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. And perhaps that is as should be is 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.

Workplace Dynamics And The Treatment Of Support Staff

A couple of days ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin asked (on his Facebook page):

How many academics would get tenure if the review took into account how they treated the department’s secretarial staff?

A year or so after I had begun work at Bell Laboratories, I told a new hire that she should always strive to keep three classes of co-workers (or ‘staff’) happy: secretaries, computer system administrators, and security guards. Later, I extended this claim to other members of our building’s facilities crew. This imperative suggested itself to me as prudent and moral (and political). It still does in my current location at my academic workplace.

The first two on the list above made our daily tasks much easier; they helped us navigate workplace mazes, administrative, logistical, and bureaucratic; they let us concentrate on our work, which was supposedly technical and creative. The third were the first ones to greet us on our entry to the building, and the last ones to bid us goodbye when we left; being friendly and personable in our interactions with them served to provide a kinder, gentler bookend to our days at work (And if you forgot your ID card on the weekends, in the days before high-speed dial-up connections, you could count on them not blocking your entry to the building in case you desperately needed to get some coding work done in your office that could not be accomplished from home.)

I’m happy to say that over the years I have followed my directives quite faithfully, and have generally enjoyed good relations with most members of my ‘support staff.’ These have made my workday experiences considerably more pleasant. The exceptions to this have occurred with some security staff who insist on taking their badges and uniforms a little too seriously and adopt the demeanor of the police a little too eagerly.

Despite these fairly self-evident considerations, secretarial staff still remain unappreciated, frequently overworked, and poorly treated. (The sexism and harassment directed at female secretaries is legendary.) In my corporate workplaces–which were mostly manned by folks with technical backgrounds–there was a great deal of patronizing and dismissive behavior too. In response, secretarial staff often scorned the head-in-the-air attitude of those they served, decrying their inability to accomplish the simplest tasks by themselves and directed some scathing disrespect at them behind their backs. To the credit of my colleagues at my two university employers–the University of New South Wales and the City University of New York–I have witnessed fairly pleasant and egalitarian patterns of interaction between them and our administrative staff. (Robin’s question above seems to indicate there is trouble in paradise.)

At academic workplaces the power differential is clear. Faculty might imagine themselves, PhD and all, as the bees knees, with administrative staff, possessing perhaps only a lowly bachelors or associate degree, as mere dust to be shaken off their feet. (This was certainly the case at Bell Labs, which was populated by graduates from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.) Faculty are also often overworked too, and their requests for assistance can be made a little brusquely. Status and class anxiety does not help this already complicated picture.

It might behoove all of us ‘non-management types’ to remember that a more equitable and harmonious relationship among ourselves is one of our primary protections against the impositions of our ‘bosses,’ that there are allies here, if we were only willing to look a little closer.