The Temper of Our Time

Eric Hoffer was known as the “Longshoreman Philosopher,” mostly because that’s what he was.  Born in the Bronx in 1902, he lived most of his life as a migrant worker and then a longshoreman.  He had spent 50 years reading, observing, and thinking before producing his first and best-known book, The True Believer, about the psychology of mass movements.

Hoffer’s writing is blunt, direct, thoroughly working-class and thoroughly American, but neither his style nor his ideas are simple.  Unlike academicians who do field work in red states, he’s not writing to explain the working man to the rest of the country; he’s writing as a working man talking to the rest of the country.

By 1967, he had written several more books including The Temper of Our Time, which he characterized as impatient, and he provides a number of examples.  The book is short – six essays, about 110 pages in all.  When his publisher complained about the length, he replied that it had six original ideas and twelve excellent sentences.  If he had bought a book of any length that had six original ideas and twelve excellent sentences, he would have felt that he had gotten a good deal.

I think Hoffer sold himself short.  I found many more than six original ideas, and many more than twelve superb sentences.  I don’t propose to go over all of them here, but let’s start with a story:

When we speak of the American as a skilled person, we have in mind not only technical but also his political and social skills.  Once, during the Great Depression, a construction company that had to build a road in the San Bernadino Mountains sent down two trucks to the Los Angeles skid row, and anyone who could climb onto the trucks was hired.  When the trucks were full, the drivers put in the tailgates and drove off.  They dumped us on the side of a hill in the San Bernadino Mountains, where we found bundles of supplies and equipment.  The company had only one man on the spot.  We began to sort ourselves out: there were so many carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cooks, men who could handle bulldozers and jackhammers, and even foremen.  We put up the tents and the cook shack, fixed latrines and a shower bath, cooked supper and next morning went out to build the road.  If we had to write a constitution we probably would have had someone who knew all the whereases and wherefores.  We were a shovelful of slime scooped off the pavement of skid row, yet we could have built America on the side of a hill in the San Bernadino Mountains.

And so the paradox of America in Hoffer’s day was – how is it that a country that produces so little leadership in normal times manages to produce great leaders when it needs them?

Hoffer doesn’t directly answer the question, but I think the answer lies in the very capacity for self-organization.  People who are capable of self-organization don’t need external leadership to tell them what to do in normal times.  What defines abnormal times is the nature of the large-scale projects to be accomplished – winning a war, for instance.  But the American’s capacity for self-organization makes the leader’s job easier in those circumstances.  Leadership is free to focus on the general direction things need to take, and leave the lower-level problem-solving to the lower levels.

Hoffer’s quote comes in the context of the American genius for community-building.  One of the most destructive aspects of leftism has been the shrinking of our citizens’ initiative when it comes to communities, where more and more basic functions are left to city government, and individual or neighborhood initiative often needs to wait for government approval.  Even the petty bureaucrats of HOAs enjoy pseudo-governmental authority.

Americans’ ability to spontaneously and collectively solve problems on their own does survive, though, both in the military and in private business.  Every successful business I’ve worked in encourages small groups to solve technical problems, and every unsuccessful one has been a top-down affair.  When I got my MBA 11 years ago, the management classes were definitely the most trendy social-sciency courses, but they all stressed leadership in terms of empowering employees rather than directing them.   That strikes me as a very American approach, where workers generally think of themselves as equal to their bosses.

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