Thursday, October 25, 2012

Not Accessories

On Saturday I marched, as my union had asked me to, against the current government's austerity programme. It seems somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 other people did something similar in London, and a few tens of thousands elsewhere. In a country of 60 million, I suppose that's not that impressive, though it is a little more in a city around a tenth of that. On the march, I met some ex-students who seemed a little surprised I was there, though I think at least some of them must have seen me on a picket line earlier in the year. I think they were surprised because I haven't always been very supportive of forms of direct action they've been involved in; I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about UCL's 2010 Occupation, for example, which, whatever you thought of the Government higher education policies it opposed, seemed to have quite the wrong target and to be far too late; how, exactly, was inconveniencing UCL going to stop the coalition government increasing the amount graduates have to pay back once they've found work?

All this is by way of lengthy and digressive introduction to David Runciman's recent LRB piece on the Occupy movement. Occupy seems to me, and I should say here that this impression has been acquired at a distance, much of a piece with this kind of direct action, a sense reinforced by Runciman's careful but caustic deconstruction of the vacuous "we are the 99%" slogan. Political success, at least in the quasi-democracies we're familiar with, is about the mobilization of a sufficiently threatening coalition, and if 99% of us have consistently failed to manage to be a sufficiently threatening coalition over the past thirty-odd years, then that's presumably not because we couldn't be relied on to outnumber the other lot, to be sufficiently threatening. Instead, the problem is more likely to be do with drawing us together into a coalition; as Runciman points out, 99% results in favour of something are the marker of elections that weren't decided at the polls. The idea that there is a majority of that size in favour of something is naive, has failed to understand the circumstances of politics. Coalitions have to be built, built and then held together till their power can be applied to force whatever policy or programme they've been united behind through, typically in electoral contests but sometimes on the streets. Such agreement as can be found, given the inevitability of substantive disagreement, both moral and on the basis of interests, class and otherwise, will need to be used, and there's more or less nothing 99% of the population agree on; the desirability of continuing breathing, perhaps, and probably not much more.

And what did Occupy achieve, after all? For all that it was supposed to represent the 99%, it never got the 100,000 people on the streets that the TUC, with its membership slightly more than 10% of the UK population, could. Occupy and their ilk are hardly alone in this failure to understand what politics is, though; in fact, insofar as I have a professional project, it could be thought of as trying to reiterate, over and over again, how important the distinctive character of politics is for prescriptions about it. It's central to my tediously lengthy, almost obsessive and thus far largely ignored campaign against G. A. Cohen, for example, though he's far from the only offender. I've recently been reading a fair amount of contemporary republicanism, and it's full of it. Richard Dagger wants to shrink cities so as to make them amenable to being governed by something like the New England townhall meetings mythologised by Tocqueville; presumably he's less enthusiastic about the Salem witchtrails. Philip Pettit thinks that a central reform we need to enact in order to protect minorities against domination is to recreate the US Supreme Court across the world; maybe the Supreme Court's silence in the face of slavery or destruction of attempts to regulate the labour market in the Lochner era passed him by.

Neither has thought about what politics is actually like. In Dagger's case, he's forgotten that the small, homogeneous communities those governmental forms flourished in were sexist, racist, and subject to all kinds of vicious public surveillance; in Pettit's, he seems to think that the really important victims of domination in our world are the sort of people that the top echelons of the legal profession, elderly, mainly white and mainly male, are instinctively sympathetic to. On the basis of their work, contemporary republicanism seems to be little more than the delivery platitudes about the desirability of community and minority rights, as if there was nothing to be asked about the advantages of a little discord or of the people, rather than a subset of them, ruling, sometimes leavened with some slightly odd claims about a third theory of liberty. It's hardly Rousseau and his deliciously provocative claims about being forced to be free, all tied up with an awareness of the difficulty of sustaining a political community, of its costs, of the liberties that cannot continue to be held. It's probably not coincidental that neither Pettit nor Dagger are very good readers of Rousseau. They've none of his sense of who his enemies are, of his resentments. Knowing who your enemies are, though, is central to a political project; you need to pick your fights, and win them. As Schumpeter put it,the "psycho-technics of party management and party advertising, slogans and marching tunes [are] the essence of politics": without them, you don't mobilise. Occupy are at least in illustrious company in not seeing that.


Phil said...

You've been reading Pettit? I sympathise. I've read the book he wrote with John Braithwaite; very readable, but extremely chuckable-across-the-room. There's a great exchange of papers on the subject of 'just deserts' between Pettit and Braithwaite, on one hand, and Andrew Ashworth and Andrew von Hirsch on the other. It goes something like this:

P&B: "Look at this! If we imagine this, then *this*! And with a quick handwave, this and also *this*! I thank you."
A&von H: "Not sure. It seems to us that you've glossed over all these important points and haven't said anything at all about *these* ones. Also, your argument doesn't seem to make sense."
P&B: "But also, *this*! And let's pause here to consider this entire new theory of justice which we've just come up with! Once again, I thank you."
A&von H: "What is this wibble? You haven't answered any of our criticisms. And besides, you're still not making sense."

I didn't think Pettit came out terribly well. He probably didn't notice, though.

I wouldn't be quite so hard on Occupy - I think it was at least potentially interesting, for as long as they were actually getting in people's way. They clearly didn't build on that moment, though.

Rob Jubb said...

I guess I think that the set-up meant they were never going to build on temporarily getting in peoples' way. What was their programme? Whom were they applying pressure to? How were they applying pressure? Politics is about organization, and they made a virtue of their lack of it.

Pettit is odd. Some of his work - on the conditions for group agency - is really very good, but his radar is just really badly off on lots of other things: he's profoundly anti-democratic and thinks that the enforcement of property rights doesn't count as interference, for example. And he can be a little messianic, as if he and he alone can lead a discipline into the promised land. I can well believe he screwed up the work on punishment. Incidentally, someone I know was Ashworth's postdoc for a couple of years; he seemed to quite like working with him.

enzo rossi said...

Couldn't agree more on the distinctive character of politics. I'm in the early stages of an anti Cohen/Estlund piece along those lines, which I will send you once I have a draft of sorts.

Rob Jubb said...


send it to me. You might want to have a look at Patrick Tomlin's recent Political Studies Review piece on Estlund's Utopophobia. It does the same sort of "don't offer solutions which start by imagining away the problem" line I'd guess you want to take.

enzo rossi said...

Ha, I think I refereed that!

Rob Jubb said...

Well, then you will know how good it is.

Ed said...

Rob have you read Pettit's co-authored book on the influence his republicanism had on the government in Spain? I think it'll add to your general disagreement.

Rob Jubb said...


I'd forgotten about that; I'll add it to the list of things I should read before teaching this stuff after Christmas, though that list also includes quite a lot of the relevant historical texts which I should probably look at first.