I have long been impressed by the positive power of inertia in social life. But in the fractured society we now live in, I worry that this power has diminished.
In 1973 and 1974, I traveled from city to city around Poland, observing extraordinary theater, Polish Student Theater, so-called, though many, if not most, of its makers were not students. Aesthetic innovations, combined with bold brilliant political provocations, defied the Communist authorities and created a cultural world apart from the dull official order for the performers and their audiences. After I finished my research, I worked to answer the question: how was it possible for such fine work to exist in a deeply repressive context? While taking part in a seminar on tradition, conducted by Edward Shils, the conservative sociologist at the University of Chicago, I began formulating my answer, encapsulated in the title of my first book, The Persistence of Freedom. Polish cultural traditions, and traditions of theatrical and other artistic practices worldwide, could not be completely repressed, and as such, they informed the creators and audiences of these theaters. Those traditions, along with a critical use of official ideology, illuminating the distance between proclamations and experience, formed cultural supports of what I called “the social bases of independent public expression in Communist Societies.” Thinking about this work now, I am struck by how important inertia was for the persistence of this independent public sphere. In the 19th century, young people created alternative public spaces in Poland through theater, which included the Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz. They did so under the Nazi occupation, which included a young Karol Wojtyla (aka, Pope John Paul II). They did so under Communism, and are doing so now as well. This stream of creative practice, this powerful cultural inertia, has been contributing to an independent public life for nearly two hundred years.
Noam Chomsky, and his collaborators and admirers know that American mainstream media lie. They have known this throughout the Cold War, during the post-cold war period of “neo-liberal” hegemony, and now in a period of authoritarian populism. But on the other hand, the new authoritarians have demonstrated that not all lying is created equal, and that it is worth our while to take seriously the distinction between news and fake news. Factual truth may be a matter of social construction, serving the interests of the rich and powerful, but some constructions are, nonetheless, of high value, e.g. the ethical codes of principled journalism. It may be that there is much that is wrong with quality journalism, that such newspapers as the Washington Post and The New York Times are shaped by the interests of corporate America and its government, following the pattern of what Chomsky has named “the propaganda model.” But despite the pressures, the people who work on the news work against the pressures. They inherit norms and ethics of proper journalism, and act accordingly, making the crucial distinction between news that informs the pursuit of democratic society and propaganda, which may lead to “the tyranny that democrats have to fear most,” as Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America. This observation was a starting point of my book The Cynical Society.
Inertia is key to the way we speak and write. The meanings of words and their usage are very much constituted and constrained by inherited practices, one generation passing on meaning to the next, with persistent meanings yielding variations and opportunities for further variations. Only with great effort, under totalitarian conditions, as George Orwell suggested, can we convincingly declare that “war is peace.” The use of the embedded vernacular, of direct language, was, therefore, a most effective way to challenge the Soviet order. I tried to demonstrate this in my book, Beyond Glasnost. Language independent of the official language (newspeak), with its code words and phrases (such as “glasnost” and “perestroika”) was the real alternative. Speaking clearly, frankly and openly presented a radical challenge to the previously existing socialist regime. This was exhibited in the student theater I studied in the early 1970s, in the Samizdat of the Soviet Union, the democratic oppositions in Central Europe of the 1970s and 1980s, including in the self-description and course of action in the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, and in the valued poetry, theater and literature of Soviet type societies. The language of everyday life persisted as a contrast to the hackneyed official discourse. This inertia constituted a world apart from the ideological order.
I believe that intellectuals play key roles in democratic society, both positive and negative. When the form of our speech and writing reaches the general public in ways that it can understand, intellectuals demonstrate equality, and democracy may be constituted and sustained. But when we act politically, using language to assert superiority, with jargon and unnecessary technical language, authoritarianism, or at best technocracy, follows. When intellectuals speak and write for each other, when they don’t address and listen to a more general public, using a language that only they understand, when they are effective in this, they may think that they are progressives, that they speak in the name of the common good and aspire to liberate the masses, but the way they speak and write belies their aspirations. I explored this in my book Civility and Subversion: Intellectuals in Democratic Society. My thesis about intellectuals and democracy: when intellectuals foster informed public discussion, we can play an important democratic role, but when we authoritatively present our answers to the perplexing problems of the day, we can’t play this role. Using the given language is a crucial democratic gesture.
Perhaps of all my work, the power of inertia is most materially examined in the chapter on the kitchen table in The Politics of Small Things. I sought to demonstrate that, in communist-directed and controlled societies, it was around the intimate private settings that a free public interaction was possible. The family gathering, with its patriarchal structure, was the place where people could radically distance themselves from the party-state, speak freely with each other, and respond to the problems they face, including the most political of problems. The customs inherited from the past made it possible to confront present problems and imagine future possibilities in ways that were impossible in formal public institutions, such as political parties, unions, the press, universities, museums and galleries, and television and radio. Kitchen table talk could and did inform action in these more conventional public locations. A traditional private space, even with its own problematic hierarchies, provided the grounds for more public and critical action. It was the deep structure supporting opposition to a repressive unjust political order.
I wrote The Politics of Small Things in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. I was in despair, overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment. I knew, on the one hand, that the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, where I lost my very dear friend, Michael Asher, required a response. But I also feared that the unfolding response was likely to create horror beyond my capacity to imagine. I confessed that “it hurts to think.” Thinking revealed an expanding war without end, with ever-changing enemies, “the terrorists.” Orwell’s dystopia was becoming our lived experience. A decidedly negative inertia, I feared, had been set into motion. I turned to the power of intimate interaction, including intimate interaction through the web, as a possible ground for a way out, informed by my reading of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and my experiences and observations in Central Europe.
The positive power of inertia has broad and potentially radical implications for the powers that be, and for opposing them. Things keep going until, for one reason or another, they don’t. Obviously, inertia primarily serves to sustain the status quo. But there is an ironic consequence: social inertia provides resources for those who seek to democratically challenge the ways things are. It makes possible the democratic role of intellectuals, and for the kind of connected criticism discussed by Michael Walzer in his Interpretation and Social Criticism. Social critics and their publics need to understand each other if we are to avoid vanguardism with its authoritarian potential.
I have often been accused of being an optimist. This has surprised me. I don’t believe things are likely to improve for the better. Indeed, I am predisposed to believe that they won’t. Nonetheless, I know where the “accusation” comes from. I have taken it as my intellectual project to highlight possible ways out, even when I am not sure they are likely. And I have taken a close look at surprising places, in ancillary cultural institutions, the underlife of total institutions, on the margins, in small things. I have never maintained that the possible is likely, but I have been pleasantly surprised when it has come to pass: the momentous changes of 1989, or the election of Barack Obama. I guess my hope for such surprises appears to be optimistic.
My observation that there has been a positive side to social inertia does confirm the appearance. But now a big cautionary note: this positive power is based on something that resembles a coherent public life, with media of various sorts facilitating a sphere of publics that have relationships with each other, facilitating both minimal consensus and engaged conflict. It requires the common and competing stories we tell each other about each other, that as I analyzed in Reinventing Political Culture, creates a political culture and the possibility of its renewal. This scenario, I fear, is no longer the case, as I have reported and analyzed here.
In fractured societies, there are multiple truth regimes that ignore each other and seek not to compete, but to dominate and vanquish, yielding oligarchy, populism, and authoritarianism. There is also ineffective opposition: the positive power of inertia may sustain segments of a society with little or no effect on other segments, unlike what I observed in my research to date. Although the totalitarian regimes were much more brutal and horrific, the way to use the power of inertia to oppose them was more straightforward, described most eloquently by Vaclav Havel in his classic essay “The Power of the Powerless,” through what he calls, “living in truth.” This is why I think the primary political task is to heal the fractures among those who recognize the clear and present dangers. I’ve already described this as the project of the radical center in a previous post. I will explain more fully in my next one. I’ll consider whether the inertia of a free public life, including the rule of law, academic freedom, the free press, and democratic norms and ideals, can be drawn upon to battle broadly and effectively against the authoritarians and social fragmentation. I think it is possible, though perhaps not probable. It is imperative to act upon the possible. If we give up in advance, all is lost.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.