Friday, December 3, 2021

Aristotle, Regimes, and American Politics


Aristotle, Regimes, and American Politics

Peter Schultz


            Aristotle’s political teaching revolves around what he called “regimes,” which were political phenomena that were the result or reflection of the outcome of battles for power waged by, most frequently, democrats and oligarchs. For Aristotle, it was the regime that made a polis what it was; that is, a democracy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, a monarchy, or a tyranny.


            According to Pangle, the Enlightenment political philosophers “reconceived politics” by referring to “the state,” which was the means of protecting “society.” As a result, “a new kind of political order, ‘liberal constitutionalism’ was constructed….” In this new order, “liberals” and “conservatives” replaced oligarchs and democrats as the contestants for power.


            Jim Hightower, e.g., has argued that that didn’t happen, that the basic political conflict was not between the “left,” the liberals and the “right” or the conservatives but was between “the top,” the wealthiest and most powerful, and “the others,” the less well-off and the less powerful. That is, when you look at what actually happens in the U.S., you can see that the political drama is still a matter, as Aristotle contended, of the few, the wealthy few, contesting for power with the many. US politics revolves around the conflict between the have-a-lots and the have-not-so-much, to put it crudely. The top seeks to control and the bottom, while the bottom seeks the power to control the top.


            Walter Karp is also distinguished by his looking at what is actually going on in the US, viz., that the few prosper at the expense of the many because the few, of both the liberal and the conservative varieties, collude to control the state. Illustration: Our elites, both liberal and conservative, marginalized Ralph Nader, just as earlier those same elites marginalized the populists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to maintain their control of the state.


            Aristotle’s political science illuminates what is actually going on better than conventional political science does because he thought in terms of “regimes,” and not in terms of “the state” and “society.” “The national security state,” e.g., obscures what is actually going on, viz., that the wealthy few are seeking to establish a “benevolent empire” that serves their interests and would establish what they conceive to be the best available regime. This helps to illuminate why such “mistakes” as the Vietnam War was not a “mistake.” The war was part of our oligarchs’ political agenda and was only ended when dissent threatened to undermine the oligarchy by bringing to power such people as George McGovern, RFK, or Eugene McCarthy. As dissent became more threatening our oligarchs had to pull together by nominating the likes of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon as presidential candidates in 1968, both of whom claimed to be “peace candidates.” Victory was forsaken for “peace with honor,” which Nixon claimed to have achieved and for which he was rewarded with a landslide victory in 1972 over – wait for it – George McGovern. So, the oligarchy prevailed after all, and the peace movement and New Left were for all practical purposes defeated. And the American people were apparently willing to call the war “a mistake,” so they didn’t have to consider what its savagery said about the nation’s regime and about them. And the oligarchic regime was eventually fortified by Ronald Reagan’s election, after which the Democrats fell in line behind Reagan’s politics, something they had not done for Jimmy Carter.


            Hightower and Karp are not progressives because they see the American political drama as repeated attempts by democrats to wrest control from oligarchs – and repeatedly being defeated or marginalized. This is a take on our politics that the oligarchy needs to suppress, replacing it with the progressive mythology that our elites are trying to improve life in the U.S. by combatting phenomena like crime, drugs, climate change, or pandemics. By this view, our elites are well-intentioned although they do make “mistakes,” even with some frequency, e.g., by allowing 9/11 to happen or allowing JFK to be assassinated. These “mistakes” need to be corrected of course; but because they are merely “mistakes’ they tell us nothing important about how we have chosen to live and to govern, about what we hold most dear and pursue with passion. For example, for progress to occur, it was thought that government must be “reinvented,” as Clinton and Gore put it. Or post 9/11, progress required that we go to “the dark side” because after 9/11 “nothing is the same.”


            If Aristotle was correct, if Hightower and Karp are correct, this progressivism is merely the cover story for our elites fortifying their rule. If Aristotle, Hightower, and Karp are correct, the post 9/11 drama of American politics hasn’t changed. It is still a drama of the few trying to lord it over the many and the many trying to resist such rule, only now this drama takes place within the war on terror, a war that should be understood politically, as one part of our oligarchs’ agenda. The war on terror, like the wars on crime and on drugs, needs to be understood politically; that is, needs to be understood as fortifying the rule of some, here the few, over others, here the many. 



NB: in chapter three Pangle points out that Aristotle replaces the patriot’s viewpoint - that the place and the people - define the polis with his argument about regimes. The patriot viewpoint lends itself to talk of a “homeland,” whereas Aristotle’s viewpoint underwrites our pledge of allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands. We owe our allegiance to a republic, not to a homeland. No republic, no allegiance required. 

The patriot viewpoint also underwrites the idea that our elites may be described as well-intentioned, because they are, allegedly, committed to the homeland and not to an oligarchy. As oligarchs they are not well-intentioned, but committed to suppressing the many-not-so-well-off when necessary to maintain their power, and it will always be necessary.  

Finally, Aristotle’s regime analysis is based on what we can see happening, ala’ Karp and Hightower. It is empirical, based on actions, not on intentions or the rhetoric of the elites. If a regime is producing more and more millionaires and billionaires, it’s obviously an oligarchy. And it is the oligarchy that should be opposed, rather than the abstraction “capitalism.” One can, obviously, oppose capitalism while supporting oligarchy, as this is precisely how the oligarchy has been and is preserved in the US.

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