In a recent long drawn out argument with Milan over tensions concerning the oversight of institutions which can not be subject to normal democratic control, i.e. central banks, I had some thoughts concerning not so much what a Government is or could be – but rather concerning the implications of the kinds of answers we give to these questions on how we think about our current situation and how we might change it. To put it simply, I tend to think of Democracy as an ideal which we are not living up to, and that the political duty put on us by our right to live in a rational state puts on us a duty both to make our state rational and to (but not in this order) find out what it would mean to make a state rational. This to me is obvious – what is not obvious is how to go about doing it.
But what I realized in the discussion was that I was making a problematic assumption by separating the ideal (the “rational state”) from the means by which we achieve it. It is good, I think, to hold open how one might make a state rational, and also to hold open what a rational state would be. However, what I was ignoring was how the category “rational state”, even emptied of most of its content, remains a non-neutral ideal towards which we project, and which determines our struggle in various ways.
To explain what I mean, I will employ the example of a statue that stands here in Montreal on the road leading up to McGill. The statue is a luminous yellow of a gathering of people. The ones in front are looking forward, calm, confident. Some silly, some caniving. As you walk backwards along the statue, the people in the crowd are less and less focussed on the focal point out in front, and more on each other, on fighting, on cheating. At the back there are people starving, laying on the ground.
What they are staring at is ideals, values, utopia maybe. The ones in front see, but it is ambiguous to what extent the ideal is drawing them forward. At first, it looks quite clearly that it gathers them, but then you notice some of the faces in the front row are anything but genuine. And besides that, the ones in front shield those behind from the ideal – hence the fighting, caniving, etc.. And at the back, there are the starving, laying on the ground.
The statue is perhaps a bit didactic, and certainly not an “argument” – but it does make me question the “ideal – real” idealist pull, “progress”, the “It will be ok so long as we strive for good values”. Because, striving for values leaves people out. Instantiation is always partial.
In “No Country for Old Men”, Anton Chigurh says to Carson Wells character, when he is sitting with him in his hotel room with a gun trained on him: “If the rule you follow led you to this, what use was the rule?”
The point being – values should be evaluated based on their effects, not their pretensions.
Of course, I already accounted for this by leaving means open, it is our duty to figure out which means will get to the ideals. But – it is rationally required to go farther – to determine “empirically”, or at least by experience, which ideals actually bring us places we want to go. So, even the projected ideal “rational state” must be re-evaluated in the light of what means it inspires us to create, and what the real effects of those means actually is.
Anyway, the point is to not take the ideal as a neutral “utopia, would be nice”, but (at least for the ones in play) as productive agents which make and motivate our world and experience. It is easy for us to see the politically problematic nature of ideals in history, i.e. “Wilderness”, “Civilization”, “Noble Savage” – but it is not similarly easy to see the contingency of the ideals we strive for. We assume they are right, and that the difficulties lie in the way we try to bring these ideals into reality. But the ideals are themselves what bring the world into reality – not the world they purport to beckon, but the one they actually bring.