إضغط على الرابط “عن تعدُّد المذاهب” ادناه لقراءة او لتحميل النسخة العربية من ما يلي باللغة الإنجليزية أدناه
This is a site about justice. Although justice is a practical problem, there are important ways of thinking about justice. Thinking about justice involves using philosophical language. This language determines how we see the world. It represents the parameters of our thought. Today philosophy is diminished and rarely challenges the language developed for us by modern free-market think-tanks, which Friedrich von Hayek referred to as the ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’.
We seek to reverse this here by ‘purifying the words of the tribe’ (donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu). The intention is to strip this ‘Hydra’ – to use the metaphor from the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé which aptly describes the pervasiveness of the utilitarian and univocal language of those secondhand dealers in ideas- of the essence of its power, making it incapable of regenerating the heads we sever in the ongoing battle for freedom.
We are limited in our social dialogue by the parameters set-out by the dominant neo-liberal ideology of our age. Talk of democracy is imbued with considerations about capital. We, as human beings, are no longer the pivotal concern of social dialogue, by virtue simply of the nature of the language we use to talk about ourselves.
A democratic capitalism is entirely different to democracy which is capitalistic. Our discussions about capital should defer to considerations of democracy, not the other way round. The distinction may appear to be subtle, but it actually sets out two opposites.
The problem of neoliberalism is, however, ultimately rooted in the old problem of the tyranny of abstract reason in Western thought that has reigned since the Enlightenment, and it is the aim of this site to help in the deconstruction of this tradition.
Abstract reason leads to ideas that are hegemonic, and thus anti-democratic. That is the essential character of neo-liberalism.
Since ancient times there has existed an alternative empirical tradition which accents practical rather than abstract reason which was called phronesis (φρόνησις) in Greek and hikma (حكمة) in Arabic. The kind of society that this empirical language generates is multipolar and consists of different traditions. It avoids universalism and the hegemonic consequences of unipolarity. It is the kind of societal framework where justice is possible.
The human species survives by creating ideas, which are intended to structure its life and ensure this survival. Essentially, human beings function contextually and are therefore interacting communal beings, not solipsistic self-sufficient individuals. But survival is a struggle between the ideas of different traditions.
Therefore, any notion of ‘liberalism’ should prima facie require tolerance of all such ideas and the traditions which emanate from them, as this in turn implies respect for the individual – the prime subject of the liberal idea. Logically then, such ideas as have a hegemonic purpose and are intolerant cannot be countenanced within the ‘liberal’ idea.
We nevertheless face the irony of the dominant ‘liberal nations’ (primarily Britain, France and America) having, throughout their modern history, appropriated the term ‘liberal’ for their hegemonic ideas. Deconstructing this paradox, which is deeply embedded in the meanings of Western liberal language and culture, should, therefore, be central to this enquiry about justice.
Liberalism, hegemonic ideas, and exclusionary politics
If we call ‘the Liberal Age’ that epoch which arose with the hegemonic policies of the Dutch in the seventeenth century, followed by those of the British and then the Americans in later periods, we find a world entering a period of ‘exclusionary’ politics. Exclusionary politics is a process which marginalises (if not demonises) strangers, and this developed in three stages.
Dutch political theory expounded by Hugo Grotius represented a transition between the overlapping jurisdictions of the Middle-Ages and the new nation state. The sovereignty of the Dutch mercantile hegemonic body politic could still be traced back to its roots in the various communities and familial structures that made up the nation in Grotius’ writings. Sovereignty, in his theory, was still divisible. This early stage in liberal thought used the concept of Christendom to exclude ‘savages, pagans and infidels’ from the ‘civilisational’ sphere.
In classical liberalism, ‘exclusionary’ politics was subsequently redefined by John Locke in terms of a unified conception of sovereignty. The British ‘Commonwealth’ emerging from the civil war placed sovereignty in the custody of the adult white male property owning population, encapsulated in the body of parliament. Locke’s reference to the ‘commonwealth’ involved a conceptual leap, which ‘pooled’ sovereignty into an abstract notion for the first time.
However, the exclusion of those labeled as ‘savages, pagans and infidels’ would no longer be based on the concept of Christendom. The exclusion of ‘papists’ (Catholics) from the ‘commonwealth’, otherwise referred to as the ‘body politic’ or ‘civil society’, made this a redundant concept.
So for Locke, ‘civil society’ became the exclusionary concept. Within ‘civil society’ ‘tyrannical rule’ might arise and this would need to be resisted by the citizen, if he was not to become a ‘slave’, understood in the political sense. Outside of this ‘civil society’, however, entirely different conditions would pertain. In this case, ‘despotical rule’ might arise, but unlike the case of ‘tyrannical rule’, this was not to be resisted. ‘Despotical’ rule was justified over people considered to be outside the civilisational ambit, whose very existence was an affront to the ‘laws of nature’.
Indeed, Locke used this founding formula for liberal double standards to justify slavery, understood this time as ‘chattel’ slavery. The moral righteousness of liberal internationalism would for the first time be combined in a formal argument which gave the right to liberal nations to arbitrarily subjugate and exploit others.
With the advent of the French Revolution the myth of a post-historical society based on Enlightenment reason took hold. This would overcome the irrationality of Lockean arguments by generalizing the act of exclusion through a new overarching argument pleading ‘universality’.
The dominant ‘liberal nations’ could still, on this basis, continue to pursue their self-interest untrammeled by moral conscience. This was to be made possible because all archaic and pre-modern social forms were to be perceived as superseded by the ‘modernity’ of Enlightenment reason, in virtue of the notion of ‘progress’. Liberal society’s interpretation of this notion cast traditional society, however complex and potentially civilized, as savage.
This justified imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation as forms of exclusion for all those who claimed the Enlightenment for themselves. This is still relevant today. In the post-Cold War period, American neo-conservatives appealed to this very concept to justify their demonisation of Islamic culture as a ground for their imperial ambitions in the Middle-East.
The Myth of the Enlightenment thus emerges, where the modern state is equated with pure reason.
The important point about an Enlightenment appeal to abstract reason is that the crucial continuing role of familial structures or of corporate special interests as being constitutive of a sovereign liberal body is hidden from sight. ‘Liberal’ nations are thus notionally purified of tradition. The fact is denied that in all societies the ‘pre-modern’, in the form of those special interests that are their driving force, does nevertheless continue under the guise of ‘modernity’.
Liberalism’s legacy after 250 years is that we see a glaring contradiction in the oppression of whole classes of peoples and entire nations, the marginalisation of minorities, and the studied indifference to the fate of many communities, both urban and remote, both in the colonised as well as in communities within the ‘developed’ world itself.
Thinking about justice – the subject matter of this site – is therefore to a large extent about the deconstruction and the unmasking of myths, such as the Myth of the Enlightenment.
The politics of justice and the dominance of special interests in the neoliberal system
This myth, however, is not so much a product of the ideas of the Enlightenment itself as of the historical development of liberal society.
The development of conceptual thought in the Enlightenment, as opposed to its manifestation as a European culture, took place largely (although not exclusively) in the German states. This German tradition debated the notion of pure reason and the extent to which the human being was rational in the classical sense of acting consistently on the logical deduction from premises.
The conclusion reached by the time of Friedrich Nietzsche in these generational debates, which crucially witnessed a Counter-Enlightenment reaction within the Enlightenment discourse, was essentially that the human being was not rational in this classical sense.
A relative rather than absolute notion of rationality developed with the philosophy of Kant, through Schiller, to Nietzsche (eventually to be encapsulated in Wittgenstein’s life), which focused on the relation of individuals to particular semantic environments. In other words, rationality came to be understood in terms of a set of meanings relevant to particular communities at particular times, and this is what would ultimately lead to the understanding that different narratives develop for different traditions.
This is the real meaning of the Enlightenment, and leads necessarily to a ‘cosmopolitan’ view in regard to the relations between different communities or nations. This is an entirely different – if not opposite- concept to the ‘universalism’ which accompanies particular economic or political projects built upon the blinkered context of exclusionary visions of society.
Nevertheless, universalism remained the overriding feature of liberal internationalism. From the theoretical point of view, abstract notions of non-contextual rationality (known as ‘instrumental rationality’) remained attractive to modern thinkers. This is what allowed the conception of the modern state in terms of abstract principles of reason entirely independent of the actions and decisions of the real people within it. Claims for absolute reason, furthermore, ensure the privileged social status of the thinker.
So, ignoring the real meaning of the Enlightenment is an abiding problem which applies to the modern thinkers who brought us neoliberalism, the vast majority of whom were economists.
Emerging from the Great depression and WWII, a broad collection of European and American economists sought to appeal to the state in order to construct individual freedom based on notions of abstract reason. This paradoxical and essentially contradictory strategy is what ultimately ushered in the modernity which compromised freedom, and produced an economic system which threatens our environment.
Theirs was an idealised vision of a decentralised society, where a multiplicity of individuals each pursues their self-interest freely, independently of state interference. It was based on the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ that the Scottish economist Adam Smith mentions in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. The original idea, however, had come in the conception of ‘laissez-faire’ developed by the French Physiocrats as a limit imposed by the laws of ‘political-economy’ on the reach of the all-powerful eighteenth century state.
Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, however, has been mistakenly taken out of context. It is the work of his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, whom Smith followed as Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University that would eventually set the philosophical context for understanding this idea. In his inaugural address in 1730 Hutcheson overturned the natural law ideas that formed the basis of the ‘Physiocratic’ school’s doctrines, and his works had considerable significance.
His ‘innatist’ thesis was that all the relevant laws for ethics, law and politics were contained in human nature, which, he said, had originally been created by God in his own image. That the secrets of the universe were entirely contained within the mind thus gives rise to universalism.
Hutcheson thus followed the Christian principle that society is viewed from the aspect of inner moral certainties, although Smith saw it the other way round from his teacher. Instead of the ‘invisible hand’ eventually being understood as a broad metaphor for technical matters with no implications about social justice, it came to be seen, contrary to Smith’s intention, as the very operation of justice emanating from a fixed human psychology with divine origins. This idea then finds fertile ground in a revolutionary America which had been educated on Hutcheson’s textbooks. These books go on to contribute substantially to several religious, cultural and political factors, which shape the country’s individualistic culture. They, more specifically, go on to provide the intellectual basis for its evangelism.
This strict internalist individualism represented the deep religious roots of the orthodox economics called ‘clerical laissez-faire’, which provided the cultural background for the success of theories of instrumental rationality that would eventually be canonised by the ‘Chicago School of Economics’ in their reification of markets in the 1940s and 50s, otherwise known as ‘market fundamentalism’. Although, this becomes the theoretical core of neoliberal thought, it didn’t represent the ideas of German neoliberals, who actually launched the original idea of the top-down construction of markets, but who used more social democratic models of the economy based on a less restrictive, more contextual, notion of the individual.
This didn’t make German neoliberalism (usually called ‘ordoliberalism’) any less flawed than American neoliberalism from the aspect of its dependence on abstract reason. Despite their differences, both sides agreed that the ‘Smithian’ concept of ‘laissez-faire’ as erroneously received by them, however the individual was conceived, was simply an ideal. But they also agreed after WWII that the idea of a competitive free market was so important to individual freedom that it should urgently be established through the auspices of the state.
The state in fact would be tasked with legislating for it, constructing it, and policing it. But fate would have it that neoliberalism became essentially an American/Chicagoan project. Feeding off the deeply rooted internalism of American conservative society, which had served to scupper social legislation during the nineteenth century, the corporations which captured the US state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century capitalist reconstruction of America, would shape the world in their own image. James Weinstein described the ‘Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State’ in 1968, much before neoliberalism really got going under Reagan.
So the Myth of the Enlightenment arises from this belief that the state is a neutral entity that can apply even-handed principles for the benefit of society by virtue of abstract reason. This is the source of all mystification arising from the modern ‘science’ of theoretical economics.
It never seems to have occurred to these economists that the state was actually a permanently deficit-ridden entity, riddled with corruption and the influence of special interests. The kind of state they imagined didn’t exist. The eventual alliance between a misguided thought élite and the states of the liberal nations is what has generated the neoliberal constructions driving the world towards ever greater profligacy.
Democracy has been replaced with ‘technocracy’, and central banks have replaced parliaments as the source of the most important legislation.
This disdain for democracy, based on the idea that it upsets the proper functioning of thought constructions, and encourages the interference of special interests, has backfired. Rather than a Smithian individualistic model producing an efficient allocation of resources, we have a crypto-centrally planned economic system, which causes systemic malinvestment and the destruction of the environment. The reluctance to intervene in a Keynesian sense and the belief in curing economic ills through austerity deceives the public as to the true and massive scale of actual intervention, and the creation of new special interests, represented by the financial organisations which are the ‘enablers’ of the system.
So, despite the rhetoric, neoliberal society is not structured around the decentralised activities of individuals. Instead, coordinated central bank action organises the funding of increasingly unmanageable financial imbalances of states through the capital markets, under the guise of ‘market freedom’.
This has led to the ‘crowding-out’ of the mass of the private sector and the consequent reduction of real economic wealth. A skewing process takes place which enriches the ‘enablers’ of the system at the expense of everybody else, which as Thomas Piketty pointed out in Capital in the Twenty-First Century arises from the fact that the average rate of return on capital always exceeds the average annual rate of growth of income.
It has also led to the general collapse of the value of currency, and the consequent need for constant intervention through new derivatives markets to regulate prices and prevent a loss of confidence in the system.
It never occurred to these economists that an efficient allocation of resources should be based on the notion of justice, requiring not a theoretical economic solution, which can only function based on artificial systems designed from the one-sided and constructed perspective of capital, but a political solution involving the deconstruction of the state into a mere collection of ‘practices’ without an abstract ‘essence’, thus rejecting the reification of this essence.
So, the imperative of democracy and justice isn’t a luxury which rich economies can afford and poor ones cannot, it is a necessity which ensures the efficient allocation of resources and consequently produces wealth.
Democracy then functions through the decentralised action of individuals understood more in terms of the contextual beings of German neoliberalism, than through the instrumentally rational individuals of American neoliberalism. In this sense, individuals are recognized as entities that shape themselves by reacting to their organic communities, and who only in this way constitute the fundamental elements of the different traditions that provide the narratives driving economy and society forward.
German neoliberalism, conceived in the early Nazi period in the 1930s, failed as soon as the Marshall Plan opened the door to investment by US multinationals in Germany, and gave way to American neoliberalism.
The philosophical and conceptual basis for democracy
As stated at the outset, human beings survive by creating ideational niches because they function socially by creating standards of behaviour which subsequently become, to all intents and purposes, the objects of all meaning in moral language. It is this that must then function as the basis of all social legislation. There is no objective moral language outside this human endeavour, which is why equating the state with abstract reason fails.
The French Revolution replaced the exclusionary notions of classical liberalism and appealed to universalism such that all individuals were to be treated as equal. Universalism was a quality of reason and sovereignty would now be embodied in a state equated with reason. This meant selecting principles by which the equidistance of each individual from the state could be established.
However, this type of reasoning produces principles or ends like ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, or ‘fraternity’ that are essentially eulogic terms, barely able to conceal the vagueness and ambiguity of their meanings. Such terms could never provide clear a priori legislative resolutions from reason unless from the perspective of a single legislator or a legislating group. Society would be driven into a cul-de-sac with a dictatorship (or an oligarchy) effectively ‘becoming the state’ in virtue of its claim to interpret the ‘general will’ of the people. Such a monolithic expression of political life could never account for the diverse aims of individuals, and a resolution to society’s unity in such circumstances would necessarily have to be fanatical.
By contrast, allowing a heterogeneous expression of reason requires a resolution a posteriori from within the interactions and agreements of individuals in different situations. The problem we face in the neoliberal world is that democratic institutions are tied to a system of a priori reason brought to us by a collective of economists – a thought élite – which seduces us with these meaningless eulogic terms.
For, by being granted ‘freedom’ through the idea of the ‘market’, we have been enslaved to the debt obligations of the state that brought us the neoliberal system, and to the dividend payments for the shareholders and executives of the financial corporations that are not the true individuals in a decentralised system, but are, instead, the state’s ‘enablers’.
To think correctly about justice, therefore, it is necessary to doubt prior reason, and to be wary of all explicit or implicit metaphysical notions that it consists of: those ‘towers that would reach the heavens’ in Kant’s words, but ‘which fail from lack of material’. Concepts of pure reason are only blocks for use in the process of ‘play’ that judging represents.1. Meanwhile, devices or strategies used by human beings to try to solve their practical problems are, despite everything, valid manifestations of reason and, while they represent ‘reasonable strategies’, their differ from abstract principles or pure reason.2.
It is necessary for all those who wish to change this world to create or to reinforce the validity of communities ‘outside’ our barbaric neoliberal environment, to nurture their various cultures rich in their different and diverse meanings.
Away from the large institutional structures run by our élites that have mismanaged the world’s resources, these cultures will hopefully become the different traditions that can bring light back to a darkened world. In political terms, this translates into the ideal of small-scale, flexible, relatively homogeneous but often spatially dispersed political-community units that seek and fill niches by multi-lateral negotiation or exchange in the context of a cosmopolitan world.
Technological change is the very stuff of the march of ideas which the human being uses to structure its life and ensure survival. We have the advantage today of the new dimension of cyberspace to help us change the world. InfoTech has radically altered the balance of power between rulers and ruled, and although rulers are staging a massive effort as monopolization through both legal treaties and physical violence, the resulting structures are inherently fragile.
If some have called the next revolution by often spatially political-communities ‘postcapitalism’, they are wrong when they say that the conditions for its growth requires nurturing by the state. This would give us a scenario no different then to how ‘neoliberalism’ was generated, in a top-down direction. These new trends will gradually replace the existing state with distributed forms of power, for the state as it exists has effectively been gutted during its neo-liberal phase and is now bereft of all power to provide the security to human society which it has promised since 1648. This is how fundamental new developments actually are.
What will allow human society to gradually replace the state with complex new voluntary systems are certain parts of the new InfoTech, in particular new blockchain technologies will permit the electronic registration of the voluntary activities of individuals over decentralised computer systems. This can translate into a framework for the legislation for communities, whether existing traditional communities or otherwise, to establish or re-establish themselves virtually, and thus will lead to the by-passing all those overarching institutions of the neoliberal state which refuse to change. There will a new and serious interest in forms of social organisation that in the past have gone by the name of ‘anarchistic’ as the proper expression of democracy, and that will enable the ruled now to sidestep the manipulative capacity of élites to hang on to power.
However, it must be said that the ability of communities to change the neoliberal world will, by the very nature of things, only come in multiple forms. This necessary diversity and complexity being the very stuff of a new properly democratic world will demand the mutual respect of communities and their joint reinforcement (and so cosmopolitanism). From the point of view of how to think about justice, this will only be possible in an environment with a high degree of awareness but also one which eschews metaphysics and ceases to reify abstraction.
COPYRIGHT © 2016 OMAR KASSEM
- In Kant, if the ‘understanding’ is what we normally take as the faculty of rules and concepts, the imagination is a separate function, which mediates between the understanding and the manifold of intuition by placing it in space and time in different ways. As he says: “The subjective universal communicability of the kind of representation in a judgment of taste, since it is supposed to occur without presupposing a determinate concept, can be nothing other than the state of mind in the free play of the imagination and the understanding (so far as they agree with each other as is requisite for a cognition in general)….” Critique of the Power of Judgement 5: 217-218) ↩
- As Aristotle said when criticising Socrates, there is a subtle difference between applying reason – kata ton orthon logon – and going along with reason – meta ton orthon logou – (Σωκράτης μὲν οὖν λόγους τὰς ἀρετὰς ᾤετο εἶναι （ἐπιστήμας γὰρ εἶναι πάσας）, ἡμεῖς δὲ μετὰ λόγου: Nicomachean Ethics 1144b 25 ↩