Lifeworld and System: a primer

The great social theorist Jürgen Habermas has drawn attention–for more than half a century–to the problem that he calls the “colonization of the Lifeworld by System.” Here is my explanation, based mainly on a rare concrete example from his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2. 

The Lifeworld, for Habermas, is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, somewhat naive and biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. It is a “reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretation.” In the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be opaque to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. But Habermas argues that we are incapable of thinking about everything at once. In order to reason and communicate, we must take most points as givens. Only then can “single elements, specific taken-for-granteds” be brought up for conversation and critical analysis.

Meanwhile, the “System” is composed of formal organizations, such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in a System have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit sometimes with ethical constraints). For example, defense lawyers are required to defend their clients, corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit, and comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. In the current period, there are fundamentally two Systems: markets (in which instrumental action leads to profit) and governments (in which instrumental action demonstrates power). Although the people who work in markets and governments are complex individuals with other commitments, their official work responsibilities are to maximize money or to administer power.

To illustrate the Lifeworld, Habermas invites us to envision an “older construction worker who sends a younger and newly arrived co-worker to fetch some beer, telling him to hurry up and be back in a few minutes.” The senior worker assumes that a whole set of beliefs and values are shared on the team: German construction workers enjoy and expect to drink beer at breaks during the workday, beer is for sale in the vicinity, the younger and/or most recently hired person is the one who does unpaid chores for the group, and so on. Each of these assumptions could be brought into doubt and subjected to debate. For instance, as Habermas suggests, the younger worker might say, “But I don’t have a car,” or “I’m not thirsty.” Other “elements of the situation” might generally pass unnoticed yet become relevant as circumstances change. If the younger worker is an immigrant without health coverage and he falls off the ladder as he goes to buy the beer, several relevant laws and controversies may suddenly occur to the workers, moving from their background knowledge to topics of explicit discussion. But at any given moment, simply by virtue of being human, the workers must assume most features of the situation as a shared and implicit background, a “vast and incalculable web of presuppositions.” This is their Lifeworld.

In order for the workers (or any other group of people) to be free and self-governing, they must be able to render any aspect of the Lifeworld problematic. It is a definitive feature of modernity that no assumptions are considered immune to critique; and it is a condition of democracy that no critique is blocked by law or other force. When the younger construction worker notes that no beer is available within walking distance and he doesn’t have a car, he is giving a reason for someone else to go. This turns his work group into a small Public Sphere. To the extent it is democratic and deliberative, his reasons will require responses.

Imagine (to go beyond Habermas’ presentation of this example) that the radio is playing as these men work. A news program includes an interview with a feminist activist who criticizes the construction industry for hiring very few women, followed by an immigrant leader who notes that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (thus the assumption that everyone wants to drink beer is exclusionary), followed by a health expert who attributes disease to excessive daytime beer consumption. These people are making arguments that compel critical attention to specific aspects of the workers’ Lifeworld. They represent the larger Public Sphere of the Federal Republic or the European Union. It doesn’t matter whether the interviewees have self-interested motivations, such as selling copies of their books, or whether the radio station is a for-profit company trying to attract listeners. The format of any reasonably well-run news program will compel the speakers to give reasons that can be checked and assessed by reporters and listeners. This is a case of a democratic Public Sphere challenging citizens to reflect about aspects of their Lifeworld.

But although every particular point should be subject to discussion, the whole Lifeworld must be protected. One reason is that we need the Lifeworld to think at all, for we are capable of testing a specific assumption only while holding our other assumptions for granted. A second reason is that our Lifeworld is ours, a condition of living authentically. Any political program that tries to strip a group of people of their accumulated assumptions all at once would be totalitarian. A radio program that brings separate issues to the workers’ attention expands their thinking; but if a revolutionary government seizes all the radio stations and begins broadcasting propaganda against contemporary German working-class culture as a whole, that is a threat to their Lifeworld.

Meanwhile, the Lifeworld is vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties who act instrumentally. For example, suppose that on the radio, the workers hear men with similar accents to their own praising a particular brand of beer. Maybe women are also heard, enjoying these men’s company and appreciating their good taste. It sounds as if friends have entered the real Lifeworld of the construction site, but these supposed friends are really actors who are are paid to sell beer. Of course, the workers will understand the purpose of an advertisement, yet by skillfully imitating their authentic Lifeworld, the ad can affect their behavior. No reasons need be given; no rebuttal is invited. In this case, Habermas would say that the Lifeworld of the workers has been colonized by the System of markets. The System of government might similarly colonize their Lifeworld if a candidate for public office started talking on the radio as if he were their friend who shared their values and experiences.

In discussions of Systems colonizing Lifeworlds, common examples include commercial advertisements that masquerade as authentic communications. These are cases of “commodification”: firms mining the Lifeworld for economic advantage. Habermas also emphasizes the tendency of welfare state bureaucracies to “juridify” or “judicialize” the Lifeworld. For instance, when well-intentioned states seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships.

A neo-Marxist line of criticism faults Habermas for equating juridification with commodification and the state with the market. This critique hold that the underlying process is capitalist exploitation, and the welfare-state is only a threat to the Lifeworld because it is a tool of capital. Habermas disagrees. For him the underlying process is growing specialization, a feature of modernity. He insists that in socialist societies, the state colonizes the Lifeworld in a parallel way to the market’s colonization in capitalist societies; and in welfare states, both threats operate at once.

[It turns out that I have posted 58 times before on Habermas, collected here. My broadest posts are probably Habermas and critical theory (a primer)saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.]

no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)

As a political philosopher, I’m trained to think about justice versus injustice. Both terms are controversial. It would be hard to find two people (even two who might share the label be labeled “social justice warriors”) who define “justice” exactly alike. We each put together our own recipes using various combinations and flavors of liberty, equality, happiness, solidarity, sustainability, rights, voice, agency, status, security, and other values that conflict in practice. Injustice is equally complicated, and it may not mean the mere absence or negation of justice. But although the polarity of justice/injustice does not generate consensus, it structures many of our debates.

There’s another polarity that plays an analogous role for people who have been strongly influenced by Gandhi or the Civil Rights Movement: for instance, people who work in Peace and Conflict Studies.  This is the polarity of violence versus peace.

Again, both terms are complicated. Just as it won’t really work to define “justice” as equality (Equality of what? For whom? Equality and nothing else?), so it doesn’t work to define violence as physical assault, or peace as the absence of violence. Like justice, peace can provide the framework for a discussion in which various definitions are proposed and defended.

The following schematic diagram depicts these polarities as two different axes. It implies that it’s conceptually possible to have an unjust situation of peace or a just case of violence. Consider, for example, the imprisonment of a former dictator. He is arrested at gunpoint and forced into a cell (violence) but that’s a manifestation of justice. This case belongs in the bottom-left quadrant. On the other hand, situations of political quiescence involve living in injustice without any conflict: the top-right.

Some would argue that (true) justice is (true) peace; and injustice equals violence. Then the schematic is wrong; there is just one continuum whose ends should be labeled “Peace/Justice” and “Violence/Injustice.”

Or it could be that peace is a component of justice but not the only component. Perhaps you can’t have perfect justice with violence, but you can have a violent situation that’s more just than a peaceful situation would be, if the former scores higher on liberty, equality, or some other value.

My general instinct is to resist smooshing values together, because then we fool ourselves into ignoring tradeoffs. For instance, I don’t like to load lots of values into the definition of “democracy.” I prefer to define it as a system for making binding decisions in a group that affords everyone roughly equal influence. Then we can ask whether democracy requires or implies other values, such as social equality or freedom of speech, or whether it conflicts with these values. The same logic would encourage distinguishing between peace and justice as two different goods.

I have not made up my mind on this question, but here’s a text with which to think about it. Dr. King visited Joan Baez and other anti-war protesters in prison in Santa Rita, CA, on Jan. 14, 1968. Addressing a crowd outside the prison, he said (in my transcription from the audio):

There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice. People ask me from time to time, ‘Aren’t you getting out of your field? Aren’t you supposed to be working in civil rights?’ They go on to say, ‘The two issues are not to be mixed.’ And my own answer is that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concerns. For I believe absolutely that justice is indivisible and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I want to make it very clear that I’m going to continue with all of my might, with all of my energy, and with all of my action to oppose that abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.

The first sentence might mean that peace and justice are always causally connected: one is necessary for the other. But then it becomes clear that King’s struggle for Civil Rights is about “justice,” and his opposition to the war is about “peace,” and he wants to connect these two concerns because they are both “moral.” That implies that justice and peace are two distinct components of a larger category: what is moral or right. Finally, King defines the specific war in Vietnam as unjust, leaving open the possibility that a different war (e.g., the US Civil War?) might be just. In that case, peace in Vietnam is a necessity of justice but not because it will bring about peace; only because the war is an injustice.

At another level, of course, King insists on peace as a strategy for justice. Active nonviolence is an ethical and effective method in a wide range of circumstances, with a better record of success than violent insurrection has. But analytically, we could still distinguish between peaceful and just means and between peaceful and just ends and then ask when any of these four go together.

See also:  the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolencesocial justice should not be a cliché; and we are for social justice, but what is it?

what is polarization and when is it bad?

We might say that people are polarized when …

  1. They hold opposing positions on issues that matter to them.
  2. They hold contrasting core values that drive their opinions about issues.
  3. They identify strongly and stably with parties or ideological groups or movements that compete.
  4. As a principle or guideline, they oppose compromise with the other side.
  5. They use partisan labels as heuristics to judge candidates or issues.
  6. They use partisan heuristics to make decisions not directly related to politics, e.g., which community to live in or whom to date.
  7. They don’t actually interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  8. They don’t want to interact with people who disagree or with people who identify differently.
  9. They select or filter news and opinion to match their partisan opinions.
  10. They hold different factual beliefs that support their values.

These are separate issues, and we may feel differently about each one. For instance, I think that #1 and #2 (disagreeing about issues and about underlying principles) are completely fine. It’s even possible that we should cultivate a wider range of views and air them more openly and extensively. If that means more “polarization,” so be it. Also, #3 (identifying stably with an ideology) seems fine as long as you are thoughtful about it.

Surveys ask people about #4: Do you want politicians to compromise or to stand on principle? I find this a somewhat frustrating question, because it typically mentions only two options. A person can refuse to budge in a negotiation, give ground in the face of an opposing power, choose to compromise in the interest of moving forward, favor compromise because it is fair for interests to be balanced, or actually learn from an opposing argument and change her mind. I’m for changing one’s mind when (but only when) the opposing arguments are good. I’m not necessarily for compromising or holding firm in a negotiation: that depends on the circumstances. I’m not sure how I would answer the standard survey questions about willingness to compromise.

Partisan heuristics (#5 and #6) are problematic. Indeed, heuristics of any kind are problematic; they are shortcuts that evade harder thinking. On the other hand, heuristics are necessary because our brains are limited and we have other things to think about besides politics. People who have strong partisan identifications are more likely to vote and otherwise participate than people who don’t know how to identify themselves politically. This suggests that partisan heuristics are resources that enable political action. As long as the available party labels stand for reasonably valuable options, and the major options are available, I am not overly worried about partisan heuristics.

Here’s a thought-provoking example: Between 2011 and the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape, White Evangelicals changed their minds about whether political leaders who act immorally in private can nevertheless “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life.” In 2011, White Evangelicals were the group least likely to agree with that; now they are the most likely to agree–a rapid, 42-point change. It would seem that their support for Donald Trump (81% of them voted for him) drove their opinions about a broader and deeper issue. But was this a case of partisan heuristics overwhelming people’s judgments or of people learning from experience? Perhaps their assessment of Trump caused them to revise and complicate a prior assumption about private morality.

It seems worse to choose neighborhoods and friends based on party labels (#6) than to vote on the basis of partisan heuristics (#5). To be sure, it’s good to take politics seriously, and if you do, your political judgments may affect your everyday choices. But using party labels to choose friends and neighbors prevents exposure to a broader range of perspectives (#7 and #8).

Problems #7-9 are all about living in separate bubbles, whether by accident (#7) or by choice (#8); whether in real life (#7 and #8) or in the media environment (#9). The last issue, #10 (holding different factual beliefs) follows from #7-9. I am not certain these problems are worse than they were when the entire South was “solid” for the Democrats and the whole small-town North “waved the bloody flag” for the GOP. However, we have lost large mediating institutions, such as grassroots-based political parties and metropolitan daily newspapers, that once exposed people to alternative views. The trend has been toward massively disaggregated choice. You used to decide whether or not to subscribe to a daily newspaper. Now you decide which paragraph of which article to send to whom. Massively disaggregated choice has promoted balkanization, which manifests in #7-10.

See also: the hollowing out of US democracycivic education in a time of inequality and polarization; and don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.

the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence

We see nonviolent social movements forming and acting all around us right now: Charlottesville, Boston, Phoenix. There’s also a lively debate about whether nonviolence is the best response to threats like the alt-right, and if so, why. (Is nonviolence a moral principle, a strategic choice, or both?)

A characteristic aspect of any nonviolent movement is sacrifice. Participants sacrifice by renouncing consumer goods, by contributing money, by spending evenings at rallies, by putting their bodies in harm’s way, by going on hunger strikes, or even by choosing to die before onrushing tanks.

In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King describes the “laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age,” who had to “trudge” as many as 12 miles each day to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King writes, “They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic that the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.” The words “suffering” and “sacrifice” create a leitmotif in the book as a whole.

Sacrifice deserves scrutiny because it is powerful. Occasionally it shakes the conscience of opponents. More often, it persuades enablers of the current regime and bystanders to take the insurgents’ side. It demonstrates Worthiness, Commitment, and Unity, three of the four assets of any social movement, according to Charles Tilly. (The fourth asset, Numbers, is necessary to make a sacrifice effective.) Yet sacrifice is not always appropriate or valuable. Critical analysis is necessary.

Before we can analyze the kind of sacrifice that is evident in nonviolent movements, we need a serviceable definition of it. Some characteristics of non-violent political sacrifice also arise in other contexts. For example, soldiers make sacrifices that are (in certain respects) just like those of nonviolent protesters. Gandhi was once asked whether his “activities [could] be described as war.” He says he “had no hesitation in replying, ‘Our struggle has all the attributes of a war.’” Yet his nonviolent campaign surely differed from an actual war in more than just its refusal to use physical violence. Thus we need a relatively precise definition of the phenomenon.

I posit that the category of sacrifice found in nonviolent social movements (but not necessarily there alone) has four features.

  1. It is concerned with public–social or political–issues. If you give up your career to care for a sick relative, that is a sacrifice but not of the relevant kind.
  2. It has a real cost to the one who sacrifices. If you boycott a good that you didn’t like anyway, or for which there are easy substitutes, that is not a sacrifice, even though it might be a politically effective act.
  3. The cost is concentrated on the one who sacrifices. If you blow yourself up on an airplane, along with all the other passengers, that is a political sacrifice, but not the kind offered in nonviolent social movements.
  4. The act of sacrifice is performative and communicative. A relevant audience must understand that you are sacrificing for a given cause. They must recognize your intention and objective and the cost that you bear.

This fourth criterion goes a long way toward explaining why sacrifice is powerful. It is a form of rhetoric. When you voluntarily bear a steep cost, you provide compelling reasons for observers to draw the following conclusions: you sincerely care about the issue; you and the others who join you are willing to act and will not be easily ignored; in contrast to a violent actor, you are likely to respond positively to reasonable concessions; and you have a perspective that should at least be considered by anyone who wants to understand what people believe about the issue.

These reasons fall short of an actual justification of your position. You could have a sincerely held perspective that is unjust. However, the sacrifice draws attention to your voice and clears away certain barriers to being heard, such as the assumption that you are insincere or unserious. Sacrifice thereby creates the opportunity to offer actual justifications. King writes, “nonviolence comes in as the ultimate form of persuasion. … We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.”

Various complications arise for this four-part definition. For one thing, even if sacrifice always has a cost, that doesn’t mean that the impact on the sacrificer must be a net negative. Gandhi holds that “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy.” This aphorism comes amid his summary of the metaphysics of the Bhagavad Gita, according to which “the world cannot subsist for a single moment without yajna [sacrifice]” and “the body, therefore, has been given us, only in order that we may serve all creation with it.” Gandhi also holds that worldly entanglements prevent equanimity, so sacrificing them is the way to avoid distress.

These arguments are rooted in specific religious and philosophical traditions, but people from a wide range of cultures and faiths have experienced joy while making political sacrifices. King observed workers walking miles to work with their heads held high because they were part of a boycott that was part of a movement for dignity. Although walking for miles is a sacrifice, it can bring more satisfaction than discomfort, even during the march. A week in jail with one’s comrades can be a time of solidarity and inspiration even though one’s liberty and comfort have truly been taken away. I think a sacrifice is still a sacrifice even if the net impact on the actor’s utility happens to be positive. This balance may be rare, but the definition of sacrifice does not require feeling more unhappiness than happiness. If it brings joy, so much the better.

Another complication is that it is very difficult to bear all the costs of a sacrifice oneself. In Stride Toward Freedom, King subtly but pervasively traces the impact of his actions on innocent others, starting with his own family. He says that he “gradually lost [his] role as husband and father” because of his activism. His father fell “into a state of constant terror,” and “mother too had suffered,” even taking to her bed under the strain that Martin Jr. was causing. “I was worried about their worry. I knew that if I continued the struggle I would be plagued by the pain I was inflicting on them.” Years after he wrote these words, when he was finally assassinated, his family were again the ones who bore his loss–along with concentric circles of people who had loved him, extending to millions of human beings. Anyone who is cared about causes collateral damage by sacrificing herself. I think a reasonable definition of nonviolent sacrifice should encompass acts that distress the innocent, even though it must exclude intentional efforts to harm opponents.

A third complication is that violent acts can work just like nonviolent civil disobedience under certain circumstances. Gandhi often analogizes satyagraha campaigns to battles. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln eulogizes the men who “gave the last full measure of devotion” by sacrificing their lives on a literal battlefield. We know that they were trying to kill their enemies while surviving to fight another day. However, in contrast to almost all martial speeches, the Gettysburg Address never mentions the Union victory or the Confederate defeat; apart from one use of the word “fought,” it is all about suffering, not winning. Pointedly, Lincoln refuses to differentiate between the sides. He converts a bloody battle into an act of pure self-sacrifice, as if the casualties had died while turning the other cheek. The result is effective rhetoric for the same reason that an act of civil disobedience is persuasive. Lincoln presents the soldiers’ sacrifice as a call to our conscience. This is a borderline case, about which readers may disagree, but I am inclined to think that Lincoln successfully expands the category that we are considering so that it includes violent conflicts, as long as they are interpreted as shared sacrifices in the common interest.

At this point, we have a rough, four-part definition of nonviolent political sacrifice. We can also see why it is often effective. It serves as a powerful form of persuasion and it sculpts the soul. King holds that “unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transformative possibilities.” King proceeds to quote Gandhi to reinforce this point.

With this definition in hand, we can also consider whether nonviolent political sacrifice is always praiseworthy. I think it is not.

For one thing, the costs transmitted to others can be too high. In a section of his autobiography entitled “Quickened Spirit of Sacrifice,” Gandhi recalls that an American salesman talked him into buying a life insurance policy for the sake of his wife and children. Gandhi’s decision to buy the insurance demonstrated his own “mixed desire. The spirit of self-sacrifice was tempered by the desire to lay by something for the future.” But then his “outlook changed” and he decided that everything he did should be “in the name of God and for His service.” Gandhi stopped making the insurance payments, reasoning that his brother could care for his family if he died, and that, by purchasing insurance, he had “had robbed [his] wife and children of their self-reliance.  Why should they not be expected to take care of themselves? What happened to the families of the numberless poor in the world? Why should I not count myself as one of them?”

Note the way that Gandhi’s “self-sacrifice” is strictly borne by his wife and children. He never hints that the insurance payments undermined his ability to lead a nonviolent movement; rather he sacrificed his family’s income security because he wanted to purify his own stance. In the same book, Gandhi recalls that he “did not hesitate to sacrifice” his children’s literary education in the interest of having them remove human waste from the house and walk five miles each day to his office and back. “My sons have therefore some reason for a grievance against me. Indeed they have occasionally given expression to it, and I must plead guilty to a certain extent. … But I hold that I sacrificed their literary training to what I genuinely, though may be wrongly, believed to be service to the community.” Even if Gandhi’s decision was right, this case is close enough to make the point that sacrificing others is not always justified. A more famous Gandhian example is his unilateral decision to become celibate, although married.

Even if one could bear 100 percent of the cost, sacrifice might not be ethical. Imagine a person with no friends or family who dies in a hunger strike. There is no damage to innocent third-parties, but the sacrificer has destroyed her own life. A utilitarian calculus holds that every life counts the same, including one’s own. By that standard, the sacrifice is ethical if, but only if, it does sufficient good to outweigh the death. Other philosophical traditions (notably, Kantianism) go further and assert that we have duties to ourselves. It could be wrong to squander oneself in a political cause.

But sacrificing not only oneself but others whom one loves can be precisely the right thing to do, as I explore in this post on the Little Rock school desegregation case. Indeed, causing the ones you love to suffer can be one of the most potent and transformative strategies available to the poor and oppressed.

See also: the question of sacrifice in politicsself-limiting popular politicsa sketch of a theory of social movements; and taking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice. Citations from: Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Veena R. Howard, Gandhi’s Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013) , p. 75; M. K. Gandhi, The Message of the Gita (Navajivan Publishing House Ahmedabad, 1959), pp. 17, 15; M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography Or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahemadabad, 1927, pp. 315-6, 374.

a civic studies perspective on European citizenship

In “A Civic Studies perspective on European citizens: in search for potential in the conflict surrounding TTIP” (European Politics and Society, Aug 2017, pp. 1-27), Nora Schröder provides a learned and insightful overview of Civic Studies–consistent with the core ideals of the Summer Institutes of Civic Studies–and applies it to the case of European grassroots protests against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIPP).

The anti-TIPP protesters hold a view of global trade and tariffs. They also hold related opinions of what citizenship should mean in the European Union context: they favor democratic control of markets and oppose neoliberalism as a political/economic philosophy. As Schröder notes, public policy research would seek to clarify these issues, assess the impact of the protests, and perhaps provide advice to the activists. Civic Studies is different because it is explicitly normative (concerned with evaluating what is right) and because it aims to expand citizens’ capacity to influence the world for the better. It doesn’t stop with assessing whether the protesters have influence and are on the right side of the issue; it strives to increase their influence for the good. Schröder argues that Civic Studies must therefore be “bottom-up” and closely related to practice, a case also made by Sanford Schram in this volume about Civic Studies. I admire such engaged research but believe there’s also room for relatively abstract and general theory in Civic Studies–a point that Karol Soltan makes in the same volume. In any case, Schröder provides one of the best available summaries of Civic Studies, en route to offering some valuable thoughts about the anti-TIPP protests.

Arendt, freedom, Trump

This passage, from a previously unpublished 1966 or 1967 lecture by Hannah Arendt, is a rich text for the week of Independence Day while Donald Trump is president:

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects.

Note, first of all, that Arendt, like John Adams, views “the desire to excel another” in public life as a virtue. She could be thinking pragmatically: by encouraging people to excel in debates, we motivate them to enter public life and do their best. We give them a reason to “love the company of their peers and [spur] them on into the public realm.” But I read Arendt as making a second point as well. She sees political excellence as an intrinsic virtue, as constitutive of a good life. Her theory differs from views of democracy that emphasize humbleness, self-abnegating service, or the dispassionate pursuit of truth or consensus. She admires people who effectively advocate their own views and obtain recognition for their special eloquence.

Excellence of this sort “demands equality.” As a matter of logic, you cannot display the virtue of persuasiveness unless the people whom you seek to persuade are your equals, free to agree or disagree with you. Thus anyone who develops a love of political virtue will fight for political equality. Helping other people to be equal is not just good for them; it’s a necessary condition of one’s own “public freedom,” meaning the freedom “to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others.”

The corresponding vice is “’ambition,’ which ‘aims at power as a means of distinction.’” For John Adams, virtuous citizens seek to distinguish themselves by demonstrating excellence and receiving the free respect of peers. This makes them fundamentally sociable; they seek company. In contrast, “the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction.” He tries to “dominate” or exclude others, seen as threats rather than peers. That leaves him alone, “exclud[ed] from the company of others,” with only his power over them as a connection to his fellow human beings.

Examples of civic virtue in Arendt’s sense are not terribly rare, but as a well-known case, I will cite our last president. Barack Obama is not self-abnegating. He demonstrates confidence and strives for excellence. He attempts to win arguments. But he never denies his fellow citizens’ standing in the public sphere or claims arbitrary power over others. On the contrary, almost every significant speech by the former president explicitly invites opponents into the conversation. Although President Obama is sometimes described as reserved or even mildly introverted, he “loves the company of peers” in the sense that he evidently appreciates the give-and-take of ideas in public forums.

In contrast, our current president understands speech as the mere display of power. Criticism is by nature a threat. A successful statement is one that demonstrates greater power. Trump doesn’t strive for eloquence–he doesn’t even spell-check his tweets. He demands loyalty to his person and shows no interest in differences of principle. He “thereby [excludes] himself from the company of others” and is fundamentally lonely in a way I don’t think we have seen in the White House since the last days of Richard M. Nixon.

I do not mean to imply that Donald Trump is a tyrant in Arendt’s sense. He lacks sufficient constitutional power for that; his incompetence provides an additional barrier. His efforts at domination tend to be more pathetic than terrifying. A tyrannical personality without tyrannical authority verges on a laughing-stock. Because the constitutional order creates independent peers for the president–members of Congress, judges, reporters, foreign leaders, and courageous citizens–a president who talks like a tyrant just loses friends and allies. Still, Arendt’s portrait fits, and if an extrinsic factor like a terrorist attack suddenly confers power on our national laughing-stock, the patterns she observed in 1789 and 1917 will become frighteningly relevant.

See also: Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.

so, you want to strengthen democracy?

This year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference explored a set of analytical tools that may be useful if you want to improve or defend democracy:

  1. You should decide where you stand on the current crisis in American democracy (which is mirrored in many other nations). You may conclude that there isn’t a special, short-term crisis, that the issues are long-lasting, or even that the Trump Administration has positive potential. That is still a stance on the current situation. This flowchart can help you navigate to a position of your own.
  2. You should decide on the core values that define a good democracy. Edna Ishayik presented a draft framework from Civic Nation in which the core values are deliberation, collaboration (or public work) and civic relationships. That framework is similar to the one in my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. You may prefer alternative values, however.
  3. You should practice systems thinking. Social problems don’t have root causes. Almost every problem has many contributing causes. For each cause, there are other factors that cause it, in turn. These chains of causation often produce vicious or virtuous circles. To decide where to intervene, you must begin to understand the relevant factors and how they relate in a complex web. The Democracy Fund presented a draft systems map for US democracy, still in development. Here is an overview of the approach.
  4. You should think about multiple levels of power. This discussion goes back at least to Stephen Lukes in the 1970s. At Frontiers, Archon Fung offered a version of this framework, which has four levels. The first level is getting a better deal for an individual (e.g., obtaining a visa for a refugee). The second is changing laws or policies (e.g., restricting or liberalizing immigration law). The third is changing who decides and how decisions are made (e.g., by making visas subject to judicial oversight). The fourth is changing what people believe and value (e.g., shifting views about immigrants–for better or worse). Archon argued that organizations tend to focus on the first and second level of power, but the other two levels are more important. What are you doing about levels 3 and 4?
  5. You are going to need processes of one kind or another. Ceasar McDowell offered a framework of design principles in a version of this talk.
  6. You should try to maximize Scale, Pluralism, Unity, and Depth, even though those objectives are in tension, because bottom-up social movements only win when they have SPUD.

how to get a deliberative democracy

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference ended on Saturday–and my thanks to the 150 dedicated and skillful participants. It’s billed as a gathering of people committed to various forms of democratic reform, but it tends to draw colleagues from one of the fields in which I also proudly work: deliberative democracy. Two thirds of the 100 people who completed a pre-conference survey said they work on dialogue and deliberation. Of those (about one third) who said that they are active in social movements, more than 60 percent also said that they specialize in dialogue and deliberation. That means that many participants organize and/or study events and processes that aim to be representative, balanced, transpartisan, inclusive, equitable, “civil” (in some version of that word), and discursive. Openly contentious forms of politics are not widely represented at the conference. Just over one quarter of attendees are interested in government reform, but since the vast majority of those also said they work on deliberation, I think the reforms they support tend to be public deliberations–rather than, say, voting rights.

I believe in deliberative values, although I don’t think they are the only values we need in a complex modern democracy. For me, the question is whether to pursue values such as deliberation directly–by organizing deliberative spaces and projects–or to promote changes in the political economy that might generate better deliberation as a byproduct.

For instance, I asked participants to consider eight possible responses to the current political crisis, of which two involved “winning the next election.” Half a dozen participants have told me they object to this option. For some, the framing is too partisan, implying that Donald Trump is the problem and that a Democratic victory in 2018 would be a solution. For others, the framing is too conservative, in the sense that it reflects support for our basic process of adversarial, representative democracy. Can’t we move beyond elections to become a deliberating (if not a beloved) community?

I sincerely welcome this feedback, which prompts a valuable discussion. Speaking just for myself, I would raise doubts about the strategy of promoting deliberation by being explicitly and directly deliberative. It’s plausible that Donald Trump represents a clear and present threat to deliberative democracy, not because he’s identified with the right and the GOP, but because he is opposed to truth, civility, inclusion, equity, and constitutional limitations. (I have argued that he is anti-conservative in fundamental ways). Further, it may be that when deliberative values are threatened by very powerful politicians, the pressing need is to defeat them decisively at the next election. Finally, it may be the case that the only plausible agents capable of defeating Donald Trump are Democratic candidates and never-Trump Republican candidates (including true conservatives). In that case, “winning the next election” is an essential and urgent step to defend deliberative democracy.

Likewise, it may be that the best way to revivify a moribund public sphere is to support contentious social movements that resist the two powerful “systems” of state and market and thus compel discussion of overlooked issues. These movements will not be deliberative. In fact, they may gravitate to occupations, boycotts, and other adversarial modes. But their byproduct is a more deliberative democracy.

My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.

But I don’t see a political strategy for taking such work to scale. I don’t see who would pay for it or what would motivate most Americans to participate in it. (And I think the disproportionately white, middle-class makeup of the Frontiers participants reflects the limited appeal of this approach). Professional proponents of dialogue and deliberation will succeed when–and only when–powerful grassroots political movements, including parties, force changes in our basic political systems. It’s their work that increasingly draws my attention.

See also: three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; saving Habermas from the deliberative democratssaving relational politics.

a sketch of a theory of social movements

Any social movement needs resources, such as money, existing organizations with members, physical spaces, tools for communication, people with special skills, allies within existing power structures, etc. These resources are somewhat flexible; for instance, you can do without money if you have in-kind assets.

The social movement deploys its resources to organize actions, such as mass meetings, boycotts, strikes, processions, performances and occupations (among many others).

These actions coalesce into larger campaigns, each of which has a narrative arc: origin, growth, crisis, end. A set of campaigns constitutes a true movement with a larger arc. (However, a single campaign can have the spirit of a movement.)

Campaigns accomplish immediate outcomes, to varying degrees. These outcomes include: demonstrating the capacity to enlist and deploy large numbers of people, who are reasonably diverse yet unified behind the cause; sacrificing goods, salary, time, personal safety, or even lives; demonstrating legitimacy, whether of the “respectable” kind (orderly marches led by clergy and parents with children) or more challenging types (occupations by dispossessed people, funerals of martyrs);  discussing questions of means and ends within the movement to achieve at least a working consensus on core issues; enforcing tacit norms about what means and ends are appropriate for the movement (e.g., no violence in a nonviolent movement); and communicating with outsiders, at least so that they know the movement’s positions, and ideally so that the outsiders learn from the insiders, and vice-versa.

I’d offer a functionalist explanation for why campaigns seek these immediate outcomes: they confer power. As a result of its actions, the movement can put tangible pressure on target authorities. The powers-that-be lose money due to boycotts, lose elections due to voter mobilization, lose allies who defect to the movement, or lose control of streets and buildings.

It then becomes possible to negotiate an end to a particular campaign, even if the larger movement continues on with new demands and new target authorities. The negotiation may be relatively formal: movement leaders sitting around a table with officials. Or it may be tacit, an understanding that if the law is changed, then most of the protesters will go home. Even if there are formal negotiators, the ultimate success of any settlement depends on its popularity within the movement and within the official institutions.

Some movements fall apart before they can exert enough pressure to negotiate. A few movements do not end with negotiations because they supplant the powers-that-be, becoming the new authorities. I think those cases represent the boundaries of social movement politics, the points at which movements cease to be such.

[See also: what is a social movement?social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)does Occupy Wall Street need a demand?we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth) and Charles Tilly, Social Movements: 1768-2004 (Boulder/London: Paradigm, 2004); Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.]

Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the American Revolution may not be accurate history, but it is valuable political theory, and it finds an eloquent echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Arendt argues that the American revolutionaries began by seeking liberty, which they didn’t define sharply but which mainly meant negative individual freedom (On Revolution, p 20). (On this point, Phillip Pettit disagrees, arguing that the founders were motivated by opposition to “domination,” or subjugation to another person’s discretion.) In creating new institutions that would protect negative freedom, the revolutionaries discovered “public freedom”—the freedom to create together. And they found that this was a source of happiness for them. “They were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty” (p. 24).

Freedom, for Arendt, is in no tension with equality, because political equality can only exist among equals, free people who decide together what to do. She writes, “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21). Equality is not natural but is created by people who decide to govern themselves on terms of freedom (pp. 30-1). Aristotle calls equals who govern together political friends.

A strong word for the kind of excellence and flourishing that the founders discovered in revolutionary action was “glory” (p. 196). Arendt is not a deliberative democrat who understands public discussion as a quest for consensus about the right thing to do. She is more of a performative democrat who sees politics as a place for demonstrating excellence to friends and to posterity.

In retrospect, we can explain the founding of the American republic in terms of contingent causes: France and Spain gave military support to defeat Britain, Parliament was divided, the size of the colonies made them ungovernable, etc. That is the perspective of a spectator. But the founders saw themselves as agents (p. 52), initiators of a story whose end was not determined.

The hard question posed by the Revolution was how to make the “public happiness” enjoyed by the founders in Philadelphia in 1776 or 1788 available to all Americans across time: the question of scale and sustainability.

In Miranda’s Hamilton, these themes are pervasive. The whole story is about Hamilton’s quest for glory and his discovery of freedom among friends (and Burr’s exclusion from the “rooms where it happens”). The themes of freedom, equality, friendship, glory, story-making, and expanding the scale of the revolution come together neatly in the the tavern scene where Hamilton and his friends sing “The Story of Tonight”:

[HAMILTON]
I may not live to see our glory!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
I may not live to see our glory!
[HAMILTON]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[HAMILTON]
And when our children tell our story…
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
And when our children tell our story…
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[MULLIGAN]
Let’s have another round tonight
[etc]
[LAURENS]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you
Raise a glass to the four of us
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN]
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
[MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE/LAURENS]
Telling the story of tonight
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
[etc.]