Notes on Civil Society – John Dewey, “The Eclipse of the Public”
A major theme in Dewey is that economic change occurs more rapidly than political change. “American democratic polity was developed out of genuine community life,” he notes (133), but “we live and act and have our being on a continental nation state” (135). The unity of the nation state is due to the revolution in communications. But the quality of this unity is lacking: “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity” (135). In all of this, however, the pubic seems lost. Political participation is organized through political parties, which are really political machines. The rise of the machines occurs in response to the eclipse of the public: “bosses with their political machines fill the void between government and the public” (137). Parties do not govern directly; rather important policy decisions are made without having been mandated in some sense by a previous election. There is a disconnect between public opinion and political outcomes, which testifies, once again, to the virtual absence of the public from the political life of the country. If the public has indeed been eclipsed, then how does governance occur? Dewey’s answer is through the role of experts. Indeed, the principle of technocracy – the rule of experts – seems to have overtaken De Tocqueville’s rule of associations. But Dewey does not want to let the matter stand there. He hopes for a revival of the public and this revival would have to occur with the context of the vast economic changes that have transformed America into an urban, industrial mass society. There is no going back, in other words, to De Tocqueville’s world of small communities with many associations that engaged people in the work of self-governance. What Dewey anticipates, instead, is the rise of the great community within the context of the great society. He wants, in other words, to see community transposed to the level of the nation state (140).
Reasons for the scant presence of the public: 1) the decline of leisure. This was the basis of citizenship in the Ancient world, as we have learned from Aristotle; it was also the basis for much political participation in the early republic: gentlemen farmers with time on their hands could turn their attention to politics. Today, however, people are oriented toward work; indeed, the more successful they are, the more they work. The accelerating demands of the work place sap political energies. 2) Politics also faces stout competition from various new forms of entertainment – from mass culture, which engages most of people’s interest with whatever leisure time they have. Amending Aristotle, Dewey notes that man is not only a political animal, but a sportive and a consuming one as well. (141). 3) The very dynamism of the economy undermines the emergence of an effective public – as Dewey notes, changes in production mean changes in the organization of society: old skill sets become antiquated; people experience structural unemployment and are forced to respond to the new economic conditions by moving. In Dewey’s day, the great transformation was the movement of people from rural livelihoods to urban ones. In our own day, the constant movement of people continues as corporations constantly restructure themselves, shedding employees and obliging people to move in order to keep pace with an ever changing market place. People move every 5-6 years. How can a public form in these conditions?
Of course, all of this poses the question of what to do? Should we repress the dynamism of the market place in order to achieve a more settled, and perhaps more satisfying way of life? Dewey does not suggest this. The problem for him, once again, is the construction of a great community that will be congruous with the great society. And this is (pay attention you communications majors) essentially a problem of devising the right form of communication and would bring the public into this great community. Here is how Dewey puts the problem: “We have physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence not common. Without such communication, the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself…Communication alone can create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues, but of signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible” (143). So what would animate life within the great community? Dewey’s response is quite clear: “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (145). Communication must be practiced so that this consciousness can emerge. Only thus can “…a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests.” (144).
Dewey expands on the connection between democracy and community: liberty and equality, two essential political values, can only take shape within the context of the community; outside this context, these values are essentially drained of meaning. (145) So community is obviously important, but under what conditions does it come into being? According to Dewey, community is closely tied to the contemplation of consequences. “But ‘we’ and ‘our’ exist only when the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort” (146). This is a call for a particular kind of group life: “Interactions, transactions, occur de facto and the results of interdependence follow. But participation in activities and in sharing in results are additive concerns. They demand communication as a prerequisite” (146). And the results of communication? “…there is generated what, metaphorically, may be terms a general will and social consciousness: desire and choice on the part of individual in behalf of activities that, by means of symbols, are communicable and shared by all concerned” (146-7). The point that Dewey is getting at here seems obvious: community is built through communicative practices through which people are able to recognize themselves a members of the community. One might think here of De Tocqueville’s discussion of the newspaper as a basis for common activity: “hardly any democratic association can do without newspapers,” concludes De Tocqueville – and Dewey would certainly agree with this.
Note that what Dewey has done, thus far, is to elaborate on the idea of community and, in particular, the connections between community, communication, and democracy. In the last part of the essay, Dewey turns his attention to the emergence of a particular kind of community, the great community. This is a historically specific form of community that needs to take shape if the public is to reassert itself within the complex realities of the industrial age. This challenge really speaks to Dewey’s purpose: how can we create a form of community that corresponds to the new industrial society? Let’s try to follow Dewey’s reasoning here as closely as possible:
Note that Dewey wrote this piece in 1927, in the wake of a gigantic surge of economic and technological change that transformed American society. We are living in a similar age of technological and economic transformation. Is Dewey’s vision still relevant to us? If it is not, then where does that leave us?