Abstain from Beans
The Indecency of Our Electoral Democracy
|Justin E. H. Smith||Nov 2, 2020|
Among the many rules for the conduct of life that Pythagoras passed down to members of his philosophical cult, there is a peculiar prohibition that keeps coming up in late-antique testimonia: Consume no lentils. Decline all lupins. Eat not pulses. Abstain from beans. Different authors provide different rationales for this (Diogenes Laërtius says that it is because beans resemble testicles, and perhaps also the gates of Hades), but we may isolate three of them as the most common and most compelling. First, you must not eat beans because they produce within you an undesirable flatus, damaging to your health and noxious to those around you. Second, you must not eat beans for the same reason you must not eat meat — they too are ensouled, and may well harbour the particular souls of your reincarnated love ones.
If I may pause here for a moment before getting to the third reason, allow me to note that the first two are not as different from one another as you might suppose: when in the Meditations of 1641 René Descartes found it important to deny of his own soul that it is a “subtle vapour”, he was going against a very deeply ingrained strain of popular philosophy, extending back well before the golden age of classical Greece, according to which the vital principle in a body is itself a sort of flatus. The fact that beans transmit this force to anyone who eats them seemed to prove that it was already present in them all along. In this light, we understand better the common connection in several Indo-European languages, noted long ago by R. B. Onians, between the colloquial expression “to give up the ghost” and the various euphemisations of the verb “to fart”.
But what I really want to talk about, on this sombre election eve, is democracy. The third common interpretation of the Pythagorean interdiction relates to the practice in ancient Athens of voting by means of a dry bean thrown into the urn of your preferred candidate. In his Life of Pythagoras the late-antique philosopher Iamblichus quotes the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On the Pythagoreans as holding, therefore, that beans are “not oligarchic”, that is, not useful for the preservation of government by the few.
There is, as they say, a lot going on here, but it may be worthwhile to consider whether, just as we have reduced the second reason for the prohibition of beans to the first, we might not also reduce the third in a similar way. Could it be, that is, that Pythagoras understands something about the nature of electoral democracy that we have preferred to forget over the past few centuries, namely, that it is not just carried out in some places and times by means of beans, but, much more strongly, that it partakes somehow of the flatulogenic nature of beans?
In a direct and obvious sense, we are right to say that Donald Trump is a gas-bag, and we might add if we wish that it is democracy —however dysfunctional, however hampered by an archaic electoral college, by gerrymandering, disinformation, voter suppression, disenfranchisement, the absence of proportional representation— that thrust him upon us. Rarely has the folk-theory of a man’s soul as a subtle vapour capable of turning noxious and bloating him beyond all natural proportions seemed more intuitively true. Yet the stronger claim, reducing our third reason to our first, is not just that this is what democracy has given us, this time, but that this is the terminus towards which democracy intrinsically trends, and that it is therefore time to start thinking very hard about alternatives to, or at least significant overhauls of, the electoral system.
Let me reassure readers at this point with a much more familiar commandment: Vote. If you are able to vote in the US presidential elections on November 3, 2020 (tomorrow, as I write), and have not done so already, do. More specifically, vote for Joe Biden, please. Help do what you can to keep our strained and exhausted liberal democracy alive a while longer. But once we get old Joe in office, and the vicious renegade gerontocrat without a dog is replaced by the hokey establishment gerontocrat with a dog, let us continue to do some real thinking about that innate danger of democracy, already diagnosed by Plato, whereby it naturally degenerates over time into a stinking kakistocracy.
If we feel that the recent demonstration of this thesis came somewhat too abruptly, and knocked us out of our earlier complacent and undialectical presumption that democracy was just plain good (notwithstanding occasional invocations of the pseudo-Churchillian bon-mot about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others), this has something to do, like pretty much everything else in the present historical moment, with rapid transformations in communications technology and our information environment.
These transformations make my old dream of a minimalist democracy stripped of all elements of spectacle appear hopelessly unrealistic. I used to imagine and defend a system in which each candidate would release, say, two weeks before election day, a one-page bulletin that summarises his or her policy positions. Voters would reflect for two weeks, and then vote. There would be no ads, no debates, no more of this delirious Baudrillardian make-believe in which opinion polls are taken for elements of reality, no further mention of dogs or even families.
Significantly, also, there would be no expectation on the part of campaigns that voters should contribute not just their votes but also their money toward the election of their preferred candidate or party. How and why tithes to candidates came to be a de-rigueur element of democratic participation in the late American republic is a question that history will have to address. I know that I personally have never been able to bring myself to contribute a single cent to any campaign, not because I am relatively less committed to the survival of liberal democracy than those in my peer group who do make contributions, but because, I take it, I am more committed (with a suitable faute-de-mieux clause) and I see this expectation, this Venmo-isation of the political process, as incompatible with its survival. (Also, I can’t afford it; I’m trying to get people to give me money, not the other way around.)
A similar point extends to phone-banking and to still more major disruptions of one’s life for a political campaign. You might insist that this is just what our critical moment demands, for better or worse, to drop everything and to go door to door in a swing state in support of Biden, and to speak enthusiastically of your man to every domestic doubter you encounter. But the mutation of politics into something much more like a form of life is, properly understood, a symptom of the present moment’s crisis, not a rallying of our civic spirit in response to it. There are, right now, Trump supporters who take it to be an expression of their own civic spirit to participate in a sort of non-stop tailgate party in the parking lots of strip malls with hastily opened MAGA merchandise stores. At the same time, there are members of the effervescent liberal cult of RBG who are advocating on social media for the transformation of the deceased justice’s former office into a permanent shrine (perhaps with her preserved body in it?), rather than into a refurbished office for her successor, as would happen in any secular political system that values continuity and parity.
With just a little distance it is not hard to see that such phenomena are not expressions of civic spirit so much as of a desire to dissolve into a collective union of the like-minded. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that such a desire can easily be kept separate from healthy civic participation. The idiotic displays of head-to-toe Trump gear by his most ardent supporters are simply a quantitative expansion of the classic partisan lapel pin; the miniature RBG effigies available in the gift shops of enlightened cultural institutions throughout the Northeast are only a continuation of the principle that it is good to do your civics homework and to pay attention to the composition of the Supreme Court. But as Friedrich Engels loved to say, at some point quantitative change passes over into qualitative change, and the quality of American electoral politics in 2020 is that of a pair of irrationalist cults each experiencing their collective unity as a form of transcendence.
One of the two cults still defends rationality as an ideal, while the other delights in signalling its departure from this ideal, but that is small reassurance. NXIVM, whose founder has recently been sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and related crimes, was a cult explicitly devoted to enhancing individual critical-thinking skills. As I argued in my 2019 book, Irrationality (a book I myself have criticised, but which I still believe has some merits), rationality is often defended and valorised in a spirit of irrational fervency. When it reaches such a pitch, it stops making sense. My American peers, friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters, have stopped making sense.
I read with something close to pity the oft-expressed opinion of lucid and intelligent columnists, such as Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, who complain that over the past four years Donald Trump has “captured our imaginations” and deprived us of the ability to think independently of him: the famous “Trump derangement syndrome” mocked and derided by the right. But I never lost my imagination during the Trump era, and while my tweets about Virgil’s Eclogues and whatever else over the past four years no doubt looked to members of the “Resistance” like a sort of quietist retreat into the forest, it was always my conviction that such things as Latin bucolic poetry were themselves essential to true resistance. To manifest yourself in public as a Tom Arnold or a “BrooklynDad_Defiant!” is to allow yourself to be caught up in the same vortex that spun Trump into existence as the public figure he is, and so it is to mistake your own life, in truth a symptom of our present malady, for a treatment of that malady.
In 2016, in the immediate wake of Trump’s Big Bang, when the galaxies of his presidency had not yet formed into place and “the Resistance” still did not sound like something to mock, I came together with peers and tried to identify ways we could fight against what I still believed to be the threat of a new era of Trumpian fascism. (I still own the domain name AfterTrump.org, if anyone would like to purchase it.) It was clear very early on that Trump’s reign was going to be, as someone nicely put it at the time, one of “malevolence balanced by incompetence”. I was relieved over the coming years to see that the latter of these two traits predominated by far, and that Trump —no doubt an opportunist willing to deploy racism for his own ends when useful, as we saw with the shameful “birther” gambit that launched his political career— was too infantile and stunted even to be a right-wing ideologue in any meaningful or consistent sense.
Some of the members of our strategy circle, notably the journalist Judith Shulevitz, insisted in those early days on the importance of monitoring boring bureaucratic developments, cronyism and corner-cutting under Trump at the Environmental Protection Agency for example, issues that would have trouble becoming big-font headlines, but that were also the surest indicators of how badly democracy was suffering. This was and remains the right approach, and serious journalists have stuck with it. But because we are living in a spectacle, in a video-game simulation of public debate rather than a true deliberative democracy, the prevailing tenor and focus of most resistance to Trump’s defilement of his office were set by Trump himself. The right was right: the “Resistance” was indeed deranged, and delegitimised, as a result of accepting the terms of political engagement established by Trump and positively enforced by the algorithms of social media.
I have been very impressed recently by Corey Robin’s analysis of the broad cultural shifts in the US in the Trump era, an analysis that sets him at sharp odds with the left-liberal piety according to which the country is gradually degenerating as it adopts and mirrors its president’s own degeneracy. According to Robin, the Trump regime “consistently turns public opinion on a range of issues (immigration, trade, Black Lives Matter) in the opposite direction. People feared Trump would transform political culture, and he did: against Trumpism.”
For Robin this turn is an unmitigated good, while I am in my nature skeptical and I worry about the forces that Trump has unwittingly let out of the box. I worry about these forces, and at the same time I believe there is no better hope for keeping them under control than the election of Joe Biden.
I admit in this respect to being an anti-accelerationist, a cautious normie. But I think I know what I’m talking about. Some of my earliest scholarly work was on the content of Soviet academic philosophy from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, particularly the articles published in the premier philosophy journal of the USSR, Вопросы философии (Problems of Philosophy). Though I didn’t anticipate this at the time, my obscure focus turned out to provide a lasting lesson applicable in other eras and lands, notably our own. It was eye-opening to me to read articles on the development of Leibniz’s theory of dynamic force, or on Kolmogorov’s probability theory, and to find without fail some boilerplate bullshit in the opening paragraphs about some empty thing Stalin announced at the most recent meeting of the Central Committee (at least until Khrushchev announced the new era of distance-taking). I was almost embarrassed for these scholars, already long dead, who were often quite competent in their fields of expertise, but under tremendous pressure to signal that their cultivation of this expertise was somehow in service to the reigning ideology of the Soviet Union.
I see something of a similar bend in the work of my American academic peers today, whose version of progressivism is, as Corey Robin understands, overwhelmingly dominant in many American institutions, even as a broadly right-wing populist cretin continues to hold the highest office in the land. There is much that is worthy of support in this progressivism. But one may also support workers’ control of the means of production (as I do), and nonetheless oppose the gulag and the Moscow show trials.
To bring up the spectre of left authoritarianism always feels a bit like facing the most popular kid at your high school as he throws an empty beer can on the ground and fumbles for his car keys, and having to tell him that your mom made you promise not to ride with anyone who’s been drinking. “Then walk home, pussy,” is the only response you can expect, and it hurts even if you know deep down your mom’s advice was sound. But we’re all grown-ups now, and walking turns out to be good for you. While there is obviously nothing comparable to the horror of the Moscow show trials in American academia, still the rigid imposition of a very narrow set of cultural-ideological shibboleths that must be displayed in order to establish one’s own legitimacy and, one hopes, to feel secure in one’s career, is antithetical to liberal cultivation of humanity. I want to read Virgil’s Eclogues because they please me and they elevate my spirit, and I do not want to have to do so either within some narrow frame of official dialectical materialism or some narrow “lens” of race, gender, or “diversity”.
There are other lenses, and they are not patently absurd or oppressive. Humanism, for example, holds that we are in a position to imagine ourselves into another person’s plight no matter how different they are from us in their social identity. It holds moreover that such imaginative work is necessary for recognition of our common human plight, and therefore also for building bonds of solidarity. Standpoint epistemology and identitarianism —or whatever you want to call them; one of the common gaslighting strategies of the enforcers of conformism is always to tell you that the words you struggle to come up with in order to describe the thing they are enforcing in fact have no real denotation— are not the only game in town, even if you are expected to pretend that they are in the current university environment.
The rapid intensification of the pressure to read through such lenses, I take it, is another symptom of Trump derangement syndrome. Or, to put this another way, Trump is a principal cause of the deformation of humanistic inquiry in the United States over the past years, and there is no more hopeful path to correcting this deformation than to condemn that ridiculous man to an obscure and irrelevant senescence.
So vote, vote, vote. Cast your uncooked bean into the urn. Participate in electoral democracy, whatever Pythagoras may have thought of it (and we really can’t be sure). But once you have voted, please do consider abstaining from beans in the other possible sense of that commandment that we have been considering: do not allow yourself to get all gassed up on the sort of cultural identification that political participation has become in the era of the internet. As for tomorrow, think for yourself, and, if you find you agree with me, vote for the candidate who will best help to bring about the social conditions most amenable to thinking for yourself. Vote, that is, against the social-mediatisation of our civic life, against the reification of slapdash identity categories, and against politics as romantic and irrational identification with a collective. Vote against Donald Trump.
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