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Fighting from below for recognition as human


3:AM: You have distinctive arguments about how the political left should respond to the contemporary context of Globalisation. Certainly it seems as if there is a democratic deficit in the operations of the USA, of China, India, and Russia. Africa, the Middle East, Israel, Indonesia and North Korea are all examples of the different ways this deficit is working out. Your anti-imperialist position is described as “democratic internationalism from below”. You ask a key question in your book, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? In answering the question, you have four positions that offer answers: idealists, realists, neorealists and Marxians. The latter three see off idealists, but you say your “argument begins only at this point.” You answer the question “cautiously but negatively.” Can you say something about this, in particular, why you find realists and neorealists less satisfactory positions as compared to Marx.

AG: A difference with Brian Leiter with whom I often agree: there is a dialectical relationship between naturalism or realism and moral/political arguments. Idealism is a little like what Brian styles anti-naturalism. It is a catch all for often very different views, a division created too easily by a line of demarcation favorable to one important aspect of one position. Nonetheless, let us take up this terminology for the sake of argument, and consider internally great power realists’ misguided formulations about ethics and about the real interconnection of international and domestic politics. Realists and neo-realists in international politics are good at assessing the power motivations which lead to or sometimes check important conflicts. Older realists, like Hans Morganthau, depict themselves as having a moral argument – he certainly did on the Vietnam war which he attacked along with the American foreign policy which spawned it as “a coherent system of irrationality.” Properly understood, I suggest, realism is, in fact, the claim that pacifists and moralists would disarm against a great enemy, and cause inadvertently the unnecessary deaths and oppression of many thousands of people. Realists conceive their argument as a power-theory critique of moralism, dismissing in kind a misguided ethical approach to international politics. But in this debate, the realist actually insists on saving lives. Ethics, as I pointed out earlier, is about preserving human life as well as a good life. Thus, if realists are right about the facts, realism is a moral critique of moralism.

Neo-realists trick up realism with additional, misguided philosophical (empiricist) slogans. For instance, a realist says that great power politics should be left to diplomats and not a democratic populace (see George Kennan, American Diplomacy). That is a comprehensible political argument, though mistaken, even from Kennan’s point of view, about the Vietnam War and what he names “our military-industrial addiction.” For in the Vietnam case, the anti-War movement, not the diplomats, represented “the national interest.” Neo-realists, however, appeal to a supposed methodological doctrine of a separation of levels, radically distinguishing the powers of international politics from the particular regimes of comparative politics. This is an epistemological overlay obscuring real political arguments, and is deceptive and self-deceptive. Neo-realism, for instance, ignores obvious counterexamples such as the US-British alliance which ate Iraq in 2003 and thus shaped its “domestic” politics. But my argument on democratic internationalism starts at just this point. It grants, for the sake of argument, international contention of powers and then asks a question (to begin an internal critique): what would be the effect on democracy (or a common good among citizens) at home of such rivalry? The answer is: a devastating one. I suggest that in all inegalitarian regimes (all capitalist ones at minimum, but many “socialist” ones as well), leaders will have a motivation to wage war or intervene abroad in order to build popularity (nationalism) and choke off movements for reform or revolution at home.

On this view, citizens of the intervening country, i.e. America in Vietnam or Iraq, have common interests (in their lives, freedoms and wages) across national borders with the people aggressed against – democratic internationalism from below. Realism and neo-realism do not see this because a) their view assumes a common interest of citizens in most of the government’s policies (harmful impacts on most citizens are eccentric on this view, not the norm), b) has no clear idea of a common good and is misled to think that its own view does not deliver moral judgments, c) arbitrarily disconnects international and domestic politics, and d) does not think about reform movements from below and how foreign interventions or aggressions may undermine them. But as I also point out about Vietnam, or in the writings of Robert Gilpin and Robert Keohane, realists and neo-realists, nonetheless, trace how the prevailing policies of the state harm most citizens. Democratic internationalism is thus a more consistent and broader account of what is good in realism and neo-realism. In addition, note the importance I attributed earlier to Rawls’ original position. Rawls told me he liked what I call in Democratic Individuality the integrity of ethics – that one may ask what a decent life is for humans and find, through inference to the best explanation, important answers. For instance, there are true or objective answers to the question who is aggressed against and who is carrying out self-defense, who is hurt – most citizens – or helped by belligerence and how oligarchic or militaristic elites use nationalism and aggressions abroad to stifle protest at home.

In his interview with 3:AM, Brian Leiter worried about whether Nietzsche’s vision of creative genius being stifled by democracy is right. There are reasons to worry. Still, democratic tribunes can be ingenious – Lincoln or John Brown or Frederick Douglass or Walt Whitman or Thoreau or Emerson, for example. While I like some features of Nietzsche and Heidegger (the latter has helped spark deep ecology, for example), they have no monopoly on brilliance. In fact, as Brian says (in relation to Foucault), they have amazing foibles and prejudices themselves, arguably in Heidegger the main moral and political point about his works and life… Clarity about the integrity of ethics also helps to ward off quasi-democratic outrages like the murder of Socrates or the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan. Democracy when it protects the rights and well-being of each has moral merit or illustrates, in Rousseau’s language, a general will. But democratic decisions can also simply be a destructive or tyrannical will of all (i.e., segregation laws).

On the last issue raised by your question, the meaning of my book’s conclusion, that international politics can but need not constrain democracy – a cautious but negative response to the book’s title Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? – I might suggest today that illustrated by Arab spring and Occupy, democratic internationalism from below points a mutually inspiring way forward.

3:AM: We are living at a time when inequality seems to be a huge issue. Can you explain your arguments about equal basic rights and their “inescapable precondition for any decent majority or distribution of income.”

AG: The point of my book Democratic Individuality is that ordinary people have waged an ages-long fight from below for recognition as human. The basic equality or human rights of every individual is not given by the command of kings and founders dressing their authority in religion (even Cromwell), but only on the basis of fights from below. To argue that slavery is not part of a decent life for humans is just to recognize and underline this point. Every further fight against racism, sexism, colonialism, wage-slavery and the like, extends these same arguments and recognitions. The best contemporary (last 40 years) political theory stresses, with John Rawls, the priority of the equal basic liberties or rights of each individual. This insight follows from Rousseau’s notion of a general will as a will to equality (a will mandating equal basic rights), it was alive in Marx’s concern for and participation in the democratic revolutions of 1848 – ones for formally equal rights – with the great caveat that there must be a sufficient degree of social equality (equality in the distribution of basic goods) so that the rich cannot dominate and pervert the government, making it an oligarchy – as modern parliamentary regimes are – rather than a serious or deep or participatory democracy. In this respect, majority rule (what Rousseau calls a will of all) is not enough. For such a will can be based on limited suffrage and be disenfranchising of and stigmatizing toward large groups within the population (women, the un-propertied, segregation, and the like). Ideally, I mock this point as a (fortunately merely potential) self-undermining or self-disenfranchising majority rule, in which the women disenfranchise the men, the minority women get together and disenfranchise the white women…and in the suffrage of the last 3, 2 disenfranchise 1…).

In America and the world, the necessity of a greater social equality is now showing up in the opposition of the 99% to the twin parties of the 1%. In broadly speaking Greek or Hegelian terms, a decent regime is one which facilitates the pursuit by each individual of what she decides is a good life, being able to change her mind, so long as she does not harm (mainly physically, i.e. criminally, perhaps also psychologically) others. What Rawls means in A Theory of Justice by the priority of the equal basic liberties is the restriction of inequalities allowed under the second or difference principle, ones that seem to benefit the least advantaged. For even those allowable economic inequalities are ruled out if they permit the rich to dominate and pervert the equal basic liberties upheld in the first principle. It requires little wit to see that you and I and Rupert Murdoch do not have an equal say in setting the public agenda of America or England; as a wealthy reactionary Australian dominating the media, he has had far greater effect. Given the apt desire to rule out oligarchy in the light of the first principle, Rawls’s argument may be startlingly more egalitarian than it appears to be on the surface, and as I wrote in ‘Equality and Social Theory in Rawls’s A Theory of Justice‘ (Occasional Review, 1978), rightly understood with a modestly realistic social theory, more egalitarian than Rawls himself thought. He was inclined in social theory to what might be called an instrumental Marxism (i.e, the reason the US engaged rapaciously in overthrowing other democracies in Latin America was the influence of particular companies like United Fruit to strike at Jacopo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 or ITT at Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973).

This was Rawls’ response to my questioning him on an initial enthusiasm for the democratic peace hypothesis (see Rawls’ Law of Peoples, p. 53 and not quite correct citation to Allen (sic) Gilbert by an editor who helped with the notes – it was his last book). Interestingly, even as Rawls retreated from the difference principle, he strengthened the argument against oligarchy (for instance, Law of Peoples, pp. 46-50). His basic intuition about equal liberty, given the dangers of oligarchy, was thus radically egalitarian socially. Today, the mainstream political atmosphere in the United States is one of triumphant though failing oligarchy with such hatred of “government” and decency that this obvious connection of equal liberty and social equality is currently – temporarily – stigmatized (Occupy is very helpful in pointing beyond the corporate ideology).

As I argue in chapter eight of Democratic Individuality, in relation to this problem, Ronald Dworkin suggests equal resources over a lifetime, David Levine (Needs, Rights and the Market) and I suggest equal incomes. Either of these proposals are perfectly consistent with the existence of markets and Hayek’s insights into the difficulties of (some aspects of) planning, those that do not concern basic public and moral goods like (genuine) defense and policing, fire departments, the postal service, education, health care. The extraordinary corruption of America can be seen in the privatization of these things; Bush sicced Blackwater on the world, and the current occupation of Afghanistan has seven Xe Corporation mercenaries, not subject to any law and not spoken about in the corporate press or Congress, for every 3 soldiers… I am in favor of democratic (the equal basic rights, participation from below point) individuality. Each person can use her income to pursue a good life in the market and change her course in life so long as she doesn’t (fundamentally, physically) harm others. Some lives require more in terms of wealth than others; Yitzhak Perlman could probably use a Stradivarius whereas a scholar just needs books and libraries (today, the web provides some of this). So there would have to be supplementation through trainings or competitions in particular fields – not everyone can or would want to be an airplane pilot, for example. But the point here is that a basic economic egalitarianism is a derivative principle from the notion of the equal basic rights of each person. More strikingly, it is motivated by the thought that the government should not be the property of the rich. That is the great demand of Arab spring, the Greek uprising, the indignados, the struggles from below in England and Occupy. How to realize a democratic regime institutionally is, as of this last year, no longer utopian but a leading topic – one beyond just stopping the bleeding, the unemployment, foreclosure, debt-slavery (of students in the United States, but with steeply rising costs elsewhere) and the like – of useful public debate.

3:AM: An interesting idea that you discuss is that of Morgenthau’s “academic-political complex”. This names the constraint that power places on the social sciences. You give as examples “the execution of Giordano Bruno, the prosecution of Galileo, the Scopes trial” and you say that “if much contemporary political ‘science’ has peculiarly thinned itself, then perhaps a need for mainstream debate to license or conceal imperial policies, to serve the powers-that-be, particularly during the Cold War, has been an important cause.” I take it that you believe this is still prevalent even as the Cold War has ended. Could you tell us about this? I guess I’m thinking here of the arguments about C.P Snow’s ‘two cultures’ and how convenient it is for plutocratic power for academia to turn away from humanities and focus increasingly on the hard sciences. Obviously the hard sciences are dead important, but the suspicious realist, neo-realist, Marxist presumably looks at this situation and doesn’t buy the story that this is all about the search for truth. The Occupy movements are similarly challenging corporate and plutocratic realities. You write in your blog that these protests raise serious questions about the role of academics, universities and students. You cite Henry Giroux asking whether Universities are merely ecological dead zones that have abandoned concern for the public good. Can you say something about all this? What can be done?

AG: Universities are increasingly being oriented toward work and the sciences, dispensing with the humanities. Little of this has anything to do with truth, but rather with the university’s subordinate role in America in what I call the imperialist war complex – the military-industrial-congressional-think tank “expert”/academic, media, intelligence complex. I write about and teach Socrates as the first civil disobedient, emphasizing the importance of questioning (for him and us) in philosophy and anything that deserves to be called a democracy. In contrast, contemporary education is hierarchical or authoritarian – rests on a teacher or “expert” lecturing to others, with at most a few questions; students are expected to take notes and tell the teacher on exams what the teacher thinks (with perhaps some originality around the edges). I think education way back into its beginnings should be about empowering each person to find her own way, what interests her. A teacher should be an advisor or mentor in mutual explorations of topics, not an authoritarian fount of knowledge (obviously, teachers or mentors know a lot about topics, but mutual regard and the idea of being helpful to each person should govern what she does). One can, nonetheless, begin such education late – I mainly teach graduate seminars, inviting students to connect with a topic, revise the topic or even the syllabus according to their interests and the like (this can sometimes make life amusingly difficult for me; several years ago, a brilliant Palestianian student Hazem Salem said in a contemporary political theory course: “No body else here will teach me Heidegger.” We discussed it and so, though I hadn’t studied Being and Time since I was a junior in college, I dove in. I became very interested and learned that “being toward death” as authentic vorlaufende Entschlosseneit (running ahead resolution) meant also, for Heidegger to go to war and die for the fatherland and the Nazis (he wanted a “repeat” of the World War…). Hazem read even further in the book and realized that the section on historicity is key to understanding Heidegger’s fascism (in fact, as I have shown on my blog, Heidegger was already in 1927 covertly pro-Nazi). Other students contributed as well. If one were invited from the start to find her own way, each student would be much more self-motivated (my younger children go to the Jefferson County Open School in Denver, an experimental school which for half a century has done some approximation of this kind of education), the organization of university education would be very different. Even in the physical sciences, what Newton or Planck or Einstein discovered (and how each discovered it) is quite different from just reproducing mathematically today’s understandings of it. Still, an approach through questioning, getting students to take on the arguments for themselves, is likely to be, in its own variant, often a better form of teaching here, too. For about what is new, each of us has to figure it out, not just reproduce the findings of others.

In the current American context, the Occupy movement has come to campuses through debt slavery. As a 26 year old woman said to an Occupy Denver gathering, I did just what I was told, went through school, took on $150,000 in debt, graduated, got a job, and now I am laid off, the clock ticking on the debt, no way to pay… Several years ago, I had two graduate students tell me in the same afternoon that they were $100,000 in debt for a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Denver. The tragedy of this is hard to find words for. One, a not very political woman who wanted to do something morally important and alive, had gone to Dahisha refugee camp in the Occupied Territories. There a five year old had thrown rocks at her. She had gone back to her host family and the sister had come out and told the boy – “not all Westerners are bad.” They had gone home with him; his father had been in the first, nonviolent intifada, released long enough to conceive him, and then put back in jail (17 years). She wanted to go back and work in the camps there – an activity which, if encouraged by the US government, would undercut or counteract, to some extent, otherwise justified Arab hostility to the US. Instead, she took a job, unhappily, in the State Department. The other wrote a very good short story and the draft of a novel for me about Palestianian nonviolence and about the conflict (with insight into all) between the Palestinians and the Israeli guards and settlers. He is currently working in a French restaurant in Denver, the debt ticking. This debt-slavery is not sustainable. There needs to be and will be a fierce movement to create or restore serious public financing of higher education (as in more civilized countries).

Universities are run by prestigious trustees who are wealthy, mostly businessmen, some politicians, rarely, an upwardly-oriented academic. While some university leaders have vision, the movement toward career training, and toward brutalizing those who work in universities has gone far. There is thus a movement to undermine tenure, hiring adjuncts (often minorities and women) at very low pay for teaching more classes. In addition, the Koch brothers and the imperial authoritarians (so-called Republicans) are intent on privatizing colleges and want to destroy state universities as well as K-12 education. In Michigan, where they have laid off half the teachers this year, teachers have classes of 60 instead of 30, and can only “warehouse students” as one put it on National Public Radio. This is part of the new inequality or third-worldization of the United States and Europe on behalf of bankers and finance capital – Romney has just been discovered to be a symbol of this predatoriness at Bain Capital, but Papandreou is just as good… As one further aspect, Harvard Occupy has united with custodians, protesting along with them to force Harvard to negotiate. It has marched over the special mistreatment of a disabled work, Melvin Byrd. The unity of the 99% on campus as opposed to the 1% – the trustees – is something for Occupy to aspire to. We need both a big public movement from below and every step toward creating decent education that any individual teacher has the courage to provide. The two reinforce each other.

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