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 outcome 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 come to understand since then that the disorientation that everybody felt that day was, in fact, a symptom of a wide-spread and truly 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.
Trump must be a puzzle to our political realists. He certainly shares their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics.
But he is also not much interested in the actual political realities. He sticks to a simple picture of what the world is like, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic.
We are living today in an age of surveillance which is still expanding its reach. For all that we are still not paying enough attention to this development and its implications for human life.
Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.
We can distinguish three styles of political philosophy: abstract normative theorizing, political realism, and diagnostic practice. In this lecture I argue that diagnostic practice should be fundamental to political philosophy since it concerns the epistemological conditions of political thinking.
Globalization is out and nation states are in, if you believe the agitators. The reality is, however, quite different. The nation state was never a happy construct and technological change has undermined it once and for all. But what comes next? Justified anxieties about where we are going and what globalization will bring us have cast the idea of the nation state in a new, unexpectedly rosy light. It's, however, a false and deceptive light. Rana Dasgupta has written a terrific article in The Guardian explaining the demise of the nation state, why it is unlikely to come back, and what to do about it. Don't miss it.
Michael Shirrefs, an Australian researcher and journalist, and his wife came to visit me for an interview. We talked about politics, America, European unity and disunity, and finally the question whether we still have a concept of the common good.
The rise of Xi Jinping has made Hong Kong democrats increasingly nervous. But the main threat to their goal to make Hong Kong more democratic does not even come from the authorities in Beijing; it comes from their own home-grown capitalists. The case of Hong Kong raises broad questions about the state of global politics and the future of democracy.
Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk. He meant to say that philosophy, far from being avant-garde, is, in some ways, always behind its time. For first comes reality and only then, belatedly, comes our understanding of it. Our words and theories are always chasing after the facts.
We can distinguish three styles of political philosophy: (1) abstract normative theorizing, (2) political realism, (3) diagnostic practice.
My claim is that abstract normative theorizing is a dead end and that normative political considerations have to be based on an understanding of the political realities. Normative political thinking thus presupposes political realism. But how well do we actually understand the political realities? And what are the epistemic constraints on political philosophy? Political thinking as a diagnostic practice sets out to examine that question. It is evident that an understanding of the political realities presupposes diagnostic practice.
What is populism? The most serious mistake in trying to answer this question lies in the (usually unspoken) assumption that where we have a single word or term there must be a single corresponding concept and that the word will therefore refer to a singular definite phenomenon.
For those living in the United States the conditions of American politics will, for obvious reasons, be of some interest. But given the economic, political, and military power of the US it is not surprising to discover that American politics is scrutinized all over the world. When one looks at the International media one notices how much attention they pay to American affairs.
Does this mean that American politics also has a particular interest for political philosophy?
There are plenty of reasons why we should be interested in China. It is the world’s most populous country with more than a billion people and it presents thus (together with India) a singular challenge as to how a state of such magnitude can be governed.
Philosophers have written copiously about politics. There is, moreover, no sharp dividing line between “philosophical” writings on politics and other kinds of writing on this topic. So there is no end to what one might read under the heading of “political philosophy”. Here is a list of 15 significant texts, some classical and some modern, some short and some long, some famous and some not so famous, some highly readable and some very demanding. The selection is, of course, mine; others might add to it or subtract from it. I will add some comments on what makes these writings interesting and important.
Imperfect cognitive states are characteristic of social and political life. But these are not the cognitive states our epistemologists have in view. We need to consider, in particular, states of uncertainty and disorientation since those are now so prevalent in our politics.
Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso, London 2017
Poor Frankfurt School. Turn to the internet these days and you realize that the handful of German professors who go under that name are being held responsible for almost everything bad that has happened to society since … when? !990? 1970? 1945? Or even 1920? All these dates are being tossed around on those feverish websites. Neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism, sexual excess, postmodernism, political correctness, and all in all the entire “Western decline” are due to their nefarious doings.