[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Yesterday evening, at the reception to mark the opening of this year’s Association for Political Theory conference, a moment of silence was asked for to honor the legacy and the passing of Sheldon S. Wolin, a tremendously incisive and important political theorist and historian of political philosophy who passed away just a couple of days ago. Wolin has been mostly–though far from entirely!–silent over the past few decades, but no doubt many tributes will nonetheless pore in as the days go by. As is my want when someone whom I’ve intellectually wrestled with passes away, here is mine.
As an undergraduate developing an interest in political theory and the history of ideas in the early 1990s, I was aware of Wolin’s name before I had any sense of his significance. This was thanks to Bill Moyers’s wonderful series of interviews, A World of Ideas, broadcasts that I missed on television but later read in book form, books which I’ve praised before. I can’t say that Moyers’s interview with Wolin captured by attention, but it made me think–particularly passages like this:
BILL MOYERS: You seem to be calling for a much more inclusive participation at the local level by citizens in all forms of political decision making at the very time–to take your own diagnosis–that the impetus of society is toward larger, more hierarchical, more distant, more remote, more powerful organizations. Aren’t those two fundamentally at odds with each other?
SHELDON WOLIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. The movement has been away from a federal decentralized system to an increasingly, almost hopelessly overcentralized system, so that the whole emphasis has fallen in the one direction.
BILL MOYERS: You sound like Ronald Reagan.
SHELDON WOLIN: I know. I’ve been accused of that several times. but I think that–I think, again, that the difference is that I don’t think Reaganism stands for the real revitalization of power at any other level. I think. Reaganism is a combination of a very strong push towards high technology, and it’s been very powerful in that direction. And it’s been a very strong push towards a strong state, as I’ve mentioned; aggressive foreign policy, strong defense, strong national–strong defense budget, and the rest of it. But it’s also been nostalgia. It’s been nostalgia in terms of 19th-century or even 18th-century values about home, church, family and that son of thing. [It is] that peculiar combination of sort of progressivism, technologically and in terms of the political state, and a regressive view towards ethics, morality, piety, family and the rest of it. And I think it’s that American proclivity towards wanting to really find yourself sanctified by some set of values that you know very well cannot come from what you’re actually into. In other words, defense, high tech, strong corporate system can’t generate the kind of values that really make us comfortable, that really suggests the power that we have is good, and we deserve it.
Long before I was studying communitarianism, localism, or any other way of living and thinking which challenged America’s liberal capitalist addiction to corporate forms and technological fixes, Wolin’s analysis of the political space and democracy was, I later realized, setting me up to recognize as political, and not only philosophical, issues that writings of Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, and Charles Taylor which I encountered in graduate would make clear to me: that late capitalism–and really, the whole sweep of modernism–has created conditions wherein technical knowledge and individual mastery are mostly accepted as the essential fundamentals of social life, to the detriment of democracy, community, and the common good. To properly contest over the direction of our polities, then, requires us to understand the deep historical roots and sometimes opaque ideological backgrounds which have situated it. Rethinking what was exactly happening when modern states were founded becomes, therefore, essential.
This is why my favorite work of Wolin’s, which I discovered during my first year in graduate school, wasn’t his long, canonical study of the history of the modern contestation over the political realm–Politics and Vision–but a small collection of essays of his, mostly written about American history, mostly written in the 1980s, titled The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution. One of the essays included in that volume, “‘Tending’ and ‘Intending’ the Constitution,” gave me a persuasive language for understanding the argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, an argument which, I realized, put front and center the broad politically framing issues of science, economy, and locality. I, at least, see Wolin’s distinctions–between the desire to see politics as progressive, enabling, demanding project, and the desire to see it as something conservative, protective, and fundamentally respectful of the ordinary–as haunting discussions about sovereignty and anarchy. To this day. His language gave structure to what became my very first published article, and more importantly contributed to turning me not into a cynic about politics, but someone very interested in enabling people (and myself) to see, in ourselves and others, the respectful and often insightful political contestation which is inherent to the most everyday and local sort of interactions and exchanges. And, of course, to the degree that meritocratic patterns move our attention away from the everyday and the local, then the deep populist point of democratic self-government gets lost.
The first graduate conference I ever attended was organized by a couple of young scholars at Johns Hopkins University, and it was designed to be an tribute to and an exploration of Sheldon Wolin’s ideas. That was my one chance to meet Wolin, but unfortunately at the last minute he had to cancel; even close to 20 years ago, his health was delicate enough that he couldn’t manage the long flight from California. It would have loved to have met him, because I wanted to ask him about a fascinating essay of his which he wrote for the very first issue of the cutting-edge journal, Theory & Event, titled “What Time is It?” That essay, along with another one which emerged from the conference (I had a paper which came out of that conference as well), brought up what I consider to be some of the most radical, while at the same time most grounded and intimate, criticism of upper-class and upper-middle-class educated life in contemporary liberalism. Wolin wanted us to see how “the temporalities of economy and popular culture,” as outgrowths of late capitalist development, leads the great majority of us to automatically prize innovations. The hurried quest to discover (or, often, profitably manufacture) new problems to solve result in an “instability of political time” wherein the sort of temporality necessary to finding “a common narrative, [which was] formerly a stable element in conceptions of the political,” is replaced by the process of fashion: invention, enlargement–and thus, of course, rapid obsolescence and replacement. All of which distracts us from investing in everyday localities and processes which had traditionally grounded the practice of actual democracy, and instead makes us every more aligned (even as we insist that we are actually free-thinking individuals) with those paradigms that promise us–for now, until next week or next month or next year, when new ones will arrive like clockwork–the tools and toys of late capitalist enjoyment.
The fact that those paradigms ultimately serve oligarchic powers is something which some of us notice, but who is willing to fight against it? Well, Wolin himself never advocated overthrowing liberal principles–but he did point out that the often illiberal worldview of “democratic localists, socialists, radical feminists, Christian fundamentalists, Black Muslims, or Jewish Hasidim,” and how their beliefs and practices, their communities and rituals, challenged the way modern liberalism “creates cultural pressures to restrain the individualism that forms so fundamental a part” of liberal accounts in the first place. In other words, the Wolin that I read decades ago seemed to be suggesting that we are in the midst of what is fundamentally a temporal dilemma. To respond to it, we do not need yet another new thing, but something old: not a new emphasis on liberal freedom, for such freedoms have already been appropriated into a commercial myth (a point which Wolin made at length in his last published book) but rather something collective and ritualistic and unexpected: something, perhaps, like religious or similarly illiberal ideological beliefs. For someone who was on his way to becoming a Christian democrat/local populist/anarcho-socialist, those ideas burrowed deep in my head, and over the past decades have provided fertilizer for many, many ideas that have since come to fruition.
If you found anything at all interesting in the previous three paragraphs–whether you understood it or agree with it or not–then you at least have a taste of what the erudition, close reading, serious argument, and open-mindedness of Wolin’s political writings brought to me, and hundreds of thousands of other political theorists who read him, or were taught by scholars whom he’d trained, or who actually interacted with the man himself. He was, very simply, one of the greatest and least categorizable political thinkers of the 20th century. He was, like many of the best and most serious advocates of democracy, far too respectful of community and tradition to stand with a money-and-guns addled Republican party, and far too committed to real, collective freedom and self-government to align himself too closely with a Democratic party whose answer to the corporate take-over of liberal promises is, “well, let’s just have more of it.” Wolin helped us see that politics wasn’t just who gets what and how and when, but how we define those whos, whats, hows, and whens in the first place. His fears and concerns for the future of political life remain–but thankfully, his work diagnosing and responding to it remains as well. RIP.