The Theatre of Unreason: War and Identity Politics

Is there a connection between Putin’s war in Ukraine and identity politics? The de facto Russian dictator’s contempt for the woke politics of the Western world is well-documented, though the extent to which a consideration of the West as morally corrupt has played any part in his decision-making is unknown. So the attempt by some to establish a direct causal link between an America weakened by identitarianism and Putin’s adventurism is entirely speculative. But just as identity politics in the West is a manifestation of the unconstrained irrational in human nature propped up with specious justification, Putin’s Russian imperialism can be understood in terms of the same vectors. The difference between the cases is, employing the Hegelian-Fukuyaman concept of the End of History, that the Russian invasion is being played out in History, whereas the manifestation of identity politics in the West is a feature of post-History.

Humans are irrational by nature, meaning that we are fundamentally driven by our imaginings, desires and fears, which arise from our animal natures. In the course of our development as a species, through the fortuitous nature of philosophical insights and technological breakthroughs, and the resultant growth of knowledge, we gained the potential to be rational at some level. However, we have been irrational much longer than we have had the capacity for rationality, so it can be considered our default setting and reason, at the individual and societal levels, requires effort on a continuous basis. It is no coincidence that scientific reason, modern ideas of individual liberty and democratic institutions all began to germinate and develop together from the time of the Enlightenment, because they are mutually reinforcing. Their continued co-existence, though, floats precariously on a deep ocean of human irrationality. Hence the requirement of eternal vigilance.

This is not to argue that the irrational in human nature is something bad that should be eliminated, even if that were possible. Quite the opposite. Our nature evolved on the plains of Africa through the selective process that ensured the traits that would enable us to survive in a hostile environment were the ones that became common to homo sapiens. Our imaginings, desires and fears are the motive forces that enabled us to develop cultures and eventually civilisations that tamed our fears and desires and channelled our imaginings along the paths of creativity. Reason itself is an outgrowth of our irrational nature, evidenced by the close connection between myth and mysticism in the origins of ancient philosophy and modern science. It is also why I believe we will prevail over the threat of AI as pure reason, because reason requires the foundation of unreason.

In history the irrational manifested itself most frequently in the outbreak of warfare, whether between tribes, peoples or countries, often stoked by the myths of religion and the nation. In the development of the modern world the irrational has been gradually constrained and domesticated within our social, cultural and political institutions. The social mechanisms have been put in place that allow the individual to be valued above the collective, that prioritises education above passion and in which the battle for blood and soil has been replaced by the battle of ideas. The irrational has not disappeared, but our passions have been sublimated through the arts and sciences, our enmities through sports and democratic politics and our desires through a capitalist and consumerist economy. These systems and processes are rational, in the sense that they are the outcome of the search for truth and justified by the accumulated evidence that they work, if not perfectly, well enough to support immense populations.

Towards the end of the twentieth century the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, updating an idea first broached by Hegel, coined the term ‘The End of History’, in which he predicted that one by one the nations of the world would embrace liberal democracy. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and liberation of Eastern Europe, as well as changes in South America, Africa and Asia, including the economic liberalisation of China, this seemed a valid prospect at the time. However, as events have unfolded over the past 30 years, Fukuyama’s prediction seems premature to say the least and the idea of the End of History has fallen into disrepute. Yet the Hegelian-Fukuyaman thesis contains a vital truth about reason: that the widespread acceptance of the scientific method, individual liberty and the curtailment of power through democratic elections that allow the people to remove their rulers peacefully, usefully demarks a post-historical world from one mired in History; one that is cohesive, one that cannot, ultimately, be selectively sampled, and one that remains aspirant for all people.

I can now introduce two tables that attempt to systematise the argument being made here. The first is a matrix of irrationality (table 1) in which irrationality is categorised along two dimensions, constraint and justification. Irrationality can be constrained (mediated by institutions) or unconstrained (anarchic or anti/post institutional). It can also be acceptably justified by reasons that conform to logic or the evidence available or both; or speciously justified by reasons that do not conform to logic or the evidence available or both; or not justified, by no recourse to reasoning. This gives rise to four determinate regions: constrained and acceptably justified, which is the realm of normative democratic politics, a free market economy, individual rights and freedoms, and a socially liberal culture; constrained and speciously justified, which is the sphere of political oppression, redistributive economies and cultural suppression, which are humanly damaging but offered spurious theoretical or traditional justifications; unconstrained and speciously justified, which is the region of the forces destructive of human life, societies and institutions, such as warfare, terrorism and polarising ideologies such as identity politics; finally, unconstrained and non-justified, which is the realm of madness and violent forms of criminality. There are also two indeterminate sectors, acceptably justified and unconstrained, and constrained non-justified. There could be examples of individual acts that fall into either of these, but no general classes.

Acceptably JustifiedNormalised culture and politicsN/A
Speciously JustifiedPolitical oppression, cultural suppressionIdentity politics, War
Non-justifiedN/AMadness, violent criminality
Table 1: The matrix of irrationality

These categories are useful heuristic distinctions but not absolute when applied to the real world, as they tend to bleed across the boundaries. War, terrorism and identity politics, in particular, share qualities of political oppression and madness and frequently blur the boundaries in practice. Together, they constitute what can be called the Theatre of Unreason.

The second table illustrates the dichotomy of historical and post-historical irrationalism (Table 2). This uses the Hegelian-Fukuyaman concept of the End of History to distinguish between History and Post-History, the conflicts over land and resources, on the one hand, and the conflicts over values, on the other. Within both there are elements in which irrationalism is constrained and justified and elements in which irrationalism runs amok, justified by bad ideas and outright lies.

Constrained/JustifiedTreaties, AlliancesInstitutional function
Unconstrained/Speciously JustifiedRegional conflicts, WarIdentity Politics and institutional capture
Table 2: Historical and post-Historical irrationalism

The war in Ukraine suggests that Russia under Putin is essentially still enclosed within History. Individual rights and freedoms are not well-developed or respected, patronage and oligarchy rather than a free market is the economic model, and the culture is still largely collectivist socially and theologically. As table 1 showed, political oppression at home sits conformably with military adventurism abroad. The West still has a foot in History as the existence of the NATO alliance testifies, but its largely defensive stance (the interventionist wars in the Middle East did not receive the full backing of NATO members) mean it is constrained by reason. The nations of the West, though, increasingly function in the realm of post-History.

To be in post-History does not mean the end of conflict. It does suggest, though, a qualitative difference in conflict. As mentioned earlier, in its constrained and acceptably justified forms of irrationality, our imaginings, desires and fears are mediated through institutions and conflict takes the form of the conflict of ideas and the competition between institutional values and the competencies that grow out of them. However, there is also manifest powerfully today an asymmetric conflict between the normative function of post-Historical societies of the West and the unconstrained and speciously justified ideology of identity politics, also referred to by the terms (which are not entirely synonymous) postmodernism, cultural Marxism or intersectionality, which is subverting the values of the Enlightenment, capturing institutions, suppressing dissent, and demonising and alienating whole classes of people. Post-Historical societies are therefore now in a period of conflict over what their fundamental values will be in the future.

In the theatre of unreason, the hero is a paradoxical figure. The hero arises when irrationalism is unbounded and justified by lies, in war and in the type of woke authoritarianism that has emerged within Western governments infected by identity politics over the past few years. We see daily now examples of heroism on the part of Ukrainians, from the president of the country, who has stayed to rally the people in defence of the nation, to the grandmothers cursing and mocking Russian soldiers to their face. We have also seen examples of heroism in America, from governors who are facing down Federal government diktats and lawsuits to ordinary citizens facing the threat of being investigated as terrorists for standing up for their rights and publicly disagreeing with the authorities. By any measure heroism is a form of irrationalism – putting one’s own life or livelihood on the line must be considered akin to madness. The paradox is that the hero taps deeply into what Jung called the collective unconscious of the human mind, to replenish the sources of shared experience and value on which the superstructure of reason is constructed. We will never rid ourselves of irrationality; instead, the unleashing of the forces of unbounded and falsely justified unreason inevitably forces a heroic response to re-establish truth, order, freedom and benevolence.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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