The Gods That Underachieved

The opening anecdote of this New York Times article on cyber-bullying led me to think about some bigger issues than what middle schoolers are doing on Facebook.

The striking thing about the incident that opens the article is that the parents of the girl who received the abusive, sexualized messages don’t contact the parents of the boy who allegedly sent those messages. Why not? Because the two fathers coach in the same league. So they want the school to do for them what they cannot do for themselves, to act as a quasi-judicial institution, to police what its students do in their everyday life.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same parents, in other contexts, complained about the size or pervasiveness of government. The peculiarity of our time is that people all around the planet know that the high modernist state failed to live up to its promises of the perfected management of human societies through technocracy. Those who live in democratic societies know that their progress towards being fairer, more just or more open is at best stalled. Those who live in authoritarian societies must increasingly wonder at whether change can ever come, as the one area where the capacity of the contemporary nation-state continues to show improvement is its ability to mobilize violence against its own citizens and to manage their dissent.

But that 20th Century story is like a phantom limb: if we gaze directly at it, we know it is gone, but distracted by other sights, we feel it still there. We still imagine that the technocratic state, bursting with capacity and always-improving expertise, can do something, anything, to fix both huge and intimate problems.

Scoundrels like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (or indeed, most of his political party) try to play this expectation for all it is worth, simultaneously angrily calling for government to use its missing limb, saying that their own local political body has all the muscle that the bigger government now lacks, and claiming that they’re glad that the nation-state is an amputee and they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like a bedtime story where the prospect of being transported to fairyland is set up simultaneously as magically possible, a wistfully recalled but long-gone nostalgic artifact of childhood, and disparaged as a foolish distraction from the real business of life.

We expect the government to have prevented the spill in the Gulf or to be able to stop it somehow, and yet we also expect that it be the complicit cause of the spill and incapable of fixes–and all the while, think that our own expectations for energy availability in our homes and work have nothing to do with the problem. The reality of limited state power and capacity as a permanent fixture of the foreseeable future never seems to take hold. Our unconscious expectations haven’t changed.

What this leaves behind is an evacuated sense of the social. I’m as uneasy as ever about the view of Putnam-style communalists that the answer to this problem is to revivify the sociality of the 19th or 20th Centuries, sometimes because they imagine that the state would be an important force in making that happen (which seems to me to be another flexing of the phantom limb), and sometimes because they overestimate the counterposing muscularity of the social to solve the problems that the technocratic state cannot solve. Take the sports-coaching father, reluctant to confront his colleague. Put the onus back on him to do so, comprehensively refuse him access to any juridical or institutional solution, and there would still be good reasons for that father to just let it slide, for the same reason that most of us don’t confront our neighbors or our co-workers or strangers on the road about some legitimate gripes, about problems that really could stand to solved. The social isn’t the antidote for utopian expectations of technocracy any more than herbal tea is a substitute for brain surgery.

What I’m left with in some cases is a kind of queasy mix of postmodernism and pragmatism: that all instruments are limited and all solutions are partial. That what we really need is a political and social language for describing better outcomes, incremental improvements, and probable solutions for the significant majority of what we expect both from our governments and we expect from ourselves as social actors. I’m not saying that utopian expectations or radical demands for reform or dramatic mobilizations for action need to disappear entirely from the picture, but that we need a way to sharply delineate the circumstances under which that way of thinking is helpful. Right now, we all have a tendency to fall back on the assumption that technocracy can do anything (even that it can instrumentally prevent good solutions from being implemented) and that expertise is the product of a positivist science marching inevitably towards perfected knowledge of everything.

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2 Responses to The Gods That Underachieved

  1. x. trapnel says:

    Have you read any of the Achieving Real Utopias stuff, organized by Erik Olin Wright? In particular, the Deepening Democracy studies? … it seems like this is the kind of thing you seem to be worrying is hopeless. Or am I totally off-base?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Based on some of what they’ve been saying at Crooked Timber about Wright’s work, I’ve been planning to read it as soon as I can. I’ve also been desperately trying to clear a space to read Buck-Morss’ new book on Hegel and Haiti, as well as re-read Dreamworld and Catastrophe.

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