Any reference to the current world situation – war, climate change, Trumpism and so on – forces one to ask whether Habermasian critical theory and its contemporary successors have not lost touch with the fundamental violence and irrationality built into capitalism, an insight that was crucial to critical theory until the 1970s.
By foregrounding the sexual relations and fantasies among and between the staff and the guests, The White Lotus analyses capitalism not only as a system of race and class hierarchies, but also as a libidinal economy. There is a further twist to this. Hotels, like the entire luxury sector, work by anticipating and calibrating what customers desire. TV viewers are also ‘guests’ – consumers of a quasi-luxury product (HBO). A show like The White Lotus is not only a lens; it is also a mirror.
According to Aristotle, we cannot understand something unless we understand what causes it, but ‘cause’ for Aristotle was a complex, multi-layered concept. In the case of the present war between Ukraine and Russia, Aristotle would have described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the efficient cause – the immediate precipitant – but would have argued that a fuller understanding must include the material history of Europe; the form given to that history by the Second World War and its long aftermath, which left the US in effective control of the continent; and the overall or final direction of history at stake in the conflict. I want to focus here on the form given to the conflict by America’s preponderant role in European politics.
Like most bullies, Trump favours hitting people when they are down. Understanding his deployment of sadism is fundamental to understanding his appeal. He brought together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out, but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt – whatever its source – was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilised society were part of a rigged system.
Democratic Party moralism and Trumpian macho risk-taking are internally related to one another. Gambling, with all its macho undertones, has a special if covert appeal to the evangelical or Puritan mind. It allows individuals to throw off the slow, painful and laborious burden of subordinating their wishes to the superego with one manic play of the dice. Running around without a mask in the face of a pandemic could serve as a huge relief from the endless self-examination of the hypertrophied Protestant conscience. Finally, it’s out of our hands; everything will be decided by ‘fate’.
Under slavery, the masters had an interest in maintaining the health and even longevity of the slaves, who were their main form of property. After abolition, however, maintaining the health of free workers turned into a burden, especially as the cost of medicine rose. Understanding these simple facts of modern political economy may help explain how the United States, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest country in the world’, ended up with one-third of all Covid-19 cases.
Contemporary right-wing populism, characterised by what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style – a ‘sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’ – is a product of the globalisation of the 1970s. Corbyn’s short-term problem, and the left’s long-term problem, is to speak to the primordial need for group-belonging that globalisation has stirred up, without taking for granted the national frame as our unstated premise.
During the last Democratic Party debate, Cory Booker, challenging Joe Biden, criticised Barack Obama’s deportation policies. Predictably, articles defending Obama immediately appeared. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, was especially eloquent. He framed his defence as a response to a friend who ‘repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognise that fact’. I do not know Marshall, but I share the views of his mystery friend.
Several factors point to a Democratic victory in the next US presidential election, including success in the 2018 midterms, a series of state polls, and enormous rank and file enthusiasm, reflected in the large number of candidates who qualified for the debates. Still, the Democrats vastly underestimated Trump in 2016 and may repeat the mistake in 2020. Wishful thinking is not the only pitfall. Understanding the nature of Trump’s divisive personality, and the relation between that divisiveness and America’s politics, is still undeveloped. Here Max Weber’s theory of charisma may be helpful.
Madness, Nietzsche wrote, is rare in individuals, but in groups it is the norm. Britain today is like a child that has been not only abandoned but literally dropped by its parents. It has broken into two different social groups, two politics, two worldviews but also, beneath the surface, two divergent ways of reorganising what psychoanalysts call an object world.