Friday, 9 January 2009

'the thistle for wheat'

'I have taught pale Artifice to spread his nets upon the morning' wrote William Blake in the 1800s - railing against the imperial impulse in men, rending the veil of Newtonian appearance with radical visions - the exquisite form of the house fly, the rat's civility, the lark's song - a shriek of protest at human cruelty. The distinction between Whigs and Tories in British political history had the Tories, their faith grounded in common-sense recognition of crown and nation, mocking their Whig opponents for their preoccupation with ideas and counter-intuitive statements of principal. For the Tories what was right was self-evidently lodged in faith and inherited trust. "I refute it thus" (the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley) said Samuel Johnson to Boswell, kicking a large stone on a Dover beach. Tory bedrock was Whig quicksand. This opposition is as familiar today. What for those of a Tory disposition is no-nonsense crime to be treated accordingly, is for the Whig a symptom. Blair tried to coin a middle ground phrase with his slogan "I'm tough on crime and on the causes of crime" but its success in bridging different ways of understanding the world was partial. Close linked to politics as this piece by Costas Douzinas shows, there's an enduring philosophical tussle over the nature of reality, emerging in the street in squabbles (see Brabant for BBC on arguments over the shooting of Diamantis Matzounis) about what can be seen by anyone with a pair of eyes in their head, and in current culture in the image of the choice between a red pill or a blue pill in that initially clever sequence of sci-fi films the Matrix Franchise - the red pill Whig, the blue Tory. Costas Douzinas, Law Professor and Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, has written a piece 'What we can learn from the Greek riots' in this morning's Guardian. This interesting voice from the Greek diaspora comes to me, even as I sit in a lecture by my colleague Andrew C, on Local Area Agreements and external scrutiny. Andrew's running through a taxonomy of governance structures and the means by which they may be scrutinised. To understand why this article attracts my attention, especially during Andrew's talk, I need to explain my growing interest in arguments challenging the frameworks within which I've been understanding modern government.

Douzinas: Contemporary politics aims at marginal (re)distributions of benefits, rewards and positions without challenging the established order. In this sense, politics resembles the marketplace or a town hall debate where rational consensus about public goods can be reached. Conflict has been pronounced finished, passé, impossible. The convergence of political parties in the centre ground exemplifies this 'conflict-free' approach. But conflict does not disappear. Neo-liberal capitalism increases inequality and fuels conflict. When social conflict cannot be expressed politically, it becomes criminality and xenophobia, terrorism and intolerance. Or a reactive violence, the emotional response of those invisible to the political system. In the Greek case, antagonism resulted from the tension between the structured social body with its political representatives and groups, causes and interests radically excluded from the political order. Huge numbers of people cannot formulate their demands in the language of politics. The protesters do not say, "I want this or that" but simply, "Here we are, we stand against"...

We all see the world through theory that becomes common sense, becoming no more aware of the underpinning of that common sense than a snake of its skin - until its sloughed - or a fish of water - until its on the bank. Theory disappeared under the cloak of TINA. Discredited theories - Newtonian, Marxist, Keynesian - have remained visible and the efforts of creationists to get intelligent design into the science curriculum requires us to do more than rely on received wisdom about the probability of evolution. We must understand a theory to rebut its detractors. I don't understand current theories of government well enough to defend, refine or abandon what I've taken for granted.
Douzinas: No political organisation directed the insurrection, no single ideology motivated it, no overwhelming demand was put forward. The persistent question, "What do the kids want?" often led to the conclusion that the events were not political because they could not be integrated into existing analytical frameworks. What seemed to unite the protesters was a refusal: "No more, enough is enough." A stubborn negativity characterised the insurrection. Is this a new type of politics after the decay of democracy?
Jonathan Davies, Associate Professor (Reader) of Public Policy Public Management and Policy Group at Warwick Business School has been asking question about the ‘network orthodoxy’, developing and refining criticisms of the 'regime-theoretical conception' of governance. J sees matters of class being ignored or reduced to a taxonomy of types familiar to marketing analysts. He's been picking through what he sees as the dysfunctional dynamics of networked urban governance in the UK. He speaks of the almost triumphal way social theorists have celebrated the network society where hierarchy has been succeeded by heterarchy with power dispersed across interdependent agencies, and interests, rather than being held by a dominant class. In so far as anyone is left out of this social arrangement, they can be saved - it is perhaps far too casually assumed - by various assimilative measures. My comment on Douzinas' article:
"The possibility of changing the rules of what counts as political". This strikes me as the key point you are leading to - also changing our understanding of what we are seeing in Greece and if you are right, elsewhere. Comments shuttle between keyboard colonels and keyboard liberals, between vexation and venom and, as you observe, 'incredulity'. incomprehension and puzzlement as to what is demanded, wanted, desired? Where I've been asking are the politics? It looks too much like street therapy. You argue that 'these events were not political because they could not be integrated into existing analytical frameworks; and ask if "this (is) a new type of politics after the decay of democracy?". That intrigues me. Are you saying that the powers that be within our current polity have become so skilled at assimilating, diffusing, dispersing, tranquilising, co-opting, and suppressing demands that can't be met, that what we are seeing is a form of political expression that evades articulating demands that can be absorbed? This sounds counter-intuitive - but then most new ideas are. Please elaborate. Take us through your reasons for thinking democracy has 'decayed', rather than being the familiar flawed form of government that just about survives because we can't invent anything better. Perhaps, as recession familiarises more here with the enormous and widening rift between rich and poor in other places, the expressions we see in Greece will spread, a new spectre demonstrating your thesis that there's something rotten rather than merely flawed in our present condition. Are we struggling to manage the symptoms of a political illness current expertise has, as yet, failed to diagnose?
Professor Douzinas has also argued that human rights, rather than providing a moral and legal framework for challenging and regulating the actions of the powerful, have become their ideological tool. * * * The Birmingham Mainline was iced up completely. At Gas Street and along the Birmingham Worcester the ice was broken by a few narrow boats on the move, but I had the towpath to myself this morning. * * * Finally saw This is England just before Christmas - the most honourable film I've seen in the year, talented acting, intrepid plot, ghastly and cruel, yet worth all for its writer's and actors' integrity. At last people I recognise and Lin used to teach - and a document of the consequences of certain policies and attitudes in the 1980s; effects whose trajectory I experience and see every day - the pity and the waste.
‘Depravity in the oppressed is no apology for the oppressor; but rather an additional stigma to him, as being in large degree, the effect, and not the cause and justification of oppression’ Herman Melville, Chapter 14 White Jacket
[In a roundabout way I stumbled on this reaction to This is England as well as a link to a portal to more on urban food growing - thanks to Nick Booth, Podnosh]


  1. Simon,

    Thank you for the link to the Douzinas article which I would have missed but for that (we don't have our usual papers delivered on Saturdays). Having read it, I picked up the only book I have by Douzinas, a sort of full-stop of a book I remember I bought after I finished teaching: The End of Human Rights (2000). I've never read it all - it's not that sort of book, and far too difficult for more than a page or two at a time. But I'm enjoying the final chapter, "The Human Rights of the Other". Douzinas argues that human rights are our concern, not that of the state, because the Other's otherness confronts us and their face requires us to turn away from our self:

    "Such obligatory turning away from self is the sign of an incarnate transcendence, of a fundamental cut the other imposes on me or, if you will, of the fundamental duty upon which all other rights and duties depend. But this duty is also the manifestation of freedom; in putting myself in the service of the other's right, a duty that cannot be transferred or delegated, I become a unique, concrete and unsubstitutable being".

    Oh, it is marvellous stuff - a brave apology for Godless yet transcedent human rights - and continues in this vein for pages. I'll need a new highlighter and more cups of strong tea before I get to the end of it, but thanks for posting the extracts from the article and for whetting my appetite.


  2. Thanks Margaret. Civilisation - so frail - is beyond delegation to the state, though, in the best circumstances, available as referee and guarantor of due process. It's usually down to a few good people who, when tested, find, to their surprise and perhaps other's, and perhaps only once in a lifetime, that they can fight like champions for their own and other's rights. It sounds as if this is what Douzinas is reminding us. Conrad described most men as'heartless phantoms'; presuming their individuality, not grasping that what they believe to be their unfettered liberty is really conditional on 'the strength and allegiances of their police.' Douzinas deplores such delegation - to the state or god. Nonetheless, when I see film of forensic archaeologists gently lifting, assembling and tagging the bones of victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, so that they can be returned to relatives and serve as incontrovertible evidence against the articulate monsters brought to its dock, I welcome the prolonged negotiation and wordy treaties that have given the weight of due process to 'human rights'.


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