Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Know Your Song Well Before You Start Singing: Developing Politics from Philosophy

Things are really getting intense in this year's electoral race. I've never seen both main parties have quite this much internal conflict: we have all the Republicans trying to rein in Trump, with apparent futility, and then a very lively split between Clinton and Sanders, the latter of whom just took Michigan yesterday despite predictions that Clinton would beat him by 20 points. This goes to show that in such an uncertain political environment, your bet can win big, but the risks are high.

This goes double for political bets made by philosophers. If you try too quickly to force-fit your candidate (or agenda or ideology) into some association with any particular philosophical position currently being developed, you risk not only your own disappointment, but the defamation of your philosophical movement. This is not because your candidate might not win, or because your agenda might not rise in the public estimation...

It's because everyone associated with your philosophy might be made to look like the superficial and fraudulent pandit that you are.

Look, philosophy moves in time scales that go on for something like 200 years. A good American president's administration will tend to last 8. I have studied the history of North American social movements and social change quite extensively, as these and agriculture (and therefore ecology) are interconnected for me, and the time scale of the average modern sociopolitical movement tends to be about 12 years in my rough estimation. So you are not going to find a philosophy developed within the last two decades that is ready to meet the demands that the popular political environment will make on its integrity and consistency, and on those of its authors. This is something that Graham Harman, primary author of Object-Oriented Philosophy (to an ecologist, one of the most interesting things to come out of philosophy in the last couple of centuries) has suggested as well, though I am not certain whether or not he takes it to the extent I do, or if he draws a harder or softer line.

To Harman, a philosopher may also be a politician (and perhaps no one can avoid being one!), but it is important to remember that these are two different hats that do not look good on the same head at the same time. He points to examples like accelerationism, where the prevailing ultra-left political culture of academic philosophical society has generated ideas that are so moronic and yet so deviously convoluted that only their authors can fail to see how dangerous and risibly counterproductive they are. Those are my words, not his; beating industrial capitalism by accelerating it (causing it to self-destruct, maybe, but definitely also causing the intensification of every single human-caused ecological catastrophe) is a nonstarter for any ecologist or ecology-knowledgable politician who shines the light of day on the idea.

Other prominent Object-Oriented philosophers are not as careful as Harman, who is actually pretty sharply criticized on the philo-political left: they like to call him a typical bourgeois non-politicist. I happen to know that he's probably the most working-class individual they've ever set eyes on, but whatever.

An OO thinker whom I consider a great friend and an inspiring eco-critic, but who shall remain nameless for the moment, recently informed me that although he understands my intensity and my regard for ideas, he can't be friends with someone who insists on name-calling in online fora. I can respect that, although I'm not sure where the name-calling occurred. At such a politically intense time as we currently inhabit, many relationships sail into rocky waters. These things pass, and we should remember that.

But to a long-lived hyper-body like a philosophy, it is not just those things that pass: we pass also. Not a single philosopher in 12,000 years has lived long enough to witness the real political implications of everything he/she said/did/wrote/proposed. Forget it. May my friend live a long life, but not that long. It follows that trying to couch support for the candidate you like in some hastily cobbled together argument connecting them to the philosophical movement you have lately joined is a very irresponsible thing to do. Because the political winds blow much harder and faster than the philosophical, despite the superficiality of this strident display, it is almost never the case that the politics are altered to fit the philosophy. Instead, the philosophy is too often altered to fit the politics. This reduces the philosopher to something much cheaper and almost universally unreliable: someone who heaps blessings upon a king or queen because everything they do carries the favor of this great philosophy.

This does not elevate the politics: it corrupts the philosophy, and makes its proponents look like quacks. It turns them into quacks, at least some of the time. My friend has shoe-horned President Obama's feckless pandering to oil giants into a very multiple back-flippy theory that the President is playing some kind of "long game" to undermine the tycoons he's pandering to. My friend bases this on the idea that Obama "gets it", somehow, in terms of applying the new realist philosophy to political economics. My friend also pathologizes those who support Bernie Sanders, reducing their political concerns to various infantile neuroses he comes up with, and accusing them of Puritanism, sexism and too-Marxist classical Socialism, which doesn't respect nonhumans enough and so can't be object-oriented. Apparently he thinks this is better than calling people names. I didn't grow up that way.

This story on Democracy Now! pretty well shows how mean, Puritan and sexist we Sanders' supporters can be. Seriously, can you even think those words when confronted with the sun-faced, eloquent, thoughtful, gap-toothed and ever-loving universal pure funk of Dr. Cornell West? Hear the man: "We gonna git ya on the Bernie Sanders Love Train!" I'm on board, Bro! How about West for President in 2024, while we're at it!

I like Bernie Sanders. I like his policy ideas, and I like his workmanlike, realist attitude. He is the first left-wing candidate in a very long time to exemplify the value of the job that is to be done over the superficial, media-visible qualities of the person trying to get the job. Presidents are not like English kings and queens: they are government employees, albeit ones we provide with a lot of respect and fanfare for the executive work they do, and I think Sanders wants us to be aware of that. Clinton, a typical 20th-century politician, surely wants to obscure it. It's how they do politics.

What does this have to do with object-oriented philosophy? Zero: literally nothing, positive or negative, that I know of. It is not my job, as a philosopher and sometimes a politician, to tell you how Sanders is the best OO candidate: as far as I know, he isn't. It is my job as a citizen, if I am to support Sanders, to use everything I know about my concerns for ecological welfare, including philosophy, to inform the candidate and his party and constituency in whatever capacity I may, so that the philosophy will become a basis for political development. It isn't yet, for a very simple reason: nobody knows about us! In my opinion, until we well know what we're doing, we should hold off on supporting politicians on the grounds that our ideas support them, and instead call on and challenge the politicians to recognize that they win our approval to the extent that they support our ideas. That is how progressive agendas with staying-power are structured by philosophers who are also maintaining their integrity and that of their movement.

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