In the eighteenth century, certain ‘total concepts” were believed by the philosophers – for instance, that the republic as a political form depended on virtue as the glue that bound the populace together. As Catherine Puigelier has pointed out, the Enlightenment consensus was that the whole discussion of whether man was born good or bad was falsely constructed: virtue was always and everywhere a product of sociability, of the social. Although – me here, not Puigelier - it was not just one of many products: the social cannot exist without virtue. The social contract only held, only made sense, if there was an ethos of virtue that enforced contracts – not with violence, but with reasoned agreement. In this sense, it is what might be called an emergent property.
Voltaire in his Philosophical dictionary – and don’t we need a new translation of the whole unabridged thing? And isn’t this a case for the NYRB classics publisher? – mocks the notion of a sovereign good, of a ultimate state towards which humanity, or the individual, strives.
Le souverain bien en ce monde ne pourrait-il pas être regardé comme souverainement chimérique ? Les philosophes grecs discutèrent longuement à leur ordinaire cette question. Ne vous imaginez-vous pas, mon cher lecteur, voir des mendiants qui raisonnent sur la pierre philosophale ?
Le souverain bien ! quel mot ! autant aurait-il valu demander ce que c’est que le souverain bleu, ou le souverain ragoût, le souverain marcher, le souverain lire, etc.
[Shouldn’t we regard the sovereign good in this world as a sovereign chimera? The Greek philosophers, as was their habit, chewed on this question at length. My dear reader, can’t you see them as beggars arguing about the philosopher’s stone?
What a phrase: sovereign good! You could as well ask what is the sovereign blue, or the sovereign stew, the sovereign walk, the sovereign read, etc.]
Voltaire was a “flat” thinker – he did not ask himself whether the destruction of the hierarchical structure of the good was diagnostic of something intrinsic to the good or intrinsic to the social construction of the good – which aren’t necessarily identical. But the job of destruction did make way for the idea of a republic of individuals. These individuals form a collective not by having no sense of good, but by pursuing the good as they see fit, within the framework of public virtue. Though the abstract hierarchy of good is as absurd as an abstract hierarchy of stew, the real, instantiated good to which the state is responsible still endures, creating a hierarchy that is founded not on the good itself, but on a variety of the good – the legitimation of the social order.
Now, fast forward 275 years. We are witnessing something like the end of virtue, republican virtue. The rightwing parties – in the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Austria, Australia, etc. – are led by an overtly anti-virtue ethos. This, I think, distinguishes them from 20th century fascism, which was an extreme right manifestation of the republican ethos, interpreted through race and the adherence to a supreme – and supremely virtuous – ruler.
On twitter, I received a response to something I wrote by a Trump follower. Usually I just block that nonsense, but for some reason I didn’t this time, so we tweet debated, meaning we slung insults and instances at each other. I wrote, among other things, how degrading and stupid it was to have a national leader recommend injecting detergent. The response I thought was classic: “if you think Trump wasn't trolling your side when he said that, you're out to lunch. Your side actually believed he was serious when he tweeted a video of himself being President until 2040.”
Fintan O’Toole coined the phrase LOLConservatism. This is what he meant. I can’t imagine one of Mussolini’s followers defending him by claiming he is just trolling the libs. That would be considered an insult to Mussolini. There’s been a disruption on the right that is still badly understood on the left, where you will sometimes hear the earnest question: well, what does the right propose to do about, say, pollution, or climate change, or whatever. The idea of Republican virtue, of a sense that the governing class is justified in as much as it is working for the good of society, has dissolved, here. As Margaret Thatcher said, there’s no such thing as society, thus bringing to a true dead end the dialectic between the social order and private rivalry that was once a vital conservative concern. If the state is bound by no sense of virtue, and the only demand made on it is to stop guaranteeing any benefit to the mass of the governed (under the guise of shrinking the state – which is of course a mask, as the state expands its support of Capital in ways that the “middle class prophets” of classical liberalism would never have imagined), then the state has essentially divorced itself from the old, republican ideal.
I am not a middle class prophet, and can’t imagine how the world without a republican ideal is going to work. I do know that world is here. Sad, isn’t it?