Political Polarization Is Good?!

If you’re a visionary political thinker and agent, your eye may have been caught by one of the following theorists/activists of the future of democracy over the last decade or so:

One way or another, these suggest “Protopian” forms of governance, where it is assumed that there is some kind of development from monarchy etc. → liberal democracy etc. → deeper and more holistic forms of governance. Democracy isn’t a done deal. It’s not an either-or. It can evolve, and it will, given enough time and the right conditions.

I agree. There is a future of democracy, of governance, of the state and beyond. And it is some kind of more integrated form that transcends party politics and brings together diverse perspectives.

And, yes, democracy builds upon peaceful and respectful human relationships throughout society. If conflict rises above a certain level, the higher democratic ideals very quickly become difficult if not impossible to uphold. A simple example: A core democratic principle is the freedom to assemble and demonstrate, as well as counter-demonstrate. Let’s say—as happened in Sweden a couple of months ago—one (Danish) far-right activist asks to hold Koran burning demonstrations in cities across the country. Young Muslim men gathered and rioted nationwide, directly attacking and attempting to kill police officers with stones, burning busses (with people in them, but no one was harmed) and schools, and so on. To stoke these fires was, of course, was the whole point of the visiting Dane, who didn’t even need to show up in half the cities. He then went on to ask permission for further demonstrations (which were granted). But with costs in millions of dollars and severe dangers to the public, guess if the right to demonstrate with provocative messages will be maintained or curtailed in the long run? How many lifetimes of human work in expenses are the Swedes prepared to pay for one guy’s rights to burn Korans? How much human harm?

As I have argued in my book Nordic Ideology, the three qualities of freedom, equality, and order co-arise; they co-evolve. They depend upon one another. Democratic freedoms and political equality require a certain level of order, from which new struggles for freedom can begin to stoke new fires—albeit less directly violent ones—until a yet higher, more complex and sensitive, form of political order is established as a response to those very fires. Francesco Alberoni called this dynamic the oscillation between “movement” and “institution”. Moments where freedom and equality converge into a loving, ecstatic embrace of new values on new tablets are “movement”—but eventually they can and must stabilize into “institution”.

To be clear: The argument I wish to make in the following is not that civil wars and violent crime lead to higher political order. But, if violence in society is successfully contained, its energies channeled into discourse, it is the very differences of people’s interests, ideologies, and perspectives that push new forms of political reality into being.

So, what we have increasingly come to discuss as the “polarization” of society and its political landscape is not only a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing when a zombie hoard of Proud Boys bloodthirstily shuffle through The Capitol bellowing Nancy Pelosi’s name.

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that public opinion splinters into opposing camps.

Why am I saying this? Well, look at the other extreme: What if everyone had just about the exact same ideas about things? Do you imagine that society would evolve, adapt to new realities? The point of democracy is not that the majority is right and therefore decides—it’s that there is freedom of speech so that new minorities can rise to convince the rest of us that we were wrong, again and again. This is certainly what happened with climate change, feminism, and gay rights. These profound shifts of public consciousness and political reality have been products of rich and diverse ecosystems of opposing views.

Here’s the principle I would suggest:

  • The farther away different positions are from one another, the higher and more complex truths can be triangulated from their dialectical interactions. Note that this has nothing to do with compromise and golden means! There was no compromise between fascism and democracy, but the defeat of fascism heralded the global victory of cosmopolitan humanitarian values and human rights.
  • But the farther away from one another the different positions of political interest/reality come, the greater the risk of the discourse degrading along the axis of: co-development → deliberation → dialogue → debate → control over communication forums → insults and wit → sheer violence.
  • The quality and resilience of democratic institutions determine how well these contain wider gaps between partisan perspectives. The different perspectives can slide so far apart that they snap the democratic institutions. The more resilient and flexible these institutions are, the more different perspectives they can contain, and thus the greater collective intelligence they can harness.

Basically, dictatorships are dictatorships because the institutions in place are frail. If someone as much as breathes a differing opinion, the whole thing will snap. Liberal democracies are just that because their institutions are resilient, so they can even “afford” to have dorks publicly burning the holy scriptures of other members of society without the whole falling apart.

It’s not polarization that is bad. It’s “more polarization than our institutions can handle” that is bad.

Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe, drinking what I have good reasons to believe to be coffee. Source.

I’m not a huge fan of Chantal Mouffe—the Belgian left radical political philosopher. I view her as stuck in a dated paradigm, still “postmodern” in my sense of the term, and married to unhelpful concepts like “neoliberalism”.

But at the same time, I cannot help but like and respect her work: a far-left thinker bravely drawing on the only genius political philosopher that 20th century fascism ever produced: Carl Schmitt. It takes guts and a rare open-mindedness to learn from your political nemesis. Let me lift one aspect I particularly agree with.

One of the arguments that Mouffe is most famous for is the insistence that conflict is inherent to “the political” and thereby to liberal democracy (and then she herself learns from close dialogue with her political opposite, see what she did there?). The liberal element of democracy gains its energy and vitality precisely from the tendency of people to challenge the status quo, and that’s why the liberal element is so important: freedom of expression, assembly, and so forth. I have made a similar argument in The Listening Society, even if it is one that I today partly regret:

The divisions, not the unity, that made possible the party system we know as “liberal democracy”, are breaking down. So when democracy begins to fulfill its promise of a people ruling itself through deliberation—it ironically wrecks the whole game that we know as party politics, around which our democratic system is built, because the necessary party division interests break down. By its dialectic development, by the logic of its own productive contradictions, liberal democracy cancels itself.

In this strange new state of affairs we have every reason to engage in an open-ended, democratic dialogue and deliberation with one another—to do “real” democracy, more according to the classical and Habermasian ideals. But the system of governance is still running on the engine of a modern, industrial society. This is where the frustrations and disappointments with the ongoing political debate are coming from: People are recognizing that the boxing matches between Left and Right are increasingly devoid of substance. We begin to long for a real, honest talk about society and the future. But we find ourselves incapable of speaking and listening, these being a much more difficult tasks than we imagined.’ [Bold in original.]

There is much to commend my late-2015 observation of (mainly European) politics, if I may say so myself—but undeniably I underestimated how harshly the trend would turn towards a renewed polarization. In 2015, you had some corners taken by the far right but, by and large, a wide social-liberal consensus had been established across the continent. That has now crumbled and politics has become a lot more interesting again.

But even if I was wrong, I may have been correct at a deeper and more essential level of analysis: While it is true that the modern economic class divisions that I refer to in the above quote have indeed broken down, the cultural divisions that have surfaced instead have become so strong that they can now in themselves splinter the political realm into multiple antagonistic shards. In other words, my main point about divisions as the driving force of liberal democracy still seems to hold with today’s retrospection.

And it is this that Mouffe meant by Agonistic Democracy—that the politics we know as liberal democracy does indeed feed upon division, not unity. Her model of democracy is one that actively embraces the conflictual nature of politics and takes it into account when designing institutions.

In line with Mouffe, I believe that the mistake of pretty much all of the idealistic and holistic forms of democracy and governance suggested in the beginning of this article is that they tend to seek to transcend conflict, rather than to scaffold it, admit it, contain it, clarify it, and even to some extent even to stoke it and harness it. They all have lingering remnants of what I call “game denial”, denying that life is always also a game, even if it’s a transformable one. Among the visionaries of future democracy there is a lot of talk of “sitting with the difficulties” and so on, but there is an assumption that a higher synthesis will always be within reach.

I believe this to be true on a theoretical level: given that people can always learn to put their ideas and interests in perspective, there is bound to be some higher perspective within which the conflict would be resolved or simply rendered irrelevant. The potential is always there. But the field of potentiality is not the field of actuality—and in actual reality, the higher synthesis is more often out of reach than not. Instead, when you reach for consensus while it is not within genuine reach, what you get is some version of covert or implied power struggle—even if under the guise of cute understanding— where one side wins and another gives in.

The reason that progressive politics (of direct, participatory, or deliberative forms) so often becomes toxic is precisely that it tries to transcend conflicts prematurely. Because the conflict is still there de facto, but is not admitted to openly, you get manipulative power games coming in some very cute dresses.

Now, I think that the bridge between liberal democracy and these higher and visionary forms of governance goes directly through Agonistic Democracy. We need more conflict, not less, to transform democracy into its higher forms—not, as radicals and extremist true believers hold, because “we need to be ruthless to the other side if we are to win, and the stakes are so high!”, but precisely because we are all so limited in our perspectives that the only thing that can set us straight is a proper adversary that we meet in a fair fight. Our adversaries are, as wisdom teachers have been reminding us the last few millennia, our teachers.

So the idea is not to optimize for your side winning and crushing all ideological opponents. The only thing that happens then is that the divisions break down and you “win” by getting to force your truth down everyone’s throat—which is not only an intellectually boring prospect, but one that is bound to lead to totalitarianism which always sucks for everyone involved. Interestingly, all ideologies lead there—you can’t just pick the one you imagine to be “the most opposite of totalitarianism” (anarchism, liberalism, green decentralization, underdog nationalism against the globalist elites, etc.). Nor can you be “without an ideology”. They’re like accents—everyone’s got one but yourself. You can talk all day about how you are beyond -isms but that’s just your ism talking.

The idea is to optimize for you getting the best opponents possible. Not opponents with knuckle-irons. But ones armed to their teeth with facts, truths, wits, humor, perspective-taking, empathy, energy, enthusiasm.

We just need refined games of politics—ones that can contain the sheer power inherent in today’s polarization. It’s either that, or watching our world snap in slow motion and slide towards planetary decay.

The Production of Opinions

There’s another way of saying roughly the same thing as above:

  • Technological development leads to fewer and fewer of us need to work producing stuff or moving physical things around.
  • At the same time, our command of greater resources means that the actual effects of the actions of each one of us increase. We may not feel more powerful, but it is a fact that not only do we all have greater ecological footprints than any people ever before, each of us also affect more other people through chains of actions than we can imagine.
  • As such, what opinions, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and sentiments we hold becomes increasingly consequential.
  • Hence, changing people’s ideas about the world becomes an increasingly high-stakes game.
  • Hence, more and more of us spend more and more time trying to affect other people (as well as absorbing more ideas and working to get the best opinions ourselves).
  • Hence, a massive global arms-race of different ideologies and worldviews blooms, primarily in the digital sphere.

As things stand, this arms-race is tearing the world apart. Proud Boys are coming for Nancy Pelosi in The Capitol. Flat Earthers and allying with David Icke to fight NASA and the lizardmen that control the world. Far lefties hold their intra-group inquisitions of one-word-wrong Leftbook groups in an eternal anti-Darwinian race to the bottom of all relevance to anyone at all.

But at the same time, literally thousands of intellectually and socially interesting ideas are flowering across the Internet: Enactvism, Complexity, Ontological Design, Justice Design, Metamodernism, Inner Development Goal, Postgrowth Economies, The Commons and Commoning—the list is endless.

Somewhere among those thousand plateaus there is a place to land, to climb to, to rest, to call home. Now, however each of us individually invests oneself in one of those paths or projects, we will never be quite right. The best that we can hope for is that right syntheses will be achieved by the epistemic qualities of our societies: that our institutions embrace conflict well enough to empower a multiplicity of voices, to fight it out under the best possible circumstances.

In other words, we return here to the idea of Agonistic Democracy as the portal to higher and more integrated forms of governance: We must understand that violence is the resort of the epistemically powerless, not the powerful. Empower all parties with education, strategy, and channels of communication, and the ones who have the highest syntheses will win.

Or rather, all of us will feel like we lose more, but together, we will have won higher truths. There will be more “conflict”, yes, but ultimately less violence. Gandhi had a similar idea: The crime of killing someone is that you kill their side of the truth, and thereby you get a poorer picture of the whole. Their part of the story is a part of the story, however contradictory to yours it may be.

Fusion Power Politics

Simply put: The next step of liberal democracy is to deliberately create arenas that empower people to argue their case, to specify what they want and what they believe that their interests are, and what they’re mad at, and who they’re mad at, and who they perceive as their opponents. There are conflicts in society, so let us set up the common goal of clarifying them, articulating them, admitting them, understanding them, accepting them. This will not eliminate conflict, not at all. But it will guide conflicts away from violence and towards gentler forms.

The future forms of integrated democracy—and indeed, the opinion-making economy as a whole—are the ones that can first differentiate the different shards of conflicting groups and interests, create a free and fair fight between these, and then channel the profound transformations inherent in these dialectical forces.

The cuter forms of future democracy are, unsurprisingly, also connected to a more dramatic and tremendous sense of political action and engagement. This greatness reveals itself, however, through our failures, as we face the opponents we truly deserve.

Integrated democracy—protopian governance—engenders multiple powerful political actors. Like a fusion reactor, it contains the struggles of titans, harnessing deeper secrets of the universe than what can be fathomed by any singular mind or perspective.

But without political polarization, there’s no fusion power. You’ll get a political coal plant at best. So, yes, political polarization is good.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.