Category: Liberalism

More Post-Election Musings

In response to my last post, my colleague Max Owre wonders why Democrats cannot convert the majority of voters who agree with liberal policy proposals (medicare for all, increased minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich are some prime examples) into votes for Democratic candidates.  And another colleague, Sabine Gruffat, tells us that her father voted for Trump on the basis of Trump’s being good for the economy and out of the conviction that the Democrats’ “socialism” would lead to economic disaster. (Their responses are on my Facebook page.) 

It doesn’t matter for many voters that any objective measure shows that Democratic presidents since 1930 (Eisenhower is a notable exception) have been better for the economy than Republican presidents.  (Greater over all growth rates under Democrats, and a more equitable share of that growth across the board. Links below.)  Similarly, surveys that show a majority supporting government financed medical care also show that voters don’t believe that Republicans have tried (and desire) to shrink Medicare and abolish the popular pre-existing conditions rule that is part of ObamaCare. 

But much more important than this ignorance is to realize (despite what political junkies would like to believe) that policy has almost nothing to do with how people vote.  The Republicans have won the rhetorical war over the past sixty years; they have managed, against all evidence, to brand the Democrats as socialist, unpatriotic, bad for the economy, and hostile to the economically bereft unless they are non-white.  The increasing “partisanship” of the U.S. political scene is a product of the deliberate strategy of demonization that was initiated by Newt Gringich in his attempt to delegitimize the Clinton presidency.  That effort was then taken up by the right wing media, has continued unabated to this day, and has been a fabulous success.

Recently, the novelist Joseph O’Neill has recommended a similar strategy for the Democrats.  They should, he argues, brand the Republicans as the party of incompetence and malevolence—a party that is unfit to govern.  Whether he is right or wrong on the specifics, the larger point is that it isn’t policies that win votes, but the “big picture” characterizations.

Driving this point home, of course, is the fact that the Republicans had absolutely no policy proposals for this election.  They dispensed altogether with writing a platform—and the voters barely noticed and certainly didn’t seem to care.  Policies are for nerds.

The reason this election has been so disappointing to Democrats is that, contrary to what we hoped and believed, Donald Trump has not hurt the Republican brand.  While his odious behavior turned off enough voters to give Biden the win, the craven enabling of that behavior by rank and file Republicans had no downside.  The Blue Wave (we had one in the 2008 repudiation of George W. Bush) did not occur.  Down ballot Republicans pulled more votes than Trump, with a gain in House seats (unusual for the party that loses the presidency) and holding their own in the Senate.  The country has not come to see the Republicans as a party unfit to govern.

Here’s where I don’t quite know what to think.  The down-ballot Republicans did better than Trump.  Yet I also believe that the strength of the Trump cult largely accounts for the huge turn-out on the Republican side.  After this election, will those Trump voters go back to not voting? The dilemma for the Republican party going forward is how to keep the Trump enthusiasts engaged even as the party either backs away from Trump-like antics or discovers that even would-be Trumps can’t reproduce his hold on the public imagination.  The Republicans are tied to the mast of Trump because of all the new voters he has brought to them, but will find it difficult to hold on to those voters to the extent that they act even semi-responsibly as public officials.  (“Holding on” here does not mean losing them to the Democrats; it means keeping them fired up enough to come out and vote.)

Doubtless, several Republican presidential candidates in 2024 will attempt to occupy the Trump lane.  But I suspect Trump will prove inimitable.  His ingenuous self-absorption, his lack of any filter between id and mouth, his ADHD coupled with third-grade verbal aggression, and his sheer delight in sowing chaos as a means of keeping all eyes turned his way will prove hard to reproduce via calculation.  The easiest part of his repertoire to imitate with be the endless self-pitying sense of grievance, of being put upon by all.  Expect lots of whining from the Republicans to continue.

Still, the 2016 primaries already showed that Ted Cruz cannot attract the adulation Trump received and it is even more absurd to think Mike Pence could.  Without a cult figurehead on the right, there is a fair chance that voter turnout will return to earlier levels—and that such a drop-off (despite all those Democratic fantasies that large turn-out favors them) will benefit the left more than the right.  More accurately: in our polarized time, when the party’s “brands” and the loyalties of most voters are fixed in concrete, the biggest fight is the turn-out fight, and I think Republicans are going (post 2020) to have as tough, if not tougher, time getting their partisans to the polls as the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the claims in the left-wing precincts I frequent that it was the moderate Democrats who lost and the progressives who won (especially in House races) have begun.  The Democrats just need to move to the left to be more successful.  That analysis is willfully blind to the make-up of the House districts.  Of course, progressives win in overwhelmingly “safe” districts.  And moderates lose sometimes in “swing” districts.  Republican gerrymandering leads to more extreme House candidates on both sides of the aisle because there are so many “safe” districts now.  To ignore the nature of the districts to make the leftist argument is specious.

I get it.  It is frustrating as hell that the Republicans have achieved electoral success by moving further and further to the right.  Extreme conservatism does not (apparently) carry any electoral cost.  (Although Trump did lose.)  So why can’t the Democrats make a similar move to the left and reap the benefits?  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, as Kevin Drum is fond of reminding us by reproducing the long-running Gallup survey that shows over 35% of Americans self-identify as “conservative” while only 24% are willing to call themselves “liberal.”

If the Democratic party wants to move left, it has to create a left-leaning electorate first.  That’s the rhetorical task it has flunked since 1966  The reasons for that failure are complex—and intimately tied up with the ongoing narrative of American racism—but a failure it has been.

Of course, it is not just the Democratic party that must do this work.  It will also depend on vibrant, long-lasting, and active social movements.  The gay liberation movement (sorry for the ham-handed label; I grasp its various inaccuracies) has been a notable success over the past thirty years.  If many of my non-politically informed or engaged students are now knee-jerk Democrats, it is mostly because the right’s hostility to non-heterosexuals is baffling to them—and a huge turn-off. 

The spectacular failure of American politics since 1966 has been to develop strong social movements around economic issues.  Martin Luther King tried—and might have succeeded had he lived.  The unions have not gone down without a fight, but they have mostly gone down.  And nothing substantial has arisen in their wake.  The living wage movements have had some successes—and even Florida has just voted (by over 60%!) for the $15 minimum wage.  So it is not an utterly bleak landscape.  But there is much work to be done.  Reverend William Barber’s admirable attempt to revive King’s Poor People’s Campaign has not gotten much traction yet, but it is early days.

For me, that’s where the action is.  Creating that electorate open to the left’s bread-and-butter issues even as it acknowledges the inequities (not just economic) foisted on POC in our country.  And that work is going to have to take place as we leftists also watch how Republicans try to catch the Trump lightning in a bottle in their ongoing effort to direct America’s course in a vastly different direction. 

Links:

On relative economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents.

On voters’ refusal to credit actual policy preferences of the Republican party:

https://www.vox.com/21502189/preexisting-conditions-trump-republicans

Joseph O’Neill’s advice to the Democratic Party:

Survey of Americans who label themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal:

A Short, and Mostly Gloomy, Post-Election Post

I wrote most of this post three days ago, then held on to it because it assumed Joe Biden’s victory and I didn’t want to jinx that outcome by anticipating it.  The wait, it turned out, had a positive effect on my mood.  Having it all hang in the balance for so long made the victory that much sweeter when it came.  And the pleasure, nay joy, of my friends and family made this sourpuss give way a bit.  Let’s appreciate what went right for a day or two.

The 2020 election has been a disaster for Democrats (and for liberals and the left more generally) and an uplifting delight for Republicans, especially the wonderfully named Vichy Republicans, the party hacks who have enabled the Trump presidency.

Not an unmitigated disaster, since getting rid of Trump is all to the good.  But Biden takes office unable to govern.  He will be thwarted at every turn—and the multiple problems afflicting the United States (climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a dysfunctional heath care system, economic inequality, racial injustice, the kleptocracy of our tax code and subsidies to big ag, big pharma, big oil and others) will go unaddressed for another four years.  And the vote reveals that more than 70 million of our fellow citizens could witness Trump’s antics, ineptitude, corruption, and cruelty for four years—and ask for more.

The Vichy Republicans, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted out of Trump: massive tax cuts and a lock-hold on the federal judiciary.  And now they get to see him out the door, and replace inflammatory tweeting with their quiet entrenchment of minority rule to benefit the already rich and powerful. 

Trump has served their purpose and now they can reap the benefits of having the courts on their side as they go back to doing what they do best: nothing.  They will return to the 2010 to 2016 playbook: obstruct, obstruct, obstruct. While insuring legislative gridlock, they will use the courts to enhance corporate power, and voter suppression/gerrymandering; and they will mobilize “religious freedom” to enable discrimination, and to make abortions inaccessible (and perhaps illegal).  It’s all about unaccountability.  Corporations and politicians and the police are to be beyond the reach of the people—as are, of course, judges appointed for life.

The Republicans have learned that there is no price to be paid for the insider baseball stuff.  Game the system in any way you like to undermine democratic processes—and the vast majority of the public does not respond. Winning is everything, the rules of the game nothing. If there ever were “norms,” there are no longer.  Most likely, the norms only had some grip in the past because there was a centralized, elite media that actually did have some power in shaping public opinion.  Now we have ten million “influencers” and the resulting cacophony has blasted any chance of commonly adopted standards. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats must come to grips with how successfully the Republicans have used fear and hatred to mobilize voters.  The cry of “socialist” works with significant numbers of non-white voters (refugees from Cuba or China or Vietnam or Central America), while (as is evident here in North Carolina) significant numbers of white voters hate (the only appropriate word) “liberals.”  As they have in every election since 1968, a majority of white voters went for the Republican candidate for president.

The Democrats cannot depend on demographics to get them out of this hole.  This election demonstrates that non-white voters are not automatic Democratic voters.  And younger voters have a nasty habit of becoming more conservative as they get older (and more likely to actually vote). 

Against all evidence, the left wing of the party is going to argue that Biden was an uninspiring candidate and someone like Sanders or Warren would have done better.  That argument ignores the record turn-out for this election, as well as the resonance of the charge of “socialism” with many voters.  There simply are not enough non-voters out there who would have voted for Sanders to have won this election down-ballot for the Democrats.  Sanders (or some theoretical candidate of his ilk but younger, more dynamic, and sexier) would not have done better than Biden—and most likely would have done worse.  But that won’t stop those who will argue otherwise.

So the Democratic civil war will continue, and the activists might well get their chance to run a more progressive candidate in 2024.  Obviously, I don’t think that will go well.

Fintan O’Toole (characteristically brilliant, if uncharacteristically long-winded), in his post-election piece, considers how deep and permanent are the anti-democratic forces that Trump tapped and amplified. 

My only consolation—and I will admit to be being baffled by this fact—is how strong the taboo against political violence remains in the U.S.  In a country awash in guns, where gun violence is a regular occurrence and you only need to sneeze in the public square to receive hundreds of death threats in your email inbox, no one crosses the line over into directly political violence. Yes, we have the lone shooters who are inspired by the hate-filled rhetoric of Trump and of the right-wing web sites.  But organized violence directed at influencing political outcomes is still unknown in this country—despite posturings in that direction. The gun-toters at the polling place in Fairfax County, Virginia back in September, and the militia thugs occupying the Michigan state house in the summer turned out to be one-offs, not harbingers of general attempts at intimidation or of any actual violence.  Maybe now, in defeat, that line will get crossed as Trump continues to claim he was robbed.  But I don’t think we will see violence, even though we will have the lingering rot deep in the national psyche of at least 30% of Americans believing the election was stolen.  We know the power such grievances hold for right-wing politics. 

I always planned to stand outside a rural NC polling place on election day—and figured I would do so in the presence of guns.  I spent fourteen hours outside of Creedmoor Elementary School on November 3rd, passing out the Democrats’ sample ballot.  Creedmoor is about 45 northeast of Chapel Hill.  The three of us working for the Democrats were Chapel Hill imports; the eight people manning the Trump tent were all locals and they greeted by name most of the white voters and were polite to the African-American voters (whom they obviously did not know).  No guns and we had sporadic, cheerful conversations during the long day with the Trumpistas. No overt hostility. But it was also clear that every white voter was going for Trump. 

As Fred Kaplan says in a short essay in Slate and Wallace Shawn argues in a short piece in the New York Review of Books (links provided below; Heather Cox Richardson style): maybe this is just who we Americans are. (My colleague Kumi Silva has said “stop saying this is not what American are.”  The vote shows that racism and its cruelties are embedded deep in the American soul.) Our better angels have been put into storage; Americans see that we live in a harsh, unjust, dog-eat-dog world and are determined to get ours, letting the devil see to the hindmost.  Trump gave us permission to put all that do-gooder liberal stuff behind us.  No American exceptionalism—just the unalloyed freedom to be selfish without shame or guilt.

I don’t want to live in this society.  But it seems to be the society I am stuck in. 

Kaplan:

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/11/trumpism-election-results-america.html

Shawn:

O’Toole:

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it. 

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.