Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?

Last year, as OWS kicked off, and as New York’s Finest (and later California’s) began their usual heavy-handed crackdown on any dissent that might threaten the ruling classes, I was struck by the absurdity of it all. Once again, the plutocratic class had found a sub-class of workers–underpaid and overworked–who ostensibly should have been in sympathy with protesters of those economic and political realities that conspired to keep them in a state of perpetual economic and political subjugation, and had them do the dirty work of repressing them. Once again, a comfortable protective barrier had been built around the privileged enclaves of the rich and fatuous, manned and patrolled by those whose best interests lay in dismantling it. The best and most enduring political parlor trick was on display again, and it didn’t seem to have lost its effectiveness over the years.

No matter how long one theorizes about it, to see the game in action, to see its visceral absurdity on display is something else. There they are, the working class sons and daughters of working class men and women, clubbing, gassing, and shooting (rubber bullets at UC-Riverside, anyone?) those that have taken up cudgels on their behalf, those whose struggles, if successful, would ensure the clubbers, shooters, and gassers would be politically and economically empowered, and perhaps be able to ensure a better life for their future generations. Five months after OWS kicked off, five months after discourse about economic inequality has bubbled up in possibly more prominent spaces and forums than ever before, there is no sign America’s currently serving police have shown any inclination to hear, pay attention, and possibly join, a political struggle in their best interests.

Tragedy, farce, or some combination thereof, I think.

Last October, when I joined several thousand others in marching through Wall Street and its surrounding confines, I would often yell out to the wary and skeptical New York City policemen that stood close by, “What was your last contract like?” or “You should be marching with us” or “Wall Street won’t stand up for you” and so on. I’m not sure if any policemen heard me or cared. But that’s no way to be heard, of course. The need for communication with the police, for outreach directed at them, for the discourse surrounding OWS to be funneled directly at the police, written somehow, in a form that makes it relevant to their lived realities is greater than ever.

In a recent interview with 3AM, Brian Leiter said,

An important strategic question for the Occupy movement concerns the police. The police are, themselves, members of the 99%, indeed the 99.9%. Police labor unions remain strong, despite a three-decade long campaign against labor unions in the United States. As unionized workers, the interests of police lie with the Occupy Movement, not the plutocrats. On the day the police refuse to clear “Occupy” protesters from their sites, that will be the day the game is up for the plutocracy in America. It would behoove the Occupy activists, indeed any opponents of the plutocracy, to remember this.

This is close to being as absolutely and totally correct as any contemporary political statement could be.