Rachel Kushner

I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.  They are both compelling reads.  Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time.  The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States. 

The Flamethrowers is a mess.  The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through.  But is it always interesting.  In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives.  The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged.  It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them.  Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit.  It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact.  There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half.  Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way.  Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides.  In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons). 

The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.”  Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey.  But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning.  Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across.  Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.

“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers.  Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized.  It was never, ever, an act of necessity.  It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice.  And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning.  Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered.  An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).

Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.

Roberto Unger: Utopia, Participatory Democracy, and Exemplary Action

I have now read two recent pieces by Roberto Unger: the essay “The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View” and the transcript of a session at the OECD in Paris, entitled “Inclusive Vanguardism: The Alternative Futures of the Knowledge Economy.”  (Both are available as PDFs on Unger’s website: http://www.robertounger.com/en/).

Here is a quick outline of his basic project: the knowledge economy names a significant shift in the mode of production.  Specifically, it changes the Fordist model of the mass production of exactly identical products into the machine-driven production of customized products.  Thus, the new automatons change the dynamics of scale—and have the potential to upset entirely the “law” of diminishing returns. (Each now copy of a digital product costs almost nothing to produce; so the millionth copy of Microsoft Word produces a larger profit than the first 10,000 copies.)

Interestingly, Unger (unlike so many others writing on this theme) does not think the human race is about to reach a condition of post-scarcity.  Perhaps this is because he comes from the global South.  Because he still believes scarcity is a problem, he is in favor of “perpetual innovation” and increasing the productive powers of our machines.  Utopia, in his view, is having humans only do the work that cannot be done by machines (which might be characterized as “care” work—teachers, health care providers, child and elderly care, environmental protection etc.) 

To unleash both the full productive and full utopian possibilities of the knowledge economy requires, in his view, the full-scale involvement of all in the work of innovation—hence his focus on “inclusive vanguardism.”  We need to structure our societies to encourage constant experimentation as we search for the technical solutions to our many needs and problems. 

In focusing on the mode of production and in what can only be called his technological optimism, Unger looks very much a disciple of Marx.  I think many readers would share my sense that the biggest lacuna in his work is any attention to environmental concerns.  He talks (in the OECD session) a lot about Brazil, yet never once mentions the subjection of Brazil’s land to extractive processes that are an environmental disaster.  The knowledge economy (this statement is me, not Unger), no less than Fordist production, is a vampire with a seemingly endless appetite for “natural resources.” 

“Perpetual innovation” in and of itself is no answer.  Innovation has to be in the service of ends that are not destructive and/or unjust.  Yes, we must experiment with and try to develop innovations that alleviate the severity and costs of climate change.  But to believe (and invest and pursue) only technological fixes to environmental degradation is to trust the very mind-set that got us into this mess. We need also to re-think the whole obsession with “productivity” and “growth.”  Unger appears utterly committed to the promotion of growth as the correct goal of our economics.

Having lodged that (fundamental) objection to his project, I want to dwell on what I found inspiring in these two pieces.  Unger is advocating for radical social changes, but he argues forcefully that change is always piecemeal.  You must begin where you are, experimenting with what is possible in this set of circumstances, even as you have an eye on the long-term, larger transformations your local action is aiming toward.  On the other hand, this focus on the local (which includes an endorsement of “radical devolution” in federalist arrangements that permit substantial regional divergences) does not neglect the considerable power of the state.  For starters, the state must permit those local experiments—and enable them through institutional/legal orders and with financial resources.  But there also has to be a national (at least) vision that enlists the state in the project of inclusion, of breaking down the hierarchies that establish the division between the “knowledge workers” and the drudges. 

When faced with an acknowledgement of all that is wrong with current arrangements, Unger insightfully tells us that any suggested remedial actions usually are felt to be “too trivial” (not substantial enough to effect the “real” change we want to see) or “utopian” (not remotely feasible under present conditions; just fantasies that we have no way of getting to from here).  This strikes me as completely accurate—and it has a chilling effect, is a formula for hopelessness, exhaustion, and apathy. 

My own sense (derived from Arendt) of how to combat this dilemma is to say that any kind of political or social activism must combine immediate rewards with “eyes on the prize.” Change is slow, uneven, prone to set-backs, never matches the full utopian vision, and a source of painful conflicts and compromises.  Plus it is very hard to see the effectiveness of any single action in bringing change about.  For all those reasons, the participation in any social movement must involve the excitement of working creatively with a set of people toward a common end.  It is that experience of immersion in a collective project that sustains long-term political movements.

Unger is an advocate of what used to get called (I guess still is, although this theme has retreated from much recent work in democratic theory) “participatory democracy.”  He calls for “a high-energy democracy that makes change less dependent on crisis because it increases the level of organized popular engagement in political life . . . and combines the possibility for decisive action on the part of central government with opportunities for radical devolution to states and towns—the creations, in different parts of a country, of countermodels of the national future” (68-69 in the Knowledge essay).

Unger has some sharp critiques of social democracy along these lines—basically arguing that it turns citizens into passive recipients of benefits handed out by the central government instead of active shapers of their civic life.  He doesn’t want to see citizens as “consumers” that the government must serve.  Unlike the conservative critique of the “nanny state” (even as Unger’s worries about passivity chime with some conservative views), the idea here is to have citizens actively engaged in the provision of those services.  Unger favors mandatory national service; along with paying taxes to see that children and the elderly are cared for (to take one example), citizens would be expected to provide that care for some portion of their working life (either as a two year service period or as a periodic—one month a year—seconding.) This service would increase trust and empathy, both of which are in short supply in today’s world, even as it would also increase a sense that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all our fellow citizens and actively engaged in both thinking about and participating in the best ways to insure that welfare.

Multiple ways to promote citizen interaction, as well as citizen involvement in the shaping of policy, would also be needed.  Most crucially, perhaps, is the need from workplace democracy.  The whole notion of an “inclusive vanguard” is built upon breaking down the hierarchies in the workplace that reserve expertise to a small minority.  Everyone should be invited to participate in developing innovative ideas and experimental projects—and everyone should be provided with the education that makes such a democratization of expertise possible.

Unger understands that experimentation cannot take place where people have no economic security.  Necessity, it turns out, is not the mother of invention.  The absence of fear, the knowledge that one’s daily bread is secure, plus immersion in high-energy, collaborative (yet also somewhat competitive; Unger is fond of the phrase “cooperative competition”) environments is what stimulates the imagination and makes it possible to take risks.  Make the cost of failure too high—and very few will take any risks.  So, far from those conservative cowboys who adopt the macho line of letting the fittest survive in the jungle of the “free market,” Unger describes a political/economic regime that underwrites innovation and experimentation by providing the resources that make sure such experiments are not matters of life and death. 

Why the focus on experiments?  Three reasons, I think, all of which resonate with the project of “social choreography.” First, we don’t know in advance (through some kind of theoretical thought) what actually works.  There are always unanticipated and unexpected consequences of any course of action—just as there are always unanticipated obstacles and (if we are lucky) serendipitous successes. 

Second, experiments undertaken collectively are a site (and a very non-trivial one) of happiness.  Participation can be—and often is—a joy.  And it is the energy of that joy that carries the project forward even as it encounters difficulties and even as its contribution to a larger social transformation is not clear.  Participation (and this is the Arendt piece) can be an experience (in miniature but in the real time of the present) of the kind of society we are aiming to produce. In short, participatory democracy in action, here and now.

Third, if we accept that change is piecemeal, then our experiments are “exemplary actions” (the phrase is Unger’s), demonstration projects that show what is possible.  We don’t have to—and should not—wait upon total transformation to begin living the lives we desire to live.  We can find the others who are willing to experiment with us—and begin to dance.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it.