BEFORE THE PANDEMIC began, I had discovered an old copy of Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at a used bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. Inside was a photo of the young author and his son, driving their motorcycles somewhere in the middle of America. Along the borders of that photo somebody had scribbled ‘Phaedrus’. Who did it refer to? I had forgotten the book and its uniquely American protagonists, both of which had made such an impression upon me as a teenager. Then, suddenly, like some old godhead who chooses to reveal itself, I remembered who Phaedrus was. It was the author’s shadowy self, the doppelganger of his mind, a Platonic daemon who lived in the world of ideas in contrast to the author’s Aristotelian obsession with the empiricism of machinery and motorcycles. Phaedrus and Pirsig were entwined, like a double-helical persona, condemned to coil around each other without being able to reach out and become one. The carefully managed exterior carapace of Pirsig’s everyday life sequestered the bramble-filled forest of the interior persona called Phaedrus.
In ways that Pirsig perhaps didn’t anticipate, right around the time his book came out in 1974, a sweeping set of changes were underway in economics, public policy and commentariat in the West, which had begun in earnest after World War II. Per this view, society and human affairs could be modelled as either sentient automatons who optimise uncertain decisions over an infinite horizon or as witless saps reducible to structuralist forces beyond their own making. The former approach became the gunpowder in the hands of neoclassical economists, who waged a great war with an older and less-mathematical generation of economists by relying on techniques like dynamic linear programming, Bellman equations and other esoterica borrowed from mathematical statistics and operations research. According to the latter approach which thrived in Marxism-inflected domains of the academia, particularly history and anthropology, individual agency was progressively whittled as a causal force in our lives. In both approaches, the world was reducible to a model governed by primary causes, causal linkages and fore-ordained consequences that could only be described by those who had been initiated into this theological brotherhood where mathematical signs, economic signfiers and cultural significands were the lingua franca. The world was either a machine and we were all to be its rational tinkerers or it was predetermined and we were merely puppets awaiting the inevitable discovery of laws that governed our lives.
By 2020 however—stunned by the brutalities of 9/11, followed by the extraordinary turmoil of the 2008 credit crises and now paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic—this part-religion, part-machine worldview has sputtered to a stop. The reigning ideologies of the 1990s and 2000s—from ‘shock therapy’ to ‘structural adjustment programmes’ to ‘democratisation’ to ‘free trade’—all have had to come face to face with the fact that there is a burbling disquiet that has now spilled out into the open. It now threatens to expose and undermine the disemboweled nature of these intellectual prejudices that masqueraded as disinterested science. Projects and the priesthood which gave a pass or fail grade to entire nations as long as these genuflected to the great God of Capital now appear laughably corrupt or brimming over with a stunning lack of self-awareness. The larger public, inured from these changing winds of intellectual fashion, except when on the receiving end as workers or as consumers, now openly disavow those homilies from the 1990s and 2000s which were treated as self-evident truths of public policy. A great irritation has set in and the machine that produced neoliberal intellectual infrastructure—from academic curricula, think-tanks, policy briefings to staffing at multilateral agencies—now find themselves struggling to pivot away and refit themselves. The voters may not know the old gods of the neoliberal ideology— Friedrich Hayek, Frank Knight, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises, George Stigler and Milton Friedman—who had convened at the high estates of Mont Pèlerin in the Swiss plateau to jumpstart the neoliberal project, but that playbook has little takers, at least electorally.
Nowhere is the changing wind seen more vividly than in America where the rise of Donald Trump on the right and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left speaks to a great resentment of what neoliberal doctrines have wrought upon America: the disembowelment of America’s once-enviable industrial base and middle class
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Nowhere is this changing wind seen more vividly than in America where the rise of Donald Trump on the right and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left speaks to a great resentment of what these doctrines have wrought upon America: the disembowelment of America’s once-enviable industrial base and middle class. It is the intuition to sense this animus that propelled Donald Trump—the Rasputin of resentment politics—to lead the pack among his Republican contemporaries in 2016, all of who misread the mood of the hour and mouthed neoliberal banalities that they had been told in the 1990s was important. It is still this vast reservoir of resentment that might still give Trump a more than fighting chance in the November 2020 elections despite the catastrophic handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile the machine of neoliberalism still thrives, but it has experienced a great many setbacks. Pirsig writes elsewhere, ‘The test of [any] machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.’
In 2020, rebellion is in the American air, if for nothing but the very pleasure of burning things down. This is the sort of mania—one that terrifies the middle class and convinces the elite that authoritarianism is more preferable than chaos, if only to protect its capital—that arises only once a century or less. The result is the rise of militant Trumpism which has metastasised in some quarters to white nationalism only to be countered by an archipelago of anti-fascist or Antifa radicals and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Together, these opposing factions echo what feels like the early hours of something that could quickly spiral into protracted scenes of violence, executions and assassinations of the kind that leads up to mass casualties or worse, à la the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Only this time, instead of Joseph Stalin’s USSR or Adolf Hitler’s Germany to feed the fires, it is the sprawling and cavernous hollows of the internet through which sundry discontents acquire the imprimatur of righteous anger.
For much of the 20th century, political ideologies, like some temperamental machine, filled humanity with irritation, disturbed our inner equipoise and on occasion even provided respite. They were the Phaedrus of our historical selves—the faint slivers of our psychological needs to cohere and group together in the hope of fighting an aggressor and defining ourselves. In this sense, these political ideologies played the role of what traditional religions had historically performed. Over the last 300 years, however, as the gods receded and in their stead, secularised ideologies filled the void, that original form and content of yearning nevertheless remained. Thus, we have had liberalism and Marxism mimic the homogenising imperiums of monotheisms while modern conservatism has hoped to retain valences of social hierarchies that have typically marked polytheistic religions. What neoliberalism managed to do in the last 50-odd years is to sidestep such historically contingent roles that political ideologies played, and instead reduced political ideologies to anthropological curiosities, worthy of genuflection only insofar as they helped us to manage irrational affiliations among our fellow citizens. The singular affiliation that mattered in practice was a form of loyalty to the idea of efficiency of capital. All other loyalties were suspect.
Meanwhile, the technocratic elites who shaped our public policy and its commons agreed that those who take political ideologies seriously were either under the influence of some linguistic fallacy at best, or suffering from a debilitative psychological condition at worst. And now, after having systematically effaced aspects of the human need to belong and work with self-dignity, ideologies that don’t privilege capital have begun to make a comeback including those that rely on the most egregious and genocidal forms of collective hallucination. The struggle to cohere fragments of his self into one which Pirsig wrote about is in many sense the very same that afflicts all societies—the need to commingle its psychic needs born out of its own historical self-understanding and the all too pragmatic needs to thrive materially. Failing to realise the importance of the former is tantamount to setting the stage for a violent confrontation between multiple selves that live within the body politic.