The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

Isolated men [sic] are powerless by definition.
— Hannah Arendt

For many people in America and elsewhere around the world, these appear to be gloomy days indeed. Whether it’s the unease of life under corporate globalism, the ever-lurking fear of terrorist attack, or dread of the repressive impulses of all manners of fundamentalism, there doesn’t seem to be much the average person can do to effect change in the larger scheme of things. Sociologist Jeffrey C. Goldfarb offers a way out of the seeming abyss with his new book The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times. The book takes its title from Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, about an untouchable in a small town in postcolonial India. And like Roy’s hero, who defies caste boundaries not so much to challenge the system as to simply live his life, Goldfarb’s models are those who strive “to create small zones of independence and dignity.”

Goldfarb is on the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he is an authority on the connection between culture and politics, especially as it has played out since the late 1960s in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, he reported for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor on the trials of Adam Michnik and other Communist dissidents. During that time, he also led forums on democratic theory in Warsaw and Budapest, many of which were held in secret. In 2005, he was awarded a medal in recognition of his 30-year involvement with the Polish democratic movement presented to him by Solidarity president Lech Welesa. This latest book ties together signal moments of his research seen in light of current events.

For Goldfarb, episodes from the late 1960s and into the 1980s are examples of what Czech poet and statesman Vaclav Havel terms “living in truth,” i.e., casting off ideological blinders in favor of genuine face-to-face interaction. The buds of self-determination are abloom in the 1968 revolt of Warsaw University students against the Polish Culture Ministry in presenting the anti-Russian play Dziady (Forefather’s Eve) even as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring repressions then taking place. The patronage of unofficial literary salons and underground bookstores in Poland and elsewhere under Communist rule illustrates the notion that acting as if one lived in a free society is a precursor for actually doing so, which subsequently came to pass as Eastern Europe emerged from the rubble of the 1989 collapse of Soviet Union. In each case, interpersonal relations constitute first conditions for bringing freedom and justice into being. Creating a public sphere that isn’t stage-managed is necessary to deciding and acting upon matters of common concern in a true democracy.

The mandate of living in truth poses a significant challenge to America in the wake of 11 September 2001. And Goldfarb takes pains to untangle himself from the recent ideological posturing of both the right and the left so as to not confuse fundamental democratic principles with simpleminded Americanism or its sometimes equally crude critique. What’s more, he rejects totalitarian thinking of all stripes to which the debate on the so-called war on terror has too often been susceptible. In this regard, he’s an heir to the legacy of Cold War liberalism.

Coming out of the Second World War, “totalitarianism” became the watchword for liberals to describe the threat posed to personal freedom by both the fascism that had just been defeated and the Soviet Communism that had ostensibly arisen to take its place. The concept is notably developed by philosopher Hannah Arendt in her study The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. And it’s not surprising that Arendt (for years, a New School professor) figures prominently in Goldfarb’s book.

Where many liberals of the period, including Arendt, ponder the existential plight of the “authentic” individual in the face of the “group think” of mass society, Goldfarb examines the day-to-day connections between people that help them escape isolation, loneliness and despair, the very things Arendt identifies as seeds of the terror that totalitarianism reaps. The ability to convert personal connections into political action has heightened potential with the advent of global communication tools such as the Internet, thereby counteracting present-day totalitarian impulses. And for Goldfarb, peer-to-peer networking isn’t just about sharing opinions (though that’s certainly important); it’s about having a mechanism for achieving egalitarian political ends.

The clearest example is the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. And although Dean wasn’t nominated, his candidacy did change the frame of the debate not to mention provide a new model for mobilizing constituencies. The continued influence of online independent media sources like Alternet and grassroots organizations like further enables communities of interest and, more importantly, action to develop across divisions of geography, political jurisdiction and economic strata. And if there’s a place to question Goldfarb, it’s in that last area, which is to say, his tendency to want to set aside the influence of economic power in the political sphere.

It isn’t that Goldfarb is unaware of economics, it’s just that he’s assiduously trying to steer clear of it because it’s been so fundamental to the “totalized thinking” of the dominant ideologies of modernity (i.e., the socialist planned economy on the one hand and free-market capitalism on the other). This too is in some sense a liberal legacy. For as Yochai Benkler, in his new book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production is Remaking Markets and Freedom, writes: “liberals leave property and markets to libertarians.”

Arendt, for example, explicitly excludes economics (which she categorizes under “the social”) from the political sphere, a distinction reaffirmed by other postwar thinkers on democratic liberalism such as Jurgen Habermas. But as Benkler notes, this ignores the concurrent, and some would say codependent, development of markets and democracy in modern experience. The bigger problem is that libertarians tend to emphasize the private individual as a rational actor in an impersonal process of exchange, relegating culture and politics to pure market functions and undermining concepts of the social upon which Goldfarb’s network of “small things” depends. A corrective is offered by fellow New School social theorist Nancy Fraser who sees economic and political equality as necessarily intertwined.

The Politics of Small Things is a modest book — the main text runs less than 150 pages. But it’s long enough to make the case that the phrase “reach out and touch someone” is more than some derelict advertising slogan. Not a revolutionary idea perhaps, but certainly the place to start in terms of living in truth.