Ursula LeGuin’s outstanding novel The Dispossessed begins with the simple line ‘There was a wall.’ It is a setup to a binary exploration of us and other, rich and poor, anarchist and industrialist, on two different planets, Urras and Anarres. Walls are physical structures just as they are dividing lines; LeGuin’s wall was of ‘uncut rocks roughly mortared.’ Others are literal blocking mechanisms, such as the walls of prisons, to keep people in, and the walls of old towns, to keep people out. Still others are borders, political objects designed to designate territory and zones of control. These are man-made impositions on the earth, statements in technology announcing our collective will.
In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty.
Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military strategist who lived through the French Revolution, wrote in his unfinished book On War that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It is of course something of a trite aphorism, and hides a considerable amount of theory and philosophy. Yet as with all good aphorisms, it reveals something important: in this case, that the seeming differences between politics and war are not so significant as we had thought. Politics is about two sides negotiating the distribution of resources, sometimes along ideological lines, sometimes along economic lines; war is not all that different, save insofar as the rule of law is suspended, such as it may have existed before the outbreak of hostilities. Increasingly, we see sporting theatre being usurped for the purposes of political metaphor. The symbolism, and the language, is a kind of double speak that would be shocking in any other context, and useful for democracies, who don’t tend to actually fight each other.
Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.