Critique in the Age of Hope

I listened to Obama’s first presidential radio address yesterday. The presidential radio address hasn’t changed much since Roosevelt’s fireside chats, but as I sat listening to it, I felt like many of Roosevelt’s listeners must have done: though many things are out of my control, my role as a citizen has been exhausted in electing the best person to lead the recovery, and now I can listen to his obvious competence and superior reasonableness with the comfort that pubic matters are proceeding apace. My role is simply to find work as a productive private citizen, digging out the (largely financial) hole the Bush administration and a generation of debt has dug for us.

I’ve been very pleased by most of our new president’s moves and decisions, but increasingly I’m beginning to wonder what role political theorists will play in the coming ‘post-ideological’ age, the one inaugurated last Tuesday in which the “stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”  With few concrete policies to discuss, one serious question emerges: what role is there for critique? By critique I mean something like Kant’s description of public reason, famously  summarized (critically, of course) by Foucault as: “…a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be[….] It oversees a domain it would not want to police and is unable to regulate.” Critique, for Foucault, was ultimately the “practice of liberty” that teaches us “how not to be governed.” 

Though I’m highly skeptical of executive power no matter what party is in power, President Obama has already taken steps to reign in his own branch of government, sacrificing powers that his predecessor had claimed for himself. As an initial step, that’s quite promising. Yet I’m no anarchist: because critique has such negative, anti-statist connotations, it’s important to note here the role of critique in positive normative theory. It’s hard to see how a thinker can lead the cheers of acclamation and approval from a critical stance, but indeed I think the ‘practice of not being governed’ involves some praise on occasion. After all, a normative theory always has the option to respond to a contemporary institution or practice through a simple affirmation, a “Don’t change a thing, keep it up! You’re on the right track!” 

On the other hand, perhaps that is premature. Even the most enthusiastically idyllic reading of our contemporary situation must admit some basic facts: Obama needs the support of Congress to accomplish some of his goals. He lacks a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the Republican loyal opposition will force him to make compromises at some point, since they hope someday to regain the majority.  Obama may be resetting some of the traditional factions and boundaries, but when the perceived threat of Republican super-majorities and the utter devastation of the ranks of the civil service and the administrative state by incompetent managers has been rectified, there will be fewer sources of unifying frustration. In short, things may currently seem swell, but we can have faith that they’ll find a way to fuck it up.

By offering us an opportunity to forgo partisan ideological confrontation, however, Obama seems to be offering us a post-factional world. And here my skepticism emerges again: factions coalesce around interests, and while I do believe that some things are in the common interest, we still live in a world of scarce resources and we must still determine who gets what when. We can probably agree that much of what was treated as controversial in the last few decades ought not to have really been so: torture is wrong and ineffective; disagreement is not treason; taxes are a necessary evil and ought to be born primarily by the top 20%, who benefit most from the structure of the economy; immigrants are guests and not criminals and ought to be treated as such; a person’s right to marry his or her love cannot be limited on the basis of faith-based public policy; nor can science be suppressed to make room for faith. 

Not all of Obama’s goals are even in the hands of the federal government alone, and the two most important goals (peace in Iraq/Afghanistan  and ending the economic downturn) aren’t really subject to anyone’s control. Then too, there are global justice troubles beyond the current downturn. The least advantaged will continue to suffer while the rest of us try to get the basic political institutions to return real estate prices to their former heights. 

That said, I think that political theorists must continue to champion at least one thing alongside the Obama administration:

1. Restore the Middle Class: The middle class has lost much of its former power as inequalities have grown. We increasingly inhabit a society where class is determined by the number of wage-earners in the family. (For clarity, the middle class describes those whose household income is in the the third and fourth quintiles: neither the least advantaged nor the richest. This translates into a household income of approximately 35,000 to 90,000 a year, though it’s highly variable based on geography.) The great divider has become the number of incomes per household: now that both men and women work, any family that is hit by illness, divorce, or death  faces bankruptcy and a slide from the middle class.  

We are divided into an Upper-class of dual wage families and a Lower-class of singles, divorcees, and the traditional poor. Discovering the formula of education, taxation, bankruptcy law, and health care options that can transform our society into a three-class society again is paramount. This will largely involve making the second quintile sustainable: the people who today earn between 18,000 and 35,000 must be able to feel confident that they are not one serious illness away from becoming homeless.

So what is role of political theory in the age of hope? When progressive politicians gain power, what role does critique still have to play? What is to be done, if Obama’s already doing it? 

Personally, I think there are three areas that even a progressive administration cannot be expected to address adequately. The Obama administration shows no signs of prioritizing any of these lasting problems, so critique can still serve to address the underlying failings in our society. These ought to be the focus of political theory during the next term.

2. Make War on War: The project for perpetual peace is as old as the Enlightenment that inspired Kant to write his famous essay on public reason. Our failures thus far just have shown us that the war has only costs, no rewards, and that those costs are born predominantly by innocents and civilians, and by women, children, and the elderly. We have to build the international institutions of legitimate global governance that will eventually replace militant conflict resoluion, and that means hard, boring, normative work empowering reasons and words to clash with tempers and weapons. It would be nice if more politicians would recognize peace as a laudable goal rather than constantly invoking war and armed conflict in their rhetoric. 

3. Shrink the Penitentiary (Until It’s Small Enough to Drown in a Bathtub): We incarcerate far too many citizens in this country, and it’s time to stop. Here, more than anywhere else, social science must be allowed to trump the victim’s resentment and communal retribution. There’s a growing movement among scholars to treat criminal justice issues in terms of the familiar conflict between reason and revelation. Revenge and righteous indignation are the last vestiges of revelatory anti-rationality. The single largest step we could take in this direction? Legalize marijuana and treat non-trafficking drug offenders rather than punishing them. Step two? Turn prisons into universities. Dollars spent on educating prisoners translate into a two-to-one savings over the reincarcerations costs of recidivism. “Books not bars.”

That said, we must also accept that not everyone can be rehabilitated. We will always need a few prisons to contain those with whom we cannot safely share the world. 

4. Reduce Global Inequality: More than 1.5 billion people on this planet live on less than a dollar a day. Between 26,500 and 30,000 children die each day due to poverty-related diseases and malnutrition. 1.6 billion people live without electricity. 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to clean water. We have a moral obligation to these people, since the same system that grants me the capacity to write in peace and safety denies basic survival to so many. We must continue to target and amend the aspects of the global economic system that have exacerbated extreme poverty, especially when we discover that we are being enriched by that suffering.

Since freedom, peace, and prosperity are usually closely aligned, each of these seemingly utopian goals is related to the others. Precisely because we cannot currently imagine a world without prisons, war, and extreme poverty, we know that critique still has work to do, undermining our self-justifications for the evil our institutions do, emptying the pool of reasons they depend upon for their legitimacy. Nor are we free of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or authoritarianism. That said, I think we can occasionally pat ourselves on the back or savor a victory before getting back to work in the public sphere on the constitution of our shared world.

6 thoughts on “Critique in the Age of Hope”

  1. Critique remains decisive in an era of mature leadership. My understanding of Obama's insistence that we "set aside childish things" is not that we have entered an age of post-partisan politics in which factions are set aside. He is too astute a study of history to think that faction can be dissolved. Madison had this right in Federalist #10 when he identified faction with human nature, rooted it in liberty and sought to control its effects rather than suppress its cause.

    For my part, I associate Obama's appeal to scripture in the inaugural address as directed toward a specific kind of immaturity, one that sets individual concerns over the concerns of the community. I have suggested that it be heard as a kind of response to some words from James Baldwin, but one might in fact bring it to bear on a whole range of political theories that give priority to liberty over justice.

    Your appeal to Foucault's understanding of critique as the "'practice of liberty' that teaches 'how not to be governed'" strikes me as an impoverished and, to be provocative, immature conception of critique. It is an understanding of critique bound to a negative conception of freedom that refuses to recognize the degree to which human-beings are by nature political, that is to say, communal beings.

    All of this is to affirm your main point about the role political theorists (and all citizens) have to play in rooting their critique not in concerns for individual liberty, but communal justice: this conception of critique would be welcomed by a mature leadership as oriented to a common goal, however difficult it might be at times to hear. To hear it however, and to allow it to inform decisions are part of what it means to give up childish things.

    The points you lay out above, including the specific areas you mention, are clearly oriented toward this more mature understanding of critique. But this is not the practice of liberty that teaches how not to be governed, but the practice of responsibility that teaches how the governed are always empowered in governing. It is far easier to level childish criticisms animated by a negative conception of individual liberty than to engage in mature critique animated by the attempt to embody a more just community.

  2. I'm hoping that your repeated play on childishness and immaturity is a reference to Kant's definition of Enlightenment ("emergence from self-imposed immaturity") and not a commentary on the quality of my post! Still, you're picking up on the tension that has energized my writing and thinking in the last week: between the Foucaultian project of critique and Habermasian normative theory, between freedom as non-governance and freedom as communal self-governance, and most of all, regarding the role philosophers can play in supplying the theoretical grounds for the newly aligning factions so we can continue to substitute deliberation for power politics, public reason for the modus vivendi.

    As much as I want to side with you in the purely celebratory account of this move away from isolated liberalism towards a communitari–ahem, I mean, political liberalism ('with a spine' in Stephen Macedo's words) I do think there are some ways in which we must play out the old political conflicts in fresh ways for the coming era. I think that there remains an 'ideological' conflict to be had in the President's preference for the Chicago school of economic 'libertarian paternalism,' the kind of choice architecture advocated by his friend and colleague Cass Sunstein. Not all of the ways of life subtly emphasized or denigrated by this kind of paternalism are being subjected to the critical scrutiny we would use for more explicit coercion.

    There's also work to be done advocating on behalf of a truly cosmopolitan understanding of community: not simply the American or the Euro-American way of life, but a community that includes the Chinese workers who have loaned us their savings to finance our consumption and our wars, and the Africans whose exclusion from the global economic order serves as the foundation of the reserve army of global unemployed, and whose political institutions were irrevocably undermined by the colonial exploitation and violence of our ancestors.

    While there is much from the culture wars that we debated for too long and now ought to be settled, there are still some matters that we think are settled that need to be critiqued and made the subject of debate. To borrow Nussbaum's apt title, we have yet to fully explore the 'frontiers of justice.'

  3. Chris and AnPan,

    Very nice post and exchange so far. A few remarks:

    First, Chris, I don't think Foucault's conception of critique (as a way of teaching us "not to be governed") is an "impoverished… immature conception of critique" bound to what you call "a negative conception of freedom that refuses to recognize the degree to which human-beings are by nature political, that is to say, communal beings." To the extent that Foucault has a conception of "human freedom" at all, I agree that it may very well be "negative," but I don't think that is found in his definition/discussion of the function and purpose of "critique." The operative term in Foucault's definition (from "What is Critique?") that AnPan provides is, I think, "governed". Governmentality, which both follows (historically) and supplements sovereignty as the dominant mode of power for Foucault, is a complex set of techniques and practices aimed at producing "governable" subjects… or, rather, subjects who reproduce the kinds of power that produced them as subjects. Foucault's call for a practice of critique that enables us "not to be governed," as I understand it, only means this: critique makes it possible to imagine "a future and a truth" that is other than the ones we are subject(ed) to by the various forms of governmental control. So, to "not be governed" does not mean to "not be political," as you seem to suggest, but rather to "not be political in this way."

    As far as I can tell, Foucault's intuition has been borne out in the last year. That is, weighted down with a truly "impoverished" conception of government, the populace finally made room for the voice(s) of critique, which collectively allowed us to imagine another future and another truth. On November 11th, we all effectively said "we will not be governed in this way anymore." Critique made that possible. It is the only thing that could have made that possible– short of revolution perhaps… which I suspect also requires Foucault's conception of critique as a condition of it's possibility.

    The point is, I suppose, that I agree with AnPan that this is neither impoverished nor immature… and I also agree with AnPan that the time for that kind of critique has not passed with Obama's election. If it is the case, as Foucault speculated in his College de France lectures from '75-'79, that "power" has entered the eras of "governmentality" and "biopolitics," then we ought to worry that "critique" is in a far more precarious position than it was during the Enlightenment (when it only really had to worry about being suppressed by the sovereign). With so many institutions– hospitals, schools, banks, and as AnPan rightly notes, prisons– contributing to the formation of docile, passive, self-interested, fearful, needy, and most importantly non-critical "subjects," it behooves us to devote a greater vigilance to keeping a space open for the communal exercise of reasonable debate.

    1. Thanks Dr. J,
      You hit the nail on the head with governmentality, as of course this is the trope underlying Foucault's many concerns. For clarity, I slightly prefer Philip Pettit's account of freedom as anti-power. The idea is that we don't want to avoid coercion, only domination, and that non-domination requires participation in decision-making, something more than mere voting though not necessarily victory or having one's own way. Here I think it's important to note that while we're seeing a shift of sorts in the battle between markets and regulation, it as yet unclear what role citizens will really play in the numerous decisions that the administration and Congress will make.

      To take one example, I would have liked Obama to roll out a mechanism for citizen comment and deliberation on budget items before he tackled the stimulus bill: something like publicmarkup.org would have been great. It would have been better for ordinary citizens of both parties to debate pork barrel projects and earmarks than to turn his very first legislative action-item into the same old partisanship. Most of the debate is still happening among political and intellectual elites, and we're already seeing the fractioning of the progressive/centrist coalition that elected him. In the last two days, I've seen the following questions seriously pondered: "Is infrastructure improvement misogynistic because construction workers and engineers are predominantly men?" "Does maintenance and beautification of the DC National Mall constitute a handout to the Democratic base?" "By increasing higher education funding, aren't we just dumping money into a liberal bastion and paying off Obama's supporters?" "Why grant the Republicans their tax cut demands if they're not going to support the bill?"

      We can't blame Obama for the things people have been saying about his proposed policies, but the fact that he can't forestall this resentful bickering, even among his supporters, suggests that we still need to work on the institutions that empower people to participate in policy-making rather than being left out. The old way of doing things is to deal with citizens only when necessary: we are courted during elections then ignored. Having been so recently welcomed by a campaign of inclusion, it's all the more disappointing that Obama is governing in the ordinary exclusionary manner, though of course there are structural problems to handle and matters of scale to be dealt with.

      Obama's supporters and detractors alike apparently feel as if only confrontation and antagonism will grant them a place at the table so that they can prevent the domination of both the unruly and unjust market and the administrative state that will govern it… and threatens to govern us as well. I prefer Arendt's account of politics to the agonistic struggle to direct the steering-mechanism of political economic life. For her, political activity draws us together and increase our collective power, but this only happens if we act publicly, if our words and deeds appear to each other and our actions effect the constitution of our shared world.

      That's not really critique, any longer: it's 'the future and the truth' that appears in the space cleared by critique.

  4. Thanks for this mature and lively discussion. Let me just say, first, that Dr. J. is right about Foucault's central concern being the practices that produce and reproduce us as governable subjects. However, I have always been struck in reading Foucault by the extent to which he seems to be fundamentally caught in the modern conception of subjectivity as essentially productive. My call to orient our political theory toward the question of justice is in part meant to problematize this understanding of subjectivity.

    However, I would also be happy to return to Foucault with new eyes based on suggestions made here.

    On the other hand, the notion that critique makes it possible to imagine a different future and truth is a vital part of any political theory concerned with justice. Indeed, I see this as precisely what Socrates does as he encourages us to consider the nature of justice itself, which, on my reading, operates as an erotic principle rather than as an determinate, instrumental one.

    I would like to hear more about Pettit's suggestions mentioned by AnPan because the question of participation is critical here. It will be interesting to see how the transformation of Obama's website into "Organizing for America" might facilitate the sort of participatory deliberation AnPan envisions. I think the web opens up many new possibilities in this regard, not least of which is the discussion we are having here.

    Let me add, finally, a personal note about the celebratory tone of many of my recent blog posts on the Long Road. I celebrate exactly what Dr. J. identifies as the rejection of a truly impoverished conception of government (and community). But for me, it is more than this, more even than the huge victory associated with electing an African-American as President – and the lasting power of this fact must not be underestimated – it is rather the celebration of a kind of political participation I had not previously experienced. I had to swallow a lot of cynicism to get out there an knock on doors for a politician. But I did that not because I agree with all his policies and decisions, but because I wanted to put my weight behind something better even if the better still requires the constant nurture of critique to hold it accountable and press it toward justice.

    I celebrate the fact that in some small but significant way, that effort, and the lesson it held for my two young daughters, made a difference.

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