Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Arendt in the West Wing

On the way out after a talk on Arendt last week, a friend turned to me and said, “so, I guess you’re pretty pissed off.” And indeed I was; I’m not especially knowledgeable or enthusiastic about Arendt, but she’s certainly more interesting than her American epigones (but I repeat myself; are there any Arendtians anywhere but America?). Arendt, with her anti-modern republicanism, was not in any straightforward sense a liberal; yet, with American Arendtians, the topic always comes back, sooner of later, to the special excellence of the American political community. Or, rather, the hypothetical excellence of the American political community because, of course, all Arendtians agree that politics is in grave danger: the social always lurks, waiting to swallow it up. In last week’s Arendtian extraveganza, this protectiveness towards the political took the form of enjoining people to forget the tartuffery of “social democracy” now that George Bush threatens something much more important: the Constitution!

Leaving aside the fundamental flaws in the social/political distinction, and the more specific idiocy of thinking that the current administration’s policies have nothing to do with matters of economics or class, this move to the Constitution, which is the signature of the American Arendtian, is, I think, one of the fundamental enabling fantasies of liberalism. One of the favorite tropes of The West Wing sees one character (it doesn’t matter which) give a long, eloquent, impassioned speech defending the vital moral importance of some policy or other; pragmatic objections by the speakers interlocutor are sharply brushed aside; just as the speech reaches its moral climax, the speaker turns again to his pragmatic counterpart and says, “but of course you’re right, we can’t implement this policy.” The point being to draw a sharp distinction between the inherent ethical goodness of the characters, and the unfortunate pragmatic business of actually existing politics.

The idea of the autonomy of the political is precisely this kind of West Wing ethics An autonomous political realm is posited, allowing for a contrast with the actually-existing corrupt and self-serving “politics” of today. But this is just a mystification: the politics that is inseperable from the social and the private is the essential form of politics, and if such a thing as a politics separate from capitalism is possible at all, it is something that has to be imagined and constructed, not something that already exists as a regulative ideal.

Now, interestingly, I wonder if we don’t see much the same kind of structure in Badiou’s claim that all ethics is situational. I find Badiou’s own example of medical ethics inherently plausible, but I know wonder if I should. Is there an ethics of medicine, strictly separate from the enmeshment of medicine in social structures? An example that seems much less plausible for Badiou’s thesis is that of journalistic ethics: as the history of journalism is coextensive with the history of capitalism, the interlinking of the two, and hence the lack of any journalistic ethics separable from (and opposable to) capitalism, seems to me undeniable.

And of course Badiou also asserts the autonomy of the political (although in a rather different way from Arendt), and rejects the category of political economy. I need to think more about this, but these two moves strike me as deeply suspect.