Modernity and Despair: What Should We Hope For?

I’m giving a short talk in Boston today, at the conference Frontiers of Democracy. Here are some of the points I’m hoping to mention:

The modern world produces a certain kind of despair and helplessness because the primary sources of hope are technological development and the institutional efforts of technocrats. The best hope of progress is always elsewhere: the Supreme Court, Silicon Valley, the Justice Department. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been waiting with quite a bit of excitement to see whether one man–Justice Kennedy–will decide to legalize same sex marriage. Looking around, we see lots of progress but no role for ourselves in achieving them. I care a lot about same sex marriage, but I can’t point to a single thing I’ve done to bring it about: it has seemed inevitable for most of my life, even when Democratic politicians passed laws outlawing it and campaigned against it.

This is because of modernity’s structuralist bias: problems are most easily parse-able as the result of systematic factors, and thus only large-scale statist solutions seem adequate to respond to them. In this sense we live in the world imagined by Max Weber: progress is achieved by professionals, through the slow boring of hard boards. Bureaucratic solutions are the norm, and even social movements must have their solutions instantiated in bureaucratic institutions to truly count themselves successful. It’s not enough to march or protest: your marches and protests have to lead to new policies, new laws, or new spending. Politics seems like it is reducible to a fight to steer the large organizations that make up our world.

We seem to understand people in aggregate but not individually. The emphasis is on “seem” because these aggregates are often vague, self-fulfilling, or ignore vital ceteris paribus problems. Vox recently suggested that there are 16 plausible explanations for the plummeting crime rate, all but a few of which are not only outside of my power to effect, but most of which are even outside of the power of the police department to effect.

There are similar stories to tell about the difficulty in identifying the causes of economic growth and the levers of macroeconomic success and stability. Yet at the same time pollsters can seemingly predict elections with frightening accuracy on the basis of comparatively small samples, and the Federal Reserve can seemingly nudge growth and inflation. Most of the explanations I know, as a scholar, are systematic explanations. Systems and generalizable knowledge go hand-in-hand: experts produce this knowledge and thereby prove their worth. Scientific progress becomes the model of social and political progress.

Civic renewal proposes a radically different view of progress.  On the civic view, developments that exclude us–that render us passive in our own well-being–are not progressive ones. “We” must work together to achieve our hoped for goals, or else, first, they won’t be progressive, and, second, they won’t be sustainable. Policies that are made without engaging citizens threaten to be corrupted by those exclusions either in the first instance or over time as citizens assume that the matter is settled and begin to ignore it. “Nothing for us without us” becomes a democratic slogan, with the understanding that we don’t believe it’s enough for policies to be made and enforced in our interest if they don’t engage us.

The new movements around race and police brutality that began in Ferguson have skillfully combined systematic analysis with personal action, digital mobilization on social media and protest organization. Yet this is not a generalizable lesson: these same techniques have failed to mobilize citizen engagement on a mass scale on environmental issues, finance-sector malfeasance, economic inequality, or free and fair trade.

I worry that other successes, like participatory budgeting or community-led efforts at school integration, are too small-scale and bound up with state institutions and the logic of bureaucracy and governmentality to supply the foundational insights of civics.

This kind of “progressivism” encompasses even conservative civics: front porch conservatives and Sam’s Club conservatives. Modernity is just as much a threat to their ideal lives, and not just because of the way that the modern scientific worldview undermines their metaphysical and moral commitments. Still, civics has a lot to learn from conservatives in this respect: symbolic commitments are at the heart of the solidarity required for co-creation. Here also we see a human-scale politics, around the question of the display of Confederate flags, the naming of streets and respresentation of our community’s heroes and villains.

Instead of a general science of action, it is seems to me that civics can—at best—offer a unified set of participatory values alongside subject-specific and regional knowledge, and case studies of sometimes-viable strategies.

Finally, we should hope that the civic renewal movement grows large enough to encompass lively debate, disagreement, and faction on issues of focus, strategy, and the push-and-pull of partisan identity. This is how the unity of our values will become a foundation for a living community.

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