From Trump to eternity: The fate of the political arts in the modern world

By Nicholas Gruen

Wednesday October 28, 2020

Members Hall, Parliament House, Canberra. Adobe

The politician’s capacity to perform is an internal good that is most closely associated with acquiring external goods. This makes them morally ambiguous, writes Nicolas Gruen.

Martin Wolf has a crisp face-to-camera opinion piece in which he points out that populism in government hasn’t lined up neatly against relative success in keeping populations safe from COVID. Thus in the Anglosphere, Donald’s and Boris’s governments have been much more chaotic in tackling COVID than others – such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia (at least ’til now). Meanwhile populist governments, such as those of Hungary, have also done relatively well.

“So, the really interesting question” Wolf suggests “turns out to be ‘is a government actually interested in governing?’. As he points out, Trump and Bolsonaro (Brazil) in particular are “basically interested in politics as performance”.

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They don’t care about government but they don’t really understand what government is for and they’re indifferent to it. In some ways and in some cases, they’re actually trying to dismantle the state. It’s pretty obvious if that’s what you want to do, you really can’t manage a disease very well. But there are other autocratic and indeed populist politicians who understand that ultimately their claim on power depends on being reasonably effective in dealing with a very serious disease of this kind … It’s become more likely that the sort of populists who just don’t care about government are going to be disposed of. But, what will replace them is not necessarily a more effective democratic government, it could be just a much more effective dictator actually wants to deliver government that people care about. And that’s what Hungary has shown and, in a very different way, Poland has shown.

I think we can apply Alasdair MacIntyre’s concepts of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ goods to place Wolf’s distinction in a wider context. He explains them with an example in which a child is taught to play chess and rewarded with candy if she wins. The skills required for excellence in chess are ‘internal goods’. They include spatial vision, computational accuracy and competitive intensity. Those goods are ‘internal’ because they emerge organically from the activity. One’s engagement with them creates the circumstances in which the virtues are discovered and pursued. To obtain the internal goods one must accept the reality of the world beyond one’s subjective desires, and the need to submit oneself both to this reality and to the greater mastery of others within the tradition of the practice.

Candy is the ‘external good’ because it is provided from outside the game. For MacIntyre, this structure is common to all ‘practices’ – a broad category that he defines including arts, sciences, games, politics, the making and sustaining of family life and even running a fishing vessel. As one participates in any of these activities, ‘internal goods’ organically arise from the needs of the practice.

Now, the practices that have acquired any significance in the world are all entanglements of internal and external goods mutually supporting each other. The internal goods of a practice can’t prosper – can’t exist in the world as more than a hobby – without the ‘external goods’. They provide extrinsic rewards to practitioners – material rewards such as money (candy sometimes works), power and esteem. Thought of economically, they enable the practice to bid resources (of people’s attention, time and money) away from other worldly activities. Medicine is a practice with its own internal goods, but there wouldn’t be much of it in the world unless practitioners were paid.

The converse is also true. People are prepared to part with their scarce resources to fund medicine or some other practice because they value what it produces, and it can’t produce what is wanted without the internal goods of the practice. Patients or their insurer will be less keen to part with their money if they knew they are funding an incompetent medical practice. As MacIntyre puts it, “so intimate is the relationship of practices to institutions – and consequently of the goods external to the goods internal to the practices in question – that institutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order”.

However, although they complement one another, there’s also a tension between the pursuit of internal and external goods. The child in pursuit of candy will be tempted to cheat – undermining their incentive to acquire the game’s internal goods – a doctor might over-service to improve their bottom line where one of the internal goods of medicine is faithfulness to the patient’s interest. Thus, as the passage just quoted from MacIntyre continues:

the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the co-operative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions.

In distinguishing between political performance and delivering government, Wolf is making a distinction like MacIntyre’s distinction between internal and external goods. In fact in MacIntyre’s schema, the skill of political performance is actually an internal good of politics. It’s an important skill that helps one excel at politics. But – and this is an extension on MacIntyre – it’s a particular kind of internal good. Many internal goods are unreservedly meritorious unless they’re deliberately used for some nefarious purpose. Such skills would include an astronomer’s or a chess player’s accuracy in calculation or the sensitivity of a medical professional’s skills of observation and diagnosis.

On the other hand the business person’s focus on profit, the sportsperson’s competitive intensity and the politician’s capacity to perform are internal goods that are, in their respective areas, most closely associated with acquiring external goods. This makes them more morally ambiguous than most other internal goods. Since ancient Athens, this moral ambiguity has attached itself to the deployment of rhetoric or political performance as Wolf calls it.

However, as I’ve previously argued, analogous forces are operating over an increasingly wide front as our culture becomes ‘fast-foodified’ or optimised to the external goods of profit, power and prestige. As fast food is to ordinary food, so porn is to sexuality, memes are to culture and to our capacity to concentrate, linkbait is to our curiosity, modern auto-tuned formulaic pop is to popular music of a few generations back, linkbait and trolling is to journalism. It was MacIntyre’s horror that this was increasingly the case in modern liberal capitalist democracies over an increasingly wide cultural front that motivated his ideas. As he put it:

In any society which recognised only external goods, competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature… We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near-total effacement, although simulacra might abound.

So how did we get here and what can we do about it?

Our current sorry state seems to me to have arisen from the way the ‘markets’ or ‘theatres of action’ have evolved and ‘scaled’ over the last generation or two. There’s much talk about ‘hollowing out’ in politics. A generation ago, party politics had deep roots into the community across the Western world with party membership being around 15% of the population. Today, party membership has typically fallen by about two-thirds or more with active party membership a small fraction of that. Active membership of major Australian political parties is less than ten thousand on both sides, ‘though nominal membership is about five times that.

This has coincided with the ‘scaling’ of politics through media so that the external goods of power are more and more dependent on performance for the media. The media itself should be more critical but it is driven by its own competitive imperatives to attract audiences and so it reports on the theatrics of political performance – intensifying the vicious cycle which hollows out political discourse as loss of members and local action has hollowed out party membership. So much so that politicians do increasingly farcical things for the cameras – none more so than the famously irreligious (or perhaps is that ‘areligious’?) Trump’s photo-op, Bible in hand, at a church outside the White House having walked through public space that had been cleared of demonstrators with tear gas to stage the photo.

Because of the deep structural origins of these phenomena, I’d expect there to be strict limits to the extent that they can be addressed within the existing system – ‘though measures within it to improve integrity, such as fundraising limits, may be helpful. Wolf may also be right that the extraordinary incompetence of the worst of the populists will trigger a backlash against them. But I fear we’re in the grip of forces of greater and longer-term significance.

My analysis does suggest the possible healing qualities of injecting into our political system political deliberation that is had at small scale is not principally ‘scaled’ via politicians’ media performance. There are no shortcuts back to the world where this was done in most local areas, but the institution of the jury provides us with a way of ‘scaling’ local deliberation. After all, a jury of 12 ordinary people siding with one side or other in a court case is a local, small-scale deliberative body that gains its legitimacy from its proxying for ‘the people’. I’ve argued elsewhere that populating our political system with such mechanisms could powerfully heal it.

The ancient mechanism of selection by lot also disrupts the traditional means by which external goods might come to dominate internal goods. Jurors will continue to be virtuous or not, but a juror is unlikely to have their head turned from doing the best job they can by the external goods of money, power (including career) or fame.

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