Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat
Professor Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man has been much admired; it gave us a jolt and made us think about the life of politics in a new way. Authority is a study of “the emotional bonds of modern society,” and it approaches this study through analyses of these emotional bonds in a variety of “cases.” These include the case of Helen Bowen, who has a black lover to spite her father, but in this reveals her dependence on him; the case of two employees of a modern corporation engaged in negotiation about the professional status and future of the junior of the two; and several cases arising out of the relations between accountants within a firm. There are also short accounts of the relations between the railway industrialist George Pullman and his workers in the model town he established and of attempts to establish model communities on similar principles in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts. Anthropological and historical information is used to illuminate the problems under discussion.
There are some attempts to link the discussion of private relations with questions of political authority. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is Sennett’s discussion of Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” in the Phenomenology; it is used as an account of the stages through which we may pass on our way to a critical, mature acceptance of authority. We end with Dostoevsky’s parable-story of the Grand Inquisitor, as posing the question whether we are to accept or reject “the logic of repression”; and Sennett tells us this is where he began.
It was in thinking about the ambiguity of this parable that I began to wonder how the rhythms of authority in intimate life might serve as a response to the illusions of authority and their negation in public life. Authority as a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation makes sense in intimate affairs; it does not in public. There are structural reasons for this; the rhythm of growth and decay in a life is not the rhythm of growth and decay of society. There is an unbridgeable gap—or, to put it positively, each of us can reimagine authority privately as we cannot in public. We have a principle by which to criticize society based not on abstract deduction about justice and right but on our intimate knowledge of time.
This is the clearest and most vigorous passage I can find that seems to express what Sennett wants to tell us. Even in its context, and with the rest of the book’s argument behind it, I find it difficult. I don’t understand how authority can be a process of interpretation—of course, we can go on interpreting our experiences in different ways so that in the end we come to think differently about this or that authority, though this would not be the same thing as thinking differently about authority. Again, I don’t understand the force of the “in public” of the penultimate sentence. It seems to correspond to “privately” which precedes it in the sentence, but I am not clear why we cannot say out loud, as distinct from saying it silently to ourselves, what our new imagination is. I suppose Sennett is suggesting there is some asymmetry between what is private and interpersonal and what belongs to the public life of law and politics. But what this may be isn’t brought out.
I think the book begins badly and leaves us in a confusion from which we don’t emerge. Sennett knows that giving an account of such concepts as emotion and authority is traditionally a philosophical task, and he begins by citing venerable names. Unfortunately, what he has to tell us about Aristotle and Descartes on the emotions doesn’t just stray from the received view: it is wrong. “Change occurs in what we feel, Aristotle wrote, because jealousy, anger, and compassion are the results of sensations reflected upon.” No reference is given to justify this account. (There are no references in Authority. There are many quotations, some of them substantial, from ancient and modern writers; and there is no bibligraphy, so one doesn’t know what editions are being used, where this would be important to know.) Most of Aristotle’s works contain materials on the emotions, but I can find nothing in the Poetics, or the Politics, or the Rhetoric, or the De Anima, or the Nicomachean Ethics, that would justify the account given. Something stranger follows.
Many of Aristotle’s contemporaries thought emotions were visited on men by the gods; this view reappeared in the Middle Ages, so that lust was the voice of the Devil speaking, compassion an echo of God’s love for man, and so on. Descartes wrote a treatise on emotion [I suppose Les Passions de l’Ame is intended, though again there is no reference] which revived Aristotle’s ideas, but most of his scientific contemporaries were replacing medieval superstitions with concepts of emotion as purely physiological states.
This is wild and so variously wrong that it would be absurd to go on at length about it. What Descartes writes about the passions is a long way from anything in Aristotle.* And the notion that Aristotle, on the emotions or anything else, needed to be revived after the Middle Ages had closed is excessively curious. A popular thought, which could be defended, is that Europe needed to be freed from the Master’s authority and that in this venture Descartes had a notable role.
Again, I find it hard to understand what, elsewhere, Sennett means by “emotion.” Consider the following. “Authority, fraternity, solitude, and ritual are four distinctively social emotions…. As expressions of feeling about other people, all these emotions require historical study: which people are we talking about, when, and under what circumstances?” But none of these is the name of an emotion, except, sometimes, fraternity. To reverence or to despise authority in general or an authority in particular is not to reverence or despise an emotion. Solitude is a condition that may be feared or welcomed. Rituals may be practiced perfunctorily, or with devotion, or in such a way as to be suspected only by the onlooker of being rituals. Further, authority and the rest can’t be expressions of feeling about other people. Ritual could be used to express feeling but wouldn’t thereby be an expression of it, for the same ritual could be performed without a desire to express a feeling. In solitude we may long for the company of others or be pleased by its absence. When Sennett talks about emotions as he does here I simply don’t know what is going on.
“Authority” is one of a network of related concepts, all of which stand in implicative relations to one another. (Compare, in politics, sovereignty, command, rule, law. One could teach the meaning of any one of these to a student who understood the other three. To teach someone all of them would be like initiating him into a new game.) One dictionary definition of authority is “power and/or right to enforce and/or command obedience.”
Here all the difficulties come upon us. Does one who has the power to enforce obedience necessarily have the right to do so (the Germans in occupied Europe 1940-1945, or the USSR in the Baltic states)? What of legitimacy? Bishop Butler said of conscience that if it had power, as it has authority, it would rule the world. This seems intelligible and if it is, it follows that an ineffective authority may all the same be a genuine or legitimate authority. That N has power over me doesn’t as such imply that I owe him obedience; someone may have a right to the obedience of another where there is no question of the exercise of power, as, for example, an unarmed man physically feebler than others, who nevertheless has the skill and foresight needed in desperate situations (perhaps Piggy in Lord of the Flies is a sketch of such a one) and may exercise authority on such grounds. And what of the distinction between the authority of a given man and the authority of his office? In a lucid moment Lear remarks that a farmer’s dog chasing a beggar and the beggar running before it is “the great image of authority: a dog’s obey’d in office.”
Many kinds of authority are conditioned by higher authorities. Authority may spring from consent, as in the authority husbands and wives have over each other; it may spring from a natural relationship, as in the authority parents have over their children. In some cases the question of legitimacy forces itself upon us, as when in the United States the actions of public authorities are brought before the Supreme Court; and parents are commonly thought to exceed their natural authority in torturing or killing their children.
The discussion of the concept of authority could go on at book length. I do not complain that Sennett hasn’t gone into it on this scale; but it is a matter for complaint that he doesn’t seem to want to get clear about the concept. There are a few references to the problem of legitimacy, but they don’t meet the problem squarely, and once again it is hard to know just what Sennett is saying. He argues that we are accustomed to rejecting particular authorities, especially in modern society, because we feel they lack “integrity.” He adds: “Another person is not legitimate to make demands upon us; if we can come to believe that, then we have a weapon against his making us feel weak or ashamed.” This is, as well as obscure, a strange use of the language.
Sennett’s account of modern history is sometimes ill-informed. He begins his second chapter as follows:
The era of high capitalism destroyed in order to build. The growth rate of cities in the 19th Century, for example, was unprecedented, as was their sheer size. For this growth to occur, the countryside was drained of its population; villages were deserted, the land not tilled.
Once again there are no references, so we don’t know where these deserted villages and untilled fields were to be found. In England, the example par excellence of high capitalism, agriculture was still in 1870 the largest industry, and the population in the rural areas was plentiful—too plentiful, many economists believed. Agriculture was far more productive than it had been in the previous century. In Europe the persistence of peasant agriculture continued to astonish both liberal economists and Marxists. The vast population increase of the period made it possible for cities to grow, North America to gain a new population, without depopulating the countryside.
I conclude that Authority is an album or notebook in which Sennett has put down, often without much reflection, materials toward a study of the emotional bonds between parents and children, employers and workers, superiors and inferiors in industrial hierarchies, citizens and public authorities. These are rich topics, and important ones, for, as Sennett sees, we are becoming, as it were, Wycliffites in our attitude to public authorities of every kind. Just as the followers of Wycliffe thought moral fault in ecclesiastical authorities dissolved their legitimate powers, so we are inclined to think moral weakness and error—sometimes even understandable mistakes—take away the authority of a given man or group of men. The only indubitable authorities are the pure and the successful.
This seems a confusion. The president of a bank who turns out to be a thief certainly loses his authority. The state itself may lose its authority in respect of this or that legal requirement. A state which enacts something like the Nuremberg Laws, or the Immorality Act in South Africa, may be thought to lose its authority in respect of the conduct required or forbidden by the laws in question. But it doesn’t follow from this that in other fields it has no authority. To refuse to serve the state in a given war which is deemed to be unjust doesn’t entail that such refusal is warranted in some other war that doesn’t seem to be unjust. The quirks and feelings that accompany the social bonds in which we find ourselves are certainly worth examining and Professor Sennett is equipped to do this work. But Authority is a great disappointment.
It is good to have some of Professor Walzer’s essays and reviews of the past fifteen years in one book. There are some masterly essays and taken together they constitute an impressive picture of a sharp, well-balanced mind. Walzer is a man of the moderate left, a democrat first, then a socialist, ironical about what is modish in the salons of the left, cautious about radical solutions to complex problems. If I may use European categories to say summarily how he strikes me, I will say he is a Manchester Guardian man (I mean that newspaper from the days of C.P. Scott to those of A.P. Wadsworth in the Fifties, not its successor); but I must add that he is thoroughly an American who finds the good society best outlined in Whitman’s “Song of the Broad-Axe.” I’m not sure that everything here reprinted quite deserves such prestige. “Watergate without the President” is a bit thin, and “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen” contains a good idea but needs to be worked up a bit. In “A Theory of Revolution” he seems to me to be too hospitable to the mythologies, disguised as analyses, of the Bolshevik leaders, especially Trotsky, and although he says some good critical things about Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?, I think he misses the fundamentally Blanquist character of Bolshevism. The Mensheviks, to whom history has been so unforgiving, were acute students of Russian society and of Bolshevism in the years of its growth, and they never had any doubt about Lenin’s Blanquism. I hope Walzer will give us a good book on revolution.
Walzer’s difficulties as a social democrat in the United States come out most clearly in two essays: “Dissatisfaction in the Welfare State” and “The New Left and the Old.” It is easier, in the United States, to see that the welfare state is the work of liberalism rather than socialism, for social democrats, as a group, have never become a national political force. This doesn’t mean that they have had no political influence but such influence has been exercised within the major parties, or at times locally, as once in Wisconsin. In Europe the presence within parliament, and sometimes in government, of socialist parties makes it look as though the development of the concepts and practices that characterize the welfare state is the work of the socialist parties. Of course, it is so in large part, though it has to be noted that in Britain and Germany the basic structure of welfare was formed well before the social democratic parties became influential. But in developing the structure of welfare the social democrats have been acting, so Walzer believes, from liberal presuppositions that emphasize personal rights.
The intention of welfare is to enable citizens to live their private lives in comfort and without anxiety. But this, together with the growth of a bureaucracy to administer the social services, has a depoliticizing effect. The citizen is better adjusted to his private life; and what was formerly a matter of politics, in the struggle to achieve this or that reform or benefit, is swallowed up in administration. In such circumstances “the problems of political communion, the sharing of a common life, are carefully avoided.” Further, the growth of a vast bureaucracy, a growth that to some extent goes on independently of the needs the bureaucracy exists to meet, strengthens the power of the state; and it reduces politics to a spectacle for passive onlookers, as in the conventions that precede a presidential election and in the election itself. Occasionally particular groups with an autonomous political life—blacks, students, enraged groups of the lower middle class—will capture a suburb, or, for a few heady moments (the Eugene McCarthy candidacy is a striking recent example) will seem to threaten the metropolis itself; but such attempts are soon digested by the established order.
Many people, old-fashioned liberals disguised as new conservatives as well as such socialists as Walzer, find all this frustrating. Walzer feels compelled to ask himself questions about the socialist tradition. What he finds may sometimes surprise us. “Against the private individual of liberal theory, socialists have defended the free citizen.” This suggests Proudhon rather than Marx, or Marx separated from Engels and carefully picked over for his more attractive notions, and that part of the tradition of European socialism which dreams of the setting up, within or outside the larger state, of smaller fraternal communities. This latter tendency shows itself in Walzer’s concern that useful institutions should be “built on a human scale, accessible to our mind and feelings, responsive to our decisions”; and he adds that this “is not a debate in which liberal utilitarians take much interest.”
“The New Left and the Old,” first published twelve years ago, is in part an elegy for the New Left. Walzer recognizes the generosity and passion of the young men and women who identified themselves with the civil rights movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam; he sees the narodnik aspect of the radical movement as having in the end issued in disaster.
What has often (not always) happened…is that middle-class radicals at work in the slums and ghettos have lost confidence…in the value of their critical faculties and self-discipline, and have become the passive advocates of the going form of slum and ghetto militancy (as of the going form of Third World militancy), whatever its precise content. This is perhaps especially the case with Black Power, which seems so entirely at odds with any authentic New Left ideology, but which few New Leftists would today repudiate…. Among experienced New Leftists, community organizing is said to have a “radicalizing” effect; perhaps it does; it also has an alienating effect, turning middle-class radicals into vicarious guerrillas and Leninist ideologues—neither of these being much-needed sorts of people in America today.
What he writes here fits even more snugly than it did then one kind of left-wing attitude. We may no longer act out fantasies of revolution and guerrilla warfare on university campuses, but variations of a third-world ideology sustained by the Arab states, the Soviet Union, and Cuba are present everywhere.
Plainly much remains to be reconsidered on the left. Walzer has made a beginning, both in the essays I have noted and in others—I would commend especially “Notes for Whoever’s Left” and “Town Meetings and Workers’ Control.”
Sennett and Walzer belong to different universes of discourse. Walzer uses for the most part the received categories of the historian and the political scientist. His view of social morality comes, as in his remarkable Just and Unjust Wars, from the natural law tradition. He doesn’t miss the links between private passion and public policy; in his essay “Civility and Civic Virtue in Contemporary America” he has shrewd things to say about the conflicting feelings a citizen may have in the United States, as in any other democratic society that is also a Rechtsstaat. “Patriotism, civility, toleration, and political activism pull him in different directions”; and he concludes that “we are…more civil and less civically virtuous than Americans once were.” He goes on:
Liberalism, even at its most permissive, is a hard politics because it offers so few emotional rewards; the liberal state is not a home for its citizens; it lacks warmth and intimacy. And so contemporary dissatisfaction takes the form of a yearning for political community, passionate affirmation, explicit patriotism. These are dangerous desires…. They leave us open to a politics I would find unattractive and even frightening: a willful effort to build social cohesion and political enthusiasm from above, through the use of state power. Imagine a charismatic leader, talking about American values and goals, making war on pornography and sexual deviance (and then on political and social deviance), establishing loyalty oaths and new celebrations, rallying the people for some real or imagined crisis.
Walzer doesn’t quite see his way through these difficulties—who does?—but to state them clearly and persuasively takes us some distance.
Even though Sennett comes to the problem from the other side, stressing the ambiguity of the bonds of feeling outside the relations of public politics, I do not get from his book any sense of what it would be wise to do in the field of public policy. Most of what he has to say is enigmatic. At the end of the chapter entitled. “The Unhappy Consciousness” in which he uses as a model of analysis a section of Hegel’s Phenomenology he tells us:
I want to connect the journey of unhappy consciousness to the structure of large-scale institutions. The connection depends on the quality and form of disrupting authority we are able to effect in public life. The bridging of the two worlds is not a matter of superimposing intimate values onto the hard world of power. We can know more about the complexity and morality of authority in private than our institutions allow us to know in public. Why should we be the prisoners of simplicities in public affairs? Only the interests of our masters are served if we do not seek to make the complexities of our consciousness standards for collective experience.
In the next chapter Sennett argues that existing social and political authorities have an interest in encouraging simple and therefore false accounts of the social bond. A knowledge of complexity can only be won, in the end, by the servants as distinct from the masters.
To be conscious of the link between strength and time is to know that no authority is omnipotent…. The hard truth Hegel has to teach about such knowledge of fallibility in the public world is who will gain it and how. The servant must gain it, and the servant must gain it alone. The master is blinded by his own power…. The servant must clarify in his mind, then, how another person’s strength is limited. The reward of his labors will be that he will lose the fear of authority as omnipotent, and so can begin to set himself free.
Sennet nows that there is a difficulty in bringing such knowledge of complexity into connection with public life. He suggests that we should make certain demands upon existing authorities: that they be “visible” and “legible.” Such demands are said to disrupt the chain of command without producing chaos and to take away from “figures of authority in the chain of command” “the quality of omnipotence.” (I take it that the quality of omnipotence is the product of an illusory perception: I think omnipotence, much used by Sennett, is misleading; what he has in mind seems to me rather the notion of power without assignable limit; omnipotence is power without limits, and is a concept well discussed by the theologians.)
In the end we have to recognize that domination is a necessary disease for which there is no final cure. But we have to fight against it. “It is possible to prevent the alchemy of absolute power into images of strength which are clear, simple, and unshakeable.” As it stands this sentence lacks sense, but I suppose it means that we need not in imagination transform the power of the state into simple and compelling fantasies. There are certainly a lot of simple and, I suppose, compelling fantasies about. Fortunately, they are not the same ones and usefully clog the chain of communication. A paranoid revolutionary Marxism and a paranoid right-wing conspiracy theory neatly block each other, leaving most of us to think and do other things. When paranoid theories come together, as in the fashionable blend of Marxism, terrorism, and anti-Zionism, I think it is prudent to take these unserious hypotheses seriously. Those of us concerned with such questions will, in my view, learn more from Walzer than from Sennett. It is a pleasure to add that whenever Walzer quotes from a source he gives a reference.
On this see Anthony Kenny’s Action, Emotion, and Will (Humanities Press, 1963), especially the first two chapters, and the articles by Kahn, Sorabji, and Fortenbaugh in Articles on Aristotle, vol. 4, edited by Barnes, Schofield, and Sorabji(St. Martin’s Press, 1979). ↩