The Pen and the Paving-Stone

The Pen and the Paving-Stone

It is often said that force is no argument. That, however, entirely depends on what one wants to prove. . . . It was a fatal day when the public discovered that the pen is mightier than the paving stone.

-Oscar Wilde

In the last year, the globalization of capital has been pushed to the front of public debate, largely as a result of the emerging alliance between labor unions and environmentalists. This coalition has shown its strength, first in Seattle, opposing the World Trade Organization (WTO), and then in Washington, D.C., demonstrating against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. It has been characterized not only by its broadly anticapitalist goals, but also by its use of direct action tactics. In each case, liberal writers have complained that such tactics fall outside the established channels for effecting political change, and are thus unacceptable by the standards of a democratic society.

I want to weigh the practical value of direct action against the normative force of this liberal view and, more specifically, consider the relation between left politics and the liberal conception of deliberative democracy. By drawing attention to certain theoretical mistakes about the role of public deliberation and the nature of our social institutions, I hope to show direct action to be both a practical and legitimate tool for promoting social change.

Clearly, there is a role for persuasion and debate in gaining public support and in making strategic decisions in the pursuit of radical aims. But my focus here is on the relationship between the institutions that control our society and the people who would force those institutions to change. My claim is that because liberalism misunderstands the nature of inequality, its prescribed practices fall short of what is necessary to produce meaningful change.

The Liberal Approach

Most liberal writers give public discourse a central place in their theories of democracy, seeking to ground political decisions in reason while preserving the sense of democratic legitimacy. A useful example of this approach can be found in Thomas Christiano’s book The Rule of the Many, where he argues that the proper function of interest groups is to aid in deliberation. It is the job of unions, women’s groups, neighborhood associations, industrial councils, and civil rights organizations to research the interests of the people they represent, debate and cooperate with other organizations, and provide information (including information on the views of their members) to legislators and administrators.

Christiano bases this idea on a two stage theory of democratic development. First comes a period of warring factions, each one trying to seize total control but unable to do so. During this period, the primary function of an interest group is to seek power and pressure the others ...