Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Long Way Round to narrative analysis

[this post is under construction, and subject to major revision -- I've posted what is a preliminary draft and will keep changing it]

SS, in a comment, asks, "Do you think that the wealthy classes have a conscious policy of trying to turn the U.S. into an oligarchy or . . . "

I am wondering what it would mean for a social class to have a "conscious policy".

An individual might have a conscious policy, because an individual can be presumed to have consciousness; and a large, bureaucratic organization can have a policy -- explicit, written, unwritten, formal, informal and many other things, but not "conscious", because bureaucracies don't have consciousness, but they do have committees, to deliberately make rules, and managers to make sure the rules are followed.

I used to worry a lot about making a distinction between "policy" and "strategy". The two terms are often used as synonyms, especially in social science theory. A policy, generally, refers to a conditional rule, or set of rules, governing behavior, that is, a rule that says in case A, do X; in case B, do Y, and in case C, do Z. Game theorists define a "strategy" such a set of such conditional rules, which creates the confusion, I guess. A "strategy", though, is not a set of rules, per se, but, rather, a purposeful rationale for choosing rules of behavior, based on an awareness of, and anticipation of, how others will behave in rivalrous and competitive circumstances, and how the behavior of others will combine with one's own behavior to generate outcomes. In business, "We will meet any advertised price!" is a policy; it is adopted as a strategy for dealing with cut-price rivals, on the presumption that it will make advertising low prices less effective as a competitive strategy for rivals.

In my usage, a "strategy" encompasses both an outcome goal, and awareness that the outcome is a joint-product of action with and against rivals and opponents. It speaks of an awareness that the behavior of others will be a calculated response and strategic gambit, as well. "Policy", in my usage, is just a rule governing behavior. You can follow a policy, without knowing what goal or goals are intended. Simple rules can give rise to surprisingly complex behaviors, and there are good reasons to believe that policies (rules of behavior) might be subject a kind of Darwinian evolution -- successful rules surviving. Ants, presumably, behave in accord with some fairly simple rules, and build, incorporating the arch; but, ants don't have architects to design their arches -- they don't have conscious strategies or plans -- they don't have big enough brains for that.

SS says, "policy", but asks about a particular goal, "oligarchy". But, SS has an alternative: ". . . or perhaps they are unconsciously acting out of class interests while justifying their actions to themselves as being something else?"

Ah, a conscious goal ("oligarchy") or unconscious pursuit cum rationalization. Hmmm.

The problem, here, isn't just figuring out what conservatism is about, it is finding a comprehensive way, in general, of talking about the composition, programs and achievements of broad social movements. If I talk as if conservatives are relentlessly pursuing a particular, albeit abstract goal(s) or "class interest", it is not my assertion that will be criticized, but its compact as-if form. I will be accused of saying there is, say, "a Vast Right-wing Conspiracy" to do X or Y. It is not that I don't think there is "a conspiracy" per se, but I agree with my putative critic that there is a whole lot less, and more, going on.

The primitives of politics include elements of individual and group psychology, which are a lot like the instincts that drive ants to certain patterns of behavior and collective achievement. Worldview, attitudes, social group identity (economic class, race, religion, subculture, etc), as well as perceived (conscious) self-interest and shared-interest, are in play. And, politics doesn't stay primitive; money circulates to create organizations and institutions -- some people specialize in politics, as politicians, pundits, political operatives, lobbyists, etc.

Broad, dichotomous terms -- conservative-progressive, liberal-authoritarian, moderate-radical -- suggest that politics starts as conflict along the spectrums of human ambivalence expressed as attitude and worldview, and many classifications just extend the basic Right-Left spectral distinction: reactionary, traditionalist, socialist, libertarian. But, politics is ultimately about power and policy, government and governing -- about organizing society, economy and the world, with rules and law, resource allocation, force and organized violence.

Philip Agre asks and answers:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

Greenspan and the Myth of the True Believer | Naomi Klein:
"the true purpose of the entire literature of trickle-down theory is to liberate entrepreneurs to pursue their narrowest advantage while claiming global altruistic motives--not so much an economic philosophy as an elaborate, retroactive rationale.

What Greenspan teaches us is that trickle-down isn't really an ideology after all. It's more like the friend we call after some embarrassing excess so that they will tell us, 'Don't beat yourself up: You deserve it.'"

Populist Monarchs and Subjects | "Modern conservatism's most successful strategy was to merge public relations and politics into a seamless operation in which it could use modern marketing methods to convince people to vote against their own interests."

To be revisited.

1 comment:

  1. Bruce,

    Thanks so much for responding at length. Naomi Klein clearly thinks it is an unconscious expression of class interest "rationalization" but even rationalizations creep into the conscious. The best thoughts on this I've found are in Umberto Ecco's essay "Ur Fascism" written in English, he was previously at Columbia University but is an Italian thinker. He deals with defining characteristics of extreme conservative movements but not so much whether they are conscious or unconscious. Best.