At times like this spring, when I’ve been on the move and meeting deadlines pretty much non-stop, my policy of blogging only when the spirit sparks me tends to bog down. Life takes on a hamster-wheel quality, and the poor pooped hamster has few insights worth sharing.
My favorite philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, is famous for spinning a lengthy essay out of the ancient poet Archilochus’ animal maxim, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin’s game was distinguishing those whose views are shaped by a single, defining idea from those who draw on many sources for a result both more textured and less reductive.
But the hamster’s teaching doesn’t fit either category. It isn’t about knowing, but about asking one big question: “Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet?”
This seems to be the question of the day. My long-time activist friends keep asking how they can know whether they are having an impact. They ask it in aid of summoning the energy to continue. In the pauses between activities, the question bangs around my own brain like an echo: is what I want—for the world and for myself—coming or not?
As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the answer can only be, “Who knows?” The lesson history tells is this: Win some, lose some. The wheel never stops turning. So no matter how hard I try, I can only come up with one conclusion, that the greatest meaning is to be found in doing what one desires and embraces most strongly, for its own sake, and not for the promise of a result.
In this context, it was especially interesting when last week, a colleague pointed me to a kind of historical marker: a confidential memo to the leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, authored in 1971 by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.”
In measured prose—sort of a low-intensity jeremiad—Powell bemoaned the anti-capitalist tenor of sixties intellectual life and activism and its impact on the media and society. He noted that social criticism is “wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve rather than to subvert or destroy,” which is a refreshingly moderate view in comparison with today’s pervasive desire to silence critics altogether. As exemplars of the problem, he singled out attorney William Kunstler, consumer activist Ralph Nader, philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and author Charles Reich.
Powell’s prescription brought together a set of realizations that had been dawning on the right since Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election: that if they had any hope of winning future elections and policy battles, they would have to apply their best thinking, and considerable resources, to shifting public opinion their way.
Powell outlined a series of interlocking measures that in the intervening forty years have been lavishly financed and energetically promoted by ideologues, funders, and other operatives of the right. He advocated creating cadres of scholars and speakers, vetting textbooks for the proper indications of “belief in the American system,” promoting more airtime and faculty posts for pro-capitalist views on campus, applying the same monitoring and pressure tactics to the media—and because all of this is rather gradual, pressing now for direct political influence through Congress and the courts (he suggested the ACLU as a model):
The educational programs suggested above would be designed to enlighten public thinking — not so much about the businessman and his individual role as about the system which he administers, and which provides the goods, services and jobs on which our country depends.
But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
One way to look at this is as good news for hamsters everywhere, since almost every element of the right-wing campaign Powell lays out has been actualized since he wrote this memo summarizing his and his colleagues’ thinking. I’m pretty sure the moment long since arrived when they were able to gaze at each other in satisfaction, offering a resounding “Yes!” to the question, “Are we there yet?”
Another is to take a deep breath and acknowledge that at present, the remedy is for advocates of responsive government, economic democracy, environmental stewardship and the other positions Powell opposes is to create the same sort of synergies and collaborations that shifted public opinion rightward. Only, the wheel must turn the other way, toward an enhanced understanding of public interest, public responsibility, and common good and a strong commitment to reverse the damage the corporate ascendancy has done to community life and the body politic.
It seems likely that history is on our side, since the disastrous effects of our almost mystical coronation of unmediated capitalism are evident in rising rates of unemployment, home repossessions and runaway industry, even as our largest financial corporations rake in unprecedented profits. (Here’s a nice compilation of relevant numbers from Americans for Financial Reform.) Unless collective suicide is the goal, this has got to be pulling the wheel toward the other direction.
Remember, Powell’s confidential memo was written in a moment when it seemed to many of us that progressive critiques and ideas were clearly on the rise, that we had every reason to expect a period of strong democracy, including well-regulated business and finance sectors. But as it turned out, that was exactly when the wheel began turning the other way. Something similar could happen now: who knows? While progressives don’t have the willingness to walk in lock-step that marked the right’s ascendancy of the last four decades, so many overlapping, related, and potentially reinforcing expressions of economic democracy are emerging these days that they may just have a comparable impact, despite our unruliness.
But as I reread Powell’s memo, the thing that comes through most strongly is how uncynical it seems. I think he was mistaken—and given many of the positions he took as a Supreme Court justice, I’m ready to argue that he may by now have been appalled at the consequences he failed to predict—but boy, was he sincere! A sense of belief, of embrace of a beloved mission, of congruence of conviction and action, pervades the document. I don’t doubt that Powell would have gone on promoting these ideas even if they hadn’t rung such a loud bell with his cohort, the big chiefs of American business.
Sometimes, when I hear that question spinning in my hamster-like mind—”Am I there yet?”—what strikes me most strongly is its existential irrelevancy. By now, I know I will continue to perform those acts that seem truest and closest to my essence, whether or not I think they are likely to produce results in my lifetime. By now, I know it isn’t even the right question.
When the right question is asked, past and future fall away. The wheel keeps turning, fueled by the alignment of desire and action. Sometimes it turns our way, sometimes not.
“Are we here now?” Almost.