Aug 18, 2011

August 19, 2011: The Politics of Silence, Specialization Of Knowledge and the Generalization of Ignorance, America Struck Dumb

The following was written in early 1979 and originally presented to Penthouse Magazine for publication.  Robert Guccionne, in his wisdom, chose not to publish it.

Richard Nixon’s notion of the “Silent Majority”, an image of millions of mute Americans inaudibly whispering wisdom for which only Nixon had ears, bespoke a political truth remarkable for such a pathological liar.  With the “Silent Majority”, Nixon presented us with the most frightening political truth of our time: pre-industrial ideas concerning the legitimacy of the democratic order have little reality in post-industrial society.  The American Consensus no longer is produced by the knowledgeable debate of ideas in the political arena, but is instead a product of a growing complexity–a complexity produced by a growing specialization of knowledge-- which in turn produces a generalization of ignorance.  It is this emerging ignorance that gives legitimacy to the politics of silence.

A healthy democratic system rests upon a political consensus that is itself the product of a number of assumptions. First, there must exist a wide and pervasive, almost ‘all-powerful’ middle class; extremes of wealth and poverty must not confront each other with significant economic and, therefore, political power.  Accordingly the United States early developed a progressive democracy based on the abundance of middle class farmers and workers given security by the scarcity of labor and the abundant frontier.  Political life, founded upon this emergent yeoman farmer, created a consensus making possible expression through institutions like the New England Town Meeting and the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Consensus politics is, therefore, first an economic proposition.

However, Consensus Politics must also rest on the assumption of ‘universally’ understood causes of problems and ‘universally’ understood avenues of remedy.  In the age of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer issues were, in relation to our time, much less complex and centered around measures promoting agriculture and assimilating the wilderness.  Consensus politics produced landmark legislation like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, canal and railroad projects and capital investment in agriculture.  This sharing of economic, political, and social views produced government actions of fundamental importance; low tariffs, universal white manhood suffrage, and proportional representation.  These were means to ensure that the agricultural middle class would not be overpowered by others through the use of political power.  The early republic, formalized by the committees at Philadelphia, rested upon a political consensus itself rooted upon a wide and pervasive agricultural middle class confronting a ‘universal’ set of economic problems and working on a ‘universal’ set of solutions.   That is this middle class set about the business of expanding into and settling the wilderness through the work of men like Clay and Webster who assiduously worked to bind the nation together with roads, canals and railroads in a headlong race to head off the centrifical forces of sectionalism and disunion.  At its peak it produced the “Jacksonian Democracy”, a government anyone could presumably run.

The Nullification crises of the 1820s and 30s was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the yeoman farmer in American politics and, accordingly, the American political consensus was destroyed in the flames of the Civil War.  The age of High Capitalism, or the “Robber Barrons” to use Mark Twain’s terminology, ensued with the agricultural remnants acting not as dominant, but as a countervailing force giving impetus to the Greenback, Populist, and Progressive movements, as well as the New Deal–all agricultural movements serving to expand the franchise, alter monetary policy, and defend the political power of the middle class against the rising industrial cartels known at the time as the “trusts”, finally legitimizing organized labor.  The New Deal Coalition was produced by consensus politics, itself a descendant and heir to the political tradion of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian yeoman farmer. 

As the Industrial Revolution moved the majority of Americans off the land and into the cities, a most fundamental change was wrought not only in the nature of the middle class, but in the nature of the American Political Consensus.

With the Industrial Revolution came the specialization of labor.  This served not only to reduce the urban laborer to an automaton–an appendage to a machine–but the urban worker, unlike the farmer, no longer concerned himself with the whole process of production and the marketing of finished product.  Social and political questions became specialized as labor became increasingly specialized.  International trade,    futures markets, and monetary exchange rates for example, matters of some concern to the farmer is for the industrial worker only an abstraction as are questions of currency and stewardship of the community and the land upon which it rests.  Notably the urban worker was not prevelant in the “Greenback” or “Progressive” or, for that matter, the early “New Deal”.  For the laborer’s toiling in the packing houses of South Chicago, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech had little resonance. It was Bryan’s fate to emerge upon the national scene at precisely the time when his audience was growing deaf to his impassioned appeal. 

Specialized labor also produced specialized knowledge known as the Technological Revolution.  This made imperative, as John Galbraith pointed out, the committee as the only effective means to manage industry or government.  Committees of engineers, design, cost and marketing specialists create an autonomous “technostructure” making the basic decisions about production, allocation, and marketing.  The corporate head must ratify decisions made at these middle levels lest ignorance be imposed on the system.  Henry Ford’s celebrated resistance to color changes, alternating electrical current, and college trained personnel brought Ford Motor to near ruin.  The principle holds true for government as well.  Andrew Jackson’s war on the National Bank produced the depression of 1837; the policies of both Herbert Hoover and the Federal Reserve prolonged the Great Depression.  Because no man can possess all the requisite expertise of a large modern enterprise, we have upon us an effective and growing ignorance at the highest levels.

If ignorance reigns at the highest echelons clearly, for many of the same reasons, a pervasive ignorance exists at lower levels.  The Technological Revolution has specialized knowledge beyond the grasp not only of the President of the United States, but clearly beyond the comprehension of the man in the street.  Indeed, the middle-level expert possesses a grasp of the problem only so far as it relates to h is respective area of expertise.  It is an ignorance that runs not only vertically but horizontally across departmental lines of expertise.  It is an ignorance that not only fragments authority and control, but confronts the complex issues of our time–energy, nuclear power, thermopollution, ecology–with the politics of silence. 

We are led back to the original proposition that the democratic system rests upon a wide, pervasive and knowledgeable middle class.  This foundation has been transformed by the Industrial-Technological Revolutions from the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer to the modern urbanite.  In both a similarity of economic station and political moderation exists.  However there is a qualitative difference between the two.  In the latter, the Technological Revolution has created a prevailing ignorance of social problems and remedies.  Technology has also fragmented lines of control from top-down, bottom-up and laterally across the departments of middle-level expertise.  It has specialized knowledge and generalized ignorance, and it is upon this foundation of ignorance that social debate must now take place.  It is upon the consensus of mindlessness; it is upon the consensus of ignorance; it is upon the consensus of silence–legitimized by the state as ‘tacit consent’ that the structure of political debate and the nature of political legitimacy now rest.  Consensus is now held incapable of political expression with debate reduced to a deafening silence, and political legitimacy reduced to the groan of ‘tacit consent’.

If “King Richard” failed in his attempt to resolve the dilemma by proclaiming the President sovereign, he succeeded, for once, in presenting us with something more than a mere caricature of truth.  He presented us with the spectre of America, terrorized by ignorance, struck dumb.