Deliberately unsystematic thoughts on a new way of running a country
Fred Newman and Lois Holzman
Originally published as Chapter 4 in The End of Knowing: A new development way of learning (Routledge, 1997)
The conclusion to Gergen's succinct characterization of the postmodem era that we quoted in chapter 2 (p. 23) is the distinctly political metaphor, "The center fails to hold." The formulation (from Yeats's "The Second Coming") is in this context substantively apt, for postmodemism makes "compromise as Truth" structurally meaningless (given that there is no Truth). Furthermore, it is formally appropriate in the sense that the issue of whether there can be a developmental way to continue knowing and, if not, what lies ahead for our species is, in our opinion, ultimately a political matter.
The search for the center has not only guided the practice of politics in liberal democratic society these past few hundred years, it has shaped our very way of thinking and talking about politics. Left and right projected on to the ends of a finite and fixed horizontal line—with the center that this model logically, geometrically, necessitates—have come to mean much, much more than which side of the aisle someone sits on in the French (or any other) national assembly; this horizontal model has come to define programmatically oriented democratic compromise politics. Thus, the postmodem suggestion that the center fails to hold is viewed by many with great alarm; it seems to imply the end of compromise and the emergence of one form or another of extremism. Such radical relativism—tantamount to either some kind of authoritarianism or anarchism, politically speaking—understandably shakes liberal sensibility to its roots. Nevertheless, to many, Gergen's descriptive (not prescriptive) observation about the collapse of the center seems increasingly to be the basis of the emerging social and political pragmatics of our time and our society.
Not only political scientists (so-called) and philosophically oriented thinkers on such matters but, more importantly, political players are coming to see things this way. Amid eight days of Republican Party and Democratic Party nominating conventions in the US in the late summer of 1996 (nothing very much happened during these multi-million dollar postmodem—in the critical sense of the term—extravaganzas except for thousands of hours of media coverage and commentary on "what happened"), a Democratic Party advisor (an insider) made an unusually pithy and honest comment in responding to a typically boring modernistically formulated question. The interviewer made a rambling inquiry: was Clinton's perspective "actually" liberal (left) but being covered up by a moderate political presentation, or was it "really" a moderate (more right) position hidden behind a liberal political presentation? The Democratic Party advisor, obviously at once amused and annoyed by the interviewer's naiveté and verbosity, interrupted to say something like, "None of the above. Clinton's position is exactly one-eighth of an inch to the left of Bob Dole's, the Republican Party candidate. Period."
We quite agree. Clinton is America's first self-consciously postmodern, anti-centrist president. Don't be fooled by the use of the term "left" here. The subtext of the enlightened (or, at least, enlightening) advisor's comment is a total rejection of the left-center-right (centrist) political paradigm, for it turns left and right (back) into purely relative terms which, of course, these designations are in their original use as spatial markers; it thereby eliminates any meaningful notion of a reified center. Indeed, the modifier "one-eighth of an inch" implied that Clinton's positioning self-consciously left no room at all between himself and Dole for anyone else or any other point of view ("No room for Ross" [Perot], as some American pundits tagged the utterly disingenuous and bipartisan strategic effort to defuse the pro-independent, anti-two-party fervor of millions of ordinary Americans). There was to be no center. Period.
During the 1996 convention period, C-SPAN, the US cable network of political record, covered a talk on global democracy delivered at the Aspen Institute by political scientist Kenneth Jowitt, who characterized this moment in American history as more than likely embodying (or, at least, requiring) a qualitative transformation in politics. Not simply new parties or new ideas or new programs, but new kinds of parties, ideas, and programs, he said, were needed. Jowitt spoke, as well, of new definitions, although—not surprisingly—he did not speak of how definitions transform or are transformed (even the old ones in the old days, not to mention new ones in our days). Like so many in this postmodern moment, Jowitt's analysis rests fully on the modern epistemological assumption (more accurately, the assumption of epistemology) that to know x is, at a minimum, to increase the likelihood that x will be done or, as it is sometimes put, nothing will change (nothing will be done) unless there is some kind of antecedent knowing.
Harvard professor Michael Sandel's recent and valuable writings about the need for a new "public philosophy" rest on the same epistemological subtext. Neither in his book, Democracy's Discontent (l996a), nor in his conversation (Sandel, 1996b) does he pay attention to how a new public philosophy might come into being, no less whether a new philosophy (coming into being) might require a thoroughgoing re-examination and restructuring of the way(s) philosophies (public and otherwise, new and old) come (came) into being.
Might the epistemologically biased method which has dominated Western civilization's understanding (if not practice) of developmental social-historical transformation itself have to go through a qualitative transformation? Might we somehow have to transform what transformation is in order to move forward politically and otherwise? Might we not have to find a way to move beyond the tired pseudo-academic language of "offering new definitions" to a qualitatively new "definition" of what definition is? Might we not have to consider the possibility that a new "definition" might not be a definition at all? Indeed, is it not possible that an examination of "definition" from within our postmodern historical moment might reveal that in the past the language of definitions has had much more to do with justifying change (epistemologically)) than with making it—that theories of knowledge have been much more dominant than theories of activity? Arguably, the hegemony of knowing—from the Greeks through modern science to contemporary philosophy—is inextricably connected with the scientific/technological/industrial/political-economic dominance of the West/North. But is it not, perhaps, the very point of postmodernism (or, at least, shouldn't it be) that such epistemological overdetermination is inconsistent with further species and personal development—that such dominance is not only immoral, it is no longer productive, that is, developmental? Isn't this what "the center fails to hold" really suggests?
A MOMENT OF TRUTH?
But what happened? Why is the center "suddenly" (historically speaking) failing to hold? And can we, in good postmodern faith, ask such an epistemologically overdetermined question? Marxism, in some of its variations (but in a self-consciously "descienced" form), serves, in our opinion, as the best modern modality for "explaining" the folding (an abbreviation for "the failure to hold") of the center. For the failure of the so-called free market during this century, and the ensuing socio-political efforts to repair and/or reform economic capitalism without endangering the power relations of capitalism as a social system, are best understood by a materialist political economic analysis. And everyone, most especially the rulers of the capitalist countries and their advisors—from John Maynard Keynes to Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich—has relied on Marxian insights about the nature of capital to reconstruct their post-free market societies.
Rosa Luxemburg, the early twentieth-century Polish political economist, insisted that free market capitalism's eventual demise (and the internal contradiction which will produce it) is best understood not (as orthodox Marxists do) in terms of "over-production" but rather in terms of "realization" (Luxemburg, 1958, 1972). She argued that the continued expansion of capital (she agreed with traditional Marxists and most other economists that non-expanding capital is not capital at all) required the continued existence of pre-capitalist economies. Why? According to Luxemburg, the realization of the value of the product of a given business (production) cycle in an investment form necessary to move to the next cycle of production ultimately demands pre-capitalist economies. Why? For one thing, the value created in a business-production cycle must hold the promise (and must fulfill the promise at least some of the time) of an expanded value. Capitalists will not continue to invest if they get only the same or less value in return. But whence comes the added value?
According to Luxemburg, nothing occurs within the capitalist production cycle to account for it. For while the expanded value itself may well be a unique feature of (exploited) labor—it creates value outputs above and beyond its input—there is nothing internal to the capitalist production cycle which can realize this added value. "Economic imperialism" is what makes it all work. Capitalism's overall superiority to pre-capitalist economies causes (coerces) feudal societies to pay much more than a product is worth, thereby yielding the realization of surplus value. In effect, the pre-capitalist societies not only buy particular products, they buy (are forced to buy) capitalism, that is, to buy on capitalist terms. The problem (the contradiction), as Luxemburg saw it, is that in buying capitalism these pre-capitalist societies eventually become capitalist (albeit poor capitalist) societies themselves. Ultimately, the whole world becomes capitalist; one day there are no pre-capitalist societies left. The center—the economic gap between capitalist and pre-capitalist economies—collapses and disappears. The consequence is a giant realization crisis, and less and less stimulation for capitalists to continue on to the next business-production cycle unless something is done about it to "guarantee" profits.
There are those who would identify the early twentieth-century completion of German expansionism and World War I as marking the historical moment when pre-capitalist societies disappeared from the face of the Earth, and the international depression of the late 1920s and 1930s as the resulting crisis or crises of realization. (2) Fascism and regulated welfare statism were, broadly speaking, the two competing "solutions" to this monumental capitalist crisis. Welfare statism, combined with Communism, won World War II (fortunately); the last fifty years of political economic history can be viewed as an effort by the US in particular to recover from that victory!
The famous (or infamous) "safety net" spoken of so often and with such passion in contemporary American politics has always been, it seems to us, a safety net not exclusively for the poor, but for capitalism as a whole. For whatever the complex motives of varying politicians and political parties might have been (or still might be), the shared concern of Democrats and Republicans alike (as well as their monied and powerful patrons) is, and always has been, the preservation of capitalism as an economic and social system. When free market capitalism crumbled in the late 1920s and 1930s, regulatory-ism emerged as the most favored solution. Again, the welfare state is not simply a means by which money and services are administered to the poor; it is the total transformation of the state and all its governmental arms from a loose domestic coordinating agency to a highly centralized regulatory agency. Everything—banking, the market, business, science, education, labor, the poor (and anything in between)—has become increasingly regulated this past half century to control against future collapse(s), and, meanwhile, turn a pretty profit for the "special interests."
The regulated society has, in turn, changed the very nature of US economics and politics and the relationship between them. For in a highly regulated market system (as opposed to a largely unregulated free market system), profitability (the realization, not to mention the creation, of surplus value) is increasingly determined by who controls and best manipulates the regulations. In Tales of a New America (1987), Robert Reich, a key economic advisor to Clinton, speaks of the dramatic transformation in the composition of corporate boards over the past fifty years; having been made up primarily of production or manufacturing related people, they are now more and more populated by lawyers (who know how to manipulate the regulations). The manufacturing sector of the US economy, profoundly (although temporarily) stimulated by World War II and the ensuing rebuilding of Europe and Japan (on the highly favorable economic terms articulated, for example, in the Bretton Woods agreement), failed to restructure itself adequately (as Germany and Japan did) for peacetime production. (Armaments production remained, of course, highly profitable, since it was largely controlled directly by government regulations and policy, the government being the principal purchaser of arms.) With the erosion of the US manufacturing base, the "manipulation of paper" (money, stocks, bonds) became the preferred area of economic growth; the regulated economy became a credit economy and, lawfully, a debt economy; the higher paid workforce became smaller and more middle class (white collar). The US went from being the world's leading creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation (in recent years Japan, in particular, taking advantage of America's regulatory-ism). Meanwhile, the stock market apparently knows no bounds. Capitalism has been secured, and Communism defeated. But as with Muhammad Ali's highly publicized victory over Joe Frazier in the "thrilla in Manilla," we must ask—at what price?
The radical transformation from a free market economy to a regulatory one did not, in our view, entirely determine the political evolution of America. It did, however, have a significant impact on the very nature of US politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Highly regulated capitalism and the ever-increasing capacity to derive greater and greater profits from the legal manipulation of regulations (at all levels of government, especially the federal level) profoundly transformed the complex historical relationship between the political and the economic in US society. In the most general terms, the political came to determine the economic rather than the other way around—the more typical "causal" connection during America's first 150 years. Not surprisingly, therefore, the major political parties (the Democratic Party and the Republican Party) took shape together as a monopolistic corporate entity: a highly centralized, Washington, DC-controlled, lobby-friendly (and, correspondingly, grassroots-unfriendly), legalistic professional body of armed (mostly with legal degrees ) men who legislatively, executively, and judicially overdetermined the nature of the hardly-free market during their time in office (or working for those in office) and, when they left office, quickly turned around and sold themselves to the highest bidders (still retaining their party connections). While in office, the bipartisan politicians radically altered the election laws so as to exclude alternative parties and candidates from the political process (see Winger, 1995).
Global capitalization—the total elimination of pre-capitalist societies and the ensuing collapse—required a radical restructuring of the American free market economy into a regulatory economy which made government itself (and control thereof) the single most important economic commodity. Increasingly, the two dominant political parties became commodity traders "representing" special interests (including themselves) and not the American people. Politicians became professional (a political class or caste), shifting effortlessly (and, for the most part, unnoticed) back and forth between the "public" and "private" sectors. These matters have been documented by Reich (1987), Choate (1990), and others, but they remain largely hidden from the American public as a consequence of who (the political class) controls and how it controls (the infamous thirty-second sound byte at election time) what the American public actually comes to know.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF LIBERTY (3)
The method of liberal compromise and the search for the programmatic center which typified the first hundred or so years of American political life have gone through a profound change as well in this past half century, even though the rhetoric of the left-center-right paradigm is still officially and opportunistically retained. In fact, the meaning of liberty itself has been transformed. At the very beginning of the American republic (confederation), liberty was identified primarily with the dominance of local (grassroots) institutions in which Americans participated directly, and with political and economic power that was correspondingly dispersed. The Constitution of 1787 laid the foundation for a major consolidation of political power in a centralized federal government; the Bill of Rights was regarded by its supporters as a necessary check on this new power.
However, for a long time the Bill of Rights had surprisingly little practical impact on American liberty. (It was not until after World War I that the Supreme Court declared a law unconstitutional for infringing on the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.) For the first century of the Republic, political discourse about liberty did not focus on individual rights so much as on how government could best nurture "republican virtue" and support the development of a nation of self-governing citizens. The fight for liberty during this largely free market period was played out primarily in the political (as opposed to the judicial) arena, in an ongoing effort to give republican shape to the growth and consolidation of economic power.
It is only in the twentieth century (especially since the end of World War II, which brought an intensification of regulatory capitalism) that American liberty has come to mean a primary emphasis on the rights of individuals as defined in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the Constitution. In this evolution, judicial review by the federal courts and the Supreme Court (and, therefore, lawyering) has come to play an increasingly prominent role in defining American liberty in terms of constraints on the power of government (the regulators) and of political majorities in a bipartisan regulatory arrangement to impose their particular views on individuals and constituencies.
From the contemporary liberal perspective, this evolution of the "neutral state" promised to open up a whole new era in which individual citizens would experience unprecedented freedom to define themselves, their purposes and commitments, and their own associations, and to reject obligations they had not themselves chosen. From this point of view, the evolution of American liberty seemed to be fulfilling the promise of the American Revolution. Yet the changing character of liberty was essentially a reaction formation to the takeover by the professional political caste of regulatory capitalism. Ultimately, there was no room for compromise.
In practice, many Americans felt a growing ambivalence (at least) about the quality of life brought about by the new freedom. The transformed paradigm of liberty, emphasizing the primacy of individual rights, superseded the older republican paradigm in which liberty was understood not primarily as legal constraints on government, but as the participation of citizens in a self governing nation. But who was "taking care" of the country now?
During the first 100 years of the American republic, there existed a developmental creative tension between the growth of the economy and the growth of liberty. The ongoing effort to give republican shape to the titanic economic power that was evolving ensured (or, at least, gave cause for hope) that economic growth would benefit not a privileged few, but the entire nation (albeit in varying degrees). Conversely, confidence in American liberty enlisted the enthusiastic participation of millions of people from all over the world in America's economic growth.
The new paradigm of individuated liberty, however, reflected the dissolution of this creative tension, and the consolidation of economic and political power (otherwise known as the rise of "special interests") to the exclusion of the republican majority. The proliferation of individual rights and the accompanying "identity politics," despite the many things that can be invoked to justify them, came about in part as an alternative to the creative tension between liberty and economic growth. Individual liberty appeared wonderful to many, but the environment in which it was to be practiced came to seem increasingly regulated. There was, once again, no apparent synthesis possible (no compromise, no center ground) between the political/corporate takeover of highly regulated American capitalism and the endless varieties of demands (in most cases legitimate) for rights, liberty, and a greater share of the economic pie on the part of conflicting identity based groups. They have always been on a collision course. Now, as the twenty-first century nears, they have collided. Most importantly, the developmental tension between old-style republican liberty and economic expansion (arguably, the bedrock of Americanism) has been destroyed. The political-economic center has collapsed. Although there is much profit, there is no real growth. There is structural antagonism, an irreconcilable contradiction, no room for compromise. The center fails to hold.
THE COLLAPSE OF CONTEMPORARY LIBERALISM (IDENTITY POLITICS)
Postmodernism in general and social constructionism in particular, it would seem, have some applicability to the transformation of politics. Indeed, we have seen in earlier chapters that two of the leading Anglo-American voices, Gergen and Shotter, are concerned to restructure political life and dialogue. Here we will explore the (possible) transformation of identity politics via social constructionism through a careful reading of Gergen's thoughts on the matter. We will examine both a paper he delivered at a 1995 symposium hosted by the New School for Social Research and the response to it.
In "Social construction and the transformation of identity politics," Gergen (1995) characterizes identity politics as "initiated by groups excluded from traditional mainstream politics" who "generate a self-designated identity (group consciousness) that is instantiated by the individual identities of its constituents" (pp. 1-2). The major point of Gergen's presentation was that the generation-long "love affair" between liberal identity politics and social constructionism that was rooted in constructionist critiques of "mainstream" objectivity ("truth beyond cultural standpoint") is at an end. The passion of this love affair originally made good sense:
Not only did constructionism. . . help to incite the political impulse, but it has also generated a powerful set of implements for societal critique. Constructionist inquiry demonstrated how claims to the true and the good were born of historical traditions, fortified by social networks, sewn together by literary tropes, legitimated through rhetorical devices, and operated in the service of particular ideologies to fashion structures of power and privilege. For the sophisticated constructionist, there are no invulnerable or unassailable positions, no foundational warrants, no transcendent rationalities, or obdurate facts in themselves. Most important for the present, many of these modes of deconstructing the opposition are "street ready;" they can be (and are) paraphrased easily in the daily argots of political activism.
(Gergen, 1995, pp. 3-4)
But according to Gergen, the virtue and value of identity politics as the contemporary expression of political liberalism has "unraveled." For one thing, "identity politics has depended on a rhetoric of blame" (p. 4). Responses to it, not surprisingly, are hostile, defensive, and filled with counter-charges. Furthermore, Gergen notes:
antagonistic replies are additionally invited by virtue of the differing discourse worlds of the critic as opposed to target. What are viewed as "exploitative wages" on the one side are branded as "just earnings" on the other; "prejudicial decisions" on the one side are excoriated as "decisions by merit" on the other; attempts to combat "exclusionary prejudices" are seen as disruptions of "orderly and friendly community"; "rigid parochialism" for the critic is understood as "love of enduring traditions" by the target. Under such conditions those targeted by the critiques are least likely to take heed, and most likely to become galvanized in opposition. As Mary Ann Glendon argues in Rights Talk, the rhetoric of rights "polarizes" debate; it tends to suppress moral discussion and consensus building. Once an agenda is introduced as "right," sensible discussion and moderate positions tend to disappear.
(Gergen, 1995, p. 5)
But the blaming modus operandi of liberal identity politics has also turned on itself:
With the rhetoric of blame a favored option for dealing with others, it also becomes a hammer for fixing what is wrong within the political movements. Any movement which finds its voice oppressed within the culture more generally, will soon find that within its own ranks some voices are more equal than others. In the thrust toward economic equality, women turn on men for their patriarchal disposition; in the drive toward gender equality, white women are found guilty of silencing the black voice, the educationally privileged guilty of elitist and exclusionary language, the straight for politics inimical to the lesbian, and so on.
(Gergen, 1995, p. 5)
Over time a growing number of identity groups (left, center, and right) sprang into existence, claiming more and more rights. With the "remedy" for injustice, however, came a host of new problems. For one thing, the proliferation of new rights "devalued" their moral claims (Etzioni, 1993); for another, it produced disaffection: "Strong resentment among many who are implicated in the movements (for example, African and Asian Americans), but who do not share the revolutionary political sentiments and are embarrassed by the ways in which they are incessantly singled out to represent 'their people' " and also outside the movements, where the "disaffiliation within is also paralleled by backlash effects in the society more generally (consider the present Congress)" (Gergen, 1995, p. 7).
But while liberal identity politics (most of it fully justified by the long history of exploitation and oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and so on) reels from the backlash of "conservative" ideological reactions and political action, a still deeper—if you will, "structural"—problem of identity politics is increasingly recognized by its advocates; there is a distinct tendency for identity politics to take on a realistic, objectivistic, indeed, authoritarian, epistemic, and moral posture towards its own deconstructionist findings. In response, "traditional" constructionism plays more the role of "critical enemy" than friend to identity politics. As Gergen puts it, "constructionism offers strong arguments against the realism, essentialism, and ethical foundationalism endemic to much of the discourse of identity politics" (1995, p. 8, emphasis added). He continues:
In characterizing the barriers of class, the glass ceiling, homophobia, the effects of pornography on rape, and the embryonic fetus as a human being, for example, claims are being [made] about the state of nature independent of our interpretive proclivities. For the constructionist, of course, such claims are not so much reflections of nature as the outcome of social process. The descriptions are inherently positioned both historically and culturally, and myriad alternatives are both possible and creditable from other societal locations. The realist posture is all the more ironic, the constructionist reasons, because such critiques are often coupled with a deconstruction of the opposition's objectivity. The constructed character of the dominant discourse is used by the identity politician to pave the way for the marginalized alternative, with the latter position then treated as if transparent.
(Gergen, 1995, p. 8)
Should social constructionism and identity politics therefore now agree to divorce, with each party recognizing the "failings" of the other? Gergen does not think so. Instead he offers a reconstructionist plan for social constructionism and a way forward for identity politics—a move from the primarily deconstructionist posture of social constructionism in the 1970s and 1980s to a reconstructionist posture and, simultaneously, a change from 1970s style identity politics to what he calls relational politics.
In shifting to a reconstructionist posture for social constructionism, Gergen urges that we (re)visit the age-old question of how we "comprehend others' meanings (or fail to do so)" (1995, p. 11). He summarizes the past history of relational theory as follows:
Since the 17th century virtually all attempts at answering [the above question] have been cast in terms of resonating mentalities. That is, to understand another requires that their thoughts (intentions, meanings, construals, conceptual worlds) are reproduced in some form within one's own thinking. If you understand me your subjectivity is in some way resonant with my own. From John Locke, through centuries of hermeneutic theory, and into contemporary cognitive theory, however, no one has been able to give a satisfactory account of how such resonances can occur. (Gergen, 1995, pp. 11-12)
Constructionism, he says, takes up the challenge, making no reference to mental events:
By focusing solely on the means by which an individual's actions invite or suggest a range of supplements, and the way in which the respondent's supplements function to determine the implication of the initial action, we arrive at a view of meaning as embedded within relational scenarios. . . . I do not convey meaning, save through your graces as an interlocutor; however, your potential meaning[s] as an interlocutor are largely constituted by my actions. As dialogue unfolds; so is meaning formed and transformed within the interstice.
On this view, language (as a vehicle for making meaning) is shaped neither by nature nor mind, but by relationship. All that we take to be true of nature and of mind, of self and others, thus finds its origins within relationship. Or, in Martin Buber's terms, "In the beginning is the relationship." (Gergen, 1995, pp. 12-13)
To Gergen, this constructionist view has important and positive implications for liberal identity politics; it contains:
the seeds for both revitalization and transformation of the most profound variety. Let me cast such a transformation in terms of relational politics a politics in which neither self nor other, we nor them, take precedence, but in which relational process serves as the generative source of change. I am not speaking here of a mere fantasy, another grand but unworkable design hatched in the ivory tower. Rather, I believe that relational politics are already in evidence—not yet self-conscious, but struggling in multiple sites toward common intelligibility. (Gergen, 1995, p. 13)
Central (in our view, far too central) to Gergen's reconstructionist stance is rhetoric. He says:
From the standpoint of relational politics, it is essential to develop alternative rhetorics. This is not because we need prettier, sharper, or more sophisticated words in which to wrap the case. I am not speaking here of a "better spin." Rather, rhetoric is important because it is itself a speech act, a constituent feature of relationship. Because it is a form of action, rhetoric serves to form, sustain, and possibly change patterns of relationship. We have glimpsed some of the major shortcomings of traditional rhetorics—their capacities to alienate, antagonize, and escalate. Required, then, are a new range of poetics, and more specifically, poetics that invite broader fields of coordination. Let me touch on two significant openings:
Rhetorics of Unity. As we saw, many black intellectuals are now moving away from rhetorics of antagonism and separation to articulate visions of unity. This is a move highly congenial with a relational constructionism and should become a cause for all concerned with identity politics. The move from me vs. you to we has enormous consequences for relating to the polity. (Gergen, 1995, pp.17-l8)
Of course, Gergen recognizes that more than rhetoric is required:
A transformation in theoretical resources and rhetorical practices is scarcely sufficient. Most acutely needed are innovative forms of political action. In my view, one of the most significant innovations derived from the identity politics movement was to broaden extensively the arena of the political. In particular, political practice ceased to be reserved for the arena of politics formally considered—campaigning, voting, office holding—and it ceased to be centrist—that is moving from the top down. Rather, politics moved into the arena of the local and the immediate into the streets, the classrooms, business, and so on.
Gergen concludes his paper by citing examples of already existing forms of relational political organizing, what he calls "relational politics in action" (1995, p. 21). He cites "collaborative education," "family therapy," "community focused institutes" (where he generously includes the practical work we at the East Side Institute and our network of associates have carried out), "appreciative inquiry" and others.
To us, Gergen never truly moves beyond the rhetorical and, thereby, the (social) epistemological. At the New School conference at which he originally presented his paper, Gergen was "confronted" by Richard Bernstein, the chair of the New School's Philosophy Department. Bernstein polemicized against a political view (presumably he was referring to Gergen's) which draws no distinction between himself (an old-guard left liberal) and Newt Gingrich (the conservative Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives). Now Gergen had not said, or even implied, that "no such distinction could be drawn." What he was saying was that the orthodox way of "drawing distinctions" was developmentally troublesome. Bernstein's verbal bullying was reminiscent in style and speciousness of G. E. Moore's waving his hand in people's faces as a "refutation" of idealism. The problem? Well, the idealists do not (and never did) question that there is "a hand waving in your face." Rather, they seek to understand what is meant (what realists mean) by making such a claim (or having such an experience). Similarly, Gergen does not deny distinctions or differences. Rather he seeks a new and more developmental way of understanding such differences. Yet Gergen's effort to reconstruct constructionism, identity politics, and their relationship (in order to create or support relational politics) is highly vulnerable to "Bernstein-ian revisionism" because, we believe, it is ultimately a theory of knowing and not a theory of action (or, more importantly, activity). (Gergen, 1995, p. 20)
Bernstein insists (as do most in our culture, especially academics, the paid knowers) on knowing who is better—himself or Gingrich. Gergen urges that we must find a way of "getting on with it" without knowing who is better. But so long as our understanding of "getting on with it" is more an understanding expressed in language (rhetorical) than a getting on with it (activity), the epistemic bias which, to us, is what ultimately makes it practically impossible these days to get on with anything—personal, political, or otherwise is reinforced. In our opinion, Gergen has—passionately, politely, and properly—polemicized against the reliance by proponents of liberal identity politics on traditional individualistic, realistic, objectivistic mainstream categories in articulating their own "points of view."
Still, in our opinion, he has failed to consider fully the "evil" of "point of viewism" altogether and/or in itself. Instead he calls for a new and more unified and unifying relational "point of view" (a social epistemology), a more serious recognition of other(s) even as we demand what we believe is rightfully ours. Because, as Gergen argues, persuasively and morally (to our political taste and sensibility), there is no meaningful sense of self or identity (either group or individual) and other that is not relational. (We all live by taking in each other's wash!) But from the "vantage point" of knowing, in its current institutionalized form, there is. If the organized cultural environment requires that we know who is right, better, closer to the truth—that is, if the organized environment is fundamentally a knowing one (as was surely the case with the liberal academic New School forum)—then the rhetorical and the epistemic will dominate, even if "rhetoric…is itself a speech act, a constituent feature of relationship" (Gergen, 1995, p. 17).
For while speaking (speech acts) is an activity, not all activity is speaking. More importantly, speaking is a particular (and peculiar, although commonplace) form of human activity, subject in our epistemically and individualistically biased culture to being "related to" more as pronouncement of truth and/or expression of inner happenings (opinions, beliefs, feelings) than activistic, continuously developmental conversation. So long as "knowing" who each of us is and the "truth" of what each one says dominates (which it does in Bernstein's institution, no less at Gingrich's), then what is obscured is the facticity of the activity of social (relational) life. The" screaming, judgment-making husband and wife in a modern bad marriage are, after all, relationally joined. But they are each far too involved in the truth and rightness of what "I" am saying to notice the relational activity in which they are in fact (however destructively) engaging. Yet talk of "we" rather than "you" and "I" will, in our opinion, have little or no impact so long as "we" means "you and I," so long as we do not activistically change the meaning of "you and I." Changed rhetoric will not change meaning so long as the epistemological institution (the knowing way of life) dominates.
What is needed, in our opinion, is not merely a new rhetoric, or even a new (social) epistemology, but a theory/method of activity (practical-critical activity, revolutionary activity). The recognition of other in ourselves can be neither religious nor rhetorical if it is to make a developmental difference; it cannot be the arbitrary imposition of new meanings and new rhetoric on unchanged, or even somewhat different, actions, but must be manifest in revolutionary meaning-making, that is, it must be the result of a shared, non-epistemologized activity which creates new meaning.
In a word, the transformation of politics (the search for a new public philosophy or new political definitions) and the deconstruction of epistemology—a tool-and-result connection (unity) if ever there was one—cannot, it seems to us, be a search for a new Truth (or even truth), but a search for a new non-epistemological method (a practice of method) which does not involve truth at all. Such a position "entails" extremism only if we subtextually (subconsciously) retain a centrist, horizontal, left-center-right paradigm. For extremism itself only has meaning (is defined) in terms of such a paradigm. The new politics must be an activity which is anti-programmatic, not in the sense that new ways of doing things are no longer considered and/or enacted and/or carried out, but in the sense that programmatics (and their extension or presupposition, ideology) are not a substitute for shared, collective, democratic human (citizen) activity
A WORD ON MARXISM—NEO- AND OTHERWISE
Karl Marx would have done well to pay much more attention to the activity of how people spoke to each other and much less to what they said. While his early writings can reasonably be taken as the very source of activity theory, his so-called more mature writings, post-1848 (primarily Kapital and Theories of Surplus Value), largely abandon dialectical, methodological, philosophical, revolutionary method and insights in favor of a more rationalistic, scientific approach. His depth study of capital has been of great value to capitalist societies the world over. These days everyone is a Marxist in quite the way that everyone is a Darwinian or a Newtonian. But Marx's failure to further his studies of dialectics as applied to social transformation, crisis, psychology, and revolutionary activity, among other things, has left future revolutionaries with no real guidance on the critical "subjective" issues. What Is To Be Done came to dominate, completely, what is to be doing. Little wonder then that Marxism (as opposed to Marx) was revisionist virtually from the moment of its birth. The later Marx (not to mention his principal collaborator and intellectual proselytizer, Engels, and his most well-known follower, Lenin), like almost all other modernists, bought in on the objective hegemony of the scientific. As such, they continued within the Greek/modern scientific tradition of epistemology, the knowing tradition of Western culture.
The Luxemburgist accounting for capitalism's profound transformation which we discussed earlier in this chapter is, in our view, best related to as nothing more and nothing less than poetry or, perhaps, yet another grand narrative, not science. But calling it poetic or narrative neither diminishes its value nor implies that more traditional empirical, descriptive macro/microeconomic accounts possess greater accuracy. Orthodox economics, much like orthodox psychology, is largely a scam (Newman, 1991a; Newman and Holzman, 1996) which serves those who use it well (if it serves them at all) only insofar as those same people (and/or their institutionally organized friends) have the power to manipulate economic conditions and the sociology of knowing. Thus economics (again, like traditional psychology) is more a self-fulfilling prophecy than a genuine predictive (hard) science. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, traditional Marxists (ever metaphysicians, and thus all but impervious to the collapse of Communism and the abject failure of Marxism that pre-dated it by decades) seek to revive Marxism (now called neo-Marxism) by making it even more scientific. In this light, it is worth examining in more detail the neo-Marxist critique of social constructionism as we continue to consider the transformation of politics. And so, we return to Jost's critique (Jost,1996; Jost and Hardin, 1996) discussed in Chapter 2.
That Jost's agenda is a more scientific Marxism is clear from the following:
At the end of the day, I think that the greatness of Marx's theory is that he is proposing an empirical theory about how social relations actually are and how they might be better. This is not a rejection of knowing. It's an affirmation of knowledge that we all could/should have and a commitment to acting on behalf of that knowledge. (Jost, 1996, personal correspondence, emphasis added)
Apparently more concerned with "acting on behalf of knowledge" than, for example, with activity "on behalf of" people, classes of people, their desires, needs, and wantings, Jost seeks to preserve knowing (reified and deified) and its contemporary mythic form, social science. In an article on false consciousness, he defends so-called scientific psychology: "To give up the possibility of locating beliefs on dimensions of evaluations such as accuracy, self-interestedness, adaptiveness, and so on is to relinquish the claim of psychology to be a science" (Jost, 1995, p. 415).
But what if a theory (or pseudoscience) which purports to tell us, as he says, "how social relations actually are," is antithetical (by design) to the revolutionary activity which was of central importance to Marx as revolutionary theorist and practitioner? Jost rather cavalierly rewrites (reinterprets) Marx on these matters. In his correspondence with us, he construes Marx's remark about interpretation and revolution ("The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it") as follows: "Marx wasn't against interpretation; he was against not going beyond mere interpretation" (Jost, 1996, personal communication). But if Marx is not polemicizing against interpretation altogether, then presumably he would have said something other than what he said, perhaps something like: The point is not to interpret the world but to come up with the right interpretation. To us, Marx's early critique is a thoroughgoing attack on philosophy and its interpretive method in favor of the method of practice, that is, the revolutionary activity of changing the world. To Jost, Marx holds on to the interpretive method and "goes beyond" it. Jost justifies such a theory of "beyondness" (activism as beyond interpretation) with a two-valued "scientific logic." He asks us, "But how do we decide to commit to a particular action? Surely you're not advocating action for the sake of action, but action on behalf of clear, accurate, moral visions" (personal communication, italics added). In another instance, he comments: "I don't even know what it means to be 'pro-truth.' Does 'anti-truth' mean in favor of lies?" (1996, personal communication). Yet (even on a logical/scientific understanding of implication), offering a critique of truth does not imply support for lying. But in Jost's arguments things are either black or white (not even black or not black). We think that putting socialism on a "scientific" basis did much more for capitalism than for revolution, and precious little for socialist societies. To accept Psychology-as-a-(finished)-Science is to alter (by direct or indirect coercion) the subject matter of psychology, which is subjective life.
Jost's interpretation of Marx is much closer to the accepted view of Marx (including, perhaps, even Marx's) than ours. It is Jost's interpretation of interpretation that we find to be very far from the tradition of the early Marx and most troublesome. His objection to our critique of reality (Reality) and/or truth (Truth) is a case in point. Calling it an "old-fashioned idealist position that Marx critiqued in the 1840's" (1996, personal correspondence) seems to us to be using the language of interpretation to obscure a commitment to truth. Even in ordinary language, interpretation has more to do with different ways of looking at the same thing than with correctness. Jost's appeal to interpretation,whether Marx's or his own, appears somewhat disingenuous to us since he calls it interpretation and "uses" it as truth.
"How do we decide to commit to a particular action?" Jost asks. Well, do we decide to commit to a particular action? What does action (particularized or not) have to do with activity? Does speaking of particular actions imply or require a theory of identity for adjudging an action α the same as or other than an action α(1)? And, if so, what is that theory of action identification? It will no longer do to dismiss these (kinds of) questions (and myriad others) on the grounds that they are too philosophical. Postmodernism in psychology is the asking of such questions as a challenge to the calcified "scientific" institution that psychology has become in this half century of permanent, self-perpetuating institutions, identity politics, and a regulatory economy.
Luxemburg's poetic grand narrative is inextricably (and dialectically) connected with her methodological aversion to Marx's use of ultra-rational (and pseudoscientific) models in Volume I of Kapital to account for the capitalist business/production cycles. She argues (convincingly, we think) that the models actually obscure the historicality (the existential this-ness) of capitalist production (as models, in general, are wont to do). Both economics and psychology (Marxist and non-Marxist) are in themselves models in this problematic sense. They are curious maps which purport to tell us how to get from A to B. But there is no reality here other than the map (or the model)—only labels, names, and descriptions without referents. And so we have the illusion that we have gotten, or gone, somewhere. The real task is to make the map (the problem) vanish, in Wittgenstein's sense. To do this we need, it seems to us, not a map or a model but an activity which is not definable (directly or indirectly) in terms of the map or the model. It is neither truth (Truth) nor lie (Lie). It is a practical-critical study of what we do even as it is (or, more accurately, is an intrinsic part of) what we do.
THE POLITICS OF ACTIVITY
Jost's appeal to a more scientific neo-Marxism as the savior in a collapsing political and economic world, a psychotically psychologized world, seems most odd to us. Our conversation with him (in writing) is, we feel, extremely useful. We shall attempt to articulate our activity-theoretic, postmodern, revolutionary approach in the final section of this chapter largely by attempting to answer the questions we have come up with in response to his formulations.
1. Do we decide to commit to a particular action?
2. What does action (particularized or not) have to do with activity?
3. Does speaking of particular actions imply or require a theory of identity for adjudging an action α as the same as or other than α(1)?
4. What is that theory of action identification?
These questions help us to articulate, at least in outline, our understanding of the politics of activity. Gergen's relational politics, it seems to us, while of immense value, fall short because ultimately they seek to reconstruct (identity politics and) the failing center rather than to pursue a new way forward (a way to reconstruct the world) given the demise of the center. As such, they are analogous (and, we think, somehow connected to) his apparent unwillingness to move beyond epistemology altogether. But highly regulated capitalism, the total commodification of government, the resulting redefinition of liberty (as completely individuated) and identity politics, together with their contradictions and resulting failure, are not, we suggest, reformable. What is required is a new kind of revolution. Furthermore, these deep fissures in modern society (our study is focused, in particular, on the US) cry out not simply for a "new public philosophy" or "new political definitions" but a movement beyond philosophy arid, more specifically, epistemology. There is no room for traditional programmatic compromise. We surely do not support extremism in any of its traditional violent, antidemocratic forms. To move forward we must create new political activity which is not rooted in epistemological overdetermined programmatics (Truth and Rightness). Indeed, to us, the new political activity must have as one raison d'être the elimination of knowing as the dominant mode of human understanding. For, to our understanding, further development and growth, of all kinds—at the personal and species level—demand such a thoroughgoing restructuring. Such, it seems to us, is the postmodern political mission.
Do we decide to commit to a particular action?
On the face of it, given our highly individuated and behavioristic societal frame of reference ("common sense"), the answer to the question would appear to be "yes." We can, so the argument would no doubt go, do a particular action (go to the grocery store, re-read Moby Dick, join the Air Force, tour the Everglades); if we do any of these things self-consciously, as opposed, for example, out of habit, by mistake, unintentionally, or without giving it any thought, then we could be said to have committed ourselves to doing it. Furthermore, if we to some degree deliberated about either our commitment or the action (or both), then we can be said to have "decided to commit to a' particular action." Yet even if we agree with this modest piece of ordinary language analysis, we would likely also agree that deciding to commit to a particular action takes place in a complex and ever-changing world. In a psychological laboratory study of deciding to commit to a particular action we would no doubt expect the environment to be as "clean" as possible, free of other factors which might impinge on our capacity to discern the action at issue.
But studies of ecological invalidity (for example, Cole et al., 1978; Newman and Holzman, 1993) indicate that the sterile psychological laboratory is more a problem than a help in understanding action. For even if someone managed to create one, the studied action is so removed from its natural environment that whatever is discovered about it in the lab has little or no applicability to the action in its actual environment; inevitably, the "results" (and the study) are ecologically invalid. The point here, of course, is that psychological actions are simply too interconnected with their environment to be meaningfully disconnected from it. The study of action(s), either through linguistic analysis or empirically, suffers from this arbitrariness.
What does action (particularized or not) have to do with activity?
The concept of actions, we would suggest, begs the question (actually, many questions). Consider Jost's formulation: "deciding to commit to a particular action." It is, to our ears, epistemologically biased and top-heavy. It presumes, rather than explores, a (kind of) relationship between various kinds of mental activity (deciding, committing, identifying particularities) and a physical (behavioral) doing. Moreover, the relationship (its presuppositions) is essentially dualistic, causal, and expressionistic, with physical doings (including, most especially, speakings) understood as expressions of inner (mental) acts or, at least, goings-on; the implied separation between them requires bridging, which is necessarily understood causally (Davidson, 1980).
Vygotsky (and many others) challenged these philosophical assumptions. Unlike action or actions, activity is not over-epistemologized. Indeed, on our account (and Vygotsky's, we think), it is a highly suitable alternative to epistemology—to knowing. Activity is not to be instrumentally understood (it is not a tool for result) but dialectically understood (it is a tool-and-result), to employ Vygotsky's critical methodological distinction. Activity is a dialectical unity which does not require (indeed, it denies) the separation of the world into dualistic components and the ensuing pseudo-theories of instrumentalist mediations necessary to get a bifurcated world "back together again." Activity-language (talk, conversation) is simply a way of speaking socio-culturally of the complex, dialectically intertwined phenomenon that is human life which does not demand the dualistic epistemic distortion characteristic of Western culture. Actions and activity, thus understood, are not simply different; they are antithetical.
Does speaking of particular actions imply or require a theory of identity for adjudging an action α the same as or other than an action α (1))?
To reply as simply as possible: of course it does. And (to answer question 4 even before we get to it) there isn't any. The identification of actions presumes substantival particularity (in something of a Kantian and Piagetian sense). But substantival particularity has not even fared so well in contemporary hard science; witness the extraordinary revolution in physics of the twentieth century. At the core of the quantum revolution is the methodological recognition that limiting our understanding of the most basic physical elements and their activity to a particle-ized, particularized ontology seriously and systematically distorts our understanding of the physical world. It is not simply that there are various ways of looking at (interpretations of) physical elements—for example, as particles or as quantum processes—but that physical phenomena are such that they must be construed in both ways simultaneously or we risk misrepresenting how the physical world actually is. An understanding of human social-cultural intercourse which reduces, explicitly or implicitly, subjective life to an infinitude of discrete and identifiable particularized actions fundamentally distorts human life in much the same way that Newtonian-style particle physics does physical phenomena (DeBerry, 1991). Human life, like the complex physical material of which it is physically composed, is vastly more complex than that. Simple particularized reductionism as the methodological accompaniment of an over-epistemologized culture has failed; it has reached its limits, it has folded. Moreover, an identity-based theory of understanding (classical modern knowing) has also folded, failed. The folding (the failure of the center to hold) is, it seems to us, indistinguishable from the whole family of foundational failures of modernism whic9, in turn, are inseparable from the social-economic-political failures of modern liberal capitalist society.
What is that theory of action identification?
Again, there is none. Nor need there be. Activity "on behalf" of (not knowledge or vision but) social change is the new non-epistemic politics for a postmodern, twenty-first century world. Is that action (or activity) for its own sake? No. It is neither for its own sake nor for the sake of (on behalf of) knowledge or visions. It has nothing to do with "sakes" at all. The problem we must make vanish, in Wittgenstein's sense, is the problem of sakes. Then why do we do this rather than that? With the activity of the mass performing as the organized political tool-and-result there is no possible answer to this (ultimately religious) why question. While action must be epistemologically justified (as Jost insists), activity does not (and cannot be).
The transformation of politics entails the democratic organization of mass activity, not the compromising of actions defined programmatically and ideologically by relative handfuls of highly individuated people. Non-epistemic politics is the organized collective activity of (in the case of the US) all Americans as producers taking responsibility (not legalistically, but humanistically) for all the complex social-cultural processes that constitute "America," rather than as individuated consumers seeking in their actions to justify by their particularized identity a larger share of a shrinking (albeit enormously profitable pie) owned (and thoroughly regulated) by a small (spendthrift) permanent commodified government. Non-epistemic politics is conducted with the recognition that it is the activity of politics itself (organized democratically for mass participation) that will serve as a tool-and-result (and, thereby, make problems vanish), and that it is not the undemocratically organized actions of a select professional few who putatively solve (by their instrumental actions) the problems facing the US and/or the world.
For it is we, the people, who are, at once, the problem and the solution. It is the organized activity of the people, by the people, and for the people, not the actions of anyone, which is the necessary new anti-epistemological, pro-activity politics urgently needed in this historical moment. This is neither "capitalism" nor "socialism," nor, for that matter, any other "-ism" economically and ideologically defined. Indeed, it is not defined at all but is, rather, the activity of the people organized to determine both the tools and the results of our activity. For even beyond the populist rhetorical (however accurate) recognition that "the people own the country" is the understanding that the people, by our activity, "own owning."
Relational rhetoric (and social constructionism) are not enough
Gergen's social epistemology and relational politics; Jost's, Parker's (and others') neo-Marxism; Sandel's call for a "new public philosophy" (without a new understanding of philosophy), Jowitt's demand for "new kinds of political definitions" (without a new kind of "definition" of definition). All, we think, are most insightful and valuable responses to the "folding (collapsing) center" that is the postmodern epoch. Yet to us, none of them goes nearly far enough, qualitatively speaking. They are, ultimately, reforms when what is demanded (required, whatever) is a peaceful, democratic revolution (revolutionary activity) against epistemology (the domination of the knowing mode of understanding and action), and a reconstructed society (and world) based on democratically organized activity as a tool-and-result.
Social constructionism is more a product of the postmodern collapse than a solution to it. Hence, social constructionist products such as social epistemology, relational politics, politicized discourse analyses, discursive psychology, and narrative therapy, while great advances, embody far too much of what they seek to correct. The reconstruction of social constructionism (from a mainly deconstructionist dynamic to a reconstructionist one), so honestly and insightfully called for by Gergen, requires, as we see it, the abandonment of the social constructionist project precisely as a new politics must abandon the epistemological presuppositions of relationality and a new therapy must give up the self upon which narrative approaches still subtextually (and, perhaps, subconsciously) rest. Here the early Marx, Vygotsky, and the later Wittgenstein (as activity theorists) will be of great help. Their work suggests that it is neither rhetoric nor reality that must be reinterpreted; it is human activity itself which must be democratically reorganized. Gergen's well-intended effort to transform rhetoric will not, in our opinion, suffice, for it does not fully recognize the activity that is language but is overdetermined by a use analysis of language. Hence, Gergen himself ends up articulating a politics of persuasion. But persuasion (even of the most ethically decent variety) will not, as we see it, succeed. Gergen's brilliant critique of identity politics brings to mind the psychoanalytically grounded analyses of Fanon (1963, 1967) concerning the way in which oppressed peoples (when slightly freer) so typically take on the characteristics of their (former) oppressors. So are we all persuaders, appealing in varied ways, employing varied rhetoric, to convince whoever will listen that we speak the Truth (or even the truth). But this is precisely the problem. The democratic reorganization of activity (not based on ideology, programmatics, labels, or truths) is the long and arduous independent road toward the creation of a new politics (a new political activity) that will eliminate epistemology—the ending that, as we see it, is required for further human growth and development. Ever-changing, democratically determined, inclusionary"rules" for the people's activity must replace the exclusionary Robert's Rules of Order. The point here is not to favor disorder but to reject any kind of order (including Mr. Robert's) which diminishes the participatory activity of the people. In this "activity-theoretic" approach, performance and conversation (the activity thereof}—indeed, the performance of conversation—will be,we think (and we have found), invaluable.
1. See Scriven (1959), "Truisms as the grounds for historical explanation."
2. This is a fairly traditional Marxist analysis, even among those who do not follow Luxemburg.
3. Thanks to Lou Hinman for his valuable input on these formulations.