June 21, 2008

Sheldon Wolin 101

Ever wonder about privately-owned-public-space?

Notes taken from a recent reading of Sheldon S. Wolin's Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Expanded Edition, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Both Plato and Aristotle addressed how various institutions and constituencies of Athenian life, (elected office, trade, education, ethics, war, and the militia,) were interrelated in a uniquely political way. How citizens were to be raised and educated, how and for what purpose resources were to be used, what and who posed a threat to the Athenian order, what the collective priorities were to be, etc., were all questions pertaining to the well being of the polis. Politics also entailed active participation in the important legislative and judicial deliberations of the day. In fact, for Aristotle, the noblest activity of all was to do politics. Citizenship was not only distinct from other human activities, such as physical labor, commercial trade, and the taking care of the household; it was actually bound to the “nature” of men. “Man is by nature an animal intended to live in the polis.” It connoted the right of an individual to live in the only form of association that allowed, and even encouraged, the development of Man’s “natural” capacities to the fullest. Politics “existed for the sake of a good life.”

Over the centuries and from a variety of sources, this classical rendering of “the political” gradually became fragmented and thinned out by a whole array of historical developments, religious concerns, economics, and what Hannah Arendt eventually referred to as “the social.” For centuries efforts to depoliticize were most obvious in the typical narrowing of “the political” into mere matters of “government”. Here the classical economists and Utilitarians took their inspiration and cues largely from Adam Smith and John Locke who laid the foundation not only for keeping economic arrangements distinct from political questions but for also fashioning bodies of specialized knowledge in market economics and ethics to address issues with minimal reference politics.

And so by the early decades of the nineteenth century economic theory had begun to demand for itself the task of shouldering the burden of providing what was good for the whole of society. Similar attacks upon “the political” were initiated by sociologists, like Comte and Durkheim as well as Socialists such as Saint-Simon and Proudon. Even Karl Marx rejected “the political” as a bourgeois distraction. These trends were only intensified later by the early industrial managerial strategists, as well as the scientists and psychologists. To reject the state meant denying the central referent of the political – citizenship, obligation, general authority – without pausing to consider that the strategy of withdrawal might further enhance state power. Political theories that were retained by classic liberalism and modern scientific thought consistently worked to destroy the idea that society ought properly to be considered as an interconnected whole, and that its general life was best expressed through political forms. In this way, the political order has come to occupy the status of residuary legatee, shouldering those tasks which other groups or organizations are unwilling or unable to perform. The hope was to steadily reduce the number of political functions, and always the attempt to add one more political function to the “interest group.”

The narrowing and neutering of political life that was brought about by the emergence of homo economicus not only led to the blurring of the “public/private” distinction but the eventual encroachment into and takeover of political space altogether. Today, as Ralph Nader has put it ad infinitum, political arenas have indeed become “corporate occupied territory” dominated by powerful “private” institutions which either make public actors fend largely for themselves or, even sadder, make them utterly dependent on these interests. All the important functions and responsibilities which would be relegated as public responsibilities are thus “outsourced” through “government contracts” to “private” agencies and actors with little, if any, public scrutiny. Yet despite this institutional and “ideological” takeover, it is very important to at least theoretically recognize roles such as infrastructure, the military, taxes, law, education, the IRS, the courts, voting machines, the EPA, Social Security, endowments, funding, the police, state investments, etc., as uniquely political priorities and public goods even if the realpolitik to facilitate them does not exist at this time.

“Public” space today may certainly be “social” space for people to inhabit but it is not space for active citizenship – for free gathering, free assembly, free petition, and free speech. It is used instead mostly for commercial activity with surveillance cameras and, when necessary, the police because it has been greatly severed from political experience. As avenues for political action and public debate become less and less, are we to just keep our mouths shut and hide our heads in the sand, and hope our corporate masters take care of us? In these ways, it can be said that political theorists try to call attention to the politicalness of phenomena by bringing together the truly public inter-connectedness between various institutions and realms, and designate public what otherwise is ordinarily deemed either private, disconnected, or in fact, broken. What is public is not simply “social” or “economic” nor specifically confined to state institutions but a whole range of social networks and discourses which make a political life - especially state power and all that it legitimizes, promotes, defends, invests in, as well as censures – possible.

No comments: