by dagmar wilhelm
Episode 1: “Chaos is a ladder.”
*Trigger Warning: mention of violence (including sexual violence)
G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (GoT) is a versatile source for philosophical reflection on the current pandemic. Literature and art generally can interact with philosophy in many different ways. In this blog I will draw on GoT to highlight certain aspects that might be less transparent in the real world.
[A note on GoT: The universe of GoT is divided into three geo-political areas: The continent of Westeros is divided into two by a huge wall of ice. To the north of the wall is the realm of "wildlings" aka "free folk" (depending on who speaks), "white walkers" and other mythical creatures. South of the wall the “Seven Kingdoms” are united under one king who sits on the "Iron Throne". The former kingdoms are now governed as vassal states by the heads of the a few powerful families, who are more or less loyal to the coveted Iron Throne and themselves lords to minor families who govern the smaller regions that make up the vassal states. The world resembles feudal Europe in the middle ages. For the high-born, love is political, marriages build alliances. Rape, violence and starvation are everyday occurrences across Westeros. East of Westeros lies Essos, a more culturally and religiously diverse continent with free city states. Some cities build their economic success on slavery, which is outlawed in Westeros. Essos is the birth place of high civilizations and of dragons. Westeros and Essos are linked through a banking and trading system. The Iron Bank, the most powerful bank in GoT, is located in one of the free cities of Essos.]
In this first blog I turn my attention to a Westerosi character, Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, and one of his better-known quotes: "Chaos is a ladder". Being of low-birth but still privileged, Littlefinger is something like a Proto-capitalist in the feudal universe of Westeros. He is not born to power and wealth rather he has to use ruthless cunning to build influence. He possesses enough cultural and economic capital to start off his ventures, to exploit those less privileged and sell their services to the more powerful, old families of Westeros. His main trade, however, is information and misinformation. Both are employed effectively to create chaos and opportunity. Littlefinger believes that “knowledge is power” in a world in which, however, "power is power", as Cersei Lannister, the eventual Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, likes to remind him.
In many ways Littlefinger resembles the figure of "Odysseus" in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer portray Odysseus as prototypical bourgeois subject who, through cunning, triumphs over the Gods, who can impose his own rule and enjoy divine pleasures – but only at the cost of domination of self (self-denial) and others (in Homer, the mythical figure of Odysseus can find a way to listen to the song of the Sirens, but only because he commands his sailors to plug their ears and to bind him to a mast – so he cannot react to the beauty of the song and steer his ship to the deadly island of the sirens). Littlefinger’s cunning similarly allows him to trick the old families, but he too has to deny himself in his pursuit of the Iron Throne.
Because GoT is told (mostly) from the perspective of the high-born feudal masters, Littlefinger has little chance of becoming a popular character – and when his throat is finally cut, audiences seem to be largely satisfied about the deserved end of a character many loved to despise. Undoubtedly, Littlefinger is responsible for the deaths and suffering of some more beloved characters. He is driven by selfish ambition that is remarkably transparent. Interestingly, not all the high-born characters with similar ambitions, responsible for even more death and suffering, are as unpopular. Their claim to the Iron Throne could be legitimate according to the laws of Westeros, whereas Littlefinger dares to want what he is simply not born to have. The selfish ambitions of these high-born characters are dressed in a vocabulary of honour, duty and common good. The high born protagonists act according to the norms that govern their social roles and status, where Littlefinger violates those norms. Littlefinger has no right to a throne, his title is not meant to elevate him to the level of the old families, merely to "pay off" a rich low-born with ambitions, who is despised especially by those who require his services.
The motto - "chaos is a ladder" - serves Littlefinger well for a while for good reasons. In times of chaos wit and cunning win over traditional power, because chaos means that the traditions that grant those powers are questioned. This is the moment for change. New people can rise to power, new models of gaining influence can succeed, new enterprises, new economies, new world orders. Now those who are not yet in power, can build their "houses". In Max Weber’s terminology, chaos or crisis is the time for "charismatic authority" rather than "traditional authority". A crisis means that traditional authority, that is authority grounded on tradition and customs (e.g. shared religious beliefs) has lost credibility. In this situation, change is required and only "charismatic authority", which is not backed by traditional rules but by features of the (charismatic) individual(s) themselves, can bring about and enact such change. Crises are dangerous times because they offer all sorts of opportunities to a variety of individuals, as long as they are cunning and charismatic enough. Crises are moments in which people can build economically profitable enterprises, transform society to the benefit of many if not all or impose authoritarian systems of rule. Many of those, who speak of "new opportunities" in the current crisis have in mind economic chances: those with enough capital and creativity can adapt their existing businesses or find a niche for new businesses. As our mode of communication changes, new technologies will develop, again with new opportunities for businesses and jobs. The more ruthless might also find easy opportunities for profiteering, i.e. for making profit from the dire need of others.
Transported into our Covid 19 world we might well imagine Littlefinger trading masks and gloves. However, we would also find him peddling conspiracy theories to create power vacuums.
But the pandemic also opens up a different kind of opportunity. Another character, Missandei, seeks to create a free world for all. Missandei hails from Essos. A freed slave, her early life is filled with near unbearable suffering. As a translator-slave she is given to high-born but exiled Daenerys Targaryen as a gift. Daenerys likes to see herself as a “breaker of chains” and frees Missandei alongside other slaves. The events that follow, mean that Missandei has the ear of one of the most powerful players in the game of thrones, but she still sees the world from the perspective of those who have to suffer for the profit and selfish opportunities of others. She is one of those who has had to pay the price. She is committed to the ideals Daenerys proclaims but never truly understands. Missandei understands the acuteness of suffering too well to negotiate foul compromises. She rejects a world order that allows slavery, exploitation, marginalisation, torture and starvation. Having knowledge of different languages and cultures, she also rejects traditional ways of thinking. Instead of dichotomies and binary choices, she finds new ways of thinking. Instead of deceit, she speaks truth to power. While she acknowledges the historical meaning of practices or institutions she believes they can be extricated from these old, oppressive, contexts and given new meaning, binding free people together. She is a decolonial thinker in a universe in which colonialism is the only evil that does not seem to exist. A truly liberated mind, she also rejects gender norms, machoisms and any external restrictions on love. In fact the only genuine, free love relations in GoT are between Missandei and Daenerys and Missandei and Grey Worm. She is prepared to freely commit to a cause and defers to another in order to gain benefits for anonymous others. The goal she pursues is universal liberation. And this too is an opportunity only a crisis can present. Only when the power of the old families in Westeros and of the slavers in Essos loses hold over people, is there a chance to bring about a free world.
To explain how the current pandemic opens a space for this type of opportunity – at the same time as also bearing the threat of opportunities for authoritarianism and nationalism - I want to draw on so-called Frankfurt School Critical Theory. The “Frankfurt School” was formed in the late 1920s in Frankfurt am Main as an interdisciplinary research institute. The members of the Frankfurt School want to understand why millennia of philosophy, science and technological advancements have not eradicated poverty, starvation, war, torture and mass murder. Ultimately, their aim is to transform society, to alleviate suffering and to bring about a world in which different people can live freely with each other without having to deny their differences and without fear or shame or hunger. Frankfurt School philosophers are committed to the idea of a philosophy that is linked to praxis, that is a philosophy in the service of bringing about emancipatory social transformation. However, this universal emancipation is not possible immediately and Critical Theorists warn against a blind activism which can be just as harmful and as oppressive as the system it wants to change. Indeed, a mark of Frankfurt School Critical Theory is critical self-reflection which recognises the way that apparently emancipatory action is enmeshed in and can perpetuate oppressive structures. According to Adorno, for example, we do not know how to achieve a free world from the perspective of an unfree one (a “damaged life” in Adorno’s words). We are steeped in a way of thinking and feeling and entangled in social structures and practices that block our view. Acting in this context is harmful (as is non-action). In order to bring about a better world, it is important to understand the mechanisms that currently prevent it, that is the mechanisms of oppression, exploitation and marginalisation. Understanding points to a better future and it might sketch possibilities to overcome obstacles. In other words: we do not know what a utopian future looks like or how to achieve it, but we can know what it does not look like – and what has to be overcome for the emancipated future to be possible. Concretely: torture, mass murder, starvation are not features of a utopian world.
The current pandemic is valuable because it makes mechanisms of oppression visible and in doing so it points a way towards emancipatory changes. For one, the global pandemic belies narrow individualism. It shows our global interdependence and throws a light on the injustices of old that still persist. For example, the trade agreements, which allow companies (usually from the global north) to renege on payments for goods already produced or in the process of being produced (by companies in the global south), are suddenly in the public eye. The public can now clearly see the mechanisms that continue to impoverish and exploit the global south. Domestically too, inequalities and anti-emancipatory attitudes become blatantly visible and are widely publicised. We can no longer deny racism in the face of increased violence towards people from BAME groups (who are also disproportionally affected by Covid 19), we witness an increase in domestic violence and child neglect. We have easy access to evidence about the continuation of a division of labour between genders (in heterosexual partnerships) that disadvantage women. More generally, we get a clear view of what happens when, as a society, we undervalue care and care-giving and valorise a false idea of self-sufficiency. The increasing divide between poor and rich in various contexts is laid bare. Divisions in child education become glaringly obvious. We cannot remain ignorant of the fact that the pandemic does not affect everyone equally, nor can we pretend that these problems are due to the pandemic. The pandemic makes it harder for us to overlook what are long-term structural, attitudinal and institutional misdevelopments on a global scale. Globally, wee can also see the rise and dangers of nationalism, authoritarianism (with its associated heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia) alongside the spread of misinformation (there are currently at least six conspiracy theories about Covid 19 alone, gaining credence), which threatens lives. The list, of course, is incomplete.
The visibility of those injustices and wrongs and their underlying mechanisms is necessary if we want to improve the lives of all human (and hopefully non-human) beings. Public visibility provides a common reference point, on the basis of which we can exchange experiences and formulate, argue about and experiment with different ideas (of course, as mentioned above, one problem is that not all share this reference point – one task of philosophy always has been to address the problem of misinformation). Take for example, the “degrowth movements” which propose ways in which we can create a sustainable economy that is not dependent on constant growth. These movements, in fact heterodox economy as such, have been around for a while. Now, during the global crisis which is exasperated by an economic structure that depends on growth, these ideas gain traction and are more widely disseminated. More and more members of different publics engage in discussions, which can stimulate novel approaches for the benefit of all.
(There are other, similar opportunities I have not mentioned here – e.g. opportunities to improve environmental sustainability, as we discover less environmentally damaging ways of working and living together).
Overall then, the pandemic could become a ladder to a more sustainable, freer world. But there is a danger that we miss this opportunity.
--- Next time on “Game of thrones and the philosophy of crisis”: “The others” – xenophobia and why comparing the white walkers to the pandemic is a telling mistake. ---
UK Philosophy and COvid-19
Do you want to know how philosophy is relevant to COVID-19? The British Philosophical Association is collecting resources on this topic. For further information, have a look at their website.
Philosophy and the pandemic: reading suggestions!