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A GA Criterion of Social Health
No. 424: Saturday, June 9, 2012
The relevance of GA to the human predicament is demonstrated by the fact that we ever return to the struggle between love and resentment. Abstractly it is easy enough to take the side of love, but in a society that contains inequality of any kind, resentment can always find justification as opposition to injustice. "Love," under such circumstances, can be stigmatized as complacency. Should we love the Nazis? Pol Pot? In the wake of WWII, any difference of status can be suspected of leading to Auschwitz, and some have come pretty close.
Whatever its justification, we resent inequality, our own and that which we can identify. The Peircean term of firstness introduced into GA by Adam Katz seems to me the most appropriate term for indicating how inequality may (but certainly not will) be reconciled in dynamic equilibrium with the originary moral principle of reciprocal exchange. Someone must go first, but his firstness remains communicable to others, and must be justified by his contribution to the collectivity. The analogy of a patent makes this plain. Just as a patent lets the inventor profit exclusively from his invention, but only for a time (and the current baroque legal maneuvers over technology patents say much about the malaise that has settled over the market system), so the benefits of firstness are not to be maintained indefinitely.
Firstness as deferred reciprocity differs by its originary starting point from the "justice" model of John Rawls. Rawls’s "original position" is constructed a posteriori via distribution, whereas the real human problem is our potential for mimetic violence that the reciprocal exchange of representations must solve at the outset. For Rawls, the better-off individual must justify his advantage as having brought a higher level of prosperity to the least fortunate, so that they would choose a society in which his wealth existed over one where it did not. But in fact we "choose" societies where such possibilities exist because they work better than the alternatives to defer violence (locally) and channel it (externally). Until WWII and to a considerable extent yet today, the benefits of firstness have been revealed above all in war, where victory generally rewards the highest and freest degree of social organization. We tend to forget that this, beyond Auschwitz and Hiroshima, was the primary lesson of WWII: the triumph of free societies (with a little help from Stalin) over tyrannies.
The lesson that we tend to remember better from WWII is the converse: that the kind of inequality that creates victims is not, can never be, a legitimate form of firstness. The postwar victimary obsession that derives from the horror of the Holocaust could not have existed without the guarantee provided by the Allied victory, experienced quite reasonably as that of good over evil. But the evil itself was of Western origin, and this addition to the burden of Western firstness has led to what is often called the West's oikophobia, or hatred of its own social order, as characterized by unjustified internal and above all external inequality. Merely as a result of the Western market system’s clear superiority to less free systems, it is blamed for its greater prosperity; this is the burden of "post-colonial" thinking. The zero-sum vision of those who chastise the West for its disproportionate use of resources is nothing but the application of the moral model to the world scene, naive but inevitable. It is as though we lived in a Rawlsian world where distribution were indeed the central human problem rather than the need for firstness to discover and exploit the world’s resources in the first place. Yet however justified we may be in claiming that our prosperity is the product of our own ingenuity and effort, firstness is still deferred equality; our economic superiority over, say, Africa, justified or not, is a promissory note on the future.
The question of firstness intrudes as well on human exploitation of nature. It is common to extend the notion of legitimate inequality to non-human reality by means of the concept of sustainability. To maintain human civilization on our planet, we must not irreversibly modify our environment. To modify or "damage" the environment is permissible only if it is able, on its own or with our help, to restore itself. This provides an ecological equivalent of firstness. The harvesting of food plants and trees creates an "advantage" that will disappear over time as the cropped area is reseeded. Ecological equilibrium is the equivalent of equality between humanity and nature. But the principle of sustainability is conducive to the utopian dream of maintaining the natural world intact, a vision that presents the extractive industries, which by definition cannot put back what they remove, as evil a priori. The same kind of thinking that sees victims in all inequalities sees Gaia as the victim of all mining or drilling, regardless of the continuing discovery of vast new deposits of fossil fuels that has given the lie to the Club of Rome’s 1972 "Limits of Growth" analysis.
Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, are defined pretty much uniquely by their attitudes toward firstness. The Left is suspicious of it, seeks to minimize it, regulate it, tax it, redistribute its benefits. The Right encourages it, tries to maximize its rewards and minimize its impediments. This was not always the case. The European sense of the term "liberal," which means "pro-market" and corresponds pretty much to the domestic side of our term "(neo)-conservative," is a relic of an era where being in favor of the market system, as opposed to the "old-right" agricultural aristocracy, was felt as a liberalizing, progressive stance.
I have no compunctions about taking sides in this controversy, yet the logic of the situation is that even if I am right that our society would work more efficiently in a less anti-market atmosphere, just as I always tell atheists that they have to explain why all those other people believe in God, so I must explain why all those other people are on the Left. Perhaps they are indeed irrationally resentful, but if that’s the way humans are, then something has to be done about it. The way liberal democracy has always dealt with it is through elections; if you don’t like Obama, vote for Romney and you’ll get less regulation, etc. Is it a problem for democracy itself that the electorate seems more polarized than in recent memory? Is it a problem that people are increasingly differentiated not merely by wealth but by consumption and even moral values in ways unknown the day before Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963), to take Charles Murray’s terminus a quo for describing the (post)modern world he sees as Coming Apart?
There having been no reasonable alternatives proposed to liberal democracy, unless pre-modern Islam deserves this status (the Chinese model is hardly stable at this point, and I see nothing that should lead us to think of it as other than a temporary hybrid of market-society and "socialism," currently carrying out a highly advanced version of "primitive accumulation"), the only real alternative to the current system is chaos and war, destruction and catastrophe. In that case, there’s not much point in theorizing. But to the extent that GA can reconcile us just a bit more than mainstream thinking to the necessity of firstness and its compatibility with our legitimate desire for equality, we might hope that it may shed just a bit of light on the dilemmas of contemporary politics, and thereby help bring our political adversaries just a bit closer together.
If indeed my continued Fukuyama-like assertion of the superiority of liberal democracy is correct, then there is no "higher" argument for one side or the other; the very existence of two matched parties suggests that they have equal legitimacy and that that legitimacy is itself the highest political value. The seemingly hypocritical condition of political debate in which the sides contest each other’s legitimacy on an intellectual level while accepting it on a procedural level is the paradoxical foundation of liberal democracy. The paradox is that extreme suspicion of the other is on the one hand always necessary, since there is no a priori guarantee that one of the parties is not unconsciously or even consciously (e.g., a communist party) bent on destroying liberal democracy itself, whose existence is by our presupposition the highest political value. But on the other hand, such suspicion, and the hostility that goes with it, is in fully modern societies really nugatory, since the system protects both parties and the idea of a more than temporary one-party monopoly is inconceivable. To the extent that the system functions within its normal parameters, we need only glance occasionally at the boundaries while devoting most of our efforts to the debate that takes place within their limits. No doubt systems that had appeared to be stabilizing as liberal democracies can indeed reverse course, as we have seen in Russia and some other former republics of the USSR (Ukraine? Armenia?), and perhaps in Turkey, but the more established democracies in fully industrialized countries show (as yet?) no signs of regressing in this manner. Comes a great catastrophe, of course, and all bets are off.
The paradox of democracy is just one more to add to the other paradoxes that derive from the originary paradox of signification. Skeptical readers might then ask what GA can contribute to the debate. If GA had specific answers for the political questions of the day, it would be a paradoxical theory indeed. In a democratic society, a "theory" that can deduce political conclusions a priori from objective conditions is a contradiction in terms. On this score, all GA can do is to reassure us in Hayekian terms that the liberal-democratic-market polity has been shown to have of all systems the greatest likelihood of being "more intelligent" than its individual members and consequently of remaining a viable political system.
But the other side of the coin is that a system that relies for its auto-regulation on what is nowadays called "crowdsourcing," undisciplined collective decision-making of the sort our presidential race is currently revving up for, is constantly in danger of failing to adapt to some new development that requires "thinking outside the box." Many recent developments suggest that the American system, along with the European and Japanese, is showing its age and is losing its ability to respond to the world’s challenges.
Let me then make a tentative GA-based argument for the continued exemplarity of the United States on the world stage that I think goes about as far as any such argument can. Of all the nations of the world, I think there is little doubt that the US is the one where the dichotomy between believers and unbelievers, God-creates-man and man-creates-God, is closest to the point of equilibrium. If GA has anything to say about the health of societies, it is that the highest degree of human self-awareness is located at this point: neither at the pole of fideism nor, as too many intellectuals would have it, at that of atheism. I find great reassurance in the fact that our two political parties are more or less balanced on this point, one on each side, and despite what they often say about each other, neither at either extreme.
It might be said that for an anthropologic thinker, showing favor to belief in God is a sign of abdication. I am not personally a "believer," but I understand belief in our createdness as a gesture of proper humility toward the mystery of the human and its language. No individual mind can fully establish a causal chain between the human collectivity/community and the individual that language mediates, and "faith in God" is as good an expression as any to convey both that we acknowledge this incapacity and that we do not consider it an obstacle to the inherent goodness of our social order or to the overall success of the human enterprise. In terms of the political dichotomy discussed above, we may say very roughly that belief in God correlates with faith in the providential nature of a certain degree of firstness.
In answer to the potential objection of those who see the US as an outlier in comparison to Europe, with its diminished church attendance (and birth rate), I would remind them that if Europe (with the exception of its growing Muslim population) has drifted toward the atheist pole, there are lots of places, starting with Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the drift is in the opposite direction. The interest of my classification is that it doesn’t affirm the superior "enlightenment" of one pole over the other.
I hope these remarks are not taken as an expression of American chauvinism. It seems obvious that the United States, in all its imperfection, has for the past century or so played for the most part a globally benign, and in the two world wars, a saving role in human affairs. If it is to be superseded in this role, well and good. Only let its successor, be it a state (China?? India??) or some international body (????), maintain this same equilibrium between pride and humility, while reproducing its population, and there is hope that all may be well.