Theodore Roszak

The Disease called Politics





One of the most passionate critiques of the madness that is politics and why we have to find a way out of this insane game.

Source: Paul Goodman ed., Seeds of Liberation, 1964.



Behind the façade of words and policies and white papers and manifestoes lurks the dark truth. A suicidal pathology is at the root of our politics. How else are we to explain what men are doing all about us? We experience war-scare upon war-scare. But the feverish investors of our society, those supposed epitomes of rational self-interest, are not sent scurrying to the hills by these crises. Instead they stick fast to ground-zero, glued to their telephones, instructing their brokers, “Buy Martin!” “Buy Boeing! The boom is coming!”

William Burroughs has put it well in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings:

To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth.

And Gregory Corso asks, “Who manipulates the cloth?” And the answer: "Death."

But what does it mean to say that death manipulates politics? It means that politics is not the art of life. Politics does not sustain life or serve it. Rather politics is the organization of power, and power is the enemy of life. For the measure of power is its ability to make life what it would not be; to break, bend, control, crush, direct and destroy life. The end of power is the inhibition of growth, which is life. And whatever interferes with the growth of things and of men participates in death; whatever its credentials, it is in alliance with death. This is what power is, and nothing else.

All of which is another way of saying that politics is everything love is not. It is love that brings forth and nourishes life, that sustains it in its sufferings and mourns for its defeat. Love thrives in spontaneity, accepting this moment and the next for what they are now, not for what they can be used for later. Love resides in the immediacy of our experience; it is, like a child at play, the gentle enemy of order, of efficiency of organization.

So it is not love, after all, that makes the world go around. Love lets grow; but it is power that makes go. Love may be part of each man's history, but in the world at large, love has no history. The world belongs to politics, which is to say, the world belongs to death.

This is what we must come to understand. Our society's obsession with power is an obsession with death. It is ultimately a search for self-destruction. And that is why we continue again and again, in the name of this or that political principle, to aggravate the international situation, and to insist that the way of sanity is impossible. That is why, with the capacity at hand to make the life of mankind secure, clean, comfortable, and enjoyable for the first time in human history, we persist in saddling ourselves with tension, fear, discontent and hardship. And this in the name of empty, unexamined issues. As if we were ashamed to give our minds and bodies peace! There are even those who pretend that unhappiness is good: it creates culture. That may be so. But if it is, it means that culture is a disease and nothing better.

There is no other explanation: we edge toward the brink of war, not out of cunning, but out of a morbid fascination with the abyss. What after all is the ultimate display of power, but the extermination of the race? Those who control the means of power - or perhaps I should say, those who are most immediately controlled by them - is it not obvious that there is a certain relish and deep satisfaction they derive from their position? Does it not show through their words and gestures? What else are we to make of Khrushchev threatening the world with loo-megaton bombs, or of the square-jawed, steel-eyed generals who have made the word “destroy” one of the basic terms. of our national vocabulary?: “We can destroy the enemy totally,” “We can destroy the enemy ten times over. . .” and not a tinge of regret or guilt in their voices. What was the slogan John Kennedy confessed was closest to his heart? “Power all the way.” These men are ecstatically wallowing in a Faustian dream of omnipotence, which can only end as a. nightmare of self-annihilation.

To be sure, politics has always been a neurotic business. The senseless shenanigans of kings and conquerors have always had the character of madness about them. We recognize that clearly enough when we see them at a distance. We can look back at the bloody intrigues of Louis XIV and Richard III, the violent empire-building of Cecil Rhodes and Bismarck and see the crazy brutality of their compulsive masculinity. Obsessed and driven men, all.

We forget that our own political squabbles will be seen by the future - if we permit there to be a human future - with all the estrangement and cynicism with which we look back upon the quarrels of Hapsburg and Valois, of the Red and the White Rose.

“If we permit there to be a human future.” This is the great difference! This is what makes the politics of our time not neurotic, but psychotic. In the past, the mad game of the politicians took place as a part of life; they did not, they could not claim to be the whole of life. There was always the chance to escape to the sidelines, leaving the mad fellows to butcher one another. Spinoza ground his lenses and his philosophy to a delicate focus, while the political world was convulsed with agony. Beethoven could be deaf to Napoleon and all his nonsense while he brought forth his hymns to life.

But now the game of politics has expanded to the point of embracing the whole of life. It claims to be the only game. It wants us all, and it wants all of each of us; no out-of-bounds and no spectators. The extent of political control and destructiveness is becoming total, and therefore politics is becoming totally insane.

All of which, in the words of Gregory Corso, “sounds real doomy.”

Is there a way out?

Clearly there will be no way out until the pathological becomes a category of our political understanding. Otherwise we will, like the psychotic, try helplessly to save ourselves in ways that only aggravate the illness. The policy of deterrence is such an attempt, a crippled, pathological attempt to work within the very political conventions that endanger. our survival. That is why deterrence is bound to fail. There is no cure for madness within the context of madness.

No, we must find our way to health by first acknowledging our sickness. We must call madness madness wherever we see it. We must refuse to drain off our constructive energies, energies of mind and heart and will and conscience, in dignifying the insanity of our political existence; in making it an object of allegiance and sacrifice to the point of bloodshed. Those who strain to rationalize the irrationality of the political world - the experts and analysts, the propagandists, the political scientists and historians, sunk in their state-papers and documents and official correspondence - they do us the worst disservice. They are stuck so deep in the ruts of political convention that they cannot see over the edge. And so they take pride in their very lack of vision, in what they call their “hard-headed, pragmatic” approach. No naive idealists, they!

Rather, they are Lewis Mumford's “undimensioned fragmented minds.” They do not think to the roots. Their souls have been corrupted by intellectual caution and professional prudishness. The so-called sick comedians do more good than they, for through the throats of Lenny Bruce and Edward Albee the morbid fascinations of our civilization are being vomited into view.

Camus speaks of the virtues of engagement, of being “engaged in the density of history, where man's very flesh stifles.” But his advice here is wrong. History is the insanity of the race. Rather than involving ourselves ever more in that madness, we must first find detachment. We must fight our way out of the moiling, suffocating arena of politics so that we can with distance recognize the essential sickness of the games that are played there.


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