Utopia or Bust

People or Personnel

by Paul Goodman
Random House, 247 pp., $4.95

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman; drawing by David Levine

Paul Goodman has written an important book, about which I have thought harder than any other book I can remember reading for a long while. I think it likely that his book will strike a live nerve, not only on the campuses where Mr. Goodman is already a considerable culture hero, but in Washington, and along Foundation Boulevard. I would be happy if it did, for the book offers suggestions for social improvement that are worth following up, and it forces its readers to reconsider ideas that no longer seemed worth the bother of fresh examination. At the same time that I offer these warm commendations, however, I must add that I also find a grave weakness in the book—a weakness that will in the end, I believe, severely limit its applicability and the degree of esteem it will permanently merit.

Mr. Goodman would be the first to admit that the central theme of his book is not new. It is a cri de coeur, in the grand tradition of humanistic dissent, against the stupefying bigness, the sapping but self-sustaining routine, the quantitative victories bought at the price of qualitative defects, typical of contemporary society. At the same time, it is also a plea, in the same venerable tradition, for a society refashioned so as to leave more space, more choice, more chance for engagement for individual man. The operative principle—at once the problem and the lever for change—is the technical organization of society. In Mr. Goodman’s opening words:

Throughout society, the centralizing style of organization has been pushed so far as to become ineffectual, economically wasteful, humanly stultifying, and ruinous to democracy…The only remedy is a strong admixture of decentralism. The problem is where, how much, and how to go about it.

I can feel the reader stiffen: everyone knows that decentralization is “impossible” in the face of modern technology, etc., etc. A strength of Mr. Goodman’s book is that he also knows this, and is not hesitant to urge more centralism in some areas than we have now—for instance in the standardized production of the basic necessities of life. (Of the problems this poses, more later.) But the point is that Mr. Goodman is not a doctrinaire organizational Leveller nor an arts-and-crafts enthusiast with a Mission. He is aware that contemporary society requires central direction and coordination in many of its activities. The case he wishes to make is that its centralism need not be, as is now so often the case, a mere yielding before routine, and that decentralized forms of organization may find application in many areas of society now needlessly consigned to bureaucracy.

I do not propose to pass on the practicability of all his suggestions, but only to pass some of them along to give a flavor of his inventiveness. The schools are a particular target of Mr. Goodman’s decentralizing animus. He wants them…

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