We are now ready to address the first of the questions asked before: (given the human condition and the nature of culture) what kind of society should we be trying to create if we want this to turn out well?So far we have established:
- That you cannot “win” a culture war – even hegemony only creates counter-hegemony; and
- That the character of a population is a crucial component of its cultural destiny, and that character cannot be learned on behalf of future generations: they have to learn it for themselves. You can only set the conditions in which the horsemen of cultural apocalypse (laziness, selfishness, alienation, historical amnesia) can be more easily identified and struggled against.
The process of reasoning that has brought us to those two observations implies a third, one which was essentially first made by Plato: that all political systems, unless they are checked, become oligarchies. All oligarchies, however beneficent their beginnings, become ruinous. Oppression, colonialism, and political violence – at a minimum – follow.
Yet politics is unavoidable in human affairs. Any time a sufficient number of people live in proximity – with “sufficient number” sometimes being as low as two – a political system, however informal, will develop.
The only way to preserve the longevity of non-ruinous political systems (which we’ll provisionally call “legitimate”) is to keep their tendency towards oligarchy in check.
This is done not by the optimization of politics – which leads only to the more efficient creation of oligarchies – but by the use of politics to create anti-political spaces.
Implicit here is the realization, first, that political orders and moral orders are fundamentally different: political orders must deal with what is possible in the moment, the limits and compromises required to govern effectively. Political orders are transactional. Political orders cannot deal in absolutes, even if they use absolutist language – there are always interests to be navigated and deals to be cut.
Moral orders, by contrast, can attempt (always imperfectly, but still attempt) to exist entirely in accordance with moral precepts. When functioning, they are unconditional. As such, they tend to be both smaller and more local, because if at some point they grow too large, political orders inevitably arise within them, which in turn require their own anti-political spaces to keep in check. Moral orders tend to become political orders when faced with complex logistical challenges, which is why simply basing a society around a moral order and forsaking politics is impractical to the point of impossibility. There is a great risk that any moral order which politicizes without acknowledging that this is occurring – which denies its own politicization – will almost immediately devolve into tyranny, its values perverted into a crude justification for “might makes right.”
But moral orders occur across the human landscape, and are generally recognized as both more important and more valuable than political orders: families, for example, while not absent of politics, are generally anti-political spaces, answering in principle and often in practice to moral concerns that can be unconditional: love, affection, mutual support and bonds of connection superseding all other concerns. Places of worship, scientific labs and journals, therapeutic groups … all of these are common examples of anti-political spaces which, while not challenging the larger political order, are also organized (at least when they’re legitimate) along lines of unconditional values (love, truth, methodologies, etc.) and possess social systems that have little-to-nothing to do with the political world.
Yet anti-political spaces do not appear to be able to exist outside the larger political order: they are dependent upon it for the conditions they require to exist (at least without becoming corrupted political spaces themselves). At the same time, the more anti-political spaces, and the greater variety of them, that a political system can maintain and support, the greater that system’s legitimacy and the greater a check is maintained on its tendencies towards tyranny.
Anti-political spaces that one joins voluntarily (a crucial but vital distinction, as moral orders must be voluntarily joined and stayed in to produce any benefits) provides a sense of community and relatedness that is not transactional, which is crucial to psychological health; they provides a sense of autonomy, one can choose how to live, and a sense of capacity – moral communities are problem solving communities, and they locate the locus of authority to solve their own problems within themselves. If one is in good standing within a moral order, one likewise gains a sense of validity.
If a single moral order, or a set of two or three competing moral orders, are attempting to become dominant within a political system, the system is at severe risk to topple into a cultural tyranny. However, when you have a cultural ecosystem of multiple, diverse, healthy moral orders that at least tolerate each other within an overarching political order, the risk of political tyranny is significantly minimized: the ecosystem of moral orders means that a significant proportion of citizens are active and invested in civic life, using their rights to autonomously solve problems, and in a best case scenario have direct social ties with members of other moral orders, giving each group a constituency of support within the others.
Thus a vital task of any political system interested in maintaining its legitimacy is to create and support a diverse ecosystem of active moral orders within it, and facilitate social ties between them.
A legitimate political order supports diverse communities that form around their moral orders, and their ability to engage productively with one another.
Inevitably, a political system will also enforce rules of engagement when they come into conflict – which only a political order, not a moral one, can legitimately do, because political orders tend to value process and compromise over outcome. Within moral orders, one can be unconditional; between them, one must be at least somewhat transactional.
In essence, then, we are not trying to “solve” political tension by eliminating it, we are trying to make a society that is resilient enough to renew its commitments to freedom and human flourishing generation after generation, despite adversities both foreign and domestic.
This post is part of a series which first appeared in my Patreon.