Political allegiance in the West has an taken on an aspect of religious devotion and fervor. Perhaps because religion no longer occupies the same space within our society, we have simply replaced that “god shaped hole” in our hearts with the nearest available ideology? To be sure, there is a messianic tendency at play. I’ve fallen into it myself, believing if I just converted the right people the world could be saved, or at least stopped from getting much worse. We have, after all, been told all our lives that we, the people, are the government – or at the very least determine its decisions. Strange then that the government seems to do very little that we actually want, and a great many things we emphatically do not want.
All societies have systems of governance: methods of resolving disputes between members, adjudicating the use of common resources, and representing that society to the outside world. All of these functions are predicated on the boundary between “us” and “not us”. The political theorist Carl Schmidt laid out that the fundamental function of politics was the distinction between friend and enemy, including various degrees of neutrality or uncertainty. This may seem harsh or overly militaristic to some, but if you consider it you will discover that no government decree can be meaningful without weighing on this distinction. Hence the apocryphal quote attributed to George Washington, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” This shocks many middle class Americans because there are layers and layers of bureaucracy between their many transgressions and the application of force: notices, fines, extensions, court dates, etc… etc… At the end of that process however there is always the threat of force or, to put it another way, the possibility of sliding over the line from friend to foe, from “us” to “not us”.
Yet in our real lives the distinction between “us” and “not us” is not political but rather personal. Our family, our friends, our town, our work – these are our things. It is on the quality of these things that our well-being depends. It is within the system of these things that we are judged and remembered. What dispute does the average American have with the average Chinese that requires the intervention of a massive bureaucratic apparatus? What common resources (other than Federally created ones) exist to be fought over between California and Florida? Political discussions and symbols, especially in this age of the sound-byte, the re-post, the 128 character limit, take on the role of substitute tribal markers, but without physical substance. They are purely symbols of conceptual, rather than actual, allegiance. As such they may weigh on philosophy, but have very little to do with real politics – that is, the distinction between friend and foe, unless we let them.
This is one of the great side-effects of our bureaucratic age: that conceptual politics effaces the natural allegiances and friendships between men. First political power is removed from its natural scope. No longer are disputes handled within the organic community in which they arise, on the smallest reasonable level. Next political power is vested in agents entirely removed from the consequences of their decisions. A rotating cast of elected charismatics and disinterested pencil-pushers takes over functions that were once aristocratic and honor based. This massive political apparatus, Nietzsche’s “coldest of cold monsters”, fails utterly to provide on a human scale that which politics must by definition provide – the ability to adjudicate friend and foe in complex and uncertain situations. As a result, the political process wells up in other spheres, out of its natural bounds, and ruins everything. Activism becomes our final refuge. The demand of the perpetual infant replaces measured discourse, because discourse absent from power fails to satisfy the political need. In truth, what is activism other than making enemies by choice, and seeking friends through conceptual alliance?
The solution is to put things back into their proper place. Conceptual struggles must be grounded in philosophy, not politics. Politics is influenced by and dependent upon philosophy, not the other way around. Politics qua politics should be engaged in on the local level, if at all, and intrusions from distant bureaucrats treated with all the contempt and loathing reserved for a foreign occupier, for that is what they actually are – foreigners, strangers, not us, the enemy. For us, and our kind, if we are inclined to the political we should seek it out where it matters. Before we make common cause with strangers on some televised stage, can we make it with the people in our actual lives?