Merleau-Ponty: The call for moderation
Post-truth politics is best defined as a political situation in which political support is not dependent on epistemic support: we support leaders and policies regardless of whether we believe these leaders tell the truth or know the truth, and regardless of whether we believe that these policies rely on an accurate understanding of facts, or whether it will lead to improvements in reality. Post-truth politics is challenging for us because it exploits a loophole in the philosophical underpinnings of democracies: democratic thinking assumes that the people’s political behaviors are motivated by beliefs. On that assumption, people may have wrong beliefs, and leaders might create these wrong beliefs, for example, by lying, but those beliefs determine whom they support. Add this to the assumption that all beliefs aim at truth, and we see that democratic theory has no room for post-truth. This means that democracies are not prepared to confront the phenomenon of post-truth. It has developed a host of tools to circumvent the power of lying in politics, by exploring the connections between citizenship and education for example, but what it now needs to do is to no longer assume that we index our political behavior on (what we believe to be) the truth.
It must make the preliminary step: to establish that we should do so. This is crucial, since anyone who denies that we should do so, will abuse our democratic institutions by placing at their heads leaders whose policies are not truth-sensitive, thereby producing outcomes that have nothing to do with the interests of the people. What happens therefore is that the democratic value of popular decision-making seems to oppose the democratic value of popular interest: in a situation of post-truth, people vote against their interests, leading to undemocratic results, and yet, depriving them of their choice is undemocratic too.
Democratic theorists are aware of this problem, but they regard it as an anomaly related to error and false belief. As such, it assumes that when we make collective decisions, what we agree upon is the truth and what we disagree upon is cancelled out, because about this, we all believe incompatible things, that therefore do not make their way into our collective decisions. This, again, is a solution that the phenomenon of post-truth politics has proved to be insufficient: this model of collective decision assumes that we deliberate together on the basis of our interest in truth, and post-truth politics shows that on massive scales, we sometimes have no interest in truth. Post-truth therefore stands as a phenomenon that threatens the whole architecture of democratic thinking.
Extremism in politics also is both a current challenge and one that cuts deep into our institutions and the philosophy that supports them. If extremism is a danger, it is because it is contagious. The contagion extends along two lines: first, extremist discourses tend to radicalize those who are sympathetic to them, yet moderate. Second, opposite extremes radicalize each other. Extremists have always known that this is their advantage: they love to be hated. This is one of the underpinnings of terrorist violence for example, whereby terrorist groups try to foster the hatred of their enemies.
This is not restricted to terrorism either, far-right groups in Western Europe, even when they are not (or not openly) involved with violent acts, have pushed moderate politicians towards their policies in very effective ways. In both cases, the mechanisms that give this advantage to extremists relies on the assumption that moderation is unfounded: nobody can give reasons of principle for why they hold moderate views or why they moderately hold their views. The best reasons for moderation are insufficient: pragmatism—the view that holding moderate position is better than the damage of radical position—is still the best argument for moderation, and it is weak. For example, it doesn’t have a principled or moral underpinning: morality tells us right and wrong and pursuing justice moderately is, to say the least, unappealing. It doesn’t have strong epistemic underpinnings either: it is impossible to define how much moderation is too much or too little moderation, and indeed, extremists have no trouble casting moderates as lazy, cowardly, inconsistent, or hypocritical. There is no response to this accusation.
Here we see the connection between the two kinds of contagion: we can be moderate as long as we don’t feel threatened, but extremists, however small their base may be, can always create a sense of insecurity, either through paranoid discourses as we see in the global alt-right, and far-right anti-immigrant discourse, or by spreading terror. In this regard, both the anti-immigrant far-right and the Islamic terrorists, for example, are allies much more than opponents: they need societies to be afraid, so that their moderate sympathizers become radicalized. This mechanism too, is a concrete phenomenon that threatens the theoretical basis of democracy. This is because it shows that although democracies can be built around a principle of rationality, it is much harder to construct them around a principle of reasonableness. In short, they show that rationality and moderation, two democratic values, can conflict sometimes.
In ways that are nothing short of prescient, Merleau-Ponty struggled with the same problems in the 1950s. In his analysis of the ways in which Stalinism revealed the hidden flaws of Marxism, he too encountered the problem of post-truth and the problem of extremism. Power, he argues, in agreement with democratic theorists like Rousseau, always derives from those that obey it. This is because even when a leader has the military resources to crush rebellions, rebellions cannot be avoided until the people agree to obey.
However, he diverges from democratic theorists when he argues that we obey power not because of any belief, but because of the way we perceive our leaders. For Merleau-Ponty, to obey an leader means to interpret them has having authority. This is paradoxical because this authority doesn’t precede, but derives from, this interpretation. As Merleau-Ponty sees it, following Machiavelli, this means that the leader (or in Machiavelli’s language, the “prince”), must invest all their resources in keeping this paradox from becoming visible: people must believe that the leader has the authority independently of them. So, the leader must “project” authority, and this is done through a skillful use of appearances and rituals designed to distract us from reflecting on our obedience.
This is crucial as regards the problem of post truth as it suggests, for Merleau-Ponty, that political support is in fact never derived from belief, but from something deeper, a certain “taking-for-granted” “perceptual faith”. Faith is not belief because it doesn’t make any claim about truth: to have a certain faith is a way of living, not a set of beliefs. Perceiving a leader as having a certain authority means leaving as if they were the leader, not believing them to have such an authority. This allows Merleau-Ponty to account for phenomena like post-truth: political support is not a function of belief, and therefore it doesn’t depend on truth. Rather, it is a function of faith and it depends on our forms of life. Post-truth leaders like Donald Trump have instinctively grasped what Merleau-Ponty analysed: the place that they have in the lives of their supporters is not the place that a certain set of true statements have. Rather, for those supporters, supporting trump (for example), is a way of life, and a factor of identification. Demanding that such supporters give up their support of leaders like Trump amounts to demanding for them to no longer be themselves, it amounts to an existential threat. It’s little wonder that they adamantly refuse.
By the same token, Merleau-Ponty deals with the problem of moderation. Moderation is at a strategic disadvantage because it doesn’t fit any all-or-nothing alternatives. Such alternatives are the unified target of all aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. In his account of the body, he opposes the subjectivist or objectivist accounts equally, in his theory of art, he opposes the view that the value of a work is either in the work or in the subject, in his ontology, he opposes the subject-object distinction, in his metaphysics, he opposes the materialism-idealism opposition, and in his politics, he opposes the oppositions between good and evil, guilt and innocence, freedom and subjection, determinism and agency. This provides him with the tools to overcome the false alternatives that make moderation look like an anomaly, an impure compromise, cowardice and hypocrisy.
This inability to justify moderation, Merleau-Ponty suggests, comes from a purely negative understanding of it: moderation is this that is not extreme, this that is not quite like this and not quite like that, this that is between this and that. This has the very practical perverse result that those who value moderation are often undermined by the extremists because as long as we think of moderation as to be found between two extremes, it’s position will always be dependent on these extremes. And so it is up to the extremes to move the center, by becoming more extreme, they move the center toward their side. Often, this involves becoming absurdly extremes only for the sake of making what was extreme yesterday, appear reasonable. This is one of the key resources of propaganda, because it allows the extremes to claim the prestige of moderation, without ceasing to be extreme. All of this, however, depends on the idea of moderation as derived from the extremes, and therefore on the idea that the extremes are more real, more clear, more determinate than the moderate position: an extreme position is a pure position, and a moderate position is an impure position.
But, argues Merleau-Ponty, this priority of the extremes is the result of a long-held philosophical bias for self-identity which has no basis in experience. Indeed, if we pay close attention to what these supposedly pure and extreme positions involve, all we discover is contradictions. For Merleau-Ponty, all these contradictions can be boiled down to one: the famous clean hands problem. Extremists are extreme for moral reasons: they regard their actions as morally motivated, and morality doesn’t admit moderation. But, Merleau-Ponty says, any morality that refuses moderation also refuses morality. This is because reality always resist sour morally-motivated intentions to an extent, forcing us to make tough choices and to prioritise. Moderation is simply the recognition that we must give reality its due. Refusing to do so means refusing to act in the real world. As he says, citing the French writer Charles Péguy, in such moral extremism, our “hands remain clean, but we have no hands.” Morality cannot exist if it doesn’t make reality better, but making reality better, means giving reality its due. The only sin of moderation is to take morality seriously enough that it wants it to have an impact.
So, if the extremes are abstraction, all that is left is for moderation to be reconceived as not derived from the extremes, but as the primary fact: we are in a world that both enables and limits our ability for improving it, and this metaphysical position brings with it a demand for moderate politics.
Do Merleau-Ponty’s brilliant analyses of post-truth and radicalism offer any solution? First, they do by virtue of being analyses: they are part of a philosophical effort designed to make us think more clearly and to allow us to correct the ways of thinking that have brought us to these two crises. They also contribute greatly by disqualifying some of our more spontaneous responses: before post-truth politics, the appropriate response is not to reinforce our valuation of truth: the point is that this cannot and hasn’t been done. Doing so will only further antagonize those whose political behavior doesn’t fit the presupposition of the democratic tradition. Similarly, the saturation of moderating discourse and so-called deradicalisation efforts will only further antagonize those they are aimed for. The main contribution of Merleau-Ponty’s political philosophy, is to show that these crises are natural results of an ideology which has served us well, but whose contradictions have now become impossible to ignore, it is an urgent call for a paradigm shift.