Saturday, May 10, 2008

Democratic Social Engineering

What follows should floor you.

It is totally blowing my mind:

Excerpt from William Graebner’s book The Engineering of Consent: Democracy and Authority in Twentieth Century America, pages 9 and 10.


Convinced that morality and religion could no longer serve as the foundation for a stable and productive social order, the founding fathers institutionalized democratic authority. The doctrine of consent was thus politicized - transferred to the arena of politics and stripped of religious meaning. As the nineteenth century wore on, more and more Americans would give their consent by voting for their representative.

Yet this democratization of authority was carried out with great caution. Fearful of majority rule, the founding fathers decentralized power, placing it in the states rather than the national government. A system of checks and balances ensured that the whims of the majority would have to run a gauntlet of Senate, president, and judiciary before having the force of law. To buttress this written Constitution, James Madison developed a theory of "factions" that advocated the dispersion of power over a wide geographical area in order to prevent conglomerations of influence inimical to order and stability.

The problem, as Sheldon Wolin has put it, "was to secure a steady and continuous flow of legitimacy from the people without promoting steady and continuous interference by the people.

" In the nineteenth century democratic state, this was accomplished through John Locke's "thin theory of legitimacy." Under Locke's theory, the people granted their consent to government only in periodic elections while at the same time- in the same act - relinquishing control of administrative and decision-making functions. Superior, perhaps, to Thomas Hobbes's notion that consent could be given by "a single act of consent registered in one moment of time," Locke's idea of legitimacy nonetheless did not allow for extensive citizen participation in the workings of government.

Yet there was something radical in the very idea of consent, for once its theoretical legitimacy had been granted it was difficult to circumscribe its applications. If consent by the vote was essential to political legitimacy, why might not other forms of consent -administrative consent, for example -also be justifiable? Similarly, if voting was so vital, then perhaps all persons-women, blacks, and the poor as well as white males with property -should have the suffrage." In short, the logic of consent led to wholly new realms of consent and, therefore, to efforts to coopt or contain that consent.

The late-nineteenth-century emergence of democratic social engineering might, on the one hand, be understood as the working out of this "logic of consent" or, on the other hand, as an effort to locate authority outside the more threatening sphere of democratic politics. In any event, democratic social engineering involved, in part, a two-stage historical process through which the device of political consent was applied in new and nonpolitical spheres. In the first stage, the doctrine of consent was applied to the larger entity of "society"; that is, society itself was conceptualized as the critical mechanism of order and stability. In the second stage, the locus of consent was shifted from society to the family and other small groups, social microcosms that functioned, in a way, as surrogates for the whole society.

Although this transfer of authority to the social realm would take place with dramatic speed in the late nineteenth century, the idea of an essentially nonpolitical, social authority had been understood for some time. Within political philosophy, Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jeremy Bentham had all argued that society could be understood as distinct from political arrangements and yet be invested with an effective authority.

Opinion, reputation, private groups- these forms of society, for Locke, were the stuff of authority; rather than risk disapproval, people would conform. Rousseau's contribution was in part to develop the Lockean notion of social authority into a principle of openness. In Rousseau's ideal society, every act would be viable and open to scrutiny. Transgressors would not be punished but prevented from wrongdoing by an overarching, social system of observation.


This book is like "taking the red pill." to use a metaphor from The Matrix.
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