The Power of Positive Thinking

Nostalgia for American dominance. Tel Aviv, March 2018.

Baudrillard says somewhere that the (or one) reason that schizophrenics are persistently agitated is that they lack a capacity for differentiation, such that all the dangers of the universe seem proximate and threatening. Perhaps this does not comport with modern psychology’s understanding of schizophrenia, but as a back-of-the-envelope diagnosis of our current circumstance, one could really do a lot worse. The entire American political spectrum is saturated with suspicions, some more valid and some less, that the centre cannot hold and the blood-dimmed tide is fast approaching.

In this sense, Martha Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear is an entirely apposite attempt to come to terms with one of the central features of the topography of American emotional life. Nussbaum, who holds joint appointments in the law school and the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, is uniquely well-placed to undertake such a task. Much of her recent work has focused on the role of emotions and feelings (anger, love, fear, and others) in shaping the way we live our lives, at both the individual and the social level. While one might raise the objection that addressing our current situation from the perspective of emotion addresses symptoms rather than causes, it is certainly the case the Nussbaum is the right person to do the job.

Originally a specialist in ancient philosophy, Nussbaum has become the closest thing to the official philosopher of moderate liberalism as could be found in this country. One does not need to dig too far into her personal biography to find that she is not merely a proponent of moderate civilized liberalism but in fact an embodiment of it. In addition to her extensive engagement with Plato, Aristotle, and a host of stoics, Nussbaum is a professionally trained singer, an avid runner, a political activist, and a scholar familiar with a wide range of thinkers and disciplines. Martha Nussbaum is so entirely virtuous that is somewhat difficult for one to approach her work without a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment.

She has, on occasion, also created genuine resentment. In 1999, she wrote a scathingly critical piece on Judith Butler in The New Republic, arguing that Butler’s work was divorced from the problems faced by women in the real world. The piece, which drew strongly critical responses from the likes of Gayatri Spivak, Seyla Benhabib, Drucilla Cornell, was unfair in a lot of respects to Butler’s work. It can be hard to parse, and its relationship to practical issues takes some working through, but accusing Butler of “hip defeatism” clearly crossed a line. On the other hand, Nussbaum was at least within her rights to critique Butler’s use of language. While it is not true to say that everything true can be expressed simply, Butler’s complex arguments, freighted with jargon from a range of philosophical argots, can be difficult for even specialists to sort through.

Nussbaum, by contrast, writes with exemplary clarity. In Monarchy of Fear, she lays out a straightforward case for the way that fear functions in a modern American polity riven by violently conflicting views about political and social issues. For Nussbaum, fear plays a central role in these conflicts. In infancy, human beings are powerfully affected by the inability to control the world around them, a world the seems complex and threatening by comparison to their experience in the maternal womb. Fear becomes a primary mode of coping with uncertainty and difference, extending far beyond its roots in early childhood and exerting a powerful influence on how we view the problems that confront us at later developmental levels.

Nussbaum is certainly correct in her view that fear is a central issue in modern social conflict. One can point to a number of cases in which fear of otherness has led to horrific instances of violence, from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and numerous other instances of mass killing. In Hitler’s Germany, the figure of the Jew was used as a point of concentration for all the manifold dangers perceived in the modern: from communism and unrestrained capitalism to the breakdown of social norms and economic stability. In similar fashion, Mr. Trump’s rise to the pinnacle of power in the United States has been facilitated by his ability to tap into the fears of Americans (globalisation, ISIS, brown people coming for our white women, etc.) and to synergize these with the promise of economic recovery and re-shored industrial jobs. In short, fear has a long provenance and has constituted one of the most important political tools in the modern world.

Entering the American sector. Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin.

Yet Nussbaum’s liberalism shapes her account in powerful and not entirely salutary ways. While noting the role of fear in the politics of the politics right, she seems determined to present a balanced account, which leads her to map the role of fear onto the politics of the left in ways that are not terribly convincing. Certainly, there is an element of envy in of the wealthy in leftist politics. And fear plays a role as well. But the fear that capitalism is going to lead to global environmental collapse, or that the tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth at the upper end of the income distribution will lead to the destruction of democratic political institutions have a rather more sound basis than the fear that the country will be swamped by Mexican rapists and welfare queens.

The focus on the role of fear itself seems oddly divorced in Nussbaum’s account from the ways that fear is systematically employed as a political tool. Fear of Jews led to genocidal consequences in Nazi Germany. But this fear was constructed by years of anti-Semitic propaganda, which turned the low-level dislike of Jews present throughout Europe into a mindset in which mass deportation and extermination became acceptable solutions. Although Mr. Trump’s xenophobia is not (or not yet) at this level of intensity, it is nonetheless true that his politics plays on and systematically intensifies fear of the other in ways that are functional to his broader aims. Fear is a key feature of a human being. But fear itself is one thing. Its systematic employment for political ends is another.

The situation with Nussbaum’s solution to the problem is similar. She points to the role of hope in overcoming fear. From Gandhi to Mandela, to King, hope has allowed politically active people to overcome fear and to push society in more civilized directions. Once again, this is not exactly wrong. There is certainly a role for Gramscian optimism of the will in confronting current conditions. But trying to push things in a civilized direction through quiet discussion and civil activism do not address the fundamental, systemic elements of the current crisis, much as they are creditable actions on their own. Capitalism functions at levels both above and beneath that of conscious human action. Marches, speeches, and discussions of Aeschylus conducted moderate tones are all good things. But they lack the capacity to address the in-built functions of the circulation of capital.

It is hard not to be sympathetic to Nussbaum’s overall approach. The mode of life she describes could theoretically be mapped onto the fragmentary comments that Marx left about what post-capitalist society might entail. And the things that she suggests are, in fact, good things to do. A humane society in which art and culture can be discussed in passionate, yet reasonable ways is a worthy goal toward which to aspire. But to make fear (or anger or hope) into central features of an analysis without differentiating the ways that they are used in actual political projects, or the ways that they work in supporting the functioning of an underlying economic system results leaves the analysis at a very superficial level. Hope and civilization must be part of any attempt to come to terms with the crises of late capitalism. But to do their work they must be linked to a deeper understanding of the crises and the ways that they outstrip our personal inclinations. Without this, the best of human actions will be only a beautiful moment in a broader tragedy.

All you need is Coke. Tel Aviv, May 2018.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.