Monday, June 2, 2014

Critiquing Obama from the Enlightened Left

Every time we hear of a new incident of Obama administration lawlessness, we have to wonder.  Do liberals really not see this as a problem?

We know what is going on.  The news media and the cultural czars reckon that Obama and the liberal activists and the Democratic Party have their heart in the right place and so the corner-cutting on Obamacare, the bogus wait-list scam at the VA, the ludicrous exchange of several Taliban leaders for a US deserter, all these are just friction.  The Obamis know the media feels this way, so they figure that they can get away with anything.

But they might look behind them, because it's one thing to roll over the law when you are winning.  It's another thing to violate the law to cover up your mistakes.

I get where the liberals are coming from.  They are on a mission to create a peaceful and just society, and they know that what with the racists, sexists, and homophobes out there, that there is very little time left in the Obama administration to fight inequality and save the planet.

So liberals lose sight of the fact that the USA is a society, not a church, and its job is not to right all wrongs but a rather more modest goal: to keep people out of the streets.

The purpose of laws and constitutions and rules of law is not to hamstring good liberal governance, but to keep the opposition from flooding into the streets.

Let's make this even clearer.  Suppose that all liberals are good guys and all conservatives are evil racists.  Liberals should still govern according to law and not cut corners because when the government cuts corners the opposition starts to get really angry.  It starts to wonder if the governing party will cancel the next election.  It starts organizing for civil war.

So here is my question: What's the point of cutting corners on the fight against inequality and saving the planet if the nation dissolves into civil war and we all start blowing each other up?

There are, of course, two lefty governing narratives.  One is the Fabian Society/Progressive era narrative that educated, progressive people are "nature's noblemen" and therefore ought to rule.  Noemie Emery beautifully captures the fatuity of the movement with this:
They had a dream. For almost a hundred years now, the famed academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex has dreamed of a government run by their kind of people (i.e., nature’s noblemen), whose intelligence, wit, and refined sensibilities would bring us a heaven on earth. Their keen intellects would cut through the clutter as mere mortals’ couldn’t. They would lift up the wretched, oppressed by cruel forces. Above all, they would counter the greed of the merchants, the limited views of the business community, and the ignorance of the conformist and dim middle class.
The only problem is that government, any government, is force, and politics is division, dividing the electorate in half, so every new government program replaces voluntary cooperation with force.  The reason that the academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex is in trouble is that, stripped of its kindly librarian image, it is force.  Meanwhile the whole point of social animals is to reduce the expense and the incidence of force to a minimum.

The other narrative is the revolutionary tradition associated with Marx.  The Marxists made the argument that even if the middle-class governments of the 19th century obeyed the law it was still unacceptable, because exploitation, and therefore revolution was the only remedy.  But Marxism ran into problems.

By the end of the 19th century it was clear that, even if the bourgeoisie were beasts and that 19th century government was nothing but the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, the workers were not getting "immiserated" but were actually prospering in a modest way.  If that were true then maybe revolution wasn't the answer.

By 1920 it was clear that the workers of the world identified first with their homelands and only second with their class.   By 1940 it was clear that the bourgeoisie wasn't the only power center dealing out exploitation.  You had Bolsheviks not just bullying but killing people by the millions.  By 1950, you could add fascists and Nazis to that list.  By 1970 you could add the Maoists.

So the thinking Marxist had to rethink.  What had gone wrong with the Enlightenment and the revolutionary projects?  That's what "critical theory" and the Frankfurt School was all about.  The marquee effort of the early Frankfurt School was The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.  Writing in California during World War II as refugees from Germany, they wondered if the problem wasn't in the very nature of the 18th century Enlightenment, for "What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men."  They also observed how the conversation in the public square of the 18th century coffeehouse had become institutionalized in the propaganda blasts of mass media.

Some of the Frankfurt Schoolers were just lefty charlatans.  I am thinking of the New Left's darling Herbert Marcuse and his specious doctrine of "Repressive Tolerance."

But then we come to my guy Jürgen Habermas.  A student of Adorno, he is acutely conscious of how the average German just went along with the Hitlerian crimes, just going along to get along.  And he appreciates how even the welfare state has is authoritarian aspects.  What is left then of "enlightenment and emancipation" in such a world?

In the 1960s Habermas tried to locate "critical theory" within a triad of "interest" in Knowledge and Human Interests.  According to Thomas McCarthy in The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas the technical interest is about developing knowledge in the natural sciences in the "behavioral system of instrumental, feedback-monitored action".  He takes up C.S. Peirce's pragmatism about developing knowledge that is reliable "in arriving at beliefs that future events will confirm rather than render problematic".  Good knowledge helps humans be successful in their interactions with nature.

The practical interest is about developing knowledge as a social project:
the dimension in which concepts, methods, theories, and so forth are discussed and agreed upon, in which the framework of shared meanings, norms, values, and so on is grounded, is the dimension of symbolic interaction that is neither identical with nor reducible to instrumental action.
We climate deniers can see how the practical interest applies to "settled" climate science.  It's not just science, it's a community of scientists.

Then there is "critical theory" and its emancipatory interest.  On Habermas' reading, the Enlightenment itself was supposed to be emancipatory. Thus: "Emancipation by enlightenment required the will to be rational." Thus Kant's sapere aude! to have the courage to use your own reason. Habermas traces the theme of emancipation through Fichte, Hegel, Marx.  Yet these thinkers could not stop the positivist movement that reduced the scope of reason so that "reason became scientific reason."  But the point of critical theory is to look at the existing structure of power, of received notions about reality and forms of life, and to reflect upon them.  It is the struggle to be free of the chains of the past.

Of course "critical theory" was tremendous fun for lefties when the criticism was all about the bourgeoisie and capitalism and whacking away at the patriarchy and institutional racism.  But our liberal friends are noticeably reticent when it comes to a reflective attitude towards their own tradition and its narratives.

For instance, one might ask: how much is left of enlightenment and emancipation in a society that taxes its citizens out of 35-40 percent of their daily labor?  There seems to me to be an "emancipatory interest" in reflecting upon the dominatory aspects of an authoritarian state that minutely taxes and regulates every citizen up the ying-yang.  We might profitably read Habermas, who says that we must balance the "systems" aspects of capitalism and bureaucracy with the intersubjectivity and discourse of equals in the "lifeworld."

Just how much intersubjectivity and discourse is going on in Obama's America when liberal bullies are out everywhere demanding that people "check their privilege" when they are not falling on their fainting couches when some ageing billionaire says nasty things to his 30-ish mistress?

I was reading a piece today in which the writer suggested that either President Obama doesn't know what he is doing or, more problematic, he does know.  My guess is that at a tactical level, President Obama does know what he is doing, and he doesn't care that he is tearing up the Constitution and the rule of law.  But at at a much higher level he has no clue about the nightmare he is setting up for his party and the nation.

Either way, what's really needed in America is a genuine "critical theory" that looks at the embedded social and cultural structures not just of "advanced capitalism" and mass media but at the whole "academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex."

Because if you ask me the present ruling class of the academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex really has no clue what it is doing to America.  Today we have Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (H/T saying that the new EPA standards to reduce coal plant emissions "will strengthen public health, create new jobs, spur innovation and lower electricity rates."

Can she really believe that?  If she doesn't, then she is just a canting politician.  If she does believe it, then it's "Houston, we have a problem."

No comments:

Post a Comment