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Political philosophy: an infantile disorder?
Introduction
What is the point of political philosophy? Must it even have a point, anyway, or is
it just one of those strange things that some people do, like collecting fruit-labels,
or bog-snorkelling? Perhaps political philosophy is as pointless as human
existence itself, and none the worse for that. Or maybe it has a variety of points,
depending on whom you ask, or whose political philosophy you’re looking at.
Compare the question: What is the point of cycling? The question doesn’t have any
one obvious answer. The strongest candidate is perhaps, “To get from one place
to another,” but even that seems not exceptionlessly true – for instance, what
about exercise bicycles, expressly designed to go nowhere, or those people who
cycle (on mobile bicycles, now), not to get from A to B, but in order to keep fit, to
say nothing of circus unicyclists who ride, teeth gritted, purely in order to earn a
living? And no doubt one could add further possibilities, such as cycling practised
as performance art, or as a duly excruciating form of mortification, self-inflicted
in the name of dark beliefs.
Admittedly, the practice of political philosophy doesn’t seem to fit well with
many of these stories about cycling. Without going through each one laboriously,
the one candidate which seems to have something going for it is that of the
breadwinning unicyclist. Many of us do indeed dilate on the dead sages of the
poliphile world as their chosen, or only possible, method of earning a crust. Of
course, this is not the sort of answer which much edifies either the poliphile or his
audience. For one thing, it makes the activity entirely instrumental, a regrettably
necessary distraction from life’s pleasures in the name of wage-slavery. Surely
there must be something more to the whole performance than extracting surplus-
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value from oneself in a state correctional facility, for the dubious benefit of the
callow, the residually-educable, and even would-be lawyers?
As a professional poliphile, one wants to think that, after the pay packet is set
aside, or emptied in the bar on a Friday night, the activity itself abides, enfolded
in the grandeur born of cogitation on eternal verities, of probing the mysteries of
our blood and state. Or, a bit less aspiringly, one hopes that it is not just a daft
waste of time. Here, again, the image of the exercise cyclist, pedalling furiously to
go nowhere fast, comes irrepressibly to mind. But this comparison may be unfair
– to the cyclist. After all, presumably most people who mount an exercise bicycle
know that they are about to go nowhere. The nagging suspicion remains that
political philosophers may be more like exercise cyclists, but in Plato’s Cave,
deluded by the play of shadows into thinking that they’re embarking on an epic
voyage – but, in truth, staying firmly put.
No doubt this is a pathetic predicament. But its pathos goes beyond that of
anybody who saps her energies in chasing a mirage. Added to the pathos of the
professionally deceived is the irony that the philosophical enterprise identifies
itself as one of unmasking, of being undeceived. One of Marx’s best polemical
lines savages those philosophers who, moving ever further from the essence of the
world, fancy that they are penetrating to its core. The pedaller in the Cave not
only deludes herself that she’s on the move: she also thinks she’s moving while
everyone else is at a standstill, and at the end of the race she’ll be up there on the
rostrum in the yellow jersey.
Of course, one could also say that the activity of political philosophy has a
point, although it is necessarily not what those who pursue the activity imagine it
is – whatever that may be. Various versions of this thought suggest themselves:
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perhaps, for example, the real point is that of occupational therapy, to keep an
unsocialised and potentially unruly coterie of ne’er-do-wells out of circulation, or
at any rate confining them to pursuits where they can do little damage to society
at large. But such a view calls for a conspiracy theory, and the premise of such
theories is always that the truth – the one that the conspirators seek to bury –
must somehow matter. By contrast, few people – apart, maybe, from the cranks of
the sort who buy conspiracy theories – would believe that political philosophers
were even worth a conspiracy. The bread-and-cheese fact is that nobody is
listening in, monitoring the hiss and crackle of philosophical debate across the
ether. Nobody much cares. How did we get to this?
The point of the point
What does it mean for something to have a point? I take it that it means, at least,
that if something X has a point, it makes sense to talk of performing some action
for the sake of X. That is not the same as saying that whenever an action is
performed for the sake of something X, that X must always have a point. A
married couple, united by little more than hearty mutual loathing, remain
together for the sake of their children’s welfare. The children’s welfare is the point
of staying together. But it does not follow that everything done for the sake of the
children’s welfare has a point. For example, issuing the children with
PlayStations in the mistaken belief that it will improve their coordination skills
when in fact it serves only to cretinise them would be a pointless act, its intention
notwithstanding. More generally, the notion of having a point is an intentional
notion, but it does not follow that any deed which is intentional under some
description has a point. In this, the notion of a point differs from that of purpose,
since an act intentional under some description has a purpose coordinate with
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this description. This follows from the fact that “having a point” is in part a
normative notion. Someone who describes an act as pointless need not be
claiming that there is no description under which it is intentional. The person is
making a judgment about the value of the act.
Again, however, the fact that an act is both intentional, and has a point, does
not mean that its point is given by its intentional description. One possibility
which arises here – but should be discounted – is that of “invisible hand”
explanations of, say, market behaviour, or of evolutionary adaptation. The
phenomena to which these explanations are applied may come to look as though
they result from intentional action, as in William Paley’s natural theology of
design. But here we are talking not about intentional acts, at least at the level of
the macroscopic explanation. The appeal of such explanations is precisely that
they can show how the phenomena come about, while in fact being designed by
nobody.
Again, actions may have a point and be intentional, but point and intention
fail to coincide because of a form of macro manipulation. Unlike in the invisible
hand case, there is intention behind the acts at the macro level. One version of
this idea is provided by conspiracy theory. Another version is confidence trickery,
where any account which the dupe provides of her actions – that is, intentional
descriptions of them – will, assuming the trick succeeds, fail fully to describe the
point of her actions: it will be describable only by someone aware of the
deception. A grander form of the same idea is Hegelian historicism, according to
which there is a purposive quasi-being, Geist, whose ends provide history with a
point irreducible to the intentional acts of individual agents.
We come, finally, to the possibility that acts which the agent believes to be
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intentional are pointless, because they bear at best a symbolic relation to the
agent’s self-description. This involves a failure of agency more drastic than the
mere basing of action on false belief. In this case, the action could not in fact
match the description under which it is intentional. An example of this is
phantasy. In pathological cases, the action performed cannot be understood except
in reference to a symbolic transformation of elements of the psyche.
One example of this would be that the person has split off an element of his
own psyche and projected it onto an external thing, the phantasy object, which
then has to be attacked or destroyed in a forlorn attempt to rid the self of this
“bad” element. Suppose someone’s self-directed aggression becomes projected
onto another person, who is then perceived as attacking. Then actions by this
person against the phantasised source of aggression will be designed to protect an
internal psychic object, the self as imago.
Understood in this way, the action clearly cannot “succeed”. At the
conscious level, the person may succeed in attacking the object onto which the
projection has been made. But the pathological mode of psychic organisation
remains intact. It is not, after all, that the person performing the act plans it as a
way of dealing with the destructive psychic element itself. If he did, the pointlessness of the act as a way of achieving this end would become clear. The act is
intelligible only as a dramatisation of something else. As argued earlier, the
notion of having a point is an intentional one; so the act, since it is unintended,
does not have a point.
The point of political philosophy
This very schematic account of one kind of pathological behaviour suggests a way
of understanding the activity of political philosophising. My claim is that there is
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a pathology which is well adapted for political philosophising: in other words, a
this activity selects for people with the pathology, conditions in the Arctic selects
for bears with white fur. This is not to say that all poliphiles are nutters, let alone
that all nutters are poliphiles. Nor will I speculate about how fat, on the Venn
diagram, the intersection is between these groups. The thesis is more that there is
a specific kind of nuttiness which finds a congenial home in the activity of
political philosophising, as generally practised. To forestall one obvious line of
response, I am also not denying that the adaptive nuttiness, insofar as I have
correctly identified it, is one to which I am or have been immune. As far as that
goes, I admit to as much nuttiness as anyone else.
Let us start from the top. Political philosophising, as practised since Plato,
has usually consisted in a form of intellectual activity which aims to devise a set
of principles, rules and often institutions by means of which society should be
governed. The philosopher usually begins with some general reflections on
human beings, including their material and cognitive resources, together with a
set of general norms of conduct, which together show why the favoured set of
principles, rules, institutions, etc., should be adopted. This is as true of John
Rawls’s A Theory of Justice as it was of Plato’s Republic or Laws. The fact that the
set-up is often avowedly hypothetical or a thought-experiment does not much
affect the issue: if the set-up itself is primitively compelling, that should feed
through – if the theory is constructed successfully – to the conclusions.
This is obviously a rather broad-brush characterisation of political philosophy. Not everyone, even in the canon and even with this level of generality,
would fit into it. For instance, some might deny that Aristotle fitted the template,
on the grounds that he reasons back from the facticity of the polis, asking how an
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institution of this kind could have come into being. So far this is just explanatory,
but given further conditions, this story can extend beyond explanation, to
justification. In this his modus operandi resembles, say, that of Chomsky in
constructing his “Propaganda Model”, or some genealogical accounts: one
formulates hypotheses in establishing the model (e.g. regarding the relation
between ownership and the acceptable range of opinion expressible in society)
and draws inferences from that which are testable, at least on paper, against how
society in fact operates. However, with Aristotle matters are not so simple, not
least because the naturalism which motivates the project cannot rest content with
empirical predictions about how things will go – rather the aim is to show how
polis-life, happily, is right for human beings, given the kind of creatures they are.
And, in their different ways, Hobbes and even Machiavelli are concerned not just
to confront us with the grim truth about politics, but also to prescribe a response
to it. Still, it is not part of my argument to corral all poliphiles into the same boat.
The aim is only to sketch a big enough boat to carry most of them.
At any rate, the enterprise of political design is very often conducted
prospectively rather than retrospectively, especially in modern liberalism. Here
there is not a test of empirical adequacy which will testify to the success or failure
of the construction. At most it might show, along the lines of Dialectic of
Enlightenment or After Virtue, why things have gone awry. But for the most part
the focus is on prescription rather than diagnosis. If actually existing states,
including soi-disant liberal ones, fail to match up to the precepts of the theory, so
much the worse for actually existing states. For example, someone who has
devised the true theory of political obligation, as resting on duties of natural
justice, on good Samaritanship, on hypothetical agreement, or whatever, may
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decide that most or all states fail to meet the conditions imposed by the theory.
Then the fault is not with the political theory, but with the political practice.
Given this stance, however, how are we to regard the theory? It does not
present itself in any obvious form as an answer to the question “What should we
do?” which, I take it, is the basic political question. Or at least, it does not answer
that question in a way which leads from the actual circumstances of political
agents to the point where, according to the theory, they should end up. It is sometimes said that liberal theory ignores political power. But in fact the picture is
more complicated than this. To the extent that the theory simply by-passes
questions of practical implementation, it may be said to ignore power. But if it
retains any practical attitude at all, rather than being, say, an aesthetic exercise, it
assumes that power can be concentrated in the hands of those who will use it as
the theory recommends. That is not to say that the favoured constitutional
structures may not themselves incorporate balancing devices, in line with the US
constitutional model. But at the level of political design, this is not so: thus, for
example, the balancing devices themselves are put into effect by those enjoying a
monopoly of power. The sense, then, in which power plays a part in the theory is
that, once the requirements have been laid out, it is assumed that they are then
implemented by plenipotentaries single-mindedly bent upon this end. In this
sense it is assumed that power itself is not a problem.
In some ways this is strange because liberalism, particularly modern
liberalism, has made a good deal out of the persistence of disagreement. It has
also insisted that disagreement may be epistemically faultless, i.e. the failure to
agree may not be ascribable to factual error or defective inference. People
reasonably disagree, but they also may reasonably disagree about what is
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reasonable. This is bad news for a political philosophy which attempts to base
itself on what people can reasonably agree among themselves, or on what they
cannot reasonably reject. Maybe there is some way to get round this problem,
though it is not at all likely, or even credible, that it will be able to avoid politics.
But that’s not the present point. Suppose that some people even get it wrong. It
has been known. Then the question is: what should “we” (the right ones) do
about these people who whether nefariously, ignorantly or through sincere
stupidity, have got it wrong, and persist in getting it wrong despite our best efforts
to show them their error?
It is this aspect I want to focus on. To sum up this bit of the discussion, there
is a gap in most of the works characterised by my template. This gap tends to be if
anything larger, or more vacuous, in the works of modern liberal poliphiles than
of others. The gap opens up through a diffidence about power which, though the
possibility of its use has to be countenanced by any political theory worth the
name, plays little or no part in most (analytical) poliphile writings. Any account
of putting the norms into practice will have to deal with power. Those who deny
that grand theory need engage with questions of practice have to explain how, in
that case, theorising has any point, other perhaps than a therapeutic or aesthetic
one. Otherwise the focus needs to move from abstract norms, to what is doable,
here and now. Ideal theory faces a fork: either the theory seems otiose, or else its
content needs to deal with the realities of implementation. My aim is not to show
that poliphiles must find themselves impaled on one or other prong of this fork,
pleasurable as that may be. It is to ask what kind of mentality can dwell on the
creation of norms, sometimes in exhausting detail, without giving thought to
questions of practice.
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Object relations
Modern anglophone psychoanalytical theory is dominated by the Object
Relations school. Not unlike the world of poliphilia, a broad agreement at the
paradigmatic level overlays considerable dispute regarding emphasis and specific
claims, such as the formative role of a particular object-relation in the ontogenesis
of personality. My particular interest in this regard is in theoretical constructions
of the bases of personality disorder. One example of such a disorder is narcissism.
In Metamorphorses III, Ovid recounts how Echo (having been struck mute by
Juno for an earlier misdemeanour) falls in love with Narcissus, who spurns her.
Echo duly pines and shrivels, becoming an echo of her former self. Meanwhile,
Narcissus is left to wither away by the side of a pool, gazing raptly at his own
reflection. One interesting feature of the story is that it balances two opposite
pathologies of replication, each of which expresses a failed formation of the self.
On the one side, Echo can only replicate the Other – her self is effaced in its
presence, or rather she only exists insofar as there is an Other for her to reflect.
Echo fails to form a free-standing self. Meanwhile, for Narcissus, only the self is
reflected: there is nobody (else) who can obtrude on his attention. This proves
literally lethal to both of them. The diminuendo which each suffers in the tale –
Echo becomes an echo, Narcissus turns into a flower – symbolises the reduction
which the defective psychic formation of each already embodies. The
psychological organisation of neither can maintain a stable set of relations to the
Other.
Of course, just because of this balancing between the two personae, there is a
perfect – that is to say, perfectly pathological – “fit” between them. It is clear how
the neediness of Echo, as a self without selfhood, should be drawn to the figure of
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Narcissus. He presents, at least from the outside, a vision of self-sufficiency or
autarkeia, a self which has apparently dispensed with any need for an Other –
which incidentally recalls Aristotle’s view of friends as clones, an apparent
attempt to reconcile his view that friendship is a necessary component of the good
life, with his view that the eudaimon life is autarkes. Hence it is all doomed
between them. No basis for connection can be forged, given Echo’s self-voiding
neediness and Narcissus’s solipsistic need to be needless. They represent two
opposite projective paths, one towards the introjective confinement of a loveobject within the bounds of the self, the other towards full projective identification with the other. The psychic formation of each is organised around ways
of overmastering the good – as something which lies beyond the self’s capacity for
control. The bounds of the self cannot coincide with those between the good and
the bad.
As such, Echo and Narcissus embody, again, two opposite strategies for
dealing with – or pre-empting – the threat of envy. The threat of envy arises as
soon as one accepts the reality-principle that one can’t get the good simply by an
act of will, and there will be good things which the ego lacks and the Other has.
Mythic archetypes like the Echo/Narcissus story operate at a level of suggestion
above didacticism, and as such are apt to make ambiguous any “lesson” which
one might try to draw from them. Nevertheless, we can say that the two of them
have embarked on strategies for living which are, in a sense which the story itself
makes literal, self-annihilating. And that strategy, at least as I am reading the
story, devolves on power. At a surface level, obviously, it is about a failed attempt
at love or connection between people. But in the way that they encapsulate
personae, at the level of psychic allegory, the protagonists can be understood as
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enacting defective object-relations not only inter-personally, but also intrapersonally. To this extent the personae may be seen not as embodiments of
distinct well-formed personality “types” but as internal objects, to be shunted
around the psyche in allotted roles.
In the Kleinian theory from which object-relations psychoanalysis took its
main inspiration, the critical phase in the formation of psychic archetypes occurs
during infancy, in the nascent ego’s relation to its principal carer (usually its
mother). The classical Kleinian narrative charts the ego’s development through
the paranoid-schizoid and depressive phases towards integration. What
characterises these phases is the changing organisation of the ego in response to
perceived objects (such as other persons) which have internal correlates as
imagos. In the paranoid-schizoid phase, the ego deals with the fact of lacking
hegemony over the good (symbolised as the good breast) by creating so-called
“part objects”. The need to do so results from the separateness of world and ego,
and in particular the fact that the good – objects of desire – have a life which is
independent of the child’s will. The creation of part objects involves the
introjection of “good” objects while “bad” objects are kept away from the ego via
the processes of projection and externalization.
The inner world consists of innumerable objects taken into the ego,
corresponding partly to the multitude of varying aspects, good and bad, in
which the parents (and other people) appeared to the child's unconscious mind
throughout various stages of his development (Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and
Reparation and other works 1921-1945 (London: Virago 1988), pp362-63).
In this process, the ego attempts to establish security through a strategy of control.
A radical partitioning of “good” and “bad” objects occurs, in an attempt to assert
control of the good, and to create defences against the bad, usually seen as
12
fragmentary externalised objects. The narcissistic defences of the paranoidschizoid position in development are created prior to an acknowledgement of the
separateness of objects, including persons, from the ego. The myth of Narcissus
could be understood, in these terms, as an archetypal representation of the ego at
this stage – whether this is understood simply as a developmental stage, or as an
element as it were in superposition with others at maturity, or as an instance of
pathological reversion (or arrest) in an adult. As a figure in the myth, Narcissus
represents the process of psychic introjection metonymically, through his fixated
gazing on his own image – which, as a reflection in a rippling pond, is necessarily
distorted and transient. His own self becomes a part-object, having been
externalised from him.
In Kleinian terms, the figure of Echo can then be seen as the stunted imago
of the non-self, the Other, in the narcissistic personality. As an imago, or in other
words an internalised representation, the Other has only a residual existence, as a
replica – an echo – of the ego itself. In this way the ego achieves an erasure of
separateness which, in the psychic economy of the narcissist, serves as a defence
against the negative feelings which result from dependence. As Herbert
Rosenfeld, “On the Psychopathology of Narcissism” International Journal of
Psychoanalysis 45 (1964), pp332-37, writes:
In narcissistic object relations defenses against any recognition of separateness between self and object play a predominant part. Awareness of
separation would lead to feelings of dependence on an object and therefore
to anxiety. Dependence on an object implies love for and recognition of the
value of the object, which leads to aggression, anxiety, and pain because of
the inevitable frustrations … dependence stimulates envy, when the
goodness of the object is recognised. The omnipotent narcissistic object
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relations therefore obviate both the aggressive feelings caused by frustration
and any awareness of envy (pp332-33).
So in narcissistic object-relations, the stunted Other remains under the
control of the ego. The ego’s efforts to control its world creates internal
representational fields where control is won at the expense of “authentic” object
relations. The objects – paradigmatically, persons – serve as occasions for
projection as part objects, either through idealised introjection, or as externalised
negativity. Insofar as the ego can construct a representation of a “real” Other, this
appears as a source of aggression directed against the ego – one which the ego has
to secure itself. This provides an explanation of the recursive character of psychic
processes in narcissism, whereby the primitive defences create a construction of
the Other as attacking, which prompts a retreat into the imagined security of the
omnipotent ego-world.
Political philosophy as infantile disorder
There is and has always been a significant overlap between political philosophy
and imaginative fiction. Sometimes this fictional element is made explicit, as in
More’s Utopia or Harrington’s Oceana, or the theory incorporates avowedly
fictional devices, as in the Original Position in Theory of Justice, or many versions
of state of nature theory. Of course in these theories, at least as conventionally
interpreted, the fictional content is not merely represented, but usually commended
to the reader.
The activity of theorising is in at least one respect narrower than that of
philosophising. While many political and other philosophers take it that the job
involves the production of theory, it is a prior question – patently, a philosophical
one – whether philosophising requires this. It is yet a further step, having decided
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that political philosophy calls for theorising, to say that the theory has to take a
certain form, namely the drafting of “principles” to govern society, or to show
how its basic institutions, procedures, and so on should be structured – what I
have elsewhere called the project of political design. Not all political philosophers
do this. Indeed, not even all liberal philosophers do it. But quite a lot do do it,
and even some non-liberals.
It could be said that all theoretical activity does something similar to this –
that is what makes it an instance of theory. Generically, theory sets out certain
basic claims – be they seen as fundamental norms, principles, axioms, or
empirical generalisations – as inputs, which in conjunction with one another and
with additional matter (such as empirical case-studies) yield specific outputs in
the form of predictions, prescriptions, explanations and so on. To the extent that
an enterprise of this sort unavoidably involves an attempt to control certain
phenomena, it can be thought of as an exercise of power.
However, I suggest that the quest for control in theoretical versions of
political philosophy goes beyond that practised generically in the activity of
theorising. The specific theoretical project of political design involves the basis
norms, institutions, etc., of society as a whole – where this is understood not
simply as an abstract description of extant practice, but as an ideal-theoretical
account of how these things ought to be structured. There is then, fairly obviously,
the question of how to get from here – a world at best “partially compliant” with
the favoured norms – to there, the embodied ideal of theory-world. This is not a
question much asked, still less answered.
In failing to ask it, political theorists leave their readers to wonder how to
take the outputs of the theory. The hankering after omnipotence implicit in the
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construction of the theory-world is not usually made as explicit as it is in the
Republic’s regime of philosopher-rulers. Nevertheless, the drive for omnipotence
also figures less obviously in latter-day works of ideal theory. We saw how in
object-relations theory the ego is thought of as securing itself by a form of psychic
organisation, in which fears raised by the loss of control involved in dependency
on a real Other, are dealt with by projective strategies designed to put itself
beyond chance. It is not surprising, accordingly, that modern political theory has
had little to say about luck and its role in politics.
My suggestion is not that political theorising has been disproportionately
colonised by people who are psychically deformed. The claim is rather that the
nature of political theorising is such that it lends itself to certain kinds of
omnipotent fantasies, which can be seen in their own terms as psychically
atavistic. The main reason why political theorising lends itself to this is that,
however obliquely, it addresses politics, and politics concerns the use of collective
power. The basic political question is What do we do?, for some “we” which the
political process itself helps to specify, and any political answer to that question
has immediately to address how to do it. The role of power in practical
deliberation varies, depending on whether one has it or lacks it. Often, politically,
an awareness of a lack of power acts as a brake on what is coherently deliberable.
However, the fact that politics deals in power tends to erase or smudge the
line between deliberation and escapism. By “escapism” I understand an
imaginative state, often involving a narrative of agency, in which desires are
gratified – that is it is imagined that they are satisfied. What holds the line, in
general, between deliberation and fantasy is the existence of reality-testing as a
constraint on what is deliberable. Where collective power enters the picture,
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though, what counts as a deliberative constraint is itself, in principle at least,
deliberable. One can, for instance, readily imagine a world in which political
opponents had been won over, or the interests which give them power have been
dissolved. At the limit lies a politics of pure will, where the content deliberated is
itself imagined as an expression of agent-capacity or power.
To give a theoretical illustration, consider the notion of reasonable pluralism or
disagreement within recent political philosophy. For many prominent poliphiles,
reasonable disagreement is a datum with which any credible political order has to
deal. In Political Liberalism and other works of Rawls’s later period, for instance,
reasonable pluralism plays a big role. Some of us think that the set-up of the
phenomenon is such as to make disagreement no longer reasonable, or to make
people reasonable at the cost of their longer disagreeing. But this is not the
present point. The theory starts with disagreement about fundamentals, and seeks
to construct a basis for agreement. In doing so, it has to operationalise an
agreement which is not only reasonable, but not rejectable – insofar as people are
reasonable, notwithstanding the multiple barriers to agreement which Rawls
labels the “burdens of judgment”. From the morass of evidential biases, plural
values, experiential heuristics, competing norms of inference, and so on, reason
furnishes a single best answer to the question of how people should organise
themselves politically.
I am suggesting that the theory begins, apparently, from an acceptance of
otherness – one which, in a phrase of Rawls’s own, takes seriously the differences
between people. This can be seen as instantiating the Other at the level of theory.
Suppose that now we understand the “good” not as a projection from libidinal
states – cathexis – but as that which attracts the basic good-making property of
17
theory, namely justification. Here this is the reasonable. The theory, having
located the good-making property in the other, then proceeds to introject it by
constructing a theory which monopolises it. Hence the existence of an Other – a
really independent subject of experience, which may oppose the projects of the
ego and may possess good which lies beyond the ego’s grasp – is both accepted
and not accepted. This parallels the primitive mapping of the ego in narcissistic
object-relations, whereby the good is reserved to one side of the ego/other divide.
To this extent, the Other in the theory has the residual status of Echo in the myth:
a nominally distinct self, which however can only reflect states of the ego rather
than acting as a self-originating sources of claims. The conflicts which genuinely
distinct subjects will experience – here represented as conflicts of the reasonable –
are removed in the theoretical construction of the overlapping consensus.
In some ways modern poliphile theory’s stress on the persistence of reasonable disagreement has sharpened the problem. This stress makes it harder to
assume that those who oppose the favoured version of political design must have
blundered. But in principle the problem of opposition is always there, whether or
not the theory itself has made express allowance for it. The favoured norms do
not implement themselves, and they will face opponents who have not been won
over by the force of the stronger argument. So the norms will need to be put into
effect by the force of the stronger, period. It is not part of the schematic template I
sketched above to hold that the norms must be implemented by whatever means
prove necessary, though Plato, for one, seems to have thought that the selfevident justice of the ends vindicated the means needed to achieve them. To do
so, of course, invites a moral imbroglio. What means are adoptable, in the name
of what norms? Can the badness of the acceptable means grow pari passu with the
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presumptive goodness of the norms they promote? How far should the content of
the norms themselves be qualified, given the means which may be needed to
achieve them in their undiluted form?
These are, fairly obviously, political questions. One can simply insist that
these are the valid norms, and leave any consideration of the means which would
be needed to realise them. A popular approach to justification looks for norms
which people must accept, or could not reject, insofar as they are reasonable.
Reasonableness is the justification-giving feature of proposed norms. It is
analogue of the mapping, within the complementary spaces of ego and other,
which projects bad (the unreasonable) on one side of the line and introjects good
(the reasonable) on the other.
Omnipotence then enters the picture as the premising, as in many forms of
escapism, of fantasised content on authorial motivation. The narcissistic ego, in
other words, tries to engross the good to itself, but in a way which leaves
common-or-garden thoughts about agency – practical reasoning – out of the
picture. Instead the good is simply introjected. Here again the basic question is
“What should I/we do?”, which immediately leads to thoughts about practicality.
For the escapist, by contrast, the question of what to do, does not arise – or it
arises only relative to practicalities which have already been tailored to wish.
This, I suggest, is the characteristic form of escapism which marks political
theorising in its ideal mode. One of the payoffs from it is that, since it deals in
part-objects, questions of conflict – particularly of moral costs – tend to be
sidelined. This requires both imagined limitless power, and a turning away from
the real conditions, always involving constraint, in which political power is
exercised. In its ultimate form, escapism imagines away power itself.
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Conclusion
Maybe political philosophy is an itch which some of us can’t help but scratch. I
take it that itches are pointless, but given that they are there, there is a point in
scratching them.
I make two final points, the first concerning the relation between theory and
practice. Political thought is not an infirmity confined to poliphiles. If practice is a
mess, it is a mess we are all in. Political practice is replete with mangled theory.
These phenomena can be seen in democratic politics. All political processes are
imperfect. Liberal democracy can be thought of as unique in thematising its own
imperfections, via a range of formal and informal bodies. It is a constitutive irony
of democracy that it alone, in giving people a political voice, affords them the
means of airing dissatisfaction with the system under which they live. Certain
institutional features of democracy, coupled with the market, amplify dissent.
This can reach the point where the populace no longer identifies itself as the locus
of sovereignty, in a process I call democratic ressentiment. Although the “people”
is nominally the democratic sovereign, democratic citizens fail to recognise their
own authorship of democratic decisions. It may be thought that this is simply an
empirical infirmity of democratic politics. But in fact the phenomenon stands at a
point of intersection between theory and practice: ressentiment predictably results
from the fact that democratic institutions disembed themselves by setting up
challenges to their own legitimacy.
Ressentiment involves a kind of narcissistic projection. Political decisions,
including democratic ones, are imperfect, often grossly so. Democratic citizens
habitually find themselves confronted with the unedifying results of their political
handiwork – except, of course, that the distancing strategy is usually available.
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Someone may say that this pattern of response shows not omnipotence, but the
limits on citizens’ political power. But it is not at this level that omnipotence
manifests itself. It arises instead when people reject political outcomes which they
dislike, for a competing image of a world in which this is not so.
This is how democracy re-enacts the Genealogy account of ressentiment: a story
about forsaking one vision of power for another, which differs from it in denying
its status as power. In democracy, it is always open to me to think that things
would have gone better with some other procedure, which would have voiced,
and not merely ventriloquised, the popular will. The myth of usurpation creates
its own, self-legitimating ideology – with the further twist that we practise the
usurpation on ourselves, who already have power. In a sense it is the ultimate
omnipotent fantasy – of being able to transform power into something else, a
means for achieving favoured outcomes without moral compromise.
Second, a point about political philosophy. It would not be cheering to say
that the point of political philosophy is to reflect on its own pointlessness. Of
course, on Wittgenstein’s view, since most philosophising is pathological –
recreational fly-bottling – doing it right can at least serve the therapeutic end of
dispelling the misconceptions which made one want to do it. This, with a distrust
towards imagined omnipotence, may help to disabuse those who aim to regale
the rest of us with policy on a national or even global scale, rather than, say,
honestly surfing the Zeitgeist. It may thus serve a prophylactic end. If anyone were
listening, it might even do a bit to enhance the battered standing of politics itself.
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