The Politics of Self-Contradiction

Canada is presently in full national election mode and lots of people are already expressing their dismay and distaste for the Conservative Party’s importation of negative “American-style attack ads“. Perhaps they “work” (which seems to be the only utilitarian justification for them), but they attest to the present corruption and degeneracy of the public discourse to which mainstream political parties, especially so-called “conservatives”, shoulder a large part of the blame.

Just what are our contemporary “conservatives” actually conserving, you might well ask?

It’s certainly not civility and the civility of the public discourse. It’s the politics of the impolitic, and what we refer to as “gutter politics”. And it’s certainly not the environment (conservation). In that sense, overall it’s a non-conserving conservatism.

Latter-day politics has become the politics of self-contradiction, and that belongs also to the general tendency of Late Modern nihilism or “post-modernity”. A non-conserving conservatism parallels the same irrationality as an “illiberal liberalism” and the anti-communalism of Blairite-style “New Labour”. All, of course, have whitewashed their self-contradiction by a trick of rhetorical illusionism — “neo-conservatism”, “neo-liberalism” or “neo-socialism” belong to the rhetoric of “perception management” by leaving the impression of being a new kind of politics —  revitalised and vibrant conservatism, liberalism or socialism, where there is only self-contradiction, exhaustion of ideas, and decadence. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, as Yeats’ put it in “The Second Coming” — the resurrection of “the Rough Beast”. That’s “the new normal” in politics.

A lot of us now sense that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. We’re repulsed by the incivility and discourtesy– and perhaps even the irrelevance — of contemporary politics, although formal politics is only a reflection of the general condition and state of society as a whole. An uncivil civilisation is the biggest self-contradiction of all, isn’t it? The self-contradiction and self-negation of contemporary political formations is something shared by the polity in general, otherwise these perversions of the political sensibility would have acquired no traction at all.

In effect, as I once argued in the former Dark Age Blog, when “civil society” and “politics” become polarised as they are today, as two different spheres of activity (reflecting the divorce of Nation and State), you have a big problem. That polarisation is the basis for the present objection to the professionalisation of politics and political careerism.

This self-contradiction and self-negation is duplicity. So when Pope Francis states that “duplicity is the currency of the day”, it is certainly most evident, and most to be observed, in contemporary politics and economics, although the prevalence of duplicity and deceit has become the theme even of much film and literature, too — The Matrix (or V for Vendetta) being amongst the most suggestive and forthright about that condition of duplicity. Observing this situation with our own ears and eyes, how can we not come to agree with George Orwell that,

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. — Politics and the English Language

“Sincerity” or “authenticity” — I think we have, by and large, forgotten what these words actually mean. There seems to be a crisis of sincerity and authenticity today. “Sincere” has the meaning of “against decay” (sin + caries). When you sign your letters “sincerely”, you want to attest to the fact that you are conjoined with others in your common fight against decay and decadence and degeneracy and nihilism. If there is something dreadful about the present situation, it is that the public discourse in such terms has become entirely insincere.  That’s what we are presently calling “cynical” or even “cynical reason” (Sloterdijk). And I suppose it’s pretty clear that Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (available online in PDF format) equally reflects Jean Gebser’s judgement about “the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”.

Better an honest nihilist and barbarian than this kind of sneaking duplicity and nihilism that comes wearing masks of righteousness, and pretends to be other than it is.

So, we have to avoid the lure and temptation of the cynical ourselves, otherwise we only contribute to the general degeneracy. Very large parts of the population have grown completely cynical about politics to the point that political participation rates are falling precipitously, especially in the ostensible democracies. But the political can’t be avoided. Even anti-politics is a politics. Speech itself is political. You can’t utter a single sentence, in fact, without invoking the political, the poetic, the prophetic, and the philosophical voices, as Rosenstock-Huessy demonstrated in his “grammatical method” and as Orwell insisted.  What are we waiting for? Well… a new inspiration, I suppose, which will only come when we actually feel the need.

S.I. Hayakawa also once pointed out a parallel between the decay of the public function of the poet and a public politics. The poet, he believed, had been usurped by the adman, poetry itself having been debased as the marketer’s and adman’s “jingle”. At one time, kings and chieftains trembled in the presence of a bard and poet, because they could make your name or break your name. Your fame or infamy was the poet’s to decide, and the poet, rather than the priest or druid, was the gatekeeper to your heaven or your hell.

And today, equally, the prophetic voice comes only when it is cast in the form of science fiction. We express utter shock and surprise when some theme or another from some science fiction scenario becomes real and true. It is only in this continuous recurrence of these archetypes of politician, poet, prophet and philosopher and their variants (or “emanations” in Blake’s terms), does history actually “repeat itself”.

The function of politics is to bear us safely into the often uncharted waters of the future. That’s what “leadership” means, even though it is we who instruct the politicians in that common future we want to see. But our own very brief analysis of the situation demonstrates that these political formations have become exhausted forms and are now leaky vessels, “not fit for function,” as is said. As such, it is very much that case that: “Houston. We have a problem.” Where there is no vessel fit to bear us, we cannot reach the future. “No future. No hope” as the graffiti has it.

There is hope, actually. But the hope that is going to carry us from the dissolute present to the future has to be founded upon a real sense of need — a sense of urgency, or a “divine impatience”, as Seth once put it. But it’s far from clear to me whether most people actually even see the present as being in a state of crisis. In fact, there’s a lot of denial about that, isn’t there?

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5 responses to “The Politics of Self-Contradiction”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    If you think that in the above post I might be exaggerating about ‘uncivil civilisation’ and conservative nihilism, here’s something written today by Gerald Caplan about the present Harper government in Canada, and it pretty much echoes what I wrote above

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-harper-government-is-marked-by-its-mean-streak/article25316100/

    Not a great state of affairs, overall.

    Now, as to the charge of nihilism in the form of a self-contradicting conservatism, here’s Gerald Caplan again, and I’m pretty sure you may recognise the same issue in your own countries, too. This is pretty much a general description of the decadence of an entire Era

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/in-canada-our-national-institutions-are-failing-us/article24948353/

    • LittleBigMan says :

      From Gerald Kaplan’s first article: “They now have a new anti-Trudeau ad that actually reproduces Islamic State anthems and grisly Islamic State shots of their victims about to be slaughtered.”

      That is very low – even for a politician.

      If Harper’s team is using ISIS’ horrific videos in their attack campaigns, it tells me that they themselves were not really affected by those images – which goes to show the bestial nature of those who end up at the top – anywhere.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    To me, politics of today is tantamount to “Big Money” will and interests. As long as there’s no cap on the personal wealth of those running for a public office, and as long as there is no cap on political campaign expenditures made by those running for an office, we can expect to see these sorts of duplicitous creatures in the highest office of democracies.

    Big Money has become that proverbial worm that puts the decadent self-contradiction inside all the fruits of politics.

    Would it hurt to ban anyone with a personal wealth of over one million dollars from running for a political office for the next 50 years? And would it hurt to cap money spent on campaign adds? I don’t think so. But the show will go on, since politics has become just another way of “doing business.”

    If “the chief business of the American people is business,” then self-contradiction in politics becomes acceptable as long as Big Money business interests are served.

    Yes, politics is in a state of crisis because it has lost its ability to solve the major issues of the Nation. Every election, we are talking about the same darn issues: Jobs that don’t seem to want to come back from overseas; health care that is costing more and more and soon (if not already) many small businesses won’t be able to offer health care to their employees; a silly economic theory that says if we don’t spend most of our earnings, it won’t bounce back; a state of war that doesn’t seem to end since WWII; imploding education system; imploding entitlements; and on and on with the same issues.

    If the issues persist, then the process that claims it can solve the issues must be filled with duplicity and incompetence.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Mr. Harper and his “Base” may be facing their come-uppance, though. Mr. Harper and his supporters don’t appear to understand the nature of hybris and the inevitable Nemesis that follows. Ironically, he’s helped pave the way for the social democrats (the NDP) to form a national government. The NDP is now leading in the national polls after the very surprising victory of the Left in traditionally very conservative Alberta. There seems to be quite a shake-up occurring in Canadian politics these days. It’s polarising around the right and the left, and it’s the Liberals by and large who are suffering a slow attrition.

    Despite all that, many people seem to have a corrupt and perverted understanding of democracy, even considering it a spoils system, ie, “winner take all”. That seems to be Mr. Harper’s attitude too, and many very unflattering books have been written lately exposing Mr. Harper’s dark side, including his narcissism and his earlier flirtations with fascism. We’ll have to wait and see if the national NDP is as corruptible by power as the Liberals and Conservatives have proven to be.

    Speaking of books and the spoils system: I visited my favourite bookstore here in Vancouver, and was surprised to find a slightly used copy of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century that I got for pennies. I think it must have been waiting for me. As you may know, this book has caused quite a stir, especially in Europe, with it’s critique of neo-liberalism, economic inequality, and the threat that poses to democracy. It’s a pretty massive study, but much of what you need to know is summarised in the Introduction. Picketty doesn’t use the phrase ‘spoils system” but that’s basically his conclusion. I’ll have to post a review of it when I return to Sask. But it really does reflect that remark above that the austerity policy isn’t popular with economists, only with Big Finance and its politicians.

    So, I’ll be approaching Picketty’s conclusions from a different angle — as the consequence of egoistic individualism run amok (ie, “culture of narcissism”). Basically, everything I wrote about austerity being a fraud perpetrated by private interests to pillage the commonwealth is confirmed in Picketty.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Here in the United States, too, there have been surprises: Donald Trump seems to be rising in popularity in light of the upcoming 2016 presidential campaign. I don’t know much about the man’s integrity, but I don’t know how much stock one can put in a member of the 1% who vows to solve issues that the 1% is known for not caring much about (e.g. decent jobs, the diminishing middle classes, sustainable peace, etc.). But people seem to love his stance on illegal immigration.

      Yes, I have heard of Thomas Picketty’s excellent book. Of course, it’ll be a while before I can actually sit down and read it. It’s on my list 🙂

      As you know, there are lots of pieces about the book on the internet. Here’s one link to a review:

      http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/sep/21/-sp-thomas-piketty-bestseller-why

      The book apparently hints that:

      “The relative losers are no longer low earners but rather anyone who is not a capitalist.”

      Exactly. We are headed toward a polarized future of “haves” and “have-nots,” and the have-nots will increasingly lead lives that would be comparable to 18th and 19th century slaves.

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