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Rethinking the possible

Everywhere you go, people of the world are fed up with states and the class of accountants and crooked despots that manage them. Jarrett Zigon believes that such consensus has afforded a unique historical opportunity for change. We must now begin to develop alternatives to the modern nation-state, the contemporary global economic order, and the current assumptions of “moral” behaviour
Jarrett Zigon
3 March 2011

In a recent BBC World News report on a “rebel” controlled town in western Libya not far from the Tunisian border, a spokesperson for the committee attempting to stabilize, secure, and govern the community told the reporter: “We now have the opportunity to create any form of government here that we like.”  Although that may indeed be temporarily the case in this desert outpost, it is certainly far from the case in Libya, the regional sites of recent pseudo-revolutions, and throughout the rest of the world.  This is so not because the opportunity is not within reach, but because no one appears to be reaching for it; for despite the fact that various peoples around the world are increasingly bringing their discontent with state governance to the streets, no one has yet articulated a radical turn away from such forms of governance.  

In this moment of rising unemployment, concerns over reliability of healthcare and pension programs, and rising prices for food and energy, citizens turn to their respective governments for reassurance. They are responded to in turn with claims of a debt crisis, concerns with overspending, and promises of budgetary cuts

Jarrett Zigon

And indeed it does seem that everywhere these days people are fed up with states.  From Northern Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, to the leftist street protests in Greece, to the middle-class occupation of the Thai capital, to the right-wing Tea Party movement in the United States, and nearly everywhere in between, the citizenry of the world appear to be united on at least one simple question: what good is the state?  Indeed, what better time to ask this question.  Still in the wake of a world economic crisis that is due in large part to the lack of oversight by states and their governments on the international finance system, and which piggy-backed nearly a generation of neoliberal reforms meant to privatize once guaranteed social welfare programs, individuals around the world are increasingly feeling the vulnerability they have been exposed to by their governments.  In this moment of rising unemployment, concerns over reliability of healthcare and pension programs, and rising prices for food and energy, citizens turn to their respective governments for reassurance and are responded to in turn with claims of a debt crisis, concerns with overspending, and promises of budgetary cuts.   

It is little surprise then that citizens the world over are replying to this accountancy response with various degrees of disdain.  What for many was once considered a caretaker state that however imperfectly could be relied upon to help their citizenry through the vicissitudes of various life phases, is increasingly seen as a bureaucratic machine quickly running out of steam.  Of course the modern state has always been a bureaucratic machine, but when its public discourse shifts from that of a confident captain diligently steering his passenger ship through the dark night to that of an overworked accountant desperately trying to balance the books, those of us in large part dependent on this machine begin to wonder if in fact it is nothing more than that which keeps us all believing there is a wizard in Oz.  When states turn into accounting firms, it becomes plainly obvious to all who care to look that states and their governments no longer express or care much about the will of the people.

What for many was once considered a caretaker state that however imperfectly could be relied upon to help their citizenry through the vicissitudes of various life phases, is increasingly seen as a bureaucratic machine quickly running out of steam

Jarrett Zigon

More and more people are beginning to look.  And to their disappointment they find states driven by the logic of the accountant’s ledger and speaking in the rhetoric of budgets.  It is for this reason that citizenry across the political spectrum – from right to left – and all around the world is increasingly speaking out against the state.  What is to be done?  One reply has come from Costas Douzinas (see the edited version from February 7, 2011 on guardian.co.uk) who has argued that collective civil disobedience is not only legitimate but necessary as an expression of the collective refusal of consent based on moral outrage against what he calls “governmental anomie.”  Douzinas concludes that this collective disobedience should be conceived as the “authentic morality and democracy in action against the anomie of power.” 

To a great extent I would agree with the spirit of Douzinas’ position but would find much concern in his choice of words or perhaps I should say his choice of concepts.  Douzinas’ argument is couched in the language, tradition, and assumptions of a natural law/social contractarian position, and perhaps this is just the very problem; for discursive traditions do in fact matter, and in this case especially so.  In large part the modern nation-state, the (neo)liberal/authoritative assemblage of governance, and the current global political-economy have their philosophical foundations in just this natural law/social contractarian tradition.  By referencing this tradition and placing his own support of Greek civil disobedience within its trajectory, Douzinas is placing himself in the same traumatic and tragic repetitive cycle of failed revolutions as are most of those speaking for and representing the protesters on the streets around the world.  The simple point I am trying to make is that any recycling of this and related moral-political traditions – even if repeated this time in its purest and most authentic way as Douzinas seems to hope - will necessarily result in the repetition of yet one more form of governance that will leave most persons without voice, power, health, or hope regardless of whether this form of governance takes that of a “western-style” liberal democracy or that of authoritarianism.   

The answer, then, is not yet another attempt at enacting this tradition in an authentic manner.  Rather the answer is to take the advice of that spokesperson of the community committee in western Libya – that is, we must now begin to completely rethink political and moral possibilities.  This is a unique moment in global political history.  No doubt there is much disagreement over what must be done.  But for the first time in my lifetime at least we are now living through a moment when diverse peoples all around the globe are collectively and very publicly resisting and questioning power in various ways.  This must continue but at a more radical level – the very foundations of what counts as a social and political community must be rethought.  That is to say, the very necessity of the nation-state, the very configuration of the global political-economy, and ultimately the very assumptions of what counts as moral values all must be rethought and remade.  Without this radical rethinking of politics and morality I am afraid we will simply pass through this moment of great potential, and before we know it all will once again be perfectly familiar in its subtle and not so subtle forms of everyday repression.   

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