Friday, December 9, 2011

Political Theory, Representation, and Economic Crisis

Both political theory and economic theory must account for the question of representation: how to make a government or a market into an effectively functioning quilting point for a political imaginary without becoming so powerful that the emptiness of such institutions of peoples threatens a legitimation crisis. At least one way that Rousseau managed the crisis of representation was, as Honig notes in Democracy and the Foreigner, was through the introduction of a "Foreign Founder" who could sidestep the democratic crisis threatened by having a politics defined purely by a people. If there is is nothing external to the people, then there is no such thing as politics (Schmitt, Arendt, what have you). The figure of the foreign founder created a not-entirely-natural yet not-entirely-mythical figure that could permit decisionism, and in so doing would interrupt what would otherwise be a troubling negative feedback loop of popular sovereignty. The American founders could not resort to myths of foreign founders, since they were in fact foreigners in their own space. Instead, they articulated republican institutions as the mechanism to interrupt this feedback loop: the roots of decisionism came to be known in the split between government and people that inaugurated the people at the same moment that it sabotaged their totality, or full democratic being.

Similarly, Adam Smith-style capitalism was capable of sidestepping crises in representation that might otherwise boggle or make a mockery of market prediction. Because their remained certain services and functions for which the market was thought incapable, the danger that economics might become incapable of recognizing itself was minimal: the state served as a regulatory bulwark capable of repeatedly reminding the market (and marketized subjects) of its limits. The aggressive increase in class consciousness, characteristic of American identity through the founding period and heightened first during the Civil War and then again during the Progressive-era political responses to the heightened perils of the Industrial Revolution, further served to stabilize not only a "political" people (because the state could be captured for use on either side of political struggle for and against various peoples) meant that the market was effectively politicized by calls to government action on social, political, and economic issues.

The sixties signified a very serious sea-change in how American political identity thought about the relationship between government and people: those who boosted and organized for Barry Goldwater beginning at the end of the 1950's operated under the assumption that an ideological war between government and market had been waged and that government had won: the overweening presumption, even for Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, was that as long as the government had the capacity to intervene into a market, that market could not be trusted to provide to maximum efficacy the products and promises it had made. The Goldwater organization, as Rick Perlstein among others have pointed out, lost the battle in the 1964 presidential election but one the war by producing a vision of "the American people" constituted not through internal oppositions between peoples but instead by producing the liberal individual as the natural (one might even say ontological) contrapuntal opposite of the state. The result was that governmental interventions into the market could now be taken in one of two ways: they could either be read as governmental intervention to fix problems where the "market" had failed, or they could be understood as distortions of what would otherwise be a perfectly natural economic outcome. Because "the people" now took on an ontologically oppositional position versus the government, presumption lied on the side of an interpretation which, because discourses repeated reify and reconstitute in familiar rather than challenging ways identities, governmental intervention tended more often than not to be read unnecessary rather than pointing to inefficiencies in the market in which "the people" by virtue of being the market all would share participation in.

We might quibble with critics of neoliberalism, but if we accept as a starting point their thesis that more rather than less of the system and lifeworld is today given over to internal self-regulation by the invisible hand of the market, we can see that what is at stake in times of economic turmoil is a crisis of representation of the sort political theorists like Rousseau most feared: if the market amalgamates more and more political and social life (and indeed, while there remain material zones of un-capture, one need only to closely read the transcript of a single GOP debate to find a near-consensus as to the IDEAL and therefore "real" extent of ideology in this case) then there is no space for a politics (that is, the ability to define a people) because the market is the beginning and the end of politics as such. A "people" defined tautologically by their status as people (that is to say, a collective identity ratified by nothing less and nothing more than its being a people over and against the existence of a government whose existence in an imaginary sense is democratic but in a real sense is ontologically opposed to that very identity it authorizes) do not really exist, except insofar as they are not coterminus with the government. Economic crises threaten a crisis of representation, in which the true culprit for the crisis is unrepresentable (because if the crisis is the market, and the market=the people, the market cannot be taken as the source of its own failure, as it is not judged in neoliberal discourse through its success or failure but instead by its existence as a market) and the inability to produce (we might say embody) the market speaks to what Michel Foucault in The Birth of Biopolitics as the kind of shadow chasing game of individualized market economics: a market always chasing its own non-existence, always making, retroactively, a kind of invisible hand that never quite lives up the sum of its judgments. It is in this vein that we should read discourses that respond to the economic crisis: many of them, it seems, want to embody and make real the villains behind the crisis, whether they be Wall Street fat cats, irresponsible homeowners, sinister loan officers, or a government incapable of reining in its own spending. Because the market remains unrepresentable, however, something in these scapegoatings will awesome seem to miss its mark.


  1. I would just want to note that in both Spain and Greece the indignados have been loud and clear that they see very well that the capitalist system is the crisis. And so any attempt to render the market unblamable is always just that, an attempt. It never actually succeeds (even though we on the left often narrate it as though it does). Moreover, the attempt fails badly; part of what it means to be an indignado is to be offended that they would think we can't see that the real crisis is that we live under a sick system, when it is so obvious.

  2. Good point: the problem with making claims about injustice is that to claim that the dominant system/rationality is unjust implicates negatively the morality of all those who help make such systems work, and in so doing reproduces immediately a difference that works against, rather than with, the creation of a new political community.

    I think you're absolutely right about how its all attempts: its damn hard to rewrite these market logics, or disable them in public discourse. Thanks for reading, and I like your blog!