TO WHAT, THEN, DO WE BELONG?

C. Wright Mills 1954

I

You and I are among those who are asking serious questions and by that very fact I know that there is something to which you and I do belong. We belong to that minority that has carried on the big discourse of the rational mind; to the big discourse that has been going on—or off and on—since the Western society began some two thousand years ago in the small communities of Athens and Jerusalem. Maybe you think that is a pretty vague thing to which to belong; if you do think that, you are mistaken. It is quite a thing to belong to the big discourse—even if as lesser participants—and, as I hope presently to make clear, it is the beginning of any “sense of belonging” that is worthwhile. It is the key to the only kind of belonging that free people in our time might have. And I think that to belong to it requires that we try to live up to what it demands of us.

What it demands of us, first of all, is that we maintain our sense of it. And, just now, at this point in human history, that is quite difficult. For we belong not only to the big discourse of the rational mind; we also belong —although we do not always feel that we do —to our own epoch; accordingly, since we are live people and not detached minds, we are trying to live in and with a certain set of feelings: the feelings of political people trying to be rational in an epoch of enormous irrationality.

II

What is the dominant mood of people like us, who try to think up questions and answer them for ourselves? What is the tang and feel of our experience as we examine the world about us today? It is clear that these feelings are shaping the way we ask and the way we answer all the questions of this conference: it is also clear—let us admit it —that our mood is not buoyant, not calm, not steady, and not sure. It is true that we do not panic, but it is also true that we possess the crisis mentality, and none of us can be up to the demands of our time unless we share something of this kind of mind, for it is rooted in an adequate sense of history and of our place in history.

We are often stunned and we are often distracted, and we are bewildered almost all of the time. And the only weapon we have —as individuals and as a scatter of grouplets—is the delicate brain now so perilously balanced in the struggle for public sanity. We feel that common political sense is no longer a sound basis of judgment, for the common sense of the twentieth century is based largely upon an eighteenth- and a nineteenth-century experience, which is outmoded by new facts of public life with which we have had little to do, except as victims. The more we understand what is happening in the world, the more frustrated we often become, for our knowledge leads to feelings of powerlessness.

We feel that we are living in a world in which the citizen has become a mere spectator or a forced actor, and that our personal experience is politically useless and our political will a minor illusion. Very often the fear of total, permanent war paralyzes the kind of morally oriented politics which might engage our interests and our passions. We sense the cultural mediocrity around us—and in us—and we know that ours is a time when, within and between all the nations of the world, the levels of public sensibility have sunk below sight; atrocity on a mass scale has become impersonal and official; moral indignation as a public fact has become extinct or made trivial.

We feel that distrust has become nearly universal among men of affairs, and that the spread of public anxiety is poisoning human relations and drying up the roots of private freedom. We see that the people at the top often identify rational dissent with political mutiny, loyalty with blind conformity, and freedom of judgment with treason.

We feel that irresponsibility has become organized in high places and that clearly those in charge of the historic decisions of our time are not up to them. But what is more damaging to us is that we feel that those on the bottom—the forced actors who take the consequences are also without leaders, without ideas of opposition, and that they make no real demands upon those in power.

III

We do not, of course, feel all of this all of the time, but we often feel some of it, and in the dark of the night, when we are really alone and really awake, we suspect that this might very well be an honest articulation of our deepest political feelings. And if we are justified even in half of these feelings—then we have at hand a second answer to the question of whether we are losing our sense of belonging. Our first answer, you will remember, was a general Yes, except in the sense that we belong to the big discourse. Our second answer reflects our feelings about the sort of world we are living in, and may be put in this way: I don’t know whether or not you are losing your political sense of belonging, but I should certainly hope so.

The point is that we are among those who cannot get their mouths around all the little Yeses that add up to tacit acceptance of a world run by crackpot realists and subject to blind drift. And that, you see, is something to which we do belong; we belong to those who are still capable of personally rejecting. Our minds are not yet captive. I believe that, just now, in the kind of political world we are in, rejection is more important than acceptance. For, in such a world, to accept freely requires, first of all, the personal capacity and the social chance to reject the official myths and the unofficial distractions. [ . . . ][1]

IV

I hope I have made it clear that the question of losing our sense of political belonging cannot be answered with moral sensibility unless we also ask: To what is it that we ought to belong? Mere loyalty alone is less a virtue than an escape from freely thought-out choices among the many values that now compete for our loyalties.

My own answer to this question, which may well be different from yours, can be put very simply: If we are human, what we ought to belong to first of all is ourselves. We ought to belong to ourselves as individuals. Once upon a time that answer would have seemed clear, for it used to be called “the appeal to conscience,” but we now know that this is much too simple an answer, for we now know that there are people whose conscience is perfectly clear and perfectly sincere and perfectly corrupt in its consequences for themselves and for others.

So we must add to this answer one further point: to the extent that we are truly human, we should try seriously to participate in that rational discourse of which I have spoken. And to the extent that we do so, our sensibilities will have been shaped by the high points of mankind’s heritage of conduct and character and thought. Accordingly, we shall belong, and we ought to belong, to mankind, and it is to mankind that we ought most freely to give our loyalties.

All other loyalties, it seems to me, ought to be qualified by these two: loyalty to ourselves and loyalty to the cultural heritage of mankind that we allow to shape us as individuals. This answer is more a beginning than an end; we ought to use it to judge all principles and organizations that demand our loyalties. No corporation, no church, no nation, no labor union, no political party—no organization or creed—is worthy of our loyalties if it does not facilitate the growth of loyalties to ourselves and to the heritage that mankind has produced in its best moments. Moreover, we ought not to be committed absolutely to any organization. Our loyalty is conditional. Otherwise, it is not loyalty. It is not the belonging of free people; it is a compelled obedience. Let us not confuse the loyalties of free people with mere obedience to authority. When organizations or nations sell out the values of free people, free people withdraw their loyalties. Not with a “Yes, But” or a “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” but with a big, plain, flat “No.”

V

The positive question for us is not so much whether we are losing our sense of belonging as whether we can help build something that is worth belonging to. Perhaps that has always been the major social question for men and women shaped by the big discourse. For just as freedom that has not been fought for is lightly cast off, so belonging that does not require the building and the maintaining of organizations worth belonging to is often merely a yearning for a new bondage.

To really belong, we have got, first, to get it clear with ourselves that we do not belong and do not want to belong to an unfree world. As free men and women we have got to reject much of it and to know why we are rejecting it.

We have got, second, to get it clear within ourselves that we can only truly belong to organizations which we have a real part in building and maintaining, directly and openly and all of the time.

And we have got, third, to realize that it is only in the struggle for what we really believe, as individuals and as members of economic, political, and social groups, that the sense of belonging befitting a free person in an unfree world can exist. In such a world, only the comradeship of such a struggle is worth our loyalty; and only to such truly human associations as we might create do we, as rational people, wish to belong.


[1] We have deleted a discussion of various kinds of organizations and background for the then current state of affairs.

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