Governing Not

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012

Danny Heitman’s essay on Henry David Thoreau,
Not Exactly a Hermit", skips the enviro clichés and brings fresh insight to the life of the American intellectual and political theorist. Thoreau has had a global influence on political thought, persuading the likes of Gandhi, Tolstoy and King. While not a consistent hermit, he was hardly a social butterfly, eschewing the party scene for one-on-one conversation in which he voiced blunt opinions. Emerson remarked “‘I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree’ ” Probably not the best team player!
Heitman adds a new perspective - Thoreau as the quintessential American writer: “(W)hat he advanced by constant example, is a style of writing that’s characteristically American—often colloquial, routinely direct, and with a suggestion of plain talk that sometimes, on second reading, reveals a deeper complexity.” I like that.
Caption. One of many Thoreau books still in print.
Why am I going on about Thoreau? Because of the following quote from his essay, Civil Disobedience, which I will use as a discussion starter in my Democratic Workplace class this winter:
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe– ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”.

This paragraph about self-government is the curtain raiser on Civil Disobedience.
The footnotes in the link suggest that Thoreau may have been referring to the motto - "The best government is that which governs least," - of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1837-1859 or to "the less government we have, the better" from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Politics", 1844.
For me, these quotes bring to mind the earliest anarchistic writings found in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way, ca. 500 BC).
Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in protest of a government at war and still enthralled by slavery. Mr. Thoreau was not happy with the status quo and called upon others to join in with his disobeying. He himself refused, in protest in 1846, to pay a mandatory poll tax and was jailed for a night before family bailed him (unwillingly) out.
I do wonder if Mr. Thoreau really meant what he said about dispensing with government. While he lived an idealistic (and reclusive) life in a way that others might only wishfully talk about, he may be overstating the case for a different kind of government, substituting one with his ideas transcendent. He did participate in productive and inventive ways in his family’s pencil factory, but there does not seem to be any record of how he worked with others on-the-job.
Thoreau hedges his self-governance option with the condition that it comes about only “when men are prepared for it”. When will that be? I would argue that people have always been prepared for it and that political thinkers have always managed to figure out some way to keep government going, more or less depending on the critic’s philosophy. For example, below is Lenin’s charming propaganda about self-governing children. We know how that dystopia played out!
Caption: Lenin’s "Self-government for Children”
All that aside what does no government look like? How do decisions get made? Why group decisions? I doubt if Thoreau asked for any advice from anyone during his 2 years and 2 months on Walden Pond. He made all his own decisions and did not have a single group vote a la OWS consensus voting. In BF Skinner's Walden Two, the story of a rigidly controlled utopian commune, the "members" have no say in decisions. They, the founder assures us, want it that way. It's the "Planners" (an elite) that run the place and tell the willing many what to do.
I will pair – in my class - Thoreau’s quote with Lincoln’s words from his Gettysburg Address:
“that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
For me both quotes relate to aspects of self-government, of personal responsibilities, and management of self in organizations.
Freedom at work is a theme I began to develop in Leading from the Middle, for example, Chapter 32: Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside
I am looking forward to where the class discussion of these concepts and ideas - when applied to the workplace – takes us.
And, I hope a few of my students take me up on an extra credit project: to interview a Latvian worker with experience in both the Soviet (pre-1991) and Democratic (post-1991) eras. I’ll write about the results.
Since I am not a Thoreau scholar anyone that knows more about Thoreau's No Government or Walden as Utopia or Thoreau and Utopic thought, please comment.

« Prev itemNext item »


No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment