Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Free Market Mythology: Deconstructing the Rhetorical Construction of Human Nature, Democracy, and the Market

Political Words, The Decline of Discourse, and Solving Democratic Deficiencies through the Deconstruction of Democracy

OK... we admit that we, those of us at the WhatUpWally? office, can be a little opinionated, argumentative, and maybe even sometimes a little sarcastic (just a little) but every time one of us scrolls through our Facebook timeline we can't help but wonder what the hell is going on in the minds of Americans when discussing political economy. 

However, the more we study the history of political and economic discourse, we are somewhat comforted by the fact that - how we should live together in society -has always been intensely debated. 

From Aristotle to Luther, from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, from Smith and Marx to Weber and Durkheim, from Keynes to Friedman, from Foucault to Habermas, and from Reagan to Clinton to Obama - the definition of society, government, human nature, democracy, capitalism, and so on have always been contentious ideas worth debating.

Here is our current problem: 

  • Political Discourse is Fucked

Here is an underlying cause: 

  • We don't know the meanings of our words
    • We lack a mutually vocabulary to engage in productive discourse
  • We do not understand how our words and ideas are the result of a history of arguments
    • Arguments formed to theorize what the best way to organize our collective existence
  • Therefore we lack the collective ability to construct a better future

Obviously using this tweet that I just received should not be the full representation of one point of view, but this libertarian "activist" seems to demonstrate the very decline of productive discourse that we are attempting to address in the article.

What does "big government" mean? It may seems as if this is a simple question, but if we retrace a history of political and economic words and ideas, we should no longer be able to make simplistic statements like these from Eric Dondero - the self professed "Publisher, Libertarian Republican, Founder of the Republican Liberty Caucus, Former Senator aide to Ron Paul, and Former Libertarian National Committee Member." (here is his website for those of you that need more examples of the decline of discourse and the simplification of reality)

Solution #1: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Reality

  • What we seek to do in this article is to deconstruct the absolute meaning of words like democracy, the market, man, the state-of nature, citizenship, government, liberty, freedom, and tyranny
  • The goal is to demonstrate how these words and their connected ideas refer to an absolute truth about mankind that is natural, universal, and unchanging
  • Rather, we argue that the very word and idea of democracy is a rhetorical construction. Democracy (and our understandings of freedom, rights, tyranny, and responsibility, etc) is a word and an idea, born of a history of arguments about the best way to organize our collective existence
  • Once these ideas are deconstructed (or denaturalized) we may be free to:
    • Reconceptualize our world with our own words - specific to our lives and our socio-historical context.
    • Author our own lives as communities of coexistence
    • And, finally reengage in a productive public discourse free of empty slogans, jargons, memes, hatred, bigotry. A public discourse of mutual respect, no longer relying on the maintenance of systems and ideologies that have always been one argument among many

So here is part 1of our deconstruction of western political and economic ideology. The purpose is to invigorate us, as citizens, to reengage in the argument about who we are and how we are to live and create a "good society."

Democratic Deconstruction: How Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau created different versions of truth that now inform what we believe to be inherent in human nature

The concept of democracy since its modern formation in the theory of Thomas Hobbes has been a rhetorical construction. 

That is to say - what we now conceive as the absolute truth about man, the state, and government is and has always been the result of a series of arguments, always situated within specific historical and sociological contexts. The isolated man that entered into a social contract with the state to preserve life or liberty or property, and the isolated man that entered society to participate in his own governing - are both a ficticious men, born of arguments, always rhetorical, and never natural.

My argument here is not that the democratic form of government that emerges in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was not an improvement from a form of government dominated by religion, superstition, tradition, and the absolute authority of the king. 

Rather, my argument is that, though an improvement, this conception is not natural and not necessarily the best or most complete way to view man and society for all peoples and all times.

Say Hello to Hobbes

Rhetorically conceived as “natural,” the democratic structure of government and citizenship based on man in the “state of nature” was originally an argument to solve the theologico-political problem, the contested terrain of authority between the church and state, and against sovereign authority based on the feudal governing order with authority based on traditional hierarchy and the divine right of kings. 

For Hobbes, the state of nature (prepolitical and presocial man[1]) was “the condition of men before any obedience to the city-state or church, a condition from which it is possible to construct a body politic invulnerable to conflict between state and church.”[2] 

In this original state, man was too timid to make war but as he entered society, creates a war of all against all[3]. In society, he loses his sense of timidity and the equality of the original state-of-nature ceases to exist. This creates a society in which naturally isolated and autonomous individuals become: “masterless men,” desiring the same things and fearful for their lives endeavoring to “’destroy or subdue one another.’”[4] 

These fearful individuals, living in a state of perpetual war, create an “awe-inspiring Leviathan” able to establish peace and provide protection for individuals to conduct free activity.[5] Hobbes’ state, not yet democratic but monarchical, manifests absolute power, protects the people from each other and from external threat, and facilitates competition and acquisition without civil war[6]

Hobbes’s Leviathan should be viewed as a rhetorical discourse, and as Jennifer Mercieca argues: 
“rhetorical discourse must be – in fact, can only be, understood by placing it within the complex web of dominant ideas and events in its immediate historical context – the prevailing ideas in circulation, the material conditions of its production and dissemination, the situational constraints that motivated its purpose.”[7] 

Thus, Hobbes’s original argument about man in the state of nature, can be denaturalized by placing it in its socio-historical context to understand why how and why he constructed his argument in the way he did. The foundation laid by Hobbes prepared the way for the liberal democratic theory of John Locke, which in turn prepared the socio-rhetorical context for Rousseau’s rhetorical critique of liberalism and his construction of a republican democratic theory.

Locke and His Naturally Property Owning and Producing Man

Both Hobbes and Locke argue for a societal structure and method of governing based on the idea of man, originally isolated in a natural condition - before entering society. 

However much the idea of man in the state of nature has become a common sense and unquestioned fact of existence, Hobbes and Locke had not established an eternal truth about humanity, rather they had constructed an argument about nature, man, and the state. Far from natural, these arguments should be read as rhetorical constructions.

Although often conflated, Hobbes and Locke developed two different arguments about man before entering into society.

A fundamental question for both is: What threatens life? Hobbes answers that other men threaten life and Locke argues life is threatened not by “other individuals, but rather hunger. This is the original difference between Locke and Hobbes. For the later, death first threatens in the form of hostile other man; for the former it threatens in the form of hunger.”[8] 

Locke, in Two Treatises on Government (1689) argued, that man no longer conceived of as driven by fear and anxiety and self preservation, but still inherently selfish, was in pursuit of personal pleasure. Man in state of nature is universally equal, has reason, and obeys laws of nature which makes him well disposed to he neighbors.” 

Man, according to Locke, is constituted by his ability to, through labor, transform nature into property. In this, property is a natural extension of man in the state of nature and “essentially prior to the institution of society.”[9] Further, because “the relationship of man to nature is defined by labor” he is naturally property owning and laboring - “not naturally a political animal.”[10] 

From this position, man enters society and creates a government to protect his “life, liberty, and property.” The job of the government is to secure the property rights of self-seeking individuals. 

Locke’s theory of the state of nature lays the foundation for the classical capitalist construction of a market society as the most effective and efficient foundation to organize a society consisting of free and equal, private property owning, industrious, self-interest seeking individuals.

As a society of individual, autonomous, property producing and owning individuals, the natural market economy is oriented toward nature and not other men. This is an important argument made by Locke - man's true nature has nothing to do with other people and everything to do with his own pleasure which includes his possession of things. 

This is even more crucial to for us to understand today - the rhetorical construction of the individual as originally existing without ties to other humans lays the foundation for a liberal society obsessed with individual "liberty" to possess private property while having no responsibility to any other individuals.

Herein lies the foundation of liberal democracy based on rights rather than responsibilities and divides the theory of liberal democratic citizenship of rights and the republicanism of Rousseau’s based of civic self-rule. We can better understand the divide in American discourse - a divide between individual rights and a individuals with a responsibility to actively participate in their own governing as communal beings.

Rousseau's Rejection of Individuals Without Responsibility

Rousseau, breaking from Hobbes and Locke, harkens back to the democratic arguments of Aristotle and the Greeks[11], which before the Roman conception of rights based on a legal order[12], argued that democracy was composed of citizens who equally shared in the holding of office and were at the same time equally rulers and the ruled. 

Rousseau's man, still conceived of as originating in a state of nature, construct a society as members of a political community as opposed to a society of individuals. In this political community, citizens can be freely engaged and fully committed, decision-making members[13]

Thus for Rousseau and the republicanism that follows from him, the good society and government is not made up of isolated, politically disinterested individuals, seeking only self-interest in the market. Rather to live well is: “to be politically active, working with our fellow citizens, collectively determining our common destiny – not for the sake of this or that determination but for the work itself, in which our highest capacities as rational moral agents finds expression.”[14] Thus, as political animals, an active citizen is the best thing we can be: “We know ourselves best as persons who propose, debate, and decide.”[15] 

So... If we think about this in terms of what is means to be a citizen of a republican state: Locke's focus is on the protection of individual property (the citizen enters society not necessarily to participate in his ruling but instead to ensure protection of his personal property) and Rousseau's focus is on active political involvement as the ends of a good society not simply the means (focus here is on the responsibility of citizens not as much on the rights of citizens).

Or... think of it this way: 

Liberalism is about rights:
Locke's liberal citizenship is legal inclusion into a political community where individuals seek only their self interest and create a "state" or "government" to facilitate that pursuit of life, liberty, and property. 

Republicanism is about responsibilities:
Rousseau's republican citizenship is active participation in the political activity of a community of citizens. To be a good citizen is to actively participate in the political life of the state

Rhetorical Construction of: Democracy, Man, State of Nature, the State, and Liberty 

After reviewing the development of democratic and citizenship theory from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, it becomes more clear that, from its inception, democracy is a rhetorical construction.

Kenneth Burke defines rhetoric as: “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents.”[16] 

Though the essential argument of early liberalism and democratic theory for Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is “the idea of the body politic will amount to absolute sovereignty variously conceived, founded on and deduced from the state of nature,”[17] Rousseau was critical of the liberal determination and individual nature of Locke and Hobbes. 

He argues that the legal determination of rights was a linguistic construction, a way framing society, and a eulogistic covering for the interests of the wealthy to exploit the poor:

“In the stage immediately prior to the political institution, Rousseau tells us, the state of nature is revealed as ‘the most horrible state of war,’ marked by a conflict among the ‘right’ to work, the ‘right’ of the strongest, the ‘right’ of the first occupant, and so on.

To resolve this conflict, the language of the law must be instituted; people must speak. Who is going to speak?
Those who relatively suffer the most from this state, who are paradoxically, the rich.

Since for the rich, the instinct for preservation extends beyond their own bodies to their goods, their instinct is bound to be more developed than that of the poor, who have only their lives.

Consequently, the rich are going to take the initiative in speaking the word that founds the body politic.
They are going to conceive of ‘the most well-thought-out plan that has ever entered the human mind,’ they are going to are going to propose to everyone, and in particular to the poor, the constitution of a body politic that will protect everyone’s goods (above all those of the rich) by using everyone’s force (above all that of the poor). Inequality is thus established and human misfortune assured.” (Rousseau 1755, “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.”)[18]

Prophetically, Rousseau understood the ways in which the capitalist class would appropriate words such as freedom, liberty, equality, human nature, justice, and democracy to justify industrial exploitation, war, colonialism, the culture industry, the cold war, and eventually the war on terror. 

Democracy as a natural and universal form of government was used as a “eulogistic cover” for modern imperialism. Viewing the Occident and Africa, as lands inhabited by uncivilized savages, Western European democracies, employed the argument of universality of democracy as a justification for the colonization of these lands. Democracy provided that cover in which to extract the natural resources and labor of the savage lands as well as to open up new markets for the growing surplus of goods created by early and middle industrial capitalism. 

Democracy’s promise of perpetual peace has always, as Bensaid argues, operated as a floating signifier for the victorious West:
“… the floating signifier democracy became a synonym for the victorious West, the triumphant United State of America, the free market, and the level playing field. Simultaneously a full-scale onslaught against social solidarity and social rights and an unprecedented campaign to privatize everything were causing the public space to shrivel.”[19]

Perpetual peace, through free trade, which is a derivative of Locke’s natural state of man as a laborious property produce and owner, has been the promise of perpetual peace since Smith, Mill, and Paine[20] and has continued to operate as such through colonialism and into the recent War on Terror. 

For J.S. Mill:
“it is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which act in natural opposition to it. And it may be said without exaggeration that the great extent and rapid increase of international trade, in being the principal guarantee of the peace of the world, is the great permanent security for the uninterrupted progress of the ideas, institutions, and the character of the human race.”[21]

Since the return to market fundamentalism, in the form of libertarian, neoliberal, and neoconservative rhetoric, the idea of the presocial man has again captured the imagination of American citizens and politicians. 

The idea that American power can impute democracy on the worlds people, continues to operate as a cover for the transfer of the rights of citizenship to markets and financial institutions, residing in the hands of global economic actors[22]

The construction of consent, described by David Harvey, reinstituted a rhetorical image of liberty, freedom and peace situated in the market. The solidification of market fundamentalism in the imagination of American has reduced the options available for creating a better nation and world to one possibility - the free market. 

Without the ability to argue the possible alternative to market fundamentalism, public discourse become one dimensional and we are no longer free to debate other ideas or possibilities. 

It is this ability to publicly debate the best way to govern ourselves and to be governed that makes the democratic form a good form of government. Mercieca, commenting on the absence of debate over the best form of government in the second generation of our nation's founding, states:
“The biggest tragedy is that in the end Americans forgot that we invented our political fictions in the first place and we stopped debating their meaning all together. This forgetting, yet another form of movement, is why I believe it is imperative that we revisit our founding fictions.”[23]

This again becomes true of American political discourse, more thoroughly in the post 9-11 era. This is a discursive environment in which markets and democracy have once again become conflated and no longer exposed to public debate. 

We can appropriate Mercieca’s idea of political fictions: “narratives that political communities tell themselves about their government; like formal constitutions, they have a constitutive role in political discourse”[24]; to understand the ways in which democracy and citizenship, in our contemporary epoch, reflect the same rhetorical construction of reality as it did in the 17th and 18th century development of democratic theory. 

Democracy, as a justification for war and as necessary to provide for a future of perpetual peace, and capitalism as a rhetorical construct about the natural and universal form of organization necessary for a democratic society provide the eulogistic covering of perpetual peace to justify perpetual war, capital accumulation, and inequality.

As Robert Ivie says well, as long as an enemy can be constructed to provide the rhetorical justification for the perpetual war, democratic discourse will never have the time to debate the good society and the promise of democracy “must forever wait history’s mythical end.”[25]


Ok, this has been one long post so we will wrap it up. Our one-dimensional political discourse is fucked up. We use words as slogans and not as tools to construct our reality. As citizens of the U.S. and as citizens of the world, we must learn the history of our words, recognize them as rhetorical constructions, and begin to author our lives, in our context, a theorize how to live in society together well. By deconstructing the meanings of our words, we can begin to construct our reality as it is - not as it was once argued to be.

Blogging for democracy and a better collective existence,

[1] Somers 2008
[2] Manent 1995, 36
[3] Howard 2008
[4] Hobbes in Cohen & Fermon 1996, 162
[5] Howard 2008
[6] Howard 2008
[7] (Mercieca 2010, 4)
[8] Manent 1995, 41
[9] Manent 1995, 42
[10] Manent 1995, 42
[11] Walzer 1995
[12] Pocock 1995
[13] Walzer 2005
[14] Walzer 2005, 155
[15] Walzer 2005, 155
[16] (Mercieca 2010, 3)
[17] Manent 1995, 37
[18] Rousseau, Jean-Jacque. 1755. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.” In Rousseau’s Political Writings. Ed. Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella. 1988. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.; Manent 1996, 76
[19] Bensaid in Democracy in What State?, 18
[20] Howard 2008, 11, 29, 48
“Here we have the pure doctrine of the eighteenth-century philosophers; all peoples desire peace, only their rulers drag them into war.” (Howard 2008, 95)
“The objective of the liberal visionaries remained the same – perpetual and universal peace, but there seemed to be, on the continent of Europe at least, a growing belief that this could be brought about only through further just and necessary wars.” Howard 2008, 42)
[21] (Mill in Howard 2008, 29)
[22] Sassen 1996
[23] Mercieca 2010, 6
[24] Mercieca 2010, 27
[25] “To the extent there is always an enemy lurking about, or at least a rhetorical incentive to construct such an enemy, there can never be sufficiently secure time for democratic adversaries to engage and persuade one another. Tangible democracy, then, must forever await history’s mythical end, that fabled and enchanted state of human affairs in which diversity, error, and evil so longer exist, truth and beauty prevail, and, paradoxically, democracy is no longer deferred but instead rendered irrelevant.” Ivie. 2005, 159

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