Why Societies Need Dissent
Author: Simon Stander
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/16/2005
Category: Book Review
Title: Why Societies Need Dissent
Author: Cass R. Sunstein
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Dissent is in the air in the USA. It needs to be. Indeed, US democracy should be proud of its dissenting tradition. After all, the country began with dissent; the colonists broke with Britain; the founding fathers of the US Constitution rejected the narrow nationalism of Europe and conceived a continental ambition; they rejected kingship for republicanism and democratic forms, much to the amazement of the Europeans. And all this before the onset of the French Revolution.
Unhappily, such constitutional and political innovation has been on a downhill path more or less ever since. Especially in recent years, conformity and herd instinct has been increasing in the USA. Cass R Sunstein notes this trend, as have many others including such diverse commentators as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Multitude (Penguin, 2004) and Bill Moyers in his recent address to the Union Theological Seminary in New York (9 Sept 2005).
Sunstein builds his argument around observed “cascades” whereby people act according to strong trends followed by their fellow men and women. He traces the processes whereby researchers, observers and philosophers have established the process of conformist action. In some ways his sources are themselves somewhat conformist. He does not resort to Durkheimian anomie or Marxist alienation as bases for discussion, instead preferring such research findings as those of Stanley Milgram and finding comfort in John Stuart Mill’s discussion of liberty and the avoidance of the tyranny of the masses.
It would be possible to point to a huge list of dissenting literature in the USA since the 1960s apart from the usual suspects of Marcuse, Chomsky and Zinn. For instance the tip of the iceberg would show: Donald W Hanson et al (edit) Obligation and Dissent, Little, Brown and Co, 1971; Virginia Held et al. (edit), Philosophy and Political Action, Oxford University Press, 1972; Alexander Klein (edit), Dissent, Power an Confrontation, McGraw Hill, 1971; Jules Steinberg, Locke, Rousseau and the Idea of Consent, Greenwood Press, 1978; Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1978; Elliot M Zashin, Civil Disobedience, Free Press, 1972; Burton Zwiebach, Civility and Disobedience, Cambridge University Press, 1975…and much more in the 80’s and 90’s
How effective is this dissent in preserving liberty let alone extending it? Marcuse observed in the 1960s that whoever ruled in the USA ruled on the basis of generating fear of external attack and substituting the ever increasing consumption of commodities for real freedom and democracy.
Analysis needs to go a bit deeper than we find in Sunstein. For instance, conformity and lack of dissent arises where there is a general acceptance of pluralist democratic theory, which is the case in US social science, and that includes Sunstein. Pluralism imagines that individuals and groups can exert influence over the government (and, more widely conceived, the state) through the law, through legislation, through political processes. But real dissent comes through mass action and that needs to recognize the existence not of vague groupings under the unsatisfactory description of civil society nor of the undifferentiated masses, but of clear class forces or, probably more exactly, of significant class fractions.
Hence conformity is imposed on those of us who live in Western style economies in the interest of the producer economy. We are led to believe that we have choices whereas we have what the producers are demanding we consume. Concentration of capital becomes even greater by the day, and thus state power continues to concentrate, too. This is the real threat to democracy, which if it genuinely grew, would see that power would be dissipated, not concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
It is good to read that a distinguished professor has been analyzing, justifying and calling for dissent in the USA. He is in a line of distinguished dissenters in the USA. Nice sentiment, but pity about the social science analysis…it could have run deeper.
Bio: Simon Stander is editor-in-chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor and associate professor of peace studies at the University for Peace.