How are we to translate our political ideals and ethical values into reality in our everyday lives? How do we move from present realities—an imperfect world in which there is plenty of good, but also far too much that could be improved upon—to realistic future possibilities—a world towards which we think we should be moving, and toward which some movement is possible. These questions are based on a sense of optimism and hope about trying to change the world, without lapsing into utopian or unrealistic thinking. It is not an easy path to follow. We have limited powers, and the issues we are talking about here are big ones: injustice, poverty, war, environmental degradation, Martin Luther King’s dream of racial harmony and equality. These are not issues we can just “take care of” in some immediate, tangible way, in the way we can do things like finish a term paper or cook a meal. This reality of our limited powers is integral to the modern experience—how individuals with limited powers can take meaningful action in a very big and complicated world full of much sorrow and unspeakable horror. (I’m drawing here on Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, Arendt and The Human Condition, and her notion of “thinking what we do,” and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism and call for embracing the “sublime madness in the soul” that inspires action in the face of the seemingly insurmountable odds.)
The aim of this project to provide guidelines for taking action that is not pointless or useless, but fits within a framework that provides one with a sense of agency—the feeling of empowerment and direction. These are issues many of us are grappling with or, if not now, will be grappling with over the course of our lives. It is grounded in an ethos of problem-solving, and the sensibilities of a builder. Human are, among many other things, builders and problem-solvers. Regardless of our political affiliations or ideologies, we mostly want to live decent lives, free from pain and disease and privation and oppression. We experience these things, and try to find new ways to avoid them; some of these new developments work; others fail miserably. We try new ways. Those that really work, last and become institutionalized. Like the pyramids, certain human structures stand the test of time; others (like the six other “wonders of the ancient world” that no long exist) don’t fare so well.
We can think of various institutions that have thrived: the major religions, for instance, are popular and work well at providing their adherents with answers to “life’s unanswered questions.” Anesthetics and antibiotics—keepers! Fossil fuel—jury’s still out (a mixed blessing with mounting costs). Cities seem to all the rage; indoor plumbing, the internet—likely to be around. The idea of limited government and accountability; the nation state. And so on. We come up with ideas and see how they work, and if they work well, we keep doing them.
Typically, in political science, and in public life, we think of this kind of project (seeking justice and world peace and ending hunger) as “political”—as something that takes place in the realm of the polis, the public forum, the halls of Congress, or at the ballot box—and certainly much of it does. This is the view of politics generally characterized as “small-r” republican; of action taken in a republic, or a society of self-governing citizens. This is the kind of virtuous civic engagement promoted by Aristotle, by Machiavelli in his Discourses on the Roman Republic, by early American political theorists and practitioners like Jefferson and Paine, and in a very different vein by revolutionaries and leaders such as Marx & Engels, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Luxenburg, Lenin, Che, Sandino, Mao, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the youth of the Arab Spring.
This is a view of political action with which I have great affinity and which I encourage and support and for which I have great hopes. After Tahrir, I made it a priority to bring students there to experience what a place in the midst of dramatic political upheaval is like. I in no way want to denigrate or discourage or downplay the importance of this form of political action and engagement. But, back on campus in Minneapolis in the early 21st Century, I have not always found this form of political action satisfying or sustainable. It is marked by periods of intense activity: what we might call a politics of the extraordinary—the march on Washington, the quadrennial election, the big conference, the next revolution that never seems to arrive quite yet (at least here in American, or here in this cosmopolitan corner of the Upper Midwest, even with the “Occupy” movements of 2011-12). This is the “contentious politics” that Sidney Tarrow analyzes; the politics of the movement, that rises and falls in long cycles, driven by large-scale historical dynamics. At certain times in history this kind of huge change is possible. It is difficult to know when those big changes will come, when, in Marx’s poetic phrasing, “all that is solid melts into air” as happened at the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even after the revolutions, we find that not all that much has changed–just a different set of despots–Napoleon replacing the Sun King.
And in many ways, this kind of action can also be a distraction, sometimes hypocritical or unreflective, something that is hard to maintain over the long term—a flash in the pan. We go to the protest or write the letter to the President, and then “go back to our lives,” perhaps feeling that our work is done and obligations as a citizen met. At their worst, these actions can in fact work at counter-purposes to efforts at more meaningful and effective political action. The grand, and ultimately futile, effort undermines the work of making more meaningful progress on more manageable tasks. Talking with people in Egypt after Tahrir about the effect of the revolution, a common response was that nothing really had changed. The real work of helping address the problems of poverty and marginalization remained to be done.
The sturm und drang of protest is also often driven by a divisive and Manichean animus that demonizes some Other, and retreats from genuine collective action back into the safe ground of self-righteous indignation. This kind of partisan hate has poisoned American politics today and rendered the polis a kind of “free-fire zone” in which only those with thick skins and a lot of spit and vinegar thrive. This extraordinary politics can run the risk of being all about blaming someone else, and angrily trying to make someone else change what they are doing. Although we need protest and criticism, we need also to look at ourselves and be sure we are doing what we can to fix the problem (or at least not contribute to it). The carbon footprint that Al Gore has racked up in alerting us all to the dangers of climate change reveals some tensions in this regard. At a minimum, we should avoid the sense of self-righteousness that plagues many social and political movements.
Our political motivations, the underlying source of frustrations and anger at “authority” can be complicated. Protest and rebellion can reflect the often unexamined or subconscious personal issues of those involved; protest then functions as a mix of therapy and genuine political action (cite sources: Harold Lasswell; political psychology). The concern and outrage about injustice is, of course, real and not to be dismissed, but sometimes the more effective (albeit less exciting) response to injustice is not shouting in front of the White House. There is almost always a mix of these two elements—the authentic political action and the therapeutic function of it—but we need to be very careful not to have the latter overwhelm the former.
There is, however, another kind of the politics—the politics of the ordinary—of the day-to-day actions we all take, and generally don’t think of as political. We need to balance out our actions at these various different levels and apply ourselves at different times and in different places in the ways that we can be most effective. Some people will have lots of power to influence policies at higher levels, and others won’t. At some times, like in January of 2011 in Egypt, mass protest is clearly the order of the day. But even when there is not a revolution afoot, all of us make a hundred small decisions, and have developed a complex web of daily habits, and will consume and communicate and work every day. And all of those actions and decisions have inevitable political repercussions. Collectively those decisions in fact constitute the vast majority of politics–part of what is called the “social construction of reality” (Berger and Luckmann).
A number of scholars have examined this kind of work and explored how politics happens at the fringes or in the local interstices of society. James Scott has looked at “weapons of the weak” and “everyday forms of resistance” amongst peasants and the rural poor, particularly in SE Asia. Asef Bayat, in his Life as Politics, describes a similar, although distinct, conception of the “art of presence” and the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” on the streets and amongst the youth of the Arab and Muslim world. Their analyses point to the various ways—overt and covert, conscious or unintended—that ordinary people resist and fight back against oppression, poverty, and injustice.
But what about “us”? What about relatively affluent residents of the world’s most powerful country? What is “life as politics” and resistance look like for a college student in the Upper Midwest in 2012? There is another realm from the overtly political one we observe in the Occupy movements and the national political party conventions, and it is a realm which is looming increasingly large at this place and time—at the end of the Cold War, in this incredibly wealthy country we live in, in this era of globalization, in this media-saturated society. That is, of course, the realm of the market, the realm of economics and of our daily lives and routines as members of a community (in this case a college campus and its surrounding urban neighborhood). The word economics from the Greek word for “home,” relates more to our private lives, to the decisions and actions we take when we go home, after the election or the protest. It consumes far more of the time of the average American than any strictly political form of activity, but I would argue that it is even more important.
It is important to focus on this ostensibly private decision-making, in part because it seems that we are living in a time that is moving in that direction: toward what is called “privatization.” We are living in a world in which this economic realm–commercial transactions, and commercials, are making their way into more and more corners of human existence (including higher education), and so it is incumbent on us to pay more attention to those developments and respond to them. This is a move with huge ramifications, and one, I believe, we should be resisting strenuously (see Naomi Klein, Thomas Friedman, Joe Steiglitz, and the globalization debates). There is the important question about resisting this trend, about fighting privatization, and attempting to retain public control of the marketplace. These are worthy questions, with which we will need to grapple as well.
This privatization is of course a highly political development—in Charles Lindblom’s sense of politics as the process of determining who gets what, when, where, and how. For these global trends, like them or not, have huge implications for the distribution of wealth, equity, the state of the environment, and so on. It is not as if the “triumph of the marketplace” means an end of history (a la Francis Fukuyama) or of politics. But it does seem that for the time being, more and more of our political actions will take place in the market place, and that we ought to pay some attention to the implications of our actions in that arena. No matter how this larger struggle between governments and corporations (public vs. private) turns out—whether it is the “American Dream,” or what Jeremy Rifkin is calling the “European Dream” that triumphs, we will still have our private lives and our daily economic choices to make.
In making the distinction between politics of the ordinary and of the extraordinary, we are talking here about a basic difference between political action aimed at changing the structure of the political system, the rules of the game so to speak, and action taken within that system and set of rules, although the line between these two arenas is blurred. Again, we need to pay attention to the structure and attempt to improve it: that system profoundly shapes our actions, provides incentives and disincentives, shapes our reality (see Marx and other structuralist theorists). But these political structures: particularly the political culture within which we operate (what we consider natural or acceptable or appropriate politically) are shaped by individual actions and behavior. The politicians respond to changes in the polling data, and the marketplace responds to changes in consumer values. As we continue our way through this inquiry we’ll want to keep this distinction in mind and explore the ways in which effective action can occur in either the political or economic realms.
Some (Chomsky, Klein, McKibben) might see this as a retreat from political engagement, a giving up on the revolution, or a surrender to the corporate-media-special interest conglomerates. I think it can seen as something entirely different—as bringing politics into the marketplace and into the day-to-day lived realities we all inhabit. That includes the classroom and the campus, where we should start with these efforts. The market is a place that many are trying to de-politicize—like the move by Target to remove the Salvation Army bell-ringers from their front doors as an unpleasant reminder of the reality of poverty, which isn’t good for sales. This focus on our daily economic decisions may not be so dramatic or so exciting as storming the Bastille, but I think it has more profound implications and places greater responsibility and greater demands for self-reflection, than some forms of political activism. From this kind of politics there is no rest or escape—it is about what we do each and every day. It requires patience and perseverance and real commitment. Politics, as Weber put it is his odd but evocative phrase “the strong and slow boring of hard boards.” It takes time and effort. I like to think of it like a long construction project, at which we are all working. Like the pyramids, these structures take a long time to build; we may not be around to see the final product—in fact, there is no final product, just an ongoing process of building, repairing, rethinking, learning, and building anew.
Every day, revolution or no, we rise and consume, discuss, make choices, think of the world in particular ways, make assumptions about what is normal; each day we make a hundred choices, each of which ripples out across the economy and society. And these choices are the ones we make ourselves. They require us to examine what we do, rather than shout at the “corrupt politicians,” “lazy welfare recipients,” “greedy capitalists,” or what have you. In looking at these aspects of our lives, we have to walk the proverbial walk, we have to practice what we preach. Not easy stuff.
We also have to watch out here, as is always the case, for the problem of self-righteousness and hypocrisy mentioned above in regard to the more militant forms of political action. At the same time, we need not be ashamed of attempting to make the world a better place—a project often rejected as naïve, self-righteous, or “politically correct.” Working to address some of the world’s most pressing problems can be done in a way that is neither naïve, self-righteous, nor falls into the trap of sanctimony. We all need to be on the look-out for those problems.
So this is something in which we can all participate, and which we can and should do every day, and that includes right here on this campus, in our classrooms and dorm rooms. If we’re going to take this subject and project seriously, that means teaching our classes along the lines of the philosophy being developed here. What does that mean? Well first it involves not just doing things the way they’ve always been done, but reflecting on the things that go into putting on this show. And it means having some idea of where we want to be going and thus what might be a problem with how we are doing things now, here on our campus, in our daily lives, in our communities.