Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Action and Faction

The word faction originally stood for party (the political kind). The term was used in that sense in Roman times and also early in American history. Factions, parties, formed as soon as a democratic style of government came to be established. Factions formalized into parties around about 1787 and thereafter as the Constitution was ratified. The word rapidly took on negative connotations, obvious from the way George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and others used the word. These fathers of the country discovered the pleasures of political opposition—and didn’t like it. Washington thought that governance should rise above faction. Perhaps the negative connotations that stuck to the word eventually led to the use of another, party, a word that in the eighteenth century still attached to smaller groups like hunting or dinner parties.

In our time party has itself become encrusted with negatives. “Just party politics” means, although in a milder sense, much the same thing that our founders meant when speaking of “factional disputes”; they meant the contention of limited interests rather than action for the common good. Today—certainly in the media—a positive connotation attaches to activism. Yes. On the Right that word has strongly negative connotations instead, but in the ordinary discourse of the media an activist is someone good, a reactionary someone bad.

Amusingly, both faction and action come from roots meaning “to do,” the first from the Latin facere, the last from the Latin agere. This “doing,” however, in our context, seems always to include a qualifier: against or in opposition to. The activist acts against the System. The faction opposes another faction. The Founding Fathers believed in limiting power by institutional, legal, and procedural methods. Activists and factionalists are ultimately seeking power—but outside established institutional, legal, and procedural boundaries.

Agitation also derives from agere in its sense of moving, driving, and impelling. Factionalists and activists seek to rouse passive masses who, in turn, will either force changes in the System by those who control it or give the faction power so that, in turn, it can rule.

We need not seek far to find the root of party. Removing the tailing y will do. The parts contending to rule the whole. Were Washington and Hamilton ultimately naïve in thinking that an idealized projection of the whole actually existed, that there really was something out there that could act as a party of one? as the American People or the Athenian Demos? Or did they, perhaps, express a kind of nostalgia for a time when more people actually shared a common belief that transcended personal interest?

There is that tongue in cheek saying: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” People reject that because, echoing that sage of modernity, Gertrude Stein, they think that “there is no there there.”

1 comment:

  1. I found this very interesting. Thanks.

    Two things occured to me reading it. First, I've found that it is far easier to get people to become "active" in a group effort to do something when they are motivated by fighting something, being against something. I find this odd, and yet, I see it over and over again.

    Second, in an era in which power is concentrating yet again, it is no wonder, really, that factionalism is on the rise. If you add in the distorting influence of a mass media competing fearsely for our eyes and ears, well, there is just no mystery to the madness.

    By the way, we recently watched the mini series based on David McCullough's biography of Adams and in it Adams also voiced strong worry and opposition to the development of parties...

    We do yearn for community and a sense of unity and perhaps see it more often in the history we didn't actually live through than was actually present. But, the desire is very real.