Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Equality & Political Ecology: From Spinoza to Politdoche

Feeling and ideas are renewed, the heart expands, the human spirit develops only through the reciprocal action of human beings on one another.
Alexis de Tocqueville

Referring to the prevalence of voluntary associations in America 180 years ago, de Tocqueville expressed the core of politdoche.

In a previous article here and on Daft Blogger, I considered how this new ideal of political organization based on a novel (hologramic) approach to representation, could overcome the problems pointed out by Hanna Pitkin and could readapt Rousseau’s mythical general will in a way that government could not. This third installment in the politdoche series explores how this new ideal stems from a view of equality at the root of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. First, some points about the “social contract.”

The “social contract” and the social nature of law we owe not to Rousseau but to Hobbes. Hobbes was the first to point out that law and the political order are products of society, that only exist once human beings enter communal living. We each give up what we otherwise could do in exchange for similar waivers from others coupled with a promise from a political organization to enforce this contract. We can waive any “natural right” in so far as others reciprocate, except one: that of self-preservation.

Simplifying Hobbes to the inane expression “man is to man a wolf” says less about him than about the one doing the simplifying, especially since the same author advises “that every man ought to endeavor peace.” Reducing a great (or lesser) thinker to such banalities does less harm to the philosopher’s reputation than it does to the reader’s imagination.

Hobbes wrote less about the “nature of man” than about the nature of law and political organization. In entering society, “man” gives up many of his powers and submits to society’s will. Moreover, Hobbes was radically egalitarian, even advocating that what could neither be shared nor divided ought to be distributed by lottery. But his equal waiver of rights (usually to hurt another) does not get to democracy or equality in a form that we would recognize today.

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

Benedict de Spinoza (Photo: Wikipedia)

It was Spinoza who paved that path with his equality/unity of being. The idea that all being (read human beings) equally partake of one Substance, and the absence of a way that such “modes of being” could properly judge one another, were crucial to Enlightenment thought 100 years later. It would ultimately provide intellectual fodder for the American and French revolutions, carried out in the name of equal dignity and equal voice.

Because we have no access to a higher authority than being, Spinoza would say, we must take account of all interests, values, and beliefs. In other words, we need to make decisions collectively because we are not capable of judging each other, nor our ideas, values, opinions. We can decide on the best course of action only through experiment, dialogue and reasoning.

Here, in Spinoza’s thought, stems our collective rebellion agains Mr. Tillerman. Here also, in the non-availability of any a priori criteria for judgment, lay the deep roots of politdoche. Whereas a government “steers” through its pre-political decisions, politdoche only awaits the results of open dialogue and deliberation. That is why politdoche could take neither a “conservative” nor a “progressive” label.

Politdoche (“pall it docky”) = representative coadjument entity organizing the body politic.

Citizens are coadjutants, working together not because commanded by a higher authority or “perfect reasoning” but because they arrived at their imperfect projects together. Politdoche is reflective because it knows how to receives politic bodies, receptive because bodies rotate sufficiently quickly that they act “synecdochically” like a hologram of the whole.

What does the word government do?

First, an expression like “democratic government” is an oxymoron. How can one “rule over” by force those who are supposedly socially and pre-socially equal to the “ruler”? It would only mean such a “democratic government is one that oppresses all equally.” Second, the word “government” is not only anti-Enlightenment, it is anti-Spinozist. “Gov,” in ruling by force, not only does not take equality seriously, but more fundamentally it presupposes a way of judging equal beings outside of Being.

Whether that touchstone be a holy book, a constitution, or “Law-in-itself,” it would entail a hierarchy hostile to Enlightenment equality, one certainly contrary to Spinoza’s unity of Substance underlying modes of being. Spinoza did not think that even reason could be such a judge between human beings, as evidenced by the prominence he gives to the emotions and the passions. For him, reason could at most be a way of slowing the passions long enough to articulate them and make known the better consequences of the ethical course of conduct.

Today’s usual critique of the Enlightenment as “Reason worship” may also be an unfair reduction, least of all because it amalgamates so many thinkers into one school. Perhaps a fairer reading of the project is not as “the Enlightenment of Reason” but as “Path of enlightenment along the road of reason”, a road that gives equal access to the passions. In that way, the movement used reason as safeguard against dogma and ideology, rather than as a new dogma in itself.

This is where Rousseau fits best. This is a deeper reading of his political theory, not as an Abstract General Will containing the “right answer” arrived at through Reason, but as a contingent general will arrived at through the use of concrete reasoning, reasoning that is our only access to the values, interests, and beliefs of others.

We can also view Socratic dialogue in this light. The so-called Socratic method does not aim at a “right answer,” but to undress dogma and bring choices up to the surface. In the political realm, inquiry and deliberation are not about arriving at “the right answer,” but rather “wrong answers” that are acceptable to those in the dialogue, in the deliberation.

As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Rousseau’s reason aimed to slow down individual passions enough to sit at the round table of community. For him, this give and take upon entering community teaches us much about what it means to be human and delivers a new kind of liberty. This momentary suspension of self-interest at the table of the general will is perhaps what De Tocqueville remarked and so admired in American democracy of the early 1800s. That slowing down from the speed of struggle over interests to the pace of deliberation on ideals is also ultimately why the author takes the time to talk again about politdoche.

[A version of this article first appeared on Daft Blogger here on May 12, 2013. Please begin there with comments.]

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