Constitutions, dictations, escapes

The liberal and left responses to the latest outburst of Bush admin scandals (spying, reconstruction, hurricane-response/rebuilding) have been variously predictable, insightful, and confusing. They have also been wonderful kabuki theatre, performances replete with inflated gestures and florid emotions, a cavalcade of farce and slapstick, a rich pageant of melodrama. Sort of like the lede to this post.

Outraged-liberal reaction, unsurprisingly, has been indignant, but also notably theatrical. Liberals mostly lined up behind Al Gore’s MLK Day speech, which received a bevy of literal amens and songs of devotion. Red State Son, as usual, delivers a thorough thrashing of lib criticisms, but he doesn’t touch on the more insidious, decisive aspect of them, which is more revealing than their hypocrisy and embarrassing cheerleading: the endless appeals to the constitution. Michael Ventura is exemplary here because he has a wider range and is less attached to the Democratic Party than most libs and his arguments against Bush’s justifications for the spying program consist almost entirely in quoting the constitution. Like biblical literalists, he sees the text as self-explanatory, in no need of interpretation and beyond questioning. His faith is a bit more fervid than most, but for he and others the constitution provides the sole basis for criticizing the Bush policies.

The stakes here are I think quite important. What’s liberals object to is not so much the act of spying on Americans–surely no one is naive enough to believe this is a recent development–but who gets to decide when it is instituted; it’s a question of prerogative. Read the many fulminations on the scandal and it becomes clear what needs to be defended–the constitution, the social bond, not privacy. The real problem is that Bush disregarded the sacred document of the land. Critics want to rearrange prerogative, so that congress is involved in this sort of decision-making. But this maneuver only puts spying on firmer footing by giving it a facade of popular support. And by invoking a violated constitution that must be protected, the bonds created by it–that is, the rigid distances between representative and represented, dominant and subaltern, owner and worker–are further cemented and made to seem natural.

In a way, leftists in blogsville have created a sort of inverted counterpart to the liberal constitutional fetish. This compulsion plays out in the insistence on applying to the current U.S. situation old political categories, namely fascism and dictatorship. Many of the people who invoke them are people I respect, admire, and have learned a lot from, but their assertions are, at worst, merely performance pieces or, at best, insufficient shorthand for a new political situation. Of course, many elements of those historical categories are present today, but why should perpetual war be automatically conflated with fascism and why should unlimited detention and surveillance quickly be labeled dictatorship? Those leaps elide too many differences in favor of neat parallelization.

Besides not being adequate to describe today’s circumstances, the problem with these concepts is that they only theorize action from above, from the state-capital apparatus. In a word, they are descriptions of totalitarianism. They leave little room for describing modes of minor politics and so are useless in discovering ways to confront the current situation.


2 thoughts on “Constitutions, dictations, escapes

  1. hi Eric,
    I think the point about from what perspective descriptions happen is super important. I’ve just recently been struck by the urge to know more about science (and later, to get more familiar with claims in the history of marxism toward being scientific). I want to say, in my very layperson’s “I read sci-fi as a kid” kind of way, that marxist ‘science’ and other ‘top-down’ accounts of things neglect the position of the observer, like how where the observer is located changes the phenomena observed in a way. I hope that makes sense.
    take care,

  2. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s bypassing the subject, but doing so by just ignoring subjectivity rather than exploring/interrogating it. Is that what you are getting at?

    Similar to this perspective thing, I think, is the hardass, I-am-a-scientist view that Marxism is complete science, absolutely free of ethical claims. It’s nonsense of course–if Marx were free of ethics, how do you justify Marx siding with the working class?–and, as I think you are hinting at, is absolutist, authoritarian.

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