Thursday, July 22, 2004
It's very difficult for me, reading Dewey one hundred years later, not to bristle at his categorization of aborigines as
No, the problem is that aboriginal society is complex and to say that it is organized around hunting is to oversimplify. What's more, to focus on hunting is to privilege a particular perspective in that society in a way that is both predictable and unfortunate, since hunters are likely to be high status males. To privilege their occupation and to say that it is the source of the categories relevant to an understanding of the aboriginal mind is to adopt a perspective which renders invisible the minds of other groups in aboriginal society, particularly the minds of aboriginal women.
It's not clear to me to what extent this critique undermines Dewey's analysis of the aboriginal mind, but it does seem to me that it points to an underlying barrier to the project of analyzing the habits of thought of any society. The problem illustrated by the critique is the difficulty of picking out a defining occupation given the complexity of any human society.
And yet, there does seem to be something to the idea that each society has a particular way of seeing things, and that this way of seeing things is linked to regularities in the way that members of the society interact with the world. Nor was Dewey the only person who held this view in the early years of the twentieth century. Notably, revolutionary Marxists shared much of Dewey's outlook.
The Marxist term for what Dewey called habits of thought is ideology and the Marxist would say that ideology is closely linked to, and necessary for, the society's means of production. The Marxist will also say that the ideology is a tool of the ruling class and exists for their benefit.
It is this last point which marks disagreement with Dewey, for he would say that the habits of thought of the ruling class must also be a product of material conditions.*
Note that this difference makes it easier for the Marxist to answer our difficult question, since the Marxist can say that one only needs to work backwards from the interests of the ruling class.
Finding easy answers to difficult questions, though, doesn't make the Marxist account superior.
One of the glaring facts about the legacy of communism is that the revolutions didn't happen where they were supposed to. Marx said that industrial capitalism suffered from internal contradictions, and that it was these contradictions that would bring about the revolution. This implied that the revolution would take root in the most highly industrialized states, Britain or Germany, and then spread throughout the industrialized world.
Instead, the first successful revolution was in relatively backward Russia. Since then, the most fertile ground for communist insurgencies has been the developing world. The most successful communist state is China, but though it has made strides towards industrialization, its industrial centers are the regions where support for communist ideology is at its lowest ebb. By contrast, support for the party remains quite strong in the agrarian countryside.
What this history suggests to me is that the revolutionary critique of industrial capitalism has more traction in pre-capitalist agrarian societies** than in societies with a developed economies. This is an embarrassment to Marx, but it is quite consistent with the general thesis shared by Marx and Dewey, the thesis that habits of thought are strongly linked to material conditions.
The Marxist error, I think, is strikingly similar to the mistake Dewey makes in his analysis of the savage mind. Namely, the Marxist attempts to simplify something that is irreducibly complex.
None of this, of course, contributes to solving the difficult question, and I don't have much to add that doesn't amount to the platitude that each society is what it is and not something else.
*--or maybe not. Dewey thought that once we understood the origin of our habits of thought we could utilize intelligence to modify the categories in ways that are useful to us. This modification, though, is going to be constrained by our actual interactions with the world, so this point is unclear.
**--though it should be noted that, with the exception of Russia, all of the pre-industrial agrarian societies that went for communism were, to some extent, colonies of European powers. Clearly the legacy of colonialism is relevant to their critique of capitalism since, for them, communism and nationalism are closely tied together. But this is also a point where an embarrassment for Marx is perfectly consistent with the more general thesis.