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.

Justice and Justifications: The Duty to Deliberate and the “Barrel of Reasons”

“I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why. Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions. Should I not have to be a barrel of memory, if I wanted to carry my reasons, too, about with me?” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Lately it has come to my attention that some political theorists would rather not have to justify themselves all the time. Frankly, I’ve never met a philosopher who couldn’t give you ten arguments for his favorite breakfast cereal, let alone for important political decisions. Yet a certain stripe of liberal takes it to be a priori offensive that he might ever be coerced, even socially, to provide justifications for his political positions. A lot of this debate comes out of the deliberative politics discussion, especially the claims made by Gutmann and Thompson that while justifications are required of citizens in order to grease the wheels of institutional design and legitimate self-governance, only some reasons are acceptable.

The restriction on properly moral reasons, rather than on simply selfish preferences, is not obviously offensive. “Because I said so!” has long been taken as an unacceptable sort of reason, and even Catholics can agree that “Because the Pope said so!” isn’t the sort of reason likely to be persuasive to non-Catholics. Even the Pope provides reasons and justifications for his positions in his encyclicals, and it is the mark of a good, thoughtful Catholic to repeat these arguments rather than simply the conclusions. I take it to be the mark of any successful religion that you occasionally concern yourself with persuasion instead of simply inculcating your own youth with the faith through parental and pastoral domination.

So the real obstacle to deliberative duties, it seems, are the libertarians. If freedom is your main concern, then it makes sense that you would prefer not to instantiate a duty to deliberate even if this is in the service of your other liberties. Having to make arguments, as Nietzsche points out, may actually be something of a burden for your average assault-rifle toting survivalist nut-job. Or, I guess, for the exhumed remains of Robert Nozick’s dessicated corpse.

Now my response to this objection may well be a bit ‘prudential.’ (As my friend Steven Maloney argues.) I’m a prudent sort of fellow, though, so I’ve got little else to add. Real libertarian types tend to associate justice with freedom, and so they don’t take prudence as a sufficiently persuasive arguement: this is actually a good move on their part, since I’d say the same to them while supporting a distributive model of justice. But, as the saying goes, “Ought implies Can,” and if your model of the good/free society is plum impossible, you ought to shut up and write crappy science-fiction like your hero Robert Heinlein. And I think it is demonstrably the case that a society cannot survive without coercive measures, and that in fact the least coercive measures would be an enforceable duty to defend your positions. (It’s another thing to say that these defenses should be reasonable or should require reciprocity or mutual respect… but I’m getting there.

This argument is the same one I used to use on my Italian anarchist friends: when the government steps aside, organized criminals take up the slack. Whether it’s the Mafia or the Triads or Hamas, the mixture of corruption and humanitarianism is a lot closer than many think. The leap from mobster to politician is an easy one, and the coercive possibilities of the state must be limited in such a way to make the two identities radically incompossible. Berlusconi isn’t so bad so long as he doesn’t break people’s legs when they don’t pay their taxes.

So, if we’re stuck with the State, (and we are, damnit, because I said so if for no other reason!) then we should try to create a State whose coercions are the least offensive. History seems pretty clear on this: people who aren’t concerned with, say, consistency or rationality like to take power so they can enforce their particular brand of nonsense on the rest of us; whether it’s Papists or Levelers, Communists or Creationists, they’d all rather argue from a position of authority than from a position of reason. We can be most free if we apply the coercive powers of the State in order to assure that the only authority recognized by the majority of our citizens is that of reason. Once we’ve accomplished that, the only duty to justify oneself will be a duty derived from a shared understanding of the basic necessities of communication. At that point, people will laugh as hard when you cite the Bible as they do today when you cite medical research paid for by the tobacco companies.

Apples, Potatoes, Politics: One of these things doesn’t belong

Take the group of things we call ‘apples’. Let’s not get too technical, but merely admit that we mostly know what that word entails, and that we can therefore select members of the group from non-members when we go to the grocery store. We know not to put a potato on an elementary teacher’s desk, for instance, unless she is a French teacher, in which case the potato would serve as a joke: “pomme de terre” ha ha.

What group does this grouping itself belong to? The word ‘apples’ belongs to a number of hierarchically related linguistic groups: nouns, words, etc. Apples themselves belong to a number of hierarchically related biological groups: fruits, plants, things, etc. The sound apples bridges the gap, since it belongs to a special group of sounds called phonemes (meaningful sounds) and then from there bridges off through the physical group to join apples in the realm of things.

In one sense, this is the materialist/idealist problem in a nutshell. Boring, eh? It gets interesting again when we admit that none of these groups belongs to itself, except language. That is, the linguistic construction ‘thing’ is not itself a thing: it’s an idea or somesuch. But the linguistic construction ‘language’ is linguistic. It’s a set to which the set itself belongs. I think that’s cool, but it’s still not very interesting.

When I go around talking about politics, though, I’m actually making a lot of claims regarding this kind of set theory. I talk about the Democrats and the Republicans and I call myself a political philosopher. There’s this French cat named Alain Badiou, however, who disagrees. “That’s not politics,” he argues. It’s partisan wrangling for management of state institutions. Yet if American and European political parties have succeeded in identifying that partisan wrangling with politics tout court, if we’ve come to believe that they supply the only viable modes of political action and devote all our energies to partisan elections, than the set of politics has beeen covered over, replaced. It’s as if we’ve all begun to think of potatos when someone says ‘apples.’ A good trick… and in fact, it’s a political trick. In essence, (and this is a bit more of another Frenchie, Jacques Ranciere) the political set is made up of tricks like this: setting the viable actions and restricting the terms of debate. “Tax relief” instead of “tax cuts.” “Saving Social Security” vs. “fixing the entitlements system.” “Gay marriage” vs. “equal rights.” That’s politics.

The Dems and Reps have been such good politicians that we forget to pay attention to politics, which would maybe be something like campaign finance reform (remember that?) or voting rights for felons, or the institutional requirements of capitalism like the status of regulation as a ‘taking,’ or the relationship between public goods and private property, or the role of common citizens in the habituation of their children. The parties engage each other in these debates, and so a few thousand people spell out the basic shape of the political landscape, and then stage these massive PR campaigns for bipartisan representation as a governmental form. Politically, we’re all of us vegetarians: we’ve stopped thinking that the meat of politics is healthy for regular folks to consume, and left it to the policy wonks and party strategists.

Do you need set theory to say that? I dunno, but the right has made a lot of progress by publicizing their understanding of the true nature of politics amongst the party faithful. That’s the whole liberal media bias meme in a nutshell: demonstrating the various attempts to set the terms of a debate on the part of the left. (I’m thinking of the absurdly named “No Spin Zone.”) Maybe we could use a bit of that, ourselves.