Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Occupy Rousseau: a Discussion at the NYC Library


Andrew Hultkrans wrote an entertaining synopsis of the Occupy Rousseau discussion at the New York City Library for Art Forum (here).  I add a few comments to Andrew’s reporting, in quotes, below.

1. “Demos senior fellow Benjamin Barber took the stage and ebulliently outlined the evening. Rousseau thought that commerce and private property were incompatible with democracy, he said, and this problem is still with us today in an America desperately clinging to its sense of exceptionalism (‘exceptional because one in four children live in poverty’).”

I think Barber is a bit off the mark here.  Large inequalities of wealth and income, and a preoccupation with private concerns at the expense of public life, are certainly incompatible with Rousseau’s vision of democracy.  But private property is essential to that vision because personal independence is essential, and, at least during Rousseau’s time, it was hard to conceive of such independence for citizens who had to rent their homes, their land, and their tools.  Although Rousseau was a communitarian in many matters, he never advocated either Platonic or Marxian-style communism.

2. “Gourevitch threw a cold bucket of water over Barber’s enthusiasm and the premise of the entire event by saying, “’I don’t know how I fit into this program; Rousseau was a conservative, not a revolutionary.’”

I’d put it this way: Rousseau was a conservative and a revolutionary.  He was conservative in his pessimism (realism?) regarding the prospects for a good society because Rousseau doubted our ability to keep the republic, and its common good, constantly before our minds.  We’re easily distracted from our public duties by personal concerns, by the possibilities for gain and status, and we’re very good at concealing our real motives from others.  Rousseau wasn’t prepared to pin all his hopes on our capacity for virtuous self-discipline; he envisioned an extensive regime of mutual surveillance.  Yet, it’s hard to read Rousseau’s “Discourse on Inequality” and not construe it as an extended argument for the overthrow of the Ancien Regime; or to read the Social Contract and not see the existing European states as falling far short of the standards that must be satisfied if men are to exchange their natural freedom for the rights and duties of citizenship.

3. Chenevière and Keohane more effectively problematized Gourevitch’s stance by reading some pretty rad-sounding quotes from Rousseau’s writings. Gourevitch was having none of it: “Rousseau thought that the ideal form of government was a democracy of the aristocracy. He would be opposed to all trends in liberal thought today: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness . . . ” Harsh, dude.

I don’t object too strongly to Gourevitch’s claim that Rousseau believed “the ideal form of government was a democracy of the aristocracy,” but I’d put more emphasis on the democratic element and on Rousseau’s insistence that the people can pull down their rulers at any time.  Rousseau wasn’t a multiculturalist because he thought a republic could only survive if its citizens shared a common life without too many conflicting beliefs about essentials, that is, without too much diversity.  And he wasn’t a multiculturalist because (like Brian Barry three centuries hence) he believed, implicitly at least, that cultural values were subject to critical judgment.  A culture that affirms the subordination of one segment of society to another is to be criticized, not honored.

4. “A former political philosophy student and lawyer, Husain insisted without prompting that he was not a spokesperson for the Occupy movement and said he thought Rousseau was a ‘tortured realist’ when he read him in college. ‘Occupy is presenting a structural critique,’ Husain said, ‘not limited to capitalism and wealth.’”

Rousseau, too, presented a “structural critique” if, by this phrase, we mean a thoroughgoing, root-and-branch critique of the existing order.  Although I don’t recall Rousseau writing anything about racial subordination, the First and Second Discourses do not stop at the door of “capitalism and wealth,” but aim to strike at their origin in the first interactions among human beings on their way to “civilization.”

5. “Somebody raised one of Rousseau’s most famous quotes: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’  For a split second, the audience basked in the lefty resonance of this statement until ol’ bucket-brigade Gourevitch interjected, ‘Rousseau was trying to show people how to make the chains legitimate.’”

Yes, but “making the chains legitimate” doesn’t mean giving the inhabitants of the existing state a reason for obeying their current rulers.  Quite the contrary, Rousseau’s Social Contract describes a model beginning, a social contract, and a system of institutions, which could, and should, call forth the willing cooperation of men who’ve exchanged their natural rights for the rights and duties of citizenship.

6. “For my money, Kean, the type of moderate Eisenhower Republican all but extinct today, delivered the quote of the evening: ‘We used to fight our own wars and pay for them—everyone was involved. We’re now doing wars by proxy. When everyone’s involved, you have less wars.’  Word.”

Kean’s point about fighting wars “by proxy” does indeed go to the heart of Rousseau’s political philosophy.  Rousseau insisted that citizens not delegate their voices to representatives, that representatives not delegate too much to administrators, and that paying taxes – the ultimate form of “citizenship by proxy” – be replaced by the corvée, a form of compulsory public service. 

7. “All with Victor Gourevitch as the anti–Flavor Flav, a hype man in reverse who quietly debunked what everyone was saying instead of egging them on with a well-timed ‘Yeeaah, Boyeee!’  The man can rock the mic—that is, when he knows where to point it.”
Let me conclude by complimenting Andrew Hultkrans’ brilliant characterization of Gourevitch as the “anti-Flavor Flav,” a role essential to the lively discussion reported above.

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