When did it all change?

Look, I’m not one for golden-age narratives. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that things are fucked in a manner unique to this place and time. Of course, there are all new possibilities, novel reasons to hope, that come out of this unique dilemma. But it also seems as if some of the old stand-by solutions are gone. So, without further ado:

1. Revolution ain’t what it used to be.

As somebody or other once said, “You can’t start a revolution in a country without cobblestones. What’ll you throw at the cops?” Though it’s a constant refrain with me, this will be the first time (though not the last) that I’ll say it in this space: we can no longer imagine an old-school regime change in most of the developing or developed world. I don’t care how many riots you incite, how many molotov cocktails you throw, it won’t happen here, or in most of the other places that count as power centers. Perhaps in shoddy third-world countries they’ll throw a cocktail party that looks like a revolution, and invite the journalists and the humanitarians, the political paparazzi and the bankers. But in all likelihood, even in those out-of-the-way places, the so-called revolt will have been predicted by intelligence agents (i.e. spies) and either supported or quashed by the US/Europe. What we’ll watch on our televisions and net-casts, what will be blogged, videoed, op-edited, TiVo’d, celebrated, villified, and ignored, will be a media event: a teleplay with the narrative boiler-plate already written.

Perhaps you’re holding out for an Iranian student insurrection? Fuggedabodit. If it happens, it’ll turn out the major players were trained at the School of the Americas. A viable third party in the US? Nope: it’s all spoilers and flame-outs from here to the horizon. Oh! I know: Chinese democracy? Ha! More like feudal capitalism, with the world’s first-ever state-run open-market.

What’s happened to this place we call home? Where did all the options go? It was technology that did them in: railroads, radios, telephones and televisions.

2. The Internet won’t save representative democracies from their dwindling legitimacy.

If the most cited complaint in a century of American letters is that politics isn’t fun anymore, then the most popular solution in the past twenty years has been the internet. Yet I’ve got to ask: where are our electronic town halls? Why is computerized voting still the biggest boondoggle since the days of Gangs of New York? Why doesn’t my White House answer my e-mail?

Moveon.org and the DFA (and probably twice as many Republican groups) want you to believe that these innovative technologies will change the parties. They want us to think that their little polls and daily talking points mean that we’re closer to the process, that we’ve finally recovered the agrarian democracy that Jefferson championed, only without the slaves and the sunrise wake-up calls.

However, we still live in a society of wolves and sheep, and most of us remain sheep, though all too aware of that fact. This is the worst position for a democracy to be in: if Aristotle is right, it’s the exact opposite of the ideal. Rather than a hard-working society where we’re too busy to realize that the few (the aristoi) are running things, we’ve all got plenty of leisure time (though increasinly less) and a deep-seated sense of alienation from our government.

Frankly, there’s nothing we can do about this. The whole shebang is too darned big. It doesn’t matter what techniques and media you use to aggregate preferences for decision-making: there’s just the one federal government, and every time it scratches, a few million of us citizen-fleas feel slighted. There’s not room for us all to see eye-to-eye, anymore; there hasn’t been for the whole 20th century. Instead, we’ve got the mass-media. First it was syndicated newspapers, then radio, then movies and television, all doing the same thing. We can’t see each other, but we can all listen to the same music and watch the same soap-operas. We all get the same advertisements, and we all drink the same colas.

Meanwhile, the producers of these things consolidate and consolidate. They create monopolies and cartels, and then they merge with each other, until there’s just the two soft drink/sports shoe/media conglomerates. Niche marketing doesn’t mean an end to this asymmetry: it just means that the same companies finally know enough about us that they can drop mass-production without losing market-share or profitability. Nowhere is this fantasy less true than with the political parties. They may have figured out how to retail their message to consumers, but they’re not about to give up the spoils of the two-party system, nor are they willing to seriously broaden the policy debates. If I sound like I’m channeling Noam Chomsky, it’s because he’s right. No point in re-inventing the wheel.

The reason the good ol’ info superhighway won’t make a difference is simple: there aren’t any paving stones here, either. Nothing happens here. The scale of action remains too small: we can do all sorts of things on the local level, get all sorts of support. But we’ve got no mechanism for getting things done that we didn’t have before. New ways to organize, new modes of communication, and even some pretty nifty new ways to engage in collective action. But none of it hits up against the old-style political sphere: none of it makes Kings and Councillors sit up and take notice.

They ignored Seattle, didn’t they? Why shouldn’t they ignore our e-petitions?

Which leads me to…

3. Theorists of justice will remain as ineffective as they’ve been for the last fifty years.

Since the Cold War started, we’ve had a rash of provocative, thoughtful, and wonderfully argued theories of justice. From Rawls to Nozick, from Sandel to Habermas, one thing has remained clear throughout: philosophers aren’t politicans. Good books do not get turned into equally good policies. In fact, most of the good books were written as attacks or apologies on the institutions of the welfare state. After the fact, if you will, they argued for extensions or retractions of this wonderful and frightening system. But so far as I can tell, the last theorist of note that anybody paid any attention to was Walter Lippmann. Maybe John Dewey, if you count his newspaper articles.

Thinking about justice, it turns out, is not a particularly just thing to do. As much as I’d like to believe that the various social movements succeeded or failed based on thoughts and theories, it seems as if strategies and techniques played a larger and more important role. The Civil Rights movement didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: it just found the right levers to push on (civil unrest and collective violence, mostly) to make us act. Activists of all stripes (fundamentalist and queer, feminist, pacifist, or anti-globalist) have depended on old strategies, and increasingly, these strategies, rather than the theories that justify them, have begun to seem attenuated and weak. Again, it’s a matter of getting leverage, of making things happen, and as even Archimedes would admit, the bigger the world, the bigger the lever required. Justice theorists seem to think it’s sufficient to supply a place to stand.


4. “Reasonable” doubt is the new conservatism.

My colleague Dom Eggert has point this out in his blog recently, and it’s true. Increasingly, political rhetoric is all about “getting to maybe.” Once you’ve gotten there, every decision seems, at least, plausible. So Bush claims to be balancing security and freedom, or NAFTA balances the lost industrial jobs with tech sector gains. Climate change, intelligent design, domestic surveillance, etc. all have one thing in common: there are at least two different ways to look at it. “Opinions differ” will increasingly be administration-speak (both Republican and Democrat) for “We’re gonna do what we want, even if you don’t want us to.” And we bloggers will just fuel the fire by contributing to the doubt.

Phew…. I’m exhausted from this fit of cynicism. Tune in later for some caffeinated optimism.

Second Opinions