Wednesday, August 13, 2008


In The New Yorker for August 11-18 Nicholas Lehmann has an interesting article about the nature of politics (“Conflict of Interests”, pp.86-89;

He reviews a book from 1908 by one Arthur Fisher Bentley entitled “The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures”. It’s relevant to Our concerns today because – well – the title says it all. According to Bentley, 1) “all politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups” and 2) “any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure” because it won’t be grounded in an accurate (as Bentley sees it) grasp of the fundamental operational dynamics of the political process.

And in case you were wondering: Yes. Bentley means that there is no such thing as ‘the common good’ and there is no such thing as ‘the people’; there are only groups, preferably acting rather than thinking or writing, and that ‘acting’ involves ‘exerting pressure’ in its own interests, among a passel of other interested groups doing precisely the same thing. Whatever products of policy or legislation emerge from that free-for-all horse-trading is the best that can ever be expected from politics.

It may seem strange, only 45 years after Lincoln’s appeal to The People (my capitals) at Gettysburg, that such a theory is propounded. But the mass politics of the early 20th century, coupled with the Gilded Age chicanery of the Robber Barons (though surpassed in damage by the Robber Baronets of Our present age), coupled with the rise of urban poor and worker classes who were in many cases also immigrants from not-the-north-of-Europe … all these elements gave rise to a type of big-city machine politics that lasted in one or another form until 1968 at least.

The Progressives of that era (Teddy Roosevelt was President) sought to ‘uplift’ those urban classes, and thought that government should help by passing legislation to protect them (labor laws, public education), and that government could help even more by ‘reforming’ itself; there were, in the eyes of the Progressives, larger issues and concerns than merely interest-group interests and local concerns, especially when the scales of local politics could be so heavily weighted by the thumbs of the wealthy and the powerful.

It would appear that the power and vital rootedness of those local, machine politics made a deep impression on Bentley, and communicated to him a sense of their inevitability and stability. And both the inevitability and the stability, vigorous and vital, derived from their rootedness in the natural tendencies, passions, needs and desires of human beings, at least in those big-city settings.

Against which, it seems, the ‘abstractions’ of Progressive ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’ were pale and ineffectual and – in Bentley’s vivid and clear vision – doomed to failure because they were so grossly inaccurate a reflection of how things actually worked. There’s more than a whiff of Nietzschean vitalism and emotivism and emphasis on the human will here, and its concomitant pooh-poohing of ‘abstractions’ in favor of the vital, willed Act. But that’s not a total dismissal of Nietzsche; although he is a compound that has to be used in the lab and in the field with great care and attention.

Curiously, We can see a certain Flatness to Bentley’s vision: only the Act (using Nietzsche’s capital here) and not any pale Idea, is worthwhile and fruitful. But Bentley, it has to be said, doesn’t take it to the next level: that only the Individual and not the group (a herd-like thing to Nietzsche) is worthwhile and fruitful. To do so would require that the Individual be a rather well-formed and competent, mature adult – and Bentley avoids calling for that, because he believes either that ‘maturity’ is an impossible concept or that such ‘maturity’ is impossible to achieve among the entire citizenry (or even just a large fraction of it). It would not be presumptuous to imagine that few persons could achieve Nietzschean ‘Individuality’ (as perhaps 60 or 70 years later similarly to imagine that few could achieve Maslow’s higher levels of interior functioning or the higher levels of moral or emotional functioning charted by decent minds of the day).

No, Bentley stops with the Act at the group-level; the individual citizen as insignificant to his vision as the Citizen-as-Individual. His is a purely and simply political mind, concerned so deeply with the dynamics of politics that – willy or nilly – he reduces his appreciation of human essence and existence to the political.

And that is a horrible Flatness. No moral, no ethical, no religious, and no spiritual because there is no Beyond in his vision. He seems rather much a man of the post-68 era, and a Democrat as well – given that Party’s unthinking and manic embrace of Flatness in all its wide (not at all to say ‘rich’) variety. The ‘personal was political’ – We may recall being assured (or threatened) back then – and thus generations born or raised since then have been saddled with a profound Flatness before they even got a chance to come out of the gate. Like young British Tommies mowed down on their first day at the front through the arrogant self-assurance of self-important generals. And they say there’s no History.

And if there’s no People (my term), no public and no commonweal or common good (Bentley’s terms), then horse-trading becomes something far darker: a rat-race rather than a horse-race or horse-trading. And rats on a wheel, and caged rats at that. It’s a dark world Bentley’s path leads to.

Because in his vision there is also no Liberty, no Justice, no Truth – not relevant to politics anyway. (Which makes him a moist precursor of French deconstructionism, snuck into this country in the suitcase that the Dems, in their late-‘60s, vote-addled desperation, didn’t inspect at the border, and which was instantly unpacked and dispersed by the Identities bent on widespread ‘creative’ and ‘liberating’ destruction and the breaking of whatever eggs necessary in the service of their revolutions). My, how the world turns.

But French Theory, of course, took Bentley’s vision – or one very similar to it – to the next level: not only is there no capital-letter stuff relevant to politics, there is no capital-letter stuff at all whatsoever in any way. And there is no Somewhere Else, no Other World, where such capitals exist, whether in Plato’s or Aristotle’s impersonal form or in the personal form of the Hebrew thinkers and Jewish mystics and Aquinas and Christendom.

Nothing to stand as an Authority, nothing to stand as a tradition, nothing to stand in judgment over, whatever ‘fresh’, ‘new’, ‘creative’, ‘unconventional’ or radical or revolutionary or inaccurate or immature assertions that needed to be rammed through into the veins of society and its common weal. Nope, nothing at all. But the Dems figured that they might just paint a happy-face on this newly-hatched and lethal monstrosity suddenly revealed to be in their midst, and that if they just kept telling themselves and made everyone else think that it was all for the best, then maybe it would turn out that way. No wonder they pushed for the vote to 18 year-olds; no mature adult would allow a society, a culture, a country, to be run by fairy-tales like that.

I’d like to repeat here my categorization of advocacy or Advocacy. I put it up a year or more ago, but it bears repeating because I think a lot of decent folks would think that it would be impossible for so many ideas to gain such wide traction if, when presented for local public deliberation, they were not approved in such civic gatherings all over the country. The response of course, is that none of them ever were. And thereby hangs the tale.

There are five levels: two are ‘advocacy’ and three are ‘Advocacy’.

Level I advocacy: An individual conceives of a matter or issue which seems to him/her to require public attention and speaks up in a town meeting, writes letters, and seeks to inform, putting information and ideas before the community.

Level II advocacy: The individual forms – at the start or as a result of Level I’s activity – a group of like-minded individuals, and they continue the process of informing their peers, whose capability to receive and deliberate they presume and whose common decisions they accept and trust.

Level III Advocacy: The group decides that in order for its concerns to be favorably acted upon, and in light of some imagined inadequacy in the other (non-group) members of the community, then ‘consciousness’ will have to be ‘raised’, perhaps through passing on accurate information, or – especially if they’re in a hurry or unsure of the positive response to their agenda – through the manipulation of public emotions based on information carefully selected and thus other-than-accurate or incomplete.

Level IV Advocacy: The manipulation of public opinion described in Level III is continued but only in a secondary role. The primary role is given to a by-passing of the public in favor of its political representatives or the courts, in a campaign managed by professional lobbyists who may have no personal stake in the agenda at all but are expert at bringing ‘pressure’ ‘in all the right places’ and ‘in all the right ways’, that pressure being focused on the politicians and the courts, with the complicity or use of the media wherever it can be arranged.

Level V Advocacy: There is no effort to engage the mind of the citizenry nor win its heart: there is only the unrelenting professionally organized campaign to enforce the agenda, maintaining pressure on the governing organs in order to maintain social pressure on the citizenry and – if possible – bend even civil and criminal law and constitutionality to further entrench one’s achieved gains.

I’d say that it has been a long time since Levels I or II have been seen in this country. And that anybody who imagines that public policy and law these days is set through those first two Levels is bringing a knife to a gunfight. Indeed, bringing a knife to a well-staged firefight, over prepared ground covered by professional troops supported by the latest equipment, for whom ‘failure is not an option’ and neither actual persons nor ‘abstractions’ like Truth or Justice will be allowed to stand in the way of achieving the objective.

Thus has a kindler, gentler radical revolution led Us back to the jungle. And over into the desert.

And they say History is dead.

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