ethical spectacle vs. consensus politics

...from the cover of Dreams: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy

After having read a compelling interview of Stephen Duncombe on Henry Jenkins’s blog, I decided to order Duncombe’s book Dreams: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (for more info see his website). I’ve just started reading the book, but so far I’m finding it a fascinating compliment to the arguments of Lakoff and Westen about the failure of progressive politics to successfully market itself. At the heart of Duncombe’s claims is the argument that progressives need to “transform the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change.”

As I’m reading, I’m finding myself working through a number of reactions.

First, I’m interested in possible intersections with this piece by Jeremy Young (from last June). Young connects Obama to Philosopher John Rawls in order to criticize the politics of blind consensus formation. Integrating Young and Duncombe’s arguments together, you might say that the drawback of consensus building is that it treats your opponents’ positions and interests as static — in other words, you miss out on the possibilities of transformative (rather than deliberative) politics. And you also open yourself up to sideways attacks of the Overton window variety. This happens when an opponent trades in honest deliberation for extremist theatrics in order to indirectly guide popular discourse towards their own position (i.e. as the new fulcrum of “moderation”). We’ve seen this time and time again with all sorts of issues, from Health Care Reform to the environment.

Where I feel that Duncombe is losing me, though, are the places where he seems to want to do away with deliberative rituals entirely. This seems to underestimate the possibility that deliberation itself can become more of a participatory spectacle — especially in ways that benefit a progressive politics.

I’ll get into this more in an upcoming post that contrasts Duncombe’s ethical spectacle with Maury Povich’s Who’s Your Daddy? series. Don’t worry… it will all make sense in the end.