THE SEARCH FOR NEW BEGINNINGS; Social historian Theodore Roszak
Theodore Roszak is a maverick historian capable of distinguishing running tides from the froth that rides that waves. For the last two decades he has astutely monitored American popular culture, from war protests to the women's movement, from CB radios to punk rock, and managed to separate the hucksters and hokum from genuine trends and seeds of new social orders
Roszak first made his reputation reading the pulse of America in the '60s through his books "The Making of a Counter Culture" and "Where the Wasteland Ends" -- both of which were nominated for the National Book Award. He argued that student rebellion was not a historical aberration or momentary catharsis, but part of the constant undertow of the human spirit's resistance to technological excesses and bigness. Roszak believes the counterculture has now moved off campus, taken on new forms, and graduated into the culture at large. He interprets the general unrest of the '70s over Watergate, corporate scandals, inflation, energy, the deterioration of the cities, as the troubled birth of a major cultural transformation, a spiritual awakening in this country. Roszak is neither starry-eyed futurist nor bemoaner of contemporary society. Rather he attempts to offer alternatives and values to break the cultural momentum he denigrates. His most recent book, "Person/Planet," explores the interplay between global ecology and the individual's search for identity.
Mr. Roszak, raised in Chicago and educated at UCLA and Princeton University, is a professor of history and chairman of General Studies at California State University, Hayward. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he recently spoke with Stewart McBride. The first part of this inteview appeared in yesterday's Home Forum Page.m
A number of times you point out that bigness plagues both person and planet, but you also recognize that small is not always beautiful. How do you go about approaching the question of scale nonquantitatively? It is some degree quantitative question. You can't always specify in advance what the ideal size will be. Both the persons and the planet are now confronted by a common enemy. It is terribly important to recognize that scale is an independent problem over and above, say, ownership and control. The Marxists never grasped this. They assumed that you can correct all the problems of the industrial system by just changing ownership and control. They now recognize that there are problems in the industrial system that are due to size. It doesn't matter who owns and controls them. They go on generating the same problem. Say, pollution and resource deterioration.
It's not because the people who run the system are profiteers; it's because the system is too big for its own good. Once you've passed a certain critical point in scale, you've got problems independent of ownership and control. The scale of the operation will defeat even the best intentions of people, because bureaucratic rules and regulations, chains of command, are necessities that go with bigness. In order to achieve personal autonomy and a healthy planetary ecology, you've got to scale down. So smallness is necessary. But this is not sufficient -- it's necessarym but it's not sufficient. Some of the worst evils of capitalism have been perpetrated in sweatshops with a handful of employees. On the other hand, we cannot be humanistic in institutions that are crushing size. Everybody in them begins to behave in certain institutional roles. As you scale it down you have to make sure that you're moving in the direction of human values. That's an additional ingredient that has to be included.
Do you see examples of people who are successfull in paring down the gargantuan institutions you're talking about?
There have been a number of experiments lately with smaller-scale operations where you have self-management. Over the years you have some experiments in constructions, school system, experimental schools moving in the same direction of flexibility and democratic control. I think that we have more yearning for this than for successful results. That's why it's a politics yet to be born. For those who have ears to hear, this kind of politics would be really new politics. You'd begin by placing other values above productivity and consumption. Maybe personal freedom, participation. You'd begin by saying, "It's more important to have a happy work force than a supremely productive work force." If you want the assembly lines in society to be governed democratically, they're bound to stop working now and again. If you want a high level of productivity, you might as well go back to Pharaoh's ancient Egypt and have a slave labor force and build an endless number of pyramids. I think we're at a point where we can begin to talk whi way and find that more and more people understand and say yes. There are some things more important than gross efficiency and quantity.
Do we need to watch out for the phoniness, the cultural hucksters?
Yes, but if you focus only on that, if that's all you care to see on the contemporary scene, you've got weird journalism. Behind the phonies and behind the tyrants and the opportunists and the hucksters, there is a spontaneous popular move making itself felt, and that's the only reason the hucksters and phonies can exist. Because they are appealing to that need. Don't throw out the baby with the bath. Sure, you bash the opportunists and the hucksters and phonies, but you don't bash the people who are trying to find some way forward in pursuit of their personal needs.
Where do you find information that you trust?
I tend to watch the network news just to know which illusions the rest of society is absorbing. It's important to know what we're being asked to believe, to endorse. But my own sources of information are diffuse.
One of the institutions you feel has not played a big enough role is the family. How do you think about some of the new forms of familyhood which are evolving and why can't "situational networks" replace blood family relationships?
The situational networks -- extended family -- mean dozens or scores of people. That's not a very authentic family. But if we reconstituted and provided a more healthy kind of society we might get the stability we don'tm get through this new thing -- a nuclear family. The whole welfare system is obviously created to replace the sort of stability people once found in families. But in creating a vast, public bureaucracy of a highly depersonalized kind you're in fact breaking down the family. A lot of "situational networks" are attempts to create alternative families, but a situational network is, by definition, a bunch of people who are all the same. Whereas in the family you have different sexes, different ages, and a lot of variety. And this variety in the natural family is very valuable. The welfare system is supposed to replace the sort of stability people once found in families. How to rebuild the authentic family is a very tough problem. It's only within the last hundred odd years that the extended family had been practically exiled from history.
You wrote that the sense of innocence is working to subvert our present culture of guilt. How do you see the sense of innocence manifested?
The whole Christian ethos I'm talking about involves self-assertion. The willingness of people to say, "I will be my own person." And to say that with a sense of innocence. A great deal of the guilt that people bear in our society is not related to real moral failures like treachery or unkindness or cruelty. I would say that the major amount of guilt that burdens the conscience of people is the guilt that's been unloaded upon them for not living up to their assigned identity. Not being the son or daughter the parents wanted them to be. Nor the husband or wife their mates wanted them to be. Every time you violate this prefabricated identity, you're made to feel guilty. And that, I think, is the greatest burden people are walking around with. It is essentially a mystification unloaded upon them by our society. What we've found in the last generation is the greater and greater willingness of a lot of people to overstep these assigned identities and say, "I will not feel guilty for this." It's the same with the handicapped person. This is one of the most impressive movements of our time. The willingness of the handicapped to come out of the closet they've been in and show themselves on the streets of the world and say, "I'm me. I don't look like other people, but I'm not going to be ashamed of it.