Political Debates 5: (She said)

The point isn’t that the collective necessarily makes decisions, it is a short-hand for the will of the majority within society. When everyone in society agrees there is no issue and the point is irrelevant, when the individual wants to do something that impacts no one but themselves, or there is enough ‘space’ (be it physical or metaphysical) for them to take that action unhindered again the point is irrelevant. I can swing my arm wherever the hell I want until it meets your nose.

The point at hand though and where it matters is when the action that an individual, or a minority, wants to take is somehow counter to the will of the majority (or the detriment of the whole), in situations in which the majority perceive that action to somehow infringe on them it becomes relevant because the tension between those two wants must somehow be decided.

I’m not sure I totally believe in ‘natural rights’ (although I do support the UDHR so I know I’m a bit of a hypocrite/ incoherent there). A huge part of our current national conflict is that individuals who want to take specific action counter to the majority or ‘collective good’ often question the basis upon which ‘collective good’ is founded, or those individuals doing the deciding.

I would posit that this breakdown in the social fabric (by which I mean the social ties that bind groups outwith political systems) eat away at the trust that previously allowed us to find common ground and exchange privileges for responsibilities (read let others do things sometimes that we might not totally like for the good of the overall functioning of society/ promise of reciprocation in future).

This is the intractable problem we find ourselves currently negotiating and indicates to me that the basis upon which we predicate governance (and further politics) is currently threatened. Until we have some solid foundation on which to negotiate we will continue going around in circles.
To be clear, my friend was actually complaining about special interest groups who are trying to infringe on the free-market but I totally agree with the point 🙂

Now we are getting somewhere interesting! I think you hit the nail on the head as to our fundamental disagreement. I don’t know that I would go as far as you seem to think I do, but I think that when it comes down to it I pull towards collective as answer and you pull towards individual. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I do think they exist in relationship and the level of orientation towards each waxes and wanes throughout history. Does one hunt for a rabbit or a deer when one cannot hunt for both? I choose deer and hope that others do too.
I think my difficulty with trusting the individual as the best unit to allow society to flourish is because of the tendency within society for power to remain largely inert and those in privilege to ignore their own privilege. I agree that the individual is the agent with the highest potential to create innovation and drive society forward. Looking at the US over the past 300 years demonstrates that unleashed the power of the individual is awesome (in the truest sense of the word, not the way I mostly use it day to day :))
I worry however at the collateral damage that is left in the wake of that in both human and, more recently, environmental harms. I also think that the individual as an agent is at times not well placed enough to answer some of the collective difficulties we face. I also worry that allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness or ends unfettered is a somewhat dangerous proposition. At some point, usually sooner rather than later, that happiness or goal is at the cost to others or to the whole. If the individual is completely unaware of, and uncaring for their context, the cost of their ‘success’ is problematic. I’m not even sure if I have an issue of taking away from another, as long as that is acknowledged.
I think this is where I come back around again too: ” Law and order, common defense, and enforcement of contracts”
These seem like simple and agreeable premises. But when accounting for historical reality and exigent power dynamics they become more complicated. How do you allow for all individuals to pursue the improvement of civil society (or their own situation) when it is patently clear that law benefits some and significantly harms others? How can we really claim we have any kind of functioning (let alone just) system of law when we incarcerate more people per capita than any other highly developed state, and we execute numbers similar to totalitarian dictatorships? Either people in the US are somehow inherently different from those in other countries, or something is flawed in our system of law and order. We could talk about Realist v Constructivist approaches to common defense but I think that is a tangent. All I’ll say is that again, defining and pursuing that as an end is a complex thing.

Contracts should be simpler to define/ talk about, but again, when levels of inequality are as high as they are I think it is difficult to claim that contracts can be fairly constructed between individuals. Coercion on paper is as destructive and violent as using a gun. (not a big fan, again, if you compare our levels of violence and gun deaths to every other developed nation it becomes clear that either we are inherently different in very bad ways or our governance is problematic about some things). Also, isn’t the narrative for many 2nd Amendment fans that it is necessary in case the government oversteps by making them do something terrible like have access to preventative care and basic medical provision and they must rise up in violent revolution to protect themselves? ;P

This is why I was making the argument/ posing the question as to equality in society. I agree that when individuals can negotiate within civil society, without need to get ‘authority’ involved everything functions more smoothly and easily. The difficulty is that for that negotiation to be possible and functional there is some modicum or basis of equality that must be supported such that they are truly negotiations and not coercion that looks pretty.

I could care less about income equality except that disparate access to resources seems to be the basis of much of the rest of inequality within society. (studying the history of the construction of mechanisms of disenfranchisement would seem that most of the construction was for the express purpose of a narrative allowing disproportionate access to resources and taking them away from groups within society) Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate.

I do think that political rights, in the absence of some social and economic rights are rendered somewhat meaningless as rights as exercise is impossible. Hence also my belief that our current primary goal must by deciding what we think that baseline must be, and the most efficient means to make sure the majority of people within society are at that minimum.

Looking at the expansion of government in the last 60 years, and the way that narrative has been told, especially from the far Right is informative. The second half of the 20th century was a time of increasing centralization. Some of that was afforded by technology and travel, some through media, and a lot of it through the increasing power and scope of the federal government. At the same time there were a number of supreme court cases that overruled long-held systems in more provincial areas of the country (to be clear, I am not using that word in any way pejoratively, simply that many of the communities involved tended to be more isolationist/ unconnected from major urban centers that are more ‘progressive’/ willing to change traditional societal structures).

Those decisions forced communities to more centralized social points of view, and often enabled branches of government to expand to protect previously marginalized groups within those communities. But it is important to note that there had been disenfranchised groups before, they were just unseen or unheard and many of those decisions afforded them the individual rights you celebrate but that had been reserved for those privileged within those groups.

(Read this excellent article about racial atavistic violence for more about what I mean- sorry about the popups, below the fold is the point, the stuff above is less )

To enable the idealized version of individualism that supports civil society and allows for dynamism that moves all of us forward there must be a container within which it functions. That is the entire body of the critique against Habermas’ Public Sphere. I love the premise, but can’t help but see merit in the critique that it is founded within praxis of privilege on a number of levels (white, wealthy, male, individualistic). The work of Nancy Fraser and others demonstrate that there are inequalities that undermine a singular functioning public sphere and while counterpublics function as a merited alternative, when the singular body politic breaks into too numerous counterpublics, with little reference between them, we begin to lose the thread of meaningful dialogue and interaction and our overall civil society begins to face intractable problems. This is exacerbated by media outlets that are individually pursuing capitalist ends and further distancing groups for sensationalism and profit.

All of this is to say, that without some baseline/ common context/ understanding/ goal we (like the universe post big-bang) drift farther and farther apart making more and more likely violent ruptures without diplomatic or non-violent means to overcome difference. The problem for my side is that bureaucracy has quite obvious limits (both in terms of actual functioning and in terms of human potential) but for the other side that the narrative sounds suspiciously like ‘we were ok with the rights of the collective when it disproportionately benefitted us but now that it is beginning to benefit the previously disenfranchised against us we would like a return to the individual as that is where the extent privilege continues to be housed and how our counterpublic will continue to be in charge of all the others because we do not trust that in a truly free market we would succeed.’


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