The disintegration of Political Institutions: Populism, Science, Psychology, and Humanistic Liberalism

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Paul Ricoeur refers in his writings on Political Responsibility to an interesting Humanistic/philosophical model to represent  the concepts of power and authority.  Power, he argues, rests with the people, and authority rests with the State. We are asked to conceive of this relation of power and authority as  a triangle. The former, power,  he characterizes as embedded in a base of community life where we live together ,with and for one another, in the midst of  just institutions. The latter, authority, the  parts of the triangle reaching from the base to the apex, he argues, is a hierarchical structure which it is necessary to submit to if the society is to preserve itself in the face of external and internal threats. This structure , he argues, is necessary  for all kinds of states but  as one can readily see, it manifests a paradox in the combining of authority  in the form of legitimate law governed force, and  the power of the will of the people  that has evolved   slowly,  historically and ethically to constitute a culture. Given the nature of the model, the culture, mores, and customs of a society can, unless authority is especially sensitive to the will of the people be plagued by questionable political decisions and attitudes . These decisions and attitudes have a special  holistic characteristic in that the major action of politicians which is being decided upon is the passing of laws.

The figure of a triangle obviously reminds us of  Humanistic Psychology: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  which makes reference to both personal, social and cultural needs but does not directly reflect economic or political needs. During modern times we have witnessed the unleashing of the economic forces of globalization which are indifferent to the   force of the ethical imperative that  is suggested in Maslow’s hierarchy.  In this process, global economic needs  have differentiated themselves from  national needs. In this process State economic decisions have become increasingly abstract and are understood only by groups of experts.

Now this differentiation reminds me of the deliberate decision taken by Psychology in 1870 to detach itself from the domain of Philosophy and thereby, as a consequence,  detach itself from the realm of  humanistic and ethical description and explanation.  The decision was motivated by  a  desire to become more scientific  and thereby  advance knowledge of the human condition. Difficult to comprehend abstraction was also the result of this process. Theories of causation lie behind experimental manipulation of supposedly unvarying independent variables and dependent variables which can be quantified and  measured. Probability theory is used in order to attempt to establish whether  the correlations observed and measured  can be  regarded as indications of whether there is a causal relation between the variables. The problem with the experimental method and its accompanying probability theory is that it presupposes a form of the law of induction that things and relations which have not changed in the past will not change in the future. Now, as long as one is dealing with causation between at least one unvarying variable and one dependent variable the inductive method is a defendable assumption. But if one is to use probability theory to support the experimental method another assumption is required in accordance with Bayes´s theorem, which states that the probability of an event occurring is related to the information which one has about it. Now if one has a  covered container with 50 balls, 25 of which are white and 25 of which are black, and we wish to calculate the probability of the event of drawing a white ball  on the first draw, our information about the number of possible events in the system  is  finite and closed and probabilities can be accurately calculated.  But the problem is this: in  Psychological experiments, where we do  have information of all the possible variables affecting possible outcomes, the results of the experiment  very often merely produce knowledge of a relation which  we already had knowledge of via experience or philosophical theory. Indeed, experience itself may be sufficient  for knowledge of the cause-effect relations.  The very best we achieve is a confirmation of what we already know. This, as one can see, is problematic from the point of view of the original motivation for the decision taken by Psychology  to move away from Humanistic Philosophy which was struggling with the larger issue of determining the psychological and situational factors  involved in open systems, i.e. in systems where  agents freely choose what they ought and ought not to do. The real problem with this state of affairs is that we need to advance our knowledge of the human condition if we are going to understand ourselves and our relation to politics.  Isolation from philosophical assumptions of the human condition and the ethical imperative has not produced very much of significance in almost 150 years. If a real comparison of progress in these two respective areas of research were to be made then what has been discovered  in the name of science would then have to be compared with 150 years of philosophical reflection which would include all the philosophical discoveries of  modern academic Aristotelians and Kantians, existentialism,phenomenology, hermeneutics and Analytical Philosophy of different kinds. We could for example ask whether Experimental research  has contributed  to our knowledge of the psychological and situational variables involved in political thinking and decision making. One would have to compare the results of such research with, for example, Paul Ricoeur’s and Hannah Arendt’s political and psychological(anthropological) research and reflections, some of which are presented here. The hypothesis presented here then is :No psychological theory using purely experimental method and results  can compare with the humanistic  method and results of interpretation, hermeneutics and logic in the field of political “science”. What we have in these  experimentally based theories is a fruitless scientific abstraction comparable  to economic abstraction  which is  a privileged domain of small groups of experts.

Ricouer  presented  his philosophical model in a number of sources (principally in  the two articles “Fragility and Responsibility” and “Ethics and Politics”) and it differs significantly from Maslow’s Humanistic Psychological theory even if the latter  carries interesting philosophical and ethical assumptions about the human condition.Paradoxically  it might be the partial reliance on the scientific  causal principle which limits the scope of  Maslow’s theory.

Let us try to see, for example whether a non humanistic approach using an experimental mind set could solve the problem of analysing the concept of civil disobedience in the political framework of “the Law”.

The law can be changed, either  by the government changing the law  or by the government  adding another law to the system. The government has the authority to do these things. However during the last century the will of the people has made itself heard in organised campaigns of demonstration and civil disobedience. The base of the triangle has, that is to say, not submitted to the authority of governmental institutions. It has expressed its power and its discontent with governmental authority. Why? It is often claimed that the laws of science are immutable and immune to change and  the laws of men contingent and changeable.  Yet in the civil rights movements, the anti Vietnam war,  and the CND demonstrations it almost seems as if some immutable unchangeable law was on the side of the demonstrators, as if some timeless knowledge was being expressed by crowds surging through streets flashing their placards for the cameras and chanting.  Kant believed the moral law was immutable and unchangeable and thought it would take man one hundred thousand years to fully understand this law, thus echoing the old Platonic chorus that knowledge is required for the just exercise of power and authority. Not the kind of abstract theoretical knowledge that “scientific” experts claim to possess but the practical knowledge that keeps the society evolving and developing.  This practical knowledge, made explicit in the Enlightenment moral philosophy of Kant,  demands the kind of consciousness that is needed to coordinate the customs , mores and ethical imperatives of the people with their representatives in authority who have the task of translating the power of the people into the power of government. Authority can only use the power of the people on the condition that it maintains its connection with the customs mores and ethical laws of the people. Hannah Arendt argues that in times of turmoil which she defines in terms of confusion, polarization and the growing bitterness of our debates are actually caused by a theoretical failure to come to terms with and understand  the phenomenon of civil disobedience. From the point of view of  the authorities, a crowd of  unruly demonstrators are merely a number of individuals breaking the law and disturbing the peace  whereas from the point of view of the base of the triangle,  the ethically motivated demonstrators,  the issue is rather as it was for Thoreau “let  justice be done even if the world perishes” a view shared by Lincoln in the issue of the civil war over slavery. Aristotle claimed that the good man could only be a good citizen in a good state. Kant acknowledges this trinity of terms(the good man, the good citizen, the good state) necessary to analyse the phenomenon of justice and civil disobedience and points out that even a race of devils  could found a nation if they were intelligent enough thus highlighting the importance of the good citizens relation to the moral law and the laws of the state. We are all conscious of the facts that historical processes take decades to reveal their significance. If we believe we are living in time of turmoil at the moment perhaps we should look back to the past for traces of the process which has led us to our current situation. Arendt in writing about civil disobedience reports the pessimism in the USA during the 1960’s where law writers were  rhetorically claiming that the law is dead and referred  to “the cancerous growth of disobediences” against the background of the claim that law enforcement authorities had been failing for many years to enforce the law especially in relation to drug offences, mugging and burglary.  She maintains with reference  to recent reports that over half the crimes are never reported and that only one in a hundred criminal offenders will ever go to prison. Research studies are not needed, she claims to establish the fact that criminal acts probably have no legal consequences whatsoever. Arendt points out that were the system more successful the court and prison system would collapse. The answer of of the authorities to this situation is to commission a manifold of scientific studies  devoted to discovering the “deeper causes” whilst ignoring the more obvious causes  under their  noses. Add to these reflections on criminal law the frequency of civil disobedience in the post war world   which resulted in  government disrespect for the  group of society that is  intentionally disobedient and the reciprocating disrespect and contempt for political authority  and we have , according to Arendt a recipe  the disintegration of political institutions and thereby a recipe for a popular revolution. Is what we experiencing in the USA today exactly what Hannah Arendt predicted?