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The Radical Center as a Utopian Project?

7 notes on the ideal of a free, intelligent and consequential public life

How in the world can a centrist be radical?

1. From a critical point of view, “the center” is the ground of the wishy washy: too attached to the ways things are to commit to the radical change of the left, not sufficiently informed by the wisdom of customs and traditional values to fully embrace the good of the inherited social order, e.g, to work “to make America, Russia, Poland, Latvia, Brazil, etc. great again.”

Viewed more positively, quite simply, centrists are moderates, not radicals.

Yet, I think of my centrist position in a different way, as I explained in my previous post on the subject, The Radical Center and the Politics of the Gray. The political center, in my view, is the ground upon which a democratic culture and politics can be built, a space for a free and open public life. I have in mind a commitment to the politics of the public domain as imagined by Hannah Arendt, as well as politics of the public sphere, as depicted by Jurgen Habermas. I first started thinking about such things when I was a young radical reading about the Wobblies free speech fights in the first years of the twentieth century. A concern for a free public life became the focus of my scholarly life as I initiated my research on theater in Poland.

2. Ever since, my primary political and cultural commitment has been to a vision of a free public life set apart from and critical of the powers that be. It looks something like this: people meet each other and sit around a table (real and metaphoric). They seek to understand each other and the world beyond their immediate circumstances. They present themselves to each other in their differences, but they treat each other as equals, with mutual respect. They debate competing political positions, reason together, marshaling evidence and rational argument, as well as attempting to persuade through embodied performance, revealing affective and aesthetic commitments and attachments. They perform for each other, talk and listen, show and tell, and pose and answer questions that inform their own actions. They reach out to those with and without official power, to inform their actions and move the institutionalized order of things through a variety of different political means, from conventional electoral politics, to social movements, both reformist and revolutionary. Talk matters, according to this vision. It’s not cheap. This vision has informed just about everything I have ever published, as it has been the guiding principle for the founding and development of Public Seminar.

And we can point to public life that more or less confirms the reality of this vision. As I analyzed in The Politics of Small Thingseven in fundamentally repressive societies, zones for such a critical public life were created around kitchen tables, in underground literary salons, and even in officially supported theaters. This public life was consequential. In more open societies, we find such public life, in and through new media and old, grounded in museums and libraries, in churches and schools, and, of course, on my native grounds, universities, as well as in more informal locations. These public spaces can become centers for people with different views to meet and engage with each other.

3, Yet, I fear, more often than not, that this doesn’t happen. The center does not hold. There is a semblance of free and fair meeting and deliberation, but it somehow doesn’t work out. Free public life is distorted by the powerful, so much so that it becomes its opposite. Privileges of race, class, gender and sexuality become decisive and prevail. The powers of the state and of money dominate. This was a theme of Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, a theme that has been extended by many of his critics. With entrance to public life restricted, those who are included dominate those who are excluded. In a highly mediated public life, those who control the media, dominate the rest of us.

Yet, I’ve always thought that these problems could be addressed, that they are challenges that can and have been met, with more or less success, that they are the stuff of a vibrant and consequential politics. Along with a male dominated public life, woman have developed feminist alternatives and fight, as alternative publics have been formed by those who have been marginalized because of class, race, sexuality, region, ethnicity and much else. Thus, there are multiple publics as my colleague Nancy Fraser has emphasized, and there is a sphere of publics, engaged in politics. My radical commitment to the center is a commitment that those in these publics should meet in their diversity, with mutual respect, and work to act together.

I have never imagined this as easily achievable, or that it could be achieved to my and anyone else’s full satisfaction. But it is a political project to which I have been committed, an imagined goal that would be realized in one small way and another, in small ways that would add up.

4. That said, in light of recent events on the national political stage, but also closer to home, I am becoming aware of the degree to which my commitment is much more elusive than I had previously understood. I am thinking of the interactive dimension of public life.

When two people talk to each other, it is possible that they indeed can meet as equals, in their differences, come to understand each other and act together, even if they still have disagreements. But add a third person, let alone a fourth or a fifth, or an audience in the tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions, and the quest to come to an understanding, very easily becomes the quest for distinction and domination, to show oneself as the first among equals, the smartest in the room. I think of this as the Simmelian challenge to a free public life, given Georg Simmel’s focus on the forms of interaction as the primary object of sociological investigation.

5. I am struck by how this Simmelian dimension is a perpetual threat to the radical centrist ideal of a free public life. We Americans are suffering from this problem in the extreme. The narcissist in chief, Donald Trump, seems to be much more interested in receiving the acclaim of his supporters in his rallies, than he is in gaining the support of a majority of the American public. From my point of view: he is an anti-centrist in the way that he proceeds. And his meetings with his cabinet and his advisors, seem to follow the same script, not so much meetings to explore wise public policy, but occasions to sing the praises to the great leader. A frightening pattern was revealed in his first cabinet meeting.

But even in less grand and consequential settings the problem reveals itself. I have long been struck how academic meetings seem to be more a matter of colleagues asserting their standing, less about colleagues coming together to explore intellectual problems. Thus, inevitably, as so much of us know, what is discussed in the corridors outside the formal events of meetings, in discussions over coffee, meals and drinks are more intellectually stimulating and significant than what happens in formal programs.

6. Sometimes, though, this is not the case. Sometimes there is a session at a conference that stands out as having been different, where opposing intellectual positions are expressed, and “the opponents” listen to each other, and change their minds. Listening is the key, and it is predicated upon respect.

On this beautiful autumnal Friday in New York, I am having very dark thoughts concerning respect, and its importance to a free public life. It’s clear to me that on the main stages of public life in the United States, but also far beyond our borders, that the respect that is required to see our opponents as opponents to be engaged, rather than enemies to be vanquished, is disappearing. I want to be clear. I don’t think both sides are to be blamed. Although I am not as harsh in my judgment of David Brooks as my friend and colleague, Jeffrey C. Isaac is, I agree with the major theme of his critique: the source of the problem should and must be identified.

Brooks is a moderate centrist, a both sides are to blame centrist. I am a radical centrist who seeks a center for people with different positions to meet and confront each other, but I also recognize the specific economic, political, cultural social practices that block that from happening: something that Brooks grossly overlooks.

7. In my corner of the  academic world, this presents a profound problem. In order for the free public of the university to function, respect for other academics, for staff, students and colleagues is absolutely required. Without this respect, the radical centrist ideals of the academic community, of teaching and learning, of research and of academic freedom are impossible.

Perhaps the ideals of the modern university and modern democracy are more utopian than I have thought up to now.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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