The End of All Politics

In The End of Racial Politics, I talked about how imagining racial harmony and racial equality today means shedding racial politics in all its forms – liberal, conservative, or other.  I’d like to extend that as far as it will go: Politics is dead. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie-based anti-Establishment movement was arguably more about leveraging lifestyle choices than political choices – “dropping out” of the Establishment culture of war, money, and machines, and testing new creative freedoms through sexuality, drugs, what to think, say, and wear, how to set up alternative living arrangements – but it was still able to use a liberal politics to advance things like racial and gender harmony and to open up things that had been closed. But sometime during the 1980s, “identity politics” reached critical mass in liberal academia, and the long slow death of politics as a tool of social liberation set in. We have now reached a point where politics on the left and right are equally about defining and defending your demographic turf and not about bringing people together. Whether Jon Stewart (whom I generally agree with) on the left or Rush Limbaugh (whom I don’t) on the right, it’s about proving how right you are and how wrong the other side is: us versus them. And the whole vocabulary of racial and gender politics, left and right, has taken on that us versus them mentality. Both sides have become expert at drawing lines in the sand, both now put an equal premium on stifling dissent, and both have long given up the mission of getting people to celebrate each other across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and political preferences. It’s suddenly a long way back to the revolutionary sentiment of 1969, captured by Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.”

Without politics, all we have is the human heart and human imagination. We need a movement outside the scope of the political spectrum that starts with those two capacities. We need to “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other. When you go out into the street today, forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Forget about how you’ve been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence. Start relating to each other, regardless of racial, gender, and other divides, with just the human heart and human imagination. Without politics, we might just rediscover the redemptive power of imagining ourselves into the other’s shoes. We might find that it was just those political superstructures, left and right, that each in their own way had us insisting upon differences that prevented us from doing so. Maybe the Age of Aquarius is still dawning. But we have to cast off the entire political spectrum like a snakeskin to get there.

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22 thoughts on “The End of All Politics

    • Hi Charlie. Yeah, Stewart and Limbaugh are both primarily entertainers, but both have had a large impact on the tone of political discussion today (which seems more and more limited to shaming “them” to bolster “us”). And I guess I could have left out the agree/disagree parenthetical — it’s not essential to my thesis — but I threw it in as a kind of “full disclosure” so the reader might better know who I am underneath the present argument. Thanks for chiming in. Gary

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  1. At least you still have left and right – our political parties seem to have turned into an amorphous mass sitting on the right-hand side of the road with a few lunatic extremes circling the edges. We’re currently in a situation where a left-winger is standing for leadership of the supposedly left-wing Labour party and the political world is self-combusting at the thought! Democracy? Tchah! I blame the suffragettes…

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  2. I completely agree with you about our current situation and wish, as you do, for a “shedding of the snakeskin” that is human politics. The problem arises, however, as history rudely holds our noses in it, that every shedding of this rotten skin brings the growth of a new skin. And the new skin begins to age and wither immediately, ad infinitum. For every revolution promising harmony and prosperity for all there are the short-sighted manifestations of human nature: desire, fear, delusion, working hard against those promises. This is the turd in the punch bowl deferring the Age of Aquarius.

    Wilkes Booth knew what Lincoln’s incompetent successors would do.

    Lenin knew what Stalin would do (and warned of it on his death bead).

    Mao knew what he would do with his revolution; he would turn it into a cult of personality.

    Enlightenment is achieved only one mind at a time and requires fertile soil (love, education, a relative freedom from want, etc.) to take hold at all. Sadly, most minds on this here planet are undernourished in the extreme and cannot move past our daily desires, fears and delusions.

    A snake must have its skin to be a snake. Human enlightenment and magnanimity seem to be options too expensive for most (in the current way of human living and governance). Politics cannot die until our species either dies out or transcends fear, desire and delusion. And, as the next generation is born into the world, let us not forget how vulnerable transcendence is to vandalism.

    Om mani padmi hum, brother.

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    • I agree with you that a snake must shed repeatedly, and so with human culture, but we should be careful not to conclude that all visionary effort is therefore futile. A snake that DOESN’T shed its skin gets into trouble too. In the case of human culture, we might envision different size paradigm shift (sheddings), from the generational to the millennial. When the millennial Age of Aquarius hits, I will be deified and you will be branded as “too tentative” per your comments here 🙂 . As far as how vulnerable transcendence is to vandalism, I think The Beatles’ “Revolution” and The Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again” spoke to that nicely in the heyday of the late 60s. Naïve idealism was both the strength of that movement (basically kids taking matters of how to live into their own hands without having enough “political sense” to know whom to hate) and a weakness (the vandalism of which you and The Beatles and The Who speak). I remain, yours in the bonds, Gary.

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  3. The tragic paradox at the heart of democracy is that it takes well-meaning, responsible and caring individual human beings, and coalesces them into mobs moving under banners, shouting slogans.

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  4. I love the analogy to Nietzsche’s death of god. Politics has become the filler for that “god shaped hole” for those who need a cause to believe in (to try to fill that hole)—-“moving under banners, shouting slogans” (as Steve writes). And that need for a cause, to harken to Chris’ point, is due to a loss of faith in oneself which has almost gotten to be a cultural crisis here. Absolutism (“I’m right, go fuck yourself.”) thrives in individual insecurity and we have created a culture which provides tons of distraction and superficiality (“I’m going to be a happy idiot”) but little critical thought. Shouting and denigrating passes for intellectualism. And there is a good argument that we started down the path Gary describes in conjunction with the evangelicalization (my word) of politics. If one takes the “inerrant” biblical standard of Evangelicals and applies it to politics what you get is a refusal to compromise because there can be no other right position (“God is inerrant and so are my political beliefs”—which somehow get conflated with my religious beliefs). This all represents a falling back to our most basic instincts which for most people is to hate (sorry Steve——this is especially true in uncertain times—be these economic or otherwise). I see the enlightenment slowly falling away in this process. We are doing like the remnants of the physical universe after the big bang and accelerating away from each other; unaware that we were once part of a “singularity.”

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    • Wow. You guys are opening some interesting tangents. I’ll stick to this for now: “Politics has become the filler for that ‘god shaped hole,’” you say here, Mike. I say YES, we need to re-learn that everything doesn’t have to be about politics. Then we can practice my remastered Timothy Leary slogan – “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other. Peace, love, and flowers; not war, money, and machines. (See – not every slogan is bad 🙂 )

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  5. Yes, very true Gary. Although I don’t think we have to CONSCIOUSLY go out and replace politics with our humanity. The fact that you can say Politics is Dead means you (and so many others) have already done that. The reason that Politics is Dead is because human beings are already affirming our Humanity. Politics is obsolete because it segregates humanity and splits us up into factions, tribes and nation states, and it doesn’t understand that the new Zeitgeist is pulling us away from that into the unifying purpose of humanity. This time there is no prophet like Zarathustra coming down from the mountain to tell us that Politics is Dead, instead it’s the people themselves who are getting up from their beds and sleeping bags and saying: We are Humans ergo Politics is Dead.

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  6. I wonder if the black and white political thinking that you describe is something that will eventually die with the baby boomers. I’ve been reading a book of essays written in 1948. The name of the book is Generation of Vipers by Phillip Wylie.

    It was a best seller and stirred up quite a bit of controversy. What interests me is that his reading public was able to read the book, find what was good and dismiss what was bad. And he was wrong about many things.

    Yes, there were men and women around who held extreme views but my impression is that most citizens shared a common view of politics as a means to an end, and government as a tool for achieving common goals. By the standards of today’s politics this kind of attitude transcends politics.

    For some reason we have not yet subjected the era of the Baby Boomers to objective analyses.

    The right paints the period black and the left paints it in bright rainbows.

    The truth is that some of the ideas that came out of that period were good and some have had a devastating effect on the lives of our weakest citizens. Perhaps the worst aspect of this black and white thinking is that even those policy failures that are obvious failures remain uncorrected.

    We can’t go back to the past…but at the very least we can admit our failures and correct them, and
    feel proud of the things we got right.

    To me, if we can just stop playing word games with each other; we might discover that we are the government; and that the principles of liberty and justice for all humanity transcend the petty need to win at all costs. And if we can’t do that, then maybe when enough of us are gone, our Grandchildren will.

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    • So many ways to look at it, I know. Pros and cons of the 60s cultural shift. All the cycles and sources of our current polarization. My particular gripe (for now) is the 80s U-turn among academic liberals, where they sort of gave up on integration and went into identity politics – “you” can’t see things from “their” point of view, crossing cultural lines became “bad” rather than “good,” gender/race-specific rules emerged for what you can say and do, all based on bigger walls between groups. Like you, I’m hopeful that we (or our grandkids) can transcend, but I can’t see turning to today’s ossified liberal or conservative ideologies to do so.

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