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Diary of a Bad Year

* * *

In the days of kings, the subject was told: You used to be the subject of King A, now King A is dead and behold, you are the subject of King B. Then democracy arrived, and the subject was for the first time presented with a choice: Do you (collectively) want to be ruled by Citizen A or Citizen B?

As I watched her an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem. And in an intuitive way she knew about it, knew that in the old man in the plastic chair in the corner there was something personal going on, something to do with age and regret and the tears of things. Which she did not particularly like, did not want to evoke, though it was a tribute to her, to her beauty and freshness as well as to the shortness of her dress. Had it come from someone different, had it had a simpler and blunter meaning, she might have been readier to give it a welcome; but from an old man its meaning was too diffuse and melancholy for a nice day when you are in a hurry to get the chores done.

Always the subject is presented with the accomplished fact: in the first case with the fact of his subjecthood, in the second with the fact of the choice. The form of the choice is not open to discussion. The ballot paper does not say: Do you want A or B or neither? It certainly never says: Do you want A or B or no one at all? The citizen who expresses his unhappiness with the form of choice on offer by the only means open to him—not voting, or else spoiling his ballot paper—is simply not counted, that is to say, is discounted, ignored.

Faced with a choice between A and B, given the kind of A and the kind of B who usually make it onto the ballot paper, most people, ordinary people, are in their hearts inclined to choose neither. But that is only an inclination, and the state does not deal in inclinations. Inclinations are not part of the currency of politics. What the state deals in are choices. The ordinary person would like to say: Some days I incline to A, some days to B, most days I just feel they should both go away; or else, Some of A and some of B, sometimes, and at other times neither A nor B but something quite different. The state shakes its head. You have to choose, says the state: A or B.

* * *

Spreading democracy,” as is now being done by the United States in the Middle East, means spreading the rules of democracy. It means telling people that whereas formerly they had no choice, now they have a choice. Formerly they had A and nothing but A; now they have a choice between A and B. “Spreading freedom” means creating the conditions for people to choose freely between A and B. The spreading of freedom and the spreading of democracy go hand in hand. The people engaged in spreading freedom and democracy see no irony in the description of the process just given.

A week passed before I saw her again—in a well-designed apartment block like this, tracking one’s neighbors is not easy—and then only fleetingly as she passed through the front door in a flash of white slacks that showed off a derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic. God, grant me one wish before I die, I whispered; but then was overtaken with shame at the specificity of the wish, and withdrew it.

During the cold war, the explanation given by Western democratic states for the banning of their Communist parties was that a party whose stated aim is the destruction of the democratic process should not be allowed to participate in the democratic process, defined as choosing between A and B.

* * *

Why is it so hard to say anything about politics from outside politics? Why can there be no discourse about politics that is not itself political? To Aristotle the answer is that politics is built into human nature, that is, is part of our fate, as monarchy is the fate of bees. To strive for a systematic, suprapolitical discourse about politics is futile.

From Vinnie, who looks after the North Tower, I learn that she—whom I am prudent enough to describe to him not as the young woman in the alluringly short shift and now in the elegant white slacks, but as the young woman with the dark hair—is the wife or at least girlfriend of the pale, hurrying, plump, and ever-sweaty fellow whose path crosses mine now and again in the lobby and for whom my private name is Mr. Aberdeen; further, that she is not new in the customary sense of the word, having (together with Mr. A) occupied since January a prime unit on the top floor of this same North Tower.

02. On anarchism

When the phrase “the bastards” is used in Australia, its reference is understood on all sides. “The bastards” was once the convict’s term for the men who called themselves his betters and flogged him if he disagreed. Now “the bastards” are the politicians, the men and women who run the state. The problem: how to assert the legitimacy of the old perspective, the perspective from below, the convict’s perspective, when it is of the nature of that perspective to be illegitimate, against the law, against the bastards.

Opposition to the bastards, opposition to government in general under the banner of libertarianism, has acquired a bad name because all too often its roots lie in a reluctance to pay taxes. Whatever one’s views on paying tribute to the bastards, a strategic first step must be to distinguish oneself from that particular libertarian strain. How to do so? “Take half of what I own, take half of what I earn, I yield it to you; in return, leave me alone.” Would that be enough to prove one’s bona fides?

Michel de Montaigne’s young friend Étienne de La Boétie, writing in 1549, saw the passivity of populations vis-à-vis their rulers as first an acquired and then later an inherited vice, an obstinate “will to be ruled” that becomes so deep-rooted “that even the love of liberty comes to seem not quite as natural.”

Thank you, I said to Vinnie. In an ideal world I might have thought of a way to interrogate him further (Which unit? Under what name?) without unseemliness. But this is not an ideal world.

Her connection with the no doubt freckle-backed Mr. Aberdeen is a great disappointment. It pains me to think of the two of them side by side, that is to say, side by side in bed, since that is what counts, finally. Not just because of the insult—the insult to natural justice—of such a dull man in possession of so celestial a paramour, but because of what the fruit of their union might look like, her golden glow quite washed out by his Celtic pallor.

It is incredible to see how the populace, once they have been subjected, fall suddenly into such profound forgetfulness of their earlier independence that it becomes impossible for them to rouse themselves and recover it; in fact, they proceed to serve so much without prompting, so freely, that one would say, on the face of it, they have not lost their liberty but won their servitude. It may be true that, to begin with, one serves because one has to, because one is constrained to by force; but those who come later serve without regret, and perform of their own free will what their predecessors performed under constraint. So it happens that men, born under the yoke, brought up in servitude, are content to live as they were born…assuming as their natural state the conditions under which they were born.2

Well said. Nevertheless, in an important respect La Boétie gets it wrong. The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

Days could be spent in devising felicitous coincidences to allow the brief exchange in the laundry room to be picked up elsewhere. But life is too short for plotting. So let me simply say that the second intersection of our paths took place in a public park, the park across the street, where I spotted her taking her ease under an extravagantly large sun hat, browsing through a magazine. She was in a more amiable mood this time, less curt with me; I was able to confirm from her own lips that she was for the present without significant occupation, or, as she put it, between jobs: hence the sun hat, hence the magazine, hence the languor of her days. Her previous employment, she said, had been in the hospitality industry; she would in due course (but there was no hurry) be seeking redeployment in the same field.

03. On democracy

The main problem in the life of the state is the problem of succession: how to ensure that power will be passed from one set of hands to the next without a contest of arms.

In comfortable times we forget how terrible civil war is, how rapidly it descends into mindless slaughter. René Girard’s fable of the warring twins is pertinent: the fewer the substantive differences between the two parties, the more bitter their mutual hatred. One recalls Daniel Defoe’s comment on religious strife in England: that adherents of the national church would swear to their detestation of papists and popery not knowing whether the Pope was a man or a horse.

Early solutions to the problem of succession have a distinctly arbitrary look: on the ruler’s death, his firstborn male child will succeed to power, for example. The advantage of the firstborn male solution is that the firstborn male is unique; the disadvantage is that the firstborn male in question may have no aptitude to rule. The annals of kingdoms are rife with stories of incompetent princes, to say nothing of kings unable to father sons.

From a practical point of view, it does not matter how succession is managed as long as it does not precipitate the country into civil war. A scheme in which many (though usually only two) candidates for leadership present themselves to the populace and subject themselves to a ballot is only one of a score that an inventive mind might come up with. It is not the scheme itself that matters, but consensus to adopt the scheme and abide by the results. Thus in itself succession by the firstborn is neither better nor worse than succession by democratic election. But to live in democratic times means to live in times when only the democratic scheme has currency and prestige.

  1. 2

    Étienne de La Boétie, Discours de la servitude volontaire, sections 20, 33.

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