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Toward the conclusion of the first lecture on Allan Bloom, we noted what many believed a contradiction between Allan Bloom and the more narrowly economic thinkers within the Chicago School. The Chicago School, from its earliest beginnings in the Austrian School to its most recent expression in Gary Becker, wants to situate value in the price mechanism, both individually in the isolated exchange and in aggregate among all economic actors. This economic individualism could be mistaken for precisely the value-relativism against with Allan Bloom rails. But is it?
Here I will suggest that while value-relativism and economic individualism (as expressed in the price mechanism) are related, they are related in a manner that absolutizes the economic decision-maker, herein making room for the kind of critical thinking recommended by Allan Bloom.
In order to recognize how the price mechanism makes room for and, in fact, constitutes, the critical thinking that Allan Bloom recommends, we first need to take note of a more thoroughly traditional way of understanding the relationship between these two seemingly opposing ways of understanding the human subject and value.
In any discussion of the human subject and value, we need not take Descarts’ cogito ego sum as our point of departure. We could begin much earlier with the subject of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther’s believer or John Calvin’s elect or, even earlier, with William of Occam’s razor, which compels thought to pursue the shortest distance from its point of departure to its conclusion. In all of these instances, the traditional way of fixing the human subject, isolating it from its mere form of appearance or from the material world by which it is surrounded, is recognizable by this isolation itself. Thus, for example, for Martin Luther, even if faith is the empty and powerless void that invites God’s presence, it is only once faith is exercised that it overcomes the devil and the world. Even the election of John Calvin’s saint, which is from all eternity, focuses our attention on the extraordinary power of this subject, the human subject, even though its value, numerically speaking, is “zero.”
It is out of respect for this absolute “zero,” this null set, that neoclassical economic thought assiduously refuses to define it in terms of external variables. Free choice is sacrosanct not only because without it we are compelled to ascribe price to forces that arise from the sphere of necessity, but because the necessity to which we would then have to ascribe choice would in that case be poly-form, plural, heterogeneous and therefore could not be solved for x. The human subject, however, as Leo Strauss has already observed, cannot without great disservice be reduced to the forces by which it is allegedly composed.
But is this “zero” or null set, this inscrutable subject, identical or even related to the utterly “open mind” simply waiting to be filled by whatever content happens to come along, but that refuses on principle to anchor itself to any specific thing save the principle of tolerance?
No, it is not, or at least not on traditional grounds. After all, on traditional grounds our free subjectivity is free because it is an analogue of divine freedom. And, just as divine freedom cannot admit to being determined extrinsically without jeopardizing its absolute power, so (as Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, and Immanuel Kant conclusively show) neither can human being be truly and fully human (and therefore analogically related to the divine) should it trace itself to the forces and powers by which it is surrounded. Yet, no one would conclude on account of this absolute divine freedom that the divine is therefore guilty of value relativity. To the contrary, the value established by the divine subject is all the more on these grounds deemed absolute (see John duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), William of Occam (1287–1347)). By analogy, the human subject too displays its relationship to the divine by attending not to the material forces that shape it, but, to the contrary, through reason tempered by faith (St Anselm (1033-1109)) setting its mind on those things that are above.
To use a more familiar historical example, while the German Social Democrats in 1932 display their value relativism by appealing to parliamentary democracy, due process, and the social forces that shape the German community together, the Nazis, by contrast, display their value absolutism by appealing to absolute, non-negotiable standards, the will to power, and by rejecting any argument appealing to extrinsic determination.
If we are correct in concluding that the free and absolute form of the one (price) is related to the free and absolute form of the other (value), the question still remains about how they are related. Must we conclude that C Schmitt, L Strauss, H Arendt, and now A Bloom are correct?
I would argue not. Instead, I would argue that the empty subject, the “zero” or null set of human subjectivity or agency, is itself analogous not to divine being, but to the value form of the commodity. For, like the commodity form, this human subject has fragmented into two interrelated, but not mutually constitutive forms. And, like the commodity, it is the immaterial value form that dominates its material form of appearance. Where, in fact, this is not the case—where the material form of appearance gains mastery over the value form, where the isolated individuality of the commodity bears no relationship to the network of values that compose society—there the commodity is held to be meaningless. So, too, the isolated individual human subject whose particularity A. Bloom holds to be without value or meaning.
The inadequacy of A Bloom’s argument, however, is already evident in the earlier argument between Plato and Aristotle. In this earlier argument, Plato insists that the guardians turn their backs on the mere shadows and reflections playing upon the cave wall and instead set their gaze upon the pure ideal forms themselves. To which Aristotle objects that such a life of contemplation might just as well take place as a person sleeps as when he is awake. In other words, it does not require life at all. Instead Aristotle recommends the life of action. But, says Aristotle, not all human beings are equally capable of acting since not all human beings are sufficiently free from necessity to intelligently choose their actions for themselves. Therefore, Aristotle sets to work identifying the material conditions that make for freedom.
Under these conditions value is conditioned. And value changes depending on its conditions. But this hardly makes value relative since its conditions are not relative. We can therefore reflect intelligibly about the conditions that make for freedom.
The freedom that arises from commodity production and exchange by contrast can take upon itself any value whatever. It is what GFW Hegel called “indeterminate freedom.” Yet, because it is the product of a process in which value is absolutely isolated from its material form of appearance—and in which it therefore appears to be unconditioned by this material form of appearance—it can easily mistake the values that automatically arise from its own action as absolute.
In fact, I would argue that that is precisely how Allan Bloom’s moral subject stumbles upon his absoluteness, his complete and total freedom from extrinsic determination. Those who are extrinsically determined, whose being is subject to necessity and whose thought is therefore determined and for this reason not free, cannot but play a detrimental role in the constitution of their world. It is they, individuals subject to necessity, who mistake their bondage for a natural and necessary condition of human being. And it is for this reason that, when they demand a place in the world, they base the justice of their demand not on what they actually hold in common with all other human beings, but on what distinguishes them, their identity, the very features that display the imprint of extrinsic forces upon them—their race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.
A. Bloom, by contrast, hails those features that genuinely are or might be universal. This human subject is not extrinsically determined, but determines itself by bracketing those features and forces by which it has been shaped. He is not a closeted homosexual, a man. Rather he is (capital “M”) Man. His thoughts are valid because they hold valid for all Men. And the proof that they hold valid for all Men is that he resolutely refuses to defend himself by an appeal to his own historical and social specificity. Were he to do so he would have to renounce any claim to universal validity.
This is a theoretical concession of towering proportions. A Bloom on principle cannot identify the social and historical conditions of possibility for his own interpretive categories. His categories must merely be asserted as absolutes, defended for the logical coherence—which, of course, holds for any well-formed argument—but cannot be shown to be adequate to their object.
What I have shown is that his interpretive categories not only have coherence, but that they arise out of and take their form from the unique historical and social circumstances that hold in mature capitalist societies. Since all interpretive categories are shaped by their historical and social place, this, by itself, is not a strike against them. But, having taken notice of their historical and social form, we can now set out to establish how well they account for the phenomena they are seeking to interpret.
The answer, I think it can be shown, is that they account for this phenomena poorly.
We are zeroing in on the core of the course. If our social actions are entirely mediated by the marketplace, then it stands to reason that these actions will lend themselves to the kinds of analysis practiced by the most rigorous price theorists at Chicago. And it also stands to reason that any and all outside interference in the marketplace will not only introduce elements into stochastic multivariate regression tables that make it impossible to draw accurate inferences, but precisely because they make rational inferences less likely they play havoc on a social formation shaped entirely (or mostly) by market forces.
This, of course, is a social tautology (or nearly such). But it is also what social scientists sometimes call a “real abstraction” in the sense that it is not a fiction, but actually has come to express itself in the ways that individuals and communities are constituted and social relations are mediated. However, even in its reality it remains an abstraction insofar as the interpretive categories by which it is grasped fit into a rational whole that remains self-referential by design and not by accident.
At the end of next week, the floor will drop out of the bottom of this self-referential system when Allen Bloom faults the victims of this closed system for their own increasing incapacity to think outside of it. In this way, the social and historical will be increasingly attenuated from two sides; from the side of economic neoclassical thought, on the one hand, and from the side of post-democratic political theory on the other.
Think of the largest roller coaster you have ever been on. You are plummeting to its trough. But now you are jolted from the side as well. Wow!
Although this contribution to my blog is aimed at my “Chicago School” students, it may provoke a broader discussion. The problem with agricultural supports became particularly acute during the Great Depression when agricultural production obeyed the predicted supply-demand curve of neoclassical economic theory. During the Great Depression, prices for all goods, including farm goods, dropped to such a level that farmers could not recover the cost of farm equipment, labor, seed, land, fertilizer, etc. they had invested in their production.
When farmers tried to recover their costs by delivering more agricultural goods to market, they discovered that the market price dropped even further until it reached equilibrium for the quantity of goods on the market under current conditions of demand. At the end of the day, farmers were unable to recover the costs of their production no matter the quantity of the production because, well, equilibrium is equilibrium.
“In the long run,” JM Keynes famously observed, “we are all dead.” But also in the long run—so neoclassical economists remind us—production drops to meet demand at the optimum price; yes, displacing agricultural workers who are no longer able to make a living off of farming, but also generating new technologies that can meet demand at a price consumers are willing to pay. Equilibrium is equilibrium.
But let’s look at a real historical example. Roughly a third of all family farms were foreclosed upon between 1929 and 1933, amounting to more than 200,000 farms in the final year alone. But, of course, the hardship did not stop there. Foreclosed farms no longer needed day laborers to plant, till, and harvest crops. Owners of these farms could no longer purchase dry goods. Nor did they require transport of agricultural goods to the rail or local market. And so on . . .
T.W. Schultz, working on these problems at Iowa State in the 1930s, correctly observed that the prices of agricultural products involve “the decisions of literally millions of entrepreneurs, each confronted with a different set of resources, and consumption involv[ing] the decisions of even more millions of consumers with widely different needs, tastes, and purchasing power.” His observation cannot be disputed. Nor can his conclusion: “The decisions and actions can be effectively coordinated through prices.” Yes they can.
Moreover, should these farmers receive subsidies (whether private or public it does not matter), these subsidies would undoubtedly make the market less responsive because it would lead farmers to make decisions about the future based not on demand for their product at a given price, but based rather on this demand and price, plus their subsidy. And, with this, the ability of the price mechanism to effectively guide decisions and actions would be seriously hampered.
But, let us suppose that a private or public actor (again, it doesn’t matter which) has the ability to subsidize these agricultural workers in the short run. Should this private or public actor do so?
We might conclude that he or she (or it) should, at least in the short run, because otherwise it would leave hundreds of thousands of farmers, their suppliers, workers, transporters, etc. in very dire straights—i.e., without food, clothing, housing, medical care, warmth, etc.
T.W. Schultz would argue otherwise. Schultz would caution that we are making two critical assumptions: (1) we are assuming that such subsidies would meet their goal more quickly than an unhindered marketplace; and (2) we are assuming that such subsidies would not leave a lasting imprint on the market, for example, maintaining agricultural subsidies long after their need or value has disappeared and thereby forever preventing price from offering accurate guidance to economic decision-makers, not least to farmers themselves.
The first assumption seems to yield at best ambiguous results. We know that federal aid had an immediate stimulating effect, leading many farming families and dependent industries out of poverty. We also know that the private market appeared unable to accomplish the same results prior to this aid. Would the market have adjusted in the absence of such aid? Who knows, but probably not.
The second assumption yields far more certain, but also perhaps more trivial results. For there is every reason to believe that prolonged poverty among former farming families would have yielded profound shifts in a number of market-directed indicators; shifts that did not take place as dramatically or as swiftly as would have been the case had the market been left to its own devices. The millions of decisions and actions about which Professor Schultz writes would have constrained and moved economic actors in directions different from those that actually constrained and moved them. No question.
Yet, there is a larger question that Professor Schultz appears no longer to be asking. What do we do in the mean time with this huge, inconceivable volume of human suffering?
I am not asking this question from a humanitarian vantage-point, but from an economic vantage-point. Does not any intervention at this point—again, it does not matter whether the intervention is public or private—create the same problem: any intervention disturbs the price mechanism. Charity disturbs the price mechanism. Any medical attention not covered by price disturbs the price mechanism. Any job retraining not directed by price disturbs the price mechanism. Any knowledge that is not paid for by the person benefiting from this knowledge disturbs the price mechanism.
But, clearly, all of these latter kinds of interventions are occurring all of the time, continuously. The price mechanism is disturbed. Moreover, to control for this disturbance requires interventions in other spheres of activity—religious, familial, community, trade, etc.—whose equilibria might be deemed of as much or even greater importance than the price level.
But, then there is Gary Becker. Is it possible that all of these other spheres of activity might themselves be reducible to the price mechanism?
Welcome to the Chicago School.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg NewsTraders in the Goldman Sachs area of the New York Stock Exchange after the firm reported a loss.
Let’s forget for the moment that Goldman is not a government. It issues no debt (ok, it does, but that’s another matter). It issues no currency (although, boy, that equity is beginning to look and behave a lot like currency).
I now want you to look at Goldman as though it were a government. What kind of a treasury is it running?
What I would like to suggest is that Goldman was running a kind of Keynesian treasury; extending debt out into the future; counting on future accounts to pay for current spending. And, then, the White House and Congress told Wall Street to stop behaving like a Keynesian. They, in essence, took away its toys.
Now I want you to think about what Goldman’s losses as the direct consequence of not being allowed to behave like a Keynesian treasury. Viola! It’s beginning to lose, and lose big time. And, so, as Ms Craig points out, they are going to go to Congress and to the White House and they are going to beg to have their Keynesian liberties restored. In fact, as Ms Craig again points out, they have already been partially successful.
So, why doesn’t this work for the duly constituted government? Well, the quick answer is, it does. Or, in any case, it would, if only Congress or the White House had enough political capital to restore Keynesian instruments of fiscal stimulus and taxation.
Instead, the US Treasury (and with it the US) is going the way of Goldman. And, I suspect, Goldman will recover where the US Treasury will not. The question is, why can Goldman behave like a Keynesian treasury while the US Treasury is forbidden?
Ms. Little brought up a valuable point during our discussion on Monday that I do not want to let slip away.
We were discussing the democratization of the university and the effects democratization might have on the ability of students to critically interrogate dominant institutions, values, and policies. Leo Strauss was of the opinion not only that university instruction should be insulated from social, political, and economic pressure, but also that university’s had a responsibility to convey to students more than mere technical proficiency. Students needed to be equipped to situate their own knowledge and research within a universe of questions and theories (the “Canon”) that Strauss believed had remained fairly stable with only minor amendment since the 5th or 4th centuries B.C. To abandon this canon or to revise it easily was a disservice to faculty, students, and world alike.
But, of course, as Strauss knew only too well, those students with sufficient resources would be free to avoid the scourge of democratization by earning entry into the nation’s elite universities, those which Strauss felt confident maintained a commitment to the canon. Such students would enter the fast track to the halls of power, while those students left behind would probably perform worthwhile services as engineers, technicians, and managers of the new economy. But, because they had not been introduced to, much less mastered, the canon, they would not join the Guardians in their quest to govern the Good Society.
This interpretation would appear to identify multi-culturalism with the democratization of the university and to identify both multi-culturalism and democratization with an education that fails to equip students with sufficient critical knowledge and skills to responsibly govern themselves, much less others. Later in the course, when we read Allen Bloom, we will no longer have to infer these apparent associations since Mr. Bloom will make them explicit.
So, perhaps the question we might want to raise is whether the multi-cultural thrust to college instruction, rather than being construed as a political or social requirement—and for this reason academically suspect—might not instead be construed as an intellectually necessary requirement along lines already outlined for us in GFW Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Is our mastery of this other non-western, multi-cultural canon demanded not so much by political pressure from special interest groups, but, to use Hegel’s argument, by Reason’s need to rise above its particularity and embrace the universal?
Having discovered this broad range of particularities that do not fit (or at least do not fit easily) into the western canon, do these other particularities not thereby demonstrate the particularity and therefore the insufficiency of the western canon itself, which has not turned out to be universal after all?
How might Messrs. Strauss or Bloom respond to this argument? They might embrace it, but only so long as this enlarged and extended canon did not erase or remove or otherwise jeopardize the integrity of those works to which these new works stand as provisional supplements. In other words, so long as Fanon and Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard find their place alongside Hobbes and Locke, Machiavelli and St Thomas, the Bhagavad Gita and Aristotle—rather than replace them—I feel certain that Messrs. Strauss and Bloom would raise few objections.
Their problem, however, is that often the canon is not expanded at all, nor even replaced. Rather, the very idea of canonicity is itself abandoned and replaced by whatever happens at the moment to be the current fashion. Critical reflection, which must place the present into doubt and allow the present to be interrogated from another vantage point not its own, is replaced by identity thinking, which always mistakes itself and its own identity as the necessarily valid vantage point of critique.
Here instead of a dialogue that extends across decades and centuries, students master a “canon” whose very recognition, much less validity, is judged month-to-month and year-to-year; a “canon” therefore that, instead of inviting critical dialogue across the decades or centuries forecloses upon even the possibility of such a dialogue.
And why might Messrs. Strauss and Bloom object to this constantly shifting canon, this canon-in-fashion-today? They might object to this canon-of-the-month not only or even primarily because it deprives students of the critical knowledge and skills they need to think and to act, but more importantly because they feel that this attenuated canon would deprive the world of the only being in whose thoughts and actions we may have reason to hope.
Would they be correct? I am not sure. But I suspect that the relegation of the less wealthy and less creditable among us to institutions that do not entrust us with the canon is not by accident. I suspect that this move disempowers “us” as much as, or perhaps even more than it empowers the “them.”
Who won this debate (On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève), Leo Strauss or Alexandre Kojève? Upon first glance it would look as though Strauss won (albeit posthumously) by landing philosopher kings in the White House and Presidential Cabinet; philosopher kings who refused to bend to popular will and love, but who instead set their sights on the only prize for which a tyrant can hope: respect by one’s subjects and fear among one’s enemies (On Tyranny). Personal isolation and loneliness is the price the tyrant must be willing to pay for doing not what is good, but what is expedient. Nor did these philosopher kings draw back from the test of lying outright to their subjects; for to tell the truth, to speak openly and frankly could not only suggest that they wanted to be understood and appreciated by their subjects, but even more to the point it could suggest that they naively believed that their subjects were capable of understanding their rationale, which, of course, they could not.
Yet, upon further examination, it could appear as though Kojève was the victor. After all, had not Strauss argued that it was impossible for the philosopher—the lover of wisdom—to become a tyrant because, in tyrannical rule the tyrant would have to abandon his love of wisdom? It was Kojève who had objected to this line of reasoning, asserting that it had been and would continue to be in the contest between master and slave, between tyrant and public, that a history would take shape that would benefit both master and slave; and that it was in the embrace of this dynamic contest for recognition, in the embrace of the wisdom it contained, that the tyrant needed to recognize his own wisdom. Moreover, it had been Kojève who had faulted Strauss for his self-imposed arm-chair isolation from this struggle, a struggle in which all would come eventually to recognize all others in the universal, homogeneous state of humanity. In their fearless promotion of deregulation, privatization and globalization—in their stoic confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), their militant transfer of wealth up the income scale and transfer of the tax burden down the income scale, and their confrontation with the Evil Empire—these Kojèvean revolutionaries set history once again in motion, drawing in their train all those millions of foot soldiers who, in 1989, would take one more step toward the universal, homogeneous state.
Ultimately, however, it was the combination of these two, the boisterous, impetuous, and violent philosopher-revolutionary, and the secretive, contemptuous, and contemplative king that composed the new, militantly anti-republican, regime. For, if the essence of republican institutions and ideals is the embrace as citizens of all those who are healthy, wealthy, and wise under laws that protect the common wealth, then there can be little doubt but that the Kojèvean revolutionaries slammed and locked all of the doors through which the common man might have passed on his way to full citizenship. But it is also certain therefore that the disdainful contempt Strauss’s philosopher kings displayed toward these miscreants who formed their political base were the direct and indirect creations of the very revolution Kojève’s revolutionaries had set in motion. So that when Karl Rove described the evangelical republican base as a bunch of “nuts,” he does not thereby mean to suggest that either he or his sovereign are prepared to abandon these subjects, much less the realm they compose. Far from it. Rather, he means that they are now finally and fully the kinds of subjects worthy of a sovereign who disdains them and who therefore can fully rely upon their support without respect to the merits of the sovereign’s actions. In other words, their respect for their sovereign is now based not on their having wrestled with or understood his policies or actions (which, of course, they are too poorly born and bred to understand). Their respect for their sovereign is now based solely upon a respect for his person.
Ironically, then, both Kojève and Strauss won. Kojève won by helping inspire a universal, global, homogeneous revolution among the slaves against their masters. But Strauss also won. For it was Strauss who showed the philosopher kings how to stoically, if contemptuously, govern these slaves in a manner worthy of their lowly estate.
Among the first papers I ever wrote in graduate school and certainly among the longest was a paper titled “Hannah Arendt’s Origins.” The title was, of course, a play on words. In the 1950s Hannah Arendt had written a book titled The Origins of Totalitarianism and my paper was an early attempt to understand this book. But—and this is why it was a play on words—my paper also sought to understand Arendt’s interpretive categories and how Arendt deployed these categories across time—from continent to continent and community to community—and space, from the dawn beginnings of humanity down to the defeat of Germany and Japan and the emergence of the United States as the dominant world power.
Origins is not a history text. It is a political scientific or, more narrowly, a political philosophical text. Which is to say, it comes to the material it examines not inviting this material to disclose the categories through which these events might be interpreted, but with its interpretive categories already “to hand” (itself an interpretive category that Arendt learned from her mentor Martin Heidegger). Thus, for example, when Arendt examines the European plunder of Africa, the lessons she takes home from this plunder are ontologically fundamental; which is to say, they are lessons about being (Gk., ontos) and not strictly about either Europe or Africa or Europeans or Africans. It was in Africa, for instance, that Europeans first stumbled upon peoples who, unlike themselves, had not created a built world and who, therefore, were at risk of blending back into that world and becoming only natural. And so it was in Africa that Europeans first stumbled upon a purely “natural” human being who was in all respects no different from animals. From this accident, Europeans learned not only to fear where they might return in the absence of vigilance, but also that they first learned about “natural” man as such, in the absence of a built world. But it was also in Africa that Europeans learned what men can do to one another when these men are threatened with the prospect of mere existence. They learned that they were (or are) not natural men; that being a man is itself unnatural.
This discovery, in turn, brought Europeans to reflect on their own “natural” origins and on the threat of those communities that were so unlike their own, but which bordered on their own. Such were those individuals who—like Africans—were identified not by what they had achieved through action, but merely by who they were naturally, ethnically, for example the Jews.
For Arendt, individuals or communities such as the Jews, whose very identity was biological, could not avoid the fact that they were who they were not because of what they had achieved, but because of their nature, their bios. Yet, at the same time, this very bios, this natural being, was itself dislodged and uprooted from the soil of the European nations where they found themselves, so that their “belonging” could only be achieved through the abstract device of legal citizenship. And this meant that Jews embodied in their very beings both the completely abstract and disembodied—their abstract citizenship—and the purely natural quality associated with their race, their ethnicity.
Only through action—and through effective action in the world—could the Jews then establish their authenticity. But, such action had always and inevitably to be Anti-Semitic since an action of Semitic affirmation could only reinforce their natural self and hence their disembededness from the places and soil where they now found themselves. Their only form of emancipation could be away from who they were ethnically and toward a universal, secular, humanist appreciation both for themselves and for humanity. But how could such an understanding not be perceived as a direct threat to those through whose actions their adopted lands had actually been created, as a threat against the ethne whose built world proved the authenticity of their being?
Here the Jew comes to assume for Arendt both an abstract disembedded form and a mere natural form. But, it is not only the Jew that assumes this binary form. Across the globe and across time, we repeatedly stumble across this same type, shading sometimes toward the abstract—as in the intellectual, the scholar, the scientist, the politician, gypsy, homosexual, the laborer, the writer, the actor—and at other times toward the natural—as in Eastern European, the native American, the aboriginal Australian, the nationalist, the Boor, or, again and again, the African. And at the center, we find that most abstract and most natural being, the Nazi collaborator and the Communist, who, because they fully embody both the abstract and the concrete are also the most common and banal.
Page after page in Hannah Arendt’s Origins we meet an endless stream of individuals and communities whose members display the same binary code. But, we also meet a much smaller, more limited, but also more influential line of individuals (but never communities) whom Arendt could only describe through their political achievements; men and women who, instead of merely reflecting the world about them or concealing themselves sub specie alter, instead of assuming a purely abstract character or a fully embedded character, or some shade of difference in between, act decisively into the world from a place of being and so create something entirely new: here are the political actors, the agents, the heroes, the nobility, the virtuous, the doers whose deeds and monuments constitute the built world that all of us occupy.
It would be fairly easy to accuse Arendt of ethnocentrism and even of Eurocentrism. Many have taken that route. And we can all clearly see why.
And, yet, for me the more interesting question was why Arendt adopted these specific interpretive categories? What was it about Hannah Arendt’s Origins (and Hannah Arendt’s origins) that lent socio-historical validity to these specific categories? Does anyone doubt that the Jews earned their political emancipation from a legal framework that erased the identity not merely of the Jews, but of all social actors, reducing them simply to the abstract character citizen? Does anyone doubt that Europeans themselves were horrified by what they found that they themselves were capable of once they confronted men who, though fully men, were so different from themselves that this difference struck them as a genuine threat to what they had become—that is “civilized”? Does anyone doubt that the binary form that Hannah Arendt imprinted on the surface of contemporary social ontology was a form that she actually in fact found there; so that, for example, the accusations she hurls in the direction of scholars and intellectuals (who perform no deeds) is also a social characteristic displayed by and reproduced among such individuals by the kind of social formation in which they are embedded?
The more interesting question is not whether Hannah Arendt’s interpretive categories enjoy socio-historical validity; whether, in other words, she accurately captured and conveyed a kind of social ontology. I believe that she did. The more interesting question is whether this social ontology is also, as she believed, ontologically fundamental; whether, in other words, her interpretive categories capture and convey something fundamental or foundational about human being as such. Or do they not instead capture and convey something about a historically specific social ontology?
Answering this question struck me as more interesting not only because it offered the satisfaction of deconstructing a scholar whom I deeply admire. To the contrary, it struck me as more interesting because it offered me the satisfaction of deconstructing myself and others like me who, like Arendt herself, are embedded in and therefore share the same (or, at least, a similar) social ontology. This question is more interesting, in other words, because it helps to explain why Hannah Arendt’s Origins strikes so many extremely intelligent and critical individuals as an accurate interpretation of human being in general and of modern totalitarianism in particular. Why do we find Hannah Arendt’s Origins so compelling?
What is it about the place we are embedded that lends validity to Arendt’s narrative?
Hannah Arendt’s narrative strikes us as valid, I believe, because it accurately reflects (albeit in a “misrecognized” form) the two-fold character of the commodity form by which social relations are mediated and social subjectivity is structured in fact and not simply as an illustration of “false consciousness.” Here on the bodies and minds of the individuals and communities that make up Arendt’s narrative is both the abstract value form of the commodity and its lifeless, brute material form of appearance.
But—and this is absolutely critical—these two forms do not occupy two bodies, two groups, two nations, or two ethne. These two forms compose the two-sided, binary nature, of the one commodity form. This form then Hannah Arendt reads back upon the body and mind of human beings whose bodies and minds actually, in fact, display these forms—not, however, because they actually are ontologically fundamental, but because they are genuinely, because socially and historically, ontological. In other words, Hannah Arendt’s interpretive categories—her origins, if you will—do not illustrate an instance of false consciousness, such that if we looked beneath the surface we would see the authentic nature of men and women whose bodies and minds and deeds were not shaped by commodity production and exchange.
No. Because these men and women are actually, in fact, shaped by these practices they therefore actually do display this binary code, this two-fold social ontology. It is not a fiction.
And, yet, it was also clear to me (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of méconnaissance) that Hannah Arendt “misrecognized” and therefore ontologized the (in fact) historically limited, social character of her interpretive categories, mistaking them for categories of fundamental human ontology.
Several potentially important conclusions follow from this immanent critique of Hannah Arendt’s Origins. First, Arendt’s Origins offers us genuine insights, although certainly not into the composition of social actors or communities who lived or live a safe distance from communities composed by commodity production and exchange. These other social actors or communities are composed by different regimes of practice and therefore would invite us to deploy different interpretive categories. But, at least with respect to those of us whose social ontologies are shaped by commodity production and exchange, Hannah Arendt’s Origins offers truly valuable insights.
Second, however, we need to take care not to objectify (or reify) the two elements that compose this binary social code. The one does not exist without the other, in the same individuals, in the same groups and communities. On the level of social psychology, this could suggest, for example, that Sigmund Freud’s map of human psychological ontology needs to be reinterpreted in a less rigorously biological manner or in a more socially and historically nuanced manner, as was often, in fact, Freud’s own practice if not his theory. Reinterpreting psychoanalytic interpretive categories in this light might help us to recognize the critical, mutually constitutive interchange between social and psychological ontology, recognizing, for example, in potentially morbid self-loathing an object that is more than merely a projection or fiction. For, to the extent that our social psychology is composed by the abstract value form of the commodity, and to the extent that this form is genuinely hostile to its material form of appearance, morbid self-loathing gives accurate expression to a tension that is more than merely psychological.
Of course, the same would hold true for the potentially morbid loathing of the “other,” whose alterity is never only a mere projection of the psychopath. Identifying the social psychological ontology that selects for a specific “other” is therefore just as important as identifying the pathology that projects the cause for this pain upon the body of the “other.” In this sense, critical psychoanalysis can never be a purely private or purely psychological affair between an analyst and an analysand.
Third, this kind of immanent critique may help explain why our social formation, generally, displays a deep hostility to the body, whether this hostility displays itself in the self-abuse of obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse, anorexia, or self-mutilation, or in the more socially and culturally acceptable form of ascetic meditation, bodily self-discipline, steroid abuse, plastic surgery, Botox treatment, or obsessive exercise. An immanent critique grounded in the the commodity form may help us to better appreciate why a social formation that from all appearances is excessively materialistic embraces forms of spirituality that are almost unilaterally hostile to the body. And, of course, such a critique might also help us to come to terms with over a century of interminable low-level world war.
Fourth, it stands to reason that if this specific social ontology is not lodged in human ontology as such, but can be related directly to the practices that mediate social relations in our specific social formation, then there is reason to believe that a deliberate, self-conscious effort to alter these social practices could give rise to an entirely different social ontology—a social ontology not grounded in commodity production and exchange. Moreover, we are familiar with such other social ontologies not only from anthropological research into social formations not grounded in commodity production and exchange, but also from our own social ontologies which, however entangled in abstract value and its material form of appearance, are also shaped and formed by other social practices such as family relations, friendship, convivial celebration, creation, death, and the ongoing, though increasingly attenuated relationships we bear to other creatures and to the cosmos at large. Notice of and attention to these other social practices might not only yield non-binary codes, but codes that display a cornucopia of meanings and values of which, we are assured from other social formations, human being is fully able to bear without breaking.
Which leads me to the final realization that arose out of my study of Hannah Arendt’s Origins. The Greek ontology—whether pre-Socratic or Aristotelian it makes no difference—that yielded the interpretive categories that Arendt fashioned and deployed to suit mature capitalist society is itself socio-historically specific. There is therefore no necessity of ontologizing or reifying these categories into ontologically fundamental standpoints of critique. For if we are correct in assuming that ontology is always social and psychological and, therefore, is always grounded in and arising out of the regimes of practice in which it appears, then the selective borrowings we elect to apply to our own understandings—borrowings always shaped by our own regimes of practice—at best enjoy analogical or (better) dialogical validity. They are, therefore, never fundamental even for ourselves.
It is a rare mind and book that gives us the opportunity to develop these kinds of thoughts. For me, twenty years ago, that mind and book was Hannah Arendt’s Origins, which assumed validity for me because of a dialogue that Arendt had the courage to initiate. And for this I am thankful.