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?