Participation in America

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Authority by Richard Sennett
    Secker, 206 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 436 44675 8

De Tocqueville feared, not for the failure of democracy in America, but for its success: not, like so many of his French contemporaries, for its propensity to release an unbridled égoisme, but for its propensity to ‘unbend the springs of action’ altogether. The citizen of the new republic, as Tocqueville saw him, ‘exists only in himself and for himself’; he neither sees nor feels the others; he is, in this chilly sense, free. But if he is not at once paralysed by the vast possibilities thereby opened up to him, he soon becomes perplexed by the problems of realising any of them alone. Born free, chained, and then re-freed, he is again constrained by the very lack of constraint.

This, of course, is a conservative view, although it is compatibly socialist too. Yet despite the inability of even the most reflective Americans to think in anything but liberal terms (however ingenious they may be, as Louis Hartz once so cleverly showed, in deploying those terms), it is a view which continues to haunt them. Perhaps Tocqueville was right? Perhaps it really is the case that the most nearly liberal society is one in which the promise of such a society is paradoxically preempted? Perhaps a strong and distinctively public sociability, or even a sociability which overrides the very distinction between public and private, is a condition, not merely of order, but of an expressive energy which makes order and freedom itself worth having? Richard Sennett believes that it is.

As he has explained in what he has written about Chicago and about the bewildered self-contempt of blue-collar workers in Boston in the late 1960s, and as he has most elaborately argued in The Fall of Public Man, Sennett believes that the collapse of an imaginatively and practically robust public life in the United States has left a narcissistic incapacity to do anything except bemusedly and confusedly stare at the dead letter of individualism. With a gentleness rare in prophets, a tone indeed as well as a conviction like Tocqueville’s own, he has now embarked upon his most extended account of this state of affairs. This book is the first of four on it. Others are promised on solitude, fraternity and ritual.

His thesis is both historical and theoretical. Historically, he claims that something has indeed changed. A capacity to accept and actually to enjoy authority, he casually asserts, disappeared with political liberalisation in the 18th century and with economic liberalisation in the 19th. Theoretically, the claim is that things could be different. They were in that community which Aristotle described – a community in which all the citizens could collect where they could see and hear each other – and they are, too, in those communities which Louis Dumont describes, with India in mind – communities in which individuals were or are not defined, even to themselves, by their individual properties at all, but by their relations with others. Sennett modestly refrains from combining these claims, either for the past or for a possible future in America itself. As many have said, the first, outside the South, is not possible, and as for the second it may always have been too late. Instead, he concentrates on the pathologies of individualism in the face of authority and the pathologies of authority in the face of individualism. He then tentatively suggests how the springs of what remains of individual action can be recoiled to remove them.

These pathologies, he believes, emerge from the apparently incontrovertible fact that ‘we’ – that is to say, an undefined population of American contemporaries – ‘feel attracted to strong figures we do not believe to be legitimate.’ These are not, though, pathologies of the rationally-confused so much as pathologies of the emotionally-disabled, not pathologies of the kind to which Locke and J.S. Mill addressed themselves (these two get extremely short shrift) but pathologies of the kind which Proust’s narrator had in mind when he said that his unreturned obsession with Albertine had produced a ‘disease of submission’. Authority is an essay in social psychology and not in political philosophy. In Sennett’s view, American disbelief in authority arises, not from a cool appraisal of rights not extended or of duties not performed, but from a considerably more confused sense of anger and shame.

These feelings are the heart of the matter, Sennett argues, because each is the natural response to the two prevailing modes of authority. Anger is the response to an ‘authority of false love’ and shame is the response to an ‘authority without love’. Authority of false love is an authority which is exercised in the name or at least with all the apparent purpose and promise of care as well as of control, but which, when the care is demanded, always fails to provide it. It is the authority, in one of Sennett’s own examples, of the paternalistic employer who, when it ceases to suit him to do so, ceases to employ his employees. Authority without love is an authority exercised in the name and with the apparent purpose of encouraging what Sennett calls ‘autonomy’ as well as of exercising control. It is the authority, again in one of his own examples, of the professional who although he may be in a position of power uses that power, over a patient or a client or an employee, to convey to the persons who are its object that they should, so to speak, stand on their own two feet and show some responsibility for themselves. In the face of the first kind of authority, its objects are angered by the ultimate lack of care. In the face of the second, they are shamed by their craving for direction. In each case, they are Hegelian slaves in a state of extremely unhappy consciousness.

In Hegel’s considerably more anguished phenomenology of the spirit reaching for a full consciousness of itself in the world of Being, such unhappiness was the penultimate state. It came from stoicism and scepticism and promised to resolve itself into a fully rational – that is to say, coherent and complete – comprehension. The promise could be realised, in Hegel’s argument could only be realised, by a prior realisation of the fact of bondage as a fact not just of social and political relations but of being human at all, a fact, so to speak, of internal relations in each one of us. Sennett, lightly if advisedly sidestepping the logical and metaphysical difficulties of this argument, nevertheless tries to take its point and ambitiously declares himself determined to ‘connect the journey of unhappy consciousness to the structure of large-scale institutions’. This connection, he suggests at the end of Authority, can be effected by ‘revising through discussion decisions which come from higher up’. That is to say, it can be effected by insisting that authority speaks with an active rather than a passive voice, that it is willing to negotiate the categories of hierarchy and even from time to time to transpose their members, and finally, that it is ready actually to talk about caring, about what he calls ‘nurturance’. Happiness, in short, is a participating person who, in participating, is able to conquer the illusions on which both perverted authority and his own fear of it rest.

As Hegel himself said of the Absolute at the end of the Phenomenology, ‘only in the end is it what it truly is.’ The same, at least this side of Athens, might be said of participation. Richard Sennett has an impressive precedent for his own final evasion. Nevertheless, he might be thought to have less excuse than Hegel, for he is too consistently evasive in his moves toward it. Hegel’s formulation and principled resolution of the problem in the Phenomenology, and his attempt, in the Philosophy of Right to give that resolution an institutional shape, to end the journey of the unhappy consciousness in the Prussian State, are notoriously difficult: but with effort they can in the widest sense as well as the narrowest be seen to have a logic to them. They can be seen to begin with an intuition about the contingent limits of self-awareness and consistently to develop this intuition by connecting it to a view of human possibility in general and of constitutional possibilities in particular, so that by the end of the Philosophy of Right one has a reasonably clear and concrete conception of what it would actually be like at once to maintain one’s liberties in a bürgerliche Gesellschaft and yet to be able to transcend them in a true, if somewhat cerebral community. One might not agree with this conception, but it is the end of a developed argument. One might not expect anyone, even anyone with Sennett’s ambition, to produce a comparably vertiginous piece of intellectual architecture, but one might expect him to make a case. Sennet does not.

He does not, it is true, expect us to travel back to some imaginary paradise of participation or to travel forward on a purely promissory note to some real state in which all the antimonies are resolved. He is not a fool. But he does in the end leave one curious as to exactly what he is talking about. For Authority is an oddly unpolitical book. It expects too much of politics and yet fails to take them seriously as politics at all. It expects too much of them in suggesting that the problem of a properly public imagination and so of a properly public life is exclusively political. It fails to take them seriously enough in failing to deal with the very possibility of differences of political belief and in failing to touch upon that largest of all large-scale institutions, the State. In the one respect it is too Greek and in the other too American. In the first respect, of course, it may suffer from being just one book in a connected set of four. In the second, however, it has to stand alone.

Sennett takes it for granted that his ‘we’ have the same beliefs and agree about the ends of life. He takes it for granted that we live in a morally unproblematic world. A distinctively American feature of this, a paradox which even Tocqueville, if understandably, quite failed to foresee, is that in a morally very self-conscious but homogeneous society with a consequent consensus on the most desirable practice, moral problems, of which political problems are a kind, cease to be seen as moral problems at all and come instead to be seen as purely psychological. Sennett has too strong a sense of his flanks to slip into an easy analogy between institutional fathers and real ones, and indeed self-consciously plays with this analogy in a nice passage, owing everything to I.A. Richards, on the amplifying power of metaphor. But his sensitivity stops far short of that point, so obvious to someone in tedious old Europe, at which it becomes clear that the state in which the only remaining problems of power are psychological is a state which lies at the end of time.

A second distinctively American feature of Authority, moreover, is that this state nowhere appears as the State. Here, Sennett does less than justice to the implications of even his own perception. For in reading the book one is struck by the clarity with which it exposes two peculiar difficulties which Americans have with their government, two difficulties which derive, perhaps like Sennett’s own silence, from the more fundamental difficulty of facing up to it as a government at all. If one can generalise at the level allowed by Authority itself, these are of requiring permission to be autonomous but of hating being required to be, and of wanting care but of hating both wanting it and not having it. As anyone who has been to a Massachusetts town meeting can see, Sennett’s prescription of participatory discussion is one which can indeed go some way towards resolving such dilemmas. But as anyone who has been to a town meeting can also see, such participation is anything but productive if the agenda includes anything more problematic than the issue of a new hose for the fire-engine. If Sennett had confronted his psychological perception with a realistic conception of any of the problems of government, he could just conceivably have produced or at least more plausibly promised an important piece of political thinking.

If he were to attempt such a confrontation, however, it would still not be sufficient. For the intellectually most disquieting feature of Authority remains the extent to which it fudges the question of what it can be to believe that a power is legitimate. There is no doubt that the established tradition of political theory, and certainly the established tradition of liberal political theory, has made the mistake, the arguably philosophical as well as more obviously human mistake, of supposing that the grounds of belief in general, and of belief in the legitimacy of power in particular, are exclusively rational. One does not decide to believe by argument alone. Nevertheless, there is equally no doubt that the grounds of political belief neither are nor should be purely sentimental. That they aren’t is clear from Sennett’s own examples. The employees who rejected Pullman’s paternalism in 1894 when he laid some of them off because of a lull in the market were not only upset. They also thought that a contract had been broken. That the grounds of political belief should not be purely sentimental is presumably self-evident. If they were, rule, in the strict sense, would simply not be possible.

Happiness may be a participating person. A social psychology may be a necessary part of a political theory. But in principle as well as in practice a happily participating person is not all there is to political authority. And an acceptable authority cannot be all there is to a properly public life.