Category: Institutions

Vulnerable Democracy

After the 2016 election, David Runciman in the London Review of Books wrote a prescient piece about how democracies die when we take them for granted.  I do think (but, then again, what do I know—and I certainly don’t have any way to influence what happens) Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th

Republican twaddle about a stolen election will collapse as the next two months unfold because their lack of substance means no court in the land will credit that narrative.  But counting on the courts is a thin reed when so many judges are right-wing nut cases.

Ninety percent of Republican politicians and government officials know that cries about a corrupt election are unjustified.  They are only spouting the narrative because the Trump base is now their base, their source of power, and they alienate that base at their peril. 

The trouble, of course, is that the base does not have this cynical relation to the stolen election story. The base believes. The last four years (nay, the last ten; ever since the rise of the Tea Party) have shown the extent to which the base drives the party, not the other way around.

A digression: I understand that the full story is more complicated, since the Tea Party is only partially a true base, grassroots phenomenon.  But it would be a bad mistake to deny that a true populist base exists for the Republican party—and that that base stands at some odds with the party officials. Perhaps it is simply more accurate to say that the far right wing of the party has now taken it over, and not speak in terms of “base” versus officials. The trouble with dropping all references to the “base” is that it discounts Trump’s ability to enthuse voters, among them many who have rarely voted before. Leftist Democrats would like to mirror that right-wing success—in taking over the party and bringing many new voters to the poll.

The party hacks are counting on the courts and our other democratic institutions to hold the line—just as they have counted on the taboo against political violence to keep their inflammatory rhetoric from inspiring wide-scale actual violence.  They believe their words will have no serious impact, will be seen as the empty rhetoric they are, just what a politician has to say to curry favor.  That’s why their words are cynical; those words are designed not to effect what they say, but to manipulate those to whom they are addressed.

But Trump’s words have never been cynical; he is at one with the base in believing in the corruption, malfeasance, and devilry of his opponents.  And to the extent that he has transmitted those convictions to 40% of the American populace, it would be foolish to think it will all blow over, that our democratic institutions and norms will somehow keep that genie bottled up.  The bottling up will work until it doesn’t—and then we will have not the slow erosion of norms that the punditry keeps bemoaning, but full-scale collapse. 

When the hacks cynically parrot Trump’s non-cynical words they place a faith in our democracy that is touchingly naïve.  They think that democracy is not vulnerable to their attacks, which aren’t, after all, sincerely meant.  They still think they can contain and control the beast of the anti-democratic, authoritarian right, using it as a lever to obstruct and oppose anything the Biden administration attempts to accomplish.  But by making our government utterly dysfunctional, utterly hamstrung in its efforts to even begin to address our society’s (and world’s) multiple crises, they feed the notion that we need a different kind of governance altogether—a strong man, authoritarian kind.

The next four years are going to be ugly as Biden tries to ride the whirlwind.  Right-wing media and a fair number of right-wing politicians are going to push the illegitimate government line hard.  Biden may be able to undo some of the administrative, executive level damage that Trump has done, but his scope for action beyond that will be extremely limited.

And the prospects post-Biden are even grimmer.  The roused right wing is not going away—and its fury at losing will be even more frightening than its triumphant displays during the Trump years.  It is no rhetorical hyperbole to say that American democracy is at risk.  And one of the risks is a complacency about its strength and resilience in the face of attacks, no matter if those attacks are made cynically or meant sincerely. 

The friends of democracy are going to have to fight long and hard for it.  And their fight will be handicapped by the right wing’s hold on the courts and on the majority of state legislatures.  Gerrymandering and voter suppression will proceed apace, with nary a checkpoint to curtail these practices in the whole governmental apparatus.  The hounds of the right-wing media will continue their hunt.  Please, oh democrats, don’t be deer in the headlights.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a funny case.  He is a prolific writer, has been based for much of his career at Harvard’s Law School, and has twice served as Brazil’s Minister of Strategic Affairs—and, yet, his work is not read in the political theory and political activist circles that I frequent.  I don’t know why Unger’s work is not required reading for academics working in these fields.  He is not unknown, but he is not read.  Which is a pity. 

Unger’s concept of “false necessity” (from his 1980s trilogy Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory) has been foundational for me.  That concept is also not a bad entry point into Unger’s work.  He is best described as a visionary.  He refuses to accept that current social, legal, and political arrangements are dictated by some facts about human nature or irrefutable “realities” that make alternatives implausible, perhaps even impossible.  At the same time, he is unimpressed by global categorizations of any set of arrangements.  Terms like “capitalism,” “liberalism,” and “socialism” are, in his view, impediments to thinking and to action.  We need, instead, granular imaginative visions of what is possible—and specific interventions at the institutional sites (workplaces, schools, markets, law courts, legislative and regulatory bodies) of social interaction. 

The first requirement for making something happen, as Woody Allen famously remarked, is showing up.  How unsexy is that!!  Unger’s focus on specific sites of engagement is all about showing up, about transforming conditions on the ground not through the magic of some overarching theory that explains everything, but through working out and then sustaining alternative relations among the actors (human and non-human) involved in that specific undertaking. 

The focus (deriving, ultimately, I think from Marx’s emphasis on the “social relations” that accompany any mode of production) in Unger is always based firmly on relations.  Who gets to do what?  Where does authority reside?  Who sets the agenda?  Who gets the deciding vote when conflicts arise? Most crucially: how does any group establish relations that unleash the imaginative and creative potentials each of us possess?  That’s Unger’s visionary, utopian moment: his firm belief that a meaningful and satisfying life is based on conditions that allow (nay encourage) each individual to discover and express his or her creativity.  Current arrangements stifle us—and unnecessarily so.  We need to fight our way toward unleashing what is currently bottled up—and we need to wage that fight at the multiple sites where we are engaged with others in the variety of enterprises that interest us. 

In short: imagine new forms of collectivity, of being together, that exchange frustrating us for fulfilling our potential. And then put those imagined forms into action.

I have returned to Unger’s work (since my first encounter with it in the 1980s) periodically over the years, having read at least six of his books.  (You can access just about everything he has written in pdf format on his web page:

Right now, I have picked him up again at the behest of Steve Valk, who heads up the Institute of Social Choreography (based in Frankfurt;  In particular, Steve is interested in Unger’s recent work on the “knowledge economy,” in which he argues (among other things) that the imaginative innovations we associate with the knowledge economy have been restricted to an “insular vanguard.” That small group retains possession of its ideas through patents, copyright laws, and intellectual property statutes while also limiting access to the imaginative processes of creating ideas by limiting educational opportunity and by strictly enforcing workplace hierarchies that segregate the “idea work” from the grunt work performed by the underlings who form the vast majority of workers.  Unger calls for an “inclusive vanguard” which would entail new ideas arising out of practices on the workshop floor (or the equivalent concrete interactions at other social sites) instead of the current procedure of helicoptering new ideas in from outside of those interactions.  Think of your latest report from McKinsey as the paradigm of outsourcing creativity to “consultants” instead of calling on the people actually doing the work to consider better and innovative ways to do it.

Unger’s vision—with its focus on concrete interactions—is inspiring for the Institute for Social Choreography because, in the words of Andrew Hewitt (author of the book, Social Choreography, Duke UP, 2005):  “We might think of choreography in terms of ‘rehearsal’; that is, as the working out and working through of utopian, nevertheless ‘real’, social relations.” Dance is, par excellence, a collective art form—and thus a fruitful site for imagining and then enacting new forms of social togetherness. In addition, dance reminds us that social relations are lived in and through the body, are instantiated in bodily habits as much as in received, unquestioned ways of thinking.

In subsequent posts, I will consider Unger’s take on the “knowledge economy” in more detail.

A Bit More on the Police

I should have made clear in my previous post that the idea of hiring military vets as police officers does not mean an endorsement of the “militarization” of the police in terms of tactics used by and equipment supplied to our domestic police forces.  It was shocking to me to see the Kenosha police roll up in an armored vehicle.  Such battlefield armaments should never be deployed on American streets.

And my post should also have been understood as a push-back against the “few bad apples” defense of the police.  What is needed is a wide-scale change of police culture.  The way the police think of themselves, the forms their relations among themselves take, and especially the way they think of and relate to the communities they serve, needs a drastic overhaul.

Two stories that have come out in the past two days put an exclamation point on this need for a total culture change.  In fact, the need for that total change is so compelling that I am inclined to think we need to tear the current police systems in our cities down to the ground and start from scratch in rebuilding them.

The first story points to the evidence that within the Los Angeles County police force there are active gangs that, as with non-police gangs, use violence as a way to create membership—and keep members from defecting.  Here’s the link:

I will confess to typical (?) liberal naiveté at this point.  Just as with the Trump administration, the level of evil—and its straight-forward baldness—never fails to surprise me.  By now, you would think I would have learned.

The second story is about police-union-issued “get out of jail” free cards.  A bit of an exaggeration on my part.  The cards just help you if you get pulled over by a cop for traffic violations or fairly similar matters.  The card tells the cop to let you off because you have a relative in the police force.  But—you saw this coming—somehow the cards don’t get distributed as widely to non-white cops as to white ones.  The link:

Is the culture in the military any better than the toxic culture of our police departments? Maybe I am being naïve in that respect as well.  But Heather Cox Richardson, in her newsletter for today, speaks to this issue.  The full text quotes Tammy Duckworth at some length.  Here’s the key passage from Richardson:

“Since at least 2018, Democrats, especially Democratic women, have advanced a vision of military service that departs from the Republican emphasis on heroic individualism. Instead, they emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, and community, and the recognition that that teamwork means every single soldier, not just a few visible heroes, matters.”

My own (admittedly distanced) contact with the military (through my interactions with both veterans and active service members who are students or colleagues) does give me the generally positive vision of military culture that I articulated in my last post.  But maybe I am just toeing a line the Democrats have been pushing in order to enhance their patriotic bona fides, not a vision that comes anywhere close to the truth of the matter. 

It is certainly weird that the Trump administration has led Democrats to think more highly of the CIA and the FBI, to the extent that both those agencies (like the military) have displayed at least some push-back against Trump—a push-back that appears motivated by a recognition of how much damage he is doing to this country.  Their patriotism (country above Trump) stands in stark contrast to the whole Republican party, who have become Trump’s enablers. 

Still, I don’t want to go very far down that road.  The military is wildly over-funded, while the CIA is almost a completely unmitigated disaster.  The National security state, in toto, is one of those features of the American political landscape that needs to be dismantled, radically re-thought, and completely re-designed.  Our inability to do such work with any of our dysfunctional systems—from health care to the Electoral College, not to mention the police and prevalent discriminatory practices in housing and education—is why it is so hard to summon any optimism about the future of our society.  Our politics currently renders it impossible even to discuss these needed reforms, no less actually begin to undertake them. 

Trying to Understand Practice

I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.

A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein.  Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.

I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself.  He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.”  I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from.  Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism.  There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.”  Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.

My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001].  As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002.  That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.

Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”?  Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term.  Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano.  This is an activity that takes place within a structured field.  The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field.  There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)

There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano.  Crucially, there also has to be a process of education.  You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it.  It takes years of training—and of practice.  You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book.  You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.

The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations.  There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls.  There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions.  This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”

Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment.  We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in.  A good parent is distinct from a good piano player.  It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged.  In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it.  What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement.  The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.

For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games.  A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules.  The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out.  But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out.  And the rules are not the source of the motivation.  The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another.  Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss.  More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.

To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.”  Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.”  There is also the social institution of money itself.  Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C.  Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently.  Money is a key example for Searle.  This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else.  Games make this magic very obvious.  I step across a line carrying an oblong ball.  A perfectly ordinary action.  But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown.  The conditions?  I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc.  Football, like money, is socially instituted.

Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated.  Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning.  Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating.  Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted.  He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies.  Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance.  In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up.  She has to let her body take over.

More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc.  The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms.  Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice.  The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.”  They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.

Several problems arise at this point.  For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated.  Basketball is the exception, not the rule.  (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions.  Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions.  The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized.  But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?

This puzzle also afflicts the use of language.  A child certainly has to learn how to speak.  But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage.  The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.”  In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar.  The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication.  And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.

In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C).  The same applies to syntactical rules.  In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules).  Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.”  (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use.  I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome.  I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)

Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along.  The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields.  Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential.  Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice.  “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.

Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments).  In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.

I will end with one recurring puzzle.  If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them?  How does one acquire “a feel” for the game?  This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North.  There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual.  (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)

There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go.  And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around.  That’s how the child learns to speak.  By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some.  Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities.  That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work,  the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.