Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “

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Reclusive samizdat

To live authentically within the ruins of our culture today, to practise the ritual of writing solemnly, without regard for fame and fortune and the flickering nonsense of panel shows, to be in the world as God’s secretary, meticulous and devoted to something larger than your own life, to live truly to each of these profound obligations requires the artist to withdraw both from the world and the relentless publicity machine of publishing. Today authenticity demands samizdat, not marketable publications. It is by circulating words and thought outside the merchant machines that writing can find its way out of the dark wood in which it cries out for a saviour. No saviour will come, and each writer must risk an ocean of silence in response to truthful words. Blanchot, for all his obscurities, prefigured the writer to come in his rigorous refusal, not of friendship, but of any promotion of the marketed figure of the writer. He did so from a place of high culture and secure publication. Today his heirs know the simplest act of pressing a button can secure the circulation of their ideas, if not any guarantee of a response, and to withhold a photo and a profile of the author of obscure samizdat renews the author’s sacred bond with Andrei Rubelev and a thousand anonymous icon painters.