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.