On personal versus historical experience

Nancy, 2018.

Nancy, 2018.

How many times have we heard would-be political leaders described as being “too inexperienced for the job”? How many times has sheer decades-in-office been put forward as evidence of a preternatural readiness to assume maximum leadership? This is a discourse politics seems to have to inhabit - especially high-level politics.

The rank ordering of political "experience" has its roots, like so much else, in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Here we see a powerful, intuitive description of experience as the foundation stone for good judgment – meaning especially political judgment. The philosophy of this argument is meant to be taken as self-evident. In his words, the more “signes” you have seen, the greater will be your ability to control the world of appearances. Hobbes is rightly considered one of the founding fathers of modern political order, and is constantly invoked in many contexts, though rarely this one. From Leviathan, chapter III:

"A Signe, is the Event Antecedent, of the Consequent ... And therefore he that has most experience in any kind of businesse, has most Signes, whereby to guesse at the Future time, and consequently is the most prudent: And so much more prudent than he that is new in that kind of business, as not to be equalled by any advantage of naturall and extemporary wit: though perhaps many young men think the contrary."

Hobbes’ outlook on experience continues to speak to us because it comports with our common sense. But common sense is precisely what science and critical thought must be wary of. Obviously, in the tasks we set ourselves from day-to-day – mostly specialised, professional tasks which require minimum judgment and maximum knowledge of domain-specific rule sets – experience as we commonly know it is all-important. Nobody wants an inexperienced doctor, auto mechanic, or nuclear technician. If we put up with inexperience in these fields, it is never for long. But is this kind of experience the same as political experience?

Treating political experience like professional experience quite naturally involves treating politics like any other profession. This seems rational: in politics there are dynamics that mimic those of the professions. There is an art to being able to stay sane during long trips on the campaign bus, and skills relating to communication, team leadership and time management are all crucial. One candidate may have more experience with these things than another. But is this a sound basis for assuming that the more experienced candidate’s politics themselves, the actual substance of their political leadership, are more attuned to the needs of society than another’s? This is the often-implicit assumption made whenever someone treats experience as a fundamental campaign issue.

The fact is that Hobbes was not wrong to place experience at the centre of political judgment. It is wrong, however, to take the meaning of experience in this context as being the same as its meaning in personal, every-day contexts. The distinction needs to be made between private experience, which only ever has a local use, and historical experience, which has a political use. Politics is not a profession – it is the theoretical and practical domain in which society and its needs are understood. Professions may mix and mingle within this domain, but anyone seeking to understand the real tasks of broad-based political leadership will need to rely on more than their own experience. They will have to rely on that of others, which means nothing less than relying on historical experience – especially that of the oppressed and their movements towards autonomy.

This is no mere abstract notion: political movements with a deeper, more accurate or more useful understanding of their own history and of history generally have a genuine competitive edge over movements that do not. A search for these kind of historical understandings is part of most active political discourses today, though the search occasionally digs up trash. The significance of history is visible in the extreme right’s increasing tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, which are nothing less than conspiracy theories of history. One of the most significant to the modern right is the trope of “cultural Marxism”. In this story, popularised recently by best-selling author and YouTube star Jordan Peterson, old-school Marxists of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on to “re-brand” as postmodern academics in the 60s and 70s. Through their influence, the modern left was born. In this narrative, progressive struggles around race and gender present themselves as conspiracies to destroy "western civilisation". Acolytes of this funhouse-mirror version of history feel they have grasped something essential about the political evolution of society since the mid-century, and this leads them to the conclusions they make about political action in the present day. These conclusions are obviously irrational and destructive, but the significance of an historical understanding, however distorted, is clear.

Socialists everywhere must discover and rediscover the use-value of telling historical narratives. We should refuse any kind of historical communication that lives up to history's stereotype of being boring and useless. History is in fact essentially useful: all too often we take our assumptions for granted and do not feel the need to tell the story of how we as a society arrived at a point where what the left has to say in the 21st century makes sense. By taking up this task, we can account for experience in a way that liberal centrism can only ever pay lip-service to.

When it is made rigidly personal, political experience is nothing more interesting or helpful than knowledge of existing networks of power. Such experience consists, essentially, of being a member of the old boys’ club. We have seen how little this has done for the old boys during recent political events in the US and UK. For socialists, being able to situate our audiences in time, and account for the often-baffling twists and turns that politics has gone down since the beginning of the Industrial Age, are much more powerful weapons than any number of years spent repeating the same tired patterns and witnessing the same signs.