Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beyond alienation: in search of a theory

Have been giving some considerable thought to politics of late and wanted to post a few links to some recent discussion that, from various angles, have been informing my reflections. I have done this briefly before, but this is going to be a much longer post, with a good deal of quotation and comment.

To begin with a confession: The majority of my intellectual life was apolitical, a stance whose insufficiency I began to consciously register half a decade ago. Since then I have struggled to articulate a workable ground for engagement while still doing honor to the intuitions which occasioned my disaffection. This is not easy. This is in part because, in a sense which I shall attempt to indicate at the end of this post, apoliticism or political quietism is of a piece with philosophy in a perfectly legitimate sense. However, insofar as one is a citizen and not merely a philosopher, apoliticism is not apatheia but alienation. This is, following Marx, where I start.

This post from John Emerson on Trollblog does a good job of explaining my own cynicism on the bad days:
while the exotic conspiracy theories are usually crap, in a democratic society anyone who takes what their political leaders say at face value is a chump and a likely victim. Everyone in the biz knows this. Especially, above all, more than anyone else, the people who ridicule conspiracy theorists know this, because they’re almost always insiders and almost always have a stake in the insider game.
The anti-conspiracy theory message is “Sit down and shut up. You don’t understand, you’ll never understand, trust us!”
This sums up the paralyzing frustration one feels as an "outsider" to political process; but the hazard of conspiracy theory is that it seems to posit that there is no inside; that no matter how far in you've got, there's always another level, the above-33°-Freemasons, the Über-Bilderbergers, the fifth-dimensional fnords or lloigor-lizards on the throne of England, of whom one hears frightened whispers. Like Kafka's land-surveyor, we never get inside the Castle.

This is ultimately a self-defeating position, of course, and not because it leads to woo-woo spooky entities, but because it renders one completely disempowered and as such is not politics at all, but abdication. It is also, as I remark in my review of Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy, finally self-contradictory, in a way I'll come back to below. This does not address any particular conspiracy-claims, which I believe are often dismissed in just such a tone as Emerson imitates; but it points to something else, namely the widespread alienation of which conspiracy theory is an index, albeit not its only (or most important) manifestation.

This alienation leads some to throw their hands up and say, "what's the use?" This kind of apoliticism is easy to mock, but such mockery is more cruel than anything else: since when is mockery the right response to despair? However, what's-the-use abdication is only the most obvious form of this alienation, which has more subtle and self-deceiving forms. Others adopt a curious sort of split personality in which they think they are "doing their bit" when they vote, but nonetheless regard this vote as empowering professionals or technocrats to do the real work. Sometimes this takes the form of almost no further engagement with politics; sometimes it takes the form of consulting the "voters' guide" in their publication of choice. In either case it can still be an abdication which cloaks itself in the Citizen's New Clothes, usually a button or a sticker that reads "I voted!" with a smiley face. What this means is that you are now certified to be able to complain when things don't go your way.

The Poseidonian has a well-wrought post up promulgating a very different kind of engagement, a real engagement which I respect highly:
Kazantzakis...conveyed this notion to me: the noble man takes responsibility for everything, not just what he can actually control. Which led me to think that the outsider stance was somehow too easy, not strenuous enough. ...I must, as a part of my conception of my own character, regard myself as responsible for my government. ...I strive within the limits of my ability to pretend that what the nation will do is entirely up to me, and that I will have to take the blame if I make a bad decision. I try to figure out what the best decision from the perspective of governance would be. And then once I think I have that, I tell people what I think. Because this regulative fiction governs my sense of civic virtue, people often find me overly accommodating of the status quo. But I in turn view many people as not really serious. When someone says something over the top or utterly defeated or cynical, however appropriate that may really be to their actual conditions of powerlessness, I ask myself, what would I think if, say, the president thought and acted exactly that way while in office? I’d think they were a lousy president, worse than lousy. Hugely irresponsible.
This is accompanied by a realistic depiction of the motives of most politicians:
I see no reason to think that the people in the positions of greatest power aren’t basically the same as the [local politicians] I knew first hand. They were fundamentally decent people with a tinge of ambition, and while the narcissistic side came out the most during campaigns, the rest of the time was just problem solving in the context of an inherited situation. True horrific evil, I thus suspect, is more often than not Arendt-banal, not seeing the forest for the trees. (There are exceptions.)
This feels very realpolitik, if I may use the word in a non-pejorative sense: a refusal to set politics apart as a special realm of extraordinary vice; an recognition that we operate in concrete situations fraught with a complexity that rules out in advance any ideal solution; and an insistence that this does not absolve us of nevertheless having to act.

This strikes me as a very commonsense view, and I want to give some account of why I drifted rather far from it before (partially) returning to it by hard effort. To do this I need to sketch the origins of my own disaffection insofar as I can reconstruct them.

My earliest political memory is sitting in the back seat of the car while the Watergate hearings were reported on the radio, and registering how shocked my parents were. I had no idea at the time what a Republican or a Democrat was, but I knew my parents were appalled at some great misdeed. later, as I came to poitical consciousness (under Iran-Contra), I was retroactively shocked, in turn, that my parents never seemed to connect the obvious corruption they were commenting upon every night around the dinner table with their own political commitments.

Thus my first independent political positions were, alas, predictably characterized by the generation gap. Certainly I felt my convictions keenly, but in my heart I knew that I was also reacting to the kneejerk republicanism of my family. This was not what eventually soured me on it, though. Committed and eloquent as many of my co-activists were (this was in the anti-apartheid divestment movement on US university campuses and, closer to my heart, the anti-nuclear arms movement), the indignation that seemed to fuel them always seemed (to me) tinged with a kind of surprise--as if they just could not believe that apartheid, or nuclear weapons testing, or etc, continued unabated despite the (to them) obvious moral case. The more I tried to engage with this, the more silly I felt. Yes, of course there was a moral case to be made, but if the disconnect was so entrenched, then outrageous it might be, but it was, alas, too common to be scandalizing.

My disillusionment was not primarily about the ineffectuality of activism, but about the unrealistic premises upon which it was based. However, as soon as I turned to available discussions seeking (apparently) to formulate more reliable or coherent accounts, I noticed something that almost always strikes observers of political discussion on the left: how entrenched it was in theoretical disputes. At the time, this was almost impossible to view as anything but an un-ironic version of what Monty Python spoofed so effectively in The Life of Brian. Endless arguments about fine points of exegesis of Marx (how Hegelian was he, really? Were you, perhaps, relying too much upon his early work?); on contrasts between versions of socialism, communism, and anarchism, when none of these was within light-years of being practically implemented; on whether race, or sex, or class, constituted the basic faultline (on this question, I did reach a conclusion--it's about class, stupid--on which I have never seen a reason to change my mind); on whether to take positions about various issues of the day or remain single-focus; all this tugged the left in a hundred directions and seemed to completely drain its energy.

So there was a dilemma: on the one hand, inadequate and almost anti-intellectual rage without articulation; on the other, infighting and distinctions that were, if not quite pointless, endlessly distracting.

Meanwhile, the best the Democratic party could offer was Clinton, a man whose much-despised "slickness" was merely the replay of Reagan's "Teflon-coating." Unable to stomach the right, unable to respect the left, unable to synthesize theory and praxis, I slipped into what Adorno predicted: the privilege of praxis (I had also been reading Wittgenstein, and there is a quietist streak in Wittgenstein which had its effect here too.) I served meals with Food Not Bombs, and stopped voting for major parties.

Pete Wolfendale's extremely articulate and rich reflections on Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism begin with an account of disillusionment or frustration similar to my own anecdote of failed activism; but honesty compels me to add that Wolfendale seems to have got reflective about it a lot quicker than I did:
I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something.
Whereas, however, Wolfendale asked this second question, I myself retreated into a kind of disaffectedness. In retrospect I suspect it was a defensive position to shield myself from feeling foolish; a kind of psychic distancing that served to let me feel smarter than the dupes. I'm not proud of this, but it took me a long while to see that my jaded cynicism was a cover for (and a way of not acknowledging) my utter alienation and helplessness. This brings me back to my response to (which is not really a rejoinder, but a riff on) Emerson's post, for despite his legitimate point about the grain-of-truth in conspiracy theory, such theory itself is self-defeating. Pushed to its conclusion, such theorizing either dictates that there is no way to trust the evidence at all, including the evidence that leads to positing the conspiracy; or else it backs you into a corner where you can only cower. Both of these conclusions are unacceptable, the former theoretically and the latter practically. Fortunately, neither of them really bears scrutiny (a point which is independent of the plausibility of any given conspiracy theory, note); what it ultimately means is, as I wrote in the aforementioned review of Shea and Wilson, that "that fear can contain the seeds of its own dissolution." This review is from 2006, the same year I saw Who Killed the Electric Car?, a film that I had thought would provide some cynical laughs and instead left me dumbfounded at my own impotent rage. I finally faced my alienation and steeled myself to transmute merely being Mad as Hell into being Not Going to Take It Anymore. But this is easier said than done, for just acknowledging disaffection does not by itself alter the fact of disaffection, and it is not obvious what to do next in an effort to live responsibly.

What recourse? To just admit that my abstaining from voting was a symptom of alienation does nothing to address the alienation itself, which is grounded in very real causes. One wants to take responsibility, not lie to oneself in a whole different way. Pretending we are not facing some version of Long Emergency is not an option. The old roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something approach seems pitiable in the face of the cliff we are careening towards; it invites the response, "and what army?". Moreover, as Ross Wolfe points out with a little help from Adorno,
Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.
The question then is how to realistically apply myself without merely denying how disempowered I feel. I have no appetite for pretending I am doing something important or worthwhile when it is just whistling past the graveyard.

My first step was to divest myself of the stupid caricature I had wrought of politicians. This effort bears resemblance to the thought-experiment I quoted above from the Poseidonian's post. I had to ask myself-- look, suppose I was possessed by some strong vision of how I believed things ought to be, and by a vision of a possible way to get there, and by enough charisma to give me a chance. Yes, I would try to get ahead, and yes I would likely face inevitable compromises along the way, but I would not have started out just fueled by power-lust. Perhaps, in the end, I would succumb to Arendtian banality, but--must I? The question is, is the current system such that this always happens, so that the closer you get to the top, there is no one who has not had to step over so many bodies that they are effectively ruined?

Some days my cynicism still wins and I sigh, "Stupid question." More often nowadays I can believe there are still good guys left--a development which I freely confess was catalyzed by watching The West Wing, and flowered in conjunction with reading the Jefferson-Adams correspondence.

This also rekindled my faith in constitutional process; I think there is a genius in the idea of harnessing disagreement to propel things forward rather than stall them. Moreover, because I grew up among conservatives, I also retained an awareness of their basic good instincts, and I remain myself a small-c conservative if by this we mean that I always ask what the cost of something is, in terms of giving up some good-- usually a cultural good. Most of my political economic instincts are localist (though I am not convinced that this is a workable model for global development); this stems from my reading of a great deal of Wendell Berry, as well as the transformative experience my encounter with Buber's I and Thou, which has made forever unignorable the significance of the irreducibly particular. Buber may also have contributed to my now-instinctive faith in the ability of people to work things out if they can stay honest and in-the-moment. This leads to some touchy-feely sounding methods but in practice it is capable of getting work done, albeit slowly. In my heart of hearts I am an anarchist, watching alertly for the American Spring; but practically speaking I am a classical liberal.

All of this may, however, sound more hopeful than it really is. While I can (sometimes) believe that there are human beings in high places who have not surrendered their moral compass as the price of admission, and while I can stipulate that a decision-maker must after all decide and not give in to mere cynicism, I am not at all persuaded that the class war in which such decision-makers are (wittingly or not) enrolled gives them the leeway they need to gain anything but Pyrrhic victories; and I do not see that the official lines of this struggle have much to do with its substantive issues (what Mao called its primary contradictions).

As if in response, a post by Stan Goff of Feral Scholar argues for abstaining from the vote in the coming US presidential election. What I appreciate about this post is the way it manages to articulate a case for a kind of politically activist disaffection. The stance urged by Goff seems to be (if I paraphrase him aright) that disaffection can find its voice by refusing to participate in a bankrupt system-- that one can be actively, not merely passively, nonparticipatory. There's something paradoxical about this suggestion but I like the spirit of it. One thing I like is that Goff does not pretend there are no differences between the two ruling parties:
Given the powerful fears generated around these issues [Goff's examples are abortion, race questions, and social security], it is more difficult to make the case for simply not voting, when there are clear differences between the parties at least on some issues. It is dishonest to make the claim that there are no differences between the parties; and if this is the sole reason for discouraging voting, it can easily be invalidated.
That is not my argument for not voting. I don’t believe, however, that fear ought to be a reason for voting either.
One of my arguments for not voting is that participation itself in the process legitimates something that is not legitimate.
There is also an argument against the legitimacy argument that goes like this:
If voting makes any difference at all, then voting the lesser of two evils – while not a solution – does at least apply the brakes when the polity is headed in the wrong direction. Refusing to vote simply because it might legitimate the process is refusing to get one’s hands dirty and allowing the greater evil just so you can claim some moral high ground, while real people will be affected if the greater evil prevails in the election.
Again, this strikes me as a powerful argument, assuming one accepts a utilitarian moral standpoint – that is, that the ends justify the means.
This is refreshing, because the standard Naderite argument has lost a good deal of credibility after eight years of the junior Bush administration. Anyone who now insists that the Democratic and Republican party are indistinguishable on certain essentials must also be ready to countenance the response that if one is indifferent to the outcome of a contest between them on these grounds, one may have to put up with many, many real differences. Goff sees the logic at play, and bites the bullet:
The problem with the argument is that appeals to specific, short-term interests to continue to legitimize the process with our participation is never a one-time tactic. It is renewed indefinitely, as long as there is something that needs protection through rearguard voting. There will always be something that qualifies as an end that will continue to demand the same means. Meanwhile, many of those practices and policies that both parties agree on (Wall Street hegemony, foreign wars, subsidies for the rich, etc.) are perpetuated and legitimized along with those more narrow interests. ....There is simply no end to defensive voting; and what it has resulted in over time is a steady increase in power for the most powerful who control both parties. ...There is little doubt what Republicans will do in office when they control the executive and legislative branches. We have seen them in action. But what never gets mentioned in this equation is that we have seen exactly the same things happen, on exactly the same trajectories, when Democrats were in control, giving the lie to the idea that Democrats will defend anyone except Wall Street and the military-industrial complex....The only efficacious political group is the ruling class, no matter which party is in power. To believe otherwise is to ignore the empirical evidence of history. And voting for third-party candidates that don’t have a chance in hell of getting elected is just as silly an exercise of faith in the same system.
The problem is not electoral outcomes; it is elections. The things we call elections in the United States are not in the least democratic. They are a consumer choice between Coke or Pepsi. Why do we try to convince ourselves otherwise? Choose neither.
One difficulty is of course that not-voting is still (in a way) a vote, by which I don't mean the facile objection that "not to choose is to choose not to," as some would-be wit put it, but rather that for not-voting to have a strong effect, it must be many, many citizens not voting; generating this result effectively means a campaign, and this means (though I am now extrapolating from Goff's argument) money. A question that arises then is, if you're going to generate enough money to stage a campaign, why not have it be a campaign for someone? Well, perhaps because the amount of money (and red tape) is couple of orders of magnitude less for a don't-get-out-the-vote campaign than for a candidate who will after all wind up being slotted into a pre-assigned role in a rotten system. Or perhaps because of a suspicion that the amount of money in question cannot but ruin a human soul under capitalism. I'm not sure. But when I read Goff's proposal as of a piece with the obvious fictional parallel, Saramago's Seeing, I almost don't care. I am heartened just by the realization that one can perform active non-engagement (in the electoral system--at least on the national level (there are differences on the local level)) as a mode of political intervention. For too long my own disinclination to participate has only reinforced my self-perception as alienated and powerless. It is different to see abstaining as a political action.

The problem with being disaffected, aside from how it hurts the soul (and the mind too, as it provides an excuse for not educating oneself), is that it also winds up looking like support for the status quo. This is also the case for me even in my renewed efforts to divest myself of cynicism, for I don't fit very well on the political map. (Even as "disaffected"--the actual category in which I fall according to this poll by Pew research--I do not quite correspond to the stats outline that Pew provides, aside from not following NASCAR racing, which apparently 77% of these "official" dissaffecteds, like me, wisely don't.) In fact I don't see myself as a centrist, but as an a radical who's getting back into shape. My radicalism, however, is localist and particularist. I maintain (1) that currently existing goods should not always be sacrificed for envisioned goods, (2) that there are always practical considerations that force us to choose between priorities, and (3) that these practical considerations are not always what they seem, because they frequently serve entrenched interests and ought to be questioned. This does not make them unreal however, or mean we can have everything we want for free.

In this connection I find a lot to admire and agree with in a paper of G.A. Cohen's (pdf here) on "small-c" conservativism. Cohen argues that (and exemplifies how) it is perfectly possible to be conservative with regards to all sorts of concrete instantiations of value, and to harbor grave reservations concerning any number of proposed changes, while remaining a committed egalitarian and a radical as regards justice:
I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice.... (I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue)....I join the ranks of the complainers down the ages who say: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”
Do not suppose that, because that lamentation is perennial, it’s misplaced. Anti-conservatives say, “Oh, well, people have always said that things are getting worse”, and anti-conservatives mean thereby to convey that the conservative lamentation expresses an illusion. But it is entirely possible that at any rate certain kinds of things have always been worse than they were before.
The conservative impulse is to conserve what is valuable, that is, the particular things that are valuable. A salient, though not the only, alternative to conserving what is valuable is to maximize value, but clear-thinking conservatives are resolved to conserve the valuable at the expense of maximizing value: what we distinctively value are the particular bearers of value. A commitment to the conservation of what has value is at the centre of the specific conservative attitude that I am seeking to describe....
“Conservation of what has value” is the canonical phrase here, not “conservation of
Cohen's paper shares a certain esprit with a pair of posts by Amod Lele:
I’ve sometimes found it perplexing that in the contemporary right wing, social and cultural conservatism is often joined with economic libertarianism, extreme liberalism in the classical sense (and the inverse is true on the left). The justification for this connection is...[that] government social intervention on behalf of the disadvantaged, the centrepiece of a left-wing political problem, makes people worse. It discourages people from working hard and being thrifty, makes them lazy, less virtuous. Under a left-wing social-democratic government, the good people who work hard and save to get rich are punished, while the lazy are rewarded. And where I depart most from such a viewpoint is not in the idea that the government should avoid the promotion of virtue, nor in the belief that social programs may discourage work or thrift. Rather, it is in the idea that hard work and thrift are themselves virtues.
...Hard work and thrift are often associated with real virtues, such as temperance and patient endurance. To put in long hours earning money, one must have the ability to put aside the desires of the moment and endure present hardship for future benefit; this ability is an excellent character trait. But it is not a virtue in itself; indeed, especially in the US, it often becomes a characteristic vice.
The literal meaning of the word “conservative” should be fairly obvious: it is about conserving, preserving, existing states of affairs. That’s what it would have meant in the time of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism. The problem with the word is that in the ensuing two centuries, the world has changed drastically in ways that Burke would have wished it hadn’t. And that means that if one wants the kind of society that Burke tended to advocate – especially if one wishes “small government” – one will need to change society in quite drastic ways from what it has become. Which, in turn, means not being conservative – not in the literal sense of the world.
....So to be literally conservative today means something very different from what it meant in Burke’s time; it may well mean supporting the things that Burke opposed, because they are now part of our social fabric. But...what are the reasons behind a literal conservatism?
To my mind, the biggest and most important reason is a pragmatism based on historical experience: revolutions screw things up. ... Drastic attempts at social change cause great misery in the short term, and don’t necessarily make things much better in the long term.
...This isn’t to say literal conservatism is the answer to all our political problems. There are cases where it seems to work poorly indeed. Perhaps the strongest case against literal conservatism was made by Martin Luther King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.”...when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Sometimes, it would seem, radical change does need to come quickly. But it seems to me that the situtations calling for such changes are relatively rare – and a conservative worthy of the name will not engage in them over a matter as relatively trifling as lower taxes.
The overlap between Cohen and Lele is certainly not complete. This last citation may suggest that there is a difference between them on what counts as a matter of concern for a conservative. What I relate to in both of them, though, is the rejection of pre-determined loyalties. I was pointed to Cohen by Simon Hewitt of Latte Labour, whose Christian Marxism sometimes reminds me (e.g. here) of the fundamental contention of Andrew Schmookler at None So Blind, that no account of politics can be adequate that does not honor certain intuitions of both the right--that the distinction between good and evil is as pertinent as ever--and the left--that this distinction means defending the powerless against the powerful. That is, that politics cannot do without normative (i.e., moral) categories.

This is one place where Wolfendale is pertinent. Despite the length of my post, I want to stay with Wolfendale's essay for just a bit, though I cannot do it justice, because (as is typical of Pete), he has spelled out in detail a huge array of premises and applications that, while I don't share all of them, do help me to situate some of my own convictions and aspirations. What Pete does is offer one way of theorizing how normative thought can inform political theory, in a way which I must say is refreshingly unlike the various marking-off of theoretical positions that so turned me off before. This is the sort of theorizing that I believe needs to happen, precisely in order to provide a workable platform that avoids the relativism towards which the left so often slips. Of the very many rich threads in Pete's post I am going to highlight just one, his insistent and surprising rehabilitation of Foucault, whose ethics he describes as "the most advanced form of virtue ethics yet developed." This is a counter-reading of Foucault against the many claims that he allows no room for freedom, a view which Wolfendale thinks misreads Foucault egregiously; it is a stark challenge to those condescending dismissals of him from, e.g., Camille Paglia (whose multi-fisted barrage cast aspersions on Foucault's scholarship) or Stanley Rosen (who reads Foucault, in the last chapter of Hermeneutics as Politics, as one more postmodern relativist against the sober wisdom of the Foucault's [and Rosen'] teacher Kojève). Both Paglia and Rosen think to contrast the decadent Foucault against the noble ancients, and Wolfendale's characterization of Foucault as presenting a formulation of virtue ethics--albeit one which is routed through an idiosyncratic Kantianism--is a gauntlet thrown down, not primarily of course for the sake of Foucauldian exegesis but for the sake of the project of self-construction in a context in which social and political power and the technologies of control are constantly at work. This is a project to which Foucault devoted much energy. But to read this project as a kind of virtue ethics--as a legitimate descendant of Aristotelian moral thinking--puts it in a context which goes counter both to those who want to celebrate Foucault as preaching a kind of emancipatory counter-gospel to the repressive discourse of Christianity, and to those like Rosen or Paglia who regard Foucault as starkly on the side of the (post)moderns. It re-casts Foucault's thinking of self-invention (not his term) in a context that goes back to ancient preoccupations with, as he would have put it, "the care of the self," a concern that is certainly authentically philosophical, not to say Platonist. I am halfway persuaded that Wolfendale is right about Foucault, and certainly that Foucault can be profitably read this way; but I am less sure that Foucault gives us a helpful way of thinking of constructive political deliberation--a deliberation necessarily dialogic--as opposed to resistive political discourse which is (in what he may have considered an outmoded term) individualist; a discourse not necessarily abdicatory, but at least abstentious.

In this post I have, in my disjointed way, tried to indicate my sympathies with positions left and right. I haven't detailed these here, but some examples are: I am a Greenpeace- and Sierra Club-supporting environmentalist. I a support gay civil marriage; but I think churches should decide the question on theological grounds and in any case ought not take their cue from the state. I recommend the decriminalization of most drugs; I am not sure about prostitution. I lean towards opposing hate crimes legislation. I am pro-life, and pro-family planning. I oppose the death penalty and am a member of Amnesty International. I support third world debt cancellation; I am strongly inclined to oppose Wall Street bailouts (and wish, but don't expect, to see vigorous prosecution of every last dishonest CEO, corporate board member, banker, and broker). I have mentioned my occasional work with Food Not Bombs (though I admit, it's been a while). I support nuclear disarmament. As a Christian I oppose the war in Afghanistan and--with qualifications--in Libya (and you bet it's a war); as an Westerner I admit that I am frightened --disproportionately, the way I'm frightened of shark attacks-- by militant Islamism. I am on record as having no objections to building the Cordoba House and finding scurrilous all such objections. And (though this is not a "political position"), I am confessedly agnostic about 9/11 "truth". Above all, I am dubious of anyone's claim to predict my views on anything else based upon any of these positions--or indeed even my rationale for these positions here listed. My counter-prediction is that you are likely to be surprised. Me too, for that matter.

At the same time I've indicated that (and, to a lesser extent, why) I find both right and left (as represented by Republican and Democratic parties in the US) to be utterly inadequate and unacceptable, and as time goes on more and more alarmingly alike economically and politically, despite different social constituencies and the provisional (albeit sometimes genuine) commitments they make to them. Both embrace economic neoliberalism; both are interventionist at their convenience (or that of the ruling class); both welcome the expanse of Federal power despite rhetoric; and, ditto the rhetoric, both defer to corporate interests and selectively to larger unions which more and more resemble large businesses. Both, make no mistake, are perfectly ready to play fast and loose with civil liberties and, when it comes right down to it, human rights (at least if they can outsource the abuses) -- not that I believe there is "such a thing" as human rights (that's a whole 'nother philosophical discussion). Above all, both major parties are willing to tell you whatever it takes, and to spend whatever (and whoever's) money it takes, to get elected; and are utterly unwilling to face the reality of impossible debt, vanishing resources, and the indifference of nature to industry lobbying or government decree. (Publicly unwilling, that is; I shudder to think what private contingency plans they have made around the bonfires of Bohemian Grove.) These similarities are doubtless in part functions of what I was calling realpolitik above; but there comes a time (and economic and environmental realities may fast be visiting it upon us) when practicing business-as-usual is no longer commitment, but cowardice.

My sympathies lands me in a kind of apparent centrism that is really anything but. My dissatisfaction (not to say disgust), on the other hand, pan out in a kind of alienation that has in the past led me to a nigh-absolute apolitical stance; but this apoliticalness is no cure for the alienation. The different positions I have drawn on here do not all add up to a single compatible stance, but they are all informing an effort at a discourse that can be theoretically rich enough to do justice to the intuitions that ground both my commitments right & left, and my sense of alienation--without just leaving me with it.

That said, I want to add one final sense in which the apolitical stance is philosophically justified, because I maintain that one cannot coherently defend any political position philosophically without acknowledging this. This sense has to do with the Foucauldian project of self-construction, whether or not we agree that Foucault's vocabulary will finally be sufficient to describe it. It is clear to me that the appetite for power over people is incompatible with the love of wisdom. (In this regard as in many, Christian theology --ecclesiology in particular is relevant here-- must regard philosophy as praeparatio evangelica, for the church-as-community is in one sense a community that is a crucible for just such asceticism as the philosopher undertakes alone.) This is not to say that actual power is incompatible in this way; Socrates clearly had power, as Alcibiades testifies, but he had no interest in using it or increasing it. This does not contradict the analysis I offered above--that a person possessed of what they believe is a workable vision for political society can in authenticity and good faith pursue it without being a slave to ambition--but it means that, insofar as they are also a philosopher, such a politician would engage in politics in a sense without caring.

J.D. Salinger, in "Seymour: an introduction," gives the eponymous character a reflection upon the inter-relations of poetry and apatheia:
indiscrimination...leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable happiness. Followed purely, it's the way of the Tao, and undoubtedly the highest way. But for a discriminating man to achieve this, it would mean that he would have to dispossess himself of poetry, go beyond poetry. That is, he couldn't possibly learn or drive himself to like bad poetry in the abstract, let alone equate it with good poetry. He would have to drop poetry altogether. ...no easy thing to do.
Something like this is true of politics as well (and indeed of science and even love, to throw in the rest of Badiou's occasions). Insofar as one is a philosopher one must in politics cultivate a letting-go of what some strains of Buddhism like to call "attachment to results."

One might debate this; the discussion would turn upon how one interprets Socrates' death: was it an act of political submission, or of a kind of amor fati, or simply a case of Socrates' final becoming-Socrates? I believe all these interpretations are possible. On the first, Socrates is a kind of Creon passing judgment on himself; on the second, he is Antigone. Only on the third reading is he Socrates. But in this instance, he is neither an apologist for the state (neither the "ideal state" nor the "second best" which are the object, respectively, of the Republic and the Laws), nor an activist who opposes the state, even for the sake of the most worthy of causes. He is the philosopher, whose disaffection has attained a kind of silent articulation which marks it as precisely not alienated.


  1. A very nice post. I can only really add two things:-

    1. I certainly don't think Foucault's ethics is sufficient to underwrite political action. This was the point of the end of my post, to suggest that there needs to be a politics of collective autonomy (Justice) commensurate to Foucault's ethics of individual autonomy (Freedom). Of course, I still have to write about what this positive politics would look like, and I'll let you know when I do.

    2. I find your version of small c conservatism more amenable than the usual kind, but I still can't quite get behind it. Of course it is important not to abandon the goods we have, at least without good reason, but I think this can only be a cautionary note within the process of political change. The tricky issue is to understand how this process should work, and what ideals we are aiming for within it, because it is only this that will give any good sense to the cautionary principle. Waving the banner of conservatism strikes me as advocating caution without understanding the difference between caution-in-acting and caution-through-inaction. I prefer the language of progressivism, because implicit within it is the idea that there are things that we make progress on, and thus that this progress should be retained, albeit within the context of striving for further improvement.

  2. Man, I had to take break reading this but it is exceptional so far. A rather thorough exploration of what I'm going through. When you think about Politics, and how to make changes, one can be crushed by the seeming impossibility to change anything. In each area, you're facing structures upon structures that are entrenched and nothing short of a massive revolution seems possible to change it. But then you feel that this is abdicating responsibility - does it all have to come crashing down for you to make a difference? Sadly ( or rightly?), I have yet to get beyond this stage and this the feeling of perpetual powerlessness. I figure I'll just play my role in the machine and just keep churning, leaving the work to other folks. Cowardly, but pretty much how I feel at the moment.

    Another thing that has made me very cynical is the simple brilliance of Capitalism which can turn any dissent, any counter ideology into it's own feature - everything becomes a commodity such that the "system" can co-opt everything that attempts to assail it. Not Voting becomes a spectacle or campaign as you say ( because of money) and very soon loses it's power. If we attempt a quietest rebellion it only functions to entrench the heads so one must actually play the game only for the game to flatten all. It's this sort of powerlessness you talk about - where thinking about the future, you think about the effects of what you're doing, and it seems like all of it will simply be co-opted into a grand narrative, losing any force while the world goes on...to where though? And this is what always gives me pause. For if much of what people are disaffected about is "real" then something must give...at some point. The center cannot hold indefinitely but alas it feels like it will and can which is why I have not advanced to the stage you're currently at.

  3. Pete,

    As you noticed, the post was getting long (though maybe not by your standards!), so I have to acknowledge that I could have spelled out your point about Foucault (and that it was your point) more fully. What I am unsure of is whether F can provide these resources, or whether he is (as per Rosen) actually hobbled by his construal of ethics as aesthetics. I'll look forward to your post-- if anyone can pull it off, you can.

    I like and could probably adapt for my purposes your distinction between caution-in-acting and caution-through-inaction, though of course either sort of caution might be dictated. I am not sure whether conservativism, as I want to sketch it, can really be an intellectual position or remains inevitably more of a pre-intellectual disposition. There may really be "two kinds of people" on this score, but naturally the philosopher in me does not want to leave it there. Cohen certainly makes a convincing start of spelling it all out rationally, but even he acknowledges that it is only a start.

  4. chenroy,

    yes the "commodification of dissent" under capitalism is the sort of thing that makes one just despair sometimes. My tentative approach to this makes its way via Kierkegaard's read of the difference between aesthetic, ethical and religious; Rene Girard's work on Clauswitz; and Chretos Yannaras, an Orthodox theologian. These religious thinkers have a different way from Foucault's, a way that does not leave things at the aesthetic-- but even here, I don't see that they can make a knock-down case arguing for the bankruptcy of capitalism and thus enabling political action-- they are more pointers to a way of talking about what religion can do for thinking community after philosophy has helped one to apatheia. The critique of late-capitalism (I am not speaking of small-scale local economies, on which level I am happy for the market to have a go, because it is held in place by community norms) is something that in some ways I think can only be done a la Wittgenstein: don't think, look! And if you don't get it, look again. This is obviously not the whole story, or I would not be "in search of a theory," but I do believe it takes a kind of gestalt-shift to snap out of the commodification of dissent trap. As for action against late-capitalism itself -- I don't know what it will take, but it won't be argument. I suspect it will be a provisional alliance between the natural world and desperate social unrest. That's not yet on the horizon, but the thing about horizons is, you can't see what's just below them.

  5. Skholiast:
    Silly question this, but have you ever considered that the American electoral system, majoritarian/fptp, might be what is producing the perennial two-party state that you have. Much the same happens in Britain and France which are coincidentally also first-growth democracies. Now they were set up when there wasn't universal franchise and the power elites shared the same culture and general attitudes. Such an electoral system cannot reflect the complexity of a modern state etc, etc. America is of course hampered because God delivered the constitution to an exceptional people via the Founders, the Septa Rishi.

    It's odd that there isn't even much talk about this. Too fantastical maybe.

  6. Om.,

    Not sure. The history of the two-party system, insofar as I understand it, is certainly not one of two clearly-defined always-opposing sets of positions. Or rather, these positions have not remained stable over time. Since the origins of the two current parties, as is well known, their positions re., say, labor, or race, have played do-si-do. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these stances are adopted opportunistically, with the logic of competing predators in an ecosystem. Change the environmental pressures, and the actors have to adapt or get eaten. Truth is, sooner or later a third party will succeed-- by displacing one of the other two. I think (this is of course the conservative in me) that the two-party system thrives because human beings are simplistic.

    Of course there are thrivingly active multi-party democracies, but these cannot but impress us with their limited size. People like me are bound to be localists because they know damn well that their imagined solutions do not work on the largest scales. The larger the system, the more simplistic the national party apparatus. (Look at China). If parties are able to successfully stand on their differences, their efforts to "pull together" are short-lived. Compare the history of ecumenical efforts in post-reformation protestantism. (One could probably do an interesting two-track study comparing the histories of political and ecclesial pluralism.) I have the impression that the beginnings of the decline of colonial empires roughly coincides with the curtailing of centralized power of the monarch, though I'd want to do a lot of homework before I dared state this as more than a guess.

    "Globalism" seems to me the first "empire" in which the figure of the Emperor is missing. It is a parody of the Heavenly Jerusalem ("...and I saw no Temple in the city..."). Supposedly it is all run just by the invisible hand, albeit administered by the technocratic class. But in practice this class has its outer circle (public relations) and its inner. This is more or less the apotheosis of the two-party system.

    (How's that for fantasical?)

  7. Skholiast,

    I deeply appreciated your reflections in this post, particularly on Pete's work regarding Foucault. I am also pleased to see that you agree with my diagnosis of the regressive activism that is rife in recent protest culture. I will be adding your blog to my blogroll.


  8. Ross, welcome and thanks. Pete's thinking on this (as pretty much in everything) is bracing and inspiring, and I got a lot of your dialogue over there. Your pointer to Adorno's reflections in his encounters w/ the 60's-generation students sent me back to his biography.