I’ve been thinking some more about my discussion with Eve about secular teleology, which, I must admit, I was kind of making up as I went along. Not that I was fabricating the ideas, just that I hadn’t quite had to spell them out like that before. But now that I look back at it, one thing I probably glossed over too quickly was the issue of the teleology of groups. I made an analogy between individuals and communities that act in concert, like ant colonies, which seem to have a natural life course. But do human communities really act like ant colonies? More relevant to the question of religion and politics (which started this whole discussion), do political units act like them?
This also came back to my mind because of Russell’s post about civic religion. Again, that word comes up:
But Adam also touches on what I think to be the crucial issue. He observes that “plural sovereignty is grounded on a telos,” and that if we want to make into subsidiarity something more than Michael Walzer’s (admirable from the communitarian point of view, but limited insofar as the Christian one goes) “spheres of justice,” then we must have a “more rigorous–and universal–underlying view of human purpose, human dignity, and the practices that secure them.” We must, in other worlds, be able to collectively conceive of an end for welfare, or else doing justice for the poor will be indistinguishable from endlessly providing them with one or another different egalitarian program. …
If your religion–or at least your concept of the moral norms of the civil order–lacks a notion of grace, it therefore also lacks a notion of gifts; all it can say is that some people are lucky, not that some people are blessed. And with that slips away the notion of a blessed–or, as Martin Luther King preferred, a “beloved”–community, one in which the members’ feeling for and service towards one another reflects something larger, adds up to something larger.
I’m not going to sign on to everything Russell says here, but I think he puts his finger on another issue that’s been worrying me lately: why I hate most political discussions. Sure, as anyone who’s read this blog knows, I like ruminating about politics in the abstract. I like reading about the politics of places long ago and far away. But living in Washington the last year and a half has forced me to confront the fact that I am totally uninterested in the day-to-day realities of American politics that makes such ruminations possible. I know that some of this stuff affects a lot of people, like health-care legislation, Iraq policy, and so on. Yet I have to kind of force myself to follow such things as an unpleasant duty. And since half the people I meet here are obsessed with these matters, that puts a real crimp in my social life.
It’s easy to blame this on the political culture itself — to much partisanship, bickering, grandstanding, etc. But I don’t think all that would bother me if I felt it were all heading somewhere I wanted to go. My own analogy of a community with an ant colony revealed something about what I think a healthy community looks like. Not that anti-individualist, I mean, but harmonious. If I may use a somewhat biblical metaphor, in a natural colonial organism the various members act like different parts of a body, working together as a whole.
The way that American politics are structured is almost the exact opposite. A multiparty system is a form of ritualized combat, which may accomplish a lot of things but that no one can really win. Indeed, if anyone shows signs of a final victory — one party running for office unopposed, for instance — people worry for the state of democracy. Only in a state of perpetual conflict can we know that we’re free.
This position assumes that a state can never really be an organic community — like an ant colony, or more to the point, a family — so if it appears to be unified, it is because one person or community is oppressing the others. So the best we can do is to minimize the damage of different communities living together, by containing their disputes within a nonviolent political structure. Sometimes, this can bring about agreements that benefit the majority of people. But it does seem to preclude the idea that America, or any nation-state, can find a lasting unity.
It seems to me, then, that political junkies in democracies tend to fall into two categories. Some, like Russell, hang onto a religious or otherwise eschatological view of the state, with democracy a way station to something greater. (Marxists also hold a version of this, to my understanding.) The other kind consists of people who just like the battle. These two groups aren’t really mutually exclusive, irrational though that may seem. Orwell, as I wrote earlier, was a sort of utopian but also had a clear attraction to the romance of hardship and struggle for its own sake. A lot of Washingtonians sound like him. I suppose it is almost necessary to think that way, to get really excited about democratic politics.
When I think about it, this sense of a constant, unwinnable struggle between groups pervades more of our society than politics. It’s also the defining feature of free-market economics. Although the way we frame the debate tends to lose this point, corporations are collective entities, which, even more than political parties, value a hivelike unity of purpose. After all, the very word corporation derives from the Latin corpus, “body.” And I have interviewed enough CEOs over the years to know that they are always trying to figure out how to build up team spirit in their employees. The only reason libertarians keep holding up corporations as icons of individualism and freedom is because of conditions externally imposed on them. Yes, your membership in a corporation is voluntary (more so than in a state or a family, at least), but just try saying to your boss, “You know, the great thing about this job is that I can leave.” As a customer, you may appreciate the competition that makes companies keep striving to serve you better. But it’s not like corporations really like competition. After all, every new competitor that comes along can potentially drive them out of business.
So corporations and political parties are both encouraged to strive towards a victory that the public is actually terrified of them ever getting. I certainly understand why this is the case, but it’s also sort of depressing. Whether a scientific materialist view of the world has any way out of this is not clear. On the one hand, there’s no evolutionary reason for human beings to be able to form strong groups larger than extended families. On the other hand, given the crowded state of the world, we may well be evolving that right now. Robert Wright recently came out with a book arguing that religion itself is a sort of evolutionary adaptation that allows us to break out of a strictly kin-based social system. I haven’t read it, but he’s not the first to propose the idea. Which makes the whole question of the proper relationship of religion to the state even more tangled.
And I suppose things brings up an important distinction I didn’t really make in the previous post: between a direction and a target. Our lives may follow a certain course mandated by our genes and other factors, but the endpoint is death. Likewise, polities seem to follow certain familiar courses but they don’t last forever either.
I don’t know that it’s really necessary to have an endpoint, to have a functioning politics. After all, the whole idea that history is going somewhere is essentially a Judeo-Christian one; other premodern societies adhered to cyclical views of time, or attempted to maintain a supposedly eternal order, and managed to form communities. But when you have a community that practically mandates constant fighting, you do start to wonder what it’s all for.