I am a little sick of hearing about how precious and wonderful and essential democracy is in the face of its complete failure to election of a President of the United States that shows so little aptitude for the job. Liberal democracy, we hear, is the best system ever, delivering freedom and opportunity to millions. It must be admitted that in many ways liberal democracy has delivered the goods. But something has gone terribly wrong and not only in the USA but here in Australia where the political process has become unworkable.
The worm in the apple is the almost complete destruction, carried out under the name Enlightenment, of a sure ground of identity. Before Descartes' grounding of the self in cognition, men and women who lived in Christendom understood themselves as being children of God who were made in the image of God. This was the foundation for the self that predicated all other identities. It meant that as a child of God we owed Him allegiance and worship. Self-identity was directed away from the self to the transcendent. This identity was assumed for all people, Christian or not. It is the basis of today's universal human rights. Of course it was often observed in the breach, particularly regarding native peoples, but it still stands as the foundation of Western Societies.
This conclusion was based not on observation and rationality but on a theological view of the world. The move to human rights language hides this central fact.
The influence of this idea on the civilization of the West is incalculable. The proper functioning of public service is a case in point. Without the transcendent identity of the self, that displaces personal desire and ambition, it is difficult, if not impossible, to become a public servant in the mode indicated by its name. In properly functioning public service, self-interest is displaced by the duty to work for the good of the people of God. One is a servant of God even when individual faith may be absent.
When one looks to the developing world one thing continues to stand out: public service is often corrupted by self-interest. This means that countries are often ungovernable so bogged down as they are in bribery.
Philosophers, scientists and sociologists have, if not killed God, done Him great damage in the eyes of many. They have done this through ignorance of what the Christian tradition actually teaches about God. Taking popular and shallow notions of what God is they have found it easy to dispense with him. Subsequently many, who, thus deprived of a foundation for identity, have fallen back onto Descartes foundation of the self in the self. We now live in an age in which we are expected to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps and many of us are feeling the strain of this impossible task. Narcissism is always near at hand because worship of God is transferred to the self.
To make matters worse we are supposed to execute this acute action by the use of reason alone. The truth is that one cannot reason one's way to a meaningful identity. Well, you can, but that identity is so shallowly rooted in reality that it is a fragile plant indeed. To listen to an ancient tradition about identity would be to betray Cartesian scepticism and to fall into the error. After all, we are all supposed to be modern so why should we pay attention to ancient traditions?
Having based the self on the self we now discover that we are dominated by the will to power and by desire. We feel we must make a name for ourselves, a name that will be remembered after we die so that in death we will not be forgotten and so still "live". This is modernity's version of the defeat of death: become famous. Desire is ever present and unlimited in its demands. Without any critique, desire runs rampant and we build houses that are too big and have life-style aspirations that demand luxury and place a heavy burden on the planet.
Since our identity is built on desire we set about to build the Kingdom of Desire. These cathedrals of desire are dotted all over the landscape and are called shopping malls. The children of God have been changed into the children of desire and this is applauded because it keeps the economy humming along.
The turn to the self that is the central component of modernity has implications for the whole of society, obviously. In the absence of a transcendent source of identity there is only the ego. This is the fatal flaw that besets modern man and his governing systems. It is fatal because it can only lead to the "over man", the person motivated only by the will to power. It is a flaw that has the capacity to corrupt public service and our precious democracy.
I say this because when our political life is infected by the will to power then it is essentially nihilistic. We see this when John Howard justifies obnoxious foreign policy by simply citing that it is in the national interest. We see it in the present Federal government when it cannot have mercy on established refugees in our detention camps and bring them to Australia; a sentiment sadly supported by the Labor Party that should know better. We see it when Colin Barnett cosies up to One Nation to share preferences because it is politically expedient. We now live in an age in which the ends justify the means no matter what damage is done to those who cannot protect themselves.
Even when our politicians claim to serve the public they are, quite often, serving themselves in their will to power. Presently, the Federal government cannot enact obviously positive reforms simply because the opposition has suggested them first. Thus governing the country runs second place to political expediency and the will to say in power.
This essay was informed by reading Rowan William's essay "Politics and the Soul: A reading of the City of God. In On Augustine. Bloomsbury 2016.
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