In Defense Of Politics (Jonathan Cole)

In an age in which the degeneration of politicians, political institutions, and political culture—let’s call it “politics”—is fast becoming something of an unquestioned article of faith, a defense of such politics sounds decidedly unfashionable at best, and insolent at worst.

I maintain that too much of the widespread negative evaluation of Western politics lacks an explicit, consistent or discernible set of objective criteria upon which to support and substantiate such negative evaluations of a concept as complex as politics. I maintain as a corollary that prevailing negative criticism of politics similarly lacks an objective measure by which to convincingly substantiate claims of political degeneration, claims often dependent on subjective readings of history and/or posited future political trajectories.

The defense of politics I wish to mount, then, is actually a type criticism. Indeed, at risk of gross inelegance, it is a critique of political critique.

For the sake of clarification, I do not embark on a defense of the quality, integrity, or competence of the existing class of politicians and their parties, nor the institutions that mediate their political activity. Moreover, the reader can take it for granted that I accept the legitimacy of political criticism and understand the vital function it plays in a healthy democracy.

I further accept that particular protagonists in the current political arena are liable to criticism, and in many cases have earned legitimate censure. In this vein, I do not wish to argue that the current state of Western politics is laudable or good. My critique of the prevailing negative assessment of politics leaves open the possibility that we are, in fact, witnessing a dangerous degeneration of Western politics.

What I do claim is that degeneration theses often do not sufficiently take into consideration certain natural constraints on human collective action that ought to moderate our expectations of what is achievable in politics, and thus temper (but certainly not prevent) our criticism. The essence of my defense of politics is that its criticism could benefit from a more realist foundation. I contend that such a realist foundation could open a pathway to the development of compelling, explicit and objective criteria against which to judge political performance.

I will restrict myself to discussion of three constraints that I believe constitute grounds for tempering (putting on a more realistic footing) the prevalent negative judgments about the state and nature of our current politics.

The Transcendence of Politics

Reality as we humans experience it is fundamentally transcendent. This truth has recently come into stark relief through the digital revolution which has made accessible in ways previously unimagined mountains of data, theories, argument, testimony, opinion, and artistic expression—lets call it “knowledge”Saint P. Even controlling for the detritus that assaults our senses daily through multiple digital orifices, the sheer weight of valuable intellectual knowledge that is now available and that one would have to absorb and understand in order to even begin to build something resembling a picture of reality transcends the intellectual capacity of any single human mind.

More importantly, it utterly transcends the confines of any single human life. There simply are not enough hours in a day, and not enough days in the course of a human life for even the greatest minds to do more than scratch the surface of the breadth and depth of the continually accumulating body of available knowledge. Moreover, this knowledge is always incomplete, sometimes inconsistent and often contested, even amongst experts.

Politics, as a quintessential human endeavor, is highly constrained by the transcendence of knowledge. That is to say that no single political actor or group of actors working in concert (political party, institution etc) can possibly hope to have all of the relevant, and often even the essential, facts at their disposal in order to build a complete and accurate picture of all of the variables and dynamics that shape the political environment.

Moreover, political actors must navigate waters routinely upset by disputed facts and the absence of reliable data (uncertainty), not to mention crises demanding action before all relevant facts can be consolidated and assessed. This transcendence of knowledge was evident to the apostle Paul, who wisely noted: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (1 Cor. 12:9–10, 12, NRSV).

It is not only political actors who are constrained by the ‘partial’ and who are forced to look into a mirror dimly. Their critics too are hamstrung by incomplete access to the facts, incomplete comprehension of all relevant variables, along with the complex interaction of these variables, particularly on the international stage where one finds a coterie of independent and sometimes mercurial actors (think Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump alike). Yet critics often conduct their criticism as though reality were complete and not mediated by a mirror, completely unforgiving of the natural constraints that the transcendence of knowledge imposes on even the most capable political operators.

The partial nature of our access to reality is a primary reason that good people seeking to realize the political good can be so tragically captive to error. It is also a reason why politics is perpetually an arena of contest rather than consensus. Partial access to reality opens the door to conflicting views of that reality and consequently to mutually exclusive political visions sometimes promising precisely the same political good. The unbridgeable transcendence of reality ought to moderate the ideal politics against which many of us tacitly appear to judge real politics.

The Constraints of  Biology

Human biology is a significant constraint on politics. Take communication as an example. Humans can only communicate with a finite number of other humans at any one time and in any single period (however defined). Modern communication technologies have certainly made it easier to communicate with ever greater numbers of people, but political actors are still constrained by the physical limits on communication.

A political actor can only participate in so many meetings in a day. They can only make so many telephone calls. There is even a limit to how many tweets, no matter how inane, one can physically send in a day while engaging in other duties. A certain amount of time must be spend attending to human physical needs, like sleep and nutrition, though many political actors valiantly try and defy both.

It follows, then, that no political actor can hope to consult and communicate with all constituents and relevant experts, officials, colleagues and organizations all of the time. Communication and consultation are therefore partial, which is to say constrained, in the same way that the absorption of relevant information is. The list of biological constraints could very easily be expanded. The point is that some criticism of politics fails to sufficiently take into consideration the natural constraints on political action imposed by human biology and the linear nature of our time-bound biological existence.

Human biology then should also be factored into the development of objective criteria against which actual politics is judged. Like the transcendence of reality, the constraints of human biology are also a regular cause of political failure, even if in the somewhat mundane sense of the inability of tired, overworked political actors with stressed personal relationships to perform optimally in their political roles.

The Constraints of Human Nature

Politics is a thoroughly human affair. The essence of politics is people, not systems and laws. The latter cannot exist, and have no meaning, in the absence of the people who create them, utilize them, and in turn are affected by them. There is unending debate about human nature and its potential. Debates aside, however, we all learn soon enough that humans are far from perfect creatures.

So in addition to humans having to contend with extrinsic constraints on their political activity, they must also face intrinsic constraints that retard political effectiveness: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19, NRSV). James Madison wisely observed that, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” (“Federalist Paper 51”). One could add as a corollary that: “If men were angels, government would be perfect.”

There is simply no conceivable way to prevent the talented but malevolently motivated, or the well-intentioned but incompetent, from entering the political arena. Moreover, there is no realistic way to ensure that the good and the intelligent never make bad political decisions. Thus in addition to the natural constraints of human biology discussed above, one must add the natural constraints imposed by human psychology, and the way that what used to be known as human ‘appetites’ constrain what can be achieved through collective human enterprise (these constraints can be seen in every social organism, from the business, to the football team to the family).

Yet we still often succumb to one of two temptations that betray our blindness to the constraining effects of human nature on politics. On the one hand we continue to invest heroic hope in political messiahs beyond all reason in light of the biological and psychological limitations of human beings, as well as the fundamental transcendence of (political) reality. On the other hand we then crucify political actors for daring to fall short of the impossible hopes we invest in them, as if we truly expected our affairs to be governed by angels. 

Conclusion

I have contended that pessimistic assessments of the current state of Western politics all too often lack an explicit, objective and realistic set of criteria by which to substantiate such pronouncements. Much political criticism tacitly assumes an ideal political reality against which actual political performance can be judged. But this ideal is often left undefined and is entirely unbound from any constraining factors actually present in reality.

There is perhaps no greater evidence of the natural constraints on politics than the uncanny ability of utopian evolutions ultimately resemble the regimes they set out to destroy. Living in the wake of the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to learn just how much continuity there in fact was between the new and ancien regimes (The Ancien Regime and the Revolution). George Orwell understood that which bemused de Tocqueville.

In his novel Animal Farm, the pigs ultimately take up residence in the farmhouse and assume the role of the despised and deposed humans. For at the end of the day, the farm was still a farm and there is a finite number of ways to run a farm. The fact of the matter is that politics is bound and delimited by nature (in the widest sense). It is neither a tabula rasa nor a realm of infinite possibility.

This is not a new insight. Aristotle well understood in the fourth century BC that there are a finite number of ways to divide property and assign power in any political society (Politics, Book II). Hannah Arendt has wryly observed that “not a single novel form of government has been added for 2,500 years” (“The Great Tradition I. Law and Power,” p.715).

I do not stand against political criticism per se. I genuinely believe it plays a vital function in any free and healthy political society. If political criticism, however, is to play a positive and constructive function in our contemporary political life, then it must be anchored in much greater realism about the natural constraints on human cooperation.

I therefore stand with the fallen humans seeking to perform tasks better assigned to angels, all in the admirable hope of realizing some common good, and I defend them (at least the best of them) from criticism that measures them against the impossible standard of an undefined ideal politics that is perpetually promised but is yet to rub shoulders with history.

Jonathan Cole is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is currently translating (Greek to English) a book by Christos Yannaras called The Effable and the Ineffable: The Linguistic Boundaries of Metaphysical Realism for Winchester University Press (2018). He is also writing a book called Orthodox and Evangelical Political Theology in Conversation: A Comparative Analysis of the Political Ontologies of Christos Yannaras and Oliver O’Donovan for Fordham University Press (2019). He is a contributing editor to The New Polis.

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