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The Method of Democracy

John Dewey's Theory of Collective Intelligence

by David Ridley (Author)
Monographs X, 220 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Couverture
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Introduction: Dewey’s Forgotten Alternative
  • PART 1: Theoretical Foundations
  • CHAPTER 1 From Practice to Theory in the Frankfurt School
  • CHAPTER 2 John Dewey’s Critical Social Theory
  • PART 2: A Problematic Situation
  • CHAPTER 3 Neoliberalism and Its Consequences
  • CHAPTER 4 The Marketisation of Higher Education
  • PART 3: Reconstruction
  • CHAPTER 5 Reconstructing Sociology
  • CHAPTER 6 Reconstructing the University
  • Conclusion: Collective Intelligence
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Introduction

Dewey’s Forgotten Alternative

A more intelligent state of social affairs, one more informed with knowledge, more directed by intelligence, would not improve original endowments one whit, but it would raise the level upon which the intelligence of all operates.

(Dewey, 2016, p. 227)

Today, the world is a scary place. Climate change threatens to wipe humanity off the face of the earth and destroy our natural ecosystems and the living creatures and organisms that are sustained by them. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have merely a decade or two to limit, not reverse, global warming and its destructive consequences for the planet. The earth has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius (IPCC, 2019). To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees – a level that doesn’t sound like much, but will lead to an increase in the number of wildfires and extreme weather events we are already seeing, sea level rises due to polar ice caps melting and huge loss of human and animal life – global human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to be reduced by about 45% by 2030, the UN recommends, reaching ‘net zero’ by 2050. Even net zero by 2050 would require social and political mobilisation, and most importantly co-operation between nation states, on a scale never before seen in the history of humankind.

Unfortunately, just when global co-operation and solidarity are needed most, right-wing nationalism has reared its ugly head again not just in the developing world, but also in democratic Western states like the UK, US and Australia. In these countries, right-wing nationalism is not just a minority force anymore, dragging conservative political parties towards xenophobic and protectionist policies and, in many cases, climate change scepticism. It is now the philosophy of political parties in power, often with ←1 | 2→large electoral majorities. Despite being mocked by the liberal intelligentsia, both Boris Johnson in the UK and Donald Trump in the US stormed to power on the back of racist, misogynist and generally extremely cynical electoral campaigns. The European Union (EU) – a bastion of liberal democracy, created exactly to prevent the nationalism that led to fascism and two world wars in Europe – is crumbling under the weight of what has become known, euphemistically, this book argues, as ‘right-wing populism’. The EU is perhaps the ideal case study. In almost all EU states, right-wing populist parties are gaining influence or are in power precisely because they reject the distant, bureaucratic, anti-politics of the European Commission.

Right-wing populism is an inherently contradictory concept. On the one hand, populist demagogues seek to undermine democracy, or at least liberal, representative democracy. They seek not to strengthen representational democracy but instead to replace it with an initial public vote, and then with a one-way conversation with citizens via emotionally rich but limited media like television or Twitter. Meanwhile, the electorate turns to right-wing populist parties and leaders out of a frustration with liberal representative democracy. However, rather than engaging more seriously in its often arcane and obscure processes and institutions, or in extra-parliamentary social movements aimed at democratising these processes and institutions, voters see salvation in a rejection of democracy in favour of an obvious authoritarianism. Baffled by this rejection of liberal democracy, left-wing and conservative intellectuals in turn become more and more sneering towards these voters, confirmed in what they believed all along: the average person is stupid and should not be trusted with too much democracy. The key to saving the world is to explain to the electorate how stupid they are, the intelligentsia thinks, so they will return power and control to traditional, liberal elites.

The left is caught in this quagmire, especially in the UK. Unlike populists, leftists often hold the state in deep suspicion, a legacy of the post-war New Left’s turn against the Communist Parties in power and the subsequent move for many towards anarchist alternatives. Combined with their cosmopolitan base in London and publications like The Guardian and the London Review of Books, the British left-wing intelligentsia are easily framed – not entirely unfairly – by these new populists as part of the establishment. This ←2 | 3→was clearly shown by the 2019 general election. Labour failed to reconnect the party and its radical policies with its traditional, white working-class base. When their traditional voters in northern heartlands voted against their interests for Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ Conservative Party, they were rejecting Corbyn’s democratic socialism as yet another example of sneering elites wanting to tell them what to do, or more importantly perhaps, what not to do. ‘Taking back control’ did not mean taking collective resources like energy, water, transport and communications back into public ownership; it meant taking back the right to act against the public interest, against political correctness and public-sector bureaucracy.

The key argument of this book is that the rise of right-wing populism and the crisis of the left can both be traced to a common cause: the denial of collective intelligence. From Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to F. A. Hayek’s market as information processor, capitalist ideology denies the ability of workers – a term which I take to include those thrown out of work by the business cycle and those performing the unpaid labour that supports the system, for example carers and homeworkers – to understand anything other than their immediate task, which is to produce and consume commodities. In this ideology, the unintended consequences of individual actions are ‘magically’ co-ordinated by the market, specifically the price mechanism, so that demand and supply tend towards a perfect equilibrium and everyone gets their just desert. On the basis of this assumption – which, in practice, does not hold and perfect equilibrium is never reached – free-market liberals erect a political philosophy of the market as a quasi-religious, mystical ‘spontaneous order’ that, in a circular argument, justifies individual freedom as self-interest (Smith, 2006). As Craig Smith (2006) explains, this idea is then smuggled into evolutionary theory, via Smith, Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, resulting in a somewhat one-sided notion of natural selection as ‘survival of the fittest’ that ignores co-operation. While this bias has been corrected to a certain extent in the twentieth century (see, e.g., Axelrod, 1984; Sober and Wilson, 1998), the idea that competition is the sole driving force in evolution remains influential and useful as a pseudo-scientific justification for neoliberal ideology.

On the left, the denial of collective intelligence derives from two sources. As described in the book, social theory – a distinctively modern ←3 | 4→cultural phenomenon – split into two forms following the unprecedented upheaval of the French Revolution. While radical social theory went underground and informed the development of working-class collective intelligence (for a classic account, see E. P. Thompson, 1963), restoration sociology sought to undermine this intelligence from below with expertise from above. A line can be traced from Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte in nineteenth-century France to Fabian socialism in the Labour Party in early twentieth-century Britain. Beatrice Webb, speaking on behalf of the Fabian political project:

We have little faith in the ‘average sensual man’. We do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies … We wish to introduce the professional expert. (Webb, in Wainwright, 2018, pp. 13–14)

Summary

In this book, David Ridley argues that John Dewey’s theory of collective intelligence provides a unique critical social theory that speaks directly to the present moment. Escaping some of the dead ends of Frankfurt School critical theory, whilst also representing a continuity of the Marxist ‘philosophy of praxis’ tradition, the book reconstructs Dewey’s ‘method of democracy’ to reveal a forgotten alternative to both left-wing pessimism and neoliberal populism. Since the 2007-8 Financial Crisis, neoliberal governments, for example in the UK, have turned to higher education to kick-start a stagnating economy. Marketisation has turned English universities into multi-national corporations and students into consumers. Academics now have no choice, Ridley insists, but to join with the public in the political struggle against ‘third wave neoliberalism’. In the final part of the book, Ridley applies Dewey’s theory of collective intelligence to the reconstruction of UK higher education, concluding with a vision of radical democracy supported by ‘socially useful’ universities and a democratic academic and sociological profession.

Biographical notes

David Ridley (Author)

David Ridley is an independent researcher. He spent five years working in higher education before leaving to become a journalist. He is co-editor with Stephen Cowden of The Practice of Equality: Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy.

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Title: The Method of Democracy