• Email
  • Print

The Great Society


A reasonable function of government is to see to it that the conditions of life are tolerable. In modern societies this might involve considerable government intervention, to prevent or remedy social and physical evils, like urban poverty, exploitation of labor, traffic congestion, air pollution. But such a safeguarding function is entirely different from government trying to make life excellent, to make society moral, civilized, or magnificent. Intellectual or moral excellence is not a likely province for rulers of any breed, and certainly not for American politicians who have risen to power by speaking banalities, making deals, and pandering, and who stay in power by avoiding the risks of sharp definition, imagination, scrupulous integrity, or even too much wit. Political arts have their use, but they are not the way to spiritual excellence.

Yet the last three administrations have kept dabbling in this direction. President Eisenhower, who was hardly literate, ordered a commission to map our National Goals, and under him government agencies began to improve the school curricula and speed up intervention in scientific research. John Kennedy, who was stylish and had academic connections, called us to service and he wanted us to be respected for our civilization as well as our military and economic power. He was a champion of art centers, neo-glassic architecture, and concerts at the White House; above all, he speeded up the harnessing of academic social sciences to government policy. And now Lyndon Johnson, who is culturally noted for monograms and driving fast, is going to inaugurate for us The Great Society.

I do not think this was only a campaign slogan. Even if it were, we must note the change in slogans. “Fair Deal” and “New Deal” used to refer to political economy and were a legitimate bid for votes; “New Frontier” and “Great Society” are more spiritual. (Barry Goldwater, correspondingly, threatened to restore us to Moral Order.) In any case, the President has carried his slogan over into 1965, and when his oblique eyes become dreamy and his voice avuncular on the theme of our future greatness, I am insulted by his pretension.

Do not misunderstand me. When the President speaks of trying to dissolve hard core poverty, assuring equal rights, opening to every child the opportunity for an education, or coping with the blight of cities, I assent. (It is said that this populist strain in LBJ is authentic, and I hope so.) But that is not the program of a great society but of any decent society. It should be urged modestly and executed resolutely. There is no cause for fanfare in doing justice where we have been unjust, conserving where we have been vandals, and spending for neglected public goods what a small country like Denmark or Holland provides as a matter of course.

But the fact is that every element of The Great Society, including its war on poverty and its conservation, is contaminated by, compromised by, and finally determined by power lust, greed, and fear of change. No good thing is done for its won sake. Let me give half a dozen examples—I could give a hundred. The drive to schooling, even in its propaganda, is not to liberate the children and to insure that we will have independent and intelligent citizens (this was the educational aim of Jefferson); it is apprentice-training of the middle class for the corporations and military, and a desperate attempt to make slum children employable and ruly. Beautification and area development are treated as adjuncts of the automobile business. We will curb the billboards but multiply and landscape the highways that destroy country and city both. Eighty per cent of the billion for Appalachia is going for highways. Yet almost acute emergencies, like air and water pollution and the insecticides, are bogged in “research” because of hostile lobbies and because there is no money to be made of them. The cities are overcrowded, yet farm policy persistently favors foodchains and big plantations and drives small farmers out, so beautiful, vast areas are depopulating and returning to swamp. In the cities, housing, renewal, and community development are tied to real-estate bonanzas, the alliance of national and municipal political machines, and even the aggrandizement of the Welfare bureaucracy. In the crucial test case of Mobilization for Youth in New York, the move toward grassroots democracy was swiftly crushed and brought under professional control, staffed by City Hall, Washington consenting. (As Edgar and Jean Cahn have pointed out, in the War on Poverty, as in all wars, the invading army insures its own welfare before that of the occupied population.) In communications, there has ceased to be any attempt to decentralize television and get some variety, if not foliage, into the wasteland. Indeed, by temperament President Johnson hankers for consensus and managed news; he says he welcomes responsible criticism, but it’s an angry welcome; and the projection of his personality and ikons is beginning to resemble the style of Russia or Cuba. In forwarding the fine arts, the government neglects the traditional, useful, and safe method of underwriting standard repertory and editions of the American classics, but it toys with the obnoxious official art of Arts Councils, glamorous culture centers, and suppers for the famous. Meantime, free lances are bulldozed from their lofts and it is harder for creative people to be decently poor in their own way. The Department of Justice keeps whittling away at civil liberties, and the emasculation of Congress proceeds. The arms budget continues to increase. Now a space-ship will explicitly become a new grotesque weapon, and we explicitly use the adventure of exploration for propaganda. And it is hard to believe the President’s moral commitment to civil rights at home when he dispatches marines and bombers to subjugate foreign peoples whose civil rights threaten what he sometimes calls the Free World and sometimes our National Interests.

Perhaps most alarming is the bland affirmation of clashing contradictories, as if people were already imbeciles. When we bomb hospitals and burn villages, the President is bound to make an unusually tender announcement about cerebral palsy (and the Marines give out candy). When we allot 1.7 billions for a new space weapon, our astronauts are at once sent on a world tour for peace.

The theory of The Great Society is obvious enough. Lyndon Johnson came in during an unparalleled prosperity, with a consensus of businessmen and liberals and, seemingly, money for everything, including tax cuts to encourage investment. He made a fairly graceful capitulation for the Negro protest. Thus, The Great Society could re-invest unprecedented profits in new fields, including the public sector; could provide unskilled and semi-skilled jobs; and could consolidate the votes of the urban poor. But if we examine this happy formula, we find that money, power, and fear of change are the determinants. We do not find the magnanimity, disinterestedness, and imagination of a great society. Worse, it is less and less an American society. Instead of tackling the political puzzle of how to maintain democracy in a complex technology and among urban masses, it multiplies professional-client and patron-client relationships. Worst of all, if we watch, during ten minutes of television, the horrors of the world, the piggish commercials, and the nightly performance of the President, we do not see even a decent society. As the Connecticut Circuit Court recently put it succinctly, in clearing some tabloids of charges of obscenity: “Coarse and puerile these tabloids are, but so is much of our civilization. We doubt that they will pollute the social atmosphere.”


Nevertheless, the concept of a national mission cooked up by the past three administrations is not merely a fraud. It is an ideology made necessary by contemporary history. In the first place, there has developed a dangerous vacuum of political-moral values, dangerous especially for the young. To give an important example: there must be some human use of cur galloping high technology better than the infinite expansion of a hardware Gross National Product; affluence is no longer enough. One purpose of the big slogans has been to meet this moral demand and yet contain it, as we have seen, in the control of the same leaders and corporations. So far, the official moralists have not hit on anything believable, but that may come.

Secondly, however—and this, I think, is the essence—there must be some general ideology, whatever it is, to give a warrant to an amazing new grouping that has emerged in our society, the American Establishment. For this purpose, The Great Society might prove good enough, and it is virulent.

An Establishment is the clubbing together of the secular and moral leaders of society—in industry, the military, labor unions, the cities, sciences and arts, the universities, the church, and state—to determine not only the economy and policy but the standards and ideals of the nation. The role of an Establishment is to tell what is right, accredited, professional, British (German, Russian, etc.), and to rule out what is not (not Kultur, not Leninist, etc.). An important part of an Establishment is a large stable of mandarins to raise the tone, use correct scientific method, and invent rationalizations. Also, the literate mandarins write the speeches.

There is no doubt that such an interlocking accrediting club has attained enormous power in the United States. Its genius is to go round and round and be self-enclosed. The job in the want ads says “M.S. required,” for industry respects the university; but meantime the university is getting contracted research from industry and the government. Cities or settlement-houses will get funds from Washington if they employ accredited staff. (I am laying stress an school credentials because education is probably the biggest business in the country; there has been no such class of monks since Henry the Eighth.) Retired generals become vice-presidents in charge of contracting; they know whom to talk to and how. A broadcaster seeks his license from the F.C.C., but the administration has a healthy respect for the power of the broadcaster—hardly one license has been rescinded. Meantime, by F.C.C. mandate, a commercial sponsor cannot censor the program he sponsors, but he does have the right to expect that it will not tarnish or jar the image of his firm. Tax-exempt foundations support what is art or research, as recommended by those who are accredited, and they will underwrite a pilot project if it is carried out by a proper institution. But woe to a project that has nothing to recommend it but that it is a good idea, and whose inventor carries his office under his hat. In principle such a project cannot exist, and soon it does not exist.

Now our country has had neither a traditional aristocracy nor a totalitarian dogma, so it is not easy for the American Establishment to find moral justification for so much omniscience and exclusive power. It has really thrived on quiet expansion and being taken for granted, like creeping socialism. It is not surprising that its ideology should be mere campaign slogans, future and hortatory. half public relations and half corny dreams.

But however hazy its justification, the personnel of the Establishment has specific properties: it must be rooted in the baronial institutions and it must be conspicuously idealistic. It was with uncanny precision—in fact, the candidates are pre-selected for him from 25,000 vitae by computer—that Johnson chose John Gardner as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Gardner was the head of the Carnegie corporation, and he is the author of a book called Excellence.

Thus, the process of spelling out and implementing the vague national mission is as follows: from the Establishment the President chooses task forces. The task forces think up programs and these are given for execution to those accredited by the Establishment, It is not astonishing, then, if a major function, if not purpose, of The Great Society is to aggrandize the Establishment, the education barons, the broadcasting barons, the automobile barons, the shopping center barons. In a youth employment project, more than three-quarters of the appropriation will go for (accredited) staff salaries and research; not much is left for wages for the kids. Of course, sometimes there is an hilarious exception, as when some SNCC youngsters I know got $90 a day as consultants at a conference on poverty in Washington.

So a practical definition of The Great Society is: to provide professional employment and other business for card-carrying members of the Establishment. This is not a fraud.

Of course, The Great Society is strictly for domestic consumption. Abroad, our friends are drifting away because we have lost our reputation; persuasion gives way to brute force. Thus, by a grim devolution, The Great Society turns out to be a liberal version of the old isolationism of Fortress America.


In conclusion, let me return to a thought mentioned above, the need to fill the moral vacuum. The technical, urban, and international premises of modern life have changed so rapidly and markedly that the old elites, who cling to their power, inevitably seem morally bankrupt, especially to the young. I have no doubt that this is the case everywhere—it has been persistently reported from the Soviet Union during the last ten years—but since ours is the most advanced country, we reveal the moral bankruptcy worst.

By the middle of the administration of Eisenhower, it was impossible for a public spokesman to say “the American Way of Life” with a straight face. And there occurred the flood of social criticism, often devastating, which left us morally dank indeed. It was in this context that the President’s commission on National Goals made its report. But it was a feeble effort that influenced nobody, certainly not the young. The beat generation withdrew. And there began the spiritual defection of college youth from the corporations that has increased steadily. (In 1956, according to a survey by David Riesman, the great majority of collegians wanted to work for a big organization. Just now, at Harvard, more students want to go into the tiny Peace Corps than into business!)

John Kennedy hit on the Posture of Sacrifice, which was what young people wanted to hear, something to give meaning to the affluent society. But apart from the token of the Peace Corps—filled largely, as it turned out, by youth of the upper middle class—he could not produce anything to sacrifice for, not with so many credit cards around. Indeed, when they asked what they could do for their country, many of the best youth found that they wanted to serve precisely against the government, sometimes illegally, in the Negro movement and protesting against fall-out. And the majority of the returning Peace Corps itself have proved to be critical of the society they have come back to.

The Great Society, as we have seen, started with more moral ammunition: an electoral campaign against Black Reaction, a bill for Civil Rights, a war against poverty. Yet once again many of the best youth have remained unconverted. During the nominating convention, the militants of the Freedom Democratic Party rejected the Humphrey compromise. Shortly after the electoral triumph of The Great Society, the students at Berkeley raged in their thousands. This year, there have been student troubles on a hundred campuses, East, Middle West, and even South. The Students for a Democratic Society have thrown themselves into undermining precisely the War on Poverty, which they consider undemocratic and insincere. And both many students and many teachers seem to want to undermine even the war for the Free World in Vietnam. Some writers refused to go to the President’s party.

In brief, as a moral incentive for youth, The Great Society, like its predecessors, is unpersuasive. It does not square with the obvious facts; it is too corrupt. Fatally, it avoids the deep problems that demand real changes. The political-moral problems that deeply interest youth are of the following kind: How to use high technology for human advantage? How to regain substantive democracy in modern cities and with mass-communications? How to get rid of the Bomb and the whole atmosphere of the Cold War? How to be educated without being processed? How to work at something worthwhile outside the rat-race of an infinitely expanding GNP? How to avoid 1984?

The Establishment in America and its President do not cope with these questions because they are morally bankrupt.

  • Email
  • Print