Some theorists have argued that politics, especially democratic politics, creates a rupture in a more organic, “pre-political” society. This article looks at various aspects of this “rupture”, and possible approaches to healing it.
One might well raise the issue of whether the central problem of the so-called “end of history” (or period of late modernity), is essentially “the death of politics”, or a (presumably) un-natural intensification of politics. On the one hand, it is possible to observe the socio-technical “resolution” of all human problems into a Brave New World-type society, but, on the other, there is also the drive towards “politically correct” views and behaviours. Indeed, the minutest deviations from these views are often met with wild, vicious attacks. To be considered a “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobe”, “white supremacist”, “fascist”, or “anti-Semite” (to cite some of the main terms of opprobrium) is today the ultimate crime or sin. One is struck by the unbelievable tightness of control over those who belong to what C. S. Lewis has called “the Inner Ring”, the circles of power. Both within the ranks of the “politically correct”, and, insofar as is possible, in society as a whole, constant monitoring goes on to root out the slightest inkling of “incorrect” views. To cite one of Donald Atwell Zoll’s more felicitous phrases, the modern dogma is one “whose severity would have startled a de Maistre, or even a Torquemada”! This dogma is increasingly concerned with total internalized belief, not outward conformity. George Orwell’s term from Nineteen Eighty-Four — “bellyfeel” — is useful to describe what is desired — not rituals of formal obedience, but rather a heartfelt, uncritical acceptance of the ruling ideology inside one’s innermost soul, combined with a zeal to vapourize anyone who is in opposition to it. So, in this sense, ours is a very “political” society.
It is indeed an interesting contradiction in contemporary left-liberalism that it attacks “traditional morality”, yet is in itself an intensely “moralistic” system. One might well ask if a similar status as that of “heretics” and “witches” under medieval and early-modern Christianity, does not exist for those who question modern-day dogma and taboos?
However, it is also possible to argue for politics today. The apolitical man is largely economic man, or liberal man. It is salutary to argue for politics over economics. The restoration of an organic society (or “pre-political community”), it may be argued, now has to be achieved through conscious political effort, by the triumph of one faction in the arena or “marketplace of ideas”. In terms of the necessity of politics, one would do well to remember the ancient Athenian meaning of the word “idiot”: someone not interested in politics (i.e., in the life and affairs of the polis, his “city” or political community). As Pericles himself put it – “you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”
It might be argued that “politics” is simply the Western way, and that “the political fight” must be taken as a given in any attempt to achieve meaningful societal transformations, and what might be called the necessity for the primacy of ideology, and for the political battle.
There is also the issue of the varying definitions of politics in contemporary society. There is, for example, the definition of politics as a narrow, sleazy profession as practiced by most democratic politicians, which is generally held in contempt. There is the somewhat nobler definition of “flag-waving” and civics-type celebrations. There is the use of the word “political” as meaning either “self-interested” or “arbitrary”. There is the definition of “politics” as political tactics and maneuvering, e.g., at leadership conventions. The word “Machiavellian” is often invoked as a description of such politics. Almost always today, the term “politically active” is a code-word for left-wing activism, in contradistinction to the “capitalist” sphere of economics. To the capitalist right-wing, the term “politics” connotes “irrationality”, “inefficiency”, and the “extortion of rents” (as in the curiously named “public-choice theory”). Then there is what could be called “capital-P” politics or ideology. And then, there is the assertion that “everything is political”, something which those who are most ideologically acute often share. Lenin has made some pertinent observations about the ways in which the ideological theorist must also be an acute strategist and tactician.
Some would argue that society must express itself through political forms in any case, and that there is a sort of “politics” even in the “pre-political community”, though not necessarily “politics in the style of the polis“.
Among the important megacrises facing the planet today is that of technology. In the author’s opinion, Martin Heidegger, the Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant, and particularly Jacques Ellul (whose newest work, The Technological Bluff, appeared in English in the 1990s) have formulated the near-definitive critique of the rise of modern technology (which might generally be equated with rise of capitalism and the later forms of liberal democracy) as resulting in a totalistic, inhuman, technological framework from which all other view-points and perspectives are effectively excluded.
An interesting point in language is that the French word “technique” connotes “the modern way of doing things”, whereas “technologie” refers to the “hardware” of machinery, etc. The Canadian political philosopher, George Parkin Grant, uses the English term technology (“technique” + “ideology”), in the manner of the French word “technique”.
In his book, Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred, Thomas Molnar had suggested, but did not fully develop, the idea that nationalism emerges as an attempt to retrieve “the sacred” in a time of desacralization. The collective history, character, folk-customs, etc., of a people, “internalized” through powerful rituals, and perpetuated through the national history and literature, and such things as the patriotic songs of the people, may well constitute the only possible resistance to the rationalism and individualism of liberal hypermodernity. To put it aphoristically, only the nationalist rally can challenge the rock-concert. The tribe, nation, or people — as well as the family, which is the kernel of the tribe or nation — is usually the only meaningful collectivity one can identify with today. A reflective “ethnicist” believes that all nations should preserve their particularities and diversities and discrete ways of life, and must therefore remain separate as far as possible, and in as many ways as possible, from each other.
One can generally be pessimistic when looking at the putative future of West. However one wants to perceive it, the West is clearly a unique phenomenon in world-history. The characterization of modern Western technological civilization as a sort of “cancer” in world-history is not far off the mark, if one is clear about what the most negative features of Western society are. But it should also be reiterated that traditional European societies were in some sense the first victims of the worldwide drive to rationalization and technology.
It now seems increasingly apparent, from the current vantage point, that in the next fifty or so years, the societies today called “Western” will have to either find a hard core of defenders, like Rosemary Suthcliff’s legion, or become physically less visible. (The immigration trends, declining birthrates, and the ever-increasing numbers of old persons in the West are rather obvious social phenomena.) What also seems clear is that the new population will have very little of the “humanitarianism” and “compassion” which has been both a moral achievement, and now probably the bane of the West.
Maybe only East-Central Europe and Russia will remain as the beleaguered European homelands, in an increasingly violent and chaotic world, similar to that predicted in Pierre Lellouche’s Le nouveau monde de l’ordre Yalta au chaos des nations.
It could be argued that there is a possible contradiction visible in the neo-traditionalist analysis of late modernity. On the one hand, traditionalists lament the so-called “end of history”. But on the other, they somehow try to reassure us that national, ethnic, and religious issues are sure to re-emerge. This in fact may be wishful thinking, perhaps even a facile optimism, an unwillingness to face up to the total triumph of technology and rationalization in the contemporary world, which vitiates all “the struggles for a better world” of truly idealistic groups of whatever ideological orientation.