By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.
Photo by Matt Johnson | CC BY 2.0
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus taught that “all is flux” — that “nothing stays still,” and therefore that “no one can step in the same river twice.”
The political philosophers of Greco-Roman antiquity understood this to be a metaphysical claim without political implications. That has remained the consensus view to this day.
To be sure, more than two thousand years after Heraclitus, philosophers working within the tradition of “classical German philosophy” did develop philosophical positions that evince a certain affinity with what Heraclitus seems to have had in mind, and that do resonate politically. The connection, however, was indirect.
Hegel’s philosophy is, by far, the most important and influential example. As an inveterate systematizer, and a political and legal philosopher of the first order, he joined notions associated with politics, conceived abstractly, with aspects of Heraclitean metaphysics, understood loosely.
But Hegel and his followers were interested mainly in elucidating history’s structure and direction, and in the “dialectical” structure of the real. What they had to say about political notions and institutions was partly shaped by those abstruse philosophical concerns. But it too was largely free standing.
Hegelian ideas influenced Karl Marx’s thinking, but, in many respects, Marxist theory broke away from its Hegelian roots. This was especially true on matters of political concern. One would be hard pressed to find anything of consequence that is inherently Heraclitean in the Marxist purchase on politics.
Like other political philosophers before and since, Marx and Marxists after him took the continuity and temporal persistence of key elements of the political sphere for granted. From their purview as political actors, and as thinkers reflecting on politics, it is, and feels as if it is, possible to step in the same river not just twice, but many times.
Thus, even after Hegel and Marx, the Heraclitean doctrine falls within the metaphysician’s ambit, not the political philosopher’s.
It took Donald Trump, a buffoon incapable of holding a serious thought, to change that sense of things.
As a thinker, Trump is a non-entity who has not, and obviously cannot, change political theory. But he has profoundly affected the lived experience of those who do think, casually or in more sustained ways, about the politics of the country he leads.
Thanks to the peculiarly undemocratic way we elect presidents, and thanks to Hillary Clinton’s ineptitude, a troubled male adolescent in an old man’s body now holds power enough to turn the world into a wasteland. And because his mind does indeed resemble an ever-changing river, nothing now does stay still for we inhabitants of Trumpland.
This is why it feels to so many of us as if, in our political universe, all is indeed in flux; as if booming buzzing confusion is all there is.
The problem is not just that we have a president whose instincts are vile and who is in way over his head. It is worse than that. We are adrift and the old, familiar moorings are gone. The situation is too intolerable to endure for long, even if we do somehow manage to live through it. It has to end, and it will end because it must.
The process is painfully slow, but we just might now be living through a turning point, a watershed moment out of which new moorings will emerge. Even in Trump’s America, events have a way of forcing change, despite the best efforts of the beneficiaries and guardians of the status quo.
However, we must never underestimate the power of wishful thinking, and we should always be mindful of Hegel’s dictum about the owl of Minerva taking flight only at the setting of the sun. What he meant was that the “meaning” of historical events only becomes clear in retrospect, and only after the passage of time.
With those caveats in mind, I would venture that far-reaching changes really are underway, and that the pivotal moment came with the recent spate of devastation brought on by hurricanes in the Atlantic.
Ultimately, political power rests on force, but regimes rule by shaping public perceptions. “Opinion,” wrote David Hume (1711-1776), “is the true foundation of the state.” America in the Age of Trump is no exception. How and when the Trumpian flux ends depends, in large part, on how people perceive events and therefore on how the power structure’s propaganda system spins the stories it tells. Under the pressure of events, those stories can sometimes spin out of control.
Too bad for defenders of industrial capitalism in its current phase that forces of nature – hurricanes, for example – can overwhelm even the best efforts of the most persuasive propagandists.
It is a familiar phenomenon: when there is an automobile accident, traffic slows down to look; people are inveterate voyeurs. And so it was that when Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck Texas and Florida, cable and broadcast networks had a ready made audience for their “breaking news” brand of 24/7 disaster porn.
The journalists on the job did creditable reporting, notwithstanding occasional self-congratulatory boasting. Their boast was that they were performing a vital public service by helping to inform actual and potential storm victims. In truth, they did hardly any of that, and neither were they supposed to in any case. For as long as there have been radios, designated local, not national or international, media have been tasked with keeping affected publics informed. They do their job well, and this time was no exception.
The background meteorology they provided was of high quality too – or rather it would have been had the cable networks and National Public Radio not effectively proscribed mention of global warming and climate disruption. One could only marvel at how skillfully scientists and journalists skated around that colossal elephant in the room. Print media did only slightly better.
And although the impact, of Irma on Cuba could hardly pass unnoticed, there was little or no discussion of how much better impoverished Cuba’s level of hurricane preparedness is compared to the United States’. Neither did they call attention to Cuban efforts to help their Caribbean neighbors. Cuba took an even harder hit than Florida.
This is hardly surprising in view of the still substantial political influence of counter-revolutionary Cubans in Florida and elsewhere, and the six decades long history of American efforts to crush that socialist island – in order to make it, again, a de facto colony of the United States.
They also made short shrift of enormous levels of destruction in places of which Americans know little and care less (except when planning vacations or evading taxes). At first, even America’s Caribbean “possessions” were only mentioned in passing.
Hurricane fatigue is not the only reason why so much less attention now is being paid to Hurricane Maria. Maria has done more damage than Irma, but the fact that, this time around, it is mainly brown skinned people who are mainly bearing the brunt matters more. The fact that some of them, as Puerto Ricans or Virgin Islanders, happen to be American citizens — in theory, if not quite in practice –changes little. America First is a liberal fixation too.
It is tempting to say that all that hurricane coverage was good only for entertaining television viewers in places far removed from danger. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it may turn out also to have been good for something far more momentous.
By bringing the consequences of industrial capitalism’s effects on the earth’s atmosphere into too clear a view to be ignored, all that coverage could cause many of America’s most recalcitrant climate change deniers finally to accept the scientific consensus on global warming – Trump and his minions notwithstanding.
Such things do happen, even when “the bad guys” are well resourced and well organized. Hardly anyone nowadays seriously questions the scientific consensus on the deleterious health consequences of smoking, for example.
If this happens now with global warming, and the wall-to-wall coverage of Harvey and Irma plus now also of Maria and Jose, are part of the reason why, then, despite themselves, the cable news networks and other corporate media really would have something to brag about.
For now, though, perhaps the only genuinely salutary result of all that coverage – and of reporting on the devastating earthquakes in Mexico – has been to tone down media-driven war mongering. However, to the world’s detriment, that benefit is short-lived; the war mongering is heating up again.
The Republican Party is beneath contempt, and Trump, the people around him, and the benighted folk who still support him make right thinking people despair for the human race. But, when it comes to reviving dormant Cold War animosities and flirting with nuclear annihilation, Democrats, smarting from Hillary Clinton’s unexpected and unnecessary defeat, are worse.
Their media flacks are, if anything, even more of a disgrace. Rachel Maddow is only the tip of the iceberg.
But efforts to revive the Cold War didn’t start with the evening lineup on MSNBC. Ever since it became clear that Reagan lied to Gorbachev about America’s and, insofar as there is a difference, NATO’s intentions in expanding to the east, the West has been vilifying Russia whenever that nuclear power has tried, no matter how meekly, to defend itself against efforts to encircle it – not just in the Baltic and in the old Warsaw Pact “satellite” nations, but also in former Soviet Republics up to and including Ukraine.
The difference now is that, having largely recovered from the economic shock brought on by the sudden inclusion of its formerly post-capitalist economic system into the global capitalist order, Russia is now better able to fight back than it was when Boris Yeltsin was abjectly doing Bill Clinton’s bidding. Another difference is that Western, mainly American, provocations now run right up to the borders of the Russian Federation itself.
The vilification of the Russian government therefore didn’t start once it dawned on Democrats that, even with Trump for an opponent, defeat was not categorically out of the question. But it was not until the waning days of the 2016 campaign that Democrats, their media flacks in tow, turned on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, with a fury unseen in decades.
What ingrates! Spurred on by Secretary of State Clinton and her band of neoconservative and liberal imperialist advisors, Barack Obama had gotten himself into a number of jams in Syria and elsewhere from which Russian diplomacy extricated him. And yet, in Democratic circles, Putin became Public Enemy Number One.
The vilification campaign then took on a life of its own, as Democrats worked assiduously to make Trump’s comparatively reasonable attitude towards relations with Russia a campaign liability.
No doubt, the billionaire’s reasons for being reasonable have more to do with venality and greed than geopolitical strategy or common sense. And the river he is currently stepping into seems to have wound its way back into Clintonesque territory in any case. But, on this point, Democrats and Democratic media are still even worse.
Those fabricators and purveyors of self-serving wisdom blame Russia for doing what the United States has long been doing with virtual impunity all over the world. Interfering in other countries’ elections is the least of it. Before the Soviet Union imploded, there were more restraints; in recent decades, there has been little holding them back. Keeping it that way is a goal of American foreign policy. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling.
And when that hypocrisy isn’t enough, corporate propagandists can bring up the reincorporation of Crimea into the Russian federation in accord with the wishes of the vast majority of the local population. Or they badmouth Edward Snowden or Wikileaks, or RT, Russia Today.
The latter move is especially nonsensical. Watch even the best of the MSNBC journalists and pundits – Chris Hayes, for example. Then tune in RT to compare and contrast. It will be ridiculously obvious to anyone whose head is screwed on right who the real propagandists are, and who are the real journalists.
If the world survives Trump, there is bound to come a time, when, as happened with the Pentagon Papers, everyone will know who the real scoundrels and real heroes were. For the time being, though, corporate media are doing all they can to keep that day far off.
The real villain, in all this, is our deeply entrenched party system in which ideologically like-minded Democrats and Republicans exercise duopoly power.
For all practical purposes, ours would be a one party state – except that Democrats and Republicans have staked out different positions on social issues of little or no economic or geopolitical consequence. This has made them appealing, or not, to different constituencies. It has also led to an unprecedented degree of dysfunctional party polarization.
And it has made Republicans so odious that even Democrats can sometimes look good.
Preferences do not always reflect unconditioned beliefs and desires. They, and the choices that follow from them, are often shaped as well by the situations in which people find themselves.
This explains why the Democratic Party can seem more palatable than it otherwise would to voters for whom the main or only reason to vote Democratic is that, all things considered and by most relevant measures, Republicans are worse. It also explains why voters who are in denial about the shortcomings of the Democratic Party are sometimes able to work up enthusiasms for Democrats in the Clinton mold.
It is the sour grapes story in reverse; the situation Democratic voters confront is the opposite of the fox’s in the Aesop fable. When the fox discovered that the grapes he coveted were beyond his reach, he came to believe that they were sour – not on the basis of evidence, but because beliefs and desires tend to adjust to objective conditions. This made him lose interest in the grapes he could not obtain, and satisfied with ones he could.
When voters who would otherwise recoil from the awfulness of the lesser evil party come to believe, not unreasonably, that they have no more effective way to vote against Republicans than by voting for Democrats, they often, like the fox, become OK with Democratic candidates — finding them sweet, as it were, or not too unpalatable.
What they are doing is minimizing “cognitive dissonance,” the discomfort that comes from holding on simultaneously to opposing beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance reduction is a motivator of voter behavior everywhere, but especially in a duopoly party system like ours.
It will be this way for as long as that system governs our political life; and this won’t change until the respective centers of our semi-established parties fail to hold.
Those two parties have been moving rightward ever since the neoliberal turn took hold in the late seventies, but, throughout the process, their grip over the ambient political culture has remained secure. Until now, that is; until the Trump phenomenon emerged seemingly from nowhere.
By breaking so many norms and expectations, and by overturning so many of the rocks under which his hardcore supporters had been residing, the Donald, inadvertently and unknowingly but inexorably, set in motion a chain of events that is replacing the status quo with a level of chaos, of experienced flux, that opens up all kinds of possibilities for far-reaching positive, or negative, change.
Trump spreads chaos because his only conviction is himself and because, beneath the orange coif, there is no there there. He is currently the Republican standard bearer, but, in truth, he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He is a nothing upon whom ungodly power has been thrust.
But for the more formidable competition on the Democratic side and the realization that the fix was in, that Clinton had the Democratic nomination sewn up, Trump could have gone after the nomination of either party.
But how could a vainglorious egotist resist the temptation to enter a race where the front-runners were Jeb Bush, the hapless brother of the worst (now the second-worst) president ever, and Little Marco Rubio, and where addle-brained libertarians like Ted Cruz and theocrats of the Ben Carson and, God save us, Mike Pence variety set the tone?
Trump therefore decided to give free rein to his Republican side, going on to win that wretched party’s nomination handily.
Between him and the GOP’s grandees, it was a marriage of convenience, made in hell. The miscreants needed each other. Trump had no interest in governance, and no idea how to govern. He only wanted to look good and, of course, to enhance his and his family’s bottom line. Meanwhile, Republican apparatchiks had lots of experience running the state, and their donors were salivating at the prospect of having a fellow plutocrat calling the shots. Thus the marriage was duly consummated.
Now that unholy union is hovering on the brink of divorce – not only because Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” and those of his family members and closest associates are catching up with him, and not even because the man is an embarrassment too great for even the terminally greedy to abide. When the marriage craps out, it will be because it is becoming clear to the GOP leadership that Trump cannot be trusted, that he will betray everyone and everything whenever it suits his unpredictable and always transient purpose.
This is becoming more obvious all the time – to such an extent that it is dawning even on Trump’s most resolute rank-and-file supporters that their savior would lie down with Crooked Hillary herself, if he thought there was some percentage in it.
Trump has already made nice with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Could he be angling for a different marriage of convenience made in hell, this time with Clintonite Democrats who, unlike Hillary, have finally moved on?
When the realization that this is possible finally and fully registers in the minds of the profoundly benighted, the time when the Donald could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose support, as he famously boasted he could, will be over. The chaos will subside, the Donald will be toast, and it will stop feeling as if Heraclitus got the American political scene spot on right.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump was on course for wrecking the GOP, but when the Electoral College handed him the presidency last November, that prospect seemed to fade away. It now looks like it was only put on hold.
There is hope for Democrats too. Thanks to initiatives from Trump opponents who had previously been acquiescent or politically inactive, and to indications that, with single-payer health insurance as an intra-party wedge issue, the Sanders-Warren wing of that neoliberal party may actually be getting off the Clinton treadmill, it is at least possible that it will fracture too. It would be premature to celebrate such a development, and there is no guarantee, in any case, that that the consequences would be beneficial. But it is not too soon to hope.
If Trump does irreparably harm the Republican Party, and if he has indeed set in motion forces that will wreck the Democratic Party “as we know it” as well, then, if the world is not destroyed in the process, the Trumpian moment may someday seem, in retrospect, to have been a blessing in disguise, a positive development of historical dimensions.
There are obviously better and cleaner ways to undo the duopoly system that has degraded our politics so profoundly. For the time being though, like the fox’s sour grapes, they lie out of reach.
Bernie Sanders is not about to split the Democratic Party, much less to lead a political revolution, as his “Our Revolution” followers claim. The tragedy is that he could if he wanted to, but he doesn’t and won’t.
On the other hand, Jill Stein would, but cannot – not with corporate media working assiduously to hold the line.
Compared to Sanders, Stein would be as good or better in every way – especially on matters of empire and war and peace. But, as the Green Party’s candidate in the past two presidential contests, her efforts were bound to fail; and there is no reason to expect that it will be any different in the years ahead.
And so Trump is all there is. If the Mueller investigation goes well, and if Republicans rise to the occasion – in other words, if events unfold just right — Trump’s effect on the duopoly will come to be seen as a gift that neither he nor anyone else intended to provide.
Any beneficial consequences that follow would be no less welcome on that account; it would not be the first time that the end has justified unseemly means. Like the fox in the fable, persons seeking progressive change would just have to adapt.
It would be one more irony to add onto History’s long list if, for his own nefarious reasons, Trump ends up transforming the political scene in ways more beneficial than even the handful of genuinely progressive Democrats dare to imagine.
If, despite himself, Trump somehow pulls that off, he could almost be forgiven for the harm he has done, and for the all-consuming flux now enveloping our imperiled world.
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).