About Different Traditions – عن تعدُّد المذاهب


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عن تعدُّد المذاهب

This is a site about justice. Although justice is a practical problem, there are important ways of thinking about justice. We inherit the language that we use to think about justice, and this determines how we see the world. It represents the unshakeable parameters of our thought. But we can also create language and new meanings, but this requires a philosophical conversation with our contemporaries.

Unfortunately, philosophy today has become a stale academic pursuit which has deserted the individual in the fight for freedom. It is diminished particularly in so far as it rarely challenges the univocality of a utilitarian language created for us by free-market think-tanks, which Friedrich von Hayek referred to as the ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’. This site seeks to reverse this state of affairs and start a new conversation to ‘purify the words of the tribe’ (donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu). The intention is to strip the “Hydra” – to use the metaphor from the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé aptly describing the world of the secondhand dealers in ideas, of its language, which is the essence of its power.

The dominant neoliberal ideology of our age conflates democratic capitalism with democracy which is capitalistic. The univocal language which society has now long been educated into seeks a reduction of the multi-dimensional existence of the individual to a single index that facilitates the dominance of capital. Democracy is not the free creation then of human beings but a choice scale determined by the exigencies of capital. However, this is none other than the old problem of the tyranny of abstract reason in Western thought. Abstract reason of the theoretical sort often leads to ideas that are universalistic and hegemonic, where ideas of justice end up being entirely illusory. That is the essential character of neoliberalism.

Since ancient times there has existed an alternative tradition which accents practical rather than theoretical reason. This was called phronesis (φρόνησις) in Greek and hikma (حكمة) in Arabic. This philosophical language allows the multipolarity of society, and the generation of a cosmopolitan mosaic of different traditions. It is the kind of societal framework where justice is possible.

But if neoliberalism cannot deliver justice, it cannot co-opt the individual in its project on a voluntary basis and so must use coercion. It must therefore rule through fear. The language of fear has of necessity to be strange and foreign and since the 1990s Islamic cultural memes have served this purpose. But this is an Islam created in neoliberalism’s image, far removed from the tradition of hikma which at its peak provided us with a unique perspective on justice and the theory of a multipolar society.

Traditions: our ideational niches

The human species survives by creating ideas which are intended to structure its life and ensure survival. These ideas formed of words are the niches in which we live. Human beings function contextually and are therefore interacting communal beings, not solipsistic self-sufficient individuals, so survival is a struggle over time between the ideas of different traditions. Universalism and its hegemonic drive is the negative force which seeks to end the cycles of creative destruction and turn life into a desert. Cosmopolitanism on the other hand is the positive force which propels the creative struggle forwards. Any notion of ‘liberalism’ should prima facie require tolerance of all coherent ideas and the traditions which they generate. This tolerance of traditions implies respect for the individual – the prime subject of the liberal idea – because it nurtures the niches that are the individual’s communal base. Such ideas as are detached from this base in that they have a hegemonic purpose cannot be countenanced within an idea that is truly “liberal”.

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 any enquiry about justice.

Hegemonic ideas and exclusionary politics

Ironically “the Liberal Age” is that illiberal epoch in human history 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, when 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, according this philosopher, to be resisted by the citizen, if he was not to become a “slave”, understood in a purely 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 something 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 seek to overcome the irrationality of Lockean arguments by generalizing the act of exclusion through a new overarching argument pleading “universality”. This is the time when “universalism” becomes the driving force of the “liberal” idea.

The dominant “liberal” nations could still continue, on this basis, to pursue their self-interest untrammeled by moral conscience. This was made possible because all archaic and pre-modern social forms were perceived as superseded by the “modernity” of Enlightenment reason, in virtue simply of a formulaic notion of “progress”. Liberal society’s interpretation of this notion cast traditional society, however complex and potentially civilised, as savage.

This justified imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation as forms of exclusion to the benefit of 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 Islam as a ground for their imperial ambitions in the Middle-East. Liberal internationalists in both the US and Europe sailed in their wake with few qualms, justifying themselves with the argument from “progress”, claiming they were conferring civilisational benefits in the form of rising living standards and unnamed freedoms.

The Myth of the Enlightenment

The myth of the Enlightenment involves equating the modern state 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, nevertheless does continue despite claims otherwise on grounds of “modernity”. Claims about autonomy of the state were made in the Westphalian age, but even those claims dissolved after America, reconstructed at the turn of the twentieth century, began to dominate the world through a system called “corporate liberalism” by James Weinstein in his Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State. In “corporate liberalism” the joint-stock company becomes understood in law as an individual, which turns it into the vehicle for exclusion, formally replacing state autonomy with class dominance.

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 among the colonised as well as in communities within the “developed” world itself. William Turner’s “slave ship” (pictured above) relates with remarkable vividness the kind of society it was that was born in his day in Europe and America, the nature of which remains with us in our day. Thinking about justice on this site is to a large extent, therefore, about the deconstruction and the unmasking of the myths, fictions and fabrications that have allowed the slave ship sail on undisturbed.

Corporate liberalism and the neoliberal deception

The generational Enlightenment debates on reasoning in the complex tradition from Kant, though Schiller, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein saw human reason as something with emerges contextually from life and language. It would vindicate the practical reasoning, which it was mentioned earlier had been known by the name of phronesis in Greek and hikma in Arabic. The myth of the Enlightenment arose, however, from a different tradition that sprung from the work of Helvétius, Jeremy Bentham and the economists who followed them, which focused on the capacity to calculate, which was deemed necessary for the development and execution of government policy. Economists thinking became univocal and “universalist”, grounded in a notion of non-contextual rationality.

But the austere ideas in the work of Helvétius and Bentham are rarely mentioned in neoliberal storytelling. Rather it is Adam Smith and his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations who is held up as the authority. The brilliance of his writing, and its vision of a decentralised society of individuals trading in freedom, turned him into a modern magus. In truth, Helvétius and Bentham have a lot more to do with modern economics than Smith who, more in the tradition of Kant, saw individuals as social beings who interacted, making the non-contextual rationality required for calculation impossible. The metaphor of the “invisible hand” used in The Wealth of Nations appealed to clerics and austere economists (many of whom were themselves clerics) alike, because of its providential implications but also because of the promise that the natural laws that governed human beings could lend themselves to calculation by an austere thought élite.

The French Physiocrats, contemporaries of Helvétius, were the economists who first brought out the idea of “laissez-faire”. This natural law conception of political-economy, wrongly ascribed to Smith, was sought by the merchant classes in order to impose limits on the reach of the all-powerful eighteenth century French police state. These secular concerns were accompanied by theological considerations, which continued to imbue economic thought well into the 20th century, and were defined by Thomas Reid, who succeeded Smith at the University of Glasgow. Reid launched a counterrevolution against the Enlightenment work of David Hume and Adam Smith, and became the most widely read philosopher in America in the 19th century. His innatist philosophical theology justified an atomistic conception of the individual, which upturned Smith’s Kantian ideas, and set out a powerful basis for the application of non-contextual rationality by economists, many of whom were still influenced by theology.

When neoliberalism was first mooted as a doctrine by Alexander Rüstow and Wilhelm Röpke at a conference in Paris in 1938 the austere tradition consciously turned secular. No longer was a divine will conceived as the coordinating “invisible hand” behind the actions of solipsistic individuals. In a direct appeal to the myth of the Enlightenment, the “liberal” idea of a free market now had to be sustained through what came to be called a “neoliberal” conception of the state, as the coordinating force. However, the execution of these ideas in practice would take place in a post-WWII world dominated by American “corporate liberalism”. The kind of anti-cartel legislation envisaged by “neoliberal” conceptions of a free market hadn’t worked in America before, and they would not work now in Europe.

While the myth of the Enlightenment had promulgated the state as a neutral entity that could apply even-handed principles for the benefit of society by virtue of abstract reason, a new “neoliberal deception” would reinforce this idea by appealing to the state as an autonomous and neutral entity that would fairly coordinate the interaction of free individuals. New levels of mystification arose in the modern “science” of theoretical economics grounded on this idea, giving authority to thought élites that have increasingly replaced democracy with “technocracy”. The neoliberal deception involved the careful papering over in Chicago of the disconnection between the Rüstowian neoliberal concept and corporate liberalism, which henceforth went by the less jarring name of “neoliberalism” (not that the term corporate liberalism was ever used except by revolutionary historiographers).

But the emperor has no clothes. The disdain for democracy, based on the idea that it upsets the proper functioning of thought constructions, encourages the interference of special interests. Rather than a Smithian individualistic model producing an efficient allocation of resources, we now have a crypto-centrally planned economic system, promoting systemic malinvestment and the destruction of the environment. The rejection of state intervention and the promotion of deflation through austerity in the interests of finance are spun in the idiom of so-called “neoliberalism” as policy which protects the freedom of markets. This, however, deceives the public as to the true and massive scale of actual intervention, and the associated rent-seeking by the financial organisations which dominate a state that is dependent on them.

But the imperative of democracy and justice isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity actually productive of the efficient allocation of resources which the so-called “neoliberal” system falsely claims is at the core of its purpose. The application of non-contextual abstract reason in theoretical economics merely provides designs of one-sided constructions erected on foundations that are simply ad hoc, although the myths associated with this are happily perpetuated by those special interests which profit handsomely from them.

The conceptual basis for democracy

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. 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”.

Such monolithic expressions 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. Instead, allowing a heterogeneous expression of reason requires a resolution a posteriori from within the interactions and agreements of individuals in different situations.

The “neoliberal deception” displays an intrinsic understanding by our thought élites of the unattractive totalitarian implications of the universalism of the ideas of the French Revolution. Their ideal is set out instead on the terms of the decentralised society described by Smith, but is really a betrayal of his ideas in virtue of the conceptual disempowerment of the individual through appeals to “natural law”, such that “freedoms” are attainable through the abstract idea of the “market”. This univocal and reductionist idea permits calculation and therefore bureaucratization. It is at this point that the true implications of the neoliberal deception and its use of the “market” as a symbol of individual freedom hits home. Further bureaucratization is an instantiation of the state, but as has become clear, a state which is not autonomous.

To think correctly about justice, therefore, it is necessary to doubt prior reason altogether, and to be wary of all explicit or implicit metaphysical ideas redolent of natural law systems. Devices or strategies used by human beings to try to solve their practical problems are the valid manifestations of reason and, to the extent that they represent “reasonable strategies”, they differ from the project of establishing abstract principles or the use of pure reason.

The practical manifestation of democracy

Neoliberalism, or as the above argument would have it, crypto-corporate liberalism, is an exclusionary system of governance, in terms of promoting class dominance, but also in the radical sense of denying environmental externalities. It is barbaric and cannot co-exist with forms of governance that are truly democratic. The sine qua non of democracy is a cosmopolitan imperative to nurture evolving cultures in all their diverse languages and associated meanings. The very fact that we are entering a multipolar phase in the international political system is a sign of the decline of neoliberalism. However, complacency is also an enemy of democracy.

Human society is complex and communities are necessarily structured in multiple forms. This demands mutual respect between communities, and therefore a great amount of education and awareness to enable their mutual reinforcement. The reason for this is that the current political climate witnesses deep divisions within societies, communities, and even within families. The ascendancy of image over written text in the modern world has made the basis of mutual agreements in reasoning increasingly fraught. The exploitation by thought élites of these divisions makes the reliance on their manufactured myths a fact by default, and their interest lies in the perpetuation of this state of affairs.

Ultimately, the state must be rendered truly autonomous to shed its entrapment by corporate liberalist forces if a “democratic space” is to be created within which the multitude of communities can thrive to protect against the divide and rule tactics of ruling élites. Such an outcome cannot depend of abstract reason, but only of practical reason, the fundamental principle of which is rational deliberation within and between communities based on an understanding that irreconcilable division is an emotional state perpetuating of (self-imposed) servitude.