Category: political theory

The United States and the History and Fate of Liberal Democracy


I have just finished reading Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019).  For much of the book, I was disappointed by what Berman has to say.  She lays out the histories of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain (with a more truncated account of the Eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) to describe their transition to liberal democracy (or failure to make that transition) from their starting points, monarchial dictatorship in the case of France, Britain, and Spain, non-statehood in the cases of Germany and Italy, and the muddled, colonized situations in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The disappointment came from the fact that she offers non-revisionist history in what, even in a long 400 page plus book, must necessarily be fairly quick narratives of each country’s story.  It is nice to have all of this history within the covers of a single book, but I learned nothing new.  And the stories told are so conventional that I found myself suspicious of them.  Surely more recent work (my knowledge base for this material is at least twenty years old) has troubled the received accounts.

But Berman’s final chapter takes her story in a different direction.  She develops what has been hinted at throughout her narratives: a set of enabling conditions for the achievement of liberal democracy.  Basically, she sees six types of governments in European nation-states since 1650: monarchial dictatorship (Louis XIV; attempted unsuccessfully by the Stuart kings in England);  military (conservative) dictatorship (Franco, Bismarck, other more short-lived versions; Napoleon Bonaparte is, in certain ways, a liberal military dictatorship, thus rather different); fascist dictatorships (Italy, and Germany; crucially not Franco); totalitarian communism (Eastern Europe after WW II); illiberal democracy (Napoleon III, Berlusconi, Hungary and Poland right now); and liberal democracy.

Today, it seems pretty clear, illiberal and liberal democracy are pretty much the only games in town, at least in what used to be called the First World.  Military coups and their follow-up, military dictatorships, are still possibilities, especially outside of Europe, but not all that likely in Europe.  More ominous, perhaps, are the authoritarian regimes now in place in Russia and China—regimes that don’t fit into the six types listed above, and represent some kind of new development that responds to the aftermath of disastrous totalitarian communist regimes.   Again, the appearance of such regimes in Western Europe seems unlikely, although a real possibility in Eastern Europe and perhaps already installed in Turkey.

Here’s Berman on what makes a democracy “liberal.”  “[L]iberal democracy requires governments able to enforce the democratic rules of the game, guarantee the rule of law, protect minorities and individual liberties, and, of course, implement policies.  Liberal democracy requires, in other words, a relatively strong state.  Liberal democracy also requires that citizens view their government as legitimate, respect the democratic rules of the game, obey the law, and accept other members of society as political equals.  Liberal democracy also requires, in other words, a consensus on who belongs to the national community—who ‘the people’ are—and is therefore entitled to participate in the political process and enjoy the other rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Reflecting this, throughout European history liberal democracy—but not illiberal or electoral democracy—has consolidated only in countries possessing relatively strong states and national unity” (392).

Berman thus insists that liberal democracy is dependent upon the nation-state—where a shared sense of national identity underwrites (makes possible) the existence of a strong central state.  There are three major obstacles to the achievement of national unity: regionalism, ethnic differences, and the “old order.”  For the most part, Berman focuses on the “old order.”  She adopts Eric Hobsbawm’s assertion that “since 1789 European and indeed world politics has been a struggle for and against the principles of the French Revolutions” (49 in Berman).  For Berman, that means that the old order which straightforwardly granted “privileges” to a certain segment of society (the aristocracy and the clergy in ancient régime France) must be destroyed to create the political equality of full participation and the general equality before the law that are the sine non qua of liberal democracy.  The story of European history since 1650 is of the very slow destruction of the old order—and of the ways that elites resisted fiercely the movement toward democracy and toward liberalism. (Crucially, democracy and liberalism are not the same and do not inevitably appear together.  Napoleon Bonaparte arguably was a liberal dictator, whereas his nephew Louis Napoleon was an illiberal democratic leader.)

A key part of that story is Berman’s claim that the “sequencing” of the moves toward democracy is crucial to actually getting there.  Three things must happen: 1. A strong central state must be created; i.e. the power of regions must be broken as well as the power of local elites; crucially, this move involves the creation of institutions that can function to govern the whole territory;   2. A strong sense of national identity (again opposed to more local loyalties) must be created; and 3. Building upon the existence of that strong state and strong sense of shared identity, liberal democracy can be securely established.  Berman notes that in post-colonial situations, where the new state begins without possessing a strong central government or a strong sense of national identity, the attempt to establish liberal democracy almost never succeeds. Doing all three things at the same time is just about impossible.

“European political development makes clear, in short, that sequencing matters: without strong states and national identities, liberal democracy is difficult if not impossible to achieve.  It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how sequencing occurred, there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.  The difference between Western and Southern and East-Central Europe was not whether violence and instability were part of the back-story of liberal democracy, but when and over how long a period they occurred.  In Western Europe state- and nation-building were extremely violent and coercive, involving what today would be characterized as colonization and ethnic cleansing, that is, the destruction and absorption of weaker political entities into stronger ones (for example, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine into France, Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland into Britain) and the suppression or elimination of traditional communities, loyalties, languages, traditions, and identities in the process of creating new, national ones.  But in much of Western Europe these processes occurred or at least began during the early modern period (but not, notably, in Italy or Germany), and so unlike Southern and Central Europe, Western Europe did not experience the violence and coercion associated with state- and nation-building during the modern era at the same time the challenge of democratization appeared on the political agenda.  By the nineteenth century in France and England, and by the second half of the twentieth century in the rest of Western Europe, states were strong and legitimate enough to advance nation-building without overt coercion but instead via education, promoting national culture, language, and history, improved transport and communication networks, and by supporting a flourishing civil society within which potentially cross-cutting cleavages and networks could develop, strengthening the bonds among citizens” (394-95).  East and Central Europe did not have this long time span—and had to cram all three projects (state building, nation building, and democratization) into the same period, which makes success much less likely (where success is establishing a stable liberal democracy).

Berman also argues that, in the aftermath of World War II, Western Europe adopted “social democracy” (aka the welfare state) in order to demonstrate the state’s commitment to the well-being of all its citizens after the sacrifices of the war and the sufferings of the depression.  National solidarity, she argues, is heightened by this responsiveness of the state to the needs of all its citizens—an antidote to the 1930s conviction in much of Europe that liberal regimes could not protect citizens from the depredations of capitalism.  She quotes Henry Morgenthau, American Secretary of the Treasury in his opening remarks at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference: “All of us have seen the great economic tragedy of our time.  We saw the worldwide depression of the 1930s . . . . We saw bewilderment and bitterness become the breeders of fascism and finally of war.  To prevent a recurrence of this phenomenon, national governments would have to be able to do more to protect people from capitalism’s ‘malign effects’” (Berman, 284).  Berman is a firm believer in Habermas’s “constitutional nationalism”; she thinks that national solidarity is best reinforced by a welfare state that extends benefits and protection to all its citizens.  (See pages 296-297).  She also is a strong proponent of “the primacy of politics” (the title of her excellent earlier book, which I discussed in this blog post), meaning that governments should take management of the economy as one of its essential political projects.

How might all this relate to US history?  It certainly offers an interesting way to think about the American South.  To even create a national state, the South had to be granted the privilege of continued slavery.  Without slavery, there would have been no United States in 1787.  The founder of my university (the University of North Carolina), William Davie is only recorded as speaking once at the Constitutional Convention.  “At a critical point in the deliberations, however, William Davie spoke up for the interests of the Southern slaveholders. In his pivotal statement, Davie asserted that North Carolina would not join the federal union under terms that excluded slaves from being counted for representation. Unlike other Southern delegates, Davie was flexible and willing to negotiate, because he was committed to the realization of the union. Indeed, once the three-fifths compromise was reached, Davie became an enthusiastic advocate of the United States Constitution. He spent two years campaigning for the document’s ratification.” (Source)

Hence slavery was akin to the privileges (the bribes) French kings had to grant the nobility in order to create a strong central French state.  Similarly, the regions (i.e. the separate colonies) had to be granted the privilege of equal representation in the Senate in order to yield sovereignty to the national government.  Thus the American state was compromised from the start.  It took violence to end slavery and then the South was bribed again in the aftermath of the Civil War when a blind eye was turned on Jim Crow.  The elites of the South, in other words, never had to submit to democratization; they barely had to maintain any kind of national allegiance or identity.  The South was allowed to go its own way for the most part.  Yet the Dixiecrat South, because of the Senate, held the balance of power in Roosevelt’s New Deal, guaranteeing that the first steps toward social democracy in the US were not open to all citizens.  Blacks were excluded from most of the New Deal programs.  The non-democratic Senate (made even less democratic by its extra-constitutional adoption of the “filibuster”) served anti-democratic elites well.

Arguably, World War II created a stronger sense of national identity through the participation in a mass army. (The war, of course, also made the federal government immensely bigger and stronger.) That mass participation opened the way toward the civil rights movement—both because the national government felt more secure in its power and because the justice of rewarding blacks for their military service appealed strongly to Harry Truman (among others), even as service overseas gave black veterans a taste of dignity and freedom.  It is not an accident that the first significant integration mandated by the national government was of the military (by Truman in 1948).

It is also no accident that Strom Thurmond ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, winning five Southern states, and beginning the slow process of the South moving from being solidly Democratic to becoming solidly Republican.  Even though Republicans (the party of Lincoln) were crucial to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the party’s presidential standard bearer in that year was Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights bill—and carried the South even as he was defeated in a landslide.  The “Southern strategy” was born.  The long impotent right-wing opposition to the New Deal could gain power if the national solidarity created by World War II and the welfare state could be overcome by selling a significant portion of the  general populace on the notion that welfare was exploited by lazy, sexually promiscuous, and potentially violent blacks.  Throw in fear of communism and a religious-tinged moral panic about “permissiveness” among the unwashed, drugged-out hippies protesting the Vietnam War and the scene was set for the conservative roll-back of America’s (always less than generous or fully established) social democracy.

American Conservatism from 1964 on was not simply Southern, but took its playbook from the South.  That is (to recall Berman’s list of the requirements of liberal democracy above), the Republican party embraced positions that denied the full equality of all citizens in terms of political participation and demonized the opposition as unfit to govern, as an existential threat to the nation, as not “real” Americans.  The two Democratic presidents post-Reagan were condemned as illegitimate and criminal by the right-wing media and by Republican congresses, with Clinton impeached and Obama subjected to everything from the “birther” fantasies to deliberate obstruction and the refusal to even vote on his Supreme Court nominee.

In short, Berman’s analysis suggests that the South was never integrated into the American nation—and has successfully resisted that integration to this day.  Furthermore, one of the national political parties has allied itself with that Southern resistance, using it to further its own resistance to democracy.  That resistance to democracy has multiple sources, but certainly includes the business elites’ desire to prevent government management of the economy—including environmental regulations, support of labor’s interests against employers, aggressive deployment of anti-trust and anti-discrimination laws, and strong enforcement of financial regulations and tax laws.  Just as the South had to be bribed to even nominally be part of the Union, so the economic elite has also been bribed to accept grudgingly even the attenuated democracy and welfare state in place in the US.  The bribery, we might say, goes both ways; the plutocrats bribe the politicians by financing their campaigns, and the politicians bribe the plutocrats by keeping the state out of their hair.

Berman’s story is that liberal democracy collapses when people become convinced that it cannot serve their needs.  Only “a socioeconomic order capable of convincing its citizens that liberal democracy could and would respond to their needs” (295) stands between us and the illiberal alternatives that offer themselves when liberal democracy appears incapable of delivering the goods. The failures of liberal democracy since 1970 are manifest; its corruption and its slide into plutocracy in the United States are plainly evident.

In the United States today, we live in a cruel society.  The right wing solution is to say “Yes, life is cruel.  There are winners and losers—and we are offering you a chance to be on the side of the winners, while also giving you a way to justify the fate of the losers.  They are the lazy, or the weak-willed (drug addicts), the ungodly, or the illegal (criminal, or undocumented,) or otherwise unworthy of full citizenship, or full compassion.”  The left tries to hold on to the vision of social democracy.  An anti-democratic left is not a strong force in present-day America the way it was in 1900 to 1935 Europe.  The mushy center wants to hold on to existing civil liberties and to the existing rules of the game even as the emboldened right ignores both with impunity.

It is possible that the 2020 presidential election will present a clear choice between a robust re-assertion of social democracy versus the divide-and-conquer rightism that also aligns itself with ruthless capitalism. (We could also get a Democratic candidate like Biden who represent the mushy center.) I have friends who are convinced that the right will not accept the election results if it loses by a fairly small margin.  I find that scenario implausible; I don’t think the stability of American democracy is that precarious.  But a recent conversation with one friend made me less sure.  And Berman’s book puts the question rather starkly: If the Trumpists refuse to accept the election results, is there enough commitment to liberal democracy to lead to the kind of large-scale public response that would make a coup fail?  Or has faith in liberal democracy been so eroded by its gridlock and its impotence over the past eight years (ever since the feeble and inadequate response to the 2008 financial crisis) that the response to another stolen election would echo the shrug of January 2001 when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush.  A scary thought.  But it would certainly seem, in light of the history Berman outlines, that a complacent faith in the persistence of our (even attenuated) liberal democracy is probably unfounded.


Have just finished reading Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation (Polity, 2011), a terrific book.  Hope to post at least three or four times with comments and thoughts it inspires.

Right now, I want to work through his account of institutions, since I have been complaining for months that the allergy to institutionalization found in contemporary social movements and in Hannah Arendt (as well as in many other places) severely hampers the potential effectiveness of a would-be leftist politics.

Boltanski recognizes that there are many competing definitions of institutions out there.  Boltanski takes a roughly functionalist approach himself (although I am sure he would hate to see it characterized as such).  He accepts the William James (he doesn’t cite James, but he does call himself a pragmatist) notion of our selves embedded in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” the “flux” or the “flow” of time and events that generates the “stream” of consciousness as one perception or thought succeeds another.  Boltanski calls this flux, this onslaught, “the world.”  We can assimilate his notion of “the world” to James’s interest in “the more.”  The world is always more than we can take in; it always exceeds our conceptual and perceptual powers; any picture or representation we might produce of the world will always fall short of fully, completely representing it (we might want to go Heideggerian here and think of the “age of the world picture” but without Heidegger’s insistence that this is a modern pathology).

To survive in the flux, any society must construct some stabilities, some things that can be taken for granted.  Boltanski calls that construction “reality.”  Crucially, reality is necessarily a collective product—and Boltanski’s reasoning for that claim (which he underwrites with an appeal to J. L. Austin’s notion of “felicity”) could be tied back to James’s radical empiricism essays (“How Two Minds Can Know One Thing,” and “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic”) as well as to Wittgenstein’s denial of the possibility of a “private language.”  “An institution is a bodiless being to which is delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is” (Boltanski, 75)—i.e. of fixing in place a certain version of “reality” that has a stability and permanence that stands over against the “uncertainty” that characterizes individual existence in the flux.  “That is why the phenomenology of institutions attributes to them as an essential property: their capacity to establish enduring or even, in a sense, eternal entities.  Unlike the individual bodies of those who give them a voice, serve them, or simply live and die in spheres of reality they [institutions] help to cohere and to last, they seem removed from the corruption of time” (75).

The “more” however, the world, insures the ever present possibility of critique.  There is always something (shall we call it the “excluded” as Derrida or Butler would, or the “remainder” in a Bataille sense?) that the current version of reality fails to take into account—and critique will, in the most radical instances, launch itself from the effort to bring that remainder back into the picture.  Reality can be shown to be insufficient to the plenitude of the world.  Reality, a radical critique insists, must be deconstructed because of that insufficiency.

In two senses, then, Boltanksi actually sees critique as dependent on institutions (the two exist in an endless pas de deux that resists any resolution in some Hegelian aufgeheben.)  First, some stability is required for there to be any common language at all, for entities like “nation” and “society” or concepts like “freedom” and “justice” to make enough sense to allow us to argue about them.  If neither social orders nor selves ever cohered enough to be identifiable (to be describable), critique could not get off the ground.  Humans would not be able to speak to one another—or to make any kind of sense of experience. Sociology, in Boltanksi’s view, must always have both a descriptive and a critical mission.  We can generalize this point to any political discourse: it must offer an analysis/account of current political reality and normative judgments about that reality.  It may, also, offer an imaginative (projective) vision of an alternative configuration—but this third leg is not strictly necessary.

Second, critique must always have a target—and that target is the currently prevailing version of reality constructed and preserved by institutions.  Without the work done by institutions, no critique.

How do institutions do that work?  Primarily, in Boltanski’s view, it is semantic work.  Institutions fix the meaning of things, most importantly “the establishment of types” (75).  He adopts the pragmatist emphasis on “situations,” that is, the notion that selves (because of the flow of time) continually find themselves in new settings, faced with different people, different environments, different needs, different demands upon them, different bodily abilities (today I am sick, yesterday I was well; today I am 60, yesterday I was 35).  Novelty and change are constant—and are the source of the “uncertainty” that institutions exist to manage (although without ever achieving complete control; the flow of time and the novelties it introduces cannot be stopped.)

Following Dewey’s account of judgment (although, once more, without any actual nod to Dewey), Boltanski offers a dualistic definition of situation: “The situation is identified, on the one hand, by reference to a certain context in which the action occurs and, on the other, by the meaning given to this context by relating it to a determinate type of action” (69).  Confronted by a novel setting, the individual processes it by judging what kind (or type) of situation this is.  Analogy and similarity—subsuming the singular into a more general set—allows us to escape complete befuddlement.  Judgment moves from the particular to the general: this object is a chair not a sofa; this painting is beautiful; that action is wrong; this context is a lecture not performance art or surgery.  And it does so by constructing (asserting) some kind of similarity between this instance of beauty and other instances of beauty—and so on for the other examples.  Wittgenstein loosened up the requirements for similarity by talking of “family resemblances” as contrasted to shared “essences” (of a Platonic or any other sort).

The work of judgement (as Aristotle and Kant both acknowledged in their own way) is notoriously imprecise.  The rules that might govern judgment are severely under-determinative, especially for aesthetic and moral judgments.  But even scientific and empirical judgments are iffy.  Think of a medical diagnosis.  We say two people have Parkinson’s disease, but the trajectory of their condition and their response (or lack of response) to attempted treatments can vary widely.  Aristotle falls back on “practical wisdom” (phronesis) as the guarantor of good judgment, while Kant (at least for aesthetic judgments) relies on “good taste.”  Such groundings don’t look much better than hand-waving.  And then along come the post-structuralists to insist that every assimilation of the singular to a generalizing category represses all that is not similar, all that is unique and (it is implied) should be cherished.

Institutions exist, then, for Boltanksi to create and maintain the “types,” the categories—a necessarily collective enterprise (both the creation and the maintenance). I can’t unilaterally declare this lecture absurdist theater and expect that judgment to stick—but if I trade on the authority vested in me by an institution (I am a New York Time reporter) or convince a significant of number of people that my naming it so is sound, then that judgment might just hold—or, at least, be taken under serious consideration.  Creativity in the arts and in politics, after all, is very often re-naming something.  You call that a labor contract, I call it exploitation—and the battle is engaged.

Most formally, institutions fix categories (types) by establishing laws—and can enforce their categories with sanctions. (Hence the law distinguishes murder from self-defense, and even distinguishes among first-degree, second-degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and the like, specifying the appropriate sanction for each gradation.  Case law then concerns itself with determining—making a judgment—about where in the available general schema does this particular instance of inflicted death belong, a point open—quite obviously in the courtroom setting—to contention.)

Institutions, thus, are powerful; they are sites where power is collected, the power to create and the power to enforce.  There are other sub-legal institutions; a university, for example, cannot legally punish a student for failing to come to class (although truancy laws give elementary schools that kind of legal power) but can sanction them with a bad grade or by refusing to grant them credit.  Professional organizations wield similar kinds of power, as does any institution that controls participation (who gets to participate and who does not) and insists on allegiance to certain shared principles, aims, and definitions, while also arbitrating how particular behavior is to be categorized (as ethical or not for instance, or up to professional standards or not).

It is no wonder, then, that the left is so often allergic to institutionalization—because the left remains terrified of power and temperamentally loath to punish.  (Let me say that a deep distaste for punishment of any kind is deeply ingrained in me.  I have never understood negative reinforcement of even the mildest sorts; my response to it has always been to walk away, with an outraged sense that no one has the right to talk to me or treat me in that way.  I am equally averse to using negative reinforcement myself.  I have always, in my teaching, used praise and exhorting a student to push her talents to the utmost as my mode of feedback.)  The ruthlessness of Communism (with its purges, violent in Russia, but painful enough in the non-violent forms used in the West—read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for one vivid picture) from 1930 to 1956 only heightened the suspicion of institutions which policed membership for many on the left, seeming to reinforce the conviction that when politics strays from the path of anti-institutionalism, only disaster can result.

How do institutions function on the ground?  Boltanski imagines them as sites of justification; they not only establish reality, but also must submit that reality to “tests” that reveal its 1) strength and 2) justice.  Strength tests are about the maintenance of a particular regime of reality against competitors.  So, for example, we can say that the nation-state was the preeminent institutional form from 1660 (or so) until 1945.  But now globalized capital and the rise of international organizations/law have challenged the nation-state’s hegemonic ability to create the common sense of those who live within its territory (my use of Gramscian terms here is deliberate.)  Institutions that are not organized primarily in relation to jurisdiction over a territory have arisen to challenge the nation-state form.  The ability of the nation-state to collect corporate taxes poised against the trans-national corporation’s ability to evade those taxes would count as a test of strength.  If the state fails that test, citizens will begin to question its effectiveness and may look for more effective institutions to serve their needs.  Certainly one central test of strength in today’s world is the contest between the state and the market.

But there are also justificatory tests.  An unchallenged (or mostly unchallenged) institution will conduct what Boltanski calls “tests of truth.”  Such tests are close to tautological; they function to reinforce the already hegemonic common sense (or reality) that the institution exists to maintain.  An example of a test of truth would be the staging of elections that are then taken to demonstrate the democratic nature of the political order.  Democracy is defined in terms of elections while having an election serves to prove one lives in a democracy. Perhaps a virtuous circle, but recognizably a circle. Institutions constantly trumpet examples that demonstrate that the institution is what it says it is, that it is functioning in alignment with its stated purpose and/or ideals.

The first level of critique comes with what Boltanski calls “tests of reality.”  Here the critic criticizes how the “tests of truth” are actually being performed.  Thus, someone who says US elections are not truly democratic because of the influence of money is pointing to the flaws in the test—and calling for a reform of the test such that its enactment would actually prove what it is claimed that it proves.  Criticizing tests in this way can take a variety of forms, but the point is always to show that the existing test does not demonstrate the fact it is claimed to reveal—and to show how a different test would do the job better.  For Boltanksi, such conflicts over tests are everywhere—but they are not radical critiques because they do not question the overall goal or telos.  The ideal of democracy is not questioned, only whether our regime is truly democratic and what exact tests would accurately reveal if the regime is democratic or not.  So these tests are “pragmatic” in the sense that they focus on doing the job at hand better; they do not question whether we should even be invested in doing that job.

Finally, there are existential tests, which do raise those kinds of radical questions about both ideals (goals) and about fundamental structures.  Such critiques, as I have already indicated, rely on a claim about “the world” (existential conditions) in order to question the more limited “reality” that institutions create and maintain.

Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology calls on the sociologist to focus on “disputes,” on actual instances at existing social sites where members of a society disagree about the “tests’ being conducted or about the very ends being pursued.  This move is particularly important because it also entails identifying the norms (as well as the interests) that underlie such disputes.  Boltanski wants to avoid a) importing the norms of critique from outside the existing social sphere; he wants an immanent critique that grows out of the things that current social members evidently care about, as demonstrated by where they take their stand in current disputes and by the kinds of reasons and arguments they proffer in waging those disputes; and b) he wants to avoid any sense that social actors are deluded, are dupes, or exist in some kind of false consciousness.  In taking their stands at various sites and in various contestations, actors demonstrate where their commitments are as well as their understanding (judgments) of the situations in which they are embedded.  Any work of emancipation should begin from—and honor—those commitments and judgments.

And yet . . .

More to say on this topic—but I will leave that for the next post.


How to Talk About–and Activate–the “Rights” of Non-human Entities

My friend Ben Mangrum (currently a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows) has been corresponding with me about social movements and about the problems of deploying the vocabulary of human rights to address environmental issues, particularly the “right” of non-human entities (from animals to forests to ecologies) to be respected and provided the necessities for existence.  I offered some thoughts about his comments in Social Movements, Institutions, and Rights about 12 days ago.

Now I am just going to provide his most recent thoughts here:

I can see how the distinctions between institutions and social movements are important, and I’m not one for tearing them down because of some poststructuralist allergy toward distinctions. I can see, as you say, that the raison d’être of social movements are changing public attitudes and thus—in the best of worlds—they influence political and legal outcomes even if they strive to remain “outside” the processes of formalization. And I agree wholly with the paragraph beginning “Even more, I am arguing…” in your response. I think that’s what I was driving at in my question.

To respond to the links with my essay, the worry about becoming an advocate of “the party” is as much part of the “rights” conversation as it is part of the “intellectuals / social movements” conversation. I think that’s another way of putting your point. Representation (in its political sense) formalizes the needs of individuals through the “institution” of the party or collective. Similarly, acknowledging or even conceiving of the needs of the non-human—or our obligation to the non-human—requires an act of representation that formalizes “our” status as “human.” We institutionalize ourselves as a species when we talk about the “rights” of the non-human.

But I haven’t been able to satisfy myself about this view of either humanism or representation. Part of what I was trying to argue is that our identification as a species requires a reduction of our ontological condition—there are no discrete entities. We’re made up of more “non-human” bacteria than “human” cells. So, while humanism provides the parameters for thought, including “rights,” it also constitutes a reduction of thought. As Nietzsche was wont to say, we misunderstand ourselves. So, I agree fully with the pragmatist point that the non-human enters “rights” discourse via a human advocate. I’m also working from a place of uncertainty, though, about whether the humanist-representation framework is a conceptual fiction that, given the exigencies of our ecological situation, we need to embrace or, based on the same exigencies, if some anti-humanist or post-humanist framework could more closely approximate our ontological condition.

For the same reasons you voice, I’m skeptical of anti- or post-humanist alternatives. I can’t get my mind around those alternatives, and I consequently incline toward the theoretical artifice of the “human.” Still, it feels like I’m working with broken equipment—or, trying to fix a leaky dam with duck tape.

I worry that the representational politics of using “rights” as the solution for environmental crises is self-defeating. Do such humanist terms as easily license environmental exploitation as they could advocate on behalf of non-human entities? We’d need some sort of reasonable framework—a center that can hold—to keep “rights” from being mobile across agendas (e.g., the “right to develop economically” vs. the “right of vulnerable ecosystems to preservation”). As I try to argue, the attempt to look to ecology to find that “center” displaces the humanist terms themselves. The human contrivance needs non-human  checks and balances lest—and again, I’m channeling Nietzsche—there’s a whiff of nihilism about the humanist terms of the debate. I’m worried that the extension of the humanist idea of “rights” relies on something like the economist’s fiction of the “rational self-interested individual.” There’s little comfort in these fictions. But there may also be some utility in the former, even if the idea of “non-human checks and balances” (assuming such a thing were even possible) would throw the whole debate into disarray.

I can’t see any clear signs for resolving the uncertainty. I see the pitfalls of aspiring toward pristine solutions, but I know you’re not one for discouraging a search for better solutions.

One other thing. I’ve also been thinking about is the idea that social movements have a performative dimension—their very presence constitutes a certain type of civil society. In addition to the bureaucratic necessities or “conditions of possibility” for social movements, I also think they’ve become a kind of “institution” within our forms of thought. We can point to and name them—categorize them—in a way that constitutes a public form or social structure. In other words, I’d think that at an intellectual and social level, movements are an institution—one that is, hopefully, especially prominent in democratic societies.

Arendt On Life and Love of the World

Arendt is famously adamant that politics cannot and should not devote itself to issues focused on the maintenance of life.  Attending to such issues can only lead to disaster, as exemplified by the French Revolution being hijacked by the enrages.  Lurking underneath her analysis of the French Revolution, one suspects, is a fierce anti-communism.  The problem with Marxism (she implies without ever fully stating) is that it turns politics over to “questions of life,” to precisely “economic” issues, and thus a) loses what is distinctive and valuable about the political and b) leads to the massive infliction of death, a terror that makes the sins of Robespierre pale in comparison.

Why doesn’t Arendt condemn Marxism forthrightly?  Because she is appalled by the know-nothing anti-communism of McCarthy and his ilk in the 1950s America and does not want to be welcomed into their camp as a fellow traveler.  But, as starkly as Hayek, Arendt insists that the economy is private and must remain private.  The dire consequences of mixing economic and politics are actually not that far different in Arendt’s analysis as in Hayek’s.  He predicts “serfdom,” she sees an inability to access the “freedom” that action enables (where action—as distinct from labor and work– is only possible in the political realm.)  Only action, in Arendt’s theory, is free.  Labor and work unfold under the sign of “necessity.”  And it is fair to say that in both Hayek and Arendt, “justice” (or, at least, “social justice” which concerns itself with a fair distribution of material goods along with equal protection under the law and equal access to political participation) gets short shrift.  Very explicitly in Hayek, who fulminates against the “mirage” of social justice and sees “envy” as the only motivation driving any effort to achieve social justice.  But almost as explicitly in Arendt, who seems to think the attempt to achieve such justice by the French revolutionaries as a destructive quest to the impossible.  To attach politics to the promise of ending poverty is to raise hopes for a goal that cannot be reached—and the resultant disappointment generates a fury that tears society apart.  In On Revolution, Arendt appears as fatalistic as Hayek about the possibility of achieving anything remotely like economic equality.  Rather, political equality can be achieved, but only by building an impenetrable border between inevitable economic inequality and the equality that is to reign in the “space of appearances.”  One type of status (economic status) is to have no impact, no bearing on a different kind of status, the political status enjoyed by the citizen.

The problem in the real world, of course, is that status and power don’t work that way.  Power clings to status, but is mobile (extremely so) from one form of status to another.  You can’t build a wall to keep economic power from generating political power.  Rousseau was right to say that economic inequality was fatal to democracy.  Plutocracy is the almost inevitable result of tolerating large economic inequalities.

Arendt does have an escape clause in her reflections on these issues—one that she, oddly enough, borrows from Marx.  Oddly because she is generally anti-Marxist (because he substitutes economics for politics) and because the notion she does adopt is one of the most implausible Marxist tenets.  Economic matters, Arendt claims in several places, are merely matters of “administration,” not of politics.  Marx, of course, argued that the state would wither away in a classless society, leaving only the question of the “administration of things” (a wonderfully vague phrase).  The idea seems to be that such administrative matters are conflict-free, simple questions of means.  Politics is the realm of conflict, of argument, of disagreement—which Marx abhors and wants to abolish and which Arendt celebrates and wants to enhance.  But such Arendtian conflict is never to be over material things—or, at least, over the distribution of material things.  Or something like that.  I am not the first to complain that it is not clear what Arendtian politics is “about.”  She wants a free space of appearances where opinions are enunciated—and sees that speaking in public in agonistic deliberation with one’s equals as uniquely identity forming.  But she rarely, if ever, considers the end point of those deliberations.  In fact, she insists that the “action” which is epitomized by that public speaking is “unproductive.”

Now, in one sense, I think it fair to say that Arendt’s idea is something like this.  We can all have an “opinion” about whether or not a bridge should be built over the river.  We can offer reasons in a public debate about this decision, but there is no “truth” of the matter.  Politics, then, would encompass the deliberation.  But once the decision to build the bridge is made, its actual construction is a matter of “administration.”  You call in the engineers and they get it done.  It is not a matter of opinion, something we can argue about, to construct a bridge that can actually carry traffic without collapsing.  “Truth,” which she calls “pre-political” (or maybe should be considered “apolitical”) takes over when it comes to the engineering decisions.

An obvious problem, of course, is that many “administrative” matters are much less cut and dried than building a bridge.  (And even with the bridge, there will be disagreements about its look, and constraints connected to budget, amounts of traffic, availability of materials etc., some of which will entail debate beyond the expertise of the engineers.)  Thus, for example, we can agree, after deliberation, that we want to decrease infant mortality rates. But there are no cut and dried methods that advance that goal, while there are also trade-offs involved (i.e. non-desirable side effects) with any method we do choose.  There will be disagreements, then, about effectiveness and about the extent to which we should tolerate negative side-effects.  Just as it proves difficult to segregate economic power/status from political power/status, it proves difficult to segregate “administrative decisions” from “political decisions” (about which we expect and even welcome disagreement and spirited debate).

Arendt’s escape clause does not only entail adopting the idea of non-political administration.  She also, again in a quasi-Marxist way, seems to believe we are living in, or are on the verge of living in, a post-scarcity society.  Our productive capacities have now reached the point where poverty will be abolished if we just administer things correctly.  For the first time in history, every person (not just the citizen, not just the make head of household, not just the non-slave) will have the leisure to step into the public arena as an equal among equals.  The terrible reign of labor, the drudgery of producing the necessities of life, will come to an end.

To Arendt, unlike Marx, the terrible danger is not that this potential to end poverty will be derailed by an unequal distribution of the goods modern technology produces.  She pays no heed to the economic imperatives—namely the drives to profit and accumulation—that will generate “poverty amidst plenty.”  Rather, she is worried (in classic 1950s style) about the psychological pathologies of “consumer culture.”  What she, with a mandarin distaste and disdain that links her to her supposed nemesis Adorno, rails against are bourgeois subjects so enthralled by consumer goods, by the baubles connected to an enhanced life (but still “life”), that they will willingly work harder and harder to buy more “labor-saving devices,” instead of using their potential liberation from labor to embrace (non-productive) political action and freedom.  The moderns have lost their taste for, even any understanding of, “freedom,” and are addicted to “necessities”—ever more elaborate meals, houses, clothes etc.

On another hand, action is not entirely non-productive.  What it produces is the conditions of its own possibility.  (Arendt was nothing if not a Kantian; she is always attuned to enabling conditions.)  By appearing together in a public square to speak and act is to constitute that public square.  It does not exist except when we inhabit it together doing our thing.  When we go back home, it dissolves.  (Arendt is mostly antipathetic to institutions, associating them with a reification akin to rigor mortis.  Certainly, she never really considers the nature of institutions—and the way that they can provide some kind of stability, even permanence, that what is transitory.  She obviously greatly prefers the spontaneity of what is produced through actual interactions over the formal structures that people devise to give those spontaneous productions a chance to survive beyond the moment of their creation.)  Arendt, in her most grandiloquent moments, calls that public sphere, that space of appearances, “the world.”

Quite basically, Arendt says we will have disaster if we do not have people who “love the world.”  Practically, that means people who prefer the political action that produces the space of appearances over the pleasures of consumption.  Non-productive action produces nothing except the political realm that makes that action possible.  The circularity here can be head-ache inducing.  Still, Arendt insists that there is something to be called “public happiness” and that happiness is the “lost treasure of revolutions.”  It is a heady pleasure discovered in the “acting in concert” that is a political movement, and is a pleasure disconnected from whether the movement succeeds in achieving its stated goals or not.  For Occupy, the focus on that pleasure, on that creation together of a space to occupy, made even enunciating goals irrelevant—and even threatening.  The point was this space the occupiers had created, not some leverage toward change in some other space.  Creating our own world was the point, not influencing some other world.

What Arendt fears, then, is that attachment to “life” means attachment to consuming, to the pleasures associated with satisfying bodily necessities.  She wants to advocate for a different set, a different order, of desires, ones connected to sociality, to what can only come into being intersubjectively, collectively.

Thus Arendt, like Ruskin and Mill, is worried about an attachment to life that is overly bodily, or bestial.  (I am thinking of Mill’s famous passage about a swinish life as not worthy of human beings.)  We have a “higher” destiny for Arendt—and she is contemptuous of those for whom working toward acquiring a second car and a vacation home provides more than enough meaning in their lives.  We can go even further, I think, and say that Arendt buys into the basic premise of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.  To be overly attached to life, to have nothing that you value enough above life to actually forfeit life to preserve that more valuable thing, is to be a slave.  Life can’t be the highest value is you want to be human, to be more than a beast.  There must be something you identify as unlivable, some set of conditions that you would not tolerate, and that you would die rather than endure.  (In her later work, Arendt will associate this idea with Socrates, and insist that “when the chips are down,” the “moral” human would have chosen death over submission to the evil—no matter if understood as radical or banal—of the Nazis.)  To return to the vocabulary of The Human Condition and On Revolution, to take “life” as the highest value is to chain oneself to “necessity.”  Life compels; it confines us to “labor,” to the production of those necessities that sustain it.  Freedom, the opposite of necessity, is only available to the person who refuses to cede life such power, who refuses to says that its claims trump all others.  “The world” is one way Arendt designates that “other” to life, that something else to which we can pledge allegiance, which we can learn (?) to “love.”

The story doesn’t end there.  There are issues of “organized remembrance” and “meaning” still to be addressed.  So that’s where I am headed next.

Bleak Thoughts on a Grey Day

We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog posting for some passing gloom.  I will get back to Arendt on life tomorrow.

Reading Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. (Harvard UP, 2015). It is sensible and clear and convincing.  Except for the continual exposure of “contradictions.”  It remains an article of faith on the left that contradictions are symptoms of instability.  Yet the contradictions cited are, often, simply logical ones.  For example, Butler’s belabored discussion of how soldiers are “dispensable” (i.e. cannon fodder) even while their existence and work is “indispensable” to the nation’s survival.  That barely works above the level of wordplay.  Even more substantial contradictions—for example, between needing consumers to fuel the economy and failing to pay workers adequate wages—are manageable in both short and long terms.  The periodic “crisis” of capitalism have done little to undermine it.  We could say, I guess, that capitalism’s ingenuity is endless, or (more to my liking) that power’s ability to withstand both protest and dysfunction should never be doubted.

Power, as Boltanski’s work considers, sometimes yields to critique, mollifying it by adopting certain reforms, and sometimes simply ignores critique, refusing to give an inch.  Which strategy is adopted depends on the situation and the calculations that situation elicits.  But power does not abdicate.  Which is perhaps a way of saying that I have lost my liberal faith.  Instead of thinking there is “some justice” to be had, I am more inclined, in these dark times, to say that people find niches, that they find out ways to hide in the interstices of a system big enough and complex enough for there to be corners that aren’t totally colonized.  That is, we don’t live in a fully totalitarian world just yet—and a fully totalitarian world would be awfully hard to actually construct and maintain.  But the “colonization of the lifeworld” (Habermas’s phrase) proceeds apace.

I usually dislike abstractions like “capitalism” and “power”–and dislike imputing agency to them.  But there is something to be said for systematic imperatives.  The US manufacturer who must lower labor costs or go out of business because the product can be produced more cheaply elsewhere.  The maufacturer’s agency in such a case is so compromised as to be almost non-existent.  The same cannot be said as easily for politicians or judges.  The Paul Ryans and Samuel Aliotos of the world have much to answer for–and are (this is what hurts) generally immune from ever being held to account.  So the theoretical issue is how to adequately account for both human agency and for systematic functionings.  I don’t think the notion of “contradiction” helps in either case–and I certainly don’t believe that “contradictions” drive the system’s evolution over time.  Tensions between competing goals that require trade-offs yes, opposing forces yes, conflict yes, but contradictions no.  All kinds of things can co-exist without compelling change or adjustments.

I met up with a former student yesterday who has been spending time in Ladakh in Northern India, writing a book for school children that aims to help preserve the local language and culture.  The community is about 250,000 people and was relatively isolated until recently.  Now it depends heavily on tourism in place of its traditional pastoralist economy.  300,000 tourists last year.  Eco-tourists, trekkers, but also cultural tourists, so we are in ethnicity inc. territory.  Creeping colonization.   His work is honorable, but it will also be monetized.  How to think about the “contradictions” involved here, that the preservation of a culture is also a means for incorporation into a global tourist industry?  Certainly, these contradictions do not imply instability.  They just entail different goods, each of which will find ways to accommodate the others.  The results will be messy–but so are all social systems, all cultures.  The messiness may often our sense of logical coherence or consistency, but it doesn’t mean the result will be short-lived or a source of deep discomfort to those living within it.