Sunday, September 24, 2006

Initial thoughts on Arendt's On Revolution

I'm about half-way through Hannah Arendt's On Revolution, which is quickly proving to be an excellent book. It's got me thinking about several other good reads from this summer, particularly Walter Lippmann's Drift and Mastery, which I reviewed here. One of the main insights I picked up from Lippmann's book was that private gain, in the form of unfettered, "rugged individualistic" self-interest, can never be a replacement for cooperation and the public exchange of ideas. Thus he preemptively discredits, almost 80 years in advance, Reaganism and its "return" to small government, pro-business ideology. Arendt, like Lippmann, thinks that there is an inherent virtue in public participation, one that stands apart from narrow notions of private interest, rather than being a continuation of the latter. Indeed, "freedom" for her means "freedom to" be political, in a manner totally different from "freedom from" incursions on civil liberties. This she would call "liberation." There is another sort of liberation, "freedom from" necessity, or poverty, which she calls the "social question" and claims to have been the problem behind all radical revolutions, from the French to the Russian.

I think both Arendt and Lippmann are definitely on to something. As Robot rightfully noted back during our discussion of Lippmann, the latter is surprisingly for big business, that is, the trusts of the early 20th century. This would seem to contradict his democratic leanings, at least in our early 21st century minds, which (in my case at least) see a direct conflict between the power of the corporation and the power of the people. Not Lippmann, who saw opportunity for open and communicative practices in nearly every social and economic innovation of his time. In other words, he saw in the trusts the potential for democratic decision-making and the full participation of the working class, who hitherto had been a largely silent entity.

The extent to which things have not turned out to Lippmann's liking should be apparent to us; in fact, rampant big business (of a hierarchical order) and creeping bureaucracy more or less forced Lippmann to retract his early optimism and insist upon the guiding hand of "enlightened" technocrats. However, to return to Arendt: she and Lippmann share an enthusiasm not only for the freedom from harassment (if not from necessity), but for the freedom to participate. This, I think, has to be a fundamental aspect of democracy, if by democracy we mean something distinct from republican constitutionalism. (As an aside, Arendt offers the thesis that the founding fathers of the US always believed in this "freedom to" as well, but that later interpretations of their philosophy and of the Constitution have obscured this aspect and emphasized the "limited government, pro-private interest" picture.) For my own part, I think that any question of how to encourage this participation on a widespread level has to take into consideration the "social question" simultaneously, because participation has historically been limited to those who have the time and leisure to "afford" it. But here is my crucial point: there is no guarantee that alleviation of want, that is, a greater welfare state, will go hand in hand with greater participation. In fact, we can imagine a state of affairs in which all basic necessities are completely taken care of, but to the absolute detriment of political freedom; a situation which could hypothetically arise in an autocracy and which indeed seemed to be the case under Soviet Communism. I think this goes a long way in disproving "vulgar Marxist" conceptions of social revolution or complete collectivization of labor as being the only necessary condition for "true" freedom. In all cases, welfare remains a "freedom from" certain conditions and never a "freedom to" greater ideals. (This encompasses the problem of bureaucratization, which mid-century social commentators were not ignorant of.)

My ideal, then, shares some similarities with libertarianism (a curious connection I've noted before) or at least localism, but not the localism promoted by "compassionate conservatives," who usually encourage it for the purpose of winning the most reactionary social disputes (e.g. gay marriage) or promoting "faith-based initiatives" which cannot by themselves deal with the problems of healthcare and basic welfare. A true localilized governmental structure, under the aegis of "socialism" or "social democracy," would present citizens with opportunities to participate in legislative questions of all arenas, be they economic, municipal, educational, etc. Perhaps the federal government could duplicate this process but it would mean a restructuring of it away from the entrenched, oligarchic, money-driven form it has become--perhaps through stricter term limits, publicly funded elections, and so on.

These are half-finished notions with admittedly not much intellectual firmament behind them yet. Perhaps all that is needed to dispel them is a cursory reading of Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty," which fervently opposes "positive freedom." Thoughts?


Blogger kushakov said...

It's good to know Arendt is working her crazy magic on your mind.

In reference to your comment on the empire/imperialism thread, I want to call attention to something you said in this post: "In fact, we can imagine a state of affairs in which all basic necessities are completely taken care of, but to the absolute detriment of political freedom..."

To me, this is a fairly good description of the biopolitical ideal - and I don't think it's over-theoretical to use Foucault's term, so long as we are clear as to what we mean to indicate. Politics as you, Arendt, and even Agamben define them are indeed antithetical to the logic of administered health and wellness which currently prevails. In fact, your comment is of a piece with the writing of Badiou, who argues that politics, the "freedom-to" of creative, collective struggle (struggle on behalf of that which does not yet exist), is all that lifts us above our animal mortality; in other words, politics is what we have, as a collective of individuals, that directs us beyond the determinism of pure economics, of Darwinian strife, and of stultifying conservatism. At the risk of making a premature judgement, I would situate Badiou and Arendt (and others) along a genealogy of thought that is neither fully materialist nor fully idealist, but which refuses to reduce humanity to a History of abstract forces, or to the dismal scientism of economics and genetics. With Nietzsche, certainly, as well as Deleuze, Freud, Lacan, and others (names, anyone?). For me, this is the trajectory of ideas that has begun and should continue to displace Marxism as the leftist paradigm and its particular knot of assumptions and directives.

My ideal also has much in common, at least in spirit, with libertarianism and localism. What follows is a rough sketch of a sort of political activity which might, I think, satisfy some of our shared concerns.

First, the politics which we must practice - and I think it's critical that we invent and sustain the political, rather than theorize it only - will be completely voluntary; you cannot force a person to activate herself on the political level, to create for herself a "freedom-to." Those who volunteer will meet on common ground, private or public, to raise concerns and propose actionable solutions.

All decisions made by the collected body must be ratified unanimously and carried out by all; a collective decision cannot, in other words, affect only a portion of those gathered, but must serve as a guiding principle for all involved. (To some degree, Badiou's Organisation Politique ( already works along these lines - something I mean to ask him about when he lectures in NYC.) Thus, proposals must be actionable for each member of the collective, otherwise these gatherings will occasion nothing more than the politics-of-interest, and "freedom-from" in which we are presently mired.

This model of politics would make no sense if only like-minded or demographically united persons participated as a single collective. However, as soon as a collective is composed of members with differing beliefs, different backgrounds, faiths, etc, the actionable proposals put forth at gatherings would require agreement by all and would not therefore gain ratification if slanted towards particular parties or interests.

This is as much headway as I've made along this line of thought. I do mean to put this sort of theory into practice, though, so I would welcome any and all involvement in the process.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I have to say that all of this sounds fairly ridiculous to my (admittedly corrupted and washingtonian) ear. I think you are ignoring the fact that most of the good things we have accomplished in the last century or so have been possible only through strong federalism and large scale, non-local government. Computers, the internet, flight, the A-Bomb (just kidding, I know you hippies aren't happy about that), telecommunications, and so forth have only been possible because no one could put a stop to them on the local level.
I also question your sincerity in asking for local politics, especially because the two of you don't really seem to be involved in them. I'm just not sure what it is that you want from local politics that you can't get in the system that we have now.
What are your particular aims that would be better accomplished in a localized system? Or is it some sort of a priori preference?

8:45 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

Austin 5000,

Not surprisingly, the things I find most objectionable in the history of the past century were also the result of "strong federalism and large scale, non-local government" - and they tended to happen "because no one could put a stop to them on the local level": mechanized warfare, the globalization of mass-production, culture industry, atomics, and the utter disdain for sustainability and the environmental consequences of industrialization. In fact, I think industrialization was itself an objectionable occurance. And so if I am against these things, if I'm not satisfied with the ludicris claim that ours is the best of systems, and above all if I do not share the strategic aim of large scale, non-local government to make possible the administration of vast populations across vast distances, then why should I fall in line? Very simply, I do not think that so many people, across such great distances, must as a matter of teleology or manifest destiny participate in the same forms of governance and production.

Although I fail to believe that the "good things" we invented during the past centuries (i.e. the airplanes, internet, etc) are sustainable in any sort of long-term sense, I can only say this as a matter of prediction. I would refute, however, any and all claims that we possess the most "advanced," "perfected," or "practical" system of governance and distribution. Clearly, we do not; the inadequecies of our system alone attest to its imperfection. Capitalist economies do not distribute wealth and happiness equally and with fairness; the calculation of value according to ideas of supply and demand is very nice but depends upon the existence of demands that are not there and supplies which are unpredictable at best. This is an old argument, and should be well-known enought by now for me not to repeat it in its entirety. We should recognize by this point that no means of production, of war-making, of political activity, are ever good absolutely. So I cannot accept that, simply because it exists, the current system must therefore be worth fighting for. Aspects of the Western tradition are worth fighting for; among them certain ideas of the political, the ethical, and freedom. I do not, on the other hand, find in the idea of systematizing the material production and cultural affairs of billions of people across the globe anything to admire.

My particular aim is the reassertion of a politics of collectivity; I don't consider it a given that such activity must and could only happen on the local level, but I think that collectivity begins not as an administered procedure but between individuals.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I agree with many of your premises, Scantron, but will for the moment remain a bit more reluctant to agree with your conclusions. It seems clear to me, as you and Kushakov assert (and which Austin 5000 seems to dismiss) that some kind of local participation is indeed a good in itself. It's not necessarily an apriori good because it has everything to do with this modern world of ours, and everything to do with experience. As Kushakov reminds us, simply because we as consumers have been delivered the goods by the federal government, or Goldman and Sachs, or Wal Mart, or whomever, doesn't mean that we the citizens should become detached from the political and economic process.
Indeed, the more our lives become interconnected with someone in Bangalore's means that we have more, not less of a responsibility to enter into some kind of political forum. If the era of the self-made man, self-sustaining farmer, etc. has been dead for a 150 years, we should probably stop pretending it's still around, and start getting involved so that we have some say as to what political and economic direction our lives (and those who we effect) take.

The problem, of course, is then to find a place for intelligent citizenship, for meaningful, productive participation. To be honest, I have only vague guesses as to what it might look like, and even these guesses are constantly bombarded by internal criticisms (that Austin 5000 in my head, so to speak).

For example, are we talking about Vermont here, or New Hampshire, where twice a year or whatnot the citizens descend upon the town hall and flesh out their differences about certain local and civic projects? While surely possible and desirable in small, rural settings, how could you organize a similarly productive effort in a large, urban environment, where the division of labor and supply chain are immensely complicated and highly non-local (more on this later).

What about Students for a Democratic Society and their urging for more
"direct" and "partcipatory" democracy? This too sounds all well and good, but read the Port Huron statement. These kids are as clueless (or vague) about what these things actually mean in the real world as at least I am. Here is one such sample from their manifesto:

"2. Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged. Political parties, even if realigned, would not provide adequate outlets for popular involvement. Institutions should be created that engage people with issues and express political preference, not as now with huge business lobbies which exercise undemocratic power, but which carry political influence (appropriate to private, rather than public, groupings) in national decision-making enterprise. Private in nature, these should be organized around single issues (medical care, transportation systems reform, etc.), concrete interest (labor and minority group organizations), multiple issues or general issues. These do not exist in America in quantity today. If they did exist, they would be a significant politicizing and educative force bringing people into touch with public life and affording them means of expression and action. Today, giant lobby representatives of business interests are dominant, but not educative. The Federal government itself should counter the latter forces whose intent is often public deceit for private gain, by subsidizing the preparation and decentralized distribution of objective materials on all public issues facing government."

With regards to all of this mess, Lippmann is not part of your answer, Scantron, but part of your problem. The "guiding hand of 'enlightened' technocrats" you mention is not something to casually dismiss; it's something to take quite seriously. In today's globalized, service-industry world, especially, the demands for "experts" and for highly educated technocrats, or technicians, or scientists, are manifold. Most of the documeted corporate/federal scandals of the past five years (Haliburton, Enron, Exxon-Mobile, FEMA...) -- so well illustrated in film -- frighten me more as brief glimpses into complex worlds I know nothing about than as simple stories of corruption.

However, the fact of their complexity should not necessarily preclude their existence, particularly if we can point to positive outcomes. The great social welfare programs, involving immense bureacracies and expertise such as the New Deal and Great Society come to mind here. So long as we are given the requisite checks and balances that prevent these organisms from becoming odious leviathans -- something more than a vote every 2-4 years, but something less than popular direct control over adminsitration -- then we have struck a fair and necessary compromise. The bargain, essentially, is that we give up a little bit of control, power, and knowledge in return for a little bit of technological progress, security, etc.

What form these "checks and balances" take is absolutely critical. Currently, I think perhaps the single most pressing domestic (if not international) problem is that there is seemingly nothing to regulate this small, elite class of experts and highly educated people from accumulating a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth. While David Brooks would like to rationalize inequality by saying how at least these oligarchs deserve it (in contrast to those of inherited wealth of the past), the fact of the matter is that such inequality is not excusable, not democratic, and not just. Fortunately, this blog has had many good discussions about inequality and its causes recently. (Scantron has more than once brought up union membership decline, which in contrast to recent quizzical pieces from the Economist, is one largely politically driven cause of such inequality.) These concrete discussions should continue, I believe, as they are at the heart of what is at stake in our increasingly unequal world.

As for environmental catastrophe, warfare, and the like, I see the answers to such questions to originate not in local institutions, as Kushakov sees it, but in their oppposite. The UN Millenium Development Goals -- as much as the UN itself -- has established a series of institutional ... er ... goals, dedicated to eradicating just these insidious byproducts of our technological progress. Admittedly, the UN is a rather weak institution with some problematic theoretical issues to deal with (the tension between national sovereignty and international responsibility being foremost). But, don't you think (Kushakov) that something like the UN -- big, powerful, multilateral, ethical, etc. -- is what we should be striving for, rather than the University City Community of Citizens Dedicated to Distributing Goods Efficiently and Equitably and Stopping World Hunger and Promoting Sustainable Development (the UCCCDDGEESWHPS)?

9:45 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I could cite a million benefits of large-scale government (civil rights protection for minorities, new deal stuff, and so forth) but I suspect we wouldn't get anywhere. It seems that your preference is prior to any results that your localized government would bring forth. This means I can't really argue against it qua logical idea, and the huge improbability of any shift to really local government without federalism means that it doesn't really matter if I do.
Still, I can argue against as a belief that you claim you have. I'm really unsure why you would argue for a localized politics when I haven't seen any evidence that you desire to participate in the already existing versions of it. Has anyone here participated in local politics and been enriched by the experience? Has anyone tried? Doesn't a utopian worldview become even more ridiculous if the possessor doesn't even take the most basic steps towards realizing it?

My last objection/question is inspired by Andrew Rehfeld's The Concept of Constituency, wherein he argues that there is no real value to the localization of constituency in a federal system. If you prefer a local politics, in what sense is it going to be local? Because it seems that local politics could only succeed in a geographical sense, but I'm not sure what that accomplishes. What would be more just about a system that allows people to be treated differently according to their location?

1:17 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

As far as I've seen, "local politics" under American federalism is based upon the same model and logic of administrative decision-making as on the federal level, and is often even more caught up in the flux of economic interests and necessities than more large-scale institutions. This is precisely why it is important, in my mind, to propose different and experimental terms by which politics could be approached. Why must all "local politics" be based upon and coterminus with state and federal politics? I have already stated my disinterest in the idea of governments premised upon the beuracratic administration of political economy.

Austin 5000, you could, as you claim "cite a million benefits of large-scale government (civil rights protection for minorities, new deal stuff, and so forth)" but you would not, as you suspect, get us anywhere because you refuse to view these benefits in the same pragmatic light as you claim elsewhere to champion. As is well known, the rise of the federal system in America has produced tangible gains in wealth for certain interests and terrible consequences for others. Many of these consequences will likely not ever come to light, or will strike in a future difficult to predict. Minorities had to be enslaved and the economy deflated before any legislator came in to defend either set of interests - and the legislation of the new deal certainly has not saved us from the economic perversions of our own era! The course of American history is not monolithic; all trajectories of modern thought do not aim at the reproduction of status quo governance. To claim fidelity to a perfected, perfecting form of governance is, to my mind, to enslave oneself to a version of the present as unchanging and unchanged by human action, the stultifying myth of conservative thought.

Regarding your claim that I prefer local government a priori - this is entirely baseless. To reiterate: I object to the current logic of governance and administration on the grounds that they do not allow for the possibility of freedom as I understand it. Thus, I aim to propose new terms by which politics could be practiced otherwise. In my previous comment, I offered several theses by which such politics could be advanced. If you want to take issue with my understanding of freedom, there we might have a conversation. Otherwise, you are right to exclude yourself from the advancement of a politics which are not your own.

I will say very quickly that "the huge improbability of any shift to really local government without federalism" is only improbable if one persists under the illusion that the status quo is immutable and unified. Multiplicity and flux is not an impossibility; rather, it is what is.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I'm not arguing for the status quo because it really doesn't need me to defend it. Instead, I'm asking for a bit of intellectual clarity: what exactly do you plan to do with some new form of local politics that you can't already do? What goals require local politics, and aren't there any actions that can be taken towards those goals without the achievement of your unlikely utopia?
If you can't answer both of these questions, then one must presume that you prefer local governance for its own sake, i.e. a priori.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

To answer my own question: I believe that you believe that local politics will somehow decrease inequality or oppression. But I would choose to answer this in the same way that James Madison did in Federalist 51: a larger government is more able to overwhelm particular, local interests than a smaller one.
My own fear of a radically local government is that it will allow religious minorities, racists and other "Wackos" to mistreat others (including their children/wives) in their semi-autonumous regions. Why isn't this a concern for you localists? If your localism includes some sort of preventative mechanism to solve this issue, in what way will you prevent legislative creep, i.e. the extension of the same forces that preserve basic rights into other areas?

5:01 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I'm going to jump in late to the discussion, feel to ignore...

Austin- I do agree with you, or at least share your reservations, on the last point you made. The idea of local politics does have a smell of balkanization to it at times, and I myself have wondered (speculated) about the possibility of isolated communities of "wackos." If I may I want to put forth a couple possibilites:

The first is that such communities, although there is no formal, supervenient police apparatus, enforcement of progressive causes against such reactionaries does not seem impossible. The current system prevents such wackos only insofar as there is the ability to create a large enough consensus to take such police action against them, but the converse is equally possible. Our system, considered functionally, ensures liberty only contingently. In many cases though, we can say that these contingencies obtain, and we have seen the nation state enact and enforce progressive legislation. However, in how many cases does the enactment of such 'global' edicts efface the possibility of other alternatives, or rephrased- does this minimal protection of liberties via police narrow the scope of liberty itself so as to make it relatively valueless? I'm thinking perhaps obliquely of the Frankfurt School's notion of the "totally administered society" and how the perponderance of state power, which even in a liberal democracy maintains its force as god on earth, strips away our agency to preserve our safety.

On the one hand, this answer seems insufficient to fully get out of the problem of wackos, but I think that what you were saying about local social interaction and local politics should perhaps be combined. We can have universalism that is NOT relativistic, and at thes ame time remains firmly and enthusiastically committed to its own truth. The process of accounting, of carrying out the prescriptions of these ideas is itself a pragmatic process (although perhaps divested of the liberal caveats often associated with pragmatism) which will use available means to prevent wackos and promote....not-wackos. Legislative creep is another obstacle of course, but because each set of confrontations or complications truly, and in the fullest sense, embodies a different set of conditions, than any legislation would in itself be overdetermined in all other applications. This I think is fully cognizant of the pragmatics of social/political interaction.

Problem after problem, partly my own shortcomings in argument but partly the shortcomings of the idea? Of course no system is or can be perfect, but one of the most important questions we have to ask is which problems we want / can to accept.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Well, now...

I'm going to try to organize and synthesize some of what has been said here, because while there have been good points there have also been distortions and certainly misunderstandings.

1) Just to get it out of the way, I don't think the criticim that "You don't participate in local politics [a term that is already becoming mind-numbing, even when spoken inside my own head!], ergo your views are unfounded and possibly hypocrical" carries much weight. For my own part, I hardly think it's fair to criticize me for failing to uphold in my own life and practice views I've only just recently expounded. Also, I just can't help it that after a week in California I'm not already the head of the local electricians' union ;-) (Yes, I used an emoticon. Deal.) On the other hand...while I was in Memphis this summer, I had three letters to the editor published in the Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal, I wrote my congressman, and I participated in an event sponsored by the local MidSouth Peace and Justice Center. I normally wouldn't bore you with this laundry list, but I think that this small flurry of activity in the course of three months indicates at least a MOVE in the direction of greater participation, which I want to keep up out here on the West Coast. Getting back to the criticism, its real strength lies in the idea that since we don't know the 'pleasures' of local involvement ourselves, we just contributing to a utopia that has no meaning in reality. I will return to this aspect of the criticism, and especially the preponderance of the adjective 'utopian' in this discussion, shortly.

2) As to Robot's views, I tend to agree with some of his major points. I certainly don't casually dismiss the idea of corrupt bureaucracy. In my original post I said that this turn in Lippmann's thought represented a decline, not something I agreed with. In fact, I consider bureaucracy pretty much the paradigm of our time. I don' think it can be done away with, nor do I even wish that. What I do wish is that bureaucracy could be streamlined to provide all citizens who need it with the basic resources necessary for not only survival but enough free time to engage in more everyday debate, the results of which could hopefully replace some of the functions of the bloated bureaucracies now.

I also think that Robot is right about the UN. As long as the nation state remains the primary governmental form (and I'm fine with it remaining that way, I'm not proposing a more radical change in this thread), a confederation such as the UN is the best vehicle for ensuring that every country retains its "civil rights," so to speak. The problem with the UN (despite consensus among US right wingers) is that it is totally loaded in our favor, and more generally in favor of the global North (WTO, World Bank, et al). Also, despite murmurings from the UN when the United States invades other nations, it pretty much lets us do whatever we want, while starving innocent civilians under harsh governments with sanctions (as was the case in Iraq, and would be in Syria if Rice gets her way in the next few weeks). A shakeup of the "permanent" nature of the Security Council and other measures designed to boost those nations not already in the top spots (US, EU nations, Russia, China) would help out (this is almost totally unrelated to this threat at this point, I know).

3) However, the notion of egalitarian justice among the nations of the UN dovetails nicely with my next topic, the question of federalism. Austin and Kushakov have, I think, exploded this question into a larger-than-life debate about what we owe the centralized state. I can tell that I am less radical than Kushakov on this issue. While I share some of his grievances about the nastier things that have been produced by a strong state, on the other hand I don't think that I'm proposing taking away from the state the things Austin attributes to it (technology, innovation generally, civil liberties). In FACT, I think Austin has misread the scope of power I would like localized groups to possess. Civil liberties remain for me untouchable--I favor a federal government that will constitutionally guarantee those rights, just as I think the UN, with its Declaration of Human Rights, is a decidedly good thing, even if it has carried out its mission rather sloppily.

(As a side note, I think this is where I part ways from Badiou, who from what I have read [Ethics] champions the dissolution of the UN Human Rights Charter, for a number of reasons. At this point I think Badiou gives way to a certain form of political romanticism which, while exciting I suppose, ignores the problems of majority rule, even majority tyranny. Badiou's "fidelity to an event" strikes me as inherently incompatible with the idea of a plurality of individuals, each forming their own conceptions of the good life, while simultaneously being protected from unfair incursions against their goals by virtue of the enforcement of the protection of civil liberties. But anyway...)

So, the local governments are not "semi-autonomous" enough to override the basic claims of civil rights, in answer to Austin's last comment. If Kushakov has in mind proposals more radical than mine, that is for him to describe. I don't think either of us are championing a social revolution against capitalism or a dictatorship of the proletariat or something, though.

4) I think perhaps a few tentative comments about the freedom to participate in one's community have been turned into a raging debate about the possibility of utopias. Before long we'll be talking about how it's not in human "nature" to be a Communist. I agree with Kushakov that the possibility of thinking outside the status quo is important, and that the way of the world today has no teleological necessity attached to it, so we don't need to theodicize what actually needs criticizing. The problem is, I don't even know why these large-scale questions are being raised because I'm proposing something rather simple, but which would have excellent long-term results, in my mind. Maybe I was unclear. I said that I favor a strong welfare state, which grants all people a certain amount of leisure, but that this "freedom from" want should be met with an enthusiastic drive for a "freedom to" use one's leisure to engage in one's community and to work out problems locally with one's fellow citizens. As for the "pie in the sky" nature of this suggestion, it's not one; it happens all the time, at school boards, union meetings, city council sessions, etc. But those are primarily elective or appointed positions. We can easily imagine fora in which all citizens can participate. Here I'm in danger of lapsing into Port Huron-esque obscurities, but despite that movement's vagueness I think it possesses a spirit that has sadly dwindled in this country, accompanied by a rabid, disgraceful game of power-swapping among business elites born on third base and dictatorial politicians. Sue me for buying into a hackneyed slogan, "power to the people."

PS. I seriously screwed up in my initial post by suggesting that the Soviet Union provided all the basic physical necessities of life to its citizen. While that might have been the case for people living in the cities (enjoy your Trabant!), it overlooks the millions of peasants cruelly starved by their own government's collectivization policies. I suppose I was momentarily swayed by the propaganda I've been reading in John Reed's first-hand account of the October Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. No on here read this book. I beg of you.

7:49 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Local politics, to again follow briefly, I think also has many virtues as practiced(practicable) in very simple situations but outside of normal governmental or even municipal functioning. This is in some sense the traditional role of the "public sphere," but it should dig deeper into the level of practicable action. Many types of social services, organization, etc. can be done pragmatically at the local level (scantron, I know I'm reiterating alot of what you said). Now, the question is- when does a (federal/large) government, even one which limits itself to the protection of rights, prevent the possibility of certain types of reasonable, effective political action at the local level. Inasmuch as I think that certain federal protections for collectivization and unionization have been admirable (why those were necessary is another question, yes?) but government has also done its fair share to discourage and dismantle those selfsame organizations...This is perhaps a belabored point, but I just wanted to find a "real life" example I guess...It's really late.

8:41 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

Maybe this is a good point to return to Arendt?

I picked up her book "The Human Condition" today and found it strikingly applicable to the range of issues wrangled together in this post. Rather than sum things up neat and tidy-like, I propose we do some (more) reading!

Here goes.

In what follows, Arendt characterizes the logic of mass culture (our times) as that of the social, an idea which she seeks to divorce from former concepts of the public/private:

"The distinction between a private and a public sphere of life corresponds to the household and the political realms, which have existed as distinct, separate entities at least since the rise of the ancient city-state; but the emergence of the social realm, which is neither private nor public, strictly speaking, is a relatively new phenomenon whose origin coincided with the emergence of the modern age and which found its political form in the nation-state.
What concerns us in this context is the extraordinary difficulty with which we, because of this development, understand the decisive division between the public and private realms, between the sphere of the polis and the sphere of household and family, and, finally, between activities related to a common world and those related to the maintenance of life, a division upon which all ancient political thought rested as self-evident and axiomatic. In our understanding, the dividing line is entirely blurred, because we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping
It is decisive that society, on all levels, excludes the possibility of action, which formerly was excluded from the household. Instead, society expects from each of its members a certain kind of behavior, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to 'normalize' its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding acheivement ... It is the same conformism, the assumption that men behave and do not act with respect to each other, that lies at the root of the modern science of economics, whose birth coincided with the rise of society and which, together with its chief technical tool, statistics, became the social science par excellence ... The laws of statistics are valid only where large numbers or long periods are involved, and acts or events can statistically appear only as deviations or fluctuations." (pp. 27-38, 37-39).

Nicely said, Hann. The next passage is brief(er), but it stunned me when I first read it, sitting in the sun, basking in the freedom of not really having a job. What I discovered was a paraphrase of a thought I had this summer, one which, although clever-seeming, didn't strike me as worth taking seriously.

Arendt argues that "since the laws of statistics are perfectly valid where we deal with large numbers, it is obvious that every increase in population means an increased validity and a marked decrease of 'deviation.' Politically this means that the larger the population in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social rather than the political that constitutes the public realm. The Greeks, whose sity-state was the most individualistic and least conformable body politic known to us, were quite aware of the fact that the polis, with its emphasis on action and speech, could survive only if the number of citizens remained restricted." (pp 39-40)

If she and I are correct, and our politics of administrative economics is indeed the most practical means by which great numbers of people are governed, then I would beg the question - why so many people? The United States is huge; vast even in the mind of a contemporary European (just ask one!). To think of the gigantism of our population as a teleological end is, as we have said, nonsense. For my own (admittedly premature) re-thinking of "local politics," I find this idea a seductive one - that in seeking the sort of alternative politics described above, one must reject the end of administered governance, the billion-man citizenry of society life.

For my part, I can't help but think that this sort of theorizing anticipates the downfall of our society, the end of our empire and the global ambitions it fostered. Maybe this is the case for Arendt as well, writing after Auschwitz (Human Condition - 1958). Not a comforting thought.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Although I would like to allow our disagreements to subside, I must say, Scantron, that your more recently revealed opinions are exactly what I feared they would be. From my perspective, the point of practicing politics should be to "do" something. If you believe that we need better education, then you go to the political arena in order to achieve that goal. But I do not believe that politics are an inherent good, no matter how many philosophers claim that it is.
However, you apparently do believe that practicing politics is inherently good. I can accept this, and if it were simply a matter of allowing everyone to participate in politics and make good decisions, then I think this would be as good a decision as any.
But that's not what an all-inclusive political regime would entail. Instead, I believe that a greater focus on politics would mean that people not only think more about politics, but that they think differently about it. You probably agree with this; the difference comes in the way that we think this difference will play out.
My understanding is that you believe that everyone will have to make more fair decisions when they all come together and look one another in the eye. Racial and socioeconomic discrimination will no longer be possible when people have to look one another in the eye; instead, all will have to cut the crap and admit the truth: the rich will stop oppressing the poor, the middle class will see that the rich truly are different from them and realize their own interests, or perhaps everyone will start believing in a common interest.
In contrast, I believe that all the time that is spent in politics will make social life that much more political. Interests will collide more harshly, because in politics every question of redistribution is a zero-sum game. Activities that are not political will be made such, or they will be inhibited so much by this politicization that they cannot be pursued in the same way.
Thus, while you view politics as a form of self-realization, I view it as a fundamentally nasty business that's good for no one.

Looking back at your post, I see that you draw an opposition between small government/self-interest and cooperation/public exchange of ideas. I presume that you mean cooperation and public exchange of ideas in a political sense, and that you identify this as an opposition because small government prevents these from occuring in that sense. But I think you're ignoring something: a constitution, at least in your friend Aristotle's understanding, is more than a government. It's a way of life, and contains all of the customs and activities of a people. Thus cooperation and exchange of ideas need not be confined to a political realm (broadly defined as that which involves "power over people"). Instead, the more room there is to accomplish things outside of government, the more this cooperation and exchange will be genuine because it will be less forced and urgent. This is the kind of alternative to "politics" that I advocate.
The wonderful thing about our system is that no one is preventing you from setting up a food co-op, school, or charitable foundation. Moreover, the main requirement for these things, capital, is present in abundance precisely because it is not taken away coercively. Why don't you endorse this local activity instead of the more violent and repulsive one of politics? Is there some way in which helping others and improving your own society is less valuable if it does not involve political power?

10:56 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

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3:52 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

One last comment: If redistribution is your goal (or even a means towards your goal), local politics is the worst way to get there. No matter how much we, as bohemians and diletanntes, are opposed to the principles of economics and other branches of social science, probably one of the most fundamental and well-justified findings in economics is that capital flees from adverse conditions. By capital, I don't mean merely money, or the physical means of production, but also human capital. It happened in East Germany, the USSR, China, etc. during the rise of communism and it's happening right now in Iraq. More interestingly, it's happening in Europe right now as well; those with an ear for economics news will know that Germany has been forced decrease its corporate income tax because the countries around it, especially Austria, have done so.
This fact has always benefited our own country--even the richest countries in the world have to worry about their citizens coming here because of our low tax rates and huge markets. We are also able to piggyback on other countries' education expenditures by attracting their skilled workers away with bigger salaries and a better standard of living.
This also has negative effects within our own country; I'm thinking of the tax incentives that big corporations are often able to demand from counties and states that need to create jobs.
If this is a problem between countries and states, imagine what a huge problem it would be for any meaningfully local political system. Each would be competing against one another, creating a race to the bottom that would reward those with the least amount of redistribution and taxation.
"But," you say, "this is not what I mean at all by local politics. The redistribution I am talking about will occur on a much larger scale and would be part of a large-scale political process in order to prevent this harmful competition among brother-and sister-locales".
I retort: What do you have left for your local government to decide? They cannot have civil rights. They cannot have redistribution in any meaningful way. To me, these are the most important political decisions of them all. How would an ineffective local politics be anything different from the status quo?
And, to return to the discussion of the status quo, I do not support it. But I do recognize that it is soundly founded on some basic principles of human behavior as well as the firm positions of entrenched interests. I don't expect these to change and I don't think you should, either.

5:55 PM  

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