Into The Maelstrom: Understanding a Politics of Paradox

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K.J.O’Meara

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“The modern age is not the same as the modern world.  Scientifically, the modern age which began in the seventeenth century came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century; politically, the modern world, in which we live today, was born with the first atomic explosions”1

Hannah Arendt

The modern world in which we have found ourselves appears to be one characterised by antinomian shades of paradox. We have become a species of fewer technological limitations with every passing day, and yet the most basic of provisions needed for some to sustain life are seemingly unachievable. We are now a species who in 2019 engages with the universe as a cosmic being, expelling craft from the Earth’s atmosphere into the deep recesses of space to charter, explore and fill its void. We are capable of communicating with one another across oceans, rivers and mountain ranges in a series of microseconds with just one touch of a button. We have created vessels which defy gravity and collapse the journey across entire continents into a mere number of hours. Moreover, we have forged an entire spectre-like digital universe limited only by the imagination of the user, a universe I am using now to reach through glass and gizmos to converse with you, and together we have overturned so many past concrete, impassable barriers. 

Nevertheless, this beautiful world of sheer human potentiality is cursed with its character of paradox. Whilst we can investigate the universe beyond the Kuiper belt, or modify embryos to rid disease, in 2017 almost a quarter of the Earth’s population had no access to clean water2, fifteen-thousand children under five died every day3, and sixty-eight and a half million people were forcibly displaced 4. This is the paradox of the times we find ourselves in; we humans are capable of striving towards the grandest condition-altering feats, and yet this grandeur is mirrored only in the recognition of what we cannot, or refuse, to achieve. This is our modern world – where our faculties and technological capabilities can assist millions with one logic, or erase millions with another.

In the middle of this paradoxical mire, we as peoples, as states, groups, communities and individuals still engage in our most natural condition of plurality by virtue of being human. As the noted political theorist Hannah Arendt once argued, after all “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” and it is this condition of plurality that is the basis of all political life.5 Whilst the world we have created between us projects paradox, our politics remains an ever-changing nexus of ideas, norms and values intersecting our collective condition. Over the past century, our politics has both constructed and responded to the onset of mass-society and the socio-economic qualities of contemporary global capitalism. This has undoubtedly forged the character of the mass-politics we are witnesses to everyday – from the ascendance of a new right-wing populism in the Occident, to the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring, or the effect of globalisation on Latin America and Africa for instance.

In his essay entitled ‘Political Education’, the conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott contended that politics is not an endeavor of smooth sailing, simple means and determined ends. Rather as Oakeshott puts it:

 “In political activity, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile situation”.6

With his conservative emphasis on the necessity of following tradition to avoid the cataclysm of capsize, I am inclined to agree with Oakeshott’s central assertion. The sea that is ‘the political’ stretches to all horizons, and our destination is not pre-ordained. Thus, we must follow what we know; we must, as Oakeshott argues:

“Prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss”.7

In these times of utter paradox, perhaps the best course for us to sail is the path we know in the manner we know, the kind of politics we have engaged in for centuries.

This kind of politics I believe is best described by the jurist Carl Schmitt in his work ‘The Concept of The Political’. A divisive thinker to employ, the use of Carl Schmitt’s work is typically followed by the metaphorical clinking sound of coinage dropped into the ‘swear jar’ of politics departments across the globe. Known as ‘the crown jurist of the Third Reich’, a majority of Schmitt’s controversy comes from his judicial allegiance and association with Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Only under the broad umbrella of Conservatism as a historical tradition of thought are Oakeshott and Schmitt theoretically connected, and by their connection here, I only wish to briefly sketch out a notion of a ‘traditional’ politics. Nonetheless, Schmitt’s critique of Liberalism and his contribution to Political Theology should not go ignored, inspiring a number of works broadening our grasp of contemporary politics.8

Essentially, Schmitt argues that ‘The Political’ is a sphere independent of other spheres, such as religion, culture or economics. Although these spheres are themselves subterraneously linked, each holds a set of specific categories that make them independent of one another. ‘The Political’, he argues, is defined by its condition of enmity. By this, Schmitt means, and I shall quote: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy”.9 This characterisation essentially pins the political realm to a unique distinction between ‘us and them’, or rather, between those who share an interest (Friend) and those whose interests runs counter to this, posing a potential threat (Enemy, ‘Feind’ in the German).

In many ways, this lens reveals and makes sense of much about modern politics. To use a clear illustration, our ‘formal’ political assemblies tend to be divided by interests, crystallized as ‘Political Parties’ to permit the administrative and bureaucratic ease of running for governance 10; Whigs and Tories, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Democrats and Republicans, and so on. Equally, on the international level, the emerging multipolarity of the political structure lends itself to this perspective, with more than two ‘Great Powers’ competing for their states’ interests. To some degree, President Trump’s central slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ has today become a rallying cry to entrench the Schmittian view that ‘The Political’ is a condition of enmity, perhaps even vindicating or actualizing Schmitt’s ‘Realist’ perception of politics for our times.

Returning to Oakeshott however, the traditional manner that he proclaims we need to follow to stay afloat, I believe, lends itself to Schmitt’s conception of ‘The Political’. Chiefly, I see this as the case because of the manner in which our politics has historically travelled. If we are discussing the continuation of ‘tradition’ in order to remain buoyant in an ocean of paradoxical turbulence, Schmitt’s conception fits the bill as it were. In the last hundred years alone, the twentieth century can be defined by its moral collapses and political enmity which caused destruction and displacement worthy only of its mass-politics. The enmity between Liberals, Conservatives and Socialists, or that between Nations locked in a struggle for power and peace is testimony to this fact. It is safe to say that as far as ‘tradition’ goes, it both allowed us to sail through storms and yet in this very same vein forged typhoons. Nevertheless, one begs the question, if we are now sailing in strange and uncharted waters – how are we to act when what we know proves insufficient and only adds to the turbulence? 

I have the greatest of respect for Oakeshott as one of the, if not the, single most enlightening conservative thinkers one could have the pleasure of reading. However, the waters we are now travelling, although still ‘boundless and bottomless’, are unusual. These waters do not seem to follow the natural logics we have attributed to the vastness we have faced before – and to make matters worse, the compass has lost its magnetism and the stars have disappeared. The paradoxes we face and create on a daily basis are of such a magnitude that the overtly ‘traditional’ way of conducting political activity will only suspend our capacity to avoid foundering. As Nietzsche contends in his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, we live in an age whereby the necessary-illusions upon which we ground all knowledge must be accredited as fictions, but also that ‘untruth’ must be recognised as a condition of life for our actions to be wholly life-affirming.11 If, as ‘the madman’ exclaims, we have wiped the horizon away with a sponge and unchained the earth from its sun12, now is the time to engage in thought which is not fixed to a concrete foundation.

In unusual and alien waters of paradox and contradiction, with our ‘concrete’ reference points dissolving left, right and centre, lost to the deep, perhaps now it is imperative to think differently – to ‘think without banisters’, as Arendt once stated, and no longer rely on our ‘preconceived categories’ or railings for guiding political action. To quote Arendt one last time:

“In light of these reflections, our endeavoring to understand something which has ruined our categories of thought and our standards of judgement appears less frightening. Even though we have lost yardsticks by which to measure and rules under which to subsume the particular, a being whose essence is a beginning may have enough of origin within himself to understand without preconceived categories and to judge without the set of customary rules which is morality. If the essence of all, and in particular of political, action is to make a new beginning, then understanding becomes the other side of action, namely, that form of cognition, distinct from many others, by which acting men…eventually can come to terms with what irrevocably happened and be reconciled with what unavoidably exists”.13

With the loss of the grounds in which to act ‘traditionally’, we must now all become Magellans, Cooks, Vespuccis and Jack Sparrows, learning without foundations how to navigate waters laughing in the face of our past collective knowledge. We must now focus efforts to answering the most direly necessary political question we can ask ourselves: Judging the changed character of the political seas, how are we to act now?  In order to do this, we must understand the waters we sail. If not, I fear political action par excellence will only become more complex and infrequent, increasing the likelihood of capsize.

This is the Blog’s purpose – to aid my own understanding of the waters we are travelling together. We must remember that an odyssey like ours comes with its mysteries, marvels and monsters of all different kinds; the political can indeed flood into spheres beyond its previously thought boundaries. Thus, alongside posts focusing solely on works of Political Theory, other stimulus such as literature and film will be utilised to tap into the major themes of contemporary politics. So, in conclusion, to a new beginning – all ahead full into the maelstrom.

NOTES

1 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, second Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.6.

2 World Health Organisation (WHO) and The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2017) Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, p. 11;https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/han dle/10665/258617/9789241512893-eng.pdf;jsessionid=05912E339281987A54C786C63A2FA0A4?sequ ence=1  (Accessed 4th February  2019).

3 United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME) (2018) Levels and Trends in Child Mortality: Report 2018, New York: The United Nations Children’s Fund, p.6; http: //www.childmortality.org/files_v22/download/UN%20IGME%20Child%20Mortality%20Report%202018.pdf (Accessed 4th February 2019).

4 The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) (2018) ‘Refugee Statistics’, https://www.unrefugees.org/refuge e-facts/stat istics/ (Accessed 4th February 2019).

5 Hannah Arendt (1998) The Human Condition, 2nd Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.7.

6 Michael Oakeshott (1962) “Political Education”, in Rationalism in Politics: and other essays, London: Methuen & Co Ltd, pp. 111-136, p. 127.

7 Michael Oakeshott (1962) “On Being Conservative”, in Rationalism in Politics: and other essays, London: Methuen & Co Ltd, pp. 168-196, p. 169.

8 For more information see: Giorgio Agamben (2005) State of Exception, London: The University of Chicago Press; Chantal Mouffe (2005) The Return of the Political, London: Verso; Gabriella Slomp (2009) Carl Schmitt and the Politics of Hostility, Violence and Terror, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

9 Carl Schmitt (1996) The Concept of The Political, London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 26.

10 For more information on the topic of political parties, I cannot more highly recommend Giovanni Sartori (1976) Parties and Party Systems: Volume I – A Framework for Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

11 Friedrich Nietzsche (2003) Beyond Good and Evil, London: Penguin Books.

12 Friedrich Nietzsche (1974) The Gay Science, New York: Random House Inc, pp. 181-182, §125.

13 Hannah Arendt (1994) “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding)”, in Jerome Kohn (Ed.), Essays in Understanding 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, New York: Schocken Books, pp. 321-322.

Published by K.J.O'Meara

K.J.O'Meara (Ba, MLitt) is an independent British political theorist whose academic interests include: The English School of International Relations, Arendtian Political Thought, Political Hermeneutics, Biopolitics and Critical Film Theory.

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