The Trouble With Sustainability II: A Dynamic Steady-State?

Have human beings ever built organizations that can sustain projects over very long time spans?

Yes. Cathedral-building is a classic example. The joint-stock company, at least in its earliest iterations, is another example that many would cite. Organizations that by design are intended either to complete work that can’t be finished in a lifetime or to focus an organization on the longer-term and protect it from short-term calculations. Arguably Westphalian state sovereignty was constructed to protect governments and rulers from destabilizing forms of short-term calculation and contingency, to standardize claims to territory and authority.

I think it would be fair to say that if there have been such organizational structures, there are very few of them surviving in the present. Modernity in this moment is massively short-term in almost every respect. Hence organizations like the Long Now Foundation that are trying to think about what such structures in the 21st Century might require.

Sustainability is surely a project that requires a custodial approach that extends over centuries rather than single election cycles. It simply won’t happen if it’s left as a matter of discrete decisions, particular policies, or even adoptions of new habits by individuals and institutions.

What we will eventually need is organizations–and maybe societies–that do not require growth. What that idea meant in the 20th Century, more or less, was the creation of some form of authority that would manage economic and social system so as to prohibit growth, e.g., some form of state socialism or at the least state management. I’m not going to belabor the point too much, but I think it’s plain that this is not going to cut it. Not just because states are themselves just as potentially dangerous a concentration of power as capital and just as prone to chase accumulation on behalf of their elites, but because controlling regimes out to prohibit growth will always confuse growth and change.

Getting to human systems that exhibit both internal dynamism while having little to no net change in their intake of resources without austerity, impoverishment or stasis requires new structures for which there are very few meaningful analogies. It takes understanding systems design, in particular how or whether you can design for emergent complexity.

Many sustainability advocates embrace biophiliac designs in thinking about production, consumption and waste. So biophilia is a good place to start: are there natural systems that achieve dynamic equilibria, or are self-maintaining steady states in some other fashion? (Some economists would insist that this is exactly what capitalist growth is, but they make that claim work by placing finite material resources, population growth, etc. outside of that system, which is precisely the problem that humanity now faces.)

There are some good examples of homeostasis in biological organisms and in ecological systems, arguably scaling up to the entire planet. Homeostatic systems aren’t necessarily good or desirable in and of themselves–in biological and ecological contexts, they operate within some larger fitness landscape that is not stable over time, rather than with complete autonomy.

But homeostasis–or more generally systems with negative feedback loops–are a fairly good place to start thinking in design terms, because most such systems do not require a control apparatus or central authority, they can maintain equilibria without a command hierarchy. Moreover, they can do so while maintaining internal diversity and heterogeneity, e.g., homeostatic systems can have many different parts or agents that operate simultaneously and independent of one another.

The dystopic fear about no-growth, steady-state futures for humanity generally involves the proposition that they would necessarily entail both command hierarchies and enforced homogeneity. So at least there are at least some natural systems that demonstrate that this isn’t necessary: you can get a system that maintains itself without an ever-expanding use of more and more inputs that doesn’t require command structures and doesn’t eliminate internal hetereogeneity.

But what does that look like in human terms, either for individuals or institutions? Right now most human institutions, including Swarthmore, maintain systems within which virtually every individual and unit assumes that growth in their domains of primary interest is their normal expectation, that dynamism is only possible with the addition of new resources: more funding, more people, more dedicated infrastructure. Pressure against growth is usually exerted from above: responsibility for the total budget, for the overall institutional use of resources, is vested in a command hierarchy, and that command hierarchy is also charged with considering the “fitness landscape” within which the institution operates.

That structure is what produces cycles of growth followed by austerity rather than some form of steady homeostatic dynamism. Individuals and units work the internal landscape of the organization to capture a greater share of resources in order to demonstrate their own dynamism and earn rewards for it. The command structure of the organization desperately seeks more resources so that this internal process doesn’t turn into a zero-sum game. If they hit a firm resource limit, the process of internal competition doesn’t stop, but instead sharpens. If the available resources actually shrink, the competition gets even more intense as the command structure increasingly impoverishes parts of its own structure in order to feed the internal winners.

The parts or units of a homeostatic system in most natural examples are not competing with each other: there is an “inside” that works together to enable the whole to operate on a larger fitness landscape.

What would organizations, whether universities or hospitals or bureaucracies or corporations, look like if they were at a relatively steady-state but internally dynamic? E.g., where allocations of resources shifted somewhat as needed but also where there was change and innovation that didn’t necessarily require resources, that was in some sense energetically neutral? That’s possible, after all. It’s almost the ideal embodied in Marx’s famous “hunt in the morning, criticize after dinner” quotation: a fixed allocation to the individual, but individuals freed to generalize their use of that allocation according to their desires and needs. Or if you like, it’s the Valve employee manual: once you’re inside the organization, you’re freed from competing with others to secure resources from a central command. The individual worker is the resource, and they allocate it to the projects and concepts to which they wish to contribute.

Those encouraging analogies aside, it’s still hard to see how to get there from here. This is not cathedral-building, even if it operates at the same temporal scale or longer. It’s extremely hard even for people deeply committed to sustainability to give up the notion that innovation, creativity and reform require the allocation of new resources, in substantial measure because it often seems very hard to imagine not doing something else that’s already being done. It’s as if we believe that we must always be hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and criticizing simultaneously morning, noon and night, and any new activity on top of that requires more people or more time or more energy, that we mustn’t ever get to the moment where we agree that perhaps right now, not so much rearing of cattle is needed.

I really can’t see the immediate next steps in the lives of people within institutions. Do we have to think differently first, do we need new structures to work and live within, do we need both at once, or is there just some kind of magical better mousetrap that could step forward as a total alternative, sufficiently different from its very first moment?

Posted in Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 3 Comments

The Trouble With Sustainability I: The Clock of the Short Now

More than a week later, I continue to really think about our recent “sustainability charrette” at Swarthmore College led by folks like David Orr, Hunter Lovins, John Fullerton and Nikki Silvestri.

At least one of the things I keep thinking about, however, is an issue that could not possibly be discussed in any short meeting intended to focus attention on the concrete, specific things that a single institution might choose to do in order to pursue sustainability.

Even the speakers agreed that it’s not entirely clear what “sustainability” is, and David Orr soberingly pointed out that you could potentially achieve sustainability and yet fail to build a humane, just society (what he called “solar fascism”). I would go a step further, however, and point out that most existing attempts to move towards sustainability radically underestimate just how unprecedented that move will be for human subjectivity and personhood if we manage to achieve it.

I think that’s important, because if you underestimate how different any sustainable future is (fascist or free), you likely will not really understand how to make meaningful steps in that direction right now.

There are almost no examples in human history of a generation of people voluntarily giving up what they already have or deferring what they could plausibly have in deference to what people yet to be born will need.

Yes, individuals sacrifice for their children or grandchildren. At least some of the time, they’re not giving up what they could have, however: they’re just in a situation where the only possibility of social mobility is multigenerational. At least some of what people give up in their lives for family is self-interested in some fashion if you look at it closely, given in expectation of reciprocal care later on, or as part of a kin-based social structure that delivers general benefits to all contributing members.

Yes, individuals sacrifice their lives or well-being for the greater good. But even democratic societies have often made such sacrifices at least partially or wholly compulsory at some level. If not, such sacrifices are also compensated for, if not commensurate in value with the health or life of the person sacrificing one or both. The referent of the sacrifice is often contemporary and concrete rather than abstractly futureward. Soldiers in WWII might have fought for democracy or country, but their sense of what those entailed was largely rooted in their own experience.

Yes, individuals sacrifice much of what they have, either power or resources, in favor of transforming their own societies into more humane, just or sustainable societies. Either out of altruism or self-interest, or perhaps both.

Sustainability requires equally concrete sacrifices for wealthy people and wealthy nations that can only barely be related to contemporary losses or circumstances–which is one reason that sustainability advocates have to rely as much as they do on endangered polar bears, hurricanes and visible droughts even though the emergent consequences of climate change at and beyond +2 C are likely to be systemically new forms of material and biological life, and the sufferings of that future humanity therefore almost as radically difficult for us to conceive as it would be for twelfth-century peasants growing flax to imagine doing something differently in their lives in order to ease the circumstances of suicidal Foxconn workers in 21st Century eastern China.

The problem is not just one of imagination, since in fact human beings are reasonably good at envisioning things which don’t yet exist and even at letting those visions motivate them to act in wholly new ways. It also requires a fundamental moral logic that sustainability advocates usually have to simply assume rather than argue.

If I’m in a room full of religious people who believe in life after death, and that the life to come will be dictated by decisions we made in this life, I don’t have to convince them that they ought to act righteously in order to secure the afterlife they desire. (Ought to isn’t the same as actually acting, but that’s a different problem.)

But in a room full of otherwise secular people? What’s my reward for foregoing something now in order to benefit people who are not even born yet, people I will never know? Why shouldn’t I live for my own satisfactions right now? I am going to be dead a long time. If my great-great-great grandchildren are gathering algae from the soupy, fungus-infested marsh that used to be the foothills of the Appalachians and telling tall tales about how there used to be animals besides rats and cockroaches hereabouts, what’s that to me?

Please don’t give me the “pay it forward, people in the past were looking out for you” line. That’s not going to persuade anyone at a deep level, it’s a sentimental logic fit largely for Hallmark cards. My parents were looking out for me. My grandparents were looking out for me. My teachers in my life were looking out for me. My great-great-great grandparents? They never imagined me, nor did they do anything in their lives that was done in anticipation of me. How could they have, even if they were fine people? (I frankly don’t know anything about them as individuals, so the veil of ignorance runs in both directions.) My circumstances today are as unimaginable to them as the future after climate change (or even after successfully averting the worst scenarios of climate change) is to me.

Even when I wish all of those who came before me had done something radically better than what they did–never have allowed the Atlantic slave trade to flourish, for example–I can scarcely imagine as a historian what the circumstances of that collective counterfactual plausibly could have been. Any change like that would not just have required foregoing self-interest, but also a radically different understanding on a much bigger scale of time and space about what the iterative consequences of small, simultaneous actions could be. My paternal great-great-grandfather, for example, would have had to think differently before leaving Ireland about a concept of whiteness that he had yet to experience, and would have had to do something on arrival other than just head to Iowa and try to farm, but all the “somethings” are things that he likely couldn’t have even imagined until well after the point at which they could have been done.

Almost every analogy we make to argue for the urgency of the cause of sustainability is to campaigns for moral and social transformation that arrived in the disastrous aftermath of oppressive, destructive systems, not in anticipation of them.

The people who made enduring things which I rely upon in my daily existence today did not have me in mind, did not make those things for me or give up something so that I could have them. They made those things for their own benefit and purposes. Or they were forced to make those things for the benefit of others. That those enduring things are still here for me to use is almost an epiphenomenal side effect of the benefits they bestowed upon their makers, or the suffering they caused. Build a building for your own purposes? It’ll be around for someone else to buy and use. Create a Constitution to govern your society? It has an enduring impact to do that, but you’re not giving up something that deeply benefits you so that everyone will be far better off in a distant future. You’re solving problems you have right now, reducing risks and liabilities in your own situation.

You could argue that the Quakers who founded Swarthmore College were looking out for me. Only they weren’t: the college they founded absolutely did not have me or its current students or its current society meaningfully in mind. The only thing they gave us was an institutional framework that could be redesigned and repurposed going forward. There is no reason in that sense when you build something for yourself, with your own resources, to be deliberately spiteful and make it fall apart or break the moment you’re done with it, to “take it with you”. But that’s a far cry from consciously giving up something you have or could have in favor of people who don’t even exist.

That might be where an argument in favor of doing just that could begin, however. Somewhere along the way to sustainability, 21st Century human beings are going to have to accept a radical new kind of material culture, with new prospects and processes. That doesn’t have to mean impoverishment (or authoritarianism), but we will need to accept a moral view of the future that simply hasn’t existed in the past, doesn’t have meaningful analogues or precedents. However, if we demand that everyone has to feel that way now, all at once, that the necessary prerequisite of sustainability is to have all at once a boundless kind of altruism combined with a very different temporal imagination, it’s not going to happen.

A good analogy might be rights-based individualism. It didn’t exist at some point in the past, but at some point became a very deep and fundamental part of how most of us experience being human, it became integral to our subjectivity and consciousness. It wasn’t a straightforwardly instrumental change, and many of the moments and movements and arguments that moved human beings towards feeling as if they were individuals with their own bodies and distinctive minds, individuals with rights, were contradictory, fragmentary, and incomplete.

At a time when even the few human institutions that did have longer time horizons are crumbling under the pressure of short-term calculation, expecting a fundamental epistemic transformation of selfhood, agency and perspective to happen like an epiphany on the road to Damascus may feel as if it is a requirement. But that is in some sense as materially impossible as demanding that we invent a technology to sequester all industrial emissions from the atmosphere in five years, or refreeze the Arctic tomorrow.

Even if you steer clear of the new paradigms of cognitive science, you have to recognize that consciousness has its own long horizons. Embracing, or at least accepting, a different material existence now on behalf of a humanity we will never meet or know, is something that we can only learn to do in small and halting ways, at least to start.

Posted in Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 8 Comments

Wary About Wisdom

Cathy Davidson has been steadily working away at the problem of inequality within higher education and at how higher education contributes to inequality.

I admire the intensity of her focus and her willingness to consider radical rethinking of institutions of higher learning. However, I think she’s up against a much harder problem than even she credits in her latest arguments for the liberal arts as a “a start-up curriculum for resilient, responsible, ethical, committed global citizens.”

Davidson has argued for a long time, in concert with many other reformers in education, for abandoning the industrial infrastructure of modern educational institutions–the idea of taking standard inputs (matriculating students) and producing standard outputs (graduates) through a series of industrially-organized allocations of time and labor. Put students in a room at a set time, do a standardized type of work or dump a standard unit of information, send them away at a set time, test and measure, do quality assessment (aka grading), throw away the substandard. Repeat.

Instead, she often counters, we should be contributing to human flourishing. Education should happen for every student seeking it at its own time and pace. For one person, competency and mastery might bloom in an hour, for another in a week, another in a month: let the institution match its pace to that. Don’t chop up knowledge into manageable reductions, skills into atomized pieces. Don’t suppress what students are really thinking through because there isn’t time to listen, because the assembly line must continue to move along. Don’t turn degrees into Skinner boxes. And so on.

It’s a familiar critique, and I endorse much of it. In part because I can imagine the classrooms and institutions that would follow these critiques. To me, much of what Davidson asks for can be done, and if done will show a greater and more effective fidelity to what many educators (and the wider society) already regard as the purposes of education, whether that’s the cultivation of humanity or teaching how to add. I have no trouble, in other words, arguing for the wholly conventional value of a substantially reimagined academy in these terms.

However, in any educational project that emphasizes the cultivation of humanity, at least, there is a difficult moment lying in wait. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that specialized knowledge or skills are not present in people who have not received relevant training or education. When we talk about wisdom or ethics, however, I think it’s equally easy to demonstrate that people who have had no educational experiences at all, or education that did not emphasize wisdom and ethics, nevertheless possess great wisdom or ethical insight.

Arguably, our current educational systems at the very least are neutral in their production of wisdom, ethical insight, emotional intelligence and common sense. (Unless you mean that last in the Gramscian sense.) Davidson might well say at this point, “Exactly! Which is why we need a change.”

I can see what a learner-driven classroom looks like, or how we might rethink failure and assessment. I don’t know that I can see what an education that produces ethics and wisdom looks like such that I would be confident that it would produce people who were consistently more wise and more ethical than anyone without that education would be.

What I unfortunately can see is that setting out to make someone ethical or wise through directed learning might actually be counterproductive. Because to do so requires a prior notion of what an ethical, wise outcome looks like and thus creates the almost unavoidable temptation to demand a performative loyalty to that outcome rather than an inner, intersubjective incorporation of it.

If we thought instead about ethics and wisdom as rising out of experience and time, then that might attractively lead back towards the general reform of education towards projects, towards making and doing. However, if that’s yet another argument for some form of constructivist learning, then beware fixed goals. A classroom built around processes and experiences is a classroom that has to accept dramatically contingent outcomes. If we embrace Davidson’s new definition of the liberal arts, paradoxically, we have to embrace that one of its outcomes might be citizens whose ethics and wisdom are nothing like what we imagined those words contained before we began our teaching. We might also find it’s one thing to live up to an expectation of knowledgeability and another altogether to live up to an expectation of wisdom.

Posted in Academia, Defining "Liberal Arts" | 5 Comments

Bourdieu + Foucault Spell Trouble For Us All

I wonder sometimes if one of the perverse consequences of the general dissemination of Bourdieu-style analysis of culture and habitus has been to inform and strengthen conservative attacks on public support for education, the arts, and so on. Especially when combined with Foucauldian understandings of power/knowledge. E.g., as many progressive intellectuals accepted in the “interior” of their scholarly work that education and culture were both expressions of social difference and did active work to create social difference, our public and outward-facing defense of education, the arts and culture was more and more obviously performed at odds with what our interior analyses said. In the meantime, we acted as if conservatives weren’t reading that “interior” discussion, or as if they couldn’t possibly apply it in support of their own forms of social advocacy. I think this was a greviously mistaken assumption. The post-Reagan right has been a great consumer of many simplified propositions derived out of postmodern thought, very much including the idea that public goods are really just tools for the reproduction of the habitus of a particular subset of the elite.

It might be that the performativity has run in the other direction–that most of us still really feel deep down an attachment to education and public culture that’s more in tune with late 19th Century social reform, with Dewey-era pragmatism or with a more lyrical kind of romantic liberalism. We may know intellectually that the case for a more critical understanding of the functionalist ‘work’ of education and culture in making power and difference has a lot of empirical as well as political validity, but in our heart of hearts we still believe that museums could be for everyone in an enlightened society, that a good book could liberate anyone lucky enough to turn its pages, that universities and hospitals aren’t just assembly lines for the reproduction of power. So we “perform” in our scholarship what we know is technically right but it isn’t what we really feel about ourselves and a whole range of existing (if fading) social projects.

It might be that we could do with a healthy turn back towards believing in ourselves even in the inner spaces of our scholarly analysis–to allow ourselves the luxury of a little faith in the things we have done, presently do and want to keep on doing? To give ourselves over more to a scholarship that’s about making, building, doing and less about suspicion and negation?

Posted in Academia, Politics | 4 Comments

A Note on Abstraction and Referents

I may eventually finish two more pieces that I had in mind for my “Grasping the Nettle” series, but I also understand very well the response that a few folks had that the whole series seems so disconnected from specifics that it’s hard to know how to apply it to anything.

I’m up against two problems that I see as pushing me in that direction. The first is I think much of online discourse has evolved towards a norm where referential links do not function as documentation of a critique or argument, but instead as the equivalent of walking in a saloon and telling another gunslinger to draw, as a form of picking a fight. I’ve never been that keen on that in my online writing, and I’m much less keen on it now.

Second is a problem that Frederik de Boer has written about, which is that you can write about your own experiences or observations from experience in general terms and find that readers who either have very different experiences find it difficult to credit your observations, and at the least believe those experiences are unusual or distinctive to you. In some cases, you see that readers who strongly disagree with what you are making out of those observations simply think you’re lying or exaggerating.

Often it’s impossible to provide further specifics without compromising other individuals or turning some aspect of your professional and personal life into a form of documentary evidence. It’s not ethical for me to say, “At a meeting on this date, a specific other colleague said the following really troubling thing to me or in my presence” in a blog entry. If it were one of a narrow class of really troubling things, I might be obliged to make a professional complaint through institutional channels, but never to talk about it here or anywhere else. That’s an important domain of “public privacy” to not breach casually, if ever. At the same time, many of us want to find a way to process what we hear and see and experience, to make it a legitimate part of how we think about life, work and politics. That’s why many early academic bloggers chose pseudonyms, and why even those of us who wrote under our own names chose to find ways to blur the specificity of our experiences in order to ethically think with and through those experiences.

That approach will always create a legitimate anxiety for readers: can you trust me? Even if you trust me, how can you evaluate the selectivity and sensitivity of the way I hear and see the world around me? How do you know when I’m describing something that happens only to me, or that only I’m primed to see, versus describing something that has yet to happen to you but might well be right around the corner in your own life?

I can only say that any observation rooted in intersubjectivity never reaches a point of final convergence on fixed truth. But I have learned in my life to credit a fairly broad range of experiences reported by other people, including some I never can have–and that doesn’t always mean having to believe that the person telling me their story saw everything that happened during that experience, either, or that I would have seen the same thing if I’d been there. People who are just outright making it all up are (in my experience) fairly rare. So make of my abstractions what you will–but just know that in many cases I’m keeping it general because I have to and I ought to.

Posted in Blogging | 1 Comment

You And What Army?

Perhaps “check your privilege” is just a form of in-group signalling, a move that distributes discursive power between people who see themselves as belonging to the same social and political community. It functions as a kind of progressive Robert’s Rules of Order, a relatively impersonal way to nudge or remind someone to stop dominating conversation or leadership.

The rhetorical use of “ally” operates very similarly. It comes out of a deep history of critical attention to the way in which whites, men, straights, abled or white straight abled men consistently grab the reins of political and social struggles for racial, gender or sexual equality and justice. Often unintentionally or unconsciously. The ways that space and power are ceded to dominant actors are often equally unconscious, evidence of the persistent power of stereotypes and discrimination. The reminder to be an ally is meant as a kind of habitual reminder against those tendencies, a sort of struggle checklist. Who is speaking to represent what a group or movement wants or is doing? How was it decided that they should speak? Who is claiming to represent what a group or constituency want or think? Those are always valid questions, and if a movement concerned with what’s being done to people of color or to women or to queers, etc., always finds that the answers are “somebody else”, then that’s a problem.

Uncomfortably, however, ally is sometimes used more expansively, in several ways. For one, it seems to me that sometimes the people who are most likely to police a debate or movement by asking some participants to recede into ally status are themselves people who ought to be “allies” in that circumstance. It’s very likely that in regular reading of progressive conversations in social media you will come across many examples of white straight men or women telling other white straight men or women what it means to be an ally and what the content and appearance of proper ally behavior in the conversation at hand ought to be. This is at least an intervention that begs for a self-reflexivity that it often lacks.

For another, without a fairly careful and historically self-conscious use of the idea, talk of allyship sometimes seems to function as a kind of in-group manipulation of eager outsiders who want to hang out with the in-group. A sort of progressive rushing of potential pledges, with some being sent off to the equivalent of a social justice Delta House. The point of reminding people about being allies is to not speak on behalf of groups or causes, to not anoint themselves as representative speakers without a representative structure for making decisions. The objective is not to produce a state of fawning dependency in someone who is essentially seeking a merit badge or other acknowledgement of their personal virtue.

More importantly, however, is that there is another meaning to “ally” that is strategically important to any group pursuing political or social change. The question in this case is not the distribution of power or authority within a group, but about what groups, institutions or causes require to make strategic gains, to achieve their goals.

“Ally” even in the sense of trying to be mindful of authority within a loosely progressive coalition or group is also a move that insists on at least the necessity and vitality of organizing struggles in terms of identities. Even if you invoke intersectionality, those identities tend to resolve into discrete, structured forms. There is a huge body of scholarly and political writing on identity politics, essentialism (strategic or otherwise), new social movements and so on, and I won’t try to laboriously navigate my way through it all. I don’t quite agree with the sort of left critique that Walter Benn Michaels and others have offered that puts class or economic inequality out there as the important and “real” issue. It should be apparent that I have my doubts about the wisdom of many forms of identity politics, but I would hope in some sense to be enough of an ally of sorts to say that their pursuit is not for me to say yes or no to: the strategic decisions involved are properly vested elsewhere, in other people and other communities.

The point where I and many others enter the picture, with whatever sympathies and knowledge we may have, is when groups, communities or institutions are not by themselves and of themselves sufficient to achieve their goals, protect their practices, or satisfy their needs. Some political and cultural projects don’t need allies or have very parsimonious requirements largely aimed at securing or protecting otherwise sufficient existing practices. Even in this case, the important thing to understand is that “ally” necessarily means someone who is not part of the group and does not share its direct interests or outlook.

Whether political and social actors need few allies or many, they have to think clearly about three things: 1) the instrumental goals that require allies; 2) which allies and why; 3) and what those allies need or want as the price of their support. If there’s no difference between supposed allies–same struggle, same fight–then they’re not your ally. They are you. If they are an ally, they’re not you, and don’t have the same interests and goals that you do.

If I can accomplish an important goal of mine entirely on my own, I will. Of course I will. Who wouldn’t? If it’s a goal that others seek in exactly the same fashion, again, why wouldn’t we just accomplish it if we could? If you can mobilize enough power to overwhelm or ignore any divergent or opposing interests, why not do so?

If we need allies, what we’re doing is recognizing first that there are people who do not share our goals entirely but who may support some of our goals. Second we’re recognizing a limit to our capacity or to our power, that we can’t do it on our own. It may be that one of our goals is to live in a world where there are other groups with other goals, of course. In fact, that’s almost necessarily true if we expect anyone to be our allies except in the most brutally cynical sort of Molotov-Ribbentrop sense: if we look for allies and don’t expect to betray or dispose of them at the first opportunity, we believe that our own goals are compatible with other goals, and our goals are thus limited or constrained in their scope. So third, you are recognizing that other groups and other people have different goals and needs that are at least tolerably distinct or divergent from your own, and that you can not only live with but support the difference between you and your ally.

That’s of course why talking as if you don’t need allies, as if you’re already sufficiently empowered, when this is absolutely not true, is such a bad strategic move. There’s very little reason for allies to join your cause if you’ve preemptively dismissed the need for such allies, or displayed contempt for the ways in which their priorities and needs may diverge from your own.

Perhaps many movements don’t think very clearly about alliances because doing so sometimes means that they come to discover that their own group is not the hero of the story or the prime mover of change. Sometimes thinking clearly about alliances means they discover that they are the ally to some more powerful or coherent institution or cause. Sometimes thinking clearly means they have to recognize that they don’t even know what they want or how they’re going to get it, or what the minimum necessary costs of an alliance might be. Sometimes, at least for progressives, they end up recognizing that a lot of muddled assumptions about the social coherence of the left are unwarranted. That’s precisely why many progressive coalitions have the half-life of Rutherfordium. Too many people want to just demand alliance and not enough people want to think about the ways that successful alliance requires suppressing or deferring or modifying some aspect of their own goals and needs.

Another part of Grasping the Nettle.

Posted in Grasping the Nettle, Politics | 8 Comments

An Ethic of Care

There’s an odd thing about privilege-checking as it has evolved into a shaming slogan, a sort of taunt. Shame only works if the target has an internal sense that the moral argument of the shamers is valid, or if the shamers reflect an overwhelmingly dominant social consensus such that it takes an iron will to refuse to be shamed.

But “privilege” as a concept essentially takes its cues from a deep body of pre-existing social theory and social history that dissects the origins and continuing maintenance of inequality. Much of that body of theory argues that in some fashion or another, inequality is functional to the individuals, groups and institutions that sustain it, that it is the product of self-interest. Part of the point behind that general argument is to aggressively dissent from other bodies of theory that see inequality as the natural outcome of meritocracy, competition, or intrinsic pre-existing differences between human beings, to argue instead that inequality has a history and is an active creation of social processes and institutional power.

It would be possible to argue that inequality is both a product of historical circumstances but not self-interested, e.g., that it is an emergent or unintended (if undesirable) outcome of processes and actions that were undertaken for other reasons. To the extent to which that is true, calling out privilege might be a genuinely educational gesture, and one where it’s plausible that the person named as privileged would have no vested desire to defend that status.

For the most part, this is not what progressive or left social theory would argue. The assumption is that the privileged benefit from their privilege, and therefore have every reason in the world to defend or maintain it. So what could possibly get them to do otherwise? Only one of two possibilities, broadly speaking. Either the mobilization of sufficient coercion or force by the victims of inequality such that they can compel the privileged to surrender some or all of their status, or the possibility of convincing the privileged that their status is either morally repugnant or is ultimately more of a risk to their long-term social existence than a more equal disposition would be.

If it’s about mobilization, the only benefit to privilege-checking is painting a bullseye on a target, of making a threat. At some point, making threats casually without the power to back them up is at the least futile, at the worst incredibly dangerous.

If it’s not–if there is some possibility of persuading a privileged person to assist in the abrasion or surrender of that privilege because that’s a thing they ought to do–it’s worth considering what that implies about the act of privilege-checking itself, and many other kinds of related communication.

If the “ought to do” is “because if you don’t eventually there’s going to be a revolution and you’ll be worse off than if you aimed for a soft landing from inequality”, then that’s just a deferred threat, to be taken seriously to the extent that the person making the argument can mobilize evidence about the inevitability of that outcome.

If the “ought to do” is because inequality is morally wrong and there is a hope that even its beneficiaries can see that, the question is: morally wrong how? Potentially for a range of reasons, some of them complementary. Morally wrong because perhaps a democratic society requires some form of rough equality to work, is premised on the notion that all people are created (and therefore should remain) equal. Such that anyone who professes to believe that a democratic society is preferable to any other ought to believe in the active maintenance of equality. But perhaps more because inequality’s consequences hurt people, both in absolute terms in terms of affordances and necessities they cannot access and relatively because they see others who have no greater merit or right enjoying vastly greater privileges.

E.g., privilege-checking arguably works only because or if it’s assumed that the person being called out is compassionate or can be morally moved to compassion.

Here we come to other problems. First, this doesn’t sit entirely well with the notion that the privileged are rationally self-interested in protecting their status. At the very least, to privilege-check as an invocation of shared morality implies that self-interest is never a sufficient explanation of social outcomes and even less of consciousness.

Second, the moral appeal only works if it is shared. It is undeniably true that members of marginalized groups cannot systematically discriminate against, that people of color cannot be racists or women be sexists, in the sense that this argument is typically made. Because to discriminate requires organized social power. It is not true, and is usually not claimed by activists to be true, that people cannot be cruel to one another as individuals. Power is no security against feeling personal and emotional pain, and relative powerlessness is no guarantee of interpersonal emotional virtue.

Early celebrations of online communication embraced it as a many-to-many medium, a wholesome democratizing alternative to the one-to-many structure of earlier forms of mass media. What that characterization obscured is that in some cases, the Internet functions as a many-to-one medium, magnifying and focusing the attention of crowds on individuals.

The problem is that such attention is often not compassionate in its imagination of that individual, even when it is coming from crowds who act in the name of a politics that requires a belief in the possibility of compassion even in those who have no necessary reason to feel it. If you call for people to worry about the injustice of inequality, to feel moved by the immorality of privilege, and believe that it is possible that this call will be heeded, then that requires an ethic of care. Anyone who worries about privilege has to be at least as compassionate as they hope the privileged might be.

In a many-to-one appeal, even if the many are just a handful of activists with little to no social power and the one is an intersectionally powerful person, it has to be possible to imagine that the awakening of compassion will be mingled with feelings of panic, sadness, and fear. The critique still has to be said, not the least because status, privilege and inequality are social facts that need to be spoken about with the same precision and clarity that we devote to talking about the chemistry of covalent bonds or measuring the absolute neutrino mass scale. But calling out privilege shouldn’t be an act that requires hardening the heart or relishing a hope for social exclusion. Which means also that it should be the exact opposite of a flip or easy rejoinder, never the progressive equivalent of a sneer or a call to silence.

Perhaps that means “check your privilege” is a phrase to retire because it invites that kind of ease, a lack of awareness about what that statement hopes for and requires. If it’s not an expression of an ethic of care, trying to radar-ping the world around it to find out who else shares or might share in that ethic, and not a threat with power behind it, then what it usually leads to is the moral evacuation of a conversation and the production of a sort of performative austerity, of everyone in a community pretending to virtue they do not authentically embrace and avoiding the positive or generative use of the forms of social power they might actually have genuinely privileged access to.

A part of Grasping the Nettle.

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Nobody Expects the Facebook Inquisition

Another day, another story of busybodies calling the police to punish another citizen for doing something that the busybody doesn’t approve of. Or in this case, not doing something, namely, not keeping their children inside and under 24/7 monitoring. 21st Century America sometimes feels as if Gladys Kravitz from Bewitched was given the Presidential Medal of Honor, held up as a model citizen and sworn in as a deputy of the Department of Homeland Security.

Or is it instead that we’ve become a nation of Batmen, with social media our trusty utility belt? Vigilantes on patrol against the sort of malice that no law could punish but that leaves people reeling and downtrodden? Who else will punish the asshole car dealers who try to get an innocent pizza delivery man fired if not all of us?

I don’t think there has yet been a definitive history of how we stopped being a society where children could roam away from constant parental surveillance and where adult bodies could be unseen and anonymous in plain sight, but I’m certain that this past moment is uncomfortably twinned with a world where brutal injustices were glossed over as normal and white men from “the greatest generation” could go to sleep at night unperturbed by, unaware of, the racism, sexism, and discrimination that was everywhere around them.

However you could have hoped to go forward from that moment, I think going towards a world of ubiquitious attention to public bodies and everyday speech while leaving much of the force of structural discrimination unperturbed is not high on the list of aspirational possibilities.

21st Century Americans are in many ways becoming a kind of democratic Stasi, reporting on their neighbors and colleagues, assembling dossiers of suspicious or questionable action and speech. This would be one thing if it were social pressure, but it isn’t just that. In many cases, if you call the cops or report to an employer, the target will be dealing with potentially ruinous consequences. Both the state and capital alike encourage, protect and extend mutual surveillance.

Nor is it just reactionary in its content. There will be no fable here of McCarthyism, nothing that lets this story sift neatly into defenders and enemies of an open society. My Facebook feeds are crowded with messages forwarded by progressive friends: look what this person said! Look what that guy did! Hashtag that creep, report that guy to his boss.

That at least you could account to the rough and tumble of political struggle, that you can’t pursue justice and be endlessly genteel and forgiving. But my social media, written by educated progressives, are just as much full of other kinds of negative attention to public bodies. A quiet undercurrent of disdain for misbehaving, unruly bodies that have the bad taste to be visible: fat bodies, slovenly bodies, flyover bodies, bodies that don’t spell and talk good, bodies that look funny. Bodies that eat the wrong foods, bodies that go to the wrong places. Bodies that like the wrong movies, bodies that do the wrong things. We no longer look to a single column in the newspaper to inform middle-class manners, no longer go to charm school. Bourgeois etiquette is done by swarm action now, by flash mobs. And when we swarm over a target, it’s the equivalent of Edward Snowden releasing his memos: it says, “You also are being watched.”

The problem with a lot of our ubiquitious surveillance is precisely not that it is overtly hateful and hating. Instead, what makes so much of it easy to pursue is that it presents itself as a kindness. Here is some advice about not reading the Internet so much! Here is a way not to die because you read your iPad before sleeping! Here is some food you should eat instead of what you are eating! Here is a movie you shouldn’t have liked, ever! Here is a book you should know better than to have read! Here are some bad people that I am sure you are not.

Our new Stasi enlists us out with concern and responsibility. See something? Say something! is the security-state version. Bystander intervention is the progressive, communitarian one. The libertarian complaint about nanny-states falls flat because of the narrowness of its understanding of where surveillance and regulation live (they live everywhere) and how they derive their power (the state is only the beginning of it). You can’t hide from surveillance because to hide from surveillance is to hide from sociality and all its necessary affordances. The Unabomber’s cabin is the only destination for “privacy” envisioned in those terms.

What I do think we can do to check what our new Stasi is doing to us, with us, for us, is to restore some sense of the gravity of “filing a formal report”, as it were. There’s nothing wrong with watching and photographing and talking about the vast social landscape around us. That is and has been a necessary part of being human in mass society. But we do not now act as if there is much of anything at stake when we draw attention to a body, when we circle a face in a photograph, when we link and hashtag and forward. We don’t check to be sure that we’ve got it right, we don’t worry much about what happens next. It’s easy to say that the car dealers were asking for it, but hard to take note that the mock Yelp reviews for the dealership quickly turn into a swamp of juvenile and often ugly sentiment that uses the excuse of righteous ire as a opportunity to perform with unbridled id on a stage of momentary notoreity. The we that follows in from hashtaggery is just as likely to be a mob with torches as it is a polite delegation of neighbors requesting that the lawn be mowed just a bit more often, please.

If we’re going to be spies, let’s accept our moral agency. We’re not reporting up a chain of command and leaving it the hands of our superiors. We are reporting to ourselves. If we believe we do that out of love and concern–or in pursuit of justice–then we need to be better than we are at following an ethic of genuine care, and better than we are in thinking systematically about what we mean by justice.

Another part of Grasping the Nettle.

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The Soft Target

The 20th Century was more than a literal graveyard for almost uncountable millions of people, it was also a mausoleum for the idea of taking on the hardest targets. Overthrow a tyrant by force of arms? Here come a bunch more. Never again will there be genocide! Well, until the next one. The war to end all wars! Right.

The overthrow of exploitative capitalism. The elimination of poverty. An end to disease. No more malnutrition. Equality of opportunity. Transparency in government.

Even more modest reformist goals sound increasingly forlorn at this end of modernity. Reduce corruption and inefficiency in government? Less police brutality? Better public education? Maintain the infrastructure? Don’t torture people? Don’t be hateful. Don’t be cruel?

All the institutions and systems involved in what seem to be the most awful, oppressive or unjust dimensions of everyday life in the 21st Century seem to be vulnerable to nothing but their own frailities and contradictions. The powerful are mostly behind walls, inside fortresses. They have the money and the influence to outlast or overwhelm most legal challenges. They don’t particularly fear mass protest, not that there seems to be much danger of protests being genuinely massive in the United States as they have been in many other countries. The political process is drowning in oligarchic money, and even if reformers get elected, they often find it nearly impossible to challenge entrenched interests or do much beyond tinker with the status quo.

Most targets are hard, both in the sense of “difficult” and “protected”. So what has happened in a lot of what passes for democratic politics in the 21st Century, particularly in the United States, is a preference for soft targets: institutions that have to remain ‘open’ in some sense to protest and dissent, or individuals and groups who are compelled for some reason or another to remain accessible and responsive to public criticism. Universities are perhaps the most important example of a soft target. Another might be celebrities, pundits, or indeed any individual who has an active presence in social media.

If protest or critique were aimed at these soft targets because of actions, policies or practices which are native to them, that poses no issue beyond whatever range of debate there might be about the subject of that critique. Protests concerned with the dwindling of public support for education, with issues of access and justice in education, with the eroding of academic freedom, with the safety and security of matriculated students, with the need for open-access publication: all of those could and should target educational institutions and speak to those who work in them, who regulate them, and study in them. (Although, complicatedly, when you’re attacking a soft target for something that is genuinely important to and strongly invested in the real operating life of that institution, it tends to turn into a hard target.)

The problem is when the soft target is used as a proxy for the targets which are too hard to reach. For me, the most important example of this is fossil-fuel divestment. If pushing universities (and other civic institutions) to divest from fossil-fuels has any usefulness at all, it is only as one very small part of what has to be a very comprehensive campaign to bring pressure on fossil-fuel companies and their government supporters. What I warned our local student activists about when they started the campaign here is that a focus on getting the college to participate was likely to very quickly lead to confusion about the instrumental objective of the whole campaign, as the college itself was not the ultimate political target nor was it in any sense actively colluding with that target (at least not to a degree that distinguished it from any other institutional or private user of energy). Pretty much as I predicted, college administrations around the country became almost the singular target of the entire campaign, and the institutions were rhetorically accused of being the fossil fuel companies simply because most of them declined the invitation to join the campaign in the particular way that one group of activists had chosen to pursue it.

The reason to target colleges, if you’re a student activist whose concerns are essentially directed at objectives that are not local or native to higher education, is that many of them are compelled in various ways to listen to and consider the demands that students, alumni and faculty make. Not in any sense, of course, to adopt or pursue those demands. When student activists say that they are not being listened to, what they mean is that they’re not being agreed with, since most of them choose to assume that if someone really listened to them, agreement would be the only rational and tolerable outcome.

This is really another example of the downside of thinking in terms of increments. When a “soft target” is ostensibly chosen because it’s an early step in a long incremental chain of approaches to a hard target, but is in fact actually chosen because of its convenience and accessibility, it becomes very easy to mistake the soft target as a proxy substitute for the hard one, and thus to forget the ultimate point of the critique. It is also seductively easy to misrecognize or misrepresent any opposition in that first “soft” step as being de facto the same as the resistance that the ultimate target might offer. But soft targets understandably resist being cast as proxies for other institutions and actions, and often have difficult missions of their own to tend to which are not necessarily enhanced or advanced by endlessly offering themselves as an accommodating first step for ambitious projects of political and social transformation. A professional association might quickly lose sight of its professional mission if it were constantly being used as an expressive platform for causes with tangential relevance to that mission. A university might have no way to legitimately decide which of the potentially infinite number of causes held dear by some of its students or employees deserves institutional sanction, and might spend a great deal of time and energy deciding how to decide that.

But again, at least incremental thinking is better than no thinking; at least choosing a soft target because there’s some sort of strategic vision about how it relates to a harder or more protected target is debatably valid. Sometimes we choose soft targets because otherwise there’s nothing at all to focus on. We hashtag someone or build up a three-day outrage on social media because the pain and frustration that the targets stand in for are otherwise too diffuse, too distributed, too everywhere and nowhere. The hardest targets are the ones that are in the air, in the water, in the everywhere of the world around us. But making some individual stand for these kinds of wholes, no matter how worthy of scorn that individual might be, loses general support and sympathy, bleeds out political energy, because it mismatches the proportionality and gravity of the structure, the distributed social fact, to the available, vulnerable individual appointed to represent that ubiquitous but ephemeral reality. We end up talking about the fairness or unfairness of targeting that person with a hashtag or a meme rather than the thing itself.

Sometimes soft targets are the bars on the cage. You grab them and rattle them and howl because they’re the only thing you can grasp. But if there are hacksaws or other tools around, it would be a shame to keep rattling the bars rather than patiently filing through them, one millimeter at a time.

(One part of Grasping the Nettle.)

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The Increment

“We have to do something. Anything is better than nothing.”

A standard topos in political rhetoric that to me usually signals desperation. Let’s get started! Let’s not think too much! What, are you happy with the status quo?

It’s not just favored among some progressive activists. Development experts love it. Neoconservative advocates of war against Iraq loved it. It’s a salesman’s move. “You gotta have one of these, why not this one?”

Contrast it with the Hippocratic Oath, though. “First, do no harm.” Plainly in some circumstances nothing is better than anything.

But surely in many cases an eternal nothing is unbearable. So the real question is how the small something that we’re being asked to do right now pays off, justifies itself, becomes something more than just the doing-something-so-as-not-nothing. This is the increment. Politics as compounding interest, a small investment of effort today that draws other investments to itself and becomes an unstoppable force tomorrow.

This is where I either get sold or walk away with my wallet closed. One thing that keeps my wallet closed is when the seller acts as if it’s an insult to ask what the next increments are and where this is all going. “It’s unfair to ask for a master plan! It’s unfair to demand a map to Utopia! We don’t know what’s going to come next. We’re not in charge of what comes next. When did you get so horribly teleological? All political projects ever started as increments, no one ever has been a master planner who knows exactly where the tipping point is.”

Fair enough responses. Anyone with aspirations to act politically is not required to produce a road map to the ultimate outcome of their actions. Political action is not solitary, and so by definition is not under the control of any individual actor. It’s true that many important journeys in social transformation began as single steps. Or even as missteps. Transformation is almost by definition an emergent outcome that follows from many simultaneous activities pursued independently, including many that at the time seemed to have nothing to do with seeking some instrumental end. I completely buy Robert Darnton’s argument in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, for example, which posits that the French state was de-legitimized in part not because of the deliberate intent of the authors (or audiences) of those best-sellers, but because bit by bit the content of each eroded the legitimacy of the ancien regime and bit by bit the state undercut itself trying to stop the books from circulating.

And yet. Sometimes it’s high-end theory, like Negri and Hardt at the end of Empire, saying “Here comes the Multitude! Who knows what will happen when they take over, but it’s bound to be better than Empire!” As prediction, this is ok, but as a politics that asks its reader to endorse or participate in particular incremental actions that somehow are all Multitude-favoring, not so much. As Gopal Balakrishnan has observed, the Multitude in Empire are analogized to the early Christians of Rome, a sign of the eventual unmanageability of the Pax Romana. If one is an early Christian–or acting as the Multitude–you have intrinsic motivations for doing what you do. You don’t need to be sold on the increment, or even to care about Empire or Rome at all except inasmuch as it poses a threat to your life or your activities. The only person sold by an incremental logic of action here is a citizen of Empire, who can choose either to be pleased and bemused by its gangrenous rotting away or can try to hold back the tides, usually by killing even more Christians or making life even more miserable for the Multitude.

In a way, it’s the same as pre-Revolutionary print culture: the increments that produce change are the increments of cultural and social practice rather than conscious political work with instrumental aims. This is an old dilemma for any body of political theory that believes in the possibility of systematic progress towards a coherently better world. It’s not at all clear that the people and actions that get you there are always the people and actions that mean to get you there. Intentional projects of comprehensive transformation tend to do best when moments of striking disjuncture manifest. If there are increments that get you to those moments, they’re usually not what you expect.

Sometimes it’s just particular political campaigns. Divest from fossil fuels! Sanction Israel! Interrupt white people at brunch! Make a hashtag!

Sometimes when you ask about the logic of the increment, you get a pretty good sales pitch. Many advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israeli government policy can concretely describe what the plausible next steps might be–the next sanctions, the next moves. More impotantly, they can point to considerable evidence that the possibility of incremental growth in the movement actually worries the hell out of Israeli politicians and is concretely affecting their actions. It certainly worries the hell out of supporters of the Israeli government, who dump vitriol in industrial-grade amounts on anyone who appears to contemplate joining BDS. You might question the unintended or negative consequences of these incremental steps (I know I do) but there’s a demonstrated coherency to the game plan.

Sometimes you don’t get a sales pitch. It’s none of your business, it’s reactionary to even ask the question, it’s an assertion of privilege, something’s got to be done and what have you been doing that’s better? Sometimes you get a sales pitch and it’s all about will and not about intellect: everybody has to believe in fairies or Tinkerbell will die. The increments sometimes make no sense. This leads to that leads to what? And what? And then? Why? Or perhaps most frustrating of all, each increment features its own underlying and incommensurable theories about why things happen in the world: in this step, people are motivated by self-interest; in the next step, people are motivated by basic decency; in the next step, people are motivated by fear of punishment. Every increment can’t have its own social theory. That’s when you know that the only purpose is the action itself, not the thing it’s trying to accomplish.

I think that’s what worries me most about the increment. Not that we’re asked to think of politics (or any other project) in such a fashion, because as some level it’s a necessary kind of compartmentalization for any big undertaking. It’s when the steps themselves exhibit a kind of magical thinking that claim that they can only be properly discussed and evaluated after they’ve been taken, and when each increment has a kind of isolated and infinite justification. Do this and if it doesn’t work, do it more strongly and if it doesn’t work do it more strongly still. Where there is no possible test of failure or inadequacy. Walk one step at a time thataway, and fear no cliffs or mountains. You don’t have to have a master plan for the end destination but you do have to have a specific idea of the journey you’re on. Is this a reconaissance? A quick, efficient jaunt to a known destination? A voyage to the spot on the map that’s marked “Here Be Monsters”?

(One part of a series: Grasping the Nettle)

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