As the case of Odinism suggests, Nature abhors a vacuum. If, as the world grows richer and more educated, supernatural religion continues to decline, then the void of belief may be filled by new creeds. Revived paganism is likely to be limited in its appeal. More successful will be secular creeds that combine the imagery of modern science and technology with the certainty and zeal of pre-modern faiths. Marxism was justified by a pseudoscience of history, while pseudoscientific Social Darwinism provided the underpinnings of German National Socialism. Communists and Nazis alike believed that they were scientific and up-to-date, even as they enjoyed the kind of certainty and solidarity that religion traditionally has provided.
The advanced industrial nations of North America, Europe and East Asia suffer from Muslim jihadism, but they are not going to be conquered from without or within by champions of a new caliphate. The real threat to post-Christian civilization will come from within. Like Marxism and National Socialism, it will take the form of a militant secular creed, but adopt the trappings and rhetoric of science and technology and appeal to educated people whose spiritual longings go unmet. The adherents of the next major religion to sweep through the secular West will insist that it is science and will deny that it is a religion at all.
If you look at studies of people in the wishy-washy middle, among them the “shy Tories” who bolted toward the Conservatives at the last moment, you find individuals who do not believe that the future can be any improvement on the present. They sense that the UK is stagnating economically and culturally; they know that it has become less fair than it used to be. They see that the rich have gotten richer even since the coming of the Great Recession, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. But they don’t feel anything can be done to improve the situation, and their basic instinct is fear that things could get worse.
The shy Tories are neurotics in love with their symptoms. They complain, they feel bad, but they don’t really want to get better. And so given a choice between a remedy and more of the same, they have chosen more of the same.
On the left, we do an excellent job of pushing people away, despite all our talk of ‘inclusion’ and Labour’s claims to be the party of ‘the many not the few’. My feeling is that this affects all left-leaning parties. That seems to be backed up by the numbers, which show how what you might call a ‘progressive alliance’ composed of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru won 47.7% of the total vote in this election while the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP from the right picked up 50.1%. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing that out).
Compare that to 2010 (a bad year for Labour remember), when the more ‘progressive’ or left-leaning parties won a total of 55.7% against the right’s 41.7% and you can see that over the past five years the British left has been losing votes to the right, despite having a Conservative-led government implementing public spending cuts (known in left-wing circles as ‘austerity’). As a whole, the voters have looked at us and said, “You know what, the other lot aren’t great but I prefer them over you lot. See you later.”
This is where we need to start, by admitting that with the bulk of the British pubic, we are unpopular – the only serious exception being the SNP in Scotland which has got its identity politics worked out. There are lessons to be learned here.
I don’t have any important insight into British politics. I just found it interesting and amusing to read these posts in juxtaposition. In a way, it’s reassuringly familiar to see British lefties like Bobby Appletree respond to political setbacks the same way our progressives do here — with incredulous scorn and withering contempt for the ungrateful voters who are too stupid or craven to choose what’s best for them. Well, I’ll never be mistaken for a political scientist, but it still seems obvious to me that projecting an attitude of haughty impatience toward people who don’t already agree with you, especially when you’re not operating from a position of strength to begin with, is rather self-defeating.
‘With my other boyfriends we always had discussions about how to improve the world,’ Ariane said to me one morning as we lay in bed.
‘What solutions did you propose?’ I asked. ‘Getting rid of armies and governments? Back to the land? The abolition of money?’
‘Yes, those ideas came up. How would you improve the world, then?’ Ariane asked me.
‘Maybe not try to improve it,’ I said. ‘Stop having dreams of big solutions and try to make it work better with a few more little laws. I dunno.’
Ariane was frustrated by my lack of conviction. Communism was all about building Utopias, but trendy Western European theorists now called our age post-utopian. Where I came from, a lack of convictions was one of one’s most deeply-held convictions.
‘But how will you end exploitation, poverty and environmental destruction?’
‘Maybe they can’t be ended,’ I said. When Ariane and I talked politics it always made me think of an episode from an old science-fiction series. I felt that my spaceship had touched down on a remote part of the Earth. My ideas were like a Martian language to her.
‘But doesn’t it matter to you that the gap between the poor and the rich has been getting wider,’ she asked, beginning to sound irritated.
‘Oh, inequality is not such a bad thing. it doesn’t matter that the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger, as long as the poor are getting richer, which they are.’
‘But don’t you feel a sense of outrage at the millions of impoverished migrant workers in China and Asia, filling up the slums of the mega-cities and working in sweatshops to make toys for our children and shoes for our feet?’
‘Those people are playing catch-up after years of being held back by Communism. Anyway the alternative is that they stay where they came from, trying to keep the family goat alive on a barren hillside.’
…’Sometimes with you, I am worried that I am going to lose my identity,’ she said.
When I was younger, I thought that questions of social justice were easy. It seemed to me that there were two sorts of people in the world — those who were basically selfish, and those who were more generous and caring. Insofar as there was injustice or suffering in the world, it was because those who were selfish had managed to see their interests prevail. Thus the solution to these problems was to persuade people to care more or, failing that, to ensure that people who did care more were given access to political power. Furthermore, because of all the “invisible hand” rhetoric, it seemed obvious to me at the time that capitalism was a system designed by the selfish to advance the interests of the selfish, and that right-wing political parties existed in order to give ideological cover to this operation. Anticapitalism therefore struck me as being a straightforward moral imperative. Government was good; the market was bad.
Now that I’m older, I think there are so many things wrong with this view that I wouldn’t even know where to begin enumerating them. Many different factors contributed to this dawning realization. Part of it, no doubt, had to do with spending a fair bit of time, over the course of many years, in Asia, and seeing what an incredible force for development even a poorly structured market economy can be (not to mention what a fiasco the state can be, particularly in places where corruption is an issue). Part of it came from meeting more people outside my immediate circle of left-wing acquaintances, and discovering that “the system” is made up of people pretty much like everyone else, acting on the basis of the usual mix of selfish and altruistic motives that one encounters in any walk of life. But a lot of it came from reading economics, and from trying to work through systematically the alternatives to the existing order of things. What one discovers through this exercise is that for any ridiculous, destructive or unjust state of affairs, there is usually an understandable reason why that state of affairs persists. Our problem is often not that we lack the will to fix our problems, but that we don’t know how to fix them.
…Most of the mistakes that people on the left make involve failures of self-restraint — an unwillingness to tolerate moral flaws in society, even when we have no idea how to fix them and no reason to think that the cure will not be worse than the disease.
The book examines six economic fallacies apiece per the right and the left, lest you get the impression that this excerpt epitomizes some “road to conservative Damascus” story. No, this caught my eye because of the way it serves as an illustration of an older, deeper conflict, that of optimism vs. pessimism. His newest book, which I have yet to read, has already inspired some interesting discussion around that theme, such as here, where he elaborates on his view that many sociopolitical problems are simply not fixable. (It amused me greatly to see him state flatly that writing books about policy and culture for a general audience pretty much requires the obligatory closing chapters in which the author offers his “solutions” for how to get everything back on track. Anyone who has read such books should be keenly aware by now of the forced, unconvincing tone that permeates such uninspired calls to action, yet he says that the most common complaint about his earlier book Nation of Rebels was that it didn’t offer any ideas on how to “fix” consumerism. Even when people know such prescriptions are worthless, they seemingly can’t help desiring the reassuring ritual of reading them. They might as well be fondling rosary beads and muttering prayers, though that suggestion would almost certainly offend their self-conception as rational beings.)
Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that since the Enlightenment, it’s increasingly taken for granted that reason and science are the tools with which humans can solve any problem. In the more aggressive forms of this outlook, the distinct possibility that everything is knowable and controllable in principle easily morphs into a positive assertion of probability. Skeptical pessimism about the ultimate success of the project ended up being relegated to the fringes of religious conservatism, where it could be safely ignored. Even aging and death are now being talked about as “technical” problems which can be “solved”. Well, I have nothing whatsoever to base this upon but anecdotes and a personal gut sense, but I feel that non-religious, non-conservative, pessimistic perspectives like Heath’s (or John Gray’s) are starting to gain intellectual traction. It will be interesting to see how major events in this century tip the balance one way or the other.
Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?
Magic 8-ball says…?
If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.
Matt Taibbi once offered a hypothesis about the psychology of this self-defeating tendency:
That’s why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen… Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.
But here’s the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn’t matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn’t a policy imposed from above; it’s an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You’re arguing the particulars, where you’re right, while they’re arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.
Of course, as you may have noticed by the references to God and swiftboating, the original context had Taibbi attributing this mentality to fundamentalist Christians in particular and Republicans in general. If you leave that partisan bias aside, you can’t help but notice that “making sure the argument never stops” is also the emotional imperative driving the online dynamics among progressives that Freddie has been criticizing in vain lo these many years. The point of all their sound and fury is not to end misogyny or racism; the point is to keep finding new sources and hiding places of those social ills in order to ensure that the fun of denouncing and posturing never has to stop. The web is not a place for serious political action. It’s a kennel full of baying hounds, desperate to be let loose after the scent of social injustice. The thrill of the hunt is what they live for.
Why does it matter that I want my work to be responded to positively? Or to be responded to at all?
My hunch is that every single one of us who writes something for publication wants to know that someone has read our work. We want to make contact. Why else would we make our writing public? Now there is an idea. What if at the end of every piece of writing the writer posted what they were hoping for from their reader.
My writer friends have indeed confessed to me how “starved” they feel for connection to others through their words and ideas. As a rule, I don’t doubt she’s correct here. Still, I feel obliged to stand and be counted as an exception to the rule, even as I’m aware that my “standing and being counted”, given the unlikelihood of this post attracting more than a few readers, is like the tree falling the forest with no one to hear it, but worth doing nonetheless. Phew! Getting kind of meta in here. Let’s start again.
I’ve been writing consistently here for almost seven straight years. In that time, my daily readership has almost never exceeded the low double-digits. Some of that low visibility is no doubt due to the fact that I’ve never made any effort to promote myself. I don’t have a presence on any other social media platforms. I only have a few people from real life who even know about this blog, and other than Arthur, none of them keep up with it. This doesn’t bother me. Quite the contrary. In fact, if I ever became inexplicably popular, I would pull up stakes in the night and start over somewhere else under a new pen name. As in real life, I can’t tolerate the sensory overload of having to deal with more than a few people at any given time. I religiously avoid crowds and hubbub, whether in shopping centers or comment sections. I have the same three regular commenters I’ve had for the last five years (though Shanna wastes too much time on Reddit hanging out with the cool kids to participate as often as she used to; let’s see how long it takes her to notice this!), and I appreciate their contributions, but I also recognize several regular lurkers in the site stats, and I equally appreciate the silent compliment of someone who shows up for no other reason than to quietly read what I think.
So why do I write here, in public, if not to attract a following? Well, to be honest, the audience could be purely theoretical and still serve its function. Obviously, if I were adamantly opposed to interaction with readers, I could turn the comments off or make the blog readable by invitation only. But even if I never got any comments, the mere idea of an audience provides a useful focus and keeps this from being an exercise in solipsism. Envisioning a Constant Reader can be a reminder to strive for more clarity. Newcombe seems to drive herself half-mad obsessing over the lack of comments on her posts. I laugh as I check and see that the majority of the posts I’m most proud of have no comments and few unique pageviews. The satisfaction was entirely in the writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with desiring company and feedback, of course. I just want to state for the record that a pure, selfish labor of love is not only possible but fulfilling.
I don’t hope for anything from you. I only hope that you are either entertained or informed by what I write, or, best of all, that you go away thinking, “Huh; I never thought of it like that before.” I hope to clearly express thoughts you didn’t even know you had. I hope that you go pick up one of the countless books I mention here and find something enthralling in it. I hope to remind you, if needed, how much fun it is to think beyond the obvious.
He is not merely not looking for fame; he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! …That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!
There was a time, not so long ago, that when people talked about changing society, they generally had Big Plans. These plans were big in the sense that, had any of them worked, the world we live in would have been changed almost beyond recognition. Things are different now. People may complain just as loudly, but they generally lack big ideas about how things should be redone. Or to speak more precisely: The big ideas that do remain are so obviously bad ideas (such as Islamic theocracy) that almost no psychologically well-balanced individual feels tempted by them. There is a stark difference between this ethos and a time when mild-mannered, middle-class people actually thought it might be helpful to tear down various pillars of Western civilization and rebuild everything from the ground up.
Nowadays, the disagreements that do remain tend to be over matters of detail. Political protest still carries the trappings of radicalism, but when you scratch the surface a bit, ask people what they really want, you typically end up with some fairly modest proposals. Antiglobalization protesters may still call for the overthrow of capitalism, but they’re usually willing to settle for an environmental protection rider or an amendment to the arbitration mechanism of the next free trade agreement. In France, activists have even insisted upon using the term altermondialisation to describe the movement, rather than antimondialisation, to emphasize the fact that they are not opposed to globalization—they would just like to see it done a bit differently.
The bad news is that today advocacy and scholarship both face serious threats. As for social activism, while the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever to organize and agitate, it also produces distraction and false senses of success. People tweet, blog, post messages on walls, and sign online petitions, thinking somehow that noise is change. Meanwhile, the people in power just wait it out, knowing that the attention deficit caused by Internet overload will mean the mob will move on to the next house in the morning. And the economic collapse of the investigative press caused by that noisy Internet means no one on the outside will follow through to sort it out, to tell us what is real and what is illusory.
…Perhaps most troubling is the tendency within some branches of the humanities to portray scholarly quests to understand reality as quaint or naive, even colonialist and dangerous. Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners. When I run into such academics — people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies “just another way of knowing” — I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge. It smells like fungal rot in the hoof of a plow horse we can’t afford to lose. Call me ideological for wanting us all to share a belief in the importance of seeking reliable, verifiable knowledge, but surely that is supposed to be the common value of the learned.
Nevertheless, I knew many of my colleagues in the humanities would disagree. I could practically hear them arguing against me, as if they were seated all around me in those cramped fake-leather seats, yelling to be heard above the churning propellers. We have to use our privilege to advance the rights of the marginalized. We can’t let people like Bailey and Palmer say what is true about the world. We have to give voice and power to the oppressed and let them say what is true. Science is as biased as all human endeavors, and so we have to empower the disempowered, and speak always with them.
Involuntarily shaking my head, I argued back: “Justice cannot be determined merely by social position. Justice cannot be advanced by letting ‘truth’ be determined by political goals. Only people like us, with insane amounts of privilege, could ever think it was a good idea to decide what is right before we even know what is true. Only insanely privileged people like us, who never fear the knock of a corrupt police, could think guilt or innocence should be determined by identity rather than by facts.”
Polanyi was one of the most prominent physical chemists of the middle of the twentieth century. In the second half of his life he took up philosophy in an effort to understand his own experience of scientific discovery. His elaboration of “tacit knowledge” entailed a criticism of the then-prevailing ideas of how science proceeds, tied to wider claims about the nature of reason. The logical positivists conceived reason to be rule-like, whereas according to Polanyi, a scientist relies on a lot of knowledge that can’t be rendered explicit, and an inherent feature of this kind of knowledge is that it is “personal.” He explained:
“The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge; then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies.”
But the culture of scientific apprenticeship that developed in Europe, and then later in America, did so without warrant from the official self-understanding of modern science. As Polanyi writes, “To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.” This is intolerable if, like Descartes, you think that to be rational is to reject “example or custom” in order to “reform my own thoughts and to build upon a foundation which is completely my own.” The paradox of the Cartesian project is that from a beginning point that is radically self-enclosed, one is supposed to proceed by an impersonal method, as this will secure objective knowledge — the kind that carries no taint of the knower himself. Polanyi turns this whole procedure on its head: through submission to authority, in the social context of the lab, one develops certain skills, the exercise of which constitutes a form of inquiry in which the element of personal involvement is ineliminable.
Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests that there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of the Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation — from kings and priests — and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.
If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term “method” is that one merely has to follow a procedure and voilà, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures, no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant’s “rational beings”) that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.
It’s a delightful coincidence that I just encountered this same theme of trust last week in a book about a completely different topic. In fact, I’m just going to merge that post into this one. Here’s Saul Frampton talking about Montaigne’s understanding of experiential knowledge as opposed to that of Descartes:
But Montaigne can be seen to offer an alternative philosophy to that of Descartes, a more human-centered conception that lays no claim to absolute certainty, but that is also free from what some have seen as the implications of such claims: the totalitarian political movements of the twentieth century, and the individualist anomie of modern Western life.
For at the heart of Descartes’ philosophy is the intellectual principle of division, an attempt to offer clarity in a world made uncertain by religious and political unrest. He thus states as part of his ‘method’ that intellectual problems should be ‘divided’ into ‘as many parts as possible’ and that we should accept as true only that which we can perceive ‘very clearly and distinctly‘ — i.e. separate from other things. And this principle provides the foundation for his division of mind and body: he sees the mind as all ‘one and the same’, whereas he ‘cannot think of any Corporeal or extended being which I cannot easily divide into Parts’. For Descartes, true knowledge thus amounts to a singular unambiguous vision: he uses the metaphor of a city designed by one ‘single master’, rather than evolving naturally and haphazardly through the work of ‘different hands’.
Montaigne, by contrast, operates with an older, less cutting-edge, yet perhaps more venerable intellectual instinct: that of proximity. Rather than defining and dividing things, Montaigne wants to bring them together, get near to them, close to them, not least to himself. And rather than searching for certainties that divide him from the commonality, Montaigne sees the principle of trust as of far greater importance; as he says at the start of his essays: ‘You have here a book of good faith.’ For Montaigne, human relations are the primal scene of knowledge: if trust is restored, agreement, tolerance and hence truth will follow; the search for constancy and certainty strikes him as merely obstinacy in another guise…For in the midst of these [French wars of religion] Montaigne begins to see such conflict as fueled by the search for political and religious certainty.
Whereas Descartes’ division of mind and body separates him from other bodies and other people, Montaigne sees his own relationship to his body as opening a gateway to ‘the universal pattern of the human’, and as a consequence society at large. Self-knowledge thus leads us into ourselves, but then out of ourselves into others: we need to get to know ourselves before we can understand our fellow man — a logical paradox from a modern perspective, but not for Montaigne.