On Powerlessness and Loneliness

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By Nikos Vrantsis

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Albert Hirschman (1970) underlined two options an individual has in order to deal with institutional and commercial stagnation: voice and/or exit. When dealing with an irresponsive commercial player that refuses to reply to its customer, the latter could either opt out (exit) or claim the right to be heard (voice):

“Some customers stop buying the firm’s products or some members leave the organization: this is the exit option (…) The customers of a firm or the members of an organisation express their dissatisfaction directly to the management or to some other authority to which the management is subordinate or through general protest addressed to anyone who cares to listen: this is the voice option.” (Hirschman, 1970:4)

Despite taking the market as his starting point and the consumer as the type to  develop the behavioural options available, Hirschman suggests that the schema could be introduced in a political, institutional context and be utilized to describe a variety of options held by voters facing institutional irresponsiveness. In this ironically reversed framework, firms are substituted by political institutions and consumers by voters. Overall, Hirschman suggests that when individuals are repeatedly ignored, they either attempt to raise their voice or they opt out. However, there is an interplay between these available options:

“It has been shown how easy availability of the exit option makes the resource to voice less likely. Now it appears that the effectiveness of the voice mechanism is strengthened by the possibility to exit. The willingness to use the voice mechanism is reduced by exit, but the ability to use it with effect is increased by it” (Hirschman, 1970: 83).

In this schema, voice is considered the political concept par excellence and is synonymous with the history of democratic control through the articulation and aggregation of opinions and interests and is generally defined as an attempt to change rather than escape from a state of affairs. While exit requires nothing but an either-or decision, voice is essentially an art of constantly evolving in new directions. It is not one’s exit that makes one’s voice heard but rather the availability of one’s option to exit when one decides to.

In a swimmingly similar way, Hannah Arendt (1970) suggests that collective power exists not solely when it occurs but when individuals are aware of their capacity to act and when there is a public realm available to accommodate this collective act. To Arendt though power is related to praxis: one’s capacity to take part in a decision- making process with political effects; a capacity that is not grounded on an always- activated public realm, but on an ever-present public realm that can at any given point allow power and praxis to be demonstrated.

Arendt (1970) juxtaposes Power to Force and Violence. Power is exercised by the people who participate in the public realm to either sustain the current conditions of political affairs or defy it. Despite the discontinuity in the appearance of Power throughout history, she considers it an ever present potential. Quoting René Char (1961) —notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament — she refers to Power, as a political quality that resurfaces under particular circumstances in history to be forgotten again. This incapacity for our collective memory to sustain Power is  because of the exceptionality of this political quality — unmatched with our political tradition, Power cannot be named, labelled and sustained in memory.  However Power needs not be remember to resurface again. Its absence could also be a sign expressing of political condition: a political condition being understood though the absence of Power, an absence that perpetuates a particular institutional setting.

Consequently force and violence occur when this institutional setting falters (Arendt 1959,1960;1971). Power resurfaces to demonstrate a collective disobedience agains the status quo. Force is the response of this setting to the faltering consent of the people. Violence is an instrumental force, an extreme use of force aiming at destroying Power and restoring order. For Arendt (1961), Violence destroys the public realm or deforms it in such a way that the latter cannot anymore sustain a common world. This is why violence is considered to be destroying common sense — that is the capacity of humans to line their perception of the world with that of their fellow men.

The condition of Power is a public realm that can accommodate people’s words (verbality) and action (praxis). This is how Power is exercised: through a political virtue grounded on verbality and persuasiveness (πειθώ), an effort of the political human to convince their fellowmen, with the rightfulness and beauty of their words. Thus powerlessness — resulting from the destruction of the public realm and the political capacities of men — is connected with meaninglessness and superfluousness of atomized individuals who are incapable or incapacitated to meet each other in the public domain to make sense of their world (common sense).

Despite the long tradition of distinguishing words from actions, we notice a correspondence between Hirschman’s voice and Arendt’s notion of praxis in various ways: even though Hirschans’s voice is a polysemic concept used metaphorically, both concepts underwrite the significance of verbality. Moreover, they both require a public realm to be exercised. They are both considered essential in order for institutions to be held accountable. They are both considered ontologically essential for individuals that utilize them to grasp and contribute into a common world.

Praxis and Loneliness

The world is neither a tabula rasa nor an open book. So begins an extraordinary speech given by Lewis Mumford (1955) reflecting on the human power to change the world. The world is not a tabula rasa. Mumford’s starting point attempts to counter the claim that human should neglect past and historical memory: having no solid and stable base, human cannot bring any change. The world is neither an open book, Mumford adds. This necessary complement targets a lot of recipients: historians who believe that they have discovered the unbending laws of history, economists who assume and sanctify one rational motive in human acts, positivists who believe that man is an algorithm, quantifiable, measurable and predictable. According to Mumford, these scriptures annihilate the capacity of human to bring change.

On her reflections upon The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt describes how ideas glorifying a supposedly unbending law of race (Nazism) or history (Stalinism) may justify the destruction of the public realm and how they dessertify the political landscape and disempower human. Totalitarianism produces, and is the product of, loneliness. In the last pages of the third volume, Arendt distinguishes between solitude, isolation and loneliness. According to her, each concept reveals a different socio/political atmosphere: “While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” (Arendt, 1950: 445)

Arendt’s understanding of loneliness builds on the work of Martin Heidegger  and Karl Jaspers. As she says in Men in Dark Times: “Jaspers is, as far as I know, the first and the only philosopher who has ever protested against solitude, to whom solitude has appeared ‘pernicious’.” She shows through her account of loneliness that contemporary man is afflicted with a sense of homelessness and uprootedness, having been set adrift by the technical automation of the world. Solitude, to Arendt, has an important role to play in political life – enabling individuals who belong to a world to cultivate their capacity for thinking.

The principle according to which solitude, isolation and loneliness are related is natality: the inherent capacity of the newborn to defy the status quo and the conditions of the world that she came into. Natality has an existential significance: it reproduces the hope for new possibilities that are opened up because of the uniqueness of each human being. This is why natality is connected with praxis, as the appearance of a defiance against the established condition of things. Praxis and power create a  vacuum where statistics fail. It is their spontaneous occurrence and their transforming capacity that make sure that the world is not an open book. This defiance appearing most fully through speech (verbality) and action (praxis) in the realm of politics, is separated from labour and work. The latter may be fundamental to human existence but it is praxis that is definitive of natality: “Action is not forced upon us by  necessity, like labour, and it is not prompted by utility, like work” (Arendt,1958: 7). Action is a virtue demonstrated in public, unlike thought that is exercised in solitude and labor that is exercised in privacy and isolation.

Beginning with isolation, we can highlight two ways in which it manifests itself: either as a repressive state of political affairs or as a necessary element of socio- economic existence. Politically, isolation is what happens, generally under tyrannies, when “human capacities for action and power are frustrated” (1959: 474). This can happen in a variety of ways, but the essential feature of such a state of affairs is the severing of political contact between individuals. Through such dissolution, the possibility for any action in concert is nullified (again, a tyranny is for Arendt the clearest example of such a state of affairs). At the same time, however, isolation is also a basic feature of human socio-economic existence. As Arendt points out, human productive capacities require isolation. Insofar as an individual produces something, he tends to isolate himself with his work, that is to leave temporarily the realm of politics. Fabrication, as distinguished from action is always performed in a certain isolation from common concerns, no matter whether the result is a piece of craftsmanship or of art. This potential sphere of isolation, for Arendt, includes not only various forms of material fabrication (whether artisanship, craftsmanship, indus- try, or otherwise), but also non-material endeavors of production, like thinking. This latter form of isolation, one that generates the activity of thinking is, according to Arendt, more properly termed solitude.

To Arendt solitude does not diminish our irreducible uniqueness and, indeed, can  even foster the complete realization of it by preparing us to engage thoughtfully in political life. When, by contrast, the political sphere of our lives has been destroyed and we find ourselves living in isolation, the condition of natality can no longer be fully realized but instead remains only partially developed in the context of work. Human natality is diminished even further in the context of loneliness, which develops when human beings have been reduced even in their productive capacities to labouring animals and are precluded entirely from realizing themselves in their radical uniqueness. Solitude may nurture human capacity for thoughtfulness, bringing us into relation with ourselves so that we are prepared to engage authentically with others. Yet, solitude, although a necessary aspect or moment of human existence, can only ever play a preparatory role in the full flourishing of human life, and is never itself adequate for achieving this end. Because we are relational creatures, we find that while we may be together with ourselves in solitude, our wholeness and singularity as individuals remains unresolved when we are separated from others.

In the forthcoming lines, I try to review previous research on consumerism and digitality utilising the Arendtian concepts of loneliness, praxis and public realm, in order to evaluate whether and to what extend they might be affecting the political capacity of modern man (praxis), the quality of the public realm and the strength of the social bond.

Homo Consumens

 A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?
Oscar Wilde

In her work Between Past and Future, Arendt (1961) clarifies the major difference between society and mass society: Society evaluated and devaluated cultural things into social commodities, used and abused them for its own selfish purposes, but did not ‘consume’ them. (….) Mass society, on the contrary, wants no culture but entertainment, and the wares offered by the entertainment industry are indeed consumed by society just like any other consumer goods.” (Arendt, 1961:205)

Her work is an elaborate examination of the impact that mass production and, crucially, mass consumption processes have on the ontological, sociological and political qualities of modern human. To Arendt, we see a critique to a society described as a mass of culturally cloned individuals reproduced to eternity, where craftmanship is downgraded into mass production, objects into mass products, individuals into a mass of atoms, and the public realm of praxis into a depoliticized realm of minor, superfluous interactions.

Mass culture commodifies objects of memory in a unstoppable pursuit of novelty to respond to the gargantuan appetite for new products of entertainment: “The extent to which we use these standards (freshness and novelty) today to judge cultural and artistic objects as well, things which are supposed to remain in the world even after we have left them, clearly indicates the extent to which the need for entertainment has begun to threaten the cultural world.” (Arendt, 1961: 206)

To Arendt, the democratization of consumption and commodification of culture are shattering the political qualities and are affecting the forces that sustain our public realm and subsequently our common-sense: history, memory, relation. In the huge demand for novel products, she sees forces that mute defining traits of culture, social linkage and praxis:“In this predicament those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in hope of finding suitable material. This material, moreover, cannot be offered as it is; it must be altered in order to become entertaining, it must be prepared to be easily consumed.” (Arendt, 1961:206). History is reduced into a matrix of experiences and resources to be commodified and transformed into entertainment.

In Stavrakakis’ work on the Lacanian Left (2007) – that is an attempt to activate the legacy of Lacan to examine recent phenomena of nationalism and consumerism — we read a similar series of thoughts. Eventually Stavrakakis concludes that consumerism seems to be the –ism that won. Seen as an ideology, consumerism is regarded to have a fundamental impact on all political ideologies, on the political realm that is interpreted as a realm of spectacle; a realm that transforms the voter into a consumer who chooses between undifferentiated political products. For Stavrakakis, active political involvement (voice) is not coerced, muted or prohibited but rather voluntarily sacrificed: “Moving beyond the banal level of raw coercion, which –although not unimportant- cannot form the basis of hegemony, everyone seeking to understand  how certain power structures institute themselves as objects of long-term identification and how people get attached to them is sooner or later led to a variety of phenomena associated with what, since de la Boitie, is debated under the rubric of ‘voluntary servitude.’” (Stavrakakis, 2010: 64)

Stavrakakis implies that we need to move beyond raw coercion and examine the practices that constitute this voluntary political incapacitation. His psychoanalytical reading of politics implies that we should examine the capture of our desire to desire from the advertising industry that sustains a spirit of commanded enjoyment; enjoyment being predominantly perceived as a duty. A duty transformed into a duty to enjoy. To Stavrakakis, advertisment manipulates our fundamental need to desire and channels this desire into products, driving us into a pursuit of pleasure that is never fulfilled: “Its aim is not to satisfy desire, something that is ultimately impossible. It is enough to construct it and support it as such: through fantasy, we ‘learn’ how to desire. As far as the final satisfaction of our desire is concerned, this is postponed from discourse to discourse, from fantasy to fantasy, from product to product.” (Stavrakakis, 2007: 241)

This trajectory of our collective ethos from a capitalist spirit of ascetic prohibition to a spirit of commanded enjoyment is followed by a transformation of the political qualities of individuals that are gradually defined from their capacity to consume products rather than crafting them, or alternatively participating in a political public realm. The atomized horizon of the individual is gravitated towards a self-referred practice that begins from the self and ends to the self, with no public realm or common world needed, thus limiting the political capacities and qualities: “While consumerism seems to broaden our opportunities, choices and experiences as individuals, it also directs us towards predetermined channels of behavior and, thus, it “is ultimately as constraining as it is enabling.” (Steve Miles from Stavrakakis, 2011).

As consumerism constructs and channels our desire, it transforms the root of our social bond and, furthermore, the very essence of what we ask for, not only as individuals but as citizens too: “Consumer culture imposes its rules on politics and other social realms and shapes the dominant forms the social bond is assuming.” (Stavrakakis, 2007: 230)

The command that we enjoy is seen here as a nuanced—and more difficult to resist— force. It is more effective than traditional force because its exclusionary aspect is masked by its promise and declared goal to enhance enjoyment: “it does not oppose and prohibit but openly attempts to embrace and appropriate the subject of enjoyment.” (Stavrakakis, 2012:13).

This force cannot be resisted in terms of prohibition. What comes to surface is thus a scission: Consumer culture defines the political and social realm and weakens social bond. It elevates products to be consumed by individuals over social values, downgrading the importance of immaterial verbality of the Arendtian praxis. For Arendt, the public realm remains political as long as it is neither intermediated by nor concerned with matter. The public realm is the sphere of words and actions,  not fabrication and craft. Praxis and words aspire to be inscribed in people’s memory for their beauty and novelty, while a public realm informed and defined by a collectively distributed ethos of atomised consumption, nothing is inscribed in memory everything is produced to be consumed, and everything needs to be constantly renewed: the only force remaining stable is consumerism that destabilises all else.

In his search on the relation between consumption and loneliness, Lane (1994) suggests that this rationality — imposed by a transformation of the market from production to mass consumption — has a destructive influence on friendship through elevating instrumentalist and materialist values over social values, by eroding communities and neighborhoods. He explores consumerism as a cause and a symptom of loneliness that seems to broaden one’s opportunities, , choices, and experiences as individuals, but direct one towards predetermined channels of established behaviour patterns and a consumption sequence and, thus, it is ultimately as constraining as it is enabling.

The connection between loneliness and consumerism is implied by Stavrakakis: “We buy advertising messages, which promise happiness, fun, popularity, and love”. (Andersen from Stavrakakis, 2007: 239) However, loneliness should not be examined merely in its psychic effects but in its effect on the political qualities of men. While the Arendtian praxis is addressed to our fellowmen whom we aspire to convince, consumption is a rather lonely, self-referred phenomenon that begins and ends to the consumer of the product, exercised in isolation, with no aspiration to be considered convincing but rather spectacular. Consumerism transforms the public realm into spectacle, an exchange of spectacular images, where verbal communication among men is exchanged for a more optical connection between fabricated simulations of the self; one offers oneself as a fabricated picture to be consumed in a public realm that is mainly optical and consumerist rather than verbal and political.

Homo Digitalis

According to “Internet Live Stats” — a website providing daily web data in real time — there are 3.3 billion web users in the world and about 1 billion active websites. Facebook users are estimated to be 1.5 billion, while 1.7 billion people use Google+ and 400 million of them use twitter to make their “sips” and “follows”. According to the site, 10,6 thousand tweets, 2 thousand Skype calls, 51 thousand Google searches, 113 thousand YouTube views, 2,5 million emails are sent per second. Homo digitalis rises through mountains of posts, sips, tweets, mails and pics.3

The growing digitalization of the public realm generates hope and concern. Given its importance in recent uprisings, such as the Arab Spring, it is regarded as a potential tool for stronger civic engagement, transparency in the workings of governments, or as a facilitator for the organization of struggles against unaccountable regimes. Another approach considers the potentials provided for the structuring of digital currencies, beyond Statism towards a creation of Commons. Without overlooking the enormous potential provided by the web, I attempt a more ontological approach, utilising Arendt’s though to examine a series of concerns in regard to the effect of extensive digitalisation on the public realm, on the social and political qualities of users, and its potential relation with consumerism, spectacle and loneliness.

During his research, Scott Caplan engaged small groups of mainly youngsters, dating back to the first years of the web-trend even before Facebook to draw a connection between isolation and extensive use of the digital sphere: “It is loneliness or isolation that attracts people to online social interaction and CMC (computer mediated communication) relationships in the first place.” (Caplan, 2003: 631).

To Caplan, this digital realm substitutes face to face interaction in physical space and corrects aspects of physical space that could potentially generate feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, loneliness. In a rather Hirschmanian manner, we could imply that the digital realm is perceived as an exit option: an escape away from face to face relationship:

“Preference for online social interaction is a cognitive individual-difference construct characterized by beliefs that one is safer, more efficacious, more confident, and more comfortable with online interpersonal interactions and relationships than with traditional FtF social activities.” (Caplan, 2003: 629). To Caplan, the capacity provided in the digital realm for one to omit and conceal one’s personal traits that are considered negative and the lack of this option in physical space, is an important factor through which a preference towards digitalisation might be justified: Thus, for some, the Internet represents a place where they can exercise greater control over the impressions that others form of them.” (Caplan, 2003: 630)

This omission of negative personal information, the capacity to fabricate or intensify positive aspects of the self, are particularly important to Caplan. Following Caplan’s line of thought, we conclude that these omissions do not correct but rather reproduce a stereotypic dichotomy grounded upon already established beliefs on what constitutes negativity/positivity; the Digital provides us the capacity to conceal all traits perceived as negative and intensify all aspects considered positive.

Digitalisation can eventually be perceived as a realm of fabrication. In Arendt’s line of thought fabrication requires isolation: Homo Faber needs not a public sphere to exercise his skills and fabricate his products. Fabrication is an act taking place in isolation, beyond the eyes of the public. However, in the digital realm we move towards a different type, process and object of fabrication. The user fabricates herself. While Arendt —inscribing herself in a marxist line of thought — recognises the transformation power of fabrication — that the laborious process of fabrication transforms both the object and the subject of labor — in digitality we move beyond a process of a fabricator transforming himself by his labor to create a product, and towards a process of self-making for self-making sake: a concern with the self. Digitalisation is thus the realm of a laborious fabrication of the self by the self exercised in isolation. The result of this process is not a product but a corrected and crafted simulation of the self, an edited image. Spontaneous social interaction is gravitated towards a digital interaction between idealized versions of the self; between impersonations and avatars.

This transition towards digitalisation affects the quality of the social bond as well as the corporal capacities of users. A recent survey of 6,000 users, Karpersky Lab (March 2015) attempted to grasp the impact of digitalisation upon memory. The result draw a connection between availability of data with a failure to commit that data to memory, and coined this phenomenon Digital Amnesia, to describe the experience of forgetting information that you trust on a digital device, for it to store and remember instead of you. (Karpesky Lab, 2015).

Kathryn Mills (2015), one of the associates of this survey suggested that electronic devices function like reliable individuals. A repeated experience with a reliable individual builds a ‘schema’ or an association with that individual in our memory, telling us that this person can be dependent. If a digital device is continually reliable, then we will build it into our schema of that device. Likewise, Maria Wimber (2015) suggests another type of omission, pointing to a trend to externally store personal memories in the form of pictures. To Wimber, pictures are a very powerful reminder and have the potential to reawaken memories that we would otherwise have forgotten, but they also carry the risk of dictating which aspects of the past we remember: the more often people remember the same events, the more likely they are to forget other relevant memories that are not captured in pictures.

Devices are thus treated more than single objects, but rather as part of our cognitive processes, extensions of the body. The psychological and biological transformations implied, pose ontological reconsiderations. These reconsiderations reveal the seismic impact that technological omnipresence brings upon the very perception of ourselves and our societies. The focal point is not anymore the rational Cartesian Ego but a self on technical support, a mixture of biology and technology, a cyborg.

Sam (2012) writes about the rules in online discussion that may be, for example, not to type in all capital letters (which is symbolic of yelling) to showcase Language is readjusted to fit into the digital realm: “What began as simple type chatting online has now resulted in text-speak, a shorthand language filled with abbreviations and emoticons—text and symbols used to represent not only images, but also tone, emotion, and context” (Sam, 2012:86).

The effects of digitalisation on memory and communication are fundamental for sketching the transformation of the political qualities of modern human. Arendt (1961) relates the public realm with verbality; with an exchange of ideas between philotimoi (φιλότιμοι άνδρες), between people that attempt to persuade their fellow men with the precision and righteousness of their words. It is on verbality that we find a distinction between praxis and fabrication, since fabrication is exercised in isolation and results in a material object, while praxis requires a public realm and is expressed through an immaterial, spontaneous verbality: words may fly and vanish when a gathering is dissolved and people leave the public sphere, but their beauty remains imprinted in memory and can reactivate the desire to return in the public domain.

Extensive digitalisation may replace spontaneity with prefabrication: a communication carefully prepared and individually controlled. The mainly scriptural basis of this communication facilitates a process of editing and re-writing, deleting and detaching.

Sherry Turkle (2015) observes how people react and adapt to new technologies, changing the way they communicate. She refers to the three gifts from a benevolent genie, a triple technological promise to its users: you’ll never have to be alone, your voice will always be heard, you can put your attention wherever you want it to be. And that you can slip in and out of wherever you are to be wherever you want to be, with no social stigma. [These devices create] a new set of social mores that allow for  a split attention in human relationships and human community” (Tuckle, 2015). Digitalisation expands and deepens its effect. However, next to the potentials generated, stands the threat of a downgrading of the quality of our social bonds and our political qualities.

A group of researchers relate extensive digitalisation to a simulacra of a mass society grounded upon weak communication. What is more, is the threat of a total absorption of physicality, a transformation of the digital realm into the singular realm that leaves no exit option, no desire or knowledge of an exit. Inside the web one has a variety of options: to raise her voice, to exit for another digital space. What one may stop having though is the choice to choose a different un-digital terrain of interaction.

In this chapter, I tried to utilise some basic concepts used in the work of Hannah Arendt and Albert Hirschman, in an attempt to sketch a potential relation between two practices that are grounded on a widespread atomised ethos and the atomisation of the public realm. I have tried to outline a critical review of these practices (consumerism, digitalisation) under the light of their potential effect on the self and the social bond. In the following line, I will attempt to explore potential connections between these mass phenomena and a trend towards neutralisation, spectacularisation and commercialisation of the political realm demonstrated with a weakening of the political channels.

Powerlessness. Reading Mouffe through Arendt

The fall of the Iron Curtain, that supposedly heralded total victory of the West, was celebrated as the beginning of planetary liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama (1992) declared the end of history and Thomas Friedman (2000) deployed his rather peculiar golden arch scheme to suggest the end of wars, suggesting that no war has ever erupted between nations that have at least one McDonalds store. Globalisation was articulated in terms of progress towards a world of liberated trade, against international war, clashes and ideological conflicts. Despite the scope on macropolitics, the claim of a planetary pacification through global trade has an ontological base: trading parties do not succumb to war, — burger-eating — consumers do not care about ideologies that go beyond their desire to participate in the game of consumption.

The golden arch scheme is the oversimplified version of a long philosophical tradition, mainly expressed in the domain of anthropology — suggesting that the war stops when trade begins — as well as in liberal political theory. Benjamin Constant for example, in a statement given in the French Parliament, in 1806 stated: “War and commerce are only two different means of achieving the same end that of getting  what one wants. Commerce is simply a tribute paid to the possessor by the one who aspires to get the possessed object. It is an attempt to reach through mutual agreement, what one can no longer hope to obtain through violence. War is grounded on impulse, while commerce on calculation. Consequently, an age must come in which commerce replaces war. We have reached this age.” (Constant, 2000:40)

We have reached this age long ago. Now we are in a different one; one that echoes a different passage of that speech delivered by Constant: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed as we are in the enjoyment of our private independence and the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily.” (Constant, 2000: 60)

Earlier on this paper, I sketched Hirscmhan’s attempt to sketch an interplay between voice and exit, as two options of consumers or citizen to react towards firms or institutions. In a rathe metaphoric way, we may suggest that these overlaps in Hirschman’s schema imply that people may consume like voters, or vote like consumers and that firms function like parties or parties like firms — in trying to convince people to remain loyal and keep on buying the offered product.

In a rather more straightforward manner, Colin Crouch (2006) coined the term postdemocracy to describe the actual transformation of politics into a commercialised, spectacular realm. He conceives the political realm — the political realm being the institutionalised version of politics under representative democracy — as a neutralised, depoliticised political terrain where standard procedures of liberal democracy run as usual, but citizens are disenfranchised, having a vote but not an actual voice.

“While the structures of democracy are kept alive – and in some views they are even enforced – the political life and the government are gradually placed under the control of privileged groups, just as happened in the pre-democratic period.” (Crouch, 2006:61) To Crouch, elections are transformed into a tightly controlled spectacle managed by professional experts, restricted to a set of issues selected by them, with citizens being transformed into a passive mass. The political process is thus downgraded into spectacle; optimized advertising methods define electoral victories; voters are turned into consumers; political parties are turned into products: “Advertisement raises views that cannot be contradicted. It does not seek dialogue, but to persuade us to buy. The adoption of advertising methods helped politicians to tackle the problem of communication with the masses· but it did not promote the cause of democracy as such.” (Crouch, 2006)

Crouch implies that the transformation of the public realm into a market of political products moves people away from active mass participation. Post democracy is thus described as a depoliticized public sphere of representative institutions and parties  that do not seek any dialogue, but rather to convince voters to buy a product; parties that follow the same governing guidelines, the same rationality, without being able to articulate or formulate any alternative political vision beyond the one dictated by a market rationality. People still vote but they do not have an actual voice.

However, this transformation or downgrading of the political domain into a responseless institutional set, generates frustration. The rise of far-right parties across Europe presents itself as the only alternative against mainstream political forces — both on the right and the left of the political spectrum — that are incapable or unwilling to articulate a different vision beyond structural reforms and investor friendly environments. Opposite to this consensus of mainstream political parties, the far-right articulates a more collective vision, constructing enemies that is clearly and unambiguously defined as a symptoms, so that an equally unambiguous identification among a group of peers.

In France’s regional elections on 13 December 2015 the National Front won 6.8 million votes of the French electorate. Despite the increased number of its voters, the National Front won none of the thirteen provinces of France. The Socialist party, alerted by the unexpectedly high rates of the National front, stood down some of its candidates, in effect directing its supporters to vote for Nicola Sarkozy’ s Republican Party. After the defeat Marine Le Pen stated to the crowd: “The split is not against the right and the left but against the globalists and the patriots. The globalists who are for the dissolution of France in a global magma and the patriots who believe the national arena is the most protective for the French” (The Guardian, 2015).

The National Front — like all far-right parties growing across Europe — has been articulating its discourse as a call to the nation against forces of globalization that are politically represented by mainstream liberal and republican parties (the globalist right and the globalist left that want to dissolve France in a global magma). The right and the left are considered different versions of the same globalist rationality, that threatens the nation. Under the umbrella term of globalist forces we read a list of other symptoms considered threatening for the French identity (e.g migration, the EU). These symptoms offer a visible enemy, and a simplified interpretation of collective frustration.

The far right seems to be repoliticising politics, articulating an anti-establishment vision, in terms of bigotry and hatred. The post/political neutralisation of representative institutions verifies that voters – especially those feeling left behind – are left with no voice and no exit, no alternative beyond globalisation. Being offered with no other option to oppose this extensive neoliberal rationality, voters feel powerless. The separating lines, upon which the distinction between the Right and the Left were established seem blurred, as are political identifications.

In a smilier line of thought, Chantal Mouffe (2000; 2010;2013) suggests that the rise of the far-right across Europe is a product of widespread consensus between parties that supposedly represent different ideas and political goals; To Mouffe, the far-right presents itself as the only alternative to political neutralisation. The political realm functions in terms of managerialism and technocratic control, a scientific management that leaves no room for the articulation of political horizons that move beyond a widespread neoliberal rationality. To counter this strategy, Mouffe suggests the necessity of a radical left project (2001;2005;2010) that would defy the consensual post/democratic model of politics, distinguish itself from consensus of mainstream parties, articulate an inclusive political vision and provide an alternative to both the far right and the mainstream political parties; this left radical project, would be able, according to Mouffe, to depoliticise politics and democratise democracy: “Τhe defence and radicalisation of the democratic project involves the abandonment of the dream of a reconciled world that would surpass power, domination and hegemony.” (Mouffe, 2010: 158).

In her schema, we see a relation between a postdemocratic political neutralisation of parties and institutions, voicelessness and the rise of far-right parties that present themselves as the only political force to counter this depoliticising process that mutes popular voice. These are the origins of her call for an agonistic democracy, which, according to her, could overcome the monolithic practices of neutralised democratic institutions, which could open the way for a democracy of conflictual consensus (Mouffe, 2010).

Colin Crough and Chantal Mouffe perceive politics as an institutionalised democratic domain. Their critique is thus geared towards institutional neutralisation and aims at restoring diversity in the domain of the political representation so that voters can truly have a voice between existing alternatives. Their starting perception of the political is thus different from the one provided by Hannah Arendt, who perceives the political as the realm of spontaneous praxis and words. Thus, Arendt’s critique is not merely geared towards political institutions but against manifold forces that deform, mute or disempower praxis.

The model of agonistic democracy is grounded on an ontological hypothesis inherited by Carl Schmitt, who perceives the Political as a moment of conflict — in terms of real war — between two enemies: the sovereign is the one who decides over the state of emergency. Mouffe is thinking with Schmitt against Schmitt, to articulate an agonistic model of democratic conflict, the institutionalisation of war, given the foundational basis of competition: “The Political seeks the formation of a ‘we’ as opposed to a ‘they’ and always concerns collective forms of identification.” (Mouffe, 2010: 19) The Schmittian war between friends and enemies transforms into a symbolic struggle between opponents, democratically struggling in the democratic arena for political hegemony and for the redefinition of society in their own terms. War and death in Schmitt’s Political Theology corresponds to Mouffe’s democratic conflict between ideological opponents in the the parliament. Thus, physical elimination is replaced with democratic conflict.

Mouffe’s macropolitical scope on the Political is grounded on a particular ontology that accepts the foundational, unavoidable importance of competition in social life. Consequently, this ontological competition takes the form of a collective passion channelled through and directed towards opposing parties: “It is associated (the Political) with an ‘ontological’ level· the very way in which society is established.” (Mouffe, 2010: 16).

This is why, in the agonistic model the public realm is perceived as a stage of collective competition and conflict between forces representing — as well as constructing — opposing demands and groups. Opposite to this conflictual perception of the public realm, Arendt provides a different concept of the political sphere, perceived as a sphere of competition between philotimoi (άνδρες φιλότιμοι), where men struggle to persuade their fellow men by utilising their verbal skills to convince them for the truth of their words. Arendt (1961;1970) refers to a classic model of politics (Athens, Rome) while Mouffe grounds her perception of the Political starting from an ontological foundation of competition provided by Hobbes through Schmitt.

Carl Schmitt was concerned with the effects of the mass phenomenon and of mass society. He perceived mass-culture as an anti-natural, pacifying force that neutralises a natural desire for conflict. However, for Schmitt (2006; 2007), culture could not alter the very nature of men — that is warlike but merely to overshadow and mute this nature — without being capable to destroy or totally suppress it. The difference we find in Schmitt in comparison to Hobbes’ (2008) contractualist model established upon ‘homo homini lupus’ is that the latter suggests that a sovereign force would tame individual fear, threat and competition while Schmitt suggests the importance of untamed, collective struggle between groups. For Hobbes it is individual fear that generates the need for a social contract that gives ultimate force to the Sovereign, who carries the obligation to preserve social peace. There find no such thing in Hobbes as an ontological justification and legitimation of a defining elimination of an enemy group. Schmitt’s theory is based on the ontology of the irremovable and unalterable evil nature of humanity that is expressed in terms of war between groups. This grouping, this familiar bond established in a group, that is tied by a uniting hatred against a common enemy, is the ontological starting point of Schmitt.

In his Concept of the Political, war is perceived as the product of fear and competition that culture can merely try to mute but never eliminate. In Arendt (1970) instead we find a completely different thought, grounded on a distinction between power, force and violence. For Arendt, violence is an instrumental force that destroys collective power; power needs no instruments, just words in order to be expressed. Power is demonstrated by people taking equal part in public realm; a collective power that either accepts and sustains a representative institution – through inaction – or defies it – through action. Opposite to Power, a sovereign that has lost his popular legitimation may use violent means and instruments to preserve the status quo through force. Violence and force are the opposite of power. Their appearance is a sign of power having been lost.

For Arendt, mass society and mass culture neutralises the public realm, by isolating men, keeping them absorbed in fabrication and privacy. Her critical focus is directed towards the atomised, privatised, isolated men that are not prohibited but unwilling, indifferent to use their praxis, in the public realm. Homo faber is indifferent to praxis.

Mouffe’s critique against political neutralisation might indeed be accurate, but it is grounded on a monolithic perception of the political and a rather unstable ontological postulate. In Mouffe’s schema the Political cannot be perceived in terms other than representativeness; the public realm cannot be perceived as something more than just a democratic arena of institutionalised conflict between forces representing opposing social demands; and people cannot be perceived as something more than just beings ontologically destined to form groups against other groups. Mouffe’s critique is thus institutional and geared towards institutions that cannot accommodate conflict. It focuses on the incapacity of mainstream parties to represent and bring forth the political passion of the people.

In Arendt we find a broader critique gravitated towards the incapacitation of praxis of every human; an incapacitation that is attributed not merely on institutional fallacy but rather on a transition of our massive social interest with our private horizon; a preoccupation of individuals with fabrication: mass culture neutralises the public realm, through absorbing men into the isolation required for fabrication. Opposed to the institutional critique of Chantal Mouffe, Arendt’s is a critique of massive atomisation, being the product of the mass (society, culture) phenomenon.

There are some major ground differences between Arendt’s and Mouffe’s critiques. First, a difference on the ontology upon which the two systems are grounded: For Mouffe, competition is a foundational condition for the formulation of different groups that compete against each other. In Arendt (1970) competition in public realm takes the form of philotimia (φιλοτιμία), that is a competition among individuals that participate in the public domain on equal terms, trying to stand out with the rightfulness and beauty of their words and arguments.

Second, there is a difference in the definition of the public realm, of its actors and its content. In Mouffe the public realm is perceived as merely an arena of a symbolic war and conflict between groups fighting for the Political. The public realm is an institutionalised domain, with the representative parties and not people being the actors. In Arendt the public realm is described in terms of a gathering of people capable of praxis. Thus, next to the institutional form of politics that represent the solid and permanent construction of men, lies a conditional and spontaneous realm, that can defy, reform, transform, violate this institutionalised status quo in order to suggest, construct and form new institutions.

To speak of the constructive, creative capacity of men, Arendt introduces natality. Natality describes the coming of the new into the world. In Mouffe, we find the Freudian ontology of Eros and Thanatos, eros being the internal bonds of love between a group and thanatos the group’s hatred towards other groups.

Mouffe’s critique is geared towards institutions and parties, while Arendt’s critique is focused on the incapacitation of the political creativity (praxis) found in every men. For Arendt, the problem lies not on the depoliticisation of representative parties, but on the depoliticisation of every single man. The institutional neutralisation of mainstream political powers would thus be the political expression of an atomised society, a human mass that is indifferent for praxis because it is concerned and preoccupied with practices exercised in privacy.

Following the lines of Arendt’s critique, we could suggest that post/democracy mirrors a social realm hegemonised by consumerism — as a form of practice that revolves around the fabrication and consumption of fabricated products — and digitalisation — as a simulation of atoms concerned with a fabrication of the self. Voicelessness and powerlessness could be the product of isolation and distancing between atomised individuals, who absorbed in their private sphere are incapable of praxis. The obsessive repetition of practices — the unending sequence of products, desires and pictures that are consumed in privacy — isolate us and neutralise praxis and the effect of our political voice. Rather than being the product of weak, neutralised institutions, powerlessness is thus attributed to people themselves. The neutralisation of representative parties is thus the institutional face of mass society. This mass society grounded on equally distributed loneliness, established upon weak social links receives a political face: post/democracy.

On the concluding pages of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt attempts to show how loneliness is related to rootlessness and superfluousness. While solitude is a necessary condition of thought, loneliness arises when human beings discover that they no longer belong to a world with others who can bring the fullness of their humanity into relief. In this, loneliness can be understood as a symptom of what Arendt describes as worldless-ness or world-alienation, which emerges when human beings have been deprived of their political existence and severed from the meaningful nexus of relations that constitute the common world.

Her conceptualization of loneliness puts into relief her view that the emphasis on the expansion of rights in the private sphere does not serve to counter political exclusion, but on the contrary reproduces the very loneliness that has made modern individuals susceptible to thoughtlessness, superfluousness, atomisation and eventually the domination of totalitarianism. Arendt thus suggests a notion of citizenship that involves more than the protection of the individual right to pursue one’s interests in the isolation of private life, aiming instead at returning individuals to the public realm where they can appear to one another and re-signify the world.

The rise of far-right parties across Europe comes as a product of an established consensus of mainstream parties representing an atomised society: the far-right antisystemic discourse is articulated as an overall negation of forces of atomisation, targeting every potential threat to collective identity (globalisation, migration, consumerism). The appeal of kinship and group politics — the one that Olivier Roy located on terrorists — is an expansive phenomenon and comes not as the natural product of an ontology of competition, but as a response to a liquid society, surrounding atomised beings. What Mouffe calls the Return of the Political, could be relabeled as the Collective Search for meaning, found in hatred and bigotry.

Conclusion and Further Discussion

There are two ways to make one feel insignificant. The first one is to destroy his house. The second one is to make his house look like any other.
Yaron Ezrahi

This thesis attempted to describe how particular hegemonic practices of mass culture, extents and deepens atomisation and loneliness powerlessness and voicelessness. Following Arendt’s critique on the forces that incapacitate political creativity of humans, I attempted to reformulate the problem of political misrepresentation as a problem that lies not merely on the institutional neutralisation and depoliticisation of political parties, but on the depoliticisation of every human. The institutional neutralisation of mainstream political powers would thus be the political expression of atomisation, the macro-political expression of a human that is indifferent for praxis and preoccupied with fabrication.

Post-democracy mirrors an extensive atomisation of the social realm through consumerism and digitalisation — phenomena that may be connected with a more extensive trend towards atomisation and consequently the depoliticisation and commodification of the public realm.

Consumerism is described as a mass phenomenon revolving around the fabrication and consumption of products, while digitalisation is described as a realm of simulation of atoms concerned with the fabrication of their digital self.

It is needless to say, that the thesis attempts to reflect on a potential negativity of digitalisation that otherwise has a set of verified positive effects in terms of personal and political empowerment. Given, this focus on their negativity, I explore the extent of the effect these mass phenomena have on personal loneliness and meaninglessness and political powerlessness and voicelessness.

Moreover, I examine whether the rise of the far-right may be a nativist response to these deregulating forces; an attempt to circumscribe an identity under threat. Thus, behind the statement of Robert Fico, who stated that his country would accept only Christian refugees, lies a political reflex that has detected the collective desire — maybe the need — for the construction of a collective identity: a desire that is fulfilled through constructing an enemy, a symptom. Stavrakakis (2008) utilises the Lacanian concept of jouissance to explain the power of identification and nationalism: “Nationalism works through people’s hearts, nerves, and viscera. It is a cultural expression through the body.” (Jusdanis by Stavrakakis: 2008: 237). This powerful connection is transmitting a sense of devotion and loyalty to reach a common goal, by sacrificing the individuality of each part of the nation. This fatigue caused by extensive privacy may lie at the bottom of this resurgence of nationalism. And it is quite uncertain or unclear whether a left radical project can mobilise discourses or signs that can produce the same level of sentiment and loyalism.

A different perception of the Political that goes beyond its institutional version and towards a more Arendtian approach would help us expand our critique and explore different domains of political re-action, the formation of different spaces where praxis can be expressed. Thus the crucial mandate is to explore realms and political scales capable to regulate forces of atomisation and counter the bigotry and hatred of the far- right. A discussion in terms of the political effectivity and potentials of these different scales, is underway and needs to be extended.

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