A footnote on the pathology of imperialism part 6

article-1246958-08136931000005DC-434_634x410Belfast Plebian

We sort of know from the historical record that there have to be potential economic rewards reaped by intervening in conflicts in the region, but as Syria has very little oil and gas compared to some of the others, some political scientists have concluded that the war must be about future access to fresh water.

There has always been more to imperialism than mere economic determination, there is the question of State of power and what that ultimately means. The politics of States in conflict concerns itself with power, yet political theory has trouble explaining what this actually amounts to. The working definition is that a viable State must hold a monopoly on power and no political regime can afford to give it up without a fight, so what is happening in Syria is a tug of war over State power. It is less about the type of regime i.e. a democracy or oligarchy than it is about State power.

What type of political regime comes to hold State power in Syria is of some importance to the people of the region but less so for the external interveners, none of them have democratic intentions or credentials, especially the democrats who form the Western interveners, the recent example of Egypt proves it. The western powers have been nearly coming to blows over who gets to sell the military regime military and police equipment.

Most people say they are sickened by politics, some complain about government policies, some about financial corruption, but everyone is sickened by the lies that come with politics. A few political theorists, for example Hannah Arendt cling to a romantic account of a life dedicated to public service or politics.  She respected, even admired, those statesmen dedicated to politics but still thought it necessary to account for the super abundance of lies that stain the reputations of them all

She once made an argument that philosophers, starting with Plato, had too much sway over our understanding of politics; that they held a negative viewpoint about it, and were too preoccupied with finding the truth to bother with the nonsense of it all.  She worried that if good people refused to care about politics the very worst would have their way with it. She felt that the European Jews suffered so much at the hands of Hitler and Stalin because they wanted to know as a people who took no part in politics. The philosopher Blaise Pascal explained the existence of the works about politics coined by Plato and Aristotle by reminding us that ‘this was the least philosophic and the least serious part of their life . . . they wrote of politics as if they had to bring order into a madhouse.’

What I found most interesting about the Lance Armstrong documentary was the part the intelligent telling of lies played in shaping the story. His story started out with one major lie known about by a few friends to get the cheating process started and it just got bigger and more elaborate.  All sorts of friends had to be inducted into a growing web of lies, new lies to cover up for gaps in the old ones. It is interesting, that I did not think he was abnormal in the psychiatric way of having a personality disorder until near the end of his career as a champion, until he started telling lies on national television about others including friends. It seems that abnormal behaviour does not show up much as any sort of failure in logic or rationality, or an inability to cope with life or anything feeble like that, rather it came to attention just as a proliferation of lies. People began to wonder why there is so much lying taking place.

If we follow the story as a political one, we can say that in democracies, political logic or rationality sometimes goes in the same direction.  A few lies are told to get things moving, maybe some lies are thought necessary to become party leader, then some more serious lies are told to get elected into government, and when in power the politician begins to tell even more lies and the longer they stay in government the more the lies accumulate, until in the end they are often denounced as an out and out liar. How many successful political careers now follow the same path?  The question comes up, why does the quantity and quality of lies keep increasing until the day comes that the public demand a fresh start in the form of a new government or a new political leader?

If we think about the Lance Armstrong case things began on a big lie from the start, although this is not always applicable in politics. What happens is that the rationality, or political wisdom is not well founded at the beginning and then quickly falls apart in a welter of contradictions, or the rationality comes up against the tough reality of the world and can find no solution.  When reason can find no solution the lies begin to substitute for the rationality. The more inadequate the reasoning is, the more lies come to dominate. This might explain why governments fall prey to the need to steadily increase the quota of lies, when the policies that seemed to be grounded in rationality are defeated by reality governments do nothing else but invent lies to cover for the failure.

Imperialist politics comes out worst on this score; as I pointed out earlier the very theories of international relations seem to sanction lying from the very outset. The plan by the western governments to change the regime in Syria has failed, so we are into the failure and lying on an epic scale phase. Recent history is about to be rewritten to suggest that the western governments never wanted to get rid of the Assad regime in the first place, that they never encouraged the foreign fighters, that they were only ever in this conflict to smash Islamic State.

It is still the case that terms borrowed from a relatively unproven science called psychiatry are not generally used to describe the political field. The language of political theory is very stale.  Going right back to Aristotle almost every modern science began with an attempted revolution against this one philosopher. The first to oppose his conclusions were the Astronomers; then the Physicists overturned his physics, especially Galelio and then Newton; then the biologists overturned his account of animals and plants, here especially Darwin. Then in around 1910 the new theories of mathematical logic, starting with Frege, and Russell dethroned his syllogistic logic and his dialectic of categories; it is perhaps surprising that the revolution in logic came so late on. Then closer to our time, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger opened up a tribal battle against the metaphysics of Aristotle or his first philosophy.

What then happened with the politics and the economics of Aristotle, was he not also demolished here? Well in one sense he was but in another sense he was not. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes made the argument that in politics ‘Aristotle was the worst who ever wrote’.  When it came to the choice of ancient Greeks he much preferred the historian Thucydides to the philosopher Aristotle. This estimation is prevalent to this day in that the realist theory in international relations claims to find its own inspiration in Thucydides’ history. However in the mind of Hobbes, none of the ancients were of sound calibre because they had no proper conception of what science is and it was only after Galileo Galilei discovered how to apply mathematics to natural things that we really found out what science could become

It was Hobbes who thought that he was the one in the best position to knock Aristotle down from his ruling perch concerning political and legal education. He hoped to have his own works replace the ones of Aristotle in the best schools and universities. One can also make the case that Adam Smith and his students intended to do the same thing with regard to the science of economics. There could be no science without the imitation of the mathematical method, this is what Hobbes taught. He claimed that his own deductive account of politics was the future because it was based on knowledge of axioms.

The difficulty facing Hobbes and Smith was twofold; Aristotle did not believe that politics, ethics and economics could become a science in the modern sense. This philosopher thought that in science you must let your expectations be determined by the object to be studied.  Some objects are more resistant to scientific research than others and these included human objects.  He did not say that knowledge concerning politics and economics was never to be had, only that the knowledge we do have does not have all the attributes of theoretical knowledge.

The second difficult is that the deductions made in modern social science owe their worth to the fact that the object being studied is skipped over in favour of delight with the method deployed in the study. The followers of Aristotle argued that the new scientific method was implicitly idealist, meaning that the conclusions that are reached are due more to the method used than the object to be understood. This complaint is particularly strong in regard to modern mathematical economics that many believe has lost sight of the object to be understood. Also it was said that if Hobbes succeeded were Aristotle had once failed, then how come hardly anyone beyond his own lifetime agreed with the conclusions he made concerning the nature of good Government. The books of Aristotle were taught in the best schools for 700 hundred years, those of his opponents barely lasted for 50.

The problem we find with Aristotle is not that he did not pass down to us a sound method for the scientific study of politics and economics, rather he did not tell us much about the part played by unsupported dogma in science and crucially about lying and propaganda in political life. The enemy of truth in philosophy is error, the enemy of rationality is incoherence or contradiction, it is not deliberate lying and its soul mates conscious deception, propaganda, advertising and the PR machine. You will not find in the works of the philosophers an account of how these important things came to play such a central role in political life. The small drop of knowledge we have gleaned from the unproven science of psychiatry is of very recent origin, although it might be of some use if it can give us an insight in the twisted world of lies and deceit.

Finally it is not the case that capitalism and its economy is not something that cannot be understood within the bounds of normal reason. There is a rational core in capitalism and even in imperialism that is predictable. We can go a long way in understanding the power struggles of States on the world stage by just following the money. However we have become so used in recent years to following the story of the successes of imperialism that we have forgotten that it sometimes fails. It has failed in Iraq, in Afghanistan and is failing in Syria. When imperialism fails we are often confronted with an aftermath of immense destruction.

This aftermath is also to be easily found in the three failures mentioned. It is the pathology of political failure that we have been concerned with here not with the rationality of the success. The pathology of failure is not just about violence and destruction it is also about lies and deception on an epic scale. And in one way the lies and deception are more important than the violence and destruction, because to move on to the next struggle you have to make people think the previous one was not so bad after all.

I for one am not convinced that the western governments have for one moment really accepted that they got things drastically wrong over Iraq, for a little while they merely pretended that they got it wrong, Tony Blair and George Bush made fools of us all, especially concerning the weapons of mass destruction. They can always offer the sceptical voters a revised or false account of the reasons for the failure, with the rider that we will get it right this time. Lies are very important in politics.

concluded

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