Politics, in its most basic sense, is the art of doing what Rodney King deserves immortality for insisting on in a particularly difficult moment: that we all just get along. The bottom line in all human activities is maintaining the human community, which unlike other ecological groupings, is only possible if we defer our “instincts” and think about it. The deferred linkings can be subsequently reconnected by propositional thought to improve their operations; whence religion, philosophy, science.
According to the originary hypothesis, subsequent to the reciprocal exchange of signs embodying the unanimous accord as to the significance/sacrality of the central figure, the latter’s division in the sparagmos furnishes the alimentary guarantee of the viability of the new human community. Although the reality of any such event is beyond verification by empirical means, it provides a model for future human events that allows us to think the empirical, in what would seem to be the most minimal way possible, in the scenic imagination.
There is no simple connection between the originary hypothesis and the classical categories of Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle’s models were based on a logic of experience that can be improved on only by examination of the premodern structures of power, not by a priori theorization of their possible derivation from the originary event. But I would claim that this is no longer true in the modern world, precisely because, in using their scenic imagination to construct models of the formation of the social order, Hobbes and his successors reflect the fact that the model of the human community implicit in modern politics returns, beyond the metaphysical world, to its originary source. The liberation of human energies that we call modernity enabled Hobbes and his successors to rethink the bases of society: how did humans come to get along when living in communities of individuals not yet bound, as they are becoming no longer, by ties of custom that diffuse fear of the originary conflict?
Hobbes’ Leviathan scenario provides a more minimal origin of human self-consciousness than Descartes’ cogito, with its dependence on propositional logic. Objections to GA as a “social contract” theory presupposing an already-existing human community wholly miss the point that Hobbes’ model, as he presents it, requires as its sole motivation the experience of intolerable violence. No “contract” need be signed with Leviathan for him to be able to acquire sovereignty over those fed up with their “solitary, poor…” life in the “state of nature”—which needs only a small stretch of the imagination to be seen as a picture of the failing prehuman Alpha-Beta hierarchy. Leviathan is the prototypical big-man, the supplier of peace (hence implicitly of nourishment), not the transcendent force of the community embodied in a divinity, but a human who has taken this embodiment upon himself.
The end of every history justifies its beginning. The point of departure for this essay was my desire to make clear what I continue to find attractive in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 thesis that liberal democracy as practiced in today’s Western democracies is the realization of Hegel’s “end of history.” Although FF’s thesis as stated is embarrassingly naïve, it is not to be dismissed. No, this is not the “end of history,” nor would it have been even if everything had gone as we hoped in 1989-91. But FF saw something real; it was indeed the end of a certain epoch of history, and the post-modern world cannot put its genie back in the bottle—nor can the recent calls for “democratic socialism” by people half of whom cannot tell you who won World War II.
The principle of democratic governance is that the citizenry or, in a larger society, their representatives, must possess a mechanism for arriving at decisions which the group as a whole must support. The legislative assembly that establishes laws and, with the help of the judiciary, oversees their execution, can function only if, following all debates and discussions among individuals and factions, the group’s adherence to the final decision, which manifests its loyalty to the institutions of the community as a whole, stands on a higher level than its members’ loyalty to individual or factional interests. The losers of a given debate must remain a “loyal opposition.”
But the division between Left and Right characteristic of liberal democracy destabilizes from the outset this hierarchy of loyalties and, if functioning correctly, provides it with a self-correcting mechanism—a paradoxical result more serendipitous than intentional. There is nothing inherently paradoxical in the idea of a parliament designed to negotiate compromises between different interests and resentments. This was the view of the Founding Fathers, and of those such as Locke who had theorized the institutions of liberal democracy. And in times of political calm, left-right disputes typically present themselves as symmetrical: the Left requests a raise for workers of w% and a tax increase for the rich to t%; the Right suggests w-x% and t-y%, and they come to an agreement on figures somewhere in between.
Yet this symmetry can only continue to function within institutional limits by “bracketing” the Left’s implicit assertion of a transcendental volonté générale in opposition to any institutional restriction. The left-right division, which can trace its ancestry to the Whigs and Tories of the British 17th century, and which acquired its directional symbolism in the French Revolution, reminds us that the existence of democracy in the modern era is the product of the delegitimation of the previously existing system. The Left’s loyalty is to the “people” rather than to the institutions by which a given polity is governed, and it retains in principle the right to put these institutions into question by violent means. (We may recall Jefferson’s remark that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”) On various occasions since the Roundhead/Whig vs Cavalier/Tory battles of the 17th century, the Left has espoused, and on occasion, successfully, the radical modification of the institutions of government.
As the high point of the Left’s conception of political community, Bolshevik “democratic centralism” espoused a model of political deliberation very different from liberal democracy. Rather than allowing debate and compromise to come up with solutions not previously anticipated, the Bolsheviks, putting into practice their faith in the volonté générale, conceived political deliberation as if it followed our model of the originary event. That is, the group was expected to arrive at a “correct” position implicit from the beginning, as in retrospect the sign was the “correct” solution to the Alpha-Beta crisis. In practice, this meant relying on the party leader’s firstness, or rather, his “proletarian genius,” to grasp and enunciate this solution.
In liberal-democratic society, left-right symmetry functions adequately in most circumstances, even if the true leftist would ideally prefer to replace the democratic system with a socialist one. The US and even the nations of Western Europe have never possessed a sufficient number of socialist true believers to pose a real danger to the liberal-democratic system, nor do they do so today, however much the term “socialist” is thrown around—more now in the US than in the EU. Yet the fact that this long-lasting dichotomy has been problematized in recent years by the emergence of what for lack of a better name we may call neo-populism suggests that the liberal-democratic model has entered a “time of troubles” from which we can only hope will emerge a modification suitable to our postmodern era.
Today’s victimocratic identity politics rejects in principle all the traditional norms of liberal-democratic society that take for granted communal unity. Defenders of these norms are considered forces of “hate,” to be condemned and silenced wherever possible. Yet the Obama administration’s opening to victimocracy was not fundamentally hostile to the liberal-democratic system. As I tried to show in the UFT Chronicles (598, 600-05), its politics could be understood as a means to adapt the liberal economy to the digital age, given its premium on symbol-manipulation and the decline of “labor-power,” with a minimum of social disturbance.
But victimocracy pursued as a model rather than a strategy is ultimately corrosive of any stable political form. The replacement of the familiar term “liberal” by “progressive” already suggested this. And because even that word retains historical connotations that recall “working within the system,” it is being replaced by socialist, a term which, lacking a real history in the US, has retained its shock value among the young, who were spared the era of the Cold War and the “socialist bloc.”
Although it relies on the central government to enforce its proposals, the Left’s social vision of “intersectionality” is at the antipodes of “Solidarity Forever” or the Internationale (“… shall be the human race”). The one element of the victimary program that views the human community as a whole is environmentalism. Formerly the province of NIMBY Sierra Club conservationists, the advent of “climate change” has made greenness into an instrument for uniting the entire society against fossil fuels and flatulent cows.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but one might find a glimmer of hope in The Green New Deal being urged by the victimary millennials, which takes the environment as our unique victim across all human differences. Reading the GND “FAQ”, with its goal of eliminating all net emissions by 2030, etc., etc., I was struck more favorably by what it leaves out. The words “race,” “gender,” and “minority” are absent from the document, whose only concession to identity politics is a single mention of “indigenous people.”
I’m not quite ready to team up with Geraldo Rivera, who calls himself “the only joint Trump/AOC fan,” but however absurd it may be in the current state of world affairs to treat climate change as the moral equivalent of World War III, it’s certainly an improvement on “Impeach the m..!” and “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” There is an upbeat aspect to the incredibly ubiquitous AOC that suggests at the very least that the millennial contingent, however questionable its aims, prefers a goal that involves attacking things rather than other people.
Although, on the surface, attacking things in this manner would seem a quintessentially “Western” mode of behavior, the emphasis is not on the conquest of nature via the creation of new technology, but on treating nature as a victim of human perturbation that it is our task to minimize. At the limit, all our activities should be “organic” and “renewable.” Yet, other things aside, the GND is primarily a job program that emphasizes productive work toward a shared goal. The insistent emphasis on union labor speaks not to the pajama-boy-“Julia” couple of the Obama era, but to a long-term Democratic constituency from the days of Roosevelt and Truman, one that has not habitually indulged in “intersectionality.”
What all humans have in common, even before acquiring the propositional thinking that the Hebrews and Greeks placed at the foundation of Western Civilization, is the scene of representation. Whence the ostensive exercises typical of Buddhism—fixing one’s gaze on an arbitrary object, repeating a mantra until the sound becomes void of meaning—that are meant to produce in us the experience of the bare scene of human intentionality, void of any specific object, hence implicitly shared by all.
I would be reluctant to ask the proponents of The Green New Deal if this is ultimately what they have in mind, but their vision of activity for the purpose of reducing its own impact is in its way a synthesis of Western activism with the “Salvation from the East” I wrote about a couple of Chronicles ago—a synthesis which the Asian economic powerhouses have shown to be perfectly viable from their end of the spectrum. As the now-forgotten object of environmentalist worship, Gaia was too much like Jesus; defining our task as limiting ourselves to renewable energy seeks only to leave the scene of nature as it was before we arrived.
Who knows if this may not be the best way out of the rapidly progressing mechanical-digital transition: ensuring the eventual dissolution of “racial” and “gender” identities in a culture of minimized presence, increasingly leaving propositional logic to machines programmed to minimize it ever further, while prolonging our lives in real and virtual pleasures. Old Westerners such as I can never partake fully of this social vision, but we are destined to perish. Young people today—I have heard them say this!—have begun to assume that by the time they reach my age, they will already have been assured of earthly immortality. Good luck with that!