Coronavirus Conversations: “The Revolution is Coming”

It was one of my more enjoyable interviews. The interviewer had clearly done her homework. Each question that she asked – and more important, her follow-ups – revealed how deeply she had read in Self-Reg. But it was her last question that really stands out in my mind: “What do you want to see happen?” Without missing a beat, I responded: “A radical re-Enlightenment.” And there we left it. But I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since: wondering where it came from, trying to bring out into the open something lurking at the back of my mind.

Why think of the Enlightenment at a time when we are all desperately trying to cope with the coronavirus? Why think of a philosophical revolution when the head of CMHO is warning us that she is “especially concerned about the severity of mental health experiences of Ontario’s children and youth leading into and during COVID-19.” It was the subtle emphasis on leading into that caught my attention. Her point was that we are seeing an explosion of mental health problems in children and youth, many of them pre-dating and all of them exacerbated by the pandemic. Why turn to philosophy when it seems that the help most needed is clinical?

The answer is: Because you can’t endure without a sense of what you are enduring for.

Here we are, confronted with a case of hunkering down and weathering the storm, each of us suffering alone yet suffering together. But Kim Moran’s message has led me to think about the larger, political storm raging about us: One that strikes at the very heart of what sort of society we are and what we want to become. Much like the storm that took place in the 18th century.

There are fascinating parallels between the intellectual climate then and now. So much more is involved today than the question of whether some are rushing to open up before they should. As was the case in the Enlightenment, we are witnessing a momentous clash between opposing progressive and reactionary forces. We are seeing the same pervasive yearning for a better future; and the same implacable urge to return to an arcadian past (as memorialized in Andy of Mayberry).

The leadup to today’s ideological battle is, once again, a frontal assault on “traditional beliefs.” But whereas the Enlightenment was driven by the attack on Church, monarchy, and aristocracy, we are now dealing with a sustained attack on Victorian attitudes towards gender, marriage, feminism, multiculturalism, social fluidity, redistribution, the steepening of the social gradient. Where the 18th century debate was conducted in coffee shops and parish churches, we are seeing a “wholly new kind of public sphere for debate” [Radical Enlightenment]: i.e., the internet rather than newspapers and pamphlets.

This intellectual commotion is energizing for some, dysregulating for others. Once again, the role of science is at the heart of the issue. As was the case back in the 18th century, we are seeing an alarming spread of anti-scientism. This backlash is as much about trying to turn the clock back and halting the march of liberalism as taking refuge in denial. Then, as now, it is a reactionary movement that plays on fear and anxiety and dismisses the vaunted claims of reason. Which leads us to the most significant of all the similarities.

In a telling interview with the New York Times (Aug 16, 2017), Steve Bannon warned that “the revolution is coming.” But what Bannon really meant is that the “counter-revolution” is coming. What he was really saying was: The Enlightenment has failed. Again.

The first great “failure” occurred with the French Revolution. The leadup to this cataclysm took place in a fairly orderly manner: a parliamentary clash between the defenders of constitutional monarchy versus democratic republicans. But with the onset of revolution, events were swiftly overtaken by the Reign of Terror.

The latter amounted to a violent Counter-revolution, led by Robespierre and the Montagnards, who claimed allegiance to Rousseau’s idea of the General Will. They were able to seize control of the National Assembly by firing up the anger and resentment of peasants and the working class. The parallel between the “sans-culottes” and today’s extremists is striking.

France swung violently and abruptly from one political pole to the opposite: one moment republican, and soon to become (under Napoleon III) authoritarian. But as Jonathan Israel explains in Radical Enlightenment, the people themselves had “scant awareness of, or interest in, the ideological splits.” The “real” battle was being conducted by “vying elites”: “competing revolutionary vanguards” that swept the people along in the wake of their rhetoric.

Is that what is happening today? We may think that all we are dealing with is a partisan conflict over who should hold power as and when we are able to rebuild. But today’s vanguards are engaged in something very different. Namely, they are confronting us with an ideological battle over the primum mobile of democracy: the principle of equality.

Enlightenment philosophers insisted that all humans have the same rights and goal (viz., to be happy). That all can be brought to “a higher level of moral sensibility” through education. The raison d’être of universal education is shared enlightenment, which is the sine qua non for a society to be capable of self-government. And that principle, according to reactionary thinking, is the very illusion that has led us into failure, over and over. Not for want of trying, but because of the reality of human nature. This is the crux of the reactionary Weltanschauung: that humans are not equally “enlightenable,” and thus, that the dream of democratic republicanism is a chimera.

To describe today’s political turmoil as an “Ideological conflict” is to some extent misleading. This suggests that the present upheaval represents a clash of ideas. But while it may have started out that way, it has now descended into a full-out Red Brain struggle, at serious risk of slipping into chaos. The Terror was just that: a terrifying example of what happens when a society collapses into Brown Brain. The terror of the pandemic must not be allowed to do the same. Which is why we need a radical re-Enlightenment: a re-dedication to the principles that underpin democracy. Only now, it will not be rhetoric that saves these ideals, but instead, modern science.

All of this was what was at the back of my mind when I blurted out the need for a radical re-Enlightenment. In a way, I can’t help but feel that Bannon was on the right track: that what is needed is something transformational and not a return to the pre-pandemic status quo. But a political revolution arises from, it does not result in a philosophical revolution.

I say this, not in spite of, but because of Marx’ famous sardonic comment in Theses on Fuerbach (which is carved on his tombstone) that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx was well aware that the Enlightenment marked an extraordinary moment in human thought. The wave of revolutions that occurred – starting in America and spreading to France, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Haiti, Venezuela – was inspired by the writings of philosopher-giants: Spinoza, d’Holbach, Voltaire, Rousseau, D’alembert, Diderot, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, Brissot, Condorcet, Kant. To name just a few!

Marx was also aware at the time that he wrote this (1845) that the Enlightenment had failed.

As inspiring as were the aspirations of 17th and 18th century philosophers, reactionary thinking had overtaken virtually every one of the European revolutions. This is the reason why Marx called for a revolutionary vanguard – with devastating consequences. Yet his point remains prescient.

The radical re-Enlightenment needs to be led. But this time the leaders will not be political dissidents, but parents and educators. An army of Self-Reggers, intent on a revolution in parenting and education in order to save democracy. That is what we are enduring for.P.S. – I wrote this piece around a month ago, long before there was any hint of the protests that have shaken the world. How much would I change? Certainly the line that what we are seeing is a confrontation between ideological vanguards. Suddenly every single one of us is involved in a momentous struggle to realize, finally, the Enlightenment dream of creating a Just Society. But I would also change the paragraph in which my anxiety about a descent into Brown Brain creeps in. For what we are seeing today is a surge of Satyagraha, fuelled by Blue Brain principles of justice and equality and Red Brain feelings of compassion and human fellowship. ~ Stuart

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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