Category: Politics

Religion, Sect, and Party (Part 3)

Moving from religion to politics, in Slezkine’s The House of Government, basically entails moving the search for transcendence, the negotiation of the gap between the real and the ideal, from the difference between the profane and the sacred to the difference between the status quo and some projected (imagined) improvement upon the existing state of affairs.  Institutional religion—the church—represents the more quietist approach: the acceptance of the imperfection of the fallen world along with the promise of a better world elsewhere coupled with structures and hierarchies meant to insure stability, peace, and order in the imperfect here and now.  The compromises of the institutional church are always contested by impatient visionaries who long, with equal fervor, to create a utopian now and to punish those who stand in the way of achieving that utopia.

For Slezkine, the utopians organize themselves into “sects.”  Following the work of Ernst Troeltsch, “the distinction between a church and a sect” can be stated as follows: “a church is an institution one is born into. . . . [A] sect [is] a group of believers radically opposed to the corrupt world, dedicated to the dispossessed, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism” (93).  In Slekzine’s philosophy of history (I can use no other term for his wild—and world-weary—identification of a pattern he thinks repeats itself over and over) “the history of the new order [humanist post-Christian polities], like that of the old one [Christianity prior to the Reformation], is a story of routinization and compromise punctuated by sectarian attempts to restore the original promise” (107).  Sectarians scorn compromise and institutions, are often galvanized into action by a charismatic leader, and embrace violence in the name of the good.  When not fighting the reprobate, they are constantly in-fighting in order to insure that only the absolutely pure are members of the sect.

If revolutionaries are best understood as sectarians, Selkzine’s model explains a) their trust in and non-distaste [to use a weird double negative] of violence; b) their suspicion of and hence ineptitude in establishing institutions; c) their difficulty in sustaining trust and working, cooperative relationships once the movement grows beyond a “knowable community” (i.e. they are very bad at “imagined communities” because committed to the intense relationships of a shared oppositional—and doctrinally pure—set of beliefs); and d) their impatience with compromise and their fury when their utopian vision does not materialize (generating the frantic search for people to blame for that failure).

This, of course, is another way of saying that it is easier to be in opposition than in power.  It seems fair to say that the Republican Party has become more and more sect-like over the past thirty years.  Certainly it is much more prone to expel members who don’t toe the line (RINOs), and is hostile to compromise and to institutional structures/norms.  Its contempt for the routines of governance makes it just about incapable of governing; it has ground legislative activity to an almost complete halt, while rendering federal bureaucracies increasingly inept.  As many have noted, today’s Republican Party is not conservative; it is revolutionary reactionary.  It is out to destroy, not to conserve.

The oddity is that its destructive urges are almost entirely negative.  It is not driven by a positive vision, but mostly by a hatred of the elites it associates with anti-American values, tastes, and snobbishness.  Yes, there is nostalgia for a certain kind of small-town American culture that was built on racial exclusion and post-War prosperity.  But there is no serious—or even non-serious visionary—platform for reestablishing that world.  Empty slogans suffice if the joys of hatred are allowed free expression.  It really is as if the losers in this neoliberal universe will be content if given free rein to express the animus—most fully expressed in the death threats they love to send to people, but more mildly expressed in the various statements now deemed unacceptable in polite discourse—they feel toward the non-whites and the professional elites they cannot avoid in today’s business world and public sphere.  In their heart of hearts, undoubtedly there are true believers who think deporting all the immigrants is a possibility, but surely they are a small minority of those who vote Republican.  Similarly, those same voters know that the manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Contrasted to sects (in Slekzine’s view) are parties:  “Parties are usually described as associations that seek power within a given society (or, in Max Weber’s definition, ‘secure power within an organization for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members’) (58).  The key difference here is that the party accepts, has a huge amount invested in, the current institutional and political order.  To that extent, parties are all conservative; they seek to preserve the current system—and are oriented to gaining power with that system as the means toward furthering the party’s particular ends.  That’s why parties are the “loyal opposition”; they are not revolutionary, but are partners with other parties in the preservation of the current order.

Thus, today’s Republican Party seems to exist in some kind of uneasy (unsustainable?) tension between being a party and a sect.  It quite obviously seeks power to gain advantages for its active members—the donor class to which it delivers the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation etc.  But its appeal to its non-donor class voters is sectarian—and the result is that its elected officials include true believers who embody the no compromise hostility to institutional forms that is a large part of the party’s current brand.  These radicals will cheerfully have the government default on its debts (to take one example) and are constantly at odds with the more staid party functionaries who are only interested in power within the current system (Mitch McConnell being the epitome of this kind of politician).

Because of its use of sectarian tactics (tactics which someone like McConnell thinks he can keep safely under control), the Republicans have clearly abetted (by authorizing) various kinds of hate crimes and violence, even as they have given us an authoritarian, charismatic President.  The Party has moved far enough toward being a sect that its ability to actually govern is more than questionable, even as its attacks (voter suppression, harassment—and worse—of immigrants) upon outsiders to its “America” increase in ferocity.

All that said, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sectarian left.  Sects make things happen in the world; I have just finished reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography (of which more in future posts) and she, as well as Slekzine, tells a tale featuring dedicated conspirators, people spending their whole lifetimes committed to a cause of radical change.  A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are American examples.  In all these cases, from the 400 or so “Old Bolsheviks” to the 400 or so dedicated Irish nationalists to the 400 or so “race warriors” in the US, mountains were eventually moved.  If there exists such networks in the contemporary world, I don’t know of them.  Yes, we have the rightist militias.  But what do we have on the left: the respectable organizations, the ACLU and the like, fine in their own way, but very much within the established institutional order.

What I guess I am saying is that I want sectarian dedication, single-mindedness and energy, without sectarian violence and constant in-fighting.  After all, both Bolsheviks and the Irish revolutionaries, once they had succeeded in overthrowing the existing system, ended up fighting against one another.  It is shocking—at least to me—to read anti-Treaty documents in 1922 that casually refer to the Free State soldiers and officials as “the enemy” when those numbered in “the enemy” were one’s comrades in the fight against the British in 1921.  Yes, there was some hesitation at the start of the Irish Civil War about killing one’s friends and erstwhile comrades, but that hesitation disappeared with frightening, sickening, rapidity.

Maybe—and just maybe because I may be wildly over-idealizing here—one key factor (hardly the only one) involves careers.  Today’s Republican Party reactionary revolutionaries can safely attack governmental/legal/political institutions because they are not threatening (in fact see themselves as reinforcing and protecting) the institutional structures of American capitalism.  And it is well documented, there in plain sight for any operative to see, that the right has sinecures (in the think tanks, in lobbying organizations, increasingly in academia, etc.) readily available for those who do the party’s work.  That’s one way of saying that the Republicans are between a party and a sect; they are attached to an existing structure that provides a ladder to climb, a route to riches, recognition, and security.  It is just that that structure is, they like to believe, non-political, the “free market,” and thus enables a no-holds-barred hostility to political institutions.

The revolutionaries of the left—Lenin, Gandhi, Rustin—had no such safe perch, or secure position at which to aim.  They were fully on the outside, existing in a no man’s land where recognition, money, and eventual success were never guaranteed and were (for years) withheld.  They were stepping out into a void with no safety net.  As I say, maybe I am wrong here, guilty of over-idealizing.  I am hardly claiming these men did not have their faults—their vanities and their self-indulgences.  But they did not exist within any kind of established institutional order that provided security.  Only the intense relations within the sect offered some form of support.

Am I saying that existence within institutions stands in the way of being a true advocate for change?  Certainly, concern for the preservation of one’s own slot, one’s own career, for the sources of one’s own income and status, are deterrents to devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a transformation of existing conditions.

I don’t see where the kind of sect, the kind of movement that enabled Lenin, Gandhi and Rustin to live almost completely outside existing political, economic, and social setups, exists on the left today.  The Bohemian outside appears to have disappeared.  Life in the US has become so expensive, especially housing costs, that the counter-cultural enclaves such as Brooklyn or the Bay Area are the playgrounds of the rich now.  At the same time, increased surveillance (both physical and digital) gives a revolutionary counter-culture much less room in which to maneuver.

There is also the left’s almost universal repudiation of violence (the overblown existence of the anti-fa “movement” notwithstanding).  Maybe it is hard to have a sect without some kind of commitment to violence.  (I want to consider that idea in subsequent posts.)

Add the fact that being a sectarian is tedious.  Mostly what the old Bolsheviks did was read, write, and have endless meetings—for which they then spent long stretches of time in prison.  The hoped-for moment of transformation is endlessly postponed.  How energy, passion, and hope are sustained over such long periods of time is a mystery and a miracle, much to be admired.

Maud Gonne’s life has much to offer in thinking about such issues.  So I will go there next


George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.

Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months.  First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy.  There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery.  The machine grinds on relentlessly.

Second comes the primary debate on the left.  At what level should the effort for change takes place.  Is electoral politics any use at all?  Could we actually vote into office  a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)?  It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés).  The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point.  Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change.  Obstruction is the order of the day.

So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.

The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change.  Two things intrude here.  The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire.  Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons.  So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric.  We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.

The second problem is violence.  With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence.  In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent.  Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical.  Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters.  Non-violence is the winning strategy.

But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing.  Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence.  Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically.  But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically.  (Contrast to King’s children campaign.)  I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless.  We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people.  The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices.  (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.)  When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope.  There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.

Eschewing violence has much going for it.  Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking.  King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders.  The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality.  The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.

Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory.  It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?  And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.

Do I have anything constructive to offer?  Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck.  But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties.  The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful.  True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame.  Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.

And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.

Moten and Harney, The Undercommons

The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.

When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook.  I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to.  The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver.  They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.

M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse.  But the two big ones are politics and individuation.  Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods.  The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under.  So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed.  Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.

Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core.  Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it.  Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject.  “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence.  Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have.  We want something utterly different.”

What is that utterly different thing?  Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird.  Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.”  There is nothing wrong with us (blacks).  We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”)  M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise.  The basic message:  “We are here.  You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to).  And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way.  But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”

An odd kind of quietism.  Just leave us alone.  We don’t want to partake of your madness.  We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us.  Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children.  Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks.  Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison.  But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach.  Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man)  is a completely understandable strategy.  But it is surely a second best.  Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?

Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster.  Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker.  There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s).  Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart.  Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.

That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten.  Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge).  On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively.  And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster.  But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.

It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere.  How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else.  Why if life so hard to love?


I said, perhaps, far too little about Hardt and Negri’s Assembly when I finished reading it a few months back.  Since then, I have read Todd Gitlin on Occupy, della Porta on Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, 2015), and Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.

One theme is the performative nature of assembly: how it can create the collective that proposes to make a political statement/intervention, and (even more) how it can create the kind of community to which those who assemble aspire.  The assembly is “prefigurative.”  That is the term that is used.  It is the change it wishes to see in the world.

My skeptical objection has been consonant with most responses to anarchism: a) how does the assembly propose to produce/gather the resources that would make it sustainable?; b) is the assembly scalable?  If it proposes itself as a model of the desired polis, then how does it grow to accommodate much larger numbers of members/participants?; and c) what kinds of structures, organization, leadership, communications, and other infrastructure must be created in order to maintain the assembly over the long haul?  Occupy was completely parasitic on the “larger society” it was trying to secede from—or was it overthrow?  Occupy was dependent on goods made in that larger society, monetary donations coming from that society, as well as on the expertise (medical, technical) that larger society, through its educational system, imparted to certain individuals.

An assembly, in other words, is not a society—and to claim that somehow it represents an alternative society seems to me disingenuous, extremely naïve.  It is one thing to say that Occupy modeled modes of relationship that we wish could be more prevalent in our lives.  It is quite another to claim Occupy modeled an alternative to mainstream society.  To use Judith Butler’s terms, Occupy did not provide the grounds for a “livable life.”

But Gitlin and Butler both point us toward what seems to me a much more productive way to think about assembly.  They both stress that democracy as a political form is deeply dependent upon assembly—and that the current assault on democracy from the right includes a serious impairment of rights to assembly.  Vote suppression has gotten most of the press when it comes to attending to the ways that our plutocrats are trying to hold out against the popular will.  But the anti-democratic forces are also determined to limit opportunities for assembly.

Let’s do the theory first.  Democracy rests on the notion of popular sovereignty.  In the last instance, political decisions in a democracy gain their legitimacy through their being products of the people legislating its own laws for itself (Kant).  The fact that such things as a ban on assault rifles and increased taxes on the rich are (if the polls can be believed) supported by a large majority of Americans, but impossible to enact in our current political system, seems a good indicator that we do not live in a democracy—a fact with which most of the Republican party seems not only very comfortable with, but determined to sustain.

Because the final arbiter is supposed to be the popular will, there will always be a tension in democracy between the representative bodies of organized government and the people.  That tension leads to repeated critiques of representative government and calls for “direct” or “participatory” democracy (dating all the way back to Rousseau).  It also leads to the oft-repeated worry/claim that democracy only works on a small-scale.  A large scale democracy (and what is the number here?; probably anything over 100,000 citizens or so) will inevitably depend on representatives to carry out its political business—and thus, in the eyes of direct democracy advocates, inevitably fail to be truly democratic.  Elections are too infrequent—and not fine-grained enough (what, exactly, are the voters saying?) to provide sufficient popular input into specific decisions.  Add the many ways in which elections are manipulated and you quickly get politicians who are only minimally accountable to the populations they supposedly represent.  The electoral system is gamed to insure that position (office) and all its privileges and powers are retained by incumbents—or by the party currently in power.

How to make politicians accountable?  One device is plebiscites, which have some kind of appeal.  Let the people vote directly on matters of interest to them.  The problem with plebiscites is that they are a favored tool of the right—and produce (in many cases at least) what is best called “illiberal democracy” or (to use Stuart Hall’s term) “authoritarian populism.”  The blunt way to say this: never put rights to a vote.

Liberal democracy (or constitutional democracy) actually tries to place certain things (usually called “rights”) outside of normal democratic decision making, out of the give and take of ordinary political conflict/wrangling/compromise.  Some things are held apart from the fray, are guaranteed as the rules of the game (basic procedures), as the lasting institutions (the court system, the legislature, the executive), and as the basic rights enjoyed by all citizens (civil liberties).  The constitution also established the “checks and balances” of a liberal order—such that no particular person, office, or governmental institution possesses absolute power.  Power is distributed among various sites of government in an attempt to forestall the ever present danger of its (power’s) abuse.  The use of plebiscites is, thus, authoritarian, precisely because it bypasses this constitutional distribution of power through the appeal to the direct voice of the people—thus authorizing the executive to act irrespective of what the courts or legislature has to say.

SO: if one is committed to a liberal polity as well as to a democratic one, the notion of “direct democracy” is not very appealing.  The “tyranny of the majority” is a serious concern—as my home state of North Carolina has repeatedly demonstrated throughout its history of Jim Crow and in its recent 61% vote in favor of an amendment to the state constitution against extending the legal protections of marriage to same-sex couples.  In a liberal society, the popular will is to be checked, to be balanced by other sites of power, just as any other form of power is.

Of course, in any system, there comes to be a place where the buck stops.  As critics of the Constitution—the anti-Federalists of the 1790 debates over ratification—pointed out from the start, the structure of the US government lodges that final power in the Supreme Court.  That is why we are such a litigious society; the final arbiter is the Court—a fact that is deeply problematic, and which has led, in our current deeply polarized moment, to the Republicans resting their best hope for defeating the popular will on controlling, through the appointment of right-wing judges, the Court.

Some theorists of sovereignty insist that it can never be distributed, that it can only be exercised when it emanates from one site.  Despite the outsized power of the Supreme Court in our system, I think it vastly overstates the case to say the Court is the sole site of power in our polity.  Justifying that claim would lead me in another direction, one I won’t take up here.  Suffice it to say that I favor a constitutional amendment that would limit Supreme Court judges (and probably all federal judges) to one 25 year term.  That way we would be spared having our fates in the hands of 80 year olds (a true absurdity) as well as randomizing when a position on the Court came vacant in relation to which party controlled the Senate at that moment.  The amendment would also state that the Senate must make its decision about the President’s nominee within six months—or forfeit its “advise and consent” powers if it fails to act in a timely fashion.

But: back to assembly.  Butler, I think very usefully, suggests that assembly in a democracy is an incredibly important supplement to the legislature.  Here’s the basic idea: the people’s representatives can, because of their relative freedom from direct accountability, do things that various segments of the population disagree with.  The first amendment ties “assembly” to a right to petition the government.  The text reads: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Thus, assembly is tied to the notion of “the people” having another means, apart from the actions of its representatives, of expressing its opinions, desires, will—and that alternative means is expressly imagined as a way of expressing displeasure with the actions of the government.  It is in the context of “grievances” that we can expect the people to assemble.  In this way, the right to assemble can be seen as a partial remedy to the recognized ills of representation.  The people, by assembling, embody (the terms here are Butler’s) democratic sovereignty and make it “appear” (utilizing Arendt’s notion of politics as the “space of appearances).  After all, the will of the people (the ultimate ground of democracy) is invisible unless it takes the corporate form of assembly since even, as Benjamin Anderson’s notion of “imagined community” makes clear, an election is a virtual, not visible and actual, manifestation of the popular will.

Assembly, then, is democracy in action (note the Arendtian stress on action)—and would thus seem to be as essential (perhaps even more essential) to democracy than voting.  It is when and where the demos comes into existence.  It is democracy visible—and hence its deep appeal to contemporary writers from Hardt/Negri through to Butler, writers who are all appalled by democracy’s retreat in the face of technocratic, plutocratic neoliberalism.

Gitlin documents in the last chapter of his book all the various ways—starting with union busting and moving through the use of “permits” for demonstrations to keep demonstrators far away from the people they are demonstrating against to the criminalizing of assembly itself (as not “permitted” in the double sense of that word) to a closing down of public spaces to certain political uses—that the right to assembly is currently under assault, an assault that parallels the various efforts to curtail voting rights. Our overlords fear the assembled people—and are doing their best to erect obstacles to such assembly.

Thinking of the Chartists, I am also sorry that the nineteenth century connection of assembly to the presentation of petitions (a connection the first amendment also makes) seems to have been lost.  All those virtual petitions each of us is asked to sign on line every day are pretty demonstrably useless.  But what about 100,000 (or more) people marching to the Capitol and calling on the Senate Majority Leader to come out and take from the hands of the people a petition?  Great political theater if nothing else—and a vivid demonstration of the collapse of democracy if that politician refuses (as I suspect would happen) to engage with the people he claims to serve.  Face-to-face is much harder to ignore than what comes to you across the computer screen.

Still, and obviously, I don’t think assembly is the be-all and end-all of politics, for all the reasons I keep on banging on about.  But Gitlin and Butler have made me much more attuned to the possibilities and resources that assembly can—and does—possess for a left wing politics.

“Good Enough”

In my last post, I said that liberals are believers in the “good enough,” in accepting the better in place of holding out for the best.

But I can only endorse that position with some serious qualifications.  The first is that “good enough” is always contestable.  That was the point of saying politics is endless. Political debate, deliberation, and conflict is often about what good the polity should be aiming to achieve.  But, in other cases, the debate is about whether the extent to which we have reached a particular good is “good enough.”  Could we do better?  80% of the population has health insurance.  Should we be content with that level of achievement?

There will always be people who say we are not doing well enough.  And such people are to be cherished.  The “good enough” position asserts that any arrangement is imperfect.  Under that condition there is much to be gained, and little to be lost, by encouraging those who point out how short of perfection we fall.  Every halting point, every compromise, is unsatisfactory to some degree—and we hardly want to lose sight of the imperfections that mar every temporary arrangement/agreement.

We stand on muddy, messy ground here—and that is partly the point.  Politics is messy because we never know for sure if different tactics will bring us closer to our goal—or if we have maximized what we can achieve.  I am loath (allergic to) declaring imperfection inevitable.  I hate appeals to “necessity” that seem designed to shut down utopian aspirations or radical critiques.  Keeping the realm of possibility as open as possible seems, to me, essential to an imaginative progressive politics.  To be called utopian should be an honorific, not a slur.

But—here’s the muddiness—some way of organizing things has to prevail in the imperfect meantime; we cannot leave everything entirely open, fully in flux, waiting upon the perfect.  So political fights will also be about whether this current set of arrangements is “good enough” to accept for now, even as we acknowledge its falling short of the ideal.  When, in other words, is “good enough” good enough?  A very, very, very, difficult question to answer—and one that logic, reason, theory, philosophy cannot do much to help answer.  We are here in the thick of the underdetermined world where “truth” has little or no role to play, the world that Arendt identified as quintessentially political.

Temperamentally, I find myself fairly often impatient with the perfectionists who refuse to sign on to an existing arrangement.  I say, very likely unfairly, that they prefer their purity, prefer keeping their hands clean, to pitching in to do work required in the here and now.  Keeping aloof becomes, all too easily, a permanent stance, a kind of ironic negation of anything that actually exists.  It can, no doubt, be difficult to find anything to affirm in this sublunary world—that is, anything to affirm besides the ideals that would allow us to escape our sublunary condition.

But I guess—I never really thought of it this way before—I feel some kind of duty of affirmation.  If one is, as I am, an absolute atheist, then there is nothing other than this world.  And, yes, we humans have managed to fuck it up mightily.  Still, that we have the power to fuck it up means we also should take at least some responsibility for it, for the ways it is arranged and unfolds.  Ironic aloofness is one way of denying responsibility.  It’s not my fault.  I did no harm.  But it is also a strategy for not making anything at all happen; I sit aside waiting for the arrival of a perfection that never comes, of a world that will live up to my standards.  Good luck with that.

I prefer the route of saying “find something to affirm—and build out from there.”  The great good things in my world are my family, my friends, my students, and my colleagues.  With all of them I am able to have interactions that are life-affirming, that yield pleasure and insight, and provide opportunities for giving and receiving.  From there, it makes sense to affirm (even reserving a right to criticize all their imperfections) the institutions and social arrangement that make those interactions possible.  There are worldly settings for our relationships and it seems foolish to ignore or condemn those settings wholesale.

The liberal is often derided as a compromiser, as someone who muddles through, trying to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, lacking a firm sense of contradiction.  And the liberal is also seen as a Pollyanna, resolutely closely his eyes to injustices that undergird the social arrangements and institutions he proclaims “good enough.”  But the liberal is not a conservative, not someone who is deeply committed to defending the status quo as the best we can do.  And the liberal is not a reactionary, insisting that the golden age was somewhere in the past, and we must tear down the present to return to that prior era.  The liberal is (in William James’s terms) a meliorist, forward-looking, in favor of improvement, always willing to measure our imperfect present against the ideals we espouse—and that we fall short of achieving.  But the liberal refuses to condemn the present tout court and refuses to believe that absolute and violent repudiation of that present is likely to create even a better world than the present, no less a perfect one.

Again, to conclude, no theory or philosophy can guide us here.  When is the status quo so unjust, so bad, that drastic action is justified to change it?  When are more moderate strategies for improvement the better course?  These are matters of judgment, and there is no determinative calculus to tell us which judgments are correct.  Politics takes place on the field of judgment—and all we have to guide us are past instances, analogies and examples, and projective (imaginative) suppositions, none of which comes with any guarantees.  Judgment, like social arrangements, are good and better, but rarely vault into the land of the “best.”  We can only try to make our judgments “good enough.”   Which means those judgments lead to tolerable decisions and actions, to doing things that introduce at least some improvement over the currently existing state of affairs.  And then we count on “the cries of the wounded” (another phrase from William James) to let us know how the new arrangement still falls short.

Social Movements, Institutions, and Rights

I have, obviously, been thinking a lot lately about how protest politics can take a form that actually moves the ball down the field, that has some impact.  The following post is in response to some feedback I have gotten from a friend about a more formal version of my complaint that leftist social movement fight shy of formalization, of institutionalization,–and thus rob themselves of the chance to have a real impact.  That essay is called “Intellectuals in Dark Times” and focuses in on the allergy to leaders, to any division of labor in contemporary movements like Occupy. And I am responding to my friend’s essay on the attempt to use the notion of “rights” to address environmental issues.

The usual line of thought is that social movements often fight shy of institutionalization, but that it is very hard for them to consolidate any gains if their goals are not taken up by some institution.  So, for example, a social movement can advocate for no discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, but until there are anti-discriminatory laws that formally recognize equality, provide means of redress against discrimination, and sanctions against those who discriminate, then the social movement can’t move from “protest” about the way things are to an actual change in prevailing conditions.

It is certainly—and importantly—the case that social movements are often very good at mobilizing a constituency toward some end, and in changing general cultural attitudes.  A classic case is the gay rights movement.  Another is MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).  Attitudes toward gays and toward driving while drunk changed noticeably (and astoundingly quickly), largely because of those movements.  But I don’t see how that attitude shift is consolidated unless translated (as it was in both cases) into formal, legal changes.

So I would look at #MeTOO and Black Lives Matter in similar ways.  They are raising an issue to public awareness and (let’s hope) changing attitudes.  But until there are also legal sanctions for the police who shoot unarmed blacks (seems to be very, very, very slow progress on that front) or for men who harass women (still a long way to go), I can’t see those movements as successful.  What troubles me are the movements that fight shy of any kind of political, legal outcome at all.

The notion of “prefigurative” has become very common not just in the literature but in the expressed views of the anti-globalization activists.  I had not read Todd Gitlin’s book on Occupy when I wrote the essay.  It’s a good book and a quick read.  He bends over backwards to be sympathetic to Occupy’s anarchism and is good on its refusal to dignify politicians with the authority of being petitioned to.  Instead, the theory went, Occupy would create the society it wanted—not request some imagined powerful others (the politicians) to redress wrongs or reform the corrupt society.  The trouble of course was that Occupy’s alternative society proved unsustainable.  You need a lot of things to have a functioning society—and Occupy was against many of those things on principle.

Gitlin addresses the leaderless stuff as well.  So, yes, let’s say that #MeToo is leaderless. It really is a spontaneous outbreak, in many places at once, and helpfully consolidated by the new digital media.  No one voice stands out among the rest—and part of its glory is that egalitarianism.  The issue for me is: What next?  The open chorus of voices can continue quite some time, until people get tired of that, and move on to the next thing.  Some participants in Occupy, as Gitlin documents, were aware of this problem.  Members of the movement had to have something to do.  Maybe we should call this the tyranny of narrative.  There has to be some sense of forward movement, not just the continual repetition of the same. (I have the same objection to the left’s marches.  Just to keep marching accomplishes nothing.)

So leadership at the very least must devise tactics, things to do that will move the ball forward.  (Hardt and Negri in Assembly concede this point, but then claim the movement itself, as mass leaderless democracy, must devise the strategy.  But their tactics/strategy bright line is hard to understand and, I would think, even harder to maintain in practice.)

Even more, I am arguing that moving the ball forward necessitates at some point the moment of institutionalization.  Which, of course, makes your question about the definition of institution central.  In some sense it’s a tautology: an institution is any formal structure that a) codifies its goals and procedures, and b) establishes the means to ensure its sustainability (over, at least, the medium term).  What are those “means” of sustainability?  For starters, at the minimum, the human and financial resources required to, so to speak, stay in the field.  There must be people who are doing the work and who we can be sure will be doing the work next week and (we hope) next year.  And there also must be people (the wider base) that can be called upon on for set occasions when a more massive presence is needed.  And there must be the money to support those people and the movement’s chosen activities.  Additionally, it is probably inevitable that there be some kind of by-laws (some rules of procedure) and some kind of division of labor (which may very well lead to hierarchy and also to forms of accountability).  The “formality” of institutions comes, then, from having a defined set of goals, an explicit codification of procedures and tasks that are aimed toward achieving that goal, along with a plan for raising the resources required to do the work to reach the goal.

In order to get that far, it also seems inevitable that you are going to need a) the wordsmiths who articulate the movement’s goals and core attitudes in ways that inspire people to join the movement and keep them inspired once they are in the door (the intellectuals if you will) and b) those who hold themselves personally accountable for the movement’s advancement toward its goals and inspire others to also assume similar responsibility (call these people leaders).  There are other roles, but you get the idea.

So I am not taking “the law” per se as the prototypical institution.  I guess I would say that an institution is “legal” once it has the political (or state) authority for its articulated codes and procedures to be enforced generally (i.e. over the whole citizenry of a state).  Many movements, then, will aim for its specific goals to become “legal” in exactly that sense.  But not all movements will have that aspiration.  Think of an artistic movement; it will be much looser in both its institutional forms than the civil rights movement (with its various organizations like the SNCC, the NAACP etc.) and with no desire to achieve legal reform.  But even something like Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism will depend on something more formal than a movement even if less formal than a full-blown institution if it is to thrive.  It will need to have fairly self-consciously formed networks of galleries, news and other media outlets, patrons, sympathetic museums, and a sense of who is in the fold and who isn’t.  It can’t, in other words, only exist in “presence,” in the face-to-face moments of direct interaction (which is what Occupy seems to aspire to—and, oddly enough, we can also say was often Arendt’s utopian vision of the political as an ephemeral “space of appearances” created by a group being together.  It is that Arendtian vision that Hardt and Negri–and Judith Butler in a different key that I find more convincing–are reaching for in their celebrations of “assembly,” the people coming out together to share time in the streets.)

So I guess I am arguing that I don’t see how a movement like #MeToo can advance its political agenda without institutionalizing to some extent—and that it can’t institutionalize without having some intellectuals and some leaders.  Does that—and here is the fear—make me a Leninist?  This worry is deeply ingrained in the left, quickly described (if over simplistically) as the debate between anarchists and advocates of “the party.”  It has more recently been re-inscribed as the debate between “direct” (or “participatory”) democracy and some acceptance of the need for “representation.”

Now I am really going to try your patience because I am going to tie your essay on rights to this classic leftist debate.  It is very common to think of rights as “legitimate claims.”  This is a very “pragmatic” way of theorizing rights—where “pragmatic” here refers less to Deweyean pragmatism than to the “pragmatics” of the linguists, which can be tied back to Wittgenstein’s insistence that the meaning of word resides in its use.  So think of rights as part of a “language game” or even of a “form of life.”  As a move in the language game, to state I have a right to something is to make a claim on the other players of the game.  That claim must, first, be recognized by those others as legitimate, as a claim to which they are accountable, answerable.  If I claim my right to your car, I will be dismissed out of hand.  But if I assert a claim to a high school education, that claim is most likely deemed legitimate within the prevailing language game in the US, but perhaps not when a teenage girl makes it in Afghanistan.

So, for starters, when we talk about rights, we are talking about (contestable) claims that we make upon one another.  A constitution and bill of rights represent attempts to place certain rights beyond contestability, to say that they are, for once and for all, legitimate.  Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being contested in individual court cases, but the constitution and bill of rights is supposed to provide solid grounds for deciding such cases.

The constitution, of course, also does something else.  It established that the state’s power will be placed in the service of protecting those rights herein designated as legitimate.  The problem Arendt highlights—and that became salient in the wake of World War II but which Madison already was writing about in the 1780s—is how to handle situations where what we have come to think of as rights must be protected against the state’s abrogation of them.  What is the enforcing, protective power in that case?  And also what about people who are “stateless.”?  To whom do such people even address their claim—and who will protect them since they are not recognized as any state’s responsibility?  The notion of “human rights” was created in the context of also creating international organizations such as the United Nations as an attempt to address this dilemma.  This attempted solution has proved woefully inadequate to solve the problem, but nothing better has been devised (or instituted).

Now, on top of that crisis/failure, comes the dilemma your essay highlights: how to think the rights of non-human entities.  Since I think of rights as discursive, as established within a language game of call (claim) and response, I don’t see how the rights of non-human entities can figure into the game unless they are “represented” by humans.  That is, there is an inevitable “translation” here.  We can think of that translation as going in either direction (I don’t think it makes much difference which description we choose.  Others might argue it makes a huge difference.)  Alternative one would be to say that we take a notion of “rights’ developed in human political discourse as a way of talking about, adjudicating, and acting upon the claims we have/make upon one another as we attempt to live together in a shared world—and we now transpose that notion of rights as a handy way to talk about the claims non-human entities could/would/should make (if they could talk) as co-inhabitants of that same shared world.  So humans are “extending” rights to non-human entities by couching the perceived needs of those entities in “rights talk.”  (The anti-humanists would object here that the perceiving of those needs is done by humans.)

The alternative would be to say that non-human entities have various ways of communicating their needs and requirements to us—but (I would still argue) it requires an act of translation, from those non-human communications into the human language of rights, to have the non-human claims enter into our political discourse of rights.  In other words, I don’t see how the non-human enters the realm of rights except as voiced by a human advocate.  I know radical anti-humanists hate this conclusion, but I don’t see how to avoid it.

So we seem to be left with: Rights talk is a human contrivance—so all application of rights talk to the inhuman involves a questionable translation of humanist terms to a sphere distinct from the human.  (I think your essay was tending in that direction.)  The only way out of this would be to let the non-human speak for itself.  But I guess I am with Wittgenstein: if the lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand him.  No understanding across that barrier without translation—with the sense that yes, of course, something is going to be lost in the translation, but that’s the best we’ve got.  The search for pristine, perfect solutions aspires to a logically unassailable state that is unattainable, while also imagining a moral purity that sees every trade-off as reprehensible.  William James says the “trail of the human serpent is over all.”  Once within human languages, we are doomed to “representation” with all its imperfections and inadequacies.

Goaded by those imperfections, we keep on writing, thinking maybe the next time I will say it better.


Foucault introduces the notion of “biopower” as a supplement to his theory of “disciplinary power.”  He argues, convincingly in my view, that what we might call the “welfare state” slowly emerges from about 1750 on.  That state takes ensuring the welfare of its citizens, promoting and even providing the means toward sustaining life, as one of its primary missions—or even its fundamental reason to exist, the very basis of its legitimacy.  The state that can protect, preserve, and even enhance the life of its citizens is a state worthy of their allegiance and obedience.  It seems plausible to claim that the Roman empire did not value citizens’ lives in this way, or that medieval kingdoms did not place each citizen’s welfare as a central value the polity was pledged to honor.

Typical of Foucault is his desire to focus on the way that something which is often celebrated as “progress” in fact carries significant costs that a Whiggish history ignores.  We can use the term “liberalism” to designate the traditional story (even though, as I have argued vehemently over the years, it makes no sense to accuse 20th century liberals of buying this story; we must distinguish, at the very least, “classical” from “modern”—or 29th century—liberalism).  The liberal story has several parts: a) consent of the governed to the state’s power in return for protection, for the preservation of life; b) the rise of the individual, which is why every life is equally entitled to that protection; and c) the establishment of “rights” that aim to protect citizens from the potential abuses of power by the state itself.  Liberty, in this understanding of the world liberalism establishes, is meaningless without security.  Only someone who is confident that his life will continue will be able to act out the kinds of long-term plans and undertake the kinds of initiatives that make liberty a reality.  This notion of the necessary preconditions of liberty gets expanded as the 19th century moves into the 20th to include what sometimes get called “social rights” (to contrast them to “political rights.”)  Social rights are claims upon the polity to provide the “means” to life: namely, food, shelter, education, health care, clean air and water, the list can go on.  Political rights, on the other hand, are direct protections against undue interference in a citizen’s behavior: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, along with legal rights against preventive detention, arbitrary imprisonment, and rights of participation, including the right to vote, to run for office, and to form/join political parties.

Foucault had, with his work on disciplinary power, made a compelling case that the advent of individualism, usually seen as a progressive step toward valuing all lives (if not equally, at least in ways that proclaimed that no life could be legitimately sacrificed), offered pathways to the intensification of power.  Namely, each individual becomes a target for power’s intervention.  (Strictly speaking, of course, we should say each body becomes a site for power’s intervention—and that power produces individuals out of bodies.)  Liberal political orders exist hand-in-hand with an economic order (one Foucault resists calling capitalism) that is determined to make each person as productive as possible.  A whole series of disciplinary techniques are applied at a multiplicity of sites through a society to insure that individuals are up to the mark, that they are, as the phrase goes, “productive members of society.”  And all kinds of punishments are devised for those who prove deviant, where deviance comes in an astounding variety of forms.  Disciplinary power “articulates” the social field with finer and finer gradations of acceptable behavior, with every citizen constantly being measured (through endless processes of examination) against the various norms.

Disciplinary power, then, works upon each individual.  Compulsory education is one of its innovations; the highly organized factory is another, the creation and training of the mass citizen army another.  In each case, every body in the ranks must be made to conform, to play its part.

Biopwer, by way of contrast, works on populations.  The nation that takes “life” as its raison d’etre will focus attention on individual life, but it will also be concerned with the general preservation of the nation as well.  That is, it will become interested in birth and death rates, working to raise life expectancy, to lessen infant mortality, to  encourage pregnancy and attend to the health of pregnant women.  The statistical (general) knowledge that can be generated about such things will suggest various large-scale interventions by state power.  The most obvious one are in public health measures: laws (regulations) to protect air and water quality, but also the outlawing of “dangerous” drugs and the interdiction of suicide.

At some points, Foucault appears to be simply describing something that is so familiar to us, so taken for granted, that it is practically invisible.  The state’s power increases when we, as citizens, grant it the right to enforce various public health measures.  We could say, in a similar fashion, that state power increases if we make it one of the state’s responsibilities to provide public transport.  The gathering of money and the granting of jobs involved in creating and running a public transport system must entail the state having more power.  After all, power is not just power over (any employer has power over employees, and the state is no different in that regard) but also power to.  The state would not have the power to (ability to) run a transportation system unless it had power.  So the more duties we assign to the state, the more power it, necessarily, accumulates (unless it is totally ineffectual).

However, as many readers of Foucault have noted, his discussions of power quite often come with the distinct flavor of “critique,” in a dual sense: first, as a revelation of power’s presence where either ideology (semi-deliberate masking of the reality) or taken-for-grantedness hide that presence, and second, as a strongly implied normative criticism of power as illegitimate, evil, or pernicious.  Some commentators have even started to wonder if Foucault has affinities with ne0liberals insofar as he associates state power with tyranny.  I think that is going too far because Foucault (especially with disciplinary power) was very attuned to the ways in which power is exercised in non-state venues (like the factory) and certainly never thought of the economic sphere, of private enterprise, as a site of liberty unrestrained by power.  But his temperamental anarchy does make his approach certain libertarian positions in troubling ways—since, in my view, the libertarian is absurdly naïve, being blind to power’s presence in ways that Foucault has taught us to mistrust.  Power is everywhere—and always with us.  (Hence other readers of Foucault have taken “power” to be the “god-term” in his work.)  Instead of the anarchist dream of a world without power, my view is we have to think about ways to rein in power, to limits its abuse, and that means distributing power in ways that neither state or employers have enough power to leave their citizens or their employees without effective recourse against abuses.  Foucault, however, never goes in that direction.  After identifying the many sites where power is exercised, and implying that such exercises are not good things, he has nothing more to say about how we might or should respond to that situation.

Foucault has a particular reason for thinking biopower pernicious: his argument that it leads to racism.  I will take up that argument tomorrow—since it is the direct claim that a “politics of life” leads to the infliction of large-scale death.  For now, one last point: biopower is not biopolitics.  There are lots of ways of understanding “politics,” but one fairly basic definition of the term would be “pertaining to the collective arrangement of ways of living together with others.”  That is, we don’t have politics until more than one party is involved in the creation (through negotiation, or legislation, or other means) of the arrangements—and where the goal is to establish a modus vivendi that enables sustainable co-existence (which means at least semi-peaceful and semi-stable ways of muddling along).  “Biopower” only identifies where and how power, focused on issues/questions of “life,” intervenes, is exercised.  “Biopoliitcs” attends to the ways that placing the question of “life” prominently among the issues a society must address leads to certain political debates/decisions/conflicts in the ongoing collective effort to forge the terms of sociality.  We might say that “biopower” suggests a passivity of the part of power’s subjects—a passivity Foucualt always claimed he never intended to convey, yet nonetheless inflicts a vision that is as “apolitical” as his.  An odd charge, I know, since Foucault seems intensely political.  But his work rarely attends to the collective processes through which power is created and its specific techniques are forged.  Instead, power appears out of the cloud like the God in the Book of Job.  And it proves just about as unaccountable as that God as well.  You can resist it the way you might kick your broken-down car but you can’t get under the hood and actually tinker with its workings.  It takes a political vision to imagine that kind of transformative work, a work that would involve negotiation and compromise with others, and the eventual creation of legal and institutional frameworks (invariably imperfect).  It would require, in other words, a belief in the power of people to intervene in history, in place of the kind of transcendent power Foucault presents us with.