Two Puzzle Pieces

Pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle.

1) The New York Times has a nice piece about how global publics in democracies of one sort or another have increasingly lost faith in political elites and in the process, lost faith in democratic process as a whole. This is a point that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a long time, and a good example of how American exceptionalism sometimes blinds Americans to seeing how events within their borders are connected to far larger patterns and structures. This is one reason I reacted somewhat over-enthusiastically to one element of Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism about a decade ago. The thread I found interesting in Berman’s argument was that liberalism was a “cold” doctrine that was losing adherents worldwide because of its inability to provide guarantees of justice, equity, fairness or comfort, that its dispassionate tone and utilitarian ethos alienated global publics, and that its passive faith in its own teleological inevitability kept it from vigorously attending to its own shortcomings or defending itself from attack. That last part was ugly since it’s what led Berman and other so-called “liberal hawks” to believe that bombs and occupations could secure liberalism’s future where persuasion and institution-building could not. But there’s still something important embedded in that interpretation. Liberal democracy rested on its laurels and got hijacked by technocratic elites who have subsequently produced a tremendous amount of obfuscating noise about the equivalence between national sovereignty, technocratic bureaucracies and the practice of democratic norms.

The alienation that the Times article documents is a reaction to that obfuscation. A lot of global publics understand perfectly well what they should expect of democracies and technocracies, what they should expect that nation-states can accomplish in service to the interests of their domestic, democratically empowered publics. Their frustration is with political classes that have captured the structures of the state and the mechanisms of democratic selection to the point that even when democratic mechanisms are used to remove one group of representatives, their replacements continue to reproduce the interests of political classes against the interests of wider publics and against outcomes that common-sense forms of expertise seem to recommend.

The hard thing for a lot of liberals and progressives in the United States to understand is that however much they dislike some of the ideology of Tea Party activists, the rank-and-file of the Tea Party is much more aware of and responsive to this problem than American liberals and progressives have been.

2) Which connects in turn to the often-asked question of why there aren’t more protests in the U.S., or why the Wall Street protests aren’t catching on in a bigger way. The lightly malicious snark of Times reporters and others towards the Wall Street protesters is a bit too obvious in its anxious desire to have these matters left to Very Serious People. But neither is the “I do believe in fairies” call to just believe that some drummers and puppets can change the world much more satisfying. This is just the grown-up version of the quintessential high school Student Council complaint about the apathy of the student body: it attributes the disaffection and fecklessness of the council itself as being everybody’s problem, everybody’s fault, rather than asking a more introspective question about what that group of people really is, and more importantly, why they were attracted to participation in the first place. That maybe the student body isn’t generally apathetic, just apathetic about the student council.

The kinds of liberals and progressives who find themselves drawn for a day or a week or a month to show up behind the lines of orange fencing to join in this kind of protest, or to shout out their affection for it from afar, have a hard time grasping that the reason that larger publics look on with indifference is that the protesters are more like a dissident faction of the political class that they are allegedly criticizing than they are outsiders to it.

I mean, if I were hanging around New York for the day and I had some time, I might head on down there and join the crowd. I’d be happy to have an opportunity to join in fellowship with people who are as angry at our system as I am, and I’m sure I agree with many of them about a lot of other issues and values. Maybe I’m not so into the drumming and veganism or whatever but as Naomi Klein says, any genuinely democratic movement is going to have a lot of distractions and fractions. I’m the distraction for the vegan or the Spartacist or the Marxist cutting-edge crisis theorist.

But the thing is that I would arrive and leave from the protest, whether or not I got pepper-sprayed by a carelessly and bemusedly brutal cop or not, retaining my sense that I am, or ought to be, part of a public entitled to speak to the political class with a special intimacy. I don’t typically dwell on this as a sign of privilege, and I also find endless sessions of white-guilt self-flagellation about abjuring privilege to be a kind of special political hell anyway. But the fact is that I live in an institutional world that is profoundly interpolated with the business of the American political class. Even when I want to identify only with a public that is excluded from the business of that class and alienated at their appropriation of the democratic will, I can’t get that presence out of my life, my discourse, my expectations. Maybe I shouldn’t expect to, maybe that’s the value of intellectuals even in an anti-intellectual age, that they can still hope to check or modify the increasingly uninhibited contempt of political elites for the general self-interest by inserting themselves into gaps or holes in the consensus of those elites. With small power comes some responsibility?

The limit condition of the protests or expressions that I’m drawn to, however, remains the degree to which they retain that connection. It’s not a lack of discipline that produces the array of boutique causes and activist commitments that you’d find among the people behind that orange fence. That array of concerns is a sign of the tether between educated white progressives and the political class, that we still imagine much of the content of our politics as a set of well-composed appeals to policymakers and politicians, as advocating plans and statutes and targeted reforms.

Where larger protests and anger are breaking out against the elites who have commandeered political systems, it’s because the publics behind those protests have dissolved or tabled most of their more specific demands or commitments, have recognized that you won’t get good policy until you get something close to a social revolution, until the connection between democratic process, genuine responsibilities to broad publics, and a constraining ethics of bureaucratic power and expertise is forged anew.

In the United States, I think the specific move that needs to be made is the recognition that the rank-and-file hostility of Tea Party adherents and sympathizers towards “big government” has an intimate, potentially generative connection to the possibility of a wider mobilization against the powers-that-be, that this is the cognate American form of the energy that’s flowing into protests in India, in Egypt, in the European Union. Which in turn requires a less knee-jerk response by progressives about the wonderful things that government can do or already does. It’s true that government action at all levels of American life could do a great deal of good, that it already secures many fundamental rights and protections, that we are dependent upon that power in so many ways. But when our first response to a fierce, wild and often reactionary anger at “government” is to recite a litany of its benefits, I think we disclose too much our own desire to retain an intimate access to acting within as well as against a deeply entrenched political class.

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10 Responses to Two Puzzle Pieces

  1. Chris London says:

    A few drive-by thoughts:

    1) The characterization of the Times headline is belied by the content of the article. The protesters have not ‘lost faith in the democratic process’, rather they have lost faith in the system of representation that currently passes for democratic process in many countries. The protesters themselves continue to practice democracy in diverse ways, it’s just not the democracy of the conventional political system.

    2) “Orange fence” reminds me of Ward Churchill’s “The Pathology of Pacifism” where he criticizes lefty ‘peaceful protest’ as reinforcing the control apparatus of the state by explicitly acceding to it; how can you pretend to hold the state accountable when at every step you are reaffirming its power to do what it pleases?

    3) So in principle I’d agree that things like the Wall Street occupation (though I may be very wrong; I live in NYC and have yet to take the time to check it out; I’m a bad person) have a tendency to be betrayed by their continuing ties to the status quo. At best what they could hope to achieve, if it gets big enough, and most importantly, gets replicated elsehwere, is some recognition that lefties actually constitute a constituency, that maybe the more liberal members of congress shouldn’t so hastily run away from them. But maybe that’s too utopian, a pipe dream.

    4) All of which leads me to jarring recognition that I find myself, in the face of the mainstreaming of the radical right, defending the state, something which I have spent most of my life decrying as perfidious and in the pockets of capital. How can I be defending the state when it is even more of a plutocracy than ever? Hmmm, well, not believing that anyone is capable of starting the kind of state I’d like to see from scratch I’d kind of like to see some of what maybe is kinda okay preserved and restructure the rest. What the tea partiers are attacking is precisely those potentially progressive elements. Though I feel like I should be allying with some of their anti-statism I can’t because it is too wrong headed.

    5) Cue William Jennings Bryan. The tea party is populism redux, but an especially cynical billionaire bought and paid for populism, so no, they’re not in any sense a natural, if misguided, ally. They are themselves an emanation of the plutocratic wing of the right. My point then is that countering the revanchist right with a defense of at least some elements of the state isn’t simply a blind hanging onto to unspoken ties and identities, it can instead be seen as a necessary defensive move to sustain even a modicum of a foundation with which to rework the state. Even Lenin, who spared no ink in attacking bourgeois opportunists and trade unionists, also derided in various tracts a simplistic destruction of the state apparatus (in that case being called for by the anarchist left rather than the libertarian right). Perhaps the second biggest mistake of the Iraq war, the first being starting it, was the disbanding of the Baathist party and the complete dismantling of the state apparatus.

    6) Not being Lenin, I don’t have any idea on how to get out of this defensive stance and start giving offence. Might as well go join the Wall Street crowd I guess.

  2. ripley says:

    “some drummers and puppets” huh?
    Your pipe dream seem pretty modest. ‘recognition from liberal members of congress’ – is that really it? Especially considering the way these protests are linking – with the Troy Davis march, with the pilots’ union… meanwhile the Teamsters, as well as the NYC Transit workers union have endorsed OWS. And so did the IWW.

    I think you should go down there. Especially before you generalize any more about what is happening or what could happen. The white guilt thing may be your feeling, but the folks I know there and the folks I am keeping track of are pretty clear about where the responsibility lies, and where the answers are going to come from. The answers are going to come from autonomous spaces, cracks in the system.

    I think there’s a real macho edge to the dismissal of OWS, especially from men on the left. One of the most interesting things, besides the 2 general assemblies a day with a lot of interesting methods of generating and sharing ideas in a non-hierarchical way, is all the organizing of the occupation itself. Coordinating child care, health care, food, technology& communications. A lot of unglamourous, “women’s work” around caretaking and getting shit done.
    But you know, that’s the stuff that makes a movement more likely to become a mass movement, and to last. Learning to be a part of an autonomous movement, to trust each other on the day-to-day, to ask and to give between people at the same level. The Black Panthers recognized this..

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Ripley: you think the Panthers are a good example of or model for a successful mass movement?

    On the recognition from liberal members of Congress thing–certainly not what I’m thinking of, more what I’m criticizing–that we have a hard time giving up the thought that we’re speaking to and expect to be heard by the current political class, even when we feel very dismayed by them, and that’s because sociologically many of us live in their neighborhood.

    I agree with the sentiment about trust and autonomy, but the point is that the circle has to get wider and some of the way that has to happen is by looking for where the energy is to be found beyond the usual suspects and the usual crowd. I really think to tap into it requires a certain amount of tabling of the other two thousand particular causes that we care about and it requires some more self-awareness of our own limitations and attachments.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Separate thought: I simply don’t think that defending the state as an idea does us any good at this point. Not just because it keeps us from connecting with people for whom the state and the political class are now seen as one and the same, but because it leads us back to a sort of naive understanding of the state as the only institution which can protect against capital and thus an inability to see global political classes as classes and an inability to understand how the nation-state as an institution generates their forms of power. So what we end up with an idea that the state must be reformed in order to arrest the abuses of capital, rather than the more important recognition that the state has to be reimagined for itself, of itself, not just as an instrumental step towards some other social transformation.

  5. Chris London says:

    “Ripley: you think the Panthers are a good example of or model for a successful mass movement?”

    I’m not Ripley, but yah, they did assemble a pretty impressive range of services and capacity for action. That they eventually were crushed from the outside while they imploded on the inside doesn’t negate that. ‘Success’ doesn’t have to be permanent.

    “On the recognition from liberal members of Congress thing–certainly not what I’m thinking of, more what I’m criticizing”

    Me too. I was being both sarcastic and serious with ‘pipe dream’. It’s pathetic that at this juncture that is the best that can be hoped for on the “mass” side of things, and I have no expectation that even that can be acheived. I don’t doubt that the multiple connections between OWS and other things can be meaningful, powerful, constructive, life-changing, what have you. I just don’t think that it will become ‘mass’ in any real sense, more a whole bunch of localisms. Personally I’m fine with that, I’m not dismissing it; my years of development work led me to the conclusion that the only change worth trying to achieve is local change based on local capacity for action. That the local will continually be undermined by the extra-local is just one of the limiting conditions. So not dismissing OWS, just putting it in relative context. For all that the “tea party” has gone mass its largely because they have had a mass media network or two pushing it along. Without that its reasons for being would still be there, but there wouldn’t be much of a voice to it. The left has nothing remotely like Fox in its corner so ‘mass’ and respect from congress is a pipe dream. And OWS by what it is and where it is, is not an attempt at ‘local’ it is an attempt at ‘mass’. Some good things can come from it (activist networks being strengthened and (re)formed being an important one), but a revolution it ain’t.

    “I simply don’t think that defending the state as an idea does us any good at this point.” If that’s a response to me, that isn’t quite what I said. I said that I have found myself ‘defending the state’ in the face of the tea party and then qualified that by saying that it’s worth defending useful elements of the state. I’m not sure how this: “the more important recognition that the state has to be reimagined for itself, of itself, not just as an instrumental step towards some other social transformation” is all that different from this: “I’d kind of like to see some of what maybe is kinda okay [about the state] preserved and restructure the rest” assuming that you’d agree with my claim that trying to imagine, much less build, a state from tabula rasa is not a good idea. But maybe that’s not something you’d agree with.

    ‘Defending elements of the state’ sounds like it contradicts my dictum that locality is the only space of real change. I don’t intend it to be, rather I think defending those useful elements can support the local move by keeping some of the existing room for maneuver viable. That isn’t waiting for the state to do things, it using modalities of the state to do things yourself. That by itself certainly doesn’t exhaust what can be done.

  6. jerry hamrick says:

    Colleen A. Sheehan, in her book, “James Madison, and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government,” makes the case that Madison believed that the “literati” should play a very important role in shaping “public opinion,” which meant an informed public opinion. She relies on a few of the Federalist essays and on Madison’s National Gazette essays to support her thesis.

    She is trying to rescue Madison from the mistake he made in designing the “scheme of representation,” as he himself described it in Federalist 10. In that essay he admits, in very plain language, that his new system, a new American discovery in the design of governments, was flawed, seriously flawed. He said that the success of his system of representation depended on getting wise, patriotic, men who would rise above temptation, and who could together disecern the true best interests of the People and then enact policies that would serve that interest. If such men were elected then our republican form of government would serve the common good. But, on the other hand, he said that the situation could be inverted. He said that other men could be elected. He said: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

    This is a stunning admission at the very outset of our American experiment. The most important element of the new democracy was fundamentally and fatally flawed. Yet I hear no discussion of this fact anywhere or from anyone. Professor Sheehan says that Madison, in other writings, tried to show that an informed public would be able to offset this deficiency and that literati, in Madison’s word, would lead the way. If that is so, then Madison was wrong about that too.

    I am not among the literati, but I have arrogantly taken it upon myself to study our institutions, and it is clear to me that Madison’s scheme of representation could not have worked because it relies on elections. But he was right about the impact that the literati could have on our future. However, just as he did not have a method for making sure that enlightened statesmen would become our representatives, he offered no process for getting the literati to push forward and create a public that is well-informed and motivated.

  7. Barry says:

    “The hard thing for a lot of liberals and progressives in the United States to understand is that however much they dislike some of the ideology of Tea Party activists, the rank-and-file of the Tea Party is much more aware of and responsive to this problem than American liberals and progressives have been. ”

    Incorrect, IMHO. The Tea Party was astroturf from the beginning, which was basically when the GOP was on it’s way out. When Bush was doing the sort of crap the Tea Party allegedly despised, they were supporting him. Even in 2008, McCain got 47% of the vote, which clearly shows that there were very few Republicans who rejected the GOP’s corruption. And in 2010-11, we’ve seen that the Tea Party’s influence doesn’t extend to even trying to rein in corruption or cronyism, but rather f*cking the majority of the country, so long as the elites prosper.

  8. Barry says:

    BTW, thanks for fixing the comment system – I could never login under the old system.

  9. Barry says:

    Tim: “Which connects in turn to the often-asked question of why there aren’t more protests in the U.S., or why the Wall Street protests aren’t catching on in a bigger way. ”

    I think that we’re comparing it in our heads with the Tea Party, which was astroturfed, subsidized, promoted by the MSM (Fox, CNBC, etc.), was in full service to the elites, and still mainly composed of non-workers who were there due to having a secure income and no jobs to occupy their time. BTW, the Tea Party was full of people in strange costumes, with strange signs and slogans, many of which were more weird (but again, in the interests of the elites).

    Given that this is the direct opposite of OWS, it’s not surprising that OWS is growing more slowly.

    One thing to remember is that when we compare it to other movements, like the Civil Rights movement, is that the latter took years to grow, and that the Respectable People all found reasons to criticize: they were moving too fast, they were uppity n***s, they were threatening society, they assaulted innocent police dogs with their flesh, they were threatening (anti-)Christian society, they were communists, they didn’t have a coherent message, etc. MLK had some scathing things to say about ‘liberals’ back in the day.

  10. Dave says:

    In order for the OWS movement to have any impact beyond a potential capacity to direct political debate in a slightly different direction, the systemic capacity of the state to maintain the status quo would need to be damaged to an extent that would lead to far, far worse consequences than a mere concentration of wealth. That’s the sad fact. Maybe, just maybe, shouting and marching will make the politicians listen. Getting rid of the politicians would involve a crisis of such magnitude that we could confidently expect the casualties – real, fatal casualties – to run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

    Look at Greece – by most measures that country is coming apart at the seams, but the political class ploughs on, negotiating about bail-outs, making debt payments, expecting to still be there after the next election. If the near-total disintegration of civic consensus in a small, weak country can’t actually shift the course of its government, what hope can there be for a few thousand activists in the USA?

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