Sunday, April 24, 2011

Of the rich, by the rich, for the rich

So let's cut to the chase. I’m no fan of the monarchy. I’ve long suspected that the British can be fairly divided into two camps when it comes to kings and queens; the reverential doff-your-cap-at-the-squire types, and the naturally irreverent I-fart-in-your-general-direction types, those who occasionally come with a side of “but-I-thought-we-were-an-autonomous-collective?” While some get all supermarket-sweep when faced with monarchic memorabilia, there are others – let’s call them the children of Python – who have only ever purchased a Charles and Di tea-towel with an eyebrow firmly-arched. I’ve always been in the latter camp. My general response to learning that ‘Waity-Katie’ would wait no more was to stifle a groan at the thought of the ensuing quasi-fascist bunting-frenzy and then set about planning how to get as far away as possible from nuptial-central. The western coast of Wales seemed like a good bet. And that is exactly where I’m going this weekend.

Fig.1 - Evil bunting

However, that said, I'm not going to take this lovely carnival affair (I'm rather hoping there will be mask-wearing and trance-dancing later) as an occasion to reflect on the relative demerits of constitutional monarchy versus its upstart republican cousins. No, instead, given the dire political situation (which, I might add, this whole wedding-fandango is doing nothing to obscure), I thought this a good opportunity to think through the general crisis of political legitimacy in this country. The crisis of political legitimacy which, for that matter, is also apparent in many other countries where the mechanisms of representation have become so utterly distorted by the overweening interests of capital. I guess that pretty much gives away where I’m going with all this (as if the title was obscure), but to back up for a second…what I want to talk about here is not the pros and cons of whether we should or should not have an elected head of state, but rather, the problems our political system shares, by historical descent, with its more pure-blooded (yuk!) republican relatives.

First off, as commentators as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacques Derrida have suggested, the rhetoric of republicanism shares with its monarchic forefathers an essentially theological attitude to the question of sovereignty. The philosophical underpinnings of this argument can get a little technical (and for anyone who feels like getting a little technical, I sketch it out in more detail in a paper I wrote on the Tea Party movement here) but the central issue concerns the way in which all claims to unimpeachable sovereignty function by appealing to a foundation which, on closer inspection, is revealed as nothing but an empty gesture of self-authorization. In monarchical terms this is relatively evident. The sovereign’s authority derives from the authority of God, and God’s authority derives from the fact that...well, that he’s God, that is, he is pretty much the definition of self-authorizing authority (I mean, ‘I am that I am’?? What is that?? It’s like the first page of a textbook written for a class called ‘An Introduction to Tautologies and Other Forms of Question-Begging.’) So far, so circular…and this, of course, is the basis on which the bourgeoisie historically challenged the fundamentally baseless basis of the divine right of kings. By contrast, republicanism – and the other variants of constitutional democracy with which it is entwined – derive sovereignty, not through an appeal to the self-authorizing authority of God, but, via various types of social contract theory, from the instantiation of the will of ‘the people.’

On first inspection this does seem – and in many respects is - a damn sight more reasonable than a model of political legitimacy which, in the end, amounts to little more than “because I said so” and, “by the way, have you noticed that my army is bigger than yours?” And, as one of my good friends noted the other day, a not-insignificant upshot of having a bunch of crazy old ex-Hanoverians hanging around who might otherwise be your political masters, is to make whoever happens to be in Downing Street look like a model of right-minded governance. However, the problems with republican notions of sovereignty arise when we start to wonder who on earth these ‘people’ might be, how they get to be ‘the people’ in the first place, and how their 'sovereign will' might somehow be made into the very stuff of political authority. According to Rousseau's classic republican theory, popular sovereignty derives through the Social Contract, the act “by which a people is a people,” (SC: I.IV; 49) and sovereign law is legitimate insofar as it is an expression of the ‘general will’ of this singular body of the people, created when “the whole people enacts a statute for the whole people…with no division of the whole.” (SC: II.VI; 67, emphasis added)

At this stage the problems of this type of republican legacy begin to make themselves apparent. When the government asserts its political authority over-against the authority of some portion of its people – say by sending the police to kettle a tea shop – the legitimacy of its action relies on it claiming a sovereignty which descends, rhetorically, from the idea that it represents the whole of the people. However, this singular and sovereign body of the people is a political myth. This is firstly because the process by which a people comes to be a people is exactly as circular and tautological as the authority of any celestial sovereign. On what basis, and on whose authority, is it decided that certain people are in 'the people' and certain people are not? And if we could identify this authority, why, we would wonder, do they have any kind of authority at all? For this reason Jacques Derrida has argued that religious, monarchical and popular forms of sovereignty are all, equally, based on a "performative tautology," such that, when it comes down to it, the power of any government, whether democratic or otherwise, is still grounded, ultimately, on nothing more foundational than the monopoly of violence.

The second glaring problem with this whole 'body of the people' idea is that, evidently, there is no such thing. No one seems to have bothered to tell the Tea Partiers wandering around in their ‘We the People’ shirts what the rest of us mutely accept, that democratic sovereignty is just a botch-job wrapped up with a lot of high-minded sounding words, usually when our leaders want to engage in another of their endless expeditions for oil-and-imperialism. No-one really believes that popular sovereignty does exactly what it says on the tin. Because to believe that would be to believe that government really is an expression of the will of the people, and that would entail the even crazier idea that there are no fundamental conflicts within society, between, say, the interests of the ruling class and the interests of everyone else. Rousseau ruled out representative democracy because it gives the lie to his fantasy of the general will, and consequently, forever casts aspersions on the unimpeachable sovereignty of any government which doesn't function through an entirely impractical form of direct democracy. To be blunt - the whole idea of sovereignty as a form of political legitimacy in a modern representative democracy needs to be junked, and all citizens must reserve the right to sneer as much as possible whenever whatever secretary of state attempts to justify (or condemn) whatever act of violence by appealing to its sovereign legality (or its alleged 'criminality').

That said, this doesn't mean that we should entirely abandon the idea of political legitimacy, and even less that we should give up on scrutinizing the state's actions to determine whether or not they are acceptable. Government should never be let off the hook, and the hook it should never be let off is the one marked justice. Now, I’m not going to get into a long – say, two-and-a half-millennia – digression about what philosophy has to say on the topic of justice, but, for the sake of argument, let’s just make a wild and crazy assertion along the lines of... ‘an act can be judged as politically just when it expresses the objective interests of the majority of the people.’ From this not entirely-arbitrary definition it can be fairly readily appreciated that the people currently wafting around Whitehall don’t have a chance in hell of being considered legitimate.

So, setting aside – if we can for a moment – the epic inadequacies of the present voting system (and let’s not get started on the mockery of democracy represented by giving us a referendum on the AV-insult) then the possibility of a democratically-elected government somehow representing the objective interests of the majority of the people would depend on two factors. One, that the people be presented with candidates that actually represent their interests, and two, that at least a significant majority of the population be politically clear-sighted enough to be able to recognize those interests. More or less evidently, neither of these conditions presently apply. The smorgasbord of sock-puppets who parade before us to solicit our votes, when not blatantly impersonating someone with the long-arm of capital inserted straight up their how’s-your-father, recall to me nothing so much as the delight-filled counter at Krispy Kreme’s. More or less our entire political class is best understood, I think, as an array of superficially differentiated confection all manufactured out of identical ingredients. The same highly-refined fluffy white flour, the same thick slick of high-fructose corn-syrup, that shot of gut-rotting sugar-crack that keeps the wheels of American-style capitalism turning. However, were we even to be presented with candidates who question the assumption that our continued earthly existence is dependent on paying regular tithes and tributes to the vengeful market-gods, then, it would still be necessary, somehow, to liberate the majority of ‘the people’ from the Murdoch-induced fear-and-aspirational haze into which they have more or less unhappily reclined.

At the risk of banging on like an old-Marxist (surely not!), or, even worse, according to the rhetoric of market-democratic populism, ‘an elitist,’ let us make no bones about it. There is a difference between what people want, and what is actually in their objective interests. I know, it’s terribly old-skool of me, but there is also a difference between fashion and truth, and the truth of the difference between 'what I want' and 'what is good for me' is pretty much the reason philosophy has always been a bit sceptical about democracy, and the possibility of it delivering anything that looks remotely like justice. I’m not suggesting that we should accept the philosophical prejudice that a life of philosophical reflection is the most worthwhile way of spending one’s time on this little blue rock. But I am suggesting that we can, with all kinds of accommodations and amendments for cultural specificity and taste and what-nots, still say some meaningful things about the basic parameters of what people need in order to lead fulfilling and relatively decent lives. And this is not because I want to go around telling people what to do, but because when the government suggests that, say, women suffering domestic abuse can probably do just as well without crisis shelters, I want to be able to tell them, objectively, where to get off. And I also want to be able to say, that, at least since the 1970s, a large number of the general population have been, by a whole panoply of procedures, increasingly directed to vote for governments who do not, objectively, represent their interests.

As Rousseau himself recognized, the only democratic solution to this problem is education, the inculcation of the habits of relentlessly reflective citizenship. The market-populists would have us believe, as Stefan Collini observed in his critique of the Browne report, that education is no more than a matter of letting children run amok in a sweet-shop. The development of the habits of critical reflection shouldn’t, like brown-bread, be wholesome, or a little-bit like hard work. I have been, on a not-insignificant number of occasions in my not-so-long life, accused of elitism (you’d never have guessed from that sweet-shop comment huh?). But what has never made sense to me is why it is somehow more ‘democratic’ to believe that ‘the people’ are only capable of digesting sugar-encrusted shite and shouldn’t be dignified with anything better. No more ‘paternalistic’ socially-concerned kitchen-sink drama for you kids, you clearly can’t keep down anything more substantial than the X-factor!

Of course, the bottom line here is that it is in the interests of the real elites – not the arugula-eating-latte-sipping-scum of the liberal intelligentia (yeah right, like we’re so powerful) – to encourage the debasement of citizenship among the general population. It is not, we might note, entirely without coincidence that it is philosophy, among the many productively-‘useless’ disciplines that make up the humanities, that has been particularly singled out for rationalization in the latest neoliberal assault on our universities. Let’s be absolutely clear about it. Market democracy couldn’t give two hoots about the interests of the people, or protecting them from the meddling of a bunch of well-meaning happy-clappy liberals. No. Is in the interests of the rich that ‘the people’ – on whom their alleged-sovereignty depend – be encouraged to be as pliable, and as politically disengaged, as is humanly possible. And it is in the interests of the rich, and only in the interests of the rich, that ‘the people’ – on whom their allegedly-legitimate violence depend – be as utterly immobilized by fear, or exhausted by commuting, or filled up with highly-refined-GM-anti-sustenance, as the many arms of their media and fast-food empires can muster.

But for all the darkness that pervades our experience as capital exerts its vice-like, and increasingly ungloved, grip on our body politic. For all that it attempts to use the current crisis to eviscerate those organs of our polity that still speak of the people’s interests in terms other than brute economic survivalism, there are some who are no longer buying what it is they have to sell. There are some, born after the post-Thatcher political waste-land in which I was raised, out there, on the streets, sticking their hands to the windows of Topshop, and being arrested in large numbers in the shop that sells the Queen’s marmalade. What do they care for the wedding of the next-but-one King, or for the Home Secretary’s shrieking about the threat to democracy posed by black-balaclavad hoodlums throwing paint at cashpoints? What do they say when some BBC hack insists that they recognize the legality of not paying your taxes on a massive scale? They simply remind us that political legitimacy, and the law in which it clothes itself, has now traveled far far away from anything most people would recognize as common decency or basic justice. That if democracy is to mean anything, it must provide, at the very least, the possibility of speaking the interests of ‘the people.’ And that it is only, ever, as an emissary of this justice that a government can claim to be our representative, and suggest that, as such, we should assent to their authority.

Enjoy the wedding...but be careful with the cake!

This post is part of the 'Carnival of Republicanism' series


  1. Two remarks: 1. You're certainly right about the arbitrariness of popular sovereignty. This is why immigration debates are so facinating. You can't really have a debate about immigration without reflecting on what it is that makes one a proper member of 'the people.' This tends to cause the immigration debate to divide into two camps: 1) nationalist chauvinists who have no qualms about drawing a sharp distinction between 'us' and 'them,' usually with some racist overtones and occasionally some lines about 'our' deep connection to the soil (blut und boden!), and 2) liberal universalists who insist that 'they' are not so different from 'us,' which is the truth, but which nonetheless causes considerable uneasiness since as soon as one realizes that 'they' are not so different from 'us' one must ask why we have drawn a line in the sand and declared that the great north is legally off limits to anyone south of that line. In other words, as soon as one realizes the truth (viz. that 'they' are not so different from 'us'), it is only a matter of time before one recognizes that the boundaries of nation-states are wholly arbitrary. This is, I think, why conservatives usually win the immigration debate. Most people implicitly recognize that the liberal (in the American sense of the word) position undermines the legitimacy of the state by revealing it to be based in-part on brute, arbitrary force. This tends to make people uncomfortable, so they usually fall back on a moderately conservative position. Interestingly, the arbitrariness inherent in the notion of 'a people' even comes out in the most technically sophisticated debates over the economic effects of immigration. The main issue in these debates is whether or not an influx of unskilled workers will hurt 'native' unskilled workers by pushing down wages and increasing unemployment. This is, no doubt, an interesting question without an easy answer. What is facinating, though, is that the technical economic debate always takes place within the assumption that the interests of native workers are more important than the interests of foreign workers. In other words, it is assumed that immigration is to be opposed if it has negative effects on the well-being of native workers, regardless of whatever positive effects it might have for the immigrants. The assumption at work here (that the well-being of a native person is more important than the well-being of a foreigner) is one that only flies in this particular context (granted it crops up in the context of war as well, but it is more commonly questioned in this context).

  2. 2. You make good use of Rousseau, but I wonder if Locke isn't the more important figure to turn to in order to make sense of the current political climate. For Locke there is no need for a notion of the will of the people because the legitimacy of the state doesn't derive from the fact that it represents the will of the people. Rather, it derives from the fact that it protects private property and individual liberty. From the mindset of the Lockean libertarian it is not a problem that the state serves the interests of the wealthy and cuts back on social provisions. Indeed, this is precisely what Lockean justice demands. The Lockean framework also helps us understand the globalized character of the business elite. Since the Lockean libertarian sees the state as little more than an administrative body charged with the duty to protect property and ensure liberty, he feels little loyalty to the state or to his fellow citizens. If the U.S. tax structure is too harsh, then he will move his company to China or Brazil and he will build his next home in Cabo instead of San Diego. The result is a neoliberal race to the bottom in which nation-states have to compete for coorporations (and the jobs that come with them) by promising low taxes and lax regulations. The social welfare state is an inevitable casualty.

  3. David Welgus! Firstly, thank you for your considered and considerate comments. Secondly, I never thought I'd see the day, but your first comment is almost a perfect encapsulation of Derrida's analysis of the double-bind of democratic hospitality, its exclusions, and the arbitrary violence by which it is maintained in significant respects...exactly in the process of the both literal and figurative line drawing around 'the people', and also, as with questions of 'integrationism' vs. 'multiculturalism' through what people are expected to do - the ways in which they must translate or amend themselves - in order to be considered part of 'the people' or as Derrida calls them 'subjects-in-law,' ...citizenship exams, not wearing burquas or head-scarfs etc., being only the most obvious examples. No one is suggesting that there are any alternatives to democratic constitutionalism, but it seems clear that, while the gap between law and justice is, in some sense, unbridgeable - the state will always have to turn to universal calculability - it is necessary, always, to recognize the many many ways in which the mechanisms of law are not, and cannot be, fundamentally, just...and that, as such, the state's presence otherwise should rightly be treated with contempt by those who are concerned with justice. This is, at least, the first precondition of moving towards justice, even as we know it is a place we can never actually get to. Anyway, now I'm probably getting too Derridean for you...but I did want you to let you know that your thinking and that of 'the punk' are not so far away after all...

    As for Locke, this is helpful, I have always avoided him, because, as your little summary suggests, he is kind of an arse... Rousseau, for all his faults, by contrast, has his heart in firmly the right place...and it interests me how the legacy of that love and yearning for a free citizenry has served to obscure aspects of our current situation. But yes, I think you're right, probably there are both things going on at the same time, a somewhat romantic notion of popular sovereignty - which serves to conceal certain dyanamics of power - and a more straightforwardly Lockean idea about the protection of private property. It would seem the Tea Party have bought into both...and I think this is only possible if one thinks that the 'will of the people' and the 'interests of the rich' are the same rather than contradictory... this, I guess, is the great victory of neoliberalism...making the many identify the interests of the rich as their interests...There seems to be a number of ways this is done, some kind of Hobbesian fear-mongering, mixed with sociobiology (the fitness of the group is the fitness of its fittest members), cut with a side of trickle-down and then the whole joe-the-plumber aspirationalism...its really an amazing achievement, and the great tragedy of our time...

    Anyways dears, thanks again...

  4. 2 quotes: 'A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors' (Karl Deutsch). I came across this quote while reading one of Avi Shlaim's books on Israel/Palestine. I think it was in the context of researching the Israel/Palestine conflict that I realized the impossibility of giving a good answer to either of the two following questions: a. when does a group of individuals constitute 'a people'? (the chief rabbinate spends countless hours trying to determine what makes someone a 'jew' and many people still don't accept the notion of a 'Palestinian people'--they invented their 'nation' too recently, you see. To be a real 'people' you must have invented your nation long, long ago...or, ideally, been chosen by god) b. What gives one 'people' the exclusive right to a particular chunk of land? There is simply no non-arbitrary, unproblematic answer to this question (partly because it demands an answer to the first question). Anyway, long story short, what I find intellectually fascinating about the Israel/Palestine conflict is the fact that these difficult questions, which frame so much of world politics but are usually kept in the background (since nobody ever challenges the Italian's right to Italy or the French people's right to France), are the central issues of contention. Moreover, given the widespread rejection of the most convincing answer to the second question (viz. that none of us created the earth so we all have an equal right to all of it--which isn't to reject the notion of positive property rights but to understand that these rights are a means to an end and not, as Locke would have it, the foundation of political justice), the boundaries of nation-states are determined by little more than brute force and arbitrary agreements (necessary to avoid war, to be sure, but arbitrary nonetheless). The West (with the exception of the Balkan areas and northern Ireland) agreed after WWII to accept the status quo boundaries as given and these boundaries are legitimate insofar as abiding by such agreements is necessary in order to avoid war. These agreements do not, however, rest on any higher principles connecting 'a people' to 'a land' and in the absence of the will to draw arbitrary lines in the sand and respect those lines you end up with a situation like Israel/Palestine; namely, a situation where national boundaries and land rights are determined by brute force alone--sometimes with an attempt to maintain an air of legality (e.g. Israel, under international law, is required to adopt the legal code of the last sovereign non-occupying power to rule over the West Bank, which would be...drumroll...The Ottoman Empire. Yes, land rights in the West Bank are determined largely by the Ottoman legal code, with Israel standing in for the sultan).

  5. Second quote: 'Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarilly embarrassed millionaires' (attributed, perhaps spuriously, to John Steinbeck). I don't have any extensive commentary for this quote, I just like it a lot.