This paper outlines a framework for emancipatory political philosophy that I call Fractured Social Holism, building on Dewey’s conceptions of democracy and public problems. Fractured Social Holism is a conceptual apparatus that makes clear a certain relationship between equality and resistance in political philosophy. The framework is situated between ideal theories of equality on the one hand, and philosophies of resistance to existing domination and oppression within society on the other, aiming at a synthetic account of political philosophy that links the institutional realm with its negation. Beginning with the non-ideal conditions of the contemporary world and its multi-faceted histories of oppression and domination, the ideal distributive paradigm of equality must be complemented by acts of emancipatory resistance.
My account consists of a critical re-articulation of Dewey’s conception of publics. I propose a distinction between second-order public problems and the more fundamental first-order public problem (singular) of the public: the very constitution of the public is itself a public problem. The construction of the public from within is itself the underlying condition for the possibility for all other problems to be articulated and then solved by that public; when second-order public problems are discussed and subsequently solved, they carry implicitly within their articulation an answer to the question, “who constitutes the public who is able to participate in public problem solving?”
In asking and offering answers to this first-order public problem, political actors aim at the emancipation that comes with societal recognition and inclusion as full and equal members of the democratic polity. Emancipation fractures the would-be harmony of the social order, offering a more egalitarian vision of society that, if successful, responds to existing domination and oppression. This is democracy in action: who belongs to the community—and can therefore meaningfully participate—who does not, and how this line is drawn, are at stake within democratic community.
Deweyan Democracy is, “primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (MW 9:93). It is a way of life, an attitude encompassing all aspects of our experience and our lived lives, collective social inquiry, and much more than the arrangement of institutions or a pattern of voting. Values and interests connect individuals and groups, such that all three elements are open to alteration. Furthermore, democracy is an “ideal” only insofar it is a “tendency” that we push to its limit, even with the knowledge that we will never reach it, since “things do not attain such fulfillment but are in actuality distracted and interfered with” (LW 2:328); it requires constant renewal if any progress is to be made. The nature of the democratic idea, “consists of having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common” (LW 2:327-8).
§ Publics and Officials
Emphasizing the collective ability to recognize, inquire about, and solve problems, Dewey opposes a view of democracy that relies on experts. Knowledge traditionally thought to belong to societal experts is disseminated throughout society and democratized. Publics are brought into being through the recognition and demonstration that there is a connection between certain actions and their consequences that bring people together. They are formed as a way to solve the problems posed by those consequences, and involve regulation of those consequences. Publics have officials, whose role is antithetical to that of experts. Understanding publics requires distinguishing between the general idea of public (the adjective) and private. “The line between private and public is to be drawn on the basis of the extent and scope of the consequences of acts which are so important as to need control, whether by inhibition of by promotion” (LW 2:245). Publics, then, “consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (LW 2:245-6). These two quotations draw the line between the public and private arenas, as well as provide for a way to articulate that line according to the specificities of circumstance.
Furthermore, “public” is itself an abstract entity—there is a plurality of concrete publics of different sizes that are formed according to the above definition. Individual publics are “called into being” by the consequences of our actions when those consequences “expand beyond those directly engaged in producing them” (LW 2:252-3). Consequently, there is in theory no limit to the number publics in existence at any particular time. Publics intersect and overlap with one another, and larger publics can contain smaller publics. Individuals are often members of many different publics at any given time. Some publics are more official than others, if we take official to mean explicitly organized, as in a government institution. All publics have officials by definition.
The officials of different publics care for them and nurture them, administering the necessary regulations to ensure that the problems are solved. These officials are merely representatives of those who make up the particular public. Officials have no claim to better or more extensive knowledge of the public that they serve than the members of that public; they only come into existence through the recognition by those affected that they are in fact being so affected. As Dewey writes, “The public is organized in and through those officers who act in behalf of its interests” (LW 2:253). The task of these officials is to care for the common interest, insofar as they “represent a public, but the public acts only through them” (LW 2:282).
§ Public Problems and Common Interests
A public problem is one that is articulated and subsequently solved through appeal to the common interest of the community of those affected (LW 2:246). Recognizing a public problem could entail the formation of a new public along with its officials. It could also entail a reconfiguration of an already-existing public through recognition of how the needs and interests of that public have changed. Whatever the process entails, it relates to identifying and cultivating objects of public concern based on the consequences of human action. Such a process requires inquiry into what things or kinds of things fall under the heading of ‘common good.’
Common good, community and democracy are related. “Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community itself” (LW 2:328). A community is more than the sum of its individuals. Communities are fluid and never fixed, though they can achieve some kind of stability buttressed by habit, custom, and history. There is no “community as a whole” for Dewey other than the abstract concept of humanity, which sits alongside all of the more local and particularized communities that exists within that umbrella term. But how this abstract concept gets defined is an open question and is dictated by our experiences and what we learn from them (LW 2:259-60).
Though government “exists to serve its community,” this “cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies” (LW 2:327). This is not a task to be completed once and for all, but one that always renews itself. Simply because a state exists and has its institutions formulated in a specific way does not mean that the task of organizing it has been replaced with the task of pure maintenance. Citizens must remain vigilant to ensure that the formation of the state remains true to the common interest (LW 2:278). They must also have the agency and opportunities to resist and replace those societal formations that do not live up to the common interests of all.
§ Association and Community
There are “literally infinite” types of association, since “there are as many associations as there are goods which are enhanced by being mutually communicated and participated in” (MW 12:197). There is no a priori way of deciding what future forms of association and participation will be; there is no perfect form of association. Society “is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common” (MW 12:198); communities articulate current problems instead of representing achievements in and of themselves (LW 2:331). Even knowledge depends on communities, for “Knowledge is a function of association and communication; it depends upon tradition, upon tools and method socially transmitted, developed and sanctioned” (LW 2:334). Community are places where there is conjoint activity and an appreciation of the positive consequences of that activity by the participants; there exists the mutual understanding of a desire to sustain the good, however it is collectively defined by the community (LW 2:328). This is an ethos, a way of life shared by community members that unites them.
Publics are formed by the articulation of common interests and their consequences. Participation is assumed and unavoidable; we are always within a situation that we must participate in in some fashion. The question is how; refusal to participate is still a manner of participation. Participation will mean different things given different contexts and goals of action. Reformist social movements will participate in certain kinds of ways depending on what they feel will have the most positive impact; those with more revolutionary aims will act differently. We must distinguish between participation that would undo, redo, or create new publics. The kinds of participation belonging to each of these will not be known in advance, though the normatively correct kind of participation is that which strives toward the inclusion of the interests of all who live together and their ability to have equal standing in their interactions with one another and their institutions.
§ Two Levels of Public Problems
The distinction between two levels of public problems is a conceptual one that allows for self-reflection when articulating the problems facing a given community—care must be taken to not presuppose a certain image of that community that itself is exclusionary and part of the problem. Recognizing this conceptual distinction reveals that when we articulate these problems we are also ascribing a certain makeup to the community that should be interrogated. The two sorts of inquiries—into the problems facing a community and the very makeup of that community itself—occur simultaneously because these communities already exist, regardless of whether they are exclusionary or not; there is no hope of first discovering the proper demarcation of a community and subsequently attending to its more specific problems; the two are inextricably bound up with one another.
“To form itself, the public has to break existing political forms” (LW 2:255). Change must be affected from the inside, as there is no perspective external to where we stand. Making social and political change a reality means we must realize that, “in political agencies and methods [change occurs] because the social conditions, in generating a new public, have prepared the way for it; the state sets a formal seal upon forces already in operation by giving them a defined channel through which to act” (LW 2:277-8). The institutionalization of values and ideas is subsequent to new social conditions coming to existence. The alteration of aspects of society according to the investigation into, and alteration of, the common interest is democracy self-correcting. But this self-correction is not just any alteration.
Democracy cannot solve any problems if the changes that it introduces do not respond to the actual problems at hand. Dewey writes, “The old saying that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy is not apt if it means that the evils may be remedied by introducing more machinery of the same kind as that which already exists, or by refining and perfecting that machinery” (LW 2:325). In order for these “evils” to be remedied, their solutions must not reflect the very same attitudes or structures that produced the evils in the first place; substantive change must occur not only at the level of policy and law, but in attitude and lived experience as well.
Unless the conditions allow for such intelligence to be harnessed, things are bleak: “Until secrecy, prejudice, bias, misrepresentation, and propaganda as well as sheer ignorance are replaced by inquiry and publicity, we have no way of telling how apt for judgment of social policies the existing intelligence of the masses may be. It would certainly go much further than at present” (LW 2:366). What is necessary is “the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public” (LW 2:365). Dewey is speaking about citizens of a particular society being able to critically inquire into its own conditions of existence. When they do so, the makeup of the public is what is at stake. When the public itself is an open question, it is therefore also an open question in what manner certain issues are deemed “public.”
Questioning the makeup of publics can come in any number of disruptive forms, but the important point is that it allows for the status quo to be forcefully rejected. Change does not always have to come through channels already recognized by society’s existing structure. Existing structures cannot be guaranteed to always affect the needed change; sometimes the change needed is greater than the institutional setup allows, requiring that setup to be challenged from the outside through popular resistance outside of the recognized institutional procedures.
§ Pragmatic Resistance
Dewey recognized the uniqueness of the present and the necessity of change, writing, “In no two ages or places is there the same public. Conditions make the consequences of associated action and the knowledge of them different” (LW 2:256). Democratic communities inherit and interpret their historical contexts in light of the perceived problems apparent within contemporary life. New experiences necessitate the re-evaluation and redefinition of what we thought we knew, so that any abstract concept of humanity is continually being questioned by concrete localized practices and ways of life: “The local is the ultimate universal, and as near an absolute as exists” (LW 2:369). Attempts to define the abstract larger concept are not off limits, but they must be done with the realization that they are postulations that will be reinforced or challenged by localized experiences. However defined, it is always in need of justification; no context can be completely exhausted as long as temporality and historicity persist.
Pragmatic resistance is action undertaken by some part of society that challenges the constitution of the community of who is able to meaningfully participate in solving public problems. It performatively answers the question of the first-order public problem: who makes up the community of a particular? The identity and meaning of a public is itself a public problem to be solved in democratic fashion. Fractured Social Holism is built on top of the Deweyan edifice described above.
§ Fractured Social Holism
Fractured Social Holism attempts to show how the ideal of harmonious societal equality and the resistance that puts such supposed harmony into question are mutually constitutive of one another. The abstract universal goal of societal harmony is countered by the particular goals of those communities that resist their exclusion from any harmonious vision. They do so in the name of a reformulated vision of equality and harmony that remakes society in more equal fashion if successful. The social whole is the common ground of experience, though that experience comes from multiple perspectives: that of the dominant order as well as those of the different forms of exclusions that are produced by the dominant order. Egalitarian social orders are those where resistance and the capacity to alter the structure of society are concrete possibilities. Equality is constituted by the imperative to resist domination and oppression in the widest possible sense.
It is holistic because it captures the totality of society: its formal and informal institutions, its social norms and practices, and the common ways that its members sense and perceive one another. Within the social world there is not a specific political sphere that can be precisely located. Though not all actions are intrinsically political, they all have that potential depending on context. Consequently, though society is not always already political in actuality, specific sites of politics are not determined in advance. The fracture is comprised of the competing perspectives of the organizational principles of the social order and those excluded from that social order because they do not fit within its organizational paradigm; the dichotomy is between order and disorder, or systematization and resistance. The potential for the political extends to the connections between our sensory experiences, the relations between our selves and our roles or activities, and the presuppositions that go along with them. These connections are a matter of how we see and interpret the world, and they are potentially already political regardless of where they take place. They become so when they are put to work in challenging the legitimacy of the social order, seeking to remake it.
§ A Normative View
Fractured Social Holism is a normative rather than a descriptive view; it would be wrong to say that it describes how resistance in general occurs, and that all resistance occurs in the name of a redefined image of societal equality and harmony. There are many movements around the world that resist elements of the status quo but do not do so under egalitarian principles. Fractured Social Holism is guided by such egalitarian principles, allowing for the distinction to be drawn between good and bad resistance.
§ Emancipatory Resistance
Emancipatory resistance is democratic egalitarian resistance, and builds on pragmatic resistance; it has two complementary and necessary elements. First, the target of resistance must be some aspect of the societal status quo that is dominating or oppressive; second, the resistance itself argues for a modified vision for society that addresses that domination or oppression. In doing so it articulates a new universal ideal for society that answers the question, “if domination/oppression X were mitigated in some fashion, society would look like this.”
First, regarding the point that resistance targets a dominating or oppressive or oppressive aspect of the status quo: I use these two terms broadly, with exclusion being their central feature. An aspect of society is dominating or oppressive when it systematically excludes members of a certain group from full and meaningful participation within society. Beyond this minimal definition, there are potentially many additional specifications that could be made to distinguish the two. In targeting domination or oppression, resistance may either argue for the existence of an as-yet-unrecognized group through a demonstration of that group’s being dominated or oppressed, or resistance may do so on behalf of a group that already recognized as a part of society. In both instances, a case is made that the exclusionary practices being resisted are wrong and anti-egalitarian.
Second, regarding the point that resistance puts forward a reformulated societal universal: in resisting some form of societal exclusion, those who resist show or articulate the inversion of that exclusion: they articulate what society would look like if that exclusion were turned into inclusion. They either put forward a new criterion of societal inclusion or show what it would be like if the existing criterion were actually put into practice. They may do so in all manner of ways, from formal demands, marches or protests to aesthetic production and beyond, confrontationally or otherwise. Certainly this view of resistance and the egalitarian reformulation of society will not yield perfect equality. Resistance targets specific concrete inequalities and exclusions, seeking to rectify them. Even if democratic egalitarian resistance is successful, the new version of society that comes into being will still potentially contain the inequalities or exclusions that were not specifically targeted—egalitarian work is never done.
These two elements comprise democratic egalitarian instances of resistance, wherein exclusion at the group level is resisted and subverted in the name of inclusion. Resistance is emancipatory action that articulates a more inclusive vision of society, and a reformulated conception of what it means to belong to that society as an equal member. Such a reformulation can be phrased in terms of a new societal universal, harmony, or coherence; however it is put, it is the constructive side of resistance in that it aims toward a new articulation of societal holism. The fractious element remains present because whatever the new harmonious vision of society, the possibility of subsequent exclusions still looms and can never be discounted. Even if resistance is successful in restructuring society in more equal fashion, any newfound equality must be maintained in the face of such a possibility.
EXAMPLE: undocumented immigrants demonstrate the essential holism of the social body by their exclusion and then agitation for inclusion
§ Conservative Resistance
Conservative resistance can take many guises: for my purposes, it is composed of modes of resistance that do not conform to the above two criteria more than any positive content; conservative resistance does not offer a modified vision of egalitarian society. These are movements that may believe that they are being oppressed, but whose ‘oppression’ is really the imposition of equal treatment where it was absent. In other words, the removal of privilege may very well appear as though it is oppression to those whose elite position within society is now being questioned.
What I have called democratic egalitarian resistance within the framework of Fractured Social Holism is grounded Dewey’s vision of democracy and publics. I have attempted to take inspiration from Dewey’s view while reinterpreting it in order to take into account contemporary concerns about pluralism and systemic institutional exclusions within democratic society. In this way, my view takes inspiration from Dewey and remains recognizably Pragmatist, grounded in many of the same premises surrounding democracy, community, and common interests that Dewey employs in his work. In updating his ideas we can better take into account the necessity of rectifying societal exclusions through the drive toward emancipation.