A demonstration of the way that modern categories tend unconsciously to reconfigure any thought experiment back into a closed circle.
I am grateful to ZG for his response to my arguments concerning modern categories and their operation. It is especially good to hear the viewpoint of a Chinese colleague. Unfortunately, as he himself admits, he has not read my published articles and I am unclear what he is himself responding to. His thoughts include some misreadings, but these also offer me the opportunity to clarify some issues, so my thanks to him for ‘reaching out’.
I would say that his misreading is itself an illustration that we live in a closed system of signs that automatically reconfigures everything back into its own self-referential mechanism of binary either-or substitutions.
When I refer to ‘modern categories’, the term ‘modern’ is itself one of those problematic categories, apparently self-evident in meaning, and, with almost automatic inevitability, triggers such equally empty terms as ‘pre-modern’. This parasitic pair can then be kept in perpetual motion by other stand-in binaries – advanced and backward, progressive and reactionary, rational and irrational, civilized and barbarous. Like everyone else, I am caught in the series of either-or binary circularities. My project is, hopefully, to unsettle them.
The problem with the idea that ‘we westerners’ are ‘modern’ is that it opens the door for a whole series of assumptions, such as that some countries are ‘pre-modern’ and backward, and need the progress and development that ‘western’ nations are assumed to have, but backward or ‘third world’ nations are lacking. We are caught in this system of automatic ideological binary substitutions. ZG is also thinking and writing within this model; he refers to the “insufficient enlightenment” of mainland China; and he says that “many people are still striving for the realization of Enlightenment ideals including democracy, constitutionalism, and a free market”. It is not only China – many people in contemporary Europe and America are also still striving for this realization. My question is whether these ideals have ever been realised, whether they are what they appear to be, and whether they should be taken at face value? What actually does it mean to “strive for the realization of Enlightenment ideals”?
ZG criticises me for asserting the “falsity of democracy”, but this is not a fair criticism, and distorts my endeavour. If we mean by ‘democracy’ a system of self-governance that involves the maximum number of people in deciding what we want ‘democracy’ to mean, and how we want to realise a democratic order in our lives, then I want to be one of the people to participate. As with all these very general categories, they can mean different things in different contexts and to different people. I agree that ‘democracy’ is a category that is necessary for any radical critique of the liberal capitalist or party authoritarian status quo. My question concerns how we can take the sign ‘democracy’ out of the propaganda jurisdiction of the corporate state and its agencies, such as the mainstream media and the corrupt agencies of public relations.
I stress my agreement with ZG that Marxism, as much as liberalism, is a product of the European Enlightenment. I have argued in several publications that Marx gave us (on the one hand) a penetrating critique of liberal political economy, and the insight of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. On the other hand his thinking and the thinking of the Marxists that have followed him are captured by the myth, shared by liberals, of secular scientific progress. This includes much baggage, such as the belief that there is such a thing as ‘the economy’, outside of the self-referential discourse itself. Marxism is opposed to Liberalism at one level; however, it is simultaneously based at another level on a deeper set of common assumptions, such as the progress of humankind from lower to higher levels of rational awakening from the religious slumbers of the past. My question here is whether we can give any clear meaning to ‘secular scientific progress’. My own view is that we have substituted one set of myths and fictions for another. We have convinced ourselves that the widespread poverty, the disruption of habitats, the sweatshops that produce our clothes run on wage-slavery, the enormous problem of refugees who are homeless, incessant wars and a weapon’s industry that gains from them – we have convinced ourselves that these are all merely temporary crises through which we have to pass in order to finally emerge into the light of ‘liberty’, that is, a world of self-regulating markets, private property, and the promises of consumer paradise.
ZG guesses that I may be a Buddhist and believe in “a universal compassion”. I have never described myself as a Buddhist and nor have I attempted to reify ‘a universal compassion’ in this way. All I would say is that we humans are as capable of compassion and generosity as we are of brutality and selfishness. We are as capable of giving and sharing as we are of grabbing and hoarding. Humans are capable of the most shocking brutality – we all know this. Can we survive without cooperation and sharing? Brutality was not invented by liberal capitalists. Why would anybody think such a thing? Worse than this, the brutality is in me too, I can participate in it, and I can be an agent of brutality. I do not believe that there is any essential ‘me’; on the contrary, there are contradictory and conflicting mental formations, predispositions, and categorical assumptions that tend to operate unconsciously. I have brutal thoughts, and I can restrain myself from acting on them. I can also act from love or compassion, by which I mean a non-condescending identification with the other’s suffering. One does not have to be classed as a ‘Buddhist’ to know these things. As soon as you slot me into the category of ‘Buddhist’ with a belief in ‘a universal compassion’, you are reintroducing reifying preconceptions that create divisions (she’s a Buddhist, he’s a Christian, she’s a Muslim, he’s a liberal secularist, she’s a Chinese Communist, and so on), and from there to a tragedy of confusions which do not help anyone of us to see our common humanity clearly.
A problem with ZG’s response is that he continually reintroduces the categories that I wish to critically problematise as though they have some obvious meaning, and then attributes them to me. I do not believe in “the realization of political and economic justice”. I am asking what does it mean to talk about justice that is ‘political’ or justice that is ‘economic’? My issue is how such empty categories can appear to us as so obviously meaningful. What is it that drives our largely automatic and unconscious deployment of these terms as though it is obvious what they mean? Where do they derive their power?
Also, it is thankfully true that I have no “universal scheme” to achieve liberation from injustice. How could I know what is best for everyone? The last thing we need is very limited persons such as myself bringing forth schemes for everyone else’s benefit. That is not my project.
ZG is in my view right to question what we mean by ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’. These are relative concepts and probably cannot be usefully discussed without having an agreed idea about what kind of wealth is worth having. Do we all want to be as rich as George Soros, or the family who own Walmart, or the Koch Brothers? No doubt there are Chinese equivalents. Personally I have no desire to be wealthy in the sense of owning vast amounts of capital and private property in various forms, especially when I know that the fortune was derived from the cheap labour of others in miserable working conditions. I do not think these would make me happy! I do, however, want to have various basic necessities that I can share with others – grub first, then ethics – necessities that we all need to survive in some kind of dignity. Capitalism is not inevitable. There is nothing inconceivable about organising ourselves more equally, more democratically and on the basis of greater respect for our common humanity.
I would not like to be born into or live in a refugee camp. Some refugee camps provide better conditions for basic living than others. But why are there refugee camps at all? Why are there refugees in such vast numbers, many living in misery? Do we content ourselves by saying, with Donald Rumsfeld and a shrug of the shoulders, ‘shit happens’? How have the so-called ‘enlightenment values’ and the promises of ‘liberal political economy’ led to such vast and widespread displacement and suffering? At what point do we question the assumption that, as long as we continue as we are, then eventually ‘progress’ will emerge and markets will solve our problems of distribution and raise all boats? This is a blind belief imposed on the populations with a fanatical zeal by the propagandists of market fundamentalism, and that is then rhetorically displaced onto ‘religious extremists’.
I don’t think I described capitalism as “evil”. I think global capitalism is legitimated by a destructive and irrational system of beliefs, but I do not think I used such a term as evil to refer to what I believe about capitalism. It is a kind of category mistake. ‘Evil’ is too deeply embedded in a Christian theological context, which I also do not believe in. Liberal political economy is a doctrine with a high degree of internal logical consistency but based on metaphysical abstractions that misleadingly appear as self-evident. I am concerned with how such abstractions as ‘free markets’, ‘the economy’, ‘market equilibrium’ and individuals as inherently possessive and self-maximising appear as self-evident truth and common sense, and why questioning them leads very smart people to get so defensive.
ZG’s asserts that:
“…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.”
ZG is correct that being objective is not the same as inerrancy, but nevertheless if economic theory has no capacity for prediction it is difficult to understand how economic and fiscal policy can be determined. I am also not clear what “the area it concerns” is. Where do ‘economics’ and its ‘object’ – presumably ‘the economy’ – begin and end? When is an economic decision not also a political decision, and vice versa? And can we really be confident that the science of economics is factual and exclusive of value judgements? I believe the economy is an abstraction that might possibly have some uses as a heuristic device but does not refer to anything independent of the economist’s own thought experiments, any more than John Locke’s ‘man in the state of nature’. Liberal economists have claimed historically and explicitly that their science is only about objective facts, and that values are subjective irrelevancies. (I do not refer to Adam Smith here, as he does not write about ‘economics’). I admit that I am not a trained economist, and, like many other average citizens, I approach ‘economics’ without claiming to understand all its mysteries. However, I cannot understand what the purpose of the science of economics is, if the people who call themselves economic scientists claim no relation to prediction and predictability. What is the relation between models of ‘the economy’ and the decisions of the Federal Reserve to raise or lower interest rates, or to increase or decrease the money supply? How can predictions be excluded from these decisions?
ZG seems to believe I advocate violent revolution, which is the trap I think we should avoid at all costs. He has unwittingly imported into our conversation the assumptions that I am critically distancing myself from. It is a revolution of understanding that we need, and this must be based on self-critique and institutional critique.
I respect a Chinese intellectual’s views about Chinese history. I agree with him that the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution to which he refers were huge disasters. I am glad I did not have to live or die in them, or watch my loved ones being humiliated and torn to pieces by the party fanatics. ZG can give us a more expert analysis of these historical events than I can. I was taught in school in Britain (in the ‘50s and ‘60s) that the opium wars that had occurred in the late 19th century were a minor blip in the otherwise great British gift of civilization to ‘barbarous backward nations’ such as China. The Industrial Revolution and the extraction of surplus wealth from subjugated peoples (including the slave and sugar industries) gave Britain its great leap forward. This may have been – in an indirect but conceptual sense – the origin of Mao’s later reformulation, the myth of the Great Leap forward. The British, Americans, French and others who considered themselves to be the advance guard of progress wanted to kick-start the leap forward in backward colonies. Did Vietnam not also lead to Pol Pot?
In his final paragraph ZG presupposes the very binary constructions that I am questioning – if it isn’t capitalism, then it must be socialism; if it isn’t liberal political economy it must be Marxist political economy; if it isn’t centralized state allocation then it must be allocation through free markets; if it isn’t public property accumulation then it must be private property accumulation. Inadvertently, this kind of thinking will keep us trapped in their circular ways. I – and I believe many others – are trying to think ourselves out of them.
My thanks again to ZG for his comments and his interest, and for giving me the opportunity to give a little bit more explanation of my meaning. Not much can be said in these short exchanges, but it is helpful to hear such a response and to have the chance to elaborate a little – though hopefully my more substantial published work will supplement this short blog! It is fruitful to be in communication over the global issues that are of most concern to us, and I hope we can pursue the conversation together in the future.