Dewey on the “Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business”

I was skimming my archive and came across this wonderful essay from Dewey.

John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, democratic socialist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. A well-known public intellectual, he was also a major voice of progressive education and liberalism.

John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 6: 1931-1932

The Breakdown of the Old Order (Pgs. 161-164)

I said in my previous article, published last week in the New Republic, that present politics is wholly out of line and out of touch with the realities of American life, that it is bound up with the interests of production, of industry, transportation and finance, in separation from the needs and problems of consumption and the standard of living. As I am writing, I find a vivid picture in the Sunday magazine section of the New York Times of the state of affairs in Washington, painted by an unusually keen and shrewd observer, Ann O’Hare McCormick. She finds the prevailing physical fog there to be symbolic of a mental and moral fog that obscures from the denizens of the Capitol and the White House all vision of the realities of the country. “An economic earthquake has struck the world… Changes of the most baffling character are taking place in the structure of society, and more than anywhere else in the structure of American society… And so far as you can see and hear, no real sense of these events has penetrated the capital… It is the sense of reality that is missing from this scene, the sense of participation in human experience. It is a place where everything is expressed and nothing is felt, a place where all the emotions are vicarious emotions, a place where all thoughts are clichés.”

“The whole effect is histrionic, shoddy, empty of life… The world of politics is lost in the fog is creates… The old iron dome is a kind of last refuge from the reality, but the refugees have a growing fear that they are missing something big.” While the “world is turning somersaults, the politicians are living in the future, in the next campaign; and at the same time living in the past.” It is no wonder that everything is confused and complicated. “What appears on the surface is too trivial or too intricate fro warfare on the epic scale… Nobody remembers when so many conflicts broke at once and when the sides were so tangled up and so indistinct… All the deadlocks, mergers, sub-mergers, strategies, party slogans, interchangeable Lefts and Rights, sound hollow because they are hollow; there is no body to them, certainly, no soul.” The only remaining reality is that next election, and consistent thought is given only to trying to guess the effect of this and that measure and strategy upon the voter. It is, if I may paraphrase, a struggle for immediate power with no one having any idea of what is to be done with the power if it is gained – except to use again in the next election.

I have ventured to quote scattered statements at considerable length because the picture of the immediate situation in Washington is typical. The condition at Washington reflects accurately the condition of politics throughout the country. The former has nothing to do with the realities of American life because the latter is completely our of connection. The situation explains the discontent and disgust of the people with the old parties and it constitutes the opportunity for a new party. We have long been told that politics is unimportant, that government is merely a drag and an interference; that the captains of industry and finance are the wise ones, the leaders in whose hands the fortunes of the country are safely entrusted.

The persons who keep reiterating such sayings forget, they try to conceal from view, that the confusion, the perplexity, the triviality, the irrelevance, of politics at Washington merely reflect the bankruptcy of industrial “leadership”, just as politics in general is an echo, except when it is an accomplice, of the interests of big business. The deadlocks and the impotence of Congress are definitively the mirror of the demonstrated incapacity of the captains of industry and finance to conduct the affairs of the country prosperously as an incident tot he process of feathering their own nests. It would be ludicrous, were it not tragic, to believe that an appeal to the unregulated activities of those who have got us into the present crisis will get us out of it, provided they are relived from the incubus of political action. The magic of eating a hair of the dog which bit you in order to cure hydrophobia is as nothing to the magic involved in the belief that those who have privilege and power will remedy the breakdown they have created. As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance. The only remedy is new political action based on social interests and realities.

When the country was enjoying what was called prosperity, the doctrine that big industrialists are the true guardians of the welfare of society in general had a temporary appeal. It is hard to imagine any doctrine more inept that his is now, when such “leadership” has brought the country to the present impasse, marked by widespread human woe. The wise and powerful leaders are still disputing among themselves how the present crisis came about; they assign this and that cause. They have no idea how it will last or how we shall get out of it. They are gambling with chance; they put their faith in the bling goddess of luck. They could not, most of them, even guess right on their specialty, the stock market. Their pretension to social leadership has been exploded. The bursting of the leaded shell has left loss and ruin behind.

Keep in mind that this was written in the early 1930’s, yet it reads like a modern editorial on the current political situation.

Not much as changed.

Thanks for reading,

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