Monday, September 07, 2009

Canaries in the Coal Mine? (APSA Reflections)

So, I'm back--back from a crazy end of summer filled with rushed deadlines, back from the late nights and late mornings and returning to the family's usual school-year schedule, back from Canada, where I spent three hurried days last week tearing from one APSA session and appointment to another. And, of course, back to blogging--at least until I take another break, that is.

I love going to the American Political Science Association's annual meetings; I really do. It's a great opportunity to meet old friends, encounter new ideas, pick up books, and just jazz myself up intellectually. This conference was no exception (and the fact that it was being held in Toronto, thus giving me the opportunity to meet up with an graduate school friend, being a much appreciated added bonus). Still, I have to admit that I had a lot of ups and downs over the three days I was there, a lot of running from one place to another, a lot of hurrying up and then waiting and just missing someone or misunderstanding some conversation and feeling somewhat lost. That was probably just me...but I wonder if others might have felt the same.

Political scientists--and in particular the political theorists with whom I spend most of my time, and the theoretical debates I'm most interested in following--are hardly the most expert and reliable barometers of the directions in which our shared (or at least observed) political culture may happen to be evolving at any one time. Still, it somewhat surprised me, once I completed my exhausting final day and returned to Kansas, to think back and see in my memory of the previous three days, scattered everywhere, like tea leaves waiting to be read, signs of a common pre-occuptation. In all sorts of ways, it seemed to me that everyone was talking about, or at least opening the door to, the limits of, or the problems with, sovereignty, and centralized power, and the state.

Jacob Levy, in giving the best paper presentation I heard the whole conference (but then Jacob always gives great presentations), attacked the idea that modern liberal democracies, premised upon a social contract ideology, somehow escape the subtle moral teleology which is usually seen as fundamentally characterizing pre-modern political forms...which opens to the door to the argument that the only way to avoid investing political organizations with unwarranted normative presumptions is to look towards non-political forms of social organization entirely. In a couple of presentations given by my philosophical hero, Charles Taylor, one as part of a roundtable on his report on accommodating minority differences in Quebec, the other on different ways of responding to religious claims in a liberal and pluralistic context, he repeatedly emphasized that the practical response to all of the contesting and conflicting demands free people have must be expressed locally, that principled and over-arching and contextless legal determinations--at least beyond an absolute bare liberal minimum--will almost always be counter-productive, and that, in the end, these kind of arguments must lead towards the question of decentralization, and a critique of the moder juridical state. In a couple of workshops on comparative political theory (a continuing interest of mine), and even in a couple of panels I attended addressing thinkers and conceptual categories from contexts as diverse as ancient China and contemporary Eastern Europe, repeatedly harsh questions about economic globalization and state sovereignty emerged, and names like Herman Daly, E.F. Schumacher, and John Milbank were tossed about. The late G.A. Cohen's just released and, presumably, final book, Why Not Socialism? (nicely introduced and discussed in this Crooked Timber thread here), makes one of the best cases for essential socialist principles that I've ever read...and then quite plainly admits that, despite continued experimentation, we yet have no idea how to actually institute those principles on any basis much larger than a group of friends going camping. James C. Scott, he of the extremely insightful Seeing Like a State, has just come out with a huge, meticulously detailed volume, The Art of Not Being Governed, making an "anarchist" case for the non-state organizations by which millions of Zomia peoples (a collective terms for the upland inhabitants of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and south China) traditionally resisted state-builders both capitalist and communist. All of that, plus the conversation I overheard between a couple of political scientist bigwigs, discussing how the fundamental problem with all of the very good, very persuasive, and very true arguments which President Obama's people have put forward about how much more efficient and effective the delivery and funding of health care is in just about every other industrialized nation on the planet, is the simple fact that all of those nations which advocates of health care reform--like myself!--refer to have smaller populations, and smaller economies, than does ours...which makes all comparisons, however worth making, slightly hard to take seriously.

Well, I don't know--it's all probably more a matter of my own interests and concerns than anything else. And it's not like all that is anything like a representative sample of the tens of thousands of conversations taking place Wednesday through Sunday at the Toronto Convention Centre. And even it is was, it'd only be, as I said, at best just some stray tea leaves looking for an interpretation. Still, for whatever it's worth, if political scientists are any kind of canary in a coal mine, I can't help but wonder if the lurking issue that may suddenly emerge to shape political thinking in the near future might simply be a sense that, well, enough is enough: that politics--state politics, national politics, to say nothing of international politics--claim too much, and try to do and to mean, too much. An awareness of the need to balance state and market imperatives with local humility, perhaps? That's not a bad lesson to learn, if it turns out that anyone really is teaching such a lesson at all.


Law Talk said...

Sounds like a fun conference. Incidentally, in your interest in comparative political theory have you formed an opinion about Amartya Sen's new book The Idea of Justice. In it he tries to draw on ideas from Indian political and legal theory. My own sense -- about 80 pages into the book -- is that this is mainly literary window dressing rather than a serious engagement with these sources, but I wonder if someone more attuned to the debates in political philosophy might see something different.

Nate Oman said...

That last comment was me. Not quite sure why it came up as "Law Talk" although it is an appropriate enough sobriquet.

dj redundant said...

Setting aside the third rail topic of a national health care plan, I was drawn to your statement about the debate over liberal democracies 'moral teleology' vs. a government based on contractual agreements. Aren't all contracts a simple written record of that moral teleology? More accurately, aren't all contracts assumed to have consent and agreement by both parties (nevermind the semi-circular logic that 'teleology' introduces into any science)? I am sure it was a fascinating discussion.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Nate, I hadn't heard that Sen makes use of Indian political and legal philosophical sources in his argument; that makes me more interested to read it, or at least look through it. I haven't been terribly impressed with Sen's interventions into discussions having to do with "Asian values" or multiculturalism, and from what you say, it doesn't sound like I'll be impressed with this one. Still, I'll have to give it a look.

DJ, Jacob's paper really did prompt some truly fascinating exchanges between him and the audience; I wasn't alone in finding it a compelling presentation. I trust that we'll be seeing a fuller presentation of his argument in due time. As for your specific queries, I'd agree with a strong affirmative to the first (indeed, the idea that the modern, social contractarian liberal state doesn't include an implicit moral teleology strikes me as something that only rathered blinkered liberals and pluralists have ever believed, though Jacob did a good service in robbing them of their blinders, whomever they are), and I'm a little confused by your second. You seem to be equating consent and agreement with teleology, and I don't think that's right. The implicit teleology which Jacob rightly identified in the modern democratic state is much larger than some moralization of the act of agreement; it is a belief that there is a moral "form" of politics wherein our natures our most/best fulfilled. Of course, whether that's a good or bad thing is another issue entirely.

Jacob T. Levy said...

First of all: thanks! and it's fun to be grist for someone else's mill, and see what other directions people take an idea in.

"which opens to the door to the argument that the only way to avoid investing political organizations with unwarranted normative presumptions is to look towards non-political forms of social organization entirely."

Well, I guess it opens that door, but it doesn't require going through it! My own inclination is to say: live with political forms of social organization, and just do so with lowered moral expectations. Don't go looking for some *other* form of social organization to fill the moral hole that my critical enterprise leaves if it's right! "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind."

dj redundant said...

Ah. Okay-- I can see how you might have drawn that straight equivalency between the moral agreement and teleology, but that was not my intent. Having reread my comment and your response, I now maybe see two things:
1. I was trying to agree with Jakob's premise that members of a liberal democracy see their government as a "fair" or moral arrangement, and contracts/laws/constitutions are simply the written form of that "fair" deal. Perhaps the loaded word here is "moral"-- which is by definition what the majority thinks is acceptable. Heh. Now I am using some circular logic.
2. If the point of Jakob's argument is the "form" of government and not the agreement/relationship between parties, then either liberal democracies are just inherently good or we're just neck-deep in believing the propaganda around how liberal democracies are inherently good.

Who did you see from grad school? Heh-- I just quoted Paul Dyer the other day...