“Parrhesia implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge, dividing equals according to their positions, in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict.”
Just got around to reading this review essay, of a book by sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. It sounds a bit beyond my reading comprehension (“demands that you have a theory graduate seminar or two under your belt”) and I don’t know if “molar hierarchies” derive from chemistry or dentistry; but the above quote, seemingly from the book itself, is a very lucid summation of what Foucault discusses in his last two lecture series.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Scottish referendum result and what it says about how we as individuals ‘take sides’, and make political choices which, crucially, feed back into our sense of community. First, on the empirical side - because this may not be evident in the news reporting focusing on party politics or national emoting: there was a strong class gradient in the voting, as measured by opinion poll ‘social grade’ (60/40 amongst the ABs) and the fact that the four districts that voted Yes have higher unemployment rates, as well as gender (women more likely to oppose) and age (over-65s the strongest No voters, by a ratio of nearly 3:1).
My pessimistic reading of the result - and this is somewhat undermined by the fact that 45% did vote Yes overall - is that the populace of an advanced capitalist society, when posed a direct question about the structural underpinnings of it, are unlikely to choose the more radical option in the face of what the establishment terms - and creates - ‘uncertainty’. Everything being so interconnected, individual freedom and security so limited and circumscribed in economic terms, by employers and by the government, means that the risk is too great: except for the voter moved by a greater cause, or with much less invested in the current system (the over-65s, naturally, were particularly concerned about pensions). The narrative that the Scots ‘bottled’ it, that it was a failure of national will, seems to me distasteful in respect of perceived practicalities (not to mention reasonable disagreements about the role of sovereignty) but does express in some sense the ethical demand of parrhesia, the ‘courage of truth’.
Of course what this ‘truth’ entails is, eminently, debatable. Foucault, the Enlightment sceptic and anti-rationalist, notes more than once I think that what he is looking at in discussing parrhesia is how the truth was perceived, as a part of discourse, not so much what it actually was. At the same time relativism is irrelevant, because parrhesia is not about stating a truth, but the truth, at least in the context of that particular discourse, its subjects and political organisation. It is ultimately about power (and knowledge). It’s also about how democracy works, or is supposed to work, in a social setting ultimately defined by who speaks and how.
Like I said before, I have my deep historical and cultural scepticism of nationalism, and ‘independence’ so defined. I’m also aware that there was a broad swathe of non-nationalist support for independence, from the Scottish Greens to the Radical Independence Campaign group of leftists, against the opposition of the centre-left insofar as it is represented by UK/Scottish Labour and (some) of the trade union movement. If I knew more about the particular political, economic and social circumstances of Scotland I might be more willing to venture an opinion (though it still wouldn’t really be my place). It comes back to the Irish experience: I don’t see our establishment as any better than the British one, while our left is still as much of a social and political minority as it was before independence, if not more.
There is that seductive idea, however, that self-determination represents a genuine kind of democratic being (though the category of self-determination is I think inevitably awkward). That even in defeat, the referendum, in the words of one academic, has created Scotland as a ‘more serious polity’. That this creates a demand for more democracy, for more genuine political interaction, that will be irresistible. But what shape will this discourse take - what shape can it take? The satirist Armando Iannuci has a piece in today’s Guardian putting a very positive gloss on this, though not without using some well-worn if equally well-tailored clichés about political behaviour. In one of the more original parts, he notes:
"In a world where we can now source anything online, download anything we want to see from any country in the world, and where we can pick and choose individual tracks, whatever programme, whichever individual item we need from whatever outlet – in this complete shopping basket world, they must be asking why on earth they’re being forced to pick one party and its entire list of policies, rather than their own playlist of ideas. It simply doesn’t make any kind of sense."
Normally I would object to this as a kind of libertarian naivety (though it is hardly disingenuous as that). Party politics won’t just disappear because of the internet - they are a fundamental part of organising group interests into bargaining positions, and significantly giving them some measure of distance from powerful private interests. The alternative of governing by marginal preference is, in fact, the marketplace, and even if theoretically equality could be assured, there is the question of how opinions are developed reciprocally, and intersubjectively. Still, a true kind of ‘computational politics' is an interesting mental goal, and it does express the idea that freedom of choice, in the true parrhesiastic sense, ought to be a constituent part of our political self, as it is supposed to be elsewhere.
What I’m trying to get at is that democracy needs to become more of a ‘bottom-up’ process (cliché, I know): beginning in the way we think and express ourselves, before we become individuals - neoliberal subjects - making our ‘choice’ at the ballet box which, however noble, is constrained by the very complexity and inequity of our society. I’ve ended up voting Yes to every Irish EU referendum I’ve been eligible for, even the dodgiest ones, because I didn’t see an effective alternative (as a democratic exercise in the context of the rest of the EU’s governmental procedures, they’re a bad joke) and I think there is still considerable value in the European project and its institutional form, even if the latter in particular is increasingly flawed in relation to economic over political freedoms.
In my thesis, which was largely about that latter issue, all I could conclude was that it was an irresolvably political challenge (against the context of law, which I was of course writing in) that has to begin with awareness of the existing restrictions on genuine democratic choice. As to what the progress to an alternative would involve, I don’t know and I haven’t found anyone else who really seems to either. Of the two polar extremes of the left, anarchism is too small, too laborious; revolution too grand, too far-fetched; a happy, workable medium is perhaps encouraging some everyday activity that rejects the petty tyrannies and grand illusions of neoliberal life in favour of humanistic (pace Foucault) discourse. Parrhesia is a useful tool towards understanding the latter, although it’s important to remember it does not itself define democracy (in fact, it opposes and restricts it in some sense by placing an ethical value on some voices above others) nor truth. Only we can do that.