Here in Edinburgh we have a museum dedicated to centuries-old body parts suspended in jars of liquid. It’s called the Surgeons Hall Museum, and is run by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, an esteemed professional organisation that has been around since the sixteenth century – back when they were all ‘barber surgeons.’ You can pay money to go look at diseased lungs and lesioned brains and so on, as well as antique surgical implements like the wrenches used to pull out teeth and the knives used to dissemble cadavers. That sort of thing.
I mention this because it does much to explain the current US presidential election. The whole world is watching in sick fascination as a cherished democratic institution is cut open like a dead bird with a blunt kitchen knife found rusting on the playground tarmac. We’re fascinated with the grotesque, and that in itself explains the rise of Donald Trump. Admit it: he’s mesmerising, in the same way that a car crash is mesmerising to rubberneckers driving past. He’s brilliant news copy, that’s for sure.
I prefer Hillary Clinton, of course, and I hope she wins the election. This list of her achievements demonstrates a lifetime of public service and she is hands down the more mature and reliable individual, to be holding a position of such power. Having said that, however, I must confess that I’ve come to terms with the possibility of a President Trump.
In the big picture, our human civilisation is in crisis. It cannot and will not continue forever in its current form. The big beast of global capitalism is beginning to struggle with terminal illness: a complex cancer of greed and violence and soulless exploitation has been growing within it over centuries of western expansion. Like any terminal illness, it will advance in a measured decline, punctuated by spasms of crippling emergency.
President Hillary Clinton will shore up the status quo, like a shot of morphine. President Donald Trump will wreak havoc, like a failed intervention. Either way, the end will come. Like a dying patient, at some point we will take stock of our life’s choices, reach for our loved ones, and turn inward to await the inevitable.
In 1943, in the midst of the chaos and destruction occuring all across Europe, Simone Weil wrote an essay entitled On the Abolition of All Political Parties. In it she argues that “Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means toward goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain.”
For Weil, morality lies not in a position one takes, but rather in a personal commitment to truth and justice. The mechanisms of party politics demand that the individual compromises one’s inner compass to fit the needs of the group and to achieve the group’s aims, “in order to play an effective part in public affairs.” She goes on to say, “A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.”
The battle between Crooked Hillary and Bully Trump may resemble a gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but that is part of the spectacle that is deliberately arranged by the political establishment and the corporate media. Decades of partisan maneuvering and calculation, by both entrenched two-sides-of-the-same-coin parties, has brought us to this point. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter: neither party wishes for anything but its own security and growth, its own firm place at the banquet of power. Weil goes on:
Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propoganda is not to impart light, but to persuade. Hitler saw very clearly that the aim of propoganda must always be to enslave minds. All political parties make propoganda….
Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking.
This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.
Indeed. Someday we will be looking at our modern world like we look at the ancient one – in museums. We will look at our political institutions through the glass of a jar, floating in formaldehyde. Perhaps by then we will have learned to live exclusively faithful to the inner light, and will have created a different kind of society. Perhaps there is a cure out there, waiting to be found.