After body-piercing, what is left to write about but politics?

Is it possible to be above politics? Clearly this is not just a theoretical question on the American scene today. The hope of an independent presidential candidate, be he Colin Powell or even the ineffable Ross Perot, is that he will face the nation’s problems free from the narrow partisanship of the two parties, dominated, as it is not unfairly claimed, by their extremes.

It is easy to be skeptical. A “non-ideological” stance grants no particular ability to make the right decisions. Nor does it magically immunize anyone to the interest groups that attempt to influence these decisions. Should we unthinkingly assume that our political system is corrupt in some special way in which the rest of society is not?

The two most characteristic institutions of modern democracies are the elective political system and the free market. Politics is ostensibly an ethical activity, one involving human values. In contrast, the monetary evaluations of the market are considered to be without ethical content. This was not always the case. Before the bourgeois era, when the doctrine of just price prevailed, prices were set outside the marketplace on the authority of the reigning monarch. Money was looked upon with suspicion, and the notion of universal fungibility was unthinkable. Even today, certain services are not payable in money. When one is invited to dinner, one brings a bottle of wine; it would be altogether improper to give one’s host the equivalent in cash. Such symbolic exchanges are marginalized today, but they were once the essence of the social exchange-system: do ut des, I give to you so that you may give to me.

A market is nothing but the resultant of the decisions of its participants. I try to anticipate its movement, as does everyone else. But because market value is determined by neither unthinking desires nor preestablished “just prices” but by judgments like my own, no individual can anticipate it more than marginally and temporarily better than another. Some are more intelligent and better informed, and that is where investment counselors earn their commission; but absent “insider trading,” there is no knowledge and intelligence so uniquely powerful that others cannot duplicate it. The market is a model, not of utopian uniformity, but of human equality in action.

In the stock market, when I claim that a stock is worth a certain amount, the mechanism of the market may force me to revise my claim, sometimes quite drastically. Yet I do not feel that my integrity has been compromised. In the political world, on the other hand, I consider whatever claims I make to be dictated by a set of ethical principles, and I vote for politicians who purport to share these principles. Principles are qualitative, non-negotiable. Even quantifiable financial expenditures express support for policies, and if I am unalterably opposed to a certain policy, I may consider even a penny to be too much.

Yet because my fellow citizens and I differ in our principles, our representatives are compelled to arrive at compromises, just as a stock price is a compromise of the claims of its buyers and sellers, as described by the law of supply and demand. Some politicians are more powerful or more persuasive than others, but no individual, not the President nor even the Speaker of the House, possesses the power to dictate the outcome of the process. The Republican Congress has not been able to fulfill the contract signed by a majority of House Republicans. Politics in a democracy is an art of negotiation; “absolute” principles must be placed on the table along with all other claims.

If democratic politics is conceived on the model of market negotiation, then to stand above politics should mean to uphold one’s convictions in opposition to the process of compromise. Yet the prevalence of strongly-held convictions on both sides of the aisle is precisely what has led independent voters to seek an alternative to the two-party system. The prime qualification for a third-party candidate is a pragmatic lack of ideological commitment.

What this suggests is that being above politics is in fact the last thing the independent electorate desires. What frustrates this group is less the corruptness of the political process than its blockage by true believers, whether of right or left. There is no ideology of the center except insofar as the center is the bargaining table where all parties must meet to thrash out their differences. In setting its sights on someone untainted by association with Washington, the independent bloc seeks not purity of principle but faith in the political marketplace.

Yet third-party activists are no more likely than those of the traditional parties to accept my analogy between politics and the market. Any such talk would be condemned as the most extreme cynicism.

Such are the illusions of mimetic desire. No doubt the third-party ideal is not the proverbial man on horseback, the incarnation of what Rousseau called the general will. He has the more modest bearing of the honnête homme whose freedom from ideology will lead him to solutions unavailable to those who wear the blinkers of partisan extremism. But he is not to be a wheeler-dealer: we want his decisions to express the resultant of our values and desires without his having to bargain for or against any of them.

In other words, we want a leader who can give us the market’s pragmatic results without its messy reality. But like the genius who can pick the winner of a horse race in advance, such a person is a dream rather than a reality. The market system cannot be incarnated in a single “clean” figure. As Mandeville taught us about the economic marketplace in his 18th-century Fable of the Bees, the system operates effectively by permitting the not-so-spotless rest of us to express our conflicting values and desires within it.

My first impulse was to conclude by saying that despite its naïveté, the third-party movement reflects a new understanding of the paradoxical structure of the operation of politics in a democracy, where ideological convictions, however sincerely held, have political value not as moral absolutes but as bargaining chips in the negotiation of resentments that is the critical function–and the real strength–of democratic politics.

But such a conclusion would itself be too unparadoxical. The awareness of the market-structure of politics is not a single burning revelation that transforms history. It is an idea that advances and recedes through discussions and counter-discussions. Markets become paradoxical as soon as they deal with something other than mere commodities; and in consumer society, there are few “mere commodities.” In a market world, principle is a powerful bargaining tool; and those who know it make use of their knowledge as well as of their principles.


This being said, the breadth of third-party feeling may well be a sign of a new level of political consciousness concomitant with the inability of our current political institutions to deal with the oscillations generated by political paradox. I’ll clarify what I mean by paradoxical structures in my next column.