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Politics of Small Things

This piece is part of the OOPS Series, “Social Interaction.”

Jeffrey Goldfarb’s “The Politics of Small Things” is a both an insightful work of social analysis and — through this analysis itself — an enactment of this-worldly hope in, as he might phrase it, these dark times. Instead of focusing on Grand Narratives of sociological theory, Goldfarb instead turns to the way power is constituted in micro-interactions, social actions that prepare the warp around which such master narratives are woven. These (potentially) hopeful analyses are performed using a synthesis between the theoretical frameworks of Goffman and Arendt, a synthesis that allows Goldfarb to perform readings of historical and contemporary events in order to highlight the power that often lies hidden within the micro-interactions that have made them possible. It is his earlier, more theoretical and historical, chapters that will be the focus of this short essay.

To theory, then, first. What is this eponymous politics of small things? For Goldfarb, it is the power generated by social interactions. It is the power to struggle together to collectively define a situation such that actors within the situation can act freely and collectively for the constitution of a public and the enactment of political life. This definition is proposed, as noted, through a synthesis of Goffman and Arendt. From the latter Goldfarb takes the idea that power is a collective reality, something that emerges when free persons come together in public to pursue agreed upon ends together. And from the former Goldfarb takes the important idea that this collaboration is a process, that it is not a once-and-for-all action that institutes a permanent power, but that the power of the people is “a question of appearances, of working to maintain realities,” and that “social agents [must] constitute the relationship” between truth and politics, knowledge and power, “in concrete situations” (2006: 18, 20). The politics of small things, then, is an ephemeral, insecure thing — but that does not make it at all unreal. Instead, it means that the politics of small things is the power of small groups of people to collaboratively build new spaces of public freedom.

The definition of this concept having been established, Goldfarb then goes about exploring how the politics of small things have shown up in key moments throughout the last half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He does so by, for example, comparing three instances in the revolutions in Eastern Europe in which social interactions prepared — or failed to prepare — the political soil such that democratic publics could grow when totalitarian regimes were overthrown. An especially successful example of this comes in his third chapter, in which Goldfarb contrasts widely divergent cases of regime change in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. There he is seeking an explanation, using the politics of small things, for the very different circumstances that unfolded during these three cases of regime change. What he finds is that, in Romania, there was a clear capacity of the people to say “no” to the then-current communist regime but there was no ability to constitute a positive vision of freedom beyond this negation — a negation that took the form of the public killing of Ceausescu and his wife. In Czechoslovakia and, especially, in Poland, however, we see something quite different. In both of these cases we see that there are “new definition[s] of the situation” that “went beyond the act of simple negation of totalitarianism” (2006: 41). It is Goldfarb’s contention that it this pre-existing practice of enacting forms of positive liberty outside of the official truth-regime that allowed these two countries to avoid the temptation to slip into a fully negate-ive response and instead to enact a new public space for freedom and democracy — a democracy that had been practiced around the kitchen table long beforehand. It is this difference, the difference visible when looking at these cases through the politics of small things, that allows Goldfarb to highlight what he terms the “micro-origins of post-totalitarianism” (2006: 47).

Having set out the main path of Goldfarb’s argument, I would like to highlight just one possible sidetrack that, in my opinion, deserves to be noted. This is the, for me, utterly surprising way that Goldfarb suggests a resolution to what has long been considered an all-but-irresolvable problem: the problem of how to conceptualize a non-totalitarian version of positive freedom. A few words framing the problem will be helpful before presenting Goldfarb’s resolution. Positive freedom, as is well-known, was entered into the intellectual lexicon by Isaiah Berlin, for whom it formed one pole of a dialectic conception. For Berlin, negative liberty (or freedom, he uses the words interchangeably) is about non-interference. It is, in other words, the kind of freedom enacted in all three of the eastern European cases in their resistance to having their freedoms curtailed by totalitarian regimes. Positive liberty, for Berlin, answers the question “What, or who, …can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (“Two Conceptions of Liberty”, p2). In other words, positive liberty provides an answer to the question of legitimation and it provides a vision of what is good for those involved in it. Positive liberty tells a community what kind of community it ought to be; it provides ends, a telos. The problem with the provision of a telos is that there is a (very reasonable) fear that all provisions of a final end will result in totalitarian domination by the persons or institutions or powers that determine what that end is or how it is to be pursued. And yet people need positive liberty, human beings need direction. In the (post-)modern world this dilemma has seemed perpetual and irresolvable: it is one of our deepest problems.

Goldfarb’s resolution to our post-medieval dilemma is one that manages to provide a vision of the good while at the same time curbing the threat of slippage into totality. He does this through his synthesis of Arendt and Goffman. It is Arendt who provides the template in her absolute resistance to all political theorists who, like Plato, would specify beforehand what the optimal political project is and provide templates to achieve it. Goldfarb takes this refusal to specify beforehand and to it he adds the Goffmanian power to define the situation collectively. It is this insistence on collective, processual, action that allows him to tie together so tightly the negative and positive versions of freedom that have been so long at war. Further, he is able to do this not just in theory, but to show it in practice. It is this showing-in-practice that gives the proof to the abstract possibility of relinking negative and positive liberty, and it is well exhibited in the copious and detailed descriptions Goldfarb gives of the Polish case — a case in which the enactment, around kitchen tables, of positive liberty taught people the practices and attitudes, incorporated within them the habitae, that allowed them to do more than refuse the totalitarian system, it allowed them to enact a vision of positive liberty.

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Patrick Gilger, S.J.

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