The metaphysics of history (4): On the destruction and resurrection of democracy

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If human directionality is a form of destiny, the destiny of liberal democracy, under the spell of universal rights, has been to announce, to an astonished humanity, the nonexistence of the universal, the atomization of society, and, hence, the dissolution of its own founding principles.

This represents a traumatic break with the assumptions of every previous age.  Even people’s sovereignty, which discarded God and Church, simply exchanged the democratic state for the monarch, while retaining a vision of the sacredness and majesty of the people as one.  Popular sovereignty stood on a prophetic glimmering of something beyond mere contingency, sufficient to generate the explosive energies of militant democracy.

The direction in which democratic nations are currently launched, however, forecloses the possibility of wholeness at any level.  We have strayed, seemingly blindly, into the kingdom of pure contingency, where the concept of the universal can have no meaning.

Human rights are said to be universal, but are now detached from any scientific theory, chain of logic, or tradition of transcendence that would merit the use of that word.  In the present political context, “universal” has become an incantation, a polemical argument-stopper, denoting the strength of will of those who wish to expand the search for individual identity.

Nothing is more transient than political will.  It has turned against democracy in the past.  It could do so again tomorrow.

To the tender-hearted, the atomization of humanity under liberal democracy can look like a return to the state of nature, with the strong devouring the weak while striking pious poses in defense of freedom.  Political and intellectual elites have always found the fractured democratic state too unmanageable for their grandiose schemes.  The mass of citizens, having pocketed immense gains in material prosperity and quality of life, now grumbles under the sting of the system’s imperfections:  jobs are always too few, costs are always too high, and the future, once home to Utopia, is now imagined as the opposite of progress.  Any crisis, any sudden shock, could inspire a fatal number of defections.

Against such a turning of elite and public opinion, democracy stands defenseless.  There are no moral or intellectual barriers to its overthrow.  Any other system, whether revolutionary or reactionary, ultra-humanitarian or anti-humanitarian, must be considered equally legitimate, so long as it attracts equal levels of political will.

A metaphysical nakedness so extreme can be explained by the onset of terminal decadence, that is, by the exhaustion of the possibilities inherent to the system – or alternatively by an attempt, as yet incomplete, to discover a new foundation on which to sustain the present system.  In other words, liberal democracy, if we read its ambivalent symptoms right, must either be perishing of a degenerative malady or has gotten lost, like Hansel and Gretel, in the woods.

***

Scarcely a generation has lapsed since the “end of history,” the moment of extinction of the great totalitarian systems, when the ideals of liberal democracy were said to have triumphed not just for then, but forever.  If, after so brief a career, these ideals have instead fallen into the final stages of decay, a revaluation is in order.

The question we must answer has nothing to do with longevity, and everything with fertility:  a proposition that exhausts itself in a generation can hardly be considered an autonomous force in history.  If the voice of God falls silent in a single lifetime, the probability is that it was never heard at all.  Democracy, in that case, was never a system, in the way we have understood that term.  It must be considered in light of some other system, and can be explained only in relation to that other.

The last two centuries can be interpreted in a manner that shows liberal democracy to be an episode in the long decadence of Christianity.

On this account, democracy becomes a short chapter in the search for something that cannot be found:  the magic formula to resurrect, in more respectable garb, the fierce old Christian ideal.  The historical context is well known.  The Wars of Religion inflicted fatal deformations on Christianity.  The one God of a single Christendom was torn to pieces at the hands of frenzied sectarians.  The trauma drove the thinking classes of the West away from religion, and toward philosophy:  in a realm of abstraction, they devised a path out of the crushing dogmatism of the times.  But this was always a salvage mission.  For all their derision of the Church, the philosophers of the 18th century were engaged in a desperate effort to preserve, on a new foundation of reason, the humanitarian spirit of Christianity.

Liberal democracy was the central element of this audacious project.  Once again, the historical details are familiar:  morality and the state were to be reorganized according to universal truths derived from the “science of man,” as systematic and irrefutable, to the philosophers, as the Newtonian science of nature.  The most admired precepts of archaic Christianity, such as compassion and the call to perfection, rescued out of the bonfire, were to be sustained by the Goddess of Reason in place of the God of Jesus.

The motive behind these maneuvers was cultural self-preservation.  A civilization wounded in body and soul wished to project its ideals, and thus its identity, into the future, but it had lost confidence in the transcendental framework that had given birth to these ideals, and it had come to despise the institution – the Church – that had long been the keeper of the faith.

The philosophical defrocking of Christian civilization repeated the pattern of ancient Greece, with similar results.  Brilliant intellects deployed the power of reason to overcome history, but the project was tangled in contradiction, and inevitably failed.

For the children of the post-Christian West, there was no path back to paradise.  For liberal democracy, failure meant incoherence and subjectivity unto death.  God was replaced by the people as the source of transcendent certainty, but the people fractured into the individual, and the individual, in the exercise of his rights and freedoms, absent any unifying force, has dissipated into a mist of subjective impulses.  Where the mystic and the churchman once stood on the plane of human ideals, we now discover the nihilist.

The individual is too frail a vessel to impersonate God.  The spectacle is ludicrous, comical, like that of a small, frightened animal rattling inside an immense suit of armor.  Our present predicament, this episode, democracy, will expire in the mode of comedy, not high drama, amid laughter and applause rather than tears.  What follows must obey the logic of directionality.  Once individualism has degenerated into nihilism, and subjectivity becomes burdened with the sentiment of an unbearable loneliness, prophets will arise who hear the voice of God calling us in the opposite direction:  toward the one.

Whether this great summoning takes the form of religion or of secular ideology is impossible to predict, and of no particular significance.  Whether the aim is to revive archaic Christianity in some new guise, or exalt a novel system under entirely different principles, the moment will be fraught with danger and the possibility of bloodshed.  Tragedy and terror, never laughter, attend the difficult birth of every human ideal.

***

A less calamitous explanation can account for the symptoms afflicting liberal democracy.  It starts from a conventional reading of recent history:  liberal democracy is, beyond doubt, the successor system to Christianity, not a mere episode or pale afterglow.  The predicament of democracy is the opposite of infertility:  the system lacks defining boundaries and is pregnant with too many possibilities.  It has shattered the mold of history, and placed humanity in an uncomfortable place beyond its own experience.  Radical indeterminacy has meant a radical disorientation.

Flight from the universal, idolatry of the individual, the reduction of human life to private urges, all these moves express a sort of civilizational agoraphobia, the panic of the West over the sudden boundlessness and lack of direction of historical space.  Confronted with such an enormity, we have retreated to subjectivity.  We have tried to subsist in slivers of personal feeling, that is, in pure contingency.

This may be a pathological response, but it is not destiny.

To each previous epoch of history, the universal has manifested itself in the form of an explanation that entailed an obligation to pursue a specific path:  the repudiation of the body, in Christianity’s case.  In the present instance, however, directionality has been nullified by the force that set it in motion.  The frightening indeterminacy of the democratic system began a stampede away from the center, but all possible directions, including back, remain available.

The next step is open.  That is not to say that the pressure is equal toward all points of the compass.

Indeterminacy simply means openness to many types of action.  The logic of the future must work through the actors within the system:  the children of democracy.  The present condition can be described in terms of concealment, suspension, uncertainty.  We seem to be waiting for some event to launch us back into history.  Yet we are alienated from history, from memory, by our flight into the subjective.  We have each crawled into our private shelters as deep as it is possible to go while still retaining some connection to a coherent community – indeed, to any condition that tolerates more than a single individual will.  The next step forward will either take us to nihilism or turn us in the opposite direction:  up and out, toward the universal.

***

We never, in truth, escaped history:  we merely turned our backs on it.  We never broke loose of objective reality:  we merely willed our subjective dreams to occupy the place of that reality.  But the human animal must swim in the flood of events.  Empirical reality will drown us, if we dream for too long.  We may look inward and, for a brief comic interlude, attempt to impersonate God, but in time the impulse to self-preservation will return our consciousness to history.

There, we will find the metaphysical landscape dominated by two pervasive forces:  the democratic condition of indeterminacy, and the human need for the universal.

Terrible events tread restlessly in the wings.  Sooner or later, they will take their place at center stage.  Confronted with frightful choices, liberal democracy will either crumble like the World Trade towers or come to terms with the one, that is, with some ideal of shared transcendence.  This could take the form of a return to people’s sovereignty, with fraternité once again the war-cry of democracy in arms.  But another possibility exists, charged with consequences.

Indeterminacy is not the negation of the one, or of the absolute, or of any possible common direction.  Indeterminacy negates obligation.  We are no longer commanded by God from on high.  We are no longer compelled by the very fabric of the universe.  We exist in a state of free play, and will so continue while liberal democracy endures.  Once roused out of our existential panic by the threat of events, we will be turned, by the flow of free play, to the universal.

This turning will not resemble the narrow way of Greece or Christianity, or even of popular sovereignty.  There will be no guillotines or metal-detectors to enforce it.  All that will be required is a handful of persuasive democratic ideals (illustratively:  “self-reliance,” “self-rule,” “public-mindedness”), voluntarily embraced, with a few models to embody them and a few precepts to articulate them.  The effect will resemble an elaborate musical counterpoint on the theme of morality, politics, and the state.  Unlike all previous systems, we will not be made to sing in unison, but we will express our various parts, large and small, high and low, tuned to the same pitch.

Whether the universal will actually be glimpsed is uncertain, but this is true at all times and under all systems of ideals.  We can never fully know what we are.  For the purposes of liberal democracy, what matters is progress.  The exodus out of subjectivity will mean a resumption of movement, of direction, of history.  Philosophers and political leaders might search for an oasis in the wilderness, but there will be no stopping-places.

The spirit that imparts the mobilizing energy to democracy will be nothing that is, but a powerful consciousness of not-being, of the eternally incomplete.  By its very enormity, indeterminate humanity will partake of the transcendent.

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