Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reflections on Revolution (or: In honor of Independence Day)

The boy and I were talking about Marx earlier today. I should rephrase: the boy and I were being politely social on account of his room-mate. We both were craving the privacy of a closed door and music loud enough to mask my rather audible enjoyment of his company. That would come soon enough, a prelude to an evening together sans room-mates (and this is why I live alone). In the meantime, however, we spoke Marxian ontology, which inevitably led to the question all discussions of Marx terminate in: "So what about the Revolution?"

Indeed, Marx leads us to the necessity of revolution. His critique of the troika of Capitalism (money--that universal pimp; private property; wage-labour) leaves no alternative than the radical reshaping of the topos of human existence itself: meaning, value, pro-duction--human existence as such--can only be reconciled to itself when freed of the mediating forces of capital; thus the abolition of private property as the prerequisite of the Revolution.

It was suggested in the course of the discussion that all revolutions have been failures, that what is really accomplished is something on the order of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I am somewhat sympathetic to this line of thought, but in the spirit of the times, namely the 4th of July weekend, I'd like to spend a moment dwelling on the truly appreciable dimensions of our very own American Revolution.

Hannah Arendt, in her comparative analysis of the French and American revolutions, argues that ultimately the fabled "Founding Fathers" betrayed what she terms "the Spirit of Revolution". She cites Jefferson's insistence that "happiness" supplant "property" in the sacrosanct trinity of inalienable rights as an indication that political action as these men understood it was itself _pleasurable_. This strikes us as odd, especially we rather jaded pomo homos, for whom a rather noxious plume of self-righteous indignation is the only trusted confirmation of commitment to "the cause". Nevertheless,and despite our dour dispositions, these men saw pleasure as the guarantor of the spirit of revolution.

Perhaps we share something in common with the majority of these men, especially the Madison's among us, for Jefferson--about whom a number of justifiably nasty things can be said--by 1816 the American Republic was so "in name only." In a famous letter to Samuel Kercheval Jefferson laments the betrayal of the Revolution, a betrayal he roots in the haughty mistrust of political elites towards the common citizen. He writes:
"Where then is our republicanism to be found? Not in our constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people. That would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly. Owing to this spirit, and to nothing in the form of our constitution, all things have gone well. But this fact, so triumphantly misquoted by the enemies of reformation, is not the fruit of our constitution, but has prevailed in spite of it."

However, as Alexis DeTocqueville wrote with near prophetic insight, the spirit of democracy that Jefferson highlights above must be reflected in the laws, institutions, and practices of the republic. (Interestingly, Tocqueville is touring the States at the same time Jefferson is writing to Kercheval.) If these bulwarks of the Spirit of the Revolution cease to reinforce and reflect back this spirit, it will evaporate. Tocqueville's famous concern over a tyrannical majority stems from precisely the informal quality of the spirit of republicanism.

In her work "The Human Condition" Hannah Arendt writes the laws of the ancient Greek polis were like a "face" that allowed each generation to see itself over the course of time. That is, like a person, the laws were _recognizable_ and allowed continual interaction between citizens _and_ the laws themselves. The laws also, she argues, con-tain the action of the city's citizens. They served as a "wall" that kept the potency of their deeds from spilling out and thus dissipating. Crucially, it was this dual function of the laws--their ability to con-tain and identify citizens--that Jefferson and Tocqueville point-up as absent in the American constitution. Jefferson laments:
"In truth, the abuses of monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation, that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy. We had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that "governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it." Hence, our first constitutions had really no leading principles in them."

Nevertheless, Jefferson and Tocqueville hold out hope that the situation they document could be redeemed, and Arendt herself champions their proffered remedies. Again, the key to the equation is pleasure, the pleasure of inter-acting with one's peers, with whom one shares a common world. I quote Jefferson at length:
"The organization of our county administrations may be thought more difficult. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself. Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively. A justice, chosen by themselves, in each, a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor, their own portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery, within their own wards, of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere, will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done, and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution. The justices thus chosen by every ward, would constitute the county court, would do its judiciary business, direct roads and bridges, levy county and poor rates, and administer all the matters of common interest to the whole country. These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation. We should thus marshal our government into, 1, the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2, that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3, the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county; and 4, the ward republics, for the small, and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection. And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs."

That is, against the bureaucratization of government, allow citizens themselves to participate in the daily governance of the spaces in which they live. As Arendt reads Jefferson, and Tocqueville as well, there is a profound _pleasure_ in such inter-action, the pleasure of being called upon, of being seen and heard, and seeing a pro-ject through. The intangible but nonetheless "real" pro-duct of action is community, the creation and cultivation of a common world, one in which the laws--like a face--reflect back the principles of the citizenry.

It is a tall order, I suspect, to re-politicize pleasure in a way that isn't isolationist in nature, that is, restricted to the monogamous reproductive bedroom. Equally daunting is the striping away of the so fucking posh posture popular among so many pomo homos that simply having transgressive sex is in itself political. Pleasure in the sense Jefferson deploys is not an "agent provocateur"--it does not draw new lines of separation, but rather binds citizens together...

The contours of this distinctly public, communal--which is to say, political--pleasure have yet to be coherently articulated, perhaps, indeed, because it has yet to be experienced by our generation. To this end, however, it is necessary to have alternative spaces where like-minded people can meet, seek refuge, without shame. While not a substitute for the sort of politics Jefferson sought, this spaces are essential foundations.

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