Reprinted from Evergreen Review Vol. 5, No.16, January-February 1961

In every day’s newspaper there are stories about the two subjects that I have brought together in Growing Up Absurd, the disgrace of the Organized System of semimonopolies, government, advertisers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation. Both are newsworthily scandalous, and for several years now, both kinds of stories have come thicker and faster. It is strange that the obvious connections between them are not played up in the newspapers; nor, in the rush of books on the follies, venality, and stilling conformity of the Organization, has there been a book on Youth Problems in the Organized System.

 

Those of the disaffected youth who are articulate, however–for instance, the Beat or Angry young men–are quite clear about the connection: their main topic is the “system” with which they refuse to co-operate. They will explain that the “good” jobs are frauds and sells, that it is intolerable to have one’s style of life dictated by Personnel, that a man is a fool to work to pay installments on a useless refrigerator for his wife, that the movies, TV, and Book-of-the-Month Club are beneath contempt, but the Luce publications make you sick to the stomach; and they will describe with accuracy the cynicism and one-upping of the “typical” junior executive. They consider it the part of reason and honor to wash their hands of all of it.

 

Naturally, grown up citizens are unconcerned about the beatniks and delinquents. The school system has been subjected to criticism. And there is a lot of official talk about the need to conserve our human resources lest Russia get ahead of us. The question is why the grownups do not, more soberly, draw the same connections as the youth. Or, since no doubt many people are quite clear about the connection that the structure of society that has become increasingly dominant in our country is disastrous to the growth of excellence and manliness, why don’t more people speak up and say so, and initiate a change? The  question is an important one and  the answer is, I think, a terrible one: that people are so bemused  by  the  way  business and politics  are  carried on  at present, with all their intricate relationships, that they have ceased to be able to imagine alternatives. We seem to have lost our genius for inventing changes to satisfy crying needs.

 

But this stupor is inevitably the baleful influence of the very kind of organizational network that we have: the system pre-empts the available means and capital; it buys up as much of the intelligence as it can and muffles the voices of dissent; and then it irrefutably proclaims that itself is the only possibility of society for nothing else is thinkable.  Let me give a couple of examples of how this works. Suppose  (as is the case)  that  a group of radio and TV broadcasters, competing in the Pickwickian fashion of semimonopolies, control all the stations and channels in an area, amassing the capital and variously bribing Communications Commissioners  in  order  to  get them; and the  broadcasters tailor their programs to meet the requirements of their advertisers, of the censorship, of their own slick and clique tastes, and of a broad common denominator of the audience, none of whom may be offended: they will then claim not only that the  public wants the drivel that they  give them, but indeed that nothing else is being created. Of course it is not! Not for these media; why should a serious artist bother? Or suppose again (as is not quite the case) that in a group of universities only faculties are chosen that are “safe” to the businessmen trustees or the politically appointed regents,  and  these  faculties  give out all the degrees and licenses and union cards to the new generation of students, and only such universities can get Foundation or government money for research, and re­ search is incestuously staffed by the same sponsors and according to the same policy, and they allow no one but  those  they  choose,  to  have access to either the classroom or expensive apparatus: it will then be claimed that there is no other learning or professional competence; that an inspired  teacher  is not “solid”; that the official projects are the direction  of science;  that progressive education is a failure; and finally, indeed-as in Dr. James Conant’s report on the high schools -that only 15 percent of the youth are “academically talented” enough to be taught  hard subjects. This pre-empting of the means and the brains by the organization, and the shutting  out of those who do not conform, can go so far as to cause delusions,  as  when  recently  the president  of Merck and Company had the effrontery to warn the Congress that its investigation of profiteering in drugs might hinder the quest of scientific knowledge! as if  the spirit of Vesalius and Pasteur depended on the financial arrangements of Merck and Company.

 

But it is in these circumstances that people put up with a system because “there are no alternatives.” And when one cannot think of anything to do, soon one ceases to think at all.

To my mind the worst feature of our present organized system of doing things is its indirectness, its blurring of the object. The idea of directly addressing crying objective public needs, like shelter or education, and using our immense and indeed surplus resources to satisfy them is anathema. For in the great interlocking system of corporations people live not by attending to the job, but by status, role playing, and tenure, and they work to maximize profits, prestige, or votes regardless of utility or even public disutility­ e.g., the plethora of cars has now become  a  public  disutility,  but automobile  companies continue to manufacture  them  and  persuade people  to  buy  them.  The indispensible premise of city planning, according to a vice president of Webb and Knapp, is to make a “modest, long-term profit on the promoter’s investment.” (His exact sentence, to a meeting of young planners, was, “What we’re going to have built will be built only if some developer is going to make a profit from it.”!)  Obviously he is not directly interested in housing people or in city convenience and beauty; he is directly interested in being a good vice president of Webb and Knapp. That is his privilege, but it is not a useful goal, and an idealistic young fellow would not want to be such a man. Another example:  Some earnest liberal Congressmen are baffled “how to give Federal aid to education and not interfere in the curriculum and teaching.”  But when the teaching function is respected and assayed by the teacher’s peers-in-skill, no one can interfere; no one would dare (just as Harvard tossed out McCarthy). The  sole function  of  administration  is  to smooth the way, but in this country we have the topsy-turvy  situation that a teacher must devote himself to satisfying the administrator and financier rather  than to doing his job, and a universally  admired teacher  is fired for disobeying  an administrative order that would hinder teaching. Let me give another example, because I want to make this point very clear: These same Congressmen are concerned with “how to discourage low-level programming in private TV stations without censorship.” Their question presupposes that in communication the prior thing is the existence of networks and channels, rather than something to communicate that needs diffusing. But the prior thing is the program, and the only grounds for the license to the station is its ability to transmit it. Nothing could be more stupid than for the communications commission to give to people who handle the means of broadcasting the inventing of what to broadcast, and then, disturbed at the poor quality, to worry about censorship. We live increasingly, then, in a system in which little direct attention is paid to the object, the function, the  program, the task, the need; but immense attention to the role, procedure, prestige, and profit. We don’t get the shelter and education because not enough mind is paid to those things. Naturally the system is inefficient; the overhead is high; the task is rarely done with love, style, and excitement, for such beauties emerge only from absorption in real objects; sometimes the task is not done at all; and those who could do it best become either cynical or resigned.

 

 

In the light of this criticism, the recent scandalous exposures of the advertisers, the government, and the corporations are heartening rather than dismaying (I am writing in the winter of 1959-60 and we have been hearing about TV, the FCC, Title I, and the Drug Industry; by the time this is published there will be a new series). The conditions exposed are not new, but now the public skepticism and disgust are mounting; to my ear there is even a new ring; and the investigations are being pushed further, even further than intended by the investigators. The effect of this must be to destroy for many people the image of inviolability and indispensability of the kind of system I have been discussing, to show its phony workings and inevitable dangers. It is the collapse of “public relations.”

When the existing state of things is  suddenly measured by  people against far  higher standards than they  have  been  used  to, it is no longer  the case that  there  are no alternatives. People are forced by their better judgment to ask very basic questions: Is it possible, how is it possible, to have more meaning and honor in work? To put wealth to some real use? To have a high standard of living of whose quality we are not ashamed? To get social justice for those who have been shamefully left out? To have a use of leisure that is not a dismaying waste of a hundred million adults? The large group of independent people who have been out of the swim, with their old-fashioned virtues, suddenly have something admirable about them; one is surprised that they still exist, and their existence is relevant. And from the members of the Organized System itself come acute books criticizing the shortcomings of the Organized System.

 

It is my belief that we are going to have a change. And  once  the Americans can  recover from  their mesmerized condition and its astounding political apathy, our country  will  be  in  a  most  fortunate situation. For the kinds of radical changes we need are those that are appropriate to a fairly general prosperity. They are practicable. They can be summed up as simply restoring, in J. K. Galbraith’s phrase, the “social balance” that we have allowed to become lopsided and runaway in the present abuse of the country’s wealth. For instance, since we have a vast surplus productivity, we can turn to finding jobs that will bring out a youth’s capacity, and so really conserve human resources. We can find ways to restore to the worker a say in his production, and so really do something for manly independence. Since we have a problem of what to do  with leisure, we can  begin to think  of  necessary community enterprises that  want  doing, and that  people  can  enthusiastically and  spontaneously  throw  themselves  into,  and be proud of the results (e.g., beautifying our hideous small towns). And perhaps thereby create us a culture again. Since we have the technology, the capital, and the labor, why should we not have livable cities? Should it be hard to bring back into society the 30 percent who are still ill-fed and ill-housed, and more outcast than ever? What is necessary is directly addressing definite objective needs and using available resources to satisfy them; doing things that are worthwhile just because they are worthwhile, since we can. Politically, what we need is government in which a man offers himself as a candidate because he has a new program that he wants to effectuate, and we choose him because we want that good, and judge that he is the best man to effectuate it. Is that outlandish?

 

The present widespread concern about education is only superficially a part of the Cold War, the need to match the Russian scientists. For in  the  discussions, pretty soon  it becomes clear that  people are uneasy about, ashamed of, the world that  they  have given  the children to grow  up in. That world is not manly enough, it is not earnest enough; a grownup may be cynical (or resigned) about his own convenient adjustments, but he is by no means willing to see his children robbed of a worth-while society. With regard to the next generation, everybody always has a higher standard than the one he is used to. The standard is ceasing to be one of money and status and is becoming a standard of the worth of life. But worth, like happiness, comes from bona-fide activity and achievement.

 

My stratagem is a simple one. I assume that the young really need a more worthwhile world in order to grow up at all, and I confront this real need with the world that they have been getting. This is the source of their problems. Our problem is to remedy the disproportion. We can. Our inheritance, our immense productivity, has been preempted and parceled out in a kind of domainal system; but this grandiose and seemingly impregnable feudalism is vulnerable to an earnest attack. One has the persistent thought that if ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country.

 

 

Paul Goodman (September 9, 1911 – August 2, 1972) was a novelist, playwright, poet and psychotherapist, although now best known as a social critic, anarchist philosopher, and public intellectual. Though often thought of as a sociologist, he vehemently denied being one in a presentation in the Experimental College at San Francisco State in 1964, and in fact said he could not read sociology because it was too often lifeless. The author of dozens of books including Growing Up Absurd and The Community of Scholars, Goodman was an activist on the pacifist Left in the 1960s and a frequently cited inspiration to the student movement of that decade.