Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Your Hate Pure, Or, Out By The Gas Fires From The Refinery

Lincoln is a film about the dirty business of doing the right thing, about the costs, both human and moral, of fighting injustice. Lincoln himself of course ends by bearing some small portion of those costs, though nonetheless greater than any of the other characters the film spends any time with. His historical grandeur, his secular sanctity, is only increased by his nicely self-aware habit of breaking into homespun homilies whenever faced with and resolving political and so appropriately large scale difficulties: it's notable his confrontations with his wife involve no such storytelling; we see he knows it's an act, even if one right at the core of his power, one that he could not avoid, would have used whatever public role he found himself in. That habit of reducing political decisions to the level of folk wisdom seems to me to make it difficult for him to bring to light the tensions involved in the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment or indeed any attempt to drag a people who cannot agree on what it is towards justice. Folk wisdom does not have room for tragedy, or only at a distance; it smooths and reconciles, does not linger on the path not taken, is not bitter or disenchanted.

For me then, the scenes which best capture the dilemmas the film tries to make real are those when Thaddeus Stevens lies before the House of Representatives about his commitment to equality. To retain the support of moderates, Stevens is forced to pretend that he and other supporters of the amendment do not intend to do more than free slaves, not to allow them to vote for example. Although he pleasingly illustrates the possibility of believing someone entitled to the equal protection of the laws while holding them in contempt by using the leader of his opponents, who has made him tell lies in public, as an example of someone in exactly that position as he ends his time on the floor, his insincerity is obviously difficult for him. None of his usual rhetoric is present: the sentences are short, declarative. Yet when a junior member of his coalition, a nobody he has already suffered criticism from for being willing to work with Lincoln, finds him sat outside the chamber later, and begins to question his performance, he is quick to make clear why it had to be made. The war and its dead, and the futility of accepting only perfection rather than what a coalition can be mobilised behind excuse his betrayal of his ideals. It is a betrayal though, and he knows it. His bitterness is in the speed, the contempt of his reply. That is the dirty business of politics. Lincoln himself is too unworldly to feel those costs, at least in public. Stevens hates, and it is Stevens we are most like. Hate though, like other symptoms of injustice, eats you up. He died not long after the failed impeachment of Lincoln's successor, Johnson, over the Reconstruction.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Rage For Paper Money

Philip Pettit, the chief cheerleader for republicanism in contemporary political philosophy, is at best ambivalent about democracy, at least when it is understood in the usual sense of the picking and choosing of governments through elections in which the whole adult population has a vote. He prefers what he calls 'contestatory democracy', where everyone has the opportunity to contest, through various checks and balances, what legislative majorities decide on; that is, where governments and their policies are picked not by elections, but by elections constrained by institutions like Supreme Courts. I, as I have indicated before, am more than a little sceptical about this. Whatever Pettit may think about their tendencies to protect people from being dominated by legislative majorities, the US Supreme Court, say, is not after all an institution with such a great record on things like, oh, I don't know, preventing people being held in exactly the state republicans use as a paradigm of domination. What's interesting about this is that I think there may be an explanation for this, an explanation which, more, demonstrates that Pettit has not paid proper attention to the republican tradition.

Recall Rousseau, that terrible proto-totalitarian whom Pettit is at serious pains to distance himself from despite his centrality to the republican tradition. Rousseau is insistent that sovereignty cannot be divided, that the people must be sovereign and that that means that there must be no other powers entitled to limit its lawmaking power. This is because, as he puts it
“if individuals were left some rights… each, being judge in his own case on some issue, would soon claim to be so on all, the state of nature would subsist and the association necessarily become tyrannical or empty” (Social Contract, 1.6.7)
If the law doesn't govern everything, then it doesn't solve the coordination problem of getting out of the state of nature and its attendant violence and unpleasantness. More, the members of the sovereign wouldn't be free, since they wouldn't be obeyed laws they had made. Some of the rules they obeyed would be set by the rights retained from the state of nature, which they did not set. Of course, many of the rules they will set are exactly those rules that are supposed to govern our interactions in the state of nature; the reasons for thinking we ought not to be entitled to chop off each others limbs as we please are much the same whether or not we have a government, after all. Still, when they *set* them, they are theirs and so they are not bound by rules that are not theirs.

Pettit's contestatory democracy, of course, consists of putting limits on the people's legislative power. He explains this, in a 1999 piece entitled Republican Freedom and Contestatory Democratization, by arguing that the people as a collective are not the same as the people as a set of individuals. Fair enough; what we collectively will may not be what we all individually will, although one way of interpreting Rousseau is see him as saying that if we don't all individually will, at least in some sense, what we collectively will, then the possibility of decent, non-oppressive government is already gone, precisely because some of us are now living under laws we didn't will. What's interesting about Pettit's contestatory democracy is that he thinks giving everyone opportunities to try and exempt themselves from the general will solves this problem. 

All that does, though, is ensure that rather than the will of the democratic majority deciding the law, the will of some minority capable of mobilising the support of members of the political and social elite will decide the law. Pettit thinks this somehow involves the exercise of less arbitrary power than if majorities get what they want, as if giving one actor a power does not exclude another from having it. It's not an accident, it strikes me, that he has had to issue a culpa mea for failing to see how banks might be a bit of a problem for republicans when he takes his cues from people whose main concern, beyond the association between standing armies and despotism, seems to have been to prevent "improper and wicked projects" like the "an equal division of property" or the "abolition of debts". The question is, he has forgotten, if he ever knew, who coerces whom, and if it's not us, it'll certainly be them.