The sin of shame and the power of norms

A lot of people like talking about morality these days, and I wonder why. On the one hand, this is a very immoral world, where there is much suffering and pain, to no particular end. On the other hand, there are worse possible worlds in recent history which outstrip in some order of magnitude the increasing devastation of the present day. Why is everyone suddenly paranoid about ‘doing the right thing’, while clearly violating these stated norms in their everyday lives? The answer: power.

The cover art for Public Enemy’s 1989 track, ‘Fight The Power’.

People want power, and they love exercising it over others. The easiest claim to power is to state that you are on the ‘right side of history’, that ‘God is on our side’, and that you know what is right. Today, this personalised morality has an impersonal background in the legal code, which punishes wrongdoers and celebrates a culture of blame and shame, where evil has, at least, to be ‘rehabilitated’ and, at most, to be punished. Rehabilitation is perhaps the worst form of punishment, as it punishes not just the deed but also the thought itself. Speech is the medium by which deeds and thoughts alike are punished, and the regulation of speech is the ultimate perfection of the totalitarian machine to which the last century gave birth, and which we are now resurrecting in the name of ‘virtue’ — a concept born in an ancient world in which the total power of the sovereign state and its supporting capitalist machinery would seem nothing less than alien.

After speech, the next step is invading the very ground of thought: normativity, the transcendent feeling of goodness and justice ingrained in the mind of every thinking being. But normativity is corrupted by power. Weaponised to defend either the weak or the powerful, normativity becomes a mere tool, rather than an end in itself. Social norms are one form of this oppression, but so are the legal and, by implication, moral norms we take to underpin our ‘civilised’ society. ‘Do this, do that’ is the societal form of ‘read this, read that’ in the universities, as Mr. West suggests in the subtly damning song ‘Good Morning’ on his breakout album Graduation.

But we cannot drop out from society, or graduate from the university of ultracapitalism. We are, in the words of Mr. Heidegger and Mr. West, ‘Lost In the World’, caught between the contingencies of being and time. ‘Fight The Power,’ we cannot. ‘No one man should have all that power’ — and yet, he can, and often does. The question is: what will he do with it?

As democratic capitalism slides towards autocratic Caesarism, we are faced again with the call for a philosopher-king to save us from our uniquely physical prejudices. But the philosopher is also human, and can only suspend their desires for so long in the sublimated statesmanship to which they are dedicated. Destructive deposition of sublimated desire is, eventually, inevitable. The question, as Mr. West asks in the normatively-charged ‘Power’, is: ‘Do you have the power to let power go?’ Perhaps the further question is: Do you want power in the first place? To answer yes to this question is to answer no to the first, since to want power is to have failed to let go of the love and desire from which all power springs. Power is itself a failure of normativity, which is the reward of good use of power. Only philosophy can resolve this paradox, which only politics can confront. Poetry can only get us so far. Perhaps that is enough, for now, until power respects normativity as much as vice versa — until the philosophers become kings, or the kings read, understand, and apply philosophy. But our world is not Plato’s. Normativity is so corrupted as to make power the lone residue of a bygone age, as the sociologist Foucault and the philosopher Nietzsche hint at. Perhaps the philosopher prince is still called for — but their calling may have evolved since their conception, so long ago. We are just waiting for them to be born.

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