Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Political Theory Consortium Rocks the House

The Political Theory Consortium (PTC) gathered last week for our second to last meeting of the semester. This group of theory-lovin’ students is awesome! So far this semester we’ve read selections from John Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty, Gandhi’s Non-violent Resistance, Jose Miranda’s Marx Against the Marxists, and Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality” paired with a contemporary work-in-progress by two friends of mine (David Gutterman and Keally McBride), using Rousseau to analyze the Tea Party movement as a manifestation of deep status anxiety.

The meeting last week was the one on Rousseau and the Tea Party, and it was HEATED! I could hear people up and down the halls of Wilson closing their office doors, as Jordan and David (a.k.a. Karl Marx Jr. and Milton Friedman Jr.) went head to head on the question of what economic system was more likely to improve humankind’s lot. I’m not going to lie to you, the term “Keynesian monetarism” was used more than once. And there was radical disagreement over whether Rousseau’s insights about what he saw as the foundational “swindle” capture our contemporary predicament.

Rousseau writes,

“Lacking reasons valid enough to justify himself and strength sufficient enough to defend himself, easily able to overwhelm an individual but overwhelmed himself by bandits, alone against all, and, on account of mutual jealousies, unable to join forces with his equals against enemies united by the common hope of plunder, the rich man, pressed on by necessity, finally conceived the most carefully thought out plan that ever entered the human mind; this was to use in his favor the very forces of those who were attacking him, to make his adversaries into his defenders, to inspire them with other maxims and to give them other institutions, which were as favorable to him as natural law was opposed.”

And if you’ve ever read the text, you know what happened next! The “easily seduced,”

“ran headlong into their chains, hoping to ensure their liberty, for, along with enough reason to be conscious of the advantages of political institutions, they did not have enough experience to foresee their dangers; those most capable of anticipating the abuses were precisely those who counted on profiting from them….”

According to Rousseau, this was the very origin of society. Ouch! And so here we are, centuries later, trying to figure out whether there is some masterful, Rovian (as in Karl) deception that has duped the not-rich into voting against their economic self-interest in order to protect their self-conception. Gutterman and McBride call this a “therapeutic” mode of politics – acting out our psychic worries, or angst, or fear of degeneration, if not our rationally considered interests. Fascinating stuff! Was the foundation of modern society the enlightenment insight that “all men are created equal” or was it actually the recognition of inequality (and the desire by some to preserve their comparative advantage) that inaugurated civil society in the first place? Discuss.

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