Ed D’Angelo responds to John Pateman’s review of Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library
I appreciate John Pateman’s efforts in writing a review of my book, “Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library,” and I think that ultimately our underlying motives are similar. But there are real disagreements, too, as well as misunderstandings that I would like to address. The most important real difference of opinion is found in his assertion that “by supporting democracy and civil education, Public Libraries are supporting capitalism.” I agree that the US and the UK are poor examples of democracy– and I say so in my book–but I do not believe that by supporting democracy one is supporting capitalism. I believe that the values of democracy are different if not opposed to those of capitalism, and that democracy, when pushed far enough and extended into the workplace, is socialism. Curiously, the argument that capitalism and democracy are somehow related to one another, or even identical, can be found on both extremes of the political spectrum. On the right, neoliberals and market fundamentalists equate democracy with capitalism in order to ideologically support capitalism. Thomas Frank does an excellent job of analyzing and indeed mocking this ideology under the name of “market populism” in his book One Market Under God. At the other end of the political spectrum, authoritarian socialists equate democracy with capitalism in order to discredit democracy. But among more moderate socialists, such as members of the Frankfurt School, some of whose arguments I draw upon in my book, democracy and socialism are viewed as entirely compatible. Anarchism, in my view, is a radical form of democracy that relies on direct, participatory democracy and consensus decision making at the local level, and federation at higher levels of complexity.
Pateman claims to be writing from a Marxist perspective, but he embraces neoliberalism and the Harvard Business School. It is true that according to Marx capitalism must sweep the world before communism can exist. This put Marx in the odd position of sometimes supporting capitalism as a necessary stage of history while resisting contemporary socialism. This was one of the sources of disagreement between Marx and Bakunin in the First International. Bakunin believed that socialism could be achieved through many historical routes that didn’t necessarily pass through capitalism. Anarchism is primarily a moral ideology. From an anarchist perspective, the Marxist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as well as the Marxist theory of history that requires a stage of capitalist development prior to communism, are immoral on Kantian grounds. They are immoral because they treat people as a means to an end. In either case the current generation of workers is exploited for the sake of a future communist society. But even Marx would not endorse becoming a capitalist exploiter (or corporate style manager, etc.) in order to bring about socialism. Marx simply meant that one should not attempt to bring about socialism until the time is ripe. Furthermore, our historical situation is very different than Marx’s. We now know with the benefit of hindsight that history has not proceeded in the way that Marx anticipated, and that history does not proceed according to some tidy Hegelian logic.
Pateman states that “Education and Public Libraries were invented by capitalists (such as Andrew Carnegie) to take the pressure out of the capitalist system, to prevent revolution.” He goes on to say that public libraries are capitalist institutions just like corporate chain bookstores. Public libraries cannot successfully compete in the capitalist marketplace with bookstores for the same middle class customers so, Pateman concludes, public libraries should compete instead for working class customers, using the same corporate capitalist strategies that the corporate chain bookstores use to attract middle class customers. De-professionalize librarians, take away their “gatekeeper role,” stock the libraries with entertainment, and give the customers what they want, since what they want is what they need. “We should employ staff for their Customer Service skills first and foremost, and then teach them any technical skills which they require to carry out their jobs. Under capitalism the citizen is the customer, the customer is always right, and if we don’t give the customer what s/he needs, we will become irrelevant and people will stop using us.” Pateman says that the working class “should be involved in every aspect of public library operations, including book selection” (as long as they are not actually employed by the library), but then he turns around and quotes a corporate management guru who says “that it takes only a few people (who Gladwell characterises as Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen) to spread a good idea or product.” But who are the “Connectors” but the top level executives with political connections? Who are the “Mavens” but the engineers and technicians? And who are the “Salesmen” but the marketing managers of a typical corporation? This is simply market populism, the idea that the market expresses the true interests of the people, and that the corporate ruling class, as the most powerful players in this market, are their true guardians.
What Pateman has totally omitted are professional librarians and educators. He simply dismisses librarianship and civil education as agents of capitalism. Once he has reduced librarianship and education to capitalism, he can then reconfigure the public library in capitalist terms. Library users become “customers.” Staff are trained in “customer service” and given “technical skills.” But librarianship and civil education are not about customer service or about technical skills. They are ultimately about politics–principally, democracy and its associated moral values. Pateman can neither recognize nor accept this distinction because he reduces democracy itself to capitalism. It is true that the first public libraries, founded in the 19th century, were established by the capitalist ruling class, and I say so in my book. But to say as he does that public libraries have only served capitalism and that they offer no alternative to or resistance against capitalism is equally false. To say as he also does that democracy serves capitalism is to confuse democratic institutions with the ideal of democracy itself. If the public library has failed to measure up to its democratic ideal that is not reason to abandon the ideal but reason to defend it more ardently.
My book speaks for itself, and so I refer readers to it if they wish to further resolve this issue. But Pateman has also misrepresented or misunderstood my book on certain other issues, and that requires an additional response. The chief misrepresentation of my book in Pateman’s review is that he leaves the reader with the impression that I am supporting middle class Victorian values. I do argue that public libraries were established according to middle class Victorian values and that these values have gone into decline. But I do not argue that the public library can be revitalized by returning to Victorian values. On the contrary, I argue that 19th century Capitalism went into decline and was replaced by postmodern consumer capitalism in part because Victorian values were deficient. I cite Nietzsche who predicted a period of nihilism following the decline of Victorian Christian values (the “death of God”). What is needed is not a return to Victorian values but the creation of new values.
The most disturbing aspect of Pateman’s review is his inconsistency (if not hypocrisy) about the role of the working class in public libraries and, more broadly, in politics. Like the market populists, he claims to be a champion of the oppressed masses and of the working class, but at the same time he supports the corporate world order. He says that we should cure ourselves of “affluenza” by seeking to satisfy our needs rather than our wants, and says that public libraries should serve the “needs” of the working class rather than the “wants” of the middle class. He recognizes that wants are not the same as needs, and that people sometimes want things that are not in their best interest. But then he turns around and says that the customer is always right and that the gatekeeper role should be taken away from librarians, clearly implying that public libraries should give working class people what they want. He confuses the logic of consumer markets?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùthe principle that the “customer is always right,” giving people what they “want”?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùwith the empowerment of the masses. Conversely, he equates criticism of popular culture with the oppression of the working class. In fact, he rejects any distinction between “good” and “bad” books. In other words, he confuses a critical ranking of books with a class system. The element of truth here is that “high culture” was a product of certain privileged classes of literate people (clergy, nobility, upper bourgeoisie, etc.) during the pre-modern era, and in part it may very well reflect their class interests. But popular culture has not been produced just to give the masses what they want, let alone what they need. It has also and primarily been produced to generate a profit. And when it became necessary to change what consumers wanted, advertising was created. In other words, consumer markets express the interests of the capitalist ruling class at least as much as high culture expressed the interests of the pre-modern literate classes. Pateman says that the working class “may not be attracted to ?¢‚Ç¨Àúhigh culture’ but there is equal value in ?¢‚Ç¨Àúpopular culture’.” But it is insulting and patronizing to assume that working class people never have an interest in high culture. Pateman gets around the fact that working class people have shown an interest in high culture by arguing that working class people who show an interest in high culture are trying to adopt middle class values, hence are not authentically “working class.” But this is a circular argument. It only works if you assume beforehand that high culture is necessarily middle or upper class. It is not. Although academia has a way of absorbing them today, prior to the second half of the 20th century there were many working class intellectuals. Literacy among working class people in the early 20th century was astonishingly high, as the popularity of Will and Ariel Durants’ “high brow” history of civilization demonstrates. Nor is it true, on the other hand, that the working class has been the sole consumer of popular culture in the modern period. Popular culture cuts across class lines.
Pateman claims that “working class people are able to work out what is good for them,” and since librarians are “middle class,” they don’t need librarians. Pateman assumes that anyone who is educated must be “middle class.” But class is not about education. Class is about power, and about wealth, insofar as wealth bestows power. And in that respect librarians in the USA are hardly “middle class.” As I discuss at length in my book, since the time of Melvil Dewey librarians in the USA have been treated more or less like factory workers and subjected to the same system of “scientific” management. (The professional status of librarians may be different in the UK. And that may be a source of disagreement between Pateman and I. In that case, I recommend that Pateman disabuse himself of the idea that librarians should be deprofessionalized by finding employment at the front lines of an American library.) Pateman’s animosity towards the “middle class,” which he apparently confuses with middle income workers, is not a mark of his radicalism, but rather of the new corporate world order, in which the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. It is a world of the “few” corporate chieftains and legions of low paid temp workers.
Pateman says that it is “patronizing and insulting” to assume that working class people need librarians to select material for them. But it is equally insulting and disrespectful to assume that a trained and educated librarian would not be more competent than an untrained person, whatever “class” that person may belong to. Pateman insinuates that librarians would select what they think their users should read, rather than what they want to read. But any competent librarian will consider both the wants and needs of their users.
I do not argue in my book that all popular culture is without value, only that a “great deal of popular literature falls into the category of information that is neither educational nor edifying.” Indeed many of my own sources are works of popular culture that are educational or edifying.
I do not argue in my book that popular culture should be excluded from public libraries. Good librarians, like good teachers, begin where they find their readers. If that happens to be works of popular culture then they will begin by building a collection of popular works. Good librarians merely facilitate the reader’s own innate quest for truth and quality. Use of a public library is, after all, voluntary. Librarians cannot and should not coerce users to read what they deem best. They should, however, make available what their educated opinion deems best. My primary complaint about collection development in public libraries has always been about what is not available (books that meet high critical standards) rather than what is (books that the publishing industry is promoting at any given time). I am arguing for the inclusion of great works, not the exclusion of popular culture.
Pateman says that I pose “education and entertainment as if they are mutually exclusive; they are not. The best books / films / media are both entertaining and educational. If a subject is not entertaining / enjoyable, it is less likely that people will want to learn about it.” Pateman is correct that I distinguish between education and entertainment. But he is wrong to say that I exclude enjoyment from education. I state very clearly in my book that “education and edification do not necessarily exclude pleasure. Pleasure is necessarily a part of education insofar as education makes higher levels of pleasure and the pleasurable consumption of information possible. We consume education and we are pleasured by it.”
But as I go on to say, “it is possible to consume information without being educated or edified.” In fact, it is possible to consume information without being either educated or entertained. When I view a subliminal advertisement that associates sex with an expensive car, am I being educated? Have I learned some truth about the world that I did not previously understand? Or have I been manipulated and deceived into purchasing a car I cannot afford? Such a subliminal ad doesn’t even qualify as “entertainment.” I am not even conscious of it. Its purpose is neither to educate me nor to entertain me, but to change my behavior in such a way that the producers of the ad will increase their profits. Most of what we call “entertainment” in our culture functions much like an advertisement. Its purpose is not to educate, or even to entertain. Its purpose is to increase profits. It educates or entertains only as a means to produce profit. That is just the way capitalism works, and Marx would have agreed. But as it turns out, education is not as useful for the purpose of increasing profits as entertainment is. Education is dangerous. It empowers those who acquire it. Those who are educated are not so easily deceived. Those who are educated make choices in their own interests. Those who are educated are not so easily exploited. Entertainment, on the other hand, is useful to those who wish to profit from us. Entertainment keeps viewers eyes glued to the screen. It’s very “sticky,” indeed, like candy?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùor better yet, like cigarettes, one of the most heavily advertised commodities in the 20th century. By making information entertaining, the producers of information increase the likelihood that we will continue to consume it, just as nicotine in cigarettes increases the likelihood that we will continue to consume them.
A good model for the role public libraries could play in the lives of all people, including working class people, is Earl Shorris’ great books program at the Roberto Clemente Center in New York’s Lower East Side. I have done something similar with my philosophy discussion group in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Earl Shorris objects to the fact that poor and working class people rarely have access to the humanities. He believes that an education in the humanities is essential for a meaningful life and for full participation in modern society. He established a great books program in the Lower East Side and found that the chronically unemployed, methadone patients, former prisoners, etc. enthusiastically identified with the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, they too had been force-fed mere shadows. With the help of an education in the humanities they gained the power to see through the lies and the shadows, and to break free.