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Polarised: Politics in the modern age

by | 13 September, 2018 | Article


By Louis Altena


On the 19th of August I was lucky enough to attend Dr Cornell West and Douglas Murray’s Polarised speaking event on the last night of their tour in Brisbane. The talk was highly enjoyable and as it was closing night it was clear that Dr West and Murray had made significant ground in coming to grips with the problems that their set of talks had aimed to discuss. One problem remained somewhat unanswered however, and as Murray quite poetically stated at the end of the night (and here I’m paraphrasing):

“Without an overarching structure in the form of a key or a time signature, a band is a mere cacophony. Similarly, a society without an overarching structure becomes nothing but a wild flurry of words and emotions.”

Anyone who has been on Twitter for five minutes will know what he’s talking about.

Firstly, it is worth understanding what Murray means when he describes the loss of societal structure. Since industrialisation, Western community has declined due to the specialisation necessary for working in factories, instead of in fields, which has led to humans acting as individualised cogs in an economic machine. This shift has seen the emergence of a population no longer working for themselves or for their families, but for a boss or company that is foreign to themselves. Furthering this atomisation, the end of World War II nurtured the American ideal of being a self-made man or woman and encouraged the hunting of individual profits over the holistic benefits that agricultural production could provide for one’s family or community. Fast forward a few decades and we see a series of events which further unfold the atomisation narrative of pre-industrial societies, accelerating the tearing of the western social fabric. As an example, the September 11 attack demonstrated the potentially harrowing consequences of globalisation, as it instilled a new fear of catastrophe caused by even the most distant of threats. Of course, the US had only recently (at least historically speaking) emerged from the Cuban missile crisis, the potential consequences of which were far greater. However, the September 11 attack was threatening in a different way. It was not conducted by another nation and was instead orchestrated by a small group of radical individuals in a faraway land. As the Bush government acted aggressively to maintain security, the damage had already been done and collective panic facilitated an attitude of animosity towards one’s fellow citizens; cruelly marring the beginning of the 21st century.

Now that we understand how our current situation has come to pass, it is important to understand exactly what the problem of this atomised society is. In one of Georg Hegel’s greatest works Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel describes history as a pursuit of absolute knowledge. By absolute knowledge, Hegel does not imply that one should pursue knowledge of everything, but rather, that the mind should know itself. This concept of the mind (or ‘geist’) is important in understanding Murray’s question as this mind is not merely an individual mind, but a collective and individual one, which seeks to know itself through a process of reflection. Similar to the way in which one cannot see certain parts of their body without a mirror to reflect it back at them, the mind cannot define itself without other similar consciousnesses to reflect against and distinguish itself from. This process of distinguishing oneself from other consciousnesses is necessary if the mind is to achieve absolute knowledge. As such, Singer summarises, “…minds are not separate atoms, linked together by accidents of association. Individual minds exist together, or they do not exist at all.” Now provided that all of that German idealism didn’t go over your head (like it did for most of human kind when Hegel wrote it), I believe that Hegel’s conception of mind demonstrates the fundamental problem which Murray described, that within our atomised society the mind cannot know itself.

Again, I turn to the philosophers for solutions to this problem, this time to the pragmatist thinker John Dewey. For those unfamiliar, Dewey held a fundamental belief in structuring of society with democratic principles. These democratic principles were not necessarily the political structures which we think of today, but rather a mode of operating collectively whereby the most amount of people can participate in communicative dialogue which works towards the goal of collective knowledge. Dewey termed these communicative collectives as communities of inquiry and argued that the strongest communities are ones with the ability to transmit outside ideas into the group and incorporate the views of others into their collective understanding. As an example, the breakup of the Soviet bloc was at least partially caused by the failure of the Kremlin to address the concerns of the Eastern European states regarding transparency and reform, especially the reforms proposed in the Prague Spring in 1968. These ideas, although present in some parts of the USSR, were repressed and not incorporated into the collective understanding, leading to a crisis in the Soviet Union some 20 years later.

This concept of communicative dialogue links directly to the Hegelian concept of the mind and characterises our goal as one focused on building communities of inquiry which allow us to better understand not only ourselves, but the uncertain world around us as well.

In modern society we have already made rather crude attempts at building communities through identity politics. The problem with these communities as Dr West described, and Murray agreed, lies in the inability of some of the increasingly radical elements of the Identity Politics movement to integrate their experience into a common human narrative. The identity-based politics of Martin Luther King or Aretha Franklin was not a pursuit of a separate black narrative, but rather a pursuit to integrate the black narrative into the wider human narrative from which black people had historically been omitted. The answer to the problem of an absent narrative is not to be found in isolation or segregation, but as Hegel and Dewey describe, it is to be found through a collective sharing of human narratives within communities of inquiry.

Finally, I would like to address the question of a man from the audience who asked when the watershed moment in our time will come to end the madness of our polarised and atomised society. To that person I say that our watershed moment is now, so go out into the world and boldly build your own community of inquiry with which we may reunite our divided mind and restore our lost but desperately needed sense of social unity.


Louis Altena is a PPE student at St Lucia, and Vice-President of the UQ Student Philosophy Association.



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