Pragmatism Against the American Grain

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John Dewey (Wikimedia Commons)


Alasdair MacIntyre is the rare ex-Marxist who did not morph into a neoconservative. He is hard to place on the commonplace Left-Right political axis because he has rejected the modern assumptions common to both its poles. Still, as a kind of anti-capitalist radical, he remains convinced that Marxism is a source of indispensable critical insights into the nature of capitalism and how it functions as the engine of both oppression and alienation. Marx-as-prognosticator, however, as opposed to Marx-as-critic, did not fare as well for MacIntyre — if Marx in fact had any ambitions to be prescient about the details of how revolutionary praxis will actually prevail.

Leon Trotsky is the hinge-figure in MacIntyre’s critique of Marxism as a political program. In opposition to Stalin, Trotsky held fast to Marx’s own historical analyses, from the rejection of the idea of “socialism in one country” to the conviction that successful communist revolution would happen if and only if certain material conditions, such as the final overproduction crisis of capitalism and the actual “withering away” of the socialist state, came to pass. MacIntyre concluded that Trotsky’s predictive failure also signals Marx’s failure as a reliable guide to political and economic revolutionary praxis:

Trotsky, in the very last years of his life, facing the question of whether the Soviet Union was in any sense a socialist country, also faced implicitly the question of whether the categories of Marxism could illuminate the future. He himself made everything turn on the outcome of a set of hypothetical predictions which were only tested after Trotsky’s death. The answer that they returned was clear: Trotsky’s own premises entailed that the Soviet Union was not socialist and that the theory which was to have illuminated the path to human liberation had in fact led into darkness. (After Virtue, pp. 261–2)

I think that The United States of America has its own Trotsky: John Dewey. I also realize that this claim is, on the face of it, outrageous. Dewey was a radical, but not a revolutionary. He was a pragmatist, which is assumed to be the “indigenous national philosophy” of the USA. And it is important to note that Deweyan pragmatism, like Jamesian and Peircean pragmatism, was not just a euphemism for capitalist complacency or unprincipled expediency, about which more later. Yet contrary to the surface outrageousness I shall contend that Dewey’s political outlook and social hopes functioned in a manner similar to Trotsky’s speculative tests for the genuineness of Soviet socialism. And just as Trotsky’s predictions failed to materialize, so did Dewey’s vision for liberal republican democracy in the USA. Far from being “a light unto the nations”, the United States of America is afflicted with a kind of political and social blindness, one which obliterates its better nature, and which is profoundly anti-pragmatic, in Dewey’s terms. How, and why?


The key Deweyan text here is Individualism Old and New (1930). Here Dewey defends liberal democratic individualism while isolating a feature of classical liberalism that he finds problematic: its social atomism, the idea that the state mediates between individuals who pursue their own self-interests by providing a mechanism for ensuring that self-interested individuals do not crush others. Dewey thinks that this sort of individualism is a cultural disaster for democracy — it is a culture of private pecuniary gain that pits individual against individual. Ironically, it also gives rise to a corporate society where individuality is lost in impersonal associations geared toward “return on investment”, heedless of the communal bonds that give shape and substance to individuality. Dewey is railing against what the political theorist C.B. Macpherson later called “possessive individualism”, and demonstrates that this feature of classical liberalism is not only not inimical to “mass society” but actively promotes it, a judgment that MacIntyre also shares.

Unlike MacIntyre, Dewey does not reject liberalism root-and-branch: he wishes to reformulate it for a modern age. He wishes to rehabilitate the democratic and republican aspects of liberal republican democracy, while retaining the liberal respect for the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the rights of individuals against the state. Liberal individualism revised in this way acknowledges that individuals and social groups exist in a kind of dialectic. To use Michael Sandel’s terminology in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, the Deweyan self is not “unencumbered” but constituted by its social relations, while recognizing that these relations can be re-thought and revised by the individual participants in a democracy. The problem with corporate society is that the bureaucratic decision-making endemic to it is governed by haphazard responses to threats to the interests of capital. It lurches from crisis to crisis, with both individuality and communal bonds and practices being ignored as irrelevant to short-term corporate concerns. It distributes wealth and income unjustly, but more importantly it alienates social individuality by turning citizens into producer-consumers, mere cogs in an impersonal machine.

Dewey’s proposed solution to this is a form of participatory, deliberative democracy — the de-corporatization of liberalism — wedded to social democracy or democratic socialism. The social sphere needs to re-establish dominance over the economic, by intelligently guiding economic activity to broader social ends than the accumulation of wealth. A pecuniary society only serves to generate a rat-race where some rats will always dominate over others. Dewey’s vision is of a liberal democratic polity where there are no rats.

It is clear, to me at least, that while Dewey thought this kind of social-individualism, where the good of the many conditions and is conditioned by the good of the individual, is far from the status quo, it was clearly on the horizon. There is no historical inevitability in Deweyan pragmatism, as in Marx and Hegel, since the human future is a matter of intelligent action in the present, rather than impersonal forces of Geist or a materialist dialectic. But Dewey not only understood the new social-individualism as a desideratum but as an ideal toward which we in industrial societies seem to be evolving. It is what you get when intelligent action is both socialized and individualized. It is pragmatically justified, not for its expediency, but for its ability to realize the ends that make for human flourishing, the moral and aesthetic aspects of human growth, and “the unforced flowers of life.” And I think this defines what Dewey meant by “pragmatism”: not calculating self-interest, not mere expediency, but intelligent participation in a society geared to shared purposes and joys.


There is much to criticize here, but also much to admire. I think Dewey’s achievement in Individualism Old and New, as well as other political writings like Liberalism and Social Action and The Public and its Problems, was to have advocated a certain kind of democratic culture as essential to functional liberal republican democracies. He stands in a broad tradition, whose mainstays include Emerson, Whitman, and Lincoln, that champions this sort of culture above mere acquisitiveness and the Hobbesian free-for-all. It is a hardcore rejection of possessive individualism.

Unfortunately, this appeal to pragmatic, democratic culture has had, is having, and (absent major cultural changes) will continue to have a hard time getting a foothold in the United States, because “possessive individualism” is baked into it from its origins. Despite its reputation, pragmatism, in its most coherent sense, is not “the quintessential American philosophy.” Acquisitive expediency, the “old” individualism, is. Pragmatism actually runs against the American grain.

It is hard to know where to start with this contention, so let me arbitrarily begin at the beginning with the Founders. While there is much to admire about the Founders, there is a persistent hagiography surrounding them, which needs to be ditched. They were not giants among men. They were men (and white European males to boot, but that’s another topic); they had their flaws, moral and intellectual, and suffered from the kind of selective blindness that afflicts all of us from time to time. One such blindness was the incompatibility between possessive individualism and the specifics of their democratic and republican political aims. Consider the following three Founders for an illustration of this point.

Alexander Hamilton is much in vogue these days, but equally as misunderstood. He was not just a federalist (obviously) but a strong believer in a national state. Government is useless if it is not effective, and effectiveness entails both economic and administrative power. His pro-government stance, however, is thoroughly different from that championed by present-day liberals, who, as Franklin Roosevelt once put it, harness Hamiltonian means toward Jeffersonian ends. The role of the state is to foster the interests of wealth and economic growth, i.e., the interests of capital and, therefore, the interests of capitalists, especially in finance. It would be hard to come up with a better example of a Marxist villain, one who self-consciously views the state as the organ of the ruling class. His view of the state is one of effectiveness, but not of democratic accountability. Participatory democracy was a horror to him. He is, I think the chief American advocate of the “corporate”, top-down administered society that Dewey abhorred. John Jay, a Federalist in the Hamiltonian tradition, once quipped that “those who own the country ought to run it.” Whenever you hear the old saw “Government ought to be run like a business”, think of Hamilton, and see the engine of possessive individualism at work, albeit only for a specific group of individuals — the rich devotees of capital and its constant expansion. Hamilton may not himself have had strong sympathies toward extravagance and luxury, but the outcome of his political philosophy is the origin of plutocracy, in our day the tacit rule of the Mercers and Kochs and Zuckerbergs. Strike one for Deweyan pragmatism.

Thomas Jefferson was, in many ways, the antithesis of Hamilton: as keen on French-style republicanism as Lockean liberalism, a champion of the common everyman, suspicious of wealth and the interests of industrial and finance capitalism. He is often construed as a proto-social-democrat, playing a kind of crypto-Marxian hero to Hamilton’s villain. (Dewey himself even thought highly of Jefferson.) But I think this is a mistake, and not just because he was a slave-owner and a wealthy agrarian grandee. For all his debts to Montesquieu and Thomas Reid, he remained a Lockean at heart: “That government governs best that governs least.” This laissez-faire attitude toward government was tempered by his republicanism, his vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers linked together by a shared sense of public allegiance. But this position makes not only the state limited, but government ineffective — it misses Dewey’s central insights that individuality and sociality take in each other’s wash, and that government is good only if it is both effective and accountable. Furthermore, Jefferson’s version of possessive individualism, where what is possessed is agricultural property and the possessors free independent citizens, is workable only if there is enough available arable land in which to spread out. It is no accident that Jefferson, the “small government” republican, was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase and the greatest expansion of US territory, despite his announced sympathies for “smallness”. (So much for the Native Americans.) Viewed thus, Jeffersonian republicanism was less a plea for egalitarian reform than a consolidation of power by landed wealth, easily adaptable for anyone of European descent who needs land to prosper, never mind who inhabits said land. Just as John Jay’s explicit defense of plutocracy stands in a line of direct descent from Hamiltonian Federalism, Andrew Jackson’s racist populism and territorial expansionism is a consequence of Jefferson’s individualism. Strike two for Dewey.

James Madison’s constitutionalism seems to be a maneuver to bypass these two forms of possessive individualism through procedural means. (It might be useful to think of Madison as a Rawlsian before the letter, but that’s probably a stretch.) The American Constitution is designed to set one Federal power against another — executive vs. legislative, Senate against the House of Representatives — so no interest group gets the upper hand over the other. Moreover the Constitution is vague enough to be interpreted to suit changing times by the Judiciary. Times may wax and wane Hamiltonian, then Jeffersonian, maybe a Rooseveltian hybrid of the two, but the Constitution is designed to handle this kind of oscillation. This does not so much circumvent possessive individualism and the power of “vested interests” as leave it just intact enough for self-interested actors to play it to their advantage. The Supreme Court has, in a way, always been politicized, since everyone has a “comprehensive doctrine” in Rawls’s sense, and under a regime of possessive individualism one is under no compunction not to “rig the system” if one has the opportunity. The present state of SCOTUS, given the refusal to consider the candidacy of Merrick Garland, is perhaps only the most glaring example of this kind of manipulative chicanery. T.S. Eliot, by no means a friend to liberal republican democracy, made a relevant point when he criticized those who desired “systems so perfect no one needs to be good.” I think this was precisely the aim of Madison’s proceduralism, and the reason it has become so rickety today: it is easy to game that system, any system, if you are clever and unscrupulous enough, A purely “procedural republic”, which I think was the upshot of Madison’s constitutionalism, is hardly a republic at all. Strike three.


This conclusion is, perhaps, overly bleak. As I alluded to before, there is a counter-tradition in American political culture, with some shallow roots in both Adams’s “low” federalism and Paine’s radical democacy, and deeper roots in the anti-acquisitive politics of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson, that takes aim at possessive individualism with an eye towards establishing a genuinely democratic culture. Dewey stands squarely within this counter-tradition, as do James and, to a lesser extent, Peirce. But it is important to recognize that this is a counter-tradition, far from the mainstream. To implement it would require re-thinking and re-booting the American polity. It would require not only a rejection of Trumpism — obviously — but a rejection of neoliberalism and the cult of wealth. It would require a rejection of constricted loyalties and the inclusion of everybody into the public community of fellow citizens — gay or straight, cis or trans, black or brown or white, rich or poor or middling, city or country or suburb, etc. — whether you individually “like” them or not. It would be a rejection of the despotic rule of capital not only over labor but over all the “unforced flowers of human life” that Dewey saw as the goal and fruition of public experience.

It would, in effect, be the dawn of a Second American Republic. The prospects for this are, to put it mildly, bleak. But remember Gramsci’s aphorism: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. The origins of democratic culture lie not in intellect but in aspiration, in trust and hope.

Have a good Independence Day. Resist.

Written by

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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