Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ruminations 4: On Gesture as Substance in Law & Policy

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions.

A sign of the power of mass democracy, as it has come to be understood in the West at leat, and the maturity stage of this form, is the privileging of gesture as a basis of policy. The greater the number of direct participants in the deployment of participatory political power, the simpler the expression of policy and the greater the need to hide its reality in complex documents, regulations, policies and processes that remain opaque to the electorate and that insulate elected officials from responsibility. In this sense, the politics of mass democracy is anti-democratic. Gesture as politics not merely substitutes for substance, it veils substance as well. Expression and sign of intention misdirects attention the way an illusionist draws attention away from the substance of activity. It is the illusion that both audience and performer crave, and both work hard for its attainment. The important goal is the sign of intention or attitude. Its substance is irrelevant to the audience as long as the gesture is elegantly effected and satisfies the cravings of the audience.

The connection between mass democracy and gesture highlights the sad additional connection between both and decadence. Gesture, the way in which mass democratic policy is framed, also frames the form in which the decadence of the system is advanced. This decadence is understood in both of its meanings--both as a deterioration or decline, and also as a rarefied aestheticism, artifice, and addictive seeking of sensations for its own sake. And in this seeking, the foundations of the social and economic order are undone, to make way for something new and more vigorous, but most likely unexpected.

We are fortunate to live in an age where technology permits the careful observation of the connections between modern mass democracy, its appetite for gesture, and the decadence that flows from out of the body of the electorate as it digests its increasingly rarefied stew. Consider the latest grand gesture of the political classes in its heroic battle to contain the economic depression that may soon overtake the global economy: it will preserve the market economy on which it is based by gesture.
US President Barack Obama is poised to reveal details of new rules limiting executive pay to $500,000 a year for firms getting a US taxpayer bail-out. His administration is also looking at other potential caps on items such as golden parachutes to executives. The president is tapping into outrage at Wall Street bonuses paid in 2008 when taxpayers propped up many firms. . . . The move is an initial step in a wider attempt to overhaul executive pay practices.
The parameters of gesture are thus easy to discern. Save the market by regulating its captains. Subordinate the markets for corporate management to the state and its management in the name of the masses and for the protection of corporate stakeholders and investors. And preserve the positions of the current holders of those positions (and their entourages) by diverting attention from the individuals whose mismanagement contributed to economic failure (and who should have been eliminated--or worse) to the money they appear to make. And the state will have substituted itself for corporate stakeholders. None of this will contribute much to resolution of the issues--but all of which makes for an aesthetically satisfying gesture. And it is a gesture in which all political parties may participate:
"In ordinary situations where the taxpayers money is not involved, we shouldn't set executive pay," said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican in the Senate Banking Committee. "But where you've got federal money involved, taxpayers' money involved, TARP money involved, and the way they have spent it, with no accountability, is getting close to being criminal." Id.
Gesture becomes not merely the symbol, but the thing in itself of law and policy. It is enough. The consequences can be firmly veiled behind the confining cloak of the gesture.

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