Fragments on the Political Moment: Madison, Foucault, and Weber

While teaching Madison and Federalist 10 in the context of an American Political Thought class, I had a minor revelation. I realized that Madison’s formulation of the political, indeed that of building up political institutions to frame and control the political, vitiated political moments. He drew up a scheme that imagined political moments that were simultaneously in the hands of, but should be slowly removed from, constituencies. I’ll address the meaning of this observation, and what I mean by a political moment soon.

But first, the commonplace analysis is that Madison hoped to control the effects of faction, or groups, by extending the geographical territory in which such groups would contend for representation. He did so out of an anxiety. Madison ontologizes groups as such, that is to say naturalizes their being, as inherently contentious and prone to destructive ends. We are social creatures, Madison might say. We are political creatures, Aristotle did say. And this founds the anxious matter for correcting the inherent evils of humans for constitutional framers like Madison (for, as we know, ‘men are no angels’). If these social and political animals were to conspire to, say, corrupt government—what’s to stop them? A directly democratic linkage between constituents and the means of legislation would destroy the ability of a government to function because too many claims would have to be addressed and redressed. Madison lists among them the ‘wicked and improper’ factional interests that would constitute this ‘too many’ a list: a desire for paper money or the equal distribution of property. Shays’ Rebellion, a motley crew of farmers and debtors and revolutionary war soldiers who stormed a federal arsenal, had been quelled just the year before Madison attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787—and two years before he drafted this newspaper article we read as constitutive American political thought. Tensions were high.

So, what do I mean by a political moment that simultaneously exists in the hands of people and being extracted from them into the institutions of government? I mean that factions are political entities, and thus they create for themselves political moments. I define a political moment as any event in which a group of people assemble and, for a common or not so common purpose, create the conditions for either a response from authorities on the basis of conditions for change that they perceive as unjust or unlivable. This can range from a protest, to an actual occupation of space, to even a small, local but ongoing collective movement to get a curfew off the books from the Christopher Street Piers in New York City (Walker 2014). But Madison’s factions do not produce effective political moments on my view of what political moments are. Madison evokes a social ontology that demands compromise and suppression. The effects of these factions, as stated, must be controlled. This was done in two distinct ways. The inflammatory nature of a mob (and let’s not mince words, Madison held factions as mob-like) might, given the construction of representative government, be curtailed if they felt that their demands had some outlet (the republican response). Or, a faction might join forces with another faction and compromise on some of the less basic or fundamental elements of their collective demands (what amounts to institutional moderation). This was Madison’s theory, at least. And these sets compromises lead to the political moment’s most effective life existing in the institution of representation. That is to say, regardless of the political moment’s fleeting life when a faction surfaces to raise concerns of justice—the representative is the final causative agent who wills a response in the form of legislation into being. On my view, the faction does not do this, per se. They are merely one part of an institutional chain that Madison hopes will cull a potential ‘conflagration’ of the otherwise natural tendencies of humans to be social, and political, and contentious (Hobbes, anyone?).

The political moment, however slowly and gradually (and who knows precisely at what point) is no longer in the hands of factions-as-people or constituents. Rather, the political moment is more precariously located within the halls of legislatures or within the chain of procedures of legal claims. These moments are only political by name, by technicality. Perhaps this calls for a revision. For that reason, that these moments are taken up by institutions, I might be inclined to rename these moments as politico-juridical moments. They do not have the pure form of a politics lodged in the hearts and minds of people. Rather, they stem from constituent sentiments (however observed or apprehended) and become merely representative of them. The political moment is mediated and vitiated by an institutional chain that becomes the conditions of a politico-juridical moment.

One might ask what consequences this would have? Studies that range on the reduction of social capital to the flagging interest of voters in elections, down to the reduction of mass protest movements since the 20th century, might (and probably should) link these empirical data to a narrative of the displacement of the political moment, or the mediation of the political moment into the politico-juridical moment. I do not take the vote to be a political moment, for instance. It is a translation of what could be a political moment into the politico-juridical moment. It is a device, an important one that sharpens a particular type of political subjectivity. But I don’t believe these moments at the ballot to have the kinds of effects many extol them to have (Piven YEAR; Popkin YEAR; cf. Schattschneider YEAR). It reminds me, rather, of Weber’s admonition—and I believe it to be an admonition or warning—when he speaks of the iron cage. The metaphor is open to much speculation, but I take him to be addressing the rationalization of the west or the damage being done by the de-mythologizing of our mundane lives. The political moment, or constituent moments (for more on this idea see Frank DATE), have become part of an institutional apparatus that stands in for collective power-with (an Arendtian term that has its place in a larger Heideggerian vocabulary of social Being). It is now merely an instrumental power.

Institutions like bureaucracy, for Weber, have grown to such an extent that our social lives have become the sites of a mechanized order. It sounds, from reading that sentence alone, Foucauldian—and rightfully. Foucault himself picked up on this theme and spent his life’s work on the regulatory nature of a disciplining society. I argue here, and elsewhere, that our identities are themselves political, formed from a radical contingency that defies the potential universal fundamentalisms that this regulatory and disciplining society conditions. It is a social ontology I hope addresses the issues of how identities and differences should be sites for what Connolly calls ‘agonistic respect’ (2001). For if we trace our political moments and see their movements are escaping our hands, from our epistemic commitments, and from our comprehending ourselves as political agents in the here-and-now, then where where do we stand? On what political terrain? Do our democratic projects fail because they lack goals? Or have we been duped into believing this goal-oriented business of the political is the only politics worth fighting for, finding it difficult to perceive any of our democratic projects as a truly political moment? How can we track the shift of this failure—and I call it a failure because, as one might have speculated, politics is more than the politico-juridical moment of legislative enactment, or the culmination of legal ‘victory’, or the recognition of our identities by government. It is found, and founded, within the very conduct of our ethical lives. It is built within the construction of ourselves as selves. The political moment, like our identities, is fragile and needs constant maintenance, care, and attention. And if within this Weberian iron cage we forget that the political moment, however fragile, was so dangerous that Madison himself helped forge the means for its control, then our democratic projects are always already inclined to fail.


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