Monday, January 3, 2011

Fetishizing Radical Democracy

We are, it seems, very into radical democracy. Positing that the field of the political is nothing more (and nothing less) than the competitive play of discourse permits scholars to advance compelling and appealing arguments such as the one developed in 1985's seminal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, where Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue that the most important political task is to remember that there is nothing outside the political (or the discursive) and so new hegemonic articulations (important shifts on the rhetorical landscape in which certain signifiers occupy new positions that correspond to new political opportunities) are possible no matter how the dark the times may appear for progressive politics.

In theory, of course, this articulated political is to radical critique what the printing press was to the word of God: a force to democratize the understanding of the social radically, turning the power of liberalism into a kind of bulwark against a pre-determined political by insisting that the political as it is constructed now could always be otherwise. And as Laclau explains more acutely in On Populist Reason, the vehicle capable of articulating new politicals is that of "the people", the ultimate democratic category, one who force of interpellation is powerful.

But what if there is a kind of hostility built in between the democratic ideal and the progressive social welfare state continuously supported by Laclau, Mouffe, and the like? After all, populism works on an imaginary terrain through the assertion that the people know best: that they know their interests, that their judgment is sound, and that internally these facts will be tautologically reaffirmed by the normative goodness of the will of the people.

All well and good. These very smart people are aware of the potential pitfalls: Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox is built around the persistent clash between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism, with its focus on the individual, is at a kind of structural loggerheads with the democratic ideal, whose committment to equality threatens to cancel the liberal committment to freedom. Still, however, both notions valorize the people: liberalism trusts the individual judgment and valuation of various markets, while the democratic ethos insists that an aggregation of the popular voice produces something marching in the direction of "the good life."

Neither account offers much bulwark against the threat that kept the Founders up at night: the tyranny of the majority. Moreover, republican political institutions exist in a way to counter both democracy and liberalism: their very existence signals a distrust of the individual's judgment or the voice of the people. Yet few theorists speak of advancing a "radical republicanism": it is assumed in advance that the interests of the people articulate to normative goods. If progressive political articulations are consistently structured around finding the voice of the people then there is a kind of subtle fetishism produced: we again attempt to find the people's "true interests", or to refigure/rearticulate them through discourse.

But the very idea of a people's interest is no political neutral. In fact, support for what individuals want supports individuality itself. This perhaps strikes us as no particularly troubling until we do a quick and brief survey of the kinds of discourses that pop up in say, the recent flare up of Tea Party movement. Here we see a series of discourses that unconditionally exist upon the sovereign individual. Moreover, these discourses are commited to a kind of radical eradication of productive relationships between government and citizen (cf. Sarah Palin's keynote address to the Nashville Tea Party rally).

If one sought to take up arms against the Tea Party discursively, one option advocated by the radical democracy crowd might be to produce a more effective version of the "popular will", one that would counter the radical individuality of the Tea Party with something like a set of popular demands for the expansion of the welfare state. The problem is that, viewed comparatively, the former arguments have a kind of build in leverage point for success by implicitly valorizing the individual. Discourses that bombard the state with paternalistic demands, but do so on individual/liberal terms, risk reproducing the very political terrain so sympathetic to the radical liberal individuality of the Tea Party. This, perhaps, is why a kind of republican vocabulary is necessary: it does not always trust the people, and so is capable of supporting with a kind of intellectual consistency support for the welfare state.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Form, Content, and the Rhetoric of Social Movements

In 1980, David Zarefsky warned that the way that rhetoricians studied social movements took for granted the agitations and discourses of a movement at their word. Namely, he said, what guaranteed that a social movement always existed outside the existing relays of power in a given political space besides its own claims to be a "social movement"? Rhetorical studies, he argued, risked deciding in advance what was and was not a social movement by assigning certain movement-specific content a transhistorical role indetermining the formal characteristics of what counted as a social movement.

Zarefsky's alternative was to always insist on historically situated studies of the rhetoric of particular controversies and demands. Through close historical analysis, one could presumably figure out at a given synchronic moment whether or not one was seeing an oppositional or hegemonic social movement. Zarefsky's form/content argument strikes me as absolutely correct: just saying you're a social movement doesn't make it so, and the left does not hold a monopoly on discourses of social agitation.

One is also tempted to fill out Zarefsky's objection through a recourse to post-structural theories of political space and identity. Namely, what is at stake in even announcing the existence of something like a "social movement" implies the existence of something like a total/fixed/settled field of the political and its constitutive discourses at a given moment. The danger, of course, is analagous to the recurrence of the "determination in the last instance" problem faced by those attempting to make critical gestures at the existence of structures without allowing those structures to pre-exist the political possibilities available to critics. That is, once you've established what a social movement is "against", that which it is "against" is thought to pre-exist the social movement and movements always occur in a kind of dialectical relationship on an existing political plane. The movements, however much they oppose what exists/is hegemonic, nevertheless have some of their radical oppositional potential drained by defining themselves oppositionally rather than producing their own independently intelligible discourse of appeal.

To contextualize through criticism: one might think about how, for example, how ineffective on a large scale pro-socialism discourses in America are today. This is not because there is anything inherently unpersuasive about socialism: indeed, America has a long and glorious history of federally and state enacted "socialist" policies. It is, instead, because the American political imaginary coheres through an understanding of socialism that displaces and marks its discourses as alien to discourses of "Americanness" in the abstract. We can think of this as needing a kind of rhetorical means-testing: until a socialist policy is calcified in the realm of the political the presumption lies against its normative desireability. All of this operates under the presumption that something like "Americanness" exists, that it is known, and that it does a kind of natural/guaranteed work in producing a coherent political space.

Back to Zarefsky: how can we even begin to claim to know the contours of political space before we investigate it? I think that we cannot. All we can do is to inquire (following Foucault) after the conditions of discourse's intelligible enunciation. To do otherwise risks stipulating in advance that a certain something already exists as the antecedent to the discourses that exist, and in so-doing we might naturalize the existences of the very hegemonic discourses to which we are opposed. If we map progressive political content onto the form of social movements generically, we are left always doing criticism that produces social movements as outside an already established system. Once they are outside, there is a kind of historicized presumption against them. McGee was, as always, onto something like this before most with his seminal work on social movements. For now, careful of form and content!