Having finished editing chapter five of the ecophilosophy project, I took today to work on my tenure-track job applications and do some pure research on the utopias project. So I dove back into the Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book I’m sure you’ve all become utterly sick of hearing about. Despite that, it’s my blog, and my small audience seems to like what I do.
In honour of the United States’ upcoming humanitarian intervention by bombing the fecal matter out of the sketchy quagmire of the Syrian civil war, I’m writing about a curious little idea Sartre develops about how a state’s government can start a war with its own citizens. He does this in a chapter analyzing several aspects of the fall of the Bastille in the French Revolution, taking this as an example of a historical period when aggregate collections of pissed off people unified themselves into an active group.
His point is that this spontaneous unification, in which each individual within a collection of people (pretty much) simultaneously begin acting with the same, or at least a convergent, will.* But this can only happen very rarely, when circumstances create a need or a threat common to all people in a community, and when those people become aware not only of the need or threat, but the commonality of that need or threat at the same time. High standards, but sometimes achievable.
* Continuing the analysis of group action that began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the general will? Maybe. But I don’t know that I really care very much about making historical parallels through the history of philosophy. More often than not, it makes a trivial and not-particularly-enlightening point for a quirky piece of secondary material, while also requiring a gargantuan effort of textual comparison and sorting of established critics of both writers, that researching and publishing such papers are barely worth the effort if you instead have an otherwise original idea of your own.
Sartre describes how this was achieved in the storming of the Bastille, and the process is fascinating in its simplicity. The king had heard that there were various rumblings by extremists trying to stoke violent uprisings. He drastically over-reacted to this, ordering the army and loyalist militias onto the streets of Paris in numbers of tens of thousands with orders to prevent the people from acquiring arms. Before this happened, none of the people really gave much of a crap. They were upset about economic conditions, but never felt themselves under threat.
Then the military police showed up on every street corner frisking every citizen under suspicion that they were carrying weapons. In response to that ridiculous display of state violence, hundreds of thousands of Parisian people saw a simultaneous common threat in those omnipresent policemen. Each of them could see the fear of their neighbours in the face of this, and began to take action and illegally arm themselves to be protected from the police.
Short form: Fearing that the populace was arming itself against the government, the king put police on the street. Seeing police on the streets, the populace began arming itself against the government.
This is the self-destructiveness of political paranoia.