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17.1.04

Colonization Of The Dean-world

In the concluding section of his Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas briefly takes up the question of the new social movements that have arisen in the late 20th and early 21st century, movements with a stronger cultural basis than the classic economic (labor) or political (suffrage) movements. He describes them as a reaction to the colonization of the lifeworld by the system (which I've written about before), a reaction by the lifeworld against its own impoverishment by the encroachment and exploitation of the system. Habermas touches only briefly on this issue, but I'd like to try to work out its ramifications by comparing two important American instances of lifestyle politics -- evangelical Christianity and the rise of Howard Dean.

The evangelical movement strikes me as more typical of lifeworld politics, of the left or right. It began as a strictly lifeworld phenomenon, ministering to the needs of its members along the three lifeworld dimensions of cultural meaning (derived from fundamentalist Christian cosmology and eschatology), social integration (both in the immediate sense of the Durkheimian effervescence of religious practice as a congregation, and in the larger sense of being part of the "church universal" of all Christians), and personal identity (defining who one is and what one's existential life-project is in terms of salvation and following Jesus). Indeed, the evangelical movement was originally apolitical, preferring to more or less leave the system to run itself -- a viewpoint that could be justified through the "otherworldly" aspect of Christian theology, in which Jesus rejects the economic subsystem ("render unto Caesar ...") and St. Paul rejects the political subsystem (). This intra-lifeworld mission remains strong in evangelical Christianity, a fact easily overlooked by liberals who see the "fundies" only when they vote and write laws.

But the system is not content to live within its means, according to Habermas. It steadily attempts to colonize the lifeworld, absorbing lifeworld situations into itself through the expansion of the domains of monetary exchange and bureaucratic administration. And so, like Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple, evangelical Christianity found that it had to actively defend against colonization by the system. Consider, for example, creationism. It's not sufficient for evangelicals to teach the Genesis story through communicative action in the lifeworld. The duty of educating and socializing children has been appropriated by the political subsystem through the public school system. Some evangelicals flee this colonization by retreating into homeschooling and private religious schools. They may even attempt to cripple the colonization process and bolster alternative institutions through school vouchers. But the main reaction has been to try to twist the internal logic of the political subsystem so that it no longer threatens their lifeworld form, mobilizing politically to make use of the system. Their goal is to neutralize the teaching of evolution by requiring the discussion of "alternatives." The outcome of this teaching model would be to leave the origin of species an open question, a question that can then be answered in the lifeworld by family and church.

In the case of abortion, evangelicals propose to go farther, from the neutral status quo to a situation in which the system actively supports the conclusions of their lifeworld. If victorious, the question of having an abortion would no longer be answered by communicatively achieved agreement within the pregnant woman's lifeworld, but instead dictated by the logic of the political subsystem. In this, they are inviting colonization of the lifeworld -- a somewhat paradoxical outcome for a movement rooted in resistance by the lifeworld to colonization. This is the persistent failure of resistance movements. Too often we find that resistance is based not on a principle of the rejection of power, but simply on a disagreement about how that power is being used.

The Dean campaign illustrates a different side of lifeworld politics. Deaniacs seek to reinvigorate lifeworld through recapturing the system -- subversion rather than resistance or appropriation. Deaniacs, too, felt the pressures of the colonization of the lifeworld. The nature of the system is to run on its own logic, a process which both relieves participants of the burden of communicative reasonin, but also to that extent impoverishes their systematized relations. The archetypal Deaniacs began from a position in which they were disillusioned by the failure of the political and economic subsystems (particularly the former) to respond to their needs. They could have, like the evangelicals, sought fulfilment in the lifeworld. But once made aware of the problem of colonization (though not in those terms, obviously), it wouldn't go away. Howard Dean himself describes the thought process:
I was reading the paper one day and saw something the president did that I felt was really bad for the country and I just said, "Are you going to do something about it or are you going to complain about it?"

Do something about it they did. In one sense, the Dean campaign -- as well as all the other campaigns -- is, like evangelical politics, a strategic use of the political subsystem in order to reshape those elements of the system that the voters find most inimical to their lifeworlds. It's the process of trading a vote for system services that the political subsystem is built on.

But the crucial thing that made the Dean campaign take off and form into a movement is that Deaniacs' involvement went beyond the strategic into the communicative. The campaign itself becomes a stage for action in the lifeworld. Through their involvement, Deaniacs develop cultural meaning, social solidarity (hence the importance of MeetUp), and personal identity. It's this lifeworld dimension that makes the campaign so captivating, and which is why Dean's success can't be explained simply by the strategic goals (i.e. policy promises -- Dean's are fairly mainstream within the Democratic Party) his candidacy aims at.

The blog medium is significant to the amplification of the normal mini-movement that surrounds any successful candidate. The central feature of a modern lifeworld is the process of rational communication. Because of their interactivity, blogs allow the extension of communicative action over larger distances and to greater numbers of people. They also create (at worst the illusion and at best the reality of) a de-systematizing of the campaign. Real-time feedback from voters becomes prominent, weakening the role of systemic logic (the calculus of winning over voters with appeals and promises) in favor of the role of communicative action oriented toward achieving rational agreement about what's best for the country and for the campaign. While the Deaniacs' hopes for a more thorough lifeworld politics can often run ahead of Dean's responsiveness (he was, after all, a classically-trained politician until a year and a half or so ago), the campaign organization makes those hopes plausible.

I wouldn't say the Dean movement is necessarily more effective as a form of response to the colonization of the lifeworld. I've briefly mentioned a few concerns about the fate of the movement before, chief among which is the way it's currently tied to the political figurehead of Howard Dean, a man who may be unemployed before the year is out. It's hard to judge clearly because this manifestation is so new, and I have much less familiarity with any comparable campaigns in the past.

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