The coup d’état in Egypt is as tragic as it is predictable. It is predictable because in nations where social relations are not mediated by the abstract value form of the commodity, other less homogeneous, universal, and ubiquitous social forms tend to mediate social life; forms that differ from one community to another and even from one neighborhood to another. Under such circumstances, only a strong sovereign is able to create and preserve social order.
It is also tragic because there is no necessity that difference must lead to violence; violence is predicated on the expectation of universal identity and therefore on the requirement that difference be eliminated or repressed. But it is not a necessity.
In the west, the appearance of universal law was predicated on the elimination and/or repression of particularity — and specifically of religious particularity since all religious liturgy arises out of the specific history of a particular collection of communities. This helps explain why the Judaism, Islam or Christianity that predominated in the west after the 16th century bore no resemblance to its precapitalist precursors.
Two cautions: if Egypt is to maintain its transition to universalism, it must make more serious efforts to distribute the universal value form among all members of society, allowing as large a proportion of its citizens as possible to enjoy the benefits of capital. Absent a broad distribution of capital, particularity will assert itself, inviting the intervention of the strong sovereign.
Second, as western nations are increasingly drawn toward privatization, we might take a lesson from those parts of the world where particularity has gained the upper hand. Is that really where we want to go?
Finally, we might want to reflect more critically on the essentially contradictory character of capital itself, which pushes out both in privatization and particularity, but which does so by means of the universal, homogeneous value form of the commodity. One alternative to capital might be for us to recognize at a bare minimum a set of substantive preconditions for human beings to flourish in the absence of violence or absolutist domination. Indeed, it was precisely this task that occupied the best minds of the west from the 18th through the 20th centuries, when the particularism of free market capitalism gained complete domination over global institutions.
Until then, most observers agreed that minimum education, housing, health, and welfare requirements could not be guaranteed by private markets and, therefore, that it was in the interests of all civilized bodies to work together to provide such goods to all the world’s citizens. The UN Charter was written and signed under the belief that this was so.
Egypt needs our help. But the greatest help we might provide Egypt is to restore the vision of a post capitalist social contract not simply in Egypt, but in all of those places where particularity, privatization, and difference threaten to extinguish the vision of a universalism that flourishes because of – and not in spite of – difference.