Friday, June 4, 2010

A current state of discontent

While I was away lecturing at Portland State two weeks ago, Chris Tranchetti led a seminar in my class on Foucault’s Power/Knowledge and Rawls’ Law of Peoples. The discussion was good, but pitted too easily Sen’s practical approach against Rawls’ Law of Peoples, which is itself an effort to imagine a practical political agreement or “realistic utopia,” focused against aggression. Sen makes more brilliant moral contributions about policy than Rawls (he is a uniquely perceptive development economist and philosopher) as one can see from Development as Freedom, but that his contrast of ideal justice and practical improvements is better than Rawls’ (that Rawls’ is merely ideal) is not accurate. Further, Rawlsian contractarianism, and particularly his idea of the original position comes, as Rawls did not know, profoundly from American experience. “What if they took your child and sold him into slavery,” three farmers from Western Massachusetts asked in 1787? A Constitution which licenses slavery, they maintained, should be rejected. On behalf of a common justice, whites as well as well as blacks fought strongly for abolition. And democratic contractarianism was their embryonic idea, refined in Rawls’ democratic theory.

Several people in the class apparently affirmed the idea that the intelligentsia should rule and that a benevolent despot – if a clever one were to manifest herself - might be a good idea. Or perhaps it was disappointed enthusiasm for Obama who might seem a promising such despot (he has no desire to be one; he furthers executive power without Cheney’s crazed enthusiasm) in contrast to the medical insurance companies and their representatives who made the Health Care Bill a very limited, if real improvement. Perhaps Obama would not be engaging in five aggressions/occupations if it were up to him. One imagines the war complex to have vanished, but certainly, the absence of pressure to the right – standard with the more authoritarian party – would be an improvement. Still, a rightist autocrat would very likely pursue such wars.

Of course, the thought that American capitalism would be better managed by the “right man” (David Frum about W.) is pretty foolish. The government has been dismantled under Bush, decent civil servants have resigned. BP controls much of the skill and money for deep water drilling. Even under an environmental President, they have produced what will probably turn out to be the worst disaster in history for the environment (two more months of spewing, and then…who knows?). It will take more than a strongman, even one backed by a now largely dissolved from above and more importantly, largely turned off movement. Short of being contested by Palin in the next election, Obama has squandered much of his decent support and will have to rely on the unenthused center and those of us who, remembering Cheney, will still support him in the absence of a mass movement…

Among people who mainly intend to serve others (go into the Peace Corps or nongovernmental organizations), these elitist and authoritarian ideas are surprising and Chris rightly finds, disturbing. A police state, as I have been arguing for some time, is quite near in the United States. See here and here. There is considerable popular support in America – fortunately from diverse and clashing directions and enthusiasms - for a different kind of leader and even institutional structure. The working of Presidents, particularly Bush-Cheney, to expand illegal and immoral executive power at the expense of other branches of government had an effect: an erosion of respect for decency, a hope in a strong man. So do the weakness of Congress and the courts, as well as the central role of bloated, seemingly endlessly greedy and lying banks and corporations. Our mainstream politics is trapped by money (there are many more lobbyists for banks and corporations on Capitol Hill than Congressional representatives).

In this setting, the ideas of Plato via Heidegger and Schmitt, brought to neoconservatives by Leo Strauss, and by neocons to Democratic neo-neocons as a fine diplomat recently named Brookings Institute warmongers at my school, also have an effect. One can hear the practical influence even in a class which has listened to some of my argument against Heidegger’s philosophical Nazism, in which individuals have advanced interesting, often striking moral arguments.* It is also in a class which had, as a secondary reading to Sen’s Idea of Justice his more important Development as Freedom.

For that book has the best argument for modern democracies. India has had no famines since independence. In contrast, it had a huge one in 1943 under the British Empire when Amartya was a 9 year old in Calcutta. An opposition newspaper, Sen suggests, is sufficient to head off such disasters. It takes racist rule (as of the Irish by the English) to starve out a whole people, when there is (as there always is) enough food – it just must be redirected to the poor who need it.

The inter-democratic peace hypothesis – for oligarchic regimes with parliamentary forms – is, as I have shown here and here, a farce. The putative statistics do nothing to underpin an argument for decency, especially in the relationship of America to parliamentary governments in non-white regimes (the US has overthrown some 12 democracies, via covert action, during and after the Cold War). But Sen’s argument about famine even against the revolutionary Mao, a benevolent despot who accomplished many great things in China and yet whose Communist movement produced a famine during the Great Leap Forward, seems decisive. Yet the students in this class, very well meaning, engaged and creative, seem to have missed it (I will not, given this experience, teach another class in which Sen’s argument is not early and foremost).

The hope of a good king or autocrat is of course an old one. It was long visible in revolts of serfs in Russia, slaves in the United States (the former believed in a “good tsar”, the latter in a “good King” in England, misled by his local lackeys). It is visible in America in the almost religious zeal of Bush supporters for W., that “godly man” (now shifting greasily to Palin), or in Obama supporters for Obama. As Glenn Greenwald often emphasizes, when Obama now confirms police state measures, secret prisons, indefinite detention or torture – perhaps short of the very worst forms – many who rightly criticized Bush as a tyrant keep their mouths shut. See here. A yearned for authoritarianism is thus just beneath worship of the President.

One had best not be confident in the durability of parliamentary competition or the rule of law. There is little stable about these things. They are shadows, always effective for some and not others (rich whites, the poor particularly blacks and Chicanos), attenuated in every crisis, and America, even before the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, is in a state of artificially prolonged “war” and “emergency.” Political competition and law will continue to exist or assume a broader and fuller reality only if we fight for them.

In America, it will be necessary to stop bad or tyrannical policies by direct, mass nonviolence. But it is a complementary task to trace the ideas and practices to their sources (Strauss, Heidegger, Schmitt, Plato) and show, how through bipartisanship and fear of being defeated by the Right, Democratic think tank experts and politicians, are also creating a police state, It will take large movements from below to protect ordinary Americans against tyrannical rule and its consequences.

Chris wrote:

“Dear Alan,

"When you get this e-mail, you’ll be either in Jordan or on your way to Greece. I meant to tell you about this earlier, but perhaps by reflecting and writing on Memorial Day, added significance will adhere to its meaning.”

“During the class in which you were absent, we discussed Foucault’s Power/Knowledge Chapter 1 (regarding the court system and people’s justice) and Rawls’ Law of Peoples. Inevitably, this led to a discussion of Theory of Justice, as well as introductory remarks about Sen’s The Issue of Justice. As our discussions often tend to do, we digressed and traveled more deeply into the American court system and the trial by a jury of your peers. Surprisingly to me, many of the students disdained the idea of a trial by jury. They felt that those in mainstream America were not their peers. There was a definite feeling that they would be railroaded by such a trial, that their “peers” were less educated, less open-minded, and less able to reach the “correct” verdict through deliberation. In short, they felt that those chosen for any jury in the U.S. would be their intellectual inferiors.”

“So, of course, after having the pin already pulled from the grenade, I threw it into the middle of the room. Since we (the collective ‘we’) seem to disagree with Foucault’s concept of the people’s justice, and we also disagree with the structure of the current court system, what would you do differently? In other words, how would you fix the court system? Many stated that the juries should be comprised of highly educated participants only. The intelligentsia would dispense justice throughout the civil and criminal courts. One student commented, ‘Who knew we were all such a bunch of elitists?’ The digression took another unexpected turn.”

“We moved on to the enforcement of law and of sovereignty. Again, I was completely surprised by what I heard – government should be smaller and more centrally controlled, Democracy doesn’t work here, our country is too big. Another grenade: “So you are advocating installing a benevolent despot?” The overwhelming majority, responded, “Yes, if you can find one.” Believing that the finding of a true benevolent despot was a Utopia, the conversation moved to Rawls’ utopian Society of Peoples and Sen’s more pragmatic approaches. However, for me, my mind was stuck at the thought of benevolent despotism.”

“Did I really hear a bunch of young twenty-somethings in a university class in the United States of America say that they would support a benevolent despot? A bunch of well-educated young people who are in pursuit of degrees in International Studies at a “liberal” university. A bunch of young people who will no doubt be directing the course of this country in the not so distant future. Am I witnessing the evolution of the cycle of constitutions of which Plato writes in the Republic? Were the opinions expressed in class a foreshadowing of the coming tyranny which would rise from the ashes of democracy?”

“My unease did not stop there. That evening, I spoke on the phone with an old friend. Coincidentally, he told me that things are so bad in this country that he believes they cannot be fixed within the system. In hushed tones, he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need a Lord Protector, like Cromwell.” My head just about exploded. I couldn’t believe those words came out of his mouth. We need a Lord Protector of the United States like Oliver Cromwell? I told him that while I agree that things are bad, I don’t think that monarchical executive power is the way to go. After all, I told him we’re still trying to rescind the powers that Bush assumed after 9/11, and Obama doesn’t want to give them up. The prescient quote of Lord Acton’s about absolute power always comes to bear. Of course, I didn’t bother to mention, to my now Evangelical friend, that Cromwell committed genocide against the Irish Catholics from whom I partly descend.”

“I am still bewildered about that day and the undercurrents that seem to be running through parts of American society. Is this all just idle talk and vented frustration? Or will it make the minds of many (even the intelligentsia) malleable for a charismatic leader to assume power and complete the circle started with King George III of England?”

“One thing’s for sure, intelligence does not equal justice. And, benevolent despotism is a slippery slope that none of us should want to tread upon.”

“Enjoy your time in democracy’s cradle. Remember to drink a lot of wine as a prophylactic defense against the hemlock.”

“Best regards,


*This was a good class in contemporary political thought and many of the people went their own way with striking topics, for instance would King come back, like Jesus to Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, and “be welcome” today? Another applied Said’s Orientalism to her own experiences of racism against Asian-Americans here. A third spoke on Nietzsche’s idea of a superman as realized in King’s protests, giving Nietzsche a brilliant, unexpected and perhaps – for Fred himself – unhoped for application. Mistakenly, Nietzsche did not see Jesus as an example…

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