"Keeping Up With Ourselves"


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The most marked characteristic of the modern world is its commitments--one can almost say its slavish subservience to social change. It is quite a new thing, never before known to history or to political philosophy; and the more one thinks on it, the more incredible it appears. No traditional political thinker, from Plato to Rousseau, could have understood it. (Perhaps this is why the student of today has so much difficulty in understanding them.) We have achieved a sovereignty over nature that they would have thought truly marvelous; but we have also surrendered our sovereignty over ourselves in a way they would have thought fantastic. Classical political philosophy was duly appreciative of the fact that knowledge is power, and therefore had mixed feelings about its pursuit and diffusion. We, in contrast, have so profound and religious a faith in the ultimate goodness of this knowledge, and of the power associated with it, that we prostrate ourselves before it. One is reminded of a parable that Morris Raphael Cohen was fond of putting before his philosophy students. "Imagine," he said, "that some superhuman being appeared on earth and offered to teach mankind a magical trick that would make life more comfortable, more colorful, more convenient. In return, he demanded only the blood sacrifice of fifty thousand lives a year. With what indignation would this proposal be rejected! And then came the automobile. . . ."

It is very hard to articulate the premises beneath the religion of technology. The idea of progress is essential to it, of course. But it is not exactly the Enlightenment idea of progress, as expounded by Condorcet for instance. For though this assumed that, with the accumulation of knowledge, men would become superior creatures, it also assumed that this knowledge would be moral and philosophical, not merely technological. In contrast, we do not assert man's necessary goodness but locate the necessity in man's power. We are therefore opposed to any authority, moral, philosophical or political, that would set "arbitrary" limits to the way in which the increase of technological knowledge shapes our world. We are against a "closed society," for an "open" one. Open to what? Well, to perfection perhaps, but to the future certainly. The justification for modernity is to be found in the modern adventure itself.

One of the consequences, however, of living in a world where Flux is king is that it is ever more difficult to have ideas with any sort of purchase on reality. That is, probably, the reason why the modern age has also been the Age of Ideologies. Being incapable of adequate knowledge, we console ourselves with a total knowledge. If we are constantly being moved by forces outside our control, it is a blessing to be informed that they are at least encompassed in our intelligence.

The word "ideology," as we use it today, has an interesting origin. It came into existence in France at the end of the eighteenth century, to signify the study of ideas as entities derived wholly from sense impressions--a belated French variant of British empiricism, though with a barely concealed antireligious bias. Napoleon detested this approach as preparing the way for the subversion of morality, patriotism, and the police; and he heaped scorn upon "ideologues" as irresponsible speculators who were up to no good. Possibly because Napoleon used the word pejoratively, "ideology" later came to be used as a flattering synonym for idealism and the more elevated social sentiments generally. The upshot is the ambiguous term we have now, describing an intellectual enterprise that (a) attempts to give a comprehensive explanation of the past, present, and future of mankind; and (b) incorporates in this explanation an imperative of social transformation.

Ideologies are religions of a sort, but they differ from the older kinds in that they argue from information instead of, ultimately, from ignorance. They do not ask us to trust in an inscrutable Providence, but to accept a reading of events which are happening here and now, in the world about us. It is not knowledge of these events that ideology disseminates, but their "true" meaning which it renders. And therefore ideology presupposes an antecedent "enlightenment"; before it can do its special job of work, facts must be widely available, and curiosity about these facts quickened. Men must be more interested in the news of this world than in the tidings from another. The most obdurate enemy of ideology is illiteracy; which is why all ideological regimes set out to eradicate this, first of all.

The philosophes of the Enlightenment, whatever might be said against them did regard themselves as philosophers--Baconian rather than Aristotelian, to be sure, but philosophers nevertheless. And they looked forward to the day when all men would be philosophers; this was the radical novelty of their undertaking, and this was the root of their zeal for the promotion and circulation of knowledge. What made them, despite themselves, the first ideologists was an event they did not anticipate: the intrusion--overwhelming and transfiguring--into the lives of men and polities of modern scientific technology. This had two extraordinary consequences: (1) The prospect of indefinite material enrichment, of an earthly contentment attainable by all, heightened a quality that all men always possessed but which they had only rarely an opportunity to express. That quality was impatience. (It is the emergence of this quality as a social and political phenomenon that economists call, a bit grandly, "die revolution of rising expectations.") and (2) the world that technology made had so many more people in it, was so complicated in its organization, was above all so protean in its measure, that it was beyond anyone's comprehension. The bridge between (1) and (2) was ideology, which was simultaneously promise and explanation.

Democracy itself is, of course, a perfectly respectable, traditional political idea. But under modern conditions, it too tends to lapse into the ideological. Thus, because we have conceived of democratic government in such a way as to assume that an "informed public opinion" is something in which every citizen ought to have an equal share, we are loath to face the fact that this conception is, under present conditions, absurd. It is not merely that there is so much to know. It is also that we so often don't even know what little we think we do know, and this can hold true for areas of American life in which we are personally involved and for which we may have some kind of personal responsibility.

Daniel Bell's brilliant new book, The End of Ideology (Free Press), addresses itself in a comprehensive way to the problem of the modern world's sophisticated ignorance. One of its chapters is devoted to an analysis of crime statistic show they are collected and calculated, by whom, for what purposes, etc. Reading that chapter is a chastening experience for those of us who have (and who has not?) expressed large opinions on the subject. For it turns out that the statistics are so partial and imperfect that it is impossible to say firmly whether or not crime really has increased in the United States (relative to the growth in population, that is) over the past five decades. Professor Bell's own belief is that it has not. What has happened, he suggests, is that it has only become more pervasive. Formerly restricted to the city slums, crime has "spread" as these slums have spilled over into what were once genteel neighborhoods. The memory that many people cherish today, of a period when it was safe to walk along the streets at night, is not an illusion. Those streets did exist, as for the most part they do not today. But there were other streets along which one never dreamed of walking, of whose existence one might have been unaware, over on the other side of the tracks, or of the park. One's middle-class memory naturally does not include them.

Now, crime is a "newsworthy" subject, and the press, radio, and TV cannot be said to have neglected it. Yet the kind of point Mr. Bell is making is not what they communicate to us. Why not? It is tempting to say accusingly that these mass media underestimate the intelligence of the public, pander to its instincts for the sensational; and there can be no doubt that the melodramatic definition of "news" which is now unassailably orthodox (it is the one that is accepted in all journalism schools) is an unmitigated curse. Yet it will not do simply to call upon the top executives of our mass media to rededicate themselves to the proposition of an "informed public opinion." For the major reason they do not tell us this sort of thing about crime in America is, quite simply, that they do not know it. How should they? True, they can now read it in Mr. Bell's book. But it is a big book (over 400 pages), there are so many books in so many fields, one s time is inevitably limited, one is called on every day to say something, etc., etc. In the end, one must accept these apologies as valid, and realize that people who are busy putting out newspapers do not have the time, the energy, and often the talent to find out the facts about the enormously complicated world we live in.

That reference to talent is not meant invidiously. It is true that the methods of recruiting personnel for the American press are antiquated in the extreme; that a foreign news editor of a major newspaper will in all likelihood not know a single foreign language and be unable to pass a college senior's examination in modern history; that journalistic skill in the abstract (which is the skill of the hack writer) is preferred over any specific competence. But while there is a margin for improvement in these respects, it is not so wide as some think. The ability to discover truth is so rare because the act of discovery is intrinsically so difficult--it requires not merely training and intelligence, but also imagination, insight, and infinite patience. One cannot expect these talents to be widely diffused. Mr. Bell's book demonstrates that they do indeed exist; but his is a rather lonely eminence.

Another chapter in The End of Ideology illustrates this point. It is an account of the situation along New York's waterfront. That this situation is scandalous our press, in collaboration with various Congressional committees, has made known. But a reading of Mr. Bell's chapter makes us realize how badly we have been informed about the roots of this scandal--in history, in economics, in the sociology of the ethnic groups involved. And we are reminded once again that the process of discovering truths about our social world is coming more and more to resemble that of discovering truths about our physical world: it is impossible to know who is capable of disclosing them until after he has done so--because one cannot know what the knowledge of these truths implies and involves until after they have been made known.

The only perceptible result of a grandiloquent emphasis on "informed public opinion" is to encourage reliance on ideology. A man with an ideology can experience the sense of being genuinely well-informed because he reads the newspapers as a way of confirming his beliefs; and newspapers are doubtless useful for this purpose. Sometimes it seems that this kind of ideological opinionatedness is actually what our society means by an "Informed public opinion." How else explain the extraordinary phenomenon of "youth forums"? At these events, young and immature people are positively encouraged to form and express opinions on matters they know nothing, and can know nothing, about. They may drop or revise these opinions as they grow older; but they are all too likely to retain the habit of forming half-baked opinions, and to regard this as an exercise in civic responsibility. Would it not be more desirable to inculcate young people with the sense of the risk, of the presumption, associated with their having opinions at all?

It is Mr. Bell's conviction that American realities have been obscured mainly because the effort has been to conceive of them in European terms. Ours, he points out, is the first society that has "built in" the principle of constant social change, has oriented all our institutions toward the predominance of this principle; whereas in older societies, change is something external and coercive that "happens" to institutions whose assumption is one of permanence, or at least duration. Mr. Bell proves his thesis with wit and vigor, particularly for those European categories that have their provenance in Marxism. But his is not an apologia for "American exceptionalism," for he is well aware that Americans are capable of manufacturing ideologies of their own.

To take one instance: the transformation of American society which we have witnessed during the past three decades is related in our textbooks in entirely mythical terms. The myth, as presented, goes something like this: with the advent of the New Deal, American society amended its individualistic, laisser-faire tradition in the direction of creating a "welfare state"; and this welfare state, by purposeful intervention in the nation's economic life, has brought the business cycle under control as well as producing a fairer (i.e., more equal) distribution of the nation's wealth. It is, understandably, liberal Democrats who are most assiduous in urging this interpretation; but it is by now a non-party affair. There is no question that American society is more prosperous today than it was thirty years ago, and anyone who casts doubt upon the standard explanation might leave the impression of begrudging it--which is the last impression any politician wants to create.

Yet, as Mr. Bell points out, the most important feature of the Big Change we have lived through since the great depression of the 30S is not the social reforms of the New Deal (there were few social reforms to speak of under the "Fair Deal" of President Truman). It is the fantastic growth of the military budget: "Of every dollar spent in I953 by the U. S. Government, eighty-eight cents went for defense and payment of past wars; social security, health and welfare, education, and housing comprised 4 per cent of the budget." In other words, what we like to think of as the "Roosevelt Revolution" can be more accurately described as "The Revolution of World War II." The social reforms of the New Deal were long overdue, but it was not they that released America's frozen productive resources, or made for any purposeful management of the economic system. It was war, and the ensuing struggle for world leadership, which did that.

As for the more equal distribution of wealth, there is little evidence that anything of the sort has taken place. The poor have got richer; but so have the rich. It is true that the working and middle classes now have a larger share of the national income, if not of the national wealth. But this is a normal aspect of prosperity in an industrialized (maybe in any) society, and is nothing but a function of the fact that the rich are, by definition, only a tiny part of the population. The high taxes on large incomes may have some moral and political value, but they have little economic significance. The only class that would suffer if these taxes were reduced would be the tax lawyers.

There is no question that terribly important things have happened to America in recent decades; but "the end of ideology" is not one of them, and Mr. Bell's title is in that respect a little misleading. The feverish urge for material improvement and technological innovation is as prevalent as it ever was; the need for easy explanations of the tangled, incomprehensible reality is as pressing. What has happened is that one particular form of ideology has collapsed. By the "end of ideology," Mr. Bell appears to mean, above all, the collapse of the socialist ideal. And he is quite correct in the emphasis he puts upon this event.

It is not too much to say that the collapse of the socialist ideal is the most striking event in the history of political thought in this century. The process of its deflation has been so intermittent--an irregular series of gasps rather than one instantaneous exhalation--that it is not easy for us to grasp its full significance. Since the death of socialism has not affected our belief in progress, we are tempted to interpret its passing as merely one episode in the interminable education of the human race. Socialism was useful in its time in calling attention to certain unpleasant aspects of modern life; we have absorbed its insights while transcending its dogmatism and naivete--that sort of thing represents the common enlightenment attitude. (The unenlightened are convinced that we have socialism.) But it is not so easy as that. . . .

What this view ignores is that, while we are all as strongly committed as ever to "creating a better world," it was socialism--and socialism alone--which in the past century attempted to offer a full definition of this ideal. It was socialism that proposed a system of controlling modern technology for human purposes, that sustained a vision of the good society and the good life. The socialist critique of capitalist society, cogent enough in many ways, was its least significant aspect. This critique was not a socialist prerogative, and certainly not a socialist monopoly; most of the reforms it advocated were in the end enacted by non-socialists, for non-socialist (if sometimes humane) reasons. There are many former socialists who take satisfaction in the belief that socialism expired because the capitalist parties "stole" essential parts of its program. But this is to fall into the same fallacy as do the inveterate laisser-fairistes--it is to identify the emergence of the "welfare state" (or, as it can be just as properly called, the "managerial state") with the creeping success of socialism. This is itself nothing but a flight into ideology, whether consolatory or alarmist.

Socialism did not succeed; it failed. The socialist impulse was, like all human impulses, a mixed thing. But it was--particularly in its original, pre-Marxian form, which was never quite extinguished--as much a philosophical ideal as an ideology. It set out to master man's fate, not rationalize it. It aimed at a community of virtuous men, whose dominant motive would be compassion and fellow-feeling. Whether or not this ideal is intrinsically utopian--i.e., unsuited to man's fallen nature--is endlessly arguable. But what is absolutely clear is that socialism turned out to be utterly unsuited to the nature of modern man. For, in this nature, concupiscence is stronger than compassion--a concupiscence that is constantly stimulated (even as it is fleetingly satisfied) by the unfolding promise of modern technology to create ever greater wealth. Socialists thought that the "abolition of poverty" would purify and ennoble human nature, and were therefore persuaded that technology worked ineluctably in its favor. They turned out to be wrong. In large areas of the world today, there is wealth enough for people to live full and contented lives in socialist equality and fraternity--if only people wanted to. They do not. What they want is--more. Though what they want more for, they do not know.

Our commitment to a "better world" is intense and unconditional, but it floats uneasily in a void. The President has appointed a committee to compose a memorandum that will define our "national goals" and "national purpose." The radical nature of this action has, surprisingly, gone unremarked: only a couple of decades back it would have been taken for granted that a "national purpose" was the blind sum of individual purposes. The pathetic nature of the President's action has, on the other hand, evoked some tart comment. The goals of life are not something constructed in committee, we know. But we do not know much more than this.

Still, if the modern world is not yet ripe for a political philosophy that will enable it to control the energies it has set loose, it is a good thing for it to be continually chastened by the exposure of its ideological daydreams and nightmares. A true knowledge of facts does not in itself, of course, lead to knowledge of ends. But false knowledge excludes the very possibility of it. The demolition of ideologies, as executed in Bell's work, cannot tell us where we ought to go, as Americans and twentieth-century men. But it does at least help us to keep up with ourselves.

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Last modified: Monday, 02-Aug-2004 09:28:48 EDT