Political philosophy... Like COVID-19, there's a lot of it about. Indeed, one's almost
tempted to see it as a symptom of the apocalypticism that's infected Western culture since the turn of the millennium. The sky is falling; our politics are in crisis; we're lurching from one global catastrophe to another, each of which presages imminent disaster and total and universal destruction. A rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born; we need to mend our ways if we're going to keep that big bad wolf from the door.
but not quite. For political philosophy isn't a peculiarly millennial phenomenon. Throughout history, the chattering classes have always asked fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, liberty, justice, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority. And throughout history, philosophers have always excavated and examined the soundness of the conceptual structures that inform the answers the theory-mongers have proposed to those questions.Like weeding the garden, political philosophy is a perennial task.
In his recent article in SR, Professor Robin Downie
compares and contrasts communitarianism with individualism as general political theories. Communitarianism enjoyed something of a revival under Tony Blair, as the ebb to the flow of Margaret Thatcher's individualism, though it never really caught on among the constituents of the property-owning democracy that Mrs T helped to fashion, wherein the devil still today takes the hindmost. Nevertheless, I think Professor Downie might be on to something when he suggests that 'the general population may be ready for a shift in their values in that direction' as it hunkers down in the spirit of the Blitz to ride out the current crisis. Once again, we're seeing that, in extremis, shared misfortune often brings out the best in people – or at least, allows the best among us to shine. But whether or not ‘communitarianism may develop and become the political philosophy for the 21st century'. That's another matter.
The problem is that it might be a mite too prescriptive for our postmodern tastes. When I went up to university in 1979, I was just in time to greet the publication of Jean-François Lyotard's epoch-defining work in epistemology, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir
. In his report, Lyotard argued that technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media, and computer science had rendered all metanarratives untenable.
'Metanarratives' are the overarching interpretations of events and circumstances that provide a pattern or structure for our beliefs and gives meaning to our experiences, the 'big stories' that provide the paradigms-cum-metaphors for all the 'little stories' we tell ourselves in order to make unified sense of all the shit that’s going on around us. The metanarratives of modernity included those 'big stories' that had since the Enlightenment served to legitimate our knowledge (science) and governance (politics).
Metanarratives, in general, had become untenable because by the second half of the 20th century we'd gotten wise to them. In particular, we'd gotten wise to their 'historicity' – the fact that both metanarratives themselves, and the concepts, values, and practices they subsequently inform, have a definite historical origin and development and aren't 'absolute' in the sense of being independent of the place and time in which they appear.
This relativism is opposed to the imperialistic belief that the metanarratives on which we depend for the legitimation of our values and practices are somehow 'natural' or 'essential' and thus hold universally, for everyone, irrespective of where they are or when they happen to be. Lyotard's finding was that, in place of such absolutes, there had emerged in our knowledge-communities and polities a plurality of partial and mostly incommensurable narratives, all competing for our partisanship in a 'battle for the future'. Suck that up! – as Baudrillard might have said.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, there were three general responses to Lyotard's analysis: denial, acceptance, and revolt. Some, like John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, denied that, despite the fracturing of communication consequent on our technological progress in the field, the relative merits of competing metanarratives were still decidable (at least in principle), and that the metanarratives of the Enlightenment were still demonstrably the best. All that was required to rectify the postmodern threat to right-thinking and good governance was to regulate our media in such ways as to, as far as possible, eliminate the 'radicalisations' and 'fake news' that distort our communication and undermine our communicative competence.
Others, such as the aforementioned Jean Baudrillard, accepted Lyotard's conclusions and embraced the principle that anything and everything is permissible in a postmodern free market knowledge economy. Each to their own, and the devil take the hindmost. Money, rather than anything 'higher' principle, like reason, makes the world go around. All we can do is accommodate ourselves as best we can to this hapless and helpless situation in which we find ourselves.
Some of us, however, while accepting that authoritative and exclusive metanarratives are no longer tenable (the conclusion of the doctoral thesis – Interpretation, Decidability, and Meaning: a critical review of the hermeneutics debate in its most recent form in German philosophy
– with which, in 1986, I called time on my interlude in the academy), this situation – la condition postmoderne – was something we had to 'overcome' (in the Hegelian sense) in order to develop a politics of alliance and solidarity equal to the challenges we could see advancing over the horizon of the 21st century.
Now, as we already enter the third decade of that century (where does the time go, alas!), those challenges are becoming increasingly more pressing as we appear to lurch from crisis to crisis towards what we tell ourselves is an environmental abyss.
We seem to have sorted our science out, having overcome both the modernist insistence on right-thinking and the postmodernist insistence on epistemological anarchy by embracing 'performativity' in the service of society and the wider environment as the touchstone of validity and merit. However, we're still to achieve such a 'differentiated unity' (as Hegel called it) in our politics.
In the absence of a crystal ball, I've no idea what institutional changes will produce the politics of differentiated unity that's called for in response to the threats posed by the 'rough beast' of the postmodern world. However, I can envision what such a politics might have to look like.
It will have to be a politics that enables an equal alliance of differences rather than a tyranny of the socially privileged, a solidarity richly mediated with dissent that can be articulated without being marginalised or annulled. It will have to be multi-perspectival and consensual, pragmatic rather than idealistic/ideological, performative rather than prescriptive in the distribution of social goods, with its powers dispersed horizontally rather than concentrated hierarchically and organised socially on the principle of subsidiarity rather than devolved authority. And it will have to be inclusively participatory rather than exclusively representative in its decision-making.
Whether or not our children and grandchildren have a future will depend on the choices they rather than we make; hence, it's they who'll have to intelligently and decisively develop a new politics that will enable them to make collective decisions that negotiate the fast-mutating novelties, intricacies and challenges of their time.
The task is a historical one, which means they won't be able to step outside their situation and create this new politics ex nihilo. Their new politics will have to be an evolution from the old; their possibilities will be delimited by where they find themselves in the current state of historical play, which is somewhere between the Scylla of modernity and Charybdis of postmodernity.
The metanarrative of the Enlightenment, as expressed in the discourse of universal human nature and rights to be found in both communitarianism and individualism, produced a false unity that masked and suppressed our differences and privileged certain groups at the expense of others – men at the expense of women, whites at the expense of blacks, gays at the expense of straights, the middle-aged at the expense of the old and the young, the propertied at the expense of the proletariat, the normal at the expense of the deviant.
The postmodern turn, conversely, whereby the Enlightenment metanarrative deconstructed into a politics of warring 'identities' or 'fragments of difference', seems to deny any possible context for concerted action. Which is why what I envision is a 'differentiated unity' of the two: the social hope of the modern Enlightenment for the best of all possible worlds and the postmodern recognition that the historical world in which we're condemned to live is a flawed and imperfect one. What I'm envisioning for my children and future grandchildren is a politics that strives for the optimal rather than the ideal, the pragmatic rather than the fundamental.
Our differences are so foundational and undecidable that a consensus among us, be it global or local in scope, international or parochial, is in general unobtainable.
In the postmodern world of pervasive and entrenched disagreement, born of our technological progress in communications, our children and grandchildren will have to abandon the modern hope of universalism and take recourse in damage-limitation to contain the risk that a battle for the future among competing fragments or identities could pose to everyone's interests.
They will have to (because this is where they're historically at) learn to live with dissensus and pluralism in matters of identity and knowledge. They will have to (again because this is where they're at) devise frameworks of governance that make collective decision-making possible despite their radical diversity and the irreconcilable dissensus which such diversity begets. In setting these frameworks, accommodating rather than eliminating dissensus should be seen as a positive and constructive goal, as laying the basis for a contextualistic rationalism that 'overcomes' (in the Hegelian sense) both the ideological absolutism of modernity on the one hand and the relativistic nihilism of postmodernity on the other.
I've grounds for hope that this revolution might well be accomplished, that (to echo an anthem of my youth) we shall 'overcome'. Albeit not in our lifetimes.
Generation Z is at least potentially much better adapted than we 'has beens' will ever be to what the current historical situation requires of them. For members of this cohort, digital communications technology and the dissensual culture to which it has given rise are no longer 'new' but have been with them all their lives. For them, unlike us, there are no 'better' times to which they can nostalgically harp back, no simpler pre-digital days that we imagine existed before fact and value went to hell in a handcart. Generation Z already accept, far more 'naturally' than we do, the virtues required of a 21st-century democracy: legitimate diversity, restrained dissonance, acquiescence in difference, and respect for the autonomy of others.
It isn't unreasonable to expect, therefore, that the political culture of Generation Z will more readily embrace:
• the fact that the varying experiential situation of different people makes it 'normal', 'natural', and 'rational' that we'll often proceed at variance in cognitive, evaluative, and practical matters;
• the corollary that society must therefore be so arranged that a general harmony of constructive interaction can prevail despite the diversity, dissensus, and dissonance that 'normally' and 'naturally' prevails among individuals and identities;
• the possibility that people can, to everyone's benefit, accept and come to terms with the fact that others will differ from ourselves quite fundamentally in opinion, evaluation, customs, and conduct;
• the prudential principle that we mustn't only 'tolerate' others but must also positively respect their autonomy, their right to go their own variant ways within frameworks of self-imposed limits that are conducive to the maximisation of that autonomy, in the expectation that they'll respect our right in return.
Isn't this just another modernist utopianism? An old man's wishful thinking? I don't think so... I hope not. Such a politics as we oldies may reasonably hope will emerge from the historical life-experiences of Generation Z won't and can't be perfect. The future will be no utopia. We can only hope that our children and grandchildren might avert it from becoming a dystopia of totalitarianism on the one hand or an anarchy of warring identities on the other.
What we may reasonably hope from our children and grandchildren are two things:
• a politics that looks to be forever making continuous and incremental adjustments to its decision-making processes and institutions, the practical outcomes of which none will deem perfect but which everyone can live with;
• a politics that will exchange the fundamentalism of utopian yearnings for a shared recognition that such imperfect, pragmatic arrangements minimise the risk to the autonomy of each while enabling the solidarity they all will need if they're to meet and survive the challenges that face them.
Hardly the Kingdom of Heaven! And not too much to ask for, surely?