Timothy Fitzgerald was a founder member of CRA and his work continues to stimulate and enrich our thinking. In the linked extract he begins to develop a project following on from his more familiar discussions of the category of religion (2001, 2007, 2015). Here he begins to focus, drawing out some of the implications of his earlier publications, on ‘dominant and dominating’ categories as part of a system of representations. It is not just the problematic binary ‘religion/secular’ that is at issue here but a whole range of privileged, exclusionary terms or categories such as ‘politics’ and ‘private property’ that circulate within modern western discourse creating a series of highly unethical and dangerous inclusions and exclusions. It is very much a cris de coeur addressed, for example, to the academic community to take up its signatory role of critique. To accompany the link to Tim’s article, we include is a short reflection on the piece from a new member of CRA who writes from the perspective of China, a recently communist country.

ZG’s response

I am personally not as familiar with Fitzgerald’s work as some of my colleagues. However, this does not prevent me from putting my mind to understanding his introduction or being illuminated by his passionate and eloquent exposition. At first glance, what he endeavors to critically examine in this piece – a series of mutually parasitic categories originating from the European Enlightenment and the disastrous effects made by their dominant usage in modern Western society – do not seem relevant to the land I come from, since mainland China could be viewed by some as a “pre-modern” country where many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market.

However, this so called “insufficient enlightenment” does not indicate that the current Chinese political-economic system and its dominant ideology (Marxism) have been built upon a completely different series of categories. Marxism as a modern ideology is itself to some extent a product of the European Enlightenment as well as those binaries the latter has made between secular/state and religion, science and superstition, and progress and backwardness. In fact, in order to “control” (an integral part of the ideal of the European Enlightenment) more efficiently, Marxism in both the Soviet Union and socialist China further developed a new series of binaries such as revolutionary and reactionary (counterrevolutionary), people and enemies, (people’s) democracy and dictatorship (to enemies), proletariat and exploiters, etc., some of which are still being used in mainland China today. More than that, the “religiousness” implied in the Marxist ideology, an insight which has been raised by Karl Löwith and many others, also supports the applicability of Fitzgerald’s deconstructive examination of modern categories.

While doing his critical job, Fitzgerald is very careful to avoid falling into the binary between proletariat and capitalists, or between good (people) and evil (people) himself. This can be seen from his insistent emphasis on the universally damaging effects of this system of abstract categories on all people, whether with power and wealth or not, and in his claim that those who control our institutions are neither able to choose rationally or to be happier than the rest of us. Some may sense from this claim a universal compassion similar to Buddhist ethics based upon its understanding that all persons possess a vast potential for goodness within their fundamental awareness and at the same time suffer from transience and conditioning from which oppressors too seek escape by oppressing others. And this represents the way in which Fitzgerald tries to go beyond the consciousness of class struggle which can be found in many contemporary Marxist criticisms of capitalism.

Is this attempt successful? We must admit that while Fitzgerald explicitly argues that what needs to be critically deconstructed is “a system of signs that creates collective illusions” rather than a certain class, there is still an implicitly dualistic structure of thinking in his elaboration. This implicitly dualistic structure of thinking can be found both in his criticism of modern categories such “economics” and “democracy,” as well as his remaining to be unfolded conception of liberation.

For Fitzgerald, although no one in the Western world can escape from being manipulated by the system of abstract categories he tries to deconstruct and in some sense all are suffering from this operation, he himself keeps making a division between rich and poor, between debtors and creditors, and between white male defenders of the “sacred” right of private property in the name of “national economy” or “democracy” and those being constantly exploited by the former. There is always a minority of people who benefit from the global capitalist system, even though the price to be paid is the creation of a majority of victims. On the other hand, in terms of possible liberation from the above injustice, I do not see in his conception any universal scheme to achieve this or reconciliation between oppressors and oppressed, other than the realization of political and economic justice.

This dualistic structure of thinking can also be found in Fitzgerald’s oversimplification of the social sciences as invalid, of the falsity of democracy and of the evil of global capitalism. For example, although modern economics claims objectivity, it never considers itself as being able to predict accurately everything in the area it concerns. Being objective cannot be identified with inerrancy which seems to be what Fitzgerald asks for. And while it must be admitted that a great proportion of global movements of people is experienced by its participants as involuntary, enforced, or even miserable, he also refuses, on the basis of his personal experiences, to imagine the possibility that in addition to scattering families, a global market can also provide people with opportunities to exert initiatives and creativity within a new culture as well as to enrich and extend their lives in this process. If Fitzgerald accuses the actually rhetorical nature of categories like “economics” and “democracy” of distorting reality, he is doing the same by making oversimplified comments on them.

As an intellectual from a “socialist” country, what concerns me more than this oversimplification as such, however, is its possible outcomes. This view of current institutions in the Western world, as far as I am concerned, appears to underestimate the possibility that “it would be much worse without them,” a possibility I, as well as many other Chinese intellectuals, have learned from the modern history of China, whether in the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, or other radical political or economic movements. All of these radical movements witness the tyranny of majority, chaos and extreme inefficiency in an economy based upon public ownership, as well as millions of unnecessary deaths during merely twenty years.

It seems to me that both this oversimplification and the accompanying revolutionary agenda may derive in part from an anthropological ambivalence which can be found not only in Fitzgerald’s, but in not few Marxist critical studies of capitalism. On the one hand, they hold a rather pessimistic vision of human nature, both in its moral and epistemological dimensions. On the other hand, asking for a revolutionary (rather than a reformist) change of existing institutions implies and presupposes an equally unfounded trust in human nature. This explains also the role of prophet they sometimes play – being lonely (reflecting their lack of confidence in their peers) and radical (reflecting at least their lack of prudent consideration of possible chaos brought about by human vice during a revolutionary change) at the same time.

In short, my disagreement with some of Fitzgerald’s points of view here, does not indicate that I have problem with its underlying proposition, that is concerned with the problematic nature of a series of modern categories invented in the European Enlightenment. Rather, it concerns the presence of an ambiguously dualistic structure within its thinking, as well as Fitzgerald’s failure sufficiently to analyse critically his own presumptions about human nature. To bring this response to a close and to summarize, I suggest rewriting a whole paragraph from Fitzgerald’s piece, changing his targets into those (in italics) which have been eagerly looked forward to by many socialists in the Western world. And the rewritten paragraph can then be seen as my standpoint toward the political-economic system of China during 1956-1978:

“How is it that we are dominated by such obviously irrational systems of socialist resource allocation? How is it that the supposed equality in resource allocation promised by Marxist political economy results in such obvious inefficiencies and waste? How is it that we can continue to believe in Marxist political economy when the evidence is so obviously contradictory? And why do we persist with the obvious irrationality of public property accumulation as the dominant orthodox dogma of salvation?”