The Eternal Political Catch-22: Between Purity and Compromise

Suzanne Moore argues:

“We don’t need self-serving arguments about authenticity. Wake up! Leadership now is not simply a matter of authenticity, but often its opposite: what the University College London professor Ken Spours, in a paper for the thinktank Compass, calls shapeshifting. Johnson is a chameleon, and modern conservatism is opportunism presented as modernisation: it has an ability to meld wildly different views, and adapt.”

“Shapeshifting” has always been present in politics; Orwell called it “doublethink.” But it’s not merely shameless opportunism, it’s rather the ability to authentically believe contradictory viewpoints. It is immunity to cognitive dissonance. This is what is so hard for people who are prone to such anxieties – people with shame – to understand about power-seekers like Trump or Johnson. We imagine that they are conscientiously lying, fully aware that they are misleading people. We imagine that their machinations are deliberate, calculated, and they concoct their selfish morality out of a worldview where people are divided into suckers and con men – better to be the latter.

Orwell thought that this wouldn’t be sustainable. The intentional con would break down. A far more resilient means to power would be the ability to genuinely believe the lie, and not even recognize it as such, except when itself is a means to power. Lying, as a concept, for someone like Trump or Johnson, comes in and out of meaning, depending on the needs of the situation. But this is not sociopathy. Trump genuinely believes that he is helping people.

Moore says we need to be “optimistic, visionary and inclusive.” Better to start with that. Fascism has been defeated before.

But Winston Smith loses in the end. He could not know his enemy while knowing himself. He could only understand by submitting.

We can never really understand the enemy. Johnson or Trump or whatever other new face regurgitates fascist tropes is incomprehensible to us. Once you understand, you will have changed. Nietzsche is always echoing in my ears: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

This is the eternal Catch-22 of political struggle in a world where you are trying to stave off those who are not bound to your ethics. If power is the goal, ethics is a burden. This approaches tautology: power over others, no matter how accountable we try to make it, is always an ethical problem.

“These are impure thoughts for the left. It will twist in its virtue while it fades away.”

So we make consequentialist qualifications to justify the strategies that will sustain our political projects. Ethics is relative, afterall. But it turns out time and time again those who are willing to make the biggest strategic compromises are the ones who end up in power. The quest for power itself becomes a strategic compromise.

Indeed, purity is an illusion. We all make compromises everyday. Anyone who lives without compromise has no ethics to begin with. But what our ethics amounts to is precisely where we draw the line on those compromises.

Consequentialism might be enough to justify many of these compromises. But the day might come where we understand our enemy perfectly. And again, the Catch-22: We will have faded away by another means.

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