20 December 2021

Lasch—Consulting the Principle of Competence

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. X, "After the New Left"
The mystique of participation has had a profoundly misleading influence on recent American radicalism. It is a symptom of the general malaise of modern culture that watching a play, reading a poem, or getting an education are defined as passive and spectatorial, inherently inferior in the quality of their emo-
tional satisfaction to acting in a play, writing a poem, or simply "living." The notion that education and "life," art and "reality," understanding and action are radically opposed derives ultimately from the opaqueness of the structures in which we live and from a despair of understanding them. Official propaganda encourages this belief as assiduously as the so-called counterculture, which in this respect (as in many others) merely reflects prevailing values—or, more accurately, takes them more literally than they are taken by the ruling class. Thus, although the cult of participation encourages among other things a distrust of professionalism, the institutions of American society continue to be operated by professionals. It is only the left which, both in its politics and in its culture, clings to the illusion that competence is equally distributed among people of good intentions and regards any attempt to uphold professional standards as a betrayal of democracy.

... Its distrust of professionalism does not rest merely on a healthy disrespect for "experts" or on an awareness of the ways in which the concept of professionalism has been progressively debased... It reflects an intellectual orientation which, pushed to its furthest extreme, scorns not only professionalism but the "work ethic" itself, on the grounds that spontaneous and sensuous enjoyment of life is the only genuine form of participation in its pleasures, while submission to a discipline is inherently "alienating."

(pp. 149-150)

It is useful to be reminded...that "participatory democracy" in the strict sense works, if it works at all, only in very small communities; and that because the complexity of industrial society makes it impossible for such communties to achieve complete autonomy, those who advocate direct democracy as a general program are advocating, in effect, a return to a simpler stage of social and economic organization. One might add that decentralization, a measure of which is undoubtedly desirable, does not automatically lead to democratic results. Unless it is accompanied by a shift in political power, the decentralization of certain administrative functions may serve merely to reduce friction and to placate dissatisfaction with existing practices. ("The organizing principle of the new model [corporate or academic] institution," writes Michael Miles, "will be centralized control through decentralized structures.")


It is obvious that all institutions in American life are not equally democratic. "Private" corporations, academic or industrial, are not even formally democratic in their organization, unlike the state. Before arguing that they should be, according to [Robert A.] Dahl [After the Revolution?], one must consult the "principle of competence," according to which authority should be exercised by those who are best qualified to exercise it and who understand the consequences of their decisions. To insist on democracy in the operating room or on the bridge of an ocean liner would be madness for patients and passengers. The argument for democracy in the state therefore depends on the proposition that "the ordinary man is more
competent than anyone else to decide when and how much he shall intervene on decisions he feels are important to him." In order for this argument to apply also to the university or the private corporation, it must be shown that these institutions, although in most cases nominally private, actually embody political power, are intertwined with the state, and are public in everything but name.

Dahl rather uneasily skirts the issue of the university. If we were to apply his categories to this particular case, we should have to distinguish at the outset between democratizing the corporate structure of the university, so as to give the entire university community access to corporate decisions..., and democratizing the classroom itself, as many cultural radicals are demanding. In the former case, the principle of competence would favor the institution of democratic procedures; in the latter, their adoption would quickly complete the wreckage of an already debased higher education.

(pp. 151-152)

No comments: