Lying in the Guise of Concern.
A Democratic Tragedy in Three Acts and a Philosophical Epilogue
There are still people and herds somewhere, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states. The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples. The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’ It is a lie! It was creators who created people and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. It is destroyers who set snares for many and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred desires over them.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra: Of the New Idol
The rational being must always consider itself as giving law in a realm of ends possible through freedom of the will, whether as member or as supreme head. It can assert the place of the latter, however, not merely through the maxim of its will, but only when it is a fully independent being, without need and without limitation of faculties that are adequate to that will.
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
ACT I: An Unwelcome Message
On the 13th of November 2017, the new Dutch minister of Domestic Affairs Kajsa Ollongren sent an informational letter to the National Parliament. Its subject was a rather ominous one: The Netherlands was experiencing the detrimental effects of “fake news” that had been manufactured by Russia. Just as in the United States, Russia would like to influence “democratic processes” in The Netherlands in order to sow dissension and confusion in public debates there.[i]
Apart from the issue of fake news, the least one can say is that this is a serious accusation – a small country in Western Europe accuses a global giant of intentionally meddling in its democratic affairs. Naturally, one wonders, what evidence the minister provided the Parliament and the public. If such a heavy accusation is made, one expects substantial evidence to support one’s claim. Astonishingly enough, the minister provided none. The letter she sent to the parliament speaks in the most general of terms about the immanent dangers of cyber attacks and large-scale influences of foreign powers, as well as the need to make citizens and companies aware of the dangers associated with social media and internet traffic.
The only case that comes close to serve as possible evidence is the detection of a (defunct) Russian site “that made the impression of being a Dutch governmental website that contained misinformation on the MH-17 case.” Moreover, the Dutch secret service warned that “Russian agents are active in different sectors of society to gather information that is of strategic use to Russia.”
If this is the best evidence one brings to support a full-out accusation of a foreign country, one is tempted to ask who is actually spreading the misinformation here. The mentioned website was defunct at the time of writing the letter, and everyone could have made it. Unless a direct link to the Russian government is provided, such a vague case is no support for the accusation.
The quoted finding of the secret service is so general and vague that it borders on the ridiculous. Of course, if one is a Russian secret agent, one gathers information. This gathering of information is not different from the methods of Dutch secret agents. It is simply what secret agents do. It is fair enough that the Dutch government wants to prevent Russian agents from getting their hands on sensitive information – but this is not something new. It is utterly trivial, and has no direct link whatsoever what the charge of Russia spreading “fake news.” It is a report on the state of affairs in intelligence services, not an argument to take the accusation seriously.
In her letter, Ollongren started a misinformation campaign that is just as much geared at influencing the Dutch public debate as the supposed Russian fake news. Exactly the air of mystery surrounding the letter was received negatively in the Dutch press: of course, the secret service would like to protect its sources, but if no background information or even rudimentary evidence is provided at all, how could the press and the Parliament check the truth of such accusations?
How is an informed debate even possible when the actual substance to talk about is withheld? Therein resides the tragedy: if politicians do not feel obliged to back their claims up any longer, we are well on our way to dismantle the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy. If the possessors of state power feel that it is below them to support their (serious) claims, they must feel to some degree that evidence is an unnecessary supplement of the public debate. Why should such politicians take their voters seriously? What they say seems to need no backing up from their point of view. Therefore, why should voters take them seriously at all, if their claims cannot be checked and verified, let alone a debate about the effectiveness and necessity of future policies can be had in an informed and transparent way?
ACT II: An Unwelcome Law
Not coincidentally, a civic referendum is planned to take place on the 21st of March 2018.[ii] Its subject? A new law proposal that expands the possibilities of the Dutch secret services to tap into the digital communication of citizens, and a considerable expansion of the group of people that may be tapped if they are in some way or the other related to a suspect or “person of interest.” In practice, if one’s neighbor is a person of interest, the whole street may be tapped, and their communication may be monitored for an extended period of time. For this reason, the law is ironically called “sleepnetwet,” or “trawl net law.” The fear is that the government will regularly and indiscriminately invade the privacy of far too many citizens in dealing with incidental acts of terrorism or heavy criminality. Just as the trawler’s nets catch anything in their path, intentional or not, the sweep of the Dutch security services will catch a lot of information for which the original warrant had not been given. How long before any trace will be followed up, and the use of such sweeps will be common practice in the service of ‘more effective crime fighting’?
The analogy with the trawl net has a second, more ironic aspect to it: it is well known that trawl nets destroy vulnerable ecosystems on the sea floor. It is this substrate that provides the living conditions for many fish species and is at the basis of the food chain, and thus essential to the fishery industry. The proposed law is equally damaging to the substrate of Dutch society. The substrate of the democratic state is the presence of mutual trust underlying relations between a government and its citizens. By proposing measures that invade the security of citizens without proper justification, this essential trust is directly undermined and eroded. In a democracy, violence is monopolized by the government for the good of all. Moreover, voting procedures are used to elect representatives that claim to guard the interests of citizens. However, measures like the sleepnetwet undermine this trust, and thereby damage democratic institutions and procedures that only function within the context of an implicitly-agreed citizen-government alliance, a social contract of sorts.
Instead of viewing citizens as the agents who have the actual power, politicians have increasingly started to view citizens they represent (if they do represent them at all, that is) as suspects and liabilities. The installation and usage of extensive monitoring systems only reinforces this view – if power always corrupts, this is at least an argument for preventing the construction of an all-seeing, State-controlled surveillance system that is at any moment vulnerable for abuse on an unprecedented scale. Even if the current State will use it conscientiously, there is no guarantee that a future State will. Even worse, the sloppy and careless handling of evidence in the fake news debate suggests that the current State does not have the interests of Dutch citizens at heart – if those interests do not fit their purposes.
On the bright side, one might think, the Dutch law provides the possibility of organizing a civic referendum. Normally, laws are proposed and passed without consulting the public, although they are checked by the Senate. However, with a minimum of 300,000 signatures, a citizen or organization can demand a referendum about laws or governmental decisions. One detail: such a referendum is not binding – it is advisory, allowing the government to disregard its outcome.
Recently, two referenda had disastrous consequences for the established political order: the first one was the Ukraine referendum. In order to decide whether The Netherlands should follow the EU in ratifying a cooperation treaty with the Ukraine, a civic referendum was organized. One could (and should!) have all kinds of discussions about the motivations of the organizers, but the fact was that the Dutch response was a resounding “no!” to such a treaty. Of course, this decision resulted in tortuous negotiations in Brussels, in order to appease voters for the upcoming national elections. However, the outcome was underwhelming to say the least: a few minor adaptations were added to the treaty, but the ratification took place anyway. Nevertheless, the referendum outcome caused considerable political upheaval, and added yet another nail to the coffin of the established political order.
The second referendum with unforeseen consequences was the one that sparked the Brexit. Prime minister David Cameron clearly underestimated the volatility of the situation and the rhetoric-inflamed influence of UKIP on the voters. Again, a civic referendum yielded a result that the existing political order would have liked to avoid. Lured by a hysterical narrative of a sovereign English nation that was being overrun by malignant immigrants and that was simultaneously being dismantled by a power-hungry continental taskforce residing in Brussels, the UK voters decided to act against all common sense and announce their choice to leave the EU.
The implicit political lesson in Europe is now that referenda (or any type of direct influence of citizens on parliamentary decision-taking) should be avoided like the plague. Months of careful preparation can be wasted if the ‘popular vote’ decides something else than politicians envisioned prior to the referendum. Of course, this is the ‘disadvantage’ of parliamentary democracy – the will of the people is a whimsical thing indeed. Tragically, by listening to the people, (thereby honoring democracy) and realizing their wishes, the current generation of politicians in Europe is exactly acting against the best interests of the voters they represent (thus betraying democracy). Whatever one does, the outcome is a disaster, or to quote Nietzsche once again, in the 11th aphorism of Maxims and Barbs: “Is an ass really tragic? Perishing under a load one can neither carry or shed?”[iii] The tragedy is that our democracies are straining under a load that cannot be shed easily: the responsibility and accountability of the political order to those it claims to represent. Yet, the behavior of this political order suggests that they are neither willing nor capable to assume responsibility, directly undermining and damaging the democracies that elected them in the process.
ACT III: An Unwelcome Conclusion
Of course, the Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin responded to the accusations leveled by Ollongren. In his somewhat prickly reaction, he lamented the fact that Russia was portrayed as a “gigantic, malignant octopus haunting the countries of the free world,” and called the accusations unsubstantiated and not verifiable.[iv] In passing, he noted that the diplomatic relationship between The Netherlands and Russia has been reserved at least due to the MH-17 case, and that such accusations do not help to re-establish a good relationship.[v]
In a further response that can only be characterized as desperate, Ollongren emphasized again that “The Netherlands is surely a victim of Russian fake news,” – again without providing any additional evidence to back this new claim up.[vi]
Then, she went on to sing the praises of a ‘broad societal dialogue’ in which large tech firms like Google or Facebook would participate to combat the rising tide of fake news, protecting the defenseless citizens of The Netherlands against the evil intentions of foreign nation states.[vii]
Her crowning statement, however, was a reply to a very simple objection: if there was indeed some much Russian fake news that influenced the Dutch public debates, how come that our democracy has not yet collapsed? How is it that public debates are relatively fact-based and civil? Ollongren’s sophist response was that of course the Dutch citizens did not experience the effects of Russian fake news – because these machinations are so well hidden!
Seriously? Why does a politician in a civilized democracy get away with such a piece of unsubstantiated, malignant, circular, small-minded and misleading reasoning?
If Dutch citizens do experience the effects of Russian fake news, would they have to assume that the minister was right? But why did she not provide a single piece of evidence then? And if Dutch citizens do not experience the effects of Russian fake news, then this is supposedly because the minister was right all along, and we are all too stupid to see through the evil Russian manipulations. However, if the public does not experience effects of “fake news,” why is it damaging for society and the public debate at all? Why bother informing the Parliament, then?
Reasoning like this makes it impossible to disagree with democratically chosen leaders. If one experiences some postulated effect, it is because the state said so all along (without substantiating it, however). If one does not experience it, this is because it is so well hidden, but is nevertheless existent. As a next ruthless move, the state then asserts that far-reaching measures are necessary to combat this undetectable effect, lest it becomes a danger. Any evidence needed to really debate such claims is suppressed, always with the excuse of being “classified” or “sensitive.”
Meanwhile, Russian ambassador Shulgin claimed that the committee investigating the MH-17 case was biased against Russia, and thus lost credibility as a neutral partner in the ongoing investigation. Dutch politicians reacted furiously: both prime minister Rutte and – again – minister Ollongren stated that the investigation committee was absolutely neutral and that “Russian political influence” were undesirable.[viii]
However, every accused person or organization has – by Dutch law – the option to question the neutrality of the court, and to demand another judge or the repetition of an investigation. Why does this right no extend to another country? If Shulgin’s allegations are really unfounded, why should one leave this matter not to the courts? Indeed, why are Dutch politicians so hell-bent on accusing Russia again? Is this not a kind of “undesired political influence” in itself? Of course, one may prove that the Russian allegations are unfounded – but to do so by the means of hollow rhetoric is nothing less than the practice of pathetic sophistry. The reduction of national politics to such an amateur-ish puppet show is not merely painful – it signals the tragic inability of politicians to handle really sensitive situations in which fundamental judicial rights clash with instrumental interests and interfere with the public image of Western societies as fundamentally just and benevolent.
For once, politicians could not hide behind the excuse of “this information is classified,” and all over a sudden, the only way out of the situation is to use hollow and bombastic rhetoric that would have not been out of place among the members of Stalin’s inner circle.
EPILOGUE: A Somberly-Optimistic Kantian-Nietzschean Postscript
In the previous three sections, I broadly identified three tragic and superimposed features of today’s political situation, narrated from the viewpoint of democracy in The Netherlands. However, the structural characteristics of this situation can be extended towards the broader European situation, although one should keep in mind that there are subtle, national differences. First, politicians do not feel the need to take their citizens seriously, because they do not seem to view them as autonomous persons (section I). Second, the way in which referenda are used lead to disaster whether their outcome is honored or ignored (section II). Third, politicians display a deep inability to handle situations in which judicial rights clash with instrumental reason or hidden agendas (section III). One should not be surprised that these tragic situations result in a mix that is utterly toxic to (parliamentary) democracy.
If evidence for far-reaching claims and accusations is withheld, the use of referenda leads to an increasing political chaos and judicial rights are all too easily violated in order to realize hidden agendas concocted by politicians behind closed doors, what are the real differences between a democracy and a dictatorship?
Withholding evidence makes the controlling role of the Parliament difficult if not impossible. Decisions taken by government officials should be subject to close scrutiny and public debate. Merely throwing unsubstantiated accusations about – even in formal communication with the Parliament – damages the lawful flow the democratic decision process. If the Parliament is excluded, its role is merely ceremonial, and it is degraded to a mere puppet show that takes place to reassure voters that the democratic procedures are followed. One is somewhat reminded at this point of the former Zimbabwean government, where the political straw men played the role of the “obligatory opposition” to show that the all-too-corrupt democracy really functioned as it should be.
Why should one withhold evidence? There are two obvious possibilities.
The first possibility is that the information is really classified and sensitive, and in order not to endanger operations of the secret service, such information cannot (yet) enter the public domain. If this is the real answer, why create panic and political uproar by making radical claims that are based on classified data? Would it not be far better to leave such matters to the secret service and abstain from bringing national politics in the debate?
The second possibility is simply that there is no evidence, and that the excuse of secrecy is used as a political tool to enforce political measures that in an honest, open debate would have been dismissed or at least severely weakened. However, if the fear is sown first, the field is ripe to harvest the fruits of dictatorship later on. Fears – preferably external ones – are needed to convince a political order and its citizens that draconian measures should be introduced without delay and without exception. This sense of urgency is needed to substantiate the demand for direct, forceful and ruthless action – before “something bad” (always unspecified) happens.
If one disagrees with such proposals, it is all too easy for one’s political rivals to portray the dissenter as naïve, unrealistic or outright dangerous. If a country is under attack by some fake news-driven threat, surely all measures are justified to protect the helpless citizens, even if they have to sacrifice a little of their petty privacy? Why debate when the war is at our doorstep?
The trick that is being played here is too transparent not to be noticed: on the one hand, the government portrays its citizens as helpless and exposed, assuming full (quasi-paternal) authority over them. On the other hand, it is of no concern if the fundamental rights of the same citizens are violated in order to protect them. Even erecting a superstructure of surveillance on the basis of incomplete information is not an unjustified measure, as the government knows what is best for all…
Ironically, the citizens that are on one hand portrayed as helpless in the face of evil dictatorships are at the same time feared and distrusted because of the electoral power they possess (for the moment). This split attitude towards citizens betrays a central and implicitly mechanism in the functioning of contemporary States: citizens are malleable entities until election time or when hidden political agenda’s have to be enforced.
In his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?,” Immanuel Kant argued forcefully that to give up one’s freedoms voluntarily to pave the way for emerging dictatorships is an immoral act.[ix] It is considered immoral for a number of reasons, one of which Kant explicitly outlines. Once freedom or checking the authorities is given up, subsequent generations have no chance of re-attaining freedom in a future dictatorship. After all, those in power are unlikely to give up their political power without a fight, apart from the fact that they might have used their influence to erect an almost impenetrable power structure.
However, we can read Kant’s claim here from a different viewpoint, namely from the irreducible autonomy of human beings. If human beings are indeed free, rational agents, their collective voluntary relinquishing of basic freedoms is a betrayal of themselves, not just of future generations.
There is a close connection between this idea and the concept of a criminal who harms himself the most when he commits a crime. By committing the crime – the thought runs – the criminal places himself outside a moral community, and mistreats himself in addition to his fellow human beings. Exclusion from the moral community is a strike against one’s own humanity. It is for this reason that in philosophy of punishment the question about rehabilitation plays such an important role. If punishments are geared towards a reconciliation of the accused with other members of the moral community, punishment should not be everlasting or final, as this approach relinquishes the chance of reconciliation.
If we apply this thought to Kant’s claim, we arrive at an additional argument for refusing to give up hard-won freedoms. If persons (let’s say rational, embodied beings that possess reflective agency) have dignity, then they deserve care. This care is not merely limited to material necessities like food, rest, shelter and community. It extends in all directions and domains that constitute a human life. One of the elements of care is freedom, or the condition that one has rights.
Utterly thin as this foundation may be, it is nevertheless a final defense line against total dictatorship and tyranny. If one relinquishes one’s freedoms voluntarily and collectively, this is immoral because this action displays the lack of care for oneself. This sounds radical – but note that this lack of caring is not always the fault of the victim.
What if one were made to believe that relinquishing freedom is beneficial for the greater good? What if one did not know that his freedoms were taken from him? What if one decides poorly or carelessly in these matters? These are legitimate questions in societies where misinformation, lack of education and fake news, as well as a domineering media presence are everyday realities. In a short response (as space does not allow me to enter in this particular topic in depth here) I shall qualify the claim further.
When thinking about immoral acts, we may carefully distinguish between acts like abusing a child or violently robbing someone on one hand, and developing habits like alcoholism or indifference towards the fate of others on the other.
The first category of acts deliberately mistreats someone else. It is the combination of rational agency (planning the robbery, for instance) in the service of malignant intent that makes these acts so repulsive.
The second category is more diffuse, and leads to a qualitatively different type of damage. An alcoholic mistreats himself by not taking care of his body as he is controlled and oppressed by his desire for alcohol. He might have become an alcoholic for various reasons. He might have a genetic disposition for addiction; dramatic life-events may have caused him to drown his sorrows; he might have been raised in a social environment in which heavy drinking was deemed normal. While some of these causes are outside the sphere of influence of the alcoholic, one decision is within reach: to combat the addiction as far as one is able to. To exercise autonomy means to exercise it in all domains, even under unfavorable circumstances. To be sure, the capacity to exercise one’s autonomy has to be learned and maintained. Moreover, not all human beings possess the same proficiency in exercising this capacity, or their skill varies with time.
If we return to the issue of relinquishing one’s vote and influence on the democratic process, we see that we can apply the same line of reasoning in the domain of political autonomy. Once one’s influence has been voluntarily waived while the consequences of this action were known or at least intelligible, one does not exercise of one’s political autonomy, undermining the possibilities to exercise one’s personal autonomy. This political variation of autonomy is just as much part of one’s personal autonomy as the capacity to reason independently or choose freely. To put this point in different, yet Kantian terms: one should treat oneself never merely as a means but always and unconditionally as an end-in-itself, as Kant made explicit in the 1785 Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. [x] To give up one’s autonomy to satisfy political power structures that are blatantly and visibly usurping basic rights is to violate the Kantian imperative with regards to oneself. Carelessly accepting an unjustified breach of one’s autonomy cannot be a part of treating oneself as an end-in-itself. It amounts to treating oneself as a mere instrument, and accepting an unreasonable treatment as reasonable and justified at the hands of an immoral political order.
And exactly here emerges the moment where one can emancipate oneself from a political order that is increasingly guided by unscrupulous motives. The non-acceptance of the curtailing of one’s autonomy is merely a passive stance. It consists in an implicit acceptance of the status quo, and is merely reactive. Nietzsche correctly identifies this stance with being hindered from “grasping forwards”.[xi] Being active, on the other hand is to grasp, to affirm oneself by grasping and molding one’s circumstances through the exercise of autonomy. Being active in this sense amounts to treating oneself always and unconditionally as an end-in-itself. To put it more dramatically: it consists in a form of resistance that subtracts one from an existing political order by not accepting the rules of the game. However, and in a typical Nietzschean vein, this subtraction does not come for free. It is a consequence of discipline. In turn, discipline requires and causes pain:
Pain as an obstacle to its will to power is therefore a normal condition, a normal ingredient of every organic event; man is not free to avoid it, on the contrary, he is constantly in need of it; every triumph, every pleasurable sensation, every event presupposes resistance overcome.[xii]
As in the case of the alcoholic leaving the bttle is a process of overcoming resistance and withstanding pain, so disciplining oneself is a process of regimentation and breaking down resistance. To resist is to attempt to be victorious. Politically speaking, waiving one’s rights is admitting the first defeat without fighting. And it is exactly the complacency in Western cultures that has led to situation where our own governments are “enemies from within.”
Not coincidentally, Nietzsche rails against the “want of discipline” in the culture of his contemporaries. Acerbically, he notes that the slogans or “big words” of this undisciplined culture are “tolerance,” “freedom,” “truth,” “objectivity,” etc. In each of these examples, a seemingly highly esteemed value is degraded by culture in its degraded, empty and meaningless opposite: objectivity is the mere lack of personality, freedom is a kind of idealistic Romanticism, or alternatively the bourgeois culture in which the middle class enjoys relative freedoms.[xiii] It is as if Nietzsche is one of our contemporaries at this point, pre-empting 21st-century political correctness, conformity and complacency by roughly 150 years with an accuracy that borders on clairvoyance. Against this culture of complacency, one should adopt an “active” stance in striving for one’s freedom, as Nietzsche, and Kant, if read selectively, were well aware. In Nietzsche, this active stance takes the form of affirmation, of the developmental trajectory of the Übermensch.
What this entails is described in detail in Zarathustra’s meditation on the way of the creator.[xiv] One is not free once one merely escapes a yoke or a political situation. Instead, Zarathustra asks: “what is your ruling idea?” To be free is to grasp freedom, not merely enjoying a comparative freedom that can be taken away at the whim of those in power. Kant’s urgent injunction to think for oneself acquires a new meaning here: to think for oneself is to get an insight in the situation in which one is embedded. It does away with what Marx would later label as ideology by seeing through the illusion and affirming one’s potential for acting. Group-thinking and mindless conformism strengthen the illusion; autonomy on the other hand exposes and disarms it.
Is such autonomy possible? This question is unanswerable in advance. However, there are grounds for somber optimism. While politicians seem mainly interested in curtailing civic freedoms for the larger (and scarcely hidden) interests of the free market, free thought is something that cannot be bought or sold. It can be suppressed, but cannot be killed. This is why Kant’s motto to think autonomously has lost nothing of its relevance or urgency today.[xv]
[i] See: https://www.parool.nl/binnenland/ollongren-nederland-doelwit-van-nepnieuws-uit-rusland~a4537128/
[ii] See: https://www.parool.nl/amsterdam/300-000-handtekeningen-referendum-sleepwet-komt-er~a4520857/
[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, transl. by Duncan Large (New York, NY: Penguin, 2008) p. 6.
[iv] See: https://www.telegraaf.nl/nieuws/1434976/rusland-maakt-geen-nepnieuws-in-nederland
[v] See for more information on the MH-17 case: https://www.government.nl/topics/mh17-incident
[vi] See: https://nos.nl/artikel/2207694-nederland-wel-degelijk-slachtoffer-heimelijke-russische-beinvloeding.html
[vii] See: https://nos.nl/artikel/2203266-ollongren-blij-met-discussie-over-russische-inmenging-en-nepnieuws.html
[viii] See: https://www.telegraaf.nl/nieuws/1437552/rutte-reageert-fel-op-russische-kritiek-mh17
[ix] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) in Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (eds.) Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 19–20.
[x] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals in Allen Wood (ed.) Rethinking the Western Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) p. 45–46.
[xi] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, transl. by R. Kevin Hill and Michael Scarpitti (New York, NY: Penguin, 2017) p. 370, §657.
[xii] Nietzsche, Will to Power, 2017, p. 398, §702.
[xiii] Nietzsche, Will to Power, 2017, p. 58, § 79.
[xiv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, transl. by R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Penguin, 2003). p. 88–89.
[xv] My sincere thanks to Z for reading and helping edit this essay.