Welcome to the machine: The Administered Society (an excerpt from the book “Habits of the Heart”)

Reposting a section that I previously transcribed from the 1996 book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (updated edition) by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, beginning on page 267:

The Administered Society versus Economic Democracy

The Administered Society and Economic Democracy represent the two boldest efforts to imagine a next step beyond the stalemated efforts of Welfare Liberalism and Neocapitalism to solve the problems of our society. The advocates of these new visions strongly reject the notion that the United States can return to anything like the situation that prevailed before 1929. In accepting the interpenetration of private and public power, they represent a crucial break with the assumption that fundamental economic interests can be effectively integrated either through the market alone or through informal alliances among interest groups. Rather, these two visions declare the need to go beyond exclusive reliance on voluntarist strategies for integrating major sectors of society such as business, labor, and government. They propose a more visible, public institutionalization, expanding the linkages between sectors and placing them in a more encompassing national framework.

There is a similarity between the proponents of these still inchoate visions. Both announce that something new to American politics is required because of the failure of older visions. Proponents of these new views join others in a widespread criticism of Neocapitalism and Welfare Liberalism as alike sacrificing the general welfare to “special interests.” Welfare Liberals such as Walter Mondale are thought to give too much attention to labor, ethic and racial minorities, and other special constituencies, and Neocapitalists such as President Reagan are criticized as agents of the corporations and the selfish rich. The proponents of the Administered Society and Economic Democracy present their visions as efforts to incorporate and transcend contending interests. Like earlier reformers, they do so with confidence in expertise as the way to extricate our society from its apparent impasse.

As yet, major politicians have embraced only fragments of these new visions as they seek to update fundamentally older conceptions. For coherent expression of these visions we must turn to theorists rather than politicians. We may consider first a vocal advocate of an administratively more integrated national society, the well-known investment banker Felix Rohatyn. In the 1970s, Rohatyn figured prominently in the rescue of New York City from bankruptcy, a rescue carried out by placing fiscal authority in the hands of an appointed board of the city’s creditors, employees, bondholders, and bankers, operating outside ordinary legislative channels. Rohatyn proposed in the early 1980s that the United States, confronting an increasingly competitive international economy, needed a similar rescue that would produce “stable growth, low unemployment, reasonably balanced budgets, and reasonably valued currency.” Such a policy would need to be “committed to maintaining our social gains by promoting economic growth and full employment,” which Rohatyn argued could not be realized by the kinds of political compromises characteristic of congressional politics. “Only institutions that can take the long view and act accordingly will be able to bring about the kinds of changes that are required,” he contended.

In arguing for the necessity for such new institutional arrangements, Rohatyn spoke in a language strong in technical economic and administrative terms, as Welfare Liberalism and Neocapitalism have done for a long time, but with a weaker evocation of the moral tradition of American politics than even these long-dominant positions usually contain. Rohatyn’s specific proposal was for a “tri-partite economic development board,” made up of representatives of “business, labor and government,” appointed by the president and the Congress, in order to intervene in the economy to promote the economic goals described above. The board, the centerpiece of Rohatyn’s “industrial policy,” was modeled after the New York City rescue board and drew inspiration from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation designed by Herbert Hoover to fight the 1929 depression. To bring so massive a reorganization into being, Rohatyn called for strong national leadership by a “bipartisan administration in which a Republican or Democratic president would include opposition leaders in his cabinet” and which would select members of the economic board in a similar spirit.

The Administered Society is above all a vision of social harmony among different and unequal groups cooperating for the goals of improved individual security and widely shared economic growth. To accomplish these ends, it would link private groups, especially business and labor, with governmental agencies to steer economic development through this period of technological and international change. At the same time, traditional Welfare Liberal programs such as improved opportunity and assistance for those dislocated by major change would be continued. One key to this vision is the idea of “partnership” among various sectors of the economy and society, brought together through governmental boards, commissions, and agencies. Such a policy would depend heavily on the administrative structure of government, rather than on popular representation, and would thus bring technical and managerial experts to increased prominence. Yet the basic understanding of work as a means toward private goals would remain the same as in Neocapitalism and Welfare Liberalism. The “permanent and aggregate interests” of the nation would receive more focused and perhaps more expert attention, but presumably only by those at or near the summits of their respective institutions. The ironic result of the Administered Society is very likely to be an increase of privatized attitudes for the many, now more securely provided for.

Unlike the proponents of the Administered Society, advocates of Economic Democracy consciously worry about how to empower citizens to take part in the array of new integrating institutions that they, too, see as necessary to a more humane, as well as a more abundant future. An important voice of this developing position in the early 1980s was Michael Harrington, a long-time advocate of what he has termed “democratic socialism.” To Harrington, neither Welfare Liberalism nor Neocapitalism will do: “We have entered a decade of decisions, a crisis of the system, whether we like it or not.” As an alternative to the failed policies of the past, Harrington endorses a part of Rohatyn’s logic on the grounds that conscious centralization in economic policy is the precondition for more citizen participation in economic decisions—for “decentralization.” Seeing corporate domination of the economy as the chief obstacle, Harrington proposes an active government role to bring about a “democratization of the investment function.” Such a policy would lead eventually to “introducing democracy from the shop floor to the board room.”

While a planner such as Rohatyn can be sanguine about the benevolence of centralized institutions, Harrington thinks the situation requires more ingenuity. Rohatyn defends his proposals as ultimately likely to enhance democracy, saying that “far from being undemocratic, the work of such a board could add to the democratic process an element of consultation with the major forces of our society.” In contrast, Harrington sees public as well as private bureaucracies as threats to freedom. But, he asks, “What if there were legal provisions of funds for any significant group of citizens who wanted to hire their own experts to put together a counter-plan?” For Harrington, the element that divides Economic Democracy and the Administered Society is the notion of citizen empowerment.

Yet Harrington shares the same universe of discourse with Rohatyn to such an extent that he turns to the provision of funds to citizens “to hire their own experts” as the major defense of the democratic nature of his proposed reforms. But experts, no matter how “democratic” in spirit, are neither moral exemplars nor prophets nor political leaders, and the politics of competing experts sounds like a “high tech” version of the politics of interest. Harrington’s vision of Economic Democracy intends to evoke a political vision greater than the sum of competing interests, and it recognizes that this vision would require the support of a widespread social movement. Harrington even recognizes something Rohatyn gives no hint of—that the new vision requires a major cultural transformation as well as institutional innovation. But when it comes to suggesting the substance of that cultural transformation, Harrington’s vision falls as silent as Rohatyn’s. They mutely reveal a lack of a moral basis for their political purposes, the end point of a discourse of means without ends.

This is not to say that there is no difference between these two more recent visions, any more than it could be said that there is no difference between Welfare Liberalism and Neocapitalism. Though Rohatyn may not intend it, it is certainly possible that the Administered Society as he envisions it would only tighten the hold of corporate business on our collective life and result in the administrative despotism that Tocqueville warned against. The vision of Economic Democracy continues the long struggle to bring the corporate economy under democratic control that we alluded to in chapter 8. But can we not imagine that without a cultural and moral transformation, the experts—on whom the Economic Democrats, too, rely—would succeed in bringing about an administrative despotism, or what Tocqueville also called a “democratic despotism,” just as surely under Economic Democracy as under the Administered Society?

 The Unresolved Tension

Earlier in this chapter, we spoke of the belief of Madison and the other founders that our form of government was dependent on the existence of virtue among the people. It was such a virtue that they expected to resolve the tension between private interest and the public good. Without civic virtue, they thought, the republic would decline into factional chaos and probably end in authoritarian rule. Half a century later, this idea was reiterated in Tocqueville’s argument about the importance of the mores—the “habits of the heart”—of Americans. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when Establishment and Populist visions were the chief antagonists in the continuing argument about the shape of our society, Madisonian ideas were still presupposed. The tension between private interest and the public good is never completely resolved in any society. But in a free republic, it is the task of the citizen, whether ruler or ruled, to cultivate civic virtue in order to mitigate the tension and render it manageable.

As the twentieth century has progressed, that understanding, so important through most of our history, has begun to slip from our grasp. As we unthinkingly use the oxymoron “private citizen,” the very meaning of citizenship escapes us. And with Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “we the people” are “a special interest group,” our concerns for the economy being the only thing that holds us together, we have reached a kind of end of the line. The citizen has been swallowed up in “economic man.”

Yet this kind of economic liberalism is not ultimately liberating, for, as became quite clear with the final two visions of the public good described, when economics is the main model for our common life, we are more and more tempted to put ourselves in the hands of the manager and the expert. If society is shattered into as many special interests as there are individuals, then, as Tocqueville foresaw, there is only the schoolmaster state left to take care of us and keep us from one another’s throats.

But if the fears of Madison, Tocqueville, and Debs seem today to be becoming alarmingly true, then perhaps their hopes can speak to us as well. They believed that the survival of a free people depends on the revival of a public virtue that is able to find political expression. The way a free society meets its problems depends not only on its economic and administrative resources but on its political imagination. Political vision thus plays an indispensable role in providing understanding of the present and of the possibilities for change. Is it possible that we could become citizens again and together seek the common good in the post-industrial, postmodern age?

One inquiry into what is religion

Tonight I came across Suicideforcelluloid’s video “What is religion?”:

Have only maybe maybe watched a video or two by him in the past, so not too familiar with that YTer. Mostly I viewed that in preparation for listening to Prof. Anton’s reply:

I’ll post here what I left in a comment on that video:

Wow. You said it ALL in this video! Thank you for responding on this topic — this inquiry is so important for all of us right now.

“Dogmatically committed to a hyper-hyper-rationality” — very good way to state it plain.

“Hyperationality…it’s imagining what will never be. To that extent it’s an irrationality…There’s more rationality in the person who accept the limits of rationality.”  Great explanation there.

That’s the problem in a nutshell with so-called “scientism” and is why atheism is coming to look like dogma dressed up in scientific cloaks. People collect and then conform and before you know it turn dogmatic in their share beliefs. Appears it goes hand in hand with rising populations and widening the net in how we’re affiliated.

“What is community?” really is the deeper question. We as individuals can’t survive without some form of community, yet what we’ve created is now causing us so many problems and is breaking up tight-knit communities everywhere. They’re rapidly going extinct—first tribes, then towns, then neighborhoods, now families are feeling the pressure—leaving us all out here to float around looking for what feels missing in our lives and trying to figure out how to connect and bond with very little knowledge of wisdom that might help. Instead we’re flooded with insecurity-poking magazine articles and fiction.

I really liked what you said about kids and parenting, because it is true that some people are made better people by becoming parents, and their children benefit from this. Love is what it’s all about, it’s what we need more of. Just sucks that there’s so much pressure on everybody to breed, as if that in itself is the key unlocking a meaningful life. Winds up becoming about adults using kids to satisfy their own longings, which rarely works out well for all involved. Would be ideal if we saw less of that and more parenting that comes from a place of wanting to pass on love and guidance and being able to do so.

You spoke about people being “sentenced to life” and on putting more weight on the death that will inevitably follow — that ties into my own views on abortion and why it can be seen as merciful (though many people react badly to hearing that). Life is sacred, so bringing people in willy-nilly without much forethought, not caring if they wind up raised by the foster care system because they weren’t adopted out, leaving them to the mercy of society without any promises of love and devotion from the people who created them — that’s just so incredibly harsh. If we accept that and wish to prize life, it seems to follow that it’s also our responsibility not to bring new life into being if we can’t provide love. To do so is cruel and creates broken people who then may turn around and take out their pain on others.  And being reminded of that by the news nonstop makes us feel all the more cautious and untrusting and disconnected.

What do you think the future may hold in store for communities?

“Mass culture is enlightenment in reverse gear.”

“Rick Roderick on Philosophy and Postmodern Culture,” this video being the 8th in the 8-part lecture series Philosophy and Human Values (1990).

I’ve come to adore listening to Rick Roderick’s explanations and speculations.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – a 2007 talk by Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University:

Zimbardo’s latest book, The Lucifer Effect, attempts to understand how good people do evil deeds. His talk outlines his involvement as expert witness for the defense team of one of the military police officers responsible at Abu Ghraib, and also provides a rich history of psychological research into the kind of behavior transformations evident in Iraq. First, Zimbardo presents a slideshow of Abu Ghraib abominations, including some digital photos that were not widely distributed by the media. Then he digs deep into the archives for a horrifically illustrated tour of experiments that make a persuasive case that certain, predictable situations corrupt people into wielding power in a destructive way.

He describes Stanley Milgram’s 1963 Yale-based research demonstrating that people will behave sadistically when confronted by “an authority in a lab coat.” A vast majority of the subjects delivered what they were told were dangerous electric shocks to a learner in another room, to the point of apparently killing the other person. Researchers skeptical of his results replicated them. This time, professors demanded that students shock real puppies standing on electrified grills. Zimbardo’s own prison experiment turned an ordinary group of young men into power-hungry “guards,” humiliating equally ordinary “prisoners” in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. The descent into barbarity was so rapid that Zimbardo had to cancel the experiment after a few days.

The recipe for behavior change isn’t complicated. “All evil begins with a big lie,” says Zimbardo, whether it’s a claim to be following the word of God, or the need to stamp out political opposition. A seemingly insignificant step follows, with successive small actions, presented as essential by an apparently just authority figure. The situation presents others complying with the same rules, perhaps protesting, but following along all the same. If the victims are anonymous or dehumanized somehow, all the better. And exiting the situation is extremely difficult.

Abu Ghraib fit this type of situation to a T, says Zimbardo. The guards, never trained for their work helping military interrogators, worked 12-hour shifts, 40 days without a break, in chaotic, filthy conditions, facing 1,000 foreign prisoners, and hostile fire from the neighborhood. They operated in extreme stress, under orders to impose fear on their prisoners. Zimbardo believes the outcome was perfectly predictable, and while never absolving these soldiers of personal responsibility, believes justice won’t be done until “the people who created the situation go on trial as well: George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George Bush.”

On subjectivity, science, and scientism — an excerpt from the book “Technopoly”

Continuing in Neil Postman’s book Technopoly (1992), picking back up on page 158:

Technopoloy wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies. In Technopoly, it is not enough for social research to rediscover ancient truths or to comment on and criticize the moral behavior of people. In Technopoly, it is an insult to call someone a “moralizer.” Nor is it sufficient for social research to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity. Such a program lacks the aura of certain knowledge that only science can provide. It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes.

That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts. In Technopoly, it is not enough to argue that the segregation of blacks and whites in schools is immoral, and it is useless to offer Black Boy or Invisible Man or The Fire Next Time as proof. The courts must be shown that standardized academic and psychological tests reveal that blacks do less well than whites and feel demeaned when segregation exists. In Technopoly, it is not enough to say it is immoral and degrading to allow people to be homeless. You cannot get anywhere by asking a judge, a politician, or a bureaucrat to read Les Miserables or Nana or, indeed, the New Testament. You must show that statistics have produced data revealing the homeless to be unhappy and to be a drain in the economy. Neither Dostoevsky nor Freud, Dickens nor Weber, Twain nor Marx, is now a dispenser of legitimate knowledge. They are interesting; they are “worth reading”; they are artifacts of our past. But as for “truth,” we must turn to “science.” Which brings me to the crux of what I mean by Scientism, and why it has emerged in Technopoly.

I have tried to show that science, social research, and the kind of work we call imaginative literature are three quite different kinds of enterprise. In the end, all of them are forms of story-telling—human attempts to account for our experience in coherent ways. But they have different aims, ask different questions, follow different procedures, and give different meanings to “truth.” In most of these respects, social research has little in common with science, and much in common with other forms of imaginative literature. Yet social “scientists” have consistently sought to identify themselves, and in more than name, with physicists, chemists, biologists, and others who inquire into the lawful regularities of the natural world. Why students of the human condition should do this is not hard to explain. The great successes of modern times—indeed, perhaps the only successes—have come in medicine, pharmacology, biochemistry, astrophysics, and all the feats of mechanical, biological, and electronic engineering made possible by the consistent application of the aims, assumptions, and procedures of natural science. These successes have attached to the name of science an awesome measure of authority, and to those who claim the title “scientist” a similar measure of respect and prestige. Beyond that lies the nineteenth-century hope that the assumptions and procedures of natural science might be applied without modification to the social world, to the same end of increased predictability and control, and with the same kind of engineering success. This hope has proved both misguided and illusory. But the illusion is a powerful one, and, given the psychological, social, and material benefits that attach to the label “scientist,” it is not hard to see why social researchers should find it hard to give it up.

It is less easy to see why the rest of us have so willingly, even eagerly, cooperated in perpetuating the same illusion. In part, the explanation lies in a profound misunderstanding of the aims of natural and of social studies, and of the differences between the physical and social worlds. But there is more to it than that. When the new technologies and techniques and spirit of men like Galileo, Newton, and Bacon laid the foundations of natural science, they also discredited the authority of earlier accounts of the physical world, as found, for example, in the great tale of Genesis. By calling into question the truth of such accounts in one realm, science undermined the whole edifice of belief in sacred stories and ultimately swept away with it the source to which most humans had looked for moral authority. It is not too much to say, I think, that the desacralized world has been searching for an alternative source of moral authority ever since. So far as I know, no responsible natural scientist, either of the Renaissance or of recent times, has claimed that the procedures of natural science or its discoveries can tell us what we ought to do—whether some way of dealing with our fellow humans is good or evil, right or wrong. Indeed, the very principles of natural science, with its requirement of an objective stance toward what is studied, compel the natural scientist to abjure in his or her role as a scientist such moral judgments or claims. When natural scientists speak out on moral questions, on what is good and evil to do, they speak as the rest of us—as concerned citizens on a threatened planet, as rational women and men, as people of conscience who must struggle no less than you must, or I, to answer for themselves where the ultimate authority for their moral judgment lies. It is the world of desperate listeners, longing for a more powerful moral authority, that begs the natural scientist to say it is the science that speaks, not the woman or man. But the scientist cannot with honor consent.

Our social “scientists” have from the beginning been less tender of conscience, or less rigorous in their views of science, or perhaps just more confused about the questions their procedures can answer and those they cannot. In any case, they have not been squeamish about imputing to their “discoveries” and the rigor of their procedures the power to direct us in how we ought rightly to behave. That is why social “scientists” are so often to be found on our television screens, and on our best-seller lists, and in the “self-help” sections of airport bookstands: not because they can tell us how some humans sometimes behave but because they purport to tell us how we should; not because they speak to us as fellow humans who have lived longer, or experienced more of human suffering, or thought more deeply and reasoned more carefully about some set of problems, but because they consent to maintain the illusion that it is their data, their procedures, their science, and not themselves, that speak. We welcome them gladly, and the claim explicitly made or implied, because we need so desperately to find some source outside the frail and shaky judgments of mortals like ourselves to authorize our moral decisions and behavior. And outside of the authority of brute force, which can scarcely be called moral, we seem to have little left but the authority of procedures.

This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel and behave?” It is Scientism on a personal level when one says, as President Reagan did, that he personally believes that abortion is wrong but we must leave it to science to tell us when a fetus enters life. It is Scientism on a cultural level when no scientist rises to demur, when no newspaper prints a rebuttal on its “science” pages, when everyone cooperates, willfully or through ignorance, in the perpetuation of such an illusion. Science can tell us when a heart begins to beat, or movement begins, or what are the statistics of survival of neonates of different gestational ages outside the womb. But science has no more moral authority than you do or I do to establish such criteria as the “true” definition of “life” or of human state or of personhood. Social research can tell us how some people behave in the presence of what they believe to be legitimate authority. But it cannot tell us when authority is “legitimate” and when not, or how we must decide, or when it may be right or wrong to obey. To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.

[All emphases his.]

This excerpt concluded on page 162.