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Friday, November 18, 2005

Mormon Bigamists and Other Organic Intellectuals

Wow, a whole blog on post-hegemony.  Do follow the link in Jon’s first comment to my last post—or the link I’ve just provided.  He provides a great critique of cultural studies and the notion of hegemony.  Here’s just one line to give you the flavor:  “Populism enables a series of substitutions that fetishize culture at the expense of the institutional, and establish transcendence and sovereignty in place of immanent process and micropolitical struggles.”

I come neither to praise cultural studies nor to bury it, and am mostly sorry for the red herring of the Hall quote.  Because the issue I am groping toward has nothing to do with populism, which (as the commentators have rightly pointed out) has no set content.  I am not playing the time-honored and now discredited game of the leftist intellectual looking desperately for some hint of his own views in the “people.” The Mark Hewitt example (and I don’t know the guy, who would be more than bemused to see the thoughts that I have spun off from that one encounter with him) is in the interest of form, not content.  And the Hall quote was to give me the concept/fantasy of the “organic,” not to derive some effective—and righteous—political power from the “grassroots.”

Let me try to explain.  (I’m having trouble here because I’m groping toward something I can find satisfying, as both an explanation of the current state of politics and as an avenue to pursue in the search for effective interventions.) The fantasy of the organic in my case is not about populism, it’s about (to use Yeats’s phrase) “unity of being.” Hewitt’s opinions (as I am glossing them) grew out of his experiences; that’s the organic part (note the metaphor of “growing” in the first half of the sentence.) But—and this is a big but—those opinions don’t have much of an outlet in practice.  Recognizing that the economic world, as currently organized, allows him to be a potter and denies others that work does not change what he does—or the markets to which he sells.  The opinions don’t go anywhere.  Similarly, I don’t feel like my opinions go much of anywhere—beyond their expression in print and in the blogosphere.  The “form” of what I do—teach my classes, write letters of recommendation, sit on various committees, try to get some writing done, etc.—would be no different if I had Glenn Reynold’s opinions.  I say my piece and write the occasional check to Amnesty International, the Human Rights Campaign, and the other usual suspects.  So the fantasy is of a life in which one’s daily practices are the expression of, the enactment of, one’s politics. Am I being “micropolitical” in the various daily choices I make about how to treat my students, negotiate my institution, and do my writing?  Maybe.  But it doesn’t seem to add up to much.  And I can’t help feeling that the “difference” between me and the conservative professor down the hall (yes, we have one or two of them at UNC) in terms of daily practices is so slight that “micro” may be overstating the case.  That’s why organic farming and various local cooperatives came to mind when I first tried to write about this in October.  There’s a marked stepping out from the daily round.

That’s why I am interested in the “form” politics can currently take.  On the one hand, there is the “traditional” political arena of 1) taking over the party or 2) influencing the sitting government.  On the other hand, there is something that looks like a “counter-cultural” carving out of spaces and places to live differently. (And, yes, Mormon bigamists are as good examples of this as organic farmers.) Does this binary exhaust the possibilities?  Let’s hope not.  Does an attention to “immanent process and micropolitical struggles” point to another way to think—and to practice—politics?  Perhaps.  But I’m skeptical because it sounds so close to Edmund Burke or to Hegel to me.  There are complex processes that are beyond any purposive control; people struggle within the whole and their struggles do produce the future, but not in any way that they can consciously direct.  The flows sweep us along; we can’t expect to channel the flows, but are instead caught up in our own very partial, very incomplete understanding of what it is we are doing.  The cunning (current) of history (not reason, which is why it’s more like Burke than Hegel) is trans-human.  Or: play the immanence card hard enough and you end up, paradoxically, with a new transcendence unless you just accept pure randomness.  And I don’t see how you can get a politics out of pure randomness.

But enough theory.  My last post was, in fact, being driven by a much more mundane concern about how politics is now practiced in this country.  Let’s start with “influencing the government.” Who is doing that influencing? Paid professionals called lobbyists.  It matters not a whit whether they “believe” or even care about the causes they espouse.  Like good lawyers, their personal opinions are neither here nor there.  Being good at what they do, or the thrill of the game of getting as much as you can from a piece of legislation, would be just as acceptable, and productive, motives for their activities as political conviction. Organic political convictions of the sort I have been imagining, deeply felt and central to one’s identity, haven’t got a prayer against organized, well-funded, professional lobbying.  To even get a hearing requires time and money that you can’t get unless you jettison the way of life from which your convictions spring; politics is now a full-time job severed from any roots in ordinary life.  (There’s my romanticism; it’s not about populism; it’s about organicism.)

Here’s another practical worry along the same lines.  I think the large-scale demonstration has run its course.  The impact of the large civil-rights’ marches and the anti-war protests was significant.  They provided a way to by-pass parties and to address the sitting government directly.  (They also were effective ways to address the nation as a whole, to speak to the demos.) But the rhetoric of the mass demonstration no longer functions that way.  Politicians have become adept at paying them lip service as proof of the freedom to dissent in America and going on their merry way. The demos has tuned out, having grown used to the idea that there will be those who disagree noisily to various policies or actions.  I’d be interested in hearing your ideas about why the rhetorical and political effect of demonstrations has been lost, and on what alternatives there might be.  But my sense is that, for the current moment, the ability of citizens to address their government is just about zero.  Letters to one’s congress-person?  Letters to the editor?  A blog?  The Bush campaign’s decision to address itself only to vetted crowds of supporters perfectly captures how completely the channels of communication have been closed.  Only lobbyists and campaign donors need apply.

So that pushes those who wish to have some impact on the direction the nation is taking to the capture of a major party.  There, it would seem, one might actually gain some leverage.  That is certainly what various elements of the right—including, but not only, the Christian right—set out to accomplish. Their thought seems to have been: “we need to become the government ourselves, and the only way to do that is run for office (from school boards on up) and the only way to win when you run for office is to be the candidate of a major party.” If you read the leftist blogs, there is little effort put into influencing the sitting government.  It is mostly about paving the way for a change to Democratic rule—and worrying/strategizing about how to get the Democrats to do what the particular blogger wants once it does regain power (from my lips to God’s ear.)

The history of the Republican Party over the past 30 years is interesting in this regard.  The party elites have had to bend to the Christian pressure, but they have not broken.  They have, as Tom Frank tells us, used the Christian right for their own ends more than that religious right has managed to change the party—or its policies once in power.  But that hardly means the religious right has not had any successes, and it hardly means that their choice of tactics was misguided.  What other choice did they have? 

That’s the question.  What other choices are there for doing politics, since these two macro-ways present all kinds of difficulties, not least among them the time and money required to pursue them, so that one, almost necessarily, becomes a professional politician once embarking down either road, and thus loses any “organic” connection to the life (the way of life, the beliefs and practices) for which one wages the struggle in the first place.  That’s where I will try to go in the next post. 

Posted by John McGowan on 11/18 at 01:14 PM
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