Radical Upheavals in the Sixties and Since: Illusion and Reality
By: Langdon Winner
[A talk given at the Conference on Politics without Illusion, Revolution Without Violence, International Jacques Ellul Society, Berkeley July 6, 2016]
Today we often hear news that someone has been “radicalized on the Internet.” Well, I was radicalized in Berkeley during the Sixties.
My comments today are the reflections of one who graduated from The University of California 50 years ago. The focusing lens for my remarks is Jacques Ellul’s work The Political Illusion.
As I prepared this talk, I thought, well, I certainly must read the book again and compare my response now to what I could remember about my impressions back then. I went to my library was pleased to find the very copy of The Political Illusion I’d read in summer of 1967. It was filled with extensive marginal notes, ones that revealed what I was thinking as I struggled with Ellul’s unsettling challenge.
At the time I was living in Washington D.C. -- a long haired Bay Area hippie, U.C. political science grad student, anti-Vietnam war demonstrator, frequent presence at psychedelic rock concerts, and also a student intern in the Pentagon working in the office of Army Chief of Information, i.e. Propaganda. Back then a profile of that kind was called “heightening the contradictions.”
Going through the pages of my old copy of The Political Illusion this spring, I was interested to see that many of my jottings were written in the characteristic dialect of the time. For example, in the chapter on “The Necessary and The Ephemeral,” Ellul argues, “How can people fail to see that liberty requires integration into a continuity, a genuine basis in reality obtained in very different ways than through ‘information.’ As radical as it may appear, I am not afraid …to claim that a man who reads his paper every day is certainly not a free person.”
Next to that passage young Langdon had written: “Ellul is far out!”
Actually, two of his earlier books published in the U.S.– The Technological Society and Propaganda – had already made a deep impression on me. The Technological Society was ultimately the work that paved the road from my study of conventional political theory to a lifelong engagement with questions about technology and politics. More than anything else, Ellul’s writing helped give me the courage to move beyond the pale progress talk that that filled scholarly writings in the social sciences and humanities during that period.
Reading The Political Illusion now as well and reviewing my marginal notes, its clear that the book was in its basic features fully in tune with the temper the time. Among the general upheavals of Berkeley in the Sixties were the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, student revolt, rise of the hippies with all the music, ideas and cultural trappings involved, arrival of the Black Panthers, along with the early rumblings of the ecology movement, feminist movement, movement of people with disabilities, as well as surfacing of the LGBTQ community.
In many ways questions posed in The Political Illusion were central to concerns of that decade. The political crucible of the New Left stoked widespread desire to explore and develop new modes of politics, community and citizenship beyond the dreary formats of the two party system and the deeply conflicted agendas of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society’. In its basic themes, Ellul’s book was definitely in the zone.
This is not to say that the book was a favorite among new left activists. Other key writings of the period, C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd attracted a much broader audience. My guess as to why The Political Illusion did not “catch on,” as it were, was that it staunchly refused to offer simple answers to the questions it posed and the criticisms it launched. Above all did not offer a clear radical or utopian vision to help people of the time resolve the issues they faced or believed they faced. The insistent flow of Ellul’s book carries the reader in directions that are not easily packaged as a program, a movement or a clear road map for building a better society. Indeed, many of his arguments strongly suggest that measures favored by young activists were not only bound to fail, but actually mirror the very evils they were railing against. In that sense, The Political Illusion was perhaps more radical in its understanding of politics and society than radicals of the day could handle.
For example, a common feature of student uprisings on college campuses at the time was to seek the validation of television in the struggles of the day. “The whole world is watching” was a common chant and, in fact, demonstrators in Sproul Plaza would often leave the day’s battle with campus cops and administrators to go back to their apartments and watch themselves on TV. Using the media to spread images of protest would, many of us believed, would alter people to the problems at hand and move public opinion in favorable directions. And there was always “Hey, there I am on the screen!” response, a sure sign that one’s own role was highly significant. Of course, a key argument in Elull’s book is that action that seeks confirmation in information systems or in waves of public opinion is futile to its core and tends simply to reinforce patterns of state power, a lesson perhaps even more painfully evident today than in the Sixties.
Looking back on the evidence from my own jottings, I am reminded that despite its relative lack of significance as a text for the student movement, The Political Illusion was significant within another domain of my political education . Much of the substance of the discussion is Ellul’s commentary on twentieth century European and American social science, the very stuff I was studying in my seminars and preparation for doctoral qualifying exams. It happens that Ellul had closely followed the prominent works in sociology, political science, psychology, communications studies, and the like. But what he took away from the various theories and empirical findings was usually far removed from what the authors intended.
Much social scientific research in the post World War II decades sought to show how the volatilities of mass society and the excesses of fascism and communism that had erupted earlier in the century, could now be avoided, replaced by reasonable, well-grounded forms of democratic politics and government. Equipped with new knowledge and new technique, modern institutions would produce wonders of stability, rationality, and responsiveness. That was the prevailing view.
Without distorting the conceptual or empirical foundations of studies in this genre, Ellul argues that a deeper understanding of the classics twentieth century social science reveals varieties of domination, oppression and disconnection from reality that emerge within the newly refurbished institutions of political society. In much the same way that Marx claimed to have turned “Hegel on his head,” Ellul takes the corpus of mid twentieth century social science research and turns it on its head, revealing not the realm of enlightenment and progress its writers hoped to reveal, but a kind of twilight zone in which benighted souls wander helplessly in search of meaning, happiness and security.
In political science at that the time a key quest was to shed light on pluralist forms modern democracy, ones based upon economic, social and cultural interest groups engaged in the push and pull of electoral outcomes and intricate negotiations of policy shaping. Distinctly American versions of the story, the Yale School of political science for example, welcomed the structures and dynamics of late twentieth century political society as the maturation of democracy, an accomplishment enriched by supportive environs of electronic media, social psychology, public relations, methods of opinion polling, and improved practices in public administration.
Within the lively interactions of key interest groups and voting blocks in political pluralism, conflict would happen in ways that produced sensible accommodation achieved through graduated incrementalism. With increasingly thorougy penetration of society by radio and television, there would arise a public much better informed about public affairs.
And within legislatures and bureaucracies leaven by the refined methods of social science, intelligent, well-balanced policy outcomes were assured.
For many of us studying politics and sociology during the 1960s this tidy picture of political pluralism was notable for what it left out. At the top of our list of qualms was the almost total absence of any role for citizenship in the various models of democracy widely heralded as cutting edge political science. “Doesn’t democracy have to do with self-governance?” we asked. Where in this picture are citizen participation and genuine political freedom?
While some of our faculty mentors found such questions interesting, a many of them were outraged at their students effrontery. “Don’t you understand?” they would say. “The well developed patterns of structure and process we’ve described are what mature, representative democracy is all about.”
Nevertheless, among a good number of undergrad and grad students, the feeling grew that the pungent criticisms of Students for a Democratic Society about participatory democracy and social justice were more to the point.
What kind of democracy is it that excludes the vital, authentic unscripted political activity of everyday people?
Entirely similar concerns are central to Ellul’s critique of the social scientists. Within their rigor he detected a good amount of mortis. Thus, his chapter on “Participation” takes note of the ways in which leading social scientists of the day were busily advocating principles quite far removed from genuine democracy. One writer he finds especially noteworthy is Seymour Martin Lipset, U.C. Berkeley sociologist, author of the acclaimed book Political Man and a formidable presence on the Berkeley campus during the Sixties. Ellul had obviously read the man’s work and summarizes its position succinctly.
“There still remains Seymour Martin Lipset’s theory; a group of associations of oligarchic character contributes to maintaining democracy. For society to be democratic, it is not necessary that the democratic rule be applied inside the organisms that constitute it. Unions, for example, represent the general interest of their members, who do better by joining unions than by remaining at the mercy of industry) … all the associations combined represent the divergent interests of all society; whereas every one of these associations limits the individual’s freedom, it gives the leaders a much greater real freedom.”
At that point Ellul offers a wry comment. “This conception of democracy is really very touching, for it literally reproduces the description of feudal society.”
Throughout ongoing series of commentaries in this vein, Ellul gently rips apart many of the central ideas and arguments of the disciplines. To use a legal metaphor, his careful rendering of social scientists’ own apologies for the condition of contemporary democracy amounts to using the best evidence for the defense as the center of a pungent argument for the prosecution. The thrust of Ellul’s position is that what are ostensibly open, democratic institutions achieve a certain “political autonomy” that makes them unrepresentative and unresponsive to the needs of the populace. His concept of “autonomy” here means that key institutions of decision-making and administration have become things unto themselves with internal dynamics of their own. Organizations both within and around the modern are tightly closed, largely immune to any outside influence, especially that of lowly everyday citizens.
How do these matters look today? Even a quick scan of our politics shows the substance of Ellul’s mid-century warnings confirmed in at least two important ways. First, one can note the rigorous, data driven analyses of leading political scientists. Deploying state of the art quantitative methods, Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page have demonstrated that the preferences of middle and low income people in the U.S. have no influence in actual policy making. Zero, nada, zilch! What matters in actual practice are only the preferences of the rich, the top socio-economic layers of political society. That’s what the surveys and analyses clearly demonstrate. As Gillens and Page summarize the implications of their massive study, they carefully conclude: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” (That about says it.)
A second way in which Ellul’s misgivings are now confirmed is evident in a number of prominent political eruptions in the U.S. and Europe where grievances about entrench oligarchy have become a common rallying cry. The Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and 2012 -- as well as the revolt of the indignatos in Spain that preceded them – were outbreaks of widespread unrest. More recently the themes of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016 have carried awareness of oligarchy and its grim consequences for jobs, income, health care, education, pervasive inequality, and student debt onto center stage of American politics. Senator Sanders and his followers are convinced that the U.S. needs nothing less than “a political revolution.”
In somewhat similar respects, Donald Trump’s campaign, with all its bigotry, racism and xenophobia, appeals to millions of people who feel the system isn’t working for them. Reports on about rapidly widening gaps of inequality in wealth and income in the U.S.A. are now common in print, television and Internet political commentaries. Looking across the Atlantic, especially the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, one finds the widespread conviction that distant, unresponsive, self-interested bureaucrats in Brussels have lost touch with the needs and desires of everyday people and serve only the interests of bankers and billionaires. As we observe these signs of an unhappy, restless populations, Ellul’s diagnoses of the maladies modern political society seem not only confirmed, but increasingly prophetic.
The question in America right now is whether voters will again buy the threadbare neoliberal canard that technological innovation and renewed economic growth automatically will automatically generate a better way of life? Or will people rise in revolt as they realize that promises of this kind are an illusion propagated by cloistered, self-interested elites in Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley? As people ponder the economic, technological, ideological, and political landscape that confronts them these days, a good many of them are eager to say, “Frankly, we’re not buying it.” Much of the energy of politics in 2016 involves eruptions of this kind, a disturbing genie that politicians, businessmen and figures in the corporate media now frantically struggle to put back in the bottle. In the current issue of the Atlantic, there is a long article by Jonathan Rauch lamenting the fact that the people have lost faith in “the political class.” His essay along with a recent pieces by Andrew Sullivan argue that today the problem is, sad to say, too much democracy.
Looking back to the 1960s, its possible that concerns in Ellul’s Political Illusion had less affinity with the specific agendas of the New Left than with those of another movement brewing at the time, one that eventually came to be known as “the counter-culture.” Resonance of this kind can be found throughout the book. A particularly revealing passage is one in which Ellul’s argues that theory of economic alienation in Marx along with remedies of economic democracy proposed on the Left no longer describe a much deeper predicament that faces humanity. The economic, political, technological, informational order that envelops social life infects people’s very souls and neutralizes their best inclinations, their ability to think and act in meaningful ways. He writes, “Now the problem is for the powers that be … to possess man internally, to organize fake appearances of liberty resting on fundamental alienation, … to fabricate false appearances of personality resting on integration and radical massification.”
If those words had been sung with suitable guitar feedback at Filmore Auditorium concert in the late 1960s, we hippies might have exclaimed, “Oh wow, man, that’s so heavy…”
It’s true that Ellul does not go so far as to advocate out mass revolt against ways of living built on materialism, consumerism, conformity and a hollow happiness, but his book suggests that an uprising of that sort would be fully justified. His brief comments throughout the book, especially the chapter on “Man and Democracy” offer the outlines of what an appropriate response would be.
He insists that any aware, thoughtful person needs to step outside the stagnant oppressive economic, political and technological milieu that claims one’s being and to begin life anew. The problems in modern politics are far deeper, more systematic than any obvious malfunctions in governance. One must find ways to reclaim and revitalize one’s basic humanity and restore the manifold promise of social relationships.
When I first read Ellul’s advice in the 1960s what stood out was what I took to be its tone of stern, elevated, moral, individualism. Some of my marginal notes suggest that I found the book rather cloying, something of a “downer.” More appealing were the writings, songs, and festivals that held out the promise of a happy community – “peace, love and good vibes” -- Ecotopia perhaps. On my reading of his words this spring, however, I noticed what the younger me had missed: Ellul’s insistence that a genuinely democratic politics must engage the classic question: How are we to live together?
Steps toward that end, in his view, begin with the identification and open discussion of what he calls “tensions” in society, ones that divide people one from another and yet offer a opportunities for dialog, mutual respect and common action. Instances of significant tension from earlier periods of history include the tension between church and state, between the bourgeoisie and laboring people. He implies that people today would have to identify significant tensions of the present day, points of “differentiation” and possible contention within the sphere of inter-personal relationships. Involved here would be concerted effort to rescue the powers of language and reason from the toxic fog that surrounds the technological systems and mass media of the modern state.
He writes, “The common measures of what we have to say to one another and of what makes communication possible, of what we jointly have to live for … must be constantly rediscovered and recreated.”
“We must understand that democracy is always infinitely precarious and mortally endangered by every new progress. It must be forever started again, rethought, reconstructed, begun again.”
What Jacques Ellul offers, then, is a very stern challenge, one that sets a very high bar for the attainment of anything remotely resembling a democratic way of life. He is not especially optimistic that his generation or any later ones will be able to realize it. Unlike the comforting nostrums offered by politicians and social scientists, he depicts democracy as something extremely difficult to attain, something often advertised but seldom realized, something extremely fragile and always subject to abuse.
He writes: “If man were left to himself -- his inclinations, his responsibilities, his personal choices, on his own level, without systematic influence, propaganda, “human relations,” group dynamics, obligatory information, directed leisure, then slowly, humbly, modestly, democracy might perhaps be born.” To which he adds: “But how newborn, how weak and fragile it would be!”
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To conclude, I want to add a brief historical coda. Our meeting takes place in the Heyns Room, named for Roger Heyns, Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley during the late 1960s. He is perhaps best know for his opposition to the peaceful occupation by students and towns people of People’s Park, a plot of land south of campus, still there, that the university had slated for development as an apartment complex.
At the climax of a series of tumultuous events in May 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan called in the police to remove the occupiers. At that moment Chancellor Heyns, bless his heart, abruptly skipped town, leaving the protesters to face a barrage of shotgun bullets that killed one man, blinded another and sent scores to the hospital.
The demonstrations (in which I participated) ended with the first and only aerial attack on a civilian population in American history, tear gas spread over the campus by a helicopter. A photo of that event appears on the Ellul Society’s web page for this meeting.
I mention this story to indicate how even a place of scholarly gathering and quiet reflection like this on can bear the stain of the kinds oppression that Ellul’s book so eloquently describes, forms of power and violence that confront us to this day.
Peace be with you.