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Why do we have a general feeling of powerlessness?


The celebrated Anglo-Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman captures the mood of today with the following story:

Imagine you are on an airplane, up there in the sky. You could be reading, drinking, sleeping, playing video games, anticipating a romantic meeting or an arduous work schedule of meetings and talks, or maybe a pleasant vacation… you know how it is on a plane.

Then a nice voice, a soft reassuring voice, a well-educated and welcoming voice makes an announcement, but it’s a recorded message, recorded some time ago, telling you that there is no one flying the plane, the cockpit is completely empty. Flight attendants still mill around with drinks, but you have to pay for them. You only have a credit card and they only take cash. You begin to get thirsty and slightly anxious. You start licking your lips in fear.

The announcement reassures you that there’s an automatic pilot, but then you find out that its a rather old model and the batteries that charge it risk running down before you land. But you might still land safely.

Then there’s a second announcement. This time about the airport where you’re meant to be landing. It’s bad news: the airport has not been built yet; it is still in the planning stages, held up by various forms of red tape, corrupt local planning departments, a series of general strikes if it were a Greek airport. Indeed, it then emerges that the application for the airport still hasn’t even been submitted to the right department and meanwhile the lead construction company is being prosecuted for unpaid taxes.

For Bauman, and I think he is right, this story is an image of our age. It expresses our sense of fear, which is the fear of not being in control.

The truth is we are not in control. But that’s not the worst of it. We suspect, indeed we know, that no one is in control: no God, no glorious leader, no benevolent dictator, nothing and no one. It’s even worse than the fantasy behind the Wizard of Oz and the Emperor’s New Clothes. There’s no wizard and no emperor. This is the source, I think, of the massive fear and anxiety that we experience on a daily basis.

Our fear is scattered and diffused. It doesn’t have a specific object. One moment, the object of fear could be a hurricane. The next, it could be a tsunami or it could be the downsizing of your company, or your wife could leave you or your boyfriend suddenly gets sick or your pensions have disappeared. It could be that your house is robbed, car stolen. You could be diagnosed with a fatal disease. We live with a generalized sense of fear, a feeling that I am not in control and that nothing and no one is in control either.

It is as if we are living in quicksand. We try to dig ourselves out and we dig ourselves deeper. The more we try, the deeper we sink into the sand, or, as they say here, into the shit &hellp; quickshit?

Why do we have this feeling of not being in control? Why can’t we pinpoint the source of our fear? Why do we have a general feeling of powerlessness?

One reason, not the only reason but one important reason, is the profound separation of politics and power.

Power is the ability to get things done. Politics is the means to get those things done. The location of the union of power and politics was once understood to be the nation state. This was never the complete truth, particularly for colonized or subjugated peoples, and it was certainly never the full truth of our always interconnected economic life (in a sense there’s always been globalization). But for a period of time in many of the countries of the world, the countries that most of us are from, it was a reasonable expectation that the nation state was the location of the unity of power and politics and this was how we could get things done.

Democracy is the name for a political regime or politeia that believes that power lies with the people. Representative liberal democracy on the Western model (and there are other models, as the last year of Occupy has reminded us) is premised on the idea that we exercise political power through the vote and that these votes would be aggregated by parties, representatives would be elected, governments would be formed, and these governments would have power to get things done. (Personally, as an old Rousseauist, I never really had much faith in representative government, but let’s leave that aside.)

Our belief was that if we worked politically for a certain group, on the right or the left, then we could win an election, form a government, and have the power to change things.

The fact is that today politics and power have fallen apart in liberal democracy. They are separated, maybe even divorced. We know this. We feel this viscerally, I would wager. And every day brings new evidence that confirms this view.

Papandreou – remember him?

Former Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou’s idea of a referendum to the Greek people to ratify the new EU bailout proposals in October of 2011 is a case in point. Although he handled the referendum idea incompetently, it was a democratic gesture of an old-fashioned kind. Merkel and her sidekick Sarko (who are the punitive super-egoic Batman and Robin of modern Europe – Sarko is Robin and Merkel is the Dark Knight) were, of course, appalled because they know that this referendum idea is a deep misunderstanding of contemporary political reality, where power has shifted elsewhere. The referent of power is not the people and is not located in national governments. It is elsewhere: with financial institutions or the European Central Bank. And these are the institutions that European governments serve, not the people. How could Papandreou be so naïve?

Well, Papandreou is now gone and we have an unelected government of technocrats in Greece and the same thing in Italy. I agree with Habermas on this point. Democracy at this time in history, even representative liberal democracy, risks being no more than a word, a kind of ideological birdsong. Power has evaporated into supranational spaces. These are the spaces of finance, obviously, of trade, obviously, and also information and information platforms, obviously. But these supranational spaces are also those of drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal immigration, the many boats that cross the Mediterranean, and so on.

We know this. And yet power still feels local. We feel English or Greek or Tunisian, but power has migrated beyond local boundaries. Sovereignty lies elsewhere. It is certainly not populist or people-centered. Politics does not have power. Politics serves power. Whereas power is global or supranational, politics is still local and there is a gap between the two.

The casualty of this separation of politics and power is the State. The state has become eviscerated, discredited, and its credit rating has been slashed. This is obviously the case with the Greek state, but I think it is only a slightly more extreme example of the situation in the USA and elsewhere, in Britain say. The state is in a state.

So, what do we do?

To be honest, I don’t know. Philosophy is the “owl of Minerva” and it always spreads its wings at dusk, when it is too late. But this separation of power and politics, I think, throws light on a number of phenomena. Let me mention three:

One, I had a conversation with my 19-year-old-son in a favorite London pub last Saturday – the Lamb on Lamb’s Conduit Street. He cares about the state we’re in and is really worried and really fears and to some extent hopes that something big might happen. He sees what is happening across the world and doesn’t know what to do. He is part of a huge culture of disillusionment and disappointment among youth. (And if there is one central issue that the last year of global uprisings has raised, then it is that of youth. The question of youth is the question of the future, and that future has disappeared. We who are no longer young have to try and understand this and not simply adopt a patronizing attitude toward youth). My son is disillusioned and doesn’t see what good it would serve if he got involved. He feels powerless. I think this is a general feeling of his generation.

Two, another option is to accept the description of things as they appear to my son but then to do something, to take arms against a sea of trouble to take politics back from the political class through confrontation with the power of finance capital and the international status quo. What is so inspiring about the various social movements that we all too glibly call the Arab Spring, is their courageous determination to reclaim autonomy and political self-determination. The demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are actually very classical: they refuse to live in authoritarian dictatorships propped up to serve interests of Western capital, megacorporations and corrupt local elites. The people want to reclaim ownership of the means of production, for example through the nationalization of major state industries. The various movements in North Africa and the Middle East aim at one thing, one ancient Greek concept: autonomy. They demand collective ownership of the places where one lives, works, thinks, and plays. This is the most classical and basic goal of politics. Contemporary conflicts are conflicts about ownership, about occupation, about the nature of property.

Three, the Occupy movement is fascinating from the standpoint of the separation of politics and power and is particularly fascinating to the student of Athenian democracy, with its focus on the ekklesia, the general assembly, and the boule or council. To be with these protesters when the chant goes up: “This is what democracy looks like!” is powerful, really powerful. What was equally powerful was the way in which OWS conducted general assemblies peacefully, horizontally and noncoercively. So, given the separation of politics and power, the Occupy movement is trying to remake democracy, direct democracy, with a mixture of the old – assembly, consensus, autonomia and freedom – and the new, like Twitter feeds and flashmob demonstrations organized through cell phones. The Occupy movement has thrown up some amazing things, such as the Bank of Ideas in Bishopsgate, London that occupies a disused UBS bank building and is a kind of free university, and the St Paul’s cathedral protest, which raises the deep historical questions of the relation of Christianity to property and inequality – and Paul had some pretty radical views on this question.

But in many ways the Occupy movement simply underlines the separation between politics and power that I began with. We are maybe living through 1848 redux, that year of international revolutions. But that ended pretty badly. What we don’t know at this point is how these different movements will develop.

What is hard to imagine, really hard to imagine is some sort of possible articulation between Occupy and the Democratic Party in the USA. I am reminded of a poster I saw at an Occupy: “Obama, please say something.” Sure, he is going to co-opt the movement for the purposes of liberal oligarchy, but that’s all.

The disaffection with normal politics particularly among the young is vast and something else has taken shape, something at once exciting and frightening. We could be in the early stages of a perfect storm.

Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has authored over a dozen books including the celebratedInfinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance in which he argues for an ethically committed political anarchism.

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