The Politics of Manipulation
April 9, 2014
Of late, I have been reading a book entitled The New Radicalism in America: 1889-1963 by Christopher Lasch. Now, Lasch usually has interesting things to say and this book is no exception. Those Lasch is concerned with are the likes of Jane Addams, John Dewey, Randolph Bourne and Colonel House. I have not finished the book yet so I have not made it to 1963 but what I have read so far is most interesting.
One result of reading Lasch is help in understanding why it is fair to say that there are no deep divisions in the American political landscape, an argument that I have made here more than once. And basically it seems to come down to the fact that both sects, that is, both Republicans and Democrats, both our “liberals” and our “conservatives” pursue or practice a politics of manipulation. Let me illustrate this with Lasch’s argument about the “new radicals” like Addams and Dewey and their common understanding of education.
As Lasch noticed, the new radicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did notice and sympathize with the “waywardness” of youth and they did so because they argued that this “waywardness” was a reflection of what might be called the stilted character of modern life. But, even so, Addams and Dewey still thought of education as “socialization” and, therefore, sought to manipulate “the spirit of youth. . . into socially acceptable channels.” [p. 155] As Lasch sums this up with regard to Jane Addams: “The trouble was that Jane Addams was asking, in effect, that young people be adjusted to a social order which by her own admission was cynically indifferent to their welfare. She confronted a moral problem with a manipulative solution. Having laid bare the brutalizing effects of industrial labor . . . she proceeded to look for ways of reconciling people to their work. Industrial society, according to Jane Addams, was a terrific engine of repression; yet her own efforts seemed to make its parts run more smoothly.” [p. 157, emphasis added]
One reason for this was because the new radicals saw conflict as the issue, not injustice or exploitation: “For the new radicals, conflict itself, rather than injustice or inequality, was the evil to be eradicated.” [p. 162] And again: “Exploitation presented itself as a matter not of injustice but of waste. It was a problem of management rather than of morals.”
Now it is possible, even plausible to argue that today, as in the time Lasch is concerned with, both of our most dominant political sects, the liberals and the conservatives, still agree with this, even while endorsing different “management styles” – either governmental or business-like – as providing solutions to our “problems.” That is, no moral reform is needed, meaning no change in the moral basis of our society is needed. It is only a matter of finding the right “management style,” or, to speak more straightforwardly, the right kind of manipulation, to solve our problems.
And, for similar reasons, it is almost impossible to resist calls to “work within the system,” as the only reasonable way to address our problems. Because we have been taught, and not directly taught but taught nonetheless, that politics is all about manipulation, which always takes some form of “socialization,” we have no way of opposing the call to “work within the system,” which is to say that “the system” is essentially fine and only needs some “fine tuning.” The moral basis of our society is, by this viewpoint, not defective and, hence, no such reforms are needed.
Another implication of this line of argument is that the solutions to our problems only require that we replace one set of elites with the other set, while restocking both, as it were, by means of an education that focuses on those young who hold the most promise as peaceful producers of profitability. This is what education as socialization in the United States seeks to achieve, a restocking of the political class with an elite that reflects as in a mirror the current elites, the current managers, who are also those who are most adept at being peaceful producers of profitability. It is, after all, peace, production, and profits that we Americans are taught are the highest virtues, is it not?
And so regarding what is called education reform, the two sects produce policies that are very much alike. One sect, not known for its compassion, called its reform “No Child Left Behind,” by which was implied that all would become peaceful producers of profitability, at least at some level of competence. The other sect labeled its agenda “Race to the Top,” by which was meant restocking the current elite with those young who proved themselves most adept at achieving prosperity by peacefully producing more or better than others. It is all to easy to see that, so understood, there is not a great deal difference between these two agendas and none at all in terms of their ultimate goals.