John Dewey

Media reporting about OccupyWallStreet is bound up in its traditional mindset. The important things are clothes, demands, impact on the political horserace, police actions, and spectacle. Media pundits agree, trying to figure out what is happening here, using the usual categories, hippies, protesters, dirty, ignorant of reality on one side, and on the other side more positive terms, they speak for all of us, they raise important concerns that aren’t being addressed, they are the equivalent of the Tea Party on the left.

OWS can’t be understood in traditional terms. So far, at least, it has shown no collective interest in electoral politics, in legislative demands, in calls for regulation or deregulation, in complaints about process or even of not being heard. It looks like a simple statement: government isn’t working to reflect the overwhelming concerns of the Public.

This word, Public, is the center of John Dewey’s book, The Public and Its Problems, a collection of lectures he gave in 1926. Dewey thinks that the Public is the source of the organization of government. He starts with the fact that human actions have consequences. A transaction might just affect the people involved in it. One example is a conversation between two people. They talk and move on, and no one else is affected. That is a private transaction. Many human actions have indirect consequences for others, good or bad. When a group of people become aware of the bad indirect consequences of a transaction between others, and work together to control the behavior and the unpleasant consequences, Dewey sees the formation of a Public.

Here’s an example. You live in a small enclave in a larger Planned Unit Development, connected to the swimming pool by a path. The deeds to the units in your enclave include an easement to the path. A developer buys the lot on which the easement exists. He tears up the path. Now you have to drive your kids to the pool. You and your neighbors are at odds over what to do. Some don’t like the path, some do. A big group of your neighbors who care one way or the other about the path get together. That is the formation of a Public. There is a good deal of discussion, and eventually a solution is reached. That is a Public in action.

Dewey says that as problems become more complex, perhaps because of size of the group, or perhaps because of a new technology that increases negative indirect consequences of certain actions of a few, the group realizes that it needs agents to control negative consequences. That is the beginning of a government, the beginning of the State. As Dewey puts it:

Recognition of evil consequences brought about a common interest which required for its maintenance certain measures and rules, together with the selection of certain persons as their guardians, interpreters, and, if need be, their executors.

It isn’t obvious how to translate my neighborhood example to make it useful for a nation of 310 million people. It is difficult to imagine a way to reason together to a solution of any issue today, and it wasn’t easier in 1926. Dewey identifies several of the problems.

One big problem is that the forms of government and the manipulations of the oligarchy* channel discussion so effectively that people do not see that they constitute an entity. Many people see themselves solely as individuals satisfying their personal needs, with no regard to any shared interests or the interests of the community. Many other people cannot see themselves as a group except as they are part of the government, or a member of a political party.

Dewey tells us that we are not the State. We are not the Government. Saying so is one thing. Acting on that belief is another. Dewey faces this central problem squarely, and admits that it is unlikely that people have the sense of themselves as constituting a Public, a separate entity from the State, from the Government, an entity with its own interests separate from those of the State.

People are aware that things are bad, that the economy sucks, that the government is unresponsive, that fundamental values have been destroyed, but they don’t see that this is the logical outcome of legal and social structures put into place by individual human beings acting together. Those individuals acted to further their own economic or other interests, and with no regard to the consequences of their actions on others. The system is so complex that people cannot untangle the relations and the causes. The government seems permanent and rightfully entitled to exercise authority. Presidents change, legislators change, regulators change, judges change, but the lives of individuals get worse.

How are we to realize that separate aspect of ourselves as part of a Public?

OWS has found a possible answer. They actively call themselves a Public when they say “We are the 99%”. They gather together and talk about problems. They tell their personal stories, and they listen as others tell their stories. People with specialized knowledge come by and talk about their areas of expertise. Simply by being together in public, OWS opens the door to others to discuss their stories and their problems. Instead of hiding behind the private door of isolated individualism, people share the facts of their lives and their feelings about their lives.

This is the creation of a Public. It is the first step to real change.
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* From Chapter 6:

The oligarchy which now dominates is that of an economic class. It claims to rule, not in virtue of birth and hereditary status, but in virtue of ability in management and of the burden of social responsibilities which it carries, in virtue of the position which superior abilities have conferred upon it. At all events, it is a shifting, unstable oligarchy, rapidly changing its constituents, who are more or less at the mercy of accidents they cannot control and of technological inventions.