“(We hope) that our transportation crisis will be solved by a bigger plane or a wider road, mental illness with a pill, poverty with a law, slums with a bulldozer, urban conflict with a gas, racism with a goodwill gesture.”
– Philip E. Slater
“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”
– E. F. Schumacher
Phillip Slater died a couple of weeks ago. Not a name familiar to a lot of folks these days, but for those of us who came of age in the ’70s and did their sociology, Slater was something of an icon. I was an undergraduate in England when I first read him. In those days I was brimming with radicalism, a child of the New Left and full of sanctimonious criticism of postwar capitalism, so I was primed for Slater’s attack on individualism and commercialism in America. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point gave many like me a way of translating inchoate ideas and half-assed philosophy into something close to scholarship.
Pursuit was published in 1970, a significant year (Kent State, Joplin and Hendrix dead, Beatles break-up, US invades Cambodia, first Earth Day). In the early Seventies a slew of critiques of post-war culture and capitalism broke new ground: Reich’s Greening of America, E. E. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and even Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The New Left, rejecting some of Marx and nearly all of the old dogmas of the communists, flourished both here and in Europe. Riffing on Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and busy reframing the whole question of capitalism and socialism, the academic scribblers enthusiastically embraced new visions and old gripes. Add a heady brew of Carlos Castaneda (go look him up), Timothy Leary, Antonio Gramsci (look him up too—Billy Bragg called him the Smokey Robinson of Marxism), and a whole bunch of neo-Marxists (most of which I could barely make head n’ tail of) and it certainly seemed as though revolution was in the air.
Slater’s work was an important part of this cultural critique and reading him helped focus a lot of random ideas. My generation was confident then that we had a solution. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, it turns out. We didn’t really change the world, but we sure did write and talk about it. Endlessly. But Slater is one who bears re-reading. Not only because this is serious scholarship, but also because, in a flawed and interestingly human way, he had taken some of his own lessons to heart. Throughout his most famous work he rails against capitalism’s emphasis on individual achievement, America’s denial of collective identity and its profound resistance to interdependence (a recent reminder: think of the outrage in response to Obama’s remark “You didn’t make that”). There are a lot of subjective (and to contemporary ears) rather cranky judgments in the book, but there’s also much to learn. It certainly touched something; it sold over a half-million copies on publication—an unheard of number for an academic work by a then-unknown author. After the fame of Pursuit, Slater quit academia (he was Chair of Sociology at Brandeis University). He spent his life in myriad pursuits—he helped start a personal growth center in Cambridge called Greenhouse in the early Seventies; later he wrote novels, acted and wrote in plays; and still later sold cookies. According to the NY Times, when he died, all his possessions fit in two boxes. He said he believed in “voluntary simplicity.” A phrase he captured from another forgotten sage of American culture—Richard Gregg.
Gregg, an American pacifist and polymath, is remembered today (if at all) for his time studying with Gandhi and the fact that Martin Luther King cites Gregg as one of his great influences. Gregg wrote The Power of Non-Violence in 1934 (King wrote the foreword for the 1960 edition). But the connection to Slater is Gregg’s other contribution—he coined the term voluntary simplicity in the title of his 1936 book The Value of Voluntary Simplicity. Gregg, writing 30 odd years earlier, makes some of the same arguments that are at the center of Slater’s critique, and both were deeply worried about social isolation, mindless consumption, and the social and cultural consequences of technology. Slater mentions Gregg in some later musings.
Slater’s answer to the anemic materialism of life in America was to try a different path. In this he was not alone: it was a time of communes, back-to-the earth earnestness, and salvation through organic grains. We might laugh at some of this now. We might even scoff at its naiveté—and it was never as prevalent as we remember—very few dropped out (probably considerably more turned on—it was easy and way more fun), but for some it was a principled reaction to many of the ills that Slater documented.
I bring this all this up not only to resurrect Slater’s book and to honor his passing, but also to recognize that there are some very positive things playing out now around the world that are moving in another direction, away from the individualism and competitiveness that Slater wrote about. There are some lines on the map that connect these strands. People are beginning to stress the local (produce, business); think about what they put in their mouths (organic food, farmers’ markets); and embrace a sharing easiness with diversity (ethnic, sexual preference). For the most part these are young folks, yet many are not. In Lowell and places like it something is happening. In this city, Maker Spaces are being developed where folks can bring new ideas, practice hobbies, and develop new skills (and work together). Mill City Grows is building community gardens in the neighborhoods. Western Avenue is one of the largest collective arts spaces in the country. New small businesses are popping up throughout the city—from bike stores to original jewelry to boutique marshmallows. People are gathering to support new community groups and working together to improve the quality of life in Lowell. Young people are running for city council with new ideas and new perspectives. Lowell seems at the forefront of this, but it is happening in lots of places. The simple, the local, and the neighborly seem to have a bit of a hold.
Is all this big enough to change the world? Of course not. We live in an age of burgeoning inequality, scarcity, and violence. Too many people don’t have jobs, enough food or shelter. Our federal government seems to have stopped working. The trade unions that built our collective strength and protected our rights are in retreat. There are wars and calamities, and too much sadness and want. But these movements towards the local, towards community, are good signs. Technologies are being used to innovate and to build new kinds of collectives, and people are looking to work together. There are traces of a growing artisanal democracy and new forms of engagement, enabled by ways of communication inconceivable 30 years ago. That these changes are afoot should give us hope. These are good things. Perhaps the pursuit of loneliness is a race we finally don’t want to run.
John Wooding © 2013