Liberalism and Social Action: The Relevance of John Dewey

Liberalism and Social Action: The Relevance of John Dewey

“The only sin,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841, “is limitation.” It was in this spirit (and under this influence) that John Dewey wrote some years later in How We Think that “growth is the only moral end.” Growth as a theme runs like a golden thread through all of Dewey’s work. But what is growth and how do we go about growing? What does it mean to say it’s the only moral end? Imagination and its role in the process of growth, both personal and political, was important for Dewey. He took literally the idea that failure, in any and all of its forms, was most often due to a failure of imagination, a failure to think through problems in all their intricacy and particularity. It was a failure to imaginatively draw out the consequences of a given view, opinion, or clash of values that frustrated Dewey and informed his philosophy.

He agreed with John Stuart Mill that sometimes values just clash and there’s not much we can do about it — for example, free speech and a law against blasphemy. But, he would have argued, we won’t come anywhere close to this clash of ultimate and incommensurable values if we continue to think of every minor confrontation, every instance of friction, as a symptom of some greater, irresolvable conflict. In other words, Dewey thought that most, though certainly not all, conflicts between people and groups could be mediated, talked through, accommodated, and resolved with a bit of honesty and imagination. Dewey believed that whether or not it was true that values and views can be mediated and mutually accommodated, we ought to believe they can be. This is nothing more than the idea that hope is preferable to despair: to believe opposing views can be accommodated is a good place to start.

Wherever Dewey laid pen to paper, he condemned uncompromising and outdated ways of thinking. He believed that our attitude, especially in the age of advanced industry and machines, lagged well behind the material circumstances in which we found ourselves — our American philosophy wasn’t, and still isn’t, equipped to deal with the situation. In Liberalism and Social Action Dewey turned his relentless reforming efforts on liberalism itself. And he offered a way forward that still resonates with us some seventy years later.

To ensure survival and continuity within the constantly changing scenery, liberalism would require flexibility and adaptability.

*  *  *

Liberalism and Social Action was Dewey’s attempt to sketch a brief history of liberalism, its current “crisis,” and possible resolution. For Dewey, liberalism stood for individualism, a healthy fear of governmental overreach, and a belief in natural law — in essence, it was the liberalism of the United States from its founding to about the mid-19th century; it was the philosophy of our founding fathers.

At some point, though, liberalism came to mean little more than a belief in “governmental action for aid to those at economic disadvantage and for alleviation of their conditions.” [p.37] Putting it in the modern context with broad strokes, Old Liberalism with its emphasis on individualism and fear of government is the professed philosophy of those on the Right. New Liberalism manifests itself as the Left and with almost no concern for those traditional tenets of individualism, fear of government, natural law, or a belief in the marketplace of ideas. New Liberals focus on improving the lot of the economically disadvantaged, though they have added to this an anxiety over things like “the patriarchy,” cultural appropriation, transgender pronoun usage, and the politics of race.

In any case, the crisis for Dewey was located in the fact that Old Liberalism had failed to update itself in the face of the behemoth of industrialization. New Liberalism, on the other hand, seemingly severed all ties from its older manifestations as well as with its economic concerns. Thus we are left with, on both sides, ill-quipped philosophies. But the crisis, Dewey goes on, follows naturally from the contradictions within liberalism itself. Liberalism’s radical disregard for established custom and tradition, the free-play of intelligence, and a no-holds barred pursuit of wealth and success came, in the mid-19th century, to be the status quo, thus making immovable what was at one time the subversive and liberating philosophy of our forefathers.

Liberty came to stand for little more than economic liberty in the age of industrialization, limiting progress “to a single channel” which found support in Smith’s invisible hand theory of economics. This association (and simplification of Smith’s philosophy for that matter) was unfortunate, and Dewey spent much of his career developing the rather unoriginal idea that the free market and the unrestrained pursuit of wealth (as well as hoarding and inheriting) couldn’t solve every social problem. They still cannot. As pragmatist race scholar Cornel West says, “we must recover [the] flow of non-market values and non-market activity”[i] since free-market thinking has in many ways outlived its original purpose. The social scene that the Old Liberalism was meant to serve was one of material scarcity, in variety as well as quantity.

Moving ahead to the turn of the century we see an abrupt change. “When it became evident that disparity, not equality, was the actual consequence of laissez faire liberalism, defenders of the latter developed a double system of justifying apologetics.” [p.37] Apologetics we see put forth most often by those on the Right today.

Upon one front, they [defenders of the old liberalism] fell back upon the natural inequalities of individuals in psychological and moral make-up, asserting that inequality of fortune and economic status is the “natural” and justifiable consequence of the free play of these inherent differences … I fancy that today there are but few who are hardy enough, even admitting the principle of natural inequalities, to assert that the disparities of property and income bear any commensurate ratio to inequalities in the native constitution of individuals. If we suppose that there is in fact such a ratio, the consequences are so intolerable that the practical inference to be drawn is that organized social effort should intervene to prevent the alleged natural law from taking full effect. [p.37]

This is a moral lesson that we moderns less than a hundred years later have failed to grasp.

Dewey’s point was that far too much mental effort continues to be wasted trying to figure out the appropriate ratio of wealth inequality to natural inequality. Even if we managed to successfully justify the ratio or find the “right” proportion — which no one can, let alone determine a metric for — love and love of freedom would fill in the rest, preventing us from drawing a reluctant ought from an undesirable though natural is. Thus we find ourselves face-to-face with one of Dewey’s finest pragmatic evasions: even if it were true that the inequalities of circumstance and wealth we see today were due to the inequalities of the individual, it neither matters nor follows that we ought to let this “natural law” run its course.

If liberalism is to remain true to its commitment to freedom in all its forms, what we ought to regret is the damming up of individual expression as well as the limiting of “rugged individualism” to mere “exercise in the economic area.” Dewey mounts his ironic attack against those who consider themselves inheritors of a tradition of rugged individualism by pointing out that their kind of individualism kills individuality. Dewey thought there was more to life than climbing the financial ladder and fixating on such pursuits can even suppress freedom. One needn’t look any further than the current state of the workplace: rigid hours, a panopticon-like monitoring by supervisors who try to squeeze every penny out of employees, through-the-roof stress levels, bare-minimum healthcare coverage, and a forty-hour work week. Add to this the rising cost of living, wage stagnation, and the displacement of jobs due to advances in technology. Dewey would agree with West that our cultural and spiritual lives are in such disrepair because “we are bombarded by a market culture that evolves around buying and selling, promoting and advertising. The market tries to convince us that we are really alive when we are addicted to stimulation and titillation.”[ii]

Dewey thus helped separate those who thought, rightly, that one’s economic situation largely determines political stability and moral fortitude, from the rigid economic determinism of the Marxists. There is a significant distance between saying with Dewey that social and political progress comes about through increased “security and sympathy,” and saying that we only need to increase economic security. The Right, in contrast, has held steadfastly to the idea that what we need most is a revolution in values, virtue, and education. People need to learn their lessons through hard work and adversity. Both of these extremes are a good example of people holding fast to a certain set of means — values or money — while refusing to see the disconnect with the ends they profess. Successfully or not, Dewey tries to have his cake and eat it too when he says, “the problem is not merely one of extending to all individuals the traits of economic initiative, opportunity, and enterprise … it is one of forming a new psychological and moral type.” [p.62]

Ever aware of the fact that the liberalism he espoused sometimes looked “middle of the road” in practice, Dewey nonetheless tried to carve out a path between those who think economics has very little to do with a person’s choices and character, and those who think economics is the only thing that determines them. “Thought, desire, and purpose,” Dewey says, “exist in a constant give and take of interactions with environing conditions.” [p.62] The Deweyan liberal neither excludes the economic from conversations about morals and virtuous behavior (as the Right does) nor elevates it to a deterministic faith (as the Left so often does).

*  *  *

The liberalism of the past — that of the free market and narrow individualism — is for Dewey a plane that has run out of runway; it has outlived both its context and its original purpose for coming into existence. Yet this hangover from the “rugged individualism” of the past that Dewey rightly chides for limiting individuality prevents us from offering even minimal and nonjudgmental help to those worst off in our society. Part of the failure of social programs — or “handouts” as we derogatorily call them — is the fact that they never quite find a sure enough footing. Even if some group of people find it necessary to extend to some people greater economic freedom through the “handing out” of wealth or other forms of capital, still some larger portion of people, under the spell of individualism, stigmatize them as undeserving or morally weak. It breeds antagonism in the recipient as much as those who are supposedly the Peters being robbed to pay Paul.

In locating the “crisis” as, essentially, an ill-fit way of thinking about the world given our present circumstances, Dewey gives us the pragmatic treatment of liberty. Liberty is the “release from the impact of particular oppressive forces,” and it has taken about as many concrete forms over the years as the times the word liberty itself has been invoked: at one time it meant “liberation from chattel slavery;” another “release from class serfdom;” yet another from “despotic dynastic rule.” Today — now as much as in 1935 — it means “liberation from material insecurity and from coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand.” [p.48] Liberation, contrary to popular sentiment, doesn’t always suggest some grandiose display of violence or dramatic breaking of all the chains. The kind of liberty a free and tolerant society secures is, in fact, quite the opposite.

But Dewey says nothing here about proportion or priority — nothing about how, or even whether, the fight against material insecurity is any better or worse than the fight against chattel slavery. Whether one fight is indicative of a movement in the right direction or whether our “harsh old chains have merely been replaced with slightly more comfortable ones,” to use Richard Rorty’s phrase.[iii]

Dewey would have been wise to advise liberals to not only prioritize but to have a sense of proportion, if only to send another broadside into those practicing the worst forms of identity politics, like those who would police expression according to complicated hierarchies of privilege and standpoint. But if liberty is nothing more than liberation from some particular generation’s idea of suffering, then perhaps today’s liberals are, in fact, of the same tradition. One wonders, though, whether the “master value” of freedom of expression must necessarily be so vigilantly policed (or ejected) in an effort to relieve the suffering of some group of oppressed people. I imagine Dewey would answer a resounding “no.”

*  *  *

Dewey ends the last of the three lectures with a sketch of what he calls “renascent liberalism” — the solution to liberalism’s crisis. Echoing Mill, Dewey argues that liberalism is committed to “the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life.” [p.56] Dewey argues again that times have changed. “Habits of desire and effort that were bred in an age of scarcity do not readily subordinate themselves … when machines and impersonal power have the capacity to liberate man from bondage to the strivings that were once needed to make secure his physical basis.” He goes on: “The system that goes by the name of capitalism is a systemic manifestation of desires and purposes built up in an age of ever threatening want and now carried over into a time of ever increasing potential plenty.” And finally, “the patterns of belief and purpose that still dominate economic institutions were formed when individuals produced with their hands … It demands no great power of intelligence to see that under present conditions the isolated individual is well-nigh helpless.” [p.59]

These factors, Dewey says, all contribute to the idea that liberals must not only continuously reform their methods and means but now — he was writing in 1935 — they ought to rethink them more than ever. If one could take a line from these lectures which sums up Dewey’s animating feeling it’s this: “The economic-material phase of life, which belongs in the basal ganglia of society, has usurped for more than a century the cortex of the social body.” [p.59] Liberalism ought to divorce itself from the suffocating grasp of the free market to embrace a more widespread and prosperous freedom.

In typical fashion, Dewey advances education as the great spark for change. Not education in the limited, formal schooling sense, but all social forces that contribute to the development of mind and habit. The gap between what our current situation permits and how we continue to think about it is a gap that must be traversed by education.

In an unfortunate use of the term, Dewey ends by calling for liberalism to once again become “radical.” Dewey would close the gap between “what the actual situation makes possible” and “the actual state itself” that makes “piecemeal policies undertaken ad hoc” an impossibility. [p.62] Dewey believed in the power of collective social intelligence — a Millian faith in the ability, over time, to transform thought and institution alike. And what should this collective intelligence work on? Dewey dispenses with the idea that the “political state” is the “only agency now endowed with coercive power” and that it should be the only object of our attention. Indeed, “this power [of the state] is pale in contrast with that exercised by concentrated and organized property interests.” [p.64] In a word: corporations.

Corporations, not the government, stunt our ability to get together with our fellow human beings for social, creative, or even leisurely pursuits. As Edward Luce laments in his recent book The Retreat of Western Liberalism:

In survey after survey, the biggest employee complaint is being treated with a lack of respect … they feel diminished by how they are treated. People must request permission for bathroom breaks from supervisors who are clocking every minute of their time … companies are shedding obligations to as much as their workforce as they can. Their goal is to lift revenue per employee. [p.192]

In other words, we ought to be much more worried about how corporations and big business are encroaching upon our liberties than the government. And it is only a collective intelligence—getting together with our fellow human beings — that can steer the ship in a better direction. If Dewey had a gloomy forecast about industry and big business in 1935, Luce’s book picks up the narrative seamlessly, adding statistical salvos.

Dewey dispels the delusion that intelligence is a singular affair, pointing to the collective efforts involved in various technological innovations. “[A] survey of [these] facts brings home the actual social character of intelligence as it actually develops and makes its way.” [p.68] Intelligence is necessarily social, and we are swimming upstream every time we conjure up ghosts of The Individual.

It is through this discussion of social intelligence that Dewey makes his famous move to science. For Dewey, the defining characteristic of the scientific method is experimentalism. And a commitment to experimentalism — and one might add curiosity to this — is a stand against what Dewey calls sees as a belief in “inevitability.” “The question,” Dewey says,

is whether force or intelligence is to be the method upon which we consistently reply and to whose promotion we devote our energies. Insistence that the use of violent force is inevitable limits the use of available intelligence, for wherever the inevitable reigns intelligence cannot be used. Commitment to inevitability is always the fruit of dogma; intelligence does not pretend to know save as a result of experimentation, the opposite of preconceived dogma. [p.78]

Returning to the theme of outdated philosophies, Dewey tells us that large scale oppression and coercion are the “product … of the perpetuation of old institutions and patterns untouched by scientific method,” that is, untouched by a commitment to social intelligence, the experimental mind, and free and open discussion unrestrained by dogmatism and party politics.” [p.82]

Dewey was motivated in these lectures by his frustration with the fact that so much human intelligence, so much human potential, goes wasted and an even larger amount gets funneled into the narrow pursuit of wealth and property. Creativity and genius, our current age seems to tell us, are nothing if they don’t result in some sort of reimbursement.

And Dewey’s frustration is felt by anyone who’s thought that people can be slow to change and that ‘old habits die hard.’ But the question remains about how these ‘old habits’ of an outdated liberalism are the representation of anything legitimate anymore — how, in other words, lip service to the free market by certain groups is anything but a defense of the obscene wealth-hoarding of those at the top. It of course meant more than this at one point, but it rarely does anymore. One need only look to the struggles of startups trying to find seed and grant money to see the delusion that mere entrance into the free market with a “good idea” will either assure success or at least assure that the judging will be fair. It’s ironic that those who’ve retained so much of the old liberalism’s fear of authority defer so much to the authority of the market.

Dewey summarizes toward the end of his lecture:

Earlier liberalism regarded the separate and competing economic action of individuals as the means to social well-being as the end. We must reverse the perspective and see that socialized economy is the means of free individual development as the end. [p.90]

Whatever else one thinks about socialism, the observations by Dewey about the good society and liberalism’s belatedness — liberalism’s failure to understand the problem — remain strong even in the early part of our own century. The takeaway is not this or that program, socialism or capitalism or some mixed version of the two. Rather, the takeaway is that little in life is more important than the freeing and fostering of people’s native and learned capacities, their joys and pleasures, and a society that fails to secure the appropriate environment for that is one that could not in any sense be labeled free. We cannot, Dewey seems to suggest, always be falling back on Mill’s rather minimal liberalism of merely avoiding harm to others. If anything can be gleaned from Dewey’s lectures it’s that it doesn’t much matter what market structure or political framework gets us to freer, more relaxed, more open society; what matters is we get there at all. This is liberalism’s constant struggle.

[i] Cornel West, “The Moral Obligation of Living in a Democratic Society”

[ii] ibid.

[iii]Richard Rorty, “American National Pride” in Achieving Our Country

Featured image is a bust portrait of John Dewey.