Ever since the French Revolution, we have been in the habit of describing politics as a battle between the Right and the Left, as though this were an anthropological truism. The fact that this division originates with the Revolution, that is, with the Left, should lead us to suspect the “even-handed” symmetry of the figure. If we take as our point of departure the most obvious, if not necessarily the most valid characterization of this opposition as that between stability and change, or for the philosophically minded, Being and Becoming, then it is odd that the two should be given equal status. In most aspects of our lives, the functioning order is what matters, and in all but exceptional, not to say revolutionary circumstances, change is incremental, if it occurs at all.
In everyday life, we may complain about living conditions, or traffic, or taxes, but our submission to the reality of the social order is the reality of what we do, our complaint, a mere epiphenomenon. (If, however, our resentment unearths some illegality, our complaint becomes a means of enforcing the social order.) That the political faction whose vocation is to implement such complaints is nonetheless one of the two symmetrical political forces in liberal democracy confirms (1) that it is the Left that is the origin of this symmetry, and (2) that the Right, in defending Being against the Left’s Becoming, is also an instrument of “complaint,” seeking to limit or undo the changes wrought by the Left. The Left is indeed the “party of resentment,” but because resentment is contagious, the Right is resentful as well; it is the party of those who resent the resenters. Hobbes was the first man of the Right in this sense; his use of the scenic imagination to conceive the origin of monarchy out of the “state of nature” is the anthropological foundation of what we call the Enlightenment. Hobbes’ originality reflects his new, post-Revolutionary status as the secular defender of what had previously been accepted by all, including its opponents, as a divinely instituted ritual order, but that had henceforth to be defended by political means.
All politics, in a word, is about Becoming. If the human is revolutionary, politics is evolutionary; its existence presupposes the symmetry and therefore the negotiability of resentments that would otherwise risk breaking out in violence. It is the tension between the universal reciprocity of the moral model and the necessarily opaque ethical reality of a given society that furnishes the political sphere with its energy, but only the dynamic of the market system gives rise to the symmetry that allows for politics in the modern sense of the term. Although the factions in the classical republics of Athens and Rome were not without resemblance to the modern Left and Right, there can be no true Left in a slave economy. The ancient “proletarians” sought to increase their own privileges rather than to abolish privilege as such; even prior to universal male suffrage, the bourgeois economic hierarchy had no such cushion below it. Hannah Arendt’s well-known exaltation of political “action,” which takes place entirely among humans, above the “work” and “labor” that manipulate the natural world, has its roots in the German-romantic identification with Greece, whose noble “Aryan” nature Nietzsche contrasted with the Judeo-Christian ressentiment that is the root of modern politics. Politics is distinguished from Arendt’s “action” in that it is only a secondary preoccupation of the bourgeois, whose primary focus on the economy reflects his historical position as what Kojève called in Hegelian terms a “freed slave.”
Politics is the anthropological laboratory where we learn the respective limits of goal-oriented activity and the resentful reaction against it. The agon of resentments is what distinguishes politics from economics, and from the perspective of Sirius makes politics so much more ugly and irrational than economics. But because we do not live on Sirius, no theory of politics can situate itself “objectively” outside the political realm. “Political science” is a horizon rather than a reality, and even as a horizon it must defer to anthropology to define the integrity of its object. Conversely, the questions anthropology cannot answer are left to be dealt with by means of politics.
One might call the Left-Right opposition “class-based,” but class conflict is not politics but revolution; a true party of the proletariat or of the bourgeoisie would not be a political party but a faction. The weakness of politics in Iraq as (formerly?) in Northern Ireland reflects the confessional and/or ethnic base of its political parties. Politics exists only when one has a choice of party, not merely formally but “psychologically,” when individual voters have access to the mindsets of both Right and Left and must consciously choose which they prefer. Self-interest of course plays a role, but not necessarily in a directly material sense. Our choice of one of the various nuances of a Left or Right mindset is a bet on the future of the social order, not simply an attempt to modify it to our material advantage. Opposing one’s own selfish interest is often an attractive position even from a material standpoint; a white male academic will probably achieve more by championing groups whose interests diverge from his own. In such cases the sacrifice of his immediate interests operates as a moral potlatch within a Maussian exchange system partly if not wholly independent of the market. Such parallel systems can take on a quasi-religious force, as is currently occurring with the global-warming phenomenon to which I will turn below.
Adam Katz invokes originary analysis in the hope of transcending the tiresome Left-Right dichotomy. Katz suggests that the most fundamental political division opposes not Right and Left but originary and generative. The first is “radical” in bringing all questions back to the (moral-communal) center, the second, “liberal” (in the European sense of the term) in its focus on the creation of new (individual-economic) degrees of freedom. Katz’ opposition of positives–the “negative” side of which is the disappearance of the Left as such–is antithetical in spirit, if not entirely in rhetoric, to the standard modern pattern of opposed Left-Right resentments.
The “originary” perspective derives its power exclusively from the moral model; it is not so much resentful of the historically existing order as aware of its derivative status with regard to the origin. Similarly, the “generative” outlook is concerned not with the reactive defense of a contested order but with exploiting the freedom provided by the originary event to act independently of the group in its (deferred) interest by participating in economic exchange. The question that concerns us here is whether these categories can ever replace Right and Left as the primary poles of political debate.
The idea of a politics not driven by the need to negotiate the resentments of different groups strikes me as utopian. In Left-Right politics, economic creativity is associated with the conservative desire to maintain the exchange system rather than the liberal one (in the American sense) to impose “moral” restrictions on it, but the more important point is that the generation of new degrees of freedom is an economic rather than political operation. This suggests that the Left-Right opposition belongs not to the moment of the emission of the sign but to its embodiment in the newly formed exchange system; it reflects the potential conflict between those who resent the “equal” distribution after the sparagmos and those who resent the thought of revisiting this distribution. The Left expresses the eternal grievance over the inevitable falling-off of transparent reciprocity between the exchange of signs and the exchange of things, but it exists as a Left only once a Right emerges to express the resentment inherent in the specifically modern obligation to defend as ethical an order of exchange that had previously been held sacred.
The politics of the originary-generative opposition remains within the “placeless” realm of the sign, where problems of distribution are in principle always already deferred, rather than in the world of material exchange, which is not so much the realm of “scarcity” as that of opacity. The opposition between originary and generative reflects the constitutive tension of the originary context where the community must be affirmed around the center, but only to the extent that the participants can subsequently leave the center to engage in economic activity. This is a tension that belongs to the scene as a whole rather than becoming personalized in conflict. It is akin to the tension that arises at the end of a dinner party between the centripetal force that keeps the group together and the centrifugal force that sends them to their cars. The mimesis inherent in such phenomena virtually never leads to open conflict, because there is no privilege to fight over other than the trivial one of leaving early, which makes leaving easier rather than harder for the others. It is not coincidental that the participants in this configuration have already partaken, presumably to their satisfaction, of the products of the communal sparagmos. Politics, on the contrary, finds its energy in the resentment that the distribution of these products inspires, with the Left condemning the social order’s inequitable distance from the originary moral model and the Right defending its legitimacy as historically continuous with this model.
Does the recent debate over global warming provide grounds for claiming that the “Western” political debate of Right and Left is approaching the limits of liberal democracy? The Left considers the threat to human survival from the result of human disequilibrium with the natural world far more serious than that posed by Islamic extremism. Yet except in unambiguous emergencies, throughout human history human threats have taken precedence over natural ones. If the sea level were to rise precipitously or if an asteroid were to be nearing the earth, there would be no need to argue about the relative importance of human and natural dangers. Now, even in the absence of clear and present danger, the Left claims that the threat is a scientific “fact.” In this extension of the postmodern victimary critique beyond the human sphere, presumably only the transcendental judgment of “science,” rather than the usual political bargaining, can confirm the Left’s apprehensions or the Right’s sanguinity.
But what this means is precisely that, like the purely human problem of Islamic terrorism, the human-natural global warming issue is indeed an object of political bargaining. The transcendental appeal to scientific truth does not stray from politics as usual; political rhetoric always appeals beyond naked self-interest to a transcendent universal rooted in the originary event, even if it is usually described in more cosmological terms. The predicted catastrophic consequences of global warming, however distant, are no more or less hypothetical than those of an Iranian nuclear device. Politics exists to adjudicate the respective degree of gravity of such dangers, which cannot be determined in the formal rationality of a judicial procedure but only through the negotiation of personal and collective resentments. What is both fascinating and frustrating about such debates is the impossibility of maintaining the “objective” basis of the issue, that is, the projected significance of global warming for humanity in general, outside the sphere of political debate. The real question at stake is not whether the Earth is getting warmer or even whether human activity is the cause, but how much industrial productivity should be sacrificed for how much reduction in “greenhouse effect.” The Left sees global warming as a weapon in its critique of the market system and its values; the Right sees its opponents as mere resenters of a system they consider fully capable of dealing with environmental issues in its normal course of operations. If tomorrow it is discovered that the production of CO2 actually reduces global warming, within a few days all the positions will have switched around, but all the underlying resentments will remain the same.
Although the coming and passing of the postmodern era has posed challenges to the market system, it has not put an end to the modern political dichotomy of Left and Right. On the contrary, the recent evolution of virtually all the major European countries, which were dominated during the Cold War by shapeless “center-right” coalitions as bulwarks against communism, suggests that if anything this opposition has been sharpened–as witness the just-concluded French election. If “politics” is an indispensable feature of the market system, it is because it has proved effective at releasing energy from the deferral of violence into the economy at large. Today, as the modern world confronts its Other in what appears to be their “final conflict,” it is easy to grow impatient with a political debate that seems so irresolute in the face of the fanaticism of transcendentally guaranteed resentment. And the critique of this lack of resolution is an important element of the debate itself. But whether its outcome be reason or folly, the only alternative to the uncertainty of politics is not the certitude of “science,” whether of climatology or of Generative Anthropology, but the dogmatic truth of our enemies.