Robert Talisse On ‘Too Much Democracy’ And The Public-Private Distinction

Over at Aeon Magazine Robert Talisse worries that “our social lives” are being “tyrannised by democracy” because “choices about mundane matters…are all deeply tied to [our] political profile…social worlds are shaped by the travails of contemporary politics” and builds to the conclusion that “there is such a thing as too much democracy,” that “we must reserve space in our shared social lives for that which is not political.” Because the “saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for community and social cooperation….we must cultivate a…civic friendship,” by engaging “with each other on matters that are not political,” by talking with each other “about matters of substance that are not at all political.”

Roughly, let us not structure our personal lives and spheres by the political, by democratic politics, revolving around the expression and instantiation of political preferences; rather, let us let the political emerge from a set of personal micro-interactions, cultivating along the way, the ‘civic friendship’ that should underwrite a viable democracy. Talisse thus insists on reserving an exclusively personal space, free of politics, one from which the political—‘democracy’—would emerge; at least in this way, Talisse’s analysis reinforces an older public and private distinction. Here is the personal, and here is the political; the twain shall meet but on the terms dictated by the former; the latter is not permitted to ‘tyrannize’ the personal. (Incidentally, we might ask whether the problem that Talisse points to is specifically a problem of democracy or of any political system in which the personal is infected by the political?)

I agree with Talisse that the social world–as it is visible in his formulation–is structured by politics but I think we get a narrowly framed picture of what this structuring is like if we think of this only in terms of political preferences i.e., I’m picking and choosing my friends and family and acquaintances based on their and mine political preferences and tastes. For instance, my socially constructed race and gender, and my materially constructed class has a great deal to say about what my social spaces and thus, what my social interactions, are like. This is not a matter of my political preference; I am placed into certain social spaces by these attributes of mine, and those are determined by larger social materialities. Furthermore, I am susceptible and vulnerable to legal control in differential ways, depending on my race, class, and gender, resultant in a vector of social placement and comfort; this susceptibility is only partially determined by political preferences.

As these examples show, we certainly exercise many choices in structuring our social spaces but many of our spaces are structured for us; for instance, many school children in the US today grow up in a society that is far more sharply segregated than it was in the past. They have not chosen their schoolmates based on their preferences; their mates have been chosen for them. How free then is their educational attainment and their subsequent economic and physical placement in a particular city neighborhood?

So, I would suggest that while Talisse is right in pointing to the importance of the micro-personal interaction as a basis for larger politics and political formations, it is not clear to me that this suggestion will result in the kind of democracy-or-politics-free space desired. Those spaces of micro-personal interactions will be structured by class, by race, by gender: working class black folks are going to spend, in the US, most of their personal time with other working-class black folks; and middle-class white women are going to spend their personal time with folks very much like them. Now, it is a consequence of materialist (or feminist or critical race) analysis that these kinds of class (or gender or race) placements do determine political preferences in interesting and significant ways, so in fact, it turns that even these personal spaces are politically structured. Indeed, it is not quite clear whether even in the domains of the romantic or sexual such structuring can be avoided. The activities that Talisse suggests could be made the basis of a civic friendship–mundane social activities all of them–are quite plausibly viewed as being infected thus. That is as it should be if we understand politics as a community wide movement towards a common goal, a project of inherent plurality that implicates even the minor personal interactions.  The personal is indeed political.

Karl Jaspers On The ‘Phantom’ Public

In Man In The Modern Age (Routledge, New York, 1959), Karl Jaspers writes:

The term ‘masses’ is ambiguous….If we use the word ‘masses’ as a synonym for the ‘public,’ this denotes a group of persons mentally interlinked by their common reception of certain opinions, but a group vague in its limits and its stratification, though at times a typical historical product….The ‘public’ is a phantom, the phantom of an opinion supposed to exist in a vast number of persons who have no effective interrelation and though the opinion is not effectively present in the units. Such an opinion is spoken of as ‘public opinion,’ a fiction which is appealed to by individuals and by groups as supporting their special views. It is impalpable, illusory, transient: ”tis here, ’tis there, ’tis gone; a nullity which can nevertheless for a moment endow the multitude with power to uplift and enjoy.

These are useful–and wise–words to remember during an election season in which voters will constantly be bombarded with invocations of ‘the American people’ and ‘some say.’ The former apparently have a clearly articulated consistent opinion on every single subject under the sun whereas the latter can be reliably expected to express some intuition useful for making a rhetorical point. Candidates will employ these terms to establish their case, while forgetting that it is the results of the election that will establish–with some measure of uncertainty–of what ‘the American people’ want and what ‘some’ will ‘say’ about its predilections. There are many American peoples; they have many opinions; composites of these views are hard to determine and articulate. Even the supposedly clearly articulated group this election season–‘Trump supporters,’ ‘Clintonistas,’ ‘Berners,’ ‘Republicans,’ ‘Democrats,’ take your pick–showcases diversity in many dimensions, making facile generalizations a particularly risky business. (It may also suggest some clues to why polling goes wrong–as it did during the Michigan Democratic primary, which had Bernie Sanders losing all the way up to the day of the actual voting.)

This diversity that is found in an entity all too often supposed to be monolithic perhaps serves as adequate warning against the kind of reckless invocations of the ‘public’ and the ‘masses’ that we will see this election season. So is there no such thing as a ‘public opinion’? What are polls–the ones that tell us that forty-five percent of those polled on topic X would like to see resolution Y–informing us of then? They do, with some measure of accuracy, register and report a visible and palpable uniformity of a kind–but we would do well to remember that to poke the surface of that apparent uniformity is all too likely to introduce turbulence in a previously quiescent state. Changing the manner of phrasing the question or the time of its asking, for instance, as referendums find out all the time, can radically change the results of the poll.

Somewhere out there is the ‘public,’ the masses. No shadow is harder to identify even as it is leaned on and invoked with reckless abandon.


Democracy, The ‘Anti-National,’ And The Seditionist

In my essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, currently serving a fifty-five year jail term in Federal prison for seditious conspiracy, I had written:

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs?

Recent events in India–the crackdown on student protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in particular–suggest that this lesson has not yet been learned by democracies everywhere. (A pair of articles by Ruchir JoshiA Rash of Fascisms” and Mukul KesavanRepublic vs. Nation” makes this point in the Indian context quite eloquently.)

What is it that those who seek to crack down on the slogans, claims, and activities of the alleged seditionist fear? Because a nation is an idea, an abstract entity, and not a piece of land or a group of people, this question becomes a little more puzzling.

The nationalist has, of course, conflated himself with the nation; he perceives the attack on the nation as an attack on himself. The arch-nationalist thus reveals himself as a deeply paranoid, insecure type. Rather than seeing the fulminations of the political radical as an opening salvo in a debate, he perceives it as a material attack upon himself and his life’s projects; he has dedicated himself to the unblinking service of something whose provenance, dimensions, and nature he does not fully understand and now finds himself all at sea, unable to coherently defend, without descending into inarticulate rage, this mysterious notion. He is, as I noted in another context, “all unsatisfied Id, no Ego.”

I went on to note:

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war can provide.

As might be expected, this rhetoric has shown up in the discourse surrounding the arrest and physical abuse of the students arrested in India.

Democracy is a young thing, a mere fledgling; it places a fairly onerous responsibility upon those charged with its care. Many, it seems, are simply not up to the task.

The Incompatibiity Of Democracy And The Modern Nation-State

A few days ago, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

Sometimes, over the course of a semester’s worth of reading and discussing material with one’s students, you can feel a sort of collective convergence on some substantive theses. This semester, my Political Philosophy class and I were in agreement on this one: democracy is incompatible with the modern nation-state.

I was asked for clarification. Here it is–very briefly.

The modern nation-state requires, for its adequate functioning and for the enforcement and policing of its sovereignty, structures that work to undermine democratic principles. Most prominently, the nation-state employs hierarchical bureaucracies–civil services, administrative agencies, ministries of ‘external affairs’ etc–to implement its legislative policies; it sustains standing armies and paramilitary forces like the police, which maintain territorial integrity and can be used to quell internal disturbance if needed; it colludes with corporations in a political economy to create and sustain the value required for its economic viability. The first factor results in a machinery that very quickly acquires a life of its own; elected leaders are plugged into this beast as replaceable components. The second and third factors combine to generate variants of the military-industrial complex.

The version of democracy most often found in the modern nation-state is electoral democracy: ‘representatives of the people’ are elected by popular franchise. This species of democracy notoriously generates political parties whose platforms artificially impose homogeneity of political viewpoint on a heterogeneous membership and the career politician dedicated primarily to re-election. The people turn out every few years to dutifully vote, and then retreat to their overworked schedules to take care of their daily imperatives.

The nation-state is a vast political beast that requires management. Elites and ‘specialists’ step in; oligarchies and plutocracies are formed. Once in power, the vast machinery of the state, the force of its police and armies, the economic might of the military-industrial complex, and various corporate structures act to conserve their power. Wealth and power accumulates at the political summit; political and economic inequality increase. This situation is further entrenched by ideological dominance enforced by either state or corporate media (and educational systems dedicated to producing workers for the industrial complex.)

There is centralized power; there are vast distances–of all kinds–separating the rulers from the ruled; there are enemies–real and imaginary–beyond national boundaries; there is competition–between nations–for valuable natural resources that must be guarded jealously; monies must be raised to keep the machinery of the nation-state running. One democratic imperative after another is sacrificed in order to accommodate the nation-state’s needs. Democracy–rule by citizens–all too easily drops out of this picture.

None of this critique is new. It is not particularly sophisticated either. The functioning of the nation-state is fairly transparent and does not require excessively close attention for its further details to be revealed. The environments most favorable to participatory and deliberative democracy are not to be found here. Perhaps elsewhere, in smaller, less hierarchical, more decentralized, less economically unequal spaces. But not here.

Political Conventions Begone

Cometh the political convention and cometh the dreary return of speculative commentary about their usefulness, their substantiveness, their relevance. Cometh too, the sight of perfectly reasonable, sensible folks tuning in to them, wasting their time in the hope of picking up meaningful political lessons. (I’ve been told that some folks tune in for the comedic value of a convention, but I find that hard to believe. Bad comedy is bad first, and comedy much, much later. In the case of  conventions the ‘later’ comes well after the stage props and candidate busts have been put away.)  Somehow, bizarrely, despite seemingly universal agreement among adults with IQ’s north of 120 that conventions are primarily an occasion for the most graphic demonstration of the utter vapidity of the election season, a reassurance that yes, you were right, you have been relentlessly pounded by vacuity, and there are still a few months to go before the referee will ring the bell and put us all out of our misery, the convention is back as subject of media analysis, political punditry and psephological speculation. (Media folks can perhaps be forgiven their obsession with conventions but what is to be done about all the folks that tune in to listen to their babbling?)

My most prominent response when watching a convention of any sort–I indict Republican and Democratic conventions equally in this regard–is disbelief that any mature adult could not see through the utter silliness of it all. Does the audience, all those shrieking, silly-hat-wearing-flag-waving folks on the floor, really buy it? Of course they do. That’s why they are there. At moments like these, it occurs to me that the only sensible way to watch a convention telecast–if forced to at gunpoint–would be to be riproaringly drunk or under the influence of hallucinogens. (I’m optimistically presuming my tormentors have a decent streak to them and will supply me with these.) The colors might be more palatable and perhaps the visual perspective afforded from my vantage position on the living room rug would make the idiot box’s showcasing of idiocy a little more reasonable.

Perhaps the most dreary trope associated with conventions is that they feature ‘soaring speeches,’ stirring oratorical masterpieces, which catapult the nation’s future leaders into the political spotlight, and portend dramatic political change. What surprises me most about this is the idea that reasonable adults in this day and age could honestly get turned on by a party animal’s speech. I have responded favorably to precisely one convention speech myself: back in 1984, to Mario Cuomo‘s keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Pretty stirring stuff, sure. But I was seventeen then. I’ve grown up. And come to realize that speeches at political conventions appear to fall into two categories: off-the-wall, offensive barrages of falsehoods and posturing (best done by Republicans) and grand, pretentious, faux populist litanies packed with promises soon to be broken (best done by Democrats).

Turn off the television, folks. And don’t switch it on for the Democrats either.

Note: This year, a tropical storm threatened the Republican Convention; it was almost enough to make a believer out of me. You know:

From a distance

God is watching us

And she sure as hell can’t take this crap any more.