Saturday, March 15, 2008

And What Exactly Was The Question?

I'm not actually particularly interested in the fine details of or indeed the accuracy of the allegations which caused Samantha Power's resignation from Barack Obama's presidential campaign: that really would be a case of playing Kant at the court of King Arthur, I think, as Power maybe has found out. Nonetheless, when one is playing Kant, and one finds oneself, however reluctantly, placed in a world with disturbing similarities with bloodsoaked late-medieval reimaginings and relegitimations of norms of chivalry, with all the heirarchy and manicheanism that implies, the question of what exactly the f*ck you are supposed to do does arise. This weekend I was in Boston, having been invited by a friend to participate in a conference of advocates for a guaranteed basic income he was involved in organizing. Participants ranged from major figures in contemporary political philosophy and serious political players in Brazil (and elsewhere, it would appear: there should be a video on his website of him trying to make the cash for a basic income in Iraq to various Iraqi notables) to lowly graduate students like myself and various other lesser and equally marginal lifeforms. Not just Kant at the court of King Arthur, but King Arthur in Konigsberg, and both on the streets of Genoa, as well as various locations in between, some even designed to be congenial to at least most of the relevant parties.

One of the things that collecting this rather disparate group of people in one place to discuss what is basically a policy instrument did, for me at least, was illustrate the difference fixing context, of being sure exactly what question it is you think you're answering, makes. The combination of activists, respectably institutionalised political actors, and academics with more and less of a foot in either of those camps sometimes produced entirely predictable pieces of mutual confusion: not really even dialogues but rather just acts of witnessing, because the distance between the potential interlocutors was just too far for much productive conversation to take place. Which isn't at all to say that it wasn't productive, even for someone like me who is not particularly deeply attached to the cause of a citizens basic income: just that sometimes I felt that it wasn't really productive because of conversations, in the sense of dialogues, which took place amongst the three groups, but more because simply seeing that other contexts, other concerns, existed, even in the (much less) limited (than one would have thought) space around this one policy instrument. Sometimes, amongst other things, one needs to be reminded that not everyone is a political philosopher.

Sometimes, though, not fixing the context has costs. It's all very well understanding that there are a whole set of concerns swirling around the issue of unconditionally guaranteeing a basic income when one is having a meeting amongst people broadly sympathetic to doing so, even if they're not all sympathetic for the same sorts of reasons, but when confronting the public, who are not so sympathetic, letting it all hang out like that is dangerous. That, after all, is at least part of what cost Power her job: it wasn't just what she said, but that it was not what the Obama campaign in general were saying. Whilst others in the Obama campaign might well agree with the thought that Clinton is a monster - and of course part of the dishonesty of the whole thing is that everyone knows that others in the Obama campaign might well agree with the thought that Clinton is a monster, and yet no-one says it - they have tailored what they are saying to a particular context, that of American public political debate, and this has to discipline them in certain kinds of ways. Because public political debate is and ought to be about building coalitions around defined means to defined policy goals, you cannot stray too far from what the rest of the people you're trying to do that with are saying, or indeed smear your opponents in certain kinds of ways. Given the way Obama has campaigned as aiming at a new, more unifying, kind of politics, Power's effective dismissal of someone from the same party as inhuman couldn't be allowed to stand.

Undoubtedly, navigating through the various compromises that someone in Power's position has to is difficult, but it's always going to be necessary to get political power, because political power requires uniting disparate groups of people around particular policy instruments. If that didn't have to be done, then there'd be no politics, since there'd be no need to find agreement in the first place: politics exists because we don't automatically agree, and it is basically concerned with more and less coercive ways to get round that fact. In light of that, practically, the presentation of a united front - at least an agreement to disagree; a limit on the outright contradictions between the aims of the various parties to the relevant coalition - is a necessity in politics. In that sense, then, I think the people who are really deeply committed to a basic income who were at the conference are in trouble: the fact that they can't agree on why they want a basic income, what it is supposed to achieve, or even begin to create a mechanism for finding such an agreement, means that they're not going to be politically effective, since they've failed to meet even minimal criteria for political success. Neither did it seem to me that this problem existed only because of the disparate groups of people at the conference: on the plane over, the Brazilian senator told the conference he was talking to the person sitting next to him about basic income, and at the end of the flight, she said to him, 'you're the man who says, basic income is the answer, and then asks, what was the question'. That is a problem, it seems to me.

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