The Age of Vestigial Politics

Colorized print of the Flammarion engraving (artist unknown.)


The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.1 – Antonio Gramsci

For myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of [humanity] is a long attempt to reconcile old custom with new reason, to find a sound theory for an absurd practice.2 – James George Frazer

For how much longer can we tolerate the intolerable? This is the question that, seven months into the Trump presidency, is (or ought to be) foremost in our minds. But this question, though it largely arises in response to Trump’s personal actions, cannot be explained away simply by pointing at the unclothed emperor. Rather, the answer to this question must be sought from the system that has allowed naked, feral, troglodytic Trump to come to and remain in power. In other words, we must see that what we find morally unbearable in Trump’s behavior is, in fact, merely the personification of the structural cruelty built into the political system that he ostensibly leads. Simply put, Trump is not an aberration. Indeed, Trump’s character is an accurate, concentrated reflection of the American constitution.3 Thus Trump acts as a human prism: in him is gathered the scattered light of American systemic injustice, dazzlingly refracted by the myriad screens that unceasingly beam this mass spectacle into our collective mind’s eyes. And, just like Trump staring at Monday’s solar eclipse, we find ourselves unable to look away from this painful brightness.4

This state of affairs, in which we are being made to tolerate the intolerable, is precisely the situation that some perspicacious observers hoped would result in response to Trump’s election: from this tension can arise transformation. Perhaps an effective illustration of this general truth comes, as political comedian Jimmy Dore has shown, in the form of specific counterfactual questions: If Hillary Clinton had been elected president last November, would Americans – especially white Americans – currently be tearing down monuments of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus, and other symbols of the white supremacy that has undergirded American capitalism? If Clinton were president, would hundreds of mostly white antifascist anarchists have been on hand in Charlottesville to protect philosopher Cornel West and other black spiritual leaders from white supremacist violence? If Clinton were president, would thousands of antiracist demonstrators have gathered in solidarity with their camerados of color in Boston to drown out a group of less than 100 white nationalists? If Clinton were president, would the mostly white protestors stationed outside Trump’s rally in Phoenix have been surprised to see the militarized police – who protect and serve only the ruling class – using excessive force to disperse their peaceful assembly?

Any honest person must unequivocally answer no to these questions because, without President Trump, none of these circumstances would have arisen in the first place. For, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has said (quoting the poet Friedrich Hölderlin), “only where there is danger the saving force is also rising.” Clinton, that is, would have assiduously preserved the political system – and, thereby, the social norms – that, in Freudian terms, sublimate the American repressed; Trump, on the other hand, is the return of that repressed. What we are presently witnessing, then, is something like the power struggle between a new, emergent American superego and the historical id that it must vanquish if we are to reach a higher level of civilizational maturity. For, as Albert Einstein said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”5 We are now groggily waking from that fever-dream.

Thus Trump crystallizes and serves to magnify preexisting conditions that, prior to his presidency, had hidden in plain sight.6 To varying degrees, this trend is borne out by the rest of the Trump administration: DeVos displays the completeness of the corporate takeover of American education; Gorsuch exemplifies the judiciary’s capitulation to moneyed interests; Mnuchin symbolizes the stranglehold that Wall St. retains on the American economy; Sessions embodies the racism that has rendered blacks, especially, into fodder for the American prison-industrial complex; Tillerson reveals the mendaciousness of American action on climate change; and so on and so forth. None of the problems we associate with these simulacra was created by them; they all existed under and were exacerbated by the Obama administration, too.7 Indeed, these problems flow from longstanding systemic conditions that the individuals in the Trump administration are either unwilling or unable to disguise or pretend to remedy. This is most true for Trump himself, who, as the head of the snake that is the imperial presidency, has been eagerly chowing down on his own tail since January. And still we watch, transfixed by the image.

So, why do we remain paralyzed by this sight? Well, that is not quite fair – many of us, when we can, are taking direct actions to quash the irruptions of the American id, as demonstrated most powerfully by the righteous responses to the events in Charlottesville. Alas, what remains incomplete is the overarching change in perspective that must occur before Americans can begin to take meaningful collective action to reconstitute their terminally ill polity.

Consider: we continue the ritualistic performance of our elections, our legislative processes, our protests — but we sense that these dances no longer make the rain fall. Did they ever? Our recognition that we have lost control of ourselves reveals to us just how little self-control we ever had to begin with.

Such a realization prompts a reexamination. We must all crawl outside ourselves, look inward from this new vantage point, and see that the very concepts and categories through which we had constructed and organized our world are the source not of the solutions we seek but rather the problems we face.8 Put differently, what had been seer must become seen. This change in perspective – an exercise in critical self-reflection, or what political theorist Terence Ball calls “deadly hermeneutics” – is perhaps the most challenging experience that a society (or a person) can undergo, for it entails the creative destruction of identity.9 For that reason, it has only successfully happened on the constitutional level twice in American history, and both times through horrific violence: first through the Revolutionary War that founded this country and second through the Civil War that refounded it.

It follows, then, that we are again on the brink of some kind of war. Concrete historical events – like James T. Hodgkinson’s attempted assassination of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and James Alex Fields’s terroristic murder of antifascist activist Heather Heyer – serve as harbingers of this coming conflict just as surely as John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry foreshadowed the firing of the first shot at Fort Sumter. But it is my contention, and my hope, that “our great war is a spiritual war” rather than a physical one.10 In other words, the battle that matters is not between American bodies but within American souls.11 The enemies we face are our illusions and the false notions of ourselves to which those illusions give rise.

Chief among these illusions is the conventional understanding of the Constitution. What we must come to see is that the political system established by the Constitution, whatever its historical merits, has been captured by antidemocratic powers – i.e., corporations and the wealthy toadies who advance their agendas – such that the American government now serves to promote human suffering, not human flourishing.12 As many of us social critics have exhaustively documented, American values – encapsulated most significantly by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – have been perverted by what we might call the American corporatocracy. Over time, that is, the structure of American government has grown to become antithetical to the government theorized in The Federalist Papers and codified in the Constitution. Indeed, today we have a government that succeeds only by brute force at James Madison’s first test – that the government should control the governed – and fails miserably at his second test – that the government should control itself.13 Thus we must admit that the American government long ago slipped its reins.14 Of course, this new, unrestrained government – unsurprisingly so! – has emerged organically to cope with the staggering, disturbingly rapid increases in population and social complexity that have transpired since 1789. But that we have allowed this to happen is understandable, even forgivable; that we refuse now, at this crucial juncture, to acknowledge and combat it is inexcusable.

And yet, so many Americans remain unable to acknowledge what has gone on right before their (and their parents’) eyes. This is because the new American government, protean and stupefyingly complicated as it is, camouflages itself by parasitizing upon the Constitution and the many liberal concepts and myths – like private property, possessive individualism, and the American Dream – that have nurtured its growth. In this way, we have ended up with a society that is “systematically deranged.” According to political theorist Sheldon Wolin, systematic derangement arises

when arrangements or decisions appear not as random consequences of a system which otherwise works tolerably well or as the result of the personal foibles of a particular office-holder but as the necessary result of a more extensive set of evils which can confidently be expected to continue producing similar results.15

In other words, systematic derangement is the state of a constitutional order or regime that has been corrupted to the point of malfunction but not destruction. Such a system is not merely afflicted by some transitory external force that is altering its operation; rather, its malfunctioning is the result of once-novel but now more or less stable conditions that, over time, have become internal to the system itself. So the system stumbles along, but its “apparently normal operation” indicates “that something is fundamentally wrong with the way the system is operating as a whole.”16 This process of corruption and social collapse – what historian Edward Gibbon called “decline and fall” – has been a persistent feature of recorded human history, and it is well underway in America today: just visit Flint, MI, or my apocalyptic Appalachian hometown of Blairsville, PA, and see for yourself.17

According to Wolin, the corruption producing and being produced by America’s systematic derangement can be conceptualized as “inverted totalitarianism.”18 To oversimplify, under inverted totalitarianism the United States has fallen victim to what journalist Chris Hedges calls a corporate coup d’état. Through a panoply of processes – including lobbying, the routinization of Super PACs, regulatory capture, gerrymandering, voter suppression, pedagogies of repression, the militarization of the police, the military-industrial complex, mass surveillance, mass incarceration, the manufacture of consent via the mass media, the predominance of instrumental bureaucratic administration, and more — the ruling corporatocracy subverts the democratic and republican values built into the Constitution and the institutional order that has grown to surround it. Beneath this corporate leviathan remain some thin formal procedures of liberal representative democracy, sure – but these have so thoroughly succumbed to plutocratic machinations that they now amount to little more than a shell game played on the 99% by the 1%. It is altogether fitting, then, that such kleptocratic gambling with others’ lives should be overseen by a brainless billionaire casino-bankrupter and reality television game show mascot.19

As the fait accompli of this subversion of American governance dawns on more and more Americans – as it surely must, so long as The Trump Show carries on like a sadistic version of The Truman Show – the conclusion, the utter failure, of what is sometimes called the American Experiment will similarly become apparent. For liberals – that is, supporters of capitalism, whether Republican, Democrat, or otherwise – this process of increasing awareness will be the ideological analogue of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief: there will be denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance of the demise of liberalism.20 (Though, to be sure, different people will pass through these stages at different rates, and some may never pass through them all. This is especially true for adherents of what my friend Jack Crittenden calls “the Trump cult” – these folks long ago substituted fantasy for reality.) Nevertheless, the passage through these stages of a critical mass of persons, and their subsequent release from system justification, is the social precondition for the reconstitution of America. Only then, with their myths thoroughly demythologized, will these persons exit this liminal state and be freed to help create a new political order.

In the meantime, America will continue to experience something of an existential crisis. Indeed, as I stated above, I fervently hope that – instead of breaking into civil war – we successfully undergo what I will call here a civic crisis. By civic crisis I mean an historical turning point that – if it does not end in disaster – can provoke a rapid, fundamental transformation of our self-understandings of our capabilities and responsibilities as comrades in a collectivity.21 (In its strongest form, this would entail a full transformation of human consciousness; for more, see, inter alia, Jean Gebser’s important book, The Ever-Present Origin.) Though rare, this kind of crisis is the revolutionary component of the social analogue to what biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed as the theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution: long periods of seeming stability cleaved by sudden disruptions that, in turn, inaugurate a new period of stability.22 An apocryphal quotation attributed to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin well expresses this notion: “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” Right now, we are experiencing something like a year when a century happens. (In fact, I think the scope and pace of the sudden changes we are experiencing in the United States and around the world are much larger and faster than that: these events are the prelude to the imminent extinction or near-extinction of the human species and, perhaps, of most or all life on Earth. But I’ll save that for another post.)

Now, precisely because this zeitgeist is unfolding so rapidly, it is difficult for us to grasp the nature of America’s civic crisis. Nevertheless, we can gain some insight into our current situation by examining other notions of constitutional, psychological, and social crises. For instance, according to legal theorist Stephen Griffin, “constitutional crises in American history typically involve the creation of a state of fundamental uncertainty.”23 This state arises because “the Constitution’s normal reassuring polarity reverses and unexpectedly injects instability into daily politics.”24 So the Constitution, in a time of crisis (from the Greek krisis, “turning point,” e.g., toward either recovery or death during illness), spontaneously transforms from the remedy for political problems to their source.25 This notion conforms to the longstanding philosophical observation of enantiodromia, or “the tendency of things to change into their opposites.”26 In this way, and as the result of concrete historical circumstances, a constitution switches from benign to malignant.  Thus, if America is to survive, the Constitution must be excised from the body politic.

We might also wish to consider here the psychological phenomenon of identity moratorium and the sociological phenomenon of legitimation crisis. These are intertwined for us because, insofar as the Constitution has provided the architectonic political structure out of which American history has developed since 1789, it can be thought of as perhaps the single most important component of America’s collective identity. Indeed, if America has sacred, unifying texts, the Constitution — along with the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, “I Have a Dream,” and a few others — is one of them.27 Now, without going into the technical details of his theory, we can simply note that for critical theorist Jürgen Habermas a “legitimation crisis … is directly an identity crisis.”28 This identity crisis, as its name implies, stems from the government’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. In other words, during a legitimation crisis the government is seen as constitutionally incapable of delivering on “demands that it has placed on itself”: programs and policies — like healthcare or infrastructure repair — that serve the interests, common good, and well-being of the citizenry.29

Thus, when the American government and its associated institutions — all derived, in the final analysis, from the Constitution — consistently and fundamentally fail to fulfill their functions, there is a corresponding loss of legitimacy which, in turn, calls into question both collective and individual identities: “Why should we obey you?”30 Herein lies the identity moratorium, as the previously-settled questions, “Who are we? Who am I?” suddenly become wide open both for America and Americans. If these questions are to be resolved rather than denied or ignored, the individual and collective gazes must turn inward, as each and all seek to discover or remember the answers.

So, then, to summarize and conclude: Americans are presently embroiled in a civic crisis, an interregnum, that – by violating our fundamental values and imposing on us an overwhelming sense of anxiety – is forcing us to tolerate the intolerable. In attempting to escape this torment, our self-understandings about our individual and collective identities – our very consciousnesses – are being transformed.31 These transformations are themselves painful processes, and ones that, if they were not absolutely necessary, most persons would avoid at all costs. But they are necessary, and their proximate catalyst is the failure of the concepts and myths (both implicit and explicit) through which most Americans have understood themselves and their world.32 Concomitant with this failure is an ideological divestment that, because it entails the dissolution both of a worldview and a viewer-of-the-world, is and will be experienced by many as a very real, if symbolic, kind of death. Consequently, there will be a period of profound grief followed, hopefully, by a convalescence. The sooner that Americans can become convalescents, the better, for it is only then that the process of reconstitution can begin. Until that time comes, we will remain trapped in an absurd age of vestigial politics.



Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Joseph Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
In general, by “constitution” I mean to refer broadly to the regime or institutional order of a society, including the concepts, myths, and formal documents foundational to that order. By “Constitution” I mean, following standard usage, to refer narrowly to the formal document ratified in 1789.
See Plato, Republic, 439e.
Albert Einstein, quoted in George Viereck, “What Life Means to Albert Einstein” (Indianapolis, IN: The Saturday Evening Post117, 26 October 1929). Available here: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf.
Hidden to whom? The most oppressed Americans, especially black and indigenous Americans, have for centuries been cognizant of these conditions. It is primarily white people, and especially wealthy white people, who only now are catching up.
See, among others, the following books: Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?; Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate; Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right; Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.
See, for instance, the distinction made in anthropology between the “emic” and “etic” perspectives. (Thanks to John Broughton for bringing these terms to my attention.)
Terence Ball, “Deadly Hermeneutics; or, SINN and the Social Scientist,” in Idioms of Inquiry: Critique and Renewal in Political Science, ed. Terence Ball (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 95–112. See also Ball’s unpublished paper, “Lincoln’s Deadly Hermeneutics,” available upon request.
10 Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), chapter 19. See also the film version of this quotation by Tyler Durden here: https://youtu.be/U7VBR9F2H6Y.
11 See Plato, Republic, 440a – 440e.
12 I am sidestepping here the argument, which I find compelling, that the American political system has always advanced suffering over flourishing, insofar as it has promoted, e.g., indigenous genocide, enslavement of blacks, exploitation of workers, destruction of the environment, etc. Put differently, in America we have always had flourishing for the few (i.e., the wealthy), and suffering for the many (i.e., the poor.)
13 James Madison, “Federalist No. 51,” in The Federalist, ed. Terence Ball (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
14 For a chilling prediction of this general situation, see the concluding chapter of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, entitled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” Available here:http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/ch4_06.htm.
15 Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” in Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 29-30.
16 Stephen Griffin, “Trump, Trust and the Future of the Constitutional Order,” 77 Maryland Law Review (2017); Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 17-8. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2981350.
17 See, inter alia, Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press), 1988.
18 Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
19 This criminal class is close-knit, too. Consider the ways in which bankers were protected from prosecution by the Obama administration, or how Trump at his rally in Phoenix on 8/22/17 promised to pardon former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio.
20 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families(New York: Scribner, 1969).
21 Perhaps the greatest and most famous of these periods of transformation is what historian Karl Jaspers identified as the Axial Age. See Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New York: Routledge, 2010).
22 See Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibrium (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), and Laozi, Tao Te Ching, chapters 63-64.
23 Griffin, “Trump,” 11.
24 Ibid.
25 Wolin, Fugitive Democracy, 42.
26 Among many others, the following have touched on enantiodromia: Plato, Republic, Book VIII, and the Phaedo; Laozi, Tao Te Ching, chapter 20; Heraclitus, Fragment 60; Nagarjuna, in his formulation of the tetralemma and the concepts of sunyata and pratityasamutpada, — see Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); PlotinusThe Enneads, IV.8.6; Hegel, in his concept of Aufheben, or sublation; Schelling, in his NaturphilosophieEmerson, in his concept of “circles” and elswhereMarx, in his dialectics; Melville: “The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself,” in Moby-dick; or, The Whale, chapter 11, “Nightgown”; Nietzsche, in his concept of transvaluationWhitehead, in his process philosophyJung, who applied enantiodromia to psychoanalysisSimone Weil, in her conception of metaxuAlan Watts; Ken Wilber, in, among other things, his concept of “no boundary” — see No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1979). Finally, see also the Oxford Dictionaries definition of enantiodromia.
27 Ball, “Lincoln’s Deadly Hermeneutics,” unpublished paper (available on request.)
28 Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 46.
29 Ibid., 69.
30 For an excellent analysis of political obligation, see Hanna Pitkin, “Obligation and Consent,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec. 1965), 990-999. See also Walt Whitman, “Walt Whitman’s Caution,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Penguin Books, 1959). Available here: http://www.bartleby.com/142/173.html.
31 For more on this point, see Ken Wilber, Trump and a Post-Truth World (Boston: Shambhala, 2017). Pre-publication draft available here.
32 For more on the notion of conceptual loss, see, inter alia, Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) and Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts,” Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan. 1988), 255-277. (Thanks to Megan Laverty for bringing these texts to my attention.)

Rory Varrato

Rory Varrato

PhD student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Rory Varrato

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