the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public

A common concern raised lately about the incoming Obama administration is that the past eight years have vastly reduced the capacity of the US federal state to do anything. This is principally a function of the incredibly reckless economic behavior of the Bush administration, but it’s also because the rhetoric of “Homeland Security” and “War on Terror” have, IMHO, been used to erect an artificial barrier between state-as-police (which has been ascendant, both domestically and overseas) and state-as-ally (which has been on the decline). The outcome: a radically constrained notion of publicness; the evacuation of the public.Nowhere is this pattern clearer than in the writings of the libertarian right. Perhaps the most egregious is the literally unconscionable book by Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, The Myth of the Rational Voter. The book is outrageous largely because it presents as democratic failure what is actually democratic success. Caplan notes that voters want stuff he doesn’t think they should want, and that they succeed in getting it. Since Caplan represents what he officiously calls “reliable social science,” it must be the demos that is wrong, certainly not Caplan’s preferences. The solution–much like that proposed in the similar book by Pincione and Teson, Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation–is to constrain a priori the areas in which the public ought to be allowed to decide (Caplan) or even deliberate (Pincione and Teson) in order to protect them from their collective selves. Representative blog posts from our friendly North Carolina conservative blog, the Red Clay Citizen, can be found here, here, and here.

This is, as Stephen Marglin’s new book, The Dismal Science, argues (or seems to–I haven’t read it yet!) a big problem for what he terms “community,” but what I will consider the boundaries of legitimate public space. These approaches seek to constrain radically the segments of social life that can be legitimately considered in public ways, thereby minimizing the mandate Americans give government through the democratic process. This is not just a critique of economic policy, or of voting or deliberative behavior, but a thoroughgoing critique of democracy qua democracy, and ought to be understood as such.

Enter Appadurai’s gorgeous (IMHO) essay on the magical qualities of the 2008 election, which I already commented on briefly. Appadurai’s argument, if I can take a hatchet more than a scalpel to it, is that the quality of the magical–the collective, the organic, the transcendent–is part and parcel of what happened last Tuesday. Indeed, in important ways I think what happened Tuesday can’t be understood without reference to transcendence or, at least, emergence: that is, staring insistently at its constituent parts makes its wholistic qualities disappear. To quote:

I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he has already been vanquished by his foes. In the name of hard talk and pragmatism, realistic expectations and balanced judgments, rolling up our sleeves and keen to fix the leaks in the roof and the flood in the basement, we are refusing ourselves the joy of inhabiting what David Gregory called the transcendent, for it is too close to the language of official religion to be acceptable or satisfying for too long.

It is precisely this transcendent character that invests social life with publicness, and that’s why Appadurai’s post evoked a snide, ignorant commentary from the Liberty @ Cato blog:

We’ve hired him. For a job. We did it through the (yes, rather nifty) process of democracy. And… That. Is. All. Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

Note the constriction of the social, the transcendent, into the workaday (profane, routine, alltäglich) language of hiring an employee, which is certainly not all we did. Perhaps more importantly, note the elision in which Appadurai’s invocation of the magic of the election becomes, in the hands of the libertarian thinker (I use the word advisedly) a claim about the magic of the person. That’s because it is not only wrong but literally unthinkable in this paradigm that the collective imaginary might be anything more than the collection of individual imaginaries. If there’s magic, it follows, an individual person must be magical.

Now, I don’t know if the ignorance displayed here is intentional or residual, but ignorant it is. At a minimum, it is ignorant of the philosophical tradition on which Appadurai’s essay is based and of the ideas and claims that emanate from that literature. I suspect, though, that the ignorance is willful, even ideological, because to acknowledge even that possibility is to undermine the very raison d’etre of the ontologically fragile libertarian mindset. The tone gets sharper in the Cato response to Appadurai’s defense, in which it becomes clear that Cato is locked into a naive, 19th-century (at best!) Enlightenment view of the war between reason and religion:

I’d imagined that liberals would really go for the “reason” line, having plausibly accused the Bush administration of waging “war on science.” But I suppose that for at least a few liberals, when their guy wins, “reason” is out the window, and “magic” is what it’s all about.

Not that this position is unique, but it’s hopelessly outdated and frankly empirically indefensible to hold religion and reason to be at odds, or even in a zero-sum competition. But committing this error allows the author to ignore the complexity of the analysis and revert to comfortable, individualistic, and disingenuous claims, entirely without evidence, that the analysis is driven by crass partisanship.

I’ve already written more here than I’d intended. Let me close with this, though. One of the things that gives me hope as a democratic theorist (as opposed to simply as a citizen) about Obama’s election is that the campaign he waged straightforwardly offered a liberal vision to the country: one in which government can and should actively help people navigate the vagaries of the market and protect them from its most vicious hardships. This offers the possibility of reopening democratic spaces that have been closed off by the last four administrations (at least!). Americans, as a collectivity, rejected the poverty of public life offered by the Bush/McCain folks and their economistic hangers-on and selected the alternative. They are well aware of the danger Obama poses to this hollowed out vision of the state, which is why they insist on libertarian distortions and even the canard that America remains a “center-right country,” again flying in the face of all available evidence. My hope is that the Obama administration will aggressively defend (another oxymoron?) the idea that the public has a legitimate interest in its own ongoing vibrancy.

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  1. [...] the hollow state: economism and the evacuation of the public I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and … [...]

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