Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another Democratic Paradox

Bonnie Honig's recent book Emergency Politics points to a logical problem that has plagued political theorists since Aristotle--if democracies produce good citizens and good citizens are needed to produce democracies, then we face something of a chicken/egg conundrum--which comes first, "the people" or the people? There is an indisputable gap between the "general will" in Rousseau's sense and the elected representatives of said will, not least because if the two were completely coterminus the display of unity would obviate the initial desire to have a split between "the people" and the government because aggregated interest would be a pure and properly total index rather than a partial snapshot of what "the people" want.

One popular move of late in political theory is to grab a Schmittian matrix and decide that some form of decisionism is inevitable, if not desirable, in politics. Following this tactic most visibly in the political tradition is Chantal Mouffe, whose book The Democratic Paradox seeks to resucitate some form of decisionism from postmodern indeterminacy while simutaneously refusing to engage in the sort of fascist violence the philosophy of Carl Schmitt typically produces. The solution is to think in terms of horizons rather then borders, in terms of agonism rather than antagonism, and to produce a shared space where friends and enemies share something like a mutual, begrudging respect the projects itself in some share conditions of intelligibility between arguments.

I routinely find these inside/outside explanations of political identity formation persuasive, not least because they seem to soundly explain certain recurrent political trends. One need look no further than two presidential terms each for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom parlayed rhetorics about existential threats into political power that persisted despite political decisionmaking that was certainly questionable, if not unpopular. Moreover, as Robert Ivie has neatly formulated in his book Democracy and America's War on Terror, these distinctions operate not merely external to the physical borders of a nation but also work in the national imaginary to produce individuals who might be cititzens of the nation from a formal standpoint who nevertheless constitute enemies to "democracy" for their refusal to support the troops, the war, or acts of civic protest.

What interests me is--how is the American population protected from confronting this paradox? I will look at the example the 1960's New Left. I've been reading several pieces on this subject (if you're interested, check out the work of Ken Cmiel, Michael Kazin, Robert Cathcart, and others) and what stands out to me the way in which violence and dissent are mostly framed in political discourse as irrational outbursts of unreason that refuse to submit or kowtow to dominant political and institutional logics. This evidence can be found in our contemporary political discourse--even conservatives wholeheartedly embrace the safe and hopeful rhetorics of MLK, while liberals and conservatives alike rushed to condemn the violence of the Weather Underground as Barack Obama struggled to distance himself from sixties radical Bill Ayres.

This point has been made well by Kevin DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples--the way in which violence's appearance in public is figured is an extremely important factor in determining how "public opinion" will come down on the side of a particular movement. After all, kids in school all read MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech while being consciously pushed away from considering say, Stokely Carmichael's speech at Berkeley that attacked the silence of white privilege. Ken Cmiel, in a sharp reading of the sit ins during the civil rights movement of the sixties, points to how the tactic was effective because it performed a form of civility instantly recognizable to a moderate audience, enabling the generation of a bond of sympathy between those protesting and a broader audience--because civility is the norm, they who are the most civil will draw the most love, and sympathy.

Violence can be viewed as legitimate, of course. The vast majority of Americans view the violence used by the American government of the Union in the Civil War as legitimate because it struck out against an illegitimate human monstrosity (slavery). The violence of the Revolutionary War was scene as necessary to counter the tyranny of the British, who sought to rule and control that which they had not properly mixed enough of their labor with. But of course, those acts seem more legitimate in hindsight because they helped to produce the modern polity that we currently reside in--a United States of America produced in opposition to Britain, and rebirthed in the wake of the Civil War, cleansed of the sin of the 3/5 clause.

So long as a vocal minority is seen to be illegitimately using violence or threats thereof, a democratic population is prevented from encountering the fact that what is produced politically reflects themselves. That is, it produces a distance between the population and the unruly "people" in need of democratic regulation. Therefore, those who were part of Richard Nixon's "silent majority" in favor of a continued presence in Vietnam were given a tactic to tell themselves that they were part of a democracy (participating in the civic process of voting, casting judgment upon the violent and unruly war protestors) while also asserting that they were the "right" part of the democratic population--the part that understood what being in a polity meant in terms of personal responsibility and knowing that what it DID NOT mean was the rioting and violence thought to characterize the New Left. So in at least this case, it seems like any encounter with Honig's civic paradox is prevented. Instead of being able to apprehend that they are part of "the people" and thus in need of regulation (justifying the split between the people and the government), "the people" are projected as being the unruly protesting political masses while the "silent majority" are those people who know what it means to be civic, and also do not need to be subject to the actions that the government may take.

On the other hand, if for example you find the activities of the Weather Underground to be legitimate, you are fully embracing the problem posed by Honig's paradox--you are pointing to how "the people" are untrustworthy, and demanding an escape hatch from the circular/tautological ring of people and government who are mutually producing violence and injustice in ways that are invisible to the dyad by virtue of the non-ironic or non-distanced relationship between people and government.

No comments:

Post a Comment