Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of Noble Lies and Bitter Truths

Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle
Slavoj Žižek

In a TV interview, Ralf Dahrendorf linked the growing distrust in democracy to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a ‘vale of tears’: after the breakdown of socialism, one cannot pass directly to the abundance of a successful market economy – the limited, but real, socialist welfare and social security systems have to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessarily painful; the same goes for Western Europe, where the passage from the post-World War II welfare state to the new global economy involves painful renunciations, less social security, less guaranteed social care. For Dahrendorf, the problem is best encapsulated by the simple fact that this painful passage through the ‘vale of tears’ lasts longer than the average period between (democratic) elections, sot that the temptation to postpone difficult changes for short-term electoral gain is great. For him, the paradigmatic constellation here is the disappointment of large strata of post-Communist nations with the economic results of the new democratic order: in the glorious days of 1989, they equated democracy with the abundance of Western consumerist societies; now, more than ten years later, when this abundance is still lacking, they blame democracy itself. Unfortunately, he focuses much less on the opposite temptation: if the majority resists the necessary structural changes in the economy, would one of the logical conclusions not be that, for a decade or so, an enlightened elite should take power, even by non-democratic means, to enforce the necessary measures, and thus to lay the foundations for a truly stable democracy? Along these lines, Fareed Zakaria points out how democracy can ‘catch on’ only in economically developed countries: if developing countries are ‘prematurely democratized’, the result is a populism which ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism – no wonder today’s economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.

This inherent crisis of democracy is also the reason for the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the key feature which makes his political thought relevant today is the elitist notion of democracy, that is, the idea of a ‘noble lie’, of how elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the brutal materialist logic of power, and so forth), while feeding the people fables which keep them satisfied in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, the lesson of the trial and execution of Socrates is that Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthies, of all human endeavours. The resolution of this this conflict was that the philosophers should – and in fact did – keep their teachings secret, passing them on by the esoteric art of writing ‘between the lines’. The True, hidden message contained in the ‘Great Tradition’ of philosophy, from Plato to Hobbes and Locke, is that there are no gods, that morality is unfounded prejudice and that society is not grounded in nature.

But does Strauss’s notion of esoteric knowledge not confuse two different phenomena: the cynicism of power, its unreadiness to admit publicly its own true foundations, and the subversive insights of those who aim at undermining the power system? For example, under Really Existing Socialism, there was a difference between a critical intellectual who, in order to get his message across, had to hide it in the terms of official ideology, and the cynical high-ranking member of the nomenklatura who was aware of the falsity of the basic claims of the ruling ideology. Or, in Christianity, there is an abyss which separates a Renaissance atheist trying to pass his message on in a coded way from the Renaissance pope making fun of Christian belief at a private orgy. Recall the passage from Roudinesco quoted above, directed against those who perceive gay communities as the model for totalitarian collectives which exclude otherness:

"For now, the only apocalypse that seems to threaten Western society – and Islam as well – is radical Islamic fundamentalism disposed to terrorism. Islamic threats are made by extremist bearded and barbaric polygamists who constrain women’s bodies and pit invectives against homosexuals whom they hold responsible for weakening the masculine values of God the father."

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