Monday, June 4, 2018

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla

Published in 2001, new 2016 afterword
I'm going to do what a good reviewer probably shouldn't do, but life is short and sometimes its good to cut to the nub. Below you'll find the concluding paragraphs of this book by Mark Lilla, and if you read nothing else beyond these paragraphs, you'll have gained a significant value from the book--or at least I did. The topic of the book, generally speaking, is about political thinking by intellectuals in the 20th century, and more specifically, those who in the author's opinion (and mine), took a wrong term. But without further palaver, Lilla's concluding paragraphs:

There is certainly no reason to be nostalgic for the old ideologies and their Jesuits. But that is not to say that the problems they addressed were imaginary or beyond human reckoning. The grand systems were to be resisted because in the end they were inadequate to the task they took up, not because their ambition was wholly misguided. Their failures revealed the need for a more demanding ambition: to understand the present without self-deception. They did not signify the will to make sense of it is futile.

Yet that will has unmistakeably withered since this book was first published [2001]. It has been replaced by a soft dogma for which we have no adequate name. This dogma begins with basic liberal principles like the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, and the distrust of public authority, and advances no further. It is politically democratic but lacks awareness of democracy's weaknesses and how they can provoke hostility and resentment. It promotes economic growth with unreflective faith in the cost-free benefits of free trade, deregulation, and foreign investment. Since it presumes that individuals are all that count, it has next to nothing to say about collectivities and their enterprises, and the duties that come with them. It has a vocabulary for discussing rights and identities and feelings, but not class or other social realities. (The fact that race is now largely conceived as a problem of individual identity and not one of collective destiny requiring sacrifices to reach a common goal, as it was by the American civil rights movement, is significant.) 
This dogma is at once anti-political and anti-intellectual. It cultivates no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. It has no use for sociology or psychology or history, not to mention political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary and productive tension between individual and collective purposes. It is simplicity itself. This explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it yet draw very different conclusions from it. Small-government fundamentalists on the American right and anarchists on the European left, absolutist civil libertarians and neoliberal evangelists of free markets—the differences between them are superficial. What they share is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, nonpejoratively, a prejudice.

Ideologies inspire lies. But what is a lie? It is a pretense to speaking truth about the world—and thus betrays a recognition that people are after it. Dogmas inspire instead ignorance and indifference. They convince people that a single idea or principle is sacred and all they need to know in order to act in the world. Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised, evidence must be accounted for or explained away. Because ideology makes a claim about the way the world actually works, it invites and resists refutation. A dogma does not. It kills curiosity and intellectual ambition by rendering them pointless. Our unreflective creed is little different from Luther’s sola fide [by faith alone]: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus [perish the world].

An ideology gives people the illusion of understanding more than they do. Today we seem to have renounced trying to understand as much as we can. We suffer from a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention to look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in the great modern ideologies still remained in the West. But it also left us incurious and self-absorbed. We have abdicated.

And so we need reminding, of many things. Reminding that the problems of capitalist democracies today—the hollowing out of the middle class, the erosion of family and community, the rage against the elites, the eclipse of political parties, widespread indifference to the public interest— cannot be grasped or addressed by focusing single-mindedly on individuals and their rights. Reminding that dealing with people outside our enchanted garden requires more than toleration and concerns with individual human rights. Reminding that we need a much deeper understanding of their histories and psychologies, free from idealization and fear and attentive to the explosive political power of pride and resentment. Reminding, finally, that the lure of tyranny is not the only force that pulls intellectuals off course. Self-deception has countless forms. Today, a decade and a half after its publication, my hope is that The Reckless Mind still serves as just such a reminder.

                                                                                                                --Paris, June 2016 
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (with a New Afterword) pp. 225-227

Mark Lilla's book is a collection of essays about 20th-century intellectuals who ventured into writing and thinking about politics, often with distressing implications. Each chapter was written as a review of the works of the chapter subjects (the first chapter involves three thinkers, the rest address only a single thinker), but the collection works thematically. In brief, some very prominent European thinkers were either very wrong (or ineffective) about politics. Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt made camp with the Nazis (although Heidegger backed away, he never recanted his venture). Walter Benjamin and Alexandre Kojeve both skirted with radical politics and with unorthodox thinking. Although Kojeve held significant posts in the French government after his time as a lecturer on Hegel, he never acted overtly to implement a particular program consistent with his more radical thinking. Lilla also discusses the work of Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida, neither of whom contributed directly to political theory, although became influential about political thinking indirectly. But both followed the French intellectual fashion of commenting on contemporary politics, with sometimes embarrassing conclusions (the same may be said of Sartre, by the way).

I write none of the above to necessarily denigrate some aspects of the thinkers that Lilla discusses. With all thinkers, one gets both wheat and chaff (although too many are long on the latter). The fact that Hannah Arendt championed Heidegger (even late in life) and Benjamin gives us an indication of the value of their thought even as she would remain hostile to some of their political thought and action.

Lilla's essays provide an effective inoculation against taking in the speculations of philosophers-- especially politically naive philosophers--without a lot of critical judgment. Politics is informed by thought, but it consists of innumerable calculations of interest and belief that will continually defy easy schemes or remedies. As Lilla points out in the quote at the beginning of this review, it's easy to slip into either dogma or ideology when considering politics. I think he would agree with Hannah Arendt (and me) that political thought and action requires thinking--making judgments in the midst of the nitty-gritty stuff of everyday reality as experienced in the public sphere.

An excellent book.

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