There can be no society without politics, no real politics without thought — digitalisation is destroying our ability to think
What is ‘politics’? The word has negative connotations for many. For instance, when you accuse someone of “doing politics” in various languages, you usually mean that the person is being manipulative and divisive. When you say that someone is a politician, you mean — unless the person actually has a political career — that the person is desperate for power or that he tends to say whatever might please the listener.
This might be a fair commentary on what many politicians do, but it is not an adequate understanding of ‘politics’. Actually, the tendency in many educated circles to throw away the baby of politics along with the smelly, dirty bathwater of politicians is not just erroneous but deeply troubling and dangerous. What it leads to is the capture of democratic space by autocrats and tyrants, who practise just another kind of politics. This is so because no state and no society exists or can exist without politics.
‘Science of good sense’
Politics is the art and science of governance; it encapsulates the total complex of relations in a society. Aristotle meant ‘affairs of state’ by the term. Another early commentator had this to say: “Politics is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs, and, as those are forever changing, what is wisdom today would be folly and, perhaps, ruin tomorrow.”
Politics is not just inevitable in a state and a society, its forms need to be renegotiated all the time. That is why any kind of ‘eternal’ religious faith cannot form the basis of politics. This gives politicians today the flighty reputation that they have, for politics by its very nature changes from time to time, context to context. But it also points at the need to understand matters in the present and in their full complexity. One can argue that most politicians today are not qualified to be in politics, as they have a very vague notion of contexts, and not much capacity to think. The tweets of U.S. President Donald Trump are not the only illustration of this fact.
In other words, there can be no society without politics and there can be no real politics without thought. Thought is not to be confused with the recycling of sacred or fixed ideas. It is not to be confused with outrage or opinions. Just as information is not knowledge, loud opinions and debates do not necessarily represent thinking. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han correctly points out a very simple fact about thinking: “The medium of thinking is quiet.” He goes on to add, “Clearly, digital communication is destroying quiet and calm.”
I always run up against blank looks when I point out that digitalisation is just the latest of developments that are partly detrimental to democratic politics. This is so because computerisation has been sold to us as the ‘great enabler.’ People love to think of it as enabling greater access to information, communication, goods, business, etc. This is not incorrect, and greatly deceptive – at the same time.
Computerisation, digitalisation and robotisation are simply the latest face of the mechanisation of human life and labour, which basically started in the 18th century. It is not that machines did not exist before the 18th century. They did. But the machines that existed were basically complex tools: they were tied to human labour. Industrialisation marked the rise of the first generation of machines that substantially replaced human labour: the Luddites were not altogether wrong when they tried to destroy machines in early 19th century England. They knew that these machines were costing them their jobs.
But machines won largely because they enabled cheap and fast production. The former benefitted ordinary people, and the latter benefitted capitalists – who could produce more by paying fewer people. Investments in machines are more cost-effective, from the capitalist’s perspective, in the longer run, and this is not just so because machines cannot strike for wage raises. Computerisation and robotisation are taking this tendency to a further extreme, making human labour – except a shrinking section of expert and managerial skills – more and more unnecessary.
From mechanisation to robotisation, there has been a constant trend towards greater speed. This ranges from the speed of communication – compare horses to jets, and letters to emails and tweets – to the speed of the production of goods, information, opinions, etc. The fetishisation of newness – a mantra on both the progressive left and the progressive right – is part of this. And as a reaction to it, in conservative and reactionary circles, we have the fetishisation of the old, the traditional, the customary. Both are wrong.
Politics, in the full sense of the word, should have been able to guard against such fetishisation. It should have been able to examine matters in context, and decide on the correct course – not because it was new or old, but because it was the best at present and sustainable in the future. But how can politics do this if the space for thinking is full of noise – which is what information becomes when it speeds up endlessly?
We expect our politicians to come up with solutions to our problems, and we are mostly disappointed.
But perhaps the failure is ours too: because we no longer have the medium – quietness and space – to think. Digitalisation is going to make this worse, unless we face up to both its possibilities and its dangers.