GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 4, 2010

The Rights of the Anyown 1: A Politics of Redemption

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:08 pm

“Redeem” is word with intertwined economic, political and religious meanings: it means to buy back or to pay off; it means to make up for; it means to buy or recover a slave or hostage; and it means to be delivered from one’s state of sin. It’s easy to see that it’s essentially the same word, in slightly different meanings in each case—to retrieve something that has been lost through some kind of payment. It is very helpful, though, to see the relations in this single word between Christ’s suffering for the sake of fallen humanity and getting back your watch from the pawnshop. And we can bring in, as well, the concept of honor, when we consider, for example, the man who, after some cowardly or unconscionable act in his youth, redeems himself with some act of heroism later on, along with the political resonances of redemption from slavery or, more broadly, oppression. I’m going to see if it works for describing and hypothesizing the rights of the anyown, the figure I am presenting as the basis of political thinking: the bearer of ownership rights which are yet to be ascertained because, while manifest in the market economy, they are rooted in the realms of egalitarian distribution and the gift economy; and, because the assertion of anyown’s rights automatically reverberates through the rights economy, modifying the value of everything else, which entails the right to have access to a fair measure of values, economic political and cultural.

The most interesting of the libertarian thought experiments are those which hypothesize ways in which functions currently fulfilled by government, including the most basic and unquestioned ones, such as currency, infrastructure and defense, might be performed just as well, or better, by private enterprises. Any politics that seeks to chip away at the welfare state, first of all its excesses and most unsustainable elements, but ultimately the powers allotted to government which made the excesses possible in the first place, would find itself confronted with the question of how the functions lopped off from the government would be fulfilled. Some seem to me pretty easy: we don’t really need the Department of Education at all; some, obviously, like those dealing with poverty, sickness and old age are more difficult. Even the easy ones would be instructive, though—the abolition of the Department of Education would not eliminate the need to nationalize educational norms and practices, and in the return to educational localization we would no doubt see an enormous variety of educational practices but also all kinds of efforts at overlapping those practices, generalizing their lessons and establishing some conformity in accreditation (what happens when a family moves from Georgia to Ohio and the schools in Ohio have to determine the meaning of the credentials forwarded by the school in Georgia?). It seems to me very easy to imagine private agencies contracting with schools and school districts to establish such norms—such entrepreneurial ventures would provide an essential service, and one which could be very easily judged by the contractee: does the student from Georgia who should be an A student according to the norms established and overseen by that agency in fact perform at that level in her new school in Ohio?

Similarly with, say consumer protection agencies created, say, in the wake of the dismantling of the FDA. Companies which do their own testing would contract with producers, which would in turn advertise the approval they have been given; companies would provide different levels of guarantee, depending upon the product and the desire of the company (as a consumer you could buy only from companies that have achieved 98% safety level, but if you prefer cheapness to such elevated levels of inspection, you could go with 80%); competition would make sure that dirty deals between inspectors and companies are exposed quickly—this could easily work better than the current system of government inspection. At any rate, once such functions have been won back for the private, voluntary sector, we could speak of the “redemption” of expropriated state functions and their return to society. Private agencies would literally be buying back those functions, and politics would focus on forcing the state to allow them to do so.

“Redemption” might take on even more powerful meanings when it comes to, say, a community buying a river or woods back from the state and, rather than letting the EPA dictate their environmental needs, going ahead and suing the industry that has been polluting the area—property rights, rather than ecological fanaticism, would lead to the right balance between economic and environmental imperatives. Similarly, the houses in a run down, crime ridden neighborhood might be “redeemed” by members of the community, who would all become shareholders, lease and sell according to strict principles, hire private security agents and thereby establish rigorous community standards. And for those who fear the parceling off and selling of the public space and the consequent dystopian nightmare of corporate rule portrayed in every third Hollywood movie, it is well to keep in mind that the collected economic power of middle class Americans, especially in a far more free economy with very low taxes, would overwhelm the power of corporations and all the billionaires in the world (without even taking into account that all those middle class Americans are the consumers and workers those companies depend upon)—that power would just need to be harnessed toward the “redemption” of the poor, the polluted, the corrupt, the unsafe and so on.

I’ve dealt with these issues before, but what brings me back to them in these new terms is an essay I recently read, about the thousandth, I would guess, handwringing over new developments in the biological sciences and the “ethical” dilemmas they pose for “us.” What will “we” do about cloning, genetic engineering, and so on? I long ago stopped taking these arguments seriously because, really, there is no “we,” certainly not in the sense that there are “problems” we will “solve,” “discussions” we will have, etc., leading to decisions “we” will make, together. One person does something, whether it fits some pre-existing moral code or “discussion,” another person reacts, and a third person tries to reconcile the results. That’s the way things we work—after it’s over, speaking about what “we” have decided may serve as a useful shorthand. Biological innovation, if left to private initiative alone, might lead to… weapons for rogue states and terrorists—after all, companies will sell to the highest bidder, regardless of morality, won’t they? Well, not if they want to sell to others—but, just as important, why don’t those concerned buy out those weapons themselves or pay even more for antidotes or defenses against those weapons or, even better, redeem the countries ruled by rogue regimes or controlled by terrorists—endow organizations and institutions that will defend rights and provide sanctuary, and exploit corruption in those governments so as to protect what has been established. The tremendous asymmetry in power represented by the asymmetry in generated by free as opposed to enslaved societies would make all kinds of redemptive remedies possible. And, on the cultural level, if you don’t want a mosque at Ground Zero, put together a group that buys up the property in the area—each controversy will have its equivalent possibility, in each case requiring some ingenuity and creating new problems for the redemptive agency to address.

On the one hand, a politics of redemption would be all about money; on the other hand, the money itself would be about all kinds of things—it would be money put where people’s mouths are. If you’re worried about crime, contribute to a consortium dedicated to redeeming the neighborhoods which are its source—such consortiums will have weighted rules for voting, presumably, so the more you give, the more say you have. This would, on the face of it, give more power to the rich—but the rich would also have to put their money where their mouth is, and also where lots of other people are putting theirs—the rich would be mixed in with the rest. Second, a politics of redemption would draw upon people’s readiness to sacrifice, both time and money. The relations within these consortiums would be complex, based upon rules for decision making, division of labor and so on; and their relation to their redeemed properties would be even more complex, including, sometimes, the insistence on traditional hierarchies and ritualistic relationships and at other times experimentation.

The main role for government in this case would be to establish an arena in which the complicated contractual relations such an order would entail could be conducted with sufficient stability and reliability—I would say that much emphasis would shift to the civil courts, where most disagreements would be sorted out but just as important would be a criminal order, or a politics of redemption on the part of the state which would protect any individual’s right to leave any of the consortiums they have contracted with, as the biggest danger they would pose is new forms of privatized violence against individuals who have entered contracts touching upon important aspects of their lives. The cultural conditions for a politics of redemption would include powerful presumptions against state interventions in private matters, and so norms and laws regarding when such intervention is unavoidable would be a constant source of argument. This would, in a sense, throw us back into the same kind of arguments the US was having before the civil war, between the Democrat’s argument for “popular rule” and “diversity” in institutions and the Republican argument that equality and the universal enforcement of rights supersedes those principles. Maybe this is the one “eternal” argument of any modern republic.

And the main role for a politics of redemption today is the joint task of evacuating those areas of government which would need to give way for a politics of redemption, and creating the preliminary or embryonic forms of such a politics, ready to fill the vacuums that will be created given either a favorable political environment or fiscal collapse. There is no need to create utopian maps of a fully libertarian order; the idea, rather, would be to target places where the state is failing and voluntary approaches could be tried. As the Left has always done, it is also useful to test the boundaries and antinomies of the existing legal order, through creative forms of disobedience. And it seems to me that, contrary to the favored arguments of the political class, we want to see much more money in politics—unregulated money, anonymous money, money that will prevent the political class or the media from ever dreaming they can again obtain a monopoly on “legitimate” public discourse.

Another way of speaking about the center-margin relation constitutive of originary thinking is in terms of the “in-between”—what is in the center is in between us. The shift in terms provides for a shift in focus—the center attracts attention, while what is in between us directs our attention toward each other. Arendt placed great importance on such “in-betweens,” and the destructiveness of any politics that seeks to eliminate them and place us “face to face” with each other without mediation—an example she gave was the table around which we sit at a meeting. The table serves various purposes—we write on it, lean on it, put our coffee on it, etc.—but beyond all that it separates and relates us to each other. If the table disappeared, there is a sense in which we would be more “naked,” more vulnerable, more self-conscious, and less capable of sharing some “public thing.” It would be strange to think about the table as sacred, though, even though it seems to serve a very similar purpose (of course stories, perhaps apocryphal, about stalled diplomatic processes resulting from disagreements about the size and shape of tables suggest that the table can take on a kind of sacrality). Even more, the notion of an in-between, and the related notion of the “middle” (it is the middle class that has prevented class war between rich and poor in Western societies), suggests the even more subordinate category of the “means.” God surely isn’t a means to some other end—but, we can see how He is, in fact—we use God to prevent us from tearing each other apart.

The in-between or the middle seems to me to direct our attention to the scene in a different way, perhaps later on than the centralization of the object, but I’m not sure: the object becomes the center of attention as the concentration of our accumulating desires—at that point, we are all marking the object by grasping for it. With the issuance of the sign/gesture, that center of attention is converted into a repellent force—we attend from the sign to the object as the “authorization” of the sign. Also, though, we attend from the authorizing object to one another—everyone on the scene is now in some state of grasping/withholding in the light of the center. But the center here has become the in-between or the middle, insofar as we are not looking at it but has it has become unmarked (untouchable) it allows us to see and mark or unmark as the case demands each of our fellows (each of whom is a little bit more tending to grasp or to withhold). It may be that the center represents the experience of the sacred, the certainty and security it provides as we contemplate it, while the middle authorizes the creation of means—first of all, new ways of mediating between persons, but also, increasing, those new ways become means of transforming our tools and physical environment so as to keep placing us in new configurations with each other.

Money is as extreme a “mean” as you can find—it serves only to mediate exchanges; and yet, it makes sense, as Marx and many before and after him have remarked, to see money as “sacred”—the difference from Marx is that there’s no need to see anything obscene about this. Money is a sacred means—saving it is honorable, wasting it is disgraceful, spending it wisely is an obligation and placing it in the middle of some scene casts light on everyone there—and giving your money to some shared purpose, either a purpose you also supervise the fulfillment of, or one you remain anonymously aloof from, or one which you preside over as a public benefactor, is a mode of transcendence. A politics of redemption is a politics of devotion but no donation could ever be complete without concrete acts of exchanging favors and gestures, which such a politics makes a space for.

If a politics of redemption is a defense of the rights of the anyown, then it is a defense of the right of the anyown to spend money as anyown sees fit; but, then, that must also be a right to use whatever form of money the participants in an exchange agree to. Regarding the right of the anyown, fiat money is the first expropriation. It’s hard to imagine the titanic struggle that would be required to overturn the regime of fiat money. But it might be much easier to imagine directing attention to all the favors and gestures that we will never know but might have been exchanged, all the means that might have been created, if not for the systematic expropriations that are only possible because of fiat money—because the government can take money away from productive citizens by creating more money to give as largesse to their favored constituents.

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