Political mitosis

German jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, in The concept of the political, established the political as that which creates the unique distinction of Friend vs. Enemy. Thus, the political expresses the intensity of association or dissociation between two entities. Schmitt’s definition gives political differences a particular status, independent from others such as economic, ethnic or religious distinctions. Even if these can be the trigger of something political, they cannot define friendship or enmity per se. In other words, when a cultural community engages in a conflict against another, it is by definition acting as a political unit; the notion of a purely religious or economic war is nonsensical.

By virtue of the previous definition, we can trace the origin of civil conflict to the emergence of a strong political distinction within a political unit, which becomes more intense than those existing between said political unit and others external to it. The supreme degree of intensity in enmity is, according to Schmitt, war. Thus, if an internal political difference becomes strong enough, the result is civil war. The original political unit is dissolved, and a plurality of political entities of identical nature takes its place.

Civil conflict can be expressed in terms of political mitosis: out of a stem political cell, two others arise, identical to the first one, yet distinct. The original is lost and cannot be recovered, while the descendants become subjects with their own destinies. Politics is downstream from culture; civil conflict arises from cultural differences of extreme intensity. If civil conflict is a product of cultural differentiation, political mitosis is the consequence of a memetic process. At risk of taking the metaphor way too far, I propose using the model of cell reproduction to discuss the cycle of civil conflict generation.

The interphase of the cycle is defined by the continuous, natural synthesis of memetic material within a disorganized, indistinct, non-partisan cultural nucleus. This is an ideal, abstract stage outside of internal political conflict. Many kinds of stimulus can break this state and induce political mitosis: scientific or technological advances, economic conditions, and of course mitosis of nearby polities. In any case, when the necessary environmental conditions are present, political mitosis is triggered and the cycle begins.

Mitosis begins with a prophase in political discourse, during which memetic material condensates into a more defined or explicit form: the contentious topic. Culture involves vast amounts of information of almost any kind, so there are infinite possible cultural distinctions to be made: star sign, taste in music, favourite color… Nonetheless, certain cultural distinctions tend to be more significant than others, like religious behavior, spoken language or socioeconomic status. Thus, memes and memeplexes of a culture tend to organize around this contentious topics. At this stage, the contentious topic exists only as an abstraction, a just-now-discovered concept.

Once the contentious topic is defined, however, a whole discursive apparatus begins to organize spontaneously around it in the form of possible arguments for or against it. There is no will directing this organization: claims are just thrown into the pile to bend opinion on the topic one way or the other. The political discourse may appear under the guise of factual claims, but there is no such thing. Political arguments, as per our analysis, are just a set of cultural, discursive forces which can pull apart the political cell. Facts do not matter, only interpretations of facts, and this includes interpretations of imaginary facts. The build-up of political discourse around the packed memetic material corresponds to prometaphase. We can summarize it as the unfolding of everything that can be said in respect to the contentious topic, so that two cultural forces of opposite direction form.

The next stage, metaphase, is the sudden, shared realization that there are two social positions in regard to the contentious topic. Metaphase signals the transformation of the cultural into the political by the formation of two opposite camps: at this stage, opposite cultural forces become a political distinction. Culture war is unleashed, bringing forth anaphase, which is the consolidation of the political difference, marked by a chasm between the two positions on the contentious topic.

There is no way to win the culture war, in the sense that nobody convinces anyone to change sides. Two parallel political units are born and stand in the place of the original one: we are now in the telophase, the end-game of the process. It is perfectly possible that, of the two daughter polities, one of them ends up dying out because it fails to keep synthesizing its memetic material in the original form, or it evolves so much that in the process ends up resembling its former enemy.

Christianity is a good example of this kind of converging evolution. After centuries of ideological and actual warfare against heretics, many modern Catholics share the majority of their cultural values with Protestants. This is not because Protestants have progressively convinced Catholics to accept their views. The reverse is equally false, and neither has there ever been an official decision to end hostilities; animosity simply has died out between the two religious communities, and they are now mostly friendly in political terms. And how could they not be? After all, as political units, they share most environmental pressures, so they tend to evolve in a similar way.

In summary, civil conflict of a cultural nature is born when, out of the indistinct mass of cultural (memetic) material, certain elements become condensed into discursive realities. These realities become political distinctions, which imply the establishment of a relation of enmity. In later posts, specific instances of this dynamic will be discussed.

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