Man is a“zoon politikon”, a political animal, wrote Aristotle, nearly 2,400 years ago. Yet, 24 centuries later, the desire to turn citizens into unquestioning, unaccountable and servile human beings has become the principal motive for the development of politics in the contemporary world. The rise of populist politicians around the world is harbinger of a worrying trend: zombified populations are marching to the order of big mouth demagogues, with little respect to or comprehension of the political process and practice.
However, the rise of the demagogues is the symptom, not the cause of erosion of public trust and engagement. It can be said that citizenry is only realizable through active participation in the public sphere. Therefore, divisive politics that pushes citizens into small bubbles and preaches nativism contributes to the decline of citizenry. But what is often lost in a political debate is the role of politicians as agents to transform the public discourse and move the society toward innovation and inclusiveness. A brief look at contemporary politics reveals that most shameful eras of our history are coincided by periods of divisive politics which often have contributed to violence and war. On the other hand, inclusiveness and diversity benefit the society in all dimensions. It is no surprise that economic impact of the Civil Rights Movement in America has been enduring and positive.
It appears, therefore, that one of the main weaknesses of contemporary politics is complacency and apathy of the citizens. Besides the common shortcomings of electoral democracies in today’s world, the main obstacle to the resurgence of the political is the lack of outspoken citizenship and the unchallenged hegemony of fear. To understand this, we can turn once to Tocqueville and his Democracy in America: “Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.”
Contrary to demagogues claim, isolation and walls cannot keep us safe, in fact if we are to learn anything from the history is that walls offer no protection against what is perceived and portrayed as others. It can be claimed that what makes a culture enduring is its ability to exchange freely with the world and adopt and transform based on ideas that come through its open doors and borders.
Politics, so we are told, is understood as a strategy for governing humans as social beings. Equally as old as politics, is the political, which has also existed in all times and among human beings, as the public sense of living together. In other words, the role of the political is to safeguard the communal existence of the individuals, or more precisely to preserve and promote exchange and harmony in a human society. That is to say, without a sense of the political, mankind descends into disorder, chaos and barbarity. However, what history teaches us is that human beings are neither good or bad, nor just or unjust by nature. There is no such thing as “radical evil” in history per se, if it has not been created by the work of human beings.
As Voltaire says majestically, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” That is why, the political is the nonviolent management of all conflicts. The political, thus, starts where the violence ends. That is why divisive politics is the breeding ground for violence as it shutters the universe of exchange and promotes isolation and otherness. In other words, being political is our best mean to manage conflict, tame violence and enhance exchange in our society. Being political is to be dialogic, be open and transformable. On the other hand, politics of fear prophesize decline and darkness, only to provide its simple solution, which is only a cloak to fool the population to act as a ladder for ascending and clinging to power.
What we face here is not the question of the practicality of ethics, but that of the limits of the political. But talking about the limits of the political does not means necessarily pointing to its end. For the good reason that the end of the political is the end of history, and more precisely the end of all human struggle for liberty. The question we need to ask is whether the anti-political feature of politics in today’s world has put an end to the questioning on the political itself disabling citizens to comprehend what Alexis de Tocqueville saw as the inherent contradictions of democracy? That is the reason why, even when politics is not a system of domination, it is a conscious process of lying and demagogy a necessitate.
It is important to note that political is the enabling agent of togetherness, without political there is no real citizenry as becoming of individual is contingent upon their relation with others. As Kant puts it engaging and diverse viewpoints enrich and inform our political modes of relating with others, as without plurality of “being with others” we cannot liberate our mind from darkness of ignorance. On the other hand, individuality can not be realized without the ability” to analyze and think for self” or as what Kant’s famously defined as enlightenment “‘the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority’’.
Informed political mode of relation to others, that is based on individual understanding, is a potent combination that is the foundation of a free and fair society. But, not only this mode of understanding is absent from everyday party politics, but also fear mongers destroy any hope of meaningful and violence free modes of interconnectedness. The overtaking of the political by demagogues and apathic citizens, both in the totalitarian and democratic contexts goes hand in hand the loss of the instinctive reflexes for freedom and the rise of what we can call the “banality of politics”.
About the Authors: Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian political philosopher and academic. He is usually based in Canada. Currently, he is Professor and Vice Dean and Executive Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, Jindal Global Law School. Mehrdad Loghmani is a political activist and researcher. He is currently located in San Francisco.