Sunday 18 July 2010

Speaking and Listening in Political Theory

Not the most exciting of titles ever to have appeared on this blog, but Andy Dobson's paper, 'Democracy and Nature: Speaking and Listening' (delivered at Keele's Environmental Politics Summer School) addressed a fundamental absence in political philosophy and democratic theory. For all the stresses on deliberation, dialogue, consensus-building and the like the focus has (pace Derrida) traditionally been on speaking and speech, about getting one's ideas and arguments across to an audience. Andy arrived at this lack by way of a journey through green political thinking.

Andy's paper began with a quotation from
Aristotle. A key foundation stone of his political philosophy is the distinction between humans and animals. He argued the difference lies not in gregariousness, or the ability to feel pleasure or pain but in the capacity for reasoned speech. This is what makes politics possible and exclusionary: without it participation is immediately ruled out. On this basis Andy suggested progressive politics (a slippery phrase if there ever was one) could be defined as the struggle for the right to speak and be heard. This receives support from an Aristotelian perspective: seeing as politics is premised on reasoned speech, excluding anyone from participation on other grounds is supremely irrational.

This definition is problematic for environmental politics because, under Aristotle's definition, the subjects of green politics lack the facility of speech. Future generations cannot speak yet, though as reasoned beings-to-be it is possible to represent their interests in the present. But the rest is 'dumb nature': it can never speak.

Nevertheless there have been efforts to extend the range of politics. For example, animal rights philosopher
Peter Singer and others participate in the Great Ape Project. This tries to argue that excluding the rest of the great ape family from politics altogether is inconsistent. They may be incapable of reasoned speech and therefore human politics, but their sapience is such that they should be afforded certain protections that sees them removed from the sphere of property to personhood. In Spain for example, the government's environmental committee granted great apes certain rights in 2008.

This project of course is limited: it only extends to certain related species who bear obvious resemblances to us. Other species who are as equally sapient but different - such as whales and dolphins - are excluded from the project. Therefore how can the rest of nature be brought into political theory?

For Andy, the work of French philosopher of science,
Bruno Latour can be of use here. In his influential The Politics of Nature (2004) he argued the intermeshing of social and the natural world means we cannot but help be involved in 'political ecology'. Therefore we should, epistemologically speaking, treat politics and nature as a single, unified case. In his book, Latour argues we can make a metaphorical distinction between the house of nature and the house of humans. The former possesses certainty and objectivity and is therefore a realm of 'authority'. In contrast, the latter is an abode of doubt, uncertainty and value judgement. Nature lacks speech but has authority. Humans have speech but lack authority, and so it's unsurprising so much political theory has put a barrier between the two.

As far as Latour is concerned this has led to a situation where some environmentalists have constructed a political theory that
ignores politics. The human/nature dichotomy is collapsed entirely into nature's authority: it is the ultimate legislator of human existence, therefore we have no choice but to curb economic growth, deindustrialise, etc. etc. The question of the kind of politics appropriate to this project is left hanging, hence the diversity of viewpoints that accept the premise of nature's unimpeachable authority, from anarcho-primitivism to eco-dictatorship.

This is a dead end for Latour, as are the interminable debates over what bits of dumb nature should be included in politics. If we start from his premise that politics and nature are intertwined and accept that the outcome of various postmodern/post-structuralist debates has been to philosophically problematise statements of fact, the politics appropriate to this is not one based on speech but on uncertainty. This 'new collective' moves away from subjects to propositions, from people who can speak to things that need to be taken into account. To use a current example, the concern with
the decline of Bees and other pollinating insects is a political problem in that it impacts on agri-business, food supply, raises questions about pollution and climate change, etc. It is a political problem, even though the apparent subjects - insects - cannot speak.

Andy argued this view breaks with Aristotle. Using his terms, Latour's new collective endows everything with the capacity to "speak". Non-humans have become beings of concern that provoke discussion and political action. But because they lack speech in the Aristotelian sense, they can only become political propositions if we
listen. This however is far from straightforward because, as a category of political thought, listening has been virtually ignored. For all the ink spilt on shared speech, mutual recognition, toleration and collaboration listening is, at best, only implied. By way of a demonstration, searching for speech in democratic theory returns millions of links off tens of thousands of articles. Doing the same for listening yielded just three. This means there's an absence in urgent need of working on.

By way of exploring a listening category, Andy briefly drew on two pieces. The first was the absence in
Iris Marion Young's 2002 book, Inclusion and Democracy. Considering the title, it does not consider how deficiencies in the capacity to listen reduces the quality of democracy. This isn't the flipside of Aristotle - that some people lack the ability of political listening - instead it is an effect of power. As John Dryzek argues in his book, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (2000), the refusal to listen is a property of the privileged and therefore an exercise of their power.

I found Andy's paper fascinating, but there are two points I would like to make - the first on humanity/nature and the second on listening. Latour's replacement of the society/nature divide by a messy but unified collective subject isn't really new. The seeds of conceiving the intertwining of the two are present in Marx, as amply demonstrated by John Bellamy Foster's investigation,
Marx's Ecology (2000). The relationship human society has with nature is akin to a dialectical interpenetration of opposites. It is not analogous to a transaction between two discrete independent entities. What historical materialism describes is human history's gradual estrangement and alienation from nature. As the productive forces have grown we are less immediately abound by the vagaries of natural necessity . The problem is this human-nature 'metabolism' is unregulated: from the standpoint of capitalism as a social formation it is only dimly aware its operation undermines the natural supports that make it possible. Protecting the long-term interests of the beings that animate the system is low down on the list of priorities.

Of course, this isn't to say Marxism has applied Marx's insights systematically. Academics and other political opponents can get away with writing nonsense about Marx's 'Prometheanism' because Marxists themselves have often gone along with technocratic understandings of (economic) development - not helped by Marx's occasional lapses into phraseology that endorses this view. But sometimes you have to use Marx against Marx to extract the historical materialist kernel from the hyperbolic shell.

On listening, it seems to me this property is present but repressed in social democratic/labourist and socialist politics. In his concluding remarks, Andy suggested feminist and green politics are predisposed to listening because of their concern with identifying and exploring conflicts marginalised and ignored by mainstream political thinking. At least where the current
rhetoric of Labour is concerned, the emphasis is on listening. But the listening it has in mind is that consistent with the previous 13 years in government. It is rather the *appearance* of listening. For example, for all the hand wringing about the so-called core vote, at least three of the leadership candidates thinks reconnecting with the working class base means bashing benefit claimants and immigrants. This is not hearing: it's telling people what the candidates think they want to hear, which perfectly sums up the New Labour attitude to listening. It is an example of what Dryzek argues above. This wilful hard-of-hearing extends to the party organisation too. The gutting of member-led democracy in the party from the late 80s on has seen a decomposition of what political science calls the linkage function, the idea members and the party organisation keep political elites aware of what's going on 'on the ground' by feeding up information, policy ideas and feedback. This isn't surprising: Labour and social democratic traditions, for all their positives over conservative and liberal traditions, are fundamentally paternalist. From the outset, listening (at best) is about representing working class interests within the system. It is not listening aimed at making workers politically active themselves.

Marxist political thought is (theoretically) different. Regardless of whether you see yourself as some sort of Leninist or not, if Marxism is about encouraging the working class to organise in its own interests for the winning of political power. Such a project is premised on listening. i.e. If Marxists do not listen to the working class, how can it ever be won over to socialist politics? There seems to me to be two ways in which the Marxist tradition has dealt with listening. The first is with reference to the revolutionary organisation. In Lukacs's
History and Class Consciousness essay on the party ('Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation' (my commentary here), while the individual is subject to party discipline the health of the organisation is absolutely dependent on the free flow of critical discussion. Without it the formulation of tactics and strategy is impossible. In other words, the communist leadership has to listen to its members: listening is crucial for the linkage function to operate. A similar albeit less democratic point was made by Mao in relation to the 'mass line'. Here the party listens to the masses. The information is relayed upwards to cadre and leaders who, on this basis, formulate the line which is then transmitted back down and is agitated for among the masses. Here listening is absolutely crucial to the party becoming a concretisation of the masses' interests.

Then there is Gramsci. Hegemony is absolutely key to the bourgeoisie's rule. While it is, in the classical sense, guaranteed by the "armed bodies of men" organised by (and synonymous with) the capitalist state their rule is sustained by systems of cross class alliances who have been won over not just thanks to material privileges, but also (and interrelatedly) on the basis of consent. The assimilation of the outlook of these classes and class fractions to the common sense of capital is only possible because their historic bloc listens to their aspirations and demands. If this is not met it can result into a section splitting away and forming a sectional political party, or can be more serious and call the whole basis of their collective will into question. For Gramsci the job of the modern prince - the revolutionary socialist party - is to construct a counter hegemony. Everywhere this means winning the working class over to its political programme, which is a process of consent-building that cannot proceed on any other base than listening to the class. But elsewhere where the working class do not comprise the overwhelming majority of the populace its own historic bloc of allied classes has to be forged. Such class alliances are premised on not only organising among the other classes but listening to them and finding room for their expression in the counter-hegemonic bloc. The relationship between the workers and the peasantry in Russia was, for instance, the condition of the Bolshevik's success in 1917 and the subsequent civil war. And it was the break down of this relationship - the refusal of the bureaucratising leadership to listen - that contributed to the crises of the 1920s.

So while listening is present in Marxist political thought, there has been a tendency for it to be buried by the stress on what constitutes the correct political leadership.

In sum, following Latour's lead Andy is right that green politics (or, for that matter, any radical politics) must treat the human and the natural world as a continuum, and that this calls for a certain recasting of political theory in terms of listening. I agree. But while there may only be pregnant implications in mainstream democratic philosophy in this direction, I argue that of the 'old' traditions listening reaches its clearest, albeit slightly suppressed expression in Marxist thinking about politics.


Unknown said...

I can't resist linking the "metabolic rift" between the capitalist system and the eco-system with the discursive divide between Labour's grassroots and its leadership.

Arguably political "listening" exercises are paternalist but whether they are conscious of it or not the role of the leadership of a social democratic party which does not intend radical social change is to maintain this distance from the grassroots or else face overwhelming hostility from the ruling class.

Phil said...

I'm not surprised listening has paternalist connotations when thought of in terms of mainstream political theory - that reflects their imputed class bias. But for radical politics I would suggest listening can be though of in two senses - of our movements and organisations listening to our constituencies as a means of drawing them into struggle, and demanding the powers that be listen.

And yes, I agree with you on the Labour leadership. They're part of a system. If they want to keep inside it they must play by its rules.

Anonymous said...

And yet you, Phil, aid and abet Labour 'leadership' in breaking most of its own rules ......

And they claim to 'listen' but clearly don't understand.

Phil said...

Yawn, troll on ignoramus.