Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Moralizing Isn't Politics

The polis is not a moral community. Politics isn't Morals. And moralizing isn't politics.

Politics isn't organized by the demands of identification and dis-identification in the way morals are. The reactionary political philosopher Carl Schmitt made precisely the contrary claim in his own influential theory of the political, thinking politics through a Friend/Foe distinction that is indeed at the heart of mores, what Sellars called "we-intentions" (which deconstruction in turn reminds us rely on the disavowal of imagined "they-intentions"). But politics in my view isn't about policing the continence of tribal/subcultural formations at all the way morals very definitely are.

Politics is the ongoing, and in fact interminable, contingent reconciliation of the diverse aspirations of the stakeholders with whom one shares the world, on whose differences we will variously depend for our flourishing while at once they are potentially threatening of our positions.

All politics is strategic, dynamic, finally unpredictable, generating effects of resistance precisely where it generates effects that are compelling. It is in part against the grain of this agonism of present plurality and open futurity that we are drawn to engage in the formal universality of Ethical norms that solicit, again only formally, a more general affirmation, with an eye to "the decent respect for the opinions of mankind," the project of meta-moral meta-political cosmopolitan normativity, Universal Declarations of Rights, the priority of consent over virtue, the adherence to rules of order and published conventions even in war, and so on.

Our inhabitation in multilateral societies with a complex functional division of labor and liberal division of powers, and further, our immersion in networked mediation (both mass and p2p), solicit us into multiple moral identifications over the course of our lives. It is in part against the grain of these parochial, partial, dynamic -- also, by the way, absolutely indispensable to human flourishing -- moral identifications/dis-identifications that we are drawn to engage in the formal universality of Ethical norms that solicit, again only formally, a more general affirmation, with an eye to "the decent respect for the opinions of mankind," the project of a narratively coherent ethos, of public-selfhood.

At its essence the "Left" is the commitment to the fraught process of democratization, in all its centuries of vicissitudes, the commitment to the nonviolent resolution of disputes among peers all of whom deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them. (I have delineated this Left "ethos" in greater detail here). The "Right" at its essence is the commitment to the defense and consolidation of incumbent interests in the face of social stresses, whatever the costs, because the diminishment or downfall of incumbency is imagined to be the worst conceivable outcome.

It is not correct, however commonplace it may be, to think the distinction between Left and Right as a conflict between two vast moral communities or meta-cultures, because most people will exhibit progressive or conservative tendencies in some of their organizational affiliations (a progressive political party can incubate a conservative politics in some of its members who foreground the defense of a party Establishment or system of established procedures, and patronage, while still remaining legible as progressive in its larger platform), their attitudes toward some historical change if not others, and so on.

The proper normative work of the moral consists of policing the continence of their community -- by securing its borders, disdaining its Significant Others, and maintaining the continuity of its members -- the better to provide the membership with the indispensable concerns of the moral: legibility, belonging, solidarity. Whenever moral communities acquire more properly "political" ambitions, whenever they become imperial or evangelical, their characteristic modes of policing (entirely proper to the moral in its proper sphere) substitute catastrophically for the proper work of the political, imposing the ambition to prevail over difference rather than contingently to reconcile diverse aspirations, inevitably replacing political agonism with a genocidal rage for order. The substitution of the moral for the political, properly speaking, is moralizing and not politics, and it seems to me it is an enormously dangerous thing that so many seem to think the political through the lens of such moralizing.

By the way, the contrary substitution of the political for the moral seems to me to be just as disastrous in practice. People who misapply the contingency of political strategy to the moral communities they inhabit will acquire soon enough the reputation of opportunism and untrustworthiness, while the pluralism of the political will always seem suspiciously like relativism from the perspective of the moral. Needless to say, in an epoch of moralizing mistaken for politics such as out own, charges of relativism are rampant and, more often than not, bespeak an incomprehension of and hostility to the exactions and pleasures of the political as such.

Long time readers of Amor Mundi will recognize that this is an argument embedded in my larger proposal that secularism involves more than a separation of Church and State but (at least) a five-fold demarcation of human concerns, each of which yields reasonable beliefs and practices according to its own mode, with its own criteria of warrant, and with its own indispensable benefits. These are, again, briefly, an efficacious mode (under which the scientific is subsumed and for which the scientific has come to paradigmatic) yielding powers of prediction and control, a moral mode yielding legibility and belonging, an aesthetic mode yielding personal perfections offered up to the hearing of the world, an ethical mode yielding from the interminability of political normativity and incompleteness of moral normativity a formally coherent ethos and faculty of judgment, and a political mode reconciling the aspirations of the diversity of peers with whom we share the world, whether we identify with them or not.

While I have focused here on the proper demarcation of the moral, the ethical, and the political in particular, and on the mischief and confusions that arise from mistaking or substituting one mode for the others among these three, it is also true that the other modes can come into play here as well, as when too emphatic a valorization of the efficacious mode can inspire projects to circumvent the political altogether and substitute for it social engineering and technocratic policy, or as when too emphatic a valorization of the aesthetic mode can inspire what Benjamin diagnosed as the consummation of art pour l'art in fascism.

No comments: