This essay by Paul Goodman is the fourth in a series dealing with the issues posed for the liberal voter by the 1968 Presidential election. Previous contributors to this series—which will run through October and continue to offer a variety of viewpoints—have been Theodore Draper, Michael Harrington, and Daniel P. Moynihan. Paul Goodman is the noted author and social critic. His books include Growing Up Absurd, The Empire City, The Community of Scholars, and, more recently, Like a Conquered Province.
The world is increasingly confronted with half a dozen social-political horrors, more or less related, that might doom mankind or at least civilization. The stockpiling of nuclear and biochemical weapons. Ecological catastrophes deriving from the abuse of technology. Excessive urbanization on all continents. The deepening poverty of two-thirds of mankind, aggravated by the “help” of the affluent powers. Perhaps overpopulation, though I am dubious about this until more obvious social and political abuses are remedied.
Nevertheless, in recent years there is one horror, the degeneration of the advanced countries toward the condition described in 1984, that has everywhere begun to diminish; and conceivably this might alleviate the other disastrous policies and tendencies. There has been a worldwide resurgence of grass-roots populism, which defies central authority, bureaucracy, social engineering, technocracy, mandarinism, and imperialism. It is occurring in Fascist, corporate liberal, and Communist countries, and has transcended ideological, class, or racial definition. It is pervasive among the young, whether students, ghetto-dwellers, guerrilla fighters, or Red Guards; but it extends also to intellectuals and professionals, solid citizens and housewives. Like any grass-roots movement it has local and particular demands: against censorship, administrative tyranny in universities, high-handed physical planning, fixed prices of consumers' goods, military draft, overcentralized economic planning, bureaucratic social services, etc., etc. The occasions for protest may be grand or trivial, but what is striking, and constitutes a movement, is the epidemic conviction that effective action is possible, where it had seemed that nothing could be done. And as in any populism, there are experiments at running things in a different way on a more human scale.
Once it has started, such a movement may lose every campaign but it is irreversible and must grow, since people gain initiative by exercising it and thus become more confident. It develops its own culture, and begins to find itself as an international. It can be crushed only by overwhelming repressive force, and this is not in the offing, for the central powers are in fact morally bankrupt. Indeed, the essential idea of this resurgent populism, in my opinion, is that the powers-that be in the world are incompetent, their authority is irrational, they cannot cope with modern conditions, and they are producing ultimate horrors. It does not follow, of course, that populist actions are themselves wise, un-demagogic, or peaceful; but at least they weaken the concentration of power and cannot do as much widespread damage.
Present-day populism is a developing worldwide social revolution that will, if it has a chance, take a couple of decades to mature. One way it can be interrupted is by a panic reflex of the central powers, especially nuclear war. Another way, unfortunately characteristic of populist movements, is by counter-revolution spawned by the movement itself (this is called “taking power”), as Leninism interrupted the Russian social revolution in 1917. Counter-revolutions of this kind are likely to occur if the reactionary powers are stupidly intransigent to change, if they crack down, invade, and so forth. A steady development of populism would consist in piecemeal campaigns, extending initiative and decision-making in various over-centralized areas and functions, and correcting intolerable background conditions till they become tolerable. In my view, freedom and decency are sufficient goals for politics; and the piecemeal approach is the only safe and relevant way to transform our vastly complicated societies. Besides, an aggressive populism, that exerts its power and makes decisions, including mistakes, on problems where it is directly concerned, is the only means of educating vigilant citizens.
To sum up, in 1958 when I wrote Growing Up Absurd, it seemed to me that we were doomed to a brainwashed and anomic society, with no future for the young. Now it looks brighter.
It is in this context of reviving worldwide populism that I regard the already satisfactory American campaign of '68. If now the nominations and election themselves move us further toward freedom and decency, it is up to us to continue popular pressure on the new officials to change the deep structural defects in our society and economy. If the formal democratic process fails us, so much the worse for the formal democratic process; the populists will continue otherwise. Too many people, and especially the white and black young, are too much in motion to be sold out or “co-opted” by electoral machinery and campaign promises. Too much has happened on campuses and streets and in courts and jails for us to repeat the treacherous campaign of 1964, and the illegitimacy, as I see it, of the past four years. Also, the abiding underlying tyranny has been named—the military-industrial, the hidden government of CIA and FBI, the perverted universities, the rubber-stamp Congress, the brutal police, etc.—and there have developed a myriad of techniques, and of technicians, to challenge all this if government does not come across.
Meanwhile, it is touching to see the wistful and cagey hope of Americans that perhaps the American democratic process still has some life in it, as it has shown life in crises of the past. This process, in its extreme definition from Jefferson to William James, is a kind of slowed-down populist revolution without too much violence. Usually, in the nature of the case, the massive general will accepts the official government as sovereign; but in critical periods, sovereignty reverts to the people. First are heard a few voices in the wilderness crying out a new truth. If protected by civil liberties—so Spinoza and Milton assured us—feeble truth grows in power, for evidence cumulatively sustains it. Then there are other thoughtful people who take up the unpopular cause, and there are very many citizens “humbly petitioning”—we do it by ads in the Times, and find one another. These numbers swell to become an impressive and demanding crowd. Emboldened, many begin to deny the legitimacy of the official position, pointing out that it does not represent the “general will”; they are willing to defy the law and go to jail to prove they are in. earnest. Usually there are fringes and flare-ups of violence, mutinies of despair at being disregarded. Then suddenly, through the courts, or by forming a new party, or by a change in the constituency of an old party, the new truth bids for the government by constitutional means and takes over. Actions that were called “illegal” prove to be legal after all, and former mutineers are honored as courageous and foresighted citizens.
This idyllic scenario is not a bad description of actual critical periods in American history, e.g., abolitionism, the agrarian-progressive movement, the suffragette movement, the labor movement, the recent civil-rights movement. Of course, ossification soon sets in. As soon as the victory is won, the aroused public goes back to sleep and the surviving forces of reaction importantly nullify the advances. But there has been a revival of freedom and conditions are more tolerable. Other methods do not guarantee as much.
The candidacy of Eugene McCarthy has been so far—I am writing in the last week of April—a textbook illustration of American populism responding to the crisis of our imperialist adventurism, hidden militarist government, and the specific horror of the Vietnam war. The extent of his progress would be inconceivable if it had not been for the previous para-institutional stages; and even the connecting link—the teach-ins, student draft resistance, and the response to these by the mass of students—is obvious. McCarthy's plain and very professorial personality is laughably appropriate to this new kind of populist constituency: this year there are six million students in two thousand colleges that may have little academic meaning but are nevertheless substantial villages or small cities, the precincts of the illegal and legal Vietnam protest. Communities of youth on this scale are a social phenomenon unique in history; they are a contradiction bred by social engineering itself in affluent societies. I do not know McCarthy, but he seems to be sophisticatedly intelligent for an American public figure, telling jokes on a level that can communicate to the B+ grade average of the student movement that has provided his canvassers. Inevitably, however, this manner and type of intelligence are disadvantages to him among the other great populist constituency, the blacks and Spanish-Americans, who do not speak this language and expect instead to hear, from a white man, the old – fashioned populism of Humphrey and Johnson, the ward-heeler promises of Kennedy, or the paternalism of Rockefeller. (But the blacks' own leaders, in my opinion, no matter what their ideological and rhetorical style, have been intellectually head and shoulders above most white politicians. Consider King, Rustin, Evers, Parris, Bond, Wilkins, Farmer, Malcolm X, Carmichael. Oppressed people simply cannot afford second-rate front figures. Their leaders must lead.)
McCarthy's organization seems to be entirely manufactured from below; but I know from experience in Berkeley and in the draft-resistance what a powerful machine kids can put together. What is more significant, however, is that the “program” also seems to be made up as he goes along, by pressure from below. Here is an anecdote. Last week I was at a Reform Democratic McCarthy club on New York's West Side, to make a pitch for draft-resistance. (Let me hasten to say that, as an anarchist, I don't belong to party clubs, and I won't vote for McCarthy unless he credibly promises total nuclear disarmament, which he won't.) It came out that McCarthy had just asked for the resignation of Rusk and had made the idiotic suggestion, obviously off the cuff, that he be replaced by the hawkish William Bundy. I proposed that the club call him to task; since they did the legwork, they ought to have a say in the policy. They took it under advisement. But by the next day the Leader had changed his substitute Secretary of State to Mansfield; apparently he had immediately gotten the lumps in his own headquarters.
McCarthy's speech on the military-industrial is remarkably adequate; it could have been thought up by Seymour Melman, Carl Oglesby, or myself (and probably was). He touches all the bases: the CIA, the fallacy of nation-building, the overseas sale of arms, the “commitments,” the air-bases, the penetration of the military establishment into the economy, the Research and Development, the perversion of the universities, and the military takeover of the State Department and of policy-making. I would suggest, in the same speech, that he propose to internationalize space exploration and to put the Peace Corps under the auspices of the United Nations.
He proposes to get rid of J. Edgar Hoover on good populist grounds: the FBI has become “a kind of fief.” (I am surprised at how little public clamor this heresy has caused.) Same with Lewis Hershey and Selective Service.
His promise of amnesty to the draft-dodgers and Dr. Spock is the only honorable position; Kennedy's welshing on this is scandalous. It is impossible to call the Vietnam war immoral, unjust, and impolitic as these two men have, and not to condone the actions of those who refuse to fight it. Since there is no empirical evidence that specific civil disobedience leads to general lawlessness, the only reason to punish Vietnam war-resisters would be to continue drafting for the Vietnam war. That “Law and Order” must be preserved in every situation is a divine right theory that does not square with American history and is, in fact, unworkable.
McCarthy's Vietnam position itself is unsatisfactory to the radical students, genre of SDS, because he is not for the immediate victory of the NLF. But I wonder whether these students are seriously thinking of the Vietnamese. Certainly the vast majority of the Vietnamese need and want peace more than anything else, and they would rather have the NLF than the continued presence of the Americans. Yet the evidence is, also, that the radical Buddhists represent a strong and perhaps majority sentiment. Peasants on good soil want their land in fee simple; it makes no sense to get rid of plantation-owners and substitute taxation and conscription by the State. If the NLF had allied with the Buddhists, the coalition might have gotten us out a few years ago. And aggressive non-violence, though costly, might have been far less disastrous to their country than the tactics that have been employed. We, of course, must get out because we do evil there; by his attitude toward the military-industrial and the CIA I believe that McCarthy really intends this. In my opinion, our best program—which McCarthy certainly could not campaign on—would be: (1) to transport Thieu and Ky and a few thousand of their followers to Texas; (2) to offer a big indemnity, perhaps the cost of one year of the war, to any popular government that the Vietnamese can establish; and (3) to get on with the business of honest foreign aid in Southeast Asia, tailored to local needs and independent politics. Another suggestion, which perhaps McCarthy can use, is to buy better relations with Cuba, as Franklin Roosevelt did with Mexico. Of course, this would involve confessing that we maltreated Cuba for sixty years, and are continuing in the rest of Latin America.
In McCarthy's speech on education there is, among the usual gobbledygook, one surprising glimmer of sense, when he hazards that formal schooling may not be the best answer for very many of the young; perhaps we ought to underwrite alternative paths of growing up. This is breathtakingly counter to the universal American delusion, white and black; it just happens to be true, as every adolescent knows. (I am told that McCarthy's educational advice comes from Christopher Jencks of the Institute for Policy Studies.)
He comes on poorly with regard to the cities, not only the racial questions but the fiscal, physical, and ecological ones. He seems not to know them or feel them. This is partly, I think, because of the besetting sin of the white middle class, which is not “racist” or even unsympathetic, but rather unacquainted and tepid. In McCarthy's case, we seem also to sense the Achilles' heel of traditional Mid-Western populism—it is cold to the cities even when they have become the overwhelming fact, just as in 1890 the agrarians failed to unite with the labor movement and regarded immigrants as aliens. In his speeches, the Senator claims that it is bad political science to put together a coalition of special interest groups, and to single out the blacks and Spanish-Americans for special attention. I think he is right in the first proposition, wrong in the second. He does not understand at all the need of dispossessed people to regain identity. In a pluralistic commonweal, such as we hope for, the whole can flourish only if every group is flourishing; and it is therefore the political duty of a disadvantaged group to throw its weight around, as the blacks have been doing, to claim special attention and get compensatory treatment. In populist theory, they must be respected because they will to be.
Since I have the occasion, let me say something else about our racial crisis and the democratic process. We have developed in the ghetto communities a gross example of what Oscar Lewis calls the special “culture of poverty,” ingrown and no longer assimilable by ordinary means. If somehow by the historical process that is occurring—riots, burning, extreme separatist ideology, threats of insurrection—blacks can overcome isolation and dependency and become citizens on their own terms (every citizen must assent to the social contract on his own terms), it will be a remarkable achievement of the American system of democracy, unique in history. It is not the case, as the Kerner report threatens and as some black militants want, that America can or will have two separate societies. One alternative, rather, is that the dominant class will hem in the others in a monstrous apartheid. We will not allow this. A more acceptable alternative, which has positive attractions, is general miscegenation. The most interesting alternative would be a structure open to “integration” and containing a lot of “integration,” and also containing a lot of Black Power. This is, hopefully, the direction in which we are tending.
But there is also, quite apart from racial problems, the underlying problem of excessive urbanization altogether. This condition is worldwide; in the United States it has been produced by an enclosure policy greedy for private gain, by plantation owners and by chain grocers abetted by public subsidy and careless of social costs. McCarthy ought to propose reversing this policy to prevent further damage, and he ought to explore methods of rural rehabilitation. I have elsewhere suggested trying to put money into the countryside by using the farms to help solve urban problems, e.g., welfare, care of the aged and the incompetent, schooling, recreation.
I have spent this much space on the candidacy of McCarthy not because I have great expectations of him but, as I have said, because his campaign, win or lose, has already marked a forward thrust of the world populist revival that is our best hope. No matter what he is or can accomplish, the act of nominating and electing him would be a useful action for Americans. I will not vote for him, but if he is nominated, I shall not picket the polls. At the best, his foggy kind of intellectuality could clear up, with authority, as Lincoln's did; at the worst, he would be a more dignified Kerensky.
In the case of the other candidates, I shall urge people not to vote. Robert Kennedy is tied to the military-industrial establishment, which received its biggest impetus during the administration of John Kennedy. (The military budget rose 30 per cent in 1961.) The chief architects of the Vietnam war, Rusk, the Bundys, McNamara, Rostow, and Johnson himself, were handpicked by John Kennedy; and the new advisers that Robert Kennedy mentioned for his abortive advisory committee—e.g., Reischauer, Norstad, Kingman Brewster—are exactly the same breed. His campaigning, overwhelmingly financed, pressuring county leaders, manufacturing mass spectacles, is the antithesis of the populism we need. His ward-heeling demagogy can, on the big scale, turn to Caesarism; and he has again begun the garbage about “greatness” that his brother used to prattle. What the world needs is not greatness but decency and to be let alone. His record on civil liberties, with Joe McCarthy and as Attorney General, is abominable. Personally, he is sweet, eager, a little pathetic. His hair looks nice long, and he should leave it alone no matter what they say. But he is continually whining, and is a sorehead. And his particular talent for manipulation—the hipsterism that, I guess, Norman Mailer admires in him—has no future. It is distasteful to the populist young who want to be citizens; it is too tame for the revolutionary young who want their own power or freedom.
What can one say about Hubert Horatio?—he has so long not been his own man. I recall his statement, “When I became Majority Leader, I ceased being a liberal.”
I cannot understand the political affection that some keen people, for instance Murray Kempton, have for Nelson Rockefeller. He is the man who dementedly tried to saddle New York State with nuclear bomb-shelters; and in New York City he has been the author of gigantic disasters in urban planning and university administration. His policy of locking up addicts for their own good is monstrous. But he is likable and certainly made an intelligent choice when he jeopardized a lousy political career for his love life.
Richard Nixon, as he and I age, has become positively un-repulsive.
If by August we could be on the way to peace in Vietnam, LBJ might be nominated by acclaim, and would be reelected; and that would certainly be a small price to pay, to be on the way to peace in Vietnam.
In conclusion, let me mention some other populist attitudes toward the campaign of '68. The most self-conscious and vociferous wing of American populism is the Movement, an alliance of white students and ex-students and black students and non-students, concentrating mainly on “gut” issues of anti militarism, draft resistance, Negro rights, Student Power, and Black Power. Whether the Movement engages in the election this year, or tries to disrupt it, or disregards it, is sometimes a matter of theory and sometimes a matter of empirical judgment of resources, costs, and possible benefits. Maoists and other insurrectionists naturally regard the election as bourgeois fakery, like other “bourgeois civil liberties.” Some in the Movement, for instance the majority in Students for a Democratic Society, who are interested in community development and “politicizing” the poor and the professionals, judge that it is not worth the cost to field or support candidates. To a large group, the campaign offers an occasion for dramatic disruption, especially at the August convention in Chicago. In California, the Peace and Freedom Party, allied with the Black Panthers, is fielding its own candidates for State offices, e.g., Robert Scheer and Paul Jacobs; the national candidate might be Dick Gregory—though people in P & F have said they would run “anybody over 35” if he believes in the cardinal tenets of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and Black Power, for they want precisely to avoid personalities and to emphasize the gut issues. Some draft-resisters would support McCarthy if they felt sure that he would stop the Vietnam war.
I do not think there is anything in the usual criticism that paraelectoral politics is futile, does not affect policy, throws away votes, etc. Recent political history has shown that ads, teach-ins, demonstrations, community organizing, direct action, and going to jail do powerfully affect policy. Peace and Freedom conceives of itself as educational (being on the ballot, it will get TV time), and as being a gadfly to force candidates of the major parties to answer pointed questions and to drive them to more radical positions. Historically, this strategy has certainly worked in American politics, as is shown by the fact that most of the planks of the Socialist party in 1912 eventually became the law of the land. Besides, if, as is usual, an election really poses no issues or if elected officials are institutionally powerless to make meaningful changes, then to vote for major candidates, or perhaps to vote at all, is evil in itself, because it legitimizes the status quo. Non-voting, however, should be aggressive, with picketing, and, if possible, massive.
But I object to the politics of most of the Movement on a different ground. To concentrate exclusively on “gut” issues is to be finally irrelevant and, paradoxically, merely symbolic. Gut issues like the draft, police brutality, or rent gouging are, of course, prima facie and must be met; they create hot commitment and solidarity; they might have some immediate tangible payoff. But they do not address the tremendous questions of our times which will determine our fate including the fate of the gut issues—How to prevent nuclear war? How to avert ecological catastrophe? How to use modern technology? What to automate and what not to automate? What and how to decentralize? What should Research and Development policy be? What is a possible structure of mass education that will not process and brainwash? What kind of help ought to be given to under developed regions? How to cope with galloping urbanization? How to weaken the nation states? These are issues of high politics that require patient inquiry, debate, and professional knowledge. Hot commitment will not take us far. The global answer of the insurrectionists that all these puzzles will be quickly or gradually solved when we “build socialism” is not serious. The issues are more pressing than that; and in these matters, actual “socialist” societies have either not yet really come to the crisis of modern times or they are as stupid as we are. (I do not mean by this that corporate capitalism does not have its specific ways of preventing solutions.) It is understandable that poor blacks are hung up on gut issues; they cannot afford to worry about atom bombs, etc., though of course they should. But it is disgusting that Peace and Freedom, Students for a Democratic Society, and the rest of the bright and lively youth of the affluent majority cannot look further. The only issue of high politics that they have persistently explored is how to recapture democratic participation, that is, populism itself. No doubt the fault belongs with my own generation, which sold out in various ways, taught nothing, has provided no relevant program. What a pity it would be if this most promising political opening throughout the world should come to nothing because of ignorance!
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