Politics is a game. The first step is to get you to pick a symbol of what you want as a replacement for the reality of dealing with needs.
It’s like a talisman: when demons appear, wave this at it. That’s how most people use politics.
Even good-intentions, like “be fair” (left) and “natural selection” (right) rapidly get twisted: instead of addressing the problem, we start trying to con each other into supporting the symbol.
That’s how you get things done in a civilization. You produce a meme, convince many people to like it, and then you have millions of people rushing at the problem demanding the symbol of your solution.
But this itself fails, because the symbol erodes, and as postmodernists tell us, we then see that beneath the symbol and fancy mathematics of justification, there are the same old motivations: power, status, security.
Most important is power. We like to feel like we control our world, because deep inside we know we do not. It’s tempting to, instead of trying to adapt to the world, try to dominate it — by controlling the symbols of what we fear.
You, dear reader, have probably noticed that in history, political movements tend to “cross over” and become the opposite of what they claim they intend. This is because the process of politics takes over from the stated intent, which may have all along been a justification for having power.
Political movements are founded around memes that sound good to large numbers of people. If I start my political party, named The Free Beer Party, and tell the people that they’ll get free beers for voting for me, many of them will then support me. I then have power.
With that support, I can achieve free beer, but then since I have the power, I’m free to do anything else. Like further advance my power, since there’s nothing else to do at that point.
Famous historical example:
The Jacobin Club was the largest and most powerful political club of the French Revolution. It originated as the Club Benthorn, formed at Versailles as a group of Breton deputies to the Estates General of 1789. At the height of its influence, there were thousands of chapters throughout France, with a membership estimated at 420,000. After the fall of Robespierre the club was closed.
Initially moderate, after the death of Mirabeau the club became notorious for its implementation of the Reign of Terror and for tacitly condoning the September Massacres.
Things weren’t going so well in France. Poorer people were often starving; aristocrats seemed to be doing well, and they seemed to own everything. So the people decided to band together around a meme: Liberty, Equality and Brotherly Love.
Sounds great. Sign me up, said millions of French people. They overthrew their leaders. What now?
First, we redistribute the wealth. Immediate problem solved. But then, other problems show up. Mainly that people when told they can do whatever they want, tend to do selfish things to increase their own power. The power structure fragmented from a hierarchy into a kind of anarchy.
Seeing how that would be dysfunctional, the revolutionaries including Robespierre began purging ideological enemies. First, they killed the rest of the aristocrats they could find. That made the crowd happy: we hate these people, they said, because they caused our problems.
But problems remained!
The revolutionaries kept the purges coming. Soon they were killing each other. Robespierre, nicknamed “The Incorruptible” for his strict adherence to the ideals of the revolution, ended up being a tyrant who slaughtered his fellow revolutionaries.
He did this for two reasons: first, the public reason, which was that they were enemies of the revolution. Second, the private reason, which is that they were growing too powerful and fragmenting government.
The revolutionaries had learned that government itself demanded a hierarchy of power, and over the next decades, they replicated the power structure of the aristocrats. A left-leaning movement had become de facto right-leaning, albeit after a bloodbath of many of France’s most talented people.
From that point on, France was in a slow and steady decline from being one of the cultural and military capitals of the world to being a mostly irrelevant place. Military power gave one last gasp over the next century, and then pretty much faded, in the process helping start two disastrous world wars. Culture became fashion. And now who looks to France?
They created politics based on what they wanted as individuals, and did not pay attention to how the world around them works. For example, if you make a nation, it’s going to need some kind of centralized power, or it fragments into competing factions.
It’s easy to make the mistake they did. Were it not for the fortune of having wise historians and philosophers to read, I might have made the same mistake. These aristocrats/Wall Street/religious leaders are oppressing us — let’s kill them all and start over. But then we become what we hated.
Here’s a modern example:
But “Wetlands” is more than just a complaint against the sexual double standards of contemporary life. It points to an odd paradox: For all the hedonism of an apparently liberated culture in which women can drink and screw with the best of them (think “Sex and the City”), the language we use to describe this behavior and these unleashed desires is profoundly outdated or, more often, simply absent.
Roche creates a world — a “Wetlands” indeed — in which there are new words to describe the weirdness of the female body and the ambivalence of sexual encounters. It’s a damp and claustrophobic universe, but one that reminds us of how far we have to go to overcome deep-seated embarrassments about basic biological facts.
“I wrote it so that it would be a bit horny at some points, because I wanted it to be a realistic, honest book about the body. But it also has to have all the taboos in that we think are disgusting. Human, liquid, disgusting stuff…There are things in the book that are my lifetime problems, like going to the toilet in public lavatories. As soon as someone would walk in, I would stop because I feel so embarrassed. It’s all about being a woman and not being about to shit.”
My mother tried to raise me in a very liberated way. I was allowed to have sex at a very early age. I was allowed to bring boys over to the house because she didn’t want me fucking around in the woods. She’s a very strong, political feminist, and she raised me in a very feminist way, teaching me that as a girl, I can do everything a boy can do, there’s no problem.
But still, the sexual stuff … she never managed to teach me that masturbation is a good thing. Although my mother was liberated, I still feel that if I have dirty knickers [underpants], I have to hide them from my husband.
“For me, it’s the same. I keep thinking I have to stop eating this, and stop drinking beer. It’s unhealthy thinking. If I’m being really honest, on the one hand I want women to be liberated, but on the other, I have terrible problems. I think I’m too fat, although I’m probably too thin. It’s really difficult, for example, to live in a society like this with small tits.
I don’t even believe my husband when he says he likes the way I look. He has to tell me 10 times a day and I still don’t believe him. I think he wants to fuck a blond, big-titted lady. You run around and you have complexes about everything. It’s so difficult to keep it out of your head…The problem with political ideas like feminism is that you are not allowed sometimes to say the truth.
In Germany we have lots of older, very famous feminists. And it is not allowed for me as a young feminist to say that women are masochistic. I am and all my female friends are. We stand in front of the mirror, we are naked, and we feel ugly as fuck. We see everything as wrong. We try and fight our body to become prettier and work on it. It’s not at all free and self-confident.”
Here’s a more complex example. If we argue from the individual, of course we all want equality and total acceptance and immortality, if we can get it. We want to be able to do whatever we want whenever we want and everyone else needs to screw off. That’s absolute power — like being dictators of our own lives. We would have total control.
Of course, that doesn’t make sense because we’re connected to the world in both visible and invisible ways. Visible: We need nutrition, cleansing, medicine and so one. Invisible: we need to plan for the future, including our mortality, and many of our neat ideas have unintended consequences as they interact with parts of reality we weren’t considering when we thought of them.
For example, the female body, a “thing-in-itself” that should stand free in any context. Do we want it to poop, or not? Well, it’s going to poop, so we want to accept that pooping. Do we want to enforce the thing-in-itself of the female body on the whole, or recognize the female body as dependent on its context, and so enforce the context on the female body?
The first sounds really good; the second may be more practical, because it includes all of the factors that influence the female body and not just the female body itself. (Modern people have an obsession of the thing-in-itself. They may have confused it for a pure expression of Platonic forms.)
When we look at imposing the whole on the object (thing in itself) and not vice-versa, we see the wisdom of an alternate approach: instead of trying to make everything the female body does a topic of conversation, we create a hierarchy — an order both vertical and horizontal — that separates functions into contexts. Maybe what happens in the bathroom or laundry hamper needs to be private in most cases, and discussed only among those who share the need to talk about it.
Taking this argument to extremes, we either construct a society with a video camera in each bathroom to force us to accept each other’s bodily functions, or a society that confines bodily functions to a context: bathroom, medical and nutritional.
It’s not as equal, but it does make for a better embrace of reality as a whole. After all, we don’t want the tail wagging the dog; we don’t want, from fear of bodily functions, to make every situation become partially focused on bodily functions.
This would be easier if it were not for the real human immaturity, which is playing gross status games. We can accept that some are taller than others; we hate the fact that some are smarter. Because we can’t work our way around inherent differences like taller or smarter, instead we invent a social channel in which we can be “more important” even if we’re not taller or smarter. Enter the memeticians like authors, artists, politicians, marketers.
In the world of status, everything you do is compared to see how you rank — except those innate tendencies. So you can’t just take a huge stinking dump and say, “Oh well, I’m a smart person who is good to her friends”; instead, you’re going to be mocked for your dump, or judged on its measly size or stench compared to that of others. It can go either way: if we approve public female dumps, females will soon compete on girth and density and corn distribution. Count on it.
When we talk about embracing reality, this means that instead of thinking about the individual, we think in terms of structures and designs. What are the mechanisms used to achieve this result? What kind of infrastructure must be made? These questions are more direct than determining an individual demand, and then insisting others make it happen, using “equality” as our justification — but not our reason, which in our private reality is that we want more power.
The wrong way to achieve acceptance is to demand that reality accept all of the human form at all times. In the same way, the wrong way to achieve equality is to destroy hierarchy. Our greatest errors occur when we are unable to see the whole, and by focusing too intently on the thing-in-itself or ourselves, we enforce an unstable paradigm.
Enforcing that unstable paradigm is how political movements switch from one side to the other. What happens is simple: as they gain power, their private reality conflicts with their public reality, and to reconcile the two they must invent monsters to fight and in doing so, converge on the oldest human failing: a need to control through the self what is the property of the world at large.