Poetry and democracy ~ Mugabe and Trump

Poetry and democracy ~ Mugabe and Trump

What is democracy? What does political debate mean? Where are the boundaries? What are the expectations? We don’t really know is the straight answer.

I am pleased Mugabe is under house arrest. I spent a month there in 1990, ten years after Mugabe came to power with the backing and financial support of many donor nations. Already, there was deep corruption, violence to opposition parties and economic disaster. It is such a beautiful country with rich cultures and lovely people.

Earlier this year The Economist had a piece called, ‘How Robert Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe: Mere despotism was not enough for Robert Mugabe; daft policymaking was crucial.’[1] And yesterday NPR had an article headlined, ‘Robert Mugabe: A Legacy Of Tyrannical Rule, Economic Ruin And International Isolation’[2]

The fact is that the democracy that the African Union claims has been overthrown – though said in mellow tones – was not a democracy. Not that military rule is the answer – but there are only better worst answers in politics.

Not everyone is a fan. Jorge Luis Borges supported the military dictatorship of Videla and even Pinochet: ‘In and of itself a dictatorship doesn’t seem reprehensible, one has to consider the particular circumstances. In itself empires don’t seem to be wrong. The Roman Empire and the British Empire did a lot of good. . . . For a long time I believed in democracy. Now I don’t believe in it; at least not in my own country.’ [3]

Marilynne Robinson in the current New York Review of Books wonders: ‘The nature of the good society is a philosophic question, debated by great minds over centuries. For some reason, Americans are reluctant to speak of our experiment with democracy as rooted in a tradition of thought and aspiration stretching back to antiquity, though those Founders we invoke from time to time were certainly aware that it is. Our history reflects the fact that this question is never closed . . .’ [4]

It is never closed because democracy is a transcendent term. That is to say:

  1. a value that can never be perfectly realised and against which all concrete examples are incomplete;
  2. a value that appears as a demand or longing. It calls out for us to enact it in our culture and institutions;
  3. a value that is inchoate and indeterminate, which is articulated through culture but never fulfilled.[5]

And long before Balkin, de Tocqueville had stressed the limitation of ‘general ideas/abstract words’ arguing that an ‘abundance of abstract terms widens the scope of thought and clouds it.’ [6]

It is never closed because thoughts and attitudes rise from a shifting ground of ideological tectonic plates.  Marilynne Robinson blames ideology, but this itself is a complex term. In one of his first essays ‘Experience’ (1913) Walter Benjamin said elders in power legitimise their views by recourse to experience. ‘What has this adult experienced? What does he wish to prove to us: This above all: he, too, was once young; he, too, wanted what we wanted; he, too, refused to believe his parents, but life has taught him that they were right. Saying this, he smiles in a superior fashion: this will also happen to us—in advance he devalues the years we will live, making them into a time of sweet youthful pranks, of childish rapture, before the long sobriety of serious life.’

The German theorist Jurgan Habermas grounds democracy in ‘domination-free communication’, but Richard Rorty says that is just another pie in the sky metaphysical scheme. In his series of essays Mythologies, Roland Barthes worked ‘on the evaporation of reality’, to reveal how myths (from Einstein’s Brain to wrestling) infiltrate our daily lives. Through the media and cultural formations they appear natural while concealing the reality of our relations to work, power, capital, consumption and nature. Their naturalness depoliticises them. [7]  What Barthes calls myth I would call ideology, which Terry Eagleton contextualises: ‘A dominant power may legitimise itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalising and universalising such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable.’[8] Socialised, through schools, family, churches and our entertainment, advertising, popular music etc. we interpret our world in ways we think of as natural, not knowing alternatives. Art, literature, poetry can suggest alternatives.

Michel Foucault has shown us how domination spread so subtly in liberal societies, and maintenance of order is paramount: ‘The fundamental codes of a culture – those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices – establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.’ [9]  The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk puts forward the thesis that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical. The subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.’ [10]

So what has poetry got to do with anything?

Alexander Nehamas is frustrated by ‘the failure’ of our imagination: ‘We don’t realize that most everything is contingent, that things could be different.’[11] We are resistant to change, as Emerson wrote: ‘People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.’[12] An optimistic sense of possibility is best associated with Romanticism which has long evaporated. The planet needs change desperately. ‘In our contemporary world, only art indicates the possibility of revolution as a radical change beyond the horizon of our present desires and expectations.’ writes Boris Groys.[13] Art is one approach, but not enough. Everyone, including artists, should do their bit to support the hearing opf voices, form those not usually heard, and for open debate.

Democracy – a dangerous word or Clowntown

                                                  Nov 8, 2011

Clowntown Fuck-the-World Shitshow

I was unaware of the bloody guts of the Industrial Revolution,

how slavery nourished my English childhood. Boarding school

continued the charms of empire which I’ve been unable to repay.


What Did I Do to Deserve This? I Always Tried to Be a Good Person Is This Because I Stole Candy Once in 4th Grade Please Stop Punishing Us

Germans suffered from Allied bombing, Russian rape tactics

secret police and defeat, but ordinary Germans also benefited

from an artificially induced higher standard of living.


I Don’t Even Believe in Past Lives, But I Must Have Done Something Really Fucking Terrible in a Past Life to Deserve This I’m Sorry I’m Sorry I’m Sorry

Hitler introduced huge tax breaks and social benefits,

never once raising taxes for working people. He rewarded

his soldiers with more than double the salaries of allied troops.


America’s 3-D Imax Shit-Fit Dumpster Fire

Like Greek mercenaries, looting was encouraged.

The Leningrad front sent home over 3 million packages of plunder

in the first three months of 43 alone.


The Shit-Filled Cornucopia That Just Keeps on Giving

Without conquest, a bankrupt war-mongering state, couldn’t nourish

the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, or build

the Acropolis and new Agora. Imperial tribute funded arts and poetry.


The Electoral Equivalent of Seeing Someone Puking, so You Start Puking, and Then Someone Else Is Puking, and Pretty Soon Everyone Is Puking

Perikles’ great achievement, the Athenian Age, the Classical Age

was democratic reform within the bounds of the few against

the many, and this shocked and unnerved enemies and allies.


Oh, I Get It: We All Died, and This Is Hell, and Satan Has Cursed Us to Live Out This Nightmare for All Eternity

Athens saw itself as a democracy when it was really ruled by one man,

Perikles who stripped Athena’s sacred treasure for the first modern war.

Herodotus thought earlier conflicts were decided by heroes and the gods.


America’s Shit Salad Fuckstravaganza

Socrates fought bravely at Poteidaia, Delion and Amphipolis,

was chair of assembly at the trial of the generals after the naval battle

of Arginousai and was summoned for collaboration by the Thirty.


The Fiery Two-Party Pileup on the Hellbound Fuckspressway    

Aristophanes hit the mark, Socrates was ugly, walked barefoot in rags,

argued loudly and was a troublemaker for twenty-five years.

Athens was ordinarily tolerant of such eccentric citizens.


America’s Fucktastic Cirque de Dismay

Athenian democracy had some commitment to free speech and diversity

of culture which worked against the totality of the majority. You were one

of the 500 jurors, ordinary Athenian men over 30 – no women or slaves.


A Horrifying Glimpse at Satan’s Pinterest Board

Slaves were commonplace in ancient Greece, foreign barbarians

who spoke no Greek and suited by their nature to be slaves.

The enslavement of Messenia set Sparta apart. It just takes one


Lice on Rats on a Horse Corpse on Fire



Quotes in italics by John Oliver, 2016

‘. . . having room for far and near,

Used to dispense with other lands, incarnating this land,

Attracting it body and Soul to himself, hanging on its neck with incomparable love,

Plunging his Semitic muscle into its merits and demerits,

Making its geography, cities, beginnings, events, glories, defections, diversities, vocal in him.’

Walt Whitman, Poem of Many in One.

You can see how volatile the human world is, as much as the natural one. As of 2010, The UN claimed that ‘six countries are more democratic (Togo, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, Thailand and Montenegro) and eight are less democratic (Gabon, Lesotho, Mauretania, Senegal, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain and Jordan).’


[1] Feb 26, 2017

[2] November 15, 2017,

[3] Borges, speech given in Chile, 1976.

[4] Marilynne Robinson, Year One: Rhetoric & Responsibility, New York Review of Books, 14 Nov, 2017,

[5] J. M. Balkin, Cultural Software, Yale UP, 1998.

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840.

[7] In The German Ideology (1845) Marx and Engels investigated how the powerful have maximum control with the minimum of conflict.

[8] Terry Eagleton, Ideology – An Introduction, London: Verso, 1991, p5-6.

[9] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, (Les Mots et les choses, published in French in 1966) 1970.

[10] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, 1989

[11] Alexander Nehamas interviewed by David Carrier, Bomb Magazine, 65, Fall, 1998, p36-41.  See also, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, U of California P, 1998.

[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Circles’ (1841), in Essays and Lectures

[13] Boris Groys, ‘On Art Activism’, e-flux Journal #56, June 2014.


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