Democracy and Untruth

This piece was originally published in Volume 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College.

A common belief is that one main reason for the superiority of representative democracy to all other political systems is that it works by procedures that compel officials to be held accountable. They must take responsibility for their conduct in office, and submit to the judgment of the electorate on the basis of their record. Ideally, they would fail of re-election not only because they have pursued bad policies but also because they have not pursued the policies that they pledged to pursue if elected. Accountability is thus made up of two questions that are rightly asked of elected officials. Always the first question is: what have you done? It can be asked everyday as well as on election day, the day of judgment. But there is also a second question, both for election day and every day, and barely less important than the first one: have you done what you said you would do or try to do? Both these questions deal with the past and present. There is a third question for election day, which pertains to the future conduct of those who want to hold on to their offices or who want to win offices for the first time: what do you plan to do or try to do?

Obviously this picture is simple to the point of being almost useless. The actuality doesn’t sustain the aspiration: the ideal of democratic accountability appears to endure such a hard fate that it is to an appreciable extent fictitious. Democracy, with the greatest freedom to speak and the greatest amount of public speech, seems to operate by means of untruth much more than any other contemporary political system. By untruth I mean not just outright lying by misdescription or denial, but also such devices and practices as secrets or the withholding of knowledge, propaganda, exaggeration and other kinds of distortion, simplification, and construction of plausible stories and solemn narratives.

If accountability is to exist, citizens must want it, and people holding office or seeking election to office must provide it. If people want it intensely enough, democratic citizens would press the political stratum to provide it in order to avoid being punished by electoral defeat. The essential form of accountability is transparency. That is, citizens must want, and officials and would-be officials must provide, intelligible descriptive statements that are also honest or sincere. Sincere, intelligible statements must describe what officials in power have done and why, or must explain what they intend to do and why; and similarly, those who seek office must intelligibly and sincerely say what they would do, if elected.

Naturally, changing circumstances can throw any intended policy off course. Public policies are at the mercy of unexpected events at home and abroad: statements of intention and purpose cannot be iron-clad contracts or promises. But when events deflect officials from their stated purposes, these officials must be transparent in explaining why they did not or cannot do what they said they intended to do. On the other hand, citizens must care about being dealt with honestly, and allowing for the play of circumstances, hold officials to their word. When accountability is haphazard or arbitrary, it would then seem that representative democracy could well be replaced by any political system that got desirable results, at least in the immediate. The initial judgment is thus that citizens must want and expect transparency, and find its lack unacceptable, if the political stratum is to feel urgency in providing it to the fullest extent possible.

Of course many of us as citizens are not conscientious and attentive. We make an undesirable situation much worse in many areas of policy where technical knowledge is not demanded of the citizen and where greater transparency than actually exists is possible. My main interest is in the area of foreign policy, where the failure to insist on transparency intensifies the inveterate disposition of those who make foreign policy not to provide it. And because the results of foreign policy, though always of significance to American citizens, are only episodically or selectively or intermittently visible and palpable, the people remain fairly inattentive.

We will return to foreign policy as the most important field for discussion of the lack of transparency in democracy. But I would now like to turn in a general way to the deficiencies of democratic citizens.

Untruth plays a large role in American politics, so large a role that we could be led to contemplate the possibility that our democracy is intrinsically tenuous. But the plain fact is that untruth plays a large role in American democratic culture, in American life altogether. We the people bear a good deal of the responsibility for that condition. Some main institutions in American life proceed on the assumption that the mental level of the American people is low and that their moral level is perhaps not higher. I have in mind politics and advertising, especially. Much of the time, power-holders in these institutions can and do assume that people don’t want very much transparency as long as things go tolerably well. In democratic politics and culture much of the blame for the ubiquity of untruth must fall on the people. How else could advertising with its deception, inaccuracy, and exaggeration prosper? How else could the political stratum get away with its lies, distortions, withholdings, secrets, ingrained partisan bias, and ideological misrepresentations, and even flourish because of them?

Partisanship is a particularly virulent source of disregard for truth. To be sure, partisanship supplies ideological emphasis, and emphasis is often needed to get important events and conditions to be noticed with an appropriate seriousness. But when emphasis turns into inflamed exaggeration and then into outright mendacity that is repeated tenaciously as if it were a helpless obsession, partisanship soils public discourse indelibly. An adversarial partisanship might right the balance politically, but two gross falsehoods do not add up to a truth, and a mid-way compromise between them may be no better than a half-truth.

Must we say, then, that there is a greater prevalence of untruth in modern mass democracy than in all other political systems, except for twentieth-century totalitarian rule? Where the people are the ultimate judges because of mass enfranchisement and where there are numerous mass media that cater to the people by pitching their wares at the most profitable level — that is, a low average level — politics and the whole ambient culture will be bathed in untruth. After a certain point, the larger the audience is, the coarser or simpler the discourse must be. If politics is confined to the elite or at most a few segments of the population, and where discussion is therefore pitched at a much higher level and to a much smaller audience, and where the ambient culture is dominated by the standards of the comparative few, then perhaps untruth in all its forms would be much less necessary and consequently more candor would be in circulation in political life and elsewhere. Fewer outside the elite would be able to notice the candor; and if they somehow managed to have access to it, it would not register, or if it registered, would not be likely to spread; it would look too unfamiliar. The truth would be unblushing in an oligarchic political system with restricted media of communication, but there would be much to hide, whenever there is a need to hide it. Exclusion of most of the population from political life reduces the need until some patent crisis occurs, and then the unscrupulousness of the elite is strained to the limit to improvise explanations that do not make things worse. Once a larger public engages in even minimal discussion, untruth must change its forms; secrecy no longer suffices; unembarrassed lies and distortions must be risked.

The irony is great and was theoretically noticed before by the early Frankfurt school. The means of enlightenment in an open society, which is also a mass democratic society, are abundantly available. Someone or other will speak or write practically every truth that is relevant to discussion of public policy, the stuff of political life. Of course not every secret will be disclosed but nearly all the truth can be found in some medium or other; but you have to look tirelessly; even so, those who are committed to the truth may on occasion innocently offer untruth. At the same time, however, the means of false enlightenment or semi-enlightenment are far more abundant because the popular demand for them is far in excess of the demand for enlightenment. Truth is often not nearly as attractive as untruth, which has unlimited seductive power. To be sure, freedom of speech and press is a standing encouragement to expression on all matters of life, including public affairs. The sheer abundance of expression is staggering. How could one wish it otherwise? Nonetheless, the fact remains that the volume of untruth crowds out truth and makes the truth about the facts — I don’t refer to diverse opinions about the facts — just one more strand in public discourse. The influence of truth is small in proportion to the need for it. People need it but often don’t want it.

The people appear to get the elites they deserve or need or want. The harms and injuries inflicted by the elites on the people are the responsibility, to a considerable extent, of the people themselves. Untruth serves various interests and passions of the elites, whether in office or in society — the powerful and advantaged classes, in short. Where power is un-transparent, accountability is a sham. The real motives of policy-makers are obscured, and often what the policy-makers have actually done or failed to do or intend to do is unclear or secret. When policies are difficult to identify or discuss, attribution of responsibility is hard if not impossible to determine; it becomes diffuse or murky. An incurious or un-vigilant people are not served; they are even sacrificed. But the situation would be better if people wanted the truth more than they seem to, and tried harder to understand it when it is actually provided. In a democracy, popular deficiencies of attention and understanding set systematic untruth in motion.

Since democratic control is often crude or belated or non-existent, it does not serve to transform psychologically the power-holders and power-seekers and thus create a stratum radically different from power-holders and power seekers in oligarchic and other non-democratic forms of government. Let us posit the fairly constant disposition in all those who are attracted to political power, that whatever the form of government, they desire as much discretionary power as possible. I do not say that they are normally driven by the will to tyrannize, or that they have no regard for ends other than acquiring and maintaining their power and feeling the pleasure that comes from making things happen and giving orders to people who are subordinate to them, or that they must love to the point of compulsion such accompaniments of power as prestige or glory. The point is that those in any political stratum are not usually dominated by the intellectual appetite to understand their own motives or to understand what it means for others to suffer the consequences of their deeds. They are not committed to truth and find the appetite for untruth in citizens gratifying. They love having secrets. Is that their greatest delight, more than lying or distorting?

The long and short of it is that the solution to the problem of transparency and hence accountability is not found in either more democracy or less, more popular power or less. If you want more democracy or less or none, you would have to use some standard other than the principle of accountability. If we were better citizens, our political stratum would be better, more true to the spirit of constitutional democracy. But bad citizens with democratic rights are better than subjects. Left to themselves to rule completely as they please, autocratic rulers or mostly closed elites would be likely to do worse things than democratic officials, who are slackly controlled or controlled for irrational or unjust purposes — certainly in many important areas of public policy. I characterize the situation we have as a grim and fundamentally un-improvable mixture: a combination of democracy and oligarchy and of democracy and non-democratic features inherent in any system of government and therefore shared by all of them. But even this general description is not adequately pessimistic when we consider the making of foreign policy.

I now turn to a particular area of public policy, foreign policy, because I think that the lack of transparency and accountability in that area is most acute, and the effects are most serious. This is not to say that transparency by itself would be a panacea. Much would depend on what citizens made of it or even whether they paid receptive attention to an appreciably greater amount of it.

I think that from the early twentieth century onward foreign policy has been the most important area of public policy in the United States (to leave aside other Western democracies). The reason is that the United States has become with ever-gathering determination an imperial power; if you prefer a euphemism, a country with global ambitions and global reach. The greatest American land grabs came earlier, in the nineteenth century, and were at the expense of Mexico, a neighbor, and of indigenous peoples already here. They prefigured global exertion. For an empire, of whatever sort, foreign policy can never be absent from the minds of those in high office and those around them and those who report on them as well as those who aspire to high office.

Foreign policy works havoc on modern constitutional democracy, no matter how unadventurous the policy is. But an active foreign policy increases the damage; then, when a constitutional democracy has an imperial foreign policy of global reach, every problem of transparency we have been discussing so far is intensively and systematically aggravated. Such a foreign policy establishes a second polity attached to the first supposedly democratic one, and thereby creates a kind of strange hybrid with no name. This second polity is not merely a large oligarchic element in an otherwise democratic polity but rather tends to be a despotic element (but not in Tocqueville’s sense of democratic despotism). It is not exactly a state within the state, the core or cabal (like the old Prussian military), or a parallel political apparatus imposed on the formal state (like the Bolshevik party). It includes but is more than a collection of secret agencies or a delegated privatized part of the state.

The people as a body of citizens are for the most part out of the story of foreign policy, except as resources — bodies and taxes; and as sources of psychological support, sending back to the foreign policy elite the elite’s dispositions, but now magnified, simplified, and made more urgent or gross by mass sentiment. To be sure, various sectors of the population have a particular interest in the conduct of foreign policy towards one or another state for ethnic or religious reasons, and supply a fairly steady pressure that cannot be ignored by officials or those who observe or report the action. It is quite common that a particular interest can see foreign menace to the favored ethnicity or religion all over the globe; thus, one source of the momentum for imperialism can be pressure applied upwards from particular groups of citizens.

How shall we judge such ethnic and religious loyalty? Is it rational or not? Is group identity rational or not? How could it be rational? It is certainly true that such loyalty consists in part in adherence to an imaginary whole or entity, an entity imagined as a person that is surpassingly greater than any individual person; each member is incorporated as an indissociable part of the “superperson” (in Isaiah Berlin’s term), absorbed into it to such an extent that the person has its identity only through the group. But the superperson disregards national boundaries just as it transcends individual selves. The hold of group identity is one of the greatest sources of the will to live in untruth. It rests on an inexhaustibly potent metaphor that is never seen through.

Group identity, however, is not confined to those who feel it towards their fellow-ethnics or co-religionists and across boundaries. It lies at the heart of a more general sentiment, nationally confined patriotism, which may subsist alongside a particular ethnic or religious loyalty. Once in a contest, patriots want their country to win or not to lose. The uncanny fact is that all countries are patriotic. Passions (commitments, attachments) define a country; different passions make different countries. But when it comes to conflict between countries, the same kind of passion dominates all countries. Populations are inwardly interchangeable when national group identity takes over, and yet each population is devoted to a country that is prized for its cultural particularity or distinctiveness. Recall Lincoln’s bemused mention in his second Inaugural Address of this tragic absurdity: “Both [sides in the civil war] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.”

To be sure, patriotism is at heart a sort of agonism; it delights in pure contest that is valuable apart from any tangible gains, where the point is to prevail after struggle. Foreign policy thus rests on a merger in the people of the tribally primitive and the abstract. Abstraction is the foundation of the primitive. Sometimes, the will is to prevail at any cost to one’s side and to the other’s; but sometimes the aim could be to prevail by displays of virtues and skills that are also valued apart from tangible gains. A democracy cannot be imperialist without a strong agonistic spirit in the people. Of course, that spirit is also shared by the elite; to them, foreign policy can feel like a game, but one that is more rarified and far more brutal than team sports. The relevant point is that agonism is not the monopoly of the elite. In foreign policy, untruth can be a potent auxiliary to agonism by hiding or disguising it; more than that, it feeds the appetite for sustained and flattering untruth. The constant price of the foreign policy of any country is untruth, gladly paid.

Foreign policy makes vividly clear that in modern democracy, the people are masters who are also slaves. Their energies are needed but are turned against their interests because of their passions. Slaves to their passions, the people are made slaves to the interests of elites. They are seduced or manipulated by the several forms of untruth, but often feel as if their energies are being spent in the direction they desire. The people corrupt and are corrupted by the elite along lines that serve the elite more than the people.

The discretionary power of officials in foreign policy is a good deal greater than it is in domestic policy. It would seem that truth scarcely exists in the domain of foreign policy except when there is no possibility that untruth could succeed. The facts come home, even if many facts may beg for explanation or interpretation. But all the action that precedes and flows from brute undeniable facts is interwoven with official accounts that manifest one or another form of untruth. In assertions that officials make concerning their motives and purposes, or the strategies that impel or guide their policies, and also concerning the descriptions they give of events that took place or are taking place, and of plans for the future, observers can count on the proliferation of untruth, and do so without cynicism. Yes, President GW Bush lied the country into a war of aggression against Iraq, but he was re-elected anyway. To whom in the United States did the system of lies matter as lies, let alone the vast destruction, dislocation, and dispossession inflicted on the Iraqi people?

Untruth answers to the desire of the people. Whenever I think about American imperialism, I am drawn to the idea of overdetermination, Freud’s theory of the manifest content of dreams, especially as Althusser has explicated it. Let us say that the rhetoric of imperialism, which is manifold in its untruthful representations, is overdetermined: the representations, the accounts, given by those who make policy, systematically misrepresent their motives and purposes. The spokespersons of imperialism tell a typical story. The aim is to give a reassuring account of the pattern of policy or action. In this account, every motive of the elite is honorable (un-self-interested, high-minded, and well-intentioned) while the motives of the other side are evil, inhuman, or not humanly recognizable. The shortcomings of one’s side are owed to a general human weakness or fallibility, not to the will to power or the will to prevail or to crude or narrow interests, while the other side is cruel and fanatical. A moral reason or even an elaborated theory can always be found that permits one’s side any action or policy in pursuit of a supposedly great good, and the good end washes away the incalculable suffering inflicted in its pursuit. The inner censor of the people cannot bear to hear the truth about the policy’s real causes, which though multiple are only contingently or arbitrarily related to one another, not by any thematic necessity, and are each of them sufficient and no single one of them necessary to produce the policy; so the official speakers and writers go through distortions that hide the truth, not only by remote approximations to it or gross simplifications of it or by misattribution to others of one’s own intentions, but above all by substituting for the truth those stories that best satisfy the people’s self-conception and therefore help the elite to keep their balance and thus able to persist in their endeavor. The elite’s overdetermined rhetoric is experienced by the people as an overdetermined dream.

Yet the dream is one’s own dream; it is projected out of oneself; it comes from oneself, one’s needs in turmoil, not from outside oneself. But often in a dream, one is hiding from oneself, with “eyes wide shut.” I deceive myself in the form of unconsciously wanting and permitting un-mastered forces to deceive me. A complex psychological process, albeit unconscious, is needed to achieve the unconsciously desired simplification, which is a gratifying distortion. So, in some respects, the masters give the people the several forms of untruth about imperialism that the people need if they are to live with themselves; if they are not to be repeatedly shocked by truth. The people are constantly indicating that they want — should we only say half-want? — all the kinds of untruth that they are told. President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is a model of comforting dream-like untruth about US foreign policy: the entire record from the end of World War II to the present is celebrated as one continuous struggle to make the world freer and better off. The premise is that the enemies (whether actual or designated) of the US never have grievances against it; they have only motiveless malignity; resistance to US initiatives is always shameful or sinister. The speech gives in concentrated form what establishment media disseminate constantly and what people want to hear: reassurance, whenever US foreign policy is discussed and whatever the policy is: reassurance, and also absolution and delusional hope. A dream-like story, which is worse than any series of outright lies, gives life by making it livable, but rains death down on others. My country is always right is far worse than my country right or wrong.

There is, however, an important disanalogy between a dream and the rhetoric of imperialism, which is that dreams must represent and can only misrepresent the unconscious because the unconscious cannot represent itself. It is without words in its origins and has to struggle to emerge in a medium (a compound of hallucination-like words and images) that is not its own, and can emerge only obliquely. In contrast, there is a more truthful verbal alternative to the rhetoric of imperialism — an alternative, however, that in its greater truth would damage the elite and demoralize the people. The people are dreaming, while the elite often appears lost in grandiose dreams and immersed in policies that partake of dream-like unreality in their confusion and remoteness, and in their ill-defined and often overwhelming quality.

I would like now to propose a general characterization of the attitudes and dispositions that take hold in those who make foreign policy and that therefore facilitate the loss of transparency and the dissemination of untruth. As I have said, the repertory of untruth includes lies of denial or affirmation, secrets or the withholding of knowledge, propaganda, exaggeration and other kinds of distortion, simplification, and construction of incidental stories and sweeping narratives. But we must not omit another cause of untruth, which is self-deception, and which indicates that sometimes those who begin by disseminating untruth knowingly and deliberately come to believe what they are saying, at least some of the time. The repeated sound of their own voice produces a conviction of the truth of their convenient rationalizations, but occasionally the truth forces its way back into their minds, only to be forced out again. Making of foreign policy, especially when it is activist or imperialist, enlists, elicits, or fortifies various attitudes and dispositions in the makers and those around them, and prompts them to have recourse to untruth. I will direct my attention to imperialism, though what I say can, with sufficient allowance, apply to the foreign policy of any country. I use three categories to give an abstract characterization of the mentality of an imperialist foreign policy elite: affinity to criminality (violence and coercion for collectively selfish ends); corruption by responsibility (preservation of the means at the expense of the ends); and immersion in unreality (forgetfulness of reality in the name of realism). These categories cover some of the salient tendencies that significantly diminish the transparency of foreign policy.

Let me say just in passing that when any foreign policy elite possess nuclear weapons, every category is intensified beyond the intensification that imperialism and adventurism already effect.

Criminality. Imperialism underlines the essential criminality inherent in foreign policy; it gives a heightened force to the general similarities of political action to criminality. Augustine refers to a kingdom as a large band of thieves (and a band of thieves as a small kingdom), but all that thieves want is wealth. Political societies, on the other hand, want to be as safe as possible, and they want respect from other political societies. But an imperialist power makes all general motives to policy active; indeed, hyperactive. It is always busily re-defining safety or security as permanently imperiled, even if some danger has to be coaxed into existence to justify an activist policy of security; danger must be sought in order to be overcome; the invited fear must be felt as if it were inflicted solely from the outside. Its material interests are as wide as its ambitions. And an imperialist power wants more than respect; it wants admiration, it wants to be glorified, held in awe; and in its own eyes it is elevated above common humanity and craves recognition of its special stature. Many political societies also want to dominate other ones in order to feel the pleasure of domination; an imperialist power carries that pervasive international tendency as far as it can be carried.

In every case, the foreign policy elite experience such emotions and passions as jealousy, envy, vengeance, suspicion, paranoid fear, and grandiose ambition, and do so not for themselves as individuals, but as personifications or embodiments of their society. They experience the metaphor of the superperson from the inside, from inside the brain of the beast. They are small creatures inhabiting and mechanically moving some enormous entity from within; their personal feelings have nothing to do with the stage emotions and passions they must enact and they think appropriate to impute to the enormous entity, as enhanced power reinforces a sense of enhanced vulnerability. Imagined fear, interest, and glory lead to action on a grand scale; the mentality is nothing personal; it is only person-like, and as such, is able to achieve release from normal moral inhibition. The elite act immorally for the sake of the enormous entity. Belief in the imagined superperson is not confined to those in the general population who invest themselves in group identity; elites have the same belief, but hold it as team leaders and players, not merely as fans. To hold this belief with any seriousness is to be possessed by it.

Let us notice, however, that elites involved in foreign policy would not have the situation otherwise; they do not pine for a condition in which they could practice moderation and with it, morality or at least less immorality. There is no reluctance in performing their great deeds of immorality because the project of greatness dwarfs morality. The release from morality is usually associated with organized crime. But what is activist foreign policy, what is imperialist policy, but a kind of criminality in aims and methods? Any foreign policy, even if it is unambitious, verges on criminality. Yet, criminals in a society realize that they are criminals, and that they break the law, even if they are quite capable of normalizing their activities, day in and day out and act as if there were nothing abnormal in what they do. In contrast, the release from morality experienced by foreign policy elites is rationalized in various ways, all of which conduce to an easy conscience — as easy as it is among professional soldiers. They all think that law (moral, constitutional, or statutory) does not apply to them, except incidentally; that they are above the law because their work cannot be encompassed by the law. Idealism or ideology also helps to effect release from morality, but after a while, neither is required to keep the participants going, no matter how useful to keep the people in line. But there must always be some justification handy.

All the forms of untruth I mentioned above are useful in the enterprise of rationalization. They are useful because a mass audience must have a story that puts all the activities into a coherent picture, just as the dreamwork strains for coherence. If the principals have a strategy that unifies much of their activities, it is best not stated candidly; it must be dressed in attractive clothing, perhaps especially that what is moral in nature (but also realist for the semi-initiated). Imperialism cannot be called imperialism. After all, imperialism is using violence and intimidation in taking what isn’t yours, taking what you don’t need, taking for the sake of taking, taking for the sake of feeling big and playing a big role on the world stage. The affinity to criminality is close. Perhaps some in the elite, some of the time, can be candid among themselves, but even they cannot handle a steady diet of the truth. If the elite hides from itself, it cannot dare to give a transparent account of what it does and why. Most people would not want it to do so, anyway.

Responsibility. What I am about to say applies to all foreign policy elites, but it applies with greater force to those in imperialist societies. In “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), Max Weber famously speaks of the ethic of responsibility in contrast to the ethic of ultimate ends (usually morally pure ends). According to the ethic of responsibility, officials are responsible for the welfare of others, those whom they govern, not responsible only for care of their own individual selves and consciences. A feeling of responsibility will necessitate commission of acts that one wishes one didn’t have to perform, and that if done for one’s own benefit would be condemnable as immoral. What officials do may indeed be immoral, but they must do it out of a sense of responsibility. Their inwardness is not sullied by immorality when it is impersonal and is in any event justified, morally justified, as necessary. What is involved in this ethic is a more subtle form of corruption than a facilitated disposition to act immorally; officials are corrupted by the not completely hypocritical conviction of entrusted responsibility to which they sacrifice their personal integrity, but of course without being able to feel with any steadiness that they have in fact been corrupted.

What establishes the necessity to act immorally? Presumably, it is having responsibility for the welfare of others in a world of competition for scarce goods and honors. But there is another kind of responsibility, and it is prior. It is not only prior, it is unexamined by officials, and unexamined by all except for a few observers. Its foundation is the metaphor of the superperson. I refer to an almost unconscious feeling, which possesses strength all the greater for being unexamined, and if somehow brought to anyone’s attention, would appear so obviously right that it would be impertinent to examine it. It is the feeling that the first commitment is to the preservation of the system or framework — that is, to the continued existence of the politically organized society. The deepest reason is not that without the state organization the people would lapse into anarchy and suffer all the ills of such a condition. No: the society, an artificial entity, is regarded as a fact of nature.

In the name of its self-preservation, anything goes, just as an ordinary person may without immorality prefer his own preservation to that of another. That means that numerous persons in the society or in adversarial societies can be sacrificed to preserve the entity. It matters of course that war may devastate one’s own country and reduce it to part-way anarchy or worse, but it matters above all because the country has been weakened in its struggle. Nor does the historical acknowledgement that political forms change over time or that societies may lose their political independence matter. The fight is to keep the entity intact. Is that entity the state? The tendency might be to think so. Let us say rather that the agonistic entity is the whole society, but conceived as one society in a world of societies. Each society must be represented in its imputed unity by the state at its head, as its head. Thus, as a necessary consequence of the commitment to preserve the system or framework, high officials have the further responsibility to preserve the relative autonomy of the state vis-a-vis the people, and to preserve the territorial integrity of the country against regional secession.

One transmutation of this nearly unconscious commitment is that the political society exists to preserve itself so that it can become a power-base for struggles against enemies. I have already referred to the game-like or agonistic quality that foreign policy takes on in the minds of foreign policy elites. But the game can go on only as long as enemies exist; enemies are required for one’s own entity to exist and be defined as not-the-other. Actual cultural differences matter much less to this mentality, as exemplified by, say, Carl Schmitt. The greens need the blues for a fight; perhaps they need each other, but the intensity of the will to fight is circumstantial and not always equal. But what Schmitt is really doing is underlining Weber’s idea. The commitment to the preservation of the political entity at any cost is the core of Weber’s ethic of responsibility. As he says at one point, the “political element consists, above all, in the task of . . . maintaining the existing power relations.”

Thoreau says in “Civil Disobedience,” that “Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it. They . . . have no resting place without [sc. outside] it . . . Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with authority about it.” Certainly a version of this unexamined and nearly unconscious feeling is found in the people in the form of patriotism, and it sustains officials in their ethic of responsibility. (Everyday experiences in any organization or institution make this feeling instantly familiar.) The preservation of the society, but with the state personifying it as an abstract entity to the world, becomes the end, and the population becomes the means to preserve the life of the abstraction. This is a kind of political perversion, and it is a parody and betrayal of the perfectly acceptable idea, sometimes associated with Hannah Arendt, that the content of politics is politics. One of her meanings is that the highest aim of political endeavor is to preserve a good constitution, which is understood as always in danger of sliding away from its principles. Weber and Schmitt, on the other hand, unlike Arendt, are pure formalists, as are many officials and citizens everywhere.

Imperialism intensifies the ethic of responsibility. Preservation of the political entity is inflated to include augmentation of the power or wealth or honor of the entity as essential to its preservation. The superperson becomes a giant, with no foreseeable limits on its growth, and no limits on its appetite to struggle for augmentation. But safety or security, other terms for preservation, is regularly risked in struggles to achieve this purpose. The thrill of risk raises the value of success, which, however, can never be certain, let alone final. Safety is a pretext for augmentation; augmentation is joined to the spirit of adventure. The delight of the game is open-ended, without end and without ends. Obviously, officials cannot speak of their various satisfactions in playing the game. They must hide their motives and profess to be pursuing the common interest. And though the people are naturally sympathetic to patriotism and delight in victory, there are nevertheless narrow limits on how much public rationalization of policy can ever avow the feelings and attitudes that make the running of foreign policy so intoxicating — one could say, metaphysically or spiritually intoxicating. The public discourse must be moralistic and secondarily it must also be realistic. People must be appealed to with reasons that invoke high moral ideals or appeal to tangible material interests, as if, however, there could not be any conflict between ideals and interests. All the elements in the repertory of untruth are mobilized to cover over barely hidden passions in the elite and the cruder versions of them in the people.

Unreality. In this paper, I have several times referred to the abstractness involved when the foreign policy elite think about foreign policy; all the more so when the policy is imperialist. That is a large part of the unreality they inhabit. But there are other elements. Of course I am trying to think my way into the elite mentality, and am doing so on the basis of analogous miniature experiences that I have had. All persons have their imperialist moments or tendencies in everyday life. I mean to deny the view that the elite make another reality that must be taken on its own terms (“a form of life”), just as, say, art and literature do. These self-described realists imagine they experience a more intense and genuine form of reality only because they exercise an often fantastically powerful will. They lose that sense of proportion — another term is moderation — which a true realism requires.

No one member of the elite in foreign affairs, not even the few at the very top, can know completely what goes on when a given policy is executed. Members may know the basic strategy, but this knowledge is abstract and hardly stable. On the other hand, a strategy or a general purpose that is pursued is made up of countless specific actions over a wide geographic area. In a strict sense, the elite don’t know what they are doing. How could they then speak truthfully of it? How could the people begin to comprehend what is happening, even if they wished to? There is too much to absorb. The course of activity in a whole foreign policy or the course of a war in its numerous or countless actions does not unfold like the plot of a novel. There is no official who can resemble the author of a novel who controls the events, arranges them into a pattern, and understands the motives and purposes of the characters. What is remarkable is that a few novelists, such as Henry James and Marcel Proust, write novels in which the narrator is often uncertain about what happens and why; there is no omniscient narrator; indeed, the author is a residual skeptic about the motives of his characters and leaves the reader in a degree of doubt. Even so, the novels of James and Proust provide no model for the comprehension of war and foreign policy, which usually frustrate the ambition of a master-narrative, let alone omniscience. What these novels do provide is luminous examples of fiction in which the supposition of omniscience is shaken. In this way, too, they educate the reader.

But I am not suggesting an epistemological exoneration of anyone at any level in an imperialist society. The thought that there is too much to absorb, to take in what is happening, gives way rather easily to the idea that the very effort to absorb should be abandoned. Since you can’t absorb everything, then absorb nothing, and replace reality with a grand abstraction or a glorious picture or a beautiful story. It is true nevertheless that it is harder for foreign policy officials to tell the truth about what they do; the truth would be a good deal harder to tell than it is in domestic policy, if they wanted to tell it. Much of the action is at a distance, invisible, and must seem unreal. High officials are often too remote from the consequences to experience them and would be overwhelmed by detailed accounts of more than a few of them. Yet there is little popular pressure on the elite to tell the truth to the extent that it can be told.

Then, too, the unreality that resists adequate utterance also derives from the feeling that what is happening is so vast in the scope of its terrible effects that it can’t really be happening. It can’t be real. We couldn’t be capable of inflicting so much harm on others or extorting such a cost from our own people. So, it’s not happening; it’s not real. We have no truth to tell about it, there is no truth to tell that we are capable of telling. Repression of the truth thus takes over; the self-repressed persons must of course talk about their policies in distorted ways or withhold wherever possible those facts that at least some of the people would find abhorrent. How could a president truly face the fact there is no sane connection between, say, prolonging a war year after year with all its death and destruction and his motive of not wanting to be accused by the political opposition of weakness (Lyndon Johnson) or the motive of not wanting to surrender to domestic opposition to the war (Richard Nixon)? Personal agonism turns pathological. Yet again, naturally, some in the elite and in the people exult in destruction.

If the elite could literally see the corpse of every soldier or civilian on their own side or their enemy’s, if they could see the wounded, if they could see the impoverishment caused by war, if they could see the impoverishment caused by sanctions, if they could see the dispossession and displacement, if they could see the disruptions in everyday life in places affected by war, they would find it harder to go on; some of the elite could not go on. But I suppose many others in the elite could go on. The military profession does go on. No one can see a whole war in its physicality; few imaginations are intense and capacious enough to begin to provide a substitute for literal vision or compensate for its selectivity. I speak mostly of war because I speak here mostly of imperialism. But the same holds for every war-making power.

I have said that the foreign policy elite, especially in an augmentative or adventurous imperialist society, does not know what it is doing. In thinking from a height they see what their moral blindness puts before them. The last kind of unreality I would mention is that they don’t know what they are doing because they don’t know themselves. They don’t know their own motives; in a dark or stricken moment they can’t believe that their motives are base or cowardly, or so confused. They are unfamiliar with the worst about themselves, which is the bitter fruit of self-examination. They are masters of policy and make no attempt to master themselves: this is a lesson as old as philosophy, as old as the lessons of Socrates on the nature of tyranny, whether it is the tyrant in a city or a tyrannical city dominating other cities. There is often a failure to sort out and grasp the variety of motives that might be in play at the initiation or maintenance of an overall strategy or of particular policies. We are often at a loss to understand why wars are initiated; this is perhaps paradigmatic.

Leaders speak untruth to the people; they mislead themselves. They conceive of their deeds are those of the country, not those of a few persons. How could a whole country, imagined as one person that is ontologically superior to a real person, be motivated by any but the loftiest motives or the grimmest necessities? That persons in power are only persons, and that a country is millions of persons, and that the adversaries of the country are also millions of persons — all that realization is crowded out. And when critics try to awaken remembrance of these facts, they are called naïve or concerned only with their own clean hands. The people at large are ready to endure real costs and inflict them on others, while submitting to the rule of unreality; and they submit because they support its tenets.

The unreality inherent in the experience of political action in general stamps it as inferior reality: inferior because it rests on remoteness from correctly perceived actuality. Political realism is underlain by fantasies and metaphors that political participants don’t recognize as such. Political action is not in the realm of real feelings that sponsor commensurate actions, feelings that emerge from the psyche immersed in reality close to hand. Yes, unreality descends on much of private life, too. But private life can sometimes recover from its pathologies. Political policies, and strategies, especially when violence is involved, often set in motion lengthy chains of terribly real consequences — real in a way that the purposes behind them often aren’t — which cannot be repaired or undone.

In an activist or adventurist foreign policy, public officials have many reasons not to tell the truth, and there are many causes for not being able to tell the truth (including the tangled nature of the process of policy formation amid constantly changing circumstances, and the elusive nature of the psyches of the participants). Transparency is both undesirable and difficult for those who hold power. On the other hand, people have many reasons for not wanting the truth, and many causes for not being able to take it in, including the complex and confusing nature of the effects of public policy as well as the nature of the individual psyche. Where does that leave the observer or the conscientious and attentive citizen? If we are not at sea, then at least we are always puzzling over the course of political events. What happened? What is happening? What are the true costs in destruction and waste? What motives and purposes are in play? The given answers to any of these questions rarely provide the full and exact truth. Yet, even with a sincere wish to speak the truth and a sincere wish to hear it, transparence would still be imperfect and intermittent; untruth would be prevalent. But the actual prevalence of untruth is owed largely to either the deliberate or the unconscious avoidance of transparence by both officials and citizens. This avoidance seems to dominate foreign policy especially, and all the more when that policy is activist to the point of imperialism. In the face of these obstacles how can we ever know? How can we achieve more transparence for ourselves, even though others don’t share our concern? Can our powers of inference be strengthened?

Suppose we mistrust philosophies of history, even the greatest one, which is Hegel’s. We want to know, if possible, how it really was, how it really is, not what it supposedly had to be apart from human intention. We want to cut through the lies, the distortions, the exaggerations, especially in foreign policy, especially in wars and their causes. We also know that there are always crucial secrets; often we cannot know what we most want to know: the motives or purposes served by a policy or a war. Secrets make up perhaps the greatest barrier between us and the truth. No intuition or inference can make good the deficiencies of knowledge; no powers of detection can replace the kind of knowledge that emerges when the relevant secrets of motives and purposes are disclosed. I grant, however, that even if all secrets were disclosed, uncertainty would remain. Not even those at the top, as I have tried to suggest, have adequate self-knowledge (let alone knowledge of the totality of either the effects of a policy or the details of a long train of an indefinite number of events). Irremediable uncertainty joins deliberate, not quite deliberate, and helplessly un-deliberate untruth as a serious impediment to our understanding. A large dose of powerless skepticism towards official rhetoric about foreign policy appears to be right.

Have I seriously overstated the difficulties that face the observer who is intent on understanding foreign policy? Isn’t there usually enough to go on, if you work with a basic understanding of politics? Can’t the repertory of untruth, no matter how skillfully exploited, be seen through, at least up to a certain far point? Haven’t I come too close to skepticism and for insufficient reason? An anti-skeptic can say that the psychology of the political stratum, whether in foreign policy or any other area of policy, is political psychology, which is comparatively simple and does not reach into the depths of the psyche. Political action doesn’t grow from personal psychology; it doesn’t use the whole psyche; it typically doesn’t involve the inner life and thus avoids the incessant interplay between the inner life and overt conduct that dominates everyday life. Let us notice, for example, what a small range of motivation is found in the analyses of Thucydides, Machiavelli, or Hobbes. It is reasonable to believe that these three writers are among the greatest political analysts of power-holders in all areas of public policy, and if any of them had a philosophy of history, we can make our way around it and try to come up with some fundamental elements of understanding that apply throughout history.

Fear, interest, and honor make up the trio of constitutive motives or purposes they impute to the political stratum, when the stratum acts in the name of and officially on behalf of the country, which is imagined in the likeness of a single person with the characteristics of a single person — a single person, however, that is reified and enlarged and that coexists with other such entities that lack a superior power above them all. This trio of motives is certainly thought to govern the conduct of foreign policy. I myself have employed these motives as the best short-cut to explaining foreign policy. Then these writers throw in love of power for its own sake. That complicates matters, especially because it is the only motive that is reluctantly avowed; it rarely lends itself to any utterance, let alone frank utterance. But this complication need not impede analysis. The other motives, especially fear (for security), may be declared, even matter-of-factly, but many times falsely or exaggeratedly. To be sure, the Athenians, on more than one occasion, avow this love of power, but don’t try to explain it; they just assume all people have it, whatever they say or fail to say about themselves. When the conduct of foreign policy is under indictment by those who have been attacked, the general refrain of aggressors is “What do you expect? You would do the same if you were as strong as we are, and from the same causes that impel us.”

Furthermore, advocates of the anti-skeptical line can go on to suggest that if the observer’s inference concerning motive and purpose is difficult; that is, if the political situation seems to be opaque, the causes lie in hypocrisy, lying, and secrets, not in obscurity of motivation. But the opacity can be more or less dispelled because the range of possible motives or purposes is narrow; therefore hypocrisy, lying, and even secrets can present no insurmountable obstacles to analysis. Tactics can be complex and create surprises; a long-term strategy may temporarily resist being understood; but the motives and purposes are comparatively simple. Furthermore, if political analysis is difficult, the reason is not that political psychology is difficult, but that events are often too vast or confused or unclear even in outline to be described accurately. To be sure, analysis of motives and purposes in foreign policy is difficult in a way that analysis of moves in a competitive game is not. After all, what motive is there in a game but to win, and to do all that is allowed within the rules to win? No spectator worries about the personal motives that players have for playing. A game is a structurally confined activity; in contrast, foreign policy radiates outward to indefinite and often incalculable consequences that reach to every aspect of the lives of countless individuals. But the anti-skeptic can say that to emphasize the significance and open-endedness of foreign policy is nonetheless not to think that there are supposedly great puzzles in the inquiry to determine why a strategy or course of action has been adopted.

Before attempting to rebut this anti-skeptical line, which I think has many truthful points, I wish to reinforce it by reinforcing the contrast between political psychology and the personal psychology of everyday life. Isn’t it the case that only in our endlessly diverse and multi-faceted relations and transactions in society, can the developed individual psyche display itself in its fullness, while at the same time, be subject to the hold of the unconscious and the subconscious? There, human beings often remain opaque to one another. To be sure, some of the work of analysis can be done if the trio of political motives is extended from the personified state back to real persons, together with the love of power for its own sake. But seeing everyday psychology by means of the categories of political psychology does not come close to adequacy when we try to think about why people are doing what they do in leading their private lives and pursuing their aims, despite the fact that we can attribute to everyone certain basic needs and desires. The range of motives is as extensive as the range of feelings, emotions, passions, and drives, and includes love and affection, remorse and atonement, yearning and despair, the wish to conform and the will to deviate, gregariousness and misanthropy. All these and many others are missing from political psychology.

The complexity of mores and manners and the diversity of institutional arrangements allow for or demand a corresponding psychological complexity, and help to make it possible; while the vicissitudes of the inner life, conscious or barely conscious or altogether out of the reach of consciousness, mingle with rules and conventions to produce a complexity of unpredictable conduct. Personal motives and purposes can be subtle or inchoate, impulsive or cold-blooded, self-aware or subconscious. Literature often draws out the meaning and implications of these countless and often unforeseeable and hence surprising aspects of the psyche in private everyday life. Analysis of everyday life must be not only complex to be adequate to the complexity it analyzes, it must be subtle, as, say, Henry James and Proust are subtle. Such subtlety, to be adequate to the truth, must be more consciously subtle than the subtle conduct it analyzes. This is not to deny that political psychology might have some subtleties of its own that are not reducible to tactical or strategic considerations, but what matters for analysis is the fundamental simplicity of basic motives and purposes. That means that political events are not nearly as psychologically interesting as everyday experience, just because political psychology is simpler than everyday personal psychology, which as literature attests, is inexhaustibly worthy of thinking about in its elusiveness.

Now, I grant to the anti-skeptics that political psychology must be in some major respects discontinuous from the not fully mappable psychology of everyday life, just as the conduct of public policy, foreign and domestic, is all broad strokes in its scale of endeavor, scope of consequences, and degree of abstraction, and thus discontinuous from the intricate complexity of the entanglements, pursuits, and transactions of everyday life. Although infinite details make execution of public policy enormously complex, this complexity is distinct from psychological complexity. To put it mildly, there is a categorical difference between a real person and the crudely fictional one of the personified society or state. In short, I am willing to grant the comparative simplicity of political psychology at its most apparently complex, and even to accept the centrality of the trio of motives I have referred to, together with the love of power for the sake of power. The elite will be of one mind on the basic orientation: to act for the country from the motives of political psychology, despite different weightings of motives, shadings of emphasis, and tactical disagreements. The theorists of political psychology — Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes among many others — can indeed strengthen our powers of inference and guide us to a measure of greater transparence than officials give or citizens want, than officials are able to give or citizens are able to want. A main thing we must avoid, however, is thinking that political psychology is a complete picture of human psychology and is therefore adequate to analyzing the psychological complexity of everyday life. If we take a part for the whole, we produce a profoundly misleading reduction. At times in their texts, the most profitable theorists of political psychology are guilty of such a reduction, and their influence can tend to encourage narrow-mindedness or specious scientism in others not nearly as gifted as themselves.

But my concessions to the anti-skeptics stop when a fundamental fact asserts its claims: political life unleashes, in the psychology of the political stratum, the sense of possibility, which is most deeply entrenched in imperialist foreign policy. That sense is a standing challenge to analysts who confine themselves to a more complex yet still basically simple political psychology in every case they analyze. Concentrated power in the hands of any elite, even in a democracy, is a standing temptation to adventures or even to the disposition to engage in adventurism. Fear, interest, and honor, joined to love of power for the sake of power, do not exhaust the range of political motives and purposes. A sense of possibility is, in other terms, a sense of indefinite freedom in which imagination plays the key role. Strange motives may come to dominate. The more power in the hands of the elite, the more their imagination roams, and the more ill-defined their ambitions. Not only does unpredictability enter the situation, but so does the difficulty of catching up with the action and deciphering it.

The imagination of possibility is often entwined with the passion of gambling. The game-like quality of politics turns into the search for big wins despite the risk of incurring big losses. There is a thrill in submitting to luck and perhaps winning far more than could ever be earned or, failing that, losing worse than tragedy would demand.

At its worst, adventurism approaches being motiveless, a cruel parody of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose.” It is hard, perhaps impossible, for members of the elite to recognize, formulate, and confess this passion (but it wasn’t for Alcibiades). The force of the passion exceeds criminality, overpowers responsibility, and deepens unreality by investing it with magic. The passion is an effort to break out of standard motivation and into what is unprecedented (the spirit of Dante’s Ulysses, in canto 26 of the Inferno, urging his men to transgress limits, to sail through the forbidding landmarks of Hercules [what we call the straits of Gibraltar]). Adventurism is a flight from unreality to a greater unreality, from the self-imposed yoke of ordinary determinism, though not to freedom, but rather to the embrace of chance and fate. Explaining this mutation of political psychology is not easy and leaves political action, especially in the foreign policy of a great and imperialist power, largely un-transparent and hence unaccountable. It goes on over our heads and behind our backs, and then when it hits home it leaves us stunned or wondering. Of course everyday life can show personal equivalents to the political sublime — another term for adventurism — but the political sublime affects us all. Citizens dreamily partake of it and endure its frequently terrible consequences, either with enthusiasm or resignation. We observers must make the effort to penetrate it, even though nothing we as citizens do could ever promise to tame it.

Yes, the elite’s sense of possibility is a permanent obstacle to our clear understanding of their actions, most acutely in the field of foreign policy. I would mention one more obstacle, and that is shown in the numerous times when personal psychology inserts itself into the motivation of political leaders, whether the leader merges his or her psyche with that of the personified state or remains aware of the distance and difference between them. I have already referred to the anxieties of US presidents who cannot tolerate the thought of the damage that losing a war either to the enemy or to the domestic opposition would do to their personal interests or self-image. But this motive is made difficult to take in just because it is either so ill-defined or meanly sordid. But suppose the use of power is driven in part by more obscure motives, not quite shabby, but immensely self-centered or vainglorious, and some of them subconscious or unconscious? As examples we can mention the wish to compensate for personal weakness or to avenge personal humiliation; or to be moved by oedipal reasons or sibling competitiveness. How can the analyst definitively estimate the importance of such elements of personal psychology and thus dispel political untruth? Or suppose that leaders are functionally pathological: obsessive, avaricious, personally sadistic, paranoid, infinitely vengeful, or ideologically crazy, and from one or more these traits manage to get their following, who are more or less sane, to enact the leaders’ personal pathology? Do we know how to analyze these occurrences, and not merely repeat phrases that might be correct but do not explain?

In sum, the sense of possibility (on the one hand) and the interjection of the personal into the political (on the other) will recurrently test the analyst’s powers of inference to the limits of capacity and sometimes beyond.

Every analytic effort for the sake of understanding past or present will be hard, and in many cases impossible. But in making that effort for this event or that, this war or that, the analyst is performing one of the best — I mean, one of the most moral — acts of citizenship. In this way, the analyst rises, at least in aspiration, above the elite and the people, and reaches for an outlook that compels a fight against untruth. The analyst’s true craving is transparence for its own sake, even apart from the democratic and constitutional political passion for accountability. Truth, in fragments, struggles to appear, and does appear, if only barely, and only to be ignored.

*Essay first appeared in RARITAN (Winter 2012)

George Kateb

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly…

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