John Dewey’s ‘intelligent populism’: beyond Brexit, Trump and post-truth

Donald Trump with supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Originally published on OpenDemocracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/david-ridley/john-dewey-s-intelligent-populism-beyond-brexit-trump-and-post-truth

Neoliberalism channels vast wealth upwards, in turn supplying the financial, social and cultural capital necessary to maintain power despite enormous global economic, social and environmental instability. The 2008 financial crisis, the biggest since the 1920s, did not bring neoliberalism to its knees, it in fact strengthened its resolve. Banks in the UK and US demanded to be bailed out by the government and the ‘austerity’ agenda spread across Europe. After a period of stunned disbelief, the establishment convinced the public that it was in fact the excesses of social democracy that caused the public debt incurred as a result of this bailout.

Philip Mirowski calls this the ‘double truth doctrine’ of neoliberalism. The real cause of the crisis can be traced back to neoliberalism itself: Thatcher and Reagan’s radical deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s, for example. But cleverly, this double truth also played on the fragmentation on the left caused by the death of ‘actually existing communism’ and the defeat of militant unionism in the UK. After what Francis Fukuyama called the ‘end of history’, academics retreated into postmodernism and revolutionaries either gave up or returned to Marxist canon to find the right theory of why everything had gone wrong.

We are now living through what Colin Crouch has called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism”. Even IMF economists now agree that neoliberalism has been ‘oversold’. I won’t retread the history of neoliberalism here, but we should use the IMF definition, as it represents a somewhat shocking revelation, since all along they have been denying neoliberalism’s existence:

“The neoliberal agenda – a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies – rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition – achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.”

Neoliberalism’s double-truth, uncovered first by Michel Foucault all the way back in 1978, is that it was founded on a realisation that ‘laissez-faire’ doesn’t work. This is the doctrine that the law of supply and demand should be left alone to do its work in organising society. Early neoliberal theorists realised that the law of supply and demand does not work ‘naturally’ in society, it must be actively created through the re-structuring of society. The perfect market does not already exist in the structure of nature, which is merely uncovered in capitalism, it must become the end of all economic and public policy reform.

Populism is a consequence of the double-truth doctrine. We have been socialised into seeing our identity in nation states, and have been convinced that neoliberalism will bring prosperity for all. Yet within globalised neoliberalism, the nation state has been ripped apart, sold off to multi-national corporations, and wealth has remained with the wealthy. The middle class, forever chasing the neoliberal carrot, wins nothing but clinical stress, anxiety and depression. The working class is lumped with insecurity and social fragmentation, while being at the same time demonised as a class of ‘chavs’and ‘scroungers’.

Representative democracy, hollowed out by neoliberalism to leave a choice between variations on a neoliberal theme, leaves the public with only a protest vote to express their anger and frustration. Brexit and Trump are votes for change, votes against the establishment, votes against neoliberalism. The establishment were subsequently shocked to discover that there is a limit to how far you can hollow out democracy. The middle class were shocked to see the ugly face of fascism always ready to pounce as the edifice of capitalism crumbles.

Populism and the public

The American philosopher John Dewey had a unique explanation for all this. In The Public and Its Problems (1954), Dewey makes a functional distinction between private and public actions and their respective private and public consequences, in order to explain the origin and meaning of ‘democracy’. All public action produces indirect consequences, which are consequences “that affect others beyond those immediately concerned”. ‘The public’, as an organised body of people, comes about through consciousness of indirect consequences and co-operative activity to control them. ‘The state’ is created as this co-operative activity becomes more organised, eventually being detached from the public as an institutional body. For Dewey, democracy, as an historical form of the state, is a technology of the public.

Democracy is a particularly well developed expression of this function of the state. As Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist economy outstripped the political system within which it developed. The emerging and expanding middle class needed a political system that would represent their interests over that of the aristocracy. As Dewey argued, liberalism was at this point a radical political philosophy designed to gain popular support to move society beyond medieval feudalism. But once the new middle class achieved power, this radicalism was betrayed and democracy reduced to its most minimal expression.

Democracy, therefore, served a series of functions: (1) to liberate the emerging middle class from the authoritarian church state; (2) to gain populist support for this cause from the lower classes; and (3) to institutionalise the interests of the middle classes once it gained power. This last function the system of abstract rights connected to the rule of law. But the alliance with the lower classes within the ideology of liberalism and democracy opened a can of worms that the new ruling class (‘the bourgeoisie’) have struggled to keep shut since the American and French Revolutions.

For Dewey, the public is always waiting to re-assert itself as the ‘raison d’etre’ of government and state institutions. From the beginning of history, revolutionary movements have understood the power of the public in bringing about social change. As Foucault pointed out, there is only so much oppression that the public can take before revolting. Twentieth-century social philosophers such as Gramsci, Foucault and Habermas have rightly focused on the way that modern social systems rely on legitimacy rather than force for their reproduction. Therefore, in modern societies, the boundaries of legitimacy can be pushed too far.

Neoliberalism ends up undermining its two key ideological foundations, liberalism and democracy, that sustain its legitimacy. The contemporary marketisation of ‘big data’, for example, which is the mass of personal information generated as a by-product of our digital activities, has created understandably acute levels of anxiety regarding the misuse, surveillance and manipulation of such data. The inexorable march of privatisation through public services destroys what little protection the state offered against the indirect consequences of capitalism: unemployment, poverty, sickness. As the ruthless logic of neoliberalism runs its course, its public façade also gradually disappears, leaving only naked and cynical exploitation in its place.

Intelligent populism

There is good populism and bad populism. But these forms of populism cannot just be mapped on to left and right ends of the spectrum. Both left and right populism use the anger of the public for external ends, namely to gain power for whatever political party that is pitched against the ‘establishment’. As already argued, this has been the case throughout history: the public are called into being whenever a revolution is needed, and then betrayed as soon as they have served their purpose. Both left and right populism are based on a low opinion of public intelligence, an assumption, incidentally, shared with neoliberalism.

Dewey, on the other hand, thought that intelligence was based in an everyday process of problem solving. Experience is problematic, in that our routine existence regularly resists our purposes, breaks down when we try to get things done, and throws up dilemmas that we can’t ignore. Most of the time these are just hiccups that can be overcome by adjusting our habitual behaviour, but sometimes we need to reflect, to consciously create and weigh solutions. All forms of inquiry that human beings have developed – science, education, morality – have developed out of this fundamental process of reflection within ordinary experience.

Democracy was also once a form of inquiry, now forgotten through its institutionalisation and co-option by neoliberalism. For Dewey, the public was invented through the co-operative, reflective activity of groups of citizens, who aimed to reconstruct and control the indirect consequences of social life. Ancient Athenian democracy was an early and very successful attempt by the Greeks to harness the power of social intelligence to adapt to a rapidly changing world. That this experiment failed, and more importantly failed to include women and free slaves to become citizens, did not undermine the potential power of democracy as a technology of the public.

What is missing today is a mechanism that would revive the potential of democracy as a technology of the public. Ancient Athens had the theatre, where the moral capacities of citizens were exercised and politics debated. The emerging labour movement in the eighteenth century had correspondence societies, where pamphlets were read out and revolution fermented. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the ‘public sphere’, a fundamental cog in the machine of early modern democracy, was destroyed through capitalism’s commercialisation of public space and commodification of private life. What is needed is a new form of co-operative inquiry that both reconstructs democracy from within and re-creates the public in the process. What is needed is an ‘intelligent populism’.

Dewey, unfortunately, never realised the direct relevance of his other work on experience, inquiry and education to his theory of democracy presented in The Public and Its Problems. Dewey offered better public engagement with the public on behalf of social science as a solution to the ‘crisis of democracy’. But as John Holmwood has pointed out, populism is not just an expression of anger against the establishment, but also a rejection of technocratic forms of expertise. Right-wing politicians attempt, with more or less successful results, to tap into this: David Cameron’s rejection of ‘state multiculturalism’ in favour of education “in elements of a common culture and curriculum”, and in Trump’s climate change denial.

Post-truth versus intelligent populism

‘Post-truth’ has become a key concept within explanations of Brexit and Trump. Recently being declared ‘word of the year’ by both UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, it is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This phenomenon of the rejection of facts in favour of emotion described by ‘post-truth’ is actually a consequence of neoliberalism; it is the organised confusion that Mirowski described as the ‘double-truth doctrine’. It is an historical phenomenon, not something inherent to the quality of public intelligence. It is what happens when neoliberalism marketises education, privatises the public sphere and turns the mainstream media into propaganda machine.

Contrary to Andrew Calcutt’s analysis, the origins of the concept of ‘post-truth’ lie not with the academic left and postmodernism in the 1970s, but with the origins of neoliberalism in the 1920s. The abstract to an influential article called “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy” indicates this origin:

“The familiar image of rational electoral choice has voters weighing the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, calculating comparative distances in issue space, and assessing the president’s management of foreign affairs and the national economy. Indeed, once or twice in a lifetime, a national or personal crisis does induce political thought. But most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made. The implications of this distinction between genuine thinking and its day-to-day counterfeit strike at the roots of both positive and normative theories of electoral democracy.”

This was the conclusion Walter Lippmann reached in the 1920s, which formed the basis of both subsequent forms of ‘democratic realism’ and the neoliberalism of The Mont Pelerin Society. Here we see the same premise that underpins neoliberalism and the debate around populism: the intelligence of the average person is not to be trusted (if it exists at all).

But the left must also recognise that it shares the same low opinion of everyday intelligence. Crude conceptions of ideology and ‘false consciousness’ (which were nevertheless held by very sophisticated Marxists, such as Louis Althusser), state that the truth operates ‘behind the backs’ of ordinary people, who cannot access this truth without the correct theory. It is this assumption, not culpability in developing postmodernism, which prevents the left from formulating a progressive response to populism. We must learn to see the double-truth doctrine at work again here. ‘Post-truth’, and therefore Brexit and Trump, are being blamed on the legacy of postmodernism within the academic left, just as the consequences of the financial crisis were blamed on the excesses of social democracy.

We need a new practice of ‘critical pedagogy’, based on an assumption of the equality of intelligence, not on the inevitability of false consciousness. Through co-operative social inquiry, the double-truth doctrine can be unmasked by ordinary people. As Dewey argued, political activists, academics, community organisers, all have an important role to play in helping to re-create such public spheres of inquiry, but we must not assume we own such inquiry. Intellectuals also have a political task of our own: democratising knowledge production and educational institutions so that the conditions for such co-operative inquiries are improved. Universities, for example, can be transformed into co-operative, worker-student controlled hubs of inquiry that cascade knowledge back and forth along a chain of radical-democratic decentralisation.

For Dewey, humanising technology was the most pressing task of modern society. As we have seen, technology doesn’t just mean “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry” (OED), it refers to any means for the achievement of human ends. As Alan Hickman has convincingly argued, Dewey’s entire philosophy can be summarised as a theory of ‘responsible technology’. Technology, as inquiry, is responsible when it arises out of problematic situations that are concretely felt (in the sense that all experience is primarily qualitative) by human beings. But more importantly, it can only be fully responsible when the results, values and ends that arise out of such inquiries “are brought back to the situations from which they originated in order to ascertain whether they are appropriate”.

Democracy is a technology of the public that arose out of a need to control the indirect consequences of social action. Neoliberalism co-opts democracy, and its institutions, for the manipulation of the public for private gain, and for the maintenance of power. Populism is the public expression of recognition: that this is happening, and that democracy needs to be taken back by the public. In a Deweyian sense, populism is therefore the first stage of an inquiry begun by the public for the public. Instead of dismissing this inquiry, we should get involved. We need to be a part of this inquiry, help it develop into an ‘intelligent populism’ which would found and maintain radical democracy, replace a dying neoliberalism, and as an adaptive and generative form of social problem solving, maybe even save the earth from environmental destruction.

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