Politics and state

The defining feature of our times is that everything has become politics. Although the state is much more than politics, we are being led to assume that politics is all-pervasive, and that the state, in all its functions, must be an expression of politics! This is wrong, of course.

For three hundred years most societies, and all democracies, have given effect to some form of division of powers. In this fine logic, the legislative is the domain of politics, but the executive and the judiciary are not. Admittedly, the executive power has always had a brush-stroke of politics, of law-making, since legislative proposals often come from the executive, and since ministers issue decrees that are frequently based on political considerations. The political function of the executive is only residing at the highest levels, however, and hence it would be good to talk about the ‘legislating executive’ as distinct from the executive that, true to its name, only executes. We mix up the two things at our peril.

The ultimate safeguard for citizens reside not in their voices being heard in politics, but in their voices not being heard in the execution of legislation and in the judgments of courts. When President Trump talks about the ‘deep state’ it is because he wants the whole state to belong to him. Although he is the head of a civil service that must execute, not legislate, he wants the civil service to bend to his will even when it is its calling not to do so.

The politisation of the judiciary that also erodes the rights of citizens is not a Trump invention, to be fair. It was always there in the United States because of the discretion the Constitution is understood to grant the courts. It took flight under FDR, and became a hardball political game with the nomination by Ronald Reagan of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and the resulting rejection of the nomination. It is this politisation that is being perfected by President Trump and Mitch McConnell. Candidates for the judiciary are selected purely on their readiness to give effect to the political will of their patrons.

Those who do not fear this politisation of all state functions, those who do not recognise that the state brings immense benefits exactly because it is not always a knee-jerk expression of the politics of the day, are helping reopen the floodgates for autocracy and inhumanity. It should be obvious that the rule of law is a good of the highest order, and that the elimination of checks and balances is the path to perdition, to ‘might makes right’. Creating law is politics, yes, respect of law is not. Upholding the law is not a question of deep state, it is a question of state. May we not forget!

The gift of past and future

The resin smell of Christmas pine still teases our noses,

yet our warm embrace can’t stop the rushing year.

You served us well, you friend who steps into the past.

Your soul was jubilation,

though pain was also there.

We thank you and apologise –

we spent you not too well,

the pledge, as every year, to do much better hence.

So fare thee well dear months to which we bid adieu,

your treasure is enshrined.

Yet, on we move, that it is the season’s wish.

A new year to be loved and conquered

is born in winter’s dark.

Thanks time bygone and time that is unrolling!

 

The Spirit of the Time and Times

This is a sacred time;

we celebrate humanity,

the fragile child in our midst again.

We know that all is up to us –

that is its vital message.

A Paradise for us to enter,

if only we are willing.

To share and to be generous,

that is the price to pay.

 

We have so many gifts to give,

so many to receive.

And joy will only come

to humans of humanity.

The season is reminder, so very oft repeated,

of how the Other is an obligation most sincere –

the fight against the me and only me,

the icy times that reign – refused.

The key to undo innocence’s betrayal,

we have it all to hand.

Unlock, unlock, and bless whilst you are blessed!

 

Surplus Men

The groundbreaking work of Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism, should be on the reading (or rereading) list of every politically engaged citizen – no matter country. The book, written right after WW II, is deeply analytical, opinionated, too extreme – and fantastic! Tragically, it provides so much food for thought of relevance for our societies today.

There is one key observation that permeates all her analysis, and that we need to reflect on much more, and that is Arendt’s concept of ‘surplus men’ (which nowadays should be understood as ‘surplus people’, given the role of women in the employment market), and what such surpluses lead to.

Arendt explains in a most brutal fashion, but correctly, how the surplus of employable men drove imperialism, since those who could not find a foothold in their home countries turned into adventurers without morals abroad. They became buccaneers in the far-flung regions that they and imperialism made their own. The boys of Cecil Rhodes and the East India Company. The lesson is grosso modo that morals vanish in step with the marginalisation that flows from being ‘surplus men’.

Between the two World Wars there were evidently many surplus men, and they became the breeding ground for the extremism that ultimately led to the Nazi regime. If you doubt Arendt’s view then look at the SS: Himmler, an obvious failure in civil society; the circle around him, Wolff, Eicke, Heissmeyer, Wege, for whom the common glue was their previous failure! And Adolf himself was, of course, an unsuccessful postcard painter. Social class was, however, not the determinant for becoming a surplus man, the surplus cut across all classes – something we would be wise to remember today. The liberal elite likes to think that populism is a ‘no high school diploma’ thing but obviously that is wrong. Populism is a surplus thing.

The loss of morals that flows from being surplus, that flows from having to fight with all means to retain social status, is also not primarily an issue of material sufficiency – it is about not being surplus as a person!

Nowadays, the erosion of middle class status is a clear driver of the acceptance by its denizens of the maxim that fighting dirty is alright. The middle class was always the protector of the rule of law, but it now sees that the law no longer protects, because the middle class rather than being threatened in its privileges is itself increasingly becoming surplus. No good reason to adhere to ethics norms then is the logic. Inequality and eroding social status is internalised to mean that it is neither possible nor necessary to uphold moral standards. Where screwing the system used to be the preserve of the upper classes (and the absolutely destitute) it is now entirely salonfähig.

This should give us pause. In the future, we will all become surplus because AI and machines will eliminate the human being as a part of productive processes. When we have all landed there, social status will no longer be determined by profession. A new status system will have to be invented. On the way there, will we see an ever increasing abandonment of moral considerations in our individual decisions?

See also blog posts: ‘The Proletarisation of the Middle Class’ and ‘Capital in Any Century’

A Heart’s Beat

On the way back from the gym one evening recently I got very annoyed by a passing car full of youngsters listening to techno music at highest volume. The two step beat seemed incessant and there was no tune, no lyrics. Pure noise pollution as it seemed. Yet, suddenly I realised that there was a most surprising connection between those teenagers and my mother, a woman of great refinement, sensitivity and warmth, who sadly died many years ago.

My mother had an ability I never experienced with anyone else to squeeze a piece of fabric between the thumb and the middle finger and then press it down with the index finger. As a result, the fabric made a clicking noise when it was released. With repetition a continuous beat ensued similar to that of the techno music, albeit it civilised and non-aggressive. This sound was a frequent accompaniment of my mother – most pronounced when she was worried. A clever friend once told her that he thought that she made this sound because it emulated the beat of the mother’s heart as the embryo hears it in the womb. It was the sound of safety. Despite the aggression of the techno music perhaps the teenagers were also ultimately seeking safety in the music without knowing it.

I thought that I had not inherited this instrument of comfort – I certainly cannot move the fabric as my mother could. Yet, in another form it is with me as well. One of my favourite pieces of music is Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. An advanced construction, for sure, but when you hear it you will immediately recognise its pulse. Its insistent rhythm enthralls and embraces you, as does its wildest longing, the nature of every heartbeat.

Outer space as another warfighting domain

Space-powers are rushing to create space forces, and assume that outer space will become a new theater of war. In assuming so, the power doctrines of the Earth are applied. Yet, deterrence in outer space does not work well when an opponent might have little reliance on space capabilities and when satellites are sitting ducks and almost impossible to defend. Disarmament paradigms are called for – not armament. This is particularly so because when the shooting in space starts, space will be ruined for all of us, not only for those from the combatant states. Debris will inevitably be created that will remain in space for a long time, making affected orbits impossible to use for everybody for decades. A world without use of outer space is not going to be pretty, although few people understand that.

A poem to explain:  

        While you were sleeping

Did you not hear the drums of war,

heralding strife in Nature’s bosom, between the stars?

Was your dream so deep that doom did not disturb?

They lied that strength makes strong,

when the ant can kill the elephant,

the carcass poison the well.

A nightmare lived is our destiny,

when Mars beats out Minerva;

when the heavens become the field of manly sports,

and prudence orphan.

Your bed is warm and soft,

yet sleep is far too dear!

 

 

The death of ethics

Over the last few years many thoughtful discussions have taken place on the tragedy of the death of truth. Of course, those discussions do normally not involve the peddlers of untruth, even when they advance crazy stuff like the concept of alternative facts. Cleverly, perhaps, populists will allow liberals to get angry about the selling of untruth as a respectable position, but as a matter of demagogic principle populists only discuss what they want to discuss and a debate about the soundness of something like alternative facts is certainly not it. They know that without a counterpart for the liberals the discussions will soon die out. Instead, notorious liars turn the table on truth seekers by attacking the truth as fake news. They exploit the relativity of truth they themselves have invented to make obvious truths relative. All part of Demagogy 101.

The relativity and death of truth are associated with another phenomenon much less discussed, but even more serious, and that is the death of ethics. We have forgotten, or are been led to forget, that there are things that are right and need no further explanation. A statement like ‘it is wrong to let human beings drown in the Mediterranean when it can be avoided’ requires no further justification. If you need justification for not justifying such a statement you can, of course, look to Kant and his categorical imperative, but why bother: it is obvious. Defenders of obvious ethical stances cannot help themselves providing further justification, however, despite it being entirely unnecessary. In itself this is not a problem, except that by making an obvious ethical stance contingent they make what is obviously right vulnerable. When liberals start to argue that any problem associated with rescue of the drowning is resolvable, they have opened the door to the populist. That sort of discussion is their chosen playing field. Liberals will immediately be met with immoral provocations like ‘we have to let them drown because it is a deterrent’   – and they do not see that they have made this sort of view part of the mix entirely unnecessarily. What it worse, they have ended up becoming the mid-wives of a position that is now official policy, see the criminalisation of the rescue efforts of SOS Mediterranée, for example.

That there are obvious ethical positions that require no justification does not mean that people of good will should become blinkered or unquestioning, of course. But it does mean that people of good will must be far more conscious of what can and should be debated and what not. Liberals should learn just one lesson from the populists – and that is how to define the playing field. To date, only two voices on the left have shown any ability in this respect and that is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the shining example, and Bernie Sanders. The tragedy of the immigration policy of Angela Merkel, so obviously right, was that it did not have voices like those of Alexandria and Bernie to defend it. Instead liberals resorted to their favourite game of finding faults with their own.

What is needed most of all, however, is a revival of ethics in general. We are being sucked into a news cycle where only provocation and politics matter, and in the process we are starting to forget what is obviously right and the search for the more complicated right. The word ‘moral’ has been discredited and identified with ‘repressive’, often of a sexual kind. That is a distortion, of course. ‘Moral’ in its true sense is about repression of evil and a search for what is good! We may sometimes disagree on what is good, and that is alright. The worst thing is if we just do not care, and that, tragically, is our current trajectory!