Posts Tagged ‘politics’
This was the first of three posts exploring the connections between Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, and so-called “education reform.” I have Alexis Goldstein to thank for pushing to to stop talking about this idea and just do it.
[T]his sort of smartness infuses the movement for corporate education reform. It can be seen in the pattern of seeking to provide maximum power to a few executives over public education, displacing the authority of schools boards, unions and the constituencies these represent: parents and teachers, and more broadly, citizens. This can mean mayoral control over schools, or top school administrators (some, like in Chicago, now labeled CEOs), or state appointed boards like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission. The idea that a single strong authority can “fix” schools by overriding the concerns of other stakeholders is so commonplace it was the theme of the movie Waiting for Superman, which focused on reform darling / authoritarian and DC Chancellor Michele Rhee. Rhee made a name for herself through her confrontational style in relation to teachers and parents, famously taking a film crew along with her to fire a teacher. Significant experience teaching or administering schools is not required to wield this sort of unchecked power.
I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.
I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–where people make statements that assume one or the other concepts. Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this is that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.
One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.
Florencia Mallon has argued similarly (1995, 6): ‘In families, communities, political organizations, regions, and state structures, power is always being contested, legitimated and refined. Some projects, stories, or interpretations are winning out over others; some factions are defeating others. The interaction among different levels, locations or organizations in a given society—say, between families and communities, communities and political parties, or regions and a central state—redefines not only each one of these political arenas internally but also the balance of forces between them.
Stories of Peoplehood, Rogers Smith
I don’t remember where it all started, but I’ve been unhappy with the concept of the decision as the central framework for political science for a long time. Very few political scientists, I should note, would say this is the case. They’d probably object to the idea that there is a central framework. Instead, they would likely focus on various different frameworks. But, being heterodox and inclined to see the biggest picture possible, it was clear to me there was a deep similarity among these different approaches. For one thing, there was so much political activity that was left out of this dominant framework, or dismissed or obscured. Of course, we might conclude that something that political actors think is important is not after investigating it, but to do so as a matter of definitions makes little sense.
Since I began developing my idea of ‘politics as a contest of claim making’ as an alternative, I find that idea all over political science, although rarely foregrounded. It seems the sort of banal point that is widely understood but rarely the basis for much explicit theorizing. But it does come up again and again. My task seems to be to call attention to it and explicate its implications.
The word ‘law,’ itself, is always a primary object of contention. People argue and fight over ‘what is law’ because the very term is a valuable resource in the enterprises that lead people to think and talk about law in the first place….On a political level, it connotes legitimacy in the exercise of coercion and in the organization of authority and privilege. On a philosophical plane it connotes universality and objectivity….The struggle over what is ‘law’ is then a struggle over which social patterns can plausibly be coated with a veneer which changes the very nature of that which it covers up. There is not automatic legitimation of an institution by calling it or what it produces ‘law,’ but the label itself is a move, the staking out of a position in the complex social game of legitimation. The jurisprudential inquiry into the question ‘what is law’ is an engagement at one remove in the struggle of what is legitimate.
Robert M. Cover, “The Folktales of Justice: Tales of Jurisdiction.” (pdf)