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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Neoliberalism and its Forgotten Alternative

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I recently had my first article related to my PhD published on Open Democracy, this was a great day for me as this website is one of my favourite place to find articles and many people I respect and quote publish articles there. You can find the original here.

Neoliberalism and its forgotten alternative: Democracy as a way of life

Criticisms of neoliberalism are proliferating, not just within the political and academic left, but within mainstream public opinion as well. Everywhere people are beginning to seriously doubt whether markets will be able to produce another extended period of sustained growth, or whether they will solve the world’s current problems or merely exacerbate them. Liberal economists are pointing to the increasing inequality caused by 30 years of neoliberalism in the West. This analysis of rising inequality has been built upon by other critics of neoliberalism who examine the social effects of this inequality, beginning with Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, a path-breaking and hugely popular book that has lead to more important work in this area, with research focussing on inequality’s mental and even physical health effects.

Aside from inequality, other critics have focussed on how neoliberalism is incapable of solving the problem of climate change. Naomi Klein has been for a long time pointing to how climate change intensified with the deregulation of markets in the 1970s, for many people the beginning point of the rise of neoliberal hegemony in the West. Today there is an intensifying debate over the idea of ‘natural capital’, which some critics (1) (2) see as an absurd move by neoliberal policy makers to apply the logic of the market to a problem that has, as Klein argues, only made the problem worse in the first place. In what George Monbiot has referred to as the ‘the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it’, the natural ‘commons’ is turned into a potential new source of value which can be speculated on by investors. This form of speculation, of course, is what led to the 2008 financial crisis, with risk on sub-prime mortgages hedged into more and more complex ‘derivatives’, eventually bringing the whole intertwined financial world to its knees as the housing bubble burst (3). As Monbiot and others have correctly pointed out, the move to financialise natural resources is not intended to save the world, but to create another source of capital accumulation and thus save an increasingly desperate capitalist system.

The problem is that, despite growing dissatisfaction and criticism of neoliberalism, we don’t seem to be able to shift this socio-economic structure in favour of a better one, or even just to a return to a more Keynesian inspired alternative. We seem to be stuck in what Mark Fisher has called a state of ‘capitalist realism’, somehow, despite our apparent knowledge, coming to accept in practice Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no alternative’, or Francis Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the ‘end of history’. However, this inability to deal with contemporary neoliberalism in practice is not due to the victory of capitalism, but comes from an under-estimation of how far neoliberalism is a long-term, and very successful, political project with a coherent and shared ‘world-view’. This world-view has its origins in a crisis of liberalism in the 1930s, as it faced what it saw as the return of authoritarianism, or ‘arbitrary rule’. Neoliberalism was an attempt by influential German economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek, and social theorists, such as Max Weber and Walter Lippmann (in the US) to rescue and reformulate liberalism in theory, a theory that had itself originated historically (in the 17th and 18th centuries) as a critique of the arbitrary power of church and state. According to these theorists, liberalism had become incapable of dealing with what they saw as the contemporary manifestation of arbitrary rule in fascist Germany and Italy and communist Russia.

In an extraordinary book, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Philip Mirowski et al describe how early neoliberal theorists and sympathisers came together in 1947 to form an exclusive, secretive and powerful club called the Mont Pèlerin Society. This was the beginning of ‘a transnational movement’ which accepted right from the beginning that undermining what they saw as the evils of economic planning would take a long time, lots of effort and careful coordination. As Mirowski points out in his conclusion, neoliberalism was never a conspiracy, but rather an ‘intricately structured long-term philosophical and political project’ (4). Contrary to popular belief and some academic opinion, ‘neoliberalism’ is not just a dirty word invented by left-wingers resenting the ‘victory’ of capitalism in the Western world, but a term self-consciously chosen by what Mirowski et al refer to as the international ‘thought collective’ arising out of the Mont Pèlerin Society. This neoliberal thought collective bade their time, connecting and combining ‘key spheres and institutions – academia, the media, politics and business’, creating a new knowledge apparatus for the dissemination of propaganda, the ‘neoliberal partisan think-tank’, and eventually finding power through the victories of the political right in the 1970s, Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US.

To understand the true origins of neoliberalism, and therefore be able to rescue a convincing alternative, however, we must return to the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was very much influenced by the emerging critique of economic planning that was beginning to appear in the 1920s, especially in the work of Ludwig von Mises, Boris Brutzkus and F. A. von Hayek, reaching its high-point just before the outbreak of World War II. But before engaging with this critique explicitly in The Good Society, Lippmann had been mounting a devastating attack on what he considered to be the naivety of liberal democracy in two major works, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. In these books Lippmann argued that at the heart of liberal democratic theory lies a fiction, that of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, which in turn leads democrats to rely uncritically on a myth of an active and responsible public, which is supposed to guarantee freedom against arbitrary rule. This myth, however, allows agents with special interests, such as the media, controlled by advertising, and the government, controlled by individuals with a desire to maintain power, to pretend that they are acting in the so-called ‘public interest’. Realising, with Lippmann, that the public does not spring up ‘spontaneously’ with free speech, these agents create and manipulate public opinion in order to achieve their own ends.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann still held out hope for social science as a mediating ‘machinery of knowledge’ to provide the truth to both decision makers and the public, a truth which the media is structurally just not able to provide (due to what might be called ‘market failure’, as people don’t want to pay for the apparatus necessary for truth, and the sociological constraints of having to report the news quickly and efficiently). But by the time he wrote The Phantom Public, Lippmann had given way to a full blown pessimism regarding the capabilities of average citizens. In a tirade of insults that runs through the book, the average member of the public is conceived ‘in the lowest terms’. According to Lippmann they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (5). Gone is the faith in science and expertise, with Lippmann’s universal scepticism forcing him to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’: ‘Modern society is not visible to anybody, nor intelligible continuously and as a whole’ (6).

Mirowski et al have shown that Lippmann had a huge influence on the early foundations of neoliberalism. Upon reading The Good Society, enthusiastic future neoliberals organised a conference in Paris in 1938, called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, which served as a precursor and inspiration for the Mont Pèlerin Society. The Good Society anticipated many of the key ideas of the emerging neoliberal world-view: the need to reinvent liberalism, to somehow create the conditions for the market to flourish and to prevent arbitrary rule and authoritarianism, and most importantly, to restrict democratic involvement in decision making and to replace the expectation of positive freedom with a completely negative ideal of the individual as an emancipated entrepreneur and/or consumer. But what linked the attack in The Good Society on economic planning to Lippmann’s earlier work on democracy, and also to the work of key neoliberal F. A. von Hayek, was the epistemological rationalisation of both the market as answer to everything and of the restriction of democracy. Both Lippmann and Hayek worked with the assumption that no individual could know society as a whole, and therefore no individual, or even a group of individuals, can have access to the information required to make economic planning work, or to rule society in the name of the ‘collective will’. The only rational way to run society, therefore, was through the ‘natural logic’ of the market.

However, the whole epistemological critique of planning and the public in Lippmann and Hayek rested on the assumption that knowledge is asocial. For ‘democratic realists’ and neoliberals alike, reality is something that the individual achieves by accurately representing, or forming a true picture in the mind of the outside world. In this case, of course, the individual has limited access to knowledge, no matter how well educated or intelligent we are. But Lippmann’s earlier work, and his public debate with John Dewey throughout the 1920s and 30s, point to an alternative view, submerged in the subsequent war between capitalism and communism. In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that we see and understand the world primarily through ‘stereotypes’, the habits and customs of thought that guide our actions without realising, which he used to discredit ‘public opinion’. Dewey agreed with Lippmann that an individual’s capacity for knowledge was limited, and that many actions are guided by habit (7). But Dewey also believed that these habits could be made intelligent through reflection upon the consequences of our actions, and through this process we could develop ‘foresight’ which would in turn further develop the intelligence of our intuition (8). Dewey drew a far more positive conclusion than Lippmann: habits can be an incredible source of power and knowledge if we are only willing to work on ourselves.

These stereotypes and habits also give us access to social knowledge, as subconsciously we must have a deep understanding of how society works in order to act. We human beings are so much more intelligent than neoliberals give us credit for; the brain processes huge amounts of information every second, most of which we are not aware of. According to Dewey, we have access to this submerged substratum of information, or ‘qualitative’ thought, through reflection; if we look deeply into our experience, we can make the connections which turn bare facts into truth, or for Dewey, into wisdom. All our knowledge is social, everything we know is in some way derived from the shared understandings, customs and collective experience which we have come to refer to as ‘culture’. This means that everything around us is a source of exploration and knowledge. Life itself is a learning process and the world is a classroom. This is what Dewey meant when he talked about ‘democracy as a way of life’. As Josiah Ober has pointed, looking at the success of ancient Athens, democracy is a powerful way of harnessing ‘dispersed knowledge through the free choice of many people’ (9). What Lippmann and Hayek fail to see, due to their attachment to extreme individualism, is that by tapping into the social nature of knowledge through collaborative reflection, the limitations imposed on us by our individual perspectives can be overcome. And democracy, in the positive Deweyian sense, is the most effective way of putting these perspectives to work.

Ironically, neoliberalism points to the way forward. The history of neoliberalism has taught us two things: firstly that no matter how unpopular an idea is at the time (and to say that neoliberalism was ‘leaning against the wind’ during the Great Depression of the 1930s is, to use Mirowski et al‘s words, an understatement), with enough hard work, determination and above all, organisation, today’s outlier can become tomorrow’s hegemonic world-view. Secondly, the public, like the perfect market, does not just spontaneously appear with negative freedom. We can try to engage people in collaborative social inquiry, try to develop their awareness of the conditions that limit participation, to deepen our collective understanding of social and political processes and therefore increase the public’s potential for self-rule. However, without creating the material and social conditions for participation, these efforts at condescension will be rightly met with scorn. Sociologists and social scientists, such as myself, need to be a part of an active process of giving back social inquiry to the public, emancipating this deeply human and social activity first and foremost from the elitism, specialisation and instrumentalism of academia. We may need to reduce the working day/week even further to enable people to have time for community activities and public research. We certainly need to prevent education being turned a class-based, narrowly vocational process of training people to be profit-making machines.

We haven’t got all the answers yet. But if we have an idea whose time has come, as the neoliberal ‘thought-collective’ have shown, we can perhaps win the battle in the end and work it out as we go along.

References

(1) Boenhert, J. (2015) ‘The Green Economy: Reconceptualising the Natural Commons as Natural Capital’. Environmental Communication [online]

(2) Büscher, B. and Fletcher, M. (2015) ‘Accumulation by Conservation’. New Political Economy 10(2), pp. 273-298

(3) Chang, H-J. (2014) Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin, pp. 279-313

(4) Mirowski, P. and Plehwe, D. (2009) The Road to Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 426

(5) Lippmann, W. (1927/93) The Phantom Public. London: Transaction Publishers, p. 55

(6) Ibid. p. 32

(7) Dewey, J. (1922/2002) Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Dover Publications

(8) Dewey, J. (1916/44) Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press

(9) Ober, J. (2008) Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. xiv