I have a good friend whose wisdom, depth and acumen have informed my own perspectives in countless ways. We are no longer frequently in touch but for many years we lived in the same city and he was instrumental in nudging me away from a kind of no-name newage syncretism to something grounded and particular, without losing my universalist motives. He has now spent many years working in Africa, going between choked over-populated and poverty-ridden metropolises and rural villages with no wells or electricity. It's partly due to his updates that I know anything at all about the lives of populations (as opposed to individuals) that are truly in want. He tells me he's thinking seriously of relocating to Africa permanently. Why would he want to throw over our well-advertised American "prosperity" for African destitution just as he is beginning to have to take the measure of retirement and eventual old age? Well, he's about ten or fifteen years older than I am, and like many who have spent their lives really thinking rather than "getting ahead," his patchy employment history and itinerant life has left him with scant savings and little to look forward to in terms of any social safety net. But that's not the deciding factor. A bit less than two years ago, he wrote me:
I am getting really scared of America. I think this is Nazi Germany in 1934, so I want to get out, and I want to get my sister and nephew out.This was in November of 2014. Note that date -- long before the pus of Presidential nomination campaigns had begun to ooze. Since my friend wrote this to me, the number of people comparing a four-times-bankrupt tycoon and T.V. "star" lately come to American politics with a certain figure from 1930's Germany has ballooned until the analogy is a depressingly predictable trope.
Despite myself, I cannot but be distracted by the U.S. Presidential campaign and the attendant great clouds of dust kicked up by the national commentariat. What's a philosopher to say about it all? (That philosophy is especially pertinent to this election is well argued by Amod Lele.) It feels, to be sure, like a time when one must "go on the record;" to name the "insanity of non-thinking" transpiring. This over-the-top phrase is used by the philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky to describe his impression of the world of the 1920s and '30s which ushered in the great dictatorships of the 20th century; and it surely seems apropos to our own moment. But the insanity has a span far wider than what we call politics.
That the current Republican candidate (I will refer to him by DT for "Delirium Tremens"), the buffoon no one took seriously until it was too late, is relatively accurately described by the conceptual penumbra pointed to by the word "narcissist," is, I take it, not worth arguing; it is either apparent to you, or you cannot be persuaded. (I do not believe in "narcissism" as an objective condition that exists in quite the same way as measles, or hunger, or even selfishness, but as a recognizable marker in contemporary clinical and pop psychology, it certainly serves to describe DT). His opponent, riding a wave of entitlement towards an apparent rendezvous with making history, is fulfilling a dream and a plan unofficially scheduled long ago ("eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill..."), despite her censure by the director of the FBI for extreme carelessness with State secrets (and leaving aside other "politically motivated" accusations). You can find the candidates' flaws incommensurable if you want; insist, if you like, that HRC is a standard-issue politician with ordinary drawbacks, and DT a wannabe dictator from whom the nation and the world could not recover. Or you can think that the nation needs defending from Islamism and "business as usual," HRC is a known and rotten quantity and DT a wild card and worth a gamble to "shake things up." You can even hold that we need to press things to get worse before they get better and one of the two is the sure way to worsen. I'm not trying to argue for or against any of these. I agree with some of these more than others but each of them has its appeal, is held to by people I respect (as well as many I don't), and I'm not sure I don't move from one to the other -- yes, any of them -- depending on the day and my mood. But none of this makes the political situation philosophically interesting. The real question is what "politics" counts for.
No doubt the election will have real consequences; among them will be -- already is, I think -- an inflated sense of the consequences of elections, especially as currently run in the United States. No matter what the outcome, it can be reliably predicted that approximately half the voters will think we dodged a bullet, and half will grit their teeth and mutter about a "legal" coup d'etat taking place under our noses. And if that's as deep as it goes, then absolutely no thinking will have transpired at all.
One hears a lot about how polarization is crippling American politics; that the two major parties are so entrenched in ideological disagreements that zero-sum gridlock is the logical conclusion; and the answer here is the praising of bridge-building and finding middle ground. The art of compromise, you know?
I think American politics is not crippled by disagreement; it's crippled by the fact that we do disagreement so extremely poorly. We need not less disagreement, but better disagreement. This has got little to do with any call for "civility" as well, though that would be a good thing. It is only tangentially related to the obvious fact that the "disagreements" of major parties are already mere surface squabbles, that huge swathes of possible political territory are entirely left out of the "conversation." It's more closely related to the fact that aside from whatever machinations happen in smoke-filled rooms (and I do not scoff at scenarios involving smoke-filled rooms), all current styles of political polemic involve each side in fueling the very "opposition" they ostensibly aim to combat.
This isn't about the content of any politics, whether overt (the "platform", talking points, etc.) or covert (the smoke-filled rooms). It's about the formal description of what happens when ideas compete for territory in what we might call "attention-space." When it comes to the mere memetic replication of ideas from one mind to another, disagreement need not be acrimonious, but acrimony is in fact a sort of adaptive mutation for an argument, because acrimony is loud, and loudness draws attention; it's the difference between an isolated guy with a cold, versus a guy with a cold in a stadium selling hot dogs. This is just boring old Dawkins-style memetics (though when Dawkins first formulated the notion, it was pretty innovative)*. If a mind does not think a thought, the thought disappears; but no sane mind is continually or even recurrently occupied with a single thought; so for ideas to continue to be thought, they need to move from mind to mind. (I believe that philosophy differs in certain crucial ways from this general memetic model, but I will let that pass for now.) One way to make thoughts get duplicated from mind to mind is via rational argument, appeal to reasons, evidence, and proof, but a much shorter route -- and therefore frequently exploited -- is to hack the system via emotions; emotional appeal clearly aids in the memetic spreading of ideas and of these emotions, anger is especially useful in helping the ideas get a foothold, because anger changes a the contest -- the competition between ideas for attention-space -- into an argument and arguments get loud.
The louder the argument -- the more people overhear it -- the more chance it has that some of them will be drawn into the argument themselves. You might think this is unlikely: when was the last time you cared about what the neighbors were fighting over? You just wanted them to shut up, right? And that's true; you need a certain degree of susceptibility to the idea qua idea in order for it to cross over to your mind as a thought instead of merely being an emotion. But for arguments that transpire in media -- and they can be stupid arguments over the best order in which to watch the Star Wars films, or important arguments about whose, if any, Lives Matter -- the situation is different because of scale. These get lots of exposure, lots of bystanders, lots of people sucked in, which makes them get bigger and bigger, and sometimes in a bewilderingly short time.
Often they also burn out, too. But not always. Sometimes it happens that an argument just goes on and on in apparently endless irreconcilability, the "sides" talking more and more not to each other but to themselves about each other. Anger needs something to be angry at, and in politics this is readily to hand, for as Carl Schmitt famously begins, the essential political distinction is: friend or enemy? Each "side" not only has its own positive platform, it also has a caricature blame-scapegoat of the "other side;" and it's this caricature that sparks the angry response, which then includes a counter-caricature, and so on. Our friends are fundamentally right; whatever disagreements we have with them are family squabbles. Our enemies are fundamentally wrong. Either we or they must triumph. When they by chance say something that is clearly correct, it is because they can't help it, but they never draw the consequences from it to see how wrong they are about everything else. Eventually the argument settles into a kind of uneasy interminable cold war with occasional hot flashes that change no one's mind but always confirm preconceptions.
When this happens, there is a real and relevant sense in which the respective sides are not (despite what they think) in competition at all; they are in a kind of systemic symbiosis. Equilibrium. By their in-tandem tug-of-war they together occupy far more of attention-space than either could by itself.
All the foregoing is essentially sociology, and does not tell us, by itself, whether this situation is merely to be observed, or deplored, or what. I don't pretend that it suffices to comprise a political philosophy, or even to give it an adequate starting-place. It certainly does not mean that the philosopher can shrug off politics as sub-philosophical. It is even arguable that the right way to understand philosophy is as Arvydas Šliogeris says:
[T]o a Greek, philosophy is inseparable from politics ... in the sense that philosophy like politics is an adequate-to-freedom existential realm of gestures of an autonomous individual.We can leave aside the question of the anachronism of "autonomous individual" applied to Greek thinking. Šliogeris' point, I take it, would be to say that both politics and philosophy concern us in our responsibility and insofar as we enter into them adequately our responsibility is engaged. There is in this endeavor absolutely no room for blame and complaint.
(The Fate of Philosophy p 20 My emphasis.)
How then to disagree better?
One could do worse than to start with what is called in pop-psych circles "emotional intelligence." By all means, be afraid if you are afraid. Be angry if you are angry. Know your emotions, feel them, name them. And do not let them run you. This means having more of them out in the open, and acknowledging if you are not very competent yet at being unreactive when in their grip.
So, then, to name some feelings:
What I see from the Democratic candidate makes me uneasy, suspicious, and impatient, in the way I feel when confronted by someone who wants something from me. I don't give a damn about her "seeming aloof" or whatever; let's just stipulate that a woman in politics is struggling against all kinds of unspoken and unreflected-upon assumptions and that those having to do with emotional presentation are endemic and unfair. Fine. This does not change the fact that HRC is squirrely. I know I am part of a large and media-fueled population when I say this. I would welcome the breaking of the glass ceiling with a thrill of about-fucking-time. It is scandalous that it has taken this long for a major party to nominate a double-X chromosome human being for chief executive. It's doubly so that when they finally get around to doing it, the woman in question is so obviously a token and a tool of power. (For the record, I think her default setting is a largely unexamined basic set of liberal social values which she more or less would attempt to act upon if the cost was not too high; but her politics and political economy is standard-issue neoliberalism and she's clearly willing to compromise and do a great deal to get elected. Her well-known changes in position are often unacknowledged by her and seem far more motivated by convenience than owned as actually principled changes-of-mind.)
What I see from the Republican candidate fills me with dismay. He has the posturing of Mussolini, the bad taste of Franco, and yes, the xenophobia of Hitler -- or at least, he seems to think that acting like he does is a winning proposition, which is possibly even worse. More recent analogues are not hard to find either: the intellectual pretensions of Quadaffi, or Vlad Putin's pose as suave strongman, and DT's declared admiration for the same. I feel, also, a kind of disdain, which is probably an alibi for a different kind of fear. DT seems to me the most Žižekian candidate we have ever seen -- designedly outrageous, symptomatically grossly negligent of truth, he is the reflection of the American electorate's Caliban looking back at itself. There is no question but that if DT is elected president, we are indeed looking at a game-changing era in the short term, and that short term could be very, very unpleasant. Complete the picture with stock footage of jackboots coming for you or what-have-you. I do not think it is unreasonable to fear such things. The mischief and misery that can be wrought by bad people in high places is considerable, duh, and DT looks to be a bad person. Those he has fooled or manipulated into thinking otherwise are to be pitied. Those who look at him with a kind of envious projection are just sniffing the apparent alpha-dog's ass.
But just how decisive a binary are we considering? A look backward might give us a bit of perspective. In 1964, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, a deeply unpopular candidate among his own party, was downright terrifying to Democrats, who saw his anti-communist belligerence as the worst kind of drum-beating. Lyndon Johnson defeated Goldwater in part by virtue of the scare-tactics exemplified by the infamous "Daisy" advertisement, which successfully leveraged the (legitimate) fear of nuclear war into a reaction against Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" stance. Johnson (who signed the Civil Rights Act and wanted to be remembered as the architect of the Great Society) went on to entrench the nation in an unwinnable war against Communism in Vietnam, partly on false pretenses of a misleadingly spun "incident" in the Gulf of Tonkin. This should remind us that a vote against the momentarily more bellicose figure does not mean a vote against war.† A vote for HRC (who supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and who opines that Edward Snowden is a traitor to his country) does not assure us of peace in our time, or better jobs and higher wages, or a better life for the wretched of the earth. Remember that when we talk about "assuring Obama's legacy," we are also talking about kill lists, drone strikes, and NSA surveillance of American citizens.
I wrote and asked my friend what it was that had made him see parallels between the United States of 2014 and the Germany of eighty years previous. His explanation drove home just how parochial American political reflection usually is:
I saw what Fox News was — and the other outlets were not much different — and certainly I had seen at least since Iraq 1.0 how the media’s main purpose is to cover up what was really going on. The leftist press however showed what was really going on, and living in poverty makes you very sensitive to downward social trends. My connection with Africa and knowing about Darfur and World War 3 in the Congo (10 million dead and counting; not a peep in our press!) impressed upon me the incomprehensible enormity of the crimes we were committing. At some point I read Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback trilogy. And when you looked at the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, at government secrecy, the militarizing of police, the "war on drugs”, surveillance, surveillance, surveillance.... How could anyone not realize where all this was going?I don't cite this letter because I assume everyone will agree with it (though I do urge people to read Chalmers Johnson, whose books are still far from passé though the trilogy was all published during the Bush administration), but because it underscores how long are the roots of our current dilemma. The ruin of our politics is deep, and if we want to live politically in a responsible and philosophical way, we must think it through to the beginning -- which means (I am sorry for the newage sound of it, but I cannot find a more succinct formulation) to ourselves. The origins of the bad corner we find ourselves in now, with a choice between a candidate who probably thinks she means well but that the rules do not apply to her, and one who redefines the phrase "loose cannon," are not to be sought in the last year or the last eight, or even the debacle of the Bush II years. They go far back, and they implicate us.
(This, by the way, is why in the event of actual jackboots kicking in doors, or actual round-ups of immigrants, or etc., I will not be splitting the country. Any one who makes a different choice has my respect and good wishes. I'll try to leave a light on for you.)
A system with deep roots also has long branches. No matter who is elected, the future is not pretty. It is possible that one candidate or another can make the situation much worse; but the notion that a magic president can make it all better is ludicrous, in part because there are those for whom it is working very, very well already. The American day has passed. We are indeed rich, and privileged, but the center of political, intellectual, and indeed even scientific life is elsewhere. The USA is a declining Empire, and though it may take some while before this really is driven home, it is a matter of When, not of If. This is not, however, just a bit of "pessimism" about "our country's future," and those who react with the "this-is-part-of-the-problem" knee-jerk are themselves part of the problem.
It is possible that there may be some less-uncomfortable semi-soft landing option available to us as we fly into the mouth of the Long Emergency, but there are many, many potential crash-landing outcomes that are bad indeed. I am all for optimism and I do not sneer even at can-do technological ingenuity, let alone at attempts of people of good will to act freely, kindly, wisely. (Also, I am a teacher, which commits me professionally to a certain axiomatic optimism I do not always think is wholly warranted, but which both allows me to do my job and is subjectively rekindled by my job. Working with very young people is good for the soul.) I do anticipate that any workable course will involve the giving up of a great deal of American prestige. Current talk about reparations to African or Native Americans barely touches the surface of what might be called for. The lives to which most Americans, including the majority of the 99%, are accustomed, is premised upon the ruination of planet and people. The standard "left" account is that we can consume a bit less and a bit differently in order to keep consuming. The truth is that our consumption accelerates. I believe that human beings are free and capable of acting rationally, but I am not sanguine about the likelihood of people volunteering for having less, particularly if this implies a sort of losing face.
I emphasize, however, that this cannot be -- for the philosopher -- an occasion for mere despair or even impotent fury. Politics is by nature a short-term game; diplomacy, law-making, overseeing budgets -- these are the matters of today and tomorrow. The founders of constitutions -- the Enlightenment thinkers who imagined cosmopolitan civilization --were actually doing something fairly new and innovative; they were trying to imagine a workable social and governmental organization that would be able to persist beyond the short term, without depending on the assumption that the conditions of the short term would themselves persist. It was sort of hybrid project of philosophy and politics (and much of the critique of modernity found, for instance, in Leo Strauss, but also in Schmitt, is based on the question of whether or not this hybrid is viable). Philosophy itself looks to a far broader horizon still. By that measure, all nations are as grass, and the proudest empire may be a chapter in a book for a while. But this does not mean philosophy does not motivate politics.
In the short run, I am deeply dubious about the impact of elections, even this one; but there are certainly ways in which elections could be organized that would give them a far more realistic and meaningful impact upon longer-term prospects. If there is any single political cause I could urge upon people, it would be the boring-sounding one of election reform; not however as a crusade against "money in politics," as though that were possible (though clearly it could be far better managed than it is). I mean, rather, a fundamental restructuring of the ways votes are counted. There are, as far as I know, no perfect and irreproachable methods for this; there are however many much, much better ways of doing it than are done in the U.S. The chokehold of the two major parties; the stifling of and condescension towards Libertarians, Greens, Independents, and others; the absolute panic that sets in when something like the Tea Party happens in the midst of a major party -- all of this could be radically eased by adopting a sane and just manner of counting votes in participatory democracy which allowed people to indicate who their preferred candidates were in order of preference. It would put a brake on negative campaigning, assure that no one would be elected without genuine majority backing, and eliminate the need for defensive voting and the wails about choosing the lesser of two evils.‡
And, in the likely event that darker times are upon us before reform can transpire?
Jean Cavaillès -- one of Alain Badiou's heroes and favorite examples of the philosophe engagé -- wrote work on set theory, logic, and phenomenology, edited Cantor's letters with Emmy Noether, was strongly engaged by Barth's theology, and was shot in 1944 by the Vichy government for his work with the Resistance. (He had already escaped once; he wrote his last work On Logic and the Theory of Science, as a prisoner.) Badiou likes to cite Georges Canguilhem's description of Cavaillès:
A philosopher-mathematician stuffed with explosives, a man as lucid as he was courageous, a man both resolute and without optimism. If that isn't a hero, what is?During a meeting with Raymond Aron in London after his first escape, Cavaillès told him:
I am a Spinozist; I believe we must submit to necessity everywhere. The sequences of the mathematicians are necessary; even the stages of mathematical science are necessary. This struggle that we carry out is necessary as well.Knox Peden, from whose book on Spinozism in twentieth century French thought I quote this anecdote, comments (not wholly approvingly) that in telling this story Aron manages to politicize and depoliticize Cavaillès' thinking in the same stroke. Albeit connecting Cavaillès' heroism to his philosophy, he also holds that this heroism was unconnected to any specific politics -- "be they communist, socialist, or democratic" -- because Cavaillès was, he says, simply acting in accordance with necessity as he saw it. Says Peden:
This is a politics that is logical and pure; in a word, it is above politics.I agree with Peden in his characterization, but I disagree with his evaluation. I think that Aron is right in a certain sense to praise Cavaillès for a dispassionate politics. Philosophically engaged, politics is bound to look like "a politics above politics." It is. The archetype of this was Socrates' trial. Or, to take a fictional instance:
Why does any martyr cooperate with his judases? ... We see a game beyond the endgame ... As Seneca warned Nero: No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor. (David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas p 349) §Vote for who you want -- don't vote for either big party candidate if you can't hold your nose, but don't forget down-ticket issues and vote your conscience. Work for election reform to lessen the need for nose-holding everywhere; work for whatever other immediate and near-term ends you feel called to. This will suffice for politics; that is "the game." But in the end, the odds of the game are not good. And in light of that, philosophy must look to the game beyond the endgame, recalling what philosophy is. The only absolute political responsibility of philosophy is to assure that philosophy remains possible: not to survive, but to live the life worth living, the examined life. And this can only be done if philosophers continue to be philosophers. Politics is especially dangerous for this, not just because of the siren song of power (as supposedly exemplified by Plato's ill-fated "Syracusan adventure," or Heidegger's famous "blunder," as he called it, with Nazism), but because of the much more banal emotion I mentioned before: anger.
Towards the end of his life, after having lived in London since the 1970's, Piatigorsky returned for a visit to Moscow. A film crew followed him around recording his impressions for a documentary. As was inevitable, he was met by a city that had drastically changed since he had left. Bemused by the experience, he said:
I don’t know modern Moscow. Many things that I’ve seen make me sad. Just make me sad – in no case indignant. Generally speaking, you know, a philosopher must avoid being indignant. He can be indignant only with himself.
* For an amusing introduction to the memetics of argument, which covers many of the same points but with cute cartoons, I commend to you this video by the the always-entertaining and often correct CGP Grey.
† I was reminded of some of this history by the recent dramatic production of Daisy at ACT Theatre in Seattle.
‡ The aforementioned CGP Grey has a series of educational videos on this matter, which you really should watch, beginning with this one, and then this.
§ In this novel, the memetic mechanisms referred to above are also part of this meta-game:
Media has flooded Nea So Copros with my Catechisms. Every schoolchild in corpocracy knows my twelve “blasphemies” now.... My ideas have been reproduced a billionfold.Nietzsche would say the same about Socrates' motivations.