The Second Eclipse of Reason and the Coming of the Age of Anger

I’ve just finished reading a brilliant, but very scary political fiction comic book entitled ‘La Présidente,’ which tells the story of Marine Le Pen’s first 100 days in office as president of France after next year’s presidential elections (in French). Co-written by the historian François Durpaire and the author Farid Boudjellal, the book is based on the actual programme of the Front National (FN) and traces the first moves of the new president – such as organising a referendum on France’s exit from the Euro zone – and their impact on the French economy and society. Needless to say that from a progressive and from a liberal-democratic perspective, the outcome of an FN-presidency – as outlined in the FN’s real-world party programme – will be worrying to say the least. The authors predict a massive increase in state surveillance of its citizens, the suppression of media freedom, state harassment and persecution of political opponents and dissenters. Worse still, the authors predict that an FN government might undermine the very foundations of France as a democratic regime, opening the floodgates for neo-fascist movements to take control.

To be sure, this is ‘politics fiction,’ but good one, based on a careful analysis of the FN’s actual party programme. Many people may still consider this panicky scare mongering. But several recent examples show how quickly relatively successful and seemingly stable democracies’ can descend into authoritarianism following the election of politicians who openly despise liberal-democratic values. This should worry even the most optimistic amongst us. While Hungary and Russia’s route from certainly not perfect, but still fairly well-functioning democracies to proper autocracies may be explained away with the specific post-socialist context, the destruction of the Turkish democracy in just a few years should set off alarm bells. These examples show what populist, nationalistic, and identitarian demagogues can do to a functioning democracy...In a few hours for now, we will know whether a majority of US voters will decided to take the gamble of electing their own demagogue who has proven more than once that he does not respect even the most fundamental values of a functioning democracy (e.g. by threatening to throw his adversary in prison and refusing to confirm that he will accept the election result even if he loses). This should give us pause to reflect on how we ended up in this situation. Twenty-five years ago, after the fall of communism, there was a wide-spread Western complacency about the ‘end of history’ and the sentiment that the liberal-democratic and capitalist model had won the day. Now, we live in a world where the world economy is in crisis, but where in many established democracies, the parties that record the largest increases in electoral shares are the ones that run on distinctly authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and xenophobic platform. And these parties and movements have introduced in the political debate an increasingly spiteful, vicious, and angry tone in many Western countries. So, what has happened?

The rise of right-wing populism since the 1970s or 1980s is obviously to complex a phenomenon to be attributed to a single, or even a small number of explanatory factors. What does seem clear, however, is that at a general level, the situation that we are faced with today has something to do with an increasingly unbridled anger among large parts of the population. Anger has arguable always played a crucial role in politics. David Ost – based on Carl Schmitt’s political theory – argued indeed that political parties in any democratic polity are forced to constantly mobilise emotions to attract and maintain support in the population. Anger is the prime emotion that allows parties to do that. According to Ost, this is because in capitalist societies there is a structural source of anger, which is related to the frustrations generated by the socio-economic inequalities on which any capitalist system relies by its very nature (Ost calls this ‘economic anger’). Channeling popular anger and transforming it into political support is ones of the key functions of political parties. Or in Ost’s words (2004: 241): " There are a myriad possible explanations for outcomes we do not like, and a myriad possible targets to blame. The role of political leaders is to solve this problem for citizens by giving them an Other: someone to blame, someone or something to be angry at." Ost’s view is based on Carl Schmitt, but also resonates with Michel Foucault’s reformulation of Carl von Clausewitz’s take on wars. The latter had famously argued that war is the continuation of politics with other means. Foucault, in his lecture ‘Society Must Be Defended’ had put Clausewitz from his head onto his feet by arguing that rather politics was the continuation of the Hobbesian war of all against all with other means. In other words, violence and anger are the very reason why we have politics. From this perspective, rather than organisations that aggregate interests and preferences – as the standard political science literature defines the key function of political parties – parties are organisation that channel and contain violence and allow citizens to focus their anger on particular targets in exchange for political support.

In the era of capitalism, for a long time, Western party systems were structured around socio-economic class divides. Socialist and socio-democrats proposed the capitalists or laissez-faire markets as their enemy of choice around which their supporters could rally. Bourgeois centre-right parties, on the other hand proposed subversive left-wingers, communists, trade unionists, at times – and increasingly with the decline of the labour movement – civil servants as their enemies of choice to attract and maintain support from certain classes of the population. By and large, these cleavages that were based on anger against ‘the Other’, resulted in an equilibrium of violence, where anger and even hate was present, but largely contained and only symbolically acted out in the course of democratic and parliamentary politics. This situation of political stability is hence characterised by what Ost (2004: 230) calls ‘congealed anger’.

Something has changed however…It would seem that populists have increasingly managed to ‘defrosted’ congealed popular anger. Populists are not afraid of unleashing popular anger in much less institutionally constrained ways then most parties were comfortable with until a few decades ago. Indeed, the democratic institutions themselves have recently become the target of their anger. “Anti-establishment” parties who propose their voters to hate the state, the government, its bureaucracy and its civil servants seduce the masses much more easily than left-of-centre parties who continue to propose the socialist class narrative of workers against capitalists, or the rich against the poor. Thus, the socio-economic divide has been replaced by a different one, which increasingly takes identitarian forms: the ‘us vs. them’ is now one that’s based on nationality and ethnicity rather than socio-economic status. The argument that it is the capitalists (or maybe the bankers) who are the “enemy of the people” has remained surprisingly ineffective as a tool of political mobilization after the global financial crisis and the anger it entailed due to economic hardship and austerity policies. Except for some rather limited examples (such as the short-lived and ineffectual ‘Occupy movement’ and Podemos in Spain who has gained some political traction), the traditional anti-capitalist narrative seems to have lost its traction with ‘the people’. Instead, nationalistic, anti-immigrant, islamophobic, anti-Semite and even racist narratives seem to work best in countries with a largely white, Christian voting population.

While anger is according to Schmitt, Foucault, and Ost nothing exceptional in politics, what is different in the current period seems to be the sheer level of anger, but also the fact that politicians seem to steer up such emotions to gain power, but also seem to lose control over the effects that such hate mongering may have. In Britain, the killing of Jo Cox in bright daylight as well as the beating to death of Polish immigrants may still be isolated cases, but they are significant. Attacks on black churches in the USA, on immigrant homes in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere are others. The question then is, what has changed in the past two or three decades that have led to ‘de-congeal’ the anger that was fairly successfully contained by democratic institutions in the Western world for most of the post-war period?

Here, I think one possible explanation has to do with a fundamental ideational change, which I would call the ‘Second Eclipse of Reason’ and once again, I’m going to blame economic theory and libertarianism for it. The first ‘Eclipse of Reason’ was described by Horkheimer as the replacement of substantive reason with purely instrumental reason. That is to say, human societies used to be based on substantively defined notions of what is reasonable and what isn’t. Substantive rationality are indeed ideologies that are based on a specific understanding of good and bad and of right and wrong. Yet, Horkheimer argues that with the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, capitalist societies have increasingly shifted towards a purely instrumental, means-end type of reason or rationality: reasonable is to choose the means that allow you to achieve your goals independently of what these goals are. This relativist definition of reason  - where no judgement of the reasonableness of the ends themselves is made – is the one that defines the liberal view of the world that has come to characterise neo-classical economics and economic libertarianism as promoted by the Chicago School. The former type of substantive reason, in contrast, is identified with – and often times derided by libertarians for – its moralistic nature (see in particular Judge Posner’s scathing attack on “academic moralists”).

According to Horkheimer, in modern, capitalist ‘mass societies’ ‘instrumental rationality’ was the only game in town. However, I would argue that this type of rationality contains the seed of its own downfall. Economic and political liberalism and ‘instrumental rationality’ are based on the key premises that different definitions of the ‘good life’ are incommensurate. We cannot impose on others our ‘life projects.’ Each and every individual should pursue autonomously their own preferred goals in life (as long as they do not impinge on other individuals’ freedom). The only thing that can be assessed objectively, however, is whether people pursue their preferences in a rational way, i.e. whether the means are employed in a way that allow the individual to achieve their goal, whatever that goal may be.  This necessary relativism almost necessarily leads to the rejection of any substantive values and norms, because they cannot be assessed ‘objectively.’ This is what leads liberals to reject the common good as a valid objective for a society to pursue and stresses individual values instead. It is also in the name of such a conception that fundamental societal values on which human societies are built – such as ‘social justice’ and solidarity – have increasingly been challenged.

While this liberal or libertarian stance will not shock anyone these days, it becomes dangerous when pushed one step further: If rational calculation of ends and means becomes the only acceptable basis on which to judge people’s actions and they are being taught that traditional values such as solidarity are relative, then slowly people may start to apply that same relativist reasoning not just to the goals and values that other individuals choose to pursue, but also to the meta-values on which the liberal system itself is based and which needs to be protected from the relativism that the system preachers for ‘lower level’ values. Rationality is such a fundamental meta-value of the liberal construct. Value relativism – if taken to an extreme – can be turn against the seemingly ‘value-neutral’ means-end rationality, because ultimately rationality is a value in its own right. Rationality or reason can come to be perceived as only one among other choices, which each individual is free to accept or reject as they see fit. Arguably, increasing numbers of people have started choosing to indeed reject not just substantive rationality (which is what libertarians such as Posner would want) but also instrumental rationality (which they clearly were not planning). This unexpected turn is what I would call the Second Eclipse of Reason. It designates the replacement of one type of rationality not by another one, but by pure and raw emotions.

The Second Eclipse of Reason is key to Donald Trump presidential campaign. Not only does he take pride in undermining substantively rational values – such as paying taxes (by stating that not paying federal income is smart not immoral) – and moral norms (by claiming that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."). But also he challenges at a much more fundamental level the idea that reason and rationality have anything to do with politics. It does not matter whether his statements are true or not, as long as people ‘feel’ they are right (see the very illuminating analysis of thisphenomenon at the GOP Convention by John Oliver). You don’t need reasonable arguments to justify your political choices; your feelings, emotions are sufficient. You feel that immigrants are a problem – and ignore the facts that suggest that they are actually contributing to the national economy more than they cost – has become a perfectly acceptable attitude.

Rationality is not a highly rated value among large swaths of the population at the moment – hence also the populists hatred of ‘experts’. They may have knowledge. But my feelings about things are as valid as anyone else’s ‘knowledge’ about them. The only argument you need to justify political attitudes and choices is your anger. Reason, ‘truth’, rationality do not matter any longer…only anger does. Humanity is regressing back to its terrible twos…The German language has already coined a new term for this type of citizen: Wutbürger (“anger citizen”): The citizen driven by anger and hatred rather than by rational or reasonable reflection.

Again, it is important to note the role that the Chicago School-inspired economic theories, which have influenced generations of political and economic elites, think tanks, and opinion leaders, and thus the population at large, has played in this evolution. To some extent, †he Second Eclipse of Reason is the result of the very forces that the proponents of instrumental rationality and value relativism have unleashed in their crusade against substantive reason and morality. While a certain level of liberal relativism is crucial to a free society, pushed to the extreme – as the Chicago School and its derivatives has done – moral relativism turns into an uncontrollable self-destructing, centrifugal force in a democratic society.

What is left once society has rid itself of the last supposedly objective standard of judgement – instrumental rationality? What is left is for people to simply give into their hedonistic impulses without regards for the long-term consequences of their actions or attitudes. Often these impulses are dominated by anger and the worse the economic situation gets, the more cause for ‘economic anger’ there is. This is what has driven not just Le Pen’s rise in France, but also Donald Trump’s campaign in the US. We may therefore truly face the prospect of entering the Age of Anger.

Whether Trump is declared the winner of the election in a few hours time or not, the really scary thing is that the anger he has fed on and that he has actively contributed to fan, will not just go away even if candidate Trump might were he to lose this election. Others may replace him and feed on that anger. History tells us that the anger of the masses and the social tensions that it creates are not easily contained once they have been aroused. Rather, they spiral out of control in a cycle of what René Girard has called ‘mimetic violence,’ which ultimately discharges itself in an episode of mass violence in which a scapegoat is made to pay for all the ills of the society. Whoever wins the election in the US tonight and whoever becomes president of France next year, the really scary thing is that it might already be too late to get the evil genie of anger back into the bottle…