The Politics of Manipulation, continued
April 11, 2014
Christopher Lasch’s phrase “the politics of manipulation,” which he used to describe the “new radicals” of the time period from 1889 to 1963, made me think of a passage in Julius Lester’s book, Look Out Whitey, Black Power Gonna’ Get Yo Momma, easily the best title from the black power movement of the 60’s.
At one point in the book, Lester makes what appears to be a strange assertion, viz., that he would rather deal with a redneck Southern sheriff than with LBJ and his liberal friends and allies. The sheriff, Lester contends, was likely to ask, “What you want, boy?” and he would listen and give the blacks part of what they asked for, if of course they asked politely. LBJ and the liberals, on the other hand, don’t ask the blacks what they want. Rather, they are more apt to tell the blacks what they, the blacks, should want and then tell them how they are going to give those things to the blacks.
I believe Lester is reflecting on two kinds of politics, a politics of compromise (the redneck sheriff) and a politics of manipulation (LBJ and the liberals). Insofar as this is correct, some questions arise that might prove to be interesting. One question is: What phenomena underlay these different kinds of politics? And another question is: What are the implications or likely results of these two kinds of politics?
With regard to the first question, a politics of compromise implies a recognition of the legitimacy of the claims of the less powerful, whereas a politics of manipulation implies that only the claims that are recognized by experts or the elites are legitimate. The latter kind of politics seeks not a balance of power, that is, a balance of power between the more powerful and the less powerful. Rather, it seeks to empower those who know, where knowledge almost always means expert knowledge. The resulting disempowerment of those without such knowledge is thought to be justified by the results, that is, the imagined success of the experts’ manipulations of social life. Resistance to such manipulation is then labeled “uncivil” or even “subversive” of the social order altogether and is to be repressed for the sake of the society.
Secondly, with regard to the implications of these two kinds of politics, a politics of compromise implicitly but fundamentally recognizes that consent is necessary in order to legitimate political decisions or choices. But a politics of manipulation trumps consent with expert knowledge, making compromises seem neither necessary – in the best of all worlds – nor legitimate. At best, compromises are merely concessions, and this means concessions to what is called “mere politics,” thereby giving politics a bad name and implying that politics is merely a sordid arena where “the best” is repeatedly trashed for the sake of those who don’t understand and/or those who are ignorant. Furthermore, a politics of manipulation looks to repress politics for the sake of what it takes to be the social good, even those this necessarily means the disempowerment of large segments of the population. A politics of compromise, on the other hand, although seeming to be much messier than a politics of manipulation is, for all of that, more human, more “down to earth,” even more “realistic.”