The Politics of Rage

politics_of_rage

Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Desborde subterráneo

bazo_desborde

For those whose vision of Peruvian music goes no further than pan pipes, or perhaps at best the Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca, Fabiola Bazo’s Desborde subterráneo: 1983-1992 will come as something of a shock. For it documents Lima’s punk and post-punk scene in the 1980s, featuring myriad mostly short-lived bands that reveled in names such as Narcosis and Psicosis, Eutanasia (Euthanasia) and Ataque Frontal (Frontal Attack), not to mention Kaos General (General Chaos) and Sociedad de Mierda (Shitty Society). “El Condor Pasa” this is not. Nor is it exactly the “world music” beloved of Peter Gabriel, Luaka Bop, or Starbucks.

But the frantic, frenetic explosion of musical energy captured by Bazo’s book, richly illustrated with grainy photographs and fading handbills, emerged less from some autochthonous folk tradition (despite the proto-punk of Lima’s pathbreaking garage-rock band Los Saicos in the 1960s) than from disaffected Peruvian youth turning to the world at large in search of ways to express their anger at the constraints imposed by a traditional society suddenly thrown into crisis. For the 1980s in Peru were years of insurgency and repression, civil war and car bombs, blackouts and curfews, as the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrilla fought a “prolonged people’s war” to bring down a state that reacted with increasing authoritarianism and almost random brutality.

It was in this context that adolescents in Lima searched out precious imported records and tapes, soon pirated and exchanged in the flourishing informal market of street traders and hawkers, then begged, borrowed, or stole musical instruments to play and record their own frustrations and anxieties, with lyrics written in Spanish and specific to the local context. In turn, then, they passed around demos and cassettes, or organized impromptu concerts and gigs in nightclubs and private houses, to pogo to songs such as “Toque de Queda” (“Curfew”), “Sucio Policía” (“Dirty Cop”), “¿Dónde está la libertad?” (“Where’s the Freedom?”), or “Ya no formo parte de esto” (“I’m No Longer Part of This”). And though this music started as something hidden or underground, as Bazo’s title (“Subterranean Outpouring”) indicates, it soon overflowed and, however fleetingly, caught the mood of a significant section of young people across the city, from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social classes.

At least briefly, it seemed that if there was one thing that all Peruvians under the age of (say) twenty-five could agree on, it was that society was shit, and that the armed forces and government were as bad as the so-called terrorists. Economic crisis and hyper-inflation only added to the feeling that there was really “no future” for the country. For the most part, the subterraneans or “subtes” disdained politics, as the political system was manifestly broken across the spectrum from Left to Right. In Bazo’s words, “They had no political agenda or plan of action. Their songs denounced the burdens of a decaying society. In reality theirs were cries of impotence and very individualistic personal alienation” (52)

The irony, however, as Bazo makes clear, is that the punk rejection or refusal of established norms was largely a reflection of new social realities that were rapidly transforming Peru. As such, the “subtes” hardly offered an alternative to the broader movements around them; if anything, they were rather mainstream.

In some ways, the punks of Peru’s capital had much in common with the militants of Shining Path, though their backgrounds were usually different–urban rather than rural, for instance; skeptics rather than believers in Peru’s potential for modernization and radical renovation. Bazo strenuously resists the comparison, but Shining Path likewise looked overseas, in their case to a strange combination of Chinese Communism and their leader Abimael Guzmán’s idiosyncratic reading of Kant, for forms of expression suited to local frustrations and deep disappointment at the historic failures of the Peruvian state. Moreover, motivated as much by affect as by reason, the Maoists and the punks alike were often drawn to a mythology of violence as a purgative force, a remedy of both first and last resort: as the Eutanasia song “Ratas Callejeras” (“Street Rats”) puts it, “Anger says it’s time to start [. . .] a whole army of rats will march through this dying city’s shit” (178).

On the other hand, Bazo does argue that, if only in their most utopian moments, the “subtes” were equally like Peru’s mid-1980s populist president Alan García in their effort to put forward a “multi-class message” that might transcend the deep divisions between Lima’s rich and poor (28). The book laments that the punks had no more success in this than did the ill-fated García. Indeed, the second half of Desborde subterráneo focuses on the protracted disintegration of the punk scene, torn apart by hostilities that followed the lines of class (and implicitly also racial) difference and inequality. Bazo seems to have more sympathy with the so-called “pitupunks” or “posh punks” than with what she portrays as the rather more violent, unpredictable, and ultimately self-consciously political second-wave of punk bands that came from Lima’s marginal neighbourhoods. But she has to admit that one of the latter’s representatives, Sociedad de Mierda’s Pedro “Tóxico,” has a point or two in a fanzine article in which he writes: “I don’t know, but I think I hate the pitupunks. That’s why I don’t believe anything they say, because what I do know for sure is that one day, sooner or later, I’ll be working for one of them: because that’s what they’ll be: BOSSES. My bosses, my exploiters” (165).

But the book ultimately suggests that the “subte” scene’s social role is best understood in terms of the guiding metaphor of a subterranean “outpouring” or overflow. This image is in turn taken from Peruvian anthropologist José Matos Mar, whose book Desborde popular y crisis del estado depicts an emergent unofficial economic circuit of (Bazo quotes him saying) “unregistered businesses and activities, that operate outside of the legal system or on its borders, often [. . .] creatively developing their own rules of the game” (12). This, of course, is precisely the murky world of street-trading and semi-clandestine pirate reproduction through which punk spread and on which it fed in Lima. It is also the selfsame informal sector that right-wing economist Hernando de Soto praised in his book El otro sendero as an atomized but efficient collection of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs. And perhaps this is how the overtly individualistic “subte” scene was most mainstream of all: it was carried along in a broader flux of uprooted people who were simultaneously abandoned and celebrated in the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state into security apparatus. The punk (at least, pitupunk) disdain for politics should then be understood in the context of a Peru that voted in an outsider president such as Alberto Fujimori (a sort of proto-Trump) and then applauded as he dissolved Congress and assumed authoritarian powers in order to defeat “terrorism.”

Myself, I wonder if it is really true that there was never any hope for an alternative, even in all the chaos and carnage of the time. Bazo, however, seems to think so when she boldly declares that, when the dust finally settled, “the system [had] shown, once again, that it couldn’t be destroyed” (167). On the contrary, one could very well argue that Peru’s postcolonial creole republic was destroyed, just not in the ways that anyone had expected or desired.

Yet finally, if I am stressing the politics (and sociology) of the punk and post-punk scene that this book depicts, it is because that is what Bazo likewise does. Perhaps surprisingly, she seems rather uninterested in the music itself, preferring to focus on either broad labels (punk, hardcore, metal, and so on) or specific lyrics, which she often quotes at length. We get very little sense of the sound of the subtes. Now maybe this is because, as she tells us, “the important thing [was] the attitude” (148). But surely something can be said about the music, not least because (deluded or otherwise) so many of the informants quoted here consistently tell us that it’s the music that matters. What was the panorama of sounds, rhythms, beats, resonance and noise that energized so many so completely at least for a short time? How did it change and develop, and how much if at all did it end up diverging from its “world music” (Anglo-American or Spanish) models?

Similarly, it is a little odd that a book published by an art gallery (Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which organized a show to accompany it) should have so little to say about the visual components of the scene it is describing. For all the copious illustrations of comics, fanzines, photographs, handbills, posters, and so on, these generally go unanalyzed, unremarked. Hence the paradox that a book about a phenomenon that it hesitates to call a movement, precisely because of its obstreperous refusal of any political claims or demands, in the end views this same phenomenon almost entirely through political categories that the punk scene manifestly overflows or exceeds.

Fortunately, however, this marvelous book overflows too, goes beyond the boundaries that it itself sets: it overwhelms us with its visual charge, and it makes us ache to hear the music much like Lima’s “subtes” ached to hear it themselves. Enough of pan pipes! Desborde subterráneo inspires us to rethink and re-hear (or hear for the very first time) Peru’s music, and perhaps the soundscape of Latin America as a whole.

Alt-Right Affect

milo_yiannopoulos

On Milo Yiannopoulos:

As anyone who watched him dance venomous circles around Channel 4’s Cathy Newman–or insinuate his way into Bill Maher’s affections through a shared disdain for trans women–might conclude, Yiannopoulos understands that political communication is less about rationality and deliberation than it is about rhetoric, identification and emotion. The weapons of reason alone are blunt against him.

[. . .]

His obsessions have remained similar: hatred of women, especially women in the public sphere; admiration for the powerful and contempt for the weak; vitriolic antipathy to the Left. These are not pretended beliefs, but permanent features of his position; they are the same obsessions chronicled in Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the fantasy lives of proto-fascist Freikorps men in 1930s Germany. (James Butler, “Milo’s Stumble”. London Review of Books [February 22, 2017])

The Underdogs

It’s a familiar story: the Revolution starts with high ideals and good intentions, but soon goes sour; it takes on a logic of its own, of interminable infighting and violence for the sake of violence. Those who originally railed against corruption become corrupt themselves; things end up as bad if not worse than they were at first. At the end we’re left doubting that so much sacrifice and pain was worth it. It’s the story told, of the Russian Revolution, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which ultimately “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

On the one hand, this is the revolution as senseless expenditure, as upset without outcome. In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan: “la révolution dévore ses enfants,” the Revolution devours its children. On the other hand, this is equally the revolution as return, as full circle of the wheel of history. In the words of The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This from a song with the title “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Yet for some reason the impulse to revolt lives on–the Arab Spring might be just the latest example–despite the fact that so many revolutions seem to take a wrong turn somewhere.

The Underdogs

Hence the dilemma for a book such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (Los de abajo), which provides this narrative for the Mexican Revolution, focusing on the Northern front in the years 1913 to 1915. It has to account for the revolution’s causes, the reasons why people might have believed that only violence could transform their circumstances, as well as its effects, a world in which all sense of cause or effect has disappeared, in which violence has become its own raison d’être. As one character puts it near the end of the novel, considering which side to choose among the various warring factions: “Villa? Obregón? Carranza? X . . . Y . . . Z! What do I care? I love the revolution like I love an erupting volcano! I love the volcano because it is a volcano and the revolution because it is the revolution!” (124).

One answer to this problem is to point out that, ultimately, revolutions perhaps have very little to do with politics. At least, they have little to do with politics if we conceive of the political in terms of the making of decisions, of choosing between options. Demetrio Macías, the main character of The Underdogs, a man who the book portrays rising through the ranks of the revolutionary forces, actively refuses the right to decide when he, too, is asked “on which side are you going to fight?” His response is to “[bury] his hands in his hair, [scratch] his head” and reply “Don’t ask me questions like that [. . .]. All ya have to do is say: ‘Demetrio, you do such and such,’ and I’ll do it, end of story!” (116). So it is not that the revolution is (to adapt a phrase from Carl von Clausewitz) “the continuation of politics by other means.” If anything, the revolution is actively anti-political, the expression of a dissatisfaction with the limits of the political.

It is not that politics is absent from The Underdogs. It figures primarily through the novel’s other main character, Luis Cervantes, a deserter from the federalist side who attaches himself to Macías’s gang early on, in large part (we are told) for lofty reasons: “the suffering and misery of the dispossessed,” whose cause he sees “as the sublime cause of an oppressed people demanding justice, pure justice” (22). Throughout the novel he seeks to translate the revolutionary violence into lofty sentiment. For instance, as he puts it to Macías: “You do not yet understand your true, your high, your most noble mission. [. . .] You have risen up against the cacique system itself, the system that is devastating the entire nation. We are constitutive pieces of a great social movement that will lead to the exaltation of our motherland.” To which Macías himself responds: “Go on, bring us two more beers” (42).

So politics is disdained and seen as almost entirely irrelevant. Ultimately, Cervantes abandons the revolutionaries, leaving behind only a note encouraging one of them to come north of the border, open a Mexican restaurant, “and in a very short time we can be rich” (120). Yes, he opts out of the corruption and the ceaseless violence. Yes, as a result, he’s the only one to survive to the novel’s final pages. But that’s precisely because, however much he tries to articulate the spirit of the revolution, it is clear at every moment that he misses it entirely. The revolution forever escapes its political articulation. And perhaps that goes as much for its hackneyed narrativization in The Underdogs itself.

Revolution

Russell Brand, Revolution

Russell Brand is probably best known as an actor, comedian, and radio host. He is also a “celebrity” in all the modern senses: working-class boy made good, with a back-story of deprivation and addiction; larger than life personality and idiosyncratic sense of fashion; high-profile romances (Katy Perry, Jemima Khan); scandalous and out-spoken. He goes out of his way to attract attention, as he half-shamefacedly admits in Revolution, his most sustained incursion into political thought: “I, like a lot of people who come from somewhere glum, was trying to be something spectacular” (104). As such, his turn in recent years to political activism–to expressing the voice of the disenfranchised, of those too alienated from the system to vote–could cynically be seen as part and parcel of the same celebrity syndrome. Again, he practically admits as such: “You know me, when I started this book I really thought I might be able to write my version of, I dunno [. . .] Das Kapital, that I’d contrive some brilliant manifesto where I would, on a wave of raring adulation, be carried from celebrity to political office” (250).

And indeed, Brand gives us plenty of reasons to be cynical, even though (or because) he then subverts them with a burst of the candor that is equally part of his schtick (“You know me”). His narrative is the hardly original tale of rags to riches to spiritual rags as he discovers that fame and fortune are no panacea for whatever psychological damage his Essex upbringing may have left him with (“I loved my mother, was uncomfortable around my stepfather, and adored my absent dad” [17]). He turns therefore to spirituality, to everything from kundalini yoga to Transcendental Meditation, via a brief excursion through African Pentecostalism, to end up pronouncing that we are all but “manifestations of one sublime vibration” (199), “a temporary expression of a subtler and connected electromagnetic realm unknowable on our bandwidth of consciousness” (253). It’s all about love (the book’s final word), as the cover image, with the “love” highlighted in rEVOLution, also emphasizes. Again, however, Brand pre-empts criticism by admitting that much of what he has to offer is a “New Age hippie ramble.” But as he points out, there are worse things than that: “Don’t look under the bed. The horrors that lurk there will dwarf this eastern liberalism” (210).

Taking both his own social mobility and his experience as a recovering addict (plus a smorgasbord of opinions from people such as Dave Graeber and Noam Chomsky, mixed in with some pretty hasty research that mostly goes no farther than Wikipedia), Brand embraces the notion that personal change is the basis for social change, without quite succumbing to the prevalent New Age substitution of the personal for the social as a whole. In other words, he never forgets that the personal is indeed political, and he makes a decent effort at translating, for instance, the keystones of the twelve-step program into a social agenda that would entail dismantling corporations, decentralizing power, and enhancing participation in communal processes of self-actualization. He wants to free us from “our addiction to a corrupt and corrosive system” (275). It’s self-help on a grand scale, but with an awareness that the self is also the product of a particular social regime.

The book makes me fairly fond of Brand, and there’s plenty of good sense (common sense) in the mix. He provides welcome bullshit-free arguments against stigmatizing the homeless or immigrants for instance: “Me, I don’t see immigration as a real issue; for me an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else” (281). And yet as he points out, his hometown of Grays, Essex, is a place where people who share his background (and much of his alienation) have repeatedly voted for anti-immigration and not-so-covertly racist parties such as Ukip. If this is a wake-up call against the kinds of prejudices to which all the mainstream parties have been pandering (and not just in Britain), then the book has some worth. What’s most annoying about it is its style. I understand that it might be aimed at the “ADHD Generation,” but even so was frustrated by the fact that it is (almost literally) all over the place: Brand jumps back and forth from topic to topic, delighting in digression and following his distracted thoughts wherever they may lead. This may work for stand-up, but on the page it grates, and what is worse is decidedly unfunny. In fact, the purported jokes end up less matey and demotic than simply tiresome: telling us Guy Debord was “a clever old stick and as French as adultery” (137) or calling Chomsky variously “Chompers,” “Chomskers,” and “Chomskerooney” (260, 261). Brand is at pains to tell us that Revolution need not be boring. But I’m not sure he sets such a good example.

Strong Constitutions

Strong Constitutions

Max Cameron’s Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers is a very humane book. I don’t particularly intend that as a compliment, though I suspect it will be taken as one. In any case it’s not such a bad quality, not least in a book of political science. For Cameron’s aim is to avoid the dull, specialized, statistics-packed, acronym-heavy pseudo-objectivity that is all too typical of his discipline. Indeed, he has little time for the entire panoply of “twentieth-century efforts to make the study of politics a science in the model of the natural sciences” (199). He wants, instead, to return to a better and kinder time when politics could be conceived as a gentler, more virtuous and moral, activity than it has been envisaged under the terms of today’s Realpolitik and Polizeiwissenschaft. So, despite the overlaps with (among others) Jürgen Habermas’s theories of communicative rationality or Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s notions of “deliberative democracy,” Cameron suggests that something went wrong in political theory shortly after Montesquieu–or, oddly, just before the French and US Revolutions and so at the very dawn of the great age of constitution-writing. Indeed, the real hero of this book is Aristotle, and the Aristotelian conception of “practical wisdom.” The highest praise paid to Habermas, then, is that he “brings political theory back, full circle, to Aristotle” (157), while Montesquieu marks an end to things in so far as he was “the last great Aristotelian theorist” (92).

What results is a wide-ranging, ambitious, and often highly readable treatise on the function of the “separation of powers” within constitutional systems and constitutional thought from the Ancients to the present. Cameron makes two key points: First, that separating powers is not the same as limiting them. In other words, and against the common conception of “checks and balances”–the notion that the various parts of government need to be set against each other in order to ensure that none dominates the others–Cameron argues that it is only by keeping diverse forms of power distinct that we can have “strong constitutions,” that is, states and social orders empowered to organize and coordinate collective action. Rather than imposing limits, then, separation is best understood as a device to enhance each modality of governmental power and to ensure that together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Cameron’s second point is that the three modalities of power embodied in the legislature, executive, and judiciary are fundamentally all determined by their relation to written texts: writing, reading, and reflection. They are each, in other words, different aspects of the interpretative process in a system that is shaped by and dependent upon the written word. Constitutions are ultimately “texts that prescribe speech acts that are performed repeatedly according to a set of conventions and understandings” and thus give rise to “linguistically constructed worlds of shared meaning” (200). Hence, “reading” is far from a passive activity: when Cameron calls it a “speech act,” it is so in the sense that “reading the Riot Act” is a performative utterance with concrete effects on a given collection of human bodies. But such utterances are only effective if they are ascribed the requisite authority and legitimacy, and this (Cameron argues) is what the separation of powers ensures. If the Riot Act is read and the people do not disperse, then whatever the limited success of sending in the police with their batons and shields, something is wrong with the constitutional order.

So this is in many ways a very traditional book, almost refreshingly old-fashioned in its historical sweep and its attempt to rise above any geographical or cultural particularity as much as in its recourse to an old and somewhat out-of-favour theoretical tradition. Yet by putting language so firmly at the centre of its analysis, it also gestures to the so-called “linguistic turn” that has been so influential in twentieth-century social theory, even as mainstream political science turned its back on such theory in the name of rationalism and scientificity. Yet sadly, Strong Constitutions remains a work of the mainstream in so far as it, too, passes up on the chance for fruitful encounter with theorists of language, narrative, and political representation from Austin to Derrida, Althusser, Lyotard, Foucault, Laclau, Butler, or Agamben; some of their work is briefly cited, and there is a short if rather unsatisfactory discussion of Agamben in particular, but ultimately this is an opportunity lost. Here, I think, is where Cameron’s investment in the humane tradition does what is otherwise a fascinating and important book a signal disservice.

For ultimately, Strong Constitutions falls back on a scientific naturalism that is no less debilitating than the one that it (rightly) rejects in contemporary Political Science. We see this in the strange and wholly unexamined assumption that the separation of powers somehow replicates fundamental structures of human cognition: it “organiz[es] the state so that it has the same collective capacity for agency as the human mind: deliberation, followed by execution, and judgment of consequences” (166). This is surely as reductive a vision of agency as that of more conventional rational actor theory. Moreover, the invocation of “cognition” gives it a similarly spurious sense of scientific foundation–however much the first part of Cameron’s book suggests that ways of thinking are historically conditioned by communication technologies. Yet this assumption, that states act and think like people, and that people act and think according to these three particular categories, is central to what Cameron calls his “social-cognitive” approach, which is based on the notion that the separation of powers is “an organizational consequence of human cognition” (14).

Constitutions emerge then as less the product of human minds (as Cameron is otherwise keen to emphasize) than the quasi-natural attempt to mimic their thought processes. Not only does this lead to the very conservative confusion of description with norm: what (putatively) is becomes the model of the way things ought to be. Additionally, and despite his arguments against social contract theory, Cameron comes to remind us of Thomas Hobbes, who saw, as Sheldon Wolin is quoted as saying, “a potential congruence between the phenomenon of politics and the concepts of the human mind, provided that these concepts were founded on the right method” (qtd. 88). A new Leviathan emerges! So long, that is, as people do indeed think the ways in which they “ought” to think.

Where constitutionalism apparently doesn’t work out–as in the case of much of Latin America, we’re told–this is because of “entrenched patterns of social communication” that don’t fit the ideal model (178). Here, constitutions can’t very well do the job of bringing us to order, that is, of “bring[ing] speech and action into line with texts” (202). But then we are locked into a circular problem: if a constitution merely reflects (a given state of) human mind, mirroring its organizational features, then it can’t be expected to flourish in such barren social-cognitive ground. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?” Which, upon reflection, doesn’t seem such a humane option after all. And this is one of the cruel ironies of the humane tradition: that it has so often been so very inhumane in practice.

[Update: Cameron Responds.]

Warwick University Ltd

Warwick University Ltd coverE P Thompson was well-known as one of Britain’s foremost twentieth-century historians, certainly (alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and perhaps Raphael Samuel) one of the country’s foremost radical historians. He was a mainstay of the New Left in the 1950s (and a founder of the New Left Review) and also a major figure in the rise of cultural studies: his classic study The Making of the English Working Class is usually cited as one of the field’s seminal texts, along with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.

In the 1970s, however, Thompson took issue with the turn within cultural studies towards structuralist and post-structuralist theory: his essay on “The Poverty of Theory” is an empassioned attack on Louis Althusser and a defence of socialist humanism. At the same time, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable within a university system whose priorities seemed to him to put profits over people, and to favor managerial control over democracy and intellectual debate. He therefore spent the last two decades of his career as a freelance writer (and peace activist), unaffiliated with any particular institution.

The nature of Thompson’s discontent with the university is best seen in a short and rather odd book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management, and the Universities, which was written (in a week!) and published in 1970, in a climate of student protest and public outrage.

The facts of the matter are simple enough. In the late 1960s, Warwick was still a very young university: it had been established in 1965 as a state institution but with strong input and influence from the leaders of the manufacturing industries in near-by Coventry. Their plan was to seek ways in which academic expertise could feed in to industrial research and development. Fully twenty per cent of the students were to be in Engineering, and among the problems they were set to tackle (and the firms they were designed to benefit) were “metal fatigue (Massey-Ferguson), fuel injection system (Rover Company), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop)” (72) and so on. But the issues to be resolved were not merely technical: money was also supplied to set up an Institute of Directors’ Professorship of Business Studies, a Pressed Steel Professorship of Industrial Relations, and a Clarkson Professorship of Marketing, etc., all of which were to be housed in a “School of Industrial and Business Studies” whose “austere academic concerns” (as Thompson sardonically puts it) were to include “the choice of finance, the new issue market, institutional leaders, leasing, capital gearing and the cost of capital, taxation and company policies, take-overs, long-term financial planning” (75).

But the industrialists didn’t have everything their own way. Not enough engineers or would-be plutocrats applied, and the Arts and Social Studies “took up the slack and expanded more rapidly than had been intended” (71). Among those hired in these disciplines was Thompson himself (who had previously worked at the margins of academia, teaching adults in “extra-mural” classes at Leeds). And as the university expanded, the question of new building became a point of contention. The students wanted a Students’ Union, with a bar and space to socialize on what was a rural campus some distance from any major town. The Administration preferred to allocate space to staff and to come up with real estate that could be easily rented out for conferences during the vacations. The matter bounced around various committees for some time until, fed up, the students decided to occupy the University Registry. It was what they accidentally found while they were there that led to the subsequent storm:

At about eight o’clock that evening, one of the students (in an office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s) began thumbing through a file marked “Student-University Relations,” which had not been locked away. Amongst other things the file contained a report from a certain Mr Catchpole on a meeting addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American Labour Historian who had been visiting the University the previous year. The student thought that perhaps Edward Thompson, who had been a colleague of Montgomery’s, might be interested in hearing the contents of the report. (51)

And interested E P Thompson indeed was. In the specific case of David Montgomery, the Director of Legal Affairs from Rootes Motors had been sent to a Labour Party meeting at which the visiting lecturer had been invited to talk, to see if there were grounds for his “prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act” (107). Finding no such evidence, a Director from Rootes wrote to the Warwick Vice-Chancellor in any case, to report back. But this was the tip of an iceberg: for what was revealed (as students then steadily worked their way through the files available to them) was systematic collusion between the university and political and industrial interests to spy and report on student and staff activities outside the university. Essentially, the co-penetration of industrial with academic interests had corrupted the university, whose officials all too eagerly cooperated in petty policing and willful obstruction of free thought and discussion.

What follows is much careful consideration of what are often the minutiae of dissatisfaction at this one particular institution, though there is plenty to learn from even now. For one, the book is beautifully written, and often rather funny. Thompson takes a historian’s delight in this peek into the archives of the present. As he says,

It is my trade to open files, but the authors of the correspondence have always been long dead. One of the difficulties in writing “contemporary history” is that, until the files have been opened, the actual thoughts and the motives of the actors may be difficult to determine because of their public image. But here, for a moment, the actuality and the image co-existed, giving a sense of double vision; and even when the inertia of institutional routine reasserted itself, there lingered the sense of a new dimension to its reality–what the institution wished to be taken for set alongside one’s new knowledge of what it actually was. (157)

He admits that this double vision may be uncomfortable for those concerned: “Of course no correspondent likes the idea of militant youth going through his confidential letters” (157). But it is in this generalized crisis that the university finally gets to grip with what it could be, as well as with what it is. As Thompson says of a mass meeting called to discuss the concerns that arose from the occupation, “If ever there was a moment of birth of Warwick University, it was at that meeting. A University is not born when the Privy Council grants it a charter; it is born when its members come to realize that they have common interests and a common identity” (53).

Or as he puts it later, the scandal and the revealed corruption enabled a new sense of the university’s values. For beyond the details of who did and said what to whom, “The students began to realize that these were not the real issues at all, but were merely symptoms. What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the university. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the ‘Business University.’” (59). Ultimately, “the University of Warwick only began to find its identity in a time of crisis” (59).

Likewise, for those of us who observe that the contemporary university is now (in Bill Reading’s phrase) “in ruins”, we might similarly hope that a rebirth might be possible in the face of the crisis occasioned by today’s MOOC fever, the increasingly rapid encroachment of commercial interests, the shallow-minded enthusiasm for short-term fixes, and the obsession with the university’s “business model” over any sense of its values. At least we can hope.

Warwick University Ltd ends leaving the largest issue open:

Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? (166)

Thompson’s own answer to these questions presumably came when he resigned his post and dedicated himself to writing and working outside the academy and, increasingly, to activism in the peace movement. For those of us who are in the institution now–and not least but not only the students who are once again in occupation at the University of Warwick, over the latest attempts to turn public good into tradeable commodity–let us hope that these questions remain open. Let us return to the issue of what the university is for, understanding that the balance between dystopian threat and utopian promise is more finely poised than ever.