More therapy for the dismal: Paul Loeb’s piece on political cynicism

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

(Crossposted at Voices on the Square and at FDL)

There is a passage in Derrick Jensen’s newest book, Dreams, in which he bridges the gap between his usual anarcho-primitivist plain talk and the more “expert” advice of scientists such as James Hansen and populists such as Bill McKibben.  It goes as follows:

We all know what we must do to curtail global warming.  We must dismantle every oil refinery, every pipeline, every oil and natural gas well.  We must dismantle the infrastructure that is killing the planet. (p. 249)

The first step in such a process, were it actually to happen, would be to phase out the pumping of the oil, the coal, and the natural gas.  I pointed this out some time ago in a blog entry over at Docudharma/  If we really wish to mitigate the disasters that global warming will bring us, we need to keep some of Earth’s fossil-fueled heritage in the ground, rather than pumping it into the atmosphere.  

The problem, in real life, is that nobody’s talking about such a solution.  Oil, like oil-consuming infrastructure, is a commodity, as are petroleum-based instruments such as cars, airplanes, furnaces and so on.  The solution proposed above would be a wholesale divergence from the capitalist system, which accumulates capital (i.e. money and the good things it buys) through the circulation of commodities.  The change that’s needed, in other words, is a change nobody dares to advocate.

Enter Paul Loeb, published in some reading circles as Paul Rogat Loeb.  Loeb wants to explore what makes some people activists, in order to assure that there be more activists.  Certainly if we are to have a movement that will push through the changes that are needed to curtail global warming, we will need more activists.  

I found Loeb’s most recent piece (written with co-authors Alexander Astin and Parker J. Palmer) in a glance at the blog Docudharma, where it had been cross-posted.  It’s titled ““My Vote Doesn’t Matter”: Helping Students Surmount Political Cynicism.”  The problem, of course, is that students today have good reasons to be politically cynical, especially if the solutions to their problems are not on offer.  We are not going to get past the cynicism, then, by encouraging participation in a system which does not cater to real human needs.

Moreover, we can establish a rational cause for the cynicism that infects American politics.  In the frontstage of American politics is a spectacle, sometimes regarded as “Kabuki theater,” in which candidates offer rhetoric calculated to woo the votes of the public.  In the backstage is the world of meetings in Washington DC, in which deals are made between actors of various ideological persuasions and financial needs.  The ultimate source of “cynicism,” in this regard, is the belief that what happens in the political frontstage might have very little to do real policy as formulated backstage.  Here I will explore, with Loeb and his co-authors, what it would take to change this situation.

The authors start this piece by discussing the increase of cynicism among youth in America today, and then with a mis-step:

For those of us who follow elections closely, this is one of high stakes, with salient differences between the two major parties.

The idea of “salient differences between the two major parties” wasn’t clear at all to the authors of Political Compass, who positioned the Democratic Presidential incumbent at (+6,+6) and his Republican challenger at (+7, +6.5).  So if the authors of Political Compass are right, there is good reason for apathy, at least as regards the Presidential race.  

It isn’t clear, however, that the authors’ argument depends critically upon the misconstruction of “Democratic” and “Republican” that dominates folk wisdom about American politics.  Thus it might suit readers to address the authors’ main arguments regardless of whether or not they have the context right.  

Further down, this piece address the standard constructions of apathy in American political life:

But even when students understand the math, many still resist participation. They’ll say they don’t know enough and that “the issues are too complicated.” They’ll insist the candidates are really “all the same.” They’ll say this even when candidates hold very different positions on issues from health care, climate change, sexual politics, and immigration to tax policies, higher education budgets, student financial aid, and likely Supreme Court appointments. For some, saying they don’t know enough may just be an excuse for withdrawal, though we’ve heard such statements even from many who are very involved in other ways. Others hold back because they feel helpless to change things. Caught in a self-fulfilling perception of powerlessness, they decide it makes little sense to take on the challenge of following candidates and issues.

This construction of political non-participation agrees well with the reading of political non-participation in Nina Eliasoph’s ethnographic study Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life.  Eliasoph’s discussion of apathy is quite thorough — she documents the many ways in which Americans avoid political life.  

As I read Eliasoph’s work, however, the main hurdle for those wishing to produce activism rather than apathy is one of creating spaces in which political discussion can once again be public.  We, in short, need to frontstage politics as it affects issues of real human need, so that real human beings will participate.  Here the Loeb et al. piece’s suggestion is on-target:

If we want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they can reflect on issues and candidates, and provide a rationale for why their involvement matters.

However, I don’t feel that the authors really focus upon the extent to which American social life, including politics itself, has been depoliticized.  Their initial tactic falls on those grounds:

The more students see their vote as promoting the kinds of changes they’d like to continue to work for, the more likely they’ll be to show up at the polls, bring others along, and stay involved after the election.

The problem here is that neither my vote, nor the votes of millions of students across America, will promote any of the changes I really want after November.  Rather, Americans are invited in every election year to vote for the popular faces of their choice, and the winning popular faces will then implement technical “solutions” which will for the most part be beholden to those with money and power.  This reality will stand in November regardless of who we vote for.  

However, there is one present-day political movement which did follow the authors’ prescriptions — Occupy.  The Occupy encampments provided a public sphere for political participation which wasn’t merely a “backstage” — a place where deals can be made in private.  Here is the authors’ discussion of Occupy:

The movement highlighted our distribution of wealth in a way that liberal economists had been trying and failing to do for decades. And many students still seem passionately interested in what’s happened with it. But because Occupy has been so adamantly non-electoral in its approach, and often ambivalent about coalitions with allies like unions, its impact on political policies and choices has so far been muted.

We can contrast Occupy, however, with the various Veal Pen movements, which have only been able to affect politics to the extent that the political classes will endorse their legislation, and which have been ineffective when co-opted.

In the Avoiding Politics book I mentioned above, one of the groups Eliasoph studies evokes a profound difference in the tenor of their gatherings.  “Frontstage” gatherings are non-serious affairs, in which a party atmosphere is promoted.  “Backstage” gatherings are places where more serious issues (including politics) can be discussed.  Unfortunately, as Eliasoph points out, the “backstaging” of the serious can be detrimental to engagement in serious politics.  Indeed, in our political system, the “backstaging” of the serious has allowed political power to be concentrated in private hands.

Toward the end of this piece the authors offer a ringing appeal to professors, or at least those who tend classrooms full of students:

Our challenge is to make our classrooms and campuses venues for thoughtful debate, reflection, and discussion, bending over backwards to ensure students of all political perspectives feel welcomed.

Toward that end, I would hope that the conclusions of this diary, as written by me, be picked up and discussed in a classroom setting.  Political hope depends not merely upon our wish that college students be engaged, but rather upon the frontstaging of the concerns of ordinary citizens with real human needs.   This is the true importance of taking it to the streets.  What we get now is the electoral show and spectacle which currently grants Americans with only the waning illusion that they have some say in the political system.  No wonder college students are apathetic.


  1. Do you guys know Paul Loeb now?

    • banger on October 10, 2012 at 15:45

    Wow–you come here with throbbing ideas that should stimulate some discussion here. Great post!

    The issue all of us face, particularly the young, is that we lack a solid intellectual/mythological framework (both are required) within which we can comprehend the situation we face. What we have instead are a confused assortment of memes which occasionally lump together in some ad hoc way based on particular situations and then dissolve into various other clumps or just dissolve as we attach to the meme de jour and forget every thing else. This is not just a problem of the left but a problem of culture–the right exploits this tendency by encouraging the collective devolution of the intellect but the left should know better.

    The fact of the matter is that first we hav ego evaluate our situation soberly. We no longer live in a Constitutional republic with strong democratic institutions and that change has occurred with the full cooperation of the majority of the voters of both parties thus, except for local races where democracy still lingers, voting is irrelevant for those that are on the left at this time. Also, I don’t see how hitting the streets does much of anything because despite all the hoo-ha about Occupy it has only had a very marginal effect because the movement was utterly inept not only at organizing but had no clue on how to get public support opting for th loosing tactic that the American left has hung itself on for decades, i.e., thinking that sermons and moral exhortations equals political action. In a bygone age when we lived in a Constitutional republic and the population still had some minimal sense of morality and belief in the commons such a tactic was rational. But today it is absurd and pathetic.

    Our moment calls for raw political power. We can see how devoted and disciplined minorities who use hard-nosed tactics can have a huge influence like pro-Likud activists who have come to dominate ME policy and anti-Castro Cubans who have been able to dominate Cuba policy and, to a lesser extent, Latin-American policy. There are many more examples but the point is that the time to be on your knees begging the oligarchs for mercy is over because the American people, as a whole, have morally degenerated to the extent that all they seem to want is to live in the Matrix and they will do anything including giving the right to the executive to kill and imprison people without trial.

    I’ve written before about the steps I think are rational for the Amserican left to take but there is no interest in taking them because it would require stepping out of the Matrix and forming our own communities and  that’s just not going to happen in a hyper-individualistic culture. In the end, I see nothing coming from the left other than sermons and keeping American intellectual life alive. Social change will come from the right perhaps from people like Alex Jones or some variant thereof combined with ecological and economic problems looming on the horizon.

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