Reconcilable Differences

–Leadership and the Political Animal

The whole tendency of modern life is towards scientific planning and organisation, central control, standardisation, and specialisation.  If this tendency was left to work itself out to its extreme conclusion, one might expect to see the state transformed into an immense social machine, all the individual components of which are strictly limited to the performance of a definite and specialised function, where there could be no freedom because the machine could only work smoothly as long as every wheel and cog performed its task with unvarying regularity.

~Christopher Dawson in Religion and World History

It was Aristotle who told us “man is by nature a political animal”.  Most people today would regard this as a personal affront, and repudiate the implication that they are devious, deceitful, and dissipated.  Playing politics in the workplace or in any social setting is considered self-serving and disruptive of team or community spirit, and is seen as even more reprehensible than the behaviour of politicians who, after all, have openly embraced the notorious chicanery of their vocation.

However, politics is, as Louis L’Amour told us, the art of making civilization work.  Government of some sort is necessary in any group of people united in a common purpose and involves the allocation of executive, legislative, and judicial authority.  Naturally, the “political animal” brings to any community differences of attitude, ability, and ambition that typically generate conflict, but the differences are reconcilable by virtue of humankind’s faculty for rational dialogue.  And that is the basis of politics – in the family, workplace, community, and nation.  When rational dialogue breaks down, the rational animal is reduced to mere animality, and politics gives way to violence.  To refuse dialogue is to declare war.

In the rancorous rows between ‘us and them’, that is, between capitalist and socialist, liberal and conservative, right and left, the old labels have become confusing, and many commentators now see the essential contest as being between globalism and populism.  However, both these latter terms are poorly defined, and the vagueness only intensifies the raging indignation that characterizes both sides of the divide and obscures the fact that the real issue is more fundamental, concerning freedom and control, and what it means to be human.

Classical Greece used the concept of ‘regime’ to explain the different political systems adopted in human communities, and they believed that regimes recurred in cycles (kyklos).  Radical political change in any community involves a change of regime; and by way of example, it makes a massive difference in the lives of ordinary people if the democratic state in which they live is replaced by a Marxist regime.  Politics impacts every aspect of our lives.

Classical philosophy’s taxonomy of regimes identified three good regimes – monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (the republic of virtue, with a separation of powers) – and three bad regimes – tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.  A regime was deemed good – whether power was vested in one person, a few people, or all citizens – when it governed in accordance with the common good, seeking the well-being of all.  By contrast, a regime was considered bad when it governed in pursuit of narrow partisan interests.

Of course, many kings have been tyrants, and many aristocrats exploited the common folk, but through classical and medieval times, the ideals of monarchy and aristocracy were built upon the common good.  Monarchs and nobles were seen as bound to their subjects by the oath they took to uphold the laws and customs of the land.  Hence Thomas Aquinas:

To order anything to the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the representative of the whole people.  Hence the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a person who has the care of the whole people.

Tyranny is a corruption of monarchy, properly understood, oligarchy is a distortion of aristocracy, properly understood, and democracy is a corruption of polity because the uneducated masses are easily misled by unscrupulous politicians.  This latter case usually results in ochlocracy or mob rule, and that opens the door to tyranny.  Stable government devoted to the common good is very hard to achieve, and when it is lost, the way back is long and painful.

As events have shown in the past decade, liberal democracy is in crisis, and its establishment elites are becoming progressively (you should forgive the unintentional pun) less liberal and less democratic as the pressure caused by its inner contradictions escalates.  Unparalleled military, policing, and surveillance powers, immense and intricate infrastructure, both real and virtual, and a bewilderingly complex financial and commercial network spanning the globe, are all vulnerable and unlikely to dam the rising floodwaters.

So the question centers on what socio-political entities are likely to emerge in the decades ahead.  The visions of the varied antagonists in the unfolding drama provide some clues.  The most convincing taxonomy of contemporary socio-political dispensations starts with the division between pre-modern conservatism and modern liberalism.  The former stands on family, community, religion, history, culture, and nation, while the latter is based on the modern myth of the isolated autonomous individual, bound by a social contract to the state, the extent of whose power is determined by a variety of options, from communism on the left, across the political spectrum of Modernity to neo-fascism on the right.

On the right, there is a tension between the proponents of oligarchic control, suitably disguised as participatory democracy, and libertarian meritocracy, which tries to pass itself off as conservatism, while undermining the family, community, religion, history, and tradition.  Liberalism, right of center, seeks to make the market universal, regardless of the realities of human greed and perversity.  This enables the few to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.

On the left, there is the unquestioning belief in an always-undefined utopia that allows the political class to hold power permanently in a state of perpetual revolution.  As Roger Scruton so ably pointed out in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands:

A blind faith drags leftists from ‘struggle’ to ‘struggle’, reassuring them that everything done in the name of equality is well done, and that all destruction of existing power will lead towards the goal…’Revolutionary praxis’ therefore confines itself to the work of destruction, having neither the power nor the desire to imagine, in concrete terms, the end towards which it labours.

Today, the left is once more dominated by the shadow of Marx.  Marxist political theory has evolved over time, with Neo-Marxism arising after the First World War in the work of Antonio Gramsci, and members of the Frankfurt School like Marcuse, Horkheimer, and Adorno.  Existentialists and other postmodern thinkers added to the brew.  Broadly speaking, ‘Marxism’ refers to any ideological movement grounded in Karl Marx’s four basic ideas:

  • Conflict between oppressor and oppressed: Marx saw the formation of classes in society and the exploitation that follows as scientific facts. His antithesis of bourgeoisie and proletariat is easily transposed into the polarisation between the seemingly affluent SME-owners and professionals and the vast and vulnerable masses of liberal democracy.  The state, in Marxist ideology, is the historical means of perpetuating injustice, and this provides the pretext for the expansion of the power of the party as the agency of liberation.
  • False Consciousness: Marx claimed that politicians, professionals, business bosses, and intellectuals may well be convinced by the reigning ideology (liberal categories like private property and free enterprise) that they are architects of progress, just as the proletariat may be unaware of the injustice of their situation. This false consciousness has to be dismantled by teaching people to think in Marxist categories.
  • Violent revolution and reorganisation of society: To reinforce his pseudo-scientific theory, Marx speciously claimed that history showed the material well-being of the oppressed was only improved by the violent overthrow of the state and the ideology that shaped it, the seizure of the means of production, and the annihilation of the oppressors. This cataclysm is preceded by a period of stealthy insurrection that softens up the regime to be destroyed.
  • Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Classless Society: Marx maintained that the violent overthrow of the oppressor state would result in the establishment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, in which control of the state and the means of production would be in the hands of the people. This intermediary phase would give way to a classless society in which the antagonisms of other regimes would be swept away forever.  Just how this utopia is to be be achieved has never been specified, and Marxism has always resulted in tyranny.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. Brilliant essay Andre.

    Thank you so much…
    In the beginning
    “ To refuse dialogue is to declare war.” Really stayed with me

    In all aspects.. why can’t we just remember to make it our business to know what a human is…

    Thank you… I do need to read again…it’s that kind of article
    Really appreciate this

  2. Andre, you remain one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and seers.

    At risk of shortchanging even so much of a word in your brilliantly insightful essay, two things in particular caught my attention:

    1. “Government of some sort is necessary in any group of people united in a common purpose.” For all of the reasons you described, abetted by the ubiquity and anonymity of electronic media, we have no common purpose other than the acquisition and retention of power and control. When the name — United States of America — had become a cruel and ironic joke (it has), hope becomes a fleeting and seemingly futile aspiration.

    2. “Conflict between oppressor and oppressed”. I imagine even Marx would be surprised to know he made the prospect of being oppressed so attractive it spawned cultures of victimhood. It bred a Grievance Industry. And it precipitated a pathological gullibility that allowed abject lies and empty promises be the keys to becoming an oppressor.

    I do believe in the cyclical nature of everything. But it seems The Big Wheel will have to squeak and grind for quite some time before it comes back around to unity, let alone sanity.

    Thank you for continuing to write what needs to be written.


    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Mark. You are exactly right about the loss of common purpose. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, which inspired both the Gettysburg Address and MLK’s “I have a dream” speech has either been lost or corrupted in the minds of the last several generations. And logically, Modernity’s exaltation of the detached, autonomous individual makes unity of purpose impossible to achieve, and opens the door to Leviathan, from either the Left or the Right. That’s why Marxist thought shapes so many minds in the West, often without them even realising it. But history shows that wheels can turn quickly, and it is the task of all of us who believe in truth, freedom, and justice to speak out boldly against the lies that are driving western society to dystopia. I am heartened to see the many articulate voices being raised in opposition to the would-be tyrants in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, and even little NZ.

  3. Profoundly humbled by your kind words, Yonason. Your point about the need for intellectual discipline and integrity is well taken, and underlines how gravely state schooling has impoverished the lives of several generations by focussing on skills training instead of education. In my workshops, I use classical art, literature, and music to help people see why our forbears were so much more capable than contemporary society when it came to thinking for themselves and formulating rational arguments in support of their beliefs and opinions.

  4. Another brilliant overview of history, political philosophy, and social dynamics, Andre. Every time I see your name in a byline, I steel myself for the doctoral dissertation that awaits.

    As I may have said before, my only disappointment is that those who most need to hear your message would not understand you, if they even made the effort to try. Nevertheless, you provide a priceless resource for those sincere seekers of knowledge, wisdom, and truth who recognize that intellectual discipline and integrity are the price of admission for genuine understanding and moral clarity.