Archives for posts with tag: politics

Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. My reasons are the common ones: they’re unnecessarily divisive, and they tend to ignore practicality. I’m not against the idea of identity politics; every identity has a right to celebrate themselves in an empowering fashion, but when that mental process is expanded to the grander scale of actual politics is when things fall apart. Luckily, I found a brilliant video that disagrees with me, and it puts forward the best case for identity politics I’ve ever seen:

Here’s a summary for those who opt out of watching this almost 12 minute video:

Identity politics is based on arbitrary distinctions between two groups, and those distinctions don’t necessarily even need to be defined all that well. Politics on the whole, as defined by Carl Schmitt, is the distribution of power along those hazy boundaries. Consider the One-Drop rule that governed the ‘blackness’ of individuals during the 20th century: insane nonsense, but still firmly embedded in the cultural psyche and accepted by the whole as a means of dividing power. To quote, “True political conflict isn’t about facts – it’s about the fight against other identities, however arbitrarily we might point them out.”

Politics therefore isn’t about policies, government programs, or their austere lack, but about “who is allowed to have power over themselves, and who is not.” The arguments over any other issue is what Olly, the presenter, calls, “management disagreements.” Those who focus on these management disagreements as the basis for their political identity are less zealous than those who adhere to Politics as defined by Schmitt. The zealotry behind a dogmatic identity can literally kill while milquetoast liberalism could never achieve such an extreme. Because of this, a government that runs on the ideologically weaker managerial proceduralism platform will be dangerously vulnerable against any group fueled by identity-based fanaticism that is big enough to threaten it. This means that anyone who doesn’t take into account power and identity when they are discussing politics will be doomed to lose every time.

Olly then goes on to say that when one considers the identity politics of the Left and compares it to those on the Right, there is a crucial distinction to make because they are not mirror images of one another. In this Us vs. Them mentality, the opposition to the Left is less rigid than the opposition to the Right. For example, when the Left defines itself as against the rich, a rich person could simply redistribute their wealth and they would be accepted by the Left, whereas gay people, transgendered people, Muslims, etc. who are the dichotomous Other to the Right, cannot change who they are because their identity is not a choice. He concludes by saying that the centrists who focus on liberal democracy and forget, or purposefully ignore, the role that power and identity inherently play within politics are essentially condoning the violence that those two factors play in every day lives.

Like I said: good stuff. I myself have written about the perilous implications of a possibly universal Us vs. Them mentality, and given that that would encompass politics as well, then Schmitt’s Identity Politics are truly the only type that need to be addressed. However, if that’s the case, then Olly’s argument fails on one critical point. Consider Vladimir Lenin. Or Mao Zedong. Or Pol Pot. These were identity politicians on the Left who engineered a violent, inflexible attack against their identity-based opposites: the bourgeoisie. There was no talk about allowing the rich into the loving warmth of their Leftist ideology. There were massacres. The same could be said for Malcolm X who did not want white people to end their racist ways, he simply wanted them gone in a black-people-only utopia. The Left can be just as ideologically vicious as the Right when they are inflamed by their identity-based righteousness. If politics is only Identity Politics, and both sides at their extremes work only to eliminate their opposites, then ultimately we’re just fucked.

In a glimmer of hope, let’s consider this excellent Al Jazeera article that has a similar theme to Olly’s lovely video. It mentions a similar distinction between the populism on the Right and the populism on the Left, but uses an example of Bernie Sanders demonstrating left-wing populism by wishing to break up the big banks as the contrast to the Right’s anti-pluralism. Olly hints at this as well when he says that the rich and powerful can give up their oppressive ways to become a friend of the Left. It is not the identity that is at issue in these examples, but the practices of those who possess that identity. In order for Schmitt’s Politics to have a happy ending, the Other needs the capacity to change.

It could be argued that this is simple: give up racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and people will be welcomed into that loving embrace of the Left I was fantasizing about earlier, but unfortunately this is too simplistic. Consider the arguments of Anne Bishop, who declares that everyone possessing oppressor traits (straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) will always be oppressors because regardless of their deeds, they will always benefit from the privileges that those identity markers bestow upon them. In addition, they will have grown up under conditions that reinforce their superiority, and undermining that conditioning is an infinite process that can never successfully be accomplished. Bishop claims that the person who believes that they have finally rid themselves of their oppressor qualities becomes more oppressive for holding these impossible beliefs. What Bishop is essentially saying is that the dichotomous Other of the Left cannot shed their incompatible identity any more than the Other of the Right. Are we just fucked then?

Since identity is inescapable from either side, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The key lies in the example I used from the Al Jazeera article where Sanders wants to break up the big banks. Breaking up the big banks has absolutely nothing to do with identity. In fact, it is closer to what Olly might call a management proposal. This management proposal, however, is the mechanism for change that would allow the rich to absolve themselves of their oppressive identity to something more acceptable to the Left. Or consider the Black Lives Matter campaign demanding an end to the shooting of black men by police. This is Schmittian Politics because so long as police are trained to use deadly force, and crimes are still committed by black people, even if racism is taken out of the equation, this will always produce the use of deadly force against black people. It is an impossible demand for change. Further evidence is the call to defund the NYPD and expel the police department from Pride Parades; clear indications of inflexible dogmatism. This isn’t allowing capacity for change, it’s demanding the elimination of police from within the Leftist fold: an explicit Us vs. Them mentality. Instead of an overarching ban on police, or calls to defund and therefore ultimately abolish the institution of policing, why not look at mechanisms for change? In the UK (save Northern Ireland), cops do not carry firearms, and if this system were imported into the United States, it would certainly eliminate the police killings of black men. While I am by no means saying this is the panacea for the shootings of black men by police, and other, better solutions are certainly available, it is one example of a mechanism for change that does not call for vindictive polarization.

If we are to accept the implications of Schmittian Politics, then the passionate zeal that drives us must be directed against the management disagreements that Olly insists are not involved in that type of Politics at all. Creating a Them out of an identity marker, no matter which direction it is coming from, will only ever be destructive. My initial critique was right: we must avoid divisiveness and focus on practical, real-world solutions. Identity must be dismissed in favour of these mechanisms for change, as they are the only way to bridge the friend and enemy divide. I mean sure, maybe that is an impossible request, and we are hardwired to pursue an Other based on arbitrary identity markers. If that’s the case, then, as I’ve been saying, we’d just be fucked.

There is a Marxist belief that if something is inaccessible to the poor, then it can be neither radical nor revolutionary. Following the trend of ironic tragedy that history sardonically and incessantly throws in our face, the decrease in book reading, both in adults and teenagers, points to a culture that would struggle to read The Communist Manifesto, let alone Das Kapital. As one would expect, the impoverished and the uneducated are those who are reading the least. There are neither sparkly vampires, teenage wizards, nor BDSM-enthused misogynists to incite mass interest in Marx’s seminal works, so I suppose they too must be discarded into the dustbin of irrelevancy to revolutionary thought.

The internet has opened up social dialogue to include everyone with internet access, seemingly giving the unheard voice of the proletariat unprecedented access to be speak out, yet in reality has only allowed the opinions of troglodytes to swarm rational discussion, turning it into a cesspool of vomit and bile, defiling the very notion that a reasonable outcome is possible. Unfortunately, the Pandora’s Box of the internet cannot be closed, and this is now the discourse to which one must adhere.

Donald Trump has capitalized on this phenomenon by devising his most successful populist propaganda within the 140 character limit of the Twitter universe. Hilary Clinton, not one to be outdone, shines brilliantly in her campaign slogan: I’m With Her. The “I’m” captures the essence of social media narcissism, letting everyone know what this campaign is really about; me! The “With Her” is, of course, reminiscent of the purposefully vague and noncommittal identity feminism of the Tumblr era. Both of these demagogues are pandering to their respective demographics with their own promises of revolution, yet I do not believe either of them represent what Marx had in mind.

Philosophy is notoriously relegated to the ivory tower, despite Diogenes and his abandoned cup. And while some might claim that the greatest philosophical question is why there are essents rather than nothing, the original Greek schools, including Diogenes’s Cynics, utilized philosophy as a means to discover how to live the good life. Aristotle’s Aretê or Zeno’s Stoicism both offer methods to live virtuously. Without the dogmatism associated with the religious side of this conversation, philosophy allows us to seek with constant refinement how to live; a critical necessity in this tumultuous time.

Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and possibly rabid communist, belabours the point, saying that despite the impending global consequences, we need theory now more than ever. The instinct to act is strong but must be overcome, as postmodernism has deconstructed everything without creating substitutes to put in its place. To act now would be to seek anarchy. End racism. End sexism. End capitalism, but how? And replace it with what? Ideologies cannot be eradicated, only changed, unless our revolution is to end in genocide.

How do we conduct the dialogue of this contemporary philosophy? I mean, analogies to the Greeks these days might not reach as large an audience, but I can predict with the inevitable alienation of Cassandra that referencing the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West will not carry the same lasting weight. The trials of Odysseus are eternal, and thus possess a portion of truth to which humanity will forever have access, whereas Famous will be out-of-date within the year.

The intellectualism associated with philosophy and social theory by its very nature divorces itself from the reach of the bulk of the people. Do we wade into the depths of thoughtless memes and Youtube comments to wage our revolution with the masses, only to discover that we too have become thoughtless in the process? Or do we stand above it, confident on our pillar, helping up those who have recognized the shadows on the cave wall? The disenfranchised need to be acknowledged, certainly, and their voices heard to the extent that we are aware of the depths of their circumstances, but acknowledging this does not require fetishising it. Educated progressives gnash their teeth over the large swathes of people who vote against their own interest, yet this is most often due to demagogues like those mentioned earlier who are savvy in the ways of exploiting those demographics, and know exactly how to pander to their base nature. If something is accessible to the poor, who is to say it is in their best interest?

We do not begrudge climate scientists as elitist when they claim their knowledge gives them more insight on the subject. We cynically laugh at those who do, as they are the obstacle to the required change climate science demands. Granted, philosophy and sociology are softer sciences, yet there can still be an accumulation of wisdom gained from the relevant reading and research.

Those who come up with a new economic system should know the theories of Marx, Smith, Keynes, and Friedman among others if only to know what works and what doesn’t. They should be aware of the history and context surrounding those successes and failures. A fruitful discussion of social order would require knowledge of Republic, On Liberty, Leviathan, and more: books that have shaped Western society as proper change requires an understanding of what has come before. The discussion should not burdened by a responsibility to be accessible to everyone, as not everyone has the time, inclination, or resources to pursue the knowledge necessary for that discussion. To demand that from the poor is indeed insulting to the circumstances of their existence.

I will not abide a system of thought that decries Marx as neither being radical nor revolutionary, even his own Marxism. Contrary to my condemnation of capitalism and my communist allegories throughout this blog, I do not embrace communism. Like I said, the importance of historical context is shown when we see that centralized power is no different from any other fascist government. I do recognize, however, that a knowledge of Marxist thought will be necessary for whatever economic and social utopia the future may produce. Philosophy is necessary for the future of our species; let’s not hobble it with undue limitations to its content.