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Fighting from below for recognition as human


3:AM: Democratic Individuality took a position arguing against moral relativism. You write: “An ethical point of view has its own integrity and depth, features not to be explained (explained away) in sociological, anthropological, or semantic terms. Whatever the intricacies of moral argument, relativism cannot be right.” You put Nazis and slavery up there to make this point appealing. But for some, this attractive position is indefensible. So how would you defend your anti-relativist position and why is it so important, give that for many your general moral and political position is attractive and seems defensible even if it is relativist?

AG: Relativism is the thought that since ethics differ historically and people have often been abused for who they are (gays and lesbians, for example) or beliefs they hold that do not harm others by “moralists” (for instance, bigoted Churches of all sorts), ethics has no coherence. There is much truth in the idea that moralisms have harmed people enormously – i.e., the Catholic Church in the new world was genocidal toward indigenous Americans, pro-slavery and cultivated the Inquisition. That these objectionable facts, however, require an inference to meta-ethical relativism is doubtful.

The problem for relativism is threefold. First, the objection to moralisms – don’t force your views down other people’s throats – is a moral objection. It seeks to defend the freedom of individuals by opposing tyrannical practices and institutions. It does not suggest that the rammers really have a “moral” point of view which can be justified compared with the obvious and reasonable objections of those who suffer the coercion. Properly understood, this thought suggests a politics and a society which furthers the cooperation and freedom of individuals and toleration or the absence of coercion about matters of conscience.

Second, relativism is the position that there is nothing in ethics: it is to be explained by beliefs held at a given time, for instance, sociologically, or reduced to other, psychological terms such as what a superego supposedly mandates. Since there is nothing in ethics, one must seek some other idiom, a sociological, anthropological or psychological one, to reduce so-called morals into. But if we ask the relativist what morals are, he can give no coherent answer. Morals are, for example, merely what the prevailing powers say they are – for instance, the Nazis are moral. If we ask further, what count as moral views, the answer here, too, is that anything may count, for instance, the dominant societal view, the view of a class or ostensibly incommensurable views of clashing classes or beliefs held by individuals. Meta-ethical relativism has no way of explaining what the moral views in a given context are. Put more generally, the skepticism that any moral view is true can be turned on the claim itself. What makes something moral according to a moral relativist? Can the moral relativist’s view of morality be true? The argument is, surprisingly, self-refuting. Thus, the many considerations that help give rise to relativism – that so-called moralities (moralisms) often harm people and are, at least in important respects, false – need to be given a contrasting and coherent meta-ethical explanation.

Third, Aristotle suggests that we can ask: what is a good life for humans? and arrive at some straightforward answers, for instance, that Nazism is not or, to disagree with Aristotle, that there is no “natural” slavery. Chapter one of Democratic Individuality traces debates of modern liberals and radicals with Aristotle. Those debates, however, acknowledge that the question he asked is a good one and that many of his judgments – that aggression is bad – are right, even though it questions others: that slave-hunting is a form of just war or that bondage can be justified (see Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book 15). Further, relativism has obscured the real character of these debates which are often driven not by underlying moral standards, which at a certain level of abstraction are uncontroversial, but by social theoretical/biological or empirical claims.

The kind of reasoning here is what Gilbert Harman calls inductive inference to the best explanation. The reasons one can give against bondage or the subjection of woman are much clearer, for example, than the foolish claims of racists and patriarchs, and much more obvious to most of us than quantum mechanics. As for the importance of the debate about moral truth, it is Socrates in the Meno who shows that any slave can prove advanced theorems of Greek geometry under questioning (and has the capacity to do so, contrary to slave-owners’ views and also the Aristotelian apology for “natural” slavery). This egalitarian insight and a willingness to act against the powerful on the basis of such insights have long been the source of decent changes in public life. The idea that such changes are no different, morally speaking, from, say, murdering Socrates or the reign in the American South of the Ku Klux Klan/Democratic Party is false.

We want a moral argument and a meta-ethics which will justify a wide plurality of individual choices (those which do not harm others) and which rule out the coercion or deprivation of freedom of individuals. Relativism is a gesture at the first thought, but belies the second. In addition, social explanations, for instance, Marxian ones, have rightly emphasized that oppressive arrangements continue for long periods of time. But at least a central component in the argument that people persist against great odds in fighting slavery, for example, is that slavery is wrong. There are many other aspects of explaining why, say, John Woolman or John Laurens or Gabriel or Thomas Peters fought against slavery during and immediately after the American Revolution but that the institution is an abomination is a large part of this. This is a theme of my new book: Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence.

3:AM: Interestingly it seems that you want the discovery of a moral nature to sustain and ground your position when you say that “we have learned enough about human nature to rule out the ancient justification of slavery and to identify that institution as abusive and corrupt.” And you write about “a general capacity for moral personality” being generally overlooked by contemporary arguments against moral objectivity that overstress the significance of the choice between other goods that sustain relativist arguments. So do you position your Marxist, non-relativism as a form of naturalism, where naturalism is understood in terms of the processes of scientific investigations?

AG: Yes and no. What I think is that we have learned, historically, that slavery is not a part of a good life for humans. That is of course a naturalistic point. But as Lincoln also said wonderfully, “although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.” This is both naturalistic and a fine example of contractarian reasoning. The naturalism – as Thomas Hobbes says look into yourself, no one wants to be murdered or enslaved – is part of and gives life to, as Rawls recognizes in the abstract, the contractarianism (alternately, the moral judgment supervenes on facts).

Interestingly, Rawls’ original position illuminates core moral judgments about the evil of slavery during and after the American Revolution. In Black Patriots and Loyalists, I emphasize this connection (I shared some examples with Rawls before he died). For instance, three farmers in Western, Massachusetts, who participated in the Shays rebellion – revolutionary farmers who had been promised that they would keep their land by George Washington as part of their joining the Continental Army and who rebelled against the banks, their creditors, who took the lands – wrote to oppose the Constitution in 1787: “Just imagine that your daughter went to the brook to fetch some water, and was kidnapped into bondage for her whole life…” One used the pseudonym ‘Consider Arms.’

Similarly, the artisan Gabriel Prosser who led Gabriel’s revolt in 1800 which would have burned down the wooden city of Richmond but was prevented by a big storm and a betrayal, was captured and hung. At his trial, Gabriel said, “I have only to say what George Washington would have said if he had been arrested by the British. I have but one life to give for my country and am a willing sacrifice in her cause.” What I call democratic contractarianism in the form Rawls offered it is a very good theoretical account of such formulations.

In Democratic Individuality, I argued for moral truth or moral objectivity with regard to examples of this kind (again, this is a naturalistic point). As I noted, Aristotle asked a plausible question: what is a decent or a good life for humans? He crystallized or further theorized the question of Socrates in book one of the Republic: what is justice? That question means at the least, something more than what is called justice around here. The latter in a strident or wolvish form is Thrasymachus’ “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger” which is, of course, approximately true for the predatoriness of all class societies (the speciesism of the formulation toward wolves, for which I apologize, mirrors Plato’s description). But the point can just as easily be made about the working women in the Adamjee jute mill I saw in East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh). In Democratic Individuality, I defended a worked out version of moral realism. I still think this argument is right, and of course, naturalistic arguments in philosophy of science are often realist ones and much of what Brian Leiter pointed out in your recent interview is right (though since Platonic or Aristotelian ethics supervenes on facts about humans – in those cases, moral facts – perhaps not quite the line of demarcation he draws). Having said this, I think that truth (or perhaps approximate truth as scientific realists use the term) is the point. But perhaps from long experience in the social “sciences” where pseudoscience is widespread (consider that today in psychology, IQ testing and its continuing links to eugenics is widely adopted, the idea of the unconscious scorned) and you will see some of my doubt. More theoretically, moral realism emphasizes that some important judgments about the good life for humans are true, at least enough to rule out tyrannies, aggressions and genocides, inter alia. I see little difference between Hilary Putnam’s current views – he agrees with moral realism – and mine on this matter (which was not true at the time I wrote Democratic Individuality, cf. chapter 4). So it depends precisely what’s at stake in the argument about naturalism.

Another way of putting this issue is that some people hope for a materialist reduction of thinking to brain chemistry. But that seems to me, if determinist, misguided… Naturalism has plausibility against various reactionary religious views. But those are not the only kind of religious views (cf. Martin Luther King’s or Thich Nat Hanh’s) and one had better watch out for large intellectual quests on behalf initially of serious and important judgments (logical positivism in Vienna), which in the overall execution, produce something considerably less promising. If everything must be reduced to sense data to be “true,” what about the epistemological assertion that everything must be reduced to sense-data…? And not only fairness but even other minds, electrons, and medium size physical objects may be on the wrong side of the “metaphysics filter” fashioned by proponents of this view. On the conflict of goods example, an especially important one to me since I am, in many respects, a eudaemonist, let us take Sartre’s case of a young man torn between joining the resistance or caring for his dying father. As Charles Taylor points out, the man does not imagine as plausible moral choices being “overwhelmed by these dire circumstances” and going to the Riviera until it is all over, or taking a job with Vichy. What makes a conflict of goods a hard case or clash of goods is precisely core underlying moral standards (killing is bad, helping one’s dying parent is important). To see this point does not require a notion of a universal capacity for moral personality. But the latter is just a general way of putting the central idea that all humans are by nature (and thus must make themselves) free.


3:AM: Brian Leiter, in that interview you mention, lamented approaches to Marx that offer a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict) and as a call for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. He linked this approach to the work of G.A. Cohen. I guess one thing Leiter and others have noted is that on attitudes to issues like racism, wimmin, gays, etc the plutocrats are happy to be enlightened. But it might be argued that these issues have been used to prevent traction for arguments against economic inequalities. What’s your take on all this and on Marx?

AG: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” is the first sentence of the Manifesto (Engels adds a footnote about original communism, and actually, the latter is realized, for example, in the women-led egalitarian regime of old Crete and old Europe, and of indigenous peoples). This sentence is right, has contributed to striking historical explanations (see Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, for example) and is the core of Marxian social theory. While I liked Jerry a lot and admired the care with which he produced arguments, I agree with Brian that functionalism misses the heart of what Marx and radicalism more generally are about. Jerry himself was raised, as he once explained to me, by a mother who was a section organizer in the Communist Party of Canada; the mom and Jerry, each in different ways, had trouble with the Communist leadership, and Jerry’s Marxism was remarkably apolitical.

On the points about morals, Brian is perhaps here too much a Nietzschean. Nietzsche argues that there is such a thing as “master morality.” But this is a form of enslavement and exploitation of large numbers of people and the idea that this is an “ethic,” looked at in terms of consequences for people’s lives, is a bad joke. Nietzsche was a brilliant psychologist and writer, but his idea that all ideas of justice from below are mere products of resentment is not serious. And despite his opposition to gutter anti-semitism, his idea of the Jewish slave revolt in morality leading to the “last men” founded European fascism – the first section of Genealogy of Morals is, sadly, mostly a diatribe against alleged Jewish vindictiveness, long term cunning and deceit, and even a “stench” supposedly emanating from the last men – and has had horrific consequences. The “last men” became, for example, the leading idea of Heidegger as a Nazi and is a theme song of Leo Strauss and his political followers.

Modern academia in the US and Europe has gravitated to the idea that science and philosophy are really value-free or relativist (from ordinary social science to postmodernism, the same stale arguments get made, if, as in the case of Weber’s Politics as a Vocation which dismisses moral truth in a sentence – roughly, states have pursued diverse ends, therefore a state must be defined in terms of means, violence and “legitimacy” and there is no such thing as justice – there is anything that deserves to be called an argument. One has but to ask Weber the question: is a state that protects the physical security (lives) of all its citizens morally superior to one that wastes large numbers of lives?, to see that the intelligence of Weber’s intuition is in inverse proportion to its enormous influence in social “science.” Recall my experiences about Pakistan or Vietnam or segregation above or more broadly, look at history from the point of view of those who are oppressed (take colonialism or the bringing home to Europe of it in Nazism): saying that it is hard to give factually-based moral reasons for opposition in such cases is false.

But of course, the old Marxian point – and confusion – about this (see chapter six of Democratic Individuality) is that one can object as much as one likes to the horrors of inequality, and without a serious radical movement from below, the drones will go on sailing out, the derivative market will strangle Americans, the English, Greeks, Spaniards, and Egyptians. So the explosive changes this past year, down to Occupy right now, are pretty promising. Marx had the idea that practice was primary (the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the pivot of my book on Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens). We need to learn from these movements and to participate in debates about their direction. Really, the fate of the planet is at stake (militarism and global warming will, among other matters, make the planet largely uninhabitable in perhaps a century, with a lot of horror in the interim, if we do not change this system). The end of your question raises problems, however. Yes, identity politics has its weaknesses, and sometimes people in the elite take these things up (Mayor Bloomberg of New York was good on the Islamic center and fighting anti-Arab racism, good on gay marriage, but is hideous – Mr. 1% – about Occupy Wall Street). Sometimes they believe in the struggles; sometimes they are also mean to divert deeper understandings and struggles.

But on the face of it, the struggle of blacks and women and gays is against fundamental social and political inequalities. So the real question is the outlook which informs the struggle, one of internationalism and connection with the struggle of others, seeking to change a radically unequal system of power, as opposed to one of division, “identity,” and in important respects, weakness. Further, this tension is true with every struggle from below including ones which strike even more obviously or generally against economic inequalities. For instance, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration supported the National Labor Relations Act which legalized industrial unions. But the driving force behind this law was the Flint factory sit-in (“sit-down strike”) and the San Francisco general strike, led by the longshoremen and Harry Bridges (in fact, these nonviolent movements were threatened and attacked by the police and the National Guard). Similarly, FDR enacted unemployment insurance and social security, largely because of demonstrations by the Communist-led unemployed councils, uniting the jobless and those with work, and part of the elite was, not unwisely, worried about revolution. Surely, these struggles from below have something important to do with defeating inequality, but even radical and effective movements against it are subject to a) winning important reforms or concessions – genuine victories – and then b) relenting or dissipating for a time or being deliberately deflected. But the further development of capitalism eventually undercuts gains temporarily won (consider the wages and conditions of public school teachers and trash collectors in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana or the disappearance of the American middle class). Along with the illusions Marx describes in Capital (roughly, commodity fetishism) and as Brian rightly adds, the complexities of individual psychology about which Marx has nothing to say, this tension in political movements is something that helps the predatory few – Wall Street, Romney – revel while many suffer.

To highlight what is radical in a class approach to these matters, let us focus on racism. As Marx says in Capital, “Labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” No progress in a class movement can occur without taking on the attacks on and interests of the most oppressed. White workers, startlingly for those who identify with a prominent race or status, have an interest in fighting racism. But the Civil War, Marx says, gave rise, dialectically to the new labor movement for a shorter working day (the movement that culminated in the Haymarket massacre in 1886 and the foundation of May Day by the Second International in 1890). So the fight against racism is the chief aspect of internationalism and of creativity in the American labor movement. The class movement is thus propelled by the issue of fighting racism and this is pretty important compared to seeing such struggles as a “diversion from the class issue…”

Similarly, Martin Luther King was a leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement, and moved, in the last year of his life, into creating a poor people’s movement. Fighting against the worst oppression and trying to build a movement against the oppression which affects a much larger number is a) intensely politically connected and b) morally insightful. Yes, rebellions in American cities contributed to civil rights from below, but arguably the nonviolent movement and all the exposures of injustice also created a climate in which the Civil Rights Acts came to pass. President Lyndon Johnson, one of the great war criminals of modern history (the genocidal war against Vietnam), nonetheless, was forced by this movement, against his own past history of racism and in the setting of the Cold War (where the Russians and others could use pictures of police dogs sicced on children in Birmingham to show the face, to other nonwhite peoples, of capitalism) to come to terms with black and white struggle from below. Johnson fought for passage of the bills. My friend Vincent Harding was close to King in the movement and knew most about Vietnam. He wrote the first draft of King’s speech ‘Breaking the Silence’, April 4, 1967, a year to the day before King was murdered supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis (the slogan of the strikers, “I am a Man,” says something really important about inequality). That speech named what many in the movement already believed; that civil and social rights could not be won, racism could not be successfully fought, without speaking out against “my government, the most violent government” in the world.

Injustice is very hard to fight. To begin with one burning issue is likely to lead to connections to or entanglements with other issues, to recognize that this system is, globally and domestically, a web of interconnected harms, and that even those who move on one issue can sometimes be distracted or even enlisted to oppress by shifting the focus to another. Cries for war against an external “enemy” have always been the last and best resort of a criminal elite. The idea of democratic internationalism (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?) is that all these struggles against oppression are or might be linked. That was also, once upon a time, Marx’s idea in the International Working Men’s (sic) Association, and it was the idea that King gave noble words to, especially in the last year of his life. As another way of putting it, divisions among workers, for instance, the pitting of American workers against Mexican immigrants, is one of the great secrets of capitalist domination and pushed, Marx says with regard to the Irish in England in 1870, “through press, pulpit and comic paper.” So the aim is not to pit one movement or group of people against a “class” movement, but to offer a Marxian or radical account of internationalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and to discuss with others in order to achieve common insight inside a movement (i.e. not hostilely). There needs to be a willingness to learn from others as opposed to putting across a “true” viewpoint (all the destructive rhetoric about “petty bourgeois” consciousness or “revisionism” and the like, not that there aren’t real and important issues to be clarified through discussion. But as a great lesson from King and Gandhi, name-calling is not a way).

To put it in Marx’s and Engels’ language in the Manifesto, communists defend the interests of the working class regardless of nationality. That means if American soldiers are being transported to murder people in the Middle East, one doesn’t just fight against inequality in America, but also, as it becomes possible, opposes anti-Arab racism, fights to bring the troops home, to end or diminish militarism, and diminish inequality at home. Occupy is at a very beginning stage, but has raised – or has the promise of raising – these issues in a novel way and with a lot of democratic political inventiveness. Its way of posing the basic issue of inequality – one that has transformed the political dialogue – is “we are the 99%.”

I often say I am a radical democrat (I have also learned from the nonviolence of King and Gandhi). One of the things I mean by this is that we have to maintain and advance the true understandings achieved in the long struggles of the past, but learn also from novel and unexpected mass movements like Arab spring, the Greek rebellion and Occupy. For instance, the new democratic procedures of Occupy – resistant to hierarchy as well as popular but also elite publicized “leaders” and even specific demands – are part of that learning. So is an inclusive democratic or class insight which must reach out to involve the most oppressed (say, more of the black and latin teenagers trapped in the immense American prison/probation complex).

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012.