Saturday, November 3, 2018

Centrism and the Search for a Worthy Social Order

In Politics Made Simple, I reduce politics to the age-old struggle between weaklings and bullies. In the comment section, a reader suggests that there’s a third category: the rational maximizer of civil peace who deals in “moderation, prudence and foresight.” At his Rally to Restore Sanity, the comedian Jon Stewart represented what some call this silent majority of rationalists when he recommended only the kind of “reasonable compromises” in politics that citizens make in their daily interactions with strangers. Obama’s presidency likewise stood for rationality and for what Thomas Frank calls the technocratic meritocracy of the liberal professional class. “No drama” Obama was compared to Abraham Lincoln because of his effort to assemble a team of rivals in his cabinet, presumably so that Obama could stand above the fray and make wise decisions like Solon. In short, the suggestion is that American political conflicts should be less sensational or spectacular (in the pejorative senses), and more grown-up as in Canada, Australia, parts of Europe, and perhaps China. American pundits label this alternative to the culture war between left and right “centrism.” A centrist is someone who swoops into a screaming match between extremists who crave a civil war based on manufactured wedge issues like abortion, immigration, and gun control, and says, “Yes, but what are the relevant bipartisan facts?” or “What would count as a reasonable compromise so we could all get along and live in peace?”

Realism and Centrism

The commenter points out that this centrism is compatible with political realism, with what is essentially the application of philosophical naturalism to politics, but if we follow Hobbes there seems a stronger connection between them. That is, if we interpret social problems from a naturalistic standpoint, we should be realistic or indeed fatalistic about our chances for happiness. We should concede that the default social situation is the dreaded state of nature in which each person is forced to war against everyone else so that the average life under such anarchy is “nasty, brutish and short.” The social contract therefore ought to bestow absolute, unaccountable authority to the sovereign, because that’s the only guarantee of peace as the alternative to our natural, lethal condition of being in charge of ourselves. Only when we voluntarily surrender our liberty and obey the edicts of government are we rescued from the appalling scenario in which our species consists of billions of sovereigns, each at war with the other. When the monopoly on the use of force is granted only to aristocrats, politicians, or oligarchs, we quarantine the obscenity of nature’s godlessness, as it were; that is, we minimize the state of nature to construct the alternative of civilized society.

The centrist, then, would become an implement of this sovereign power, a technocrat whose judgment is confined to the quantitative issues that rationality can solve, but who carries out the sovereign’s will with respect to the larger qualitative, normative ones. The centrist would be a bean counter who splits the difference. The arbitrariness of centrist judgments is comparable to the legend of Alexander the Great’s cutting of the Gordian knot. According to one version of the story, the knot was so tangled that it couldn’t be undone in the ordinary way, but Alexander realized that it didn’t matter how the knot was untangled—all that mattered was achieving the goal, there being no rules that constrained the means of achieving it—and so he cut the knot with his sword. The difference, of course, is that Alexander’s technique symbolized his military prowess, whereas Reason is the centrist’s weapon. But both are instrumentalists who disregard the idealist’s commitment to certain values. The political centrist is thus more closely related to the judge who's fond of pointing out that solving a legal dispute has little to do with applying a moral principle. What’s right in an ideal world doesn’t concern the judge who must render a verdict under imperfect conditions, and so the judge often splits the difference even if this rational (morally arbitrary) compromise is bound to leave both sides unsatisfied. To return to Hobbes, this humbling result would be the best we could expect once we realize we emerge from the indifferent wilderness. There are no miracles to save us from the hell of anarchy, and we should welcome whatever kludge the technocrat, legal expert, or centrist can cobble together with bumbling, blind reason to enforce the social contract.

The Secret of Realism

I suspect Leo Strauss would have a field day with this account of centrism. There are, it seems, public and private interpretations of this link between realism and centrism. Publicly, centrism arises as I said, as cold, naturalistic wisdom applied to political issues. We should lower our expectations and solve conflicts between factions, by social engineering. As a result, the modern bureaucratic state grows in power beyond even the imagining of Hobbes and his leviathan, and we immure ourselves within what Weber called the iron cage of rationalization. However, the private, secret story of centrism is that the submission to visionless instrumental reason rests on the Hobbesian myth that there’s no such thing as natural compromise—as though families and tribes hadn’t banded together for a few million years before Neolithic civilizations. Natural freedom isn’t a horror to be mitigated by confining sovereignty to the state, but a treasure to be jealously guarded by the psychopathic minority who exploit the commoner’s apathy. Dictators revel in being beyond good and evil, but to prevent revolutions arising from mass jealousy, the myth of the social conflict convinces the beta majority that heavy is the head that wears the crown and that the state of nature would be worse than any abuse of political power.

We glimpse the problem when we realize that by concentrating sovereignty in the hands of some minority who are naturally corrupted by their authority, nature’s inhumanity is magnified in the deeds of these psychopathic avatars, and so we have the brutal modern wars and genocides. Centrist reason can be marshaled in support of any such barbarism once the myth of the state of nature is taken as axiomatic. If the alternative is worse even than Hitler’s Germany, the German centrist had better get to work in calculating the most efficient techniques for carrying out the Nazi plans for civilization. Hobbes had to wrestle with this criticism of his appeal to scientific reason, but the problem is deeper than just scientismThe problem is that “realism,” the attention to natural reality is inherently uncivilized; “realism” is thus a euphemism for “apocalyptic pessimism.” In particular, the realist should acknowledge not just that there are no miracles and that happiness and lasting progress are dubious propositions, but that nature is all-powerful, that its inhumanity affects even our artificial refuges at all levels.

For example, the realist shouldn’t take for granted that we all have equal, inalienable rights to life (contrary to the commenter). We can grant Hobbes’ point that in a state of anarchy we would each have more or less equal power to violently subdue anyone else. Some would be stronger than others, but we’d all have our weaknesses: we could be poisoned or killed when sleeping, or weaklings could form gangs to overcome a kingpin. But only an illusion of mesmerism could allow us to presume that might makes for right, that a natural power automatically gives us the right to use it. There is no right or wrong in nature, and a factual precondition of a right isn’t the same thing as a right. The distinction between right and wrong emerges with the human vision of the very supernatural (or anti-natural) order we intend to realize with progressive civilization. So rights and morality are irrelevant to the realist and to the centrist.  

Moreover, even putting aside this point about the naturalistic fallacy, the majority would surrender its natural rights under the social contract, and so in society we’d identify not with our genes but with our artificial roles, with our jobs, idols, or goals for our future. As persons rather than animals, therefore, we’re highly unequal. Some rise to godlike status, living effectively in real-life heaven while losers toil in obscurity. What follows secretly from realism, then, is that in society where morality is sustained by myths and daydreams, inequality between the sovereign and the masses is deserved. In nature, predator and prey are equally machines, by comparison with persons. Natural inequality in the food chain has no inherent value other than its being horrific to those with elevated taste. But artificial, human social inequality is subject to normative interpretation, because even if most of us are less free than the sovereign, we voluntarily give up that absolute freedom, which is why Hobbes thinks civil peace is morally superior to the state of nature. As persons we live as if we were bound by a social contract, because we envision an alternative to natural anarchy. The hidden truth, however, is that this alternative of civilization isn’t universally dignifying to citizens. It’s not obvious that the animal predator that hunts only to survive is more horrific than the human predator who exploits the social contract in a dictatorship or in some other oppressive arrangement. The latter predator, of course, can be evil rather than just amoral in that he or she can discern and choose the worst course of action. Nor is it clear that the godlessness of the evolutionary struggle to survive in the wild is more obscene than the saga of the foppish human tyrant who, being a false god, can only rot in his palace or build transient empires instead of creating a real universe. Animals may be puppets pulled this way and that by their genes, but having gotten too much of what they want, human dictators become clowns even as they exercise their social right to sadism.

Centrist Rationality amidst Rampant Absurdity

To return to the question of centrism, if liberals and conservatives are just the human equivalents of animal weaklings and dominators, prey and predators, centrists are the downers who remind us that all our squabbles are petty in light of the natural facts, that we shouldn’t become attached to our values and should compromise to secure whatever fleeting or farcical peace we can find. Even if the centrist isn’t committed to Hobbes’ formulations, she presents herself like Obama as being above the fray, like a guru who’s outgrown the fondness for ideology, who goes with the flow of logic. Perhaps the threat of returning to the wretched state of nature isn’t what dictates her amorality, but the centrist mistrusts political vision because her instrumental rationality is liable to equate all social orders as being peaceful compared to anarchy.

Contrary to centrism, though, reason has no place in solving political disputes. Reason is central to human progress through technoscience, but social engineering is misplaced because people aren’t animals and so—as Dostoevsky said—we don’t appreciate being downgraded as machines or objects to be molded. The defect of centrism begins with the scientism implicit in Hobbes’ political reasoning from realistic assumptions about the chances for social progress. Reason is largely responsible for securing a social order, because reasoning through problems enables us to control natural processes instead of being enslaved by them. For example, we can thank medical advances for the peace that comes from conquering various maladies.

By contrast, peace in the sense of an absence of war or natural indifference is mostly nonrational, deriving as it does—as Yuval Harari says—from the myths that enable large populations to cooperate. We cooperate because we trust in the same ideals, and so we’re poised to conflict with members of foreign cultures. That trust follows from precisely no rational argument or experiment. We have faith in our gods or idols, and weaklings tend to worship differently than bullies. Politics specifically is the conflict between these social classes and their excuses. Thus, tyrants may have reason to fear rebellion from the oppressed masses, but tyrants lose the capacity to reason as they’re corrupted by their privileged position; they surround themselves with sycophants, because their narcissism brooks not even the appearance of opposition. They become sovereign by eliminating their fiercest competitors until their kingdom is an extension of their bloated ego. Liberals and conservatives may be instrumentally rational in pursuing what they deem to be in their self-interest, but neither rank deserves to be honoured and so their struggle is farcical. Liberals prove themselves cowardly and duplicitous in betraying their fellow weaklings, once the liberals are corrupted by the power of holding high office (the progressive politician becomes a neoliberal centrist like Bill Clinton or Obama), while conservatives demonstrate evil in wanting more forthrightly to impose a tyranny. In line with her supposed realistic stance, the centrist wants to pretend that there’s no such conundrum at the heart of social conflicts and that rational compromise, not blind faith in some mythos, would suffice to keep the peace.

I know of no greater example of liberals and conservatives staying true to their types, than that of how the academic rationality of Obama’s presidency has been humiliated by the mad trolling of Trump’s. Obama was an arrogant neoliberal whose vaunted rationality didn't enable him to predict the backlash against globalism, despite the warnings from progressives like Chomsky, going back decades. Obama was so far above the fray that his head was lost in the clouds. But being a mere creature like the rest of us, he was no true centrist, that is, no quasi-autistic amoralist. Arrogance prompted Obama not only to mock Trump to his face, but to discount the possibility of a populist backlash. Arrogance led the DNC to crown Hillary Clinton as the nominee at the expense of the progressive insurgence led by Bernie Sanders, and arrogance led Hillary to take her victory for granted in her campaign. Needless to say, evil (malignant narcissism, white nationalist bigotry, sadistic trolling of liberals, gerrymandering and voter suppression for permanent minority rule by slow-motion coup) animates Trump’s Republican cult. The American political spectacle has little to do with reason. There’s a niche for phony centrist pundits on CNN, since that station prides itself on being objective despite its chief executive’s admission that playing up hostility to Trump is great for ratings. But perhaps those Americans who are the furthest from being liberals or conservatives are the legions of cynics who don’t vote.

What of the more mature social democracies like Canada or Denmark? Aren’t they more rational, peaceful, and thus centrist in political orientation? Not really. Being welfare states, these democracies are liberal and thus led by weaklings on behalf of fellow passive, reserved losers (by comparison with the human potential for aggression). Bullies are bred out of these countries and so their political rivalries take place within narrow limits. Canadian conservatives would easily fit within the American Democratic Party, whereas the voting Republican would be imprisoned in Canada for hate speech or for owning weapons of war, or hospitalized for antisocial personality disorder or addiction to pain killers. American individualism allows for the greatest social inequality in a technologically-advanced society, and thus for the most transparent war between conservatives and liberals (bullies and their victims). By contrast, Canadian politics, like Canadian culture broadly is indeed centrist in being obsessed with bureaucratic micromanaging and avoidance of structural questions about multiculturalism or globalism. There’s no hint of radical vision in Canadian politicians, as can be gleaned from that country’s political debates, which are mostly about empirical rather than philosophical issues (and so are unwatchable for consistently missing the point). But social democracies haven’t really been centrist, because they’ve had no right-wing alternative to provide for a middle ground. Again, that’s not because those countries have been especially rational, but because they’ve been predominantly liberal, that is, feminine in national character. There’s currently a right-wing populist backlash in Europe, Brazil, and elsewhere to go with the American one, which opens up ground for centrists to intervene from their summit at the amoral high ground and chastise the extremists on both sides, as though reason indicates how psychopathic troglodytes can make nice with anxious wimps.

Perhaps there’s only a semantic question of whether politics, properly speaking, includes rational, centrist decision-making. Whatever terms we want to use, I do suspect there’s this double story to tell. Again, publically a realist who takes into account only so-called natural laws and rights speaks neutrally of the need to maintain law and order. Thus, politics becomes the search for techniques for managing inevitable outbreaks of chaos, minimizing undo hardships for the lower classes, and so on. In particular, says this public face of realism in the form of the calm and collected centrist, the rights of the poor majority should be respected out of rational self-interest, since their uprisings are bad for business. But privately we have every reason to assume the elites are much more cynical and self-destructive than this centrist would wish to account for. In the plutocrat’s enclave, the power elites aren’t rational at all. On the contrary, they’re corrupted by power and thus become agents of chaos. Psychopaths, for example, are notoriously self-destructive. They sabotage their success in manipulating others, as in the case of cult leaders who bring down their followers with them. Ecological catastrophe from runaway capitalism looks like the same dynamic being played out on the large scale. Likewise, the Trump phenomenon is a case of collective suicide, due to white male resentment. The power elites destroy themselves as a result of their irrational abuses of power. Rational centrists searching for compromises could conceivably save the day if the relevant problems were susceptible of rational solutions. A methodological naturalist like Sam Harris who speaks nonchalantly of a science of morality would presume that reason can indeed solve any problem. But this methodology is itself faith-based, as was positivism before it. Instead of treating political disagreements as so many opportunities to bore us with phony statistics, centrists might consider the radical option of telling the full truth of realism, in which case we might turn to aesthetics as a way of finding collective peace through humbling ourselves out of disgust for natural horrors.

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