GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 8, 2010

Marginalism as Minimal Secession

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:30 pm

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.

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