Category: political theory

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.