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Can the Left Rise Again?


Applied to politics, the cult of participation results in an unworkable definition of democracy as the direct involvement of all the people in every political decision, no matter how minute. The chief value of Dahl’s book After the Revolution? lies in its sustained attack on the folklore of primary democracy. It is useful to be reminded, however elementary the point may seem, that “participatory democracy” in the strict sense works, if it works at all, only in very small communities; and that because the complexity of industrial society makes it impossible for such communities to achieve complete autonomy, those who advocate direct democracy as a general program are advocating, in effect, a return to a simpler stage of social and economic organization.

One might add that decentralization, a measure of which is undoubtedly desirable, does not automatically lead to democratic results. Unless it is accompanied by a shift in political power, the decentralization of certain administrative functions may serve merely to reduce friction and to placate dissatisfaction with existing practices. (“The organizing principle of the new model [corporate or academic] institution,” writes Michael Miles, “will be centralized control through decentralized structures.”)

In the manner of one starting from the first principles of political theory, Dahl argues that democracy depends not on the direct participation of every individual but on the ability of the people to organize collectively, to make themselves heard as a body, to choose responsible representatives, to recall them at their pleasure, and in short to determine the main lines of public policy. (Clearly these things depend on the distribution of economic and educational resources.)

It is obvious that all institutions in American life are not equally democratic. “Private” corporations, academic or industrial, are not even formally democratic in their organization, unlike the state. Before arguing that they should be, according to Dahl, one must consult the “principle of competence,” according to which authority should be exercised by those who are best qualified to exercise it and who understand the consequences of their decisions. To insist on democracy in the operating room or on the bridge of an ocean liner would be madness for patients and passengers. The argument for democracy in the state therefore depends on the proposition that “the ordinary man is more competent than anyone else to decide when and how much he shall intervene on decisions he feels are important to him.” In order for this argument to apply also to the university or the private corporation, it must be shown that these institutions, although in most cases nominally private, actually embody political power, are intertwined with the state, and are public in everything but name.

Dahl rather uneasily skirts the issue of the university. If we were to apply his categories to this particular case, we should have to distinguish at the outset between democratizing the corporate structure of the university, so as to give the entire university community access to its corporate decisions (for example, whether or not to engage in military research, to expand into the ghetto, to add new departments and programs, or to make major changes in the curriculum), and democratizing the classroom itself, as many cultural radicals are demanding. In the former case, the principle of competence would favor the institution of democratic procedures since there is nothing especially competent about most trustees; in the latter, their adoption would quickly complete the wreckage of an already debased higher education.

It is also important that we distinguish among various kinds of democratic procedures. Those that would assure students a corporate voice in university policy are clearly to be preferred to selective student representation on university committees, a form of co-optation admirably designed to diminish what little influence students now enjoy.

The industrial corporation no doubt presents an even clearer case for democratization, and Dahl’s discussion of this institution makes Alinsky’s talk of “proxy participation” seem shallow by comparison. There can be no question of the political character of the national and international corporation, Dahl argues: “The appropriation of public authority by private rulers…is the essence of the giant firm.” Only a “purely ideological bias” prevents us from thinking of “all economic enterprise as a public service,” in which employees and consumers, and in many cases the public in general, have as much interest as the stockholders.

How can this interest best be served? Nationalization—which Dahl identifies, perhaps too simply, as the “socialist” remedy—by no means guarantees that the public most affected by corporate decisions will be adequately protected. Workers, moreover, may lose their right to strike. A more plausible solution, but one that Dahl believes is no more satisfactory, is the gradual incorporation of consumer representatives on corporate boards. This is the strategy advocated by Ralph Nader and others—a variant of Alinsky’s “proxy participation.”

Dahl thinks that consumer representation, even if it were effective, would simply convert the corporation into “a system of rather remote delegated authority.” It would be difficult to agree on what interests should be represented or on how they were to control their own representatives. Nevertheless this innovation, which corporations might accept in preference to more radical arrangements, “would probably be enough to deflate weak pressures for further change.”

Since the alternatives seem equally unsatisfactory, Dahl has come to prefer the syndicalist solution (although he fails to acknowledge it as such): control of the corporation by its own employees. “Self-management” would “transform employees from corporate subjects to citizens of the enterprise.” He recognizes the objection that the American working class may be incapable of self-management. Even more than the capitalist class, it is imbued with archaic ideas about property, which confuse property with ownership instead of defining it simply as a bundle of rights.

Dahl concedes, moreover, that the American worker regards his job “as an activity not intrinsically gratifying or worthwhile but rather as an instrument for gaining money which the worker and his family can spend on articles of consumption. In this respect, the modern worker has become what classical economists said he was: an economic man compelled to perform intrinsically unrewarding, unpleasant, and even hateful labor in order to gain money to live on.” The transformation of the work place into a “small society” would require a transformation of the worker’s attitude toward work.

Dahl thinks that these attitudes, however, might change once self-management was actually in operation.

If a significant number of employees…were to discover that participation in the affairs of the enterprise…contributed to their own sense of competence and helped them to control an important part of their daily lives, then lassitude and indifference toward participation might change into interest and concern.

Dahl believes that worker control is especially likely to be sought by workers who still view their work as a profession—that is, by the technical and professional strata themselves. At this point he abruptly drops the argument and turns to a discussion of decentralization.

His failure to press it leaves several difficulties unresolved. In the first place, he relies on “external controls, both governmental and economic,” to protect the interests of consumers and the community in general, whereas one of the best arguments for worker control is that corporate employees, because they are also citizens of society as a whole, are competent not only to manage the corporation’s internal affairs, with the help of professional managers, but to protect the interests of society. This suggestion appears utopian only if one refuses to imagine the local, regional, and national relations among various worker-managed industries, or the impact that a takeover of corporate power by workers might have on the political economy.

Dahl argues that it would be “unworldly” to suppose that once the workers control an enterprise they will spontaneously act “in the interests of all.” The trouble with this argument is that it pays too little attention to the political battles through which self-management will have to be achieved and to the possibility that these battles will serve as a political education for those who initiate them. Indeed it is precisely the antisocial consequences of private production that are likely to generate a movement for worker control. To Dahl’s objection—“if self-management were introduced today, tomorrow’s citizens in the enterprise would be yesterday’s employees”—one can only reply that self-management is hardly likely to be introduced from above. It will have to be “introduced” by the workers themselves, not “today,” but after long struggles in the course of which the workers’ outlook could be expected to undergo changes that seem almost inconceivable at the present time.

By ignoring the political movements that would be necessary to make self-management a reality, Dahl exposes his argument to another objection, namely, that his case for worker control is curiously abstracted from current political life. If his argument for “self-management” were to carry more than the force of a political scientist’s recommendation, it would have to be shown that political forces already in motion make it a real and not merely a hypothetical alternative.

It would have to be shown, in other words, that worker control of production is a concrete historical possibility not only in Yugoslavia, where he shows that it works fairly well, but in the US. Dahl’s reluctance to embark on a discussion of this question suggests a lingering belief in the separability of academic disciplines—history, presumably, can safely be left to historians, while political scientists concern themselves with an abstract model of the political process. He prefers to regard the structure of the corporation as a question “more technical than ideological,” a matter “less of principle than of practical judgment.” This is reminiscent of Alinsky’s attempt to turn the “plight” into a “problem.” The reason these formulations are evasive is that changes in the social structure will come about only when they are incorporated into the program of a political movement. Mass politics, moreover—the only agency of democratic change—contains an unavoidable admixture of ideology. Questions of principle cannot be indefinitely postponed.

Whatever the weaknesses of his argument, however, Dahl has identified the central issue of contemporary domestic politics, control of the corporation. Even if the student movement foreshadowed a new “labor movement,” the results would be inconsequential unless the new labor movement confronted this question. The student movement itself has raised it only by implicit analogy with the struggle against the university. For that matter, the student movement has paid very little attention to the possibility of transforming itself into a movement of professional and technical employees. Instead it has cultivated a militantly anti-professional ideology. The emergence of a movement for “self-management” of the corporation therefore presupposes a transformation of student politics itself. The mere existence of a student movement and of young graduates who are carrying its attitudes into corporations, professions, and bureaucracies, however, is one reason to think that the private corporation may yet find itself confronted with a powerful challenge to its very existence.

Another reason, already noted, is the probability that the working conditions of technical and professional employees will further deteriorate. If this happens, they may make common cause with schoolteachers, public servants, and petty civil servants, who already face countless hardships.


Still another development that may have wide-ranging political implications is the revival of the “woman question.” Worker control of the corporation would require a change not only in attitudes toward work but in attitudes toward leisure, consumption, and domestic life. It is now generally recognized that the privatized, mother-centered family is one of the bastions of the consumer economy. No institution more clearly embodies the separation between work and the rest of life, and no institution, not even the corporation itself, illustrates so specifically the bad effects of this separation.

The precarious political and economic stability that was re-established after the Great Depression rested as heavily on a rehabilitation of domesticity, mildly challenged during the Twenties and Thirties by the new sexual freedom and the appearance of a new type of “career woman,” as it did on military spending. The arrangement whereby private consumption compensates for loss of autonomy at work, and for the absence of a vigorous public and communal life, depended on a new sentimentalization of the family, in which the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity was refurbished with images of the suburb as a refuge from the city.

An attack on suburbia—as banal at times as the reality it sought to describe—characterized the new left from the beginning. Recently there has been added to it a more pointed and specific attack on the family. At its worst, this new feminism merely makes explicit one of the tendencies that was implicit in the old—repudiation of men, a heightening of the sex war. At its best, it provides the clearest perspective from which to view the degradation of work into a meaningless routine and the hollowness of the pleasures that are offered in its place. Radical women perceive that the demand for equal access to jobs and equal pay often means very boring work and low pay, while domestic life, far from having been enriched by its isolation from work, has been steadily impoverished. It is more and more difficult to recognize in the contemporary family—although of course everyone knows exceptions to the general pattern—the description of bourgeois domesticity provided by Max Horkheimer in 1941 as the last defense of a rich and autonomous inner life against the encroachments of the mass society.

The middle class family, though it has frequently been an agency of obsolescent social patterns, has made the individual aware of other potentialities than his labor or vocation opened to him. As a child, and later as a lover, he saw reality not in the hard light of its practical biddings but in a distant perspective which lessened the force of its commandments. This realm of freedom, which originated outside the workshop, was adulterated with the dregs of all past cultures, yet it was man’s private preserve in the sense that he could there transcend the function society imposed upon him by way of its division of labor.

Today family life increasingly exists in a vacuum and has become vacuous. This fact in many ways sums up the contemporary plight.

What will emerge from the new criticism of the family is not yet clear. Whether the latest wave of feminism leaves a more lasting mark than earlier waves depends on its ability to associate criticism of the family with a criticism of other institutions, particularly those governing work. If the attack on the family results merely in the founding of rural communes, it will offer no alternative either to the isolated family or to the factory, since in many ways the rural commune simply caricatures the new domesticity, re-enacting the flight to nature and the search for an isolated and emotionally self-sufficient domestic life. To be sure, it reunites the family with work, but with a kind of primitive agricultural labor which is itself marginal. The “urban commune,” in which the members work outside, avoids these difficulties, but it is not clear that it is more than a dormitory—in particular, it is not clear whether it can successfully raise children.

Lately there has been a tendency for the attack on the family, like so many other fragments of the new left, to degenerate into a purely cultural movement, one aimed not so much at institutional change as at abolishing “male chauvinism.” I have already criticized the illusion that a “cultural revolution,” a change of heart, can serve as a substitute for politics. Here it is necessary only to add that the criticism applies with special force to feminism, since the peculiar strength of this movement is precisely its ability to dramatize specific connections between culture and politics—between the realm of production on the one hand and education, child-rearing, and sexual relations on the other.

It ought to be recognized, for example, that large numbers of women will not be able to enter the work force, except by slavishly imitating the careers of men, unless the nature of work undergoes a radical change. The entire conflict between “home and career” derives from the subordination of work to the relentless demands of industrial productivity. The system that forces women (and men also) to choose between home and work is the same system that demands early specialization and prolonged schooling, imposes militarylike discipline in all areas of work, and forces not only factory workers but intellectual workers into a ruthless competition for meager rewards. At bottom, the “woman question” is indistinguishable from what used to be known as the social question.

It would be foolishly optimistic to conclude from the existence of the woman’s movement, the student movement, and the black movement, and from growing signs of uneasiness among professional and technical workers in various strata of the population, that the basis for a “new politics” already exists. These movements are no more than portents; they exist, moreover, in isolation from each other. If we have learned anything from the Sixties, it is that the “system” is much less vulnerable than many radicals had supposed. The realization of its strength can become an occasion for premature despair or for renewed attempts to create a radical coalition.

Those who despair of politics will find it hard to understand why I have devoted so much attention to a few books that deal for the most part with tactical issues and that eschew the claim to sweeping historical synthesis and blinding socio-cultural insight that we have come to expect of political statements emanating from the left. But it is precisely tactical realism, a respect for the commonplace, and renewed attention to the way in which the crisis of modern society is rooted in the deteriorating conditions of everyday life that the left most urgently needs to acquire.

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