Burke and Social Democracy

Phyllis M. Japp

University of Nebraska

I am in search of a position on this topic, not in possession of one. Much of what is below deals with a specific critical concern of mine and not with the general theoretical question of the seminar. But hopefully it connects.

1. Do you find a vision of discourse in democracy in Burke's work?

If by this we mean "Is Burke working from an ideal vision of democratic society, I'd respond both "yes" and "no." I don't find in Burke any clear articulation of ideal democratic discourse; he left it to others to create ideals of discursive situations and instead spent his life searching through the rubble of symbolic warfare looking for clues to what had gone wrong. But we can certainly assume such a vision is implicit, i.e. that the diagnostician/physician must have had a sense of health in order to recognize and treat disease, and deduce his vision of a healthy democracy from analyses of its pathologies. Of course there is the possibility that, for Burke, democracy is the wrangle, the conflict, the inevitable fractions that are concommitant with symbol use--that disease rather than health is the natural social condition. If this is the case, then Burke's democracy is located in the balance of medicines that keep the diseases of human greed and lust for power contained to whatever degree possible so that the dialogue necessary to democractic processes can continue to function. Certainly by the time he had worked out the elements of his system, i.e. act = drama = conflict = scapegoating, had identified the rottenness at the core of perfection, and located Satan at the council table in heaven, it seems that he had resigned himself to an attitude of "this is as good as it gets" and set out to make the best of it. Yet the dream of "what could be" is always there . . . , isn't it?

2. What sections of the Burkean corpus do you find most useful in characterizing a Burkean perpsective on democracy?

My hunch takes me to the '30's, the decade of Burke's most intense consideration with social change. Permanence and Change and Attitudes Toward History, especially, together with "Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" and other writings of the period would seem to be a meaningful way into his struggle with the issues of democracy and discourse. In the two companion books, Burke is, I think, in the process of renouncing any lingering dreams of socialist utopia left over from his Marxist orientations and getting down to the hard work of outlining what he was about as a social critic. His critique of Hitler's perfected vision in Mein Kampf would have frightened him away from any wholistic and idealistic vision of society, had he been inclined to offer one.

Burke's oft-quoted retrospective on PC as written "at a time when there was a general feeling that our traditional ways were headed for a tremendous change, maybe even a permanent collapse" suggests its utility for our time, when many fear the demise of democratic discourse. As Burke explains, the work is concerned with the "many unexpected developments" that occur when "any ideal purpose is translated into its organizational equivalents," or one might paraphrase, with the inevitable problems inherent in attempting to move between principle and practice. And his agenda for his work, the search for orientation (discovering where we are); interpretation (how we got here); reintegration (how to proceed in the face of such difficulties) can surely serve as a guide for our current concerns. His vision of an Ideal New Order, which he later modifies, provides as close to idealized vision as Burke is likely to give us. This new order would be an society in which the poetic metaphor serves as the ethical ground of action:

The ultimate goal of the poetic metaphor would be a society in which the participant aspect of action attained its maximum expression. By its great stress upon the communicative, it would emphasize certain important civic qualities to which both naturalistic and supernaturalistic rationalizations have given less attention than seems necessary to our modern urbanized ways of living. Meanwhile, alas! we are forced to live by economic patterns which reduce the cooperative aspects of action to a minimum. (pp. 269-70)

This is not, as Burke points out both here and in ATH, a position of passive participation and certainly not one of conciliation. Rather, one accepts the inevitability of conflict and resigns oneself to the endless struggle for what is right and just. The underlying philosophy is an ethical philosophy of being in which the critic must necessarily oppose those institutions that

interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic norms. He may further hold that certain groups or classes of persons are mainly responsible for the retention of these socially dangerous institutions. And since we insist that a point of view requires, as its material counterpart, adequate embodiment in the architecture of the State, a philosophy of being may commit one to open conflict with any persons or class of persons who would use their power to uphold institutions serving an anti-social function (pp. 271-72)

3. What is the role of the critic in a Burkean democracy? In process of social change?

The above description (and many of similar bent) places the citizen/critic, the ethical philosopher of being, as an active advocate for democratic social change. This is not the objective social scientist, but the watchful, knowledgeable, passionate and morally-engaged critic of the misuse of symbols in the pursuit of power and privilege. Burke goes on to note that the critic is to be armed not with weapons of violence but with words; s/he works through "education, propaganda, or suasion" as a peaceful "propounder of new meanings" (p. 272). Here again is Burke's inherent optimism--worlds that are made in symbols can be unmade in symbols; new and more humane orders can arise from the collapse of old tyrannies. Hence the strongly pedogogical mission of the critic. If as he notes, the "heirarchial psychosis" is inherent in the social order, a "free society should emphasize in its secular educational methods the kinds of observation that make the building of heirarchal magic most difficult" (294). His observation is both a description of and a challenge for our contemporary difficulties:

Indeed, the proper educational approach to the motives of heirarchy should not, as now, vacillate between 'mystification' and 'unmasking,' between the journalistic 'build up' and the compensatory 'character assassination,' but should aim at the kinds of contemplation and sufferance that are best adapted to the recognition and acceptance of a social form inevitable to the social order (p. 294)

The last phrase suggests that if we accept the heirarchial psychosis as inherent in the present social order, we can cease flailing between approval and diaspproval, patiently search out and expose the mysteries of heirarchy and teach others to do likewise. The admonition to critics with which Burke begins "Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" is the issue here as well. It is the civic task of the social critic to investigate such language, not in a superficial manner, but with painstaking respect for the texts at hand. As he notes, it is "thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds . . .if [he] but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with the guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment." (p. 191) Critics have a responsibility to take seriously what are often characterized as the ravings of the "lunatic fringe" for there we will find the basic themes and tenents of our social order distorted to the degree necessary to make them a poision rather than medicine. We will learn not only what inspires those who follow these leaders but also where the symbolic world of our social order is most vulnerable to misuse.

4. What techniques or concepts would a citizen find useful in a Burkean democracy?

Certainly Burke's whole arsenal of critical terms was created for just this purpose. In PC, Burke is particularly concerned with the "linkages" or symbolic construction of relationships among concepts and ideas. While he refines these ideas further in later writings, as he moves to pentads and ratios and clusters and the like, here is clearly an understanding of how symbolic connections reveal the "integral relationship between our metaphisics and our conduct" (p. 14). These linkages that create for us means and ends, causes and effects, pasts and futures, create the orientations via which we understand and act. We commonsensically understand that "some things happen in spite of others, some because of others, and some regardless of others" and it makes a profound difference how we line up the events and their relationships (p. 35). One need go no further than the various explanations of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City to see each of these relationships in action.

But if we want more specificity, Burke reiterates the various "tie-ups" (over seventy of them) he has considered in PC and, of course, extends and modifies in later writings on pp. 262-63.

This catalog provides a description of our symbolic complexes and a toolbox for criticism of our social realities. We can, he continues, simply call these tie-ups "civilization" [or that subset of civilization we call democracy] and consider it both the promise and the pathology of humankind.

5. Burkean reading of an appropriate discourse.

My impulse for revisiting Burke's notions of democratic discourse grew from a student discussion of the Oklahoma City bombing, one that revealed the usual opposing beliefs about the link between language and behavior, i.e. "hateful speech creates violent behaviors" and "speech is speech and behavior is behavior; the first cannot cause the second." While Burke's position would support neither extreme, his understanding of the relationship of symbols and action, that we do indeed act when we use symbols, provides a complex and powerful way to addressing the issues of uncivil discourse.

Speaking of the bombing, Morris Dies asserted that what happened "began with words." He was referring, of course, to words that incite and inflame, words that create an enemy and justify eradication of that enemy. Note 1. Burke would agree but would certainly enlarge consideration to include words that orient, words that define, words that unite, words that divide, i.e. to the layers of symbolic linkages that provide the logical foundation for words that incite. Most analyses of folks like McVeigh, David Rice, and others define their actions as irrational. Burke, on the other hand, would be likely to point to the rationality of their behavior as a logical extension of their world view. Rather than deviating from the norm by their actions, they were, in fact, the most normal of all, enacting the ultimate perfection of their chosen vision. When McVeigh asserts to a reporter that "millions of Americans" share his distrust of government, he is scarcely exaggerating. To a greater or lesser degree these folks they share the linkages that created McVeigh's world.

My concern at the moment is with these "millions of Americans." We certainly need to examing the rhetoric of the charismatic leaders of the disenchanted and that of the political demogogues who use it for their advantage. We need to look closely, as Sam Kean has done with David Rice, at the worldview of those who believe they have done God a favor by committing violence. Note 2 But we also must look closely at those who do not write treatises or commit overt acts of violence but who, by their tacit excusing of those who do, make such actions increasingly possible and acceptable. For example, consider the following statements, gleaned from conversations and letters of everyday folk--relatives, friends, students--those who go to jobs, to church, to school, who do not (to my knowledge) belong to militaristic cults or engage in acts of violence:

Of course the bombing was terrible, but how else can people get government to listen?

Of course it's too bad that people are murdering each other in the streets but citizens must have guns to "protect our way of life."

Of course abuse against women is wrong but feminism has robbed men of their rightful position in society and they must recover that right.

Of course ______'s should not be discriminated against but we can't ignore the racial deficiencies that create their problems.

Of course anti-Semitism is wrong but people are reacting to the fact that "they" control the world.

Of course it's ugly when someone beats up homosexuals but they must be stopped from destroying our family values.

Of course it's wrong to kill doctors who perform abortions but they are murderers and those who "live by the sword must die by the sword."

Words like these indicate that for many people important linkages may have been broken and others formed. The new linkages allow identification with acts of violence, essentially promote symbolic or vicarious participation in these acts in the name of principles held and shared, i.e. in the name of democracy. Once identification is formed, with the concommitant divisions necessary to maintain identification, violence can be ritually denounced but tacitly supported. These are not folks who have read Turner Diaries or who attend weekend militarist rallies. They have, by and large, formed their ethic by listening to sermons and talk radio, by reading religious pamphlets and political treatises, by participating in campaigns to reform government or elect candidates that share their views. So even in these watered-down and often encoded styles, failure to draw the lines at the right places creates a climate of possibility and a crowd of tacit sympathizers that energizes the bold and/or the fanatical to perfect the vision.

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Note 1. Dies' remarks at Great Plains Conference, Lincoln NE, 4/9/96.

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Note 2. Kean's PBS video, "Faces of the Enemy," also his book by the same title, although it does not include the interview with Rice.

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