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Friday, June 23, 2023

Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship: A Marxist Approach (2019) by Sam Popowich

Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship: A Marxist Approach by Sam Popowich. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2019. 322 p.

“So long as we are a democracy we need intelligence; so long as we need intelligence in the community we need librarians; so we shall need librarians to the end of Time.” — George H. Locke speaking to university students in Toronto, October 1932.

George Locke’s assessment neatly encapsulated the thoughts of the “library community” in Canada, the United States, and Britain in the first part of the 20th century. Today, many people support the belief that public libraries provide beneficial free and equal access to resources for everyone in the community that the library serves. Library historians have also followed this line of reasoning, using the themes of  “temples of democracy,” “cornerstones of liberty,” or “arsenals of democracy.” But is it so simple? Readers of two classic Marxist histories, such as Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (1939), which dissected the ancien régime or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), might beg to differ. Yet, Marxist views about public libraries are seldom referenced because Anglo-American library histories are rarely written from the Marxist perspective. They are published from “the left” and present revisionist, radical views, but fall short of revolutionary analysis. Now we have a book written in the Marxist vein to reject the validity of the normative democratic discourse of librarians and challenge ideas that have pervaded Anglo-American-Canadian library statements for so long.

In Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship, Sam Popowich rejects the liberal-democratic tradition within librarianship which usually supports the concepts of library neutrality, pragmatism, and independence from social, economic, or political developments. A general ideological outlook—a historical myth perhaps—confines libraries and librarianship: the “library faith,” a long-standing belief that public libraries can provide materials (especially books) that could transform public attitudes, raise the cultural level, and develop citizenship, thus bettering  democracy.  For the author, the reliance on these ideas, especially mainstream library historians, must be dismantled to change the profession, libraries, and our society. “From a political perspective this allows us also to ignore the very real problems inherent in our social and political world: racism, sexism, intolerance, alienation, hatred, violence, and political manipulation” (p. 3). Popowich believes the traditional liberal-democratic order of governments masks the oppressive structures of society and sustains the capitalist order of exploitation. Thus, by extension, librarians and libraries play a complicit role in the social reproduction of capitalism and its ideology. But all is not lost: the author concludes with potential strategies for resistance to the standard democratic discourse and capitalist hegemony that might contribute to a better society, a liberating vision shared in Marxist themes.

The corrective, mould-breaking lens of Marxism presented in the Democratic Discourse unfolds over nine chapters:
(1) The Democratic Discourse of Librarianship; (2) Vectors of Oppression; (3) Liberalism and the Enlightenment; (4) Ideology and Hegemony in the Marxist Tradition; (5) Three Hegemonies of Library History; (6) The Library Myth; (7) Truth Machines; (8) Dual Power and Mathesis; (9) Conclusion: Lives and Time.

The first chapter explores whether we actually live in a democracy. It revisits the meaning of democracy and librarians’ tunnel vision on issues such as liberty, free speech, and intellectual freedom, issues often taken for granted. “True democracy cannot be partial, cannot be exclusionary, and I will argue that this is precisely what ‘liberal democracy’ has always been. The democratic discourse of librarianship, the idea that libraries are sacred to some actually-existing democratic reality, prevents us from working towards the achievement of this radical, total democracy.” (p. 49) In the second chapter, the concept of vectors of oppression, for example, sex, race, or gender identity, is introduced to show libraries have inherited oppressive ideas and practices inherent in capitalist structures which perpetuate an in-egalitarian society.

In the following two chapters, a critique of the Enlightenment search for universal truths, Capitalism’s relentless drive for profits, and Liberalism’s political and social successes/failures as opposed to a roseate outline of Marxist thought put the reader in the right place for reassessing the role of libraries. Popowich leads the reader through the contributions of 20th-century theorists to Marxist theory: Georg Lukács’ reification, Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, Louis Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses and capitalist reproduction, and Frederic Jameson’s postmodern political unconsciousness (living in a ‘perpetual present’) and the idea of cultural logic. These thinkers have made significant additions to critical Marxist theory. Jameson provides a way forward because “we have to look at the political unconscious of library work, especially as it relates to the particular ‘cultural logics’ of the different periods of library history” (p.169).

This background leads us to the three (perhaps four) hegemonies of library history, a cookie-cutter view of the periodization of library history on the Anglo-American scene from the mid-1800s to the present based on the Marxist historical view.

1848–1914: Classical liberalism, industrial technology, factory work, the bourgeois library;
1914–1945: War and depression; the war library [a short period that could be combined with the mass library]
1945–1973: Embedded liberalism, the welfare state, mass work, the mass library;
1973–2008: Neoliberalism, postmodernism, the neoliberal library,

Popowich expresses more interest in the two latter periods, where capitalism and neoliberal philosophy prevailed in Western societies. In the “industrial library” period, he finds the development of ideas encouraging the education of a democratic society (ultimately a library myth) and the substitution of reliance on moral education in favour of library neutrality. The author investigates aspects of the neoliberal library in two chapters: the issue of postmodern epistemology and library science, as well as library labour in the age of “truth machines.” The binary logic of computing/cybernetics is applied to social control based on the reality of the outcome, true/false. In fact, “one of the things that makes libraries so useful to capitalist society: libraries are machines for the reproduction of ideology” (p. 274). The library’s mythic presence of political and social neutrality in support of liberal democracy is linked with the mechanical process of providing information and programs that reinforce the inequalities of contemporary neoliberal society. These two chapters are mainly devoted to the structures of society with brief, depressing context for librarians and libraries: efforts in the daily working environment (the machines of reproduction) do not effect real change to systemic issues such as racism, alienation, inequality, and sexism. It is a nuanced deterministic view, a common element of Western Marxist writings. 

The Democratic Discourse also points to the present, post-2008 period in its final chapters. Marxism posits that society moves through a series of stages and ultimately arrives at real freedom and a classless utopia. By adopting a Marxist viewpoint, Popowich believes liberation is possible. He believes we can employ two potential strategies for resisting capitalist hegemony and repudiating the democratic discourse of librarianship. The eighth chapter, “Dual Power and Mathesis,” considers utopian strategies to revolutionize the neoliberal library and jettison its democratic discourse. One co-existing power, capitalism (a repressive regime), can be offset by another liberating force, “mathesis,” in which libraries prioritize learning over rote education, thus establishing a radical, authentic democracy. Popowich concludes that we must cast aside our fictitious innocence, which determines how we think about “lives and time” (pp. 293–299). Economic exploitation ultimately has detrimental costs in both human life and the time frame we have to resist its oppressive framework and liberal-democratic norms. The critical step must be to recognize our current state. “Constituent power can and must struggle against constituted power, can and must make hard choices, but those choices have to arise from concrete, collective experience, and a joyful taking on of responsibility. They cannot arise from a fatal innocence.” (p. 299)

The Democratic Discourse is punctuated with a host of theorists that buttress the author’s arguments. In addition to a few mentioned previously, we should note Popowich’s reliance on the work of Paolo Freire, who wrote on the development of a critical consciousness about society with the end of creating a more democratic culture; Stuart Hall’s critical work on identities and political power; David Harvey’s interest in the postmodernization (post-Fordism) of culture and politics; Jacques Rancière’s anti-institutional criticism of political theory and suggestion of radical equality; and Giovanni Arrighi’s or Ernest Mandel’s critiques and outlines of capitalist development. In the same way, Popowich invokes many Anglo-American academics who have written extensively about library history: Wayne Wiegand, Alistair Black, Michael Harris, Sidney Ditzion, Dee Garrison, and Jesse Shera, to name a few. As well, the viewpoints of authors engaged in contemporary issues are brought into focus, particularly John Buschman, Ed D’Angelo, and Stephen Bales. Although some of these writers have been revisionist or critical in their approach to library history, they have not produced counter-hegemonic histories. Ditzion and Shera wrote during the “consensus” period of historiography in the United States that emphasized continuity and the achievements of American democratic capitalism. In this setting, libraries were reputed to be a force for democracy, equal opportunity, and individual achievement even though Bernard Berelson’s research for The Library’s Public (1949) revealed that American public libraries reached only a minority of the population, the better educated that he felt public libraries should focus on. As the 1970s dawned and social historians began to study things “from the bottom up,” (a Marxist theme in many ways) revisionists issued a challenge that public libraries had not addressed American problems or were initially fostered by the educated elite (aka, the power brokers) to enforce social controls in reading for the lower or working class. In Britain, Alistair Black authored a “new history,” one that eschewed narrative and advocated thematic, critical history in concert with the development of cultural studies and Raymond William’s Marxist pursuit of the social history of ideas, especially the interaction between intellectual life and communities. These are still valuable histories today, depending on one’s viewpoint: consensus vs. revisionism, narrative vs. analysis, social vs. institution, and modern vs. postmodern.

Popowich has authored a historiographic overview of library history intertwined with the culture of postmodernism and politics of resistance to neo-liberalism. Of course, he could have called upon others to support his ideas; for example, An Essay on Liberation (1969) by Herbert Marcuse, who decried the repressiveness of society in the postwar period and proposed new possibilities for human liberation, or Ian McKay’s influential prospectus for Canadian history, “The Liberal Order Framework” (2000) which highlights the liberal-democratic promotion of individualism, private property, and capitalist accumulation in nation building during the 19th and 20th century. As for democracy, there are many types that are attractive: participatory, social, liberal, representative, grassroots, radical, and so on. Popowich states that “Democracy, we might say, is in the eye of the beholder” (p. 2), yet he does not offer a specific preference for replacing the liberal-democratic status quo. His interest lies in ameliorating systemic inequities: “true democracy cannot be partial, cannot be exclusionary,” (p. 49). To explore the contested field of Canadian democracy I would suggest Constant Struggle: Histories of Canadian Democratization edited by Julien Mauduit and Jennifer Tunnicliffe, a collection of historical essays recently published in 2021 that raises questions about the concept of democracy.

Capitalism, Popowich asserts, must be overthrown before an authentic, truly democratic (utopian?) society can unfold. I would argue that The Democratic Discourse stands more in path of Western or neo-Marxist social theory rather than the developing field of Critical Librarianship. Critlib is reflexive and action oriented, but Sam Popowich goes further by setting forth a more powerful, transformative, innovative challenge to ingrained complacency in librarianship. Political awareness from a Marxist perspective: that’s not such a bad thing after all!