I’m back, at least temporarily. After I started working my last job, I knew that my essay writing was likely to fall by the wayside, but I never expected it to fall off so quickly as the demands of my work completely overtook my life. I honestly tried to at least finish this series that I’m finally sharing before giving in to this forced hiatus just because the topic has become so important to me. And it clearly hasn’t lost that importance after so long: Once I left my position behind, I flew through the works cited in this piece, I swiftly revisited all my old notes, and I was able to bang out a usable draft before long—probably faster than it’s ever happened in the past.
Of course, although I say that my work completely overtook my life, that’s at least a bit of hyperbole. Rather, in the limited time I still had to myself, I had to make hard choices about how to spend it. Beyond my commitments to my family, I’m thankful I still made time to read—not at the same pace as in the past, obviously, but still a great deal, all things considered. And it was reading that originally brought me to this topic and convinced me of its importance as I pieced together divergent ideas to slowly build a coherent discussion. For, as I read and did what I usually try to do when reading, attempt to better understand myself and the world around me, I kept circling back to this idea that partisanism is a major source of harms plaguing the contemporary world.
When I speak of partisanism, however, I don’t simply mean what is more commonly understood by the word: strong adherence, favouritism, or obedience toward an established political party––although party politics is included within the more general usage that I’m referring to. What I mean by partisanism is more akin to firm support of or allegiance to a cause, but it’s still a bit more complicated than that. It’s what results when one crosses over to a certain level of investment in or obsession toward the cause. Though I settled on “partisanism” to describe this concept, others in the past have describe it using different terms, and I’m going to borrow from George Orwell’s writing on his term of choice, “nationalism,” to better discuss it.i In his “Notes on Nationalism” essay,1 Orwell explains that he doesn’t use the term in an ordinary sense, because it doesn’t always attach itself to a nation. More specifically, he refers to “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”2 This is distinct from “patriotism,” which has more to do with “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.”2 Orwell’s nationalism instead “is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”3
The “nation or other unit” need not be something concrete and agreed upon,ii and such a nationalist feeling can be purely negative.iii With all this in mind,
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the up-grade and some hated rival on the down-grade.4
But these “victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations” don’t even require a basis in the actual for them to be viewed as such by one guided by partisan or nationalist thought:
The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right.5
This may be starting to feel a bit lofty or abstract, but I want to rein things in a bit and suggest that this type of partisan thought has come to infect most every aspect of our lives. While it can pertain to something like a religion or political movement, the partisan can form these sorts of attachments to a culture, to a race, or to a social class. It can be to something as big and vague as “the economy,” or a more narrow industry, profession, or specific business. And partisanism invades the world of art and letters, though this can actually be an extension of partisanism from another domain.iv During my years working in pharmacy, I have encountered two important forms of partisanism that I plan to return to in order to clarify concepts as I go along: professional partisanism, interested in growth of the profession, and business partisanism, concerning the growth of pharmacy businesses.
Let us return to Orwell’s analysis for a moment, however. A great deal of this piece concerns the classification of different types of nationalists along with similarities between them, but I feel that one of the more illuminating passages concerns the English author G. K. Chesterton, a political Catholic partisan. As Orwell describes him, “Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.”6 Such was his obsession around the Catholic cause that “[e]very book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.”6 But it wasn’t enough to demonstrate an intellectual or spiritual superiority: “it had to be translated into terms of national prestige and military power, which entailed an ignorant idealization of the Latin countries, especially France.”7 This not only led him to come to outlandish predictions due to his “enormous over-estimation of French military power,” but also to “a silly and vulgar glorification of the actual process of war.”8 And this partisanism blinded him to his glaring hypocrisy:
The interesting thing is that had the romantic rubbish which he habitually wrote about France and the French army been written by somebody else about Britian (sic) and the British army, he would have been the first to jeer. In home politics he was a Little Englander, a true hater of jingoism and imperialism, and according to his lights a true friend of democracy. Yet when he looked outwards into the international field, he could foresake (sic) his principles without even noticing that he was doing so. Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the representative government and the freedom of the press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter. Nor did Chesterton ever find a word to say against imperialism and the conquest of coloured races when they were practised by Italians or Frenchmen. His hold on reality, his literary taste, and even to some extent his moral sense were dislocated as soon as his nationalistic loyalties were involved.8
The important aspects I wish to pull from this portrait are integral parts of the partisan more generally: (1) obsession toward the cause; (2) indifference to reality; and (3) holding separate standards for the cause versus other causes. All of this leads to an important set of problems, and to better discuss them I will bring another work into this: Simone Weil’s “On the Abolition of All Political Parties.”9 Though focused on the harms caused specifically by a political party system, the insights of the piece pertain to the partisanism I speak of more generally. To begin with is the main objective of any political party or partisan cause: “its own growth, without limit.”10 According to Weil, this is a “phenomenon which always occurs whenever thinking individuals are dominated by a collective structure – a reversal of the relation between ends and means.”11,v Weil briefly describes why this comes to happen:
The goal of a political party is something vague and unreal. If it were real, it would demand a great effort of attention, for the mind does not easily encompass the concept of the public interest. Conversely, the existence of the party is something concrete and obvious; it is perceived without any effort. Therefore, unavoidably, the party becomes in fact its own end. … The transition is easily achieved. First, an axiom is set: for the party to serve effectively the concept of the public interest that justifies its existence, there is one necessary and sufficient condition: it should secure a vast amount of power.12,vi
From here, political parties––along with other partisan groups, including businesses, other organizations, as well as informal groups assembled around partisan causes––employ mechanisms designed to secure this growth agenda and limit free thought of adherents to the cause. As Weil puts it:
Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it.13
Part of this pressure comes from employing propaganda,vii but it also takes the form of disciplinary penalties that befall those who fail to put themselves into a state of full conformity with the allowable point of view of that group:
[N]o suffering befalls whoever relinquishes justice and truth, whereas the party system has painful penalties to chastise insubordination. These penalties extend into all areas of life: career, affections, friendship, reputation, the external aspect of honour, sometimes even family life. … Even for those who do not compromise their inner integrity, the existence of such penalties unavoidably distorts their judgment.14,viii
Partisans will treat all this as a form of “education,” “[b]ut this is a lie: it is not an education, it is a conditioning, a preparation for the far more rigorous ideological control imposed by the party upon its members.”15 And this all serves to limit thought in favour of an acceptable narrative of the party, of the business, of the profession—of the group. This effectively renders all discussion within the group and between groups of limited use or even impossible. Orwell expands on this idea in three important ways. Firstly, “certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible.”16 Underlying this concept, conclusions are decided before arguments are found in support of them and debates devolve into shouting one’s allowable view over the unheard noise of the other side. Secondly, individuals within the group who are held in high esteem prosper despite making unhelpful or absurd predictions and arguments, “because they are always saying what their own particular audience wanted to hear.”16 And, thirdly, partisan thought causes individuals to both lose their moral compass and promote misinformation so long as it’s at the service of their cause. As he says:
Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.17
I don’t want to suggest that everyone is a partisan of the G. K. Chesterton sort that dedicates every ounce of their being to a cause and is thereby terribly mendacious, thoughtless, and morally bankrupt. I do, however, want to suggest that every single one of us falls into the trap of partisan thought at least to some extent, that it worsens the more we stake our individualities into these causes, and that it’s growing and spreading due to the widely employed propaganda and disciplinary mechanisms discussed. What this means and why we should care is summed up cleanly by Orwell at the close of his essay:
As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one’s own feelings really are, and then making allowance for the inevitable bias. … [Y]ou cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes.18
This essay is the first in a series on partisanism. Next month, I plan to dissect Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon,19 his novel about the Soviet show trials, to better demonstrate partisan control of thought and its ramifications. The following month, I will delve into pharmacy practice research to discuss the partisan control of information—a look at flourishing propaganda that has convincingly portrayed itself as an objective search for truth. After that will be a return to Orwell, using his account of his experience fighting on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia,20 to discuss the importance of maintaining one’s freedom of thought and principles in the face of partisan pressure.
i. “Partisanism” as I use the word and Orwell’s “nationalism” should be viewed as synonymous.
ii. “… [I]t is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them the objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.”4
iii. “There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply the enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit.”4
iv. It’s hard to imagine the Christian partisan knowingly enjoying or promoting a song that criticizes Christianity, or the free-market Capitalist doing the same with a book describing the harms of the market economy. And, as Orwell put it, “[T]here is always a temptation to claim that any book whose [political] tendency one disagrees with must be a bad book from a literary point of view.”21
v. If the concept of reversing ends and means isn’t readily understood, another passage should help to explain: “Everywhere, without exception, all the things that are generally considered ends are in fact, by nature, by essence, and in a most obvious way, mere means. One could cite countless examples of this from every area of life: money, power, the state, national pride, economic production, universities, etc., etc.”22
vi. This all should ring true when considering many aspects of our lives, but I’ll use my experiences in pharmacy to better explain. In pharmacy, as it happens elsewhere, our understanding of what is good has become skewed. Though the partisan comes to believe in the good inherent in the cause, what is initially considered a good that is attached to the cause will begin as something apart from the cause itself––positive health outcomes to patients, as an example––while the cause is simply a vehicle to help realize this separate good. If we become convinced that the cause is an effective vehicle in this respect, it logically makes sense that empowering and enabling the cause will lead to further good. However, not everything that helps the cause necessarily helps the separate good we were attempting to reach, but this can be difficult to see, especially when one is loyal to the cause. What results is that the cause itself replaces the separate goal as the good that becomes sought after, and the partisan sees growth of the cause as the ultimate good. With respect to business partisanism in pharmacy, the business begins as the necessary vehicle for providing medications and clinical services to patients, so growth of the business reasonably has the potential to more effectively provide these things to patients and, therefore, lead to improved health outcomes for patients. However, growth models centred on pressuring pharmacists to provide low-impact clinical services certainly have the potential to grow the business, though the positive impact to patients––especially in relation to the resources consumed––is questionable. And with respect to professional partisanism, a limited scope of practice that constrains practitioners from providing useful services otherwise well within their capabilities will limit their ability to positively impact health outcomes for their patients, so it would make sense that expansion of professional scope could enable practitioners to do more and therefore lead to improved health outcomes. However, forcing continued expansion of scope on providers who lack adequate education, support, and resources to provide care effectively will lead to questionable health benefits and arguably potential harms.
vii. “Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade. Hitler saw very clearly that the aim of propaganda must always be to enslave minds. All political parties make propaganda. A party that would not do so would disappear, since all its competitors practice it.”15
viii. Disciplinary penalties extend beyond the realm of politics. In businesses, incentives and threats are regularly tied to financial metrics and employee obedience. In the professional world, professional practice research dictates desirable practice, and members are pressured to conform. (More on this in an upcoming essay.) And social penalties are regularly employed in informal groups to punish nonconformity.
- Orwell G. “Notes on Nationalism.” Essays. Penguin Books, 2014, pp. 300-317.
- Ibid., p. 300.
- Ibid., pp. 300-301, emphasis his.
- Ibid., p. 301.
- Ibid, emphasis starting “Nationalism …” mine.
- Ibid., p. 303.
- Ibid., pp. 303-304.
- Ibid., p. 304.
- Weil S. On the Abolition of All Political Parties. NYRB Classics, 2014.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Ibid., pp. 11-12.
- Ibid., pp. 13-14.
- Ibid., pp. 15-16.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Orwell G, op cit. p. 302.
- Ibid., p. 309.
- Ibid., p. 317, emphasis his.
- Koestler A. Darkness at Noon. Scribner, 2019.
- Orwell G. Homage to Catalonia. Penguin Books, 2000.
- Orwell G. “Notes on Nationalism,” op cit. p. 303, emphasis his.
- Weil S, op cit. p. 12.