Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us

I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.

They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.

The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.

(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)

The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.

Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.

Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.

(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)

The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.

But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.

So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.

Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.

I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.

I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.

Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.

So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.

Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s