Saturday, June 24, 2006

Summer book blogging, pt. 2

I have a long enough summer reading list already, but I couldn't pass up the chance to participate in a book drive at the Memphis library. The rules: fill a grocery bag full of as many books as you can for only $3. It seemed like most sections had been picked over pretty thoroughly already (and the philosophy section was wimpy to begin with--absolutely dwarfed by the religion section), but I managed to find such gems as the Book of Mormon, The Shame of the Cities by Lincoln Steffens, L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, some new age spiritual crap by Carlos Castaneda, John Kenneth Galbraith's memoirs, and C. Wright Mill's The Power Elite. In other words, a whole big bunch of America.

So far I have read one of books I bought at the library, and it was wonderful. That book was Walter Lippmann's Drift and Mastery, and I heartily recommend it to everyone reading this, especially those with burgeoning political/political philosophical careers.

Lippmann published Drift and Mastery in 1914 when he was only 25 years old. So he was sort of the Matthew Yglesias of the Progressive Era, although in all honesty that's an insult to Lippmann. Both are certainly wunderkinder. Lippmann of course had a long and storied career lasting until his death, but in Drift and Mastery he seems free from the sort of realpolitik and cynicism he would later acquire. Don't they just all start out that way? This book is Lippmann at his most idealistic, starry-eyed and hopeful in the face of a completely new, industrialized, urbanized, seemingly democratizing America. This was before two World Wars, the Depression, the Cold War, Vietnam, Reaganomics, etc., so I suppose Lippmann could afford to be enthusiastic. Reading him today, though, it's painful to see such a free and open discourse and to note all the unfulfilled promises of the "American century." I'll give you a few samplings:

"There are certain preliminaries of civilization which the great mass of workingmen have not yet won. They have not yet won a living wage..." (p. 61)

"Governments can eat more and more into unearned wealth by income taxes, graded drastically, by inheritance taxes on large fortunes. If these funds are spent for civilization they will not impair industry, they will on the contrary increase its efficiency. The state may encroach continuously. The question at issue always is whether the state can spend the money more wisely than the private individual." (p. 71)

"The courts are making law all the time, of course. Now if they made law that met with new situations, there would be no revolt against the judiciary. The American voters are not doctrinaires. They don't care in any academic way whether Congress, the President, or the courts, frame legislation." (p. 95)

"The sense of property may be a deep instinct. But surely the nineteenth century home stimulated that instinct to the point of morbidity. For it did almost nothing to bring the child into contact with the real antidote to acquisitiveness--a sense of social property. To own things in common is, it seems to me, one of the most educating experiences in the world." (p. 130)

And finally (and lengthily):

"It is curious how little faith conservatives have in the institution of the family. They will tell you how deep it is in the needs of mankind, and they will turn around and act as if the home were so fragile that collapse would follow the first whiff of criticism. Now I believe that the family is deeply grounded in the needs of mankind, or it would never survive the destructive attacks made upon it, not by radical theorists, mind you, but by social conditions. At the present moment over half the men of the working-class do not earn enough to support a family, and that's why their wives and their daughters are drawn into industry. The family survives that, men and women still do want to marry and have children. But we put every kind of obstacle in their way. We pay such wages that young men can't afford to marry. We do not teach them the elementary facts of sex. We allow them to pick up knowledge in whispered and hidden ways. We surround them with the tingle and glare of cities, stimulate them, and then fall upon them with a morality which shows no quarter...We thrust people into marriage and forbid them with fearful penalties to learn any way of controlling their own fertility." (p. 132)

I don't agree with all these statements, of course, but the degree to which most of them are either completely verboten in today's political vocabulary or totally unfulfilled is just staggering. The driving force of the 1980s was Reagan's appeal to a sort of rugged individualism and Margaret Thatcher's infamous declaration that "There is no such thing as 'society'; there are only individuals." 70 freakin' years earlier Lippmann knew that those systems would no longer work. That they were cheap fantasies that obscured the reality of a huge American working class that needed leadership and support so that every citizen could have a working shot at opportunity and fairness.

In closing this lengthy post, I will tentatively point out the similarity between Lippmann's position and our own. He grew up, as I mentioned, largely ignorant of wars (c'mon, the Spanish-American War doesn't count) and knowing people who had a memory of the Civil War, who in turn probably knew people in their youth that remembered the Revolution. We, for better or for worse, are in a similar situation with respect to Vietnam and the two World Wars, and I think there may be great potential in that. It might sound irresponsible to say that we are "free" from the harsh realities of those times, but at the same time we are free from their prejudices and hardened instincts. After the second World War, the antidote to political danger and totalitarianism seemed to be quiescence; it was better to be peaceful if somewhat lackadaisical citizens and leave things to professional politicians and bureaucrats. Vietnam and the New Left changed that but only briefly. Perhaps it is time, then, for a new and better Progressive Era. Sorry, I'll take the twinkle out of my eye now.

5 Comments:

Blogger The Sheriff said...

What don't you agree with there?`

12:51 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I think it's a wonderful book as well, Scantron. Reading it now, it may be the single best introduction to the Progressives available. The key words that appear over and over in "Drift and Mastery" are 'organization,' 'efficiency,' and 'scientific management.' In the book, he seems to then think of all forms of "bigness" as good: big, organized government (as you point out), big organized labor unions, and -- which is often forgotten about this book -- big, organized business. Lippmann believed that effectively managed trusts would have the same social-wide benefits of effectively managed government and unions. Without huge corporations, he argued in the chapter "A Nation of Villagers," businesses would be run in the outdated models of the 19th century: ruggedly individualistic (as you point out Scantron) and interested only in personal profit, not social efficiency. In an age where Progressives at least outwardly lambasted the monopolies, this support of trusts seems strange. It demonstrates that starry-eyedness I think you were referring to, Matt. Lippmann saw combination and socialization occurring all around him, and saw it as an unconditional good thing. Later today, I will discuss a Dewey book I just finished reading -- "Individualism Old and New" -- in which I believe he argues against this kind of Progressive faith in combination.

There's a lot more to say about "Drift and Mastery": his absolutely jaw-dropping conservatism on the "Women's Movement"; his humerous hatred of William Jennings Brian (after reading "Age of Reform" and this within a month you must think this guy is indeed the Don Quixote Lippmann says he is).

The Steffens book seems like an interesting read as well (Lippmann got his start with Steffens, after all, and who else could he be talking about in that first chapter on Muckraking). Tell me about this "Dianetics" book. Was this Hubbard character Progressive in spirit, or just a meager tee-totaler?

11:58 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

To answer Sheriff, I don't believe in a "limitless" encroachment of the government into income, nor am I comfortable with the idea that "it doesn't matter who frames the laws." Although I am not a strict originalist, I don't like the idea of the courts issuing edicts, and of course Bush has done enough legislating from the White House to make me nervous.

Yes, Lippmann tends to get a bit carried away with "science," which he applies so liberally and so vaguely to every situation that it becomes nonsense. It's interesting because in the other book I've just read, Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man," words like "organization" and "efficiency" are just the sorts of technicospeak Marcuse rails against as part of the "technological rationality" that deprives us of our humanity. To be fair to Lippmann, though, he probably saw science and bureaucracy as radically changing structure and income levels, whereas in the 50s and 60s it was basically propping up the system Marcuse hated so much. I think this prism of historical analysis helps explain Lippmann's embrace of big business--he was looking for an end to the robber barons, not support for them. I wonder what he would think of the fact that today we have basically returned to similar levels of income inequality? The top 1% now make about 15% of all income.

I actually didn't think Lippmann was all that reactionary in the Women's Movement chapter. He retains a sort of "public/domestic" split in his conception of the sexes, in that men will keep their regular jobs and women will "work cooperatively" (as always) in cooking, cleaning etc. But he doesn't seem to deny that women can do other things if they wish, and he breaks down the dynamics of the home (terrifying, tyrannical father/superstitious mother) in a way that many modern feminists would probably agree with. It seems to me that judging him against his era, he was very liberal. Plus, anyone who can quote that much Nietzsche and Freud (in 1914, no less!) and have anything nice to say about the opposite sex is impressive.

Speaking of robber barons and helping society, Warren Buffett has announced that he will donate the profits from 85% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock. He has now joined the ranks of Slavoj Zizek's "liberal communists."

And Hubbard, a Progressive? Lord, no! The man doesn't know the difference between a Socialist and an Anarchist. And he thinks a Syndicalist publishes articles in the newspaper. Plus, I hear he's a McKinley man!

12:42 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Ohh, that seems to extend a bit past the quotations. I see what you mean

1:13 PM  
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