Forget ‘Normal’ Politics

5 Feb



            Political life is filled with policy choices that are made mainly on the basis of calculations of advantage, as well as reflecting priorities and values of those with the power of decision. In a constitutional framework of governance the rule of law sets outer limits as to permissible outcomes. The legitimacy of the decision depends on adhering to these procedural guidelines, and the fact that if the societal effects turn out badly it can be corrected by altering the ‘law.’ Of course, all sorts of special interests behind the scene manipulate this process, and the public debate mirrors these pressures. The results of highly contested policy choices usually reflect the power structure (class, race, ideology) more than they do the outcome of rational detached assessments of the public good. At present, the national public good in the United States is being held hostage to the lethal extremism of the gun lobby as led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which combines special interest politics with a political culture that is violent and militarist. Such a political culture seems unlikely to be able to prohibit the sale of automatic assault weaponry to private citizens even in the immediate aftermath of a series of horrific shootings in American schools and public spaces by individuals gaining access to assault rifles and pistols.


            If we agree with this line of interpretation, we must have the courage to raise radical questions as to whether under these conditions a flawed democracy is any longer capable of serving the national public good in fundamental respects. In my view, the only morally responsible position is to mobilize the citizenry around the need for drastic reform of American democracy. At the very least, the role of big money in shaping policy choices and the electoral process must be ended, and the glorification of violence and militarism must be repudiated. To seek such results a reliance on  normal politics is to inhabit the land of illusion. In some respects, a revolutionary situation is present in the country but a revolutionary movement is no where to be seen. Only utopian reasoning can be hopeful about the future of the country, and it is the case of hope against hope. 


            This politicization of policy choice is to some extent inevitable, and is usually not so threatening to the wellbeing of a country, but at present there are increasingly harmful repercussions that follow, also with respect to global stability and security. Within societies where policy choice depends on governmental action there is a play of contending forces, but the outcome is at least coherently oriented around a shared commitment to the national public good. Internationally, in contrast, there are no social forces, other than transnational civil society actors (NGOs), that are dedicated to the global public good. Governments, including that of the United States, determine and justify national policy choices by reference to the pursuit of national interests. When a dominant state opts to play a global leadership role as the United States did after 1945, it can sometimes promote a type of imperial world order that is beneficial to itself, but also at the same time helpful to most other states and to the human community generally. Such initiatives as financing the economic reconstruction of Western Europe, the establishment of the United Nations, and the promotion of international human rights illustrate such a convergence of national and global interests. But note that global interests, aside from civil society advocacy groups, have no independent base of support. Even the United Nations, which is supposed to promote peace and justice for the whole of humanity is little more than a collection of unequal states each jealous of its sovereign prerogatives. In addition, the UN gives an unrestricted special blocking power (veto) to the five permanent members of the Security Council. The UN despite its many contributions has been unable to become effective in curtailing violations of international law by leading states and their friends and has not been able to meet such global challenges as ridding the world of nuclear weaponry or fashioning a constructive response to climate change.


            In relation to climate change there has been an overwhelming consensus among relevant experts for over two decades that global warming is causing severe harm to the ecology of the planet, and that this situation is likely to reach an irreversible tipping point if the average temperature on the earth rises above a 2°C level compared to what it was at the start of the industrial age. This knowledge had been irresponsibly contested by a well-funded campaign of climate skeptics that has been especially effective in the United States in hijacking the public debate, and undermining policy choices that are in accord with the scientific consensus. The skeptic undertaking is funded by fossil fuel interests, and is being managed by some of the same public relations firms that delayed public appreciation of the link between cancer and cigarette smoking by several decades. This campaign has destroyed the capacity of the United States to play a constructive leadership role needed to establish an obligatory framework for prudent restrictions on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Without U.S. leadership there is lacking the political will on a global level to act with sufficient seriousness to protect the global interest, and human destiny becomes jeopardized in a highly destructive manner from the perspective of species survival.


             Just as national democracy needs drastic reform, so do the structures and procedures of world order. One direction of reform would be to establish institutions with resources and capabilities to serve distinctively global interests. Steps in such a direction would include a global revenue producing mechanism, a global peoples parliament, an independent UN peace and emergency relief force, a repeal of the veto right in the Security Council, a revision of the authority of the International Court of Justice by converting current ‘advisory opinions’ into binding enforceable decisions, convening a nuclear disarmament process, and upgrading the existing UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to the status of super-agency called UN Agency on Environmental Protection and Climate Change.


            Such a thought experiment as this is oblivious to horizons of feasibility that befuddle politicians and set artificial parameters limiting responsible debate.  My diagnosis is anchored in an interpretation of horizons of necessity. By recognizing this huge gap between feasibility and necessity it is implied that normal politics are futile, and in their place we are forced to embrace utopian politics, which can be described as horizons of desire, faith, and hope.


18 Responses to “Forget ‘Normal’ Politics”

  1. Laurie Knightly February 5, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Your last 2 paragraphs are an inspiring global vision. Also, big money would cease to be effective if the general public were immune to being purchased.

    • Albert Guilaume February 5, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

      The only burr under the saddle of humanity is the US and more so its controllers. Bit by bit capital bought its way into a position of power and twisted that power into a strong rope. We now have to sever that rope strand by strand, to bring about a chance for lasting peace. The only alternative to that is a large scale revolution, as Russia had in 1917, when the peasantry had nothing to lose, because of the harsh dictatorial treatment by the tzar, where a lot of Russians saw their children starve to death.
      The same conditions prevailed in Germany between the two world wars and look what it spawned.
      What we have today is some people losing their sanity, because of their unchallenged power and wealth. This insanity trigger is nature`s way of forcing an equilibrium.

    • boyd April 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      written as you drink your wine guarded by those you despise

  2. Jeremy R. Hammond (@jeremyrhammond) February 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    Dear Prof. Falk,

    I just want to clarify something. You give the impression in your first paragraph that the guns used in the series of school shootings were automatic rifles. This is incorrect. The AR-15, for example, is commonly referred to as an “assault rifle”. It is not. It is a semi-automatic, not automatic, rifle.



    • Richard Falk February 6, 2013 at 7:49 am #

      Jeremy: I accept your criticism, and will modify, but for me this is a
      technicality. On this issue I realize that we are far apart in our values and analysis. Greetings, Richard

      • Jeremy R. Hammond (@jeremyrhammond) February 6, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

        I would hope we share the same values, Prof. Falk. Just not the same analysis of the causes of the problem or the solutions. It is a self-evident truth that individuals have a right to self-defense. It follows that they have a right to own whatever means necessary by which to exercise that right. Infringing on individuals’ rights is never a wise or just solution to the problems a society is faced with. To borrow from Ben Franklin, it is both unnecessary and foolish to surrender essential Liberty in return for a promise of greater security. The Founding Fathers acted with great wisdom when they included the 2nd Amendment in the Bill of Rights. They understood natural law and they understood history.

        With the utmost respect! — Jeremy

      • Richard Falk February 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm #


        I have followed your reasoning on self-defense, and your affirmation of its unconditional status. I question only the unconditionality of your approach. It seems to me that all rights have to be contextualized, and balanced against the wellbeing of the community. In this regard, in America of 2013, I believe we cannot view automatic or semi-automatic guns as reasonable instruments of self-defense (personally, because of our culture of violence I would go further in the belief that nonviolent self-defense exalts human dignity). I assume you would not agree to allowing individuals access to some kind of mini-nuclear missiles or heavy weaponry. There has to be some kind of limit based on ‘reasonableness’ and taking account of community wellbeing.


      • Jeremy R. Hammond (@jeremyrhammond) February 7, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

        Certainly, the right to bear arms only holds true for defensive weapons. Nuclear weapons are not and can never be defensive, but only offensive weapons of mass murder, so no individual or state has a right to them. But to argue that individuals should not own semi-automatic firearms is at the opposite extreme of unreasonableness. If a woman on the street is assailed by two or three attackers seeking to rape her, would you deny her the right to a handgun that fires off a bullet with every pull of the trigger? Would you have her have to reload or cock the gun after every shot as her assailants approach? Your argument denies people their legitimate right to self defense. This is not reasonable.

        More broadly speaking, there is no such thing as rights that are “conditional” on what a majority thinks is good for “community wellbeing”. This goes to what kind of government the Founders set out to establish. They did not establish a democracy, which kind of government they abhorred (two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for lunch, as Franklin put it). The Constitution rather guarantees a republican form of government to the states, a form of government in which the rights of the minority are guaranteed, and protected against mob rule.

        As Albert Gallatin said, “The whole of the Bill [of Rights] is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals…. It establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of.”

        That is certainly true of the 2nd Amendment. There are no shortages of examples from history of states establishing tyrannies by disarming their citizens. The Founders understood this. They understood the threat of standing armies. If a state uses tanks against its own citizens, how can one seriously argue that the citizens have no right to use tanks to defend themselves against a tyrannical regime?

        How can it be that states, organizations of corruption and violence, somehow have a “right” to whatever arms, but the people do not? Does the clay have power over to potter to shape and mold him? States don’t have rights, they only have privileges granted to them by the people, and it is the people who are sovereign. That, too, is a self-evident truth.

      • Richard Falk February 8, 2013 at 11:04 am #

        I appreciate the clarity of your principled positions on these matters, but I think we have to rethink the country’s first principles in light of where we are in 2013, and cannot entrust the citizenry to decide what is a ‘defensive’
        weapon and what is ‘reasonable’ in relation to the right of self-defense.

        With respect,


      • Jeremy R. Hammond (@jeremyrhammond) February 9, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

        What we cannot entrust to decide for us what is a “defensive” weapon and what is “reasonable” in relation to the right of self-defense is the federal government.

        The Founders understood that. Hence the 2nd Amendment.

        “Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…. [T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” — Tench Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, February 20, 1788:

      • boyd April 24, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

        you are really a stupid man

  3. Susan Nevens February 5, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    As always a perceptive and insightful analysis Mr. Falk. Thank you.

    • Richard Falk February 6, 2013 at 7:47 am #

      Gene: I think you misread me, or I was too indirect in my formulations. My whole point in rejecting ‘normal’ politics was to emphasize the lack of any
      prospect of appropriate action by existing institutions including the UN. To rely on ‘utopian reason’ is hardly optimistic in my understanding. Richard

  4. Gene Schulman February 6, 2013 at 5:07 am #

    Richard, I am surprised you can still be so optimistic about change in the institutions of the US government and the UN when your own work has been so deftly cut off at the knees by these same institutions. Hope against hope, indeed.

  5. rehmat1 February 6, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    On January 25, 2013, Abraham Foxman, warned the pro-gun lobby groups to keep Nazi analogies out of the gun control debate. “Gun control did not cause the Holocaust,” he said. “Nazism and antisemitism did“.

  6. Tom Parsons February 6, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Richard, reading your assessments is both reassuring and the opposite. I am reassured that my sanity and intellect are not as deficient as many might conclude, based on my view of the world. Certainly your knowledge base in human affairs is vastly superior to mine, and your intellect likewise, but we seem to have reached similar views on the need for a miracle to avoid large-scale events we find tragic and abhorrent. But while I may find that personally gratifying, it is hardly reassuring about the larger issues of the day.

    For a small measure of the hope you desire, I recommend the writing of John Michael Greer, whose title of Grand Archdruid might also make many question his sanity and intellect. After some years of following his blog (The Archdruid Report, one of a very few I find worth my time), I am seldom disappointed and often uplifted by his weekly sharing. His academic training is in history, and he puts a larger frame around current events than I could, putting them into better focus as well.

    At the moment he is addressing what he sees as the most essential remedy for what ails the American body politic, and it is no simple or short project. He prescribes a return to civil discourse based on mutual regard for facts and logic as the best way out of the tragic dead end we have entered. Also, he accepts that (at best) it will be a generation-long project to change an easily manipulated, slogan-dominated society and that such a change might require the impetus of the wave of unpleasantness that is already breaking over us.

    Perhaps not coincidentally, he has been focusing on some issues very similar to what you bring up in your latest post: Given current realities, how can things possibly be turned around? One sentence from a recent blog (“Producing Democracy”) seems a succinct diagnosis and prescription:

    “democratic politics work only when the people who have the right to vote—however large or small that class happens to be—also get an education in the basic skills of thinking.” (from

    For what it’s worth, this sometimes-depressed pessimist finds Greer a welcome beacon of hope for some less-bad outcomes than I personally fear.

    • monalisa February 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

      to Tom Parsons:

      I think in far too many states and especially in the USA people are very much manipulated by mainstream media.
      Working people, whether academic or not, don’t have enough time to search for more truth. That’s unfortunately a fact.
      So your last para covers totally and complete what everyone should know: only search by oneself and not always believing what is brought into our houses as ‘information and news’ is in our times the utmost necessity.

      However, there will be only a very tiny percentage who knows that.
      Unfortunately ….
      and so certain politics and certain states can do what they want whether is is right or wrong, whether they care or don’t care about International Law and sovereignity of a state ….. and so forth not to forgeht the dignity of makind and our environment.

      And all in all: I think voting alone will not do much for a change in the future ….



  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Forget ‘Normal’ Politics - February 11, 2013

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