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Politics Cannot Save Us

Michael Hanby is an associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America. 

Though it seems all but a self-evident truth now that the “American experiment” in ordered liberty ends in conflagration, the meaning of this “end” still calls for some reflection if we hope to understand our historical moment and anticipate some of what lies in store. There has been some chatter of late in postliberal circles about whether Ross Douthat’s “stagnation” thesis or Patrick Deneen’s “catastrophism” offers the more likely scenario. It is probable that both are right and that we are in for a long combustible period of “catastrophic stagnation,” with warring political factions locked in a self-escalating cycle of lawlessness and reactionary violence, spread like a contagion by comfortable radicals from behind their keyboards, spiking occasionally after the manner of a fever. 

Whatever one wishes to call the prevailing liberal-capitalist-technocratic-secular order, it has succeeded spectacularly in eliminating all theoretical and practical alternatives to itself, leaving the revolutionary impulse devoid of imagination, and thus mostly negative and destructive. Yet many are the ties that bind, despite appearances. The American empire still possesses unprecedented police and surveillance powers, though these are no longer concentrated solely in the hands of the state and its police forces and are often used against them. The nation is still duct-taped together by vast and intricate physical and digital infrastructures, a labyrinthine system of commerce and finance, and an omnipresent social media system that is now the gateway to the social and political spheres, replacing the real spatio-temporal public square of political deliberation with a virtual public square of immediate stimulus and response and suspending its participants in a permanent state of anxiety, agitation, and rage between provocations. And then there is still the wealth. It is a convenient discovery of post-Sixties activists that one can be radical and rich at the same time. The suburbs north of D.C., for example, are full of seven-hundred-thousand-dollar homes with signs professing faith in love and science posted on their professionally manicured lawns, rainbow and Blacks Lives Matter flags flying from the porches, and a BMW or two in the driveway. Careers can be made, or at least prolonged, by affixing the obligatory slogans to one’s Twitter handle or sharing a photo of oneself holding a sign at a rally. Even corporations have discovered that “revolution” will be acceptable to customers if they get the branding right—and devastating if they fail to get on board. This may not be the first revolution in history undertaken by the governing and merchant classes, but it is certainly the first to enjoy corporate sponsorship.

Given the sheer inertial force of all this, it is unlikely that “end” means “fall” in quite the way that other historical regimes have collapsed and faded into nonexistence. “Natural conclusion” or “logical terminus” would be perhaps closer to the mark, but the dramatic social breakdown and realignments we are witnessing seem to indicate something still more significant, perhaps without historical precedent or analogy. America will obviously persist as a geographical entity and likely even a techno-commercial empire, but a perpetual state of “catastrophic stagnation” signals not only the end of the illusion that America is a political community in any meaningful sense but the transition from what we might call a “political” to a “post-political” age. The political age is characterized, at bottom, by the conviction that human agency can master fortuna, even if this means learning to manipulate the invisible hand that contrives unintended consequences from the aggregate of intended human actions. It coextends with the modern political project in its various forms and still determines the horizon of the secular imagination even as it fades into history. And it is defined by the triumph of politics over both ecclesiastical and natural order, the ascendance of political philosophy to the highest and ultimately only public philosophy, and a kind of this-worldly faith in the salvific power of political action, albeit with transcendence now transposed horizontally into the future rather than vertically into eternity. Whether this will involve an actual utopia or merely interminable progress—a utopianism without a utopia—depends upon whether it took a classically liberal, progressive, or Marxist form. The tragic irony of this grand vision, as Augusto Del Noce and others have recognized, is that the absolutization of politics concludes by destroying the conditions of possibility for genuinely political community. 

The post-political age, by contrast, is marked by the triumph of technological society over political society and is ultimately “governed” by technologically driven processes deeper and more extensive than the rule of law, processes which simply bypass rather than destroy the hollowed-out institutions of a decadent political society. Post-political rule is marked by new forms of social coercion and political action exercised outside the bounds of these institutions and institutionalized processes of political deliberation and by new forms of political causation without deliberation and attributable to no particular agency. Who, exactly, can be held responsible for the riots we have seen or the phenomenon known as “canceling”? And who can decide to stop them, whoever they are? Post-political society operates principally through a self-organizing system of political causation without any real bearers of political responsibility. With “smart” devices as prosthetic attachments and social media mediating our relation to the world, this system operates internally upon our psyches as well as externally upon the world—indeed it blurs the boundary between interiority and exteriority—without a controller pulling the levels of power. Aldous Huxley, prophetic though he has turned out to be in so many ways, apparently could not imagine that his Brave New World would not need a Mustapha Mond, still a character from the political age. Even the New York Times, the source of so many inputs into the system and a great manipulator of it, must ultimately bow to its exigencies. Post-political rule is “the rule of nobody,” to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase, which should not be confused with the absence of rule. Those in today’s “resistance” who have staked their eschatological hope on the overthrow of Donald Trump may be surprised to discover that the most powerful tyranny of all, and the most difficult to overthrow, is the tyranny without a tyrant.

It is important to see that this would still obtain even with a functioning government, which we have not had in quite some time, and without violence in the streets, which looks to be a semi-permanent feature of American life moving forward. Technology does not wait upon politics, which is almost wholly reactive to technological possibilities that can scarcely be imagined until they are an accomplished fact. The virtual mob, an omnipresent reality immediately responsive to every “outrage,” can organize itself into an actual mob at multiple points around the globe simultaneously before our politicians have the time to brush their teeth in the morning. Even so, the end of political society marks a signal moment and weakens a crucial barrier to its totalitarian advance.

Politics, as the shared deliberation about the means to given ends, presupposes something deeper and more basic than civil society or the little Burkean platoons typically championed by conservatives. It presupposes a given order of reality into which we were received and to which we all belong, which makes a shared conception of the common good, the human person and human reason possible. Through the long history of what has come to be known as “the West” this was given by the metaphysical and religious vision formed from the synthesis of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem—which continued to provide intellectual, moral, and cultural foundation both to those who opposed this synthesis from within and even those who were unjustly beaten down by it. Recent events simply hasten the destruction of the edifice built upon these foundations, a process that was already far advanced before rioters set began setting America’s cities alight. 

The causes of this devastation are legion. Disintegration is arguably a feature and not a bug of liberal order—the multiplication of factions and all that—and a logical consequence of the liberal conception of freedom as the power to define reality, which inevitably atomizes and disempowers the citizenry while insinuating state and bureaucratic power into every facet of life. Both capitalism and technological culture set in motion interminable processes of “creative destruction” that exacerbate this atomization, negating antecedent forms of order and leaving whole classes and generations of obsolete people in their wake. And who knows whether this disintegration is the inevitable consequence of America’s original and seemingly inexpiable sin—or even indeed the true and righteous judgment visited upon it, if we heed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The social inequities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the brutal killing of George Floyd, and the righteous anger and anguish provoked by these events have made it undeniably clear that its lasting effects extend unto the nth generation, like the tradux peccati of traditional Christian theology. 

I am presently concerned with the meaning of this moment, however, not its causes. And this meaning cannot be comprehended by the compulsory pieties that woke ideology imposes on the interpretation of events and the Manichean division of the world into racists and anti-racists, however self-consoling this may be to a nation desperate to be absolved of its history and frantically seeking rites of ablution. It is not a denial that racial injustice is endemic to American history, experience, and social structures or an insult to the memory of George Floyd to acknowledge the obvious. The full meaning of this historical moment cannot be derived from the igniting event of his brutal murder any more than the whole meaning of the First World War can be derived from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The conditions whereby the Archduke’s assassination could become an igniting event were prepared, in part but substantially, by a spirit of nihilism that had pervaded Europe, as any reader of Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche will recognize. 

Our conflagration is undeniably fueled by righteous anger over Floyd’s death and the whole history of systematic racial injustice that lay behind his murder. They underscore the vastly different experiences of white and black Americans and expose a clear need for police reform. But this does not suffice to explain the frenzy of destruction we see in the streets, the repression unleashed in the virtual public square and in the real economy, or the impotence of our public authorities in the face of these events. There has been a great deal of discussion about Ivy League radicals and trust-fund revolutionaries exploiting the killing of Floyd and centuries of African American suffering to act out woke ideology, a more malevolent expression of the sentiment expressed by the suburban yard sign that appropriates the epistemic authority of science and the moral authority of the struggle for black civil rights to legitimate the progressive vision of an androgynous technocratic society. Yet these phenomena are significant not because of the obvious hypocrisy at work in them, but because they exemplify the nihilistic spirit that now animates so much of American life. 

There is no greater sign of this descent into nihilism than the ascendance of “identity” to a first principle of American life and thought, whatever its utility as a tool of criticism for uncovering unconscious structures of oppression or bringing to light the almost incommensurable differences in the experience of white and black Americans. The absolutization of identity destroys any presupposition of a shared order of reality, negating both our common human nature and the concrete history and experiences that complicate attempts at categorization. It even attacks the very language by which we recognize a common world. That is the real meaning of the pronoun wars raging in academia and the media and wending its inevitable way through the courts, which are conveniently discovering new “principles” to give legal and constitutional force to a social fait accompli. The absolutization of identity (a=a) effectively makes every individual its own abstract disembodied essence—like an angel—known solely to zirself. The assertion of identity thus functions as a conversation stopper, to put the matter politely. It draws the line beyond which any further analysis or criticism or even speech becomes impossible, illegitimate, and violent. Reason is thereby renounced, indeed denounced as a construct that merely masks the will to power. Words and ideas cease to express the truth of our shared world and instead become instruments for manipulating it and defeating one’s enemies.

Animated by this spirit, “politics” can only be what our politics have in fact become: the attempt to conquer one’s enemies and impose one’s will upon them by whatever means necessary—political, legal, bureaucratic, economic, rhetorical, or otherwise—and the guerilla efforts of the defeated to resist and sabotage the rule of the victors whom they regard as illegitimate. Nihilism becomes the law, enforced both by the extra-legal mechanisms of post-political rule, which can call down the furies on anyone, anywhere, at any time, and by ordinary legal mechanisms through the courts. The absolutization of “identity” turns traditional American legal principles such as equal protection and substantive due process into instruments of annihilation for destroying in law distinctions and differences that matter in reality. 

Still, nature abhors a vacuum. In the void left by the negation of a common order of reality, all that remains of human nature and the common good is our bare biological functioning—what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life” (zoe rather than bios)—and those activities that imitate and sustain it, labor, rather than work or action in Hannah Arendt’s analysis. All that remains of the human reason once revered as wisdom is technical, instrumental reason and pragmatic truth. Those yard signs declaring a creed of love and science succinctly express this logic, whose essence Del Noce grasped in recognizing that contemporary eroticism and scientism were but two aspects of the same phenomenon. Post-political rule, premised upon the annihilation of the natural precondition for politics, is inevitably technocratic rule. Hence the chorus of progressive voices exhorting the nation to submit to the governance of “science” at the height of the pandemic, a transparent attempt to consolidate political power while renouncing political judgment and responsibility. It does not matter that “science” rarely speaks with one voice, or that it advances by its errors, or that it is infused from top to bottom with unarticulated philosophical assumptions. Nor does it matter that there is apparently no action—or its opposite—that cannot be justified in the name of “science” and “public health.” The last century serves as a warning of where that can lead. 

Combine the aggressive advance of post-political rule with the decadence of its media enforcers, add in the contempt of both political parties for the working class each claims to represent, and you have the conditions in which roughly half the voting population could be driven into the hands of the would-be strongman Donald Trump, deceived into believing that he would be the “Great Delayer” of this fate. This has turned out to be fool’s gold. While the Trump years have been an invitation to white nationalists and assorted crazies on the far-right fringe to crawl out into the sunlight like grub worms under a dung pile, they have been an even greater gift to the left, adding fuel to the flames, justifying all necessary means of “resistance” and confirming everything progressives believe about themselves. The continual denunciation of Trump as a fascist says more about the role of anti-fascism in progressive rituals of ablution than it does about our historical moment. It is absurd to think that a carnival barker who cannot distinguish between reality and reality T.V. and who lacks the capacity to refrain from tweeting half-literate diatribes against cable news talking heads possesses the capacity to subscribe to any coherent ideology. Trump is rather a tyrant in the classical sense, a man utterly at the mercy of his basest impulses, which he has aplenty. He is weak not strong, obsessed with his “ratings,” and incapable, even in the gravest moments, of pretending to the statesmanship required of his office. His inevitable failure only serves to intensify and legitimate the disintegration and the coming retribution against those who enabled and supported him. Donald Trump is neither the cause of American nihilism nor a bulwark against it. He is merely an accelerant of a downward spiral into nihilism that was already well under way, one that will persist long after he has disappeared from public life. 

Many have taken to describing this nihilism as America’s new civil religion. This is a helpful way of thinking about it, but two points should be made which have perhaps been underemphasized thus far. First, to the extent it is a form of religious faith, it is a replacement for the Black Christianity that formed the soul of the historic civil rights movement. The authorized history of the civil rights era helped pave the way for this, underemphasizing the role of the Black Church, treating Martin Luther King’s Baptist faith as incidental, and regarding racial progress as the natural outworking of America’s founding principles and modernity’s progressive self-overcoming. But the truth is that America owes the Black Church, whose very existence is a miracle of divine grace, a debt it can neither comprehend nor repay. The Black Church gave the descendants of slaves the fortitude to endure and the hope to transcend a history beyond anyone’s power to erase, helping them to build a culture of great beauty out of almost nothing. Yet even more remarkably, the Christianity of black Americans gave them the grace to live and to act among the sons and daughters of those who enslaved and oppressed them with what can only be described as a supernatural humanity. Any white man who has had a black mentor or been received into a predominately black gathering knows firsthand the grace whereof I speak. It remains one of our few sources of hope even now.

Second, unlike its predecessor, our new civil religion offers no possibility of redemption, no atonement but the annihilation of the sinner and all traces of his memory. Those who sin against this faith by existing are permitted neither speech, nor silence, nor contrition. Not even the rituals of ablution demanded of its devotees, those public acts of self-abasement continually performed over the internet before the eyes of the world, suffice to wash out, out the damned spot of “privilege” or whatever mistaken utterance or misplaced expression of human solidarity happens to cause offense. No apology can be abject enough to atone for the sin of being or powerful enough to erase all the effects of having been. Infinite guilt requires infinite annihilation. And since “privilege” has left its stain on everything, there is always something more to destroy.

Here we come to the dirty little secret of this and every form of nihilism. It is essentially parasitic. It lives out of what it opposes, just as the anti-racism of the trust-fund revolutionary lives off the destruction of black property, or suburban progressivism lives off the moral authority of Black Christianity and the civil rights movement. Our new progressive civil religion needs racism, patriarchy, “homophobia,” and all the rest of it as fuel for its interminable conflagration, just as fire needs oxygen and technological progress needs present limits as an obstacle to overcome. It secretly celebrates the evil it claims to oppose as the occasion for the exercise of its own virtue. 

Just as our new civil religion does not promise atonement and redemption, neither does it offer real hope for the restoration of political community. Del Noce perceived this when he called the new totalitarianism a “totalitarianism of disintegration” bent not on imposing a new order on the world but destroying all traces of the old one. The fundamental question at this point of our history is not whether political rule can be restored, but whether this interminable process of disintegration can somehow be arrested before it destroys what is left of the last properly human civilization we are likely to have. It is not clear that this process can be stopped. It is clear, however, that politics cannot save us, and certainly not the sophistic parodies of politics characteristic of our post-political age. The broken political mechanisms at our disposal might still be used to provide some redress for social and economic inequalities. They could still be used to enforce civil rights, to protect civil liberties, or to enact police reform. They could even be marshalled to break up the tech giants and their ever-tightening grip on the flow of information, though it is doubtful this would lessen the ability of the press to mediate reality or stop the virtual public square from replacing the real one. But political instruments cannot fix a ruined system that has mistaken ignorance for education and renounced all but pragmatic conceptions of truth. They cannot liberate us from our technological regime of necessity, which carries all of us along by its own momentum. They cannot undo the conditioning of whole generations attached to the internet from birth and trained by social media to exhibit their interior lives exteriorly and perform their virtue virtually before the world. They cannot put the surveillance genie back in the bottle or constrain the power to call down violence (rhetorical or otherwise) on anyone at any time. One cannot solve a humanistic crisis by technological and political means, and politics cannot cure the sickness of mind and spirit that has infected us. It cannot heal our self-hatred or end the desperate and futile attempt to absolve ourselves of the guilt of being. The dream of mastering fortuna by political and technical means was an illusion that has left us enslaved and sickened. The burning flames of our civilization are fueled by an intellectual and spiritual fever for which we possess no cure.

Yet the West was once defined by its belief in a power not our own that did not need our wickedness to show its generosity, a power that created our nature with an essential goodness our wickedness cannot unmake, that recreates us without destroying us or, impossibly, erasing the past: a power Whose image we bore in the reason we all share, a power that could—and did—effect the atonement that we are powerless to provide for ourselves, that frees us to live with ourselves and each other. If this was ever true, then it must be true even now, however deeply we or our ancestors have betrayed these convictions. And so, this truth must perdure even beneath the abyss of our nihilism, showing itself in the resilience of nature and in human and superhuman acts of courage, charity, forgiveness, and forbearance that mostly pass beneath the gaze of the social media panopticon. The question of whether we can be rescued from the spirit of nihilism that we have unleashed is ultimately the question of whether this power and its truth can somehow be rediscovered from within an anti-culture premised on their attempted annihilation.