Sunday, October 23, 2011

Government and Public Opinion

A lot of people want the OWSers to delineate just what it is they want. That is, what policies are they in favor of, what steps they want the government to take. But I say, "No, don't do it." And here is why.

George Orwell wrote a piece some years/decades ago on an argument made by a guy named Burnham on what the latter called the "managerial revolution". According to Burnham, not only Communism but Socialism and even capitalism would fade away and be replaced by what Burnham called "managerialism," that is, a social order controlled by "managers." I think he, Burnham, might have meant something like those I label "bureaucrats" but I cannot be certain of this. I personally don't think Burnham's argument was all that off the wall and Orwell, while critical of certain aspects of B's argument, seemed to see something in this argument as well.

He had other problems with Burnham's arguments, however, and one of his objections led Orwell to remark on what is called "public opinion" and its role in social affairs. According to Orwell, it was precisely those political orders, like Hitler's Germany, that most often made what turned out to be gross miscalculations - such as Hitler's decision to invade Russia before defeating Great Britain - and they did so precisely because they excluded public opinion as a political force. Public opinion for Orwell was crucial for restraining government, for restraining those who held the reins of power in modern states of great power and who, as the elite or the intelligentsia always do, overestimated their ability to control things, to undertake great projects and control the outcome of these projects. For Orwell, "ordinary people" are far more sensible than elites, especially elites endowed with great powers, because they are, in the lives they live everyday, reminded of the limits of human action. It is, Orwell contends, the intelligentsia or the elite who lose sight of the truth that human beings are far less powerful than those with power wish to believe. And they make one very simple mistake, viz., that they project into the future whatever seems to be or is prevalent in the present. If Germany was riding high in Europe and about to defeat Great Britain, then they would be able to defeat the Soviet Union as well. Or so the intelligentsia thought, both in Germany and in Great Britain - with some exceptions of course.

It is then unnecessary and even undesirable for the OWSers or the Tea Partiers to fall into the trap of "elaborating on their preferred policies" because this is exactly what the intelligentsia does, thinking that because they have elaborate policies that they have the power to control events. It is not only possible but even desirable for people to simply object, to shout "NO! NO MORE!" over and over again. "No more war!" "No more cuts in needed social programs!" "No more 'Races To the Top' or 'No Children Left Behind!'" "No more war on terror, on drugs, on crime, on poverty!" It is time for a different kind of politics, a politics that is kept aware of the limits of human actions, of human control. And the way to do this is exactly as Orwell argued: Make public opinion the center piece of our politics. You may not always like the results but we won't be led in yet another quest for a "new world order" that will deplete us fiscally, politically, and spiritually.


  1. I really enjoyed your article! However, your sentiment seems to contradict itself. On one hand, you believe in the power of the public opinion, but on the other hand, you don't think the public should have to clearly articulate what the actual opinion is. What good does it do to whine about ambiguous gripes? Why not petition the government (I know, I know) with a list of tangible gripes and clear solutions? History suggests that marching and fussing and falling out doesn't do much good without clear, realistic demands.

    I still enjoyed the article, though :-D

  2. Well, if you consider public protests "whining" then we are on a different page, even though I would argue that "whining" is quite often effective, as any parent knows! But you haven't quite connected here insofar as I was criticizing the idea that protestors need to "clearly articulate" what they want. You are trying, once again, to impose a public policy paradigm on protest, which of course is exactly what protests are not! In the 60s it was "Get the fuck out of Vietnam!" Or "Fuck the Draft!" Now it is "Stop Kowtowing to Corporations!" "Stop Nafta!" "Stop Sending Jobs Overseas!" "Get the Fuck Out of Afghanistan!" [The use of "fuck" here is deliberate, to illustrate the distance between protests and policy making.] All of that is clear enough because it flies in the face of current policies. The details are really unimportant. "Stop doing what you are doing. Do something else. Stop screwing us over." Nothing more is needed at this point.