During Eisenhower's second administration, I wrote a book describing how hard it was for young people to grow up in the corporate institutions of American society. The statistics at that time indicated that most were content to be secure as personnel of big corporations; a few deviated in impractical, and certainly unpolitical, ways, like being Beat or delinquent. The system itself, like its President, operated with a cheerful and righteous self-satisfaction. There were no signs of its being vulnerable, though a loud chorus of intellectual critics, like myself, were sounding off against it. We were spoilsports.
Less than ten years later, the feeling is different; it turns out that the critics were not altogether unrealistic. The dominant system of institutions is even grander and more computerized, but it seems to have lost its morale. The baronial corporations are making immense amounts of money and are more openly and heavily subsidized by the monarch in Washington. The processing of the young is being extended for longer years and its tempo speeded up. More capital and management are being exported, interlocking with international capital, and more of the world is being brought under American control. When necessary, remarkable military technology is brought to bear to regularize the recalcitrant. At home, there is no political check, for no matter what the currents of opinion, by and large the dominant system wreaks its will, managing the parliamentary machinery to look like consensus.
Nevertheless, the feeling of justification is gone. Sometimes we seem to be bulling it through only in order to save face. Often enterprises seem to be expanding simply because the managers cannot think of any other use of energy and resources. The economy is turning into a war economy. There are warnings of ecological disaster: pollution, congestion, poisoning, mental disease, anomie. We have discovered that there is hard-core poverty at home that is not easy to liquidate. And in contrast to the situation in Europe in the 40's, which we were able to deal with successfully through the Marshall Plan, it increasingly appears that poverty and unrest in Asia, Africa, and South America are not helped by our methods of assistance, but are perhaps made worse. There are flashes of suspicion, like flashes of lightning, that the entire system may be unviable. Influential senators refer to our foreign policy as “arrogant” and “lawless,” but in my opinion, our foreign and domestic system is all of a piece and is more innocent and deadly than that; it is mindless and morally insensitive. Its pretended purposes are window-dressing for purposeless expansion and a panicky need to keep things under control.
And now very many young people no longer want to cooperate with such a system. Indeed, a large and rapidly growing number—already more than five per cent of college students—use language that is openly revolutionary or apocalyptic, as if in their generation they were going to make a French Revolution. More and more often, civil disobedience seems to make obvious sense.
We are exerting more power and feeling less right—what does that mean for the future? I have heard serious people argue for three plausible yet drastically incompatible predictions about America during the next generation, none of them happy:
- Some feel, with a kind of Virgilian despair, that the American empire will succeed and will impose for a long time, at home and abroad, its meaningless management and showy style of life. For instance, we will “win” in Vietnam, though such a victory of brute military technology will be a moral disaster. Clubbing together with the other nuclear powers, we will stave off the nuclear war and stop history with a new Congress of Vienna. American democracy will vanish into an establishment of promoters, mandarins, and technicians, though for a while maintaining an image of democracy as in the days of Augustus and Tiberius. And all this is probably the best possible outcome, given the complexities of high technology, urbanization, mass education, and overpopulation.
- Others believe, with dismay and horror, that our country is overreaching and is bound for doom; but nothing can be done because policy cannot be influenced. Controlling communications, creating incidents that it then mistakes for history, deceived by its own intelligence agents, our system is mesmerized. Like the Mikado, Washington is captive to its military-industrial complex. The way we manage the economy and technology must increase anomie and crime. Since the war economy eats up brains and capital, we will soon be a fifth-rate economic power. With a few setbacks abroad—for instance, when we force a major South American country to become Communist—and with the increasing disorder on the streets that is inevitable because our cities are unworkable, there will be a police state. The atom bombs may then go off. Such being the forecast, the part of wisdom is escape, and those who cultivate LSD are on the right track.
- Still others hold that the Americans are too decent to succumb to Fascism, and too spirited to remain impotent clients of a managerial elite. Rather, the tide of protest will continue to rise. The excluded poor are already refusing to remain excluded and they cannot be included without salutary changes. With the worst will in the world, we cannot police the world. But the reality is that we are confused. We do not know how to cope with the new technology, the economy of surplus, the fact of One World that makes national boundaries obsolete, the unworkability of traditional democracy. We must invent new forms. Unfortunately, the present climate of emergency is bad for the social invention and experiment that are indispensable, and there is no doubt that our overcentralized and Establishment methods of organization make everybody stupid from top to bottom. But there is hope precisely in the young. They understand the problem in their bones. Of course, they don't know much and their disaffection both from tradition and from the adult world makes it hard for them to learn anything. Nevertheless, we will learn in the inevitable conflict, which will hopefully be mainly non-violent.
I myself hold this third view: American society is on a bad course, but there is hope for reconstruction through conflict. It is a wish. The evidence, so far, is stronger for either our empty success or for crack-up. But my feeling is the same as about the atom bombs. Rationally, I must judge that they are almost certain to go off in this generation; yet I cannot believe that they will go off, for I do not lead my life with that expectation.
(Since I have mentioned the bombs, I must stop a moment and make another comparison. Thirty years ago the Jews in Germany believed that Hitler did not mean to exterminate them; “nobody,” they said, “can be that stupid.” So they drifted to the gas chambers, and went finally even without resistance. Now the nuclear powers continue stockpiling bombs and pouring new billions into missiles, anti-missile missiles, and armed platforms in orbit. Afterward, survivors, if there are any, will ask. “How did we let it happen?”)
To illustrate the current style of American enterprise, let me analyze a small actual incident. It is perfectly typical, banal; no one would raise his eyebrows at it.
Washington has allotted several billions of dollars to the schools. The schools are not teaching very well, but there is no chance that anybody will upset the applecart and ask if so much doing of lessons is the right way to educate the young altogether. Rather, there is a demand for new “methods” and mechanical equipment, which will disturb nobody, and electronics is the latest thing that every forward-looking local school-board must be proud to buy. So to cut in on this melon, electronics corporations, IBM, Xerox, etc. have hastened to combine with, or take over, textbook houses. My own publisher, Random House, has been bought up by the Radio Corporation of America.
Just recently, General Electric and Time, Inc., which owns a textbook house, have put nearly forty million dollars into a joint subsidiary called General Learning. And an editor of Life has been relieved of his duties for five weeks, in order to prepare a prospectus on the broad educational needs of America and the world, to come up with exciting proposals, so that General Learning might move with purpose into this unaccustomed field. Boning up on the latest High Thought on education, the editor in due course invites me—as a severe critic of the school establishment—to lunch, to pick my brains for something new and radical. “The sky,” he assures me, “is the limit.” “Perhaps,” he tells me at lunch, “there is no unique place for General Learning. They'll probably end up as prosaic makers of school hardware. But we ought to give it a try.”
Consider the premises of this odd situation, where first they have the organization and the technology, and then they try to dream up a use for it. In the 18th century, Adam Smith thought that one started with the need and only then collected capital to satisfy it. In the 19th century, there was already a lot of capital to invest, but by and large the market served as a check, to guarantee utility, competence, and relevance. Now, however, the subsidy removes the check of the market and a promotion can expand like weeds in a well-manured field. The competence required is to have a big organization and sales force, and to be in, to have the prestige and connections plausibly to get the subsidy. Usually it is good to have some nominal relation to the ostensible function, e.g., a textbook subsidiary related to schooling or Time-Life related to, let us say, learning. But indeed, when an expanding corporation becomes very grand, it generates an expertise of its own called Systems Development, applicable to anything. For example, as an expert in Systems Development, North American Aviation is hired to reform the penal system of California; there is no longer the need to demonstrate acquaintance with any particular human function.
Naturally, along with the divorce of enterprise from utility and particular competence, there goes a heavy emphasis on rhetoric and public-relations to prove utility and competence. So an editor must be reassigned for five weeks to write a rationale. It is his task to add ideas or talking-points to the enterprise, like a wrapper. The personnel of expanding corporations, of course, are busy people and have not had time to think of many concrete ideas; they can, however, phone writers and concerned professionals. Way-out radicals, especially, do a lot of thinking, since they have little practical employment. And since the enterprise is free-floating anyway, it is dandy to include, in the prospectus, something daring, or even meaningful.
In an affluent society that can afford it, there is something jolly about such an adventure of the electronics giant, the mighty publisher, the National Science Foundation that has made curriculum studies, and local school-boards that want to be in the swim. Somewhere down the line, however, this cabal of decision-makers is going to coerce the time of life of real children and control the activity of classroom teachers. These latter, who are directly engaged in the human function of learning and teaching, have no say in what goes on. This introduces a more sober note. Some of the product of the burst of corporate activity and technological virtuosity will be useful, some not—the pedagogical evidence is mixed and not extensive—but the brute fact is that the children are quite incidental to the massive intervention of the giant combinations.
I have chosen a wry example. But I could have chosen the leader of the American economy, the complex of cars, oil, and roads. This outgrew its proper size perhaps thirty years ago; now it is destroying both the cities and the countryside, and has been shown to be careless of even elementary safety.
Rather, let me turn abruptly to the Vietnam war. We notice the same family traits. Whatever made us embark on this adventure, by now we can define the Vietnam war as a commitment looking for a reason, or at least a rationalization. There has been no lack of policy-statements, rhetorical gestures, manufactured (it seems) incicents, and (certainly) plain lies; but as the war has dragged on and grown, all these have proved to be mere talking-points. Ringing true, however, has been the fanfare about the superb military technology that we have deployed. The theme is used as a chief morale-builder for the troops. In the absence of adequate political reasons, some have even said that the war is largely an occasion for testing new hardware and techniques. It is eerie to hear, on the TV, a pilot enthusiastically praise the split-second scheduling of his missions to devastate rice-fields. Such appreciation of know-how is part of the cheerful American disposition, but it does not do much credit to him as a grown man.
Yet what emerges most strikingly from our thinking about and prosecution of the Vietnam war is, again, the input-output accounting, the systems development, and the purely incidental significance of the human beings involved. The communiqués are concerned mainly with the body-count of V.C. in ratio to our own losses, since there is a theory that in wars of this kind one must attain a ratio of 5 to 1 or 10 to 1. According to various estimates, it costs $40,000 to $250,000 to kill 1 Vietnamese, hopefully an enemy. Similarly, the bombing of civilians and the destruction of their livelihood occur as if no human beings were involved; they are officially spoken of as unfortunate but incidental. (Indemnity for a dead civilian averages $34.) We claim that we have no imperialist aims in Vietnam—though we are building air-bases of some very heavy concrete and steel—but evidently old-fashioned imperialism was preferable, since it tried to keep the subjugated population in existence, for taxes and labor.
At home, correspondingly, college students are deferred from the draft because they will be necessary to man the professions and scientific technology, while farm boys, Negroes, and Spanish-Americans are drafted because they are otherwise good for nothing. That is to say, war is not regarded as a dread emergency, in which each one does his bit, but as part of the ongoing business of society, in which fighting and dying are usual categories of the division of labor. But this is bound to be the case when 20 per cent of the Gross National Product is spent on war (using a multiplier of 2); when more than half of the gross new investment since 1945 has been in war industry; and when much of higher education and science is devoted to war technology.
The Americans are not a warlike or bloodthirsty people, though violent. The dehumanizing of war is part of a general style of enterprise and control in which human utility and even the existence of particular human beings are simply not paramount considerations. Great armaments manufacturers have said that they are willing and ready to convert their capital and skill to peaceful production when given the signal; this seems to mean that it is indifferent to them what they produce. Studies of American workmen have shown that they take their moral and aesthetic standards not from family, church, friends, or personal interests, but from the organization and style of work at the plant; and I think that this explains the present peculiar situation that other nations of the world regard our behavior in the Vietnam war with a kind of horror, whereas Americans sincerely talk as if it were a messy job to be done as efficiently as possible.
This brings us to a broader question. What do we mean by technical efficiency in our system ?
Corporate and bureaucratic societies, whether ruled by priests, mandarins, generals, or business managers, have always tended to diminish the importance of personal needs and human feeling, in the interest of abstractions and systemic necessities. And where there has been no check by strong community ties, effective democracy, or a free market, it has not been rare for the business of society to be largely without utility or common sense. Nevertheless, modern corporate societies that can wield a high technology are liable to a unique temptation: since they do not exploit common labor, they may tend to exclude the majority of human beings altogether, as useless for the needs of the system and therefore as not quite persons.
This has been the steady tendency in America. The aged are ruled out at an earlier age than before, the young until a later age. We have liquidated most small farmers. There is no place for the poor, e.g., more than twenty million Negroes and Latin Americans. A rapidly increasing number are certified as insane or otherwise incompetent. These groups already comprise more than a majority of the population. Some authorities say (though others deny) that with full automation most of the rest will also be useless.
There is nothing malevolent or heartless in the exclusion. The tone is not like that of the old exploitative society which threw people out of work during the lows of the business cycle. For humane and political reasons, efforts, even extraordinary ones, are made to shape the excluded into the dominant style, so that they can belong. Even though the system is going to need only a few per cent with elaborate academic training, all the young are subjected to twelve years of schooling and 40 per cent go to college. There is every kind of training and social service to upgrade the poor and to make the handicapped productive members of society. At a high cost in effort and suffering, mentally retarded children must be taught to read, if only “cat” and “rat.”
But a frank look shows, I think, that, for most, the long schooling is a way of keeping the young on ice; the job training is busy-work; and the social services turn people into “community dependents” for generations. Much of the anxiety about the “handicapped” and the “underprivileged” is suburban squeamishness that cannot tolerate difference. What is never done, however, is to change the rules of the system, to redefine usefulness in terms of how people are, and to shape the dominant style to them. This cannot be done because it would be inefficient and, indeed, degrading, for there is only one right way to exist. Do it our way or else you are not quite a person.
Inevitably, such self-righteous inflexibility is self-mesmerizing and self-proving, for other methods and values are not allowed to breathe and prove themselves. Often it would be cheaper to help people to be, in their own way, or at least to let them be; but anything in a different or outmoded style has “deviant” or “underprivileged” written on it, and no expense is spared to root it out, in the name of efficiency. Thus, it would have been cheaper to pay the small farmers to stay put if they wished; and anyway it can even be shown that in many situations small farming and local distribution are not less efficient than the plantations and national chain-grocers that have supplanted them with the connivance of government policy. It would be far cheaper to give money directly to the urban poor to design their own lives, rather than to try to make them shape up; it has been estimated that, in one area of poverty in New York City, the cost per family in special services is more than ten thousand dollars a year; and anyway, to a candid observer, the culture of poverty is not inferior to that of the middle class, if it were allowed to be decent. Very many of the young would get a better education and grow up usefully to themselves and society if we spent the school money on useful enterprises where they could learn something, or indeed if they were given the school money to follow their own interests, ambitions, and even fancies, rather than penning them for lengthening years in increasingly regimented institutions; and anyway, many young people could enter many professions without most of the schooling if we changed the rules for licensing and hiring. But none of these simpler and cheaper ways would be “efficient”; the clinching proof is that they would be hard to administer.
Are the people really useless? The concept of efficiency is largely, maybe mainly, systemic. It depends on the goals of the system, which may be too narrowly and inflexibly conceived; it depends on the ease of administration, which is considered as more important than economic or social costs; but it depends also on the method of calculating costs, which may create a false image of efficiency by ruling out “intangibles” that do not suit the method. This source of error becomes very important in advanced urban economies, where the provision of personal and social services grows rapidly in proportion to hardware and food production and distribution. In providing services—whether giving information, selling, teaching children, admitting to college, assigning jobs, serving food, or advising on welfare—standardization and punch-cards may seem to fulfill the functions, but they may do so at the expense of frayed nerves, waiting in line, bad mistakes, misfitting, and cold soup. In modern conditions, the tailormade improvisations of fallible but responsive human beings may be increasingly indispensable rather than useless. In the jargon of Frank Riessman, there is a need for “sub-professionals.” Yet the mass-production and business-machine style, well-adapted to manufacturing hardware and calculating logistics, will decide that people are useless anyway, since they can mathematically be dispensed with. It is a curious experience to hear a gentleman from the Bureau of the Budget explain the budget of the War on Poverty according to cost-benefit computation. He can demonstrate that the participation of the poor in administering a program is disadvantageous; he can show you the flow chart; he cannot understand why poor people make a fuss on this point. It is impossible to explain to him that they do not trust the program (nor the director) but would like to get the money for their own purposes.
Abroad, the Americans still engage in plenty of old-fashioned exploitation of human labor, as in Latin America; yet the tendency is again to regard the underdeveloped peoples as not quite persons, and to try to shape them up by (sometimes) generous assistance in our own style. For example, one of the radical ideas of General Learning, the subsidiary of General Electric and Time, Inc., is to concentrate on electronic devices to teach literacy to the masses of children in poor countries; we must export our Great Society. Our enterprisers are eager to build highways and pipelines through the jungle, to multiply bases for our airplanes, and to provide other items of the American standard of living, for which the Western-trained native political leaders have “rising aspirations.” Unfortunately, this largesse must often result in disrupting age-old cultures, fomenting tribal wars, inflating prices and wages, and reducing decent poverty to starvation, causing the abandonment of farms and disastrous instant urbanization, making dictatorships inevitable, and drawing simple peoples into Great Power conflicts. And woe if they do not then shape up, if they want to develop according to their local prejudices—for instance for land reform. They become an uncontrollable nuisance, surely therefore allied with our enemies, and better dead than Red. In his great speech in Montreal, Secretary McNamara informed us that since 1958, 87 per cent of the very poor nations and 69 per cent of the poor nations, but only 48 per cent of the middle income nations, have had serious violent disturbances. The cure for it, he said, was development, according to the criteria of our cash economy, and protection from subversion by our bombers. How to explain to this arithmetically astute man that he is not taking these people seriously as existing?
A startlingly literal corollary of the principle that our system excludes human beings rather than exploiting them is the agreement of all liberals and conservatives that there must be a check on population growth, more especially among backward peoples and the poor at home. We are definitely beyond the need for the labor of the “proletariat” (=“producers of offspring”) and the Iron Law of Wages to keep that labor cheap. Yet I am bemused by this unanimous recourse to a biological and mathematical etiology for our troubles. Probably there is a danger of world-overpopulation in the foreseeable future. Certainly with the likelihood of nuclear war there is a danger of world-underpopulation. However, until we institute more human ecological, economic, and political arrangements, I doubt that population control is the first order of business; nor would I trust the Americans to set the rules.
I have singled-out two trends of the dominant organization of American society, its increasing tendency to expand, meaninglessly, for its own sake; and its tendency to exclude human beings as useless. It is the Empty Society, the obverse face of the Affluent Society. When Adam Smith spoke of the Wealth of Nations, he did not mean anything like this.
The meaningless expansion and the excluding are different things, but in our society they are essentially related. Lack of meaning begins to occur when the immensely productive economy over-matures and lives by creating demand instead of meeting it; when the check of the free market gives way to monopolies, subsidies, and captive consumers; when the sense of community vanishes and public goods are neglected and resources despoiled; when there is made-work (or war) to reduce unemployment; and when the measure of economic health is not increasing well-being but abstractions like the Gross National Product and the rate of growth.
Human beings tend to be excluded when a logistic style becomes universally pervasive, so that values and data that cannot be standardized and programmed are disregarded; when function is adjusted to the technology rather than technology to function; when technology is treated as a good in itself, like science, rather than being regulated by political and moral prudence; when there develops an establishment of managers and experts who alone license and allot resources, and which deludes itself that it knows the only right method and is omnicompetent. Then common folk become docile clients, maintained by sufferance, or they are treated as deviant.
It is evident that, for us, these properties of the Empty Society are essentially related. If we did not exclude so many as not really persons, we would have to spend more of our substance on worthwhile goods, including subsistence goods, both at home and abroad; we would have to provide a more human environment for the children to grow up in; there would be more paths for growth and more ways of being a person. On the other hand, if we seriously and efficiently tackled the problems of anomie, alienation, riot, pollution, congestion, urban blight, degenerative and mental disease, etc., we would find ourselves paying more particular attention to persons and neighborhoods, rather than treating them as standard items; we would have a quite different engineering and social science; and we would need all the human resources available.
Certainly we would stop talking presumptuously about The Great Society and find ourselves struggling, in the confusing conditions of modern times, for a decent society.
The chief danger to American society at present, and to the world from American society, is our mindlessness, induced by empty institutions. It is a kind of mesmerism, a self-delusion of formal rightness, that affects both leaders and people. We have all the talking-points but less and less content. The Americans are decent folk, generous and fairly compassionate. They are not demented and fanatical, like some other imperial powers of the past and present, but on the contrary rather skeptical and with a sense of humor. They are not properly called arrogant, though perhaps presumptuous. But we have lost our horse sense, for which we were once noted. This kind of intelligence was grounded not in history or learning, nor in finesse of sensibility and analysis, but in the habit of making independent judgments and in democratically rubbing shoulders with all kinds and conditions. We have lost it by becoming personnel of a mechanical system and exclusive suburbanites, by getting out of contact with real jobs and real people. We suddenly have developed an Establishment, but our leaders do not have the tradition and self-restraint to come on like an establishment. Thus, we are likely to wreak havoc not because of greed, ideology, or arrogance, but because of a bright strategy of the theory of games and an impatient conviction that other people aren't quite human.
Opposing this strange doom-laden and (I fear) doom-bound social machine, there is only the tradition of America, populist, pluralist, and libertarian. To conclude this essay, let me make some remarks about the last of these, our peculiar libertarianism which is, I guess—along with our energy and enterprise—what most has impressed foreign peoples about us.
As a theme of history, the American kind of freedom has been traced to many things: the Americans were Englishmen, they were yeomen, they were Protestant refugees, they were other refugees, they had an open frontier—all these are relevant. But I am struck also by a constitutional aspect which I like, perhaps, to exaggerate.
Of all politically advanced peoples, the Americans are the only ones who started in a historical golden age of Anarchy. Having gotten rid of the king—and he was always far away, as well as being only an English king—they were in no hurry to reconstruct another sovereign, or even a concept of sovereignty. For more than thirty years after the outbreak of the Revolution, almost nobody bothered to vote in formal elections (often less than 2 per cent), and the national Constitution was the concern of only a few merchants and lawyers. Yet the Americans were not a primitive or unpolitical people; on the contrary, they had many kinds of civilized democratic and hierarchical structures; town meetings, congregational parishes, masters with apprentices and indentured servants, gentry with slaves, professionals and clients, provincial assemblies. The pluralism goes way back. But where was the sovereignty?
Theoretically, the sovereignty resided in the People. But except for sporadic waves of protest, like the riots, Tea Parties, and the Revolutionary War itself—the populism also goes way back—who were the People? One does not at all have the impression, in this congeries of families, face-to-face communities, and pluralist social relations, that there was anything like a General Will, except maybe to be let alone.
Nevertheless, there is—it is clear from American behavior—a characteristic type of sovereignty. It is what is made up by political people as they go along, a continuous series of existential constitutional acts, just as they invented the Declaration, the Articles, and the Constitution, and obviously expected to keep rewriting the Constitution. The founding fathers were saddled with a Roman language, so they spoke of “unalienable rights”; but the American theory is idiomatically expressed by pragmatists like William James: I have certain rights and will act accordingly, including finally punching you in the nose if you don't concede them.
A few weeks ago, I was vividly reminded of the American idea of sovereignty when there were some sit-ins at the City Hall in Detroit and the Governor of Michigan said, in a voice that could only be called plaintive, “There is no Black Power, there is no White Power, there is no Mixed Power; the only power belongs to the government”—I presume that his textbook had said, “The only power belongs to the State.” But there was no mystique in the Governor's textbook proposition; I doubt if anybody, but anybody, took it seriously as an assertion of moral authority, or as anything but a threat to call the cops. On the question of sovereignty, the unmistakable undertone in these incidents is, “Well, that remains to be seen.”
In the context of this pragmatic American attitude toward sovereignty, what is the meaning of the present wave of civil disobedience? Against direct actions like the civil-rights sit-ins, the student occupation of Sproul Hall at Berkeley, the draft-card burnings, it is always said that they foment disrespect for law and order and lead to a general breakdown of civil society. Although judicious people are willing to grant that due process and ordinary administration are not working well, because of prejudice, unconcern, doubletalk, arrogance, or perhaps just the cumbersomeness of overcentralized bureaucracy, nevertheless, they say, the recourse to civil disobedience entails even worse evils.
This is an apparently powerful argument. Even those who engage in civil disobedience tend to concede it, but, they say, in a crisis they cannot act otherwise; they are swept by indignation, or they are morally compelled to resist evil. Or they have an apocalyptic theory in which they are acting for a “higher” justice, and the present order is no longer legitimate.
In my opinion, all these views are exaggerations because they assign a status and finality to the sovereign which in America it does not have. If the State is not quite so determinate, then the insult to it does not necessarily have such global consequences. Certainly the American genius, whether we cite Jefferson, or James and Dewey more than a century later, is that the State is in process, in a kind of regulated permanent revolution.
Empirically, is it the case that direct actions which are aimed at specific abuses lead to general lawlessness? Where is the evidence to prove the connection—e.g., statistics of correlative disorder in the community, or an increase of unspecific lawless acts among the direct activists? The flimsy evidence that we actually have tends to weigh in the opposite direction. Crime and delinquency seem to diminish where there has been political direct action by Negroes. The community and academic spirit at Berkeley has been better this year than it used to be. In 1944, the warden of Danbury prison assured me that the war-objectors penned up there were, in general, the finest type of citizens!
On sociological grounds, indeed, the probability is that a specific direct action, which cuts through frustrating due process, and especially if it is successful or partially successful, will tend to increase civil order rather than to destroy it, for it revives the belief that the community is one's own, that one has influence; whereas the inhibition of direct action against an intolerable abuse inevitably increases anomie and therefore general lawlessness. The enforcement of law and order at all costs aggravates the tensions that lead to explosions. But if place is allowed for “creative disorder,” as Arthur Waskow calls it, there is less tension, less resignation, and more likelihood of finding social, economic, and political expedients to continue with.
Of course, this raises a nice legal question: how to distinguish between a rioting mob and citizens engaging in creative disorder? Theoretically, it is a rioting mob, according to the wisdom of LeBon and Freud, if it is in the grip of unconscious ideas of Father or the need to destroy Father, if it is after senseless power or to destroy senseless power. But it is a group of confused Americans if it is demanding to be paid attention to, and included. Perhaps it is petitioning for a redress of grievances, even if it has no writ of grievances to present, and even if there is no sovereign to petition. In actuality, in anomie conditions, the distinction is not easy to make. But in either case, the part of wisdom is to take people seriously and come up with a new idea that might make a difference to their problems. If the governors won't, or can't, do this, then we must do it. I am often asked by radical students what I am trying to do with all my Utopian thinking and inventing of alternatives; perhaps the use of intellect is to help turn riot into creative disorder.
In brief, contrary to the conventional argument, anarchic incidents like civil disobedience are often essential parts of the democratic process as Americans understand it. So it was understood by Jefferson when, after Shays's rebellion was disarmed, he urged that nobody be punished, for that might discourage mutiny in the future, and then what check would there be on government? So, in milder terms, it has been recently understood by the pragmatic Supreme Court, where many cases of apparently obvious trespass and violation have turned out to be legal after all, and only subsequently made legal by statute. This is not, I believe, because the Court has been terrorized or has blinked in order to avoid worse evils, but because in rapidly changing circumstances, there is often no other way to know what the Constitution is.
Finally, I need hardly point out that in American rhetoric, American freedom—in an anarchic sense—has been held to be the philosopher's stone of our famous energy and enterprise. Moss-back conservatives have always spoken for laissez-faire as the right climate for economic progress (though, to be sure, they then connive for tariffs and subsidies, hire strikebreakers, and form monopolies in restraint of trade). Radical liberals have cleaved to the Bill of Rights, for to be cowed by authority makes it impossible to think and experiment. Immigrants used to flock to the United States to avoid conscription, just as now some of our best young go to Canada and are welcomed. They came because there were no class barriers, and because there was open opportunity to make good in one's own way. By age nine, kids have learned to say, “It's a free country—you can't make me.”
By and large, let me say, this rhetoric has been true. Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite social-psychological hypothesis: that forceful, graceful, and intelligent behavior occurs only when there is an uncoerced and direct response to the physical and social environment; that in most human affairs, more harm than good results from compulsion, top-down direction, bureaucratic planning, preordained curricula, jails, conscription, States. Sometimes it is necessary to limit freedom, as we keep a child from running across the highway, but this is usually done at the expense of force, grace, and learning; and in the long run it is usually wiser to remove the danger and simplify the rules than to hamper the activity. I think, I say, that this hypothesis is true, but whether or not it is, it would certainly be un-American to deny it. Everybody knows that America is great because America is free; and by freedom is not finally meant the juridical freedom of the European tradition, freedom under law, having the legal rights and duties of citizens; what is meant is the spontaneous freedom of anarchy, opportunity to do what you can, although hampered by necessary conventions, as few as possible.
Then, how profoundly alien is our present establishment, which has in one generation crept up on us and occupied all the positions of power. It has been largely the product of war, of the dislocations after World War I, the crash programs of World War II, and the chronic low-grade emergency of the cold war which is fanning again into war. The cold war has lasted for twenty years. This is the period in which more than half of gross new investment has been in armaments. It has had consequences.
The term “establishment” itself is borrowed from the British—for snobbish and literary reasons, and usually with an edge of satire. But we have had no sovereign to establish such a thing, and there is no public psychology to accept it as legitimate. It operates like an establishment: it is the consensus of politics, the universities and science, big business, organized labor, public schooling, the media of communications; it sets the official language; it determines the right style and accredits its own members; it hires and excludes, subsidizes and neglects. But it has no warrant of legitimacy, it has no tradition, it cannot talk straight English, it neither has produced nor could produce any art, it does not lead by moral means but by a kind of social engineering, and it is held in contempt and detestation by the young. The American tradition—I think the abiding American tradition—is pluralist, populist, and libertarian, while the establishment is monolithic, mandarin, and managed. And the evidence is that its own claim—that it is efficient—is false. It is fantastically wasteful of brains, money, the environment, and people. It is channeling our energy and enterprise to its own aggrandizement and power, and it will exhaust us.
I would almost say that my country is like a conquered province with foreign rulers, except that they are not foreigners and we are responsible for what they do.
The system at present dominant in America, then, will not do, it is too empty. On the other hand, it is possible that classical American democracy is necessarily a thing of the past; it may be too wild, too woolly, too mixed up—too anarchic, too populist, too pluralist—for the conditions of big population and high technology in a world that has become small. I hope this is not the case, for I love the American experiment; but I don't know. The American faces that used to be so beautiful, so resolute and yet poignantly open and innocent, are looking ugly these days, hard, thin-lipped, and like innocence spoiled without having become experienced.
We Americans have not suffered as most other peoples have, at least not since the Civil War a century ago. We have not been bombed, we have not been occupied. We have not been colonialized for two hundred years. We have not cringed under a real tyranny. Perhaps we would not ride so high today if we knew what it felt like to be badly hurt.