Against political imagination

The peculiar Marxism of Elaine Scarry >>

When I was 18 years old, about to head off for college, a friend’s father gifted me a copy of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope. His explanation was cryptic. Chuckling, he said that he was fairly certain I would end up studying philosophy—and if I did, he wanted to ensure that I didn’t “make too many mistakes.” From the beginning, then, the role Rorty occupied in my intellectual life was more prophylactic than constructive. And as it happened, I did not end up studying philosophy. I discarded it, after one semester, in favor of religious studies. Philosophy and Social Hope was far from irrelevant to this exchange.

I indulge in autobiography to underscore something that I’m afraid got lost in Sam Moyn’sotherwise luminous essay on Elaine Scarry, Richard Rorty, and the anti-politics of disaster aversion. Namely, there is intellectual life after Rorty, and it is not just listless afterlife. Rorty’s thoroughgoing critique of “foundationalism,” his suspicion of political projects that tether their practical ambitions to grandiose claims of truth, has always seemed to me an exercise in admonition: a cautionary missive from one generation to the next. The project can certainly be called politically disappointing, but politically paralyzing? I have my doubts. Rorty was a liberal, avowed till the end, who, in Moyn’s estimation, thought it sufficient to condemn torture from the shelter of his private garden. Perhaps. But even if the late philosopher didbelieve this, there was nothing in his philosophy that required it. That was the point of the philosophy. It entailed one and only one commitment: a utilitarian mandate to adopt the conceptual system that best serves human ends. Rorty thought those ends had to do with “solidarity,” and he thought the conceptual system best able to serve them was liberalism. I happen to disagree. And it appears that Moyn does, too. In my view, however, Rorty’s conclusions about gardens and torture fail because of his mistaken impression of what arehuman ends, and of the best way to realize them. The failure does not lie with the elementary proposition that human ends are, first, foremost, and finally, the proper concern of politics.

Moyn worries that Rorty’s pragmatism—as well as Elaine Scarry’s project, however it might be named—focuses too intently on disaster-aversion. This focus, in Moyn’s view, risks distracting us from “creating and comparing political alternatives,” which is what we must do if politics is to think beyond disaster. I agree with Moyn that disaster-aversion, transformed into the centerpiece of politics, can easily cannibalize the enterprise. But I’m not sure that Moyn’s effort to revive political imagination is the only, or the best, response. I propose a different solution: that we revel more exuberantly in the style of institutional politics that has calcified around imagination’s disappearance. Rorty’s project may indeed have been “reactive,” but he was reacting to a real problem. Grand political theories often do have a fearsome dimension, no matter how imaginative they are. In the face of certain historical specters, we are not wrong to tremble and fear.

Moyn’s point, of course, is that fear can become obsessive, and obsession can be crippling. Yet for all of his concern that disaster-aversion “leave[s] the good abstract,” while rigorously defining and dissecting evil, Moyn also wends toward abstraction. He maintains that thinking clearly during emergency situations is not enough; we must be able to keep thinking clearly once the emergency has abated. And he insists that politics take a stand against “hopelessness,” of the sort that Rorty’s ironism embodied. These views are sonorous, and Moyn an eloquent proponent. But when he begins to speak more concretely, imagination gives way to an altogether more routine and bureaucratic set of issues. I don’t mean this pejoratively: politics very often is routine and bureaucratic. Moyn expresses interest, for example, in supposedly underexplored questions about the “institutional contexts” in which torture can occur; his critique of Orwell, contra Rorty (and swerving to the defense of Raymond Williams), is that 1984 portrays torture as an evil outside of history and politics, and thus uncontainable by any institutional measure. In a similar vein, discussing Scarry’sRule of Law, Misrule of Men, Moyn writes:

Scarry responds indignantly to the frenzy of wrongdoing under George W. Bush, from the torture memos to executive overreach, but she directs her ire at the men breaking the laws and spends little time examining how much the laws already permitted them to do, and if they could be changed. Indicting government lawlessness is appropriate and necessary, but aside from proceeding from a conventionally liberal view of what went wrong after 9/11, her essays fail to consider how much needs to be done politically after the torture has been stopped.

In one sense, I could not agree with Moyn more: in the aftermath of 9/11, responsibility demands that we ask difficult questions about the substance of our laws and the anatomy of our institutions—and that we shy away from fixating on the role that individual “bad apples” played. What I’m less sure about is that imagination has anything to do with it. Many aspects of our constitutional law operated in tandem, fueled by a toxic political climate, to allow the Bush Administration to carry out their “frenzy of wrongdoing.” Figuring out which aspects those were is an important question, but not a terribly penetrable one. Take it from an aspiring scholar of constitutional law: our experts are hard at work on these questions, in law reviews and policy reports and congressional hearings. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how one conceives of the occupation—these resources are less an outcome of imagination than careful technique. I would venture to guess that Moyn’s solution is not for all of us to become constitutional lawyers, or even, necessarily, to dabble recreationally in constitutional law. As is often the case with detailed analysis of technical problems, the central questions of constitutional law are mostly boring and archaic, requiring the oppositeof imagination. They are also, of course, tremendously important and, in their way, noble. But they foment no movements and inspire no cries.

If anyone demonstrated a knack for political imagination during the Bush Administration’s campaign of malfeasance, it was the Bush Administration itself. Its lurid creativity encroached on matters both small and large: everything from Dick Cheney’s suggestion, famously brought to light by Jon Stewart’s derision, that he alone constituted a “fourth branch” of government, to the neoconservative hallucination of a democratic phoenix rising from the war-torn ashes of the Middle East. These machinations, I take it, do not reflect the sort of imaginative politics that Moyn has in mind. But is the difference formal or just one of taste? I wholeheartedly share Moyn’s tastes, but I still suspect that tastes are what they are. Of course, to point out that the Right can be as imaginative, if not more so, than the Left does not rebut Moyn’s central point. In fact, he would be within rights, here, to accuse me of committing the very fallacy that he discerns among the Rorty and Scarry sect: sidelining political imagination because it has been abused, rather than formulating novel and productive avenues of its use. The trouble is that I’m not sure we should bring imagination to bear on politics. In a world of privatized imagination, does politics become hopeless? It seems just as likely to me that politics becomes narrow, splintered, and institutionalized: in other words, it becomes just what we know it to have become.

To be sure, there are better and worse versions of this model, and we should figure out what those are and insist on them just as fervently as older generations used to stand by their season-worn ideologies. What makes a specific version of narrow, splintered, institutionalized politics superior to another surely depends on many variables. But they are everyday variables: the integrity of officeholders, for example; or the ability to focus, as a nation, on details and facts rather than ideology. In today’s world, governance problems are either complex, multi-national, and inter-institutional—demanding expertise that laypeople, for better or for worse, often lack—or they are embarrassingly simple. We know that our tax brackets need to change. We know that more children need food stamps. With respect to issues like these, the question is, as is all too often the case, one of political will. Which is to say, it is precisely a question of overcoming imagined problems to focus on those we squarely face. In this vein, the main stumbling block of politics today—in the United States, at least—is that we are too often alight with imagination, a surfeit to put our other deficits, both material and intellectual, to shame. Imagination dominates our discourse to such an extent that critics feel compelled to inhabit imaginative scenarios simply in order to criticize the other side’s policy positions. The Right frequently uses a vocabulary of self-reliance that makes no contact with the contemporary world; it imagines a fantastical type of autonomy that cannot be reconciled with the reality of the administrative state. In response, the Left frequently sees fit to meet such arguments on their own terrain rather than carefully demonstrating why the terrain is senseless. Who am I to blame them? I have no idea what the proper strategy is for making political headway, day to day, in a system so distorted. But I think we should be clear about the problem: political imagination in this country is, like a weed, parasitic and lush.

Recently, a video of Elizabeth Warren speaking before the Banking Committee became a YouTube sensation—in large part, I think, because it reflects our craving for realism in a world where imagination has run so tangibly amok:

In the video, Senator Warren asks various bureaucrats, including the director of the SEC, to answer a simple question: When was the last time that a bank was taken to trial for its reckless behavior leading up to the 2008 financial crisis? The respondents fumble around with evasive, abstract answers, and Warren tries again: When was the last time the banks were taken to trial? Again: fumbling. In fact, the entire scene is remarkably unsatisfying in terms of basic accountability norms. The bankers basically say nothing. At the same time, the scene is immensely satisfying in terms of political realism. In asking about the contours of banking regulation, Warren articulated a point of frustration that, astonishingly, no one in position of her power has been willing to voice. She was—as Steven Shaviro once put it, inverting the May ‘68 slogan—being unrealistic by demanding the possible. We so often hear that certain types of reform and regulation are “impossible” in the contemporary world that it’s easy to forget what a terrific act of imagination these bulwarks require. When a pundit says, for example, that it would be “impossible” to get corporations to repatriate—and pay taxes on—the many billions of dollars they have sheltered abroad, what sort of world is being imagined? One in which the polity stands at the beckon-call of corporations, not the other way around, and in which our only hope is that feeble “incentive structures” will be enough to “nudge” corporate behavior ever so slightly in the right direction. For a breathless moment, Senator Warren refused to imagine the world this way.


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