Play, The Antidote to Populism
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Play, The Antidote to Populism

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A common complaint in our era of global populism is that certain politicians are making a mockery of our institutions. Don’t they realize politics is more than just a game? They should take politics seriously and stop playing.

Any observer of politics can sympathize with this complaint. But what if it gets the diagnosis exactly backwards? What if the problem of populism is that we’ve stopped treating politics like a game?

Huizinga and the First Populist Wave

Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian whose career was overshadowed by two world wars and brought to an end in 1945 shortly after being released from a Nazi detention camp, just a few weeks before the end of the war. Prior to the wars, he wrote wide-ranging histories of the art, aesthetics, and culture of both India and medieval Europe.

However, as Europe of the early 20th century began to be pulled simultaneously rightward and leftward by populist and authoritarian ideologies, Huizinga found that his earlier work provided a vantage point from which to resist. His most famous work is Homo Ludens – “Man the Player” – subtitled A Study of the Play Element in Culture. This book, originally published in 1938, was ostensibly a history and philosophy of play. In 1944, however, while in a Nazi detention camp, he published a second edition that concluded with a foundational critique of the mindset underlying authoritarian populism. By taking politics too seriously, he argued, statesmen of his time had lost a sense of fair play.

Culture as Play

Huizinga’s argument in Homo Ludens is that culture is irreducibly playful, and that play suffuses nearly all social activity. If this seems like a strange claim, consider what he identifies as the core characteristics of play:

  1. Play is localized. “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place.” No particular game is all-encompassing; it has a beginning and an end, both temporally and spatially.
  2. Play is rule-bound. Here Huizinga anticipates Searle’s notion of constitutive rules. The game is defined by a certain set of arbitrary rules, which are kept for the pure sake of playing the game.
  3. Play is fun. “The purposes it serves are external to immediate material interests or the individual satis¬faction of biological needs.” We play because we like to do it, not because we have to.
  4. Play is competitive. The player’s social status is at stake. There can be prizes and penalties for winning and losing – even death, as Huizinga describes in his discussion of the Fatal Riddle motif – and such games can be played “in profound seriousness”. Nevertheless, prizes and penalties are less significant in themselves than as tokens of having won or lost. That the main prize concerns status rather than material or economic necessity ensures that the rules are kept for the game’s sake. Nobody respects a spoilsport, after all.

These characteristics should map immediately onto our commonsense notion of play. But notice that they map just as well onto a great deal of social life. Through successive chapters, Huizinga discusses the play element in law, war, myth, science, poetry, philosophy, and art. Each of these domains is defined by arbitrary rules defining the parameters of competition. Each bestows status upon those who most deftly outmaneuver their opponents within those parameters.

Why is it important that humans are innately playful? As I’ve argued elsewhere, if humans were solely concerned with their material self-interest, society wouldn’t be possible. A striking result from modern game theory is that humans who live together in groups larger than about five will never find it in their immediate self-interest to contribute to common projects like infrastructure, or governance, and so on. Rules can help, but what selfish person would be willing to follow a rule that makes him worse off? What selfish person would be willing to expend effort to enforce rules?

So, human society and culture bootstrap onto a primordial and pre-rational impulse for fair play – that is, to abide by the rules for the pure sake of playing the game. The fact that humans care about what others think of them, and expend a great deal of effort to compete for status, isn’t just phoniness, as the Holden Caulfields of the world might want to believe. On the contrary, it’s the thing that motivates us, first of all, to play by the rules of whatever game we’re in, and second, to sanction those who don’t. In other words, it’s the very thing that makes society and culture possible in the first place.

Huizinga versus Carl Schmitt

From this it follows that a society that ceases to care how it looks – a society more interested in the prize of a contest than the accolades – will soon enough cast off the institutions that make society possible. This is the core of Huizinga’s critique of Carl Schmitt, the German jurist whose political writings were used by the architects of National Socialism to legitimize their approach to politics.

According to Schmitt, the state of nature between political groups is one of irreducible conflict: total war – whether latent or overt – is the only ultimate rule of human social life. Alliances are made purely for the sake of expediency, and a political body should never consider itself bound to act in ways detrimental to its immediate self-interest. The function of politics is to distinguish between friends and foes, and the political body should only care about its standing among other groups to the extent that doing so furthers its own goals.

Huizinga did not mince words about this outlook. “I know of no sadder or deeper fall from human reason,” he says, “than Schmitt’s barbarous and pathetic delusion about the friend-foe principle.” Against Schmitt’s conception of competition as total war, Huizinga notes that international law descended from mediaeval codes of chivalry, which were deeply playful in their sportiveness. There were rules of honor and fair play in war, and violating one’s honor was often regarded as a worse fate than losing a battle, or even dying.

War today is no longer the “sport of kings” that it was in the medieval era, but even so Huizinga held out hope for a return to playfulness in war. Only this way can mankind “transcend that pitiable friend-foe relationship [and] enter into the dignity of man’s estate.” In the decades since his death, the world did indeed swing back to a more Huizingan understanding. After two devastating world wars in which the spirit of play seemed to have been entirely submerged by Schmittian total war, it was the atom bomb that seems to have impressed again upon political and military leaders the necessity of fair play in war; that certain violations of honor are worse than losing the battle.

The difference of outlook between Schmitt and Huizinga, however, extends far beyond the domain of war, into the entire domain of play under freely accepted rules, which – if we follow Huizinga – encompasses nearly all of human social life. If a willingness to be bound to rules for their own sake is what makes society possible, Schmitt’s philosophy is profoundly antisocial in the broadest possible sense. To flout the rules of a game, to consider one’s self unbound by one’s promises, makes one a spoilsport, and “the cheat or the spoilsport shatters civilization itself.”

Politics and Play in Contemporary America

If war has become more Huizingan since 1945, domestic politics in America by contrast have taken on an increasingly Schmittian tenor over the past decade. Rules are frequently changed by parties in power for short-term political gain. has floated court-packing to prevent a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Many Democrats want to abolish the electoral college, or to grant statehood to Washington, D.C. or Puerto Rico, in order to secure more stable majorities. Republicans, for their part, have changed Senate rules in order to pass nominees, gerrymandered legislative districts in order to maintain majorities, and cast doubt on the legitimacy of unfavorable elections.

Tactics like these indicate the failure of the limitation and localization of the political game. “The club [i.e. an area in which a game is played] is a very ancient institution,” Huizinga notes, “but it is a disaster when whole nations turn into clubs.” A game that encompasses one’s entire life, a national game that crowds out other associations – these quickly take on the tenor of a Schmittian struggle, where playing dirty is a necessity, rather than a competitive game.

For this reason, the elevation of politics to an all-encompassing game vitiates its play character entirely. When the prize of politics – legislative or electoral victory – becomes sufficiently high stakes, politicians, pundits, and voters prefer the prize to fair play.

This can be seen most clearly in the energy devoted in the past decade to identity politics. There can be no humor, no detachment when oppression is on the line. Everything is political – a common identitarian refrain that could have come straight from Schmitt. If the game is all-encompassing, it is no game at all. Indeed, humor and detachment are expressions of contemptible privilege. As so many critiques of ‘civility’ in politics have made clear, the identitarian left is far too invested in the prize of political goals to be able to commit to fair play. “It is the decay of humor that kills,” and we should be wary of too-convenient excuses to spoil the game.

The alt-right, on the other hand, might seem to embody play in a darker sense. Trolling, ironic edginess, and mockery all exude non-seriousness. But just as Huizinga is careful to emphasize that play does not exclude seriousness, it is also true that non-seriousness does not indicate play. Someone who mocks the game of chess is not playing chess, even if he seems more jovial than the player being mocked. Play is not, in the end, simply a matter of having a good time: it is a matter of taking the rules for granted.

Reviving the Sense of Play

Huizinga, perhaps with rose-colored glasses, wrote in 1944 that “there is a great deal that is endearing in American politics, something naïve and spontaneous for which we look in vain in the dragoonings and drillings, or worse, of the contemporary European scene.” If our loss of the play spirit is at the root of today’s populism and polarization, what can be done to restore it?

Simply recognizing the problem is a good first step. The toxicity of spoilsport ideologies, ideologies that refuse to legitimize rules that don’t benefit their own interests, cannot be overstated. Whether in religious, political, or some other form, they elevate the mid-level ideological faction at the expense of both the broader social body above it, as well as (as Jonathan Haidt has argued) the individual below it. Play, undertaken in social settings where rules of fair play are both voluntarily adhered to and enforced, is crucial both for individual fulfillment and for societal stability. This consonance, mediated through the play instinct, is precisely what it means to say that, as Aristotle noted long ago, “man is by nature a social animal.” Realization of this fact may be sufficient to pull some back from the brink.

In the end, however, the continuation of a game – whether basketball or society – depends on mechanisms for ejecting spoilsports and cheaters. Ironically, recognition of this fact brings Huizinga rather close to a different Schmittian concept, the exception, where the normal rules must be suspended in an emergency (which we may interpret in Huizinga’s language as a spoliation of the game). The only tool a game has to enforce its rules is other rules, which can also be broken. In order to deal with cheaters, therefore, the players must exit the game, if only temporarily. A foul in basketball is penalized by a free throw, but a failure to allow the other team a free throw spoils the game entirely, and can only be dealt with outside the parameters of the game itself.

This is the gist of what has recently been popularized as the Paradox of Tolerance, that a tolerant society must not tolerate the intolerant. But casting it in terms of play illuminates the broader principle, and highlights some common misuses. It is not intolerance as such that cannot be tolerated, except to the extent that tolerance is a rule of the game of liberal society, but spoilsport ideologies, which refuse to abide by common rules except at their own convenience.

There is, of course, the danger that the measures taken to deal with spoilsports will also be used to suppress legitimate ideological competitors within a liberal society. This danger is greatest when the boundaries of the game are unclear. How are we to know who is cheating, and who is simply competing? Answering this question for a liberal society is the very purpose of a constitution, a question made all the more difficult when the rules are contestable and in flux.

Perhaps, therefore, the wane of originalist jurisprudence has led straightforwardly to our present situation. Without a sense of fair political play within defined parameters, accepted arbitrarily and for their own sake, it becomes impossible to distinguish the political competitor from the political spoilsport. If the rules are flexible enough be reinterpreted for political expediency, who’s to say which party is responsible for the increasing disregard for America’s (or anyone else’s) political institutions? If the boundaries between the game and the rest of one’s life are blurred, it’s not even clear when we’ve exited the game, or when it would be legitimate to do so. Small wonder that politics should be high-stakes and cutthroat under such circumstances!

By contrast, politics can be cooperative and productive when its scope as a proportion of mental energy is limited. Huizinga reports that for a period in England, “the spirit of fellowship would allow the bitterest opponents a friendly chat even after the most virulent debate.” Both there and here, “there can be no doubt that it is just this play-element that keeps parliamentary life healthy.” The play element, in turn, is nourished by clear and legitimate rules, and by limiting the time and mind-space occupied by politics.

Populism is a deadening of the play spirit, a symptom of a political game that has overgrown its legitimate boundaries and spilled over into a high-stakes no-holds-barred struggle rather than a friendly-but-serious competition. When political rules are not regarded as matter of life and death, when they are not in fact a matter of life and death, and when they are treated as ends in themselves rather than as vehicles for advancing factional interests, only then can we hope to reclaim the proper humor, the playfulness, of political competition.


Culture WarNormsCarl SchmittJohan Huizinga


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