Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Dreamers

This City Journal article, on past political fanatics is simultaneously fascinating and intellectually lazy. Apparently, Verso is publishing the political manifestos of past extremists, starting with Maxmilien Robespierre and Mao Zedong. This sounds fairly interesting, even though they're not printing anything new here. And, of course, people will read these books as cautionary tales, and rightfully so. John Kekes, who here reviews the books and grinds some axes, would likely agree.

The article first takes the time to mock the introductions by Slavoj Žižek- no problem there really. I find that Žižek has some interesting ideas, but rarely follows through on them, instead jumping from one idea to another like an ADD grasshopper. Also he seems to be a bit credulous, buying into both Hegel and Freud with little trouble! The reviewer, John Kekes's, main problem is that it's really hard to understand what Slavoj Žižek is saying, which is also true, although you know, figuring that out is the job of a reviewer. He also ends his critique with this jem: "Žižek’s matchless prose is a fitting introduction to these abhorrent volumes." Which I suppose implies that: a) Žižek's lousy prose is somehow consonant with political tyranny in ways that we, the readers, might not understand, and he doesn't have to explain, and B) There's something abhorrent about re-publishing these books, which is patently ridiculous.

But it gets better from there. Next, Kekes details the various crimes of Robespierre and Mao, which were, of course, horrible. He tells us: "Robespierre and Mao sought ideological purity, and they had a cold impersonal hatred of those whom they suspected of not sharing their crazed theories. This hatred brought them to murder people indiscriminately, not for what they did but for what they were." Again, no problems here.

Now we get into "ideology": "Their ideologies dictated the only way to reach that lofty goal; those who disagreed with their ideologies became enemies of mankind, deserving only extermination... Robespierre’s ideology derived from Rousseau, Mao’s from Marx. They borrowed what they could from these thinkers, treated their derivative beliefs as incontestable truths, never questioned themselves, and ignored readily available criticisms. Robespierre and Mao were monsters, but they exacerbated their monstrosity by sophistical self-righteousness."

And is that really "ideology"? I have major problems with the concept of ideology (worth noting that it's a Marxist concept) anyway; it is often treated as a sort of mind-control ray- read the wrong book, uncritically, and you too could be controlled by ideology! But here it doesn't even seem appropriate. Robespierre's reading of Rousseau is very creative, to say the least. Mao's reading of Marx is perhaps less so, but again he used Marxist ideas largely as a pretense for power. In other words, Mao and Robespierre were certainly rigid and dogmatic, but I'm not sure that they were driven by their blind devotion to ideology as much as paranoia and craving for political power. And Kekes doesn't even explain how it's possible that they both selectively "borrowed what they could from these thinkers" (implying that they left a lot out), while they blindly "treated their derivative beliefs as incontestable truths". The implication is that Robespierre and Mao would have been less psychotic if they had either read the right books, or read the wrong ones more critically. But, aspiring tyrants can seemingly turn anything to their ends.

Kekes continues:
"In view of the past, present, and no doubt future horrors that ideologues will inflict on the world, it’s important to understand their mentality. What are they thinking when they order the killing of untold numbers of innocents? Don’t they see the bodies? Are they devoid of all feeling for human suffering? The answer is that they view the facts through the grotesquely distorting prism of ideology." (Cue the theremin!)

Well, and they were also likely psychotics. My problem with Kekes isn't that he's criticizing rigid adherence to Belief Systems- something that I've criticized as well- it's that he's suggesting that 'ideology' can be blamed for the actions of guilty individuals. To wit: these people acted in a way that was inhuman because they were warped by ideology. The fact that it's really hard for the average, mentally-stable person to go from reading the incoherent, sappy, weepy writings of Rousseau to hanging people from lamp-posts doesn't seem relevant here. The guilty party is 'ideology', not the sort of people that use other people's ideas as an excuse to act out their psychotic dreams.

Kekes: "They can believe such travesties because their ideologies offer a misguided explanation of why the world is as it is, rather than as it ought to be. Often, as everyone knows, we fail to get what we deserve; good people come to bad ends, and bad ones die in comfort. Justice doesn’t reliably prevail; reason doesn’t always guide key decisions; and even the best-laid plans may fail, thanks to stupidity, indifference, and selfishness. Ideologies explain why this happens and, more important, they promise that human life can escape these defects."

Well, yes, and democracy will flourish in Iraq any day now.

"If ideologues were reflective, they would realize that bad people are what causes bad political arrangements. Ideologies rest on the mistaken assumption that changing political arrangements will change people. But human nature remains what it always was; only the ways it expresses itself change."

I'm also really skeptical about "human nature", and it's worth noting that ideologues tend not to be skeptical about human nature. Certainly Rousseau wasn't- if anything, he was arguing that attempts to remake people had made them miserable and artificial by going against their inherent nature- and actually it's hard to argue that the French revolutionaries were trying to remake human nature through political arrangements either- if anything, they were trying to remake political arrangements to correspond to what they saw as human nature, as expressed through the General Will. In the radical phase, they were pursuing the dream of making people more "natural", but that's not the same thing as Kekes talks about.

Now, Rousseau definitely took a sunny view of human beings. His argument, perhaps, could be boiled down to: There are no bad people by nature, but society makes people bad. Which implies that society doesn't consist of people, I suppose. But is the answer to assume that some people are bad by nature and there's nothing that can be done about that?

Moreover, Kekes could stand to apply that claim about "the ways it expresses itself" to 'ideolgies'. In other words, instead of it being the case that the mind-control ray of Rousseau or Marx makes people inhuman, it seems to me that these 'ideologues' had some pretty shitty programs of their own and misapplied certain ideas as a way to justify them.

Certainly, I'm just as skeptical of programs to "remake" people, or even to improve society in any significant way. But, I don't think that authoritarian tyrants are motivated by a misguided idealism about human nature so much as bullying intolerance and a simple desire to enforce their own will and retain as much power as possible. In other words, I don't buy their line about being dreamers at heart, and Kekes shouldn't either.

But, Kekes is basically using these thinkers as a stick to beat "leftists" with. In other words, we're returning to that tired old cliche: The problem with liberals is that they don't believe that there are bad people. And maybe there's a point here- right-wingers tend to see society as unsafe, and left-wingers see it as unjust, and both have programs that work from those key points.

Kekes concludes:
"Contemporary radical leftists thus have a choice. They can persist in searching for a better ideology. Or they can accept that the English-speaking and Scandinavian democracies are the envy of the world for good reason: by a slow process of trial and error they have arrived at a political system that is realistic about human nature and provides stability, high living standards, freedom, and justice. This system has many defects, but it’s still better than any past or present alternative. Reason dictates the clear choice, but it is not clear that radical leftists will make it. And the books in Verso’s “Revolutions” series, resurrecting fanatical delusions, will not help them give up their search for a nonexistent road to an unreachable goal."

Wow- just two choices, eh? Nothing rigid about that thinking. This paragraph is startlingly close-minded for an article encouraging openmindedness. We can either be Pangloss or Pol Pot! If we decide that this isn't the best of all possible worlds, we take the first step towards tyranny? It's bizarre in a way too because a lot of conservative ideas- such as well, Judeo-Christian morality, grow from the idea that human nature can be improved. Isn't the 'decline in tradtional morality' that we hear about so often really a decline in the idea that people are sinful, but can be made ethical through moral education? And, on the other hand, isn't the idea that "some people are just bad and we have to take precautions against them" often a justification for authoritarianism?

And when you look back at the last two centuries, you see a lot of authoritarian regimes on the left and the right, which honestly weren't a lot different from each other. All of them had a single strong leader working through functionaries. All of them had parallel structures of organization to facilitate the leader while preventing any of his subordinates from gaining power. All of them worked from the belief that the Nation is constantly being "existentially threatened" often by the most banal things imaginable. And all of them, instead of taking a very Rousseanian sunny view of human nature, tended to take a very bleak and cynical view of human beings, essentially believing that they have to be kept in line at all times or they might read a Mickey Mouse comic and become an enemy of the state!

To be honest, I fear the same sort of state that Kekes does. And I see that world as just as likely to come from the left as the right. There have been plenty of left-wing authoritarians. But I feel that being "reflexive" about ideology shouldn't necessitate being unreflexive about the status quo!

1 comment:

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