Thursday, June 2, 2011

American Politics, Progressive Politics

I am re-reading a book, Deadly Paradigms [published 1988], and am finding it rewarding regarding American politics. This book is concerned with American foreign policy, particularly with what is called "counterinsurgency theory" which is part of political development theory. These theories seemed to "take off" in the 1950s and 1960s, before crashing and burning as it were. However, they were not abandoned despite failure and one task that D. Michael Shafer set for himself in this book was to explain why these theories persisted. And, in fact, they are still persistent today as is evident from our "activities" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, in the latter country, General Patraeus has been lauded for recreating counterinsurgency as a strategy that will, finally, "work" in Afghanistan. There are many reasons to think he is wrong.

Here are some passages that deal with political development theory, focused on foreign policy but which could be applied to domestic politics as well.

"[Political development theorists] turned to cultural diffusion and a beachhead model of change. It began with an initial contact with modernity, generally in the form of colonialism. Thereafter modernity spread as modern ideas and institutions demonstrated their superiority to the old. Eventually a modernized local elite developed making modernization a self-sustaining process by which the modern center sought to penetrate and absorb the passive, traditional periphery. While this process would be traumatic, theorists saw no serious obstacles. Fragile traditional societies would surely shatter on contact with modern states, while the dynamic modern mind-set would seem a 'genuine liberation from the stuffy closets of theocratic traditionalism.'

"Attention focused on the critical period of transition extending from modernity's breakout from the beachhead to its consolidation in a modern nation-state. In particular, scrutiny rested on the small cadre of modern elites and the 'proto-centers' which would in time constitute the modern states of the Third World. Thus, declared C.E. Black, the consolidation of modernity depends on 'the desire...of modernizing mobilize and rationalize the resources of society with a view to achieving greater control, efficiency and production.' Likewise, asserted Yusif Sayigh, if the underdeveloped are to develop, they must be 'shaken rudely by social and political shocks administered their social-minded leaders.'

"Not surprisingly, attention turned to nationalists as nation-builders and their problems converting protostates into fully actualized modern ones. At issue was 'how to build a single coherent political society from a multiplicity of 'traditional societies;' how to increase cultural homogeneity and value consensus; and how to [develop] among members of a political system...a deep and unambiguous sense of identity with the state and other members of the civic body.' In this process legitimation was critical since 'if leaders direct a society to higher levels of performance, their words and actions must carry an aura of legitimacy.' Theorists studied many ways of generating legitimacy, but all such studies embodied the diffusionist assumption that the ruling elites offered the only possible source of integration. This focus on legitimation granted de facto legitimacy to those elites, who thus by definition possessed the authority to shape their societies, if not yet the means to do so." [pp. 57-59]

Now the centrality of elites to this understanding, not just of political development in other places but of politics in general, fits well with the progressive view of politics according to which the political arena is seen as an arena where great men compete for great power in order to undertake great projects in the service of remaking, or "modernizing," society. And the "beachhead model" can be used to describe the American political scene with Washington, D.C. being seen as the "beachhead" wherein reside these elites who will "direct [our] society to higher levels of performance...achieving greater control, efficiency and production." And, of course, those who stand in the way of ever greater power in Washington, D.C. are often represented as "hicks" or "rednecks," that is, as those who prefer the "traditional" to the "modern." The question never is, Should we abandon the traditional?, in this view of politics but rather, How should we move beyond the traditional? And this is merely a technical question; in sum, the question, "What works?" But what if abandoning "the traditional" is undesirable? Then if we discover what actually works, we will be guaranteeing our failure. In other words, "success," the seeming pursuit of most moderns, is really "failure."

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