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


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.”

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3 Responses to “What would Simone Weil say about our politics today? You won’t like it.”

  1. Ron Jones Says:

    Brilliant insights. The main question I’m left with is, given that nobody has the time to become fully informed on all the issues, what alternatives to political parties might we have to vote our preferences? The corrupted power dynamics aside (admittedly an awful lot to overlook, even for a moment), at least by aligning ourselves with a party we are presumably choosing to give over our vote, essentially, to a platform and policies with which we largely agree, or at least, agree with more than the other choice(s). Perhaps a multi-party system would be better, but I’m just not sure that anything short of a fully informed public, clearly an impossibility, can address Weil’s very legitimate and insightful criticisms.

  2. George Says:

    With all respect to Weil, I think Walter Bagehot a better judge, who wrote in The English Constitution that

    ‘The House of Commons can do work which the quarter-sessions or clubs cannot do, because it is an organised body, while quarter-sessions and clubs are unorganised. Two of the greatest orators in England–Lord Brougham and Lord Bolingbroke–spent much eloquence in attacking party government. Bolingbroke probably knew what he was doing; he was a consistent opponent of the power of the Commons; he wished to attack them in a vital part. But Lord Brougham does not know; he proposes to amend Parliamentary government by striking out the very elements which make Parliamentary government possible. At present the majority of Parliament obey certain leaders; what those leaders propose they support, what those leaders reject they reject…. Nowadays, the power of leaders over their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their followers but a little way, and that only in certain directions…. But all satire apart, the principle of Parliament is
    obedience to leaders. Change your leader if you will, take another if you will, but obey No. 1 while you serve No. 1, and obey No. 2 when you
    have gone over to No. 2. The penalty of not doing so, is the penalty of impotence. It is not that you will not be able to do any good, but you will not be able to do anything at all. If everybody does what he thinks right, there will be 657 amendments to every motion, and none of them will be carried or the motion either.

    The moment, indeed, that we distinctly conceive that the House of Commons is mainly and above all things an elective assembly, we at once perceive that party is of its essence. There never was an election without a party. You cannot get a child into an asylum without a
    combination. At such places you may see “Vote for orphan A.” upon a placard, and “Vote for orphan B. (also an idiot!!!)” upon a banner, and
    the party of each is busy about its placard and banner. What is true at such minor and momentary elections must be much more true in a great and constant election of rulers. The House of Commons lives in a state of perpetual potential choice; at any moment it can choose a ruler and dismiss a ruler. And therefore party is inherent in it, is bone of its bone, and breath of its breath.’

    At the time Bagehot wrote, party conflict in the British parliament was probably more manageable than it became around 1910.

  3. George Says:

    In fairness to Weil, I should not have stopped where I did with Bagehot, who goes on, a couple of paragraphs later, to say that

    “Thirdly, it may seem odd to say so, just after inculcating that party organisation is the vital principle of representative government, but–that organisation is permanently efficient, because it is not composed of warm partisans. The body is eager, but the atoms are cool. It it were otherwise, parliamentary government would become the worst of governments–a sectarian government. The party in power would go all the lengths their orators proposed–all that their formula enjoined, as far as they had ever said they would go. But the partisans of the English Parliament are not of such a temper. they are Whigs, or Radicals, or Tories, but they are much else too. They are common Englishmen, and as as Father Newman complains, ‘hard to be worked up to the dogmatic level.'”

    And in his writings on the coup d’etat of 1851, Bagehot suggested that France had difficulty in arriving at a stable government because the French were too intelligent.