Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Economic Freedom and "The State" as a Meta-narrative

Lyotard talks about the ideology of communicational “transparency,” where we are able to see what the economic powers are doing with our information, and which goes hand in hand with the commercialization of knowledge. He argues forcefully that the economic powers will begin to perceive the State as a factor of opacity and “noise.” It is from this point of view that the problem of the relationship between economic and state powers threatens to arise with a new urgency. Lyotard is in favor of the state, but without warrant, without reflection, and without question. He seems to believe that the state is a kind of benevolent host which adjudicates these disputes even-handedly.

He says, "Economic powers have reached the point of imperiling the stability of the state through new forms of the circulation of capital that go by the generic name of multi-national corporations. These new forms of circulation imply that investment decisions have, at least in part, passed beyond the control of the nation-states.”

He asks us to suppose, for example, that a firm such as IBM is authorized to occupy a belt in the earth’s orbital field and launch communications satellites or satellites housing data banks. Who will have access to them? Who will determine which channels or data are forbidden? The State? Lyotard is worrisome that the state should have no voice in determining which channels or data are forbidden, that the state itself will become a micro-narrative silenced by the terror of multi-national corporations. It is important that “the state” is called out as a micro-narrative, since what else can it be for Lyotard? The kind of unwarranted favor Lyotard gives the state likens it to the kind of hierarchical status of the meta-narrative. This is not questioned by Lyotard.

The idea that one narrative—the state—can even-handedly settle disputes in a just and forthright manner before any other narratives is inconsistent with his own thought. The state as a meta-narrative cannot tell the stories of the micro-narratives within its domain; the meta-narrative cannot hold our experiences together. The state, then, is a “god” for Lyotard—when in fact, as Lyotard reminds us, “god is dead”, and all gods have lost credibility in the post-modern condition. “The state” is the grand narrative that we all play but can no longer afford the sensibility for. Lyotard laughably asks us to remain faithful to this one last grand idea—that perhaps we might not notice?—in one last god: “the state”.

Lyotard is also worrisome that the perfomativity of the market will shut down the performance of the state, that the market will shut down the performance of stagnant research programs, the state included, should it become stagnant (to use the Lakatosian idiom.) Lyotard fails to see the equal possibility that the performance of the state will shut down the micro-narrative enclaves of the state and non-state types. For example, China’s 110 million internet-users are managed by over 30,000 internet police patrollers who are aided by sophisticated Western telematics. When searching google.com for pictures of Tienanmen Square, thousands of images are displayed, many of them the famous “tank man”. But when searching from China using cn.yahoo.com or google.cn—which are both specifically “tailor-made for users in China”—we find images of maps, architecture, cooking recipes, and smiling tourists standing in the square, but none of the ‘89 massacre or the tank man.

The meta-narrative of the state is simply one language community among others, yet it is the meta-narrative whose capacity to terrorize communities is greater than the micro-narrative’s. Cisco Networking, Yahoo! and Google have all signed “self-censorship pledges” to tailor their technology to the needs of the Chinese regime’s political censorship needs and Yahoo! specifically actively aids in the arrests of China’s political dissidents. Lyotard is worrisome that the state should have no voice in determining which data is forbidden, yet it is clear that we ought to be more worrisome should the state have a voice in determining which data is forbidden.

The state has lost its credibility and what are we left with?—the freedom of the micro-narratives to bring a reign of terror onto the rest? This aspect of Lyotard’s thought is similar logically to his thoughts about absolute Sartrean freedom. When there are no meta-narratives, there is freedom in their absence, yet the narrative about freedom is also meta-narrated. So the absoluteness of that freedom cannot be talked about seriously. Absolute freedom has lost its credibility just like the meta-narratives it destroyed. When the state is destroyed and replaced by the groundlessness of the micro-narrative, the freedom it leaves in its wake also cannot be talked about seriously. The perfomativity and credibility of the meta-narrative is called into question, but so is the performativity and credibility of its absence.

This is to say, when the state is called into question, so is its absence—absolute market freedom. Like the Lyotardian argument against Sartre, we seem to be free by default, but we cannot talk about that freedom seriously. We have already shattered our belief in gods, leaving us unable to talk about the invisible hand of the market as a legitimate replacement for the benevolent hand of the adjudicator-state. Lyotard outlines the process of legitimization, yet there is no non-question-begging criterion for what, in the end, is legitimate. His own analysis of this process is correct and is not question-begging, yet everything the analysis is able to talk about is question-begging in nature, leaving us in a state of paradox. Yet in the postmodern age we are delighted by paradox.

In responding to Lyotard, we must acknowledge that the state is simply one narrative among others, and that it is not hard to visualize free-narrative performance along the same lines as state-coerced performances. Both have lost any meaning when talking about performance and credibility. Yet we must have free-narratives if we are to have anything. Thus instead of talking about the performative value of the market in the absence of the state, the more relevant area to examine is the paradoxical notion of “freedom” in the absence of all meta-narratives: the non-conceptual, paralogical triumph of the absurd and the sublime over the structured, and performance-evaluated narratives of the past.

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