Commentary Magazine


The Good Society

It used to be—it seems to have been so even yesterday—that people with a reforming bent of mind knew, or thought they knew, what they meant by the “good society,” and they knew, or thought they knew, what forms of social action ought to be taken in order to achieve it. In the 1930’s radicals and liberals alike were relatively secure in their attachment to first principles, and each group was guided by a firm assurance as to what such words as “progress” and “justice” meant, and what means were necessary to bring about a society in which all men could finally live together contentedly, creatively, and as brothers. The history of the great reforming movements—of Communism, socialism, anti-colonialism, the American labor movement—did much to break down this assurance. By the 1950’s the reigning temper had become skeptical—skeptical of “ideologies,” skeptical of blueprints for the future, skeptical of human possibility itself.

Conceivably we are better off for having learned to become aware of all the questions wrapped up in terms like “liberalism” or “progress” or “justice” or “the good society.” Yet it may also be that by understanding too well how ambiguous both our means and our goals are, we have become unable to improve things even in the limited ways which our more complex view of society and its problems suggested.

As the Eisenhower Age ended—that age which had so perfectly expressed and symbolized the loss of reformist élan—some of us joined in the new spirit of social enthusiasm that began to be felt in this country. For the first time in some years, people were talking passionately about the problems of our cities—about housing, about delinquency, about discrimination, about urban poverty. Skeptical of all ideologies, we still hoped something could be done about the quality of life in our society—about the meaninglessness of work in a technological civilization, about the growth of organization, about the pointlessness of our patterns of production and consumption, about the effects of an economy so dependent on huge defense budgets. Knowing as we did that neither our goals nor our ideas for arriving at these goals were all that certain or even all that good, we could nevertheless denounce ourselves and others for not concealing our doubts and determinedly pursuing what we realized would at best be only minor improvements. Now a new mood of malaise and exhaustion is beginning to overtake us, and we wonder where there is to go from here.

Paul Goodman, in Growing Up Absurd, compiles a list of revolutions that have failed in the last hundred years—changes that were set into motion but were never quite consummated: political revolutions, economic revolutions, ethical and moral revolutions. A failed revolution is itself an ambiguous notion. Did it fail because the forces of evil and reaction were too strong? Or did it fail because there was no way for it to succeed, because its vision of “success” contained contradictory elements that could not, in history, be brought together in a stable compound? Did it fail because those attempting to carry it out realized at some point that the good to be attained was disproportionate to the effort required? Did it fail, in other words, because what it attempted to achieve, while undoubtedly good, did not after a while seem good enough?

The latter set of questions, I think, points to the pattern that is characteristic of our own day. For two revolutions which have become closely linked unfortunately did succeed—the organizational revolution and the scientific revolution—and their success makes any others infinitely difficult to bring off. The technology of science permits the organization to become ever larger and more effective. And the steady rationality of scientific thinking applied to organizational problems seems to overcome some of the chief characteristics and perhaps weaknesses of organizations in the past—their rigidity, their lack of dynamism, their stubbornness. Perhaps these characteristics once permitted us, like primitive mammals around a dinosaur, to outwit the organization, to achieve changes without the exhausting investment of unlimited energy that is now required. But we have suddenly arrived at a point when even the biggest organizations we have—such as the defense forces—can, by the power of a rational analysis, be made flexible. With the help of a newly developed technology for analysis, those great giants, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, have by now, we are told, been bent together to common ends, despite their traditions, their organizational character, even their alliances with Congress.

Compare the present situation with one that many of us can recall from only twenty-five years ago. In those days, we—some of us, at any rate—attacked the threat of a $1,000,000,000 budget for national defense. There were no intellectuals in the armed forces then—if there were, intellectuals outside the armed forces did not know them. Or think back to the State Department of those days. Perhaps radical and liberal critics of the 20’s and 30’s, in their ignorance, caricatured professional military men and professional diplomats. Perhaps these men were not as inadequate and self-seeking as we imagined. But the gap between them and us was so great that we could in good conscience denounce and caricature them, and honestly believe that we would do much better if we only had the chance. To intellectual critics, men of affairs in the 20’s and 30’s clearly stood in the way of the obvious steps to a much better society. And I am convinced this was no illusion, just as the contempt the men of affairs had for their “impractical” critics was based on no illusion either. Military men, diplomats, corporation presidents, disinherited radical intellectuals—all stood far apart from each other and distinct; each could see the limitations, stupidity, inadequacies of the other. The system permitted those of us who stood outside it to hate it; and in contrast to that system, it was easy to imagine something better. When we looked at limited people and bound institutions, it was easy to believe that, when the limits and bonds were burst, something newer and cleaner and fresher would emerge.

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The bonds were never burst. Rather, they were loosened. The tension between inside and outside relaxed, and as it relaxed, as more interchange between those inside the system and those outside began taking place, it became harder and harder for the outsiders to hate with such healthy directness. It is not only that the critics began to understand the problems of those who ran the organizations; the organizations themselves loosened up to the point where the critics were put into a position of being able to see what those problems were and what the representatives of the status quo were actually like. Indeed, the representatives began even to include some of the critics.

The critics were included or listened to for a number of reasons. One, perhaps, was that the authorities decided that this would be a good way to draw the claws of the critics: weakening the opposition by enfolding it. Another, perhaps, was that the authorities had lost some of their old self-confidence. But more important than either of these reasons was the rise of the new techniques for making organizations more efficient. These techniques—computerization, operations research, management education, “buzz sessions,” and so on—exert a far stronger pressure on the organization to include its critics than the old Machiavellian notion of buying them off by bringing them in. The pressure now comes from the principle that everything, or almost everything, is relevant, or may be relevant, to the solution of a problem or the heightening of efficiency.

It is because so many factors are relevant that techniques and technologies have been developed for considering the joint impact of a host of diverse forces in a given area of activity, the effect each of these forces has on every other, and how they can be expected to operate, both jointly and singly, at every stage in a long-run process. The application of science to social problems thus means that many “inputs,” many different kinds of knowledge, are required. The inputs required, for example, in national defense, now include in addition to the special expertise of military men, that of economists, industrial managers, political analysts, psychologists, sociologists, town planners, psychiatrists—not that I would exaggerate the influence of these latter three or four categories. Indeed, a properly developed national defense policy would even have to take into account the information and insights of pacifists and those who oppose the current military establishment. And in fact, I am reasonably sure that a department as well organized as Mr. McNamara’s is actually making use of these inputs too.

Naturally when one tries to feed into the decision-making machine the special knowledge that critics may have, amenable critics of the organization are likely to be the easiest kind to work with. But as we become more refined in our use of inputs (and this is the ever constant demand of the organizational and technological revolution), even the critics whose insights we need will be categorized—into amenable and unamenable: those who work for the organization, those who work under contract, and those whom we can only get to give an occasional lecture.

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I have suggested that one of the things that has happened to our conception of the good is that the effort to achieve it seems, in many spheres, to be disproportionate to what we might conceivably accomplish. The disproportion is created by a number of factors, of which the first is the process we have just been talking about: the sophistication of the existing organizations under the pressure of new scientific and rational techniques. The “lead time,” so to speak, of intellectual and radical critics is growing ever shorter. Their ideas are taken up; they are taken up. Paul Goodman, when he wrote about the movies in the early 1940’s, was probably not read by a single person who “counted” in Hollywood. When he writes about television today, Newton Minow, I assume, reads him and David Brinkley writes letters to the New Republic to argue with him. I doubt that this is because he is not as radical today as he was then. The explanation is rather that the organizations are more sophisticated, more in touch with advanced ideas than they used to be. Yet the paradoxical consequence is not that such ideas exert more influence than they once did, but that they are often robbed of their bite and of their influence on the general opinion by being fought against in a highly sophisticated manner.

But even where the organizations are not sophisticated so far as ideas are concerned, the organizational revolution has at least proceeded to the point where they are more efficient than they used to be so far as their own ends are concerned. They cannot easily be gotten around. And if they cannot be gotten around, the critics are forced to work with them at their pace and on their terms: who, then, is influencing whom? Only a few targets of a traditional sort still remain—that is, people and institutions that we can consider so stupid, vulgar, and selfish that we can hate and fight them without quarter. Such a target is offered by Southerners who insist on maintaining white superiority; or by Russian cultural commissars. There is certainly a large enough agenda here to keep active people busy. Enough clear evils exist to work against, even though the largest evils—for example, the threat to the world of nuclear war—unfortunately do not present as unambiguous a target as white supremacists or Communist commissars.

But apart from such relatively clear cases, those who want to change the world into something better become less and less certain about just how it can be done. Many writers have already commented on how hard it is for our generation to construct a utopia—I mean in the mind, let alone in reality. We can imagine various kinds of “anti-utopias,” based on the spreading power of organizations and the correlative helplessness of individuals. Even without knowing anything about operations research and high-powered computers, George Orwell was able to work out a terrifying model along these lines. But what is our picture of a desirable future toward which to strive? Kenneth Boulding, as imaginative and creative a social scientist as we have, has written an article, “Where Are We Going, If Anywhere: A Look at Post-Civilization,” in which he attempts to picture the best we can hope for if all goes well, and we are not destroyed by atomic bombs, by the population explosion, or by the exhaustion of those natural resources necessary to civilization. While he does not go into any very specific detail about the conditions requisite to our survival, it is clear that we must first of all envisage some truly elaborate international organization—at least as elaborate as our Department of Defense—that would control the great weapons. It is naive to think of going back to the halcyon age before they existed; the knowledge of how to make them cannot be eradicated, and undoubtedly, therefore, the International Control Organization would have to maintain a very large research and testing establishment to make sure that it knew how to make them better than anybody else. It would probably also have to have on hand a few weapons bigger and better than anybody else could put together on short notice. We can scarcely imagine the kind of organization we would need to control the birth-rate, but it would also be impressive.

What kind of society would this fabulous triumph of political ingenuity permit to exist and to flourish? Let me quote from Professor Boulding:

It is perfectly possible to paint an anti-utopia in which a post-civilized society appears as universally vulgar or even universally dull. On the whole, however, I welcome post-civilization. . . . Post-civilization is a realization of man’s potential. . . . It at least gives us a chance of a modest Utopia, in which slavery, poverty, exploitation, gross inequality, war and disease—those prime costs of civilization—will fall to the vanishing point. . . . The masses will live scattered about the surface of the earth, commuting occasionally to semi-automatic factories and offices, or will snuggle down with three dimensional TV at the end of the day. Modest as these visions of Utopia may be, there is no guarantee that we will reach them. . . .

We can add some embellishments—maybe, for example, they would get to and from work by monorail. But can we really do much better than that—even in imagination? Let us be as free and unburdened by practical considerations as we wish, and try to visualize what America would be like if we had our way. Sweden today? Let us pour it on a bit heavier. Would we all live as people do today in Scarsdale? Or would we perhaps all live in art colonies?

Of course, even if we cannot plan any ultimate Utopias, there is still work to be done. First of all, we have to keep the world intact, and that means preventing a nuclear war. And then there are slum-dwellers to be moved into new homes, jobs to be created for the unemployed, school dropouts to be re-motivated and re-educated, Negroes who should get the vote in the South, discrimination in jobs and housing to be eradicated in the North. The poor countries need assistance, too, to the point where they can have enough to eat and even have the junk that fills up our lives. There is plenty to be done, then, without thinking of how we, and those whom we help, will live when the job is finished. This is a reasonable and forth-right and pragmatic point of view. But when we say that on the one hand there is work to be done and on the other that we have no clear conception of what species of good will come into being as the work proceeds, the effect, for some of us, is to weaken our determination to go ahead with even the relatively unambiguous problems that confront our society.

Take, for example, the problem of unemployment, about which we can raise a number of key and unpleasant questions. What sort of work will the unemployed and the young do if we are successful in finding jobs for them? Will they be happy at such work? Do we need the kind of things they will produce? What is required to create enough jobs in the first place? We all know some of the answers: that we will have to encourage speculation and the thirst for profit even more than we now encourage it, by cutting taxes for corporate and other investments; that we will have to expend enormous political energy and negotiate many compromises to get this accomplished; that the new jobs will result in more cars, more superhighways, more developments of little houses on treeless tracts of land. We also know in advance that the men, while they will be happy to have something to do and money to spend, will not be happy at their work. Knowing all this, we are nevertheless expected to fight like mad to achieve it—because the forces that oppose even this much are strong, and on occasion more than a little persuasive.

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But what if we extended our goals—what if we were to fight not only for more jobs but for more useful and satisfying ones? What if we insisted on putting men to work to build more schools; to develop new recreational grounds for our expanded leisure time; to set up beautiful new towns and cities in our depressed areas; to create rapid and efficient new forms of mass transportation, so we could move pleasantly between work, home, and recreation; to teach people of the underdeveloped countries how to be more productive? Theoretically, all this would be fine, except that solving even the unemployment problem by itself, without regard to any of these other considerations, already seems to be straining our resources of energy and determination to the breaking point. How are we supposed to reform society when just getting a small tax cut is so difficult?

Assume, however, that we are successful beyond our wildest dreams, and that we get Congress to cooperate in reform. Do we know how to go about the job of reforming society? Consider some simple problems. If we decided to build new schools, we would find many people—including radicals—arguing that we could do as well in old school buildings, or in the open air, or in rented homes; what school buildings did Plato and Aristotle use? If we decided to build new towns in depressed areas, we would find it hard to get people to stay and business to come. If we decided to rebuild our old slums, we would find conservatives and radicals alike attacking the way we were planning to go about it—a way that would have been the best we could manage to get out of an elaborate democratic process of investigation and legislation and compromise. If we decided to expand our recreational facilities, the lovers of wilderness as well as the owners of the land who had been hoping to make a profit from it, would join in opposition.

In England, after about seventeen years of hard work, the New Towns—and New Towns could absorb a great deal of our energy, intelligence, and manpower, in a project that would quite clearly improve the condition of our lives—have finally succeeded. But this long-range task has been carried out by a government and administration with far greater authority and continuity than ours can possess. I think we could do such things in this country—but we would have to work five times, ten times, as hard as the English did.

Or consider another way in which we might affect the shape of our society: more social workers, caretakers, people to help the incapacitated and those in trouble. Our proclivity for multiplying social agencies, which de Tocqueville applauded and which is one of our most admirable national characteristics, has by now produced a jungle in which the caretakers are frustrated in their tasks, and in which the energies of many of the best of them are drained by organizational maneuvering, as they try to fit organically related programs and agencies together into some coherent structure. Nor is it easy to get money for these purposes, despite the increasing number of casualties our society produces and the declining capacity of our old social forms to look after them. Conservatives are against spending money for welfare purposes, but neither do we find among the intellectual and radical critics any great love of social work—or many social workers either.

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We must note, and this is something to consider very seriously as we survey the prospects for making a better society, that both conservatives or reactionaries, on the one hand, and intellectuals and radicals and anarchists, on the other, often come together in opposition to what we might call establishment liberalism. Thus Paul Goodman, in The Community of Scholars, brilliantly attacks big organization in higher education: he does not see the need for anything more than the teacher and the student; buildings, dormitories, deans, administrators, accountants—all this, he says, we can do without. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, similarly attacks traditional city planning as a destroyer of cities. New towns bore her and she urges keeping the disorder we have, nurturing only slow changes, and suspiciously rejecting any large-scale improvements. I know that Jane Jacobs’s arguments and her book itself have been used in votes against urban renewal; I am sure someone will use Paul Goodman’s book against greater government expenditures for educational plant and facilities. And Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is another example of criticism that cuts across all traditional political divisions.

Greenwich Village, where Jane Jacobs is the leader of the forces opposed to urban renewal, has been one of the major centers in the fight against establishment liberalism. The Village intellectuals fought the urban renewal project that would have replaced old tenements and factories with new middle-income housing. They fought the police to keep the coffee shops unregulated, the bookstores open on Sunday, the folk singers free to sing in Washington Square. They fought the city to prevent the building of a new road through the Square; and they are now suspiciously questioning the city’s appropriation to rebuild the Square, for they are afraid that its shabby familiar spaces will be replaced by something too neat and cold. Their journal is the Village Voice, which is apparently read elsewhere in the country, and in which Jules Feiffer ferociously caricatures men who believe they are advancing the good society—and Democrats to boot. Feiffer’s cartoons, in fact, are syndicated and appear in a few conservative newspapers in other cities.

What is the image of the good society held by these people who fight endlessly against the police, the park department, the city planning commission, the urban renewal agency—and in a city in which the administration is as “liberal” as any in the country? I cannot say whether they have an image of a good society, but they certainly do have an image of the best society they feel we can manage under the circumstances. And it is—leave us alone, you with all your good works, and all the city departments and government activities you have developed to create order, and leave us to our own disorder.

In Greenwich Village we find one of the last ripples of the great wave of social reform that moved through this country in the first fifteen years of the century, and then again during the depression, and it all comes down to a single word: STOP. The demands that were raised in the past have in some measure been met—social security, government relief, unemployment insurance, slum clearance, public housing, union recognition, minimum wage laws. Of course none of these reforms is complete; all have created some new problems. We can take the position, spirits as high as ever, that there is still work to be done, that social justice is not yet complete—and indeed it is not. Or we can pay more attention to our own feelings of malaise and exhaustion, or to the Greenwich Village feeling of “leave us alone,” and we can look into our assumptions about the nature of the good society, the mechanisms we create to get there, the organizations we start to get the mechanisms, the whole machine for doing good. Is something wrong? And is there any way other than the frightfully hard one we have all experienced and that sometimes produces a compromised trickle of change?

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I have raised many questions about doing good and building the good society because I share this malaise and discomfort. I go along when we analyze a problem and then urge an organizational solution, because I cannot think of any other. I know it would be better if people took care of each other because they truly wanted to, or because God or nature demanded it of them. But we can exhort forever, and meanwhile the problem is here, and the organization—the substitute for the obligation personally accepted—offers some help, and at least convinces us that we are doing something. Yet I also know what will happen when we set up that organization—any organization, for any problem. There will be, on the one side, the problem; and on the other, the organization to deal with it. The point of contact between the two will be small, and a minuscule of good will finally be accomplished as a result of a mountain of labor, in getting the organization started, and in running it.

There is, it seems to me, only one alternative—to improve the organizations, and to rationalize the relationships between them. I have already spoken of the Defense Department. In their much smaller way, the organizations, public and private, that try to do good are now groping toward means of relating more efficiently to each other and to the problems they have been created to handle. Perhaps, just as the divisions between Army, Navy, and Air Force have been weakened by setting certain specific tasks and missions that cut across the old lines, we will come to a time when the various perspectives of social work, welfare, mental health, education, police work, city planning, commercial development, and countless other departments and organizations and approaches, will be linked through the power of the new organizational technology, and will be able to focus effectively on missions, and to modify themselves flexibly and rapidly in response to quickly diagnosed and analyzed needs.

This is the vision. At the top there will be the analysts and researchers and programmers and computers and the huge machines into which many kinds of data now guarded in the files of separate organizations will constantly be fed and out of which will flow guides and aids to action. The demands on those who manage the great organization will presumably be infinitely more strenuous than those which today affect ordinary executives. For one thing, all perspectives will be relevant; no problem will be bounded, as all are today; every problem will have to be seen in the light of all the factors that may have some reasonably significant effect on it. The present specialties will still exist—the police, the teachers, the employment counselors, the social workers—but they will all be deployed in accordance with the central analysis. And the central authority will have far more information, and will make much better diagnoses of the effectiveness of certain kinds of programs and specialists than can those who run the programs themselves.

Can it be done? Well, the admirals and generals grumble under McNamara, as the education and police and welfare chiefs may grumble under the managers of the big organization in the future. As for the clients of the programs—the people to be helped—they will be so far from the determining center of allocation, as we may call it, that we must assume they will simply enjoy the better, more rationally ordered life that this will create for them. They will not understand how it came about. They will follow the directions, as they now follow complicated road signs, and believe with perfect faith—just as they now believe that to go left they must make three right turns—that they will be taken care of; that someone has wired the machines and set up the organization for the purpose of healing their hurt.

The logic of the situation—the size of our population, the number of our organizations, the extent of our problems, the interrelations between the different parts of our society, the developments of science and technology, the nature of our morality—all point to this outcome. Presumably more people will have more of the things they now lack and whose absence is what they feel is making them unhappy.

Some of us may be reminded by this vision of the world of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” in which the individual lives in a cell, hooked up with the central machine, the big organization, which sees to it that the cell is air-conditioned and provided with food and means of recreation. This is a world in which all forms of complicated connection between people seem to have been destroyed, in favor of their single connection to the machine. And indeed, the organizational machinery we have developed in the modern world in large measure came into being as a substitute for community. In the most advanced countries, such as ours, the historical and natural communities—the families, the ethnic and religious and social groups—no longer perform their traditional tasks adequately. Substitutions are necessary, but they are still not as good or complete as they should be; like the first canned foods or powdered milk, they are too far from the original, and they may even lack critical elements that our science has not yet clearly identified. Our welfare system is not as good a way of taking care of those without income as the older systems of group responsibility. Our legal measures and institutions for the aged are not as good as a situation in which their support is undertaken out of a moral and religious obligation. Our formal means of education and training for jobs are probably not as good as traditional systems of apprenticeship. Scientific investigation keeps on discovering inadequacies in our substitutes for these weakened traditional relationships. Thus medicine and psychotherapy, despite their great technical skill and sophistication, seem to need, for greatest effectiveness, settings of human concern and involvement.

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But alongside the organizational solutions which are inevitable and necessary, I think we must do our best to maintain and encourage non-organizational or small organizational approaches. This is why the old forms, ethnic and religious and neighborhood, should not be damaged—they are weak enough as it is. When some thousands of small businesses are destroyed by urban renewal, we have lost thousands of valuable networks of communication, which are enormously difficult—for modern societies almost impossible—to re-create. Artists and anarchists and radicals are always trying to create small communities—it is this perhaps which sometimes links them with arch-conservatives and reactionaries, who are also romantically attached to small communities, but to those of the past. Though these communities, old and new, decline, they should be encouraged; a community is valuable not because it always achieves its formal objectives (it rarely does), but because of the by-products which our society finds it otherwise so difficult to create—friendship, loyalties, connections, memories, attachments. The big organizations, foundations, and governments should consider seriously all those proposals—from Irving Kristol, Paul Goodman, and others—for support, by subsidy and if necessary tax-exemption, of small magazines, television stations, schools, and other community-creating enterprises.

We might envisage, then, alongside the big society, many small societies. They will be composed, if we extrapolate from present conditions, of the religious and the non-religious, reactionaries and anarchists and radicals. They will each be based on the voluntary surrender of something the big organizations give—security, income, material goods, status. They will also provide something the big organized society finds it hard to provide. At worst they will be a museum of old social forms. At best they will exert a stubborn and steady pressure on the big society, to move ahead in a more hopeful and human direction.

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