This land is my land, 2

13 03 2016

If both order and freedom are necessary for politics, then how to reconcile them?

Hobbes said, in effect: you choose order, and whatever freedom may exist without disrupting order may, but not must, do so. Rousseau tried to bring the two together by denying that in a democratic society there is any conflict between them—one may speak unironically of being ‘forced to be free’. Locke sought a kind of middle way: you agree to the founding (representative) order which in turn allows for a wide, although not absolute, set of liberties.

These snippets do not, of course, do justice to these men’s thoughts, but do indicate the various ways early modern thinkers thought about how to build and maintain a truly civil society, that is, a society in which men may interact without violence.

Civility in politics, then, is less about manners than about the manner of our engagement with one another.

Now, that manner may also be a political matter: What kind of protest is acceptable? What are the appropriate venues of protest? How does one comport oneself while protesting? Are there forms of protest which are out of bounds? What if the protest overwhelms the phenomenon one is protesting? What if political speech intimidates protesters? What if protesters of political speech intimidate advocates?

Who is in the right and who is in the wrong?

And that question is where we go off the rails, thinking that the answer can be determined outside of politics itself. It can’t.

I tend to go far along with Arendt in positioning violence opposite of politics, but, Hobbesian that I am, I can’t completely deny its role in politics itself. If might makes right (and it does), then violence, as one form of might, can make right.

In the US political system there are supposed to be limits on violence in politics—that is a mythical part of our foundational order—but its use has often succeeded in containing insurgent (and non-violent) political acts. Almost every liberation movement in our country has been met with violence, both official and not, and has had to justify itself as worthy of its freedom to be political, that is, to be included in the political order itself.

That, by the way, is the radical promise of politics: that order can be challenged, upended, re-ordered, without bloodshed. That blood is so often shed demonstrates the practical limits of that promise.


This land is your land, 1

13 03 2016

Man, are we Americans bad at politics.

I don’t know if we’re uniquely bad, but we do seem to have some difficulty with the notion that disagreement (and expressions thereof) is normal.

I’m not just talking about the violence at Trump rallies, but also to violence at protests generally as well as meltdowns about campus politics. Disagreement over whether the best way to accomplish x is achieved by y or z is still acceptable, but disagreement over the fundamental means by which we prioritize x over p or decide that only y or z are worthy options is considered uncivil.

The very heart of politics—uncivil!

Granted, there are many plausible ways of understanding politics, and not everyone would go along with my Arendtian/Crickian view which places distinctiveness and pluralism at the center of political life. But if one accepts that a complex society will necessitate substantive differences amongst the members of that society, then the management of those differences will in turn be required to maintain both its complexity and functioning.

There are, as Crick notes, any number of ways for societies to deal with complexity, among them attempts to bring its various pieces into line and/or to suppress expressions of difference. It is only in politics, Crick argues, that the freedom which arises from and allows further complexity may be found and strengthened.

Or, as Madison somewhat more pessimistically put it,

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. …

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

So, what Madison is resigned to and what Arendt and Crick celebrate is the endurance of difference and disagreement—and of politics to allow and make use of its expression.

Some leftists have argued that an open politics (of the sort often found in democracies) is merely reformist or bourgeois (as did the Communists in the Weimar republic), and thus fail to take seriously the radical possibilities contained within politics. Madison may indeed have been a conservative of a sort in wanting to limit what politics could accomplish in the new American system, but it was precisely because he saw that politics could be transformative that he sought to limit it.

And there is something to his conservatism, as well. As Crick noted, the first requirement of any system, political or otherwise, is to maintain order and thus provide security to its citizens or subjects. This is Hobbes’s basic insight: absent a leviathan, life is but a ‘war of all against all’, ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fear matters, as does security.

But even as they matter, they are not all that matters, and the promise of politics is, pace Arendt, the promise of something more.