Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ideas Whose Time Has (Belatedly) Come: Or, Political Science

Rich people rule!” Didja know? Of course you did. But, according to Larry Bartels, political scientists just proved it. Business Insider has just reported on the same study, one that proves that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Sorry for blowing your minds, comrades. But you can’t silence an idea whose time has come, remember.

When I first read Bartels’ piece, I kind of just wrote it off as just another piece in the extensive pundit-class discourse of Liberal Eye-Opening. But then I re-read it. The problem, I realized, isn’t simply that Bartels is telling me what I already know. The piece isn’t useless; indeed, it has multiple effects, precisely to the extent that it tells me what I assumed as given. In telling me something I already know, Bartels’ piece is actually telling me that I never really knew what I thought. At stake in the piece, in other words, is a redistribution of the epistemic in which the kinds of knowledge I possess turn out to be non-knowledges. The real thesis of this piece—which thinks it’s telling us that economic elites have corrupted democratic governance—is that the demos isn’t equipped to know democracy’s destruction.

Let’s begin with the recognition of a simple fact. By grasping that the rich rule in Anno Domini 2014, it’s taken U.S. poli.sci departments a real long time to accord truth-value to something that pretty much every human being knows. Sure, people figure and operationalize this common knowledge in diverse, antagonistic ways; plenty of people are pretty okay with class rule. But anyone who has been conscious for an election cycle, say, or worked at a job—that is, depended on someone else for subsistence, submitted one’s bodily and cognitive dispositions to the commands of another—or realized that they’ll never golf with Barry knows that rich people rule. Almost everyone: political scientists, apparently, constitute the one exception. Luckily, though, due to a new “stunningly documented” study by Bartels’ friends, what everybody knows now counts as knowledge. Knowledge, friends. Shit you can cite.

By “documented,” of course, we’re talking about a translation of commonsense into data. To be sure, as Bartels recognizes, any freshman in any Intro to Theory course—from literary theory to anthropology to sociology to (maybe?) poli.sci—would know, through Hegel, Marx, or even ole Adam Smith, that “economic power” (I’ll get to this fine euphemism) is political power, functionally if not normatively. But the form of knowing set to work in this theory is not the way poli.sci knows now: “Qualitative studies of the political role of economic elites have mostly been relegated to the margins of the field.” It’s astonishing: the very belatedness of positivist methodologies to accede to the level of what-everyone-ever-already-knows doesn’t impel Bartels to reconsider the epistemic configuration of his field. Indeed, even as Bartels notes the belatedness of poli.sci to what-everyone-knows, he asserts the epistemic superiority of poli-sci’s methods: “political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy.” They are tardy to the party, sure, but quantitative political scientists have brought the dope dope—a capacity for “rigorous (meaning quantitative) scientific investigation.” (Hegel could barely count to three before it turned into one again; Poor Adam, meanwhile, didn’t give a fig for political arithmetic; and everyone from Engels on knows that Karl was just rubbish with his maths.)

My problem isn’t with numbers, pie charts, and databases as such. My problem, rather, is with this celebration of a depleted epistemological ecology—not because I love epistemological diversity as such, either, but because I think poli.sci’s ongoing and dead-on impression of an epistemological wasteland functions as a prophylactic against the immediacy, urgent, and (as Bartels would admit) valid claims made in other epistemic registers.

Think of it like this: the takeaway of Bartels’ post is that something like a 1% exists. (It’s actually more like a 10% for the purposes of the study he cites.) I refer back to Occupy’s figuration for two reasons. One, I imagine that Bartels would be rather sympathetic to the liberal-progressivist ends to which this slogan was put, or at least not hostile. Two, it’s a figure that drew upon pop economic knowledge, that attempted to derive from the latter the kind of epistemic aura that numbers hold for Serious People. It would have been utterly natural for Bartels to have referred to this figure, to the social movement that buoyed it, to the knowledges that sustained it. Instead, he directs us to “a flurry of commentary” surrounding McCutcheon v. FEC, a case adjudicated well, well after Occupy. If Occupy was a movement touting an idea whose time had come, Bartels refuses to validate forms of knowing that know too soon, forms of knowing that short circuit the positivist time of coming-to-know with the punctuality of a deeply plebeian “Shit’s fucked up and bullshit!”

But that’s what liberalism is, really: the absorption of the immediacy of a political sense into the studied, slow time of useless intellection, the conflation of taking-time and having-a-(truer-)thought. The bourgeois public sphere, the Parliamentary Blue Book, the parliamentary labyrinth of US congressional procedure, the ballot box, and, sure, contemporary political-scientific methods—all of these liberal forms articulate a slowing of time to a production of thought in the name of optimizing a decision that will never come. Just think about statistical methodologies, the kinds of datasets that would be required to prove that, yes, class power is political power: the study Bartels cites involves 1779 policy outcomes from over a period of twenty years just to make the minimal suggestion that things work out, probably, politically speaking, maybe, for rich folk. (Intriguingly, neither Bartels nor the study incorporate the fact that no one has done such a study into their understanding of class power. The fact that scholars assume, against empirical reality, a liberal-inflected “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy” as their primary analytic framework doesn’t register as an index of the functioning of class rule. Instead, they code the qualitative effectivity of bourgeois ideology as nothing more than a poor analytic frame for marshaling quantitative empirics.) How big of a dataset would be required to suggest that capitalism, class power, and the liberal-democratic state all have something to do with one another? (Of course, Bartels doesn’t’ say capitalism or class power—he speaks of a bland “economic power,” as if plutocrats could be deriving their dough from a super-successful autonomous workers’ collectivity they’re members of just as easily as from heavily financialized capitalist exploitation.)

As a speech act, then, Bartels’ post’s primary effect isn’t simply to affirm plebeian sense, to say, “You guys were right; class power is a thing; sorry for our belatedness.” Rather, its primary effect is to assert the deficiency of plebeian sense even when it is right. You didn’t know what you know until rigorous poli.sci people knew it. The effect is to delaminate political knowledge from the polis, democratic sense from the demos. We’ll only know that democracy is fucked when experts mathematize it. Until the datasets come in, chill out—we don’t know anything yet.

I used to giggle at the scientism of early Marxism—Marx and Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, Lukacs and Althusser, on and on. But now I’m beginning to think that this scientism wasn’t supposed to achieve any kind of scientific positivity, that Marxism’s valorization of the scientific didn’t intend a valorization of positive knowledges. (Stalin, we might say, wasn’t part of the plan.) What Marx desired in seizing hold of the term “science” was to create and defend a space in which plebeian forms of knowing could be entertained as knowledge—a knowledge that doesn’t require validation from positive or theoretical science, but rather productive transcription into it. This is what Marx does in what have become my favorite paragraphs in volume one of Capital. It’s the “Working Day” chapter, a few pages in. Marx has just exfoliated the capitalist’s sense of work-time. And then, dramatically, the worker enters the scene of knowledge production:

“Suddenly, however, there arises the voice of the worker, which had previously been stifled in the sound and fury of the production process: ‘The commodity I have sold you differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs…’” (342)

And the worker continues, making fine conceptual distinctions, offering mathematical examples, and generally talking the language of political economy. Lest you think Marx is simply ventriloquizing a worker to ground his theory, he assures us in a footnote, “During the great strike of the London building workers…their committee published a manifesto that contained, to some extent, the plea of our worker” (343). This is knowledge from the streets, as it were, but what Marx is working us toward is a disposition where we can treat it as knowledge, knowledge as such, without reservations.

We need to follow Marx in defending the discursive space in which the plebeian voice “suddenly” appears, to follow Marx in holding onto knowledge charged by forms of urgency that can’t settle themselves into a dataset, a Blue Book, a Parliamentary inquiry. To open space where another’s words can erupt as knowledge is to begin a communization of the epistemic. We need, I think to begin to trust that what we do on picket lines and in occupations, at meetings and in workshops, on Twitter and on blogs, is in fact productive of knowledges we need to have—urgent knowledges, sudden knowledges that can’t wait for positivist transcription. Knowledges whose time has not yet come.


Barry said...

BTW, writing like " At stake in the piece, in other words, is a redistribution of the epistemic in which the kinds of knowledge I possess turn out to be non-knowledges."

Is a very strange way of writing.

I think that what's happening here is that you are a humanities guy interacting with a non-humanities guy. The idea that economic power is positively associated with political power is indeed a common-sense thing, and confirmation comes regularly.

What Bartels is doing is to document and quantify it. That's a type of knowledge, and it doesn't undo or negate your knowledge, but supplements it.

June Gorman said...

I am coming back to this post, having read it when first written and having quoted it to others. That's because, as I come back to it, I realise I love it.

I use that emotional word "love" specifically because what I liked so much about your post here is the emotionality of it. We "know" in our hearts and guts these things with deep feeling but are told to ditch that kind of "knowing" (and its urgency, passion and courage to actually act and risk and do something about the pain that knowing causes) for this much calmer, passionless but charted and numbered version of truth. A pale and passive version that has a definite tendency not only to discount our more whole, deep (cognitive + affective) knowing, and instead overwhelm us with the charts and words that mean the political/social/economic rational "scientists" know better. Essentially, children, they know better.

So drink your poisoned water and eat your poisoned food and if your start to cramp and feel sick in heart and body and soul with many of those around you throughout the world, that's just you. Our corporate-funded research hasn't shown that data conclusively, so of course, you really don't know at all what seems so obvious to you. And thus, should never actually act on that "knowing".

Thank you, Chris. I came back to your words just to reclaim that sense and feel of hearing truth at the very levels "knowing", including rationally, matters most: in order to actually change things for the better.

Really enjoy your voice.