April 9, 2007
From Liberty Street

Politics, Thought and Practice

John Turner

The relationship of political thought to political theory continues to fascinate me so much that, now and then, I slog my way through the clotted prose of academic political theorists to see if I can gain any insights. Generally, I do, though their writing style fills me with such frustration I find myself in the midst of the reading vowing never to read them again.

Just last week, for example, I tried to digest Why Nietzsche Still? Reflections on Drama, Culture, and Politics, an anthology of academic articles edited by Alan D. Schrift. None of the pieces in this collection could be called bedtime reading, and some of them are impossibly arcane. Yet, after a period of berating their stylistic stupidity, I found that I came away with a few thoughts that help me better understand the current political situation in America.

Whenever you read about Nietzsche's influence on politics you have to take up the concept of resentment, or -- since the theorists almost always use the French form -- ressentiment. This is anger based on a real or supposed injustice inflicted on you by someone else, but an anger you don't usually discharge by getting back at the person who has done you wrong, but rather one you just sit around and grumble about. It is the central emotion of Nietzsche's famed slave morality.

If you look at American politics through the magnifying glass of ressentiment, the first things you see are professional grumblers like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Ann Coulter. They don't really do anything to try to discharge their anger. They just gather it up within themselves and nurse it so it becomes ever stronger. Then they spread it like fertilizer -- which is not the same as discharging it -- over a class of citizens who are themselves averse to genuine political action, but who like to sit around in bars and gripe about how the country is going to the dogs -- for "dogs" read racial minorities, and women, and homos, and fancified men who have never shot a squirrel, and so forth.

The truth of these folks is that they have to hold onto their anger in order to have any identity at all. If their resentments were addressed, and worked out in consultation with their fellow citizens, who would they be? Consequently, we shouldn't expect to see them go away, and those who are hoping for a politics of respect and amity are after something that's not in the cards. Bill O'Reilly doesn't want to work out anything with you. That's why he never permits a genuine conversation on his TV show.

What we can say about O'Reilly and domestic targets we can also say about George Bush and the rest of the world.  In Nietzschean politics, the idea of the "worthy enemy" figures prominently. It is only through struggle with a worthy enemy, says Nietzsche, that one can grow in strength and ingenuity. But, of course, the idea of a worthy enemy is inconceivable for Bush and those like him. The first thing Bush has to do when he decides that someone is to be opposed is to denounce him as evil. In Bush world, there is no such thing as struggling over opposing philosophies of life. Opponents don't actually have goals they support. They're just evil and driven by hatred of freedom, life, and so forth. This attitude, also, Nietzsche tells us is a feature of the slave morality.

The most telling feature of American politics illuminated by an author of Why Nietzsche Still? came in Dana Villa's piece about how Hannah Arendt appropriated features of Nietzsche's thought to construct her own structure of democratic virtue. Arendt is known chiefly for championing an autonomous political sphere, that is, an arena where people can debate the strengths and weaknesses of various political positions, not primarily to advance some personal or group advantage, but for the sake of clarifying the political situation of the whole society. Just to be informed of such a concept reminds us that we have nothing of that sort in America now. In politics, nobody wants to clarify anything. Rather, each actor works to obscure features of reality to gain advantage for his own projects. Nobody is working for the well-being of the whole. Nobody has even bothered to identify what the whole might be. And so, our politics consist only of squabbling. None of the major players has the detached judgment required for a genuine debate about political health. We are immersed in a politics of juveniles with no grown-ups present.

Theory, of course, can't directly straighten out political behavior. But people who are aware of theory can. No person is likely to be pure in that respect because we are all driven by personal fears and ambitions. Yet, to be in touch with theory offers us the possibility of stepping back now and then, and asking what wise people would do in this case? That's why wading through garbled language is sometimes worthwhile.


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