More on Institutions

I promise to get back to what kinds of institutions the left should aspire to establish.  (Although my deferring a discussion on that topic does reflect my not having a proposal that satisfies me.)  But first let me say a bit more about institutions in order to clarify what I am talking about when asking the left to be more institution-minded.

Boltanksi’s definition of institution is an odd one insofar as he focuses in on a single  function: establishing the terms by which a collective organizes its experiences and constructs a “reality” to which it attempts to provide a stability and determinateness that combats the inherent “uncertainty” of a life in time.  That’s an awfully abstract, even metaphysical understanding of institutions. And I doubt it is the function that would first leap to mind for people using the term “institution.”  It seems to neglect the concrete things we usually associate with institutions—namely, the fact that they employ functionaries, who exist in an (almost invariably) hierarchical set of relations in order to perform certain specified tasks, which include sanctions for those who violate the institution’s procedure and codes, but also include more positive accomplishments.  Institutions exist to get things done; they are sites of organized collective endeavors.

Let’s take the university as an institution.  Its grading and tenuring and hiring/firing procedures are all, partly, forms of sanctions.  But they also exist in relation to its positive, educational mission.  The university exists to get something done: namely, to produce knowledge and to impart that knowledge to the “rising generation.”  Its “policing” function, then, covers “policing” in the expansive sense that Foucault has taught us that the term conveyed in the 17th century.  Policing meant all the activities—both the positive ones that provided for certain goods and the negative ones of punishment—by which an institution (not just the state, but certainly including the state as a prime instance) manages to perform the tasks it undertakes—or should we say “the tasks that a society entrusts to it.”

Taken this way, an institution is a site (the preferred site?) for collective enterprises.  It is the form that seems best suited to insuring that certain tasks—ones that require extensive cooperation to achieve—are accomplished by a collective.

Boltanski does not neglect these aspects of an institution—but he does try to distance them from institution proper.  Instead, he assigns these aspects to “administration” and “organization.”  He writes:

“To assign institutions a predominantly semantic role, consisting in stabilizing reference . . . enables us not to confuse then with two other types of entity with which they are invariably associated, but from which they are to be distinguished analytically: on the one hand, administrations, which perform policing  functions; and on the other, organizations, which perform coordinating functions.  These two kinds of entities refer, if you like, to the means which institutions must be equipped with in order to act in the world of bodies. . . . [I[t must be noted that the conceptual distinction we have just made between institutions, organizations, and administrations becomes blurred when the term institution is employed—as is the case in current usages, for example, when a school or a hospital is referred to as an ‘institution’—in a quasi-reified fashion, where stress is placed on the simultaneously regulatory, accounting and material framework (buildings, credit lines, etc.)  In fact, a number of situations inscribed in these frameworks can, when considered in detail, assume highly diverse aspects, more of the order of administrative or organizational work.  Everything that occurs in ‘institutions,’ construed in this sense, is therefore far from being of a specifically institutional order, with a large number of situations even unfolding in the register that has been characterized as practical” (79-80).

Lots to chew on here.

1) Is this analytic distinction helpful?  I hesitantly say “yes.”  Separating out the “semantic” function from the policing and coordination functions is useful for thinking about what institutions do.

2) Does it make sense to confine (in an act of semantic reform) the use of the term “institution” to the semantic function alone?  Here I would say “no.”  These kinds of attempts to depart from ordinary language to create a specialized usage more often breed confusion than anything else.  How are we to expect an audience to keep constantly in mind that when I say “institution” I mean something rather different than what others mean when they say the same word?

3) Is it really possible to have institutions that are confined to only one of these functions?  Boltanski has already suggested that the semantic function will usually (always?) be attached to sanctions, which suggests that at least negative policing {in a footnote, Boltanksi makes it clear that he is using “policing” in the expanded 17th sense} always accompanies semantic construction.  And once you go to establish effective sanctions, doesn’t that entail coordination of multiple persons?  So it seems better to say that there are “institutions,” that there are recognizable semantic, administration, and organizational functions that institutions undertake to fulfill, and that (at best) certain institutions are more focused on one or two of these functions than on the other ones.  Hence, we could say Congress, in writing and passing legislation, is more oriented to the semantic function, while leaving the administrative function to the police, and the coordination function to the various executive agencies entrusted with bringing legislation into practice.  But it seems just wrong not to recognize that the way a law is enacted—both administratively and organizationally—will alter its meanings, its semantics.  I am tempted to say that the whole point of pragmatism is that meanings are created through practice, in use.  (Pragmatics’ and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on how a word’s meaning resides in its use.)  So the attempt to divorce the semantic from the administrative and the organizational is to imagine a frictionless world of ideal legislation.  Back to the rough ground!  Meanings are forged in interactions, in use—and the same should, presumably, be said about the “reality” that Boltanski sees institutions as constructing.  In short, administration and organization are baked in; they can only analytically be separated out; they can’t be separated out in practice.

4) All of which leads me to suspect that my real complaint about the left is, to put it in the crudest and most clichéd of terms, that it is addicted to theory and fights shy of practice, that it loves to dwell in the frictionless world of legislating semantics, and never rolls up its sleeves to do the hard, messy work of administration and organization.  Armchair critique is the left’s specialty.

Is what I am saying really just that tired complaint?  I would hope not. For one thing, there is the issue of the left’s theoretical resistance to institutionalization.  That is, the left (besides hating punishment) is extremely wary of “stability,” of hierarchy, and of determinate, non-revisable declarations.  Which I guess is a way of saying that the left theoretically desires community, but temperamentally feels deeply uncomfortable with any constraints on an anarchistic individualism, with every person unconstrained by collective demands or orthodoxies.  Institutions smell of conformity, of pushing people into molds that also make them better “producers.”  We didn’t need Foucault to teach us that institutions work to insure that people are well-behaved, that they follow the rules, don’t disrupt the prevailing order, and make their expected “contribution” to social prosperity within a sacrosanct “order.”  Institutions, in all three of the dimensions Boltanski describes, are potentially tyrannical.  They lay down the law, and function to get people to obey that law, even to love it.

Yet how does any collective ever get anything done without institutions?  Organization gives any collective a huge advantage over those who are not organized.  This was to secret of Rome’s success, with its organized legions.  And it is the reason why the destruction of the labor unions has been such an unmitigated disaster for wage earners.  Organized capital, with its lobbyists, PR personnel, and trade associations, can act with an effectiveness that dwarfs anything individuals can achieve on their own.  And it is always useful to remember Will Rogers’s quip: “I belong to no organized party.  I am a Democrat.”  To resist organization is to tie one hand behind your back in a fight that is going to be tough enough, given the discrepancy in resources each side can all upon.

So the left needs to come to terms with the need for organization—for gathering resources, for getting its message out, for coordinating political action and pressure.  The question is what forms can/should that organization take.  The classic, Leninist answer was “the party.”  The more recent answer has been “the movement.”  The question I keep worrying is whether a movement is enough.  Does a movement have to move toward more organized, institutional forms in order to be effective?  To make progress on the economic front, against the organized forces of capitalist exploitation, I think a movement must become more institutional.  Does that mean it must have a party?  To some extent, yes.  But the challenge I have set myself is to try and imagine the other kinds of institutions it needs to have—since it also seems clear that electoral politics in and of itself will not be sufficient to effect the kinds of changes the left desires.  A party is good for electoral politics—and electoral politics cannot and should not be abandoned or ignored.  But if necessary, electoral victories are not sufficient as the presidencies of Clinton and Obama make clear.

SO: onto thinking about other institutional forms for the left.

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