Category: social movements

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

What Kind of Institutions Does the Left Need?

I have put this off long enough.  I have lots of backlogged thoughts about things I am reading, but need to forego those to write the promised post about institutions.

I have gotten some help from Rom Coles’s Visionary Pragmatism (Duke UP, 2016).  Rom, for six years at Northern Arizona University, led a complex operation that paired students and faculty with off-campus groups in what were called Action Research Teams (ART).  The idea was to get university folks involved in collaborating with local groups to 1) acquire the knowledge needed to develop action agendas on topics of local concern and 2) actually begin to put those agendas into practice.

Rom is eloquent on the need to combine “visionary” aspirations and spectacular, energy-raising one-off events (demonstrations, teach-ins, even civil disobedience) with the “pragmatic” quotidian work (lots of meetings and talk, the securing of money and other resources) that is the daily grind of democracy in action.  The work is sometimes directed toward government—pressuring it to act—but more often a question of taking matters into the group’s own hands, building organizations that can address local concerns about the environment, cultural preservation, literacy, a living wage, elderly care etc.

For any reader of Tocqueville or John Dewey, this is not surprising stuff. Democracy is vibrant, a lived reality, when citizens take power into their own hands, when they feel entitled to do things for themselves, and when they organize themselves to both decide what needs to be done and to do the things they decide should be done.  Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations” and Dewey’s “associated democracy.”  The goal could be said to be attainment of that “public happiness” that Arendt extols as the best thing about politics.

As I approach retirement, my aspiration is to find such a voluntary association, one that is effectively doing good work in relation to an issue that I care about.  But can I also register my impatience with meetings, with long and fairly fruitless, airings of pet grievances and crotchets?  I admire (perhaps above all) Rom’s patience, his willingness to put in the time to hammer out, in a large group, an action plan.  I want to join a group that is already acting and that puts its pedal to the medal.  I have no patience at all to fretting over the details.

Which makes me sometimes wonder if, temperamentally, I am a democrat at all.

But let’s put that aside for the moment.  Rom’s model leverages the resources of the university (even a relatively poor state university like Northern Arizona is resource-rich compared to the surrounding community)—with its resources counted in manpower (all those students), time (the ability to devote attention to research and to meetings), and knowledge (experts who know stuff and a culture that encourages learning stuff) as well as (even more than) money.  The university, in other words, is an already constituted institution and Rom is very attuned to the ways it can be put to use to advance a democratic agenda even as neoliberal forces are working to turn the university into a servant of its social vision.

Already existing institutions (the state is another prime example) are, then, sites of contestation.  Precisely because such institutions have power and resources, it is important to attempt to turn them toward the issues the left wants to address, to the transformations the left wishes to enact. Others, with different agendas, will also be trying to capture the institution, to turn it toward advancing their vision.

So Rom offers one model: the locally focused model that favors face-to-face interactions (meetings), deliberation in common, and action in concert.  It is only in these small-scale instances that people can experience democracy in action and overcome the alienation from politics engendered by the TV spectacle of electoral campaigns that culminate in the terribly abstract act of voting and the installation of unresponsive, distant legislative bodies.

To abandon the national, long-distance politics of elections is, however, a disaster.  So we are brought back to “the party,” that problematic institution that is the bane of modern politics and yet, apparently, absolutely necessary to any effective access to national power.  That parties are a disaster was the strong conviction of the American Founders, but there adoption of the British “first past the post” election model made parties inevitable.  Add the Leninist vision of the party as whipping the benighted masses into action—and any democrat wants to run for the hills.

Yet . . . the party, like the university, is an already constituted institution that the left abandons only at its own peril.  Because the numbers of voters on either side of the left/right divide is so even in the US, I think it is folly of the highest order for leftists to abandon the Democratic party for more leftist alternatives–be those alternatives a “third party” or an independent candidacy for president.  (I guess, as a rule of thumb, I can safely say that I will not support a non-Democratic candidate for president until he or she runs at the top of a full slate of candidates.  In other words, give me a robust and fully formed party of the left because you get my vote.)  In the meantime, I honor those leftists trying to capture the Democratic party, to drag it to the left in ways that mirror how conservatives have (already) captured the Republican party.

Does sticking with the Democrats entail a whole series of distasteful compromises?  Yes.  That’s why a conflicted loyalty to that party needs to be combined with political action apart from electoral politics if one is to avoid becoming completely disheartened.

The favored alternative on the left to electoral politics, apparently, is a “movement,” which aspires to national scale but to action (citizens in the street) as opposed to the passivity of voting and watching C-Span.  What Rom helpfully shows us is that the movement need not be concerned solely or primarily on influencing the national agenda/program, but can act to change things on the local level.  It is one of the great paradoxes of American politics that we (especially the left) are obsessed with a national politics that we have very little chance of influencing, while we neglect all the local possibilities for transformation.  It’s as if we are either 1) waiting for a permission (that will never arrive) to act or 2) think of ourselves as hiring a set of servants (the politicians) to do the work for us (despite ample evidence that those politicians are never going to be up to the job).

The conclusion: the left needs to build institutions (organizations; call them what you will) where people want to dwell, where they want to spend time, because of the pleasures the interactions (and association) with these other people bring, and because of a sense of actually getting something done.  Meaning-full, purposive, effective action.  That’s the ticket.  All the quotidian banality of democracy is bearable (maybe even much more than bearable) if there is something to show for it—and one of the tings to show is comradeship.  Everyone knows (it is a great cliché) that soldiers and team-mates “bond” and that the pleasures of bondage (pun intended) are intense.  People keep coming back for more, even to strenuous and dangerous work, if cathected to a collective effort.

To adopt neoliberal speak for a moment, to maintain that cathexis requires “benchmarks,” or, to use the current humanities piety, a “story” (a narrative arc).  There must be a plan that lays out various steps on a path, and a narrative momentum that carries people along a story of getting somewhere.  This is what Occupy lacked.  It was the same damn thing one day after another—and so, of course, it petered out.  Saturday afternoon demonstrations share that fault.  They don’t go anywhere; they don’t have a next step.  (This was Brecht’s worry about the theater.)

There is no lack of problems to address out there.  The beauty of Rom’s model is that it gathers people to identify the problems—and then challenges them to think of ways to alleviate/eliminate the problem.  Don’t just sit there; do something!  And it turns out that there are all kinds of things “we” can do—and that some of our fellows citizens are going to prove, once their input is solicited, incredibly creative when it comes to devising action plans.

So the institutions I think the left needs are the ones that can sustain a group of people over the long haul enactment of an action plan.  It can be a small-scale local institution/organization or a large-scale national campaign for gun control, against the sexual harassment of women, or against the police violence directed at people of color.  The key is to move beyond “protest,” beyond the public airing of grievances, to action that aims at righting the identified wrong.

Such organizations exist.  Belonging to and contributing to them takes time.  They are a challenge to what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”—placating one’s conscience by sending money to various leftist causes.  Such organizations, I am more and more convinced, are the only site of real social change.  Even highly publicized campaigns like “me too” and “black lives matter”—for all their rhetorical power—seem inadequate to me.  They are great occasions for self-righteous finger pointing, but do nothing to change the on-the-ground conditions that enable sexual and racial violence.  With the flood of words that is now the public sphere—cable TV, the internet, advertisements, tweets and the rest—I have a hard time believing in the efficacy of words.  Strange no doubt to have a literary guy say that, but I can’t help believing that 90% of Americans are now like me: inured to the endless palaver, letting it all wash over them without making much of a dent.  The effort so many people are so desperately making to grab—for just this day’s news cycle—the public’s attention does not seem to me worth the effort.  It leads to nothing—and nothing comes of nothing.  So I want a left that begins to turn its back on the media circus, on getting the message out, and devotes its attention instead to doing things.

More on Institutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots to chew on here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Consciousness

I hope to make this short.  I ended the last post with the expression of Boltanski’s commitment to an “immanent critique,” one that took its terms from the understandings and value commitments displayed by social actors in actual disputes at (within) actual social sites.

“The critical and systematic character of theories of domination, and their frequent claim to know more than actors themselves about the sources of their discontent, has in numerous cases even led their opponents to assimilate them to a kind of madness.  In particular, the analogy has been suggested in connection with a pathology whose description is virtually contemporaneous with the development of critical theories and, more generally, the social sciences: nothing other than paranoia” (Boltanski, 162, fn. 6).

To avoid the charge of madness, the theorist must assemble (call into being if not joining an existing group) a collective that makes similar judgments and indulges in all the practices by which a community constitutes a world-view (or a “reality” to stick to Boltanksi’s idiosyncratic [ha!] usage of that term).

More germane to my purposes: I am completely on board with the effort to never accuse any group of false consciousness, but the left often seems to founder on this particular rock: how to convince those it wants to enlist to its cause of “systematic” or “structural” interpretations of the injustices and exploitation that it regularly (and feelingly) experiences.  The grievances are all there, as is the sense of outrage, of moral indignation.  But the analysis is lacking—or so it would seem.

Boltanksi’s comments on this disconnect are suggestive, even though they don’t offer any good pathway forward.

“One of the characteristics of complex domination effects [such as those established by neoliberalism] is therefore that they offer less purchase to critique than a regime of repression.  Moreover, it is precisely this feature that was stressed in the critical theory and critical sociology of the 1960 and 1970s.  One of the main issues raised by critical sociology of the time was the seemingly more or less passive acceptance of asymmetries by the very people who bore the brunt of them.  It was to answer this question that critical thinking focused on a theory of ideologies and put the theme of belief and illusion at the heart of sociology.  By contrast, one of the contributions of pragmatic sociology has been to show that actors are not abused  . . . and that, as regards everything which concerns real life and the injustices they suffer in everyday life, they harbor no illusions.  But it has also shown that this lucidity does not thereby give actors a sense of having the least purchase on reality” (128-29).

As the New Yorker cartoon portrayed the situation in 2008: the Mafioso thugs sit around lamenting that “the trouble with credit default swaps is you don’t know whose legs to break.” Still, if the claim is that the sources of asymmetries are hidden, the left is still going to need the services of the critical theorist, whose analysis will have to be communicated to (and convince) those passive sufferers (the unemployed, the underemployed, the exploited).  The evidence is pretty compelling that most people do not even know the basic facts about asymmetry.  Survey after survey demonstrates that people wildly underestimate the gap between the very rich and the rest of us.  Call this a knowledge deficit as opposed to “false consciousness,” but it still amounts to lots of people failing to grasp the basic lineaments of the society in which they dwell.

Once in possession of the facts, the next issue is where to attack the structures that produce such inequalities.  Again, lots of evidence exists to show that people fall back on individualistic explanations for inequality.  In particular, they blame themselves (a self-directed instance of blaming the victim) for being unemployed, thus buying into the meritocratic premises of neoliberal apologists, as if 12% unemployment were the product of there being so many more unfit workers in 2009 than there were in 2007.

In addition, where these passive sufferers are moved to action, they tend to focus on remedies rather than on structural changes.  On the right, the remedies include deregulation and anti-immigration measures based on the premise that government interference and immigrant competitors for jobs can be blamed for lack of adequate economic opportunities.  On the left, remedies tend toward government supported jobs programs/trainings and a more progressive tax code.  I hardly mean to say that remedies should be ignored—and the left must fight vigorously for its preferred remedies.

But sticking to remedies means, once again, neglecting a structural analysis and any structural reform.  We are back, in a somewhat different register, to Boltanski’s distinction between pragmatic critique and critical theory.  We seem able to do the pragmatic thing—i.e. propose better ways of working within the current structure, ways that would lessen its inequalities and offer better protections to capitalism’s victims—but unable to get much “purchase” on the structural stuff.  That lack of purchase is not just the difficulty of figuring out how the structure works and where it should be attacked; it is also the difficulty of bringing along the numbers (the sufferers, the potential leftist collective that will save we theorists form the charge of paranoia) to make this structural approach a real presence.  The battle between left and right remedies is currently so heated, and so vital, that moving to the structural level looks like a pipe dream.  And my point is that it involves a lot of work of education, of changing people’s beliefs (or, at least, their habits of thought about the sources of inequality) before we even get to the hard political work of effecting significant structural changes.

To circle back as I conclude:  effecting real structural changes means inventing—or very substantially transforming—institutions.  That’s what Boltanski makes abundantly clear.  Lasting change–the kind that truly alters the conditions within which people live and work, and transforms the outcomes of social interactions—requires institutions that establish “reality” (in Boltanski’s sense of that word), establish the enabling social stabilities that underwrite specific interactions.

And there is not much evidence that “the people” think in these terms or actively desire the transformation of institutions, of basic structures, of “reality.”  Since this revolutionary vision and passion are missing, and because large numbers are misinformed about the basic facts of current economic practices/outcomes/institutions, it is very difficult not to attribute a) false beliefs (“fake news”) to many social agents and b) an overly timid sense of what kinds of political and economic transformations are needed/possible.  Yes, a strong sense of injustice does exist—and is a great starting point.  But getting “purchase” requires more; it requires a strategy that derives from an analysis of how power is currently organized.  And that strategy should entail the creation of new institutions—or, at the very least, substantial transformation of existing institutions.

So now I have written myself into a corner.  Obviously, the task ahead of me is to try to specify what some of those new institutions would be, and how they would function to enable more equitable and just outcomes.  I will try to live up to that challenge in subsequent posts.


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.

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.