10. Political Philosophers and Postmodernism (a)
Another split subject emerges – so called political philosophy and post-modernism. There are some overlaps, primarily the prying apart of politics from philosophy whose general shape is not unfamiliar to us. It comes down to ultimately dividing philosophy from itself – its ethical cum political core and its metaphysical appropriation of this core. In other words, in another way, we get the usual division between the idea and some assumption of the real. I say some assumption of the real because the real must still be thought in some way.
And it basically comes down to this: the real is the space of politics, the generalised form of human interaction, while the thought of this real, its generality as such, gives this space its norms of action; hence this thought is essentially an ethics. So thought names philosophy proper while Philosophy a la Platonism, is a metaphysics of the idea intent on conforming the real to itself. Hence the ascription to it by Popper and the new ethicists of difference and human rights, as well as by postmodernism, of some form of totalitarianism.
Thus the theory of forms for example – a notion Popper just accepts as is while Arendt shows more nuance – is a metaphysics of appropriation; an attempt to control the political space from outside politics as such. So philosophy must be divided from itself insofar as metaphysics is something like the falsification of its real effect. You can basically see this as again the distinction Socrates/Plato. One running about in human affairs – debating, they say, seeking out some consensual frame of knowledge – the other abstracting from this its ideal form, thus falsifying its ethical dimension for the sake of an eternal, un-changing, undebatable Real.
The post-moderns are of course famously, self-consciously – one is tempted to say egoically or even heroically – opposed to all metaphysics in favour of a sort of interpretative pragmatics, a performative and thus linguistic constructivism, which is to say something like the world is the endlessly proliferating object of one (minor) narrative after another insofar as one usurps another by reason of its power of effect. Something like this.
Thus in Lyotard’s famous phrase, with which Popper agrees – of course while never having read Lyotard – we are at the end of grand narratives, those which have overdetermined the reality of things in an unreal way. While in the eyes of Arendt, not unlike that of Heidegger, Plato is the beginning of this end insofar as his last ditch effort to orient politics once and for all fails because the polis always fails to live up to the philosopher’s instruction: this failure is a positive effect for Arendt, indeed the very basis of any possible ‘freedom’. For postmodernism, which is a proud relativism, very much in line with the ancient Sophistic position concerning the mutability of all things and thus a theory of knowledge which accords with this, ultimately, that truths are impossible is what makes everything possible and the role of all art, politics, even science is to positively render possible this impossibility.
So we’ll start with this political philosophy, Arendt and Popper will in turn be our central interlocutors, then we’ll look at the general postmodern assumptions even though we have seen several figures already that play key roles in it. But tonight we’ll look very generally at Lyotard as exemplary.
So, political philosophy: I suppose the first question is to do with this terminological construction; with assuming politics is the matter of philosophy or more, assuming the form of this connection. Certainly philosophy is concerned with what is thinkable for all, and politics as precisely the very thought organisation of this all would be a matter for it. Thus the empirical or pragmatic construction of an ‘all’ or in other words any people is a political matter as such. Does not Plato precisely concern himself with the good city, the good man in such a city, the laws appropriate to it and so on. So is not Platonism in some real way what provides any politics or supposes to, with its rules, its proper function, its ethics and so on – the way of life of a polis – thus conforming to a political philosophy vision of this relation? Well, yes and no because certainly politics can be thought for Plato but for those who adhere to political philosophy and this is quite paradoxical, politics to be such must be recognised by philosophy to be such.
This vision of political philosophy as what thinks politics as its object presumes, note, that politics exists – in other words, Alain Badiou’s words, political-philosophy ‘is the programme which, holding politics – or, better still, the political – as an objective datum, or even invariant, of universal experience, accords philosophy the task of thinking it. Overall, philosophy’s task would be to generate an analysis of the political and, in fine, quite obviously to submit this analysis to ethical norms.’ So political philosophy is ‘the analysis of a politics – an act of the people, say – to determine the political in it: the political being what conforms to a set of ethical norms.’
And so, Badiou continues: ‘The philosopher would then have the triple advantage of being, first, the analyst and thinker of this brutal and confused objectivity which constitutes the empirical character of real instances of politics; second, the one who determines the principles of the good politics, of politics conforming to ethical demands; and, third, in order to meet these demands, the one exempt from militant involvement in any genuine political process. Whence the philosopher could keep the Real at arm’s length indefinitely in the manner most dear to him: that of judgement.’
So the philosopher confronts an invariant existence, it provides its rule or norm relative to an ethics obviously outside it and how these can be imposed on a polity – given no such confused objectivity can realise or give such to itself. The philosopher, then, judges what is and is not political and is he or she who has this power of judgement above and beyond if you like that of the polis itself and is as such distinct from it. That the polis cannot think itself or produce its own thought is the implication of this notion of politics itself.
In Badiou’s words again: ‘The central operation of political philosophy is, first and foremost, to restore politics to the exercise of ‘free judgement’ in a public space where, ultimately, only opinions count.’ ‘Opinions’ because these are what there is when truths are impossible – ontologically and epistemologically speaking.
This is the crux of political philosophy, then – philosophy provides the rule for the proper exercise of judgement among opinions. Hence opinions are the currency of politics and philosophy doesn’t change the currency but regulates it’s form of exchange.
In the Arendtian contention, vis a vis this approach, there is the separation between the place of the spectator, the philosopher who must see all this as the space of the political, and the actors of a politics. And this is linked clearly to the notion of politics being the currency of opinions, which means it lacks truth. So the actors carry no constitutive force – they just act within the realm already known as the political and these acts in their creation have, of course, no connection to the truth of the polity. Or more directly, whatever acts are carried out by the people are not immediately political but must be judged to be so and judgement is not a matter of truth but really, adequation.
So ‘Politics’ – in this contention – is neither the name of a thought – in the sense of a new truth of the situation – nor the name of an action. Political philosophy is philosophy treating politics from the perspective of judge, which is to say, from the perspective of spectator and as Badiou points out, this has a Kantian basis. As we know, Kant’s great advance was to tell us again but with great systematicity how it was that we could not know. Or, in fact, he provides the final lesson on the impossibility of truth being something more than subjective knowledge or the form of the latter’s consensus anyway.
Arendt congratulates Kant for explaining ‘how to take others into account, albeit without informing one how to combine with them in order to act.’ As Badiou further points out, this privileging of the spectator underpins Kant’s claim to admire the French Revolution while abhorring its actualisation – so admiration for the phenomenon but not for its actors; this is indeed a commonplace today. Who doesn’t agree with the revolution qua the end of the monarchy while at the same time hating Robespierre or Saint Just or the ‘terror’ etc. But what sort of politics is it or can be conceived in terms of such a separation? What sort of politics is it whereby the actions of the participants contradicts the judgement of it as a politics?
In other words, Robespierre and Saint Just were doing something other than politics in what they did, even as the doing of what they did was – you’d think – integral to the Revolution itself being, well, a Revolution, a fundamental change in politics itself. But as you can see, the separation of the two is a commonplace. Arendt’s Kantianism puts it this way: a ‘clash between the principle according to which you should act and the principle according to which you judge.’ The actors acted politically contrary to what is political as ‘a matter of judgment.’ Which is of course to divorce action and thought and indeed it is true that this dichotomy runs throughout Arendt’s work, whatever the topic and whatever the terms used that repeat it.
To put this another way,:it means then that politics is under no circumstances the principle, the maxim or the prescription of a collective action aiming to transform the plural situation (or public space) itself. In other words, action is never linked to the truth of the collective – the one precisely a collective would militate to construct which would make politics the thought process of this collective.
Now you can see that I am following Badiou’s position here and I do so because as perhaps the only continental philosopher to come out as a Platonist it gives his perspective a unicity relative to the general run of anti-Platonisms which all conceive of Platonism as some sort of sovereign discourse reigning over all manner of other discourses. What Badiou allows us to see is that Political Philosophy so called, rooted as it is in the concept of public opinion in fact treats any public in the abstract as simply the circulation of opinion – opinions as to the proper mode of the political itself. A politics then would be the judgement rendered among opinions – the empirical basis of all judgement.
Thus the point being that politics cannot be a thought or an invention but is always consensus. And clearly a consensus has no necessary connection to a truth. Thus politics is not a matter of truth. And indeed the claim from Aristotle to Kant to Arendt and Popper, to the New Philosophers in France to post-modernism itself is that any such connection is fundamentally the slippery slope to totalitarianism. Note, too, it supposes a certain conception of truth as powerful determination once and for all. Otherwise why be so put out by it? The point being the conception of truth they have is a received version, just like their Platonism.
The original thing in Badiou is that it is public opinion which is the abstract ideal of political philosophy which determines what is a politics, while for the Platonist, Badiou, the thought of politics is a construction of politics itself – of actions specific to a prescribed situation which have the power to effect all; thus a political truth is a matter of every member of a situation as such. Philosophy then is tasked to think the thought politics produces as itself – it is not matter of what philosophy determines it to be.
So for Badiou, Platonism is the opposite of what anti-Platonism ascribes to Platonism; which is to say, it appears that anti-Platonism is in fact more like the Platonism it abhors insofar as it cannot countenance that what happens in a situation of the people, in its act, is a thought or a truth of politics as such. The political has no truth – the very thing that concerns Plato with Athenian democracy (which is the hilariously named market place of ideas) – only judgement; ironically the judgement guaranteed by its philosophers – Kant for example; but here Arendt following his lead. So by getting rid of truth as a category of politics we get rid of the need to concern ourselves with the act of thought or the thought of the act and can revert safely to judging how a phenomena or an abstraction, hence the Revolution, fits with the ethics only the philosopher can bring to bear. ‘As soon as ‘politics’ finds its sole rightful place in public opinion it goes without saying that the theme of truth is excluded from it.’ (Badiou)
For Arendt, then, the key thing is that politics is not at all concerned with or connected to truth. This is its saving grace in fact because if there was truth in politics there is no room for debate, consensus or judgement; that it is not reducible to philosophy, even if philosophy provides the norm of this very untruth – the judgement of opinion a such. Of course for Plato, it’s also the case that truth and opinion (the currency of political philosophy) are irreducible and that philosophy is the site of the thinking of truth, but for Plato, and this is what matters, it is not the case that politics (the ‘political life’) is forever devoted to opinion thus forever disjoined from all truth. And of course what is the discourse devoted to untruth? Sophistry. And what sort of politics takes sophistry as it métier? Parliamentary democracy. At the start of Popper’s book against Plato – well Plato as philosopher qua politics – The Open Society and Its Enemies, he opposes a quote from Pericles to one by Plato in order to highlight just this.
For the Open Society (about 430 B.C.): ‘Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.’ PERICLES OF ATHENS
Against the Open Society (about 80 years later): ‘The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals .. only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.’ PLATO OF ATHENS.
Apart from the cheap shot aspect of it there are two things: I can easily find in Pericles absolutely anti-democratic statements let alone actions – he ran a fucking empire after all (read the speech in Thucydides to the Melians) and they kept slaves (on which, by the way, Popper has the temerity to claim that they were treated humanely) and so on … and I can easily find statements in the Republic – where this is from – that any democrat would support, so it serves only as ideological fare to do this. Moreover and curiously it is attributed as it is to someone called Plato of Athens in contrast to Pericles of Athens as you see.
The great contemporary sophist R. Rorty is another advocate of this Popperian-Arendtian position claiming bourgeois-democracy has priority over philosophy and that the latter, if it is to be worth anything at all, must disavow truth. The problem with truth, as Badiou‘s sarcastically points out, is that it doesn‘t offer ‘equal opportunity to liars and dissemblers as tolerant, consensual, democratic debate seems to do’. And it’s not a coincidence that Rorty, still following the Arendtian-Popperian vison of things, will argue not for the rule of the masses finally or the demos as such but for a ‘community of liberal ironists’ wherein each conspires in their own self-creation.
This is guaranteed possible by thoroughly bourgeois democratic conditions (he doesn’t bother to say how these are arrived at). These, he says, ‘are historically proven to allow for such a possibility’. But of course, Rorty refers only to a particular stratum of society as actively capable of this – the polis is the space of this possibility not the universal participation in this self-construction. Rorty, like Arendt and Popper in their philosophies of aversion, and for all their cosmopolitanism, would never dare regard the universal. But consensus is Rorty’s watchword, and it is produced only through the contingency of language games and the ironic recognition of such contingency (these set the criteria for recognition of consensus as, well, correct) – again irony qua Socrates is only for the few.
However, we should note in this Rorty’s rather non-ironic obedience to the dictates of a certain tradition: ‘In the ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would be ironists although the non-intellectuals would not.’ The former are those ‘lucky enough’ he says, those of the affluent class therefore, (Rorty has no interest in political economy), to go to university. Apparently, university teaches individuation and irony? Rorty is simply Protagorean, so an exemplary sophist – thus self-edification for self-interested selves – take it or leave it.
To put this same division in other terms it’s worth citing Badiou’s distinction between the go to French liberal, Voltaire, and his enemy, the militant thinker of the Universal, Rousseau: ‘The obstacle to the ecstatic becoming of the furious ‘we’ is ‘peaceful’ or ‘sedentary’ life. Yet this is exactly the kind of life glorified nowadays. Nothing is worth tearing ourselves away from our ordinary cowardice, and especially not the Idea, or the ‘we’, which are summarily dismissed as nothing but totalitarian phantasms. So let us mind our own business and entertain ourselves. As Voltaire, that exemplary thinker of humanitarian mediocrity and venomous enemy of (the courageous) Rousseau once said: ‘We must tend to our own garden’.’
Note the genius of this liberal parliamentary form: tending your own garden is not an imperative in the direct or didactic sense – the conception of truth the liberal runs with to disavow – but it is the norm, and non-conformity to the norm has its consequences as we all know and the greatest bit of all is that this non-conformity to the norm which results in the consequences will be all your own fault because you could have just conformed to the norm when, like everyone else, you had the chance. Irrefutable, right?
And why, because it’s effectively a tautology, but it is consistent with the notion of the polity as space of contested opinions – thus the freedom to norm or not to norm. Of course they will say it’s also the place of setting the norm but this just presupposes that setting the norm is the norm of all politics and so on ad nauseam. Sophistry supposes itself to have no beginning and no end, just like liberalism, which supposes itself to have no ground and no goal but itself – it’s self-made, after all.
You can see that in liberalism and sophistry the collective is ruled out. Not that it isn’t presupposed but that it is ruled out of the thought of it insofar as truth is impossible – a truth being what is for all or not at all. Easier, more pragmatic to take up the claim that it-is-not-at-all than to suppose such a thing can be produced: one a risk, one a comfortable norm. But like the sophist, the liberal is committed to repetition, which is to say, finally, the real inexistence of politics as such. The norm itself of liberal sophistry can never be put into question – hence there is a limit to liberal sophistry which liberal sophistry can never avow lest it suppose there is something outside itself, other to it, which functions as its condition. In other words, the tautology is that liberalism cannot admit truth – but it can never truly show there is no truth because this would open it up to falsification.
In this vein Arendt, for example, declares: ‘that ‘every truth’ unequivocally demands recognition and refuses debate to the extent that debate constitutes the very essence of political life.’ Badiou cuttingly describes this as a banality and cites for example the way science opens itself in the very process of a theory or hypothesis becoming true to criticism or debate. In actual politics the same process is enacted – debate leads to not more debate but decision – decision to do this or that is to make something new in the world of that situation. Thus the opposition is spurious. He says, in his inimitable way: ‘Except, of course, if one deems it absolutely necessary to assert special rights for falsity and for lying. In this case, it would instead be necessary to say the following: debate, which confers rights without norms upon falsity and lying, constitutes the very essence of politics’ … and thus, returning to the distinction we saw a moment ago, critical to this political philosophy between judgements and maxims of action he notes:
‘The question of a possible political truth must then be examined not only on the basis of ‘debate’ – which, in isolation, turns ‘politics’ into mere passive commentary on current affairs, a kind of collective extension of reading newspapers – but in the complex process which allies debate with decision, or which concentrates debate in political statements in whose name one or more interventions are possible.’
Hence, we have to see that there is ‘something besides opinions’ here or besides ‘debate’ – there is decision. Even the vote is an intervention in the rule of debate; it decides, even if this can happen with little regard to the truth of the situation. After all electing liars and fools who will not act in concert with that decision is part of this voting game. But still, voting is not debate – it stops it.
So politics is at least debate and decision, no? But decision is an act and acts contradict the spectators position – he who debates on acts to provide the always already and elsewhere constituted norms. Thus for Badiou, for those ‘who wish to uphold this figure of ‘democracy’ philosophically, it is necessary to sever ‘the’ political from the protocols of decision, to reduce it to the judgement of the spectator, and to think of debate as a plural confrontation of opinions without truth.’
And hence this vision of politics, parliamentary, pluralist vis a vis it’s parties, reflexive in the judgments which confirm one’s interests or likes and dislikes, is the effort to ‘rehabilitate opinion, to restore its specific dignity while confronting the primacy of rational truth.’
Truth is the enemy of politics – this is the orientation and the end of what is called political philosophy as it comes down to us from Kant through Arendt and, as I said, is found to dominate the field under this name – and, as such, stretches beyond the academy which for its own reasons finds its banality interminably repeatable.
Alright let me stop the pursuit of political philosophy here.
I want to now look at Arendt’s vision of the Greeks, which will underpin some of what I have said; then Popper’s conception of Plato as the first totalitarian. Both of these will find their way into the New Philosophers in France who have done so much to depoliticise politics with their so called turn to ethics which forms the world over now, the basis of contemporary discourses on human rights. Unfortunately, I cannot go down this road tonight but this conception of politics as without truth – that’s to say, this conception of its virtue as the forming of a consensus out of opinion alone – thus a dominant opinion if you like – that being in the last instance that consensus is the end and aim of a politics regardless of its object or right – to use Hegel’s term – is what underpins human rights discourse, the ideology of the victim, which parades a desubjectivated animal being as its highest exemplar, and the cult of the market which also has no truth and no subject to hinder it as guarantor of the laissez fair life for all. All we have is its ethics – thus how to get about presupposing it as all there is.
All of this – which is the knowledge of the present required – requires that Plato be what the anti-Platonists require such that to have done with Plato – thus that affirmative commitment to truth and to its subject – is the very site and possibility of our democratic freedoms – those, after all, so these great Hellenists tell us, he opposed in the first place. So you see, in this way, Plato has again blocked the seamless melding of a pre-Platonic golden age with our own golden time and so we need to get rid of him once and for all such that it shines as brightly as it should. It’s no coincidence, I suppose, that the west functions like an empire and enforces its own commodity fuelled version of slave labour outside its western walls (though increasingly, within) which is how these things go once a norm organises a consensus around itself: by definition, everything will be subject to it.
So Arendt’s Hellenism or really, what of the Greeks matters to Arendt. This will be very schematic and I will not bother with what she has to say about Aristotle, just Plato.
The first thing to say is that she treats Plato as being anti-political. But we have seen what this means already. He is so because he decides for truths over consensus or opinion; for decision over judgement and thus then for philosophy.
So that’s what she works out and from, we can say.
So this notion of Plato’s being anti-political. You can see the Heideggerian flavour, as I have implied. She doesn’t judge the polis from the perspective of philosophy per se, at least not from the supposed philosophical tradition – that is itself a highly problematic tradition as we have touched on here and there. Instead she sees it as an ongoing denial of politics as such, ‘condemning the tradition’ as J. Peter Euban says, ‘for effacing the originary and in some respects still quintessential expression of freedom and power present in the practices and literature of classical Greece.’
So behind Plato as it were is the real politics of the Greeks – in tooth and claw so to speak whereas as Plato’s anti-political philosophy is against this politics which he and the ‘tradition’ has effaced – precisely because, so the Arendtian argument goes, it is un-true. Plato, she argues, is anti-political because for him politics is incapable of truth – this is what it boils down too. The irony is that Arendt agrees. Politics is incapable of truth, but for her this is its virtue – this is the character of the inversion – an inversion possible if we go behind Plato’s supposed traditional authority.
In her essay, ‘What is Freedom?’, she says ‘Let us go back once more to antiquity, i.e., to its pre-philosophical traditions, certainly not for the sake of erudition and not even because of the continuity of our tradition, but merely because a freedom experienced in the process of acting and nothing else – though, of course, mankind never lost this experience altogether – has never again been articulated with the same classical clarity.’
Freedom? It’s interesting, and I’ve already touched on it, this notion as applied to the ancient Athenian polis and it’s link to the present – which is the point of course – again the Heideggerian flavour. It was a funny freedom those Greeks had going – slaves, empire, metics, patriarchy, massive social and economic inequalities etc., – all the good things we have. That’s an interesting story no, the way we love to compare ourselves to the romantic Greek vision and yet it’s true, we are like them. It’s just that they weren’t that democratic and neither are we … which is really what Plato was on about, after all, that it wasn’t ‘true’ … but nevertheless. Plato was interested in what could be true.
This romantic vision is coupled in Arendt by a not at all uncommon forgetting about the form of the dialogues, especially the Republic, which every good liberal must hate, and especially their dramatic structure – how the dialogue or the dialectic functions as a performance of the thinking of those very things that make up the polis itself. This is remarkable because Arendt is concerned about those sorts of things in the real polis of Athens – the theatrical and performative dimensions. And rightly so because the link between politics and theatre are fundamental and of course both perform the key problem of representation. Which, as we know, Plato agonises over. But Plato also dialecticises these things in the dialectic the dialogues perform. He doesn’t consecrate them. Here is the rub. He dares to take a look at the form of the polis itself – one which performs itself as democratic and liberal and thus as good.
Now this is very interesting because in Plato, indeed one of the key assertions in the dialogues is that it is stupid to mess with the good. Clearly, if we have the good, any messing about with it is its corruption in one way or another. You have to admit this! Of course the general post-modern or sophistic work around is to disavow the good as such and to suppose we can only have better or worse; then though the criteria becomes an issue.
Anyway, as you might see, part of the inversion here, one liberal democrats are partial too is that there is no Platonic good that would make of liberal-democracy something to put into question: but on the other hand liberal-democracy is good and so anything that puts it into question a la Plato or philosophy is clearly a corruption. As I keep saying, Plato is not easy to escape and all the more so when you try to escape by means of a disavowal – which of course shows up as an ignorance at the heart of your knowledge, should anyone care to look…
Another aspect of Arendt’s work on Athens, related to this idea of the performative and the active, which is sometimes criticised, is that for all she has to say about politics she doesn’t really say what it is about. The scholar Hanna Pitkin puts the question like this: ‘What is it that they talked about together in that endless palaver in the agora? What does [Arendt] imagine was the content of political speech and action and why is this question so difficult to answer from her text?’
I’m not going to analyse this, I just want to juxtapose this, what, aporia?, in Arendt’s analysis to that of the dialogues and especially the much maligned Republic where all this content is dramatically, forcefully and openly staged. Like the theatre in fact, which was basically a public duty, Socrates says at one point that he offers himself every day, in the street, to all comers, to talk these things through.
So as you’d expect Arendt, given the place of theatre in the Athenian polis – its educative role in fact – speaks, Euban notes, of politics in very dramatic terms: ‘in terms and concepts prevalent in Greek tragedy concerned especially with action and performance but also in terms of heroism and greatness, public and private, storytelling, judgment and impartiality, the importance of speech and action and the unpredictability of the latter with the attendant need for forgiveness and promises, and in all this performance political identities are forged and so on.’
As we know, Plato’s dialogues are works of art and are as such in contest with the works of the theatre – he makes no bones about it. His project is of course a re-education of the polis, hitherto the very province of poetry in the Hellenic tradition. Tragedy is key here because the world view is ultimately one of repetition, no? That this heroic effort to endure and reform always somehow ends up in a return to wit all such change is flawed and in fact it carries within it unconsciously, so to speak, this flaw – that which will bring it undone. This is what tragedy stages over and again. So it’s a repetitious form repeating and representing the same story.
We all know the refrain – it’s applied to revolutions, to all great efforts in politics which exceed the norms of a consensus and indeed consensus is precisely the disavowal of any possible break with the form. We see it in our own TV programs and Hollywood films. The same moral injunctions played over and again with only barely distinct characters in different contexts. It’s an education, precisely, or a pedagogy to be more specific, and indeed politics was the first reality show and now reality shows and soaps and rom-coms and block-busters are this same politics by other means.
So anyway – the tragedian vision of politics is already predisposed to see revolution for example but politics generally, insofar as it might name the possibility of not conforming to the norms of the political as such; thus might by the force of its actors, break with the knowledge of it, as flawed – as only another albeit terrible means to return to the mean of consensus. Thus, then, revolutions are ultimately, like tragic heroes of the past, doomed to come undone because they carry within them as ‘a destinal flaw’ a promise that the gods, so to speak, cannot let them keep. Heroic follies. And indeed, Arendt takes this approach to revolution I think, especially evident in the shift which she makes in their assessment between On Revolution and On Totalitarianism.
It’s interesting this tragic dimension in Arendt because as Margaret Canovan says in her introduction to The Human Condition, ‘she is all about beginnings, tales of the unexpected, especially conceived in terms of natality or birth’. But the tragic dimension remains insofar as yes, we are capable of new things – action in her sense implies this precisely, given it is supposed to be distinct from labour or work in her terms, which is another way of dividing the intellectual from the manual, and hence making sure, I’d argue, that action is always already inscribed within the political as such rather than that action – the action of the people for example – prescribes in and through this what a politics might be. We cannot let politics escape its knowledge might be another way to put it.
So Arendt it seems is between Plato and Marx. Plato treats politics with contempt because it lacks truth, she says. Marx opens up the space of politics to what a people or the proletariat prescribes as political for itself. For Arendt, politics is neither or rather both are proto-totalitarian ultimately. On one side, there is ultimately the truth of the idea which divorces it from action; on the other, the work or the labour of action which undermines the action of the intellect. Both, it is supposed, rule out consensus and judgment in their submission to a power which is by definition outside the frame of consensus.
Of course Plato challenges this tragic conception – in form and content, hence the dialogues, and in a move which I don’t think has gotten the press it deserves Plato incorporates into his own drama the aporias at their very heart – that’s to say, he never operates by disavowal. For Plato, there is the truth and the truth can come to be so; as against the political philosophers whose grounds for the contrary determination must go uncontested lest they need to be shown to be true.
Or to put this in another way, in terms of tragedy, the tragic form, as Nietzsche argued, is the very means invented by the Greeks to both look squarely at the worst while also looking away. Arendt says, clearly in this vein, that it was the polis that ‘enabled ordinary men, young and old, to bear life’s burden’. This is very in the vein of Aristotle of course, that tragedy lets you experience the worst as catharsis. It’s almost a therapy – you look at it but in looking at it on stage as it were you are also looking away; looking away from the real horror as such because the horror has been staged – this is what the TV or internet does today. Arendt says, ‘As long as the polis is there to inspire men to dare the extraordinary, all things are safe; if it perishes everything is lost.’
One of the things Plato’s drama does is show this doubling itself in action, show how one can have the experience of the true, so to speak, while avoiding the true as such. In the tragic staging is the opportunity, then, to be ignorant of the true – this is Plato’s critique – and precisely because all truth or daring, or risk etc., is already known, already conforms to the necessary repetition of the polis. Without which, as Arndt says here, we are lost. Which is of course to say that no matter what happens in the polis there can be no politics other than that which conforms to its form – there can be no other form of the polis then. Thus revolution, whose aim is after all to invent a new politics, is a priori anti-political.
A Peters, puts it: ‘It follows that maintaining the preconditions of polis life takes precedence over the specific content of that life. It also follows that the first task of a political people is to insure that the space for action and speech they enjoy is passed on to their posterity.’
In her first pass at the American Revolution Arendt argued that ‘it was the inability or unwillingness of the American founders to do this that led to what she regards as the Revolution’s failure.’ She changes her mind on this later and actually reverses some of her analysis: early on she seems to praise the French and even the Russian Revolutions over the American revolution on these lines, along the lines also of being an exemplary action, but later she drew a line from the French Revolution through 1848 to the Russian revolution and dismisses them along the lines I have sketched out as birthing totalitarianism, and thus she turned back to the American Revolution as somewhat exemplary. If you are interested in these twists and turns in Arendt but in liberalism more generally D. Losurdo is a great guide.
Interestingly, her definition of totalitarianism can in no way be applied to Plato. ‘[T]otalitarianism,’ for her, ‘represents an extreme manifestation of developments present in modernity as a whole, fosters and responds to a radical loss of self, a cynical, bored indifference in the face of death or catastrophe, a penchant for historical abstractions as a guide to life, and a general contempt for the rules of common sense, along with a dogged adherence to traditions that have lost their point but not their hold.’ Which of these is Platonic?
I have to stop with Arendt – there is much that could be said. But the anti-Platonism is clear, from the above and that will do. Plato refuses consensus and repetition as all there is to thought – it’s really as simple as that. The form of representation that supports that, is democracy as it appears in the Athenian city and its educator is poetry, tragic theatre and so on. In this way what is politics is always already prescribed in these terms and anything not of that form is not and so is a danger or a threat. I’m not arguing Plato is a revolutionary in the Marxist sense. But in so far as he exposes this ambiguity to be without truth and moreover supposes that a true politics can exist and thus is not the politics of the polis, he is very revolutionary.
And this because every revolution exposes this very politics to its ambiguity in form and aporia in content and supposes as well that those who make the revolution can determine for themselves what is a politics. Liberalism is simply the guardian of the impossibly of a politics of truth. Which I always find amusing, because what is true is only true insofar as it is true for all and in that sense it’s more democratic, more just than any consensus determined by a judgement, whose criterion is its own operation, can ever be. So it’s true, philosophy is not political – and thus definitely not political philosophy which imagines the polis as the space of appearance precisely and all action the projection of an image – insofar as it doesn’t give up on truth, that every truth must become so.
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
Ian Jarvie and Sandra Pralong (eds.) Popper’s Open Society After Fifty years
Hannah Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob
J. Peter Euban, ‘Platonic Noise.’