Friday, October 24, 2008


Raymond Geuss of Princeton has a written a smallish book that’s both peppery and meaty, entitled “Philosophy and Real Politics”. Who can argue that it’s not necessary these days?

I think that, especially in light of the last forty years around here, his introductory observations are hugely necessary. He recounts a scene from Plato’s “Republic” (Yes, the dead white one from looong ago; although I don’t know if the Greeks would have thought of themselves as ‘white’; they would have thought of themselves as ‘civilized’, but that’s a category of thought that was tossed into the wastebasket in these parts some decades ago; and I’m not sure that the Greek immigrant of the late 1800s or early 1900s would have been thought of as ‘white’ at Ellis Island; Americans of the day thought of themselves as ‘Americans’, greater than which there could be no other, and Greeks – coming from southeastern Europe – would have been assumed to be part of the wave of not-really-white folks flooding in.)

Socrates observes – nicely – that “justice is the proper virtue of man”; it’s what distinguishes a human being, and a civilized one (and yes, he wouldn’t have been thinking of ‘women’ or ‘slaves’ when he said it, or – for that matter – of ‘the children’ or even ‘the young’). At which point the virile (Socrates was not seen as ‘virile’ by a lot of Greeks back then – he was not a ‘warrior’; that he spent most of his time and energies in the company of students who were all bright young guys did not raise any eyebrows) Thrasymachus breaks in and bawls the Greek equivalent of ‘Baaaloney!’. “I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” Or as Geuss draws the thought out: “When one looks at justice clearly … he finds that it’s nothing but the disguise worn by power.”

Now that in a very useful nutshell is the problem. And it bethumps Us still. What is ‘justice’? Or ‘Justice’?

Answers – and policies based on those answers – have been many. Some of them more fully covered all the necessary ground, connecting all the relevant dots, and some of them less, and many much less.

It’s relevant to Us these days not simply as a good example of how to ‘do’ philosophy – how to pose a question that is comprehensive enough to shed light on all of the points on the circuit. It’s also relevant because a gentleman whose ‘answer’ largely followed Thrasymachus was himself the intellectual progenitor of the French deconstructionists of the immediate post-World War 2 era.

It was Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov – otherwise known as Lenin – whose simple question, a deceptively equation-like bit of ‘scientific’ dogma – set spinning the postmodern world in which We live. “Who whom?” Lenin asked; who is doing what to whom? That’s the first question of politics. Because politics is really just a matter of power; those with it do whatever they want to and with those without it.

And thus, Lenin figured, if you want to do ‘good’ and help those without power, then in order to do that ‘good’, you have to get and keep power yourself – by – in the charmingly ominous Israeli phrasing – whatever means necessary. The ‘good’ must do ‘whatever it takes’ to get and keep power, so that they can wield it on behalf of those without power. And the ‘good’ are good precisely because they want to use that power in a good cause – the relief of the oppressed.

‘The oppressed’, of course, may start to ring bells; America these past forty years has been discovered to be full of ‘oppressed’. And – depending on who is defining and reporting their oppression – then half of all Americans are ‘oppressors’, perhaps more. Of course, all Americans - every last one - are sinners, but this insight was politically obstructive to the creds of any aspiring 'victim' and tended to undermine any pretensions to 'outrage'; and in the course of events, such insights - though woven into the warp and woof of Western civilization - were shunted aside by one means or another.

The French deconstructionists were of their time: the oppression they saw all around them was the colonial control and manipulation of dozens of millions of human beings in the still-lingering imperial colonies of the great European powers. Human beings who had no safety or security in their homes, who often had no ‘home’ but only a hut or a hovel or a cave; human beings whose only adult activity could be trying to find enough to eat for the day ahead of them, whose family experience consisted in trying to bring in enough to feed the children – often by getting the children themselves to work or steal, and whose parenting experience consisted in consoling children going to bed hungry and watching the too-hungry die.

The deconstructionist solution was to wield Lenin’s insight like an axe against the roots of whatever established power and authority was doing the ‘oppressing’. There is no ‘justice’; justice is merely an abstraction used by the powerful to plunder and stifle those without power. Get power, ye oppressed, and be free thereby. It worked remarkably efficiently in undercutting the aura of legitimacy that surrounded and encased imperial colonial authority. And taken in conjunction with the economic exhaustion of the European nations after the war, it hastened their departure from their former colonies, and created in the 1950s dozens of ‘new’ nations.

Back at home, however, European governments – the French foremost – realized that the deconstructionist elixir worked just as lethally – threatening to undercut any government at all. Just as in many newly liberated colonies, the first order of the day for many new leaders was to stamp out any further ‘deconstructionist’ thought, lest they too be undercut and toppled.

Unfortunately, that got many of them into the bad habit of equating ‘deconstructionist’ thought with dissenting thought – which, they soon found, they also didn’t like. And which – oy – they became all too adept as squashing as thoughtlessly as they did the ‘deconstructionist’ ideas.

None of which was of too much concern to the great financiers of the ‘civilized’ world, who by the nature of their work and the experience of their time thoughtlessly assumed that countries would run much more reliably and efficiently if they were run like corporations, and the citizens an obedient and docile workforce. It’s not necessary to think too much when you’re very rich and very powerful. And those who cast their lot by serving them find that it isn’t necessary for them to think too much either. In fact, very much the opposite.

Unlike Lenin, the French deconstructionists were ‘theorists’ and academics, ‘intellectuals’ in some form, and were not – unlike Comrade Lenin – rabidly interested in actually taking power themselves. Which was nice. And to that large fraction of human beings who only understand danger in the immediate form of an actual loaded gun or ticking bomb in their immediate vicinity, their ‘ideas’ were just butterflies flapping in the breeze; the Commies, after all, had the Bomb – and that’s what the real problem was.

But the deconstructionists’ hugely potent elixir was capable of causing enough ‘change’ on its own, and in the hands of an organized vanguard elite it could bring down monarchies and massacre millions –even of those it was supposedly deployed to liberate. It was – in a conceptual way – a tool capable of massive destruction; nor – is this familiar? – had any thought been given by its intellectual creators to the necessary follow-on phase of ‘reconstruction’.

The French showed many of the leading deconstructionists the door. They came here.

God knoweth full well that there was enough oppression in the South. But Martin Luther King, with his roots deep in the spiritual power of the Bible and the highest ideals of the American Vision, did not seek to ‘divide’, but to unite, and not ‘in opposition’ to other Americans but in a common re-affirmation of the highest ideals of American tradition. He opposed Southern ‘ways’, but did not preach against Southerners. He was a remarkable prophet. Hoover hated him, along with many in power in the South.

In King’s struggle, there would be no room for ‘deconstructionism’. He had a cause and that cause had a long and very real presence in American history from almost the beginning of the American settlements. A Civil War had been fought, Amendments to the Constitution passed, a President assassinated, great promises broken for political convenience, and much blood shed in dark and bloody times. He needed no ‘boost’ from deconstructionist agitation. And who knows what the crafty spider Hoover would have done, had he even a scintilla of linkage between King, black civil rights, and the arch-Communist Lenin, even Lenin poof-poofed by French intellectuals?

But King was a uniter. That was his huge and abiding strength.

Not so with others who in those ‘revolution’ and ‘liberation’ addled times sought to get a larger slice of the pie. The ‘deconstructionist’ vision – limited though it was – offered a conceptual underpinning; not so much as to ground and justify new ‘revolutions’ here – ones whose ‘claims’ were not at all as grounded in the actual historical struggles that this nation went through in its past, but to generate and sustain a ground wave that would simply sweep the vanguards and their ‘claims’ into political power. They saw themselves as the Leninist ‘whom’ and there were many in power doing unto them, and they were going to change that.

It’s a shame in a way. Because there were indeed many in power who were in the process of ‘doing to’ the American people. The National Security State, increasingly enmeshed with the mega-corporate networks of the military-industrial complex, was pouring the nation’s wealth into weaponry. Seymour Melman had pointed out that a dollar spent on a bomb was not simply one dollar not spent on projects to increase or preserve the quality of life of the nation’s citizens; rather, it was many dollars lost in unrealized opportunities and un-capitalized businesses and projects and programs that themselves would have generated many dollars.

There was a Moment back there forty years ago when the 1930s’ spirit of the People and their Government versus the Malefactors of Great Wealth could have made a much-needed comeback. The National Security State and the military-industrial corporations were – without too much thought – following their own bovine illuminations, turning the citizenry toward a life of obedient indenture even as – with almost equally bovine stolidity but a thoroughly human cockiness – the government elites managed the military power of the nation into failure after failure, and the economy into increasingly queasy gyrations.

In a way, the Malefactors could not have asked for anything better. The ‘revolutions’ that would only be named ‘culture wars’ decades later distracted Us from what was going on in the greatest of the ‘doings’: Our livelihoods, the treasure piled up by Our labor to be passed on to Our children, and that most American of gifts – a government responsive to the People and interested only in serving their common interest – all slimed away, but tastefully, in the greasy, goldy-yellow buttery glow of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, abetted by Democrats and Republicans together; ‘bipartisan’.

We have indeed become Lenin’s Whoms. Nor will Our children nor their children escape now.
Geuss recommends that the West actually heed – and he admits this may sound a bit odd at first – Lenin’s advice: find out who is doing to whom.

But he does so in the context of his concerns that philosophers – he specifically goes after Robert Nozick and John Rawls – have failed to ‘stay real’ – in my words – and thus have failed Us. Rawls, especially, seeking to imagine an imaginary “original position” from which one might imagine philosophy under a “veil of ignorance” by which they can forget all preconceptions and imagine (or ‘hope’ or ‘dream’) matters afresh.

Geuss urges that We get back to the realities: those preconceptions are entwined with needs and feelings, interests and prejudices, grievances and benevolences – and that’s what ‘people’ are, what they are made of. And that’s where politics has to begin. Within the framework of citizens deliberating together, and then making their wishes known to the elected public servants who must then also deliberate (and not simply shop their vote to the highest bidder) … this is the great gift of the American Constitutional vision to Us and to the world.

The puck must be played off the ice; the ball must be played off the ground.

Deploying in this commonwealth the Leninist methods of grabbing-power-first-by-whatever-means- necessary must take its place as one of the many great failed ‘plans’ of the postwar years. There was a People here in 1968; there was a seasoned and decently matured People schooled in democracy and in ‘politics’; America of 1968 was not Russia of 1918.There was no need, there was no legitimate place, for the stratagems of a ‘vanguard’ elite of a ‘revolution’ – or several ‘revolutions’ – that would bypass the People and debauch their representatives with a combination of threats and visions of electoral love.

What Lenin devised to meet the necessities of his time had no real place in a mature and working democracy half a century later and half a world away. Nor does the challenge of his time exonerate him for what he devised and deployed.

But his initial instinct – that what matters in the life of societies is who with power does what to whom is without power – is very ‘real’.

And now, watching what had been going on and distracting the attention of The People, the government – now indentured to great wealth – began to bypass The People. And building on the fearfulness that has been insinuated into Our common spirit over the course of decades, it began to stampede The People as it itself has been stampeded by the onslaught of Leninist methodology that has not restored balance to American politics but rather has completely unhinged American politics.

A Leninist realism anchoring a Constitutional politics. No ‘hopes’, no ‘dreams’, no ‘boogeymen’ – whether hiding in the bushes or running a country halfway around the world – no ‘nightmares’, no ‘heavenmares’ of angelic hosts with swords whacking their way across the planet and hovering for recreation over aircraft carriers. No hypothetical imaginary ‘perfect citizens’.

Just Us.

Just Us and a careful, sustained, sober, acute, careful assessment of what faces Us and what We think should be done about it. And getting to that is going to be a job of political work. But that’s what the Constitution was designed for. And it’s clear that the country’s affairs are too important to be left to the experts, especially in their present debauched condition.

But it was never meant to be left to them.

That’s the genuine American realism.

And it’s the last best hope to build “a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations”.

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