Friday, July 16, 2010

A Reading from the book of Nothing

"If 'savage' was the magic word for colonialists, 'political will' is the fairy dust of today's democracy. When change fails to happen, it is for want of 'political will,' a sort of magic powder that stirs the powerful to action (even if that action ends up being merely 'rinse and repeat'). What contemporary ideas of 'political will' betray, more than anything, is our own ambivalence about government. The public at large have more than enough political will for health care, for education, for reduced spending on weapons, or for the environment. It's just that, all too often, the abundant will of government representatives is shaped by a corporate agenda, rather than a popular one. In Italy, one of the best-selling books of recent years is La Casta (The Caste), a political expose' by senior journalists Sergio Rizzo and gain Antonio Stella that portrays the political establishment as a club of more or less well-meaning kleptocrats. When government really is a caste apart, it seems there's little that can be done to bring them back to earth except, as history suggests, through widespread civil engagement. Curiously, in one of the more cited studies of what makes bureaucracies work for the people, Robert Pugnam's Making Democracy Work, a key factor in Italy has been the presence of the Communist Party.

"While the Italian Communist Party may seem a rather unlikely and remote source of hope, its 1970s foot soldiers knew something that has largely been forgotten in Western democracies--that the passivity of the majority is what allows the powerful to rule. It is in this insight that we can find the rocket fuel for Polanyi's double movement. The second part of the double movement, where society reclaims power from the market, happens through demand, not gift. In a sense, this was the promise of the Obama election campaign. The slogans of 'No more politics as usual' resonated, as well it should, with disenfranchised people around the world, not just in the United States.

"There is, however, a difference between rousing campaign rallies and widespread democracy. The Obama administration is, for instance, firing up the campaign machinery that first got him elected, to push his agenda on education, health care and climate change. One of the characteristics of the new campaign meetings is the lack of time for questioning the substance of these policies--there's just one enemy: 'politics as usual'--and just one solution: the president's new politics. The proper name for this is populism. The cult pact between leader and led isn't, however, a sign for reinvigorated democracy--it's the last desperate substitute for it. For democracy to flourish, we need our own moment of admission that our economic organising system has failed us. Just as Greenspan lost his faith in an economic organizing principle, we also need to take a long hard look not only at the free market but at the political system that supports it. It's in reclaiming the idea that we're able to think for ourselves and that we're ready for politics, rather than outsourcing it like so much else, that we will be able to reclaim both democracy and our economy" (Patel 118-119).

I think Patel's characterization of Obama's tenure so far is both too harsh and too nice. The same is true for his opinion of our "economy," something he's trying to tear down without scaring people too much.

It's time for people to get educated, get angry, and get active. We need to as a culture become more aware of the externalities, the "hidden costs," of the way we live. We need to care about those costs and change our behaviors accordingly. Individual behaviors are a good start, but they're not enough.


John L. Clark said...

Those are some good quotes; thanks. Perhaps Patel does have some value-add! It certainly seems like the will is present among the citizenry, but it's hard to tap it. Recently, whenever I talk to anybody, they are simply "too busy" to get involved ... in whatever. The system runs us ragged, which is perhaps one of the newest (or perhaps oldest) forms of oppression, a tool to hamper us from focusing our collective will. (Over on Salon, one author talks about a dimension of this in "No more vacations". She doesn't really get deep enough, but I certainly and strongly agree with her observation that "America's excesses are never far from sight: Our endless enthusiasms for boundless capitalism, materialism and hedonism persist." She avoids any analysis of that, though.)

As to your own analysis, in what way do you think Patel is being "too harsh"?

Emily said...

I disagree with this statement: "One of the characteristics of the new campaign meetings is the lack of time for questioning the substance of these policies--there's just one enemy: 'politics as usual'--and just one solution: the president's new politics. The proper name for this is populism." I think Obama is quite open to questioning the details of his agenda - perhaps, to somebody who agrees with a lot of his campaign ideas - too open and too democratic? On the other hand, Patel does work too much within the system. But the value-add is there because, as you say, he's a much easier read for people of a certain, "normal" sensibility than Jensen. I have about 80 pages more to read in Patel and I'm already drafting my review in my head.

John L. Clark said...

Can you please post some references or other evidence for your claim that "Obama is ... open to questioning the details of his agenda"?

Emily said...

Well, there was that first year when he listened to some even more myopic views on healthcare instead of pushing anything concrete through. I will agree that Obama has been very monolithic and ineffectual in some ways, but others would argue (and I'll work a bit on references for you), again, that Obama has been too democratic and not forceful enough. Or maybe that's just the legislative branch.

Emily said...

As usual, further investigation shows a bit of both worlds. Obama can and very well should do more. He is not the devil incarnate, but he does fall short.