Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Mistake of Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy is constituted by the severing of equality and freedom, which become incommensurable “values” which need to be balanced and one of which must be given priority at any instant. This has been a serious, perhaps fatal error, because the balancing and prioritizing is inevitably done by the state, which develops an interest in privileging those forms of freedom that are as distant as possible from equality (like, say, transgressive sexual practices) and those forms of equality that have nothing to do with freedom (like, say, government run health care). Under such conditions, equality and freedom become pathological, and so does the state—any mode of freedom that threatens to trample on any mode of equality needs to be pruned, but that’s any mode of freedom, and the our sensitivity to the threat can only increase.

The notion that equality and freedom are competing values is false to the core. I defy anyone to name a mode of equality that can exist in the absence of freedom, or vice versa. At best, you could name the equality of the slave, or the invalid, or the incompetent—but that, of course, presupposes the absolutely inequality of the master, the therapist, the expert. If you are to speak freely and trade freely with whom, precisely, are you to do so, if not your equals? Liberal democracy, in this sense, is a new phenomenon, radically different than the constitutional liberalism it supplanted (while, of course, developing potentialities within its predecessor); nor does it exhaust the potentialities of freedom and equality—it is not a “higher” level or more “advanced” form of anything.

The only difference between equality and freedom is that equality tells us who is covered by the rules, who is protected by them, who is expected to play by them, who will support their enforcement if necessary, and who can be penalized by them. Freedom is whatever you can do within and with the rules. Rules emerge in any space where violence has been sufficiently deferred so that it can be kept out of mind, and they are as thick (exclusive and prescriptive) as they need to be in order to keep it out of mind. The thinner the rules, the more violence is proscribed implicitly, and the less the violation of any particular rule or action which is ambiguous under the existing rule-set will trigger broader contests over the rule-governed space as a whole—and, therefore, the more freedom. If I can barely hint at my disagreements with you without leading to a break of relations, our conversations will be to that extent unfree, and our equality constantly in question; if I can tell you that I think you are completely wrong and you can respond in kind and both of us end up remaking our views and deepening our friendship, we simply take our equality for granted and our conversation will be freer in proportion to that unconstrained assumption of equality. This structure holds for economic as well as political spaces, so the issue of public vs. private freedoms also seems to me to miss the point. Finally, the formulaic contrast between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” simply presupposes the split between freedom and equality—equality of opportunity is shared freedom, and so defending it is a rearguard maneuver against liberal democracy in the latter’s idiom.

There are, then, two questions: first, how did the wedge between equality and freedom get installed and, second, how can it be removed? In answer to the first question, it seems to me the guilty parties are those modern elites who appointed themselves guardians of the newly proletarianized masses—the Social Democrats in Europe and the Progressives in the U.S. They assumed society would become unmanageable due to its material inequalities and the irrationalities of the market, and the only way to make it manageable would be to “thicken” the rules, i.e., dole out rights in separate parcels—a bit of equality here, a bit of freedom there. It was not very difficult to bring big business on board, as the new administrative state gave them a seat at the table and protects them from competition. Resistance was bribed and suppressed when necessary, and, to be fair, there was no interest in taking away more freedom than necessary—I suspect the mistake had a lot to do with the need to package constitutional government for export, but this history has been written many times and does not need recounting here.

The second question is the hard one. It is also unavoidable if you believe, as I do, that liberal democracy has reached its limits—it has run out of slush funds to buy off opposition, and I suspect its power of repression would be found wanting as well. But the vast majority has bought into it, and will not come anywhere near the sensible option of cutting its losses before it is much too late. The incentives and disincentives can’t be rewired in time and, indeed, who would do that? Who would know how?

The only answer I can think of now is to insist upon and embody the indivisibility of equality and freedom in all our actions. If someone wants to engage us with strict and all encompassing rules, and you find it nevertheless advantageous to enter the relationship, insist that they be bound to the letter of those rules as well, while perhaps trying to maximize freedom within them. Meanwhile, seek out those willing to take the risks in exchange for the pleasures of more minimal rules and expanded modes of freedom. Refuse as much as possible duplicitous situations, where the tacit rule book contradicts the explicit one, or where the status of the “referees” is unclear. Avoid rigged games and replace them with transparent ones whenever you can. Anyone can do these things privately and publicly—we can all identify, expose and denounce rigged games—rights without responsibilities and responsibilities without rights.

A portion of American conservatism has begun to think through the legacy of Progressivism—the audience of Glenn Beck and the followers of Ron Paul in particular, and this is by no means a marginal group. What I refuse to do (without necessarily accusing anyone) is to treat that legacy as monstrous, rather than mistaken, as requiring repudiation rather than correction. To do otherwise is make another, potentially disastrous mistake, and to indulge oneself in scapegoating. We have all indeed bought into liberal democracy, we are all invested—it wasn’t a mere few who foisted it upon us, nor was the history of the U.S. through the 20th century irrevocably “tainted”—the foreign policy views of the libertarians are as crazed as anything coming from the Left, and are stamped with the illicit pleasures of scapegoating, wherein the other side becomes more guilty and you more innocent, the more you look into matters. The victory over the two totalitarianisms was a remarkable accomplishment, and so was the creation of a vast middle class, and we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation without it.

We can also recognize the fantasy of an equality without freedom as an attitude derived from the originary scene—such a fantasy confuses desire with the resentment of the center so that one’s own deserts can continually be recalibrated to one’s own advantage. The best dissection of this fantasy I know interesting comes from Karl Marx, and his Critique of the Gotha Program (focusing on the defects of the first stage of communism):

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

In other words, the quest for equality of results requires the continual creation of new categories of victimization, of unfairness built into the nature of things. Human judgment measures according to a standard, but the standard (insofar as it’s not a sheer defense of some privilege or order) is an attempt to maintain the articulation of equality and freedom. The inhuman fantasy of an external canon of judgment (that will naturally come down on your side) is itself universally human, and the only way to defuse it is probably by spinning out its implication until it reaches its absurd logical conclusion. The problem is that we have come to let such fantasies govern our public life and dignified them with their own political category, to be “balanced” against another: “equality of outcome.”

Originary Mistakenness

The progression from defilement, to sin, to guilt serves an index of the progression from the ethical to the moral—that is, from imperatives issued by the center (and materialized in ritual forms) to imperatives issued to oneself, demanding reciprocity with one’s fellows. The defilement of the communal space occurs when some prohibition has been violated—the intention behind the violation is irrelevant (it could have been an accident, say spilling some liquid used in the ritual); the contamination or pollution must be cleansed, and this can also only be done through strictly prescribed ritual means. Meanwhile, one only sins when one deliberately violates some divine command, and one is only guilty when one can be judged (and judge oneself) according standards of probity that are shared but also internalized within each individual.

If everything human can be found, albeit implicitly or potentially, on the originary scene, it follows that nothing found on the originary scene is ever lost. Defilement, or its possibility, is undoubtedly present on the originary scene: the sign has to be emitted “properly,” or recognizably, by all participants, and the failure to do so, even due to slowness or inadequate mimetic capacities, would pollute the scene, i.e., leave lurking unacceptable levels of menacing violence. It is easy to understand why Judaism, Christianity, and then modernity would want to eliminate all trace of the “irrationality” of defilement; but it should also be possible to understand that this approach hasn’t worked, and can be implicated in the worst violence of 20th century’s crisis of modernity.

Indeed, the investment by both Nazism and Communism in discourses of defilement might lead us to redouble our efforts to expunge its apparently indelible traces. We can recognize these traces in the tropes of “infection,” “pollution,” “contamination” and so on applied to both the race and class enemies of these regimes; and it would therefore be possible to reduce these regimes to a recrudescence of primitive, “compact” societies in revolt against the market order. But the power of White Guilt is also the power of defilement—otherwise, it would not have proven so “contagious” so as to “contaminate” even those (Western) countries at war with Nazism; nor would it continue to prove itself so impervious to attempts to direct attention back to more “rational” articulations of individual act, intent, and acknowledged social norms. I wouldn’t propose changing the name to “White Defilement,” but we could take the mysterious power of White Guilt to indicate that sinfulness and guilt are constructed with the materials of defilement, rather than replacing them.

A sense of defilement, of some derangement of the communal and even world order that implicates one even if you not only didn’t commit but resisted with all your might, is a perfectly proper response to the crime of genocide—it is denying that sense, then, that is “irrational.” The perceived irrationality of that sense of defilement lies in the practices through which we seek to ward off the dreaded derangement of being, what we have come to call the “slippery slope,” and which lead us to invest more and more in deferring ever more vague threats. But accusations of irrationality here presuppose the possibility of setting proper limits and guardrails, which can only be done through shared intuitions and in the course of events. The problem, then, lies in giving public expression to this defilement, which is only partially amenable to dialogue or negotiation.

I would suggest addressing this problem through another issue that I have written a lot about lately—error, in its simultaneous emergence with norm on the originary scene. The one who makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, or commits some solecism (or, for that matter, “misreads” a situation, “misunderstands” a text, “misses” a “hint,” and so on), is as “blameless” as the one who accidentally disrupts some ritual space; and the mistake evokes a very similar sense of unease and fragility—everyone around feels compelled to show that they would never make such a mistake, first of all by demonstrating some recognition of its mistakenness. I hypothesized in an earlier post that this is because the linguistic error is a sign of infinite desire: making a mistake exposes one as imitating what one doesn’t know how to imitate, and therefore what one doesn’t understand, and the only reason for doing so is an “empty” and insatiable desire to be included in the community. The possibility of granting entrance to one capable of merely adopting the required forms as means turns the norms of the community themselves into an object of desire, and possible possession, and they can therefore no longer serve as reliable means of mediation. In that case, defilement can be seen as originary mistakenness. (There is not an analogous noun for being in error; and the double meaning of “mistaken” also accords well with the incontinence of defilement.)

We can see the entire development of speech forms as a series of mistakes. The originary sign itself was a mistake, a gesture that abandoned its object part way, and was then accentuated, equally mistakenly, in response to the attention paid its anomalous abortion. The first imperative was an inappropriate ostensive; the first interrogative a prolonged, which is to say, botched imperative, diverted part way through by the uncertainty of its fulfillment; the first declarative, the negative ostensive, is, at the very least reactive, and could not have been based on any “rational” assumption of its success; the first articulation of two parts of speech (in my hypothesis) the mistaken application of an imperative (verb) to an object (name) under contention; finally, once those two “slots” are available and modify each other in some way, words and phrases can be converted by being mistakenly entered into them.

All idioms are built upon the cornerstone of some mistake. If the mistaken is marked, then, and we unmark ourselves by enforcing the norm against the polluting mistake, then we mark ourselves by forced innovations that risk being mistaken and unmark others by constructing idioms around their mistakes. Originary mistakenness does not abolish the categories of sin, guilt and crime; rather, it undergirds those categories: we can abhore, fight against, and punish evil while acknowledging that at its source is a category mistake: somewhere along the line the sign was taken for reality in the fullness of desire, and the subsequent evil results from the demand that that illusory identity of sign and reality be restored. And we can return to that category error and make it the starting point of a new idiom.

Modernity is such a mistake: the founding of modernity was the application of the transcendence of scapegoating through Jesus to the elimination of oppression through the progress of humanity. This mistake requires not only inveterate hostility to Christianity but the unending search for historically relevant scapegoats to elevate as denunciations of everything sacrificial in humanity—in other words, for new sacrifices to cancel out the old. If there is a distinctive unease or defilement one feels as a modern, it is in not being an adequate potential sacrifice—which is to say, being unable to imagine a scene in which one’s death would have “meaning.” Victimary thinking in turn mistakes modernity as an extension and intensification of the Christian event, and a means for the uneven production of victims.

We can never be certain of understanding each other but we can be certain of misunderstanding each other—there will be mistakes in every exchange of signs. We can try and reduce the misunderstandings or we can make them productive—the problem with seeking to reduce them past a certain point is that the exchange of signs is hardly worth it because nothing new is being conveyed, so at that point, at the very least, it is better to make the misunderstandings more productive. We can do so by rejecting the dialogic model of discourse, with its concern for transparency and replacing it with a “regulatory” model of discourse in which I try to follow, refine and enhance the rules I take the other to be following. In this latter case transparency is supported by an irreducible opacity—the tacit rules and habits which are always embedded in discourses but can never be made explicit (except by following some other, largely tacit, rule for making rules and habit explicit). Mistakes, in this case, can be revelatory, as they put forward other rules, which can always be articulated in some way.

Dialogue and conversation—alternations of interrogatives and declaratives—are important and within their own sphere transformative; but they presume that we are free of defilement, that the contamination has been contained. The islands upon which that assumption could be safely made are rapidly shrinking. Regulatory or disciplinary discourse draws upon the more fundamental imperative-ostensive articulations. We make demands of our models and of our objects of desire: we demand that they instruct us in how to emulate and possess them. Such demands become prayers that are answered as we strive to become worthy of our models and objects of desire. Rules emerge in the ostensive disclosure of those signs of worthiness. These signs of worthiness (or worthlessness) appear in our own gestures and habits, to others, who see them against the background of abjection (our originary mistakenness) and adopt their own attitudes towards our models and objects. What anyone can do differently is minimalize and publicize the rules they follow, so as to increase generativity and make visible the consequences of any particular mistake.

An acknowledgement of our originary mistakenness would radically transform our attitude toward risk, and there is little today that is in more desperate need of transformation. It would be very easy to see White Guilt as an indemnification policy against the risks involved in resentments held by anyone not firmly invested in the existing system, and the increasing terror of risk of any kind can be seen across all our institutions to the point where it is nearly paralyzing us. The realization that everything is interconnected intensifies the fear that any mistake can bring everything down, but it could just as easily lead us to notice all kinds of redundancies and back-ups that are also part of our interconnectedness. The real threat to the market system is the desperate attempts to avoid its breakdown—I would go so far as to assert that no such thing would have happened if the government just stayed out of the financial meltdown in September 2008. Enormous amounts of wealth would have been lost, but before too long people would have been buying and selling, lending and borrowing, saving and investing again, perhaps first of all on the margins of the current system dominated by the alliances between the government regulators and the huge financial institutions. Accepting our originary mistakenness will eliminate the terror of contagion, contamination and defilement, in its contemporary form of various “domino theories,” which tell us if one crucial piece goes down it will bring everything else down with it. Even if it does, something will get up again, and we can put our energies into that inevitably risky something.

More thoughts on minimal secessionism

The thinking behind my most recent post was that the possibility of a systemic collapse of the contemporary market/democratic system can’t be discounted; that if such a collapse takes place life will nevertheless continue: people will need food, shelter, power, etc., and they will enter into economic relations in order to meet those needs, and political and cultural relations so as to define and preserve the relationships they enter into; and that, therefore, it is helpful to think about the kinds of dispositions and capacities that might be exercised in anticipation of that possibility, and exercised in such a way as to simultaneously minimize said possibility but to restore some new normalcy as quickly as possible afterwards. In others words, I was proposing thinking on the margins of the current system, in the shadow of its possible demise, for both diagnostic and prescriptive purposes.

There is another reason to take up the question, though, and that is the growing difficulty the differing factions in American life will have living together. Some kind of separation, embedded in differing ways of life, of the factions from each other, might be the best alternative to civil war. The story of 20th century American society and politics has been the rise of Progressivist assumptions—i.e., the assumption that modern life was too complex to allow for its management by private agencies and spontaneous forms of order and needed, therefore, to be turned over to scientific experts. Freedom was a source of chaos and conflict on a level incompatible with an advanced technological civilization and must give way to a largely planned (and ultimately transnational) order. The attempts by an insurgent conservative movement, through the 80s-00s, to resist the installation of this order (based upon the alliance between big government and big business), have only succeeded in slowing it down, and that only temporarily. It seems to me clear, though, first, that Progessivism has reached its limits, that is, it generates more resentments than it can recirculate, and it now threatens to swallow up the market order upon which is has been merely parasitic so far; second, that its adherent are nevertheless determined to continue pushing through to the definitive and irreversible establishment of that order, by any means necessary—indeed, they can’t imagine a life worth living under any other order; third, that a majority of Americans wish to retain the benefits, real and perceived, granted to them by that order, without supporting its continued expansion; fourth, that the wishes of this majority cannot be met, since progressivism must continue to grow or wither away; and, fifth, that a growing minority of Americans are coming to feel that they can’t live under the Progressive order at all, even in its present form, and that they must resist, at all costs, its further expansion.

It is that last observation that decisively changes the equation. I would estimate the number of hard core progressives in the U.S at 15-20%, but they are very heavily concentrated in high influence arenas (media, education, many sectors of big business and, of course, government) and are in close contact with and receive significant support from their international equivalents. I would estimate the number of Americans who will have had it with progressivism by the time this President and this democratic majority will have shown us everything they have at something like 20-25%. If the majority interested in some version of current arrangements could constitute a genuine center, those rough edges could be smoothed out; but if they can’t, then it is the polarity that will drive events. That is the way things look to me.

It would be easy to dismiss talk of civil strife, much less civil war, as hyperbolic, but I have a very specific scenario in mind: the progressives must institute their agenda nationally and internationally, and it must do so through a solid phalanx of laws and bureaucracies, and those laws must ultimately be enforced. In the end, it doesn’t matter if this is done by an overtly progressive administration and legislature or covertly and gradually through the armies of unelected and permanent judges and administrators who are controlled by no administration and have only the most distant relationship to laws (which, increasingly, do little more than empower those very administrators to enforce some “mandate”)—it will be seen through even in the latter case. We are already almost at the point where progressives insist upon arresting citizens for actions that the latter consider to fall wholly within their legitimate rights (perhaps we passed the point a while ago, but I don’t want to enter into too many controversies here); we are almost certain to get to the point where constitutionalists feel compelled to make a point of forcing them to do so and progressives will in turn feel compelled to make a special point of complying—and resistance will be organized, fairly rapidly and surprisingly effectively, I think. (I’m still thinking of that remarkable “Green Police” commercial during the Super Bowl! But also of the harassment of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant by the Human Rights commission in Canada, the current trial of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—and much else.) It’s hard to say how the police and army (the men with the guns) will fall out in the event—nagging grandmothers who don’t want gay pastors rather than battling violent criminals might seem awfully tempting to a lot of them, but many will feel ashamed and wish to return to defending the innocent against the violent. And we should also consider that all this will be taking place in the context of what I assume will be an extended and increasingly grave recession, perhaps depression.

The secessionism I am exploring, then, is also aimed at providing an alternative to such a confrontation, and at ensuring that such a confrontation, if it turns out to be inevitable, is resolved as quickly, peacefully and, of course, successfully as possible.

To put it yet another way, I am practicing what the theorist of nuclear warfare (and how will that play into all this?) Herman Kahn called “thinking the unthinkable”—perhaps that’s the most authentic mode of originary thinking, since the unthinkable is what must have first of all have been glimpsed for our first ancestors to have put forth the life-saving sign.

Marginalism as Minimal Secession

At a certain point in thinking through the question of “gay marriage” I realized that there was a way out of the double bind the victimary continually, and usually successfully, impose upon the normal. I am far from being the only observer who has recognized that there is much more to the demand for gay marriage than its proponents claim. The argument proceeds on two levels: one, the privileges granted to married people, with regard to inheritance, joint property, sharing of insurance plans, visitation rights should one partner be hospitalized, and so on; two, the implicit denial of recognition in the refusal to grant “full equality” to gays. But the privileges could be addressed through changes in contract law—changed more quickly and easily, and in a way that would benefit lots of other people who might like to create less conventional arrangements with non-relatives. It is, then, the “recognition” that is really at stake here, but (here comes the double bind) the problem is that recognition of “full equality” of gays brings along with it a whole panoply of “rights” that cut deeply into private spheres of life and the liberties we still take for granted: to mention just two, the rights of religious institutions to privilege traditional marriage can now be read in terms identical to the refusal to allow black members, treat black patients, etc.; second, and even more ominously, with the creeping advance of “hate speech” laws (and let’s keep in mind that they have already crept along much further in much of the West than here), it will conceivably become possible to criminalize dissent from gay marriage, make promotion of gay marriage (and relationships more generally) mandatory in educational institutions, and so on. Gay marriage, it is easy to conclude, is more about this totalitarian agenda than any marginal benefits it will provide a few gay people.

So, the way out: take marriage out of the hands of the state altogether—return it to the religious institutions and private contractual arrangements. If a church, synagogue or mosque wants to marry gay couples, let them; and let anyone else who distributes benefits or provides access to goods based upon marital status recognize what they want to. In that case, the victory of gay activists (which seems to me, if not quite inevitable, extremely likely) would be a Pyrrhic one—in other words, just abandon the fort, take the supplies, and set up camp elsewhere. So, the question this conclusion raises is whether the same approach is possible in other institutions or all institutions—given that the entire Leftist project depends upon capturing national and global institutions and re-engineering them so that they can penetrate ever more deeply into all areas of life, could we just leave the victimary Left a shell which it is unable to make any use of?

Let me pursue this from another angle. A discussion with a friend of mine about the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political spending reminded me that if one had to identify the single issue most important to the Left, in the US at least, it might very be campaign finance reform—more specifically, public financing of campaigns (leading, inevitably, to the exclusion of all private financing—i.e., the closing of “loopholes”). I always found it interesting, when I myself was on the Left, that discussions about other policies always seemed to go back to discussions about campaign finance, but the reason is not hard to find. The people would really support equality, redistribution of wealth, the socialization of “essential” services, the destruction of traditional values, etc., if they really understood what these ends would do for them; but they can never come to understand that as long as their thinking is muddled and distorted by “corporate” influences, who are (presumably) advantageously positioned so as to advance their ideology. Hence, leveling the playing field of political speech comes first—even more, any failure on the part of the people to accept the agenda of the Left can be interpreted as evidence of insufficient leveling—corporate influence must still be sneaking through, there must be more loopholes to close, etc. From arguments over principles and policies the Left can thereby situate itself on the more comfortable terrain of the infinitely regressive tainting of our entire political arena.

But that’s not what I want to talk about now. In the wake of these reflections, I asked myself: what, if I could narrow it down to one single issue, would I most want to change now, as a way of opening up the possibilities I would like to see flourish? What could it all come back to on my side? When I had my answer, I felt the need to start writing this post, and the answer is: the abolition of the IRS. The IRS is the single most tyrannical and unaccountable institution in our society, and the tax code it enforces the single most powerful support of virtually all the deviations from genuine republican government we suffer from: corporate handouts and Congressional pork and loot for lobbyists and government micro-management of our decisions regarding health care, housing, schooling, the elevation of experts as authorities, etc. Getting rid of the IRS, whether by radically simplifying the tax code, or by abolishing the income tax altogether, would immediately and dramatically increase our freedom. So, public financing of campaigns vs. the abolition of the IRS—these seems to me a helpful pair of dueling icons, reducing the Left-Right struggle to its basic components.

But abolishing the IRS would itself involve passing laws, and therefore garnering public support, lobbying, overcoming other lobbyists, working the media, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the idea (or fantasy) of abolishing the IRS is about the maximal generation of spaces free of the government (and the consequent reduction of government and politics to essentials). Is there a way to cut out the middleman, and start building sustainable institutions independent of government and capable of resisting the encroachments of the government? If the answer is no, it seems to me unlikely that constitutional republics (and, more broadly, the market order) has any future; so why not proceed as if the answer is yes? Perhaps abolishing the IRS could be seen as a by-product or index of this other work of circumventing the government—unlike the Left, which must continually legitimize the centralization of power while turning that power to its own purposes, constitutionalists can represent the resentment of the center by dispersing themselves outside of and to some extent within institutions tied to the government.

Here is the question, put bluntly: could we build schools or networks of schooling drawing completely upon private donations and tuition and therefore capable of rejecting government dictates tied to government funding—not only on the elementary level, but all the way through university and even graduate and professional study? And would the graduates of those schools (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) get hired by private businesses or clients, who would in turn be willing to sign waivers exempting their transactions from government interference? Could private courts be established to adjudicate disputes that might otherwise spill over into the public court system? What about hospitals? Pharmaceutical companies that eschew FDA approval and only deal with customers who waive said approval, accepting internal studies and agreed upon third party investigations in their place? New forms of currency? To what extent could lawsuits insisting upon the rights to such arrangements help to create the necessary space for their emergence, and to what extent would stealth and civil disobedience be necessary? Once a critical mass of such institutions emerged, it would be possible to negotiate with the government over, for example, the right to withdraw tax dollars to institutions which no longer have one’s consent—including, I would be willing to say, the military. The days of the US as a superpower and world police are coming to an end, and we might as well start to think about the military as more of an expeditionary force, focusing, if we retain enough collective sanity, on deterrence and protective measures like missile defense and stricter controls on visa issuance.

At a certain point, as state governments and ultimately the federal government go bankrupt, as victimary discourse makes free speech ever more impossible in the dominant social institutions, as the police, as suggested by a prescient ad in the recent Super Bowl, come to find it more appealing to harass those who buy the wrong light bulbs, drive insufficiently green cars, fail to separate their garbage correctly, exceed their allotted portion of monthly energy, etc., than chasing and combating actual criminals—at a certain point the effort will have to be made. In fact, I see the current rebellion of the Tea Partiers, as encouraging as that is, and as much as I enjoy the discomfiture of the Democrats and the interruption of their sparagmos, less as a vehicle for turning us back to genuine constitutionalism and more as the beginning of the realization that there’s no longer any point to asking the government to let us be free men and women. The Democrats over-reached, and placed their entire agenda, in all its hideousness, before the public, which understandably recoiled; but there is no constituency for reversing the welfare state, and no means of resisting the gradual creep of socialism through the judiciary and bureaucracy. And, if I’m wrong, the marginalist politics I propose could easily enter the “slipstream” of a new constitutionalism—I am suggesting, though, that if we are even to be ready for that, we must operate under the assumption that that won’t be an option. One way or another, the many tens of millions of Americans who will find it imperative to resist the new order—which they will now be able to recognize in more subtle, post-Obamian forms—will find some way of doing so.

New ways of living would be accompanied by new ways of thinking and speaking. And they would be new—the idioms of traditionalism would likely enter the new idioms, but they wouldn’t dominate them. Predicting the form and content of new idioms is impossible, but we can expect and contribute to new vocabularies of exchange, contracting, covenanting, gifting and pledging: new indicators of trust and reciprocity. We can present our difference from what our rulers would have us be as the default position, and try to formalize any act of consent to one or another dictate—as if a choice on both sides of the transaction is being made (and if I refuse, a choice would have to be made whether to arrest me, to pursue prosecution—a series of choices none of them pre-dictated). We can remove from our discourses all assumptions of a “mainstream” or “consensus,” assumptions which are deeply rooted in the most casual conversations. Whatever is living, enjoying and loving is interesting, and resentment is interesting as well because it disperses and distances and thereby creates new spaces; what is not so interesting is desire, which is characterized above all by its impatience with the difference between signs and things and, finally, its hostility to the very scenes which make it possible. Mistakes are very interesting, because they provide the opportunity to forgive, instruct and be instructed, and to discover, over and over again, what kind of normal we inhabit and wish to sustain. Mistakes are the deepest sources of innovation—we might catch the habit of treating desires that grab hold of their objects themselves as mistakes, as if the Gnostic revolutionaries just got lost on their way to some new idiom and stumbled into the conflation of desire and reality, as any of us might in our more child-like moments. And if White Guilt is the guilt of the unmarked towards the marked, we can let ourselves be marked by our mistakes and wait for others to come along and unmark us by locating our mistake within a new idiom.

GASC 2010 Website

The website for the 4th annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference, 2010 is now available:

Our conference this year is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 24-26, at Westminster College and Brigham Young University.

If you are planning to present a paper, we encourage you to submit an abstract soon. More details are available at the website.

We’re delighted to announce that on-campus lodging will be available for only $25 a night. This is a single bed in a private room, with a shared bath and kitchen. Very modern, new rooms. There are also regular hotels rooms available nearby for  $80-90 a night including kitchenette.

Please contact Peter Goldman- -with any questions or comments.