Generative Anthropology Summer Conference 2011, May 19-21

Exodus from the Dead End of History

Liberal democracy is predicated upon the severing of liberty and equality. For liberty and equality to be sustainable, they must be reciprocally defining and supporting: I can only be free together with my equals; I can only be equal with others within a reciprocal respect for each other’s freedom. The supposed tension between liberty and equality is a fabrication of liberal democracy, which has the state protect individual pursuits and equal outcomes, thereby limiting one in the name of the other. The outcomes must become ever more equal and the pursuits protected ever more marginal and inconsequential—economic freedom long ago dropped out of sight as a fundamental freedom, leaving sexuality as the main arena of protected freedoms (there will never be a law against “hate sex”).
The unsustainability of liberal democracy is becoming more evident, almost daily. It seems to me a good idea, then, to begin explore what might come after liberal democracy and, more broadly, the single-scenism of modernity—and to do so with as few prejudices (and, hopefully, resentments) inherited from that historical project as possible. I would begin by conjoining, once again, liberty and equality, under the following principles: the basic individual right is to leave a community, and the basic communal right is to determine whom to allow in. The terms of entrance into a community in turn define the specific rights that will be protected within that space.
All cultivated or occupied land, any established institution, actual or virtual, is owned by someone—even if ownership is shared and informal, in the end some will be let in and others kept out. Within any such space, there’s no point to speaking about free speech: I can throw someone out of my house or fire from or refuse entrance to my business because I don’t like what they say. They are free to speak on the street, but that’s because the street is owned by the government, which has committed itself to the defense of certain rights within spaces it owns. The same goes for, say, voting rights, which are granted on the agreed upon terms of the establishment of the community and its political institutions: a corporation can establish voting rights based on the number of shares you own. But the principle that I can’t force any person to stay in my house or business or country can be universally defended.
Defended by whom? If egress from any space is a fundamental right, it is because anyone hopes that leaving one space will enable entrance into or creation of another space, in agreement with others. Postmodern communities, then, will ultimately trace themselves back (in the best Western tradition of the Exodus and the Aeneid) to exiles and refugees who have left one place to establish a new order, and which will be competing for the best immigrants; and communities will also be distinguished between the more dynamic and static—that is, those that want more and those that want fewer, immigrants—with perhaps, some communities wanting none. The communities that want fewer immigrants are more likely to be those that imprison their own population or some portion of it. Precisely because freedom of movement is essential to the more dynamic communities, communities that so imprison those unfortunate enough to find themselves there will be treated with hostility: run your internal affairs however you like, but we consider your refusal to let individuals leave a threat, or at least an inimical act, to us. And making things very uncomfortable for the imprisoning communities will probably be enough to lead them to repudiate their emigration practices which, in turn, is likely to open up those communities. A relatively closed community might still be very attractive for some, and emigration can be strongly discouraged by, say, education practices that make the citizens of that community unsuited for life elsewhere, but such barriers will always be relative and, of course, any adult individual from even the most closed community can, with sufficient talent and effort, assimilate into more open ones.
We can use the word “community” very loosely here, to include neighborhoods and federations of neighborhood (and federations of federations, etc.), schools and school systems, businesses and networks of businesses, on-line and intellectual communities, military alliances, and so forth: any grouping with terms of membership. The terms of association would constantly be subject to negotiation, and each community might allow for various levels of citizenship and rights, as individuals decide where they would like to commit the most resources. A neighborhood might permit families to buy homes and offer them basic property rights (otherwise who would buy homes there?) but only allow voting rights to those who join some association that helps keep the neighborhood running (neighborhood watch, PTA, volunteer fire department, etc.) (Free speech rights may have to defer to the increasingly difficult to control communicative capacities of individuals—but the right to speak in specific, consequential, ways could certainly be calibrated.) A federation of neighborhoods and the businesses operating in them might establish various categories of aliens, for those whose work is valued but have families and friends in other communities established upon different value and whom those individuals don’t wish to disown, and who therefore can’t be completely trusted. Federations can be as large as they need to be, as large as today’s nation-states or larger, and the issues of self-defense, military establishments and war might not be all that different from now, except that the demands and conditions different political entities seek to place upon each other are likely to be much more minimal and transparent. Boundary disputes will involve conflict between competing plausible claims, or between those with claims to a particular property and those who, for whatever reason, have come to occupy it—as always, there will be those interested in aggravating those conflicts just as there will be those interested in resolving them—but as long as it is possible to impose upon aggressors the principle of non-imprisonment (if that’s where we’re all ready to make a stand, even if against the odds), then aggression will be ineffective or irrelevant, because the more peaceful and productive communities will always exercise a gravitational pull upon communities that wish to live parasitically off of others. The rules regarding federations and rights would constantly be subject to negotiation, including the rules regarding who can participate in such negotiations, how often they are to take place, where, etc.
The only dilemma I see confronting such an order is what to do with the misfits, those who are unable or unwilling to abide by the terms of membership in any community and will therefore be unwanted by all. We could say that if you don’t allow misfits from other communities into your own, you tacitly consent to their own treatment of them, in which case the problem must be solved in its own way by, presumably, living communities, where the misfits happen to be found, perhaps most often where they happen to have been born and raised. But those who are misfits in one place might flourish elsewhere, and one could imagine great cooperation among communities in trying to address this issue: perhaps communities would offer grants to other communities to take in misfits, maybe on a trial basis, maybe some communities would specialize in the treatment or accommodation of certain kinds of misfits, etc. We would have to imagine overlapping communities negotiating procedures for discovering the truth regarding alleged transgressions, means of enforcement and modes of punishment without any overarching structure of rights, nothing more than the pragmatic needs and conscience of the community, and the example of other communities, to guide them. That is, it’s easy enough to imagine someone who refuses to do the kind of work the community demands, to live in accord with the norms of any of the available neighborhoods, and yet hasn’t committed any crimes—on my account, the communal order would be free to expel him (or simply refuse him access to any necessary means of life), even if no other community wants him, and no one in the community would be obliged to take responsibility for him. Perhaps the leadership of the community will set aside some land, building, and minimal subsidies, for the hopefully very few who simply can’t or won’t fit in—sort of like ancient sanctuary cities.
In order to create what I would call practices of minimal civilization that might, as peacefully as possible, enable us to transition to such a new order, we will need innovative defenses of and uses for private property. A small example of what we will be up against was given during Rand Pauls’ Senate campaign in 2010, where his critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act made him vulnerable to the charge of wanting to return to the segregated order of yesterday—the gravest political sin in the church of American politics. Indeed, if we argue for the right for any community to define terms of entrance and membership, we have to accept that some communities will determine what we consider to be unsavory terms. The main political task for advocates of a post-liberal democratic federated order would be the development of a political vernacular within which very unfamiliar ways of speaking about rights, responsibilities, obligations, and tolerance are created. More bluntly: we would need to remove the sting from victimary thinking, with its roots all the way down to the bottom of liberal democracy—less, I think, by arguing against it than by refusing to participate in it, by circumventing it through the means of taking up residence in all those literal and metaphorical locations where victimary rhetoric loses its hold on reality to such an extent that even its adherents must recognize it, in their deeds if not their words.
It might help to consider that any community must be modeled on disciplinarity, i.e., a scene of joint attention, itself ultimately modeled on the originary scene: to use Michael Polanyi’s terms, we attend from something to something else—we place something on the margin, unnoticed, and see the center which the margins are all pointing toward. But when the center fails to hold our attention, we notice those margins, which are us—that is, we now attend to what we were attending from. Whatever gesture from the margins redirects our attention in some shared way establishes a new center, and that’s the disciplinary space: the scene of worship, or of inquiry, or love—all different sides of the same thing. The margins will be where new actor/spectator scenes emerge as sites of contest and sources of value interpreted in terms of the founding center. The global market might be seen as such a founding center, emerging from the ruins of the epic battles of the 20th century, but values can only be created, tested and secured on marginal scenes which refer indirectly to that center. Community can only be sustained if people who participate in common practices daily also see most of the same contests and performances as being about the same thing, and often enough share the values disclosed by those performances and contests. So, for the mini-secessions I am proposing, what is necessary is that new performances and contests, as independent as possible from existing forms of authority, be created that refer in positive and illuminating ways to the global marketplace—bypassing as much as possible the noisy and acrimonious contests that obscure the global market, place it in doubt, and generate hostility towards it.

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