I came across mention of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, and was taken with the notion that the character of the devil and the character of the witch can be understood through a genealogical method that shows how these characters were invoked, who was empowered by them, who invoked them and who was accused of these things. The question for Federici (as for Kotsko) is not was this person really a witch or a devil, but how did accusing someone of being a witch achieve certain ends in certain contexts? Federici argues that the accusation of being a witch was used to strip women of power during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, a process which was necessary for the success of capitalism.
Against the view that the persecution of witches was the last gasp of the superstition that accompanied feudalism, Federici argues that the charge of witchcraft was used to limit women’s power and to control the reproduction of labor so necessary for the success of capitalism. This persecution involved a steady indoctrination of the threat of witches and the characteristics of witches, a process which produced the notion of the strong independent woman as a supernatural threatening force antagonistic to the interests of even working class men. Federici argues that the targets of witchcraft were not crimes but previously accepted practices and individuals that needed to be eliminated for capitalism to become possible and to thrive. Evidence of this is that those who were accused were poor peasant women and those who accused them were wealthy members of the community, often their employers or their landlords.
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
Today brings news that the president shared classified secrets with Russia that had been given to the US by an ally that did not give permission to share such secrets. My social media is lit up with people who hope that this scandal is the scandal that finally brings down the president. This story requires us to believe and support the CIA, not unlike the last scandal, the firing of Comey, that required us to believe and support the FBI. These scandals do not appear to do much to change the order of things, but to allow them to be more stable.
I proposed on Inauguration Day that we ignore Trump the person and fight the political battles. Today, after more than 100 days, I find many many people seem to want to fight Trump on the scandals, and not the political battles. I get it. It seems easier to shut him down by showing him to be ill-fit for the office. But I think there is something characteristically liberal about that approach–liberal in the sense of concerned with procedure and the equal application of the law instead of justice and freedom for those who are oppressed. This approach sidesteps the political work of having to show how every policy and new cancellation of rules hurts poor people, black people, immigrants, LGBT folks, women and the sick and disabled. I worry that this approach makes it seem like the real scandal is the sharing of secrets instead of the moving of wealth to fewer and fewer people. It makes it seem like the real scandal is a president who has no attention span instead of making the lives of more and more people precarious. Read more
In her recent book Crowds and Party, Jodi Dean argues against the radical individualism that continues to characterize politics on the Left, recalling a scene from Occupy Wall Street in which efforts to organize break down because everyone is asked to make their own decision about what to do. She argues convincingly that the subject of politics is produced as the individual in a way that serves a market-based economy. On this account, expressions of political resistance can be commodified and monetized as free expression. In service to that marketization of politics, politics and political discourse require the individual be produced as the fundamental unit of politics and political decision-making. Political resistance breaks down because the individual remains privileged above the collective.
Dean argues that crowds produce possibilities, heretofore unrecognized, for resisting the ways that everything from social media to marketing efforts demand that we be individuals. Crowds are collectivities that are not yet communities. Crowds have no shared history or shared norms. I started reading this book right before the January Women’s Marches, and I was struck by the possibilities at work in this way of seeing the crowd:
Because the crowd is a collective being, it cannot be reduced to singularities. On the contrary, the primary characteristic of a crowd is its operation as a force of its own, like an organism. The crowd is more than an aggregate of individuals. It is individuals changed through the torsion of their aggregation, the force aggregation exerts back on them to do together what is impossible alone. (9)
Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on the medical check-up tour. I visited my general practitioner’s office, my gynecologist, my eye doctor and my dermatologist. I’ve given my family medical history many times. In the last visit, at the dermatologist, I realized when I had to check none of the boxes they were concerned with, that family-wise, I was in pretty good health standing. On the contemporary view of American politics, this situation should make me shrug my shoulders at H.B. 1313, which passed out of committee late last week, which would allow employers to penalize employees who decline genetic testing. While such testing might lead to higher insurance rates for employees who have certain genetic dispositions for illness, people like me might have little reason to refuse such testing (except that it’s a gross invasion of privacy). Read more
You may have heard–Mike Pence used private email servers and was hacked. Jeff Sessions may have lied to Congress about conversations with Russia. He may have called for impeachment against those who lie in an official capacity during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. And while he has recused himself from investigations into Russian tampering with US elections, very few people think he will be impeached. Democrats have responded by calling “hypocrite!” See Paul Begala, Bill O’Reilly for goodness sake, Salon who points out the racial hypocrisy of the “law and order” Attorney General, the list goes on. Read more
Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
In November, right before the election, I wrote about how the rule of law depends on believing in the rule of law. The belief in the rule of law can also be extended to belief in customs and practices. I remember when I was a teenager and I first called into question the way people did things. I was on a date and this guy tried to kiss me at the end of the night and I felt like he was just doing that because that was what you were supposed to do at the end of the date, and I did the back-off duck and didn’t let him kiss me. I explained this to my dad by saying, I don’t like to do things just because people expect you to do them. I believe my dad told me a little kissing never hurt anyone. I may have explained herpes to him. Read more
I keep finding myself saying, surely someone with real power is going to do something to stop this. The most recent ‘this’ has been customs agents failure to abide by a court injunction preventing the executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. My expectation that surely someone who can make a difference will is a combination of my own sense of helplessness and my genuine if misguided view that people in positions of power are invested in the success of governmental institutions and processes. Read more