Ask an Expert

Featuring Vice President of the EBF and Professor of Social Work, Daniel Liechty


Becker and Democracy

Daniel Liechty

Daniel Liechty

Hello Dan! If I wanted to find Becker’s thoughts on democracy where would I turn?

Becker rarely wrote in a programmatic political voice. In fact, the deeper he moved in his analysis, the more aware he became that his social, political and religious criticisms applied equally to ‘both sides’ in most discussions. Hence even to this day his ideas are not always welcomed by those wanting neat divisions between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys.

However, especially in terms of large, modern societies, Becker held to the Kantian notion that what we look for is a dynamic ideal/real balance of “maximum individuality WITHIN maximum community,” which Becker expressed most strongly in The Structure Evil (1968). Most important was his insistence that the ideal balance is never reached; a healthy social dynamic is maintained by constantly moving back and forth between the poles of this continuum, a positive tension balancing the creative energies of individualism with the conserving energies of the collective.

For example, in a situation of strongly censored sexual expression, Becker might have supported those such as Henry Miller, Lenny Bruce, and even Ralph Ginzburg, who pushed the limits of individual freedom of expression. But in a social milieu in which every kind of vulgarity and pornography is not only available, but literally shoved in the face of people who find it offensive (think, NYC 42nd Street and Times Square in 1980s), Becker might well have supported the idea that the community is right to assert a sense of communal standards and values, even if it means curtailing the individualism of some artists and commercial market entrepreneurs.

This path of balancing and rebalancing the good of individuals and the good of the community is a difficult path to tread for a social critic, because he or she is never a solid and permanent ally of any one side (which especially undercuts long term institutional fundraising prospects, among other things!). This is further complicated by the fact that in any given society the dynamic does not move uniformly. In current American society, for example, we have gone far to the side of individualism when it comes to profit-making in the free market economy, to the point that community concerns over enterprises such as fracking and pipeline construction are registered as objectionably intrusive by large segments of the population. In contrast, certain policing practices such as ‘stop and search,’ intended to be protective of the community, are seen by many as leaning way too far in the direction of disregard for individuals’ rights and freedoms. Maintaining the proper tension between individual and community rights—maximum individuality within maximum community—can be a very fruitful lens through which to read current affairs.

In addition to the book mentioned above, Becker comes the closest to laying out a programmatic statement of his social and political beliefs as a by-product of expounding on his philosophy of education, which he does in his 1967 book, Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy. It is out of print but not impossible to find, especially if you have access to an interlibrary loan.