Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ideal Politics

In idle hours I sometimes ruminate on what politics might look like in a world only slightly more ideal than the one we live in. Parties, for one thing, would double as pedagogues, since the way the world works is hardly transparent, and the difficulty of seeing what is really going on gives rise to all sorts of false consciousness.

In the world as it is, however, party pedagogy is often perverse. Take the storming of the Bastille--today's storming of the Bastille, not that of 1789. It seems that the Communist Party (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) swooped down on the legendary site with grocery carts full of fruits and vegetables--17 tons of fruits and vegetables--which it sold at "farmers' prices." This educational effort was intended to alert consumers to what many already believe, that the high cost of food is due to "abusive margins by big retail chains." Buyers delighted by low prices turned out in droves. In its zeal to denounce the big retailers--one could almost hear the revolutionary cries of sangsues!--the workers' party conveniently neglected to remind its customers that the labor power of its militants was being donated gratis, that the party treasury had been tapped to pay for transportation, handling, and storage, and that the impromptu sales floor of the place de la Bastille charged no rent and required no outlay for maintenance. Thus the complexity of the real economy was hidden behind the screen of ideology.

But wasn't this the function of commodity exchange as described by Marx? It seems that money is not the only veil alienating consumer from producer, that the cash nexus is not the only generator of myth. How simple life would be if only all human relations were face-à-face. Pity the poor middleman, who has been denounced since time immemorial by those on either end of the food chain. Le grand racket! screams the headline in L'Humanité.

If the Socialist Party weren't consumed with its search for a new leader among its old leaders, it might seize the opportunity to explain to that portion of the electorate that it most desperately needs to reach--the drifting electorate of the left of the Left, nostalgic for the old nostrums yet skeptical that they have any purchase on today's reality--that the workings of the market are rather more complex than either the PCF or Olivier Besancenot allows, and that if anything is to be done about prices and wages, it must begin with a proper understanding of what's actually happening.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ironically, they did this just 1/2 block away from the real farmers selling their wares at the Richard-Lenoir market. If I were a working farmer and had traveled 30 kilometers with my fruit to sell in Paris I would be plenty upset at the PCF for undercutting me just to make a general (as opposed to specific) point.

I have to admit I didn't compare the prices, I was too busy with my own job...

TexExile said...

A very nice point, but I wonder if the PCF would care. Perhaps the competition was deliberate. As good Communists, the PCF activists should be out there fighting for the proletariat, not the peasantry, which (as the great Karl taught us) tends to succumb to all manner of reactionary and petit bourgeois prejudices.

But seriously, Art, the problem, I think, is that anyone trying to do the sort of pedagogy which you advocate (and which I support) will be at a disadvantage in the political marketplace. Simple stories with villains and victims are easier to communicate and have a lot more appeal. They give us the illusion that things are rationally ordered even when they appear not to be (the great appeal of conspiracy theories) and they allow us to know how we should feel about things and whom we should like and dislike -- which may be all we require when the issues are ones we have little hope of actually influencing.

Fifteen years of teaching in university classrooms has persuaded me that most of us like simple explanations that appear to account for a great many different things in terms of just a few key variables. That's why Marx (at least in the simplified, bastardised form in which he is best known) will always be more popular with students than Weber (Weber is complicated). Marx's theory of the development of capitalism is well known and appealing for its simplicity and clarity. Once you've heard it, you retain it and you can go around applying it as you wish to all manner of other phenomena. Not so Herr Professor Weber -- I used to teach Weber's theory of capitalism from time to time and I had to swot up on it afresh every time it came up in the syllabus, because it isn't the sort of simple scheme you carry around in your head. It was full of contingency and multiple causation. (Students never chose it on exams or for course essays, if they could avoid it.)

I think this explains the enduring appeal of a lot of isms and doctrines. Marxism, for example, purports to explain social, cultural, political and economic reality in terms of just one major factor (it's all about class struggle). Ditto Freudianism (it's all about sex), social theories rooted in evolutionary biology (it's all in the genes), and most conspiracy theories (it's all controlled by 'them', whoever it is 'they' may be).

So blaming the middleman for high food prices may simply be more psychologically satisfying than analysing complex models of retail netowrks...

Unknown said...

TexExile,
I alternate between sharing your pessimism and thinking that we ought to be able to do better. Because the pessimistic position is really a counsel of despair about democracy. I confess that I fell into a period of dark, Henry Adams-ish foreboding after the 2004 US presidential election, which seemed to demonstrate your thesis, that the lowest common denominator dominates the political marketplace. Another example is the current "debate" about offshore oil drilling to alleviate high gas prices: never mind facts and figures on consumption and production, never mind the ten-year delay before oil starts flowing, just do something. At times, though, electorates do demonstrate greater wisdom, and while I am not a believer in "the wisdom of crowds," neither am I so desperate as to denounce, with Bryan Caplan, "the myth of the rational voter." Education was once believed to be the panacea, but we have today electorates much more highly educated than in the past coexisting with distinctly degraded forms of political debate. The remedy for this state of affairs is by no means clear, but it does bear thinking about.

TexExile said...

I don't know that I am such a pessimist. I actually have a certain amount of faith in the wisdom of electorates (which is odd since I usually find myself voting for losers), and I agree with you that we can -- and should -- do better.

However, since three attempts to formulate some concise thoughts on HOW we can do better have failed, I'm going to start my weekend and leave it to your other readers to solve the problem for us...