CommunityFDL Main Blog

“One Moment in the World’s Salvation”

Take, for example, any one of us in this room with the ideals which he cherishes, and is willing to live and work for. Every such ideal realized will be one moment in the world’s salvation.

William James

In his song “American Tune,” Paul Simon dreamed of “the Statue of Liberty, sailing away to sea.” I wonder if it will find a more fitting home in the Nile Delta?

The pro-democratic uprising in Egypt should lead Americans to do a little soul-searching about the degraded health of our own diminished democracy. In yesterday’s New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert does just that:

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

The ongoing contest between egalitarian, populist democrats and selfish and authoritarian plutocrats is nothing new. We’ve been here before. Karl Rove’s hero was Mark Hanna, the 1890s elite conservative operative behind William McKinley and an architect of American plutocracy.

It was the hardening plutocracy of the 1890s that radicalized philosopher William James. In discussions here about the current state and future of American democracy, there are often comments that invoke the political thought of James, John Dewey and other American pragmatist philosophers. That gladdens my heart, because the radical pluralism, tolerance and egalitarianism embodied by their work has long inspired me.

I wish they’d put a different name on their philosophy, only because pragmatism with a small “p” has come to mean the sacrifice of ideals for immediate gain, usually selfish gain. That is, of course, exactly the opposite of what James and Dewey meant.

In his letters, James often praised “anarchism in the good sense,” meaning he opposed the unapproachable and irresistible force of American business and government institutions and the growing chasm between the government and the public will.

The word “anarchism” has come to be associated with goateed bomb-throwers. There were violent knuckleheads among the early anarchists, and a global campaign by the powerful made sure that their ugly image stuck in the public’s mind. But the anarchism of Leo Tolstoy, Peter Kropotkin and James simply put individual and community flourishing ahead of hierarchy and institutional control. Deborah J. Coons calls James a “communitarian anarchist.”

What James meant by “anarchism in the good sense” was a focus on individual well-being, hopes and dreams. He saw the individual as an integrated member of a nurturing community. He certainly opposed the lonely, isolated “rugged individual” popularized by myths of the Western gunfighter, Ayn Rand and teabagging Libertarians who seem to want everyone on the globe but them to disappear.

In a letter to William Dean Howells, James wrote:

“I am becoming more and more an individualist and anarchist and believer in small systems of things exclusively.”

Deborah J. Coons describes James radicalization this way:

“As James witnessed important events of the 1890s, especially the Spanish-American War, the invasion of the Philippines, and Americans’ reaction to the Dreyfus affair in France, he became increasingly distressed by the direction American society seemed to be taking. It seemed to him that what he often referred to as “big” forces – the military, the government, the growing corporations and trusts – were becoming increasingly predominant within American society. As he viewed the growing scale and power of institutions, he became more anti-institutional and anarchistic in his own thinking…”

Is the 19th Century anarchist focus on the individual little more than a romantic fantasy? A difficulty progressives face is that the economic and social injustices we seek to cure are a product of our giant institutions. Solutions to big problems take a big, nationwide effort. Legal segregation couldn’t be attacked at the village level. The same goes for economic discrimination and a callous health care system. Obviously, neither can global warming.

The apparent difficulty can be overcome if we remember to value our institutional recommendations by looking at them through the eyes of the individuals embedded in their local communities. I have always been skeptical of actual socialism because it comes with the pathetic fallacy: socialists anthropomorphize the State and consider it more important than the individuals within it.

It’s interesting to note that plutocratic corporatists make exactly this mistake. The corporatists believe the future of the corporation is vastly more important than the individuals in it or affected by it. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case doesn’t give corporations an equal voice with individual citizens, it grants corporations a greater voice.

The old slogans, “socialism with a human face,” or “capitalism with a human face,” need to be scrapped. How about “democracy with a human heart?”

Previous post

After the Uprising, a Hope for a New Civil Society in the Arab World

Next post

A Valentine Story

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith