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On June 1, early in the BLM uproar, I went to Union Square to view a protest march. The empty concrete canyons echoed with chants as two or three thousand people walked past. Clench-jawed Deputy Commissioner Terrance Monahan brought up the rear, flanked by ranks of police officers. Helicopters monitored progress from above.
The throng manifested anger, but not violence. The mostly young protesters seemed at once sincere, yet at the same time they were play-acting in accord with an already established and often performed script of outrage. Police followed their well-established play book, containing but not confronting, stony-faced and unresponsive to taunting youths.
I left Union Square with the firm conviction that whatever BLM meant, it was not a threat to the “system.” At home that evening, my wife asked my opinion. My reply: “Bank of America sponsorship by week’s end.”
In his 2006 meditation on the political culture of the West, Rage and Time, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk offers a conceptual description of what I observed in Union Square. By his account, the driving force of human affairs is anger or rage. At the outset of the Illiad, Homer dedicates his song to the doomed, ruinous rage (mene) of Achilles. It rouses the great warrior to the heights of his powers, setting in motion the events that will break the deadlock on the plains of Troy. Sloterdijk takes this drama as paradigmatic. Men have toppled cities in order to avenge their honor. Injustices stoke anger and oppression causes bitterness to simmer, sparking rebellions and revolutions.
Plato makes a similar point about the driving power of human passions that surge into action. In the Phaedrus he develops an extended metaphor. The chariot of the soul is drawn by two horses. One is reason (logos); the other is spiritedness (thumos). It is the latter that leads to boldness of action. Logos ought to govern, but it is thumos that causes a man to seize the initiative and take the lead.
Sloterdijk allows that man is rational animal. We pursue our interests, and this often motivates us to moderate our passions, leading to a well-ordered society. But is it rage and spiritedness that drive changes.
By his accounting, the motor of modern Western political history has been the wounded pride and rage of the lower classes that surged up again and again from the time of the French Revolution until the mid-twentieth century. But in recent decades we have been “eroticized” as individuals and domesticated by consumption. We are not enraged, at least not in a deep and lasting way. We are instead dissipated by the tedium of late modernity, enmeshed in a social order that prevents rage from “pooling” and accumulating.
In the 1960s, this dynamic was called “being coopted by the system.” Activists tried to sustain transformative passions by shaming as “sell outs” those who crossed over. As we know, they were unsuccessful. Angela Davis became a tenured professor. The Ford Foundation showered the most radical causes with grants. Ad agencies adopted their slogans to sell products. Hollywood turned the “counter-culture” into a global brand.
The process has been ongoing. AOC and the rest of the Squad, are “outsiders” who navigate in and out of establishment institutions. They are but well-known versions of countless young people I know. Many have degrees from fancy institutions. They work for major corporations and consultancies. And yet they cultivate distance and denigrate the mainstream system that credentialed them and from which they profit both financially and in terms of status. Insider? Outsider? In truth, they are both, or perhaps neither, for they toggle back and forth with little hesitation.
Buy a pair of shoes and help somebody in a developing country! An “eroticized” individualism organized around self-care is fused with thumos-driven ambitions to change the world. And we know which has pride of place. Our ambitions become small and remote, and they circle back to consumers as complimentary self-images. I am not a consumer, it tell myself, I’m changing the world one purchase (or start-up) at a time. Thus do we enact the domestication of anything strong in our souls, anything dangerous to the social order.
In my view of the human condition, love of truth and justice turn the wheels of history as surely as do rage and anger. The latter indeed require the former in order to achieve focus and purpose in human affairs. Here, too, our age domesticates, dissolving truth with a vague relativism and harnessing justice to “causes,” which quickly become poses, and then products.
We live in a time of simmering anger, but it cannot take coherent form because it is organized, diagnosed, and, worst of all perhaps, “heard.” This is the therapeutic mode of politics that has become widespread. The imperative of “diversity” is related. It is a managerial, technocratic approach meant to disperse anger and tamp down rage. These techniques are reinforced by the wealth of our society, which induces cooperation, even among those most disaffected. Our celebrity culture wraps all public figures in the cellophane of superficiality. Our dreary utilitarian morality banishes thumos
Gil Scott Heron intoned that the revolution will not be televised. But Sloterdijk seems broadly correct: The Revolution ™ has been televised for some time now, brought to you by the generous sponsorship of Goldman Sachs and Google.
I do not favor revolutions, but we need to escape today’s domestication of our political passions. Our society won’t address its growing problems under the benevolent ministrations of experts. We will need logos to build a future that is not a recycled version of one of another phase of the Baby Boomer experience. But will also need thumos and well-focused mene. In short: classical politics that (as Richard Weaver emphasized in his final book, Visions of Order) gives pride of place to rhetoric. We cannot be reasoned to something new. But we can be moved.
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