The Despotism of Personality: Obama, McCain and Metahistory
When John McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis claimed in September that the upcoming presidential election was "not about issues" but rather about "what voters take away from these candidates," the Obama campaign replied with a familiar complaint; the GOP was trying to distract the electorate with a focus on "personality." But for all the complaining from the left, Obama's pop star cool and John Kerry’s elaborate war hero narrative both demonstrate how Democrats have been chasing the personality prize during the last two election cycles. The common belief is that a focus on personal charisma has given Republicans an edge in presidential politics, and that Democrats needed to come up with compelling personalities of their own: hence the success of Obama.
For all the spoofing of his “celebrity” status, I feel that Obama’s relative success should be attributed not to his personality as such, which while dazzling at times can also be aloof and off putting. Rather, it is related to his ability to adequately and charismatically represent something far outside of himself – the idea or “hope” of a renewed national commitment to systems and to social form, things that has been very much lacking in this new millennium. While McCain is a symbol for himself, a too-tough-to-die "maverick" whose life struggle America should emulate, Obama is essentially an avatar, the physical manifestation of an airy progressive ideal for public governance. The conflict between McCain and Obama is in essence a conflict between two different conceptions of personality and its relationship with political power, ideological manifestations having a common root: the rise of the Western ego.
I’d like to jump from this highly specific political moment to a much bigger perspective, with the aid of author Marcel Gauchet's magisterial cultural history, The Disenchantment of the World. Gauchet places the last 10,000 years of human development in the context of the "unimaginably long dureé" of prehistory, a time marked by a shamanistic interplay with spiritual forces. The gradual rise of technology and complex social networks out of this prehistory was accelerated by the advent of the Iron Age, with its increasing technological mastery over life (the plow) and death (the sword). Humanity assumed a "despotic" control over nature, and "religion" which Gauchet defines as an enchanted relationship with nature and autonomous spirits, was discarded. For Gauchet, true religion ceased to exist in the West millennia ago, replaced by the human invention of "sky gods" totally alienated from nature and existing solely as a justification for human domination over that same nature. These sky religions, of which monotheistic creeds are the main example, in fact represent an "exit from religion."
Is it true that religion in this sense disappeared so long ago, replaced by the ascendance of the Western ego? One place to look to for this shift is classical Athens, the “cradle” of Western civilization. In the mythological canon of high Greek culture we already see the emergence of the ego-structure out of the primordial shamanistic form. When Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment say that the figure of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey is "a prototype of the bourgeois individual," they mean that Odysseus's "cunning," his tactical mastery over the environment, offers a paradigm for the domination of man over nature through technical reason that modern thinkers like Hobbes and Locke would draw upon in their theory of possessive individualism. Man’s control over his own destiny was what was important, and the heroic image of the individual confronting destiny directly without the mediation, or indeed the meddling, of wider social concerns has remained a fantasy theme of the western mindset right up to present day entrepreneurs like Joe the Plumber.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s interpretive move in reading ancient myth as a commentary on secular life is not simply anachronistic; the anthropomorphism of the Greek gods was so transparent that the allegorical intent of most mythology was understood by many Greeks in the 5th century BCE. While ritual practice involving local versions of the Greek pantheon was still prevalent among the lower classes, intellectual elites like Homer were well aware of the literary nature of the canonical versions of Greek religion they were crafting. Classicist Paul Veyne claims in Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? that “a Greek put the gods in heaven, but he would have been astounded to see them in the sky.” Myths were no longer practical guides to interaction with the spirit world but tales about the deeds of heroic or ridiculous personalities intended to inform and edify.
Among those who were cognizant of the allegorical nature of Greek mythology was the philosopher Parmenides, who was one of the first to protest against the new post-religious paradigm exemplified by it. The canon depicted a thoroughly anthropomorphized, egocentric cast of divinities lusting after power and well, lust. In his philosophical hymn The Way of Truth, Parmenides established a tactic for pushing back against this obsession with the ego image. He denounced myth as blasphemous to spiritual truth because it depicts the gods as having desires, egos, in essence personality. He sought to establish an alternative spiritual paradigm in which personality, action, even time and space itself were recognized as illusory.
While few of those who Parmenides inspired were as austere as he in denying the reality of our basic experience of the physical universe, they shared in his disdain for the egoistic model of Greek mythology and the attempt to shape nature and fortune to individual will. His philosophical disciple Plato further developed the paradigm for a new form of spirituality, one as distinct from shamanism as was the elevation of the ego-centered paradigm of the individual. Humanity was to harmonize itself with the realm of idealistic forms, forms completely separate from the illusory veil of perception. Rather than relying on the chaos of individuals pulled in different directions by individual desires, society should aspire to ideals through social form, a form described in detail by Plato in his Republic. A new kind of despotism, the despotism of the system, was born.
That such harmonization is completely at odds with the individual struggle for success or failure, the kind of rugged aggressiveness conservatism values above anything else, is illustrated nicely in Plato's depiction of the trial and execution of Socrates, The Apology. Faced with execution for corruption of youth, denial of the gods and treason, Socrates states on his behalf that he deserves not death, but a lifelong stipend and free dinners at the state's expense. Socrates mocks the need to seriously argue his innocence and save his own life (in fact, his speech managed to turn a split jury into a solid majority calling for his death). It is a story reminiscent of so many idealistic political campaigns, with candidates so confident in the correctness of their positions that they would rather lose than dirty their hands in tactical struggle.
But Socrates, in his lack of regard for the well-being of his individual ego, nonetheless survived through the ages by virtue of his own iconoclastic personality. Socrates represents a paradox in the Western narrative, the anti-ego personality. Plato places Socrates’ detachment and selflessness in intellectual combat with opponents whose integrity is endlessly compromised by their reactive and egocentric need to control and master their environment. Strong personalities and seeming masters of their fate, they are each revealed in turn as straw men who become engulfed and reduced to embers by the flames of desire. In representing the ideal, the unique personality of Socrates is indestructible, even in death. Instead of a mortal, Socrates is best thought of as an avatar . . . a physical manifestation of an ideal of social form trying to assert itself in the world.
What this new mysticism fails to realize, says Gauchet, is that it is still of projection of the despotic ego. The idealized forms that Plato evokes are still human projections; attempts to control the environment in the name of primal forms that supposedly existed before philosophers like Plato “found” them. But rather than the agonistic conflict between cunning individuals and material existence that canonical mythologies depict, the interest in social form displaces the egocentric agenda of mastery over nature into a collective and transcendent framework. Such a transformation of nature cannot occur on an individual basis but must be guided by the rise of wise and structurally coherent social systems.
Looking at our political culture from the meta historical perspective of a writer like Gauchet, it is hard not to see the current presidential contest, indeed much of political culture through the ages, as an ideological struggle between these two models of personality, and the forms of “despotism” they represent. Republicans often epitomize the first model of personality, for which life is a struggle for survival between individual prototypes of virtue (in the Machiavellian sense of being able to impose one’s will) and turpitude (in the Machiavellian sense of weakness). No modern phenomenon is systematic enough to resist being turned by the political right into a simple struggle between manifest good and evil; even capitalism itself is simply a shorthand indicator of virtue that rewards moral strength and punishes moral weakness.
Meanwhile, for Democrats more often than not the system is all; social failings in are attributed to structural imbalances and distortions in the form of society as a whole. Their tactical struggle, given the representative regime of postmodern politics, is in finding individuals who can adequately represent their utopian impulses, to literally transform the place we inhabit into a “no-place” of political ideals, without sullying those ideals with their individual failings. Once in power, their faith in the system dream is often total. Individual misapplications of the general rule, the sorts of ridiculous examples of overzealous impositions on individual behavior that conservatives gleefully catalogue, are ignored until the anecdotal steady dripping becomes torturous, and system becomes seen by the many as an arbitrary straightjacket on human freedom.
This ideological split comes into sharper relief when we see the attack strategies of both camps, which try to drag the opposition into the candidate’s own frame. For the Democrats McCain in reality is not the exemplary individual war hero and political “maverick” but is simply “McSame,” a mere front for the economic and military imbalances that have ran amok during the Bush administration. The right, for their part, nearly brought down the administration of Bill Clinton by insisting that the moral turpitude of Clinton the individual (whose crimes, according to some fringe elements, went so far as to include rape, murder and drug trafficking) transcended any putatively objective indicators of economic or military achievement. Hence the desire on the right to besmirch Obama as a terrorist sleeper agent, Marxian revivalist and euthanizer of infants: past is prologue.
In many ways it is the very frame of personality itself, the conviction that issues and policies matter less than the behavior of exemplary individuals, is what has tilted the political ground to the right in recent elections. Modern conservatism is based largely upon the idea that the growth of social systems inherently distorts the purity of the struggle between personalities. Those who promote social systems (i.e. progressives) do so because they wish to mask their individual failings, failings that opposition research will uncover (or failing that, fabricate) eventually. By relentlessly personalizing politics, the right has managed to dominate politics for the past four decades. But recent events may be conspiring to thwart this obsession with the political individual during this political cycle.
The past month of economic crisis is one of those once in a generation events where the system reveals itself to the population as a whole, where structural imbalances become so glaring that the country is given a “crash course” in the overarching importance of social form. When even Alan Greenspan, disciple of Ayn Rand, testifies before Congress that his faith in the rational self-interest of the banking executive has been shaken by recent events, it seems clear that some kind of sea change is coming. The resulting shift in the polls to Obama, serene Democrat avatar of a resurgent progressive vision, is inevitable and perhaps insurmountable.
McCain and Palin, the latter whose ascension as running mate was clearly gambler McCain’s “doubling down” on the personality over policy principle, have both struggled to “turn the page on the economy” . . . in other words, to turn away from systems back toward personality. Unfortunately for them, they have struggled in their attempt to reconcile two narratives: that Obama as an individual is morally dangerous, and that he is a front for “socialism” . . . a word that for the right wing in America simply means the impulse to fix societal ills on a systemic level. The crisis has made the first charge seem petty and the second less than alarming.
Since McCain’s entire campaign has bet the farm on the continuing relevance of personality, his prospects look grim. Still, if he pulls out a close victory it will mean that a plurality of the voting population (or at least, of those who monitor and administer elections) has decided they would rather see the system collapse so that the post apocalyptic struggle of personal good versus personal evil (under the supervision, no doubt, of a personal God) can get underway without the distorting influence of system management. If Obama prevails, there will come an opportunity that comes rarely in the space of a century to impact and repair national and global systems, to manifest what Christopher Lasch once caustically called "the true and only heaven”: the dream of the perfectibility of social form. The new administration will reach for such a goal despite the fact that recent history has not been kind to the sorts of grand political frameworks that are currently being imagined in Democratic circles.
One doesn’t have to be a follower of Lasch’s sustained critique of liberal overreach to be skeptical of the system dream that may lift Obama to the White House. From the metahistorical perspective, such a dream remains a legacy of the despotic, disenchanted relationship between humanity and its home. A focus on systems does not transcend the egocentric personality but apotheosizes it to a collective principle of worldly transformation. Still, if there arises a tempting wish for a return to Eden, one must confront the possibility that it might be too late to put the genie of egocentrism back in the bottle. For better or worse we are confronted with a world that 10,000 years of human endeavor has transformed into a mirror of ourselves, and we must continue to take some degree of responsibility towards what we ourselves have created. In doing so, a degree of the humility that has been missing throughout the millennia will be sorely needed in the critical years ahead.
Image by shazam 791, used under Creative Commons licence.