Ken Jowitt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Individual, Charisma, and the Leninist Extinction: Conversation with Ken Jowitt, Robson Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; 12/7/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 5

Democracy and the Individual

One of the themes, I think, that appears in your work, and you said this just now, is the failure of communism and Marxism-Leninism to make happy the people that it served.

A lot of your recent writing today is on the question of democracy and the individual. I want to read a quote from your recent essay in the introduction to Michnik's book: "Democracy requires that most extraordinary of cultural inventions, the individual informed by conscience, aware of his and her independent, not derived, value and complimentary identities." Help us understand that sentence.

What it means is, any groups you belong to are second. I'm Irish and English and Roman Catholic. I'm Irish on March 17th and if I feel like it on March 18th; if I don't feel like it, I'm not Irish. In short, identities are not derived. My grandmother, bless her, when I first dated an Italian girl I won't tell you what she said but it was not pleasant. And when I dated a Jewish girl she was so shocked she couldn't even say anything negative.

I see ... so it's an argument [against] extreme positions.

But the point is that when you talk about individualism, what you're talking is not the absence of group affiliations. I am very happy to be Irish in descent. I'm happy that my wife is Jewish and Protestant; that she was middle-class, I was working-class. Those complementarities are part of who I am, but my identity is not derived from being my grandmother's Irish Catholic grandson or anything of the kind

We live in an age now when that sort of categoric identity is very fashionable, especially in the area we're having this interview. And frankly, I find it an absolute disaster. It's one thing to make your identity paramount when you're being attacked for that. If I were a Jew in 1930 in Germany, I would not be saying I have complimentary identities when somebody was trying to kill me because I was a Jew; I'd probably be a Zionist. But that's situational; the question is essentially, how do you define yourself? And if you define yourself as an individual, by definition a good part of your life you're going to be lonely. And that's why my greatest hero intellectually is Max Weber who, in effect, led a lonely life. I think a little alienation is a damn good thing.

You've touched on the threat posed by corporate identity, and of course, we're seeing now in the world the threat of extreme hyperethnicity. You also write in The Leninist Extinction, "Liberal capitalism fails adequately to provide for the essential group needs and dimensions of human existence, a rejection of heroic ethic, awe, and mystery that throughout most of history have separated man from animal and necessity." So the point here is that for all its support, in theory, of the individual, capitalism fails to provide that element of charisma which you've also been trying to analyze and look at.

That's right. Basically I'm saying the following: if you ask me what I am, I'm a liberal republican capitalist, with small letters, not caps. But that's what I am. And I am, while recognizing that being a liberal 19th-century variant, being a republican of the classical sense, being a capitalist, being a democrat, all of those things, that those are partisan statements. While favoring those -- and I think they have brought about the greatest civilization that we've known to date -- they are inadequate. I take seriously when the Roman Catholic church says that the family counts, not simply the individual. That's a tension that we have to deal with. It's up to us as individuals to deal with that. I don't see it as either/or, but I do recognize that liberal capitalism, liberal capitalist democracy, in and of itself, if it is absolutized, is evil, it's bad. It's wrong. You can use whatever term you want. It has to be modified, there have to be important adjectives around them. I'm saying however, that the core of my beliefs are those liberal, republican, democratic, and capitalist ones. It is at the same time true that they fail to adequately deal with elements of the human condition, the need for security, the need for heroic achievement. That's why we watch football and like astronauts. The need, in effect, for emotion, to be evocative, not just analytic. My point simply is to raise the question: which set of orientations, virtues, and commitments set the terms for the others? In my life it's the liberal ones, the individualistic ones; it is the capitalist ones, it is the democratic ones. Those are the ones that set the terms for the heroic, the emotional, and the other. So it's not just a question of one or the other, or should they all come together. It's not a mishmash and it's not absolute. It's a complimentarity in which one set of values, commitments, and behaviors set the terms for the others.

Under what circumstances does corporate identity become the basis of social fragmentation, mutual hate, and violence? Is it because there is a failure to mediate the tension between the individual and the group?

Well, first, let's be clear. When we say corporate identity we're not talking about General Motors; we're talking about a form of identification where persons don't have an identity outside of that group, they just lack it.

My sense is that corporate identities, to the extent to which they're absolute, are always evil. Why are they evil? One, they make it easier to commit violence on someone else. If I don't know you as Harry Kreisler and you don't know me as Ken Jowitt, rather you grew up Jewish and I grew up Roman Catholic, I can kill you easily. You're just a Jew, I'm just a Catholic. So you can gas the Jew, lynch the Catholic, starve the Protestant, whatever. It lowers the threshold for violence when you don't have an individual worth that's recognized by others.

The second thing is, it allows violence to go on almost indiscriminately. If it's not you hurt me, therefore I'm going to try to hurt you, but rather you as a member of group hurt me, then I can hit your son. I can tell Jeremy, "I don't care that you didn't bother me, you're your father's son, I'm going to hit you." He, in turn, can hit my wife. So the violence spreads circumference-wise. Finally, the violence spreads over time because if you did an injustice to my grandfather, I have to do an injustice to your grandson. Corporate identities, where they are dominant, always lead to greater degrees of violence, and because I don't like violence, because I like the Enlightenment, because I like the importance of intellect and persuasion, I favor the individual and reason.

You use the word "relativize" a lot, and I believe is it correct to say that you feel that appropriately organized public space and public discourse in a democracy is critical. I'll quote you. You say, "To create and sustain a civic democratic tolerant way of life one must relativize absolute ethnic, religious, and ideological identities." Bring proportion.

Yes, that's absolutely right.

I use the word "ethnic lite," like Miller Lite or Bud Lite. I think that ethnicity, in the sense of bringing, potentially bringing -- it doesn't necessarily bring and doesn't always bring good things -- but potentially bringing elements, types of experience that [we] otherwise wouldn't have is a valuable thing.

When you absolutize, first of all you're making one's personal life stingy, you're ruling out other experiences. You're ruling out the risk that comes with maturation. You're ruling out the need for judgment on the part of the individual. So when I say relativize, I don't mean relativistic. I believe some things are better than other things. I really think the Ten Commandments are better than a lot of other injunctions as to how one should behave, for example. So it's not a matter that anything is good as long as it doesn't hurt you, which is the trite philosophy of Northern California today, in an area populated more by therapists than by people. But if you look, I'm always fearful of dogma. You can say, well that's very odd, being Roman Catholic. Well I'll grant you that, it's odd. But I think dogma in the form of absolutizing an ethnic identity, a racial identity, except in the situation where you're going to be dealt with violently, I think it is the greatest sin. I think it's the greatest ethical sin, I think it's the greatest behavioral sin to absolutize your identity.

So when I say relativize, I mean just what I said about giving an example of my marriage. I think, in effect, that being relativized doesn't dilute you. What it does is place the individual in a position where they have to make a judgment and take a risk. If I had grown up Irish Catholic and married an Irish Catholic working class girl, what risk would that have been? None. What judgment would it have taken? None. It might have been a good marriage, I'm not saying that everybody that does that is making a mistake. I'm saying quintessentially a society based on the individual is a society that enriches itself by taking risk to go beyond your own experience and self.

Implicit in what you're saying, besides the public space where this relativizing may occur, you're really suggesting the need for a moral imagination in politics. Is that correct? And then where do we obtain experiences and training these days to acquire that imagination?

Well it's very hard in the United States. It's difficult, and in part it's not this country's fault. When things are going very well, and they are going very well -- there's no question there's poor, there's sick, there could be a more effective distribution of wealth, not by some crass redistribution but there could be some -- but the fact of the matter is, when times are good, it's very difficult to locate the source of, or leverage for, moral courage. And yet some people in this society will always demonstrate it. Why is that?

One is temperament. You just can't get beyond it, I don't care nurture/nature, all this silly binary stuff. There are some people who are going to stand up and be like Luther, they're simply going to do it. Many of those people don't even know it until the challenge is made. So part of it is just their temperament, genetic makeup. Second thing is their parents: do they see evidence not of simply reasonable persuasion, which the middle class is ridden with today (not its own [morality], but what it learns if from its therapy: what they should say to their children). But the fact is, is there the self-confidence to demonstrate courage? Courage to me is the single greatest virtue in life. It's not the only one. I think goodness, I think sociability, I think intellect, all of those are valuable. But without courage you never realize the fullness of anything.

So if you grow up in a setting where you see a person, not a role model but an inspiration (role models are boring, not an inspiration); [if] you see a Martin Luther King -- I saw Martin Luther King: the man inspired me. That's not supposed to happen; after all, I'm a live white male and he wasn't white, but the fact of the matter is he was one of the greatest inspirations I've seen growing up. Do you see inspirational figures that are willing to sacrifice for their courage? That to me is something that affects people wherever, whatever their gender, their race, their ethnicity, their age. Are there enough of those figures that are experienced by enough people in a population, vicariously, directly, whatever?

I think such examples provide the moral basis of courage -- having inspirational figures. The closer they are to you, the better. If you see it in your mother and father, if you see it in your brothers and sisters, you see it in a close friend, it leaves you with something incredibly important which people don't appreciate enough: embarrassment. You get embarrassed not to be courageous yourself.

Because you want to win their respect?

That's right, absolutely right. And that's a lovely thing. If you're going to look to others, don't look to them for applause or money or promotions or the next grant or fellowship, look to those who warrant respect for respect. That's an extraordinary achievement. That's pre-Christian. That's pre-Christian, that's something that is not part of Christian theology, but I think is an incredibly valuable thing.

Throughout our discussion these themes -- of the sacred, of awe, of respect, of the charismatic -- keep emerging, and on the other hand this notion of respect for the dignity of the individual. So if I want to read you something that you wrote: "The need for democracy and the need for the sacred make up one of life's immutable dilemmas. Except for extraordinary circumstances -- " such as revolutionary situations, I assume you mean, " -- democracy and the sacred are conflicting imperatives."

That's right, and I think essentially, if you take them in their purest form, basically what charisma and the sacred say is there's one truth. That's the key to what charismatics are about, one truth. Charismatics are not pleasant people. I always get a kick when people say, oh, charismatics are engaging and attractive. No charismatic is anything less than frightening. I mean it's always nice when I talk to other Christians and they'll say well you know Jesus changed water into wine. If I had been there I would have been scared to death that he would have changed me into water. Charismatics have extraordinary power and they are always coercive in the sense that they tell you there is one truth.

Democracy, in effect (and I should add liberal democracy, not democracy in the sense of just equality; I think that per se just leads to the tyranny of the masses), but liberal democracy, democracy based on the individual, not the crowd or the mob or the group; liberal democracy in effect relativizes truths. One has to, as an individual, relate what one might believe is an absolute truth, if one is a Roman Catholic; and a liberal democrat says no, you have to relativize truth. And it is up to the individual to put those things together. Sometimes you can finesse it. Sometimes you have to say, "Here I stand, democracy is wrong. Here I stand, the Roman Catholic church is wrong." Ultimately, as Martha and the Vandellas put it, there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The individual has to be the ultimate locus of responsible decision.

Do you think democracy today allows that to happen?

Not really. This raises a topic that's really too broad to just go into briefly, religion and democracy.

It is hard for me to believe that a democracy can sustain itself without some beliefs that are transcendental, that give people the courage to stand up and fight for something, because otherwise people will always ... they'll basically compromise and make a decision to split the difference, you know, to be a marginal thing, a little bit for you, a little bit for me. There are some issues where you have to simply stand, and I don't think most people have that conviction in the absence of something transcendental. By the way, it doesn't have to be religion. In the nineteenth century people were willing to risk a lot to be a liberal capitalist. It took heroism, as Weber and Polyani point out. It took heroism, perverted in most respects, but communists could be heroes. They could die fighting those Nazis, a lot of French didn't do that. The fact of the matter is that in order to sustain a principle in a situation of adversity, you need it.

So, in a contradictory way, democracy should in its essence be empirical, should be Sancho Panza; it shouldn't be Don Quixote. Sancho Panza at critical moments needs a Don Quixote to sustain it while recognizing that reliance on a Don Quixote no matter when threatens it. That's the human condition.

You wrote, "In situations in which it might be rational to run, not fight; doubt, not believe; punish, not forgive; reject, not accept; to quit, in those situations morality and a sense of the sacred can be a source of courage, confidence, mercy, toleration, and endurance."

If I hadn't written that I'd agree with that. I think that's absolutely right, and I think again that the mature person -- and we don't talk enough about maturation, we always talk about how intelligent, how smart somebody is, or how successful they are. That's all well and good, but I think, in the absence of some transcendental beliefs, some of which are more benign than others, some of which are outright malignant, that one has very little in the way of inner resource to stand when it makes much more sense to run, or to be graceful, not simply rational.

Here I'll quote Max Weber, whom you quote, actually: "It is immensely moving when a mature man is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct, and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility, and somewhere he reaches the point where he says, here I stand, I can do no other."

I think that's what Harry Truman did when he ordered the atomic bomb. I think that people who give these partisan and parochial and, for the most part, superficial arguments that this was just an immoral action -- others, of course, give a much more serious and substantial critique, which I take seriously, but most don't -- I think that's exactly what Harry Truman did. You don't have to have a Ph.D., you don't have to graduate from a school of theology. I think Harry Truman sat and said to himself, "I am aware that this is an ultimate act with consequences that I may regret morally, not just politically; I can't do anything but this now." So I don't think you have to look in history very far back to see an instance of exactly what Weber was saying.

Next page: Doing Political Theory

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California