It was the day after the election of Donald Trump when I first realized that we are living now in an empire of disorientation. That morning I faced 200 students who were so distraught that I had to cancel a scheduled examination. Some of my colleagues said soon afterwards that we needed to meet in order to console each other. The media and the commentators were profoundly puzzled that morning and in the days to come about the election and what it meant. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was at a loss for words, her supporters destroyed. Even Trump himself, we are told, was stunned by the unexpected turn of events. I have begun to understand since then that the disorientation that everybody felt that day was, in fact, a symptom of a more wide-spread and, in fact, pandemic condition. My initial picture of the United States as an empire of disorientation gave thus way to the recognition that the empire of disorientation is our new, global reality.
Disorientation is a virulent form of uncertainty. Uncertainty as such is a normal feature of life and an inescapable one in politics. Both in daily life and in politics we are regularly called upon to make decisions when we are uncertain about the circumstances about what we really want. When the circumstances are sufficiently narrowly circumscribed and the action considered sufficiently small, we may find it easy enough to decide. But as soon as we contemplate any larger course of action that presupposes extensive knowledge of the existing conditions and of the likely outcome of our actions and when the question why we mean to act and for what purpose is not clearly settled, we will be inclined to hesitate, dither, postpone the decision, or try to evade it altogether. Such situations are not unknown in politics. Forced finally to make a decision, we become painfully aware of the gap between our deliberations and the action we finally decide on. Sometimes we roll dice or toss a coin or look for an omen to help us along.
Political action responds to uncertainty. It seeks to alleviate and overcome our insecurities. But it also exploits them and generates new ones. Uncertainty is never removed from politics. In normal times such uncertainty remains manageable. But when it magnifies and multiplies coherent action becomes more and more difficult. It is then when we speak of disorientation. Political uncertainty arises from normal limits to our knowledge and from the normal conflict of our desires. But when it rises too far, it becomes toxic. The resulting disorientation manifests itself as a comprehensive failure of understanding where we are and what we want. We lack, in other words, not only information but also the words and concepts to think coherently. My claim is simply that we are moving today from a (normal) politics of uncertainty to an (abnormal) politics of disorientation and that on a global scale.
This book was initially motivated by the astonishing rise of Donald Trump into the political stratosphere. But it was never meant to focus exclusively on the 45th US President. My aims have always been broader, more analytic, more theoretical – certainly not journalistic, even less polemical, and not at all party-political. I turn to the figure of Donald Trump, instead, only as emblematic of a larger narrative which concerns the increasing instability of our institutional arrangements and the global crisis into which we are heading.
That Trump signals a state of growing political disorientation is clear from the difficulty we have in trying to understand him and what he stands for. His critics have called him a populist and even a fascist; but are these terms really explanatory or adequate? Trump identifies himself as a Republican and a conservative; but is this not just one of the changing veneers he has used in his lifetime? Our confusion is deepened by the fact that across the “democratic” West, old political affiliations are losing their hold. The ideological strands seem to have become entangled in new, unexpected ways. And so the familiar arrangement of political views on a scale from “Left” to “Right” has become less helpful. The new complexity of our global word makes it increasingly difficult to grasp what is going on and makes predicting the consequences of our actions more hazardous. The resulting uncertainties afflict everyone: ordinary citizens, but also the members of the political class and even, so it seems, the president of the United States. We find ourselves, in other words, in an empire of disorientation.
We must ask ourselves then how we can our way in this condition. It appears likely that we can expect only tentative and provisional answers and that they can be reached only in a number of steps. The first step will have to be a closer look at the normal uncertainty that affects all politics. Only then can we move on to consider the state of disorientation in which we now roam. It may turn out that our condition of disorientation is constitutive of a new political reality and not a mere obstacle to understanding it. In a third chapter, I turn to the question how we can describe Trump’s politics more adequately. I begin with the question whether we should think of him as a populist or, at least, as an advocate of some populist policies. It will quickly become apparent that the term “populism” is too imprecise to capture either Trump or his policies. “Populism” may, in fact, only be a rhetorical façade behind which another kind of politics is hidden. In the fourth chapter I will consider the more promising idea that we are witnessing the emergence of a plutocratic regime. The plutocratic turn in politics is certainly not limited to the United States and the accelerating concentration of wealth and political power across the globe suggests far-reaching changes in the way politics is conducted.
But to speak of plutocracy as the new political paradigm can’t be the end of the story. For the rule of the rich, though not universal, has been common in history. Over time plutocracy has, moreover, had many different embodiments. In order to understand what plutocracy could mean in the twenty-first century, we must raise the broader question of the material and the moral conditions under which this form of politics is now being re-invented.
Contemporary plutocracy is made possible by technological means that have brought about new forms of economic accumulation, new forms of communication, and an entirely new globalized system of human interaction. As a result, we are witnessing a re-arrangement of power relations across the globe. In order to understand this process, we will need to consider the peculiar dialectic of these relations, their weaving back and forth in processes of concentration and dispersion. Given these fluctuations we should not be surprised to discover a transformation and deformation occurring at every level of human society. Hannah Arendt has argued that we are by no means “naturally” political beings, that human politics is, rather, a historical and contingent arrangement, and that the conditions for its existence may disappear. She conceived of this possibility as taking the form of a rigidly administrative “post-political” state. It is also possible that our disorientation will lead to disorder and chaos, and the ultimate destruction of the entire human form of life. In either direction, technological change would appear to be a decisive factor.
The disappearance of politics in Arendt’s sense is not inevitable. But do we have the moral resources to prevent it? We need to remind ourselves here of Nietzsche’s observation that we are living increasingly under nihilistic conditions. Nihilism does not here mean the total collapse of values. Our nihilism manifests itself rather in their proliferation which as such makes those values arbitrary and evanescent. Our kind of nihilism consists, in other words, in a “desublimation” of values: in values losing their value. It is in this desublimated climate that plutocracy is now re-instituting itself with the help of technological means. Our twenty-first century variety of version of politics may thus turn out to be a nihilistic techno-plutocracy and as such the antecedent of a post-political future.
In order to flesh out these speculations we must begin with a closer look at the political ground. I start, therefore, with Donald Trump and then broaden my perspective to the overall political condition. It is essential then to distinguish from the start between the individual case of Trump’s presidency and the broader political transformations it signals. An exclusive focus on Trump and his idiosyncrasies may lead us to overlook that his election, though by no means predetermined, was also no fluke. It marks one significant place on a road that stretches both backwards and forwards; it signals an increasing destabilization of the political order; it indicates that we can no longer take the assumptions of the classical modern state for granted; and it points to an uncertain political future. There is a second reason why we must not limit our attention to the person of Donald Trump. We don’t know as yet how successful his presidency will be. If it is and how it is, will force us to rethink where we are politically. But Trump’s political edifice is also a ramshackle affair and may eventually collapse under its own weight. If that happens, our preoccupation with Trump may mislead us in another way, making us think that the old order is still with us, is stable and has been saved — when its disintegration may, in fact, be only taking another course. In thinking about where we are politically, we need to be aware of the forces of transformation that are at work and these are of global reach and not limited to Trump’s America. But this does not mean that dynamics of global politics is the same as America’s. Different parts of the world exemplify different stages of political development. And how these develop depends on local as well as on global conditions. We can be fairly sure that China will never become like the United States and the United States is not likely to turn into a replica of China and the destiny of Europe is bound to be different from both. We must therefore avoid speaking about global politics as if it were just an extension of the turbulences, tremors, and tragedies of Trump’s regime.
The model for my book is Ci Jiwei’s Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford University Press 1994) a work that has not yet received the attention that it deserves. The book undertakes a philosophical diagnosis of Chinese history from Mao’s revolution to the mid-nineties. It describes the historical course as a shift from utopianism to a hedonism that constitutes a nihilistic “desublimation of values.” My goal is to supplement Ci’s story with an account of the development of American and global politics in a direction that encompasses both an individualistic hedonism and an aggressive nationalism as another embodiment of the nihilistic “desublimation of values.” It may turn out that the development of China and that of Trump’s America and the rest of the global community resemble each other and can be considered parts of one story.
My line of thinking has its origins in two earlier books. The primary objective of Heidegger’s Crisis. Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany was to explore the political entanglement of Martin Heidegger and other German philosophers during the nineteen-thirties and forties. My discussion aime in this way at raising a series of interrelated questions: why is political philosophy such a treacherous subject? How are we to conceive the role of philosophy in politics? How is philosophy shaped by the political circumstances in which it operates and how does it respond to those circumstances? Are philosophers qualified to define ultimate standards and norms of political action, as they have sought to do for such a long time? Or is the function of philosophy more modestly to help us diagnose the political realities, to provide concepts for its understanding, and thereby to prepare the ground for practical choices? German philosophy in this period proceeded in the midst of a political crisis and this raised the further question how one should think about such crises and, in particular, about the German crisis of that moment. My concern was to show that, in spite of their political missteps, Heidegger and some of his fellow philosophers had come to a few enduring insights. They had understood that the crisis they faced had to do with the emergence of nihilism, as Nietzsche had identified it before them, and that this development was, in turn, related to the technological transformation of our human reality. And this story remains of interest because the crisis the German philosophers diagnosed is continuous with the one we face in the age of Trump. It is the continuation of this story that concerns me in this book.
This present work also takes off from Politics and the Search for the Common Good, a book in which I set out a critique of the normative thinking that dominates political philosophy till today. I sought to argue that it is an illusion to assume that we can determine the common good once and for all by means of abstract, philosophical reasoning. The common good has to be worked out, instead, In a political manner. We must therefore reject the claims of the normative thinkers as being an authoritarian appropriation of a political process. I called, instead, for a diagnostic form of political thinking in which philosophy sets out to contribute to an understanding of our political reality by providing analyses and concepts. In his theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx famously noted that the philosophers have so far only sought to understand reality, but that the real task is to change it. We may be allowed to ask how the philosophers are supposed to do this. The answer may be that they can do so only by helping us to interpret the situation in which find ourselves. Coming to think of it, we might even say that this is, in fact, also what Marx himself ultimately did.
Politics and the Search for the Common Good ends with reflections on the way that technology shapes and transforms our political practice; how power gets distributed and redistributed by means of technology; and how this leads over time to both concentrations and dispersions of power. And to this, the book adds as a concluding thought, that the way this happens is not full accessible to our understanding and that politics is therefore inherently a domain of uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that constitutes the starting point of the present work.