[This is a follow-up to this earlier forum post. I know many blog members, especially, are caught up with AERA prep, and it’s pretty long (and, dense, yes, okay) anyway. But what the heck.]
A core value of progressive visions of democracy is flexibility in response to the shifting realities of life in a complex society. True democracy, progressives believed, required capacities for constant and fluid adjustment to the unpredictable contingencies of life in modern society. Dewey and others argued, for example, that the U.S. Constitution should be revisited over time and freely, democratically adapted to new conditions that would emerge over time. The slowness of cultural change in response to the much faster shifts of a quickly industrializing society was a key problem for progressives.
In a truly democratic society, the progressives imagined, collections of unique individuals would be engaged in a constant collaborative effort to create a better society in response to the shifting sands of social change.
From the perspective of progressivism, then, permanence of any kind—especially social structures like rules and cultural practices—was a barrier to the emergence of a truly democratic society. In fact, combating this “lag” was a core motivation for Dewey’s vision of democratic education.
When everyone in democratic associations like the ones they imagined is equal, it may be reasonable to see this as a vision of real freedom for all. However, in reality no social contexts are ever totally equal and, more problematically, most contexts where people meet each other across cultural and economic gulfs are quite unequal.
In unequal contexts, this vision of flexibility becomes something different. It becomes what middle-class professionals have long fought for: discretion for an elite with the individual and collective right (through their associations) to make relatively independent decisions that effect the lives of others with less power. To a large extent, in fact, one can equate the need for “professions” in the first place with this need for “professional judgment” in situations that cannot be predefined ahead of time. To the extent that bureaucrats embedded within larger organizations maintain some level of discretion, they can (and would generally like to) see themselves as “professionals” as well.
It is equally helpful to see the reduction of the “discretion” of professionals as one of the core aims of working-class and impoverished social movements. For example, unions have long fought to establish the “work rules” that so often bedevil middle-class professionals and bureaucrats who see them as unreasonable constraints. In their contracts, unions frequently seek to reduce the discretion of management, creating restrictions on what workers can and cannot be told to do, and these restrictions usually restrict workers’ own decision-making at the same time.
Flexibility, those on the bottom have long known, is rarely a gift. Instead, it is often a burden, a tool for oppression wielded by those who have more power. In fact, what professionals generally want in an unequal world are rules that restrict the power of those below them but that leave them with maximum discretion to respond “intelligently” to contingency. What workers have frequently sought are rules that reduce this discretion, sometimes by transferring authority for decisions to them, but more frequently by writing decisions “into stone” at least until the next contract.
(Teachers, caught, as they are, uncomfortably between the positions of “workers” and “professionals”, often struggle to negotiate this in their own union contracts.)
If there are no set rules then the conditions of labor and life end up in the hands of those with the power to decide at any point what should happen. From this perspective, such rules are real accomplishments to be defended at high cost, even when they may seem to have become outdated. Throwing rules open for deliberation raises the possibility that these accomplishments may be lost. In this context, an imperfect constitution, an imperfect affirmative action system, an imperfect labor contract all can seem much safer than unpredictable deliberative contexts in which control can easily be lost and in which new rules may unpredictably alter the balance of power that had cost so much to achieve. (Critical race theorists have made this point as well).
A good example of the ways social movements of the less powerful can often be interpreted at least partly as struggles against professional “discretion,” can be found in the early struggles over welfare laws in
In the early days of public “welfare,” a great deal of discretionary power was put into the hands of middle-class social workers. And these social workers would often make culturally and racially discriminatory assumptions about the lives of their “clients,” using their discretion to try to mandate changes in the direction of more “standard” middle class values. These judgments were often perceived by clients as insulting and demeaning, but those unwilling to conform might quickly find their families out on the street without support.
The welfare rights movement successfully fought to change this system. They demanded strict rules that would define ahead of time who was and was not eligible for benefits, removing nearly all decision-making power from those who had previously judged them from on high.
Of course, these strict rules created their own set of challenges, which, in part, led to the dismantling of the system and to a range of pernicious consequences (although these were frequently exaggerated and misdescribed by conservatives). Despite these limitations, the welfare rules achieved by welfare rights activists did represent a great advance over the conditions recipients had experienced previously. To some extent, in fact, these limitations were integral to the benefits the new system brought.
(New visions of flexible work-groups that harvest the creativity of low-level workers in the same manner that these structures harvest the skills of professionals have been attempted in a range of different businesses. Most of the evidence indicates, however, that the modernist hierarchical model remains the norm even when lip-service is given to this model.)
The only way one could imagine flexibility could becoming beneficial to the relatively powerless would be if one could guarantee the existence of durable institutional structures that could constantly represent their interests. But while power is a collective achievement for those on the bottom, it is located more in individuals at higher levels. It is difficult to see how these collectives with limited “attention” could keep track of the myriad decisions being made by diffuse numbers of bureaucrats and professionals at all levels of any bureaucracy. The only way to level the playing field, it seems, is the creation of rules that limit the amount of “attention” necessary to enforce equality.
(To some extent, perhaps it is helpful to see these collectives—community organizing groups, for example—as “individuals” in the sense that Dewey meant this. In this analogy, the set “rules” equate somewhat to the established “habits” of individual persons necessary to free their limited attention of their leaders for aspects of their life where conscious attention and adjustment is most necessary. You want to fight for rules, and then monitor their implementation instead of fighting for a dialogic process that you constantly have to spend enormous energy supporting (and fighting within)).
Ironically as a result of the progressives’ inability to solve the problem of inequality, then, their cherished vision of a fluid, democratic “planning society” seems to contain within it, almost inevitably, the seeds of an oppressive “expert determined” society. Truly collaborative “democracy” slips too easily away into middle-class “discrection.” (This is especially true, as I noted earlier, when progressives took it upon themselves to delimit who does and does not count as adequately prepared for equal participation in citizenship.)
Visions of democratic classrooms where children learn to have the power to coordinate themselves and to respond collaboratively to change and complexity thus misdescribe the true contours of our society. In fact, even in the most ideal examples, outside classrooms where there are no teachers to artificially equalize power, such an attitude inevitably ends up empowering some while disempowering others.
(It is, of course, true that some discretion is required for any organization to function. Thus, there is a constant tension in many bureaucratic organizations between the fight for discretion at the top and middle, and against discretion at the bottom. And to further complicate this issue, it is also true that reality is always too complex to operate on simple rules. This is why a key labor strategy has always been “work to rule,” where the rules are actually followed to the letter and everything completely shuts down. So there is always an “underlife” of creativity functioning beneath the rules—in a sense productively “contesting” them—so that any organization can function at all. In a sense, the creativity that new models of collaborative work-groups were supposed to generate has always been there, except that it has usually manifested as an odd kind of “resistance” that is actually the only thing that allows the machine to run in the first place. In the extreme model of a Taylorist scientific management bureaucracy, the stupid “hands” that are not supposed to think and are not paid to think are actually creatively and intelligently adjusting themselves and their environment in “secret.” And there is, in fact, some evidence that working-class students learn skills for this kind of underlife creativity and system-maintaining rule breaking as a part of the “working-class” rote education most of them receive. I’ve explored some of this here.)