Friday, March 25, 2011

Government huh? What is it good for...?

This is one of the oldest in the book, right up there with classic favourites like 'what am I doing here?' 'what is it all made of?' and 'why is there something rather than nothing?' (though personally I've always found that one silly, and not in a good way). When Socrates sat down with Glaucon and his mates some four hundred years before the Common Era was birthed in a stable, the question on the table was one which still speaks to our current situation, particularly on the day before many of us converge on London to place our bodies between the government and the things that we value.

The question - then as now - was whether we will simply accept that the state's performance of justice - or 'fairness' as the ConDem doublespeakers are fond of saying - is no more than window dressing on the straightforward exercise of self-interest by the ruling class, or as the sophist Thrasymachus challenges Socrates in the first book of Republic, justice should be properly seen (read, by a pragmatic 'realist') as nothing more than 'the advantage of the stronger.' (Republic, 338c) In some sense, much of the history of philosophy - as much of our political history - is the attempt to grapple with, and to resist, the conclusion that politics is simply the domination of the many by the few for the purpose of self-gratification and aggrandisement, and it would be foolish to expect it to be otherwise. Plato, for all his many faults (and they are, oh so many), deserves his place in history simply for having undertaken the first systematic consideration of what a just state would look like. The city he comes up with is such a joyless and totalitarian wasteland that no-one in their right minds would want to live there - and here of course, we encounter the specter of the disaster of the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist experiment which, among other things, the neoliberals have been dining out on for the last forty years (and its becoming increasingly clear who is picking up the tab for that one). The fact that we have bought the lie that any attempt to organize society for the good, rather than on the basis of self-interest, leads inexorably to a dystopia of food lines, dusty cigarettes and brutalist architecture, is one of the great victories of neoliberalism, and is possibly the single greatest reason why the capitalist elite (and let's be clear about who the elite is here Mister Tea-Party, because believe me, it ain't the folks using fancy words who are trying to screw you) have been able to get huge swathes of the electorate on both sides of the Atlantic to consistently vote against their own interests.

Thus on one hand the communist specter is responsible for the fact that the left, in both Europe and the US, has capitulated to the (neo)liberal contention that, when it comes down to it, politics isn't or shouldn't be about the common good. At the same time, the work of the communist bogeyman is (possibly inadvertently) augmented by scientistic bent of much contemporary leftism, which frequently accepts the relativistic assumption that all talk of values is just that, which will not stand up in the court of 'if we can't measure it it doesn't exist.' Thus, trying to fashion a politics of commitment under these circumstances is hard work, and requires plotting a careful course between the murderous absolutism, and/or life-denying asceticism, of the zealot-for-justice, and the laissez-faire relativism and disengagement which arises from the suspicion that any talk of 'the good' is quasi-mystical (and quite-likely dangerous) claptrap.

Being stuck between this rock and hard-place was how my generation came into political consciousness. Our response was to ignore the whole issue and dance to repetitive music while exchanging a lot of sweaty hugs; sweet, but, not particularly effective from a political perspective (which, after all, wasn't really the point). It seems now from the response of the generation below ours to the ConDem wrecking ball (particularly you lovelies who glued your hands to the window of TopShop) that we haven't passed on our political inertia - thankfully! - but under these even more pressing circumstances it becomes ever clearer that the age-old question about the relationship between politics and the good needs to be reopened, reconsidered and reconstituted.

If you listen to certain factions of the politico-philosophical left - they're the most vocal, so its hard not to hear them (yes you Badiou-boys) - the very-potted history I have given you about how we lost our political gumption is not to be trusted. To their minds, our political moorings went astray during the irrationalist and anti-realist postmodern frenzy...and while there is some truth to this, particularly insofar as postmodernism exists/ed in its most popular and least sophisticated would be foolish, to say the least, to entirely dismiss most of the thought of the last fifty years (in particular its analyses of the mechanisms of absolutism), and demand a return to the uncomplicated virility of a straightforward assertion of the good. Firstly, this is dangerous and regressive....if we really want to decisively settle the balance of history in favour of the advantage of the stronger, giving them a Platonic-Maoist response is probably the way to do it. Secondly, it is based on a conflation of the most base rendition of postmodern 'anything-goes-ness' with the rigorous politico-philosophical work with which it became affiliated...Derrida doesn't tell us not to act, in fact, he tells us that justice demands that we do, he just reminds us not to do so in absolute certainty, because there is a good chance that will turn us into a fascist at some point. Thirdly, and here I will pull a classic betweenitude move, the choice is not either absolute certainty or absolute relativism (as it is almost never between absolute x and absolute not-x)...and in particular the choice is not either an abstract, rationalist, universally applicable good or no good at all. Rather, the answer between the rock of absolutism and the hard-place of relativism lies, I think, in a developed account of what we can understand as a 'functional notion of the good'...and what that might be, is what we are trying to work out...

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