“The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.” J.M. Coetzee
The word “quietism” has been used to characterize a number of distinct but related phenomena. Perhaps its oldest use refers to a heretical stream within Catholicism that emphasizes self-sufficiency, mysticism, and a withdrawal from worldly affairs. Quietist tendencies have been identified in other religions such as the Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, and ultra-orthodox Judaism to identify a conscious separation from social and political engagement. In a more general sense, quietism is often used to characterize those individuals or schools of thought that (passively) accept existing political arrangements and/or refrain from political engagement. When used in this manner, the word quietism usually has a negative connotation. For example, in her take-down of philosopher Judith Butler, Marta Nussbaum repeatedly claims that Butler’s positions can give rise to a passive or hip “quietism.”
In fact, one cannot escape the impression that to some observers the type of quietism that aspires to withdrawal from political engagement is perceived to be as bad, or even worse, as someone fighting for the wrong cause. Especially in an era where social and political engagement is emphasized greatly, quietism is seen as insensitive, immoral, or elitist – a pastime only available to the privileged.
Can a more positive case be made for political quietism? What would this entail? And how might a quietest respond to the negative perception of such a stance?
A number of secular arguments for political quietism can be identified:
1. Political quietism as a consequence of moral nihilism. If there is no objective justification for any kind of normative ethics over another, the case for advancing a particular political ideology is weakened and an individual may decide to simply withdraw from political engagement of any kind. Such an individual may respond to the political engagement of others with incomprehension, amusement, or sadness, depending on temperament.
2. Political quietism as a consequence of the recognition of the futility of political engagement. This position would extend the orthodox economic argument about the negligible effect of one’s individual vote in a democracy to political engagement in general. He can still have a preference for certain social and political arrangements but has resigned himself to the fact that, as a general rule, he has little influence over it.
3. Political quietism as a response to the irrationality associated with the practice of politics. This position emphasizes the ways in which politics triggers all kinds of ancient tribal instincts, group-think, anger, and violence. This position is well described by Joseph Schumpeter:
“The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.”
This aversion to politics may not necessarily translate into political quietism and can also give rise to “political” efforts to replace political decision making with some kind of market-based decision making in which participants actually have “skin in the game.” If one considers politics to be a fundamental and unalterable part of life, however, an alternative response would be to withdraw from it altogether.
4. Political quietism as an aesthetic response. In this form of quietism, what is most objected to in politics is its vulgarity. To such a political quietist debating, organizing, marching, and shouting slogans debases the person involved. As Michael Oakshott wrote, “Political action involves mental vulgarity, not merely because it entails the occurrence and support of those who are mentally vulgar, but because of the simplification of human life implied in even the best of it purposes.” He might still prefer one social arrangements over another but they would need to be achieved through education, individual virtuous behavior, and silent (non) consent. This kind of response to politics would expected to be even stronger if politics is also considered to be arbitrary, stupid, and ineffective.
5. Political quietism as a response to political alienation. An individual (or group of individuals) may decide that the political environment of their era is so fundamentally opposed to their own political outlook that any kind of political engagement would be pathetic, painful, and meaningless. This form of quietism is distinct from the general economic argument about the utility of political action and specific to time and place. A nationalist-socialist in post-war Germany, an advocate of a hereditary monarchy in the United States, a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism during most of the 20th century, etc.
Is political quietism possible? One might object that the “personal is political” and removal from politics is impossible in principle. That not to participate in politics is itself a political act. An obvious rejoinder is that this response does not leave much conceptual space between personal morality and collective action. For political quietism to have meaning, politics must refer to something beyond the rather obvious recognition that each person’s actions (or lack thereof) has effects on others. The “political” in political quietism discussed here refers to the (conscious) shaping and influencing the structures that enforce norms, collective decision making, laws, government, i.e. the “supra-individual” realm.
A milder variant of this critique is to state that you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. It seems indeed rather obvious that if a quietist position on politics is conjoined with ignorance about the political process and social-political and cultural trends in general, all kinds of unexpected, bad, things can happen in one’s life. This would be a kind of ignorant quietism – one that is mostly associated with the kind of religious quietism that categorically avoid knowledge of, and participation in, the modern world. A more secular quietism does not need to have this characteristic and can incorporate knowledge of social-economic- and cultural trends to make rational individual decisions. One might even argue that a response that confines itself to what we can meaningfully influence actually empowers the person.
Is political quietism “ethical” (immoral, wrong, etc.)? To a political quietist of a nihilist persuasion this question is nonsensical because it assumes the very thing that needs to be established: that there is an objective set of normative guidelines that humans can and should translate into political action. As for the other variants of political quietism, a plethora of rejoinders are available to its adherents as well. Is abstaining from futile acts wrong? How can it be wrong to withdraw from the stupidity, violence, and ugliness that is intrinsic to political activity? The political quietist may not have an iron-clad case, but his position can draw from a wide variety of metaphysical, religious, existential, psychological, economical, and cultural-aesthetic traditions.
Does the political quietist even has to “make” or “defend” his case? There is a type of political quietism that follows from the recognition that society does not have a “goal” or “purpose” that political action should bring about (or maintain). The quietist may consider this kind of “teleological” thinking about society naive, quasi-religious, and restrictive. It is often this kind of quietism that upsets people the most because this quietist refuses to “play the game” at all.