Utopianism v. Radical Democracy

Guy Yasko guyy at aquarius.bekkoame.or.jp
Mon Jun 12 20:22:39 MDT 1995

        Leo asks for some historical references to justify my belief in the
historicity of the notion of police and the state.  I did not claim that
the past offers an acceptable model of autonomous self-policing, but that
the police and state have not always existed.  In other words, that they
are historical creations and continue to be so.  To be precise then, my
references are non-references, absences rather than presences.  And since
we haven't defined state or police, I don't know how much this will satisfy
Leo.  At any rate, on the question of the police, I had Japanese feudalism
in mind.  The various local warlords held supreme juridicial and police
powers within their domains, but this was as yet undifferentiated from
their military power and social status.  Likewise, lower domainal officials
held police powers according to rank in the domainal hierarchy.  Under the
feudal social order, a police that "serves and protects" the entire
population did not exist, and in fact, such an institution was unthinkable.
(Interestingly, when a police force did appear in the Meiji, many of
officers came from the feudal elite.) This isn't all that different from a
situation in a remote rural area where the local powerholders control the
police and the court, an area dominated by a mafia-type organisation, or
company towns in which the police are Pinkertons.

        As for the state, until fairly recently, a large portion of the
globe was ruled by colonial administrations.  These may share some
attributes of states, but I would argue that the various techniques of
administration made for significant differences between colonies and
states.  We also have a myriad examples of collapses, wanings, and
transistions that to me indicate that the state and its forms are not
permament.  Moving away from history to a more abstract level, if we agree
that the state must be reproduced, we presume a mode of being exterior to
the state.

        The organisation of the police and state continues to change under
capitalism.   The current move in legal studies to tie law to the economy
makes it conceivable (but unlikely given current political alignments) that
someone may be arguing for privatizing the police.  These days, arguments
on the death penalty in the US often hinge on economic arguments (c.f.
Pataki) and significant portions of the US penal colony are already run
privately.  The economistic interpretation of the US constitution put
forward by people like Richard Epstein aims at limiting the state, and if
taken to its logical conclusions, ends up gutting the state and the
Constitution itself.  I think that the US has advanced further in this
regard than other nations, but looking at Mexico, where the financial
crisis of the state dictates state policy, I don't see how it's possible to
deny that the modern state is in the process of losing much of its autonomy
via a process of integration into a higher order, one based on the logic of
the marketplace.  The state may survive this integration, but without its
political autonomy, it would be qualitatively different from the state we
know today, something more akin to a  police force than a government.  Of
course, this capitalist version of the end of the state accompanies a cry
for more state violence and repression.  At times, these tendencies clash,
as they do within the conservative camp, i.e. hawks vs. free marketeers,
but they can and frequently do complement each other.


        Leo is right to ask me to be more specific about what a socialist
police might look like.  I think Jerry's suggestion to look into the
anarchist experience is a good idea, since the history of Marxism provides
very little to go on here.  Let me note here that if we assume that the
subjects of a new society will remain unchanged by  that society's new
practices, there is obviously no hope at all.  As long as people remain
unchanged, no amount of organizational wizardry will prevent the
community's autonomous self-policing from degenerating into vigilantism or
witch hunts.  The same holds true for radical democracy or anything else:
if radical democratic practice doesn't make radical democrats, radical
democracy will end in failure.  For a now, I'll throw some thoughts out for
you all to kick around.  I'm not really interested in defending anything
here, just in working out what the content of socialism might be.
(Incidentally, since Laclau and Mouffe make socialism a component of
radical democracy [Hegemony, p.178], I think it's also fair to ask what the
content of socialism means for them.)

1)      Because I have rather serious doubts about the possiblities of
council communism in the realm of production, I myself consider what
follows to be somewhat utopian.  However, despite the gruesome history of
the 20th century and critiques of Marcuse et al., I do not accept Leo's
pejorative use of the term. For one, I doubt that it is possible to rid
ourselves of the utopian impulse, and even if it were, I think don't think
even Leo would like the results.  I also think Leo draws too sharp a
contrast between utopianism and radical democracy.  Radical democracy
shares part of the utopian imaginary, and in my opinion, that's just fine.

I'll return to the issue of utopia in some comments on _Perversion and
Utopia_ which I promised a few weeks ago.  Sorry for the delay.

2)      I think that in the area of policing, council communism could work.
Placing these powers and duties in the hands of the councils means putting
them under the direct democratic control of the community.  Because they
would quickly become political bodies outside of the control of the
councils, this means no police force and no courts.

3) I'm optimistic about finding substitutes for the actual day to day
duties of the police.  Most of the duties of the police could be either
eliminated (i.e. political surveillance and homeless hassling), diffused
into the community at large (first aid, giving directions), or rotated
among its members (being on call for emergencies, walking the beat if that
is felt to be necessary).  Some areas of police work may be more difficult
to work around.  Certain crimes and their perpetrators might require the
professional skills of  investigators.  Here we will have to find a balance
between respecting the autonomy of investigators as workers and preventing
their investigative power from becoming an extra-democratic political

4) Since there must be a means to rein in a community drunk with police
power, procedural standards remain necessary.  Decisions and procedures of
the local councils must be subject to review and appeal to the higher level
assemblies.  For example, local communities and their councils which
condoned murder would have to be tried at higher levels.


        Because this list has discussed Laclau and Mouffe's shortcomings
fairly regularly, I'll hold off on most of the criticisms.  I will briefly
mention two of my objections: their characterization of the old Left, and
their lack of a notion of resistance.  In my studies of the Old Left in
Japan, I have found that the class essentialist label doesn't stick to the
JCP.  Nevertheless, it is a conservative and authoritarian party doomed to
failure.  I don't think this is a case for Japanese or JCP exceptionalism,
because similar doubts come to mind when I read about the October
Revolution.  If we take Laclau and Mouffe's emphasis on theory seriously,
how was 1917 even possible?  When discussing China, Cuba, and Vietnam, L &M
stress that the local parties had to supplement Marxist theory.  All very
fine, except that if they agree that these parties could successfully
supplement Marxist theory, they cannot also contain Marxism and Marxist
organisations within the boundaries of that theory. What is it that made
supplementation and subsequent Marxist hegemony possible?  I think Laclau
and  Mouffe miss something here.

        From the other direction, Laclau and Mouffe try to reclaim ground
usually conceded to the conservatives.  I give them credit for boldly
attempting to hegemonize the likes of Carl Schmitt and Margaret Thatcher.
However, unless we subscribe to "subject/object dualism," there can  be no
neutral technique, not even political technique.  For this reason, I remain
suspicious of the liberating potential of techniques developed for
repressive purposes.

        Questions of technique lead into their treatment of resistance.
With  L & M's antagonistic version of the political, resistance ends up
classified on the side of the undemocratic foe.  In other words, it isn't
encountered as resistance, but uncritically and reflexively folded back
into their theoretical apparatus.   As a result, the work of hegemonizing,
which must surely encounter resistance, begins to look quite abstract.  I'm
not just throwing around pejorative adjectives; their ability to extend
their "chains of equivalence" is at stake.  L & M's frequent resort to
battlefield metaphors indicates to me that they have yet to develop the
techniques for working through the resistance to their project.  In
practical terms, this means that the radical democratic project will remain
limited until we develop these methods.  Because they are committed to
certain visions of the relation between political discourse and the real
which a notion of resistance threaten to destabilize, I don't look to
Laclau and Mouffe for solutions to this difficulty.


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