Can You Have Politics Without People? Research Time, 19/03/2014

Apologies for two days without posting. There’s been some shenanigans with my internet connection as I coordinate everything running smoothly over apartment-moving weekend. Who knew how difficult this would get if we were moving farther than a block away? I shudder to think, sir.

But Sunday’s reflections on the broad issues I see in political philosophies that concentrate on the state and human rights were inspired by my reading an old book on anarchism (they’ll get older soon, as well) by Robert Paul Wolff. In Defence of Anarchism was the first text I came to as I turned my Utopias project research to the anarchist tradition itself (which I see, in general outline for now, as a rebuke to ideological politics, when it’s conceived best). If Wolff’s book can account for anything throughout the history of anarchism, it’s that the individual human subject stands at the centre of it. 

I mean, that’s generally true of all traditional political thought, so it’s really not much to say that. But as for justifying Wolff’s anarchism, he does so through an argument with which I sympathize and agree wholeheartedly. Consider that the relationship of a citizen to their state is one of obedience. I’ve heard the death penalty justified this way by a man who called himself a political liberal: because a citizen submits to his state, the state has the right to take that citizen’s life, if the process unfolds according to its laws. I am against the death penalty as we conceive of it today because I find this notion repugnant and horrifying. 

The other principle, which comes inevitably into conflict with any duty to obey the state, is the autonomy of each person, the ability to control their actions and justify their decisions such that they take responsibility for what they do. I can’t be responsible if I submit my powers to my state, but to absolve myself of responsibility is the most profound debasement of my individuality. The problem of democracy, as Wolff puts it in this nearly-half-century-old book, is the attempt to justify the submission of autonomous people to a state. No mass of people can be adequately represented in all their views by a single parliamentarian or councillor (and that doesn’t even include the autonomy of that representative herself, who is still an individual citizen). The only system of relatively large-scale governance that preserves the autonomy of all its citizens is the direct democracy that governs by consensus. But that’s so fragile that it can only work for small assemblies, and only so long as the community is uniform enough in its culture and political beliefs not to have any irresolvable disputes. Practically, there can be no such communities. 

So the turn to anarchism is a negative turn — if you have convinced yourself that no system of governance can maintain the autonomy of people, then no system of governance can be truly legitimate, even as the new traditions of H. L. A. Hart and John Rawls* dream of and strive towards or even presume the legitimation of representative democracy with a relatively free press and civil society. I have convinced myself of this.

* Yes, Hart and Rawls themselves are part of ongoing traditions of liberal philosophy that most of us in our classes learn truly began in the modern era with John Locke. I consider Rawls and Hart as having started traditions because of their epoch-making status in the last few generations. Since Hart, the field of legal philosophy in the Anglo-American world blossomed, and all legal theorists in this world still operate in his shadow. One of my professors at McMaster was one of Hart’s last doctoral students. Same goes for Rawls; his ideas don’t dominate Anglo-American political philosophy in the same way as Hart does legal theory, but every new development in this world has been a reaction or a correction to Rawls. How you feel about Rawls defines your place in this world.

However much hope we may have held in the Occupy movement to change
our politics and our world, what has remained with us is the spectre of its
failure. The a-personal forces of contemporary politics were ultimately
too big, even for 99% of us to occupy at once.
But one point in Sunday’s post cannot make me a complete anarchist either: that the economics of a globalized world moving at a pace as fast as ours overpower most states. They would certainly overpower assemblies of autonomous people. There can be no kibbutz in the same world as George Soros and Warren Buffett. No communes are safe from the wolves of Wall Street. Only the state offers any hope of protecting what little autonomy and responsibility people have left from the tsunamis of globalized capital flows. It may be a powerful state like the United States, the People’s Republic of China, or the Russian Federation. It may be a madly chaotic and disorganized state like the Republic of India. The a-personal aspects of our political world (trillion-dollar-per-day capital flows) overpower the personal (our autonomy as individual people to take responsibility for our actions). 

The Utopias project, like all other large projects I’ve embarked on, has had hazy and amorphous goals at the beginning. I’ve cast around for concepts and coordinators. But I think this is where a lot of the research on totalitarianism (the society of the mass man), violent social revolution (the sacrifice of present people for a future paradise), and genuine utopian visions (the satisfaction of personal autonomy and responsibility) come together in a single conflict. 

How do we preserve the person in an era where the fundamental forces of politics have become fundamentally a-personal? Can we? Should we?

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