Simone Weil in On the Abolition of All Political Parties

“Everywhere, without exception, all the things that are generally considered ends are in fact, by nature, by essence, and in a most obvious way, mere means. One could cite countless examples of this from every area of life: money, power, the state, national pride, economic production, universities, etc., etc.

Goodness alone is an end. Whatever belongs to the domain of facts pertains to the category of means. Collective thinking, however, cannot rise above the factual realm. It is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.”

“…no finite amount of power will ever be deemed sufficient. The absence of thought creates for the party a permanent state of impotence, which, in turn, is attributed to the insufficient amount of power already obtained. Should the party ever become the absolute ruler of its own country, international contingencies will soon impose new limitations.

Therefore the essential tendency of all political parties is towards totalitarianism, first on the national scale and then on the global scale, And it is precisely because the notion of the public interest which each party invokes is itself a fiction, an empty shell devoid of all reality, that the quest for total power becomes an absolute need. Every reality necessarily implies a limit – but what is utterly devoid of existence cannot possibly encounter any form of limitation. It is for this reason that there is a natural affinity between totalitarianism and mendacity.”

“If a man, member of a party, is absolutely deter mined to follow, in all his thinking, nothing but the inner light, to the exclusion of everything else, he can not make known to the party such a resolution. To that extent, he is deceiving the party. He thus finds himself in a state of mendacity; the only reason why he tolerates such a situation is that he needs to join a party in order to play an effective part in public affairs. But then this need is evil, and one must put an end to it by abolishing political parties.

A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.”

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

Zeynep Tufekci on social movements and digital technologies

“Capabilities are like muscles that need to be developed; digital technologies allow ‘shortcuts’ which can be useful for getting to a goal, but bypass the muscle development that might be crucial for the next step. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop one set of muscles without also developing others that work in support and coordination; digital technologies can sever or alter this link, allowing for the social movement equivalent of a bodybuilder with massive pectorals but no biceps or deltoids to speak of.”

Political oratory and communications media

“How, for instance, did the vast multitudes that Daniel O’Connell drew to Mullaghmast manage to hear his speech when there were no microphones? ‘It was this way,’ said one of the old men, who was there. The people said there was half a million of men, not counting women. It was a mighty gathering. Everybody heard Dan. For Dan raised his hand and told all about the platform to repeat his words. He said ‘Silence’, and silence came to us as the wind upon the barley. Then each man spoke after Dan, and every other man said the words, and out to us all on the edge of the crowd came the speech of Dan O’Connell.'”

“…all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg address. Those 272 words rendered obsolete the style of Everett and forged a new, lean language to redeem the first modern war. As has happened with each generational change in the style of oratory, it was that ‘new’ language, used as Lincoln adapted to the development of telegraphy, that undoubtedly baffled his contemporary critics…”

“As Lloyd George, Churchill and Roosevelt adapted subsequently to the age of the wireless, critics again mourned the state of oratory, as they do today in the age of global television, even though it is this age that has brought us John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and given more powerful worldwide power and effect to their speeches than Chatham or Webster or Lincoln could have dreamed of.”

What on earth? USA/UK foreign policy and domestic politics

The war in Iraq was a very significant historical event. Who went to war with Iraq? Well, if you had to narrow it down to two people: Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But they had a lot of political backing. For our purposes keep in mind that both Hillary Clinton and David Cameron—prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016—voted to support the war early in their political careers. Clinton voted as a US senator and Cameron as a member of parliament.

After the USA invaded Iraq it descended into sectarian conflict. Despite the Iraq experience though, in 2012 the same type of people—lets keep following Cameron and Clinton as significant representative characters—thought they had the answers for Libya. Cameron—at this point PM of the UK—was particularly eager to get involved and Hillary Clinton— oversaw the USA’s participation as Obama’s Secretary of State.

But Libya turned out badly as well. Muammar Gaddafi—Libya’s longtime strongman leader—was killed and an anarchic division of the country followed. The situation hasn’t yet been as violent as Iraq, but the basic picture of outside intervention creating a power vacuum is the same.

Crucially for the purpose of this essay, post-intervention Libya—a North African country on the coast of the Mediterranean—became a staging point for desperate people from all over Africa and the Middle East to attempt passage to Europe by boat. This so called “migrant crisis” would come back to haunt both Cameron and Clinton. In addition, it’s said that the intervention in Libya greatly angered Vladimir Putin, deepening the chasm between Russia’s leader and the Western political elite.

Now we’re back to 2013 and ISIS hits the scene, at least in terms of Western attention. Remember those guys? ISIS itself—with its media savvy, brutal stunts and worldwide recruiting base—was a disturbing precedent, and cause for much apocalyptic handwringing at the time. ISIS was a creature bred by the invasion of Iraq mind you—only the hell of war could create an absurd monster like ISIS. Specifically and tellingly, the leadership of ISIS coalesced in a US army jail.

That brings us to Syria. It was a complicated situation—and genuinely beyond my understanding at this time—but in 2013-2014 ISIS, Syria and Iraq were one sprawling disaster. In the USA and UK there was a huge debate about what to do. David Cameron wanted to get heavily involved but was held back by “backbench” Conservative MPs who voted against him after a dramatic parliamentary debate. Interestingly, some parts of the right-wing media like the influential tabloid Daily Mail also sided against Cameron.

In the USA there was a similar thing happening. Republicans like John McCain hosted “townhalls” where they were shouted down by old white conservative guys who didn’t want another foreign entanglement. In both countries it was the “moderate” political establishment—people like Cameron, Clinton and McCain—facing anti-war opposition from a pacifist left and an isolationist right.

Back to Syria itself. Bashar al-Assad—who is still president—got crucial support from Vladimir Putin. Putin’s intervention in Syria stabilized the country and kept Assad in power. With Syria, Putin got a sneaky upper hand on the Western political establishment—undoubtedly a historic moment. The unhinged debate about whether or not Assad used chemical weapons can certainly be seen in light of Iraq’s non-existent WMD’s.

That brings us to 2016—a year when countless chickens came home to roost. The “migrant crisis” peaked in 2015 and—if you take a long comprehensive view—was fueled by Syria, Libya and Iraq. David Cameron was forced to be very defensive about the UK’s open borders within the EU as the “Remain” leader during the 2016 Brexit battle. Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was a theatrical response to this same context of public perception.

During a Republican primary debate in South Carolina Trump trashed none other than Jeb Bush—brother of the original Iraq invasion guy—by breaking the longstanding “taboo” in the Republican Party on questioning the whole Iraq episode. It was a brilliant move. Remember those old white guys who yelled at John McCain about Syria? Trump was just echoing them. And who did Trump go on to beat? Hillary Clinton of course—she of Libya and Iraq.

In the UK the same political forces that defeated David Cameron over Syria—backbench conservative MPs and right-wing tabloids—made his life hell during the Brexit debate, eventually retiring him. Even Tony Blair returned to the political scene in the context of Brexit and offered up sage commentary about the “migrant crisis” and its contribution to public feeling. Thanks Tony!

The whole story has a slightly uncanny feel to it. Figures like Cameron and Clinton did lots to bring about the political context that would eventually dispose them. The debate over intervention in Syria is particularly informative in hindsight as it immediately foreshadowed Donald Trump’s appeal and Brexit.

The politics of foreign policy over the last twenty years seem to have been coloured by a weird “triple game” wherein the Anglo political establishment created chaos “out there” in the world—with consequences increasingly encroaching on the “over here”—all the while offering themselves as the “moderate” response to that same instability.

Chris Bickerton on Technocracy

  • How do you define technocracy? It means different things to different people but the consensus core is “rule by experts.”
  • Plato is often cited, Plato rejected the distinction between polis/politics and what the ancient Greeks called oikos/household. Plato said that we can think about them in the same way because both are a matter of craft/skill. “Philosopher king” rulers have that capacity, combining expertise and power.
  • From the end of the 19th century into the 20th century “technocracy” is associated with modern technology, engineers, and technological developments. It’s a movement within modernization with engineers and technical know-how at the center.
  • Is technocracy opposed to democracy? The Platonic conception is opposed to democracy. In Plato’s formulation specialists should rule over others. Closer to the current day it’s more complicated.
  • Silicon Valley boosterism is a form of post-political technocracy but that’s not the main notion of technocracy at work today.
  • People tend not to go so far as saying it’s an alternative but rather a compliment to democracy with the aim to identify realms best staffed by experts.
  • It’s accepted that central banks are the domain of the experts, ie. a legitimate realm for the technocrat.
  • But who decides? In many cases it’s technocrats themselves, the state or outside experts.
  • At one time pre-2008 there was consensus in economics on models for policy makers. Economists were vested with independent technocratic power for this reason.
  • If there is consensus it becomes easy for politicians to say “let’s hand it over to the experts.” When there isn’t consensus the technocratic model breaks down.
  • If there isn’t a consensus view the technocratic model breaks down—even in terms of appointments—and the situation is back in the realm of political debate.
  • The more leftwing economics vision—Keynes and skepticism of the price system—lost out in the late 20th century and the outcome was consensus.
  • In the UK politicians have left decisions like quantitative easing to the Bank of England. Politicians are happy to foist responsibility onto the BoE where there is ambiguity about who should act.
  • Some politicians see themselves as technocrats.
  • The emphasis on “competence” and the “CV” demonstrate a technocratic element in UK politics.
  • Tony Blair said “my ideology is what works.”
  • The above is a technocratic statement because it’s an either/or frame that doesn’t acknowledge another view. The other more democratic position is that views represent different values. More recently the values view has given way to right or wrong and right or wrong turn in politics is dangerous.
  • The Micheal Gove statement “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” was against the notion that claims to expertise should be decisive.
  • Trump is a populist but a clear “what works” person. His supporters used a “plumbing” metaphor. Trump emphasizes “my business has been successful” etc.
  • There is a wonkish side to the technocratic view of politics as opposed a deal making or populist political strain in the current day but they are opposed to the same thing.
  • Both views oppose the sclerotic political class, excessive partisanship, interest groups, rent seeking etc.
  • If you accept that technocracy doesn’t want to replace democracy then it’s in a weak position vs. populism as populism has a democratic mandate.
  • There haven’t been many technocratic governments in Europe since WW2.
  • Macron is technocratic. In terms of what he says, his great emphasis on expertise, how he has brought state administration into his office and the fact that he came to power without much of a party structure. His party En Marche is new and top down. Macron is an “I get things done” or “what works” person. A “voice of people” who are tired of French politics.
  • Is technocracy straight-forwardly opposed to politics? Yes. Party politics is not premised on a right or wrong answer. There is an in-built relativism with party politics.
  • The sense of right and wrong is really important to the technocratic view.
  • Is the current Chinese political system basically technocratic? There is no democratic political competition and party rule rests on a claim of “what works” ie. market economy and prosperity.
  • The problem when legitimacy rests on “what works” is what happens when it stops working? In a democracy if something doesn’t work the system isn’t challenged you just vote the party out.
  • Who are the technocrats in Britain today? The UK is a front runner in terms of the “regulatory state” ie. investing power in independent institutions. The element of technocracy in British politics is shown in the competence/CV view.
  • The British state as a whole over the last 30 years has increasingly oriented to institutions run by experts. This trend is very powerful and present in UK politics and undermines what people think parliament can do. That said, increasingly people are questioning this tendency.

France vs. England in the 14th Century (the Estates vs. Parliament)

Quoted from The Age of Adversity by Robert E. Lerner

“There are many reasons why the history of the Estates is so strikingly different from that of Parliament. The fact that the Estates were normally called only in major crises made them appear more revolutionary than constitutional and thus alienated the large majority of their potential supporters. Furthermore, the French were more deeply divided than the English not only by class but also by local loyalties. Both the use of free farmers, or yeomen, in the army and the fact that the lesser nobles or knights sat as county representatives alongside the burgesses in the House of Commons are cited as examples of social integration in England that could not be matched in France. There the peasants were rigorously excluded from any but servile occupations and the townspeople were considered social inferiors and political rivals by the nobles. To this social prejudice must be added the fact that provincial loyalties were often stronger than those to the monarchy and that the interests of the northern and southern halves of the country were frequently quite disparate. As a result, the establishment of a unified constitutional opposition was extremely difficult; and the very failure of the Estates, at least by contrast, served to enhance the prestige of the crown.”

Byung-Chul Han on mind/body optimization and psychopolitics

“But neoliberalism, a further development -indeed, a mutated form- of capitalism, is not primarily concerned with ‘the biological, the somatic, the corporal’. It has discovered the psyche as a productive force. This psychic turn -that is, the turn to psychopolitics– also connects with the mode of operation of contemporary capitalism. Now, immaterial and non-physical forms of production are what determine the course of capitalism. What gets produced are not material objects, but immaterial ones -for instance, information and programs. The body no longer represents a central force of production, as it formerly did in biopolitical, disciplinary society. Now, productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes. Physical discipline has given way to mental optimization. And neuro-enhancement differs from the disciplinary techniques of psychiatry fundamentally.

Today, the body is being released from the immediate process of production and turning into the object of optimization, whether along aesthetic lines or in terms of health technology. Accordingly, orthopaedic intervention is yielding to aesthetic intervention. Foucault’s ‘docile body’ has no place in this production process. Cosmetic surgery and fitness studios are taking the place of disciplinary orthopaedics. That said, physical optimization means more than aesthetic practice alone: sexiness and fitness represent new economic resources to be increased, marketed and exploited.”

Bonus: Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism

“Foucault painstakingly enumerated the way in which discipline was installed through the imposition of rigid body postures. During lessons at our college, however, students will be found slumped on desk, talking almost constantly, snacking incessantly (or even, on occasions, eating full meals). The old disciplinary segmentation of time is breaking down. The carceral regime of discipline is being eroded by the technologies of control, with their systems of perpetual consumption and continuous development.”

Arron Banks’ Leave.eu Brexit social media campaign

Arron Banks is one of the biggest political donors in British history. He funded and ran Leave.eu, the insurgent right-wing Brexit campaign. Here he is talking about that organizations successful use of social media:

“Within our office we had an office setup that was for Leave.eu. It was a call center and we were getting a tremendous number of phone calls from our.. obviously the website, from Twitter, from Facebook and from the whole thing and as part of that what we had was a creative department that basically created Facebook tiles and Twitter.. and one of the reasons we were so successful as you can appreciate in politics, we were able to create some of the stuff that was in real time and was topical, quicker than anybody else. So effectively what we would do was take something that was being talked about and turn it into relevant material and I think that’s much more relevant to how you get traction on social media. You know we have one video that had fourteen million views. If I look through the campaign statistics, we had more traction than Labour, Conservative, Liberal social media put together”

Western Politics Explained Through Hair

closeup photo of woman on blue textile
(From May 2017)

Boris Johnson, Rob Ford, Doug Ford, Marine Le Pen, Marion Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Tomi Lahren.

What do all these figures have in common? They all have blond hair. It’s a matter of “blonde populism.”

From an elite snob perspective, blonde hair is lower class, especially the “bleach blonde” look sported by many on the above list. Blonde populism is an aesthetics of resentment and the underdog.

Kellie Leitch is the most Trump-like candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She likes to talk about her “severely normal” supporters, and guess what? She’s blonde now and wasn’t before.

On “the other side” we’re witnessing the rise of “he’s got great hair though” politics. Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron both have nice heads of brunette hair. It’s Betty and Veronica.

There’s more to it than just hair though, Macron and Trudeau are classically attractive, quite unlike the men in the first group. They’re also very young to have reached the heights they have in politics, and supremely adept socially.

My aim is not to compliment Macron and Trudeau, I’m not their biggest fan. But they make sense as an answer to the first group at the aesthetic and personal level.

And finally, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It’s barely a spectrum of hair, going from “salt and pepper” to full “silver ponytail” very quickly. At a certain level, who cares? At another level, the left could use some younger leaders.