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by William R. Caspary Review: Dewey on Democracy, by Caspary

Dewey on Democracy. Cornell University Press, 2000. Reviewed by Len Krimerman

Read this book. If you read only one book this month or year, make it this one. If you care about the meaning and the prospects of real democracy in our time, or in the time of future generations, make sure you read this book.

More than likely, you'll find that some of it requires rereading. Be prepared for the broadest of scopes, from arcane issues in the philosophy of science (chapter 2) to deep psychological questions about how rage and violence, even among KKKers, might be transformed into "righteous indignation" and then into progressive labor or citizen activism (chapter 4) to downhome ones about how progressives can make a real difference in today's corporate-dominated world (chapter 6). Be prepared also for adroit and precise handling of the details on these broad canvases: e.g., see chapter 3's lucid discussion of the diverse forms of "experimentation" in social science, including those, based on social invention, which should count as democratic. But most of all be prepared to be continually amazed at the book's almost seamless weaving together of John Dewey's eloquent but dispersed thoughts on democracy, participation, progressive politics, ethical deliberation, the role of physical and social science in democracy, etc. into a common theme, one that gets reapplied without repetition in numerous diverse contexts, somewhat like a Bach fugue, always the same and yet always different.

That theme is "conflict and conflict resolution," and according to Bill Caspary (p. 5), it:

...emerges most explicitly and centrally in Dewey's theory of ethical deliberation, which is concerned with the harmonization of conflicting tendencies within the individual and the group. Dewey sees harmonization/resolution as occurring through inquiry, leading to novel discoveries that transform the conflict situation. The process of inquiry which results in innovative solutions that restore harmony to problematic situations is precisely how Dewey characterizes scientific activity....Once the idea of conflict resolution is seen to pervade Dewey's philosophy, one is alerted to the scattered but crucial references to it in his political writings: conflict resolution emerges not merely as another political technique, but as a constitutive element of the very meaning of democracy.

With "inventive conflict resolution" at its core, democracy can be seen in a new light, as itself "reinvented." Thus, "one person, one vote" conceptions, or ones where "every voice is heard and counted" take us only so far, for these familiar understandings are just too simple. For example, they appear to presuppose that, once the vote is taken or the voices all are heard, agreed upon solutions will be forthcoming, as if by magic. Anyone who has ever worked, planned, played, or lived in a democratic environment knows that this magic only rarely occurs, and that, when it does, its source can be far from democratic. As Bill Caspary contends, a full account of democracy—as an ideal goal or as prefigurative practice—needs to show us how democratic arrangements resolve conflicts and help to build the capacities and attitudes that make innovative solutions accessible and attractive.

Nothing, fortunately, is the final word on "democracy," as both Dewey and Caspary certainly agree. So here are two issues I'd enjoy having Bill respond to:

First: "Is conflict resolution, as he and Dewey understand it, the whole story about ’democracy’ or only one important part of that story?" I'd strongly suggest that there are many more ways for citizens to participate in creating, maintaining, and reconstructing democratic arrangements than through the process of conflict resolution: see here, e.g., Mary Belenky's discussion (in The Tradition That Has No Name: Basic Books, 1998) of "public and safe homespaces" which enable people to "come to voice" and function with knowledge-creating agency or Patricia Hill Collins' account, in her Black Feminist Thought (2nd edition, Routledge, 2000) of the empowering care given by "community othermothers," and indeed Dewey's own famous and challenging definition of democracy (which seems to me to go beyond "conflict resolution"). If "democracy has a moral meaning," he contended,

it would be found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements shall be the contribution they make to the all-around growth of every member of society.... [that is,] the extent to which they educate every individual into the full stature of [his or her] possibility.

Second, a "getting there from here" question. Bill's book sparkles with dozens of intruiging and often inspiring examples of long-lasting democratic practice; see here, especially, chapters 3-5. But many and maybe most of these examples are local, small-scale, micro-level. Worse yet, many seem to presuppose, or be parasitic upon, the current and very undemocratic "macro" structure of corporate capitalism. (A prime case in point may be the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh—which, according to Vandana Shiva and others, borrows the funds it loans to extremely impoverished "self-employed" women from many badly tainted sources.) If so, these examples are far from threatening that structure, and, indeed, may even lend it support (intentionally or otherwise); they thus throw little or no light on a realistic strategy of large-scale transformation.

So what then is my second question for Bill? Perhaps this: can you please write another book which (a) locates at least meso-level examples of democratic practice, i.e., examples which span localities, interests, and decades, and involve active and enduring collaboration across diverse boundaries; and (b) helps reveal how our local successes can feed into a wide-scale transformative process that in turn respects and strengthens those local initiatives? [Are there books which begin to directly cope with these questions? Yes. Beyond the Belenky book cited above, see also Julie Fisher's marvelous and comprehensive account of the worldwide NGO phenomenon in her NGOs and Political Development (Kumarian Press, 1999); and of course, many of the articles dealing with "working models" in the Lindenfeld & Krimerman anthology of George Benello's writings, From The Ground Up (South End Press, 1992).

These two are, I think, important questions. But more important is that you read this book. And then let us know what you think of it.

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