Weil, Simone. On the Abolition of All Political Parties, New York: NYRB, 2014.
Dick, Philip K. The Last Interview and Other Conversations, New York: Melville House, 2015.
There are many ways that books can resonate with a reader, and most of them, I think are situational – reading the right book at the right time. I read both of these slim volumes in a couple of days last week and they each resonated differently for me. The Simone Weil essay was one of those books that seems to clearly formulate something you’ve been thinking of for some time, but have never really been able to express. The resonance in this case is a kind of recognition of the truth contained in the book, a recognition based on confirmation (yes, a confirmation bias, if you like). This was always my experience with Nietzsche.
Now, I haven’t voted in an election since – I think – the 1995 Manitoba Provincial Election, when I was 18. It’s not because I think “my party” is guaranteed to win or because I’m lazy – it’s because I actively think electoral politics distract from the real mechanisms of power in a capitalist society. The multi-party system of Canada is no better than the two-party system of the US or the one-party system of China, because the mode of production and the relations of dominance and oppression, of patronage and influence, are independent of the mechanisms of parliament, congress or presidency. To me, political parties and the shenanigans of what we call “politics” are mostly irrelevant. For Weil, however, political parties – while not good – are not harmless either, they are actively bad. And she bases this on a rigorous separation between the forms of goodness that we take for granted and actual good outcomes. Much of the essay carries huge resonance with what we are seeing in the US and elsewhere at the moment:
Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means towards goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain. For instance, if, instead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Republic that decided, through a most rigorous democratic and legal process, to put the jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture them to death, such measures would not have been one atom more legitimate than the present Nazi policies (and such a possibility is by no means farfetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. (5)
For Weil, one of the main problems is that the will of the people (she draws heavily on Rousseau) can never be concretely expressed because the mechanisms for that expression – political parties – become their own ends. The purpose of a political party is to expand its membership and to get elected, not to achieve anything good or legitimate.
Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it. (16)
As a result, “we have never known anything that resembles, however faintly, a democracy. We pretend that our present system is democratic, yet the people never have the chance nor the means to express their views on any problem of public life” (5). This was exactly what I noticed when, in my late teens and early twenties I flirted with the Communist Party and the Industrial Workers of the world. Political parties, like most (all?) of the institutions of bourgeois life, support Weil’s contention that “nothing is more comfortable than not having to think” (27).
In addition to being an activist and political thinking, Weil as also a mystic. The real criterion of goodness, in her view, is an “inner light” that exists within all of us. I am too much of a materialist to accept this view, but it doesn’t detract from the clarity and force of her argument:
Political parties are organizations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade. Hitler saw very clearly that the aim of propaganda must always be to enslave minds. All political parties make propaganda. A party that would not do so would disappear, since all its competitors practice it. All parties confess that they make propaganda. However mendacious they may be, none is bold enough to pretend that in doing so, it is merely educating the public and informing people’s judgement. (16).
Finally, Weil’s outlook, the starting point for her call for the abolition of all political parties can be found when she writes: “Goodness alone is an end. Whatever belongs to the domain of facts pertains to the category of means.”
I think that Philip K Dick would agree with Weil on that last point. Also a mystic, Dick by end of his life believed that he had been taken over by the prophet Elijah, that the message from the divine had been revealed in two of his novels: cryptically in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) and openly in Valis (1981). The Last Interview contains not only the text of an interview conducted the night before the massive stroke that eventually killed Dick, but a number of other interviews from all points in his career. This book resonated for a different reason than Weil. I’ve found lately that I’ve begun to be drawn to artists and writers with particular conceptions of the world that are outside what we might call the mainstream. Andrei Tarkovsky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles… not “outsider artists”, but artists who have a different world inside them that they are trying to get out.
The PKD interviews are interesting because they let us hear his own voice which is similar in tone, but very different from the voice of his novels. Unlike Dostoyevsky, whose style is marked by a “polyphony” of identifiable and singular voices, Dick’s novels are somehow “flattened” into something like a fax. This probably derives from his early days churning out pulp sci-fi for magazines, but it is also of a piece with his view of the world as somehow flat/muted and threatening at the same time, banal and sinister.
There is a pathos to Dick both in the details of his life and the fact of his mental illness (I don’t think there can be any disagreement that he was mentally ill). He was an incredibly intelligent, flexible thinker, knowledgeable on many subjects and with a keen curiosity and a voracious appetite for books and facts, and it is wonderful to hear his enthusiasm in some of this interviews. But that enthusiasm is always undercut by (what he didn’t want to be called) paranoia, and I’m not sure whether the religio-mystic mania of his final years makes up for that or not. I’ll have to read these again in a few years to find out.