Generative Anthropology Summer Conference 2011, May 19-21

The Problem and Possible Necessity of Politics

Politics is the establishment of an arena in which actors compete perpetually, but with distinctly marked victories and defeats determining the power to make and implement laws, before a qualified audience (qualified in the sense of allowed seats in the arena, so to speak, and in the sense of being the arbiter of victory), and without violence. The space in which politics is set is sacred, in being both commonly held and inviolable—state houses, houses of presidents, public squares, etc. Sovereignty is the defense of the line qualifying the actors and audience. Politics can be distinguished from rule, or tyranny, by the competitive nature of the struggle and the actor-audience relation. Politics is most effective when the actors represent cleavages within the audience and reflect upon the meta- or constitutive rules governing the political space itself. Politics evokes other spaces or stages where members of the audience who consider themselves insufficiently represented can impinge upon or even swamp the central political space, as in civil disobedience and protest; the central political space can be overturned by revolution, which aims at instituting a new space; or destroyed by mobs, consumed by hatred towards any center. Politics presupposes the estrangement among social members and groups created by a market economy, while also drawing upon pre-political constituencies (and, therefore, gift economies) which, under pre-political conditions, might have resorted to other forms of score-settling.
My question is, do we need any or all of this? Politics provides a center for a market society that generates no center of its own—is that center a needed supplement or an obstacle to the free development of the market order? Politics provides representation to ethnic groups, economic groups, religious groups that might otherwise be unable to negotiate with each other over social rules of interaction—does politics, then, provide a necessary safety valve for resentments felt by these groups, or does it maintain them and their reciprocal antagonisms in an artificial way? Have we committed some unpardonable sin condemning us to French Revolution re-enactments in perpetuity? What are the issues that everyone in some more or less arbitrarily delineated territory all have to discuss in such a way that even the disappointed can ratify the final decision made? Can we be sure there are any such issues, or does the central political institution itself generate them? Does, or can, politics even work this way anymore: does politics effectively aggregate the beliefs and assumptions embedded in various social divisions so that the majority of citizens can imagine their views and interests are addressed? If not, is the weakness of politics endemic to the institution, either in general, or at this point in history; or is this ineffectiveness something that can be fixed? Obviously no answer to these questions will in itself recommend a particular course of action—even if one concludes that politics should be abolished, that wouldn’t tell one what to do next—for one thing, you would then have to ask whether we “can” do what we “should” or even “must.” At any rate, pursuing these questions should have some diagnostic value.
We could better formulate these questions by asking what kinds of spaces analogous to the political one a completely voluntaristic order would generate, and how they would parallel and differ from political spaces. Maybe I should consider it ominous that Marx’s observation that we should aim at making it so that social evolution no longer requires political revolution, on the one hand, and Trotsky’s Promethean portrait of a communist order in his Literature and Revolution seem to me helpful guidelines here, but I don’t. Trotsky, answering Nietzsche’s charge that communism would level all individuals to the egalitarianism of farm animals contended that, among other things, citizens of a communist society will stage heated, society-wide debates over systems of pedagogy—in a fully marketized order, in which we choose our own security service, our own insurance company, our own means of seeing to our children’s instruction, the legal forms of our own neighborhoods, so that titanic arguments over education, environmental, labor, foreign policy, etc., policies are irrelevant, then “social evolution” would likely involve things like demonstrations of different pedagogic methods and different methods of inquiry into all manner of things which would be made fully public for the sake of inviting people to sign up. The only difference between my approach and Trotsky’s is that he doesn’t say how the decisions about which systems are to be favored will be implemented and how people are to choose while I can assign such decisions and choices to the marketplace.
More challenging than the claim that we need to continue having such tedious discussions over the rules to be followed by unaccountable bureaucracies is the civic republican, Aristotlean argument that, due to our nature as social and political beings, we need to discuss in common the nature of the things we have in common (of course, this notion of politics is also the most distanced from and least descriptive of our current political institutions and habits). This is the same critique that worries about the market as enclosing each of us within private worlds, with our own TV shows, video games, two children and one dog, etc.—what else, other than politics, extricates us from these closed worlds and enables us to resist the tendency to view others as only strangers of more or less utilitarian value?
I think this critique of the market and privatization can be turned back by saying that the concerns adduced are less the result of the generalization of the market economy and more the result of the efforts made by the state to, on a generous reading, cushion the effects of that economy on all, and especially the most vulnerable, members of society. By introducing social security, universal education, socialized medicine, environmental, safety and labor regulation and so on, the state pre-empted efforts, already under way, to address these needs within civil society. If the citizens of a market society had to establish their own mutual aid societies, buy into private companies ascertaining the safety of consumer objects, deal with pollution as a property violation to be adjudicated in local courts, determine what form of education would best prepare their children to grow up and do all this themselves—well, then, it seems to me that we would have a great deal to do with each other and would be very far from isolated in impermeable private worlds. We wouldn’t have to argue about “education policy” because we could send our children to whatever school we wanted, but I would still be very interested in knowing what goes on in your school, probably much more so than I would be now because I could easily shift my children over to it. And your school would advertise its virtues, invite third party assessors in, offer free trial semesters, and so on—and we would establish newspapers, newsletters, webpages and so on discussing the virtues of the various schools, the pedagogical theories they employ, whether or not they favor one or another way of teaching history or biology, and so on. We would have to understand more about education than standardized test scores, since there would be no one to impose those, and institutions of higher education and employers might be more interested in finding out what students can actually show they know. And the discussions would extend far beyond the particular location—someone half a continent, or half a world away could get very interested in the pedagogical experiments we are engaged in. This would clearly be a better school of public virtue than what we have now.
So, what, if anything, would be lost of what we now think about as the “national community”? Is the drama of social life somehow vitiated? To put it more bluntly, is there anything to die for in such arrangements, and, if not, would that be intolerable? Is there some mode of freedom intrinsic to public life that would be lost forever? All these things, or our sense of these things, seem to me to be dependent upon a mandatory central stage, one which we are all obliged to attend to—one that makes decisions out of which we cannot opt out, passes laws we are obliged to obey, sends young people off to fight for all of us, etc. Such a mandatory central scene is modeled on the ecumenical empire: a central scene which flattens out or contains gift economies and local big men by giving all sites and ultimately all individuals a symmetrical relation to the administrative and symbolic center. If such a scene has a genuine nation as its content, why need we worry: all the overlapping institutions and exchanges which replace it will be imbued with the same national substance as the state, only with greater spontaneity. And if it doesn’t, then why should we be concerned lest some other communal content come to fill up the space? Because something will fill it up: exchanging knowledge of different schools and educational strategies, different ways of arranging for sickness and retirement, shared norms for the management of property in particular areas, plus everything we already have (clubs, children sports leagues, block parties, yard sales, parades, etc.) will certainly be given shared symbolic forms. And when, without the police and army to protect us, we have to arm ourselves and negotiate together with various security agencies (whom, we might insist, employ members of our community who will fight out of love and not as mercenaries), it will, in some as yet unknowable sense, be our homeland. Overlapping spaces will replace concentrated, centralizing ones, but the relationships they generate might be even denser.
Indeed, the notion of “overlapping,” which finds powerful expression in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, as well as in Michael Polanyi’s conception of scientific knowledge, provides a model of reality that undermines the imperial and metaphysical models organized around the experiential terms of inclusion/exclusion and transcendence/mundaneness. The center of one scene might provide the audience on the margin of another scene; being higher and having the broader view might not provide knowledge of the junctions between different scenes, which might be where the real action is. Anyone could have knowledge of and influence on others anywhere, but only as the signs of those other places or your own activity ripple through a whole series of mediating scenes. The traditional notion of dialogue, as a model for thinking and citizenship, also presupposes an enclosure—we might jettison that in favor of more unpredictable modes of communication, like Derrida’s dissemination or Jesus’s sowing of seeds; we might imagine our connectedness more along the lines of the children’s game of “telephone,” interested less in being understood and addressed directly than in the surprising twists and peregrinations taken by our words and actions as they pass through overlapping spaces. Such a conception need not be naïve or utopian at all—having a dense network of antennae sensitive to viral and parasitical elements identifiable by their demand that we all participate on their mandatory scene, should make us quick in detecting and forceful in meeting threats.

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