The Political Illusion pt.5: The Heroic Quest for Self-Government (Door No. 3)
What can we do if we cannot reform or control the administrative state? Acquiesce? Revolution? Or is there an other option? Ellul makes the case without making it, for building a parallel society.
In each of the four preceding pieces, Ellul has progressively stripped away the most prominent of our political illusions. We no longer have real political choices. Ethical politics is not a thing. Modern mass politics requires propaganda. The nature of the techno-administrative state is that it cannot be controlled or reformed. So what are we to do in response to an amoral system that needs to infiltrate all parts of our lives, control our thoughts, is totalitarian is its scope and intention and cannot be meaningfully reformed through political action?
Before answering that question, Ellul has one or two further illusions he needs to expose. The idea that we can de-politicize our lives is not a solution. Neither is the solution to become hyper-political. Ellul argues that this idea that we can withdraw into our own private sphere and leave politics behind is not a noble choice. Rather, it is the path of cowardice or laziness or both. If you choose to withdraw from politics to tend your own garden you deserve the tyrannical oppression that will come when the state finds you. And it will find you. This idea of withdrawal must be condemned as much as the drive to make all things political. The Benedict Option is not an option. In fact, the very idea of a public sphere with politics and a private sphere without politics has contributed to the all consuming dominance of the state in our lives. This idea that there is a place in our society where we can and should withdraw from civic life, from the political life of the community, a space that is purely ours without the presence of the political, allows the state to function without a countervailing force to limit its power. If the state encounters no opposing force to check its power, it will grow until it consumes all things, including your precious non-political private space.
“It is absurd to think that one could nowadays really retire into one’s corner and defend oneself against the inroads of the all devouring state. The later does not change its nature; and, whatever your intentions, it will find you easily.”
There is no where you can go today where the state cannot find you. You cannot carve out your own space to live free from its influence. As much as you wish to flee politics, politics finds you. In truth, it is hunting you down. The choice to become apolitical is itself a political choice. The idea that you can become apolitical is as absurd an illusion as is the political itself.
So what are we to do? Ellul has answers, but they are hard answers and we will not like them.
“Experience has shown that the state will only retreat when it meets an insurmountable obstacle. This obstacle can only be man, i.e. citizens organized completely independent of the state. But, once organized, the citizen must possess an…attitude to depoliticize and repoliticize; this attitude can only be the result of his being freed from illusions. The crucial change involved focuses not on opinion and vocabulary but on behavior.”
There are two essential components here. First, there must be organized opposition to state power. Secondly, we must become the kind of people who have the capacity to resist the techno-administrative state and are capable of self-rule. There is no system or political platform that will set us free from the tyranny of the state. Returning to the pure system of the Founding Fathers will not accomplish this. Neither will a British style parliamentary system. Changing the way we vote and how we are represented will not do it. Checks and balances within the system will not do it. Having a dictator will not do it. Getting a new elite, “our people,” into power, will not do it. There is no system or program that will fix this. There is no system that we can put in place that will allow us to step away and go back to our lives, confident that all will be well with the government.
Becoming the kind of people who can govern themselves means that we must re-invent a situation in which life’s real problems are not posed in political terms. Problems such as poverty, even crime, drug abuse, mental illness, race relations, etc., that is, most of the problems we task government with solving, must no longer be posed in political terms. Only in the last 150 or so years have we attempted to try to fix moral and spiritual problems through the mechanisms of government, through the administrative state.
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