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Corrupting “The Corruption of Liberalism” – Brooks gets Mumford Wrong

The thought of public intellectuals may easily outlive their mortal bodies, their work enduring past the point at which they can still command much claim to a public. The work of departed thinkers becomes akin to messages in bottles tossed into the sea of posterity in the hopes that somebody will fish the bottle from the waves and drink deeply of its message. Of course, sometimes the bottle is simply placed upon a shelf for its aesthetic value, occasionally it is sipped and immediately tossed back into the waves, and on other occasions to truly appreciate the vintage enclosed in one bottle one needs to return to the waters in search of the other messages the thinker tossed into the sea.

Writing in the New York Times, in a column titled “The Problem with Pragmatism,” David Brooks has pulled from the waters a work by the “unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford.” And while those who remember Mumford’s work fondly – and those who continue to celebrate and advocate for the vitality of Mumford’s thought – may at first be gladdened to see Brooks discussing Mumford, the sad fact may be that the only thing Brooks genuinely gets right about Mumford is that he is “unjustly forgotten.”

[A brief aside – the intent here is not to launch a salvo against the argument that Brooks creates or to try to rebut the points that Brooks is trying to make regarding pragmatism. No, the point is not to take on Brooks’ argument but to try to rescue Mumford from the contortions that Brooks makes Mumford’s thought assume. Nor, for that matter, is the goal here to defend either of the dominant political parties in the US or their policies – the goal is simply to defend Lewis Mumford.]

Beginning by pining for the days when particular writers were closely linked to the intellectual milieu of certain magazines, Brooks dwells upon a recently published collection of early writings from the magazine The New Republic. Amongst these articles one that seems to have particularly captured Brooks’ attentions is by Lewis Mumford (originally published on April 29, 1940) titled “The Corruption of Liberalism.” The central element of Mumford’s article, upon which Brooks seizes, is the way in which Mumford decried “pragmatic liberals” for their unwillingness to take a firm stand against the dangers looming on the horizon of their day. As Brooks interprets it, the problem with this pragmatism is how the liberals who ascribe to it refuse to hold true to moral values in opposing barbarism, and put their faith in economic remedies, technological advances, or frail political solutions when it is obvious that such is not sufficient. While Mumford was writing before the United States had joined the Second World War, and his call to arms was aimed against the forces of totalitarianism (primarily the Nazis), Brooks uses Mumford’s arguments in order to decry the current stance towards the Islamic State (IS) and towards Vladimir Putin, and in order to suggest (if not explicitly state) that a louder call to arms needs to be sounded. Brooks ends his, Mumford assisted, column with a shot at President Obama – and a call for a political leader who is intellectually rigorous and morally engaged. Though it seems evident that the type of rigor and engagement that Brooks is interested in is the type that is willing to take aggressive military action.

Based upon the number of lengthy Mumford quotes that fill Brooks’ column it might be tempting to conclude that this “unjustly forgotten writer” is now being justly remembered. Yet, those who never forgot Mumford in the first place would be unlikely to agree. Indeed they might feel somewhat quizzical at seeing a figure of Mumford’s politics being wielded by an individual of Brooks’ politics. Granted, the first warning sign of an oncoming misrepresentation occurs before the first quotation – after all, if there is a magazine milieu with which Mumford can fairly be associated it would not be The New Republic but The New Yorker. Though this may seem a trifling matter it foreshadows the misconstrued usages that follow. At the very least it gives one reason to wonder how familiar David Brooks truly is with the life and work of Lewis Mumford.

It should also be noted that an article with a title like “The Corruption of Liberalism” is going to be catnip to certain ideologies that would revel in the title’s venomous tone regardless of the overall tenor of the piece. Simply citing an article titled “The Corruption of Liberalism” may be a simple way to provoke jeering cheers from some while evoking offended shouts from others – none of whom have actually read the article in question, are particularly familiar with Mumford’s work, or can place this particular article in the context of Mumford’s oeuvre. Though it is not as if this article has vanished from occupying an important place in the Mumford library: “The Corruption of Liberalism” originally appeared in The New Republic, but re-appeared in altered form in Mumford’s book Faith for Living (1940) and was reprinted in the book Values for Survival (1946) [Note – this post quotes from the version reprinted in 1946].

In “The Corruption of Liberalism,” Mumford distinguishes between two forms of liberalism – an “ideal liberalism” that was primarily preoccupied with humanist traditions and a “pragmatic liberalism” that emphasized the mechanical and scientific whilst using the language of “ideal liberalism” to advance the steady hollowing out of those humanistic values. The “pragmatic liberalism” of which Mumford writes is not associated with a single political party or individual but is instead the dominant ideology he observed in the US politics of his day. “Pragmatic liberalism” should be understood, in Mumford’s usage, as the ideological core of most democratic nations. The drive for societal power and personal pleasure creates in the world of “pragmatic liberalism” a sort of inured inertia that refuses to face the horrors of the world, as truly facing these problems may force the reintroduction of the humanistic values that have been banished from the discussion. “Pragmatic liberalism” is not concerned with the broad values raised by “ideal liberalism” but narrowly focuses on the market and mechanical drives of pragmatism. Mumford observed that:

“Pragmatic liberalism has flatly betrayed ideal liberalism. The values that belong to the latter have been compromised away, vitiated, ruthlessly cast overboard. The permanent heritage of liberalism has been bartered for the essentially ignoble notion of national security, in itself a gross illusion.” (VfS, 41)

The need is therefore to rediscover and reaffirm the humanistic values of “ideal liberalism” – to declare that in the face of fascist aggression these values are worth fighting to defend, and then being willing to fight to defend them – and this is a fight that involves more than taking up arms.

The above mentioned article is in some ways an odd piece in Mumford’s broader work. Not because it advocates for things or takes stances that he does not assume elsewhere, but because it is not an argument that can be treated in isolation from the rest of Mumford’s work and thinking. Granted, Mumford’s body of work is quite large (to put it mildly) consisting of over two dozen books, hundreds of articles, and numerous forewords, introductions, and several compendiums of correspondences – furthermore many of Mumfords’ books are quite impressively dense. Yet to locate “The Corruption of Liberalism” it is imperative to see the essay not as a one-off diatribe but as part of a larger effort in which Mumford was attempting to quicken the moral pulse of his contemporaries.

While the title “The Corruption of Liberalism” has more of a wallop than many of Mumford’s other works, the fact is that the argument therein is of a piece with Mumford’s book length call-to-arms Men Must Act (1939), is similar to numerous other articles (reprinted alongside “The Corruption” in the collection Values for Survival), and the emphasis that Mumford puts on the need for humanistic values to be reasserted over mechanistic values is a topic that occurs across almost every single one of Mumford’s books. Indeed, Mumford’s first book The Story of Utopias (1922) features Mumford already warning against this “corruption” and it is against this same befouling that Mumford would continue to argue in his later works such as The Pentagon of Power (1970). While Mumford seems to have been interested in, and to have written about, everything – his work always centers upon a notion of the centrality of the human personality and of the vitality of humanistic values – values which he saw being destroyed by the forces of mechanization, fascism, and a social/economic order that disenfranchised individuals . Mumford’s thought was influenced by thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, and Patrick Geddes – and Mumford saw that authoritarian leanings could be just as easily embodied by the rise of impersonal technological systems as by totalitarian governments.

In making use of Mumford’s “The Corruption of Liberalism” – it is not so much that Brooks misquotes Mumford as it is that he attempts to use Mumford’s arguments in a way that is not only contrary to the rest of Mumford’s work, but even to the general spirit of the article that Brooks is citing. While Mumford was not a pacifist, and was definitely arguing for serious intervention, it is to greatly cheapen Mumford’s argument to act as if all he was arguing for was military action. Though Mumford thought that economic action alone would not be suitable to confront fascism, he was not only arguing for military action. After all, Mumford’s article ends with a call to root out the forces that give continual rise to the forces of fascism, writing:

“What is demanded is a recrystallization of the positive values of life, and an understanding of the basic issues of good and evil, of power and form, of force and grace, in the actual world. In short the crisis presses toward a social conversion, deep-seated, organic, religious in its essence, so that no part of personal or political existence will be untouched by it: a conversion that will transcend the desiccated pragmatism that has served as a substitute religion,” (VfS, 43)

Though Mumford does not make it clear in “The Corruption of Liberalism” what he means by this “conversion” – it is precisely because of this lack of clarity that it is important to be aware of Mumford’s other writing on the subject. The “conversion” becoming quite clear in a radio address Mumford gave in December 1940 (also collected in Values for Survival [and this is made clear in other works by Mumford]) titled “The Reasons for Fighting” in which Mumford argues that bringing about true and lasting peace:

“will involve the equalization of advantages between continent and continent, between region and region, by a planetary rationing of resources. It will involve the equalization of advantages between economic classes within the community now spread far too widely apart in their incomes and their social opportunities. It calls for the transformation of a system of production based chiefly on the pursuit of profit to one based on the pursuit of human well-being;” (VfS, 57)

True, Mumford critiques liberalism – but he does so from a very radical position. This is not a conservative critique of “liberalism,” nor for that matter is it a liberal critique of “liberalism” – instead it is a critique couched in the radicalism of the likes of Morris, Geddes and Kropotkin. One cannot help but wonder, in endorsing Mumford’s call to action, if David Brooks would likewise endorse Mumford’s call for radical redistribution as the only way of securing a genuinely just and lasting peace. After all, to treat the argument of “The Corruption of Liberalism” as worthy of advancing while divorcing it from the argument of “The Reasons for Fighting” is to not have truly understood what Mumford was arguing for in the former. Mumford’s call for arms was not a call for “either/or” but a call for “both/and.”

Likewise, it is also important to note that despite Brooks aiming barbs at feckless political leadership, Mumford is much more interested in the broader human community. For Mumford the issue is not that political leaders refuse to take action but that the populace has been cowed by “pragmatism” into a state where they refuse to rise to the moral call. Indeed, a feature that one detects repeatedly in the course of Mumford’s work is a sense that political leaders (even in democratic nations) have played an important role in turning their populaces into disempowered consumers. Such disempowerment has eventually proved all encompassing such that eventually these leaders also become merely supplicants of the “mega-machine.” As Mumford wrote:

“The diffusion of intelligence and responsibility is the very test of a democracy. No democracy can be run by dupes, robots, or automatons.” (MMA, 39)

Similarly it should be noted that Mumford’s call to action was one that saw the demand as one that would impact every person in society – not simply the few with family members serving in the armed forces (as is largely the case today). Mumford’s call was for a shared engagement, a shared acceptance of responsibility, and a shared recognition of the moral demand to act – which is altogether different than the type of ethical and social engagement that is required to authorize a drone strike that does not even make the nightly news in the country from whence the command for the strike originated. It is important to note – when considering Mumford’s call for engagement – that this was action in which Mumford’s own family would experience a terrible loss: as Mumford’s son Geddes was killed in action on the Gothic line in 1944. Likewise, Mumford’s outrage at authoritarianism and his recognition of modern society’s tendency towards barbarism saw him turning his ethically vigorous attention to the United States as well as to the fascist powers – and though Mumford was horrified by what he saw transpiring in fascist Europe (and the Stalinist USSR) he was equally distraught at the specter of nuclear weapons and the increasing mechanization of society (both of which further devalued the individual). Thus the call being made by Mumford would be on that would seek to spare no expense in combating Ebola, accept radical responsibility to halt climate change, and to recognize that a military solution alone would not be sufficient to confront a group like IS.

“The Corruption of Liberalism” for Mumford represents the corruption of the very core of democratic societies and it was a corruption that he did not think ended with the fall of the fascist powers. Though Mumford’s World War Two writings are filled with ominous warnings it may well be that his bleakest text was his last major work – the two volume The Myth of the Machine – in the second volume of which Mumford wrote:

“That callous public indifference to the results of our daily commitment to power and speed helps explain our tolerance of massive technological assaults in every other area of life. So two generations have grown up for whom every variety of mindless violence has become the constant accompaniment to ‘civilized’ life, sanctified by other equally debased but modish customs and institutions.” (MotM, v. 2 TPoP, 350)

The above quotation suggests that in attempting to re-contextualize Mumford’s arguments from 1940 one must reconsider them in the light of the shifts and occurrences in the decades after the end of the Second World War. Decades in which “mindless violence” has become just another news story sandwiched between advertisements and celebrity gossip, decades in which the promise of a lasting and just peace has become further and further complicated by the rise of what Mumford termed “mega-technics,” decades in which a widening gulf of inequality has grown ever wider, and decades in which new technologies have subjugated instead of liberated human society.

While it is certainly true that “The Corruption of Liberalism” is Mumford calling upon others to have the courage to act in the face of “evil” it is imperative to note that for Mumford the call was not simply to “put boots on the ground” but to put hands to productive work. To recognize that “evil” can take root in one’s own country as easily as it can grow in other nations. The challenge that Mumford was calling his listeners to take up was not simply to smash fascism but to build a world such that fascism could never arise again. What history has shown is that “pragmatic liberalism” will militarily combat forces of evil, but will not accept the moral responsibility to ensure that it does not return in the future – and this was a lesson that Mumford coldly observed in his later works. To read Brooks’ column, in which he makes liberal usage of Mumford, is to see the call for military action still removed from the larger ethical demand for radical redistribution as the only way of ensuring a lasting peace (which was Mumford’s argument). To restate – Mumford’s call to military action cannot be understood in isolation from his call for global equity and redistribution, but it does not seem that this is the way in which Brooks understands (or uses) Mumford’s argument.

That Lewis Mumford is an “unjustly forgotten writer” is a sentiment that is wholly shared by the author of this post, but the reason why he is worth remembering is because his call to action was not simply a call to weapons. Mumford’s call to arms was not for military might but for ethical daring. Thus, to give Mumford the final word:

“Our numbness is our death. Whatever our immediate fate may be, as individuals or as a nation, we must, as a condition of survival, recover our humanity again: the capacity for rational conduct, free from compulsive fears and pathological hatreds: the capacity for love and confidence and co-operation, for humorous self-criticism and disarming humility, in our dealing with each other, and in our dealing with the rest of the human race, including, it goes without saying, our enemies. Even should we meet disaster or death through the attempt to replace the politics of dehumanized and absolute power by the politics of love, that defeat would only be a temporary one. For the God in us would remain alive—to quicken the spirit of those that follow us.” (ItNoS, 165)

It is that sentiment, which is worth remembering.

Works Cited

Mumford, Lewis. Men Must Act. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.

Mumford, Lewis. Values for Survival. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich – 1970.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Corrupting “The Corruption of Liberalism” – Brooks gets Mumford Wrong

  1. Pingback: The Good Life or “the Goods Life” – The Thought of Lewis Mumford | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2014 by in Activism, Capitalism, Culture, Ethics, Government, History, Impending Doom, Technology and tagged , , , .

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