Sunday 9 March 2014

Something is missing from [pol]itics

I've been meaning to write this up for months.  Finally I have a first draft (which is all it is!).

Reading the Inquiry into Modes of Existence book last time I was struck by a lack, something missing, something implicit in the political mode when it assumes all of the following:

1) No issue, no politics: publics (and hence politics) are provoked into being by problems, issues, things.

2) Politics has no inertia; it "has to constantly start over"; if an issue is truly resolved its public dissolves. A group is always 'on the move,' nomadic.

3) [pol] is not restricted to the domain of politics; [pol] can be found not just in parliaments and embassies but also offices, churches, rotary clubs, family homes… Politics can be found wherever collectives are traced out, whatever their shape, size, form, durability or purpose.

Individually I find these three tenets of AIME to be acceptable. However, I cannot shake a sense of unease when I look at the above… Isn't something missing? Doesn't something just not add up? It's a jarring sensation, a feeling of dislocation, a contrast. Yes, something is certainly amiss.

Politics is provoked by issues; it becomes obvious, explicated at times of strife, tumult, stress - in 'interesting times,' as the proverb has it. And politics, we are told, has always to start from scratch. At the termination of every bout of representation (bout is the right word in so many ways) the clock is reset to zero, the multitude goes back to a several, disloyal plurality. For every issue a new politics; no inertia. Okay, fine. But if we look around ourselves we see nothing that matches this description. All the world is replete with coagulations, clumps, clusters huddled together for warmth, joined together with endlessly variegated bonds, laughing, sharing stories, bartering, fighting. When the clock chimes for midnight do they scatter, disaggregate, deny that they know one another? Of course not. The carriage stays a carriage, the pumpkin a pumpkin, the husband a husband. It is self-evident that human groups stick together through political changes of all sorts, even the breakdown of the greatest, most godly and god-awful institutions, let alone mere political issues.

'Ah, but you've forgotten habit [hab]. Of course groups hang together over time; politics is messy, issues overlap, politics is instituted and habits blur the edges of political occasions. Of course political patterns fall into ruts, patterns, routines; that's inevitable, it comes with the fact of institutions, the fact of complexity.' A fair point but, no, this will not do. The difference is much deeper.

What, then?

It's something that's often said in times of crisis, upheaval, stress, bereavement. 'I'm here for you; I'll always be here for you, no matter what.' What kind of speech act could be more important to us? What intimacy could be more essential to our security, our stability, to our very sense of self? To know that, to hear that promise: 'whatever issues cross our paths we will persist together, our relationship will prevail; no, it will be stronger for all of this; issues, however terrible, will only bring us closer together.'

Politics, habituated or not, cannot possibly absorb these sentiments; they are totally and completely at odds with it - they pass it by at exactly 90 degrees. This other, non-political mode of speech is also issue-based (or at least it is issue-related) but it reacts to issues in another way entirely. When an issue is resolved the political group has no bonds remaining, it scatters; this other kind of group, contrariwise, is left strengthened by the trial; closer, more bonded, more intimate than ever.

'Always, no matter what': this is the root of the contrast; not its only instantiation but the instance we can see it most clearly. I would like to call it kinship [kin].

'That's not how we do things in this family,' 'if you're under my roof you'll abide by my rules,' 'speak for yourself,' 'you're not the boss of me'. What family hasn't experienced moments like these? Yes, family is political, no doubt. But that's not all. How awful it would be if our groups only held together through speech acts like these.

A convenient etymological relation can be drawn here: kinship shares a root with kindness. To be kin is to be there for another ('no matter what'). Of course all we really have is promises. There can be betrayal; therefore, there can be felicity conditions. 'You said you'd be there for me but you left me all alone!' A kin relation is certainly fragile; certainly it needs upkeep, just like anything else.

Another thing should be clear: this is not a metaphysical rationalisation of the nuclear family. Just what form the being-thereness takes is a complex and entirely open (indeed, empirical) question. I am 'there for' all kinds of people (and things) in many different ways. I will happily be-there-for a stranger asking for the time or for directions; I will of course aid some unknown person who is injured or in distress. However, my thereness, my sensitivity, my openness has limits. I am there-for my sisters, friends, grandparents in stronger ways; I am much more sensitive to their needs, much more receptive to their requests. There are varieties and gradations of my being-there-for; as many nuances as there are relations, in fact.

And so it is with scorn that I must regard the Modernist [dc·kin] crossing: 'I am a citizen of the world!' says Socrates (and every self-congratulatory cosmopolitan since).  All merely local ties wash away in the face of the Globe.  But who is this world-citizen of such infinite time, energy and attention? With the best will in the world no one can be-there-for even the tiniest fraction of their worldly cohabitants. We are finite. So, we are reliant, once more, on institutions. And isn't this the chief virtue of the welfare state? (This, the greatest Modern achievement, no? Is that too strong?) I am not there-for a man diagnosed with cancer in Glasgow; how could I be? This is a country of millions and I live nowhere near! And yet do I not play some small part in his treatment, thanks to the institutions of the National Health Service and Inland Revenue? That is what we might call institutionalised collective solidarity; or, to use a vulgar simplification, society.

Does the world-citizen pay taxes? Pah! We have world-citizens, today. They live on yachts and will fly to space to avoid the taxman. Might we call this world-citizen John Galt? I'd prefer Eric Packer (of Don Delillo's novel Cosmopolis and the David Cronenberg film of the same name). He is the world-citizen of cyber-capital - in his armoured limousine, blithely, sleepily consulting his Chief of Theory while the outside tears itself apart. Yes, the 1% read philosophy, too. I am sure that it makes them feel warm inside.

If there is to be anything like a world-citizen worthy of the name it is only through institutions that this can be realised. The most selfless, giving, caring person can, on their own, only be-there-for the tiniest fraction of the cosmopolis. What institutions maximise our sensitivities, our therenesses?

The Family of Man was a work of propaganda. The Family of the Earthbound is a messianic fantasy. Very well…