A blog-letter to Chris Billows of The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. This letter contains discussion of death statistics which some people may find distressing.
Fascists! Fascists everywhere! They're after your jobs, they're after your homes, they're after your unborn children! They want to take away your rights, they want to take away your healthcare, they want to take away your very lives! Oh the terrible things they do, these fascists, and the worse things they want to do - we must rise up and force the State to come crashing down with all the power of the law and its enforcers so that the fascists can be quelled and dispelled. In short, we must become fascists or else the fascists will win!
Many thanks for your blog-letter, Too Comfortable to Consider Politics, which puts me back in dialogue with a rather old version of myself, 2006's younger model, who was still willing to write about Temperament Theory. Why did I stop...? It wasn't that I thought this model had lost its heuristic value, it is still a great tool for the kind of cartoon thought experiments that go on in Considering Politics, and I certainly don't consider Big 5 to have solved any of the methodological flaws that bedevil these kinds of personality inventories. But I came to realise that mainstream psychologists were very defensive of their territory - despite not really having worked out what that territory was, or what a 'mainstream' version of psychology might actually look like. I thought it best to pick other battles.
I began to write more and more about philosophy, because it satisfied my desire for more complex and subtle ways of thinking, and while I did not stop reading and writing about psychological issues, I did so mainly from the perspective of Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance and Paul Ekman's emotion theories going forward. These were the most secure islands in the stormy seas of psychology, and terribly helpful for understanding how and why we play games too. But I still have conversations in terms of Temperament Theory with others who share the terminology, just as I can still talk about God with a Christian or a Hindu, or riff on materialist themes with a positivist... what we say often needs to reflect who we are speaking with. 2006-me did not need to consider this; he just wrote what he was thinking about. In the interim I have become more focused upon why I am writing, and that changes what I write about too.
I believe you are broadly correct in your analysis of the role of comfort in Western Liberal Democracy, which ever since hearing eclectic French musician's Rubin Steiner's album Say Hello to the Dawn of Paradox, I have begun (in a somewhat impish fashion) to think of as 'Industrial Liberal Fascism'. But this 'F' word is one we cannot safely use to communicate, alas, because it inconveniently means different things to different people. Originally, of course, 'Fascist' was a specific political party in Italy, and the name descends from the Italian word 'fascio', meaning just 'group'. As a crude approximation, we might take Mussolini's doctrine for national government as consisting of three key elements:
- A dictatorship…
- …where violently repressive means…
- …enforce an inescapable role for the state
Depending who you talk to, you’ll hear Fascism talked about as a right-wing, ultranationalist movement, or you’ll hear how liberal political advocates in the 1920s secured the rise to power of Mussolini’s fascists (both correct, by the way). Liberals in the US identify ‘fascism’ with (1) and (2) in the definition above, and conservatives with (2) and (3), by substituting ‘ideologically repressive’ for ‘violently repressive’ or by associating ‘violence’ with different acts (abortion, for instance). As a result, ‘fascist’ is an insult that can be used against left or right with equipoise, with the inevitable result that the everyone in the US can become hysterical about the rise of fascism in their nation without ever once noticing their own complicity in bringing this about.
Your allegation is that political disenfranchisement occurs because people get too comfortable, and engaging in politics is "a form of social warfare" that therefore only happens because people are forced out of their comfort zone by the loss of welfare (both in the sense of well-being, and in the sense of government programmes for supporting citizens). But this analysis, while broadly correct, perhaps misses two subtle distinctions about 'comfort' and 'politics' that I should like to tease out in reply.
Let us start with 'comfort'. We are an imaginative species - indeed, the most imaginative species we know. It gives us almost everything worthwhile in human life, but it also inevitably causes enormous problems because we can imaginatively project ourselves into other situations that we do not understand without ever once noticing our lack of understanding. Thus, for instance, the rush to provide computers to so-called 'Third World' countries. These computers have caused tremendous problems for us, but we don't like to think about that, and we prefer to see them as a source of comfort, which of course they are as well. Therefore, anyone without those computers has missed out. We ought to send those poor people abroad computers. Or, to put it another way, having reorganised these geographic regions into vassal states of our seafaring empires and gearing their economies solely for exporting resources to the 'First World' we now want to sell them 'First World' technology and increase the power and influence of profit-centred organisations like Google and Apple that it is far from obvious can be trusted at home, let alone further afield.
Similarly, I am at a loss to understand why advocates for the Trans community in the US felt it necessary to try and wield influence in British politics. My trans friends in the UK were not, in fact, crying out for this 'assistance' (although I have no trans friends under the age of 30, so perhaps younger people were?). But as a result of this attempted political intervention, the trans community has lost a great deal of support on this side of the Atlantic, and in the past five years violence against trans people has skyrocketed (in the most extreme assessment, quadrupling in that period). Not to mention the verbal abuse that US trans advocates have piled upon British lesbians and their allies (and vice versa!)... a "form of social warfare" indeed. And a heartbreaking one; as a long-time supporter of the wonderfully eclectic rag-tag alliance that flies a rainbow as its flag, it has been devastating to watch the trans and lesbian communities go to political war against each other, bringing to a savage end a co-operation that may well have been the last gasp of the civil rights movements.
Yet this depressing turn of affairs has been dwarfed by the even more bleak and dispiriting events of 2020, when the worst respiratory infection pandemic in some fifty years or so was rendered far, far more destructive and damaging by the descent of the medical discourses into a state of pseudoscience. Thus, in strict contradistinction to the urging of both epidemiologists and the WHO, the UK government let loose its duplicitous war cry of "follow the science!" before initiating a string of draconian national lockdowns that have sacrificed an entire generation's mental health and prospects, and unleashed hardship disproportionately upon our poorer citizens - all against an infection that was arguably already endemic, and all without adequate scientific monitoring to determine the terrible effects of this brutal quasi-fascist experiment. And what do you know, the point of origin of the disruption of the very research networks that could have helped us make good decisions when they were desperately needed was once again the United States, where the political left and the political right argued between a conception of the pandemic that was wildly over-exaggerated and one that was utterly dismissive, with the net result that many people who would not have died last year did in fact do so, including those middle aged people with heart disease or diabetes who died at home rather than risk going to hospital and catching an infection that was quite unlikely to have killed them.
The tragedy of SARS-CoV2 is not just what it has caused in each country, although this is devastatingly sad, but also what it has prevented happening between countries. While we do not yet have the WHO's estimated global mortality statistics for 2020, we have already had a warning from Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, about what the disruption of the support networks for malaria treatments in Africa last year will ultimately mean - namely between 10,000 and 100,000 additional deaths on top of the 400,000 that die from this disease every year, the vast majority of them babies and toddlers. I fear we will completely ignore these casualties, brushed under the carpet as merely another unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 situation. Yet we might just as well link these heart-breaking deaths to a lack of support from their former colonial oppressors, who were too busy arguing about face masks to prove to the world, rather than to their neighbours, that black lives really do matter.
Make no mistake, this entire debacle represents the greatest collective failure of world citizens and their governments since World War II - which, to be fair, was several orders of magnitude more tragic as a global event. It is also the greatest failure of the scientific community in my lifetime, and I cannot escape the feeling that those two points are directly connected to one another. And just as in the case of US trans advocates inadvertently making the situation worse for trans people in the UK by trying to help them, the additional catastrophe that was the response to COVID-19 - the myriad harms of which will take years to fully understand - seems once again to have been caused at root by the political dysfunction of the United States, where hatred of fascism has led to a worsening of those disparate conditions claimed by either side as fascism.
I have acceded to your point about 'comfort' lessening political engagement, but my counterpoint is that comfort is a product of our imagined circumstances, not our actual circumstances. The very place where comfort was most readily available in terms of shelter, food, and entertainment was also the place where tremendous political capital was expended in the urgent battle against the double-headed coin of duofascism, which paints all our political 'enemies' as fascists while ignoring the resulting fascist tendencies in our own political demands. Thus it is fear, as it so often has been throughout history, rather than loss of comfort per se, that has been driving political crusades in the United States that have had devastating effects elsewhere in the world, whether we are talking in terms of the hatred cruelly directed at trans people, the British government's descent into quasi-fascism powered by the collapse of scientific discourse, or the soul-numbing losses of hundreds of thousands of black children whose lives, it seems, did not really matter after all.
If I leave our discussion there, it would be to fail to learn anything from the disaster of a year that was 2020, and that I could not bear. So let us turn to the other subtle point I want to discuss, that in connection to 'politics'. When you describe politics as "a form of social warfare", you are describing what currently happens under this name. Duofascism - the fascist tendencies of both antifascists and their rivals - lies behind this grotesque alternative to democracy we are currently pursuing in those parts of the world fortunate enough not to have far worse, far more oppressive, far more convincingly fascist regimes in charge. It is what I have called 'politics as war', where the purpose of political action is to defeat your enemies. And this is one of the worst conceptions of politics we could fall for, since there is almost no point at all in having democracy if you are not going to use it to negotiate a good life for everyone in our political community, which requires us to understand their visions for what a good life might be.
Democracy presumes a common political identity, a demos, as the Ancient Greeks put it. I think they had an easier job because, in the first place, these original democratic communities were only cities and therefore orders of magnitude smaller political bodies than those we wrestle with today, and in the second place, they didn't in fact offer political voice to everyone but solely to their elites. On this latter point, we are fast heading the same way, if we did not in fact already arrive there quite a while ago. When there is an authentic political community, when we belong to a demos, we can talk to one another about our needs, wants, and fears, and we can disagree productively and hence negotiate how we can each make ourselves a good life without demanding of others that which causes intolerable harm to their hopes of making a good life for themselves.
Duofascism, if we set aside the histrionic denunciation of those other fascists that are nothing like us, rests on the demand that the State must do certain things our way regardless of the harms this causes to our fellow citizens. As such, it is anti-democratic because it prevents any possibility of forming a demos. But oh, the things the United States has been able to achieve whenever it can form a united political community! Let us never forget that it was citizens of the United States like Eleanor Roosevelt that were the driving force behind the original human rights agreements during that hopeful time after the second World War when, as Michael Moorcock reports of Britain after the wars, everyone seemed to be working together to build a better life for all. Just because that didn't last is no reason for us not to try again.
These are dark times, and not just because of this particularly nasty respiratory virus and the terror that scurrilous journalists have stoked about it. But the sole thing we need to get beyond the democratic impasse is a laying down of hostilities and a re-opening of the possibility of forming political communities together. We lose sight of this all too often because 'politics as war' is what we have become accustomed to, and so we are willing to become fascists to stop fascism. But it is not the only way, and it is not a good way, nor will any good come from continuing to pursue a politics based solely upon hatred of the other side to our disturbingly mirrored political coin.
Let us try something new, or rather, something old that we can make anew. Let us give democracy a try instead.
With unlimited love,
Only a Game will return later this year.