States as persistent political entities

What is the relationship between the state of things and the political State? This is Badiou’s question, after you take away all his mathematical obfuscations. Machiavelli suggests the initial connection: starer, the verb for persistent existence. From this we derive the ‘state,’ the thing that lasts beyond particular politicians. Politics, after all, doesn’t mean what we think it means: for a long time, political questions were questions about the best regime. Only recently have we decided that politics is the lottery-cycle by which we select the next party to run our specifically democratic/capitalist regime.

Does the ontological difference between beings and Being have a political expression? Perhaps Jean-luc Nancy starts this conversation with the difference between the various freedoms (from fear, from want, to pray, to speak) and Freedom itself. Indeed, Nancy takes the relationship to be quite perfect, since freedom comes to resemble the becoming or happening of events, rather than a particular human’s action. Freedom stands in for the novelty or instability at the heart of futurity. Is there a crucial distinction, then, between esserer and starer? Is this a false distinction? Between lo stato, the state, and mode of persistent standing characterized by starer, we can perceive an analogous difference. It is not the same, however. In English and French, this is expressed by “going” or “aller.” “Ca va?” (“How’s it going?”) becomes in Italian or Spanish, “Come stai? Sto bene.” (“How does it stand with you? It stands well.”) This persistent state of being is the ‘way it’s going,’ the trend or prevailing movement.

In politics, this trend is supposed to be manifest or set into law through state institutions: the king’s whims, the people’s will, are both subject to all sorts of manipulations and perturbations. The State suspends those perturbations a bit, but not completely. The State’s laws are not static, nor is the rule of law an utterly consistent, wholly unchangeable situation. In fact, thus understood, stasis itself takes on a different flavor: it is no longer the immortal and unchangeable, but rather simply the persistent and locally prevailing state of things. To stand is not to stand immobile, but rather to stand still. It does not preclude movement, but nor is it characterized by flux.

Heidegger’s notion of ec-stasis, standing-outside-oneself, initially intended to show the internal motion at the heart of stasis: the reaching forward (projection) and backward (throwness) of temporality, as well as the spatial diffuseness and plurality of every identity that claims to be sui generis or authentic. Yet at some point, it appears that Heidegger became more interested in the breaks and novelties of eventuations than the persistence of the work or the constancy of the product.

Note that the State doesn’t resist the dynamic flow of events: it simply has a tendency to steady them, to stabilize them, often by managing and regulating flows. From the regulator’s perspective, a flow of currency or goods looks like a steady stream. Its velocity becomes a known and calculated quantity, and only the acceleration or deceleration of its flow remains to be quantified and stabilized. Large events, like accidents, assassinations, disasters, or even revolutions cannot destroy the state. They can alter it, sometimes even transform it into an unrecognizably new form, but the new political entity will tend to persist. A series of such insurmountable surprises will tend to institute l’etat de siege, the state of exception. Yet even when martial law sacrifices the patterns of authority for the brutal reign of physical force, it only does so in an attempt to discover what persists in the tumult: violence.

Dems want freedom to speak

Ed Kilgore writes:

I think both sides in the usual intraparty debates are guilty of excessive “the enemy is listening” fears, and that we need to create a free-speech zone with some simple rules of civility (e.g., I won’t call you crazy, and you won’t call me spineless, just because we disagree).

The question of civility can only be addressed by a particular, relatively delimited community. This was the lesson of the 90’s iteration of this conversation, though then it was called ‘flame wars.’ It’s quite easy to gather a thoughtful group of civil adults that can discuss and debate strategy; simply set up an identity verification program (a small credit card transaction, for instance) and moderate discussions. (The WELL does this quite… erm, well.) If you guarantee that -some- real democratic strategists, with the ears of real politicians, are reading the posts, they will probably be very thoughtful indeed. They will also be very careful, very reverent, and not only civil, but obsequious.

If someone out there starts such a forum, I’d love to be invited. I can’t imagine why they’d want me, though. I’m nobody special. Thankfully, blogs don’t work on ‘specialness’; here, anonymous strangers by the millions throw their ideas at the wall, and sometimes something sticks. They talk about cross-stitching, cross-dressing, and cross-burning with equal fervor and unequal intelligence. Early adopters gained readers and popularity, quit their day jobs, and started looking like the establishment. But there’s always some new writer adopting Hunter S. Thompson’s style or keeping a daily diary devoted to demography and statistical modeling. And the novelty, the energy, the otherness, and the insight will drive us to seek them out, probably with the help of some hyper-literate friend who scans blogs in her spare time.

This is all to the good; but for every undiscovered prodigy there are going to be thirty (or maybe three hundred) name-calling, misspelling, grammar- trashing, outraged fifteen year-old trolls posing as adults. Many of them will learn something from the experience of being schooled or ignored by serious-minded bloggers. All the same, so long as we are anonymous, there will be middle-schoolers acting like stock market analysts, men pretending to be women, conservatives posing as liberals, dogs and cats living together…. You get the picture. We can’t keep them out, and frankly, we shouldn’t want to. Cybernetic free-speech zones are just as preposterous as their real-world counterparts.

Spectacular Politics and Rancière’s Radical Egalitarianism

The other night, my friend Steve Maloney was asking me whether politics, and specifically political theory, has been reduced to public relations. I like to think that, while it may be that our task is PR, (a) it may always have been, and (b) that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Peter Hallward has an article in the January/February New Left Review that where he basically takes up the same problem. It’s entitled “Rancière’s Theatrocracy,” (sorry, paying subscribers only) and mostly deals with the work Rancière has done on the the relation between liberation politics and the staging of equality. In this “staging,” we’re meant to pick up a double entendre: both the theater and civil society involve a crucial staging. Public relations shades into pretending, costuming, and play-acting.

The Platonic critique of the poets and actors has always been closely associated with his distaste for Athenian democracy, since the same audience that could so easily be moved by the narrative manipulations of the tragedians could also be persuaded by passionate rhetoric and illogical sophistry. Many contemporary progressives find, in the light of democracy’s recent failures to supply satisfying electoral outcomes, that democracy may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The democratic penchant for short, assymetrical conflicts, combined the resurgence of the spoils system, suggest to these fair-weather progressives that a poorly-educated populace may not always be the best group to consult. In a number of different contexts, I’ve seen a creeping elitism amongst people who would once have cringed at the thought of hierarchies. As I understand it, the original neo-conservatives followed this same trajectory, moving from vanguardist communism to meritocratic rule-of-law.

This is where Rancière comes in. Like many of the other students of Althusser (Badiou, Balibar, Foucault, etc.) he has been trying to account for emancipatory politics without utopian teleology or deterministic materialism, the collapsed havens of orthodox marxists. The question that drives these thinkers, and my own thought, is how to side with the dispossessed, the dominated, the invisible, without falling into despair? Rancière began answering it by turning towards the pre-Marxists workers communes and proletarian self-emancipation projects theorized by Marx the scholar, and celebrated by Marx the pamphleteer. Rancière’s first presumption is that Marx’s efforts have come to stand in for the various and sundry projects that inspired them; by returning to the original source material, he hoped to wipe the slate of the tyrannical nation-state capitalisms of the Stalin and Mao, the absurd in-fighting and orthodoxies of the French Communist Party (PCF), and the association of communism with fascism and totalitarianism. His goal, in other words, has been to find what was lost in the institutionalization of these private and local liberations.

The best text for deriving his theory of emancipation remains his book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which takes up the theories of Joseph Jacotot, exiled from France when the monarchists came back into power during the Second Restoration. Stuck in Belgium, Jacotot still managed to teach poor children, with whom he did not share a language, to read Flemish. He developed an egalitarian pedagogical theory that levels the last bastion of elitism: intellectual superiority. He located supposed differences in capacity in the poor distribution of attention and knowledge, such that even motivational deficiencies can be charged to the inadequate expectations of the teacher. The trick Jacotot is famous for is showing illiterate parents how to teach their children to read! This removes even the supposed expertise of the teacher, and is definitely a spiritual ancestor (though apparently not an acknowledged contributor) to John Dewey’s methods. This is radical egalitarianism indeed: you can see now the opposition I was pushing earlier between the vanguardist Trotskyists, who in their despair at the unteachable proletariat became corporate neo-conservatives, and a thoroughgoing equality that trusts the demos.

Hallward notes that this trust of the audience is partially dependent on removing even the distinction between actor and viewer: thus, the political demonstrations of recent globalization and antiwar protestors look more like Rancière’s definition of politics than anything that happens between Russ Feingold and the GOP. Participation and festivity are key elements of the democratic theater Rancière wishes us to embrace. Being part of a crowd, demonstrating to yourself and each other the potency possible even to the disenfranchised, is the space where egalitarian staging takes place. This equality can be dissipated in an instant, of course, just as a crowd can be quickly whipped into a directed frenzy by a skilled orator, losing its self-direction along with its anarchism by submitting to the manipulations of a leader.

So long as it persists, however, this spectacular politics entails a Rousseauist carnival of freedom. No masters, no slaves, just a public, relating to itself without mediation. Rancière says, “All my work on workers’ emancipation showed that the most prominent of claims put forward by the workers and the poor was precisely the claim to visibility, a will to enter the political ream of appearance, the affirmation of a capacity for appearance.” As Hallward himself notes, this model of political action is incapable of sustaining or institutionalizing itself; it is spontaneous and ephemeral, improvised and aleatory. It happens and then subsides, leaving no great documents or lasting legislation. The real question is why we ever thought that emancipation could come by cementing our powers for collective action in established bureaucracies whose task is to suppress the very spontaneity that founded them?

Quashing nasty rumours

There’s a rumour going around, perpetuated by bumper stickers and politicians, that “God is pro-life.” It’s an interesting claim, and since everyone seems to want God (i.e. the heavy guns) on their side, I thought I’d examine it.

Michael Sandel, (yes, that Sandel) while working on the presidential Council on Bioethics, wrung this statement from expert witness John M. Opitz, MD:

Sandel: “…[W]hat percent of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise lost?”
Opitz: “Estimates range all the way from 60 percent to 80 percent of the very earliest stages, cleavage stages, for example, that are lost.

Hmmm…. so, in 2003, there were about 4 million babies born in the United States. Given the most conservative estimate of 60% lost before parturition, that means that 6 million embryos were destroyed by natural causes. This is convenient, as it is the most popular estimate for Jewish deaths during the Shoah (Holocaust). Since I’ve previously railed against the equation of abortion with genocide, this seems apropos.

If I can find some global population statistics that chart total human population throughout history, I’m thinking of putting up a running total: Abortions: God v. Man. This would be especially interesting given plague and disaster death rates, plus historical v. current infant mortality rates. Sadly, I’m not a statistician, I’m a philosopher, so I’ll continue to depend on the experts. The CDC recorded 857,000 abortions in 2000, so, to keep the numbers round, let’s say 1 million.

For 2003:
Humans: 1 million
God: 6 million

I would argue that any God worthy of invocation (i.e., an intelligent designer, deist or participatory) would not design a system with such a lousy success rate if this deity were concerned primarily with the survival of all embryos. Thus, God is objectively not pro-life. If you believe in predestination or election, then all conceivable omnipotent and omniscient creator-Gods must be understood as pro-choice (not ours, though) and pro-death.