Archive for April 8th, 2019

What would Simone Weil say about our politics today? You won’t like it.

Monday, April 8th, 2019

Wampole: A Weil Watcher

Princeton Prof. Christy Wampole, who got her PhD from Stanford a few years back, writing in Aeon recently about the French thinker Simone Weil:

“A Weil revival is underway, in part due to the surges in nationalism, populism, tribalism and nativism about which she had so much to say in her work. Weil, a firm believer in free thought, argued that: ‘The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thought is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we”.’ Uncritical collective thinking holds the free mind captive and does not allow for dissent. For this reason, she advocated the abolition of all political parties, which, she argued, were in essence totalitarian. To substantiate this claim, Weil offered three arguments:

1) A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
2) A political party is an organization designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
3) The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

“These tentacular organizations make people stupid, requiring a member to endorse ‘a number of positions which he does not know’. Instead, the party thinks on his behalf, which amounts to him ‘having no thoughts at all’. People find comfort in the absence of the necessity to think, she claims, which is why they so readily join such groups. In a resonant passage in The Need for Roots, Weil writes: ‘A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of that democracy.’”

Power? No thanks.

That got me searching for a few supporting citations. How about this one? “Official history is believing the murderers at their word.” Here are a few others (taken from On the Abolition of Political Parties (NYRB Classics, except for the first):

“The necessity for power is obvious, because life cannot be lived without order; but the allocation of power is arbitrary because all men are alike, or very nearly. Yet power must not seem to be arbitrarily allocated, because it will not then be recognized as power. Therefore prestige, which is illusion, is of the very essence of power.”

“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.”

“When a country has political parties, sooner or later it becomes impossible to intervene effectively in public affairs without joining a party and playing the game. Whoever is concerned for public affairs will wish his concern to bear fruit. Those who care about the public interest must either forget their concern and turn to other things, or submit to the grind of the parties. In the latter case, they shall experience worries that will soon supersede their original concern for the public interest.”

“In fact – and with very few exceptions – when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, ‘As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that . . .’ It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.”

“Of these three sorts of lies – lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself – the first is by far the least evil. Yet if belonging to a party compels one to lie all the time, in every instance, then the very existence of political parties is absolutely and unconditionally an evil.”

“The petit-bourgeois temperament prefers the cosy picture of a slow, uninterrupted and endless progress. In both cases, the material growth of the party becomes the sole criterion by which to measure the good and the bad of all things. It is exactly as if the party were a head of cattle to be fattened, and as if the universe was created for its fattening.”

“We pretend that our present system is democratic, yet the people never have the chance nor the means to express their views on any problem of public life. Any issue that does not pertain to particular interests is abandoned to collective passions, which are systematically and officially inflamed.”