A fool says in his heart that he has no enemies. If he is a mystic, he believes that what everyone says or does is the act of an angel (a message from God). When most people are like this, the society will have ceased to become a republic. If it is a modern society where a theocracy is impossible, it will be one whose prevailing ethos is a therapeutic and at times exclusionary psychology.
Thus, the political is opposed by the psychological. In the political life of republican societies, having a problem means either that someone is unjust or some situation or institution or other social form is unhappy. In anti-political societies, theocratic or psychological, if you have a problem, it is just about you.
Anger is the political emotion. In republican social life, being angry means holding for true the belief, which will be normally recognized by others as possibly true, that one is affected by an injustice. This is expressed as a claim, and the claim is a claim upon the conscience of the persons to whom it is expressed. If the claim is made with passionate intensity, that is not normally assumed to portend violence, but rather reveals the intensity of the angry person’s care about the matter.
Whether or not it makes sense to believe in a God, republican or political life is only possible if there is no presupposed divine order of things that guarantees the good (justice and happiness). Politics is atheist because it cannot be pious. God has always been a principle of government. The first person who knew the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, had to demand of this God that he be just. This is because justice and the good generally are contingent. God may promise it, as in the covenant, but he cannot guarantee it and so cannot be merely trusted to bring it about. Whether it comes about or not depends on the only beings who have a conscience and also exist. God is not the name of a being and in that sense can have no existence. All he can really do is serve as an object of a faith whose poetry inspires us.
I see no reason at all to think that the Jewish Halakhah (law) is invalidated by this recognition, nor our notions of the holy.
In fact, Judaism played an important role in the development of our notions of time. But these notions depend partly on contingency. All the good and all the evil that can and do happen are the consequence either of the actions and behaviors of human persons, or must be concerned the consequence of chance. This means that not only politics but ethics are subject to historical change. Indeed, an ethics partly is a response to unpredicted events that is not merely appropriate to them but is appropriate to the desire and will of actors. An ethics like a politics must be, as science, art, and love are also, constructive. It certainly cannot be reparative (or therapeutic), which is why the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, which is used often to mean perfecting the world, but literally means healing it, is wrong. There is no salvation, life is not a project of healing, which is a medical metaphor that is necessarily conservative, nor can an ethics or politics be the implementation of a plan. There is morality, but politics exceeds it. Moral codes are applied, implemented, realized, executed. Thinking, which politics and ethics do involve, is constructive, innovative, inventive. If God is a force of creation as well as revelation and redemption, then his concept exceeds him as does his work, which is really ours.
Societies cannot be healed and do not need to be. They should not be thought of as organisms and cannot be healthy or sick, only judgably good or bad, just or unjust, happy or unhappiness. Happiness is not reducible to health because its possibilities are unlimited. The good of a body is normality. Only persons and other animals have health or sickness and can be healed. That society can be healed is related to the idea that it must be defended. It is an immunological idea, and immunity, which is absence of poison or contagion, illness brought on from without, is opposite of community, which is the common, which is constructed, which has no definable boundaries, and which does not even allow of a definite form, as a body must have.
From a political point of view, notions of health are simply irrelevant. It is not a judgment bearing upon the good of a community or the justice of an action to say that the community or person is sick. A person could be sick and this not be in essence his own problem at all. This is because only “I” can define what I need or desire, and so what “my problems” are, and I too and only I can decide what it means to have them. Maybe I think my problems are entirely about and caused by you. That would be a claim that could be falsified, and could only be decided by a judge who is not me or you. If “you” or the state or employees of it can decide what my problems are, what kind of person I am, what I need, then I have no liberty and am subject to a tyranny. “Give me liberty or give me death” does not mean “Give me what you decide I need (and put me to death or allow me to die if you judge that you no longer can, or no longer want to).” A society that has rulers who decide what people need is not only a tyranny with no citizens but a state in which people are infantilized, and not because they have been judged as unworthy of adult citizenship, but merely because (medical or therapeutic, moral yet not legal) judges judge what people “need.” What anyone who is not a child or judge incompetent needs independently of what they will or choose, is a matter of total irrelevance, unless one merely wants to offer them advice. Health and sickness are as irrelevant as normality and abnormality, of which they are the forms proper to the animal body from the point of view of medical science. These terms have no other meaning and are in particular inapplicable to the mind. Were that not true, either persons would be expected by their society’s government to be right not only by the law and in terms of what they do, but right in how and what they think and in how they feel. This means that if “I” am ill affected by something, including something “you” are doing, “you,” if you are a medical authority, can give me an involuntary “treatment” (that is, you do something to me that is designed to modify my behavior or person and that follows some official protocols; medical or otherwise, we can call any such actions “treatments”), because unhappiness or disaffection are not to be tolerated, and those persons who “feel” (that they are) ill affected are effectively punished, and in this way they cannot try to do anything that would in any way (including by speaking) affect anyone else. If I have a power to affect you and you not me, than I dominate you. Indeed, this is also why in such situations if you appear to be (feel) affected and express this affection, you can be punished, because if you are manifestly affected and appear to not like it, that is “violence.” Because the oppressed often use their oppression as a weapon, as Fassbinder once said of women, you can be sure that in many such situations if the power dynamics between powerful and powerless map onto such as female/male or black/white, the victim will be punished and called a perpetrator. The basic problem here is augmented by identity politics but does not stem from it but from the asymmetric nature of power relations. In the United States it is almost uniquely the case (some of the other English speaking nations come close) that relationships of domination are not even recognized as such.
A people could declare that they are sick of the way things are, and it is the way things are and the faction of people who want it that way that need transformation or destruction and replacement, even if they in fact are happy and as healthy as anyone could be.
Wherever there are institutions of governance, there is no politics. Disagreements then that involve both persons in power and those without it are likely to involve official violence, which is never recognized as violence, punishing the disaffected for having something wrong with them as they have behaved improperly. Since disaffection involves disagreement characteristically, and disagreements are political, governmental or managerial situations always involve the implicitly coercive and potentially violent suppression of disagreement as such, which then cannot be spoken. This is what the demand for politeness is about. And the differend here (in Lyotard’s sense: a difference involving claims of injustice that cannot be recognized) also tends to be manifest in a language policing. The institution and its functionaries will have a linguistic code that those hapless persons subject to them are expected to use. It then is very important to the authorities that you use only their vocabulary and never your own. Often the terminology applies to you and names your lack, which is then quantified and used to measure your behavior in its terms; your using this vocabulary signals that you are a compliant, docile subject. You must use their terms and not your own metaphors because the terms available are defined in what is effectively their rule book, which a priori excludes all claims that would be made against these persons or what they are doing. If you use a term of your own that describes an interpretation of your own of what they are doing, they will correct you, saying, “No, it is not A but B,” and you are expect then to indicate agreement or at least not disagreement. They will most likely not tell you why they call it B or what that means; the important thing is just that you show that you respect their professional authority and understand that they tell you what is what and that is how it is. They will actually believe, because this is part of the “code,” that your metaphorical term is an incorrect concept (there are no metaphors in this world, and individuals do not have the liberty to describe what is what: that power is carefully regulated and jealously guarded).
Who controls meaning, controls the state and its people.
This means that in such institutions and in most social life in countries like the United States where most people believe in a middle class managerial ideology that accords with these institutions, as a general rule one may not say anything about anything to anyone. You can speak, but you cannot say anything. Statements are controversial; otherwise they are mere utterances and do not say or state anything because they make no claim. Utterances may be performative ones or order-words; they are often presented as statements: “This is an X” means “I am ordering you to behave in accordance with the demand to treat this as an X.” The difference is that orders cannot be contested in discourse but only obeyed or disobeyed; they are assumed true, yet in fact they are the kind of speech acts that are neither true nor false. Much professional discourse is of this kind.
Professionals usually have discussions among themselves that can involve disagreements, but managerial professionals almost never do and are highly unwilling to be transparent in what they say in terms of what it means, why they say it, and whether it is true, with persons they are charged with managing. Doctors are an extreme of this; good luck trying to ever have a real discussion with a psychiatrist in which you learn anything about how they think and why; they tend to be quite adamant in keeping you in the dark. They want to be sure you know how to comply with what they tell you to do, and will tell you what they think you need to know for that purpose, and nothing else. It is astonishing in fact how opaque many of them, and frequently if not most of the time what they say is not on the level, and may be manipulative (said only to provoke some kind of response).
Claims are of two kinds: political claims, which can be and usually are made highly informally; and those in “debates,” that is, carefully delimited zones where only persons admitted professionally to the practice of official discourse in the field, can exchange opinions about a matter.
The important thing to grasp is that in any truly political situation, one person or group of persons contests the practices and the power of the other persons. You cannot contest another practices or statements without contesting their power. Doing so in institutional contexts can only be met with threats of official punitive violence, and this will most often be legitimated by the person whose actions or statements are being attacked claiming that he or she is, and thus is being assaulted or threatened, or at least disrespected. If your statement is allowed, it will only be because you are not saying what you want to say, except by speaking in their terms. In this way, you unwittingly collaborate in framing what you want to say in their terms. Some people become stupefied or begin to stutter or seem confused when they are habituated to being directed by such professionals and try to think along the lines permitted and available to them, and this is even true when they think they are engaged in some alternative or counter-institutional practice which is at most simply parallel. The shortest route to stupidity and a kind of intestinal blockage of the creative mind is to become too habituated to what official institutions in your society have urged and made available to you as paths of thinking.
In this way, the constitutive injustice of such bureaucracies cannot be recognized. That the good is possible within some bureaucratic organizations is only because the zones of greatest intensity in which purely the procedural regulations and coded speech are involved, these are restricted, so that if it is a university they also have scholars and learning, if it is an art museum they also have artworks, etc. But it is the nature of bureaucratic organization to cause the political as such to be ruled out so that it in fact is impossible. One sign that it is absent there but not in everyday life is the relative absence in the latter of enforceable codes of politeness.
You can be sent to prison for saying “fuck” or appearing hostile to a bureaucrat, and while yesterday they might have just called you vulgar, today they will accuse you of violence. When feminists say that violence is implicit in, or the same as, aggressivity, they are enforcing a form of this. Presumably, they do not like sports, or else think aggression is permitted in them provided one plays by the rules. It is a myth that is part of the ideology of middle-class professionals that there is some of rules, stated or, as is usually the case in America, unstated so that people have to figure them out, and are responsible for doing so, and that all behavior of persons follows such rules. Some people do this in conversation: for instance, “You interrupted me, I wasn’t finished!” which is usually said with great anger, for “You are not following the rules!” There are people like this; I had a roommate like this once, a Black liberal from a very middle class background, and when he wanted to fight and win in words, he would accuse me of violating all kinds of social norms, which of course he knew and I did not, making me crazy in his eyes, and these rules are natural rules of society which fall from the sky as if from the Gods. Middle class people tend to have a police force in their mind, and they like this because they believe that if they live their whole lives by this set of rules, or believe that they do, then they will have good lives as part of the elite.
It’s funny if you pay attention to what middle class professionals and managers call “violence.” First, it is not said of what they will do to you if they want you punished, and those things are often violent in the literal sense that they involve the deliberate infliction of pain or injury on bodies in order to enforce the will of the persons executing the violence and those who commanded it (usually these persons are separate, which is why judges and psychiatrists do not normally have troubled sleep over the violence that they cause to happen). Secondly, it is said mainly of things that are not violent in fact. Your voice is too loud, you touched something or someone in the process of making a point, etc. Thirdly, these symbolic “violences” are usually named in order to legitimate the imminent violence of the authorities themselves. They need to enunciate this judgment in order to make their violence appear in their own eyes at least as necessary to counter yours.
All bureaucratic functionaries and people who think like them are hypocritical. What they accuse of they cannot be guilty of and may well be doing. It would be easy to show any unprejudiced person in most such situations that the essence of the matter is power, obedience, and compliance or insubordination. Most of the things that persons in power over you will be likely to accuse you of are things that not only could only be said by a person exercising domination of a subordinate, but that really amount in the end to nothing more than accusations of insubordination. Most relationships of this kind, between a professional and a non-professional, a functionary and an institutional client, etc., are of this kind and come down to: “I dominate here, you will obey me, or else. And you are not being obedient, and that is a crime.” Then they name the crime and it sounds like it really is one, and they believe it; such is the way of ideology.
The first person to recognize the radically contingent and thus atheistic character of true political life was Machiavelli. And that is why he is the founder of all modern political thought.
Hobbes, on the contrary, is anti-political, and Anglo-American society is Hobbesian because Lockean liberalism is a variant of it. Hobbes’s God is security. A totalizing authoritarian state can offer people security, protection, and the like. It can certainly protect and promote people’s “health,” and it can give them what they need, which can be something they want and ask for, or something the authorities decide to give them whether they like it or not. It cannot offer liberty. If there is a liberty, the state is subject to the people and not the people to it. If you were free, your doctor, for instance, would be working for you. The truth is closer to the other way around. Machiavelli’s God was liberty and she is a peculiar deity indeed.
The idea of a natural or divine or necessary order of things is what traditional political theology is about. In fact, it represents a way of thinking that is an incomplete movement away from paganism. A modern theology would have as ultimate principle only the recognition that what ought to be is not contained in any part of what is.
What all of this for American society is that it is not revolutionary. It probably is now less than ever; certainly it is become less and less so and more and more authoritarian since the early 1970s and the beginning of neoliberalism. The effect that the absence of a democratic character in social life in this country has on relationships in which one person believes himself oppressed (especially if he or she is Black or a woman) is devastating to all concerned. Because what inevitably results, since true equality and the democracy that would come with it, and make possible the only true liberty, is impossible, and people do sense this and that means: The only way “I” can avoid being treated like a slave by “you” is if I am able to treat you as my slave. (In this lies the explanation for the behavior, for example, of many Black men and women who work as security guards, or in professions that in fact amount to little more than that, such as hospital nurses. The authoritarian personality emerges in such situations as principled and angry opposition to “your” insulting or coercive attitude towards “me” (in fact, it might just be rebellious), perhaps because my exercise of domination over you is official, legitimated, I am doing my job, and there is a legislature that is elected and so all is right with the world.)
The United States of America is an anti-democratic country whose people would mostly prefer it to be democratic. Some think it is, others want it to be. It is a country that a limited revolution and whose history beginning at least by the time the Constitution was established renders that revolution and the revolutionary character of the society manifestly incomplete and indeed, we must say today, failed. There are forces that point in the opposite direction. Among them is the desire of many people to be free and to have a society in which people are free. For a merely liberal society that ties freedom to property and to independence from relations of domination cannot transform those relationships and be free as a society. It can only have individuals who are free when solitary or at least not at work or subject to any institutional authority. Neoliberalism is the ideology that says liberty is absence of authority. We can now see perhaps more than even that it only exists within democracy and that individuals are free only if a people are free, and that there is a collective liberty.
We do not need a war against the state, though the state is increasingly at war against many of us its citizens. We need to create a real democracy, which is this nation’s (its people’s) great unrealized desire. Processes of democratization do exist, and they are social movements (“revolutions” are one form thereof, in which theoretically the society, and not merely the state, are radically transformed from within), and what is essential to them is collective processes of thinking.
“No, you’re wrong!” When people can this and it is happy, not just unhappy, then there is democracy, then there is freedom.