B y Khurram Ali Shafique

The New State (1918) by Mary Parker Follett makes a difficult reading because of being too easy, so here is the first installment of a synopsis of the book for modern readers. This post covers the ‘Introduction’.

Two years from now many of us will be celebrating the centenary of the first publication of The New State but it can easily turn into the kind of thing the author despised so much: talking about concepts without having any practical purpose in mind.

Perhaps it can be helpful if we recall that the book addressed a real issue that existed at that time. ‘There is no use denying that we are at a crisis in our history,’ Follett wrote in the Introduction. She went on to add that the crucial task before America was ‘to make the necessary political and social adjustments’ so that the crisis does not ‘abound in acute moments which will largely wreck us’.

A good starting point for the study of The New State can be to identify the crisis the author was talking about and then to decide whether it has indeed abounded in ‘acute moments’ that have largely wrecked the US, or the world for that matter. After all, there may not be much use of the book if one believes that the crisis of a hundred years ago has already been managed without having to make the kind of adjustments Follett demanded.

As mentioned by her in the Introduction, the idea of state was discredited in many quarters during the First World War (1914-18). Six ‘trickles’ that had gone to feed this reaction were:

  1. an economic and industrial progress that demanded political recognition, and that labour have a share in political power;
  2. the trend of philosophic thought towards pluralism and the anti-intellectualistic tendency;
  3. a progressive legal theory of the “real personality” of groups;
  4. a growing antagonism to the state because it was supposed to embody the crowd mind: the electorate was seen as a crowd hypnotized by the party leaders, big words, vague ideas and loose generalizations;
  5. a life of rapidly increasing interaction had led to a perception of voluntary associations as real and intimate, and the state as something remote and foreign to the people; and
  6. the increasing alignment of interests across state lines before the First World War (1914-18)

The popular demand for reconsidering the feasibility of state manifested itself through four challenges that faced the world, including America, at the end of the War.

The first was to discover ‘industrial democracy’ in order to end the conflict between capital and labour. The second and third were, respectively, to secure the self-government of smaller nations and the ‘sovereignty’ of an International League, so that the nations of Europe may not be at one another’s throat. The last was to reform domestic politics. The real value of The New State was in its promise to provide an effective method for addressing all four issues.

Superficially, it may seem that three of these issues have now become irrelevant. Some would like to see the conflict between capital and labour to have been either resolved or something we have learnt to live with, or at best a problem for which other solutions have become more popular than the ones provided by Follett. The nations of Europe are no longer at one another’s throat as they were in the days of Follett. Likewise, most of us might no longer be interested in attributing ‘sovereignty’ to an international league, such as the United Nations. These impressions may be questioned but there can be no doubt that the fourth issue, i.e. the self-government of smaller nations, remains unresolved to this date and has actually become so much more pressing that it alone can become a reason for revisiting the work of Follett.

She may have been thinking mostly about the smaller nations of Europe at that time. Today, self-government is mainly an issue for the nations of the ‘developing world’, mostly outside Europe. Yet the principle remains the same. Moreover, the US is now involved in this matter more directly than ever before (whether as a victim or a culprit depends on who you ask).

Follett believed that all four issues were interconnected, so that the solution to one could not be found in isolation from the others. On this ground, it may be argued that if the world has failed to solve one of them, it is possible that the others have also remained unresolved and we have only accepted them as part of the natural order of things. That the one unresolved issue now threatens the world and even affects the stronger nations like an arrow aimed at the Achilles’ heel could be evidence that we were wrong in presuming that we have resolved the other three issues.

The four issues belong diversely to the fields of political economy, international relations and domestic politics. Follett perceived those fields as interrelated. Therefore, although the focus in The New State is primarily on political science, the approach is what we may call inter-disciplinary.

The ‘immediate problem of political science’ at that time, according to the author, was ‘to discover the method of self-government.’ This is what she attempted in her book. The method suggested by her attracted such widespread attention that the book went into three editions within two years. The foreword to the third edition was written by the leading British politician and philosopher Lord Haldane, on his own request, since he believed that the book was so not only important for America but also for Britain. Likewise, the Bengali visionary C. R. Das quoted at length from it in his presidential address to the annual session of the Indian National Congress in 1922. Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who is now regarded as the most important Muslim thinker of the twentieth century, immediately endorsed the ideas as a political corollary to the spiritual principle he had himself expounded in his long philosophical poem, Secrets and Mysteries (1915-18). These examples should reassure us about the universality of ‘the method of self-government’ presented in The New State.

Of course, the method is not described in the Introduction but in the thirty-five chapters that follow, divided into the four parts of the book. The Introduction merely prepares us ‘to leap at once from the region of theory … to a practical scheme of living.’ Self-government, free speech, rights and the machinery to get a social will are mere theories. A practical scheme would require that instead of talking about such things we should learn how to govern ourselves, learn a speech that is free, create rights and invent the machinery for creating social will.

Questions are also raised about the generally understood meanings of methodology, democracy, individualism, pluralism, self, ‘other’, politics, sovereign will, society and state. Follett’s criticism of these concepts rests on her conception of the individual as not ‘part of a whole … but from one point of view the whole itself’. On this basis, she proposes that:

  • True individualism means an individual becoming consciously aware of his or her relationship with society. Individualism as understood in those days (and even today) did not (and does not) take this into account and therefore it could more correctly be called ‘particularism’. The same could be said about pluralism.
  • The dichotomy of self and others is a fallacy because there is only ‘self-in-and-through-others’.
  • Collection of individuals is ‘group’ (a coming together of individuals for the purpose of creating collective ideas). We should not perceive it as a crowd or herd.
  • The group has a creative power because its activity produces true individuals (i.e. ones consciously responsible for the life from which they draw their breath and to which they contribute their all) while at the same time interweaving them into a real whole.
  •  Society is a network of human relations. It is neither a collection of units nor an organism.

Individual, group and state thus become three cornerstones of the ‘new state’. The new state proposed by Follett does not minimize any of the three, unlike the old state that had been discredited at the end of the First World War. It also requires us to change our perception of politics and democracy.

‘Politics have one task only – to create’. By this, Follett means that politics should ‘ceaselessly create the state’ through the continuous activity of small local groups. Therefore, ‘the principle of democracy may be the underlying unity of men.’ As such, the true meaning of ‘democracy’ is yet to be discovered and ‘we have not even a conception of what democracy means’ except that it cannot be any of things that usually go by that name. It is not democracy if we are governed by political parties, interest groups, representative government, majority rule or ballot boxes (‘Ballot-box democracy is what this book is written to oppose,’ says the author).

This ‘method’ involves a shift from negative principles to positive principles. Examples of negative principles include such ideas as ‘purifying’ politics, regulating the trusts, restraining the bosses, and so on. These are like the pruning of a garden. It is an important activity but the pile of the dead branches cannot be presented as evidence of the flourishing state of a garden. ‘Positive principles’ are like the growth of new branches, buds, leaves and flowers – substitution of intention for accident and organized purpose for scattered desire.

Instead of purging the politics, we need to find a new method. ‘But method must not connote mechanics to any mind,’ the author warns us. ‘The method of democracy’ must be that which allows the quickest response of a people’s daily life to their common faith. Such a method was expected to open the way for the entrance and onflow of ‘new surges of life’ and to free the individuals from the tyranny of theories so that they may actualize themselves as ‘the only force in the world which can make the Perfect Society.’