But my lack of interest in this new orientation [Accelerationism--ES] stems primarily from the authors’ excessive certitude about contemporary politics. They write more like activists than philosophers, and unfortunately we are starting to forget the important difference between these two professions— one person might do both, such as Sartre or Foucault, but they are two very different hats. The authors seem confident in what the problems are with ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘climate’, and so forth, and they also speak in terms of ‘cataclysms’ and ‘annihilations’. The philosophical element missing from this picture is any sense of Socratic ignorance... politics is not primarily about truth and not primarily about power, but about uncertainty. By contrast, the Accelerationists continue in the basically idealist line of the modern Left start out by assuming that the political truth is basically known and it’s time to strategize about how to implement it in some suitably radical way. The general assumption on the Left is that there are certain corrupt, greedy, ignorant, alienated, or evil interest groups that are preventing an already known ideal political order from being implemented, and hence there is no time to waste on piddling, fruitless, navel-gazing speculation. There are crisis moments when this attitude makes sense, and perhaps we’re in one now. Yet this is still the attitude of the activist, not of the philosopher, who deals with much longer stretches of time than the modern period of philosophical idealism in which the Left was born and raised. Another way of saying it is that the Left misreads politics as being primarily about the implementation of justice, when politics is really about the conflict over what justice is. This is not simply a class struggle or any kind of power struggle (though it’s partly that) because humans are genuinely mystified about what truth and justice are. You can’t make a science out of these; rationalism is even more dead as a political doctrine than it is as an ontological one. Politics is neither primarily about truth and justice (Rousseau, Marx) nor primarily about conflict and victory (Hobbes, Schmitt). ...As philosophers, we're not supposed to be swept along with the Zeitgeist, we’re supposed to be resisting it. Even if ‘neoliberalism’ has the political Zeitgeist in Western countries since Thatcher and Reagan, the Zeitgeist among intellectuals has been something quite different, and that’s a bigger danger for us.--Graham Harman [discussing his book Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political] [HT Cogburn]
I agree with Graham Harman that even the public philosopher should, qua philosopher,* try to restrain herself from being a pundit or a citizen-activist. The technical reason for this is that modern philosophers are (in the scheme of things) rather narrow specialists, whose methods teach them (a) to abstract away from lots of messy and irrelevant details; we are taught (b) to be suspicious of polysemy and vagueness, and (c) we have little tolerance of conflicting (partial) lexical orderings. Because politics requires different attitudes than those exhibited in (a-c), when we speak in public we tend to come across as partisans or casuistrists joining sides in the great (and a few petty) debates of the day (recall this post on Gaza; this is controversial, see more below). From the trial of Socrates we learn that this can harm the institution of philosophy, especially if others think we're on the side of immorality (or exhibit lack of patriotism, etc.); the name Heidegger is a salutary reminder of what is at stake in these matters (recall and here, here, etc.). Even in lower stakes circumstances, philosophical skills are not innocent; Anil Gomes (Oxford) recently revived [HT Dailynous & Leiterreports] Aristophanes' charge against philosophy, viz., that the capacity to make careful distinctions does not ensure that they will be put to good uses.
Of course, sometimes the times demand, that some of us embrace our fate as philosophically trained activists. The pundit and the activist can legitimately avail themselves of philosophical arguments and other insights, while even the purest philosophers avail themselves of philosophical politics within the profession (recall this post on David Lewis). It is, of course, not always easy to figure out where one activity (philosophy) slides into another (activism). Harman suggests one useful heuristic echoing Seneca: the philosopher focuses on the long term, by influencing (through books, lectures, TED-talks, etc.) the minds and habits of a 'public,' while the activist tries to influence immediate public, political decisions. (This presupposes there are no philosopher-kings.) Of course, the activist would like thereby to secure long-term aims, so the distinction is not a neat one. (And, obviously in a 24hrs news-cycle, next month may seem long away!) That's okay because there are going to be lots of trading-zones where philosophers and activists meet and overlap.
To accept the distinction between philosophy and activism entails a certain kind of self-command and judgment on behalf of the philosopher. (Undoubtedly some non-philosophers might think good riddance, too.) But the position does not entail being silent in public. Conceiving the long-term is compatible with putting issues on the agenda and calling attention to long-term trade-offs or dilemma's as a public philosopher. (Harman calls attention to the dangerous political situation over Nile water-rights/treaties.)
Some impatient readers will reject a more fundamental (as opposed to technical) assumption I share with Harman: that politics is not wholly aimed at either pre-existing truth or the battle over power. This assumption entails that one ought to be very careful switching from philosophy to activism even with fully worked out philosophical theories. Harman captures the insight by insisting that public politics is about uncertainty (he attributes it to late-ish Latour; I would mention Knight or Keynes here). [A note on terminology: I think politics is present in philosophy and in public life, so this is why I sometimes use 'public politics' to refer to familiar political activity (by presidents, activists, lobbyists, parliamentarians, voters, etc.)]. That is, it is a site where justice and power are, in part, constituted (through discussion, negotiation, legislation, bargaining, bribing, voting, public opinion, etc.) and, in part, discovered. This means they (justice/power) lack a certain permanence (recall this post on the Conservative's dilemma).
This lack of permanence is also true (grin) to some extent for truth, although obviously the story is not exactly the same. When Senators vote to deny the existence of man-made climate change they just look ridiculous. But it is also a fact that political legislation has some influence on non-trivial social truths that will occur, say, in the future.
Harman recommends a certain kind of public caution that he (mistakenly, I think) associates with Socratic ignorance. Now, such caution can quickly sound conservative and generate a status quo bias. To be clear: it is important to distinguish such caution with a kind of reliance on precautionary principles, which have become a justification for quite a bit of government action (and overreach)--these days anti-terrorism practices rely on precautionary principles in order to justify preemptive practices that do away with long standing legal procedures (see this excellent book by my new colleague Marieke de Goede). But embracing such philosophical caution for oneself does not prevent activism by others.
Even so, I was struck by Harman's claim that the greater danger comes from groupthink among philosophers rather than from bad politics. This is not an evident position. I have to admit that I had his attitude during Bush vs Gore, but the Bush administration set in motion a set of responses to 9/11 that have (and continue to have) far-reaching consequences some of which may, in fact, delimit the space of future philosophy Stateside and in the Middle East. So, I worry that there is a tendency to underestimate the significance of public politics. Even so, in an other context he puts his point as follows (and more instructively):
There is a lazy tendency in our era to moralize every political issue, as if politics were merely the implementation of an already understood justice, rather than –as Latour holds– the place where the nature of justice is determined. Someone is always held to be morally at fault whenever a political situation goes wrong; politics becomes an actual knowledge of the morally right, whose truth is opposed only by those corrupted through inferior character or vested interests.....’--Graham Harman.
Contemorary philosophers (influenced by Rawls) prioritize the right over other values. But the tendency is not only exhibited on the Left, but also on the (Libertarian and Conservative) Right where a fondness for epistemocracy, lotteries, and betting markets is rising (often also in the service of some right). By treating politics as a site where morality is implemented, we philosophers treat politicians as technicians rather than as crafty agents that need to weave together (and sometimes trade-off) different values and interests into compelling narratives that allow us to cope without violence.