Saturday, November 24, 2007

French Political Culture and Strikes

Let me begin this post with a disclosure: I know very little about politics, domestic or otherwise. Consequently, I know even less about French politics. I've tried to educate myself, but much of the process and games played just boggle my mind (and I have a suspicion that I'm not the only one this is true of). So any and all opinions expressed here are solely based on my intuitive response to the recent events going down in France. I have no substantial foundation to base them on, I have no great understanding of their system, but I DO have the perspective of an outsider looking in. And this is what I see.

As some of you may (or may not) have heard, France is in the midst of a political showdown. The easiest way to describe it is France is fighting change, and France is winning. Some may say it's France v. Sarckozy, but really it's more than that. France has been fighting this battle for a long time, and it's a battle that is totally bizarre from the American perspective. This is what usually happens: some politician proposes some change (for whatever reason), that change may be an all things considered (atc) good thing or not (it doesn't really matter), that change will inevitably affect someone somewhere negatively, those people will go on strike, and the proposed change will be taken back. In the end, nothing changes. No progress is made, for better or worse. The culprit: la greve (the strike). Now don't get me wrong, strikes can be a very effective means for social change, but they can just as easily be obstacles to change. There is a difference between striking occasionally for things that really matter for a large group of people and striking because you happen to get the short stick this time. In the US, I think that there are probably too many groups of people who really do need to stand up for themselves (perhaps by striking, perhaps not) who don't, but in France I think the opposite problem is true. I think too many people who shouldn't strike, who shouldn't complain, do.

Some people think that the French shouldn't strike so much because it decreases their efficacy. If everyone strikes all the time, then no one will listen anymore. Strikes will become so routine that they loose their impact. And that probably is right, for some strikes, but it's not why the French strike-culture itself is bad. That's one downside, sure, but there's more to it than that. The problem is that the French have gotten so accustomed to going on strike in order to protect their interests, that they've lost perspective on collective interests. By collective, I don't mean collective groups of teachers, students, or transport works. They have plenty of that. This is by no means a collective action problem. No, the problem is that each worker is only worried about her own interests (or the interests of her profession as a whole). She doesn't worry about the interests of the nation as a whole (or more accurately, the interest of a wider group of individuals within the nation). I limit this to nation because I don't think they go on strike for foreign policy, so we'll keep this a domestic discussion (though I by no means think that they should only be concerned about the interests of their co-nationals).

Why do I say this? Well think of it this way: in any non-ideal situation (so like, pretty much any imaginable earthly arrangement short of some sort of heaven) the advancement of justice will require tradeoffs. To achieve the most justice society, there has to be some give and take. Some things are important enough that they will trump other things, even if those other things are also worth promotion. So you see, no matter what, the only way to secure the most just society will require sacrifices. Justice in our non-ideal situation can not be a totally win-win-win (cue Micheal Scott) situation. If trade-offs or sacrifices are needed for some greater amount of good, then someone somewhere will be unhappy for some indefinite period of time. The only way to enact whatever policy that is ATC the best bet for the most justice or flourishing (yes, I think that's a legitimate goal for governments to promote, won't defend it here or probably ever, sorry) is for the person who has to temporarily (or maybe permanently) give up some good/right/privilege to be willing to compromise. Yes my friends, compromise. Compromise does not mean you gun for the best deal for your own interests, it means you recognize that everyone has equally important interests and sometimes you have to give things up to make life the best it can be for the most amount of people. And no, I am not a utilitarian, but there are obvious undertones of that view here.

Now I'm not saying that folks currently on strike in France don't have legitimate interests to protect. I'm just saying that in general the power of the strike is used inappropriately. It's better for the parties involved, when they can, to sit down and discuss the problem with more than their own interests in mind. Yes I realize you won't end your strike until your pension is however much money at whatever age, BUT, maybe your pension isn't as important as the downfall of France's entire economy? Yes I'm being dramatic, but I worry for these folks. Every change is met with opposition. Some changes should be met with opposition, but some should not. Some changes are needed, desperately. Example, France's economy really is facing a crisis. Sure it seems to be doing well now, but in our global economy it is not fluid enough to compete. France just isn't able to change at the pace needed to stay in the game, and that's just the economy. Who even knows what will happen in the other sectors (education itself is looking rather grim, of that I can attest). Talk first, strike later, but only IF it's actually critical.

So why are there so many strikes? I have no idea. I can guess that it's strongly linked with France's overall conservatism (small c) regarding anything. They protect their language like a mother bear, so you can imagine how protective they are of keeping things the same, regardless of whether the current situation is worth keeping. Now this may make it seem like all French folks are strike-aholics, but that's not true. In fact, my most illuminating information has come from several French friends or teachers who are very frustrated with the strike-culture. Don't get me wrong, I've met my fair share of strike-lovers, but I've met more people than expected that are getting quite fed up. There are people here who want change, who think things aren't as good as they could be. I'm just not sure if things will ever get better here, not if attitudes don't change first.

This post was obviously inspired by the recent transportation strike (national rail and Paris metro). Now although the strike was a particular pain to me personally, that's not why I feel frustrated with the strikes. I made it to Paris and back this week despite the strikes. I'm not just bitter about the inconvenience they caused me (though it was annoying). To be fair, I've had several strikes that have worked in my favor. When I studied abroad my university went on strike for 3 months (pretty much because the govn't wanted to let companies fire workers who had been there for under 2 years if those workers weren't any good-- it's very hard to fire anyone and so companies just don't hire-- it's messed up), and I didn't have to go to school. Just yesterday MY students went on strike. That's right, my little lyceens have barricaded our school and decided that they just won't learn until Sarco takes back the partial privatization of universities plan. They could keep striking for another 2 weeks, and I won't have to work at all. So common sense would make you think I'd be in favor of the strikes. But in all seriousness I'd gladly return to work if it meant this country would free itself up for progress. So, there you have it.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Democracy for Sinners

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary” (emphasis mine). Reinhold Niebuhr makes this powerful observation as early as the forward to his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Essentially, Neibuhr is a realist regarding human nature, and his views are largely influenced by his Christian beliefs. Niebuhr argues that political idealists, despite their good intentions, always fail in the execution of their ideals because they don’t fully understand the intricacies of human nature. The book doesn’t say much in the way of Neibuhr’s own principles of justice (with one notable exception that I mention later), but instead he focuses on how you move from ideals to reality. He does make it clear that democracy is probably the best bet, but the problem lies in democracy’s traditional justifications. These justifications, according to Neibuhr, not only fail in their justification but also hinder democracy’s ultimate success. Of course this book happened to fit perfectly with the last philosophy class I took, which studied ideal and non-ideal philosophy. And even better, Niebuhr borrows heavily from the Christian world view, to which I am also a believer, so as you may imagine I enjoyed the book immensely. (Let me note before I go on that apparently Niebuhr was a pretty important theologian and philosopher in the previous decade, and this is the first I’ve ever heard of him. My education, both philosophically and theologically, has failed me.)

So let’s start by setting up the scene as proposed by Niebuhr. On the one hand you have the CLs (children of light), who are all those who “believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law.” That includes pretty much all political idealists (the forerunners of democracy, Marxists, and whoever else). Let me point out that the higher law need not be God’s, and in the case of many of the political idealists described by Niebuhr it isn’t. The only common denominator is that they believe there is something bigger than the self out there, and that something is important enough to trump individual interests every now and again. For all intensive purposes, you can call this a sort of objective moral standard, which includes a standard of justice. Now on the other hand you have the CDs (the children of darkness). These are the pessimists, or moral cynics, who “know no law beyond their will and interest.” I would go so far as to include the relativists in this category. So the CDs don’t buy into the whole objective moral standard. Maybe they believe there is no such thing as morality, or maybe they believe morality is really just the pursuit of selfish ends. The point is these folks don’t think there is a greater ‘justice’ to attain, just a will to either suppress or pursue.

Needless to say, the different views of morality will have a profound impact on each group’s political theories. For the CLs, they rightly strive to subordinate society to the claims of justice. For the CDs, they either don’t want to subordinate self-interest, or think that the only workable society will have to completely subordinate people’s selfishness (think Hobbes). The CLs get it wrong because they underestimate people’s capacity to screw things up and be selfish and unjust. The CDs get it wrong because they either pursue self interest shamelessly, or they don’t remember that the leaders of more authoritarian regimes (intended to suppress this sort of pursuit) also have selfish pursuits. Of the two groups, the CDs have the best understanding of the inner crookedness of human nature. Call it sin, call it selfishness, call it whatever you want. Humans have complicated motivations, and it’s rarely ever black and white. The CLs presume that people are basically good and will, for the most part, care enough about justice to make society work. For the CLs that promote democracy, they justify their ideals on the basis that most people will pursue justice within a democracy, and that’s why the government should be controlled by the people. Neibuhr disagrees. Instead, he thinks the justification for democracy is that the government is always going to be made of people, people who are selfish, and so that government should be held accountable to everyone. Democracy is the best way to go because it leaves (in theory) no person unchecked. Authoritarian regimes have no such check. So for Neibuhr, we don’t vote because deep down we’ll all vote for justice; rather we vote because deep down even the leaders of our government will be selfish and ought to be held accountable for their actions.

Neibuhr sees the human struggle as this: we want to flourish but deep down we have these fighting convictions that are hard to reconcile. We have a need to flourish (or as he says, reach our full potential), which is essentially a pursuit for the self. But, we can only reach our full potential in community with others by contributing to other people’s flourishing. So although we have this selfish pursuit of flourishing, its fulfillment depends upon non-selfish means. That’s one part, and he calls it the will-to-live-truly. The other part is called our will-to-power. We have a will to power that is rooted in our recognition of our own insignificance. In the scheme of things, each person is nothing. To compensate for this insignificance, we try to make ourselves as significant as we can, which is translated into a desire for power. The power can be inner power, or power over others (sounds a bit like choice theory). So anyway, the point is that we have two battling desires, and they can (and do) make it both possible for us to do really good things or really bad things. I’d say most people would agree with this. People have the capacity (and desire) to be good, but we have an equal capacity (and sometimes desire) to be bad. It’s Milton’s “able to stand but free to fall” dilemma. Unfortunately, it’s the capacity to fall that most CLs don’t take into consideration. That’s where Neibuhr’s realism comes in. The CLs should borrow from the wisdom of the CDs, who understand the capacity for man to be evil. BUT, he warns, they should “be careful not to borrow too much.”

The lesson: we need to self-critical all the time, and we need institutions that allow us to put this criticism into practice. Democracy is one such institution. But it’s not as simple as that. We can’t, Neibuhr warns, just set up a rigid system and leave it at that or problems will ensue. Neibuhr’s main focus is how to go from the principles of justice (to which he doesn’t propose his own, as I mentioned earlier) to their implementation. This is a big step, from ideal theory to non-ideal situations. How can it be done? What process do you follow? What’s the formula for turning principles of justice into policy? Niebuhr say’s there aren’t any! But, there are important constraints to think about if you’re dealing with a human nature as Neibuhr describes it.

Okay, so let’s say you set up a society with working laws, that are really only relative to the society itself at a certain time period, and you make those relative laws subject to criticism as time, technology, culture, etc changes. Surely that’s enough? Or, should we be able to also criticize the principles of justice themselves? Surely that’s going too far, to allow the principles of justice to be subject to popular mood and selfish interest? Right? Wrong. To the idea that the principles of justice are subject to change, I was initially taken aback. For if even the highest principles are relative, then what is the higher standard supposed to be?? Well, Niebuhr says that even our principles must be subject to criticisms because the beings that discovered them are themselves fallen creatures tempted by selfishness and whatnot. So really, it’s not that justice changes, it’s that our conception of justice must be flexible because it’s always, at some level, tainted by our own capacity for error and sin. Okay, I guess I agree with that. The standard is immutable, but our conception of that standard must be flexible, because our reason is not pure. This differs decidedly from the liberal idolization of human reason. Neibuhr claims that because “reason is something more than a weapon of self-interest it can be an instrument of justice; but since reason is never dissociated from the vitalities of life, individual and collective, it cannot be a pure instrument of justice.”

He goes on to add that as you go from ideal to the real world, each step closer becomes more and more relative because it is linked closer with a specific time in history. The principles are the least flexible, but they still are flexible to some extent. As you go down the latter, the laws and policies must be more and more flexible, because they are too dependent upon currant circumstances.

Neibuhr follows this thesis with an interesting discussion of religious humility, which is the greatest contribution of religion to society. It’s not common even among religious folks, but some religious folks do have it and the best thing for the rest of society is to emulate it. Deep humility comes from an encounter with something so much greater than yourself that, while you have important beliefs in that being and the society you live in, you can’t help but be acutely aware of your own fallibility in the face of this being. In other words, no matter how strongly you hold your beliefs, if you have religious humility, then you are very aware of just how wrong you can be because you realize your own powerlessness and ignorance. That, Neibuhr claims, is very rare, but it is the best sort of toleration for a pluralistic society. What’s more common is religious indifference, which doesn’t come from one ounce of humility, and is the worse for it. Democracy desperately needs this sort of humility for it to work properly. If everyone was aware of how wrong they could be and probably are then we’d all get along much better. Neibuhr worries that “blind ideological devotion” (of either the secular or religious variety) is the greatest threat to democracy, and to justice as a whole. I totally agree, but I don’t anticipate any great humbling of our prideful race any time soon. It’s too bad. (His thoughts on humility are way more extensive and interesting than I’m letting on here, but I just don’t have space to elaborate).

Before you think Neibuhr is himself a pessimist, let me mention this. Neibuhr is very aware that our capacity to fall is equally matched by our capacity to overcome our fallenness. We possess the power to go either way, often we do a bit of both. So the flexibility of the government is not only there to check our fallen moments, but it is also flexible to allow for our moments of redemption. He's not a pessimist, but he's not an optimist. He's a realist. We can go either way. We ought to go one way, and sometimes we should, and our society should be set up in a way to allow for that to the greatest possible extent. But we shouldn't be foolish and forget that we can just as easily mess it all up.

The one principle of justice that he does propose is our global responsibility. His book was written at the culmination of the second world war, and he was very aware of the looming global crisis at hand. Our community, he argues, is not limited to our nation. But, it’s easier said than done, and he also realizes the very real issues involved in a global community. I just thought it was nice that he didn’t limit his discussion to the nation. Justice is worldwide, and there’s no reason for us to be just within our own nation and unjust elsewhere.

He also said something about libertarians that I found quite interesting. He pretty much puts them into the CD category of pessimism about the human race, but they suffer from the opposite problem of Hobbes and the other authoritarians. Where Hobbes didn’t see that the rulers of his government were just as prone to selfishness as the people they rule over, the libertarians overestimate the guiding hand of the market. The hand, Neibuhr argues, is just not strong enough. And if you limit government because you don’t trust the people running it, then you should be even more worried about the people running the market (business leaders) because they can’t be checked. At least the government, however imperfect, can be held accountable, but those in charge of the market can run amuck without reprimand, and that is much more dangerous for justice than a corrupt government. Let me add that I thought libertarians were essentially too optimistic about our ability to run ourselves. I just figured they thought we were better people outside of the government than within. But I see Neibuhr’s point.

Now, what I would really love to know is what Neibuhr thought (or would think) about Rawls’ principles. They are, for the most part, harnessing self-interest, but Rawls doesn’t give much guidance for their implementation. I wonder. And I wonder what Rawls thought about Neibuhr, if he thought about his ideas at all. (I’m sure there’s a book or paper out there about this already)

So the moral of the story: we suck. We need to be checked and rechecked all the time. The good news? God doesn’t suck and He offered to take away our suckiness while at the same time being happy that we tried to not be sucky. Neibuhr puts it more elegantly:

“The task of achieving a [just world community] must be interpreted from the standpoint of a faith which understands the fragmentation and broken character of all historical achievements and yet has confidence in their meaning because it knows their completion to be in the hands of a Divine Power, whose resources are greater than those of men, and whose suffering love can overcome the corruptions of man’s achievements, without negating the significance of our striving.”

Well said.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Is God a feminist?

I'm new to the Hugo Schwyzer blog, and recently came across this post (amongst a series of feminist posts) that I enjoyed. Hugo is taken to task by Anti-Feminists who attack not only his ideology, but also his self described "passionately feminist marriage." The post caught my attention for two reasons. First, I used to be afraid of feminists (seriously) but now realize that I am one. Second, it speaks to my recent appreciation of combating social norms concerning the family sphere.

As both a woman and a Christian, I'm acutely aware of the tension between old culture roles (as are typically 'Biblically' supported) and the rise of women's equality. I used to be afraid of feminists, actually, because I thought it was really just a group of militant women trying to reverse the roles instead of equalize them (oh the ridiculous prejudices of youth). That was until a teacher told me that feminism really just means you think women should have equal status in the world (in the same way that egalitarians think about different races, cultures, classes, etc should). Ohhh... I guess am I a feminist. I've since discovered that the great part about feminism is its insistence that the world treat women as God does, as an equally loved child of His. I find myself going back to this verse a lot, but it's a great one:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galations 3:28

Feminism doesn't mean that a women can't be a stay at home mom. Rather, it gives women freedom to choose that role instead of being forced into it. They also have the freedom to choose a different role that they're better suited for. I use 'choose' loosely, however, because I think God gives us gifts independent of our desires, and with that a responsibility to make use of them for His glory. The same goes for men, many of whom are terrifically suited to play a larger role in the raising of their children. I hate to use a political philosophy buzz-word, but the best way for many people to 'flourish' is to give them the access to roles that society may not be accustomed to seeing them in. I think many more fathers would flourish from being stay at home dads then currently do, and there are probably many women who would not flourish as much as their husbands would from that role. And obviously, vise versa.

God didn't make us all elbows, if you'll remember (and I am in no way comparing typically female roles to elbows), but rather gifted us all with different talents and desires to make the body more complete:

"Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

Those verses are typically used in the context of church-roles (spiritual gifts), but I think it applies to all of the roles and gifts that God has given us. Typical gender roles are essentially saying that half of the body is ears and half is eyes. Well that makes for a pretty silly looking (and rather inefficient) body. God has made us wonderfully diverse in our gifts and callings, so let's not limit His options by saying God can't gift women outside the home or He can't gift men inside the home. Now this in no way means that a feminist husband is a push-over. Rather he is more acutely aware of the fact that old gender norms try to limit God's creativity and blessings. By saying that women are made for the home, you are essentially telling God that you know better than He does what all women are suited to do.

As usual, though, this message is easier proclaimed than heard amongst religious believers. I've never understood why. If you truly feel God's presence in your life, then you are necessarily humbled before His awesome glory. Anyone who has been humbled by God in their life should find it hard to suppose that they have all the answers. Feminists aren't saying that they know better than God; they're just trying to open up the possibility that God may have more in plan for women than the world has traditionally offered them.

I won't say anything about how this plays out in marriage, partly because Hugo already has a good description of how it works in his but mainly because I'm not married and won't go so far as to presume that I have anything enlightening to add to a discussion about a situation I've never been in. But go read the post, and the ones before/after it. It's an interesting discussion.