Bonnie Honig's thought-provoking interview with Nick Pearce provides a refreshingly different perspective on why so many people find politics so dull and uninspiring.
Honig fears that proceduralism has replaced real political engagement. That is true in political theory conducted in the social contract tradition of John Rawls, which almost reduces the search for a fair society to a set of procedures and equations, and in real life, where - as Roberto Unger, the Brazilian political theorist, puts it - a cheque in the post has become a substitute for human solidarity. In a similar vein, Avashai Margalit, the Israeli moral philosopher, in his book The Decent Society, warns that justice can be dispensed fairly, for example through means testing, and yet still be humiliating.
Honig's antidote to proceduralism is a politics that is tumultuous, unpredictable, contingent and fragile, driven by passions and fantasies, to defend the past and fashion the future. The psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose went down this path in States of Fantasy, which examines how politics is driven by public, shared fantasy. Indeed, US political life is devoted to the pursuit of a dream.
Rawls imagined politics as something like a giant version of the conclave of cardinals, a contract agreed behind a veil of ignorance, through orderly discussion - a bit like one of Jurgen Habermas's ideal speech situations. Honig is more interested in what transpired in Cairo's Tahrir Square, in a politics which destabilises existing procedures and leads to new forms of political power. She is not drawn to the stern communitarianism of white picket fences, billowing laundry and twitching net curtains. She wants something more vital, more fun.
The answer, she suggests, is that we need objects of public love, icons of our common life. They help to make us into a society because we see ourselves reflected in them. Honig refers to the campaign to save Sesame Street's Big Bird and public service broadcasting in the US; Pearce to the campaign against the privatisation of publicly owned forests in the UK. The 2012 Olympic Games were more like a holiday romance, as the nation fell back in love with the image of itself revealed by Danny Boyle's opening ceremony and the festive civic spirit that took hold for the duration of the games. The 'Olympics' that are fixed in our memories are becoming an enduring object of public love.
Honig's reminder that politics should be tumultuous and passionate helpfully illuminates some of the dilemmas we face, although perhaps it does not resolve them.
Honig regards love of public objects as a good thing - yet love can be abused and exploited. What do we do when the things we love fail us? Britain finds itself in this position with its beloved national health service, after learning of the failings at Mid Staffordshire hospital which led to more than 1,000 untimely deaths. When we fall deeply in love with an institution like the NHS, how do we keep a check on whether that affection is being exploited? For public love to be justified, institutions must adhere to other values and procedures, concerning transparency, accountability, comparability, voice. Are there other conditions that should be met for public love to remain justified?
Public love can be quite uneven and it's not clear that greater passion is always the key to progress. Fire engines are iconic public objects, yet in the past 20 years the humble and unheroic smoke alarm has done as much to save lives as the fire engine. People can become passionate about fire engines, but if we need people to adopt smoke alarm-style solutions - preventative, domestic, widespread - then public love isn't a great deal of use. The humble smoke alarm is a good example of public policy succeeding quietly by discretely infiltrating our private lives.
The Netherlands shows us this kind of quiet, conversational politics writ large. The nation only exists thanks to massive daily management of water levels through a network of sluices, dykes and dams. The dam is an object of public love in the Netherlands but it is also an unheroic and humble tool - the kind that can be relied upon to do its job. The Netherlands has some of the best public architecture in the world and yet it tends to be understated and unflashy, colloquial and useful. There is surely a danger that in our search for objects of public love we focus on icons, heroes and symbols that capture our attention at the expense of the quiet, understated and local.
A related danger is that public love is more likely to be bestowed upon objects with a history, which are visibly rooted in tradition. The really troubling question is how politics generates love for new kinds of public objects.
Public libraries are a case in point, as communities around the country are mobilised to defend their resources against funding cuts. A passionate response does not help much if the real task is to persuade people that it makes sense to withdraw investment from some forms of provision - such as failing libraries badly located - in order to invest in new libraries that will ultimately be better used. One of the few authorities to have carried off this trick - Tower Hamlets in London - managed to do so by creating new and compelling objects of public love - libraries called 'Ideas Stores' - and because its traditional services were so clearly falling short.
Public love often gets expressed in a moment of crisis, in defence of an institution under threat. Yet how does politics use public affection to generate new solutions, over a long period, when there is no crisis to command attention? That is a far more difficult question.
Finally, Honig's synthesis is of great help in understanding some of the foreign policy dilemmas we face, particularly in relation to fragile states. For most of the 20th century policymakers and diplomats worried about states becoming too ambitious and powerful. Now they worry that the international order will be disrupted by states that are too weak and fragile, troubled and insecure.
Pakistan is a prime example. In that ravaged country, the 1947 ideal of a post-colonial, modernising, relatively secular, united, coherent, integrated, legitimate state seems well out of reach. A complete collapse of the state - brought on by a mixture of environmental and economic crisis combined with rising extremist violence - cannot be ruled out. Yet the most likely prospect is for chronic chaos, disorder and violence, stemmed only by bouts of military intervention and by the tremendous resilience and creativity of civil society. Politics, indeed daily life, in Pakistan is a fragile, contingent tumult. Procedures seem to have little purchase. Everything depends on whose clan, family or tribe you are part of.
As in many fragile states, the most realistic hope is that Pakistan might become a kind of patchwork state. This could not be something like a unitary European state that holds sway over its territory through common rules, laws and procedures. Instead, it would have to be a hybrid, mixing the formal and the informal, traditional and modern, secular and religious, civic and commercial. A patchwork state would be complicated and messy yet reasonably stable, in part because it could accommodate precisely the kind of tumult Honig talks about. It would have to combine many different principles of governance from democratic to tribal, feudal, religious, meritocratic and even anarchic. Bonnie Honig's ideas offer a much more useful guide to that kind of world than do John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas.
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