Shipwreck with Spectator

Martha Nussbaum on Our Political Crisis

Feisal G. Mohamed
Photo of book cover with author Martha Nussbaum

Experiences we have while reading a book can indelibly mark our response to it. I first flipped through the pages of Martha Nussbaum’s Monarchy of Fear while taking an Uber to the airport. Glancing out the window, I saw a pickup truck speed by with a bumper sticker that was a relic of the 2016 election, with a red-faced, shouting Trump on the left-hand side, a beleaguered Hillary on the right, and dominated in the middle by large gold capital letters blaring “TRUMP THAT BITCH.” Can there be a more eloquent expression of the sentiment that propelled the forty-fifth president into office than those three monosyllables? Or a more perfect emblem of the insecure, working-class white American masculinity that reacted with irrational hostility to the prospect of an eminently capable woman as president? The result at the polls seemed accessory to the primary aim of seeing Hillary Clinton publicly humiliated time and again, a spectacle for which Trump’s supporters had a boundless appetite. An analysis of the politics of fear seemed very timely indeed.

As I was reading with interest on my flight, I could see out of the corner of my eye that the woman seated next to me was also actively annotating the book in her hands. As the plane began its descent she asked what I was reading. I told her it was something by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how saving democracy will require us to conquer fear. “Hey,” she said excitedly, “that’s just like this book!” She explained that the book in her hands was written by an expert in management on the way emotions can negatively affect our decision making, and she showed me the cover of Brian Tracy’s Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life: How to Unlock Your Full Potential for Success and Achievement. It would not have occurred to me before that moment to have placed Nussbaum’s work on the business-advice shelf. But I now found myself internally making a case for this book as philosophy, rather than as vapid pop-psychology-cum-handbook of Puritan conversion urging readers be born again. Doing so turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. And it certainly made me look skeptically upon Nussbaum’s references to current findings in psychology, which so often passes as iron-clad evidence among the self-help set.

The Monarchy of Fear is in fact two books untidily squeezed between a single set of covers. The first is a continued meditation on the politics of emotion, a topic that has been a major focus of Nussbaum’s writings since Upheavals of Thought (2001). Those of us with high regard for her work will be grateful to see another chapter in this ongoing meditation. The second is an analysis of our current political moment. Nussbaum’s effort here is an utter disappointment. She offers no analysis of the actual workings of American democracy, and insists on a silly bipartisan balance in faulting individuals on the right and left for not being good Rawlsean subjects committed to rational dialogue and consensus.

In its most memorable passage, The Monarchy of Fear paints a primal scene:

You are lying on your back in the dark. Wet. Cold. Hunger and thirst throb and throb. They are you, and you are nothing but pain. You try to scream, and you somehow make a sound come out–but nothing happens. You try, or start to try, to move, to go somewhere, anywhere, out of this agony. But your limbs won’t move. You can’t make them do anything but wave uselessly in the air. You see, you hear, you feel. But you can’t move or act. You are completely, simply, helpless.

The experience, of course, is the routine terror of infancy. Its horrors are mitigated only by the appearance of a benevolent caregiver dispensing relief of some kind. One hopes, powerlessly, that it is the right kind. If this is how we spend our first months of life, then our emotional world is dominated at its inception by overpowering fear. Because of this fear, the human infant becomes a swaddled powder keg of resentment and hostility, biding its time to lash out at the imperfectly conscientious adults on whom it is wholly dependent.

This, Nussbaum contends, is a primary experience that she had not fully acknowledged in her previous work on disgust. As she shows in Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2006), and as is restated here, disgust has a cognitive component: we do not automatically recoil from certain sensory experiences so much as associate certain sensory experiences with things that we think are contaminants. Lurking behind disgust is fear of some kind, especially fear of death and disease. Because we cannot eliminate the things that disgust us in ourselves, we cope through what Nussbaum terms “projective disgust”: finding a group to identify as more prone to disease, more sexual, and generally more bodily, as is visible in racial animosity, anti-gay sentiment, and misogyny.

The analysis is supported by the insights of psychology. Nussbaum concedes that this may not seem a natural choice in an analysis of politics, and concedes too that she all but ignores sociology and political economy. “This is not a book of public policy, or of economic analysis,” she openly states; “it is more general, and more introspective.” We all have our disciplinary limitations, but in a book like this one, that choice is ideological in effect, if not in intent. By sliding past the material conditions driving political life, Nussbaum creates a political fantasy in which the problems of the American republic would be solved if we all embraced Lucretian ataraxia. (Even Rawls emerged from consideration of liberal proceduralism under laboratory conditions to take notice of the messy business of distributive justice.) Fear is an emotion of monarchical authoritarianism. It is antithetical to the democratic arts, which respond to challenges beyond individual control with hope and the kind of fellow-feeling that leads to cooperation.

Making politics an art of appropriate feeling has been a bourgeois ambition at least since the appearance of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). What matters in this tradition is not the full democratic participation of the poor but for a politically significant class to have the right feelings about the poor so privilege will lose its hard edge. Nussbaum’s basic acceptance of the actual political agency of the privileged is clearly revealed in her remarks on primary and secondary education. It should be clear to any thoughtful observer that this country’s distribution of educational resources is an ongoing human-rights violation–and I use that phrase not for rhetorical effect but because it is fundamental to Article 13 of the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights that education enabling “all persons to participate effectively in a free society” be made equally accessible. Obviously that does not happen in the United States, where race and income strongly–and increasingly, given tuition trends in public higher education–determine educational opportunity. Nussbaum is self-evidently correct in stating that “when decisions are made about school budgets, school bussing, and about how to improve failing inner-city schools, whites, Asian Americans, and Latinos urgently need to work against their own likely implicit bias (and of course some blacks may share these biases).” And yet in the next breath Nussbaum speaks favorably of Rahm Emmanuel’s plan to require graduating high-school seniors to formulate a plan for the future, consisting of either employment or further education. This rests uneasily, to say the least, with the comment on school budgets. No mention whatsoever is made of the fact that Emmanuel has closed more schools than any other mayor before or since, and that all evidence suggests that this has had a strongly negative impact on Chicago’s minority students.

Nussbaum is too careful a thinker, and too close to the issues in her own backyard, for this to be an accidental omission. It is in fact a knowing endorsement of the neoliberal politics of Emmanuel’s agenda, in which black students don’t need the world-class schools available to their white peers; they just need to be trained in more effective self-care. A neoliberal ethos is similarly visible in Nussbaum’s consideration of the politics of envy. Time and again we are told that envy exists on the political right and left: “On the right, a sense of stagnation, helplessness, and even despair propels many lower-middle-class people into envious denigration of Washington elites, of mainstream media, of successful minorities, of women taking ‘their jobs.’ … On the left, many have-nots envy the power of the bankers, or big business, and of political insiders who support those interests.” Is this a rhetorical lapse, a mere sop to conservative readers? Hard to think so when it is repeated again: “The politics of envy sometimes just says frankly, ‘We want what they [women, immigrants, elites] have” (brackets in original). And again: “Envious malice, as I’ve said, is not just on the right–though it is surely present there. On the left we find similar themes–in the hatred of ‘elites,’ ‘bankers,’ and ‘big business,’ even occasionally of ‘capitalism’ itself.”

What an absurd equivalence. If we were concerned only with the mere existence of emotions in political life, then we might agree that both right and left can be said to have certain animosities. But such a remark is obviously facile at best. On the right we have a white supremacist impulse to hold on to perceived status by violating the civil and political rights of women and minorities. On the left we have mounting frustration with the ills of steep inequality and corporate malfeasance that are rapidly eroding quality of life for the majority. In the wake of a catastrophe of their own making, corrupt lenders deemed “too big to fail” received trillions of dollars from the public purse with which they paid themselves multimillion dollar bonuses throughout the recession of 2008–9. Pell Grants, on the other hand, saw a brief and almost imperceptible increase before falling to allocations of roughly a hundred dollars per U.S. citizen. According to figures from Americans for Financial Reform, the banking sector engaged in record amounts of lobbying and political activity during the 2016 election cycle, including $1.2 billion in campaign contributions. But in Nussbaum’s argument, indignation aimed at American oligarchy is “envious denigration” of the banking executives who have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In this strange vision of the U.S. constitutional tradition, we sense that Nussbaum has fallen under the spell of her “law and economics” colleagues and the Chicago Law School, with their application of Friedmanite principles to the study of law–society interactions. Competition and the market are unquestioned goods, and indeed are elided with the project of sweeping away ancient privilege that is central to Enlightenment republicanism: “A society that eschews fixed orders and destinies in favor of mobility and competition opens the door wide to envy for the competitive achievements of others.” Is mobility a zero-sum game necessitating competition? Nussbaum warms again to the task of celebrating competition when discussing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which becomes in her handling a musical about the grit necessary to being “in the room where it happens”:

You don’t get to be in that room without successful competition against others. Whether we’re talking about presidential candidates or less glamorous participants in the democratic process, creation and competition are very difficult to separate… . Competition need not compromise virtue, but it always introduces temptations… . Democracy is an uncertain fear-suffused realm in which nobody has space to unfold creative powers without the anxious pursuit of competitive advantage. [emphasis mine]

The book promises in its subtitle a philosopher’s take on our political crisis. Instead it feels in such moments like a civics lesson delivered by a literate football coach. After such exhausting rhetoric, we are barely moved to raise an eyebrow when “The US Constitution, … the financial system, [and] the Federal Reserve Bank” are all taken to be “the backbone of our flawed but still operating democracy.” I do certainly agree with Nussbaum that banks, the Federal Reserve, and the three branches of the federal government all lie in the same bed, but I would not call that unhappy union democracy.

Conspicuously absent from Nussbaum’s argument is the modern political philosopher who placed fear at the center of his thought, Thomas Hobbes. Everyone remembers the primal scene that Hobbes describes: the state of nature where human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Less often remembered is its cause: constant competition. Because the differences among human beings are not so great that natural hierarchies emerge–some may have the advantage of physical strength, while others the advantage of cunning–before the existence of political society no individual can be secure in his or her possessions. And every individual will seek to expand his or her dominion. This creates the bellum omnium contra omnes, war of all against all, that can have no end until we all mutually agree to enter political society and deposit absolute authority in a sovereign power. Only our fear of the sovereign, in Hobbes’s terms, can eliminate the debilitating fear of the state of nature. And it is only when the state of constant competition is eliminated that we can enjoy the benefits of human civilization, including the pursuit of knowledge.

None of us is likely to accept Hobbes’s authoritarian bargain, but it is worthwhile to note his association of unfettered competition with a fear that is antithetical to peace and productivity. It is the task of the state to limit and direct competition in ways that benefit the polity as a whole. Nussbaum comes close to recognizing this in praising the New Deal as a “comprehensive assault on fear.” But the recognition is brief and defies the logic of her book. She quotes in full FDR’s “second bill of rights,” which would have added to the Constitution basic economic and social rights–housing, food, adequate wages, healthcare. “Roosevelt saw,” Nussbaum concludes, “that rights protect democracy from envy.” A guarantee of sufficiency, in other words, is the best way for democracy to flourish, allowing citizens to face one another on a foundation of equal dignity. But Nussbaum does not address how this goes against the grain of her argument, and places hard limits on competition in the marketplace, even as those limits are explicit in the text she quotes: “the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.” What the monopolies were to the industrial era, big banks are to the financial era. They have become an imperium in imperio, an alternate system of governance intruding upon any individual who pursues postsecondary education, who opens a business, who owns a home, who seeks the basic comforts of a middle-class life. The average American household carries $130,000 in debt, with recent years seeing steep increases in the amount of debt individuals carry into retirement. The national college class of 2016 averaged over $37,000 in student debt. This is not an atmosphere of fair competition and freedom from domination; it is a republic of precarity and fear where the lives of citizens are determined by the whims of financial executives as much as by the decisions of duly elected representatives. Nussbaum does not seem to see this in celebrating the “financial system” as vital to American democracy.

Nussbaum’s efforts to appeal to conservative readers become truly bizarre when she writes in agonized tones about the shooting of Steve Scalise:

June 15, 2017. It’s a bad day today, after the shooting of Republican congressman Steve Scalise and others at a congressional baseball game, by a disturbed man apparently motivated by hatred of Trump and Republicans. But it seems that more or less every day, these days, is a bad day… . Where, then, is hope? How can we have it?

The hard work of finding reasons to live after the Scalise shooting is a leitmotif of the chapter on political hope. Count me among those who did not find it so very hard to get out of bed after the shooting of a congressman with an A+ rating from the NRA. Perhaps our age of mass shootings makes us all a little more callous, sifting the simply terrible from the truly awful, but it does seem baffling to me that someone would be traumatized by this particular event. Thinking of Sandy Hook Elementary School still brings tears to my eyes, as does the summary execution of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice for the crime of carrying a toy pistol. I can think of so many acts of murder–not narrow escapes but actual murders–that reveal troubling things about the state of the republic: the June 2015 murder of nine worshippers at a black church in Charleston; the June 2016 murder of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando; the February 2017 shooting of two South Asian men, supposed to be Muslim, in Olathe, Kansas; the October 2017 murder of fifty-eight people in Las Vegas, during which a man with no discernible motive rained over eleven hundred rounds of ammunition on a crowd of concertgoers. As I write these words, the nation is reeling from two high-profile hate crimes: the murder of two black men at a grocery store in Kentucky by a shooter who had tried and failed to enter a black church minutes before; and the murder of eleven worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Steve Scalise lives and continues proudly to serve on the Congressional Second Amendment Task Force. In its own way this makes me despair of human nature and wonder about the promise of Enlightenment republics to gather rational minds in the halls of legislature, but I must confess that I have not been at any time deeply distraught by the Scalise shooting.

Nussbaum’s odd reaction to the shooting of a congressman with an active role in perpetrating gun violence hints at a larger absence in her book: she offers no compelling analysis of the fear created by state violence. Nussbaum mentions the Black Lives Matter movement only in passing, and with mixed feelings, even though it has effectively raised broad awareness of the persistent climate of fear created by the police in black communities nationwide. Also not discussed is the explicit aim of the Trump administration to terrorize immigrant communities. In a way quite unprecedented, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have stalked schools, bus terminals, and courthouses, forcing undocumented immigrants to live in a state of constant fear. Individuals crossing the southern border are subject to extended detention and have been separated from their children as a deterrent to other migrants. This is to say nothing of the decades-long situation obtaining in the criminal justice system, whereby innocents–almost all young minority men–are arbitrarily arrested and subject to extended detention in jails, only to accept plea deals with prison terms because they have no hope of a fair trial. Nussbaum mentions very gingerly that not all people are well served by the criminal justice system, and that some sort of reform might be a good idea, but her argument is completely inadequate to address the state’s systematic efforts to rule through fear.

At several points Nussbaum declares her admiration for Lucretius’s De rerum natura, certainly a poem worth admiring. In reading The Monarchy of Fear, I was reminded of its most famous passage, which I offer here in Lucy Hutchinson’s seventeenth-century translation, its first into English:

Pleasant it is, when rough winds seas deforme,
On shore to see men labour in the storme;
Not that our pleasure springs from their distresse,
But from the safetie we our selves possesse.
Pleasant, when without danger ’tis beheld,
To see two engag’d armies in the field;
But nothing a more pleasant prospect yeilds,
Then that high tower which wise mens learning builds,
Where well secur’d, we wandring troopes survey,
Who in a maze of error search their way. [2.1–10]

The Monarchy of Fear does not offer a compelling analysis of our political moment. It is a spectator’s view of a shipwreck. But its author is not Nussbaum who has achieved the ataraxic calm of the Lucretian spectator; it is a Nussbaum divided against herself. Her social-democratic impulses are at war with her equation of democracy with free market principles, and the worse side is winning. There has always been a civic republican streak in Nussbaum’s thought, the maturation perhaps of an early libertarianism that drew her, as she confesses, to work for the Barry Goldwater campaign. I searched these pages in vain for a twenty-first-century version of Ciceronian magnanimity, which might have been useless in an intellectually respectable way. Viewing all forms of human endeavor as competition is a positive good, so long as we respect the rules of the game. Critiquing the banks is fine, as long as we do not do it too loudly. In these pages Nussbaum shades into a neoliberal-zombie civic republicanism that imagines functioning democratic society as an undead army mildly groaning under the command of banking executives. It is a disappointing vision, all the more so in that it may in fact be an improvement upon our shouting political culture.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale. Also trained in law, he is the author, most recently, of Sovereignty.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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