More on Havel: Keane’s Biography, Žižek’s Review

John Keane imagined Havel’s funeral in 1999:

Prague would double in size. As he lay in state in the old Castle of the Bohemian kings above the city, a queue some miles long would spring up. Mourners would wait all day, and all night, to see his body for the last time. The day of the funeral would be a public holiday. Hundreds of thousands of people, dressed in black and clutching flowers, would be seen lining the route taken by the cortège on the way to his final resting place. Huge black banners would fly from every office; his photograph, draped in black, would crowd every shop and news—stand and public place. Shared feelings of embarrassment would hold words back. Half-buried or forgotten anxieties about death would collectively resurface; fantasies of personal immortality would temporarily weaken. Around the graveside a forest of microphones, tripods, cameras, pads and pens would suddenly spring up. Obituaries, many of them written long ago and updated several times already, would appear in all four corners of the earth. Millions of words would he uttered. Many hundreds of different and conflicting points would be made. The words of the dead man (as Auden said) would be modified in the guts of the living. It would be said that he was a good man, a great man, a hero of the century. Harry S. Truman’s remark that a statesman is a dead politician would be confirmed. Loud sounds of grinding axes would also be heard.

In his LRB review of Keane’s book, Žižek writes:

The source of Havel’s tragedy, however, is not the tension between the public figure and the ‘real person’, not even his gradual loss of charisma in recent years. Such things characterise every successful political career (with the exception of those touched by the grace of premature demise). Keane writes that Havel’s life resembles a ‘classical political tragedy’ because it has been ‘clamped by moments of … triumph spoiled by defeat’, and notes that ‘most of the citizens in President Havel’s republic think less of him than they did a year ago.’ The crucial issue, however, is the tension between his two public images: that of heroic dissident who, in the oppressive and cynical universe of Late Socialism, practised and wrote about ‘living in truth’, and that of Post-Modern President who (not unlike Al Gore) indulges in New Age ruminations that aim to legitimise Nato military interventions. How do we get from the lone, fragile dissident with a crumpled jacket and uncompromising ethics, who opposes the all-mighty totalitarian power, to the President who babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the Cartesian paradigm, reminds us that human rights are conferred on us by the Creator, and is applauded in the US Congress for his defence of Western values? Is this depressing spectacle the necessary outcome, the ‘truth’, of Havel the heroic dissident? To put it in Hegel’s terms: how does the ethically impeccable ‘noble consciousness’ imperceptibly pass into the servile ‘base consciousness’?

Žižek notes that Havel’s support for the NATO campaign is rooted in falsehood masquerading as truth:

The predominant form of today’s ‘politically correct’ moralism, on the other hand, is that of Nietzschean ressentiment and envy: it is the fake gesture of disavowed politics, the assuming of a ‘moral’, depoliticised position in order to make a stronger political case. This is a perverted version of Havel’s ‘power of the powerless’: powerlessness can be manipulated as a stratagem in order to gain more power, in exactly the same way that today, in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimise oneself as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.

He concludes:

This, then, is Havel’s tragedy: his authentic ethical stance has become a moralising idiom cynically appropriated by the knaves of capitalism. His heroic insistence on doing the impossible (opposing the seemingly invincible Communist regime) has ended up serving those who ‘realistically’ argue that any real change in today’s world is impossible. This reversal is not a betrayal of his original ethical stance, but is inherent in it. The ultimate lesson of Havel’s tragedy is thus a cruel, but inexorable one: the direct ethical foundation of politics sooner or later turns into its own comic caricature, adopting the very cynicism it originally opposed.

Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back

Peter Levine’s post on Havel’s 1992 speech in Poland reminded me that I had planned to do some writing about Havel before he died. The New York Times titled his obituary “A Melding of the Artist’s Politics and the Politician’s Art,” and yet it focuses only on his writing career and offers not a single observation about his practice of “the Politician’s Art.” Given the outpouring of vitriol against Christopher Hitchens, perhaps you’ll excuse me if I spend a moment criticizing rather than praising the Czech Republic’s former president.

The line in Havel’s 1992 “Advent Speech” that has always troubled me is this one:

What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one’s own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.

There’s something poetically seductive about his call to “confront evil together and in solidarity,” to be bound only by “Truth and certain elementary values.” Yet I’ve always thought that his promise that the dissidents would overcome ideological and technological politics was an empty one.  I think that Havel’s life gives us some insight into why this promise remained unfulfilled and unfulfillable, “easy to say but difficult to do.” In short: his politics was rooted in the sense that the spiritual dimension that “transcends” politics, but this really means it runs away from politics.

Indeed, this was the subject of his later book, To the Castle and Back, where he tried to explain how he had approached politics during his presidency:

Politics—as an area of activity that demands general support—requires, more than anything else, that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment, how what follows comes out of what went before, and why everything has the kind tempo that it has. But as I’ve already suggested, politics, by its very nature, resists that kind of understanding. It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail, and everyone recognizes that at once. But for the most part that’s nor how it works. Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes. It seems to me particularly important, therefore, that politicians have an elementary dramatic instinct, that is, a sense of how to make distinctions between various acts or events, how to order them, stack them up, give them a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.

Just think about what this means: “It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail.” This is a romantic sense of the political world: policies are stage-dressing for the operatic play of great personages in the public sphere. Can you blame the Czech media for deeming Havel a dreamer? He never really succeeded in giving his policies “a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.” Certainly we need dreamers in the world, but I’m reminded of Zizek’s line:

There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Havel’s poetry never inspired genocide, it’s true. But his spiritual approach failed to prevent ethnic cleansing just when it was needed most: the 1992 dissolution of the political union between Czechs and Slovaks.

As I said, “transcending” politics is really a kind of “flight from politics,” and the “Velvet Divorce” is just one more piece of evidence in favor of that claim. Havel resigned rather than oversee the dissolution, so he certainly stuck to his principles, though I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as “confronting evil.” (It seems more like what Arendt called “inner emigration.”) But the seeds for the dissolution were sown before the fateful election in 1992: dissolution was fueled by heavy nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric against pro-federation politicians.

None of this was Havel’s fault, exactly, but this was a moment that called for a poet to “sing the nation-state” rather than a politician to try to lead it. What’s worse: it was the end of transfer payments to Slovakia that allowed the Czech Republic to enjoy a decade of unalloyed growth:

The end of the so-called penezovod (“money pipeline”) — regular transfer of subsidies to Slovakia — meant further fiscal saving amounting to 7 percent of the national budget (25 billion koruna, close to $1 billion).

As a result, while the Czech Republic traded on its highly-educated workforce and Prague tourist attractions, across the newly-minted border, Slovakia was not so lucky:

Unemployment has climbed to 15.1 percent, even though virtually no restructuring or privatization of industry has taken place under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Inflation stands at 22 percent and is forecast to grow. The gross domestic product of Slovakia last year declined by 3.5 percent from the 1992 level.

That, I think, is the real legacy of successful dreamers: their dreams always come at someone else’s expense. “Here and there” Havel’s ineffectual policies “succeeded or failed.” But mostly, they failed. When they needed the artist, Czechoslovakia got an artless politican. When they needed the politician, they got the artist’s principles.

As a playwright, Havel certainly had a sense of the dramatic, and I think he was on to something when he insisted that bureaucracy and administrative efficiency threaten to render the political boringly inaccessible:

A basic danger facing politics in the modern world is that it will appear to be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull, daily administrative grind, enlivened occasionally by a scandal or pseudo-scandal that is forgotten as soon as it’s over; in other words, something that has no point, and thus no thinking behind it. Naturally,  it’s in the general interest to confront this danger.

But I can’t say that Havel’s failures give me much hope for a new era of dramatic “nonpolitical politics.” Havel got lots of mileage out of paradoxical rhetoric, but I don’t think he got much good policy out of it, precisely because “politics… requires that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment.” Havel’s plays were absurdist dramas that successfully undermined the legitimacy of totalitarianism, but he never learned how to “transcend” irony and absurdity. He never developed a sincere political project that could make this absurd world a little bit more habitable.

If anything, Havel gives us a clue to the lengths we will go to dramatize political events, to identify and reify one great personage to take responsibility for the efforts of millions. I’m sorry he died, but I wish the remembrances were as mixed and honest as they have been for Hitchens: the continuation of these great conversations seems a better memorial than stick-figure heroism.

Philosophy and Occupation

Today Dr. J encourages her readers to understand the Occupy Wall Street movement through the lens of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

The Occupy Movement is like our sense of sight. It’s not (instrumentally) valuable for what it allows us to see, but rather it’s (intrinsically) valuable in that it allows us to see. Like sight, it “brings to light many differences between things”; it is able to “make us know.” And all of us by nature desire knowledge.

In the comments, Chris Long offers a translation correction:

a more literal translation of that first sentence of the Metaphysics is this: “All human beings (anthropoi) by nature stretch themselves out (oregontai) toward knowing.”

There are many passages from Aristotle that I think could apply to the movement (Politics Book 3 jumps out), but I think that Occupy Wall Street has been actively resisting the attempts to conceptualize it in epistemic terms. OWS also seems much less like a kind of knowing and much more like a kind of creating: OWS seems to me to have spent its time making a space where political action is not mediated by the state. But how is this a kind of knowing?

I can readily imagine a deconstruction of this distinction: making is a kind of knowing, knowing is a kind of construction, etc. But the dominant metaphor in the first paragraph of the Metaphysics is still epistemic, and I think that fails to give a good account of what the Occupiers are doing. Rightly or wrongly, the Occupiers don’t care about making unknowns known: they’re not motivated by knowledge in anything like the ordinary sense of “bringing things to light.”

Instead, Occupy seems to be based on what David Graeber has called a “refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions” that leads to

“the embrace of prefigurative politics…. [that] experiment with creating the institutions of a new society – not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation – a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.”

Certainly, this kind of experimentation is a model of inquiry, and perhaps it is even the model of inquiry Aristotle ultimately directs us towards (though not, I think, in the Metaphysics.) But as the Calls for Papers on Occupy continue to proliferate, I can’t help but wonder whether Hannah Arendt’s criticism of Plato (and by extension all philosophers) was right: that we seek to institute the “tyranny of reason” as a protection against the “hostility of the polis to philosophy.”

As scholars with political commitments, it is often tempting to think our role is in the vanguard, offering interpretation and guidance to the teeming multitude. But this is ultimately an attempt to exert dominance. As Jacques Lacan put it while addressing the students at the Sorbonne in 1968: “You want a master. You will have him.” Many have interpreted this claim as both a psychoanalytic prediction about the structure of interpersonal relations and as a pragmatic claim: “You need demands and a coherent ideology! I will make your demands and supply the ideological support you are missing!” Certainly that kind of knowing is a kind of doing: one that seeks to preclude the unexpected threat of action by forcing it to submit to the best reasons and evidence.

The epistemic model is a good way of conceiving of most social movements: for instance, the Women’s Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Mattachine Society, and the various anti-war movements have all aimed to make something visible and thereby known. They put that injustice on display and allowed the audience to complete the enthymeme and demand rectification themselves. Rectification can come from many different quarters, and so demands are necessarily general or aspirational: social movements of this kind have called on their fellow citizens to vote differently and to shop differently, but they have also called upon Congress to legislate differently and on the Supreme Court to judge differently. In that sense, they all attempted to create a consensus and to open the way to a bipartisan compromise. (The same is true of the socially conservative political movements that oppose abortion or euthanasia, as well as the Tea Party.)

This is clearly the model that Dr. J is applying to the current Occupy Movement:

The reason the Occupy Movement exceeds the designations of “Democrat” and “Republican” is because it has figured itself, first and foremost, as a knowledge-seeking movement. That is to say, a truth-seeking movement. It has aimed, from its beginning, to draw back a veil of lies that has convinced us that some untruths are true, that other truths are unknowable.

But another problem with Dr. J’s claim that Occupy is a non-partisan kind of knowing is that it is beginning to seem that it is not true, in much the same way that it turned out to be false (though Dr. J herself warned me) that the Tea Party was non-partisan. As knowers, it’s important to push back against the claim that Occupy is a representative movement, that it stands for the 99%, even if, as partisans, this is an attractive bit of rhetoric. This is one thing we can know. The USA Today poll conducted November 19th and 20th found that most Americans had no opinion on the protests at all and that opposition to the movement is greater than support. With 59% indifferent/ignorant and 31% opposed, that leaves 10% of the population as supporters. The margin of error is +/- 4%, so somewhere between 6% and 14% of the population are OWS supporters. There’s a long way to go for 99%, and the growth in opposition to a third of the public suggests that some of the ways that OWS has acted or been represented as acting have excited the opposition of partisan conservatives.

But the reason I haven’t been able to blog for four months is because each time I read news on the Occupy movement, I find myself alienated from the particular form of commentary that the blogging life encourages: “X happened: here’s what I think about X.” But I don’t want to think about Occupy. I don’t even want to support them, because I don’t think they want my support, or need it: this is not the kind of movement that depends upon numbers, that demands that citizens stand and be counted. Instead, I want to see what Occupy makes thinkable.

Will Roberts had a comment on a New APPS post that I think is apropos:

When Sorel advocated the proletarian general strike, he relied on the same distinction between engaging in action in order to win a certain concession from one’s opponent and engaging in action that asks nothing of one’s opponent, but seeks instead to radically and immediately alter the field of relations between oneself and one’s opponent. And Sorel — and Benjamin after him — also characterized normal, legal strikes, which make a set of demands, as mercenary or as a variety of extortion. The strikers tell the bosses, you cannot use our labour-power unless you make the following concessions. They want something, and they seek to get the bosses to give it to them by the means allowed within the law.

The general strike, like the occupation, demands nothing. It seeks to break down the existing framework of rules and norms, not for the sake of something the strikers already have in mind, but just in order that something new might emerge. It does not seek to extort concessions, but to abolish established relationships.

Perhaps this is the right approach, and perhaps it is not. For my part, I find the project of the general strike unlikely to be liberating. Instead I prefer to think of the Occupy movement as creating temporary autonomous zones, wards, councils, or soviets where people practice the ancient arts of isonomy. But I may well be wrong. What I think I know is that we will misunderstand the goals of Occupy Wall Street so long as we attempt to grasp what they are doing as a kind of knowing. Rather than try to predict its outcome in advance or to categorize it under some existing conceptual scheme, now seems like a good time to declare a truce with the polis, to wait to see what Occupy can do.

Democracy Means Asking the Right Questions

Whenever I talk to students about democracy, I like to emphasize that the original term for democratic rule was isonomy. Consider the account Otanes gives in Herodotus’ History:

“[T]he rule of the multitude [plêthos de archon] has… the loveliest name of all, equality [isonomiên]…. It determines offices by lot, and holds power accountable, and conducts all deliberating publicly. Therefore I give my opinion that we make an end of monarchy and exalt the multitude, for all things are possible for the majority.” (Herodotus 1982, 3.80)

Here Otanes identifies democracy with the strict equality accomplished through lots, rather than election by popular balloting. Though this might seem too random when compared to the collective choice of representatives, the appeal of this vision of isonomy is that the lottery supplies an equal opportunity for rulership to each citizen, guaranteeing equality well in excess of the American ideal of equality ‘before the law.’ But note that this equality is only possible when combined with two forms of accountability: that accounting by which an officer must give an accurate tally of expenditures during the administration or be held liable, and the figurative accountability by which the officer owes his fellow citizens his reasons for the decisions made in the public deliberations before, during, and after the decision is taken. Obviously, the use of lots only functioned insofar as citizenship was radically restricted, and Otanes justifications for the ‘rule of the multitude’ fell flat against Darius’ account of the tendency of all regimes to fall into monarchy insofar as both oligarchies and democracies produce agonistic tensions from which one man eventually emerges the victor and is designated the most excellent and the wisest of the contenders. (Herodotus 1982, 3.82)

The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. The ideal result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation, consensus, and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions.

The reverse of isonomy is bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are more efficient, and are supposed to be more procedurally rational, but insofar as they are predicated on expert knowledge, they’re not intended to involve every citizen or to answer to them directly. According to Joseph Schumpter’s popular formulation of the relationship, too much democratic control makes it difficult for the administrative state to efficiently pursue the public goods citizens ultimately want. But there are still ways to hold bureaucracies accountable.

During the Tufts Civic Studies Institute, we met with Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein of The Right Question Institute. Santana and Rothstein have a simple model for teaching people to generate, improve, and strategically deploy interrogatives. They mobilize a few easy heuristics, like the difference between open-ended and “closed” questions (which can be answered with a single word or short phrase,) but they also emphasize the role of questioning in holding others accountable. Underwriting the whole project is the empowering assumption that those with power can nonetheless be required to answer questions about the reasons that went into a decision, the process by which it was reached, and the role for individuals affected. These are subversive demands, as they undermine unreasonable, unfair, and exclusive decisions.

One of the ways that people experience power and weakness is through a tacit recognition of who has the right to ask questions, and who does not. By giving those who normally feel disempowered a little practice and confidence with questioning, Santana and Rothstein suggest that they can reverse some of those tacit assumptions in a democratic manner. It takes about twenty minutes to teach their method, but look at the results:

Dominique’s landlady wanted to sell the property Dominique was renting to a buyer that didn’t want to have a tenant. Without much introduction, the landlady knocked on Dominique’s door one evening and asked her to sign a paper. Unbeknownst to Dominique, the paper was an agreement that she would have to move out of her apartment within 30 days. [Dominique] had just participated in a short educational workshop at the adult literacy program she attends. At the workshop, Dominique had learned that she had the right to ask questions and more importantly, she had learned how to ask good questions about the decisions that affect her life. Dominique politely asked her landlady to leave the paper with her so that she could look it over before she decided if she was going to sign it. Dominique plowed through the language and realized that she would need help in deciphering the paper. Thinking about the RQI process, Dominique started coming up with her own questions. Then, she began calling the few people she knew in Philadelphia to try to get some answers. One of her friends gave  the number of a lawyer that worked for a renter’s assistance program. Dominique followed up and found out that her landlady didn’t actually have a renter’s license and therefore couldn’t take a legal route to evict her. The new owner would have to honor Dominique’s leasing agreement until the following year.

Santana and Rothstein describe this as an exercise in microdemocracy. Most people’s understanding and civic capacities are at their weakest in the formal voting and lobbying of representatives that political theorists tend to emphasize as the heart of political life. This is doubly true for youth, immigrants, and the unemployed. Yet these are are the people that have the most interactions with the state’s coercive power, and a good strategic question can help to democratize the millions of interactions individuals have with the employees of state agencies. 

Though Santana and Rothstein emphasize questioning as a practical skill and the source of all other rights-claims, I think there’s something deeper at work here: not just questioning, but interrogation. We generally reserve “interrogation” for custodial questioning by the police, where state officials set out to elicit a non-voluntary confession from an unwilling speaker, forcing them to divulge something that they did not want to reveal. Indeed, the Latin quaestio is also the word for torture, and a quaesitor or inquisitor would ‘put one to the question’ with implements whose primary purpose was to cause the excruciating pain that was once the only surety in the world of jurisprudence.

In the policing model, the interrogative relationship is a curious reversal of the norms of elite domination: the questioner’s ignorance is her strength, while the respondent’s knowledge is the basis for subjecting her to the question. I think this is what the RQI taps into: because the interrogative relationship prises apart expertise and power, it is especially useful for reworking the sources of bureaucratic governance that most people experience as their primary mode of interaction with the state. By demanding reasons, ordinary citizens help to police the reasonableness of the administrative state; by demanding a fair process, they remind officials that a fair process is expected; by demanding to know what their role in any decision affecting their lives will be, they build the assumption that there will be a role for them into every discussion of the decision, and this assumption can be self-fulfilling.

Unions versus Women

Literacy is one of the major factors in female empowerment:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • Increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

I first learned about the curiously roundabout role of literacy in exercising more basic entitlements and capacities from Amartya Sen:

“Women are often deprived of their due, thanks to illiteracy. Not being able to read or write is a significant barrier for underprivileged women, since this can lead to their failure to make use even of the rather limited rights they may legally have (say, to own land, or other property, or to appeal against unfair judgment and unjust treatment). There are often legal rights in rulebooks that are not used because the aggrieved parties cannot read those rulebooks. Gaps in schooling can, thus, directly lead to insecurity by distancing the deprived from the ways and means of fighting against that deprivation.”

In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes (on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand) that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are forced to pay tutors which causes families to make cost-benefit choices and frequently to prefer their sons to their daughters, eliminating the benefits of universal provision of education. He concludes:

“Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.” (via)

Sometimes the entrenched interests of the rent-seeking middle-class are hard to recognize domestically but spring into focus when presented in a distant place. In this, we seem to suffer from a curious kind of far-sighted astigmatism. Of course, Sen would be the first to admit that many of the rich are rent-seekers, too: this is what it means to be a capitalist, to seek rent on capital. But then who is blameless of rent-seeking? Should we turn our attention to “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society“?