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.

Judith Butler on Life

Have just finished reading Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard UP, 2015), which is a bit of a slog since it is repetitive and not leavened with many concrete examples.  But Butler appears obsessed with the same issues and problems that occupy much of my mental space, so I was grateful to find I am not alone in my worries or entirely off the rails.  I also pretty much agree with most of her political intuitions and ambitions.  As when I read Dewey, I find that I think Butler is right 80% of the time—and there are very few writers with whom I find myself in such alignment.

To the point: Butler just forthrightly declares that Arendt is wrong about “life.”  What Arendt fails to register is that the means for life are “differentially distributed”—and that such distribution is a matter of politics, of power.  It is, therefore, not just wrong but a matter of pernicious blindness to place the question of sustaining life outside the realm of politics, at the same time condemning those whose lives are overwhelmingly (out of necessity) devoted to “labor,” to securing the means of survival, to nonappearance in the political space of appearances.

Butler ends up, though she is adamantly resistant to admitting it, in a position akin to that of Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach.  Here is the key Butler paragraph:

“We have mentioned that bodies cannot be understood at all without the environments, the machines, and the social organization of interdependency upon which they rely, all of which form the conditions of their persistence and flourishing.  And finally, even if we come to understand and enumerate the requirements of the body, do we struggle only for those requirements to be met?  As we have seen, Arendt surely opposed that view.  Or do we struggle as well for bodies to thrive, and for lives to become livable?  As I hope to have suggested, we cannot struggle for a good life, a livable life, without meeting the requirements that allow a body to persist.  It is necessary to demand that bodies have what they need to survive, for survival is surely a precondition for all other claims we make.  And yet, that demand proves insufficient since we survive precisely in order to live, and life, as much as it requires survival, must be more than survival in order to be livable.  One can survive without being able to live one’s life.  And in some cases, it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.  So, an overarching demand must be precisely for a livable life, that is, a life that can be lived” (208-209, emphasis Butler’s).

Butler says a little bit more about this idea of a “livable life,” but not much.  She fights shy, as we would expect (and hope), of identifying any single standard by which we could judge a life’s “worth.”  But her very appeal to the notion that life requires more than just survival, along with her use (throughout the book) of the term “flourishing,” means that her politics must function on two levels.

Level one is the minimalist level/position.  Here the point is to protest stringently against all those forms of power and social organization that deny survival to people (and, perhaps, other beings).  Along with that protest should come attempts to imagine—and even to embody—alternative organizations that do meet the “requirements” of “persistence.”  In seeing those requirements as “preconditions,” Butler points toward what, in my terms, I would consider a “floor,” a minimal set of primary goods (to use Rawls’s terms) all (with no exceptions) can access.  In our horrible political moment, when a resurgent right wing can openly declare its desire to deny such access (to health care, to clean air and water, to safe working conditions, to protection from state violence and from war) to some populations, insistence on that minimum has assumed a new importance.  Egalitarianism in our current context takes, I believe, this form of insisting on a minimalist provision of those things that meet the “requirements of persistence.”

But Butler, like everyone who approaches this topic, takes the position that the minimalist position is not enough.  It is not even clear that it should take logical or political priority.  A minimalist life is not obviously a life that can be affirmed.  “[I]n some cases,” as Butler puts it, “it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.”  Life shouldn’t just survive, it should flourish.

And it is with that term “flourish,” [which comes from an Aristotelean tradition that Butler, in an off-hand remark earlier in the book calls “outdated” (194)] that Nussbaum’s work can prove useful.  When Butler goes to flesh out what makes a life livable, she highlights “the complex relationalities” in which any body is entangled and advocates a politics that “understand[s] and attend[s] to the complex set of relations without which we do not exist at all” (209).  This thought, not unsurprisingly, leads Butler into a bit of a swamp.  How to think our inevitable dependency (our lives cannot persist, no less flourish without relations to other beings that also make us dependent and vulnerable) without reinforcing all the forms of dependency that power installs?  In short, we need to find ways to manage dependency, to organize it, that do not enable differential access to the means of persistence and flourishing.  To put in another way: the inevitable fact of dependency provides a worrisome perfect opportunity for the establishment of non-egalitarian hierarchies.

Butler’s core philosophical position (her transcendental claim in her recent books) is the dependency of the human condition (to use Arendt’s terms) or, more broadly, the condition of all planetary life.  I use “transcendental” here in its Kantian sense—and Butler is performing what I called elsewhere “transcendental blackmail.”  If we accept that she has identified “necessary,” inescapable conditions of our existence, then she has us where she wants us.  We must come to terms with dependency because we are all dependent, whether we want to be or not.

From there, her argument must operate on three levels.  The first is to oppose those who would deny that dependency is our basic condition.  Here Butler retains the psychoanalytic perspective that has retreated to the margins in her recent work (as contrasted to earlier work like Gender Trouble and The Passionate Attachment to Subjection.)  Humans are prone to “disavow” dependency, to fantasize a self-sufficiency that aims to escape the vulnerability to others that dependency entails.  And the psychic/political costs of disavowal, especially in its generation of aggression against anything that threatens the delusion, are high.

The second level we might call the egalitarian one.  Here we get the political position I have called minimalist, with its commitment to an egalitarian distribution of vulnerability—and to the resources by which we (as a political community) attempt to protect ourselves from “precarity,” from the fact that every life is open to the forces that can end life.  None of us, ultimately, is protected from death.  The actual things that will cause my death and the date of that death are contingent; but the fact that I will die is not contingent.  Politics involves, among other things, an attempt to protect selves against untimely (premature) and unnecessary (gratuitous) death.  That is where “biopolitics” enters: public health measures so I don’t die of cholera or influenza when certain actions could minimize my chances of contracting such diseases, or food distribution systems that prevent malnutrition and starvation, or refugee provisions that protect selves against state violence and/or war.  The idea seems to be that there are preventable deaths, even if death itself cannot be prevented, and that politics rightfully attends to securing “life” wherever possible.  To that extent, Butler is with Ruskin—and against Arendt, Taylor, and (maybe) Foucault, all of whom are deeply suspicious of a politics organized around “life” as a (if not “the”) supreme good.

The third level brings us to flourishing.  Mere survival is not enough.  In some conditions (in prison or a concentration camp) perhaps survival is not even a good.  Such lives, in Butler’s incantatory phrase, are not deemed “livable.”  So a politics should demand more than attention to the conditions of life’s persistence.  Biopolitics is not enough if it only attends to biology, to the requirements of the body.  Here is where the notion of “flourishing” enters—and the only specific thing Butler has to say about flourishing is that it involves the question of our relations to others—where others are not just human beings, but the whole ensemble of beings and things with whom we co-inhabit the planet.  (Is this the Arendtian “world”?  I think yes and no—and may take up the complexity of that question in a future post.)

Nussbaum goes much, much further in trying to specify what would qualify as flourishing.  Nussbaum certainly highlights “affiliation” in her list of ten things that flourishing encompasses.  She (Nussbaum) does not base the need to have relations with others that are sustaining and fulfilling on the basis of a shared dependency as Butler would, but she does recognize sociality (my term, not hers) as constitutive of life itself.  To block the capacity to have families or friends (as American slavery did, for example) is to deny a fundamental requirement of life, even if the person so deprived has enough food and shelter and rest to survive.  The third level, then, of a politics of life attends to those things above the minimalist requirements for survival that are part and parcel of a “full” or “flourishing” life.

Butler does not go into specifics, I think, for a whole host of reasons—and most of them are not good reasons.  To put it most bluntly, I think it’s a failure of courage.  To remain on the level of slogan and abstraction—the level of Butler’s repeated appeal to her notion of a “livable life,” with less frequent employment of the word “flourishing”—is to avoid risking offending anyone by listing concrete requirements for flourishing.  Butler has always been hyper-sensitive (an artefact of her early formation in the schools of Hegel and Derrida) to the ways that any positive term both excludes and relies upon the negative.  So, for example, Butler avoids the difficult issue of autonomy.  Surely, Butler believes that flourishing would include the ability to make some basic choices for oneself: about religious belief, about where to live, about career, about romantic/sexual partners.  But she is clearly also committed to the view that autonomy is precarious at the least, and a delusion at the worst.  How, then, to affirm some kind of autonomy while also acknowledging how a self’s existence in a web of social, cultural, emotional, and dependent relationships qualifies that autonomy?  Or, even worse, how to think through the ways that attempts to achieve autonomy are, in some cases, not only counter-productive but positively destructive?  Butler, as a thinker, is allergic (it seems to me) to thinking through trade-offs and compromises among competing goods.  By remaining on a certain level of abstraction, she can avoid such messiness.

So let me end by laying my cards on the table.  I think that I find Butler’s recent work so appealing, so consonant with my own worries and obsessions, because I think hers is a liberal sensibility in the Richard Rorty way of describing that sensibility.  Rorty calls it “bleeding heart liberalism,” a deep disgust at the suffering that humans inflict on other humans (which can now be extended to a disgust with the way humans treat non-human beings and the environment) and the consequent attempt to organize politics to minimize suffering.  Add to that sensibility the egalitarian insistence that all humans have an equal claim to be protected from suffering—and to live a full life—and you get the fundamentals of liberalism.  The details (where the devil  resides) is in how to organize the polity to advance those goods.  But the emotional bases of liberalism lie in that antipathy to inflicted suffering—no matter what the source (the state, the corporation, the bully) of that suffering.

But there is also another way of thinking about liberalism, the Isiah Berlin way, and here Butler fights shy of liberalism.  Berlin’s focus was on plural goods and trade-offs.  Basically, he was saying that humans can’t get it all to work logically and seamlessly, that our beautiful philosophical models, logically coherent, can never be materialized.  Instead, we live amidst the endless contestation of competing goods, many of which are fully worthy of endorsement, but which cannot be all realized simultaneously.  It is learning how to live with, manage, and tolerate compromises—even as whatever trade-off we have accepted today will be rejected and revised tomorrow—that characterizes a certain kind of pragmatic liberalism.  Call it “good enough” politics (echoing Melanie Klein on mothering), with the added proviso that any arrangement will only be temporary, and will always fail to satisfy someone.  Politics is endless wrangling—and thus deeply unsatisfying.  But the dream of ending the wrangling is the stuff of the ever present frustration with parliamentary democracy—and most often fuels authoritarian visions that hope to transcend the displeasures of pluralism.

I am not accusing Butler of being an authoritarian thinker.  She is as wary of being authoritarian as any writer that I know.  But I do think that wariness leads her to pull her punches fairly often.  She won’t take a concrete stand for fear of seeming to want to legislate.  But I take Berlin’s point to be that legislation is something we need to do, even as every act of legislation is an imperfect compromise, an unsatisfying trade-off.  We can’t get what we want, and all too often don’t get what we need.  But holding out for the perfect is no solution to that dilemma.  As Rorty always insisted, we are in the realm of the comparative when it comes to making judgments about political decisions, actions, and arrangements.  We are not in a position to identify—even less to enact—the best.  We are only in a position to consider if this action, arrangement, law, decision is better than that one.  Butler only does that kind of judging at a very high level of abstraction, where a livable life is better than a non-livable one.

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.

Holding Professors Accountable in the Midst of Political Attacks on the University

I was a participant in a roundtable on public higher education last Friday that included two UNC faculty members, a senior associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, two current students, a state legislator (Republican), a business man who is also a big donor to UNC, a former member of the UNC board of trustees (from the financial world), and the executive directors of two right wing think tanks in the state, including the notorious Pope Foundation (which has recently changed its name to the Martin Institute.)  The Pope Foundation, as well as the John Locke Foundation (the other group represented), has been consistently critical of UNC courses in women’s and sexuality studies, requesting syllabi and then criticizing specific professors and courses in the public media.  More generally, they have both been scornful of the language of “diversity.”

The context for the conversation was a forthcoming book by our ex-Chancellor and the founder of our undergraduate program in entrepreneurship in which they argue 1) that universities cannot and should not be run like corporations, and 2) that the basic social contract that generated support for public higher education from 1950 to 1990 is now badly strained, if not completely broken.  Their book sets out to find a way to repair that broken compact.  So the goal of the round-table, which was filmed, was to discover if there was any common ground on which to build in the effort to heal the rift.

Substantively, not much was accomplished.  Everyone was on their best behavior, perhaps because being filmed.  Our right wing guests didn’t have much to say; they mostly listened.  Everyone affirmed the idea of a liberal arts education; everyone seemed to sign off on the notion of “access,” another key theme.  Similarly, there was no push-back against the idea that the universities of North Carolina were an economic driver—and a major reason why we were not Mississippi.

Our businessman philanthropist was the one who said we, as a society, were failing to invest in our future—and that tax cuts had gone too far.  No one really took up that point, although the state legislator was willing to say that tax cuts needed to stop—and that “maybe” we had gone too far in that direction.  When asked about the legislature’s thinking about higher education, he denied there was any hostility to it.  The legislature simply faced a number of competing demands when it came to budgeting—and all of those demands were legitimate, good things to support.  He made it sound all ideology-free, just a matter of making do with the available resources.

It didn’t help that our dean told the group that North Carolina was still the 4th best state in the nation in terms of its support of its higher education system. (NC started out in 2008 as one of the best–and the pace of cuts here in NC was similar to the pace across the whole country, so we did not fall in this particular ranking.) That fed an unjustified complacency in the room—unjustified because it allowed everyone to ignore the ways recent actions have hurt instruction on our campuses and limited access.  The egregious mandate from the Board of Governors (which rules over the whole system, as distinct from the Board of Trustees for each individual campus) that only 25% of tuition increases can be used to fund need-based aid never came up.  (I have seen that number reported as 15% in the UNC Alumni magazine; I was pretty sure it was 25%, but could be wrong.)  Thus, as the BoG approves tuition hikes, it makes sure the most vulnerable are hurt by them.  Their rationale was that more affluent students should not be “taxed” to supplement the fees of less affluent students.

I have a friend who attends BoG meetings regularly.  He confirms that they hate Chapel Hill in ways that they don’t hate NC State or the other schools in the system.  There is no consistency either to their hatred or to their ways they would like to transform UNC, Chapel Hill.  He characterizes the BoG members as the wealthiest people from their rural communities—who have witnessed the precipitous decline of those communities after the death of tobacco and textiles and the furniture business (the three pillars of the NC general economy prior to 1990.)  NC was never a rich state, but it was one that functioned for all of its citizens.  Now we have a very prosperous middle of the state—with per capita incomes that rival Connecticut’s—yoked to a depopulated east (except for the booming ocean front resorts) and an Appalachian west where the poverty levels match those of Mississippi.  Governing a state that is both Connecticut and Mississippi is well-nigh impossible.  But the legislative power rests in the hands of the white Mississippians.

Those rural legislators—and the supporters that they have appointed to our Board of Governors—have no remedies.  They don’t know any better than anyone else how to revive the dead economies of the places where they grew up and where they still live.  They look at Chapel Hill and see an elitist, rich, and complacent institution that takes thousands of kids from the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs, while taking one or two top students from the rural high schools, turning up their noses at the rest.  So they (Chapel Hill) sneer at us (white Southerners), while stealing away our best and brightest—who they turn into Democrats and snobs, people who are never going to come back to the dying towns they grew up in.  And while they are turning down our kids as not good enough, they (in the name of diversity) are giving slots to all those blacks, Latinos, and Asians who have crowded into the outer suburbs and inner cities of our state.

When it comes to solutions, these guys (again, I am going on the reports of my friend) swing wildly and incoherently between free market fundamentalism and socialism.  They can move from praise of the market to suggesting all kinds of state interventions on the turn of a dime.  They don’t know what to do, but they know who the enemy is, and they want to lash out and do some hurting.

None of that came to the surface in our polite conversation.  The right-wingers in the room would, I assume, distance themselves from the no-nothings.  But the real conflict is that these educated, smooth right wingers (Paul Ryan types) are against public education.  They are Milton Friedman acolytes.  Education is a private investment that families make in their future—and schools get lazy, complacent, and inefficient when not subjected to competition and the resultant market discipline.

I am not as hostile to these arguments as most faculty members are.  And maybe when I expressed my version of anti-complacency, I was guilty of trying to placate the right-wingers in the room.  (Note that all of this is implied; they did not articulate any such arguments in our conversation.)

Here’s how I make the case.  I was in a room with some financial world people—hedge fund managers, and folks at Goldman Sachs—just shortly after the election in November 2008.  The financial guys (and they were all guys, about 10 of them in a mixed crowd of about 25 total where the other 15 were not financial types) all agreed that the Democrats (Nancy Pelosi was their particular bête noir; I guess because dissing a woman was better in their eyes than dissing a black man) were going to screw the nation’s economy horribly with their urge for regulations and taxes.  Nothing about the financial collapse seemed to have altered one iota these guy’s confidence that they knew what they were doing—and about how to best organize the nation’s economic well-being.  Sure there had been some mistakes, but they knew how to fix them.  Just keep those no-nothing politicians from messing things up.

My reaction was predictable.  These guys need to be accountable; there needs to be watch-dogs, and there needs to be consequences for bad results.  And my argument is that it works no differently for teachers.  We should be accountable for outcomes.  We claim we are teaching these students—and should hardly expect the public we claim to serve to be satisfied when we assure them: “Don’t worry.  We know what we are doing and we know your kids are learning lots and lots.”

That’s not good enough.  To take just one example: there is now tons and tons of research that shows that presenting information (in no matter what format: a book, a lecture, a power point presentation) has very little impact.  People do not learn things by being told them.  Active learning produces vastly better results for the retention of information and the fuller comprehension of that information (as demonstrated by the ability to put it to use in different contexts).  Yet many of my professorial colleagues resist that finding.  Lectures and reading books worked well for them—with no thought about the fact that they are outliers or for finding ways to promote learning for the majority of their students, not just a talented minority.

Even more basic.  We are now required to state the course’s objectives on our syllabi—and are encouraged to think about how our pedagogical strategies and our assignments (what students are asked to read, write, do projects or reports on etc.) might lend themselves to achieving those objectives.  Again, many of my colleagues think of this as philistinism, as creeping corporatization.  The nerve of asking that we define “outcomes.”  I have no patience for such responses.  We (the professors) are the anti-intellectuals we claim to abhor when we refuse to a) take seriously the research about what enhances learning and what does not, and b) refuse to self-consciously and critically think about our own goals and strategies in the courses we teach.

In short, the public has as much right to ask teachers to justify their practices and to reform them when results are not particularly good as they have the right to insist that bankers be regulated by external watch-dogs.

The measures are the hard part.  Numerically based assessments of learning outcomes are crude at best, and worthless at worst.  But stricter assessment of outcomes is coming—and it is in the interest of professors to be deeply involved in the establishment of the metrics.  I am reasonably confident that qualitative assessment will be our friend, not our enemy.  My bet is that such assessments will prove, rather conclusively, that education does not scale well.  There are not many efficiencies that will actually produce better results.  As teachers, we should stand staunchly and unequivocally for getting the best results for all of our students—and such results are not going to be achieved (in most cases) by on-line courses or 350 pupil lecture courses.  In some select instances, on-line instruction may prove effective—and we (the professors) should embrace such cases.  Any money saved can be used to promote more hands-on teaching in places where that is required.

In short, just as we would be appalled at doctors who did not make use of data about results to influence treatment of future patients, we as professional educators should be eager to discover what works well and what does not—and have it guide our future practice.  To run away from such self-study, screaming “corporatization,” is irresponsible and, in my view, indefensible.  It also suggests we are terrified by what we might discover—which belies our publicly displayed confidence that we know what we are doing.

We are rightfully resentful of—and resistant to—a knee-jerk hostility to universities as elitist and left-wing, and to the professors as under-worked and over-paid sycophants.  But that doesn’t entitle us to a free ride and a total refusal to change our ways.  I am going to allow myself a gross overgeneralization: I have seldom met any group more conservative (in the sense of clinging to the established ways of doing things) than a faculty that prides itself on being progressive, even revolutionary.

Free Speech and Civility

I have, over the past month, been a member of a University committee that has produced a “resolution” that will have the faculty at UNC endorsing the “Chicago principles” on free speech.

I went into our deliberations deeply suspicious of this whole furor about “free speech” on campus.  If the ability to speak one’s mind freely is in jeopardy in the United States, it is not on college campuses the main threat exists.  An excellent law review article we were given to read made it very clear that case law is unambiguous: employees have just about no right to free speech.  The courts have upheld corporation’s right to fire any employee for just about any reason, including expressing an opinion the employer finds objectionable.  Similarly, high school students have almost no right to free speech—and absolutely no right to a free press.  High school newspapers are routinely censored and, it turns out, so are college newspapers.

I remain convinced that the furor over free speech on campus is a red herring, a typical jujitsu move by an authoritarian right wing that loves to portray itself as the victim of an authoritarian left.

Furthermore, I think that no one has a “right” to speak on a college campus.  Universities are in the business of evaluating knowledge claims.  Your opinion that the Holocaust did not happen or that climate change is not real or caused by human actions does not meet the minimum standards by which academia determines the legitimacy of statements.  The university can—and should—extend invitations to speak judiciously—and is fully justified not to extend such invitations to those who reject canons of evidence and logic that govern the identification of knowledge in specific fields, nor to those who espouse views that certain people should not be on our campus as students or teachers.

And, finally, I came in very sympathetic to the idea that speakers who express disdain and outright hostility to members of the university community should not be given an opportunity to express their uncivil (to put it mildly) views on campus.

Our deliberations changed my mind.  The lawyers in the room convinced me that, simply as a matter of law, there was no way to limit what could be said on a campus that is, after all, public property.  If someone wants to walk across our campus carrying a Confederate flag and spouting racist bile, there is no legal recourse but to allow him to continue (unless direct threats or incitements to violence are uttered).  And, on the whole, that’s a good thing.

Why a good thing?  Because I do remain convinced that threats to free speech come more from the right than from the left.  So it would be a massive mistake, at this moment (or any moment) in time, to let the right wrap itself in the mantle of free speech, while the left tries on various forms of abridging that freedom. Not only are the optics bad, but it is also a substantive mistake.  Just because the devil can quote scripture, that doesn’t mean we should cede the field to the devil.  Democracy, human rights, and now free speech have been slogans used by the right in the past twenty years to justify hateful and disastrous policies.  But we need to accept as inevitable that such terms will be contested—and that all sides will try to wrap themselves in the mantle of these high ideals.  It is one of the jobs of the left to fight the corruption of these terms, to fight for what we deem their proper and salutary referents.

So: I would much prefer that no one in our community invite Richard Spencer or Ann Coulter to come on campus to speak.  We are not compelled to invite anyone—and we should not dignify their bile with such an invitation. But we are also not in a position to keep them from walking onto campus and speaking their piece.

Finally, I did come to believe that a strong statement on free speech might prove useful to our university’s employees, who do not feel free to speak their minds. Unprotected by either academic freedom or tenure, they feel all the precarity that afflicts employees in this day and age.  Perhaps, they might be able to leverage this enunciation of principle to afford themselves more freedom.

All that said, the Chicago principles seemed to me an aggressive, in your face, statement of the principle of free speech.  That is, those principles are couched in such a way to support the right wing narrative about the suppression of non-leftist ideas on campus.  So I rewrote the Chicago principles in a way that I thought a) softened their implied criticism of leftist censors and b) indicated that the law was not the only norm operative when considering the tenor of speech on campus.

My idea is that universities should be committed to productive speech, to dialogic exchanges that actually move the conversation forward, that build bridges across intellectual, political, disciplinary, and other divides.  We could, while acknowledging the stringencies of the First Amendment, also articulate a commitment to civility—and recognize that it was our collective responsibility as a community to realize those ideals of civility.  My thought was that universities could model the kinds of civil conversations that have become increasingly rare, even impossible, in our society.  I will even venture to say that I have been party to many such productive conversations over my years in academia.  The way that this committee’s meetings changed my mind offers only one example.

So here, in italics, is the way that I rewrote the Chicago principles, with the aim of outlining the legal norms while also adding to them an extra-legal statement of support for a norm of civility:

The University greatly values civility—and we remind all the members of our community that they share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect. The advancement of knowledge depends fundamentally on open-mindedness, which entails granting a hearing to even seemingly outrageous claims and views. Because all views share a right to free public expression, the University may restrict expression only if it violates the law, falsely defames a specific individual, constitutes a general threat or harassment, unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality issues, or is directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. These narrow exceptions afford the University the ability to constrain speech and actions that would unduly interfere with others’ freedom of expression and/or are not instances of protected speech under the First Amendment. The requirements for civility and open-mindedness extend beyond such legal protections—and a truly welcoming and productive intellectual community requires forms of mutual respect and civility that cannot be mandated by law.

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

This attempted revision proved a spectacular failure.  We have not yet had our faculty vote on whether to endorse the Chicago principles.  But we at UNC will vote on the unrevised principles (reprinted below), with their stringent statement of the legal requirements, including the Chicago principles’ explicit comment (in the unrevised principles) that “civility” cannot be used as a standard to censor someone’s speech.

What caused the failure?  Basically, the notion that appeals to “civility” would be used to silence unwelcome expressions of opinion.  The employees, especially, saw “civility” as a subtle—or not so subtle—form of censorship, of putting people in their place.  Politeness was a bar to candor as well as a way to shut people up.

I don’t fully know what to make of this argument.  On the one hand, it fills me with despair.  It suggests that people have no desire to be civil.  They just want to shout loudly and score points, tossing “red meat” to those on their side.  I guess we should never underestimate the pleasures of indignant self-righteousness.  It does seem emblematic of our times that civility is seen as a vice, not a virtue.

On the other hand, this seems a case where the current obsession with “privilege” is applicable.  Sitting where I do, as a tenured and respected member of the university’s faculty, my words in just about any setting are met with respect.  I seldom feel that I have not been heard, while no one dares to shut me up, and I have tenure to protect me even when I criticize the Chancellor in the press and at public meetings.  Civility, in other words, comes easy for me—and poses no threat.

I still want to make a plea for civility—one that returns to this notion of “productive” dialogue.  If we cannot foster respect for our interlocutors, we are not going to move forward.  Yes, it’s the old liberal dilemma—which keeps rearing its familiar ugly head precisely because it is a real dilemma.  How are we to respond to participants in the dialogue who are committed to shutting the dialogue down or to excluding some from participation in the dialogue?  I can’t believe that abandoning a norm of civility, based upon an attempt to establish mutual respect and an equal right to be fully heard, is a fruitful response to that dilemma.

Here are the unrevised Chicago principles:


[T]he ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.