Category: Democracy

Dewey, Art As Experience (2)

Dewey hates dualisms.  He is (shades of Hegel again) always trying to cross conceptual and existential divides.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that he hates modernist aestheticism, even as he (a fact Nick has made abundantly clear to me) embraces the modernist commitment to a non-representational art that is an experience in and of itself (not the representation of some experience external to it).  And he clearly (it seems to me) wants to make the kind of experience that would qualify as “aesthetic” continuous with ordinary experience.

Yet—he also is committed to the aesthetic experience accomplishing a “consummation” that many ordinary experiences do not achieve.  The aesthetic is connected to “fulfillment.”  That is why the aesthetic in Art As Experience offers a template for the kinds of experiences that everyone should strive to have—and attending to the aesthetic motivates a critique of the social, economic, and psychological conditions that make so much of ordinary experience unfulfilling.  The goal is to make more of our experiences “aesthetic”—that is, fulfilling and consummatory.  Our lives could be more intense and more coherent and more satisfying than they currently are.

This distinction between ordinary experience and aesthetic experiences produces a number of dualisms in Art As Experience.  There is the foundational distinction between “experience” and “an experience.”  Then, when we move onto the discussion of emotion, we get a distinction between an emotion that is “discharged” and one that is “expressed.”  Finally, in the chapters on “form,” there is the distinction between (mere) “shape” and “form.”

So this my objection number two to Dewey’s book.  He maintains a set of dualisms that stand in unresolved tension with his commitment to unity.  In thinking about the aesthetic in my next post, I will be inspired by Dewey to consider the discontinuity between art and ordinary experience—which goes against his fundamental desire to make them continuous.  But his dualisms give me a way of thinking about discontinuity.

Here’s a clear statement of the distinction between “discharge” and “expression,” a statement that (from my perspective) makes clear the “work” that must be done to render something aesthetic.  “The emotion that was finely wrought out by Tennyson in the composition of ‘In Memoriam’ was not identical with the emotion of grief that manifests itself in weeping and a downcast frame: the first is an act of expression, the second of discharge.  Yet the continuity of the two emotions, the fact that esthetic emotion is native emotion transformed through the objective material to which it has committed its development and consummation, is evident”(78-79).   [This position has the unfortunate implication that the grounding emotion has to be really felt by the artist.  But actors—and poets for that matter—may artistically express emotions that they don’t actually have.  Throughout, as I will discuss at some length in my next post, Dewey neglects the “fictional aspect” of the aesthetic—a neglect that is not surprising given his investment in the continuity between the aesthetic and ordinary experience.]

In each case of these dualisms, it seems clear that some kind of work is done upon the material that experience offers.  That work is necessary to move from “experience” to “an experience.”  What seems obvious to me is that the “aesthetic” in Art As Experience becomes another mode of “reconstruction”—which, of course, is Dewey’s characterization of the work philosophy does (or should be doing).

My point is that we need then to attend to how that work gets done.  A lot of Art As Experience does that descriptive task, but Dewey is hampered by his desire to keep the aesthetic and the ordinary continuous.  I think his aim is to render all experience aesthetic.  The ordinary transformed—or reconstructed.  On the one hand, “aesthetic education” teaches us how to perceive, how to take in what experience (or the experienced work of art) has to offer.  “There must be indirect and collateral channels of response prepared in advance in the case of one who really sees the picture or hears the music.  This motor preparation is a large part of aesthetic education in any particular line.  To know what to look for and how to see it is an affair of readiness on the part of motor equipment. . . . [I]t is necessary that there be ready defined channels of motor response, due in part to native constitution and in part to education through experience” (98).  “Education through experience” needs to be guided.  Dewey should say more about the role of the teacher here.  You don’t learn how to listen to a Beethoven sonata—or how to play it—without a teacher.  And I am willing to entertain the notion that the same holds true for ordinary experience.  We can learn how to pay attention to, how to understand, how to value various elements of experience that might pass by unnoticed without the nudges education provides.

Dewey insists throughout that it can never be a matter of immediate experience.  “The other factor that is required in order that a work may be expressive to a percipient is meanings and values extracted from prior experiences and funded in such a way that they fuse with the qualities directly presented in the work of art” (98).  There is no immediate perception in Dewey, and no self-enclosed present moment.  How we understand (judge) what is in front of our nose is always “funded”—and presumably some of that funding is a product of education.  But another part of the funding is more individual, a product of one’s own distinctive experiences, purposes, desires, and temperament.  One’s interests (a word that works beautifully in this context) predispose one’s present moment interactions.  (Acknowledgement to Nick required here since he keeps reminding me of the temporality built into Dewey’s key notion of “experience.”  It is not just our “funded” response—this bringing the past to bear—but also our orientation toward desired consequences—thus bringing the future into the relation—that is present in the present moment.)

Chapter Five of Art As Experience concludes with a stirring statement of what aesthetic reconstruction can accomplish.  I am going to quote from it at length.

“[T]he process of living is continuous; it possesses continuity because it is an everlasting renewed process of acting upon environment and being acted upon by it, together with institution of relations between what is done and what is undergone.  Hence experience is necessarily cumulative and its subject matter gains expressiveness because of cumulative continuity.  . . . Yet apathy and torpor conceal this expressiveness by building a shell about objects.  Familiarity induces indifference, prejudice blinds us; conceit looks through the wrong end of a telescope and minimizes the significance possessed by objects in favor of the alleged importance of the self.  Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us it in its varied qualities and forms.  It intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in object and orders them in a new experience of life” (104, my emphasis).

We get here the romantic, vitalist Dewey.  Art re-vivifies the world and the self.  It quickens.  Crucial for Dewey is that art works upon actual experience; it awakens us to this world; it is not offering us a refuge in some alternative universe (the house of art).  I certainly thrill to these kinds of claims for art, for the seductiveness of the intensity it offers, for its ability to render the ordinary luminous, and replace routine with intensity.  How it manages to do that revivifying work will be the subject of my next post.

But Dewey doesn’t stop there—with this account of how the arts quicken individual consciousness and experience.  He also proclaims that art is the best way to establish the most complete and the most satisfactory communication between people.

“Those who are moved [by a work of art] feel . . . that what the work expresses is as if it were something one had oneself been longing to express.  Meantime, the artist works to create an audience to which he does communicate.  In the end, works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between mean and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience” (105).

Dewey’s meditations on democracy turn more and more to the theme of “communication” in the 1930s and 1940s.  Two examples, the first from “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” (1939): “For every way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched” (p. 245 in The Political Writings [Hackett, 1993]).  The second from “John Dewey Responds” (1949): “Many years ago I read something written by an astute politician.  He said that majority rule is not the heart of democracy, but the processes by which a given group having a specific kind of politics becomes a majority.  That saying has remained with me; in effect it embodies recognition that democracy is an educative process; that the act of voting is in a democratic regime a culmination of a continued process of open and public communication in which prejudices have the opportunity to erase each other;  that continued interchange of facts and ideas exposes what is unsound and discloses what may make for human well-being”(p. 248 in The Political Writings). [Read this statement in the context of 2020—and weep.]

The claim that art works offer the most “complete and unhindered communication” possible in this sublunary world seems to me overboard.  But I don’t want to deny that artists do (at least in some instances) pay particular care to communicating, while I accept (again, with some reservations) Dewey’s conviction that emotionally charged communication has a potential effectiveness (and impact) denied to more austere pronouncements.

I will end with anticipating a bit my next post.  That art works can revivify one’s relation to the world, express emotions more successfully, render the elements of experience more fulfilling, and communicate with others more completely depends on a certain kind of self-conscious work upon the materials offered by experience.  That work is connected to the creation of “form” out of those materials, as Dewey suggests in his closing words to Chapter VI.

“[Whatever] path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.  It does so by reducing the raw materials of that experience to matter ordered through form” (133).  The world’s fullness needs to be reduced in order to achieve form.  The artist must select out of everything that experience provides for just those elements that she will concentrate upon.

The Aesthetic (Six)

Today’s post will introduce three additional features/effects often attributed to the aesthetic.


  1. The aesthetic has the effect of widening our sympathies because it bring us into contact with a diverse range of content—and allows us to “get inside” the motives and ways of being of that diverse content. George Eliot offers a much-cited version of this argument in her writing about the novel, and this assertion also figures prominently in Martha Nussbaum’s work.  If it is true, as I argued some posts back, that compassion (which grows out of sympathy) is a key feature of left/liberal sensibility, then the connection between the aesthetic and a leftist politics is fairly direct if the arts do make us more sympathetic.


Dewey offers his own version of  the “sympathy” assertion (even though only in passing and even though that assertion would not seem connected—or even compatible with—the main argument about consummatory experiences.)  Here’s Dewey (once again downplaying “knowledge” in favor of a more emotion-laden relationship to the thing beyond the self that is to be known).  “Friendship and intimate affections are not the result of information about another person even though knowledge may further that formation.  But it does so only as it becomes an integral part of sympathy through the imagination.  It is when the desires and aims, the interests and modes of response of another become an expansion of our own being that we understand him.  We learn to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and their results give true instruction, for they are built into our own structure” (336).  This kind of relationship to others’ “modes of response” (a good synonym for sensibility, I think) is “instruction in the arts of living (336)” Dewey writes.  This instruction is “something other than conveying information about them [the arts of living].  It is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of imagination, and works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living” (336).

To put it crudely, imagination allows us to walk a mile in another way of life’s shoes.

The flaws in the sympathy theory are obvious.  There are whole realms of art—classical music for instance—it seems to neglect altogether.  Does a Mozart symphony introduce us to “an art of living”?  To a “mode of response” maybe, insofar as it shapes or alters our abilities to hear, but a way of life?  And the notion that the arts foster compassion runs us into too many counter-examples to hold much water.  Are aesthetes really consistently better people than those indifferent to the arts?  And are those aesthetes more likely to be bleeding heart liberals than hard-hearted Scrooges?

Finally, and more substantially, the sympathy assertion requires a robust account of imagination and how it works.   We are in the realm of “faculty psychology” at this point: the psychology that divides up mental functions by positing something that thinks (cognition), something that wills (desires), something that feels (emotion), something that judges (phronesis), and something that images (imagination).  The adequacy of faculty psychology to actual mental functioning is pretty doubtful; it is a kind of high-level “folk psychology” that doesn’t fit with current developments in neurology or cognitive science.  But questions of adequacy aside, the “imagination” as a mental capacity/act is very hard to pin down, since it gets appealed to every time artists want (as I talked about in the last post) to posit “ways of knowing,” and forms of apprehension, not covered by traditional canons of rationality, evidence, and knowledge formation.   Certainly Dewey does not come close to offering a full scale account of imagination in Art As Experience.

And yet.  At issue (recall) is if the arts shape sensibility—and, if so, how?  The sympathy assertion has going for it the fact that it addresses sensibility (openness to and sympathy for other ways of being in the world) and offers an account of how that sensibility is fostered by (at least some) art.


  1. An alternative version of how the arts shape a certain kind of sensibility is offered by Dewey just a few pages later, once again with imagination doing the heavy lifting. The arts alert us, “not directly, but through disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience . . . possibilities that contrast with actual conditions” (346). “Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilitis that are interwoven within the texture of the actual” (345). [I don’t see how this version of what the arts do can be anything but contradict the main argument of the book, which seeks to embed the aesthetic in “actual conditions.” But let’s leave that aside to pursue the account of the arts suggested here.]


Because the arts provide a place where unrealized possibilities can be imagined, Dewey even goes so far as to say that tomorrow’s realities can be found shadowed forth in the arts of today.  “Change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor of the changes that affect more than the details of life” (346).  Thus, Dewey ends his book with an engagement with Shelley’s apology for poetry.  The poets are the unacknowledged legislators not only because they imagine what has not yet been accomplished, but also because they avoid having “their vision of possibilities . . . converted into a proclamation of facts that already exist and hardened into semi-political institutions” (348).  “Art has been the means of keeping alive that sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habits” (348).

What gives art this power is precisely its separation from facts on the ground.  We can imagine what does not exist—and meditate on “purposes” and “meanings” apart from their entanglement in the institutions of socio-political life and the habits of the daily grind.  Art exists in the realm of the hypothetical, not the actual.  We can try things on for size (in imagination) in that realm.  This appeal to the advantages of art’s “fictional” nature has been fairly common in accounts of the aesthetic—and often is linked to an ability to consider alternatives to prevailing customs and social arrangements.  The artist is a dreamer.

Dewey gives this idea a pragmatist twist.  The artists is someone trying to play out—in thought—the consequences of particular possible courses of action.  As such, that artist looks like the scientific experimenter who figures so prominently in all of Dewey’s work.  Yet Dewey, for the most part, doesn’t take this path in his book on aesthetics.  Why?  I think it is because he dislikes pretty heartily thought experiments.  They smack too much of the spectator theory of knowledge.  For him, experiments are very much about working materially and concretely with things.  The experiment is a motivated and controlled, but real, interaction with the stuff of the world.  Experiments are not conducted by armchair cogitating.

For myself, I think there is much to be said about the arts occupying a hypothetical space.  Accounts of the arts that neglect their fictional nature miss something important.  The arts do seem to allow for a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of stepping away from immediate demands.  But I share Dewey’s uneasiness with extracting the arts too far from the daily chore of getting on with a life.  That said: I do think it part of an aesthetic sensibility to be especially alert to alternatives to current modes of being.  Attuned (because of stepping aside into a hypothetical space?) to other possible ways to live, the aesthetic sensibility pushes against the taken-for-granted.

Whether this belief that things could be different is more a left than right wing outlook is a different question.  I am tempted to say that when the vision of a different life is located in a lost past we should recover, then we have a conservative or right-wing sensibility.  When that alternative is located in a future we should strive for, then we have a left-wing sensibility.  In both cases, the present is unsatisfactory and to be transformed into something else. The arts do seem to provide a particularly suitable place for displaying that possible transformation.


  1. These first two ways of describing what the aesthetic does—or what it affords—rest on the level of content. The aesthetic presents another way of life and elicits our sympathy for it through enhancing our understanding of it.  Or the aesthetic presents possibilities that lead us to question the forms life in the present takes.


But there is another route to take, one that places the emphasis on the Form, not the content, characteristic of the aesthetic.  This approach is the dominant one in Dewey’s book, even though he slips in all these other ways of thinking about what the aesthetic is or does.  This is where Dewey aligns with the modernists—at least insofar as certain modernists wished to downplay the representational content of art in favor of an emphasis on form.

This is where (if I understand him correctly) Nick wants to plant his flag.  The “ordered intensity” art creates is an effect of form, not content (or message).  The arts are emotionally compelling, capture our attention, sharpen our focus, and provide satisfactory experiences through the intensities of form’s elegant constraints.  Think of water collected into a container and then heated.  Instead of dissipating (flowing away) as uncontained water does, contained water acquires a shape while heated water reaches the consummation of boiling (if enough heat is applied).

Dewey, then, like the modernists, wants to focus not on what the art work says, but on the experience it offers both the artist and her audience. In his own key, he is actually not that far from Adorno, who also wants to locate art’s importance—and its political effects—on its form (since form is what makes something, in Dewey’s terms, “an experience”).

How does this work?  For Adorno, artistic form offers a riposte to the “damaged life” offered by modern capitalist societies.  Dewey in the 1930s, influenced by the economic conditions of the Depression and by leftist responses to that catastrophe, offers an argument not that far removed from classic Marxist accounts of alienation.  (In his biography of Dewey, Robert Westbrook suggests that Sidney Hook was a key factor in Dewey’s adoption of various left-wing arguments.)  On pages 341—344 of Art As Experience, Dewey offers his version of the Marxist argument that a more equitable distribution of the products of economic activity will not suffice in curing the ills of capitalist productive and social relations.  “Production of objects enjoyed in direct experience by those who possess, to some extent, the capacity to produce useful commodities expressing individual values, has become a specialized matter apart from the general run of production.  This fact is probably the most important factor in the status of art in present civilization” (341).

Hardly the clearest statement in Dewey’s corpus, famous for its many obscurities.  My translation: we get here a mixture of Ruskin and Marx.  The artist has the privileged experience of “producing” objects “that express individual values.” (Nick and I will be exploring Dewey’s understanding of art’s connection to “expression” in our next meeting, so I will hold off on that topic.)  Most workers, by way of contrast, just follow orders. Their work cannot be satisfactory because, even if they are helping to produce well-formed objects, “there is esthetic form only when the object having this external form fits into a larger experience” (341).  The aesthetic, in other words, stands for the possibility of a satisfactory experience, for an undamaged life.

Access to that undamaged life requires workplace democracy and some workplace autonomy.  Dewey is always insistent that democracy is judged by the quality of the individual lives it makes possible—and his model of artistic creation and the enjoyment of artistic experiences is primarily individualistic.  (Importantly, he does insist continually that democracy is a mode of sociality, and that individuals can only find fulfillment in “association” [a favorite Dewey term] with others.)  We will only have access to the kinds of satisfactory and consummatory experiences that constitute “the aesthetic” for Dewey when we stand in the proper relation to the activities (of which work is a crucial one) that make up our daily existence.  That proper relationship requires a sensitivity to the possibilities of harmonious form (a sensitivity the aesthetic can impart) and an individual investment/ownership of our daily activities that strive to achieve that harmonious form.  Current social arrangements make that individual investment/ownership only available to a privileged few.

To sum up this post: the aesthetic may develop one’s sensibility through the messages it communicates.  It may promote sympathy/compassion and it may shape a habit of considering alternatives to what the present offers and an expanded sense of possible paths out of the present.  It may also be the case that even when the message to be offered is fairly straight-forward and easily conveyed by non-aesthetic means (sermons, moral treatises, political platforms, sociological studies, statistical demonstrations), that the aesthetic is more effective because pitched at an emotional level that resonates more than more “rational” or argumentative discourses.

In short, when we consider the sources of one’s sensibility, to what extent has it been shaped by aesthetic works as contrasted to non-aesthetic ones?

But Dewey’s primary focus (and I think Nick’s) is not in such a direct, message-driven, attempt to shape sensibilities.  Rather, the idea is that the aesthetic models a form of unalienated existence; it offers and instantiates the possibility of the “equilibrium” and “harmony” that would constitute an undamaged life.  Dewey thinks this desire and striving for a satisfactory, consummatory experience is built into human nature.  So it is not as if the aesthetic has to teach us to want it—and that there are sensibilities which forego (or even condemn) this endeavor.

But I do think a position that wants to use the aesthetic to re-form the experiences available under current “damaged” conditions will end up with some version of an alienation argument.  We have become “alienated” from the appreciating (even recognizing?) consummatory experiences, often embracing pale substitutes for it. Our aptitude and appetite for such experiences needs to be “awakened” in contemporary life—and the arts can do that awakening work.

However, that brings us back to the better/worse judgments discussed in the last post.  Only some of the arts can do this job because contemporary culture also offers a multitude of degraded aesthetic experiences.   The trick will be to make these judgments of satisfactory versus unsatisfactory aesthetic experiences without falling into the mandarin contempt of Adorno.  Snobbishness is not only a hallmark of the inegalitarian right. The damaged life argument doesn’t belong exclusively to either the left or the right since T. S. Eliot offers an obvious example of a conservative version.  But whether deployed from the left or the right, it always entails judging some forms of life damaged even if participants in that form do not themselves register it as unsatisfactory.

The Lowliest Duties

In his sonnet, “London, 1802,” William Worsdworth praises John Milton in the following terms:

“So dids’t thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.”

In the leftist/liberal circles in which I mostly travel, Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed  is much loved.  The novel depicts a radically egalitarian society whose social arrangements are a response to sever environmental conditions.  Scarcity of the means to sustain life concentrates society’s mind wonderfully—and everyone chips in to insure survival, understanding that taking too much for oneself threatens not just the lives of specific others but the fate of the whole society.  The communitarian solidarity of this society (not without its problems of enforced conformity) are contrasted to a bloated, consumerist society that deploys its plenty to disagreeable ends.

My university has just announced, as part of its re-opening plan for the fall, that teachers and students will be responsible for cleaning each classroom after its use, in order to sanitize it for the next group that will enter.  You can imagine (I am sure) the howls of outrage that have greeted this suggestion.  Howls that, to some extent, reveal how inegalitarian most contemporary sensibilities are, even among those with a sentimental attachment to egalitarianism.

Let me be very clear.  Colleges across the US have been stampeded into announcing that they will open for the return of students in the fall. Apparently, in order to secure student commitments, they feel they need to tell everyone what they will do for a fall semester—even though, in reality, they do not know in our still fluid circumstances. Many colleges, like my own, in fact plan a fairly early August opening in order to finish up the fall semester by Thanksgiving.  Once having made that commitment, the colleges are then required to create some kind of plan for how they are actually going to do this safely.

This is insane.  First, we currently do not have a good read on what the situation will be like two months from now.  The announcement of re-openings are wildly premature.  Second, bringing students from across the nation and from around the world back on campus—and having them once again live and socialize together—is a formula for disaster even if you can make (the very limited) time they spend in class safe.  Add the notion that classes will be “hybrid,” with some students accessing them virtually and others in person, and the full impracticality of the proposed schemes becomes fully apparent.

It would, at the very least, be honest for colleges to admit they are flying blind and that any and all plans are contingent on the changing facts on the ground.  But, apparently, honesty is no longer possible in the world.  Pretense is everything.  As if anyone is fooled.

All that said: I am still interested in the outrage generated by the suggestion that the “lowliest duties” be shared.  Under what conditions, I want to ask, could we achieve communal solidarity instead of a fierce holding on to the privileges of one’s status and an equally fierce sauve qui peut attitude? Global warming is the most obvious case in point.  But this pandemic could be another such case—except that the emphasis on “social distancing” pushes in exactly the opposite direction.  It isn’t about rolling up your sleeves and joining a communal effort to avert the danger, but about running away from everybody else, stockpiling necessities, and protecting yourself from the general contagion.

At my university, the failure to get “buy in” for a communal effort stems, in part, from the heightened attention to status built into university careers (at least at “research” universities.)  It is why such faculty are allergic to unions and fervently support differential pay, with the more productive “star” faculty commanding significantly higher salaries (and often also getting various special perks, including lighter teaching loads).  The university (again, despite the announced allegiances of many of its faculty) is neither democratic nor egalitarian.

It seems to me there are only three ways to produce communal solidarity.  The first is through a democratic process by which all are consulted and all agree to take on those lowly duties.  As has often been noted, that process is time consuming (too many meetings) and often frustrating.  Reaching consensus is very, very hard.  Getting a majority vote is easier, but then you have to have some way to bring those who lost the vote along.  Furthermore, the maintenance of democratically produced solidarity proves very difficult.  Communities fall apart.

The second method is compulsion: the group effort is generated in a hierarchical structure with sanctions for those who don’t pitch in.  The go to model here is often the building of the pyramids.  With enough violence, people can be made to contribute to the communal project.  Economic necessity is somewhat nicer than slavery, but it is still compulsion that is doing much of the work in getting the factory hands to do their bit.

Finally, there is the Ruskinian dream (where the building of medieval cathedrals is contrasted to the building of the pyramids) of a collective enterprise that is hierarchical through and through, but in which the authority of the leaders is respected by the commoners because they are convinced of the overall project, of the commitment of the leaders to that project, and feel enabled, even liberated, by their own participation in the project. (The key texts are “The Nature of Gothic” and Unto this Last.)

It is easy to call Ruskin utterly deluded.  But at least let’s try to take seriously some of the issues his position highlights.  (To be concrete for a moment, all trust in or respect for that authority of the leaders on my campus has been seriously eroded over the past ten years by a series of actions by those in charge.  That’s why my campus in particular is in an especially tough spot when trying to get faculty and staff “buy-in” to the reopening plans.)

But back to Ruskin. 1.) Is there something like “authority” which gains allegiance and cooperation, even obedience, apart from threats of direct violence or economic deprivation?  Do we really want to say that the notion of this kind of authority is a complete illusion, that all cooperation and obedience stems, in the last instance, from compulsion?

2.)  Do we want to deny that participation in a communal effort, where concern for self disappears in the pleasure of contributing to the joint enterprise, is viewed (and experienced) by many as just about the greatest satisfaction available?  Self-forgetfulness can be bliss, can seem the most intense, most meaningful, most fulfilling experience of one’s life.  The urge to actually find the opportunity for such experiences can be a strong motive, aside from any kind of compulsion, for joining a team, a community, a project.  In short, immersion of the self in the communal is liberating in many (hardly all) instances.

3.) Do we want to deny that we admire the competence, integrity, virtuosity, and achievements of others—taking them as models for our aspirations for ourselves?  We apprentice ourselves to those we admire in this way, submitting to their authority precisely in order to learn how to become a person like them.  Yes, and this is where Ruskin seems most blind, this relationship opens the way to all kinds of abuses—but, still, must an egalitarian insist all such relationships are poisonous and unproductive?

4.)  Do we want to say work is always an evil, always something we would shun if possible?  Work can be a means of fulfillment—and much work requires collective effort.  How to think about the terms—and structures—within which work takes place? To what extent are hierarchies, authority, and coordinating direction required?  In addition, I would argue that we need to think about the enabling effects of constraint.  The sonnet form imposes various constraints on the poet; but those constraints are productive, even liberating.  They are not (or, at least, not in all instances) oppressive.  Constraints experienced as enabling are akin to authority accepted because it allows various desirable things to happen.

Ruskin, in other words, can seem a retrograde apologist for the established order.  But, if taken at least a bit seriously, he pushes us to think past individualism, past an assumption that any collective enterprise is a threat to freedom—and that a person is a dupe who submits himself to authorities beyond the self.  That’s the real rub, it seems to me.  Even the liberal/left, when its own positions are challenged, retreats (in too many cases) to the neo-liberal sensibility that equality is a threat to freedom because equality pushes us toward a conformity imposed from outside the self.  Getting with the program, cheerfully laying on ourselves the lowliest duties in union with others who do the same, is not experienced as a self-generated choice, but as acceding to an external charge.

We can’t (I believe) make political progress until that sensibility is revised.  We need to find a way to endorse, even embrace, cooperation–and it seems to me that cooperation is only sustainable where all are seen (even if there is some division of labor, of responsibility) as equally foregoing individual need/rewards for the sake of the common goal.  Everyone has to pitch in, and those with the most should give the most.  (The justification for progressive tax rates among other ways of taking into account unequal capacities to contribute.)

So this post returns us to the question of sensibility.  I am talking, partially at least, about esprit de corps.  The mystery (to me) of the military is how it utilizes harsh compulsion (in boot camp) to forge (in many cases) a deep commitment to the “unit,” to the communal.  Football coaches obviously strive to emulate the military’s methods.  How do you create this ethos, this acceptance of the group’s priority over the self, this willingness to take upon oneself the “lowliest duties”—where that willingness is not a loss of caste, but in fact a source of pride?

The military seems particularly apt for thinking about all this because it is, in my view, both admirable and terrifying.  Its inculcation of blind obedience, its strict hierarchies, are the antithesis of the kind of egalitarian social relations I favor.  In some ways it wants to prevent any soldier thinking for himself (in every sense of that phrase).

But—at the same time—it can encourage creative thinking about what steps will best serve the good of the whole, and it inspires a kind of egalitarianism found just about nowhere else in our society.  No wonder, then, that Fredric Jameson in his An American Utopia looks to the creation of a “universal army,” the conscription of all, as the way to create a communitarian sensibility.  Where else, he asks, are the classes so radically mixed as in the army?  And where else are all the members of a group subjected to the same treatment?

The paradox, of course, is that this egalitarianism is embedded within a highly hierarchal institution.  But that’s why Ruskin seems apposite.  We need to think the ways in which hierarchy, based in authority, can foster equality (in the commitment of all to a common project) and even liberation (in that the self finds fulfillment through the enabling provided by constraint, through its submission to the common.)

I ask myself: “have I ever been caught up in a larger project in which I ‘lost’ my self?”  I have to say the answer is No.  But surely I am not alone in devoutly wishing I could have that experience.  I often say that in retirement I want to find an organization that is doing real good in the world—and offer them my services.  I want to be part of a group that is working together and making something I value happen through that collective effort.  That heady feeling is what had made war so exhilarating for so many.  Certainly, my parents experienced (in their early twenties) World War II that way—and remained nostalgic for those years the rest of their lives.

William James famously told us we need to find a “moral equivalent of war.”  What he meant is we need to find a positive, world-enhancing (rather than world-destroying) project that would inspire the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication that war calls forth.  The failure of global warming and now the pandemic to inspire cooperation makes The Dispossessed look mistaken in its plausible (at least to me) supposition that a crisis will rally a society to a cooperative effort to solve it.  Our sad experience these days suggests the opposite: a crisis only leads to people doubling down on their efforts to save themselves, letting the devil take the hindmost.  And if the crisis is one that no one can, in fact, evade, so much the worse for humanity because the conviction that one can personally outrun the danger will triumph over any recognition that we are all in this together.  Only a human enemy bearing down on us, weapons in hand, seems to inspire that more collective response.

A pessimistic ending–and certainly Ruskin’s own fate hardly offers much hope.  But I do think the pathway to hope lies along the lines he sketches out.  Cooperation needs both some kind of respected authority and a fervent commitment to a common cause.  The fulfillment, even pleasure, comes with a sense of contributing to the achievement of that cause, irrespective of more individual rewards (rewards understood as money, honor, acclaim, or anything else that marks the self as “more equal” than the others who are also pitching in).

R.I.P.: American Democracy

The flags should all be flying at half-mast today.  American democracy died last night.

I know many will say it has been on life-support for many a day now.  Others will say, “you fool, it never existed in the first place.”

But it did exist so long as the path forward, the way to bring about the changes and reforms one desired, was electoral politics.  If you could swing, through all the devices of persuasion, a majority to your side, you could take over the government and pass the legislation you deemed necessary.

Yes, that is simplistic and ignores all the veto points, all the obstacles put in the pathway of change.  And it ignores how the system always excluded certain people—people who had to resort to extra-electoral tactics (civil disobedience and its various forms of protest) to make their needs and desires felt.

But the great social movements of American history, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, aimed for the vote.  They put so much emphasis on gaining the vote precisely because they associated the vote with power, the power to effect change.  They believed that we had enough of a democracy, no matter how imperfect, that it made sense to engage in electoral politics—and that electoral politics was the road to reform.

Perhaps that belief was a delusion, but 2006 and 2008 seemed to bear it out.  The country rose up against the lies and incompetence of the Bush administration—and grabbed the government back.

Now, however, we have a Republican Party in power that is determined to never let another 2006 or 2008 occur.  Their simple plan is to render “free and fair” (that old cliché) elections impossible. Emboldened by the nation’s acceptance of Bush v. Gore,  they have deployed every means at their disposal; they keep people from voting or nullify electoral results: voter suppression, gerrymandering, judicial or legislative over-rides of election results (taking away powers of elected officials if they are Democrats, as has happened in both Wisconsin and North Carolina).

Still, I will admit to having thought there was a limit to their willingness to turn elections into farces worthy of the so-called “people’s republics” of yore.  Surely, even the Republicans needed the cover of “legitimacy” that elections provide in a democracy.  Various pundits kept claiming that John Roberts was the bulwark against complete Republican destruction of our democracy.  He cared, they said, about the integrity of the Supreme Court, about its standing above partisan politics.

Quite evidently not.  The Supreme Court last night authorized a Wisconsin election in which thousands will not have their votes counted.  The situation is Kafkaesque: in order to be counted ballots must be returned before they have been received.  But the court’s decision is as straightforward as could be: we will validate election results even though thousands are prevented from voting.

I am heartsick.  If electoral politics are a sham, are rigged from the outset, the only way forward is non-electoral politics.  As Martin Luther King saw very clearly, that means either a “persistent and unyielding” non-violent mass movement or a resort (always, necessarily by a much smaller number) to violence.  King insisted that violence could not succeed; not only were the odds against it too great because you will never get large numbers to join your violent movement, but also because violence breeds more violence as it creates bitterness and the desire (almost impossible to ignore) for revenge.  It also turns off those sympathetic to your cause, but opposed to violent means. (I am channeling MLK’s essay, “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” here.)

The Republicans have learned (it would seem) over the past few years that they pay no price for their destruction of democracy.  I venture to guess that life for most people in this country is just comfortable enough to keep them from endangering what they have by devoting themselves to a long, persistent struggle.  Endangering their leisure time, their peace of mind, their jobs and livelihood.  The reasons may range from petty to dangers to economic and physical well-being.

It seems that the death of democracy will occur amidst various howls of protest, but little more than that.  The officials elected in today’s Wisconsin election will take office—and continue to wreak the damage that has been the platform of Wisconsin’s Republicans for the past ten years.

Unless a strong and effective dissent is lodged—and such a dissent will require sacrifices of time, comfort, and well-being—democracy will not return.  Or, if you prefer, democracy will not be seen for the first time in this land. I do not see where that dissent will come from, where that movement will arise.