The Mirage of Liberal Democracy and the Importance of Art

The whole Liberal Democracy thing all started off so well. It deteriorated pretty quickly though.

Much has been written about political apathy, disenfranchisement, the democratic deficit – in essence, the political process has become distant from its protagonists in Western Liberal Democracy. This has been grist to the mill of libertarians, and small-state reactionaries, yearning for less government intrusion in people’s lives. But government, and in particular liberal democracy, is supposed to be of the people, by the people. Today, I’m going to look at Juergen Habermas’ work on the public sphere, juxtaposed against Hayek on Spontaneous Order, and Carl Schmitt on States of Exception, as well as Fukyama and Huntingdon on the concept of political decay. Finally I’ll look at art and the creative process as an antidote to modernist nihilism, bringing in Gilles Deleuze and a few others.

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The Ontologies of Technology

Richard Lindner, Boy With Machine, 1954

In Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s 1991 book What is Philosophy?, the writers make the argument that philosophers are things of their time, creators of concepts through which the world can be interpreted. Philosophy, juxtaposed alongside science and art, provides the fundamental constructs that those disciplines require as a kind of prima terra, before any art can be made, or any science can be done. Philosophers, then, are in the business of creating ontologies.

This is of course a rejection of truth, at least in the absolute sense of the word. Richard Rorty distinguished between the concepts that ‘the truth is out there’ versus ‘the world is out there’. This goes all the way back to Wittgenstein and language, and the relations between the subject and the world: truth can only exist with language; and language can only exist with a subject. Therefore truth can’t exist ‘out there’, only the world can be out there – with its phenomenona (Husserl) and forms (Plato) and things-in-themselves (Kant).

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Covid-19: State of Emergency

Image result for break glass in case of emergency
These are not ordinary times.

On Friday last, the United States declared a National Emergency to deal with the Coronavirus, accessing up to $50bn for the problem, bypassing conventional appropriations procedures. In Spain, the Government has taken over private healthcare. In Ireland, government formation negotiations have been largely shelved in the wake of an indecisive February General Election, and a caretaker government continues in office; the same is happening in Belgium. Conventional politics – and our liberal democratic institutions – have been suspended in favour of a supposedly brief dose of totalitarianism, which everyone agrees is necessary to deal with what is an unquestionably dangerous pandemic.

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The Philosophy of History and The Binary Wasteland

Image result for dead or alive poster original
Death, the ultimate opposition, is the one we choose to disregard.

Presence or absence, with us or against us, in or out: righteousness has dogged mankind in modern times. Confidence in ourselves, in our existence, in our being, as rightful, positive entities on this planet and in this universe, has dominated the human condition. And so we seek to dominate! Assertive and strong (for to be otherwise is wasteful and somehow wrong) our existential duty is to dominate and multiply, to spawn and own. We are – nay, I am – absolute. Who denies me this? Who would argue that my existence is not infinitely significant, eternally worthwhile? Just as I shall not deny others their entitlement, I shall have mine.

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The Anti-Apocalypse of Being

Francis Bacon, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952)

Themes of alienation, vacuity, and absurdity have permeated the art and literature of the late twentieth century. From Samuel Beckett, to Mark Rothko, Marcel Duchamp, Brett Easton-Ellis, Salvador Dali, and Albert Camus, there appears to be a recognition of something misdirected, misaligned, out of whack. It’s political, social, economic, and even aesthetic – the artists themselves often recognise the futility of even their own art. What has been missing is – naturally – hard to pin down; but there is something essential about it, something epistemic. The resultant failures of society to compensate, despite eager, youthful, soviet-style enthusiastic promises of progress and improvement, merely accelerate the retrenchment of people from the public sphere, from the political, and into the familiar space of the self, and the narcissistic selfie. If this is wrong, if this is not right, or not how it should be, what happened to us?

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The Dynamics of Power Decline

US President Donald Trump speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

States have power based on multiple factors, including natural resources, technology, and the strength of government capacity. As the global system develops and evolves, demands for certain resources move around, and globalised supply chains in the past twenty to thirty years have had the effect of distributing wealth less unequally. Thus we have had the paradox of inequality: that the extremely rich have disappeared into the distance, while the wealth generating capacity of the not-rich has increased significantly. Alternately put – the middle classes continue to grow. There are shifts occurring in relative power, as in general relative wealth moves from west to east, and in particular from the US and Europe to China. How are these shifts impacting geopolitics and decision making, in, for example, the cases of America and the United Kingdom?

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Technologies of Theology

The British Museum is a controversial edifice. In part a persistently triumphal display of looted treasure – such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes – by a brutal and supremacist empire, part conservator of important artefacts of social history, its symbolism at a time of Brexit and resurgent nationalism is unhelpful to liberal sensibilities. It remains something of a contradiction that its erstwhile director, Neil MacGregor, combines a defence of its virtue as a world museum with criticism of the British view of its history in general as ‘dangerous’ (Allen, 2016).

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The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

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The Rule of Law and Bentham’s Panopticon

Modern politicians, and – if polling is to be believed – modern electorates are preoccupied with law and order. Policing, rural crime, safety on our streets are issues of grave concern to the politicians promising more and more cops, and deliverance from threats to safety and security. At the same time, spending is being reduced, and outcomes are deteriorating in visible ways through reduced sentences, and lower conviction rates. The rule of law appears to be weaker.

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Anarchist Reactionaries

The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white. 

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