Politics and Parasitism

Thinking about my last post on the government shutdown, it seems as if what the shutdown has made apparent is that the party political system that we have in the US (and this is probably also true in other countries) is parasitic on “the government” which is a (not always) functional system of decision-making. It is parasitic in much the same way that the capitalist class is parasitic upon the functional body of labor and machinery that produces goods and services. Both trade in values (capital on the one hand, “freedom”, “hope”, “family”, “equality”, etc. on the other) that exceed and are abstracted from the actual functions to which they are meant to refer. Through this sleight-of-hand, the parties are able to maintain their parasitic position as if they are the real substance of the political process – the public is lead to invest its energy and attention in the political manipulations of the parties rather than in actual, substantive change.

Then again, without the electoral system that has produced party politics, there would be no representation, just extensive bureaucracy. Could it be that representation is overrated?

Alliances and Opposition: Thoughts on The Government Shutdown

I live just inside the beltway in College Park, MD. Washington DC is a 30 minute metro ride from my house – shorter by car, but also much more stressful. My at least two of my neighbors are home now because of the government shutdown. My father who works at the USGS in Connecticut has also been furloughed. This situation is putting enormous stress on the economy and society as well as on millions of individuals who benefit directly or indirectly from the government. What for? What is the purpose of this event? What does it do for the people who have caused it?

As Phillip at Circling Squares points out, the game is not about who wins or loses at the polls, but how political alliances are structured and maintained. Drawing on Latour’s recent book, Phillips says:

As for issues such as the shutdown and climate change, Latour’s POL mode is telling.  In politics you either succeed in building your alliances or you fail.  There are no consolation prizes for having the best reference chains or being the most morally sensitive.  (These things only matter insofar as they get you allies – no more, no less.)  Although he narrates it largely in the language of pragmatist liberal democratic theory it’s really a realpolitik mode.

‘So, you have secure, near-certain scientific knowledge?  Good for you.  What about your alliances?  They are weak?  Then you fail.  And don’t say ‘but I’m right!’ – you are, but that is irrelevant.’

This resonates with my own experience of politics. I think I’ve mentioned before (but am too lazy right now to search for the link) that I worked for a semester as an intern for a Connecticut State legislator. My experience in this position soured me to politics. What I saw there was not politicians as public servants working for their constituencies, but rather working for their parties (parties being loosely associated with networks of alliances). The issues that mattered were those that mattered to the party – generally those with some ideological value for either liberals or conservatives depending on the party – and not the issues that were raised by the people the legislators were elected to represent. Our politicians represent the party, not the public.

What I see with the shutdown is a party (the Republicans) reinforcing their weakened position by standing steadfastly against any and every major gain by the opposing party (the Democrats). This may weaken individual members in the polls, but as far as the party is concerned that’s irrelevant. The party is reconstituting itself, reconstructing the alliances that compose it, and reaching out to new potential alliances that might be sympathetic to a weakened government. In that sense, I suspect the shutdown is serving its function for the Republicans who started it.

For the Democrats, there is a similar reconstitution going on. The publicity surrounding the shutdown – and the very melodramatic way that the shutdown has been performed – helps to reaffirm those connections that establish the party as the “progressive” force. While the Republican party deserves the majority of the blame for causing the shutdown, the Democrats are partially to blame for how the shutdown has been carried out.

This is the game of politics – mutually reconstituting and reinforcing the alliances – and not, necessarily, working on fixing the problems we face as a nation, as a society, and as a world. In this case, both Democrats and Republicans are working to compose a world, but failing to work with others – the opposing party, the public, other nations, and so on. They erect barriers that armor themselves against intrusion. They refuse to be altered and affected. Working with (struggle) doesn’t mean compromise necessarily, but it does mean attempting to overcome or work through the frictions that are generated in the process of attempting to compose a common world. And this is what the parties have failed to do, instead choosing to prolong and exacerbate the frictions between them precisely because they are caught up in a game of alliance building and not the work of solving social problems.

What does it mean? It means we need to reform our political institutions or we need to find alternative ways of addressing these problems. Alternatives exist, but in most cases it would require building these up largely from scratch. In the meantime, we are confronted by the only other major institutions in our society – economic institutions – which have even less to do with solving social problems than politics. I don’t have a solution, and the path ahead looks daunting, but the government institutions (divorced from the generalized political mode that currently defines them, but not from the more practical politics of navigating localized decision making processes), for now, are our best bet for actually solving the problems we face.

Redefining Struggle

I’ve said in the past that I distinguish conceptually between “work” and “struggle” – the former being the unintentional process of composing a world by one’s very existence, and the latter being the intentional process of working to make a better world for everyone. But I’m having a new thought. If utopia is not an end towards which we can struggle, and struggle itself is utopia, then struggle can have no end of it’s own. The world cannot be “better” – that sounds dismal, but I only mean that “better” is a relative and subjective term – so the struggle cannot be about a “better world.” If struggle is utopia, then struggle has to be about itself.

So what is struggle? Now I would say that struggle is the intentional act of working together – working with others where “others” is not limited to other humans. There are, of course, unintentional acts of working together. In fact, all work is collaborative in some sense, though it is generally not recognized as such. What distinguishes struggle from other instances of working together is the intentional aspect – purposefully encountering others, altering and affecting them and allowing oneself to be altered and affected by them.

This last part is key, I think. Because, while anytime we work with others we are altered and affected by them, barriers are often put in place that limit the efficacy of one being in relation to another. These barriers could be institutional, affective, physical, conceptual or take any number of other forms. For example, the “objectivity” of scientists often serves as a barrier to becoming entangled with the object of their research as well as the social and political implications of their work. That’s not to say that barriers have to be eliminated – barriers are useful and provide opportunities as much as they are  obstacles – however, in order for struggle to take place, there must be an intentional equalization of barriers such that all beings involved in a relation are equally (but not in the same ways) altered and affected by the process. Without this, the being with the most barriers will always be able to close off the process prematurely with little harm done to himself but potentially severe harm done to the others.

This notion of struggle also broadens it out. Instead of thinking of struggle as simply a social process of activism and engagement with political and social issues, struggle – as I always intended, but was not always very expressive of – can take many forms. It could be the struggle with (working with) the others that constitute oneself – physical, mental, emotional, etc. We are heterogeneous beings cobbled together out of parts, adapted for many, often conflicting purposes, and living in a world that is changing with increasing velocity. As a result, everyone – young, old, healthy, diseased, happy, distressed, rich, or poor – is trying to cope with something. Sometimes we cope in ways that create barriers within us – isolating out parts of ourselves that are troublesome or that create internal friction. In this sense, the struggle can be about lifting those barriers (or, rather, working with them) and encountering the frictions between the different parts that compose us (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.). This process of working with ourselves – like the process of social struggle – can have no predefined goal aside from itself. The goal is not happiness or some abstract notion of health, but rather the struggle itself is the goal. As soon as the struggle stops, the frictions begin to accumulate and can become overwhelming.

I’m still thinking this through, and I’m wrapping this up after an extended break so I don’t recall exactly what I was going to say. But thinking about it again with a different frame of mind, I think there’s a better way of saying this. Work is the process of composing a world. It is continual and inevitable. All beings work, if only in a passive sense. Work produces frictions because we share our worlds with other beings and these other beings are simultaneously working to composed a world. Struggle is the process of working with other beings to overcome those frictions. Friction can never be completely eliminated, though, because we can never fully address all frictions at once (and sometimes addressing one friction will create or exacerbate another) and because new frictions are coming up all of the time. That’s why the goal is the struggle – there is no world that can be said to be the end – and the struggle is forever.

DC Area Up the Anthropologist Research Group

Yesterday at American University’s Public Anthropology Conference, a few of my friends and I held a session to discuss the creation of a research group in the DC area organized around “studying up.” Although no firm plans for the research group or a specific project were made, the session was very interesting, inspiring, and productive. We shared experiences, ideas, questions, challenges, and opportunities from a variety of perspectives, and there is clearly an interest and energy in pursuing the “study up” agenda.

There could have been no better time to have this discussion. The government shutdown has made apparent – especially in DC – the structures of power that shape our lives and the position of the public in relation to our governing bodies. We discussed the fact that, while many national parks are closed to the public, they are still open to resource extraction. We talked about the materiality of power in DC and how it has been affected by the shutdown. But we also talked about more than the shutdown. Towards the end of the session, I asked the attendees to suggest key ideas and possible actions that could be taken. Here is the list that I assembled:

  • We need a persistent effort – not just looking at power in times of crisis, but also in times of “normal” functioning.
  • We need to take advantage of openings – to use those opportunities we have (by virtue of our own positions of power) to talk to power and make our and other voices heard.
  • We need to think about ways of working internally – working with the structures of power rather than simply opposing them.
  • We need to mine those sources of data that we don’t always think of as data – the day-to-day encounters with power, just walking around DC
  • We need to redefine ethnography – to legitimize within our own discipline the study of power, which is not always seen as “ethnographic”
  • We need to work with people outside of anthropology – with other disciplines, but also with other organizations who are engaged in the work of making a difference, and with members of the public.

I think it was a very fruitful discussion, and I look forward to seeing where else it goes. We will be having another discussion session at the upcoming Anthro(+) conference at the University of Maryland, and will be starting an email list to share thoughts and ideas. If you want to be included in the list, contact me and I will add your email.