of The Public And Its Problems is that the point of politics is solving the problems common to a group of people. Dewey thinks of this in these terms:

One reason for the comparative sterility of discussion of social matters is because so much intellectual energy has gone into the supposititious problem of the relations of individualism and collectivism at large, wholesale, and because the image of the antithesis infects so many specific questions. Thereby thought is diverted from the only fruitful questions, those of investigation into factual subject-matter, and becomes a discussion of concepts.

The “problem” of the relation of the concept of authority to that of freedom, of personal rights to social obligations, with only a subsumptive illustrative reference to empirical facts, has been substituted for inquiry into the consequences of some particular distribution, under given conditions, of specific freedoms and authorities, and for inquiry into what altered distribution would yield more desirable consequences. P. 212-213. Paragraphing changed for clarity.

Conservatives like Douthat are much happier arguing abstractions than real problems. They don’t want to change the current distribution of freedoms and powers unless it imposes their pre-determined solutions. Neoliberal Democrats are happy talk about abstractions rather than problems, because it means they don’t have to act. That’s why we hear about budget deficits and filibuster rules instead of legislation. It explains the refusal of elites of both parties to confront actual problems. And it explains why Republicans get away with propaganda about Foucault and Critical Race Theory. It’s easy to lie about abstractuibs and conceptual tools. It’s hard to lie about specific facts.

Dewey is quite clear that he doesn’t have a solution to the questions about the self-identification of a Public or any of the other problems he raises. He hopes that education and theory will help. But in the end, it’s up to all of us, not the theorists.


Dewey’s idealism about the possibilities of democracy is inspiring. Even if we can’t use his book to find our way closer to that ideal, we still aspire to it.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elites

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

After defining the term elites (see previous post), Arendt says that the elites did not actively oppose the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, and in some respects were supportive. One problem I have (and I have several) is the lack of a direct explanation for the failure of the elites to confront the rise of fascism. The text raises one possibility. I suspect that immediately after WWI, most of the elites were sympathetic to the ideas of the Marxist left, and that many were actively interested. Then they saw that the Social Democrats directed the right-wing violence that killed and imprisoned the revolutionaries. That was enough to keep the fellow-travelers and the sympathizers away from left activism. They retreated to their writing rooms and their ateliers, and left the space of massive change to the right wing. They wanted “to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” (P. 328) The elites weren’t going to do anything about it, they just pointed and laughed as the mob solidified into the fascist movement.

Among the sins of these elites was their refusal to attack crackpot ideas.

To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. P. 333

That’s uncomfortably close to Karl Rove’s “we create new reality”.

At the same time the elites were disengaging from the political world, they were pursuing their own esoteric ideas, ideas which further distanced them from the mob. This ended badly for the intellectual elites. Some were driven out, some fled, and the rest found a way to accommodate themselves to the fascist states.

As I wrote in my previous post, the US has plenty of elites who are conservative, but if we limit ourselves to writers and philosophers, there has never been a serious conservative intellectual class in this country. There have been a few intellectual conservatives, although none spring to mind who would pass Hofstadter’s test, including specifically William Buckley. If you disagree, perhaps you could read down Richard Posner’s list of 600f or so public intellectuals and identify all the US people listed, living or dead. It is astonishing to think that the likes of Ann Coulter and Erik Erikson are included on Posner’s list. And I confess I’ve never understood why bookstores shelve Ayn Rand among the philosophy books. There is certainly a class of highly conservative economists, but to me they lack any pretense of being intellectuals in Hofstadter’s sense. Further, they do not self-criticize, they do not change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. This means they are ideologues, not intellectuals.

Using my definition from the previous post, Buckley and a number of writers and pundits and economists would certainly qualify as a member of the conservative elite. Let’s focus on the pundits. Does anyone take them seriously? When was the last time any serious thinker took up an political issue raised by David Brooks in his NYT column, or the conventional nonsense he spouts on PBS? Just take a look, if you can, at this absurd column. It begins with a paean to the US system of capitalism and social welfare, and, of course, our crony capitalism: “nurturing disruptive dynamos like Bell Labs, Walmart, Whole Foods, Google and Apple”. Then this:

It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected this consensus. In supporting Bernie Sanders they are not just supporting a guy who is mad at Wall Street. They are supporting a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values. As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he wants to make us more like northern Europe.

Why those Millenials are just downright unreasonable in questioning a system that promises that their lives will be much worse than their parents. They should all start businesses and get rich, just like Brooks did, and just like their parents did, or something. Brooks says nothing about the lived reality of Millenials. He refuses to face the fact that his favored Republican policies, tax-cutting, deregulating, war-mongering, and refusal to govern, have saddled them with massive personal debts and a stagnating economy that shipped all the decent jobs out to other countries. In his latest, Brooks has clearly lost it. It’s an explainer of this op-ed in the New York Times from two years ago offering three views of marriage. And here I though glorifying marriage was Ross Douthat’s job description.

Douthat is a deeply silly man, mooning on about conservative values and governance in the face of the actual behavior of the Republicans in government. Here he explains how similar Donald Trump and Pope Francis are. Apparently if you want to change something Douthat likes, you are either a vulgar materialist or an intellectual ascetic. I’m waiting for Douthat to explain how Donald Trump has a classy marriage this time, and is therefore fit to be President.

The bizarre Thomas Friedman is shocked that Bernie Sanders said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, which became obvious after those scumballs wrecked the economy and destroyed our retirement plans. Since the downturn also cost his wife’s family a staggeringly large amount of wealth, he might have wondered how that happened.

Not one conservative pundit has called out the crackpot stupidity of national politicians on climate denial, denial of evolution, tearing down the separation of church and state, denial of pretty much any fact or lesson from science, or their truly insane theory of government, that if you ruin it things will be great. Instead, they embrace every stupid idea, or simply keep quiet. They cannot tell fact from chain emails. Why do these conservative pundits, and by extension the rest of the conservative elites, think this will turn out better for them in the long run than it did for the German elites of the 1920s?