Act and Movement
Dariq’s comment to my earlier post “William Blake Against the World Machine” has moved me (so to speak) to delve more deeply into the differential in significance between action and motion, or act and movement.
My motives in posting the earlier piece arose as my response to a comment I read recently in a Toronto Globe & Mail editorial. The editorial, entitled “Tory rhetoric creates chilly climate for free speech,” (May 14, 2012), showcased the words of Canadian Conservative senator Hugh Segal, words which struck me as being the quintessential expression of a reactionary mentality. I quote him again,
“We are an open society with the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. This has always been the goal of those of us who are free traders at heart. Limiting this freedom for charitable foundations would be a destructive and retrograde step.”
Ironically, Senator Segal’s statement meant to justify and rationalise the questionable actions of the Harper government to limit free speech in Canada came as Russian “strongman” (as he is called) Vladimir Putin was taking similar measures to limit free speech in Russia, which elicited, predictability, the sternest disapproval from Western media pundits and politicians — in fact, unreserved opprobrium. It struck me not only as a case of selective perception, but also an example of projection, and perhaps a convenient diversion.
What’s gravy for the goose is, apparently, not gravy for the gander.
More to the point is what Senator Segal’s statement says about the conservative — nay, reactionary — understanding of “democracy” and freedom, both of which they apparently hold in contempt privately while waxing eloquent about publicly. It’s rather consistent with what I have been reading and taking in lately about the reactionary mood and mentality generally, not just in Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind, but also in Seth’s The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events and elsewhere.
Senator Segal’s definition — or rather, re-definition — of democracy as a purely economistic affair, is one in which political rights of citizenship play no significant role. The conservative (really, neo-liberal) utopian ideal expressed here is one of a society and economy as an inseparable, seamless, friction-free Newtonian-Galilean “ideal space”, as it was called. It is a space of unimpeded movement and mobility, but of hindered acts. It’s a single homogenous, uniform space that doesn’t even make much distinction between private and public space. In such a milieu, the type “citizen” as someone who is a participant in governance, has no real significance — a purely private, self-interested individual. A citizen is simply someone who is socially mobile, but not activist. Children should be seen, but not heard.
Political choice and action is to be reserved for a political or managerial class or power elite. The citizen as a political actor and participant in a democracy doesn’t even come in for a mention in Segal’s remark. This kind of democracy isn’t representative of the notion of “self-government”. It’s a view of the nation as a kind of perpetual motion machine in which shared responsibility for governance has been removed from the meaning of “citizen” and even “adult”. “Activism” represents friction in the machine and is, therefore, a bad thing.
This removal of the “burden of power” from the citizen goes hand-in-hand with what has been described as the “infantilisation” or “dumbing-down” of the populace. Only the self-described “adults” are to be permitted the exercise political power, which is choice of futures.
But, of course, those circumstances of subordination all but ensure that the average citizen of a mass democracy can never really mature as a citizen nor achieve authentic adulthood, as is very often reflected in the deplorable condition of the public conversation. Mass democracy becomes a kind of sheepfold or cattle-yard.
These views are consistent with the programmes promoted by neo-conservatives more generally. The blueprint for empire promoted by arch conservative and neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson commended every economic liberty for subordinated and subjugated populations, but no political liberties. It is, in other words, the authoritarian Chilean model under the late dictator Augusto Pinochet — the great friend of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, uncoincidentally.
Nanny State or Daddy State appear as the only two options available to an electorate — the welfare state or the authoritarian “strongman” state. This mythologisation of politics in terms of Earth Mother or Sky Father also reflects the infantilisation of the nominal citizen. This is not the true choice, but it seems the public mind is being deliberately commandeered and steered in this direction, so that any other option is foreclosed upon. The most recent model for this was Mubarak in Egypt, who considered all Egyptians his “children”, and himself as his children’s strict but benign father who had nothing but their own best interests at heart.
Although I have not yet read the book completely through, it is said that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch is the greatest literary representation of the authoritarian and paternalistic type. But, it also invites us to reflect on our own attitudes towards power and authority, whether these attitudes are mature or immature.
By contrast, Rosenstock-Huessy’s definition of a citizen as “someone who can potentially found a new city” emphasises the latent power of a true citizen to serve as a creator, originator, innovator, or founder. The emancipation of human creative potential from the shackles of the repressive ancien regime was the original justification for the principles of free speech, free association, and free assembly. Not the liberty of movement, but the freedom to act and to create was the original vision. So removed have we become from this founding inspiration of our Era that we must conclude that this age has now exhausted its purposes and energies and is no longer able, as Nietzsche warned of the “Last Man”, to create beyond itself.
Our obsession with perpetual growth, quantified now in terms of bigger GDP or Dow 30,000, is a perverted and exhausted residue of that original inspiration in which we have confused creativity utterly with mere productivity. Parallel to this we have confused freedom with liberty and, correspondingly, activity with mere mobility. This is Rene Guenon’s complaint in The Reign of Quantity and Gabriel Marcel’s equally in Man Against Mass Society. It also informs Nietzsche’s contempt for “modern ideas” and his formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves”. Reductionism is this process of devaluation in which creativity is reduced to productivity, freedom of action reduced to liberty of motion (social mobility), and a thousand other devaluations besides. It is against this reductionism as devaluation that Nietzsche countered with his ‘revaluation of all values’ and the ideal of “the free spirit.”
Our present crop of “leaders” are actually misleaders. Our present “Good Shepherds” are leading their sheep to the slaughter. And, after all, there was never much difference between the wolf and the shepherd if you were a sheep anyway. They are both, equally, predators. You end up fleeced or devoured by either one.