July 26, 2013

Henry Geiger - The Uses of Make Believe (1983)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
MANAS was an eight-page philosophical weekly written, edited, and published by Henry Geiger from 1948 until December 1988. Each issue typically contained several short essays that reflected on the human condition, examining in particular environmental and ethical concerns from a global perspective. E. F. Schumacher's influential essay on Buddhist economics was published in the journal.
Below is an excerpt from, "The Uses of Make Believe" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXXVI, No. 43. October 26, 1983.
Since the appearance in 1970 of Beyond Reductionism, edited by Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies, reductionism has been a distinctly unpopular cause. That book—and the work of other writers, before and since its publication— attacked the assumption that the phenomena of life could all be reduced to mechanistic events in the processes of physics and chemistry, and the allied contention that human intelligence and thought are no more than responses to external stimuli.

Yet reduction may nonetheless have value in other relations. The institutions which dominate our lives certainly need reduction in importance, and their complexities would produce far less confusion in our minds if they could be understood in simpler terms. What seems a useful step in this direction was taken by an eminent historian, Edmund S. Morgan, in "Government by Fiction" in the Spring Yale Review. Cherished notions sanctified by optimistic patriots of the eighteenth century fall into fragments from the impact of what he says, beginning—
Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine or that he can do no wrong, make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.
On the surface these declarations seem full of shock and scandal, yet one reads them with little more than a sighing reaction. Why? Because, as the writer immediately points out, we cannot live without these fictions, and often "take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit them, by making our world conform more closely to what we want it to be." And when we use the fictions to reshape political or social reality, we name the result "reform or reformation."

Prof. Morgan explains how the fictions work:
In popular governments—governments wherein authority derives from people rather than from God— the fictions that enable the few to govern the many exalt, not the governors, but the people governed. And just as the exaltation of the king could be a means of controlling him, so the exaltation of the people can be a means of controlling them. Popular government is a much more complicated matter than kingly government and requires more complex fictions to sustain it. It requires us to believe, or act as if we believe, that the people, as a people, can make decisions and perform actions apart from their government, that they can authorize individuals to act in their name and can also limit, instruct, or otherwise control those individuals. To endow the people with these fictional powers was a delicate matter for those who first undertook it, because it had to be done without encouraging the simpleminded to mistake fiction for fact. A too-plausible, too- persuasive argument for popular authority might result in what was always deplored as "confusion"— that is, for the people (or rather some fraction of them) to take direct action in matters that were best left to their superiors. The men who first promoted popular government did not think they were striving for a government by the many over the many. They had strong ideas about who should govern, and they did not, to begin with at least, propose to meddle with the structure of societies in which they themselves commanded positions near the top. In locating the source of authority in the people, they thought to locate its exercise in themselves. They intended to speak for a sovereign but silent people as the king had hitherto spoken for a sovereign but silent God. . . .

After 1776, when all government in America was presumed to rest on the people, the change from royal to popular authority came about, in effect, as it later did in England (and had done briefly in the 1640s), by representative assemblies taking full command. Popular government in both England and America had been representative government, and representation is the principal fiction by which the larger fiction of popular sovereignty has been itself maintained.
While resistance to centralized government— as an instrument of control by men of wealth— such as Shay's Rebellion in 1786, against the heavy taxation of farmers in Massachusetts, was strong, the desire for stability and order was stronger. Speaking for the Federalists at the Constitutional Convention, Jonathan Smith, from the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts, declared:
" . . . I don't think worse of the Constitution because lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, are fond of it. I don't suspect that they want to get into Congress, and abuse their power. . . . Some gentlemen think that our liberty and property are not safe in the hands of moneyed men, and men of learning. I am not of that mind."
Fear of what "mobbish state assemblies" might do carried the day. As Prof. Morgan says:
It was touch and go whether Americans would accept the new configuration of fictions. Anti- federalists cried out that the new representation was no representation at all, that national representatives would be too remote from their constituents, no better than the specious representatives the colonists had been told they had in Parliament. But the Anti- federalists lost. Americans suspended their disbelief. The idea of representation recovered the fictional qualities it had been losing in the state governments, and the few were thereby enabled to govern the many without recourse to violence. The fictions of popular sovereignty embodied in the federal Constitution may have strained credulity, but they did not break it. Madison's invention worked. It still does.
Yet this analysis is only half the story. There were other fictions contending for acceptance, chief of which was the claim that only direct rule by the "power of the people" would bring freedom to all. And the ultimate fiction, perhaps, was and is that only the "right" form of government can solve such problems. Meanwhile, it is evident enough that some government is needed. The issue then turns on what may be legitimately expected from government of even the best sort, and we are no closer to an answer to this question than the political thinkers of the past. Hannah Arendt makes this clear in On Revolution:
If there was anything which the constitution-makers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had in common with their American ancestors in the eighteenth century, it was a mistrust in power as such, and this mistrust was perhaps even more pronounced in the New World than it ever had been in the old countries. That man by his very nature is "unfit to be trusted with unlimited power," that those who wield power are likely to turn into "ravenous beasts of prey," that government is necessary in order to restrain man and his drive for power and, therefore, is (as Madison put it) a "reflection upon human nature"—these were commonplaces in the eighteenth century no less than in the nineteenth, and they were deeply ingrained in the minds of the Founding Fathers. All this stands behind the bill of rights, and it formed the general agreement on the absolute necessity of constitutional government in the sense of limited government; and yet, for the American development it was not decisive. The founders' fear of too much power in government was checked by their great awareness of the enormous dangers to the rights and liberties of the citizen that would arise from within society. Hence, according to Madison, "it is of great importance in a republic, not only to guard the Society against the oppression of the rulers; but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part," to save "the rights of individuals, or of the minority . . . from interested combinations of the majority."
It becomes evident that unless the makers of constitutions have a clear idea of the various possibilities of "human nature"—both good and bad—they will make messes instead of plans that provide a measure of order. The conflict between freedom and order does not originate in constitutions but in human nature, and all that legal conventions can accomplish is some delay in the way in which that conflict emerges in human affairs and arrangements. The anarchist position is that it is better to live with the facts, whatever they are, than to try to cope with such slippery and ambiguous fictions. Because of the ring of sincerity and courage in this outlook, anarchist thinkers keep attracting followers, although fear of a fictional element in anarchist belief—that humans can actually live in society without strong ruling authority—makes their numbers small.