How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Jenkins, Ben

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York, 1998, pp.330 ISBN 0 521 58759 X (pb) 16.95 ISBN 0 521 58293 (hbk) 50.00

The ambivalent attitudes of radical intellectuals towards `the public’ are well documented. They are often angst-ridden creatures, vacillating between the extremities of Adorno & Horkheimers’ brainwashing Culture Industry and a manic postmodernism which can see picking your teeth in an expensive restaurant as a vital `strategy of resistance’.

Such alternatives produce a perpetual sense of political surprise. We may be puzzled that the totally administered society allows sufficient freedom of thought for workers to go on strike or, equally, we can only wonder why, with so many strategies of resistance, so much tooth picking in elegant restaurants, the world isn’t rather better than it is.

Political theorists of all persuasions have often projected their fantasies onto that inchoate, shifting, thoughtlessly contradictory phenomenon known as `other people: Call it ‘a class,’a mob, `the nation; `the public’; ascribe it various characteristics; be hopelessly surprised, disappointed and certainly unprepared when it confounds your expectations. That often seems to be a recipe for the cruder manifestations of political thought. The left, in particular, has been guilty of advocating radical social change on behalf of people about whom it knows little.

Avoiding Politics is a welcome, if flawed, attempt to discover what `ordinary people’-the heroes of the left-actually think and do. Eliasoph starts by describing an activist protesting against a toxic incinerator. Publicly this campaigner worries about declining property values. In private she talks about pollution and corporate power. Eliasoph notes the contradiction between the narrow self-interest expressed publicly and the richer, more politically aware, private views. The public has become private and the private public. Eliasoph proceeds to explore this divergence between public and private through a close examination of three American small-town groups: parents in a school volunteer group, members of a Country and Western club, and grassroots environmental protestors.

Using the participants’ own words Eliasoph demonstrates how something conservative contains within it the seeds of a more radical and open politics. Political radicals often condemn the seemingly narrow and naive pragmatism of volunteers or the redneck reactionaries of the Country and Western scene. Whilst not denying such criticisms Eliasoph compels us to pay closer attention to the submerged utopianism of their discourses and the private complexities behind the public simplicity.

Avoiding Politics is not, however, a lofty work of academic anthropology but a political and theoretical intervention. Eliasoph insists that what is needed to realize the private desires of her interviewees is a public sphere constructed through open-ended conversation. It would not be overstating the case to say that Eliasoph discovers a communicative ontology: again and again her interviewees privately wish for serious public conversation, individually they yearn for community. Her discussion of activists protesting against a toxic incinerator shows how a private commitment to open-ended exchange gradually emerges into the public domain of their meetings as an alternative to the technocratic positivism of large corporations.

This is Eliasoph’s strategy. To remedy the absence of a democratic public sphere in American life she advocates looking at what happens ‘between’ people, a nonutilitarian process of creative and exploratory talking as the basis for community. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand this is an enormously generous, inclusive and warm-hearted book, but, on the other, it carries these qualities to the point of vagueness and idealism.

Eliasoph’s excavation of the radical yearnings and complexity behind seemingly conservative, banal sentiments is to be admired. Paradoxically, although Marx is never mentioned, this places Avoiding Politics in the tradition of Marxist heresy. The phrase `everyday life’ in the book’s subtitle conjures up the names of Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists. These dissident Marxists always took seriously the dictum that capitalism produces its own gravedigger. They too looked at the seething potentialities lurking within what others dismissed as one-dimensionally commodified. Avoiding Politics empirically complements such theories. Eliasoph, like the Situationists, finds the beach beneath the cobblestones and seeks the revolution of everyday life. But if she has produced a work of more impressive empirical depth than Lefebvre or the Situationists ever did then, unfortunately, she lacks their broader theoretical and historical acumen.

Such thinkers saw the commodification of everyday life and the resistance to it as a definite political and historical paradigm. Concepts such as `the Society of the Spectacle’ (Debord) or `the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption’ (Lefebvre)-whatever their merits– situated a whole conjunction of political, historical and philosophical processes in a way that Eliasoph does not. Considering that it deals with such emphatically temporal processes as politics and oppression this is an oddly ahistorical book. I was uncertain why it was more relevant to the 1990s than the 1890s. There is also no real discussion-despite the book’s subtitle-of how, what with and why the production of apathy takes place right here, right now. If Eliasoph’s book abounds in compelling characters then she has left them in search of a plot.

More seriously Eliasoph’s generosity comes perilously close to simply saying that, if we all talked more and creatively explored our own and each other’s lives, then the world would be a better place. Of this I have no doubt and, in dark times, perhaps such imaginings should be valued but it is a vision that severely underestimates the power of the state and capitalist social relations. To create a meaningful public sphere would entail harder, more brutal struggles than Eliasoph admits. If free and open-ended exchange conflicts with the rather more utilitarian world of wage-labour and commodity exchange then any emergent public sphere may have to be defended with rather more than good arguments.

Such reservations, however, should not vitiate Eliasoph’s achievement. She has impressively and intelligently marshalled a vast array of data that gives evidence for, rather than assertions of, hope. These subterranean dreams provide a welcome reminder that the old mole is still burrowing.

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Summer 2001

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