Democracy and the art of motorcycle maintenance

A tough-talking, motorcycle-riding Texan, sociologist C Wright Mills is about as far from today’s stereotype of the latte-sipping left-wing intellectual as you’re likely to find. But even though he’s been dead for 50 years, you can still see his influence in the intellectual left today.

Fiercely independent, Mills wasn’t about to turn his life over to the system. If something affected him he wanted to be able to control it. On his first trip to Europe in 1956 he spend two weeks in the BMW factory in Munich earning a certificate in motorcycle repair. According to Dan Wakefield, he told his students they should build their own houses.

Mills had much the same attitude to democracy. The rise of corporations, centralised government and the mass media cut intellectuals off from their publics. Outside the family and the small community, communication had become top-down. Individual citizens no longer participate in the decisions that affect their lives and intellectuals are no longer able to lead and facilitate deliberations.

In his 1951 book White Collar Mills described the resulting sense of alienation: "On every hand the individual is confronted with seemingly remote organizations; he feels dwarfed and helpless before the managerial cadres and their manipulated and manipulative minions."

Mills saw intellectuals being absorbed into the system as minions. Taken up into government, the corporations and the universities, they became unable to think and act independently. Yet he would later argue that it was up to intellectuals — particularly young intellectuals — to change society. "Who is it that is getting disgusted with what Marx called all the old crap’?" he asked in 1960. "Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world — in the bloc, outside the bloc and in between — the answer’s the same: it is the young intelligentsia."


Mills’s ideas had a huge influence on student activists like Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He saw the problems of disengagement and apathy as central to what was wrong with American politics and doubted whether the old left with its focus on the labour movement was capable of overcoming it. Like Mills he saw the absence of institutions between the local community and centralised bureaucratised government as one of the causes of the problem. In SDS’s 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, the students called for:

Mechanisms of voluntary association … through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged. Political parties, even if realigned, would not provide adequate outlets for popular involvement. Institutions should be created that engage people with issues and express political preference, not as now with huge business lobbies which exercise undemocratic power, but which carry political influence (appropriate to private, rather than public, groupings) in national decision-making enterprise.

As Hayden wrote in a letter to the New York Times, the Port Huron Statement: "was a generational call for direct participatory democracy in which Americans would have greater say over the decisions affecting our lives". Christopher Hitchens has called it " the founding document of the 60’s left".

Initially drafted by Hayden, the statement was debated and rewritten by delegates to the Students for a Democratic Society‘s 1962 convention in Port Huron, Michigan. In a 2002 article for the Nation Hayden and fellow SDS member Dick Flacks write:

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Port Huron Statement is the fact that it introduced the concept of participatory democracy to popular discourse and practice. It made sense of the fact that ordinary people were making history, and not waiting for parties or traditional organizations. The notion was used to define modes of organization (decentralization, consensus methods of decision-making, leadership rotation and avoidance of hierarchy) that would lead to social transformation, not simply concessions from existing institutions. It proved to be a contagious idea, spreading from its academic origins to the very process of movement decision-making, to the subsequent call for women’s liberation. These participatory practices, which had their roots in the town hall, Quaker meetings, anarchist collectives and even sensitivity training, are carried on today in grassroots movements such as the one against corporate globalization.

Writers like Nicolaus Mills and Ana Marie Cox see today’s Occupy activists as heirs to SDS’ struggle for a more participative democracy. And within their own groups, the occupiers have developed effective systems for building consensus. But what’s the next step?

Some writers like Will Wilkinson worry about where this is heading. In the Economist he writes: "direct deliberative democracy by its very nature puts effective power disproportionately in the hands of extroverted, energetic, and charismatic individuals with a knack for persuasion."

According to Gerald Sorin, Tom Hayden had exactly these qualities. Hayden’s friend Michael Walzer dropped in on a 1965 meeting of the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP) to test Hayden’s claim that the project was being run by people in the community. Walzer told Sorin that it became clear that Hayden had "run the meeting from the back of the room. Nothing was done without Tom’s approval, and everyone got a crick in the neck from turning around to look at him sitting in that last row."

SDS member Carl Davidson wrote that "the student movement has come under criticism from both the right and the left for its lack of a coherent ideology and strategy for social change. While there is certainly a great deal of truth in this criticism, my sensibilities tell me that this lack may be more to our advantage than our disadvantage."

In the end it wasn’t much of an advantage. By 1969 SDS was splintering. A struggle for control broke out between Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party and some of the original leaders. Consensus had evaporated.

Despite the failures of the past, the desire to involve citizens in decisions affecting their lives remains strong. In 1951 C Wright Mills wrote:

The idea that the issues are too intricate for a people’s decision is a curious blend of bureaucratic perspectives (which transform political issues into administrative problems) and a simplistic notion of democracy (which would equate the public with the executive organs of the government, rather than with effective intervention in general decisions of general consequence).

Today many of those on the left would agree. And like Mills they see a role for the intellectual in initiating social change. But even 50 years after Mills’ death and the drafting of the Port Huron Statement, it’s still not clear what participative democracy might mean in practice.

This entry was posted in Political theory, Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
9 years ago

Its a pity Mills didn’t live long enough to give an opinion on the generation of 1968 and the young intellectuals who started setting fire to the campuses.

He wrote a great critique of poor scholarship in The Sociological Imagination, on a par with Stanislav Andreski’s The Social Sciences as Sorcery. The appendix on intellectual craftsmanship is a real gem.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
9 years ago

This is the appendix. It is worth waiting for a slow-loading file to come up.

Justin Kerr
Justin Kerr
9 years ago

Might not participative democracy be as conceptually simple as freeing democracy for those people for whom it is most stoppered right now? Most Australian adults spend massive amounts of their conscious time and effort in their workplaces, but can have no say on who their managers are, how their workplace is organised and what business it will take on. They can choose parliamentarians and decide guilt or innocence, but cannot choose board members or pronounce on managerial performance. Workplace democracy avoids the risible prospect of millions weighing in on, say, trade policy with the US and EU and instead leverages the time, care, knowledge and risk people currently have, where they currently are. And given the economic and social bulk of organisations in people’s lives and communities, the world beyond the workplace cannot but be affected.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

rafe,

I read this appendix and wouldn’t recommend it to my students. He is far too deferential towards literature. If you do what he recommends you will almost certainly end up with more of the same. Ironic, really.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

Democracy means rule by the people. Thus, in a perfect democracy everyone affected by a proposed rule would have an exactly equal say in making the rule.

Adjectival democracy (participatory, representative, deliberative, direct and more) strikes me as a way to appropriate the word to add lustre to some watering down of it.

“Direct democracy” is nearly a harmless tautology. I once had a coffee with economist Bruno Frey. Not long before, there had been a book published (I think the authors were his former students) empirically comparing the effects of direct democracy across the cantons of Switzerland; they had had found very positively in favour of direct democracy.

I asked him what the support was for direct democracy among academics in Switzerland. Among economists, he thought perhaps one third were in favour. That was about my impression of Swiss political scientists. Then he laughed and said that if you mention direct democracy in an Australian university people look at you as if you are mad.

Justin – “…the risible prospect of millions weighing in on, say, trade policy with the US and EU…”

In Switzerland every foreign treaty must go to referendum. Every single one. Result? World’s best practice foreign policy – zero tariffs and no war since their little (100 deaths) civil war in 1848.

To me, C Wright Mills never seemed to SAY anything. I read most of that appendix, Rafe. It sure lacks the sparkle of Andreski. He has a very bureaucratic mind: categories and subcategories of things and of approaches. I have almost the opposite complaint from Paul – too much looking at reality and mixing personal life with professional. Not scientific.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I like direct democracy as an idea.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
9 years ago

Talk about the sparkle of Andreski! Check out his profile.

Certainly the Mills appendix is too long but I think his engagement with the literature is critical, you have to start somewhere, and some of his observations about corrupt practices in academia are ok, I especially like the idea about the need for continual critical discussion of problems, methods and theories.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
9 years ago

On the topic of direct democracy, this is a piece from decades past on the people’s vote.

john
john
9 years ago

Direct referendums have not done California’s budget much good.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

Thanks for that, Rafe. Extraordinary bloke from an extraordinary time.

There are some crisp quotes from Andreski (and other critics of academe) at:
http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~fabianic/thoughts.html#anchor_andreski

A sample:
“While repelling the clever and the upright, the social research industry attracts dullards, for whom indeed it offers the only entry into the ranks of “scientists,’ because no other form of ‘scientific’ research demands so little intelligence as door-to-door sociology or the lower forms of rat psychology. Rather than spanning the two cultures, as they ideally ought to do, most of the social research industry’s employees fall between two stools, being neither literate nor numerate beyond the memorization of a few half-understood statistical formulae.”

By “two cultures” he would be meaning science and humanities as per CP Snow.

What I actually went looking for was the Andreski formula of jargon-mongering. I quote from memory:
J = A/K – 1.
Where A, ambition, exceeds K, knowledge, J, jargon, proliferates. As knowledge increases relative to ambition, jargon declines, limiting at -1 which is ultimate terseness.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

John – “Direct referendums have not done California’s budget much good.”

Many observers think this though I am not sure it would hold up if they compared it with budgets where there is no referendum.

Still, California is an object lesson in how not to do it. For example (this is only one problem), the referendum is the not final say. The constitutional court pronounces on it afterward and rules it in or out. This means that instead of ruling, the people are expressing an opinion. It turns the referendum into a strategic statement of feeling, rather than a government decision.

In Switzerland, where budgetary problems (inter alia) are not so bad, there is nothing beyond the referendum result. It is final. There is a constitutional court but it is not permitted to judge any federal law. That is, any law of the federal parliament or of the people at referendum. Thus there is no strategic voting: when they raise their hands or mark the ballot, they make the decision.

Don’s quote of Will Wilkinson “direct deliberative democracy by its very nature puts effective power disproportionately in the hands of extroverted, energetic, and charismatic individuals with a knack for persuasion.” actually applies more to our familiar representative democracy where the people vote almost entirely for a personality. Incidentally, in Switzerland there are no rules or restrictions on campaign spending.

john
john
9 years ago

“There is a constitutional court but it is not permitted to judge any federal law. ” uh? Do they have a constitution?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

The Swiss written constitution dates from 1848 and was influenced by the US constitution. It has been modified a couple of hundred times by referendum. It, in turn, influenced ours. It is reasonably short – about like ours – and I am sure you can find it, in English, on the internet.

In any federation the states and the people need to have means of redress against the federal government. Normally that is via a constitutional court but in Switzerland both people and states have recourse to referendum instead.

In Switzerland, moreover, there may be no transfer of power to or from the states without a referendum. That is, unlike our COAG, their politicians cannot collude to subvert the constitution. This may have reached the point with us where they need never hold another referendum in this country.

Rafe, I read your review of Geoffrey DeQW’s book. You are mistaken in this: “[In Switzerland] a poll can be called to challenge entry into international treaties or collective security arrangements with other countries.” All foreign treaties – trade, security, whatever – must go to referendum. No challenging petition is raised.

john
john
9 years ago

So a ‘challenge to constitutionality’ takes the form of a referendum?
What about laws that adversely affect small minority groups?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘challenge to constitutionality’. Redress against an overweening centre is usually via consitutional court but in Switzerland it is via referendum.

(That’s in federations. In non-federations sometimes there is no legal redress at all, e.g., Holland, UK.)

As far as laws go, as Rafe’s piece describes, it takes 50000 signatures to get a referendum on a law. Not that hard in a country of 6 million. Every law that passes both houses sits on ice for 90 days waiting in case the 50K are collected. If they aren’t, it’s a new law. If they are, the law stays on ice till the people decide. As you might imagine, they have fewer laws than we do.