Politics and the Beautiful Soul

by Christopher Horner

If you want to deserve Hell, you need only stay in bed. The world is iniquity; if you accept it, you are an accomplice, if you change it you are an executioner. —Jean-Paul Sartre

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capitals work for it by condemning and abusing each other. —Mark Fisher

Hell is other people —Jean Paul Sartre

Politics is difficult. Doing politics, that is. The boring meetings, the leafleting, the marching in the wind and rain (if you can leave your house), the arguments, the confrontations and the blank incomprehension, the ad hominem attacks and much more. But the largest problem by far is other people. Some are the unconvinced, some are the apathetic and then there are the hostile, those you are opposing. More problematic, though, can be those who are supposed to be on your side. They can be difficult to endure. How many of them would you want to meet if you had the choice? Too often, in my experience, it is only a few, as the sheer hard work of trying to arrive at something like a collective will wears everyone out and tries everyone’s patience. Not all politics is like that of course:  there can be the sense of comradeship from working with others one wouldn’t otherwise get to know. The experience of making a difference and working for a meaningful goal can be a wonderful thing.

This is hard to sustain though, when we experience defeat and frustration. The bitter moment in which one realises that for now (for how long?) the other side has the day. This has been a recent and bitter experience for the UK  Labour Party supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, and of the many in the USA who marched and canvassed for Bernie Sanders in 2020, only to see him him stopped in the primaries. And quite apart from one’s official enemies, there have been real battles within those parties. With failure comes the temptation to have done, to walk away, either into inaction or in order find another, and inevitably smaller, group of like-minded activists. This latter has been a reliable feature of left politics for as long as anyone can remember: an addiction to splitting.  After all, if the others aren’t part of the solution, they must be part of the problem, right?

Currently, a number of people in the UK are announcing that they will leave the Labour Party now that Corbyn is no longer in charge. This tendency has been strengthened by recent revelations that bureaucrats in the party had actually worked to defeat not only the left, but Labour itself in the general election. It seems a good number of those staffers preferred a Conservative victory to a Labour one, if the party was led from the left. This may ring a few bells with US supporters of Bernie Sanders. So some will leave. They may or may not be right in this (I think they are wrong). But in any case, I note the troubling presence of a phenomenon that characterises too much of politics in and beyond the left. This is the Beautiful Soul. Let me explain.

The term occurs in Hegel, and I am going to wrench his account, without apologies, from its context in the Phenomenology of Spirit, as he  captures something that is a feature of the modern political landscape. The Beautiful Soul – let’s call it ‘BS’ – comes up when Hegel describes a certain kind of romantic sensibility. The BS is someone who relies on his or her inner feeling, conscience and sense of what they know in their heart to be right. It’s this inner sense that they consult in order to know what is right. It’s a complex world, hard to make sense of, and harder still to do the right thing. So it is difficult to criticise this impulse. But the BS wants purity in a messy world, and the purity of their convictions is the supreme thing. So they cannot accept less from the decisions they make, or from the people they meet.

This leads the BS into a position in which it is difficult to be an effective political actor, since there are only two ways to go with this unconditional demand. We can imagine two Beautiful Souls, each taking one of the two routes. The first BS neither grasps the complexity of the situation nor wishes to, but thinks the purity of their commitment will carry through into their actions. Their sense of what is right will guide them in all they do. They will make unconditional demands that the right thing should be done, and will tolerate nothing less. [1] The second BS goes the other way: they cannot bear to be contaminated by  compromises in a corrupt world, and so they withdraw from action entirely, preserving their purity by doing nothing and condemning those who are complicit in the evil of the world. This second type mainly confines their politics to the purely verbal, which in 2020 usually means making use of a keyboard. 

It is easy to see that both types will have problems in being any kind of political actor. Being a Beautiful Soul of either variety means seeing the political as essentially about morality, and about purity and corruption. Therefore it tends to think in terms of individuals and their virtues, or more often, vices. But what happens when the two BS types meet each other? Hegel stages that encounter for us in the Phenomenology. Each sees the other as corrupt, possibly evil. The judgmental purist who keeps their hands clean condemns the one who acts as a hypocrite: a person claiming to have high ideals while doing filthy deals and acting in bad faith; likewise, the one who acts from the purest of motives sees the other with the clean conscience as a hypocrite for the same reason – someone who is only concerned with themselves. 

The moralism that thinks in terms of evil individuals and corruption at the top tends to be impatient with systemic thinking. Still less can it easily come to terms with others who differ, even when those differences are relatively minor, and between those on the same side. In short, they are not good at understanding what it is to be a comrade. A comrade is someone with whom you work towards a common goal; the comrade need not be your friend and they need not be admirable or in agreement with you on a range of issues, but they are with you in the key political goals you have jointly taken on. They may be quite annoying in a number of ways. It doesn’t matter. Both share in the project of transforming the world, a project that always changes those who undertake it.

The ‘narcissism of small differences’ has often been remarked on in this context. The origin of it comes from a romantic notion of what it is to be political that conflates the moral judgement of individuals with the political analysis of a system that is irrational and unjust. This is intensified when politics happens not in a street or a meeting, but though a screen, with a key board. I won’t rehearse here the well known effects of that medium on the way we engage, or often fail to engage, with others. But it is worth recalling that this isolating effect is one that capitalism encourages. A certain attitude akin to consumerism sets in: you don’t like this ideology, that view, this person? Delete it, block it, cancel them. They’ve gone as surely as an unwanted item on a shopping list from the online supermarket delivery service. 

In a similar way to that of a brand of clothing that is supposed to express one’s ‘unique personality,’ a moralising stance expresses one’s self-branding as an identity. But what goes with this is a kind of persecutory superego-effect, a gaze that the BS feels on themselves and everyone else, and which threatens anyone who says or does the wrong thing. This can induce anxiety and depression. And it takes us back to the question of how one relates to a collective when it goes wrong or seems to fail. The BS has a simple solution: if the party lets you down, you leave it. Cancel your subscription. That’ll teach them! Except it won’t: a political party isn’t like a girlfriend or boyfriend. You may get the pleasant sensation of having been cleansed of something disappointingly compromised, but leaving and sulking has no effect on it at all. Meanwhile the world rolls on.

This pathology isn’t limited to the radical left. There are plenty of centrists for instance, liberals who mouth platitudes about free speech and liberty and do nothing that might expose them to the embarrassment of actually doing anything. Quite the contrary, as they are blind to the hierarchies of power that makes some speech freer than others. As for the right, we too often find a dehumanising intransigence about the views of others coupled with a hangman morality. Their aim is to mythologise and naturalise hierarchy and to celebrate the wonderfulness of the National Tribe while demonising an Other. This is right-wing identitarianism of a particularly toxic kind.  And then there are the comfortable who do very well out the struggles of others, and  who will tell you in the pub that they are ‘anarchists’ or ‘not political’. What the BS refuses to see here is that their refusal to engage with the dirty world is actually allowing them to benefit from the struggles and suffering of others. The BS refuses to act politically and leaves others to do the work for them. As Sartre saw, to abstain from action is to be an accomplice and to act is, if not to murder, at least to get one’s hands dirty.

Which brings me, finally, to the second epigraph at the top of this article. Mark Fisher, in a well-known article (Exiting the Vampire Castle)  [2] connected the unforgiving moralism and obsession with purity, to the repression of social class. I think he was right. To think class, to attend to the ways in which Capital actually operates, is to think systemically and politically. In no way should this imply that other forms of oppression – gender, sexuality, race – are not real and important. They are, and they are woven together with the way class crushes or deforms everyone. But to truly leave the ‘Vampire’s Castle’ of snark, cancellation and finger pointing is to move towards seeing what class is, and how it relates to multiple oppressions, to think systemically and positively about what can be done. And to act. 

There is no future in personalising, privatising and moralising. The rending, and self-rending that induces anxiety and depression serves only the interests of Capital. And it makes things easy for the right. I have said a lot about finger pointing on the left, but the dark web of racist and homophobic abuse that comes from the right is, by comparison, off the scale.To be political isn’t to give up having opponents, but it must lie in something more life-affirming than finger pointing, narcissism and sulk.

[1]  At its most pronounced, the first type of BS (the one that wants to do good, prompted by their own sense of what is right) can become fanatical: An example here might be the fictional Travis Bickle in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, murderously set on cleansing the streets of corruption, or the all too real man who stabbed ‘infidels’ on London Bridge. Luckily, this is very rare, and the rage for purity is usually limited to words. But words can hurt, too.

[2] Exiting the Vampire Castle, originally published online in 2013, now available in K Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose, Repeater books 2018, or online here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/