Thursday, September 06, 2007

Continuing Thoughts on Arendt's On Revolution

Perhaps the most engrossing discussion on the Huffy Crew's history occurred close to a year ago. It began as an exploration into the thought of Hannah Arendt in her book On Revolution and ended with provocative comments on the nature of federalism, localism, and politics as such. This exchange comes back to me every now and then. One, because I think it came closest to laying bear what lies at the base of each one's political philosophy, and their vision of a just future; and two, because this issue of the role of politics as such in the good life seems to be everywhere.

I recently read On Revolution myself, and encourage anyone who hasn't to do so. Not a thinker without flaws, Arendt nonetheless had the power to hit the right the buttons. She possessed the ability to persuasively talk about the big ideas while grounding them in history -- for me, the ultimate accomplishment of an intellectual.

Arendt touched on many themes in the book but the one I'd like to focus on is her insistence on, to use a rather hackneyed phrase, the primacy of politics. In many ways a thinker steeped in Aristotelian thought, she too saw human life composed of the essentials of politics and speech. For her as for Aristotle, these inevitably intersect. Politics, after all, is an inherently communicative action. Once it becomes violent (contrary to Clausewitz), it reaches its limit as politics; for violence is by nature non-communicative, and so, in her words, "antipolitical." All revolutions, she went on to say, firstly seek liberation through violence: the freedom-from interference and oppression. Secondly, and more importantly, however, is what they strive for after liberation, which she calls freedom -- an unfortunate term given the current vocabulary of neoconservatism.

This freedom, more or less, seems to be born out of the desire for greater participation, or in other words, for a political space that was previously absent. In the case of the American and French Revolution, freedom represented the belief in the inalienable political rights of all men by virtue of birth. For the American, this was Jefferson's idea of "happiness," but here (as Scantron pointed out) Arendt wanted to emphasize happiness as "public," or as she quotes Jefferson as saying, to be a "partcipator in the government of affairs," the citizen's right to access the public space, and share public power. Jefferson becomes the hero of the first part (as he will of the second part, but for different reasons) because of his understanding that in politics one experiences "eternal bliss."

With this framework it takes her just a few short steps to dispense with the French and champion the American Revolution. While both were political, the American sought to enlarge the political space while the French sought to temporarily at least make all relationships political. The French, to use a word that doesn't appear in the book (capitalism being another, in this case appearing only once), lacked liberalism. Whereas the Founding Fathers reworked, and gave steroids to, the classical notion of balanced or mixed government to encourage the interplay of competing factions and ideas of the good life in the public sphere, the French embraced the Rousseauian conception of the General Will -- that in politicizing all relationships in the short run in order to strengthen the unanimity of the people, politics will be extirpated in the long run. The lines she would ultimately draw between the French and Russian Revolutions are already apparent.

Yet, the American Revolution was not without its own problems, she concludes. Where it went wrong was that in making an honest and difficult decision between representative government and Jefferson's ward-based, localized, town hall democracy -- she acknowledges this choice appears only in retrospect -- it chose the former, and with it, threw away the grassroots origins of the revolution. She ends the book, surprisingly, with a discussion of how Jefferson's late vision of a localized, participatory ward-based system would reappear with that odd Benjaminian lightning force throughout history in the form of the councils or soviets. She views the spontaneous creations of these councils in revolutionary times (1871, 1918, 1936, 1956...) as more or less self-evident signs of their virtue vis-a-vis the human condition. Her discussion of them is worth reading, as I think it may interest those on all sides of the austin-5000 and Kushakov spectrum: local in practice, they are nonetheless based on Madison's federalist principle of both uniting different bodies into one -- in the form of laws -- while diffusing the power of each by the other. The "wacko" problem discussed last year becomes a bit clearer, I think, if we use our own system's federalized conception while eliminating the hierarchical representive as well as constricting partisan parts.

Arendt's love of politics and distaste for political parties makes sense given her timeline. To continue the story, briefly, into the 19th century reveals a bit of her shortsightedness. As Sean Wilentz reminds us in his latest book, The Rise of American Democracy, while the Founding Fathers were to varying degrees comfortable with the existence of factions and competing interests, there were a whole lot of them -- namely, the Federalists -- who were uncomfortable with political parties. Perhaps arising out of Arendt's desire for a more participatory politics without the straight-jacket of partisanship, men like Washington and Adams railed against political parties. Washington was most explicit in his farewell address:
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.... Thus the policy and the will of one ... are subjected to the policy and will of another. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.
Contrary to Arendt, it seems, the American Revolution appears to have had its French elements as well. Washington's idea of the "will of one" and Adams' Federalist belief in a one-party elite consensus sounded a different bell than the one that had rang for Arendt so unanimously during the Revolutionary period. Fortunately, for Wilentz as for Arendt, there are heroes to this story as well. Jefferson, and to a lesser extent Madison, saved the day by fearlessly challenging the Federalist paradigm with the introduction of a new party -- a product, like the Revolution itself, of grassroots so-called Democratic-Republican societies which had arisen amongst members of the working and literary classes in the northeast. For Wilentz, then, it was exactly this willingness to be partisan -- in the sense of creating a second party -- that prevented the fragile republic from slowly edging back to a deeply conservative, non-democratic society.

Despite their differences concerning the role of the party in political society, both Wilentz and Arendt would agree on the fundamental question that a robust and non-totalizing idea of politics as such should be encouraged rather than discouraged in society, and that the degree of participation in the political, public, sphere determines the health of a society.

To me, being a political liberal entails a commitment to these values. Not only do I consider it a good thing that different conceptions of the good life are available in society, but I also consider it joyful to debate these conceptions. Don't we all? But to get to a society where this becomes the norm requires both a backward glance to the past and a forward march. The American Revolution, and the commendable public space it produced, was able to succeed only because of quite material circumstances: a highly literate, wealthy, and relatively equal body politic.
Meaningful political participation whether at Congress, town hall, or the dining room table, quite often entails, at the very least, the benefits that people who write and read blogs (or at least this one) tend to have. That is, the means to a perfectly "bourgeois" existence: the economic means to a dignified, healthy life, and a liberal education. A just society's goals should be extending these benefits to those who don't have it -- to give to everyone the means to participate, and to determine (whether through councils, or directly, or through representatives) the method of redistribution. Only by starting with redistribution can we rebuild a country that despite its immense wealth tolerates a level of poverty and sickness that need not exist.

I recognize that a great deal of exegesis has contributed only to a conclusion echoing the right wing socialists of old and the left wing liberals of today. But just as these types of political parties have greatly enriched society when in power in the past, so I believe the left wing party of today has been given a unique opportunity. In the next couple decades or so, I suspect, the political party system will be put to the test as to whether it can begin to shoulder meaningful tasks. In the United States, the Democratic Party remains the only party I view capable of doing so, and its best chance for succeeding remains in the grassroots' ability to pressure it to do so. I myself am quite looking forward to politics, especially if my side is winning.


Blogger kushakov said...

Very quickly, let me say that I'm happy to see our discussion of Arendt renewed. Robot, you've given me the nudge I need to return to On Revolution - as soon as my weekend's workload lets me. Without having done so yet, though, I want to say a few things - preliminary things, I guess:

First, as a political technique, I think councils deserve thought - especially insofar as their "spontaneous" generation can actually be identified in historical situations. Has any work gone into verifying this claim of Arendt's?

Another thing: Last time we had this conversation, I believe (I haven't reread it, so I can't be sure) that my own contribution was to defend a notion of local politics as both necessary (not merely a de facto good thing) and unavailable under current political conditions in the USA. I don't think I succeeded, but I would like to offer a sort of refinement of this argument, beginning with this comment but maybe taking the form of a future post as well.

I now agree that the sort of liberalism Arendt and Robot describe, the public mediation of views (the joyful mediation of views!), ought to be vigorously championed and worked towards. I don't think I always held this view, it being so solidly liberal and so much a part of current liberal rhetoric, whether regarding local politics, multiculturalist policy or the internet. But if I can speak to Arendt's argument even before formally revisiting it as a reader, I'd like to suggest that her notion of violence, and the real danger she identifies in our slipping from politics into violence, and thus from sociability into anti-social techniques of coercion and force - that this specter of violence is what makes all liberal projects, local or otherwise, so difficult. Political violence is most easily conceivable as totalitarianism - the policing of life according to a unified political rule. But there are little violences, far smaller coercions, which, as we know from our reading of Foucault and others, surface regularly in practices of discourse and exchange. As liberals, the onus must be on us to root out these violences and to advance political strategies that attack the anti-social when and where it undermines our politics. This crucial part of liberal practice, the self-critical expurgation of violence, is easy to overlook. It makes politics truly, even endlessly, difficult. But that, I think, is what my previous argument sought to express: that social exchange, the free exchange of political life, cannot be as simple as it sounds. Now maybe I've said it in a less convoluted way?

3:07 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I think that's very well put, Kushakov. I appreciate your bit on the "little violences," especially. The incredible outpour of relief and hope that the recent Kenneth Foster commutation -- for those of you who haven't heard of it, a simple google search will explain all -- has brought among a lot of people in this country is testament to the widespread belief that these small things really do matter, that grassroots-led victories are possible, yada yada yada ...

11:39 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I have so far hesitated, Robot, to reply to this post, simply in order to gauge whether the discussion would be substantially different from last time or people would still cling to their previous arguments.

To wit: that local politics is "ridiculous," that the preference for it, lacking actual engagement *in* it, could not be "sincere," that it is "utopian" (if so, then Switzerland's canton system must, by definition, not exist), and that is is "violent and repulsive."

Austin-5000, who I am of course referencing, is entitled to his views and perhaps still stands by them. In the last debate our disagreement largely came down to our divergent views on the relative goodness or badness of "the political," and I have no intention of revisiting those fundamental differences of opinion.

However, there's no guarantee we would have the same conversation now, because I feel that my views have changed significantly in the past year. Like you, Robot, I felt the allure of Arendt and the appeal of her "Aristotelian" arguments about political praxis (nevermind how far they might actually diverge from Aristotle's real views). Perhaps also influenced by a recent reading of Erich Fromm (although who knows when exactly this was), who similarly stresses the importance of the distinction "freedom from"/"freedom to" (notwithstanding, AGAIN, the fact that for Fromm "freedom to" doesn't necessarily mean politics), I ate up Arendt's emphasis on the political as an autonomous space, a realm of fulfilling human action. Wasn't this a welcome alternative to Isaiah Berlin, whose impoverished conception of liberty always drove me crazy? And didn't also Arendt's arguments justify a greater inclusion of the majority of people, the poor, the lower class, the middle, those without the funds and capital to make it in our political system? Wasn't that just and fair? Wasn't that in accordance with their dignity, which is so often ignored, if not blatantly trampled upon? Nevermind what these people would actually do on the local level given their new political opportunities, or what they would demand; wouldn't it be enough that they could engage in "civic virtue", that true happiness, that "eternal bliss"? At the time I said,

"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..."

And later on:

"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."

You now say:

"Wilentz and Arendt would agree on the fundamental question that a robust and non-totalizing idea of politics as such should be encouraged rather than discouraged in society, and that the degree of participation in the political, public, sphere determines the health of a society.

To me, being a political liberal entails a commitment to these values. Not only do I consider it a good thing that different conceptions of the good life are available in society, but I also consider it joyful to debate these conceptions."

Absent from both our discussions is an idea of what, if anything, these practices are supposed to accomplish, outside of promoting a "spirit" (my words) or "the health of a society" (yours).

During the original thread a year ago, Austin raised the question, irksome at the time but now increasingly relevant to me, of exactly that: What does it all mean? Did I have some a priori preference for participatory politics, or was it instrumental? (My arguments suggest the former.)

I now disavow the claim that local politics is inherently good, or at least the relatively strong claim that strengthening politics at the local level amongst all the strata of society would be the best way, all things considered, of achieving the sort of political state of affairs we consider the most just (or otherwise optimal). First of all, I simply don't see political participation as a good in itself in the robust way that Arendt does. Would I object to more of it? No, not at all. Perhaps it would make citizens friendlier, more engaged, more sure of themselves, more willing to debate and question, more attuned to the wants and needs of everyone in their community. But is this a heal-all for America as a whole? No. It's not, in my mind, because it doesn't necessarily achieve what I now want, which is freedom for all people, relief from the squalor and impotence resulting from poverty, and from the strictures which are forced upon us by private forces far removed from the majority of us, which is to be achieved through the ownership and direct or indirect management of the apparatuses productive of life's necessities (in old fashioned terms: the means of production). This is admittedly (and quite obviously) a more radical position than I first outlined, a year ago, and I'd be glad to talk about it sometime. But not now.

Right now, I'd like to talk about what this view (actually, not necessarily this view but rather the less radical view that politics at the local level is not an inherent good) does to the argument for local politics. My starting point is that politics is not inherently ("a priori") good but rather instrumental towards other goods. If this is the case, then politics at the local level is not to be preferred, so far as I can tell, to a more general participation in the *existing* structure of government. In other words, what liberals more generally tend to hope for: an energized electorate, high voting rates, interest in public issues, etc. It has long been a talking point among the left (American liberals) that higher rates of voter registration among the electorate will result in more progressive policies. I don't really doubt this, and I welcome the effects that might flow from it: universal healthcare, better wages, stronger public services, better job benefits (maternity/paternity leave, vacation time, unemployment insurance, pensions), significantly better welfare, school funding, a steeply progressive income tax, et al. It is less known what might be the effect of greater voter turnout for foreign policy, but I remain optimistic. I do not see the significance of local politics in achieving these goals. Perhaps the thought is that many small instances of local politics will contribute to a greater national movement towards the net effect of what those local constituencies are producing. But again, why do this when one can operate through the traditional avenues of congressional and presidential elections?

But then again, perhaps there is an argument to be made for an instrumental conception of local politics, in that increased citizen participation at the local level will ensure municipal policies which more evenly reflect the wishes of citizens ("townspeople") and will function more smoothly. In my mind, there's no necessary connection between democracy and inefficiency, especially at the local level, and so perhaps there is a functionalist/systematic argument to be made for local politics. Who doesn't want efficiency? But to adopt this view is not to adopt the stronger claim that we have been making, that local politics is some kind of panacea for our problems, a fulfilment of "spirit" and "societal health".

To illustrate my objection better, I will compare the Arendtian scheme of "council democracy" (which I hope to show to be rather eccentric) with what is undoubtedly the most influential view among American liberal academics: John Rawls' famous view of "justice as fairness." Doing so will highlight the uniqueness of Arendt's strong claim for man's fulfilment through public political praxis and will show why, if we accept the basic tenet that political action is instrumental, Rawlsian "justice" guarantees positive outcomes to a degree much greater than local politics (indeed, the latter might not guarantee anything at all).

For Arendt, the human good is public happiness. You point this out in your assertion that for Arendt, there is an Aristotelian ideal of a link between politics and speech. The ideal cannot be merely private, nor can it be economic. These are mere instrumentalities that, if taken as primary, debase the concept of the human being ("the human condition," to quote from one of her book titles). Yet where Arendt differs from Aristotle is that the latter also had an idea of the strong link between political participation and material well-being; in other words, Aristotle did not lack a materialistic flip-side to his concept of politics. For Aristotle (and this is very clear from readings of the Nic Eth and the Politics), political participation *presupposes* an abundance of leisure and education. People can only govern in accordance with the human good, they can only exercise the important virtue of "phronesis," or practical wisdom, if they are freed from the crippling constraints of manual labor. Thus, in Aristotle's ideal society, "the polis of our prayers," an elite cadre of aristocrats shares in the constitution, "rules and is ruled in turn," while a majority of disenfranchised laborers, preferably "natural slaves," takes care of the sordid necessities of production. There is no mistaking Aristotle's aristocratic bias towards the "banausic" occupations: manual laborers and artisans cannot be statesmen.

Arendt circumvents this uncomfortable thought. For her, the modern era offers the reward of public happiness, public debate and opinion-making, even *without* the social revolution of the means of production. This is presumably because economic freedom, a merely "instrumental" freedom, cannot be constituitive of "real" freedom, public freedom. For how could something below true human nature be the *basis* for that nature? For this reason, Arendt will not countenance even the most sophisticated argument for a sort of "base/superstructure" conception of society. This is vulgar and below human dignity. Her ideal is a society which reconstitutes, over and over again, through the apparatus of "council democracy," the moment of revolutionary public participation. Nevermind if this apparatus doesn't actually *do* anything; that's the whole point (the non-instrumentality of public participation). (My evidence for this comes from readings of the Penguin 1990 edition of "On Revolution," esp. pp. 255, 264-65, 269-81).

All of this rests upon a highly idealistic version of the human good, which, as I said at the beginning of this post, I reject. To me, there's nothing per se wrong with the private pursuit of happiness, i.e. freedom to cultivate relationships within "civil society," outside the confines of the state, which is a mark of liberal thinking. I don't put much stock in conceptions of "public freedom" or in the idea of "man" as fulfilling "his" nature through empty political involvement--empty in the sense of a priori, "for it's own sake." For me, the sort of freedom offered as a goal by liberal ideology can't be universally realized in practice without the corresponding revolution of social relationships, but that's beside the point right now. Even if one doesn't take this view, there are plenty of options open to liberals that have as their purpose the insurance of the greatest possible amount of freedom and liberty that don't follow Arendt's lines. One is the political philosophy of John Rawls.

Unlike Arendt, and like me, Rawls takes it as fundamental that human beings seek to pursue their conceptions of the good life through life plans and goals that will realize that good. These conceptions of the good are independent of participation in public life. Instead, their very existence necessitates the creation of the state, a "just, well-ordered society" that will best allow people to pursue those goals. Indeed, Rawls states that human beings have two fundamental powers or senses: (a) that which I have just described, a sense of the good life with its attendant plans and goals, and (b) a sense of justice, which allows people to come together and agree on fair terms, recognizing each other as free and equal persons, to the foundations of a cooperative society that will best fulfill (a). As you might know, Rawls thinks that (b), when exercized through the medium of an "original position" of a hypothetical state of ignorance in which we do not know our conceptions of the good or our positions in society, will result in two principles of justice: (1) that we all possess equal liberties compatible with the greatest realization of those liberties for all (liberties including free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom to participate in government, but famously not unrestricted accumulation of the means of production), and (2a) the availability of offices under a scheme of "fair" equality of oppurtunity and (2b) a basic structure of social relations such that any inequalities in the system work towards the benefit of the least advantaged (the "difference principle," alternatively the "maximin" principle). This system, predicated upon what all would rationally choose in the "original position," guarantees, Rawls thinks, a just society in which citizens, whatever their inherited social position and/or natural talents, will be able to best pursue their conception of the good.

Rawls is notoriously ambiguous about the role of democracy in achieving this just society (neither of his two major works, "A Theory of Justice" nor "Political Liberalism," contain an index entry for "democracy"), but the case has been persuasively made that some form of deliberative democracy is the best, most consistent way of achieving it (see Joshua Cohen's contribution to "The Cambridge Companion to John Rawls"). In any case, we can see Rawls' differences with Arendt immediately. Rawls' conception of a just society necessarily calls for a kind of welfare state in which the least well off receive some form of compensation (Rawls once explicitly named a negative income tax). Arendt is generally dismissive of a welfare state since it focuses on narrow instrumental results and doesn't account for political participation. But if we reject Arendt's view of the human good, Rawls begins to look like a better alternative. I for one incline towards it.

Now, I apologize for this lengthy digression into political theory. Let's return to your (Robot's) initial comments. I sense a bit of confusion on your part as to the ends of local politics. For you say,

"Meaningful political participation whether at Congress, town hall, or the dining room table, quite often entails, at the very least, the benefits that people who write and read blogs (or at least this one) tend to have. That is, the means to a perfectly 'bourgeois' existence: the economic means to a dignified, healthy life, and a liberal education. A just society's goals should be extending these benefits to those who don't have it -- to give to everyone the means to participate, and to determine (whether through councils, or directly, or through representatives) the method of redistribution. Only by starting with redistribution can we rebuild a country that despite its immense wealth tolerates a level of poverty and sickness that need not exist."

Here, you will notice, you say that in order for people to participate, they need the economic means. The economic means are best guaranteed through "the means to participate," which will "determine...the method of redistribution." I hope the circularity of your argument is clear. Greater participation means greater redistribution, which means the ability to participate...for what? You have stated a goal of local politics which is clearly instrumental: redistribution. This means that local politics fulfills an instrumental function (a far cry from Arendt's idea of local politics and "public freedom"). Furthermore, you actually admit that the method of redistribution might be achieved "through councils, or directly, or through representatives." "Or through representatives" is, clearly by definition, not local politics. Do you have something else in mind here? If your goal is redistribution for the purposes of greater ability to pursue private/civic (non-state) goals, in the Rawlsian sense, then your ideal might in fact be...Rawls. Or some political theory like his. But not Arendt's.

Furthermore, you say that it is good that citizens "debate their conceptions [of the good life]." It is worth pointing out that for Rawls, private conceptions of the good life are not what is to be debated. Instead, differing conceptions of the good life must be "reasonable" and ecumenical enough to allow some sort of "overlapping consensus" between them of political justice that can serve as a *starting point* for debate, not the object of it. A tolerant, liberal allowance of different conceptions of the good life makes debate possible. This is worth keeping in mind.

In closing, I offer an extended quotation from a scholar we all, for the most part, know and respect. This scholar's views touch upon many of the ideas discussed above. They offer a prescription for political society much deeper and more participatory than what now passes for American "political virtue," yet they call to mind the same important differences between Arendtian "good" and Rawlsian "right" that I have outlined. Thus:

"What would a properly constructed demokratia look like if it existed today, within our cultural parameters? Above all, I think, such a system would require that the state make substantial material, educational, environmental, and health-care provisions for all its citizens. Demokratia would be much more a social democracy than the impersonal 'democracy' that typifies the politics of, among others, modern America. Citizens would participate in local politics. They would find it meaningful to articulate their views in public, to make efforts to persuade others, and to learn from others how to enlarge their awareness and their sympathies. They would have the leisure for such participation, because they would not be struggling to provide the everyday necessities of life for themselves and their families. The demokratia would be a responsible participant in the international community. It would abhor chauvinism of any kind. It would help people develop the civic virtues. More importantly, it would educate people to utilize their practical reason on their own behalf, so as to make their choices, and their lives, more autonomous, intentional, and self-directed. And in this way demokratia would expand the scope of voluntary action, thereby furthering our individual and collective realization of freedom. Although this description synthesizes Aristotelian and democratic ideals, it is not a mushy fantasy. It is simple, obvious, and achievable -- and worth achieving."

--Ryan Balot, "Greek Political Thought," p. 301.

2:17 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Quite a lot to respond to, and I may have to do it in bits and pieces. First response: thanks for the comment.

Well played with the Balot quotation. It's something we can both agree on, but I'll return to it in the end to highlight where I see we still disagree. Let me get back to Arendt for a minute so as to clarify a bit what I was trying to do with her. In no ways was I regurgitating Arendt so as to echo my own beliefs. My discussion of the "social question" at the end, and the need for some kind of redistributive mechanisms to allow for Arendt's world -- which I do believe is the right kind of world -- is itself un-Arendtian. Furthermore, I was not espousing a strict version of "local politics," but rather, was trying to use Arendt's idea of councils as a synthesis of the austin-Kushakov divide. As I argued (and I realize this may be contraversial) Arendt herself does not view these sorts of councils as merely local. If she did, she wouldn't spend so much time admiring the federalist/Madisonian model.

Nonetheless, we do seem to disagree on this politics in itself question. For while I do believe that the primacy of politics involves instrumental reasons, there's no question I argued it does something else too, something which Aristotle, Arendt, and Habermas all touch on. I have not read Rawls, and would no doubt benefit from doing so. Thus, before being capable of fully arguing with his (and so your) position, I must pose a question about your interpretation of his views.

You say, most clearly dissenting from my and Arendt's stated opinion, that "Unlike Arendt, and like me, Rawls takes it as fundamental that human beings seek to pursue their conceptions of the good life through life plans and goals that will realize that good. These conceptions of the good are independent of participation in public life."

Then, you continue by acknowledging that the realization of these goals is only possible through ... participation in public life: "(b) a sense of justice, which allows people to come together and agree on fair terms, recognizing each other as free and equal persons, to the foundations of a cooperative society that will best fulfill (a)"

While these "conceptions of the good" may involve a private sphere separated from politics, the means to obtain them involve anything but a separation from political life. It is this separation between public and private, means and ends, which is exactly what Arendt has a problem with. And I'm sympathetic to her critique. To reiterate my original argument, politics shouldn't *necessarily* be seen as merely instrumental or separated in this way. In the Deweyan sense, the means (cooperation) seem absurdly and quite unnecessarily disconnected from the ends (private or at least non-public enjoyment of the good life).

The answer to this problem of separation would not be to politicize the private life nor privatize the political life, but rather the more reasonable of the two: to see the means to enjoying the private life more enjoyable in themselves; to view cooperation as both a means to an end, and as an end in itself.

Our disagreement may be a bunch of theoretical jargon far too distant from the playing field of human life, but I tend to think it matters. How is it that the ends of a Rawlsian society -- "redistribution for the purposes of greater ability to pursue private/civic (non-state) goals" -- can be achieved without seeing the means to achieve them as a more fruitful enterprise than simply, "You're telling me I gotta do all of this cooperation stuff in order to let me achieve my goals of the good life!?"

If I have misinterpreted your and Rawls' views on this disjuncture of means and ends, I apologize. If not, I only ask, returning to the Greeks, whatever happened to Socrates? To the love of dialectic, and agreement, and disagreement, for its own sake? Doesn't this seem like something a lot of people appreciate in their own private lives? Why should we stigmatize and "instrumentalize" it so in their public ones?

11:57 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Thanks for the swift response. And for delivering it, to bring the Greeks up again, in a much more "laconic" manner than I did (but hopefully can do this time).

I think perhaps my verbosity got the best of me in that I didn't make my distinctions clear enough. First of all, perhaps we should scrap the "local" in "local politics" altogether. "Local politics," in what I'm talking about, has nothing to do with geography or a defined space but in the idea of "politics" as more widely diffused throughout the citizen body, period. I think we can agree that Arendt thinks this is a good thing. The second point is the question of *why* it's a good thing to begin with. For Arendt, as I hoped to show, it's good because participating in the public political arena affords us an opportunity (*the* opportunity?) to fulfill ourselves through speech. So, political participation is not just a good (I'm not debating this in particular), but *the* good. This view stems from her inheritance of the Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia, which in this case means the public practice of virtue in according with our full human capabilities. Call this the "virtue politics" approach. It is apparent in Aristotle (albeit with the sorts of material qualifications I outlined, and which Arendt skirted), Arendt, and, we might add, Balot. You can see from the Balot quote that, in his view, the main goods resulting from an enhanced demokratia are "meaningfullness," for lack of a better word, "civic virtue," and "voluntary action=freedom." Again, a very eudaimonistic approach.

This is the conception I am rejecting. It sees political participation as a good in itself because it is precisely that activity which best accords with the deep structures of our nature (the "human condition", although admittedly this is a work of Arendt I have not yet read).

Just as a friendly corrective, I would point out that Habermas is not in the same camp as these thinkers, despite his famous insistence on the importance of speech. For Habermas, communicative reason serves ends decidedly different from those of eudaimonistic virtue. Roughly, Habermas thinks deliberative democracy will foster: (1) autonomy/mutual self-respect, (2) legitimation/justice, and (3) norm/will formation. (I think these groupings correspond rather nicely with the schematic picture of (1) the subjects of a polity, (2) the constitution and justified acceptibility of a polity, and (3) the specific policies pursued by subjects within the polity.) Habermas is not a "virtue politician." Certainly, his ideal deliberative democracy is virtuous, as are the citizens in it, but this is not the same thing as saying that communicative reason is the highest activity of the good life.

Where you quote me as saying "these conceptions of the good are independent of participation in public life," I merely meant that, in contradistinction to Arendt, participation in the Rawlsian scheme is ultimately subordinate to the good it ensures. Certainly, public participation need not be considered bad or cumbersome. There's no reason why it shouldn't be enjoyable, nor why certain individuals might not find particular satisfaction through it; for some, political participation might become a part, or even the main component, of their conception of the good life. But this is something very different from what Arendt is saying, since she thinks political participation for its own sake is the highest good and should therefore be especially fostered because it, above all else, leads to the good life. There's a big difference there.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong (in the Rawlsian scheme) with saying that political participation is a necessary condition for ensuring that our ability to pursue our personal goals is maximized. Political participation keeps the system afloat and best guards against abuses of power. Perhaps it is even enjoyable. But this does not mean it is an inherent virtue (much less *the* human virtue).

My purpose in responding to your post was to challenge this strong Arendtian view, that of the virtue of public speech per se. I'm not making an argument against greater participation (far, far from it), nor am I saying that we all shouldn't try to be good, involved citizens. I'm only saying that as a model for the modus operandi of a political society, the strong Arendtian view seems to me to be very flawed. And presumably we are talking not about minor points of agreement ("people should participate!") but our thoughts about the desirability of a certain outline of society. I think that we probably agree more than I've allowed, but my wider point was to discourage an Arendtian viewpoint as the basis for looking at these issues. As for jargon in our conversation, I wouldn't worry about that because I don't see any. What's the most obscure word so far--"instrumental," maybe?

I still have Kushakov's comments to reply to, because I think he makes some good points. As for further argument, I think my biggest point of departure from you might have something to do with the Democrats...

5:18 AM  
Blogger kushakov said...

I had actually written a response to several of Scantron's points - which, in typical Blogger fashion, got erased.

Scantron, you really ought to read The Human Condition. In it you'll find that Arendt does not, as you claim, gloss over the "social question" implicit in the Greek political ideal. Rather, she is very clear in arguing that participation in Greek political life was by definition divorced from the "necessity" that defined the laborer's life. Of course, citizens did often engage in commerce and labor (certainly not manual labor), but this had no bearing, she argues, upon the political realm as they saw it.

Of course, the point of her argument is not to accept without complications the Greek model as ideal. Certainly, her discussion of a political life divorced from economic and administrative concerns (whether or not Greek politics did, in practice, enforce this separation is not so important to her as the theory that may derived from Greek writing) is given as a counter-model to our own thoroughly administrative political system. In fact, she spends most of the book laying out what we might now call a condemnation, avant Foucault, of the rise of "biopolitics" in modernity.

In thinking through the present discussion, though, I'd like to propose that we read Arendt primarily as cultural historian and not simply as polemicist. Surely her arguments have value for contemporary political debates, but not, I think, in the solvency of her proposals (which are, anyway, few and far between). And she is usually the first to point this out: in the case of the Athenian model, for instance, she is very clear in saying that their political life depended absolutely upon the unit of the polis; any contemporary returns to Greek democracy must necessarily grapple with the condition of the nation-state - a territory vastly larger than that of the Athenians. In examining our own politics, she suggests, we ought not to forget how the very size of our democracy - in terms of space and population - necessitates more or less centralized, administrative forms of governance.

Scantron, I understand your argument as rejecting Arendt's proposals as non-solvent for contemporary political problems - namely, "freedom for all people, relief from the squalor and impotence resulting from poverty, and from the strictures which are forced upon us by private forces far removed from the majority of us, which is to be achieved through the ownership and direct or indirect management of the apparatuses productive of life's necessities (in old fashioned terms: the means of production)." You're right that she's not interested in solving these problems - at least, not as far as I can see. Even in her valorization of American democracy in On Revolution, she reminds us that the "social problem" - all that you address in your political program - was simply not on the plate of the American founders. In contrast, this question of social equity was very much in the minds of the French revolutionaries, who, as we know, botched the whole thing royally.

What I ultimately find valuable in Arendt is the criticality of the ideals she proposes, not their potential solvency. The ideal of Greek democracy she gives us (and it is very clearly an ideal, I think) could not sensibly be instituted in America; the notion, however, of a form of politics that eschewed the necessities of administration and economics - well, purely on an emotional level, I find this deeply attractive. Arendt is very good at showing us what our current politics had to sacrifice in order to achieve its present aims: enforcing juridical order across a huge, unhappy populace, providing for some minimum standard of their welfare, keeping stable the farsical boundaries of modern nations. I would go on, and with greater accuracy, but I lent my copy of The Human Condition to Tony Boggs and forgot to ask for it back.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

From Bush's address tonight: "As local politics change, so will national politics."

I might have to rethink my arguments...

9:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home