It is only a strong sense of obligation that drives me to turn my attention from the fascinating work of preparing our apartment to be put on the market so that I may write a bit about the troubling matter of the out-of-work coal miner referenced by David Palmeter. But first, a thank you to Kate for her kind words, which buoyed me during a difficult time in my life [although I put my foot down at baking bread each time a buyer comes through!]
The question is: What are we to think [and feel] about individuals who vote against their manifest self-interest? More broadly, what ought we to expect of the citizens of a modern, putatively democratic state? As always when confronted by troubling and difficult questions, I retreat into theory.
There are three classical answers to this question, which are customarily associated with Bentham, Rousseau, and Marx. Bentham argues [in a manner that was shockingly revolutionary in its day] that the Good is Happiness, that Happiness is Pleasure, that each individual knows best what gives him or her pleasure, that a unit of the pleasure of a peasant counts for exactly as much as a unit of the pleasure of a lord, that the goal of a polity should be to maximize the Good, which is to say to maximize Pleasure, and therefore that each individual in society, high or low, should have an equal say determining the state actions that tend to increase pleasure and reduce pain.
Mill, too well-brought up by his father, James Mill, to stomach this elevation of the pleasures of the low-born, revised the simple dicta of his godfather, Jeremy Bentham, drew a distinction between higher and lower pleasures [which is to say the pleasures of the mind as opposed to the pleasures of the body] and concluded that the common folk, lacking experience of the higher pleasures, need guidance by people like himself. Despite this revision, however, Mill stuck with the central thesis of Bentham’s teaching, which came to be known as Utilitarianism. A good deal of Hippie, Countercultural, New Age, and other modern heresies can be understood as nothing more than proposals to reverse the relative evaluation of the higher and lower pleasures.
A modern variant of this old and durable teaching is the distinctively American doctrine of Interest Group Democracy [see my essay “Beyond Tolerance” in Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse A Critique of Pure Tolerance for a detailed analysis.] According to this modern variant of Utilitarianism, a large complex society like the United States is not a mass of individuals but an assemblage of overlapping and intersecting interest groups through whose intermediation the interests of individuals shape the policies of the state. At first glance, this theory may seem a long way from Bentham’s simple assertion that the Good is Pleasure and that each individual knows best what pleases him or her, but it is the same theory at base, despite all the transformations through which it has gone over the centuries.
Yet another modern variant of Bentham’s attractively simple doctrine, which corresponds to David Palmeter’s invocation of noblesse oblige, is the view that the educated elite [i.e., those who not merely finished college – 35% of the adult population – but went to a “good” school, a much smaller fraction] have the right and the duty to make decisions in the interest of and for those too benighted to recognize their own real interest.
Rousseau offers a dramatically different analysis of democratic polities. A state is legitimate, he asserts, only when its citizens set aside their private interests [or private wills, as he calls them] and instead take as their goal the achievement of the General Good. When they do this, then and only then can they be said to have a General Will. In a famous argument [which, alas, is wrong – see my In Defense of Anarchism], he claims that when the citizens all take the General Good as their goal, what they collectively legislate, directly and not through representatives, must be the General Good. The fundamental conflict between this view and that of Bentham and his successors is that whereas Bentham thinks the people must individually aim at what gives them pleasure for the laws thus enacted to be justifiable, Rousseau thinks that the people must not aim at what gives them individually pleasure if the laws are to be justifiable.
Marx, as we might have anticipated, advances a view that is at one and the same time a fusion and a transformation of these two positions. First of all, he argues that the good for human beings is not pleasure per se, but the pleasure of unalienated collective production, by means of which human beings transform nature to satisfy their true needs and desires, not the desires that have been foisted on them by ideological mystifications. This, as opposed to Benthamite Utilitarianism. Second, he denies that the conflicting interests of the several major components of a capitalist society can be amalgamated successfully through any political mechanism because Capital and Labor are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed. This against the modern theory of Interest Group Democracy. Finally, he argues that only through the organization and self-conscious understanding of the Working Class can the injustices of Capitalism be overcome, either through violent revolution or through non-violent political action, and the true General Good be identified and pursued. This against the purely formulaic theses of Rousseau.
It will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that my heart and mind are with Marx, not with Bentham, Mill, or Rousseau.
From the perspective of this analysis, the last forty years or so have seen a disastrous retreat in American politics from the ideals and hopes of the Marxian perspective. When I grew up, the Labor Movement to which my grandfather dedicated his life was vibrant and powerful in this country and gave every hope to an optimist like myself of eventual victory. Now, unions are diminished, feeble, and reduced to fighting rearguard actions against a triumphant and brutally unmediated capitalism. I have no doubt that if Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fantasies are enacted into law, scores of millions of Americans, if not more, will suffer life-threatening losses. But even a natural Tigger, which I am, is hard put to believe that this will result in a dramatic movement to the left.