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Do we expect too much from politics?

In the last issue of Arena Journal we published a collection of pieces on utopia. At the least, utopian thought means keeping the possibility of a different future open. Far from implying the pursuit of a pre-ordained plan that sees everything in the glowing light of future perfection, as many contributions made clear the utopian impulse can engage the complex real contrariness of human existence: our imperfectability, our orneriness, the persistence of identifications that support our pretensions to immortality, and so on. We could say that this is the sine qua non of the kind of utopianism the 'broad left', for want of a better formulation, should, in the present--or perhaps fundamentally--be interested in. That is, a problematization of the present that foregrounds not only the falsehoods of power, but the loops and limits of being and consciousness that are a condition of politics, and of human culture.

So much of contemporary mainstream culture offers ersatz utopias--perfection is promised everywhere; techno-utopias and commodity panaceas fill our waking fantasies of how our lives would be made better. But as others have pointed out, following Laurie Anderson on the televisual image, these mundane utopias of perfection are not taken to offer anything really new--the imaginary perfected world is 'just the same, only much much better'. Quite apart from the scientists and businessmen and women who push such comforting notions of liberal progress, our politicians have adopted this logic as their credo. Government under neo-liberalism is the efficient delivery of the tools individuals need to maximize their life chances--whatever the individual feels them to be, however they might be defined. We can see this in the transformation of the welfare state and the crass appeal to (selfish) 'mums and dads' to look after themselves by buying up shares in Telstra; in the hopelessly parochial sense of Australia's self-interest in continuing the use of coal-fire power stations; or the bio-technological choices that break human species bio-cultural boundaries and suggest, under the cover of scientific progress, that ethics in these matters is an issue merely of private choice.

What do we want from politics? Neo-liberal politicians, and their politicized public services are propagators and managers of today's fantastic individualism. How to achieve wealth and growth substitutes for the political; how the individual, or family unit, might maximize its advantage substitutes for any art of life or living, or any sense of justice beyond competitive notions like the level playing field, where a soul-destroying ressentiment is so readily fed in historical circumstances like our own. The good life has long ceased to be the focus of political discourse.

It is a curious thing that at the same time that postmodernity's hyper-individualists are constructed and appealed to in exactly these terms by government, cynicism emerges as the dominant outlook regarding politics and politicians. Neither can be trusted: politicians lie; politics is a cynical game. We all seem to know this, (but) and so many of us are content to let it be. It has the feel of an almost natural order. The natural order of high-tech commodity capitalism? When Prime Minister Howard lies, or does nothing to dispel the lies he knows to have been propagated, the electorate (and this is all it is) turns a blind eye because the 'conditions of growth' are secure; the 'fundamentals are in place': the acquisition of white goods, breast implants, private educations and four-wheel drives can proceed unabated.

The closing of the political imagination is perfected when not only do our politicians subscribe to the necessity of beautiful lies--life will be much much better--but also a politics of fear. All the ugly lies--of a-moral Muslims throwing babies overboard, of terror lurking in the hearts of neighbours and friends, of justice needing to be denied in special cases--are all in the end subsidiary to those that stirringly promise either 'community' through (pure) national identity, or the satisfaction, not of want but of desire, through techo-commodity augmentation.

In this issue of Arena Journal, several articles test this same water of the problems of culture and politics in the early 21st century. Through the works of recent Irish writers and filmmakers, Matt Ryan traces contemporary culture's fantastical logic of solipsism--the beautiful lie of a 'post-national' world pivoted upon individual desire and consciousness. Paul James, in an investigation of maps and concepts of time, shows how such a solipsistic or hyper-individualistic culture has been shaped by epochal shifts in basic time-space coordinates, which are seen as lived social categories.

More polemically, Dougal Phillips interprets Australia's abandonment of age-old conventions towards the shipwrecked in the children overboard and SIEV-X cases, in the context of Australians' self-glorified, anxious, cultural-historical relationship to the sea. Karen Crinall focuses on neo-liberalism's outcast homeless, and like Phillips delineates the structuration of intention and blindness to the plight of globalization's flotsam and jetsam in photographic images of exclusion. Three pieces on recent books on Aboriginality highlight the passions of those who have rejected both exclusion and assimilation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, seeing the possibility of a contrary path of rich and meaningful cultural difference in Aboriginal people's own terms. Gary Malone remembers the Armenian genocide.

In the Utopia issue of Arena Journal (no. 25/26), several authors honed in on the fundamental question of the logic of exception that is said to inform all polities; that is, the sense in which any such collective political entity appeals to its own uniqueness and priority as the basis of law. The idea of the beautiful lie is most associated with this example--the myth of the entity's origins, which is both culturally lived and politically required to contain a people's identifications and allegiances, and to establish and maintain order, if not some framework of justice. In normal circumstances, the beautiful lie remains implicit, structuring a whole gamut of responses and understandings, active but silent, and always a potential tool of the rhetoricians of political loyalty through national identity or civilizational superiority. In the context of an emergent authoritarianism (see Geoff Sharp, Arena Magazine, no. 84), this state of exception is actively brought into play and increasingly, with a shocking boldness.

In this issue, George Williams outlines Australia's rapidly promulgated terror laws and their potential consequences, and what might be considered an emerging 'common sense' about the 'need' for torture. Public safety is their ultimate stated justification, an issue with the deepest philosophical significance, as Matthew Sharpe demonstrates in this issue, in the work of Leo Strauss. We cannot comprehend the present phase of neo-liberal-guided globalization--Bush's defence of his war in Iraq, Prime Minister Howard's lies about refugees, their common defence of a way of life defined in the terms of growth and wealth and privilege--without an understanding of the neo-conservative use of Strauss' philosophy.

As Sharpe argues--through an intricate reading of an already complex philosophy--in the guise of commitment to the democratic way and to liberty, neo-conservatives find in Strauss an ultimate philosophical justification for what others would consider their opposite. For Strauss, wise statesmen may always have recourse to suspending the ordinary rule of law; they necessarily stand above it. Tyrannical rule may be justified if it is the rule of the wise, or of those statesmen who are called upon to fulfil a prophet-like function through the exercise of an 'exceptional imagination'. What feels like contempt for the 'un-wise many' or 'hoi-poloi'--as is often the tenor of left criticism of Howard's fabrications--is understood by the statesmen themselves as not only benevolent, but in the very nature of things.

We cannot expect John Howard or George W. Bush to feel any moral qualms about their deceptions--for the wise statesman is not only granted the opportunity to fabricate the community's originary stories and post-facto justify them but, especially in a period of danger, must by definition, as political-philosophical necessity, do so. Any sense of emergency that grows out of acts of terror themselves is here radically compounded by the free-reign given to the ideological work of those who now may describe their lack of safety in terms of persecution: that fabricated perception that their very way of life is threatened.
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Author:Caddick, Alison
Publication:Arena Journal
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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