Crisis of the Republic
The morning after Trump was elected, President Barack Obama told his daughters, as a way of reassuring them that, “Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy.” It’s clear what point he was trying to make —that the vagaries of human affairs are not predictable, but perhaps his words carried more meaning than he intended. The conception that societies are something like a living organism is one of the oldest metaphors in political thought. In fact, an early example of the analogy of the political body to the human body comes from a passage in Plato’s Republic, specifically in reference to political crisis and upheaval:
Socrates: Just as a sickly body needs only a slight push from outside to become ill, and sometimes even without any external influence becomes divided by factions within itself, so too doesn’t a city that is in the same kind of condition as that body, on a small pretext — men brought in as allies from outside, from a city under an oligarchy, by the members of one party, from a city under a democracy, by members of the other — fall sick and do battle with itself, and sometimes even without any external influence become divided by faction?
The context in the dialogue is an account of the path a city takes to becoming ruled by a tyrant. Socrates is portraying democracy as a kind of sickness or imbalance in the social body where the common people come to dominate over the former aristocracy. For Socrates, the chaos of democracy leads to a situation where the masses are susceptible to being tricked by a demagogue. Probably few today, although perhaps more now than in the late 20th century, would openly subscribe to Socrates’ frank elitism or would think of democracy as a stage in a process that inevitably leads to tyranny. But it’s hard to reflect on the contemporary political situation in the United States and not find Socrates’ parable apt and not simply a truism about political strife in general. As I write there are daily, and even hourly, news reports about “allies brought from outside, from a city under an oligarchy” in the form of assistance to Trump’s campaign by the Russian state. The concern of the founders, expressed in The Federalist papers, that internal factionalism would attract foreign interference and corruption, no longer sounds like a quaint concern of a lone, fledgling republic in a world of rapacious monarchies; It’s now a very present political reality, and one without any clear remedy.
If President Obama’s comparison of our society to a living organism recalls an ancient tradition, it also has more recent, and less venerable, echoes. One can easily imagine those that consider themselves Obama’s enemies, agreeing to the idea that “this”, political affairs and the fate of nations, is “biology and chemistry.” I am, of course, alluding to ideological racists, who are the most malignant abusers of the concept of “biology” in politics, but also to an entire range of modern ideologies that might often appear quite rational and appealing to normal people who would be quick to condemn racism out of hand. Plato, along with Aristotle and the Western tradition after him, viewed the living organism as a harmonious totality, where the parts contribute to sustain the whole. It was this notion of each organ contributing to the well being and continuance of the whole that informed the ancient metaphor of a body politic.
The picture of life and nature that modern thought developed, and immediately drew political consequences from was not characterized by harmony. Instead, the first truly modern political thinker, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in Leviathan that the “natural condition of mankind” was an “bellum omnium contra omnes,” a war of all against all. The state, which is an “artificial man”, was an imposed cessation of this natural state of war. The constituent parts of the state’s artificial body are isolated individuals who driven entirely by self-interest, make a temporary peace and come together to form a commonwealth. This drive is not born of a sense of common purpose or shared culture, but only out of fear of the murderous designs others and the desire to get rich and famous. Each state, which, again, is envisioned by Hobbes as a great man-machine made up of individuals, acts towards each other as people do in the state of nature: plotting and maneuvering in a perpetual war.
Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism gives Hobbes’s Leviathan a central place in her dark story of Europe’s drift into Stalinism and Naziism. She connects Hobbes miserly and cruel conception of mankind to the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a class, with its preoccupation with the accumulation of capital: “Since Hobbes was a philosopher, he could already detect in the rise of the bourgeoisie all those antitraditionalist qualities of the new class which would take more than three hundred years to develop fully. His Leviathan was not concerned with idle speculation about new political principles or the old search for reason as it governs the community of men; it was strictly a “reckoning of the consequences” that follow from the rise of a new class in society whose existence is essentially tied up with property as a dynamic, new property-producing device.”
The development of the idea of nature as a perpetual competition did not end with Hobbes’s cynical man-machine. In 1859, with the publishing of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, the “struggle for existence” at first lost its explicitly political and social connections that Hobbes and became simply the general explanation of all organic life on earth. Just three years later, in a letter to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx quickly recognized the hidden political dimension and the true legacy of Darwin’s idea: “It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and…‘struggle for existence’…It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes.” Marx’s observation is typically sarcastic, but not necessarily disapproving; He believed Darwin gave his concept of the class struggle a basis in nature itself.
In Arendt’s telling, the logic of ceaseless competition and struggle gave rise in the European nations to internal economic crises, class division, and the need for the bourgeoisie to find new ways to put their capital to work. Unique to Arendt’s analysis in Origins, and missed by Marxists who saw society divided neatly into proletariat and bourgeoisie, was the generation of a new body of people outside the class structure of society: the mob. The mob was not the working class, which was represented and organized in its own institutions like socialist parties and labor unions. It was, instead, the by-product of all classes, all those who had not been integrated into the self-regulating institutions of class society, who resented the institutions that they were excluded from, and, without the cultivated hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, saw clearly the principle of struggle and accumulation that underlay bourgeois society. Through imperialism, and its necessary correlate, racism, bourgeois society temporarily solved both the problem of the incessant need for capital to expand and the presence of the mob: the mob could be exported to exploit the peoples of Africa and India, and would find their place in society as the “natural” masters of “subject-races.”
Arendt saw that the entire framework for race ideology that was so useful to imperialism and totalitarianism were implicitly set forth in Hobbes’s Leviathan:
Hobbes…provided political thought with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sole regulating idea of international law. With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.
Arendt’s revelation tells us just how much Hobbes’s cynical man-machine that casts such a long shadow on the history 20th century Europe persists in many guises in 21st century America. Donald Trump’s recent activation of the mob with racism and the unabashed embrace of naked self-interest is only the most obvious form.
In the first place, the doctrine of political warfare adopted by Russia to help Trump get elected comes from a similar worldview. General Gerasimov, the architect of the hybrid warfare doctrine Russia employed in the annexation of Crimea writes, “In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace.” This is nothing new: It is an extension of the Leninist notion that all politics is a form of warfare, stripped of course, of the Marxist caveat that it’s a class-based warfare. A generation earlier, the Soviet Marshal A.A. Grechko wrote, “Lenin’s definition of the nature of war serves as the key to the proper understanding of the socio-political content of past and present war…Lenin teaches that ‘war is simply a continuation of politics by other (specifically violent) means.” The continuum between war and politics is the ethos of the Soviet-trained security services that now rule the Russian federation. In this perspective, a state of permanent war exists between nations.
Of course, there are also significant domestic tributaries to the confluence of political trends that shaped Trump’s ascent and promise to outlast his fall. The “alt-right” is the recent coalition formed between all these forces in American politics. The apparently strange alliance between libertarians, “white nationalists,” populists, and frankly self-avowed neo-fascists happens along the axis of nihilistic cynicism bequeathed by the Hobbesian ideological heritage so vividly illustrated by Arendt.
Much of libertarian thought, like Hobbes’s Leviathan, rests on the principle that society is simply an agglomeration of self-interested actors. This is why libertarians like Peter Thiel can so enthusiastically endorse an authoritarian like Trump. Thiel’s blatantly contradictory turn of phrase, the “machinery of freedom,” echoes Hobbes’s vision of the state as a vast mechanical man. His stated vision that “fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person” who “…makes the world safe for capitalism” sounds plainly dictatorial, but also suggests the old imperialist need to find safe havens for capitalist expansion. And in his flight of science fiction conceit that “the vast reaches of outer space represent a limitless frontier, they also represent a limitless possibility for escape from world politics” he almost quotes the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who declared “I would annex the planets if I could.” Thiel, like the imperialists of the past, is looking for a new realm, beyond the political norms of civilized humanity. (Nor is Thiel alone in this eccentric project: Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos share this passion for space.)
Thiel is closely associated with the libertarian economist Hans Hermann-Hoppe, whose book Democracy: The God That Failed begins his political treatise with a statement of acquisitive self-interest that Hobbes would readily assent to: “In acting, an actor invariably aims to substitute a more satisfactory for a less satisfactory state of affairs and thus demonstrates a preference for more rather than fewer goods.” Compare to Hobbes’s Leviathan, which describes man’s “Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them” as fundamental to political life. Hoppe’s concludes his reasoning by envisioning humankind segregated into private “covenant communities”, with stringent rules guiding their life:
There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.
This sounds awfully like absolute tyranny for what is supposed to be libertarianism. By the tone here, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hoppe invited the notorious white nationalist to Jared Taylor to one of his conferences. (Thiel was an honored guest on another occasion. And Taylor, it must be noted, attended another conference organized by high-ranking Kremlin officials in 2015.) Indeed, the dirty, and increasingly open, secret of libertarian circles is the perpetual floating of ideas about eugenics and race. After all, Charles Murray, the pusher of racial genetics who wrote the book the Bell Curve, is a self-identified libertarian.
The appeal of racism as a path from libertarian elites to the politics of the mob has been self-consciously recognized by these intellectuals. Murray Rothbard, a libertarian philosopher and Hoppe’s intellectual master, wrote the eerily prescient essay “Right Wing Populism” in 1992. In it, the Jewish Rothbard somehow openly sympathizes with the former Ku Klux Klan leader and unrepentant anti-semite David Duke’s failed presidential campaign and paints him as an anti-establishment hero who “ [exposed] the corrupt ruling elites and how they benefit from the existing system, more specifically how they are ripping us off. Ripping the mask off elites is “negative campaigning” at its finest and most fundamental.” The supposedly libertarian Rothbard goes on to advocate a police state: “Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.” This takes on a chillingly democidal note: “unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares?”
It would be easy to dismiss Rothbard’s piece as the ravings of a lone crank if it didn’t sound so close to the political program envisioned by Trump’s chief ideologues, Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller: Rothbard intones “America First” and calls for a program of “lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites…”
As we saw in the case of Thiel, Silicon Valley, with its elite’s uncritical devotion to instrumental rationality and the power of technology, is a fertile petri dish for this genre of thought. While it may be the result of philistinism, it is important to understand that these sentiments are not simply tone deaf or “un-P.C.” When a prominent Silicon Valley investor praises British colonialism in India, like Marc Andreesen did, one should suspect something more sinister than ignorance: there is a deep affinity, even longing, for imperialism in their thought. The natural fear is that Silicon Valley’s elites, with their vast technological resources, has the means, as well as the inclination, to accomplish the Hobbesian vision that Arendt describes, leaving man “degraded into a cog in the power-accumulating machine, free to console himself with the sublime thoughts about the ultimate destiny of this machine, which itself is constructed in a way that it can devour the globe simply by following its own inherent law.”
In the contemporary mob, we see the toxic belief in unbridled egoism manifesting itself, for instance, in the misogyny of the so-called men’s rights activists. They believe they have “taken the red pill” from the film the Matrix that allows them to see the dark reality of the world, which is that a man’s true destiny is the exploitation of women and that all intimacy and love is simply a series of ruses to obscure this underlying truth. It’s not shocking that “red pill” of the men’s rights movement should so often be a gateway drug to pure fascism.
The election of Donald Trump was the occasion for the recognition of mutual interest and underlying sympathy of all these currents. The far right in the United States and Europe had already seen in the autocrat Putin its wish for power embodied and has projected onto him their ideological fantasies, casting him either as defender of Christendom or the white race. Putin, the kleptocrat, has cynically cultivated these fevered dreams and perhaps even now fancies himself in these grandiose terms.
The alliance between the mob and a reactionary elite is a troubling development in American politics and it makes sense that it accelerated after the financial crisis of 2008. Arendt points out how in the case of Europe it was “mainly due to the insights acquired by the bourgeoisie during the crises and depressions which preceded imperialism that high society finally admitted its readiness to accept the revolutionary change in moral standards which Hobbes’s “realism” had proposed, and which was now being proposed anew by the mob and its leaders.”
Does this cynical embrace of “realism” in our society mean we are are inevitably sliding towards an era of neo-imperialism or even totalitarianism? Are we inextricably headed towards camps? Arendt would say no. She had equal impatience for what she called the “vulgar superstition of doom” as the naive view of everlasting human progress. Unlike the kind of deterministic thought she criticized, Arendt believed that humanity was not naturally governed by the principle of expansion and conquest: Central to her thought was the idea that human action is free and therefore unpredictable. Humanity can always begin anew. For Arendt, the reduction of human beings to Hobbes’s man-machines is a perversion of humanity, not the recognition of our true essence.
But two warnings in particular from The Origins of Totalitarianism are sobering to reflect on. The first warning: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” This must be kept firmly in mind as we witness the ongoing refugee crisis. The second warning should be kept in mind as we think about the very idea of human nature that underlies our politics:
If it should have prove that we are imprisoned in Hobbes’s endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow men…Racism may indeed carry out of the doom of the Western world, and for that matter, of the whole human civilization…For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.
(Will be published in print in an upcoming issue of Riot of Perfume magazine.)