Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Paying the Tax (The Tax Collector), between 1620 and 1640
Feisal G. Mohamed
It is a blessing and a curse of democracy that the prime topic of conversation in our daily lives is politics, which is only occasionally displaced by other forms of sport, spectacle, and catastrophe. Some take this as a solemn obligation, others less so, but there can be no question that the rhythms of political life dominate the rhythms of social life. Herein lies a great paradox of modern democracy: it imposes upon citizens the obligation of serious engagement with politics, but in the same stroke creates the kind of noisy clamor over day-to-day affairs preventing serious engagement from ever taking place.
The tension is between deep politics and shallow politics. Deep politics offers a vision of human individuals, societies, and environments, and strives mightily to generate harmonious order amongst them. It erects ideals of human fulfillment and community that are then clothed with practical measures. Shallow politics, by contrast, is a creature of the moment. It responds to immediate needs, leans on unscrutinized presuppositions, and has nothing to say about the project of human society as such.
Here’s an example. A deep statement on economic inequality would say that it matters because all human beings are of equal status in any rightly ordered society. This goes beyond arguments on alleviating poverty: one can enjoy economic sufficiency but still feel the humiliation of inferiority if living amongst those luxuriating in spectacular excess. A shallow statement on economic inequality would say that taxes were once higher for the rich than they are now, and that those higher taxes were once endorsed by the very people who now oppose them. This does not go far beyond a statement on basic fairness and a charge of self-interested hypocrisy. Those fairly simple tools are compelling in their own way, and in their simplicity can be used to build consensus, but are not on their own especially illuminating.
By now it may be clear that the political distinction often exercising us, that between “liberal” and “conservative,” is largely nugatory. In their common iterations, both sides of this division engage in shallow politics, turning measly, quotidian political matters into a pretext for evangelism and solidification of group identity. There is no natural affiliation between a political philosophy of liberalism and the expansion of federal power at the expense of the states. Likewise there is no natural affiliation between a political philosophy of conservatism and the vigorous promotion of free-market economics. “Liberal” and “conservative” is largely a distinction driven by party and interest-group politics, which are always shallow. One could argue that even at their most developed, liberalism and conservatism are ideas intentionally promoting shallow politics, a point to which we will return.
Before doing so, we must note that a deep politics is not necessarily an enlightened one. Fascism is a deep politics. It seeks to generate a political system answerable to a new world of industrialization and to celebrate a new man, one stripped of individualism and actively embracing his place in a disciplined and well-organized mass working toward communal power. Martin Heidegger’s recently published Black Notebooks of 1931-38 give us a sense of how a powerful mind setting itself to the problems of its time can go so catastrophically astray. He begins with the first questions of a deep politics—“What should we do? Who are we? Why should we be?”—and turns not long afterwards to speculations on a “Spiritual National Socialism.”
Precisely because it sought to remedy modern problems of dislocation and despair, fascism, though we’d prefer to forget it, held appeal for several twentieth-century intellectuals, most famously W.B. Yeats. The only solution to the problems of modern life, Yeats would conclude, was “an exultant acceptance of authoritarianism,” a “hierarchial, masculine, harsh” civilization with “great wealth everywhere in a few men’s hands, all dependent on a few, up to the Emperor himself.” With characteristic alacrity, and cutting irony, Orwell saw this tendency in Yeats as a sign that he was “too big a man to share the illusions of Liberalism,” which is to say that he scorned as deluded and superficial a political order comprised of fair procedures and equality before the law.
This is why one can make the case that politics should be shallow, which is the mentality of liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism brackets several of the considerations that we have associated with deep politics. Fundamentals of human life and community are consigned to the private realm—family life, religion, culture (whatever that may be)—which is to say that politics is self-consciously limited. Politics is the realm of the “citizen,” that constructed public persona, the freely reasoning actor building consensus on matters of public import and promoting desired outcomes through scrutable and transparent procedures. Conservatism opposes itself to deep politics on different grounds. In its view strong political ideas are disruptive upstarts that should be subordinated to established norms and traditions. The known benefits of order outweigh the unknown benefits of change. For many, the totalitarian crimes of the twentieth century make either of these forms of shallow politics seem like the path of hard-won wisdom. That impulse is amplified by the sense that in complex and multicultural modern democracies it is impossible to create a deep politics that is sufficiently inclusive. So in rare instances an embrace of shallow politics can be the result of deep, if also cynical, thought.
But totalitarian crimes and multiculturalist sensitivities can also become a bogey scaring us away from remaking our world. In such a climate of fear, democracy merely goes through the motions of participation without marshaling the aspirations and intellectual resources of an engaged citizenry. Forced out of the light of day, those aspirations and resources turn to disenchantment, festering into a paranoid and perverse rejection of prevailing order that offers no thoughtful alternative. Deep politics may not necessarily be enlightened. But it is also not necessarily totalitarian. A person can be committed to an ideal of political community without rejecting dialogue and consensus. If public discourse is to be more than a perpetual yawn of dullness, then such voices ought to be encouraged, valued, amplified.
a series of essays on necessary and unnecessary distinctions
Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor in the Graduate Center at CUNY. With Marcus Keller and Ellen McClure, he edits the Northwestern University Press series “Rethinking the Early Modern.”