18 December 2010

Who are the reactionaries?

[T]he biggest roadblock today is that so many of America's best-educated, best-placed people are invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Who do you suppose Walter Russell Mead is describing in the text above? I'll give you a hint: It isn't the Republican party or the Tea party. Instead, it's America's presumably liberal intelligentsia, who fail to realize that the state-based social model of twentieth-century is unsustainable, that "the promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept," and that therefore "power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large." The intelligentsia resist this change, Mead claims, because their professions are still bound by a "guild mentality" that seeks to monopolize information when it needs to be decentralized and disseminated as broadly as possible. To survive, it appears, we all need to master what the "guilds," in Mead's account, would have us depend on them for. Mead himself looks forward to a process of "disintermediation" that will "enable many Americans to dispense with the expensive services of the professional classes," whether lawyers, accountants or possibly even doctors. There seems also to be a need for despecialization, as the new society requires "multi-disciplinary, synthesizing intellectuals" who can master "the essentials of many complex subjects, integrate the insights from this kind of study into a coherent social or political vision, and communicate what they have learned to a broad general audience" -- presumably without the benefits of job security that guild principles of tenure once provided.

Mead assumes that intellectuals resist the necessity of change because they see it being imposed by a right-wing conspiracy. He insists, however, that "there is a liberal case for the overhaul of our knowledge industries as well as a Tea Party one." Liberals who want to provide essential services to the most people need to find alternatives to bureaucratic distribution, he asserts. If accessibility is the goal, technology can help us, but traditional "guild" providers will resist restructuring that might make their role obsolete. But Mead presumes that "the more you care about the poor the less you can care about the protests of the guilds."

Mead's suggestions deserve consideration. Right off the bat, however, I observe that his transformative notions depend on a populace that knows how to assimilate and apply all the information that technology will make available to them. It's possible that he confuses access to information with actual education; he may also assume idealistically that folks will just know what to make of what they find online. Mead writes vaguely about "deep reform in primary and secondary education" when the circumstances he perceives should make those reforms his topmost priority. In his enthusiasm for decentralized autodidacticism he seems not only to put the cart before the horse, but to push it forward himself while the horse grazes. He'll find it a heavy cart. Criticize the products of modern public education all you like, but I don't think Mead's ideal of decentralization and decredentialization solves the problem. This is a question of scope; while he rightly places a high priority on maximizing accessibility, public education makes maximum accessibility an absolute imperative that probably shouldn't be left to the chances of entrepreneurship. That's one reason why I'm less ready than Mead to give up on the idea of the bureaucratic administrative state. None of my reasons has anything to do with my own job security. Another reason is that the state represents a commitment to everyone that simply doesn't exist in even the most high-minded private enterprise. I'm not saying that Mead thinks this way, but to give up on the state is akin to saying that not everyone can be saved. Give up on that, and a lot more may be given up than Mead might like. If that thought makes me a reactionary, I hope at least to be, paradoxically enough, a progressive one.


Anonymous said...

Any civilized society relies on a state-sponsored authority to set up the skeleton of organization by which the society exists: the laws, rules, social mores, etc. Not to mention oversight of "entrepreneurs" to ensure they are not bilking the public.

The thing Mead, like most right-wingers, seem to not grasp is the overall concept of accountability. Can you really trust the rank-and-file to hold themselves accountable? Do you really expect private business will hold itself accountable? The democratic state is, as far as I know, the only real model of government that is directly accountable to the people.

If all this right-wing filth want change, it must come from within US, not by shifting rule of law over to private enterprise. WE must become better people so that we can elect our representatives from a better pool of citizens.

You can't even trust the rank and file to acknowledge evidence or base their opinions on fact rather than on belief or hate. We need a far better, wiser, more intelligent class of people in this country before any of what Mead suggests can actually become a subject worthy of discussion.

Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, the right wing identifies "US" with the private sector and the entrepreneurs, not with the state, its bureaucracy and its elected leaders. They retain their supersitious faith in the market's guarantees of accountability without realizing that the market can only take punitive action against dishonest dealers while offering no more meaningful preventive principle than "caveat emptor." As I suggested, Mead stakes too much on the dissemination of knowledge transforming all of us into rational and honest actors, when history gives less cause for optimism.

Anonymous said...

So again, why is it deemed that individuals within the context of business can be trusted, but individuals within the context of government can't be trusted?

The necessity of the questions seems odd in light of the fact that individuals within our government are either voted into office by us or appointed by someone whom we've voted in. That is, individuals within government are accountable to us, the public at large. Individuals within a corporation are neither placed there by us, nor accountable to us.

Just what tomfoolery are these "conservatives" playing at?