by Robin McMeeking
Opinion Shapers of the Current Era
Republicans often charge that the Democrats want “big government” and high taxes, and that they don’t like the U.S. Constitution. Is there any justification for these charges? As during the previous eras we have examined, voices outside of elective politics have been busy shaping and guiding the development and implementation of their philosophical positions. In many ways, this is where the real action is.
I mentioned John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) above as a key figure in refining Progressivism which was the guiding philosophy of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. [He] was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey, along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, is recognized as one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism and of functional psychology. He was a major representative of the progressive and progressive populist philosophies of schooling during the first half of the 20th century in the U.S.A.
If you are interested in philosophical writing, the best source of Dewey’s writing I have found on the web is here. It has a few chapters from Liberalism and Social Action written in 1935. He uses the terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably. In the chapters reproduced on-line Dewey traces the development of liberalism from John Locke’s natural rights ideas through the Industrial Revolution and into the Great Depression era.
Gradually a change came over the spirit and meaning of liberalism. It came surely, if gradually, to be disassociated from the laissez faire creed and to be associated with the use of governmental action for aid to those at economic disadvantage and for alleviation of their conditions. In this country, save for a small band of adherents to earlier liberalism, ideas and policies of this general type have virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith. American liberalism as illustrated in the political progressivism of the early present century [1900s] has so little in common with British liberalism of the first part of the last century that it stands in opposition to it.
He sees this new liberalism as a force against oppression. His portrayal of oppression up to the Industrial Revolution is very similar to Marx. Like Marx he sees the change from a hereditary land ownership based economy prevalent in Europe to an entrepreneurial centralized manufacturing ownership based economy as the introduction of a new form of oppression. He believed that this new oppression was/is based on, or at least protected by, the natural rights championed by early liberals and codified in our Constitution.
These statements do not imply that these liberals should or could have foreseen the changes that would occur, due to the impact of new forces of production. The point is that their failure to grasp the historic position of the interpretation of liberty they put forth served later to solidify a social regime that was a chief obstacle to attainment of the ends they professed. [emphasis mine.] One aspect of this failure is worth especial mention. No one has ever seen more clearly than the Benthamites [early British liberals] that the political self-interest of rulers, if not socially checked and controlled, leads to actions that destroy liberty for the mass of people. Their perception of this fact was a chief ground for their advocacy of representative government, for they saw in this measure a means by which the self-interest of the rulers would be forced into conformity with the interests of their subjects. But they had no glimpse of the fact that private control of the new forces of production, forces which affect the life of every one, would operate in the same way as private unchecked control of political liberty. But they failed to perceive that social control of economic forces is equally necessary if anything approaching economic equality and liberty is to be realized. [emphasis mine.]
So Dewey saw elements in the U.S. Constitution not as a protection of liberty, but as a “chief obstacle” to attaining liberty. However his conclusions about the appropriate social response to the new oppression are somewhat different than Marx’s. The differences are more in the nature of how to bring about changes rather than in the desired result. Dewey was equally influential (if not more-so) in promoting new educational theories. He believed that children educated in the history of economic oppression would develop into more socially oriented adults, driven less by personal ambitions. He visited the Soviet Union early in Stalin’s regime and had much praise for the teaching methods he saw there. For a Canadian’s view of Dewey’s influence on education click here.
Progressivism was the dominant philosophy guiding the Democratic Party from the 1930s through the Bill Clinton administration. During the Democratic Party Presidential debates (South Carolina on July 23, 2007) leading up to the primaries of 2008 Hillary Clinton was asked if she would call herself a liberal.
“CLINTON:You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual.
Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.
I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.
I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we’re working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family.
I noted above that Dewey regarded the Constitution as an obstacle to achieving “true freedom”. The following elaborates on that progressive interpretation.
Jackson Lears and Sidney Milkis Speak at a Progressive Book Club Event, January 26, 2010 source.
Professor Milkis, author of Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, emphasized that progressives during Roosevelt’s time developed a new, interpretive reading of the American Constitution that placed a greater emphasis on the collective good. Progressives believed that the conservative theory of government built exclusively on negative liberty—freedom from interference by others—was not enough to promote genuine individual opportunity in the Gilded Age era of rising inequality, uncontrolled corporate behavior, and scant protections for workers. In addition to negative rights, progressives argued for the idea of positive liberty and the public good as embodied in the promises of “we the people” working toward a “more perfect Union” that promotes the “general welfare.”
Progressives introduced the idea of a “living Constitution,” and this inspired secular and religious thinkers alike, including philosophers such as John Dewey, ministers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, and political leaders such as William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. These leaders challenged the constitutional formalism and laissez-faire doctrines of the era that were blocking social reforms and allowing privileged economic interests to maintain the status quo.
Professor Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, offered a more cautionary note about the excesses of imperialism and notions of moral regeneration, the unresolved issue of race in America, and the difficulties progressives faced in reinterpreting the political ideology of their populist roots. Shaking off past dogma liberated the movement to advocate for new, experimental policies and a stronger managerial state, he said, but the challenge of reconciling individual rights to a strengthened national government and the overreach of empire during World War I eventually signaled the demise of Progressivism
Professors Lears and Milkis both noted that the progressive tradition lived on despite these failings, and these ideas inspired much of Roosevelt’s New Deal two decades later as well as other liberal victories mid-century. Progressivism’s commitment to uplifting those left behind through a politics of public renewal and rebirth remains a powerful resource for troubled times in American politics.
An elaboration of the concept of “negative rights” and “positive rights”.
An important distinction exists between rights that are known as negative rights and rights known as positive rights. Negative rights are rights to such things as freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly, political participation, religion, and non-discrimination in housing, jobs and employment, education and admission to desirable schools, and so on. Understood negatively, such rights mean that government or other authorities are prohibited from interfering in the person’s exercise of those rights. The government or state, however, does not need to do anything to aid the holder in exercising those rights. One’s right to freedom of religion, understood negatively, for example, does not require the government to provide one with what is needed to practice his/her religion—such as a prayer shawl or copy of your religion’s sacred scriptures, if your religion should require those and you are unable to afford them yourself.
Positive rights are rights that require some entity—especially the government—to provide you with something if you cannot provide it for yourself. Thus, some European countries, for example, have a notion of positive rights written into their constitutions, so that if you are destitute, the government has to provide you with sustenance. This could include housing, perhaps a job, medical care, food, possibly transportation, and other amenities of life. The granting of negative rights does not require the expenditure of much if any public money. Granting positive rights, however, is usually quite expensive because these rights do require expenditure of public money if they are given.
Civil rights in the United States have usually been understood negatively, as meaning that the government should cease withholding freedoms and rights from persons and should not discriminate against people on the basis of race, sex, national origin, religion, and so on, and that it should put laws and a governmental attitude in place that forbids such forms of unjust discriminatory action. But, after its first phase in which the emphasis was in gaining rights that had been withheld from certain groups in the past—that is, gaining rights understood as negative rights—the American Civil Rights movement did have a second phase, in which some people argued that, because black and other minority people had been unjustly discriminated against in the past, this is the reason that they are disadvantaged and poor on the present, and therefore that a proper understanding of civil rights requires adoption of a positive program to compensate for past lack of rights by providing some form of reparations (almost always understood as financial payments of some kind), as well as preferential treatment, to present black people and other oppressed minorities because of their historical mistreatment and resulting poverty.
I disagree with some items listed above as a negative rights, particularly education. A right to an education requires positive action and financing on the part of the state, therefore making it a positive right. There is an interesting inherent conflict between negative rights and positive rights. Granting a positive right will always require a reduction in negative rights. Positive rights are administered by the state which has to take money from the populace to provide the right reducing the individual’s property rights. Other negative rights may also be reduced. Equal employment and housing rights require the state to scrutinize hiring and renting practices and prosecute violations which reduces the negative right to hire or rent to the person of choice and require regulating, administration and legal bodies within the government. More on positive vs. negative rights in the conclusion.
The following provisions were included in the 1948 United Nations UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, Article 25:
•(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
•(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
So, although the U.S. Constitution enumerates no positive rights, the idea of positive rights has gained some acceptance. John Dewey and the other Progressives, as well as Karl Marx and many others, felt that the industrial revolution was such a watershed event that it changed everything, making almost everything that came before it irrelevant. Marx believed it signaled the beginning of an inevitable international revolution. The Progressives believed it mandated a new way of defining rights and liberty and of interpreting constitutions.
The Supreme Court had rejected several of Roosevelt’s New Deal provisions and he hatched a plan to add more justices to the court with the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937. The Senate rejected it, but apparently the Progressive notion of a “living constitution” was suddenly accepted by enough justices that they began approving the questionable acts. From acslaw.org:
Debates surrounding our so-called “living Constitution” have a specific historical and political origin. Historically they emerged during the late-nineteenth century and reached an initial fever pitch during the New Deal constitutional battles. Politically the theory of the living Constitution was originally constructed, not for the purpose of identifying innovative rights that reflected developing conceptions of decency and justice, but to support the adoption of innovative government powers that could address new social and economic challenges arising out of industrialization.
Stephen Skowronek has famously declared that the emergent political order of the late-nineteenth century amounted to “a new American state” in the sense that it required the dismantling of “already well-articulated governing arrangements” in favor of “national governmental capacities that were foreign to the existing state structure and that presupposed a very different mode of governmental operations.” The central components of the transformation were the expansion of federal legislative authority and the establishment of a modern, regulatory executive establishment. However, many of these features were difficult to reconcile with prevailing understandings of the “original intent” of the scope and structure of federal power. Thus, the pressure of political development generated a corresponding jurisprudential development. Drawing on intellectual currents that were not available to the framers’ generation—including Darwinism, historicism, and pragmatism—progressives and their allies argued that the provisions of the Constitution were designed to adapt to changing environments and social purposes.
In the decades leading up to the battle over the New Deal, opposing political camps embraced opposing jurisprudential visions of constitutional stability and change. Conservatives insisted that the very idea of constitutionalism precluded an acceptance of an evolutionary conception of constitutional meaning. Reformers countered that constitutional adaptation was a natural and inevitable feature of any enduring constitutional system, especially in the face of rapid and deep social change. The defeat of traditional constitutional conservatism in the wake of the 1936 presidential election represented the collapse of what was perceived to be an anachronistic “horse and buggy” theory of constitutional meaning. Until the rise of the “new originalism” in the 1990s, almost all post-New Deal constitutional theorists—liberals and conservatives alike—embraced some form of the theory of the living Constitution. However, to see this, we need to go back to the origins of the tradition.
Currently the court is split on the question of the living Constitution. In a 1976 article The Notion of a Living Constitution, Justice Rehnquist had this to say on the subject:
It seems to me that it is almost impossible, after reading the record of the Founding Fathers’ debates in Philadelphia, to conclude that they intended the Constitution itself to suggest answers to the manifold problems that they knew would confront succeeding generations. The Constitution that they drafted was indeed intended to endure indefinitely, but the reason for this very well-founded hope was the general language by which national authority was granted to Congress and the Presidency. These two branches were to furnish the motive power within the federal system, which was in turn to coexist with the state governments; the elements of government having a popular constituency were looked to for the solution of the numerous and varied problems that the future would bring. Limitations were indeed placed upon both federal and state governments in the form of both a division of power and express protection for individual rights. These limitations, however, were not themselves designed to solve the problems of the future, but were instead designed to make certain that the constituent branches, when they attempted to solve those problems, should not transgress these fundamental limitations.
One last opinion needs to be presented on the concept of “positive rights”. In 2002 Barack Obama participated in a radio discussion on Chicago NPR radio WBEZ about a variety of civil rights issues. Near the end of the program he had this to say:
If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court. I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I’d be o.k. But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was, um, because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.
This can be heard on You Tube.
The term “conservative” has been in use for a long time, but current Conservatism as a response to Progressivism started gaining recognition in 1955 when William F. Buckley Jr. began publishing National Review.
On November 19, 1955, Buckley’s magazine would take shape. Buckley assembled an eclectic group of writers: traditionalists, Catholic intellectuals, libertarians and ex-Communists. They included: Russell Kirk (the traditionalist admirer of Burke and author of The Conservative Mind), ex-Marxists James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Willmoore Kendall, L. Brent Bozell, and Gary Wills. Whittaker Chambers, the Communist-party defector and former Time editor who had given the key congressional testimony against Alger Hiss in the latter’s espionage hearing, was also invited to join. Chambers initially declined, but eventually became a senior editor. In the magazine’s founding statement Buckley wrote:
“Let’s Face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did National Review not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
National Review aimed to make conservative ideas respectable, in an age when the dominant view of conservative thought was expressed by Lionel Trilling in 1950:
“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation… the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not… express themselves in ideas but only… in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Buckley attacked Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, as part of his efforts to build a respectable conservative movement:
Mr. Buckley’s first great achievement was to purge the American right of its kooks. He marginalized the anti-Semites, the John Birchers, the nativists and their sort.
Buckley and Frank Meyer also promoted the idea of fusionism, whereby different schools of conservatives, including libertarians, would work together to combat what were seen as their common opponents.
National Review promoted Barry Goldwater heavily during the early 1960s. Buckley and others involved with the magazine took a major role in the “Draft Goldwater” movement in 1960 and the 1964 presidential campaign. Buckley also helped found Young Americans for Freedom; it and National Review spread his vision of conservatism throughout the country.
Buckley didn’t attempt to refine, enhance, or modify conservative philosophy. Politically he wanted to preserve the ideals of the Constitution as close to the founders intent as reasonable (Justice Rhenquist argument) and economically he trusted capitalism as espoused by Hayek. The magazine devoted itself to the discussion of current events, criticizing liberal/progressive positions and recommending conservative alternatives. It was/is a fairly sophisticated magazine and Buckley was fond writing in a style that provoked thought. For example, Every 10 years I quote the same adage from the late Austrian analyst Willi Schlamm, and I hope that 10 years from now someone will remember to quote it in my memory. It goes: “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” He recognized that capitalists could be as corrupt as anyone else and he wanted laws against fraud and deceptive practices, but he opposed outright government control of business. A few more quotes:
“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”
“Liberals, it has been said, are generous with other peoples’ money, except when it comes to questions of national survival when they prefer to be generous with other people’s freedom and security.”
“One must bear in mind that the expansion of federal activity is a form of eating for politicians.”
Another prominent conservative organization is the Heritage Foundation. It is a “think tank” that analyzes current events, proposes legislation, and national policy, producing in-depth recommendations that are provided to legislators and are available to the public.
Milton Friedman: (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) was an American economist, statistician, academic, and author who taught at the University of Chicago for more than three decades. He was a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Among scholars, he is best known for his theoretical and empirical research, especially consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.
On corporate social responsibility:
What does it mean to say that the corporate executive has a “social responsibility” in his capacity as businessman? If this statement is not pure rhetoric, it must mean that he is to act in some way that is not in the interest of his employers. For example, that he is to refrain from increasing the price of the product in order to contribute to the social objective of preventing inflation, even though a price increase would be in the best interests of the corporation. Or that he is to make expenditures on reducing pollution beyond the amount that is in the best interests of the corporation or that is required by law in order to contribute to the social objective of improving the environment. Or that, at the expense of corporate profits, he is to hire “hardcore” unemployed instead of better qualified available workmen to contribute to the social objective of reducing poverty.
In each of these cases, the corporate executive would be spending someone else’s money for a general social interest. Insofar as his actions in accord with his “social responsibility” reduce returns to stockholders, he is spending their money. Insofar as his actions raise the price to customers, he is spending the customers’ money. Insofar as his actions lower the wages of some employees, he is spending their money.
The stockholders or the customers or the employees could separately spend their own money on the particular action if they wished to do so. The executive is exercising a distinct “social responsibility,” rather than serving as an agent of the stockholders or the customers or the employees, only if he spends the money in a different way than they would have spent it.
But if he does this, he is in effect imposing taxes, on the one hand, and deciding how the tax proceeds shall be spent, on the other.
This process raises political questions on two levels: principle and consequences. On the level of political principle, the imposition of taxes and the expenditure of tax proceeds are governmental functions. We have established elaborate constitutional, parliamentary and judicial provisions to control these functions, to assure that taxes are imposed so far as possible in accordance with the preferences and desires of the public–after all, “taxation without representation” was one of the battle cries of the American Revolution. We have a system of checks and balances to separate the legislative function of imposing taxes and enacting expenditures from the executive function of collecting taxes and administering expenditure programs and from the judicial function of mediating disputes and interpreting the law.
Friedman was a Libertarian, and Libertarian views often seem starkly black and white. Personally, I would soften the preceding opinion by saying that if the management of a business or corporation believes that its performance in the marketplace will be enhanced through its charitable and other community related activities, then such behavior may be well justified.
Phil Donohue interviews Milton Friedman:
Phil Donohue: When you see around the globe the maldistribution of wealth, the desperate plight of millions of people in underdeveloped countries, when you see so few haves and so many havenots, when you see the greed and the concentration of power, did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism? And whether greed is a good idea to run on?
Milton Friedman: Well first of all tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course none of us are greedy. It’s only the other fella that’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The greatest achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty that you are talking about, the only cases in recorded history are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worst off, it’s exactly in the kind of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.
Phil Donohue: Seems to reward not virtue as much as the ability to manipulate the system.
Milton Friedman: And what does reward virtue? You think the Communist commissar rewards virtue? You think a Hitler rewards virtue? Do you think… American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know I think you are taking a lot of things for granted. And just tell me where in the world you find these angels that are going to organize society for us? Well, I don’t even trust you to do that.
A New Period in Philosophy – Postmodernism
The Enlightenment period, AKA the Age of Reason, lasted about 200 years up to 1800. Its political teachings included limited government and personal responsibility. After the French Revolution philosophers began to abandon reason as a method for discovering “truth”, deeper concepts about the meaning of life, etc. In the Counter-Enlightenment they turned away from reason to internal spirituality as a source of knowledge, and allegiance to king and country as the highest objectives in living. Hegel expressed it this way, “It must further be understood that all the worth which human being possesses–all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.” The State has as its final end the self-realization of the Absolute, and thus “this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.” “One must worship the State as a terrestrial divinity.”
As happened at the end of the Enlightenment period, philosophers began to feel that they had reached a dead-end with Counter-Enlightenment ideas. I found a wide range of dates associated with the onset of Postmodernism. However, most sources identify the 1950s as the transition. It took another 20 to 30 years for Postmodern ideas to be identifiable in political discourse. It now seems to dominate Democratic Party rhetoric. So what s Postmodernism all about?
The following is from Britannica.com In this article Postmodernism is contrasted with Enlightenment ideas. To clarify the distinction I have used bold type to identify the Postmodern concepts.
Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period. The most important of these viewpoints are the following.
1. There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language. This point also applies to the investigation of past events by historians and to the description of social institutions, structures, or practices by social scientists.
2. The descriptive and explanatory statements of scientists and historians can, in principle, be objectively true or false. The postmodern denial of this viewpoint—which follows from the rejection of an objective natural reality—is sometimes expressed by saying that there is no such thing as Truth.
3. Through the use of reason and logic, and with the more specialized tools provided by science and technology, human beings are likely to change themselves and their societies for the better. It is reasonable to expect that future societies will be more humane, more just, more enlightened, and more prosperous than they are now. Postmodernists deny this Enlightenment faith in science and technology as instruments of human progress. Indeed, many postmodernists hold that the misguided (or unguided) pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge led to the development of technologies for killing on a massive scale in World War II. Some go so far as to say that science and technology—and even reason and logic—are inherently destructive and oppressive, because they have been used by evil people, especially during the 20th century, to destroy and oppress others.
4. Reason and logic are universally valid—i.e., their laws are the same for, or apply equally to, any thinker and any domain of knowledge. For postmodernists, reason and logic too are merely conceptual constructs and are therefore valid only within the established intellectual traditions in which they are used.
5. There is such a thing as human nature; it consists of faculties, aptitudes, or dispositions that are in some sense present in human beings at birth rather than learned or instilled through social forces. Postmodernists insist that all, or nearly all, aspects of human psychology are completely socially determined.
6. Language refers to and represents a reality outside itself. According to postmodernists, language is not such a “mirror of nature,” as the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty characterized the Enlightenment view. Inspired by the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, postmodernists claim that language is semantically self-contained, or self-referential: the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words. Because meanings are in this sense functions of other meanings—which themselves are functions of other meanings, and so on—they are never fully “present” to the speaker or hearer but are endlessly “deferred.” Self-reference characterizes not only natural languages but also the more specialized “discourses” of particular communities or traditions; such discourses are embedded in social practices and reflect the conceptual schemes and moral and intellectual values of the community or tradition in which they are used. The postmodern view of language and discourse is due largely to the French philosopher and literary theorist Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), the originator and leading practitioner of deconstruction.
7. Human beings can acquire knowledge about natural reality, and this knowledge can be justified ultimately on the basis of evidence or principles that are, or can be, known immediately, intuitively, or otherwise with certainty. Postmodernists reject philosophical foundationalism—the attempt, perhaps best exemplified by the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes’s dictum cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), to identify a foundation of certainty on which to build the edifice of empirical (including scientific) knowledge.
8. It is possible, at least in principle, to construct general theories that explain many aspects of the natural or social world within a given domain of knowledge—e.g., a general theory of human history, such as dialectical materialism. Furthermore, it should be a goal of scientific and historical research to construct such theories, even if they are never perfectly attainable in practice. Postmodernists dismiss this notion as a pipe dream and indeed as symptomatic of an unhealthy tendency within Enlightenment discourses to adopt “totalizing” systems of thought (as the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas called them) or grand “metanarratives” of human biological, historical, and social development (as the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard claimed). These theories are pernicious not merely because they are false but because they effectively impose conformity on other perspectives or discourses, thereby oppressing, marginalizing, or silencing them. Derrida himself equated the theoretical tendency toward totality with totalitarianism.
As indicated in the preceding section, many of the characteristic doctrines of postmodernism constitute or imply some form of metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical relativism. (It should be noted, however, that some postmodernists vehemently reject the relativist label.) Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values. Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft. Postmodernists sometimes characterize the evidential standards of science, including the use of reason and logic, as “Enlightenment rationality.”
The following discussion of Postmodernism by Dr. Stephen Hicks is from chapter four of his book Explaining Postmodernism. The complete book is available in PDF form here. If you are not a frequent reader of philosophy you may feel compelled to look up a definition of “epistemology”. I’ll save you the trouble. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge and is also referred to as “theory of knowledge”. It is the study of how we know what is and isn’t so, or the distinction between what we believe versus what we know.
There is a problem with making epistemology fundamental to any explanation of postmodernism. The problem is the postmodernists’ politics.
If a deep skepticism about reason and the consequent subjectivism and relativism were the most important parts of the story of postmodernism, then we would expect to find that postmodernists represent a roughly random distribution of commitments across the political spectrum. If values and politics are primarily a matter of a subjective leap into whatever fits one’s preferences, then we should find people making leaps into all sorts of political programs.
This is not what we find in the case of postmodernism. Postmodernists are not individuals who have reached relativistic conclusions about epistemology and then found comfort in a wide variety of political persuasions. Postmodernists are monolithically far Left-wing in their politics.
Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty are all far Left. And so are Jacques Lacan, Stanley Fish, Catharine MacKinnon, Andreas Huyssen, and Frank Lentricchia. Of the major names in the postmodernist movement, there is not a single figure who is not Left-wing in a serious way.
So there is something else going on besides epistemology.
Part of that something else is that postmodernists have taken to heart Fredric Jameson’s remark that “everything is in the last analysis’ political.” The spirit of Jameson’s remark lies behind the persistent postmodernist charge that epistemology is merely a tool of power, that all claims of objectivity and rationality mask oppressive political agendas. It stands to reason, then, that postmodern appeals to subjectivity and irrationality can also be in the service of political ends. But why?
Another part of that something else is that Leftist thought has dominated political thought among twentieth-century intellectuals, particularly among academic intellectuals. But even given that fact, the dominance of Left thought among postmodernists is still a puzzle—since for most of socialism’s intellectual history it has almost always been defended on the modernist grounds of reason and science. Marx’s socialism has been the most widespread form of far-Left thought, and “scientific socialism” was the Marxist selfdescriptive phrase.
A related puzzle is explaining why postmodernists— particularly among those postmodernists most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas or with putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in faculty meetings—are the most likely to be hostile to dissent and debate, the most likely to engage in ad hominem argument and name-calling, the most likely to enact “politically correct”authoritarian measures, and the most likely to use anger and rage as argumentative tactics. Whether it is Stanley Fish calling all opponents of affirmative action bigots and lumping them in with the Ku Klux Klan, or whether it is Andrea Dworkin’s male-bashing in the forming of calling all heterosexual males rapists, the rhetoric is very often harsh and bitter. So the puzzling question is: Why is it that among the far Left—which has traditionally promoted itself as the only true champion of civility, tolerance, and fair play—that we find those habits least practiced and even denounced?
Evidence, reason, logic, tolerance, and civility were all integral parts of the modernist package of principles. Socialism in its modern form began, in part, by accepting that package.
As modernists, the socialists argued that socialism could be proved by evidence and rational analysis, and that once the evidence was in socialism’s moral and economic superiority to capitalism would be clear to anyone with an open mind.
This is significant, because so-conceived socialism committed itself to a series of propositions that could be empirically, rationally, and scientifically scrutinized. The end result of that scrutiny provides another key to explaining postmodernism.
Classical Marxist socialism made four major claims:
1. Capitalism is exploitative: The rich enslave the poor; it is brutally competitive domestically and imperialistic internationally.
2. Socialism, by contrast, is humane and peaceful: People share, are equal, and cooperative.
3. Capitalism is ultimately less productive than socialism: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; and the ensuing class conflict will cause capitalism’s collapse in the end.
- Socialist economies, by contrast, will be more productive and usher in a new era of prosperity.
These propositions were first enunciated by socialists in the nineteenth century, and repeated often into the twentieth before disaster struck. The disaster was that all four of socialism’s claims were refuted both in theory and in practice.
In theory, the free-market economists have won the debate. Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman have shown how markets are efficient, and they have shown, conversely, how socialist top-down command economies necessarily must fail. Distinguished Left-wing economists such as Robert Heilbroner have conceded in print that the debate is over and that the capitalists have won.
In theory, the moral and political debate is more up for grabs, but the leading thesis is that some form of liberalism in the broadest sense is essential to protecting civil rights and civil society in general—and the liveliest debates are about whether a conservative version of liberalism, a libertarian one, or a modified welfarist one is best. Many Leftists are re-packaging themselves as more moderate communitarians, but that repackaging itself shows how far the debate has shifted toward liberalism.
The empirical evidence has been much harder on socialism. Economically, in practice the capitalist nations are increasingly productive and prosperous, with no end in sight. Not only are the rich getting fantastically richer, the poor in those countries are getting richer too. And by direct and brutal contrast, every socialist experiment has ended in dismal economic failure—from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, to North Korea and Vietnam, to Cuba, Ethiopia, and Mozambique.
Morally and politically, in practice every liberal capitalist country has a solid record for being humane, for by and large respecting rights and freedoms, and for making it possible for people to put together fruitful and meaningful lives. Socialist practice has time and time again proved itself more brutal than the worst dictatorships in history prior to the twentieth century. Each socialist regime has collapsed into dictatorship and begun killing people on a huge scale. Each has produced dissident writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nien Cheng who have documented what those regimes are capable of.
These points are well known, and I dwell upon them in order to project the depth of the crisis that this meant for Left-socialist intellectuals. By the 1950s, the crisis was being felt deeply.
Instead of having collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, as both the collectivist Right and the Left had hoped, the liberal capitalist countries had recovered after World War II and by the 1950s were enjoying peace, liberty, and new levels of prosperity. World War II had wiped out the collectivist Right—the National Socialists and the Fascists—leaving the Left alone in the field against a triumphant and full-of-itself liberal capitalism. Yet while the liberal West’s recovery and its rising political and economic prominence were distressing to the far Left intellectuals of the West, hope was still offered by the existence of the Soviet Union, the “noble experiment,”and to a lesser extent by communist China.
Even that hope was brutally crushed in 1956. Before a worldwide audience, the Soviets sent tanks into Hungary to stifle demonstrations by students and workers—thus demonstrating just how strong was their commitment to humanity. And, more devastatingly, Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged publicly what many in the West had long charged—that Joseph Stalin’s regime had slaughtered tens of millions of human beings, staggering numbers that made the National Socialists’ efforts seem amateurish in comparison.
From The Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 to the revelations of 1956 was over a century of theory and evidence. The crisis for the far Left was that the logic and evidence were going against socialism. Put yourselves in the shoes of an intelligent, informed socialist confronted with all this data. How would you react? You have a deep commitment to socialism: You feel that socialism is true; you want it to be true; upon socialism you have pinned all your dreams of a peaceful and prosperous future society and all your hopes for solving the ills of our current society.
This is a moment of truth for anyone who has experienced the agony of a deeply cherished hypothesis run aground on the rocks of reality. What do you do? Do you abandon your theory and go with the facts—or do you try to find a way to maintain your belief in your theory?
Here, then, is my second hypothesis about post-modernism: Postmodernism is the academic far Left’s epistemological strategy for responding to the crisis caused by the failures of socialism in theory and in practice.
A historically parallel example may help here. In the 1950s and 60s, the Left faced the same dilemma that religious thinkers faced in the late 1700s. In both cases, the evidence was against them. During the Enlightenment, religion’s natural theology arguments were widely seen as being full of holes, and science was rapidly giving naturalistic and opposed explanations for the things that religion had traditionally explained. Religion was in danger of being shut out of intellectual life. By the 1950s and 60s, the Left’s arguments for the fruitfulness and decency of socialism were failing in theory and practice, and liberal capitalism was rapidly increasing everyone’s standard of living and showing itself respectful of human freedoms. By the late 1700s, religious thinkers had a choice—accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal and thereby reject their deeply-cherished religious ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. “I had to deny knowledge,” wrote Kant in the Preface to the first Critique, “in order to make room for faith.” “Faith,” wrote Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, “requires the crucifixion of reason”; so he proceeded to crucify reason and glorify the irrational.
The Left thinkers of the 1950s and 60s faced the same choice. As I will argue over the course of the next two chapters, the far Left faced a dilemma. Confronted by the continued flourishing of capitalism and the continued poverty and brutality of socialism, they could either go with the evidence and reject their deeply cherished ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. Some, like Kant and Kierkegaard, decided to limit reason—to crucify it. And for that purpose, Heidegger’s exalting feeling over reason came as a godsend. And so did Kuhn’s theory-laden paradigms and Quine’s pragmatic and internalist account of language and logic.
That the leading postmodern intellectuals—from Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida to Rorty and Fish—came of age in the 1950s and 60s then is not a coincidence.
Postmodernism is born of the marriage of Left politics and skeptical epistemology. As socialist political thought was reaching a crisis in the 1950s, academic epistemology had, in Europe, come to take seriously Nietzsche and Heidegger and, in the Anglo-American world, it had seen the decline of Logical Positivism into Quine and Kuhn. The dominance of subjectivist and relativistic epistemologies in academic philosophy thus provided the academic Left with a new tactic. Confronted by harsh evidence and ruthless logic, the far Left had a reply: That is only logic and evidence; logic and evidence are subjective; you cannot really prove anything; feelings are deeper than logic; and our feelings say socialism.
That is my second hypothesis: Postmodernism is a response to the crisis of faith of the academic far Left. Its epistemology justifies the leap of faith necessary to continue believing in socialism, and that same epistemology justifies using language not as a vehicle for seeking truth but as a rhetorical weapon in the continuing battle against capitalism.
The justification of that hypothesis requires an explanation of why the crisis of socialist thought was felt so deeply by the 1950s and why to a significant number of Left intellectuals the postmodern epistemological strategy seemed to be the only one available. The key part of that explanation requires showing why classical liberalism, despite its flourishing culturally, had become a dead issue in the minds of most intellectuals, especially European intellectuals. No matter what troubles the anti-liberal Left and Right ran into, a serious reconsideration of liberalism was not going to happen.
Rush Limbaugh and Talk Radio
In 1987 Rush Limbaugh became another significant voice in promoting conservatism. As a radio talk show host he dramatically expanded the audience beyond the sophisticated reach of National Review. Rush has been accused of many things, but sophistication is not one of them. Like Buckley, Limbaugh doesn’t try to expand or redefine conservatism. He occasionally discusses conservative principles, but primarily analyzes current events and criticizes liberal positions wherever he sees them.
Limbaugh, born Jan. 12, 1951, to a well-known family in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is the grandson of the late Rush Hudson Limbaugh, American ambassador to India during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. His family members include a Ronald Reagan-appointed federal judge, a George W. Bush-appointed U.S. District Court judge and brother David Limbaugh, author, WND columnist and lawyer.
The king of talk radio began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey called “Rusty Sharpe” for KGMO, a station located in Cape Girardeau, while he was still in high school. Limbaugh spent one year at Southeastern Missouri State University and left college to work as a disc jockey on WIXZ 1360 in McKeesport, Pa. He worked as “Jeff Christie” in 1972 joining Pittsburgh’s KQV 14. Later, while working in Kansas City, Limbaugh used his real name.
His career took flight in 1984 when Sacramento’s KFBK 1530 hired Limbaugh. The station scheduled him to replace talk show host Morton Downey Jr., and Limbaugh’s ratings soared.
The Federal Communications Commission’s 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine – a policy forcing stations to give away free air time to opponents of any controversial opinions that were broadcast – lifted restrictions against free political speech and cleared the way for Limbaugh.
His style became so popular, ABC Radio Network hired Limbaugh Aug. 1, 1988, and began a successful 20-year history of Premiere Radio Networks’ syndication from New York. Two decades later, Limbaugh’s show can be heard in every major U.S. market.
In the wake of Limbaugh numerous other talk show hosts (mostly local) have joined the conservative ranks as well as a number of writers such as Mark Levin and Thomas Sowell. Conservative commentators on Fox News have helped to make it the most successful news format cable TV station. Sean Hannity is a prime examples. Liberal versions of talk radio have not been particularly successful, and cable news stations with predominantly liberal viewpoints have been losing audience.
Adding to the sharper definition between Republicans and Democrats has been an increase in a radical approach to political issues. We have previously examined the demonstrations that occurred during the Civil Rights period followed closely by the Vietnam War protests. The leaders of these demonstrations had acquired skills in organizing that would be put to use for a host of other issues. And they had a teacher who had been at it for a long time, Saul Alinski.
Alinsky was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky’s marriage to his second wife, Sarah Tannenbaum Alinsky. Alinsky stated during an interview that his parents never became involved in the “new socialist movement.” He added that they were “strict orthodox, their whole life revolved around work and synagogue … I remember as a kid being told how important it was to study.”
He worked his way through the University of Chicago, where he majored in archaeology, a subject that fascinated him. His plans to become a professional archaeologist were changed due to the economic Depression that was ongoing. He later stated, “Archaeologists were in about as much demand as horses and buggies. All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks.”
After attending two years of graduate school he dropped out to accept work with the state of Illinois as a criminologist. On a part-time basis, he also began working as an organizer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.). After a few years, by 1939, he became less active in the labor movement and became more active in general community organizing, starting with the slums of Chicago. His early efforts to “turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest aroused the admiration of Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who said Alinsky’s aims ‘most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual.’ “
As a result of his efforts and success at helping slum communities, he spent the next 10 years repeating his organization work across the nation, “from Kansas City and Detroit to the barrios of Southern California.” By 1950 he turned his attention to the African-American ghettos of Chicago, where his actions quickly earned him the hatred of Mayor Richard J. Daley, although Daley would later say that “Alinsky loves Chicago the same as I do.” He traveled to California at the request of the Bay Area Presbyterian Churches to help organize the black ghetto in Oakland. Hearing of his plans, “the panic-stricken Oakland City Council promptly introduced a resolution banning him from the city.”
The documentary The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, states that “Alinsky championed new ways to organize the poor and powerless that created a backyard revolution in cities across America.” Alinsky formed the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940, and Chambers became its Executive Director after Alinsky died. Since the IAF’s formation, hundreds of professional community and labor organizers and thousands of community and labor leaders have attended its workshops. Fred Ross, who worked for Alinsky, was the principal mentor for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Hillary Clinton’s senior honors thesis on Saul Alinsky, written at Wellesley College, noted that Alinsky’s personal efforts were a large part of his method.
Several prominent national leaders have been influenced by Alinsky’s teachings, including Barack Obama, Ed Chambers, Tom Gaudette, Ernesto Cortes, Michael Gecan, Wade Rathke, and Patrick Crowley. Alinsky’s techniques were quoted in a memo for Tea Party activists seeking to disrupt congressional town halls on August, 2009.
Alinsky is often credited with laying the foundation for the grassroots political organizing that dominated the 1960s.
In Rules for Radicals (his final work, published in 1971 one year before his death), he addressed the 1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the first chapter, opening paragraph of the book Alinsky writes, “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.
“Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have” (p.128)
“Never go outside the experience of your people” (p.128)
“Whenever possible go outside of the experience of your enemy” (p.128)
“Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules” (p.128)
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” (p.128)
“A good tactic is one that your people enjoy” (p.128)
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag” (p.128)
“Keep the pressure on” (p.128)
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself” (p.129)
“The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition” (p.129)
“If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside” (p.129; example: passive resistance)
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative” (p.130)
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” (p.130)
“He that is not with me is against me” (p.134).
“The real action is in the enemy’s reaction.” (p.136)
“The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength” (p.136)
“Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action” (p.136)
Groups that have used some or all of these tactics to gain national attention and favorable legislation include:
- Gay Rights
- Anti-Nuclear Power
- Immigration Reform (amnesty without enforcing borders)
- Animal Rights
All of these groups (and probably some I have forgotten) gravitate to the Democratic Party.
On the Republican side:
- Anti-Gay Marriage
- Intelligent Design/Creationists
- And probably some more.
These single-issue groups have a very polarizing effect because of the passion they exhibit. They probably have their strongest political influence in primary elections.