Polarization and the Power Paradox
Mark is a student of the liberal arts residing in Boston, Massachusetts. He has an M.A. degree in international policy and development and is first and foremost engaged in studying the relationship between individuals and collective identities, particularly the movement of people across the political, cultural, and social boundaries such identities create. Mostly though, Mark spends his time watching baseball, playing music, forgetting to learn French, and eagerly awaiting the time when being a generalist is sexy again.
It will likely come as little surprise that in 2020, after nearly four years of fake news, alternative facts, and investigations, we find ourselves in the throes of a true political paradox. It is a paradox of power, a conundrum of polarization, a lunacy of isolation in which we now live. During my fortunate spell of a quarantine alone in the north woods of Maine, I’ve found something akin to revelation in the revisited pages of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. The book itself frequently reads more as a survey of political philosophy, a study from a vantage often thousands of years distant, than it does an original treatise on the ways of human nature. This, one slowly realizes, is only a trick of Arendt’s prodigious breadth of knowledge and literary talent. Her creativity and distinctive understanding of the human condition is only revealed in the totality of the work itself, although the numerous footnoted rabbit holes along the way gave me my first tastes of her genius.
My revelation came with the simple Hellenic hypothesis that the polis — the body politic, the people —exists anywhere the “sharing of words and deeds” takes place. Anywhere people go, the polis goes with them: that is, the potential for a political community anchored in the public good; the wellbeing of the individual and the collective. For there is more than just an idealized political community implied by the term polis, more than just the political structures and national identities that reside in the sharing of acts and speech. I seek neither to equate the conditions of an idealized Greek city state with those of the modern nation state, nor to advocate for such a transformation to occur. Rather, my aim is to explore the relationship between two fundamental concepts of the term polis as it pertains to modern political communities: action and shared reality in America and their intersection in the realm of public interest.
Following the logic of Arendt, the political implications of this relationship are grounded in nothing less than human nature itself: its insistent natality, the need to create; and its inherent plurality, the diversity of individuals. When people create through words and deeds, they disclose bits of their unique experience — this is called action. Without a public to bear witness to the fleeting expressions of our intangible selves, our original ideas and creations would have nowhere to become manifest, nothing great would ever occur, and our unique identities would never be known. Only in the context of a collective, counterintuitively, is the nature of an individual disclosed and acted upon. Of course, the action of individuals requires a shared reality in which acts can appear; but a shared reality in turn presupposes the action of individuals for its manifestation, and for its continued existence among its members, who are after all individuals. Said differently, action both expresses the uniqueness of the individual and affirms a degree of “sameness in utter diversity” — the underpinning of shared reality.
In the political sense, action and shared reality are locked in contradiction: a political community needs individual acts to get stuff done, to deliver its political goods, but it also needs these individuals to possess a degree of mutual understanding, a shared reality, before they can cooperate and define political agendas. A shared reality might exist in a political community that seeks complete homogeneity and obedience — for example, let us consider a political community grounded in white supremacy—but in such a space truly individual action would be discouraged for the simple reason that oppression violates the human nature of plurality. Likewise, individual action might be possible in an anarchic society devoid of rules or governments, but without a public collective our very concept of reality would vanish into billions of ephemeral dreamscapes, for there would be no object upon which to agree, only many subjects with closed-loop perspectives and secret fantasies. Reinvention of the wheel would become a household tradition. The perspective offered by political philosophy’s discussion of the polis permits us to disentangle the components of a political community guided by the public good, rather than one concerned exclusively with the wellbeing of particular groups or individuals. More than anything, the balancing act between the collective and the individual, between action and shared reality, is shaped by the pendulum of power: the enforcement a social contract through people acting together. When power is not acted upon to maintain these conditions, it disappears and the scales tip. Use it or lose it.
Through it all, this is the line that sings to my contemporary ears more than any other: “power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
So what can the concept of a polis tell us about the state of our republic? Does the American political community operate for the public good? That’s where my mind wandered amongst these 70-year-old lines, and yet I was confused, the world seems but a marshy muddle against the smooth prairielands of philosophy. Looking for answers, I thought I saw a paradox staring back at me: a global internet of connections and information flowing between people, yet accelerating inequality, misinformation, and polarization; a massively powerful government and a number of promising movements and even politicians calling for change, yet historic gridlock and seemingly insurmountable barriers to the realization of that change — instead, the American public has become less free. On its surface, the executive branch of government has afforded itself more power than at any other point in time, both in terms of US and world history. The President of the United States has at his discretion the use of apocalyptic force, the capacity to locate and monitor almost anyone in the country, the immediate means to mobilize or detain human and economic goods and services to and from nearly anywhere on the planet, and the ability to be heard by millions, even billions of people whenever he likes. Down the road, the United States Congress controls the purse strings of the wealthiest country to ever exist and commands the passage of bills that can decide the rights of citizens, who gets to be citizens at all, and a plethora of life-altering conditions.
It appears there is power aplenty in the good ol’ USA, and yet it also occurs to me how seldom it is ever used in the public interest: true action consisting of words and deeds. Words from the powerful are generally severed from actions—the campaign promise immortalized. Speeches are filled with gassy rhetoric, fearmongering falsehoods, and partisan attacks. Every lie, every derogation, every perpetuation of oppression only serves to conceal and to break down further the remnants of whatever shared vision we may wish to call America. And if there is power, where is the polis where the people might exchange ideas and achieve greatness? Where is the lively public association that captured de Tocqueville’s heart? Is the power I have described even really power at all, or is it merely fiat and the kind of legislative process the Greeks once compared to carpentry: menial frameworks perhaps necessary for the use of power but not in themselves power as such? Indeed, it seems to me that what I have described is not power at all, but merely force and violence used in the best cases to ensure stability and security in the face of division and international threats, and in the worst instances to actively oppress and exclude individuals from participating in the civic life of a shared reality defined along racial and economic lines. Power consists of action, which is something intangible, requiring public space and witness to become tangible and inspire future action. Even if we consider the work of Congress and the Federal Government to be exercises of power, a place of action, is Congress not in the midst of historic gridlock? How much transparency do we really have when it comes to the influence of private interests? Do the President’s actions ever really change my daily life? American governance possesses a lack of real power because it does not represent the public interest nor the diversity of its citizens, while at the same time political parties and office holders actively advance polarized realities (rather than creating a more inclusive shared reality) and build barriers to the public interest’s influence in politics: meaningful change. The words and deeds of most politicians cannot be classified as truly public political actions precisely because they are veiled and falsified, having little to do with the public they ostensibly serve, but rather with the private interests they actually serve.
In America, it seems, power is rarely actualized: an odd paradox in an era smelling of despotism. At this inconsistency I turn once more to the venerable Mrs. Arendt, who finds the political strongman to be fundamentally a fraud: anyone achieving great deeds that claims to act alone, by the sole power of their immense will and character, in actuality relies on many followers to carry out his deeds, without whom nothing of note would have been acknowledged or indeed accomplished at all. On the other side of the despotic coin, it remains to reason, is silhouetted a truly solitary figure who only sounds strong and pretends to have the passionate following of the multitudes, having in reality accomplished nothing at all approaching greatness. Neither sort holds significant political power (only force and strength), requiring as power does transparency among and relationships between actors in a public realm. Despotism, in other words, is the ham-handed attempt to mime power through big talk and threats of violence.
In a land lacking power, how can a political community deliver change? In a land with so much prerogative afforded to private interests, how can public spaces be created that bring people into contact with the diverse range of individuals living in America? Is it really any wonder that America is more divided than ever before when there is no power acting for the public interest? To take this all too literally, one often needs a map to find the physical public spaces hidden in warrens of private high rises and commercial holdings. In Boston, and perhaps elsewhere, too, they call these Privately Owned Public Spaces. Despite our tremendous diversity, stuck in a mire of work, bills, loans, inequalities and social norms it is both physically and mentally improbable for many of us to circumnavigate the social fences of our times to arrive in the same public space, virtually or physically. A true, representative meeting of people in public is today something approaching a small miracle, only miracles can happen anywhere and anytime, while only scrupulously demarcated zones are considered public.
If there is little power acting in the public interest, what is the status of our shared reality? We have now watched as three and a half years have gone by, and not one day lacked a moment of disputed fact, declared conspiracy, or defended falsity. All the while, violence — political, racial, ideological — has raged across every state, met too often by silence and inconsistent dispensations of blame. The lens through which we observe these cascades of controversy and violence is even more fractured than the events themselves: each of us peeking through the keyhole of a Twitter account or a cell phone. There isn’t a form of speech more divorced from action and remembrance than a Tweet or a comment section, cheaply released into the universe in anonymity, ready to be deleted. This dissolution of shared objective realities into bias-confirming, homogenizing clusters approaches, chunk by chunk, a political society where everything is contested subjectively; where political agendas and norms of behavior are purely self-referencing. Whether an individual, an online group, a social milieu, a tv network, a business, or a political party, potential actors increasingly reference information from within their exclusive circles and define acceptable behavior according to their immediate needs and pressures, rather than objective truths and shared principles. In the absence of unifying points, political positions and norms swing wildly. Things change, perhaps, but according to private, not public, interests. Cooperation, action in the public interest, is not likely to occur in these conditions. In such a liquid society, as Arendt’s contemporary Zygmunt Bauman called it, even facts, like temperature or population, have now succumbed to debate. Remember: if there is no object, nothing we all see together in public, there can be no objective reference points that guide action. As Arendt intuited even before the digital age, without shared reality we approach in virtual form the predictions of Heracles, spending our time absorbed in billions of exclusive dream-realities. “Eerie”, I whisper to myself as I read on…
Long before the quarantines were enacted, we were socially distanced from each other enough to preclude the existence of a durable public political community informed by political action and a truly shared reality. The differences between February and March are stark, there is no doubt about that: we were far more social then than now. However, we were only rarely socializing in the political sense of the word: interacting in a plural, transparent space through actions, expressing ourselves in the hopes of doing something worth remembering — meaningful action, change. Power passes and empires collapse: in quarantine conditions, obliged to live in private, we have reached a low point of publicly shared, objective experience, and an ascension of private, subjective interests. If the public interest is not well represented, if shared reality is everywhere undermined, what other than private interests should we expect to gain influence? Along privatized political topography, we witness how the most advantaged private interests among private interests climb the highest: the richest individuals, the largest companies, the most well connected interest groups, the most partisan politicians — all have gained, strategically shifting with the wind values and principles once considered permanent, while the public interest continues to suffer. Like every fall and ascent, the forces of momentum began before the outcome: as with every crisis presumed to be caused externally, the seeds of disaster took root from within. Only in the present moment, when government mandates bind the endless turnings of human activity, are we finally aware just how much our lives are contingent upon a public world in which to appear, however small and circumscribed. Of course, we continue to share our humanity, our plurality, and our rights to a dignified existence, but only rarely is our shared human nature permitted to express itself in the realm of politics. It’s worth noting that if we cannot appear in public to act, if there isn’t even an idealistic hope of the polis glinting through the clouds, we are not so much living as distinct human beings, but toiling as equally consuming and producing beings leaving no lasting impressions whatsoever, creating no memories to pass on, creating no realities through action. It’s no coincidence that the human rights to freedom and liberty are inseparable from that of dignity.
When societies reopen, will the thirst for public activity spur renewed demand for public spaces and for political powers that fight for their interests? Will we engage in more meaningful and authentic exchanges and emerge from our digitally fragmented silos? What long neglected ambitions and life’s works, nursed now into desperate maturity, will suddenly appear onto the public scene, memorialized by an opening political community? Perhaps this intimate danger to our health, which threatens even the secluded dream-realities that we so cherish, will awaken a demand for shared perspectives and a disdain for veils and falsehoods of all kinds.
While I once answered negatively to these questions, the Black Lives Matter movement offers a resounding reminder of the ever-present possibility of political action. Although the pandemic continues to emphasize the toll of a fragmented collective reality on public wellbeing — in which the disappearance of objectivity has a profound impact upon behavior like distancing and wearing a mask — the BLM protests display the power of a diverse group of individuals, millions strong, all acting within a shared reality: the demand for racial equality and an end to police violence against Black lives. At least in the short term, it could even be suggested that the BLM movement has created or broadened this shared reality among new members: opinion polls, public declarations of support and actual policy changes (enacted and pending) both indicate that this collective vision is simultaneously expanding and resulting in a cascade of action in the public interest. Naturally, whether this cascade can reach the point of effective long-term structural change is yet to be seen. To be sure, the BLM movement has met with no shortage of counter protests, misinformation, continued police violence and violence against protesters that attest to the complexity of a deeply divided and subjective society whose liquid attributes are readily made use of by individuals and groups to gain political influence and achieve sinister private agendas.
The prevailing wind of human interaction is unpredictability: what I want may not be what she thinks or what they do. Yet the nature of polis politics — power for the public interest, the inclusive intersection of shared reality with individual action — lies in its potential to exist wherever there are people. The last in a page-long string of revelations was that the German word for power, Macht, originates not from the verb to make, machen, as I had assumed, but from mögen, the root word for potentiality and possibility. It’s always possible for power to emerge amongst people acting and speaking together, I know I’ve seen it on street corners and in the Silhouette Lounge, when a sudden confluence of ideas turns idle conversation into feverish planning, impassioned professing and unflinching action. Action conceived not as a means to an end, action that is self-evident because it simply has to be enacted. When we fully return to our public lives, we will reenter a murky realm of uncertainty, in which private demands and anxieties shove public discourse to the margins, and where only paradox and possibility prevails. Instead of Twitter, TV, or the subjective distractions sought inside yourself, go to the parks, haunt the dives, cook up vats of soup and share them with others: only by creating, revealing, and sharing can a the public interest hope to thrive. Oftentimes I’ll do none of these things, but I’ll think about doing them and that may be worse or better…I don’t know. Who knows but you and I? Words and deeds, friends, words and deeds.