Democracy and Demoralisation
Nothing seems more remote and unlikely today than the “revolt of the masses“. We are more accustomed, rather, to seeing apathy, indifference, complacency, or malaise as the mood and condition of society at our “end of history”.
I have read dozens of books purporting to diagnose the numerous crises besetting democracy and the society of Late Modernity. They have all been good and useful, as far as they went. John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West is another in that line of books, and he has some interesting things to add to the debate about the direction (or lack of direction) of the society of Late Modernity.
In general, though, they all approach the issue from the same angle — the isolation and identification of the objective indicators of civilisational decay and decline, while ricocheting off the inner dynamic and the really vital issue — the demoralisation of the civilisation of Late Modernity. Ralston Saul’s large book could have been much shorter and more to the point had he actually named the problem he seeks to tackle — demoralisation.
Of course, the minds doing the diagnosing are often trained and educated in the very same methods, values, and general outlook with which they now find fault and cause for alarm. They desire to be as “objective” as possible. And that is a very good thing, too. But not at the price of insight.
The core of the crisis seems to me quite simple, even if it has complex objective ramifications and continuously manifesting consequences spreading out in all directions — the demoralisation of the society of Late Modernity. That is to say, a loss of morale.
Here again, a confusion of things which should be kept separate: the “moral” is not the same as morale. Morale does not follow from the moral life. It is rather the obverse. The shape of moral life follows from morale. The idea that “moral rearmament” or “moral revival” or a “moral majority” will restore civilisational morale is a delusion and a folly that puts the cart before the horse and shuts the barn doors after the horses have already bolted.
Just as a “mentality” is a residue that remains after the spirit has flown, “moralism” is the corpse of morale — a kind of zombie life, even the cinders of a life. From both, the spirit has departed. Is not “dispirited” the same as “ex-spired”? And is not the “expired” or dispirited the same as loss of soul, or spirit, or “spunk”, ie, morale?
Instead of “morale”, we speak the language of motivators and motivations and incentives. Why? Because these “stimuli” we can measure, control, and manipulate to effect certain kinds of public and private behaviour. Meanwhile, the essential existential problem is overlooked or suppressed. We speak of “disillusionment” and “demoralisation” as if they were equivalent and interchangeable terms, suggesting that illusions and delusions bring happiness, while the truth brings nothing but despair, sorrow, malaise, and lassitude. Are we really happy with illusions and delusions and completely unhappy without them? Is morale really a matter of manipulating illusions?
“If a man has a why, he can face any how“. So Nietzsche believed. That’s really a statement about morale. Nihilism is demoralisation. Nietzsche’s question is really, how to preserve morale in the face to “two centuries of nihilism”. His entire philosophy is, I think, geared to the question of how to preserve our morale in the face of “the death of God” and the horror vacui — ennui, malaise, dread.
Public morale, even in the “democracies”, is really at a low point. That’s what lies behind the phrase “malaise of modernity”. In some ways, that apathy and malaise suits some interests just fine. Demoralising the enemy and the opponent is one form of propaganda, and for many, the public is a potential enemy that must be demoralised. But clinging to illusions and delusions for the sake of an artificially stimulated morale (boosterism) is just as bad, just as phoney.
Even this rage for “energy drinks” or “spirits”– this seems to me a completely artificial substitute for an authentic morale. And this loss of morale — this loss of “why” — is what Rosenstock-Huessy calls “our withering from within”.