MINDS PUT OUT OF JOINT BY POLITICAL TIME
1st October, 2020
When we hear of the other epidemic affecting Western society, that of anxiety and depression, it causes us to reflect on how human creatures relate to their environment and their condition. Could it be that those so miserably afflicted have foolish and unreasonable expectations of the main element in which we live – that of time - and are just getting it wrong? Are those who frame political expectations of what time will deliver and how their acolytes relate to such expectations to blame for a modicum of the misery? After all if we didn’t relate properly to the atmospheric elements in which we live and breathe properly we would not fare well.
Although Einstein showed us that time is curved and relative, and, for our entertainment and stimulation HG Wells, Philip K Dick (who, quoting Hamlet, wrote a book called Time Out of Joint), Harold Pinter, Martin Amis - to name but a few writers - and current films like Tenet and TV series like the German Dark all toyed with temporal parameters. However. to all practical intents and purposes, for the sake of our psychological equilibrium, we choose to see time as rectilinear and repetitive. As the dawn lightens and the alarm clock goes off in the morning, from our finite mortal locations, few take Einstein or Dick seriously.
In the sphere of politics the renowned conservative writer and academic, Michael Oakeshott spoke of the ‘Politics of Scepticism’ and the ‘Politics of Faith’. Those of a more conservative bent like him who lean towards the politics of scepticism believe that:
“In political activity . . . men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”
He also warned against:
"...the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress."
Those who embrace the Politics of Faith believe that they are heading for a 'destination’ – perhaps some kind of socialist shangri-la for example which is located on an island just over the horizon. They believe that we can actually arrive at such progressive utopias and exort us with slogans like ‘if you’re not for us you’re against us.’ They haven’t noticed that, in Greek, u-topos means ‘no place.’
Being right or wrong about such matters has enormous consequences. Configuring your psychological geography and, as it usually follows on in animals and human animals, your physiology to a wrong conception of political reality might well lead to society-wide pathologies whose aetiology is a certain cognitive dissonance with the universe. It can’t be beneficial to be in a constant state of anxious, chileastic vexation. The hopes that progressivism will soon lead to a crescendo of peace and happiness in human affairs so that one is eternally on tiptoe waiting for the millennium might lead, as we are constantly disappointed, to the Beckettian inertia and stagnation so well portrayed in Waiting for Godot. If, however, one views life, Oakeshott-like, in terms of blessed, sacred rhythms, occasional local improvements, happy ritual and the joy of merely being alive, conscious and in joyful sexual and familial relations in a stable society might this not be enough to rejoice in and celebrate?
There are, of course, other areas where this kind of millennarianism has infected societal consciousness. Francis Fukuyama reckoned that history was reaching an apotheosis of liberal perfection in the ideas expressed in his The End of History where pinnacle western liberal views would be easily exported to more benighted parts of the world and where “things can only get better“. Of course, the apostles of such views – Tony Blair, George W Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and David Cameron saw them summarily put paid to by Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya in spite of their best efforts.
In the arts too some see a line of progression from the primitive to the formalisms of the classical, through the romantic and then to the fragmentations of modernism and the endless parade of transgressions and arbitrary conceptualisations that art now is. Is the modern state of things really a pinnacle or a culmination of progress or have we recently just followed a line of decay and decline? Is the answer for the modern “art” that has succeeded so triumphantly in alienating common people from it with its ridiculous elitist cliques and coteries of “understanders” to continue with this deathly eschatology? Is it perhaps rather, to regain health and vigour, by abandoning the idea of an upward curve leading somewhere? Should it not rather humbly accept a more banal, grounded straight line where the sacred can properly be revived in day-to-day rituals of gratitude which accept repetition in time as a blessed theme on which endless variations can be played? Perhaps we shouldn’t have so casually scorned the formalisms of former art? Perhaps we would benefit by resurrecting and breathing new life into them? We have left ourselves nowhere to go having made disintegration our gospel. It once made sense by playing off an old integration which gave it meaning but now, existing only in its own right, it is exhausted and has no more to offer.
Perhaps history can be viewed as an ever-changing but ever the same Bach-like miracle rather than as an orgasmic Wagnerian Liebestod or Götterdämmerung-style culmination. We might all be saner for it the next time the universe fails to conform to our unreasonable, ungrateful and hubristic expectations. All of this is, of course a statement of faith that the universe, nature, human nature and human politics can renew themselves, a statement, perhaps, at odds with a more fashionable nihilism.