Being a Philosopher In These Days

Sunday, 5th February 2017

From Feb. 5, 2017

What Steve Bannon really wants

When I’m at parties or generally out in the world, and someone finds out that I’m a philosopher, I sometimes get the dreaded question, “So what’s your philosophy?” It’s dreaded because I never know how to answer it. Not that I don’t have ideas about things, but what someone usually wants to hear is a worldview, or a set of ideas or beliefs that put everything together in a coherent whole.

That’s not really what a philosophy amounts to, for most philosophers. We’re generally more interested in questions. Hard questions, important ones, intractable ones. Gabriel Marcel distinguished between problems and mysteries, the first being questions that have specific solutions and the second being questions which open up new areas of inquiry. We’re all about the second.

So as I look at the account of Steve Bannon’s “political philosophy” here, I worry. Not because of the work the writers of this account did – I think they did a great job of putting things together from a range of sources. I worry because of the kind of story he’s trying to tell. It reminds me of the kinds of stories that philosophers and social thinkers often tried to tell in the 19th century – grand unifying stories which were supposed to make sense of the world, but were really self-justifying accounts of why the Germans were the best, or European colonization was a good idea, or revolution should be pursued. In virtually every case these grand theories, what Jean-Francoise Lyotard would later call metanarratives, posited some few premises or ideas which, if you believe them, you can see how all the disparate parts of reality fit together coherently.

Hegel is a great example of this. He’s deservedly a major figure in philosophy. But the story he tells, clever as it is, does little more than tell us why all history culminates with him and his place in the world.

Bannon’s does something similar. It is a story meant to make fundamentally incoherent things cohere – an a-religious economic system of capitalism requires, for him, a religious basis in order to progress. It has emotional force to it, because it blames all problems on unbelievers and inferiors. It has values, in such things as sameness (instead of diversity), and tradition (as opposed to rights, human or otherwise). It has a historical dialectical theory – there are cycles through generations, 80 years in length, and we are now at a point of crisis of one of those cycles when a renewal is about to happen. And, there is a purification in violence and war – these things are good, at the proper time, not something to be avoided.

There’s a reason I mentioned Hegel before, and that’s because there are Hegelian elements in Bannon, although it should be said it is a systematic misunderstanding of Hegel (or perhaps, a selective understanding). Hegel thought that we moved through history, that there was a dialectic that brought history into a crisis and moved us into Aufhebung, an overcoming of the present conditions and a move to new conditions. Bannon doesn’t explicitly give us anything like Hegel’s Geist, a spiritual sense that comes to self-understanding as history unfolds in its many manifestations. It is rather a Geist that stubbornly resists learning anything, which believes that its true nature lies in the past and has been covered over by the machinations of non-whites, liberals, etc.

What people often want to know when they ask me for my philosophy, is what my religion is. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense of a set of beliefs that I hold onto, that forms the basis of my thinking. Beliefs that are resistant or immune to questioning, which have to be held as a kind of faith in order to begin reasoning. That’s not a philosophy in my book, but it is what Bannon has, as represented in this article (and I should say, he could come along and say that he thinks something different, and I’d be willing to hear what he has to say, but this looks pretty consistent with his actions to me). Bannon has a religion, and he wants us to believe it. It’s not Christianity, but something else. Christianity is an element, but it’s really a set of faith-based beliefs about how history works, who’s on the right side of history, and what we should do about it.

What he wants is a theocracy, but the God of Christians is not the “theo” in that theocracy. He is. Christians are just the useful vehicle in this, just as Trump is a useful vehicle.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s not a philosophy. There are no questions that are opened up. There is no self-criticism, something any good philosopher does regularly. I have seen people like him before, those who have a belief first and then look for some intellectual trappings to justify that belief. Inevitably, their inquiry only goes so far, but never far enough. You can build a hall of mirrors of thought, and wear down those who disagree. You can make a conspiracy theory version of the world, in which every fact funnels back into a central narrative. That’s what I see here with Bannon. But a philosophy doesn’t do that. A philosophy opens the world to new things, to a new richness, it does not funnel one back into the same ideas over and over. That’s an ideology, and its not the same thing.

So I guess what I’m asking is that everyone be more philosophical. I don’t mean that I’m asking people to navel-gaze, or have a belief system. It’s something else I want. I want people to find the ideas, the experiences, that open up something new. I want people to help those who find Bannonism a comfort in hard times, or a club to wield against their perceived enemies, to find those opening ideas and experiences. Bannonism is a tool, a means to an end, for those using it. The end, in the US, is regime change, concentration of influence and wealth in the hands of a few (its populist claim is that it gives power back to the people, but really, the new Bannonist priests of the people are those who will have real power), and a world in which difference is tightly controlled. It is the opposite of freedom.

So, be philosophers, real ones, whether that’s in your job title or not.

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