Social capital and citizenship

Phil Agre, publisher of the Red Rock Eater newsletter, UCLA professor, and long-time writer about democracy in the internet age, has written an essay on social skills and citizenship.
This article is a frustrating blend of insight and blindness.
In it, Agre argues against the overly theoretical tradition of political theory, which describes democratic practices based on ideas of civic virtue, but doesn’t mention the practical skills required to organize politically.
The essay has a good critique of the myth of deliberative democracy, in which citizens debate issues publically in the town council, vote, and decide the issue. Public deliberation is a part of democracy, but public debate is a late stage in a long process in which ideas are defined and socialized, and the terms of debate are negotiated behind the scenes.
Because deliberation is a limited part of the democratic process, Agre says that the main role of the internet in a democracy is not just to deliberate, but to help with the process of issue advocacy, in which “issue entrepreneurs” spend time “identifying and researching emerging issues, distributing analyses of current events to an audience, organizing events, and networking with other entrepreneurs in the issue lattice.”
The article is setting up a false dichotomy here. At some point, advocacy needs to begin with deliberation. The people who develop and distribute propaganda start, at some point, by thinking, discussing, and deciding what that propaganda will be. The deliberation is richer with more people participating.
Overall, the article duplicates the flaw that Agre perceives in other works of political theory. Nowhere does the article mention an election campaign, or the process of passing a bill into law — atomic elements of the political process.
Also, the article expresses a naive preference for individual political entrepreneurs, who organize around issues. The article doesn’t mention fundraising, corporations, or interest groups — the main plot and characters in the U.S. political process. (Consider the recent FCC ruling that reduced limits on media concentration; the commissioners of the FCC, who are routinely wined, dined, and entertained by the media industry, blithely ignored over 700,000 voter comments).
Agre is shocked that the discipline of political science is separated from the practice of politics, yet he commits the same sin himself. The article’s bibliography cites a few historians and dozens of social scientists, but not one politician or political activist.
If the academic paper genre requires writers to cite only other academics, no wonder the ideas of political theory diverge so far from the real world.
via Cosma Shalizi. And thanks to trackback since I’d forgotten the source of the link.

3 thoughts on “Social capital and citizenship”

  1. The Practical Republic

    Phil Agre has a really good new essay up, The Practical Republic: Social Skills and the Progress of Citizenship, about the practical skills needed to sustain and participate in a democratic republic (small d, small r). It’s technically a draft,…

  2. I wonder if “literacy” is a social skill?
    I find myself going back to good old Neil Postman when these “what do we need in order to revive meaningful democratic activity?” questions come up.
    What I remember his saying is that Democracy can only exist and thrive in the context of a literate community. As a late-seventeenth, early nineteenth century invention, or maybe I should say implementation to get around the objections about democratic events of earlier ages, demoncracy depends on individual participants’ being able to read, judge and respond then act in the face of issues and questions confronting a democracy.
    I think it’s all well and good to talk about the institutional short-comings and practical process problems of our current mess, but it is all more fundamentally flawed and incidiously so, given the lamentable state of general literacy, language and critical skills, particularly in the face of tsunami waves of “information” and manipulative dreck.

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