Plato Among Pundits, a Dialog

Dialog on the Common Good, the Will of the People, the Thought Unique and why Democrats refuse to accept the results of the elections.

I loaded my unimpressive weekly groceries onto the carrier belt and the counter lady said, “A vegetarian, I see.”

“A perspicacious observation and an accurate deduction – I replied. And since you noticed, let me add that vegetarianism is a practice devoutly to be wished, for the health of man and the life of animals. As I left that paradise of comestible choices, I heard a familiar voice calling me. It was Critias, son of Protagoras, whom my twenty-five readers have already met in the blog Basket of Deplorables. He invited me for a coffee at a nearby establishment.

What do you think – he said after we sat down – about the curious phenomenon of the Democrats refusing to acknowledge Trump as president, not to speak of the mainstream media that makes one block with the Democrats?

Yes, as a development it is novel, but our times abound in Orwellian paradoxes. In the instance, the shapers of public opinion condemn totalitarianism in its historic symbols, but praise it in those whom they deem as wise oligarchs – bureaucrats, bankers, warmongers, financial merchants and associates. For, by their courage in enacting unpopular choices, according to this unspoken criterion, the oligarchs are the saviors of the country. And a simple lexical twist converts the unruly majority of people-voters into shit. In fact, by calling a ‘popular’ choice ‘populist’, democracy ends up in the toilet. Democracy implies people’s choices – hence ‘popular’. But, in the oligarchical view, if the people’s choices are ‘populist’, they are no longer democratic, which is an ingenious interpretation. Meaning that, in principle (and in the instance in practice), electoral universal participation leads to the triumph of ignorance and unspeakable egotisms, incompatible with the common good, as perceived by the oligarchs. And, by the way, you should not interpret these considerations as my endorsement of any candidate. I simply gave you my reading of the event.

But what is, in your view, the common good, whether defined by the oligarchs or others?

You are pointing to the crux of the matter, Critias. It is never discussed, though, because discussing it would show the fragility of the social contract, however bombastic and pretentious may be the pronunciations uttered to exalt it. But, as you well know, platitudes are always preferable to the gradual and laborious investigation of reason.

How so?

Because there is no common good uniquely agreed upon by rational argument. To different people and groups, common good means different things. And, lurking behind the idea of a common good is the notion of ultimate values, which, unfortunately, often escape the laws of logic. Take, for example, the case of him who prides himself in the idea of America being the greatest country in the world, whose freedoms are envied by all other nations. “They envy our freedoms” – said the president at the time of 9/11, even if it may have been an inside job. For our sample individual, the sense of pride and the pleasure of being (however vicariously) envied has no limits, and it requires little help from external circumstances. He will welcome any monstrous expenditure in ‘defense’, even at the cost of any austerity he may suffer. Quite apart from austerity being a politically miserable idea and economically disproven. I quoted defense, but the same may apply to, say, health. All agree on its desirability but many disagree on vaccination, for example. Let alone the (relatively) few who maintain that, given the current prevailing ideology, the purpose of medicine at large is to convince people that they are sick. As far back as 1994, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Dr. Clifton Meader, titled, “The Last Well Person.” And extensive bibliography is easily available on the subject.

But then, Critia asked, do you deny the possibility of there being a “common good”?

Only in the sense of there being also a presumed “will of the people,” which is inherently linked to the idea of a “common good.” Both ideas were born in the 18th century with the doctrine of utilitarianism. Bentham and friends fashioned their philosophy to fit the framework of the “petit bourgeois” society of their time, just before the industrial revolution. The “common good” was to be the focus point of individual wills, which, through rational discussion would converge into a “will of the people.” But when there is no agreement on the “common good” the “will of the people” becomes meaningless, and so does the idea of utilitarian democracy. The latter meaning “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” to quote or paraphrase Bentham. Therefore, if common good is anything but common and the will of the people is imaginary, we have a completely different system. Utilitarian democracy was perhaps applicable to the 17th century conditions. Not today, when everything is left at six and seven.

But are we not falling back on the paradox that democracy is not what the word means?

Only if we attribute to the word a mythical or thaumaturgical meaning, which the word itself excludes. Let’s assume that a common will, or public opinion may be defined out of the infinite muddle of divergent ideas, volitions and influences that make up the so-called “democratic process.” And let’s discount that even “public opinion” is a product of the mainstream media and/or polling agencies, both of which can be easily bought, as the last presidential elections amply proved. If this common will or public opinion is by definition unrelated to the common good, the consequence is quite illuminating.

Which is?

That only chance will determine the outcome of the democratic process. And given that common good and the will of the people are incongruent concepts, the result may well be a disaster. In turn, to give an ethical justification to the result, we have to fall back on our unqualified confidence in the democratic process, a belief that, in principle, is independent of the desirability of the results.

Are you suggesting that an undemocratic form of government is preferable to democracy?

Not at all, but a belief that ignores its own results is unconstructive (to be euphemistic), both for the individual and for the practitioners of democracy at large. Of course, power always surrounds deception with splendor and is ever ready to surprise the unawareness of the thoughtless. Presidential conventions and sundry slogans come to mind. Still, there are notable historical instances when an undemocratic decision proved the only way out of a democratically unsolvable dilemma. Take the case of Napoleon when he became First Consul in what was a de facto military dictatorship, at the end of the French Revolution. The revolution had been a city phenomenon and had sharply divided the country on the issue of religion. Priests had to swear allegiance to France rather than Rome – the issue divided the country along irreconcilable lines. Napoleon reached a concordat with the Pope and literally reconciled the irreconcilable, by allowing enough religious freedom while upholding the authority of the state. This ecclesiastical policy contributed to the popularity of the Consulate and to the following conversion of France from a monarchy into an empire. Yet, a democratic solution would have been impossible. Anti-church sentiments still ran high among the defeated Jacobins. Equally, Catholic sentiment was just as high. Peasants wanted their priests, churches and processions. At the same time there was fear that the land expropriated from the church, and redistributed during the revolution, may have returned to the church once the bishops were restored to their bishoprics. Napoleon succeeded in settling a critical question, because all the groups that would never have democratically accepted an arrangement, did so when it was imposed. The instance is not unique but it shows that if results satisfactory for the people at large, are a test of government for the people, then government by the people, in the common understanding of democracy can easily fail the test.

Now I am confused. If the common good cannot be agreed upon and if the common will is even more intractable, how do we deal with or justify the decisions that, in one way or another, are taken by the government of the people which is NOT the government for the people, as you suggest?

Your confusion is evidence of a rational mind, Critias. When Achilles posed a similar question to Ulysses, he replied, “There is a mystery (with whom relation Durst never meddle) in the soul of state; Which hath an operation more divine, Than breath, or pen can give expression to.” Which was a poetic way to say, “Don’t ask stupid questions”, given that Ulysses had set up his own Greek intelligence to run covert CIA-style operations, and the less said about them the better. Nevertheless, Ulysses proved less arrogant than the current CIA, which tacitly assumes to be more “divine than breath or pen can give expression to” – considering that it seems to openly undermine the president’s policies. The point is, my good friend, that, at least until after the recent presidential elections, even in the absence of an agreed ‘common good’ there was an agreement at large that the conflict of divergent interests would lead, through discussion, to acceptable compromises. In other words, the political climate did not deny the dignity of existence to conflicting interests, even though each party would attempt to contain the expansion of the other interest(s). Instead, the current prevailing ideology of the “Thought Unique” considers the non-abiders as dangerous, ignorant, stupid, selfish and anti-social. For the “Thought Unique” is the modern equivalent of the utilitarian “common good” of old, and he who does not pursue the common good is an egoist.

But who establishes what is this new resurrected “common good,” which, as you say, is a close relative of the “Thought Unique?”

That’s the question I was leading you to ask. The “common good” is the good of the strongest, just as the strongest establishes the criteria of merit in the meritocracy we talked about during our previous discussion. Consequently – as a brilliant Italian philosopher pointed out: The undisputable existence of a “common good” excludes dissent by definition. Opponents are enemies rather than representatives of other interests. The common good justifies the sacrifice of the individual. And finally, the adjective ‘common’ as in ‘common good,’ implies the very necessity of the Though Unique. The consequences are profound and insidious. For one, the Thought Unique also implies the death of the dialectical process. The thesis of the dominant coincides with the synthesis, while the antithesis is suppressed. Thought Unique is totalitarian and the father of unsavory bastards, such as Technocracy, which posits the existence of the Right Idea, external to the political process, the Thatcherian TINA (“There Is No Alternative”), meaning let the voters go to hell, and Meritocracy as the rule by the righteous. Plus, quite logically, the End of History. For how could there be, from now on, anything but the “right way?” Which brings us back to your original question on the curious phenomenon of the Democrats refusing to acknowledge Trump as president. I attempted to answer it

Yes, but that’s a pretty bleak picture.

I agree, but would you rather ignore it? Remember, we live “in this earthly world; where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly.” Contributing to this state of affairs is a class whom societal critic Nassim Taleb has defined as the “IYI” (intellectuals Yet idiots). I will quote from his topic article,

“What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for. But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With dubious psychology papers, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.” Gloucester elegantly captures the idea when he say “ ‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.” (in King Lear).

But have you not any words of hope for your 25 readers, as you call them?

Seneca used to say that “No man is miserable, but as he is compared with other happier than himself.” Which is not strictly true. He might have said, with rigorous propriety, that no man is happy, but as he is compared with the miserable. Which is the attitude recommended by the propounders of the Thought Unique to the rest of us. Though I doubt whether they know that Seneca said it or who Seneca was. Still, there are some hopes, though more than hopes I call them embryonic avenues of possibility.

I am all ears, said Critias.

In the Ancien Regime, the first estate was the clergy, the second the nobility, and the third the commoners. According to Carlysle, it was Edmund Burke who added the fourth estate, meaning the press. Of the four, the clergy is sinking, the nobility has disappeared, the commoners are as common as ever and the dominants have totally bought out the fourth estate, the press, to which we add television. As well as the American entertainment industry, which is but a top-down imposition of a repulsive ideology, masquerading as representative of popular taste, in the form of the most sordid and degrading entertainment. To say that Internet can be classed as the fifth estate sounds like a platitude, until we consider the most recent developments in the structure and modalities of the search engines, which take into account the acceptance of ideas contained in sundry blogs. It wasn’t always so. Let’s assume, for example, that you agree with the points we discussed in this dialog, and you wish to tell your friends about them. By so doing you invite them to read the dialog. They too, assuming they find the subject interesting, will advise or share the content with their friends. And as the network of readers expands, so will the popularity of this particular blog and the spread of the ideas contained therein. Of course, none of this happens if the information is deemed uninteresting. The process represents a structured information that actually mimics the extended circulation of nervous and endocrine messages which govern the organic whole through the brain. Current views on the functioning of the body suggests that cells assigned to various tasks, assume their structure as a result of a continuous exchange of synapses among the brain neurons. Today we are still very far from the goal. Only so-called professional information is consistently diffused, and it lacks the self-correcting process implicit when users publicize (or not) specific information. Therefore the feedback-less diffusion of information enables the establishment of new hierarchies and structures of domination. But if the information can become an objective in itself, by so doing it also represents a new and permanent class action, reliable and inexpensive. French medical doctor Dominique Dupagne has illustrated the subject at length in his excellent book “La Revanche du Rameur,” which also contains a searing indictment of official science, corporate medicine, pharmaceutics, management and, of course, politics. He calls “Web 2.0” the new information system where people’s judgment directly determines the worth of ideas expounded via the web. In summary, it is possible to envision a positively democratic diffusion of ideas whose worth is determined by the readers and not by the dominants whose interest is exclusively their own. Perhaps you may have asked yourself why power is ever more concentrated and the gold of their holders makes black white, foul fair, wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant….etc.

Why?

Because with the de facto imposition of the Thought Unique,
“Every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.”

Should I share this blog then? Critia asked.

Only if you find it interesting. For in the new updated world of Web 2.0, readers and writers cannot help but practice what they preach.

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  • spoint

    Jimmie,

    A bucket of too many facts subjectively weighed makes any opinion reasonable. Motives beget reason.