“The liberalism of the past was characterized by the possession of a definite intellectual creed and program…Liberalism today is hardly more than a temper of mind, vaguely called forward looking, but quite uncertain as to where to look and what to look forward to.”
These could be the words of any number of our political thinkers today, bur in fact it was the prescient sociologist and philosopher John Dewey who made this observation in a series of articles for The New Republic in 1929-30. The series was later published in book form as Individualism Old and New.
When he began writing the Great Crash had not yet occurred. It could be said, though, that Dewey’s essays and that tragic event of October 24, 1929 had shared genesis in the massive cultural changes sweeping the nation since the turn of the century.
The Democratic trust-busting machine having temporarily run out of steam, America was increasingly embracing a multifaceted and pervasive corporatization. Conglomerates were being established in retail, manufacturing, transportation, finance, and many other sectors.
A decade before, President Woodrow Wilson had set up his Committee on Public Information where leading intellectuals Edward Bernays and Walter Lipman built on state propaganda tactics learned during the war. Bernays described what they did there as “the engineering of consent.”
At the same time, professor-turned-executive John B. Watson was employing his pioneering work in behaviorism to revolutionize marketing and advertising. It didn’t take long for them to devise ways to work together. Government had an interest in generating ideological consensus in favor of its political, economic, and social agendas; corporations desired standardization and uniformity in order to reduce costs and to induce consumerism.
These agendas and tactics employed a strong molding effect on society. Through ad campaigns on radio and in newspapers, they disseminated the ideology of the “American Dream.” All this dream required from the people was hard work and dedication to the job. In return they would have material prosperity and be able to own all the great new products being produced by the nation’s manufacturers. And with this new economy employment also changed. Nationwide corporations needed a workforce that could keep up with the demand they were creating; hence the company man was born.
Dewey was concerned with how all of this effected “the change of social life from an individual to a corporate affair.” He saw in this change the suppression of the “old” individualism which was “dependant on stable objects to which allegiance firmly attach[ed] itself;” objects like religion, law, politics, art, philosophy, etc.
People need set social structures from which they can derive a sense of self and a sense of purpose in the preservation of society. In this vein, the individual of the past was characterized by the desire to achieve through their own effort, but with a mind oriented toward the flourishing prosperity of the whole society. This, in Dewey’s opinion, was the individualism of the pioneer, the entrepreneur, the progressive, of the American Dream.
The collective foundation of establish institutions and set social functions, rather than controlling the individual, found expression though them and provided a sense of direction. The internal motivation provided a sense of direction. The internal motivations of the individual ultimately went to the benefit of everyone by strengthening those foundations, and as a result, society and the individual remained integrated.
By 1929, however, this integration had largely broken down (if it ever even existed in the idealistic sense). In “The Last Individual” Dewey describes this disintegration as “a moral and intellectual fact which is independent of any manifestation of power in action.”
“The significant thing is that the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared. In consequence, individuals are confused and bewildered. It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of beliefs and approved ends of action as in the present. “
Dewey was adept at observing and diagnosing contemporary social phenomena, but he failed to shed the romanticized idea of the past so common to the unoppressed. He neglects the reality that the common individual of the past was chiefly concerned with survival, and unless you were a white male, the institutions and set social functions were very controlling and seldom beneficial. But for Dewey, what characterized the society of the late 1920s was seemingly opposite the recent past: external motivations geared toward the beneficence of the individual often at the expense of society at large.
One of the things Dewey lamented most about this change, quite relevant to the time in which he was writing, was a disproportionate and misdirected focus on pecuniary gain. “This manifested in various ways. People began dedicating their lives to increasing their personal wealth and that of a company they did not own as corporations expanded and began employing larger and larger swaths of the population…completely detached from anything real.” The thing is, this shift also pulled a large portion of society out of poverty, an opportunity people can’t be blamed for taking.
This obsession with money had also entrenched itself in the political realm. Along with the increasing size and prevalence of corporations came a growing political influence from the private sector. This influence was not exercised in the interest of society, as was commonly claimed, but of the businesses themselves , or, more accurately, their leaders. These developments took a serious toll on the political parties and their connection to the people. As Dewey explains: “It would be a waste of words to expatiate on the meaninglessness of present political platforms, parties, and issues.
Individuals derive part of their identity, especially in relation to their country, from their political allegiance. When the thought and actions of the party become incoherent, the confusion deprives people of that sense of self. This effect was exacerbated at the time because of how this political reality conflicted with the ideological consistency the government was trying to cultivate.
Liberals were particularly affected. In the past, “liberals operated on the basis of a thought-out social philosophy, a theory of politics sufficiently definite and coherent to be easily translated into a program of policies to be pursued,” but this was no longer the case.
With so many monetized groups vying for their own interests which were irreconcilable with one another, not to mention with the parties’ larger constituencies, it was impossible to maintain the old philosophy. As a result, many liberals outside the parties and outside the upper echelons within, were left “groping their way through situations which [did] not give them direction.” Their ideals and methods no longer accorded with the changing society in which they lived.
It could easily be argued that liberals and liberalism are in a similar state today, ninety years later. It could also be argued that the confusion felt by so many now is simply a carry-over from the previous century; the problems exposed in Dewey’s time were never really remedied. If anything there is a greater rift between liberal party ideology, and the liberalism of the people has never been more pronounced. This can largely be attributed to two main factors: the liberal base is far more diversified and dynamic than it was 90 years ago while the parties have only become more gentrified and money-saturated. But the seeds of both of these present states can be traced to at least the early Twentieth century.
Again in “The Last Individual,” Dewey speculates on a possible solution, namely the development of a “new” individualism consonant with the present age. Not a novel suggestion, it nonetheless provides a pragmatic course of action. He asserts that: “Individuals will refind themselves only as their ideas and ideals are brought into harmony with the realities of the age in which they act…If we could inhibit the principles and standards that are merely traditional…the unavowed forces that now work upon us…would have a chance to build minds after their own pattern, and individuals might, in consequence, find themselves in possession of objects to which imagination and emotion would stably attach themselves.”
We are not to mindlessly give in to the new tendencies, but rather mindfully take stock of our new social conditions and adapt accordingly. Dewey contemplated a find relationship between the modern individual and the corporate aspects of modern society as a means to integration. While society might benefit from a mental alignment with this corporateness, it does not benefit from the mass consensus and standardization being imposed upon it. The seeming uniformity of thought and social normalization attempted by government and big business are in fact superficial and damaging. They cannot provide a deep and lasting unification only an external conformity.
Dewey says that conformity “is a name for the absence of vital interplay [among individuals]; the arrest and benumbing of communication.” This shallowness of thought and connection is the primary cause of the individual’s lack of anchoring. On the other hand, a conscious alignment with the “actuating social forces” of the day, rather than creating passive minds, may, in fact, release our creative individuality.
The key here, Dewey claims, is intelligent, intentional participation. But which of the many social movements should we be guiding? Dewey assumes an inherent benevolence to modern technological and social advancements; they may be corrupted and corrupting, but with the right control and motivation, they can be turned to our collective benefit. But I don’t think this is the case, or at least not entirely so. Some things are just bad, and others contain mechanisms that are just too easily put to uses which harm us.
Dewey envisioned the creation of a liberal individualism reconciled with the prevailing social forces. But he also saw those forces as originating from those in (economic) power. His idea was that we could mold these forces into institutions to which the new liberalism could be anchored. This type of liberal individualism is still rooted in a positive perspective on the past which must be rejected. Instead, any new foundation must be rooted in the real social environment and used to shape corporate and political bodies.